Colourful strands

A Victorian girl stitching a sampler (credit: http://www.victoriana.com/antiques/samplers.html)
Victorian girl stitching a sampler (credit: http://www.victoriana.com/antiques/samplers.html)

Penelope Lively A Stitch in Time
Mammoth 2000 (1976)

Though I haven’t yet read it Penelope Lively’s 2013 memoir, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: a Life in Time, picks up some up the themes that permeate her 1976 Whitbread Children’s Book Award winner; growing old, books, her cat, ammonites of course, all what has been described as “her identifying cargo of possessions”. Ostensibly a ghost story this is more about what it’s like to be a solitary bookish child on the cusp of maturity, all told with sensitivity and poetry, so much so that it’s hard not to read aspects of her own childhood into this book. Her parents took what has been called “a rather inactive role” in the author’s life during her upbringing in pre-war Egypt; she describes it as “a childhood with enormous opportunities for solitude and imagination,” during which she spent “long hours just playing alone, building elaborate stories in my mind around my toy animals.”
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Tickling funny bones

clown

The next genre that the creative writing course looked at was Comedy, and as usual I’ll be adding my own take on the discussion in this post. All genres of course vary widely and engender varied reader responses, but comic writing is particularly difficult as humour is very personal: what’s funny to one person can leave another cold. Whether your tastes veer towards physical slapstick and the comedy of cruelty or the maybe more subtle mental ribtickling of wordplay, puns, riddles and exaggeration it pretty much all relies on what the writer Arthur Koestler (in his 1964 study The Act of Creation) called “bisociation”. Essentially this is the bringing together of at least two normally unrelated concepts in an unexpected way, the metaphorical equivalent of an unlooked-for slap in the face that either provokes an understanding smile or a shocked reaction in an explosive guffaw.

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Fun is a serious business

zodiac-woodcut

Diana Wynne Jones Mixed Magics Collins 2000

Publishers and booksellers think they know their market when it comes to the fantasy novels of Diana Wynne Jones and her ilk: young readers aged 9 to 12 or, at a pinch, young adult or teens for her more ‘difficult’ novels. This despite the fact that her fans range upwards in age to other adult fantasy writers, filmmakers, academics (and not just in the literary field — I knew a professor of sociology who rated her highly as a writer) and, of course, bloggers of all ages. Those who treat books merely as commodities — and there’s no denying that the publishing business exists to be commercially successful — often fail to recognise the reach of an author’s readership except when (as, say, with Philip Pullman and J K Rowling) it becomes as plain as the noses on their faces; they then respond with ‘adult’ editions, which sport less garish covers to go on genre shelves — or even under General Fiction — and receive notices in the review sections of broadsheet newspapers.

This long preamble (and it gets longer, I’m afraid) is a prelude to lauding this collection of light fiction, Continue reading “Fun is a serious business”

School for sorcery

Entrance
Former Court House, Congresbury, North Somerset

Diana Wynne Jones Witch Week
HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2000 (1982)

a parallel world
where they persecute witches
and children aren’t safe

Witch Week was the first Chrestomanci books to focus solely on a female protagonist’s point of view, and is much the better for that. It feels as though Diana Wynne Jones has included a lot of autobiographical material in her treatment of Nan, an orphan witch girl who is at Larwood House, a boarding school in Hertfordshire. Nan is much more of a rounded character than the young male leads in previous books in the sequence, Christopher, Cat and Conrad, who sometimes come across as pleasant wimps or clueless actors in the unfolding story. True, Nan is largely pleasant and clueless in her attempt to discover the truth about the magic that is happening around her, but I get more of a sense of a real person here than the ciphers that are Christopher, Cat and Conrad.

The premise of the story is that Nan and her classmates exist in a world where witchcraft is punishable by death but where magic undeniably exists. Continue reading “School for sorcery”

Murder, they wrote

graveyard

I’ve been outlining the creative writing classes I’ve been attending in which we’ve looked at different genres such as Gothick horror and, more recently, Horror Fiction. The next in line was Thriller and Detective Fiction, a genre with close on two centuries of development. Conan Doyle acknowledged Edgar Allan Poe as the “father of the detective tale”; for Sherlock’s creator Poe “covered its limits so completely I fail to see how his followers can find ground to call their own.” In fact over those two hundred years Poe’s detective tales — beginning with The Murders on the Rue Morgue (1841) — led to a vast range of crossovers, cross-pollinations and sub-genres (many focusing on at least one murder) which did indeed try to find ground to call their own.

