A long hot summer

dad's cup

Maggie O’Farrell
Instructions for a Heatwave
Tinder Press 2013

July 2014. It seemed appropriate to be reading a novel set in 1976 in drought-ridden Britain at roughly the same time of year and in temperatures of around 30 degrees Celsius. Seeing that it took almost four days to relive the four days that an Irish Catholic family finds itself plunged into crisis, and that the reading virtually coincided with a rather more amenable visit by children and grandchildren, it was tempting to compare and contrast the two periods separated by nearly four decades; however, this is a terrific novel to enjoy at any time of year, spread over any length of time and in any circumstances, and I found it easy to resist the temptation.

July 1976. Meet the Riordans: Robert and Gretta, Irish-born, living in Highbury, London; Michael Francis, married to Claire, living in Stoke Newington; Monica, once married to Joe but now to Peter, living in Gloucestershire; and Aoife — pronounced Eefuh — living in New York. While Robert and Gretta are part of the Irish diaspora, they still own a cottage on Omey Island off Connemara, Galway, where family holidays have been taken over the years.

On the morning of Thursday July 15th Robert Riordan disappears, Continue reading “A long hot summer”

Love potions without number

door

Tom Holt The Portable Door Orbit 2004

Tom Holt is a respected comic fantasy writer, whose only other work I was previously aware of was Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? So I was pleased to have this novel recommended to me, if only to see if Holt’s inventiveness extends just to witty parodic titles like Faust Among Equals, Paint Your Dragon and Grailblazers.

The answer is, it doesn’t. Continue reading “Love potions without number”

Quick and quirky guide

Gibbous moon of Jupiter, Europa (NASA image)
Gibbous moon of Jupiter, Europa (NASA image)

Paul Wake, Steve Andrews and Ariel, editors
Waterstone’s Guide to
Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror

Series editor Nick Rennison
Waterstone’s Booksellers 1998

Although getting a bit outdated now (the Waterstones apostrophe, dropped to howls from purists early in 2012, is still there in its full glory) this is a ready reference giving a flavour of the range of authors and works in the three genres. It’s not exhaustive of course — no work could be, especially in these ever-popular genres — but I find it useful to dip into for a quick and often quirky summary of an author new to me. As such it fulfils the aim outlined in the introduction, to answer the question (and variants of it) that staff are frequently asked: “I’ve read Tolkien [or some other big name]. What should I try next?” While of necessity slewed to the UK market as it was in the late 20th century it tries to be as comprehensive as is practical in its 200-odd pages; and, while it’s a mystery why it hasn’t since been reissued in revised editions, I shall be keeping this copy on my shelves for a little while longer.

Continue reading “Quick and quirky guide”

Freelancing

wewelsburg
Schloss Wewelsburg

Duncan Kyle Black Camelot
Book Club Associates 1979

I tried not to let the tawdry 70s jacket illustration put me off: Duncan Kyle, on the dust cover of the hardback, hints that a lot more of this World War II fiction is true than might be expected of a thriller. But that’s just what he might say, you might assume, in order to help sell the book. It’s a cunning device, isn’t it, designed to elicit the response, “It makes you think…” And yet the writing draws you in, so that from all the verbatim conversations, seemingly genuine documents and the detailed clandestine action you could almost believe it’s all true.

Almost, but not quite. Continue reading “Freelancing”

Plots worth digging over

plotsChristopher Booker
The Seven Basic Plots: why we tell stories
Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd 2005

I was attracted to this book for a number of reasons, not least by the fact that its title told you exactly what it was about, reinforced by the witty cover by photographer Jonathan Ring showing a pile of books reflected in a metal film canister. And I was predisposed to like this because of the mix of stimulating ideas that books, both fiction and non-fiction, promise the reader. (Mind you, I tend to read anything, from cereal packets to greetings cards, so it may not take much to stimulate my negligible intellect.)

Booker’s identification of the principal narrative structures underlying the best examples of stories, novels, plays and films is attractive and, viewed retrospectively, intuitively right. Those seven plots Continue reading “Plots worth digging over”

A new Troy?

pagoda Jan Morris Hav:
comprising Last Letters from Hav;
Hav of the Myrmidons

Faber & Faber 2006

Despite irritating minor typos (not even corrected in the paperback edition) this is a wonderful fiction obsessing on dualities: ancient and modern, East and West, Light and Dark, land and sea, transparency and the occluded. The addition of Hav of the Myrmidons in 2006 to the 1985 Last Letters from Hav (presumably written as if to Morris’ partner Elizabeth) adds to that sense of duality: as the earlier Letters ended a half year of somnolent unreality with the brutal suddenness of the Intervention, so does the mirroring second half of Hav end a six day tour of puzzling contradictions with a brusque departure. Hav appears to be an independent state on a peninsula of Asia Minor, close enough to the known site of Troy to have been considered, Morris suggests, a contender; like Troy it has been coveted by other nation states, squabbled over by invading armies and temporarily ruled by transient empires.

Hav itself is like an amalgam of all those liminal territories such as Hong Kong or Trieste that Morris herself has visited for her travelogues, and resonant with echoes of a few other polities such as Istanbul or Malta which have been at the crossroads of cultures. The Hav of the 1980s is a little quaint, a relic of its past histories but decaying in its inertia. While no less Kafkaesque post-9/11 Hav no longer retains its picture postcard attraction: all that has mostly been swept away by the sinister but shadowy forces behind the Intervention, leaving tourists in a modernist enclave and a population that is even more reticent to disclose what, if anything, is controlling Hav. Continue reading “A new Troy?”

Unusual emotional range

kingdomunderthesea
Illustration for The Reed Girl by Jan Pienkowski

Joan Aiken The Kingdom Under the Sea
and other stories

Pictures by Jan Pienkowski
Puffin Books 1973 (1971)

Morals are the standards by which a society or community lives by, or claims it lives by. Sometimes that morality becomes institutionalised, sometimes even stultifying, politicised, restrictive, but its ultimate aim is selfish: the perpetuation of that society. The fact that some of the hallmarks of morality — altruism and charity and compassion, for example — make individuals feel good about themselves and others shows perhaps that collectivism and individualism aren’t necessarily incompatible, and that the resulting symbiosis is good for all.

All this is by way of introduction to fairytales in general and The Kingdom Under the Sea in particular. Continue reading “Unusual emotional range”