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Don’t disregard dementia

blurred

Peter Vance Message to a Grandchild
Foreword by Anne Robinson
Sidgwick & Jackson 2003

Two thousand and three was for me a notable year: our second grandchild was born; after nearly three decades fulltime in post at one school I resigned my teaching post; and a former pupil, a 16-year-old student at that school, had his first book published. This book was the extraordinary Message to a Grandchild, a slim volume but one that I kept and keep on dipping into as the years go by.

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Alike in indignity

19th-century Florence
19th-century Florence

Diana Wynne Jones
The Magicians of Caprona
Collins 2002 (1980)

Two families, both
alike in magic, fight till
forced to face real foe.

First things first: I wondered why Diana Wynne Jones had chosen the name Caprona to use in the title of this children’s book. Was it from the Latin caprona ‘forelock’? Or from a type of butterfly? Or perhaps in homage to an island featuring in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land that Time Forgot? None of these notions really convinced.

It seems most likely that she borrowed the name from a village in the Arno valley in Tuscany, upriver from Pisa and to the west of Florence. While relatively insignificant now, in the Middle Ages Caprona was of enough importance to feature in Dante’s Inferno when its castle was squabbled over by the opposing armies of Pisa and Florence. In this book the town is besieged by the 20th-century armies of Pisa, Florence and Sienna, city-states all bordering the unfortunate Dukedom of Caprona which, in this alternate world fantasy, retains a mix of medieval and early 20th-century customs and technology, not to mention magic. Continue reading “Alike in indignity”

A masquerade in Venice

Alturia, Oliver VII

Antal Szerb Oliver VII Pushkin Press 2013 (1942)

Anybody coming fresh to this novel might assume it was a straightforward comic novel set in some Ruritanian backwater. Many times I found myself thinking that it would make an excellent stage play — its plotting is as complex as a Feydeau farce, and at times it reminded me of Shaw’s Arms and the Man (though the latter is set in Bulgaria rather than an imaginary country). And yet hindsight informs us that this was the Hungarian author’s last work before he was murdered in a Nazi death camp in the closing year of the Second World War. It’s confusing then that there is no hint of the bloody turmoil in the European theatre of war from Szerb’s tale, one centred on a bloodless coup and laced with humorous misunderstandings and engineered coincidences.

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Fiction most foul

mansion

The creative writing course I’m attending, looking at various genres, this week turned from Gothick horror to 20th-century Horror fiction, though not without a look first at 19th-century antecedents. These included Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Stoker’s Dracula (1897), James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) and, not long after the turn of the century, Blackwood’s The Empty House (1903). Even a short romp through these key titles reveals a singular lack of female authors.

However, one female writer whose name did crop up in discussion was Gertrude Barrows Bennett. Writing under the masculine pseudonym ‘Francis Stevens’ (given her by a pulp magazine editor) she is now credited with having invented the genre of dark fantasy in the years around 1920, maybe influencing H P Lovecraft’s writing in the twenties (though the connection is disputed).

I could have added, of course, Edith Nesbit, better known as a children’s writer. Between 1893 (with collections called Something Wrong and Grim Tales) and 1910 (Fear) via 1897’s Tales Told in Twilight she published several short horror stories; many of these have recently been republished in a new collection by Wordsworth Editions as The Power of Darkness: Tales of Terror (2006).

Thereafter male domination of horror seems to have continued, usually with supernatural overtones (as in M R James’ ghost stories).

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Magic and mayhem

castle

Diana Wynne Jones Charmed Life HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2007 (1977)

Orphans, one spiteful,
one open-hearted, effect
magic, then mayhem!

The first of the Chrestomanci books to be published but the third in order of chronology, Charmed Life exhibits many of the possible strengths and weaknesses of a book destined to be part of a series but perhaps conceived originally as a standalone: strengths such as freshness and vitality, weaknesses such as plot holes and inconsistencies. It is to Diana Wynne Jones’ credit that she manages to avoid many of the pitfalls while still retaining a charm that manages to enchant new readers nearly forty years later. Continue reading “Magic and mayhem”