The Three Rs

Carved Book Landscape by Guy Laramee
Carved Book Landscape: book sculpture by Guy Laramee

Once upon a time we knew (however much we circumvented their purpose by misspelling them) exactly what the Three Rs were: Reading, (w)Riting and ‘Rithmetic. (And yes, spellcheck has helpfully underlined for me Rs, Riting and Rithmetic.) Nowadays primary school kids know all about targets for literacy and numeracy, but the Three Rs mean something different: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. I’ve been thinking recently about how they might apply to books, and have been coming up with some conundrums.

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In a distorting mirror

Holbein_Danse_Macabre_41
Holbein Danse Macabre. XLI. The Allegorical Escutcheon of Death (Totentanz. XLI. Das Wappen des Todes) Image: public domain

Terry Pratchett Equal Rites Corgi 1987 (1987)

“This is a story about magic and where it goes and perhaps more importantly where it comes from and why, although it doesn’t pretend to answer all or any of these questions.”

With such a portentous opening sentence, and especially with such a qualifying caveat, it is clear from the start that this a Terry Pratchett novel. The third novel, in fact, in his Discworld series. But, as he goes on to add, it is also a story about sex (something we might have deduced from the punny title) and “primarily” a story about a world (the Discworld, if you hadn’t already guessed). And though this is early on in his series of over forty Discworld novels it’s full of typical Pratchett tics — the humour (both slapstick and sly), the sense of the ridiculous (with occasional sparkles of the sublime), the fast-paced and consummate storytelling (despite the many asides) and the sheer joy of Creation (an irony which would have tickled the professed atheist).

Eskarina Smith is the eighth child of an eighth son, a fact which has marked her out as something special, as special as the seventh son of a seventh son in our world. Except that Esk is a girl. Which means she technically can’t become a wizard because — as any fule kno — wizards are men. Esk’s own granny Esmeralda Weatherwax is a woman and therefore it is only right that she is able to be a witch. But there is a problem: Esk was handed a wizard’s staff at her moment of birth. And that is a very big problem.

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Twists in the tale

Image of narwhal from Brehms Tierleben 1864–1869 (public domain)
Image of narwhal from Brehms Tierleben 1864–1869 (public domain)

Peter Dickinson The Ropemaker Macmillan Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

High fantasy, sometimes called epic fantasy, is a genre that’s demanding of the author but easily recognisable to the reader. Set in a secondary world where magic or the supernatural are accepted as real, high fantasy becomes epic when there is a sense of great and heroic deeds being done and where the canvas is grand in scale and character.

On this basis, then, Peter Dickinson’s The Ropemaker is justifiably an epic fantasy, his first in fact (Angel Isle is its sequel). Set in a world that stretches from the plateaux beyond snow-capped mountains down along a river through plains and on to an island in the open sea, the novel unfolds through the eyes of young Tilja Urlasdaughter (the ‘j’ in her name I suspect is pronounced like ‘y’ in ‘yes’, as in Scandinavian languages). Her Valley home, between the mountains and the Forest, is changing: the glaciers are melting, venturing among the forest trees is becoming dangerous and the sense of a magic gluing things together is disappearing. There are likely to be incursions from the horsemen beyond the mountain pass and the armies of the Empire to the south. What’s to be done?

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Genii loci

poppies
Poppies and bindweed growing on waste ground

Jo Walton: Among Others. Corsair 2013 (2010)

I was most struck many years ago by Arthur Koestler’s concept of the holon, which I understood as an organism that is both independent of and yet dependent on larger organisms, looking inwards as well as outwards, simultaneously a whole as well as a part. I thought of this when considering the title of Jo Walton’s Among Others because there is much in the novel which deals with aspects of this apparent dichotomy.

Fifteen-year-old Mori has that natural angst which most teenagers have, of knowing herself to be different and yet wanting to be part of a group or community; how she deals with the conflicts that arise from such contradictions form the mainstay of this many-layered novel.

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The naming of names

Regency couple planning trip
Emil Brack ‘Planning the Grand Tour’ (Wikipedia Commons) — a vision of Sir Willoughby and Lady Green before their trip to the Canaries?

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is set in the early 1830s, the period between the novels of Jane Austen and those of Dickens and the Brontës. The names of her principal and supporting characters haven’t yet reached the baroque proportions that they were later to, but already we have inklings of character-full epithets amongst the more genteel Austenesque names like Willoughby (from Sense and Sensibility) and Green (from Emma). What are we to make of Mrs Shubunkin, its Japanese origin lurking behind a name straight from the pages of a Dickens’ novel? Or Mr Grimshaw, surely grim by nature as well as by name? Mrs Brisket who takes her name from a cut of meat? And of course Letitia Slighcarp, who is both sly and apt to carp at her poor charges?

The avid reader can have fun with the remaining names, with their lively mix of Biblical forenames, funny-sounding old English terms and inappropriate or incongruous sobriquets. A few of the personages reappear in the sequels — most touchingly in the last title of all, The Witch of Clatteringshaws — but for the moment we may rejoice in the feeling that here is created a whole world of individuals identified by name, many with significant parts to play and identifiable characters to match.

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Yet more on spoilers

Spoiler-Alert
Bear with me: I’m still fascinated by this thing about spoilers and whether readers generally like or loathe them. Nikki of Breathes Books disputed my notion on whether most of the world can be divided up into one camp or other: “I think,” she suggests, “often people think they’re in one camp or t’other, but in reality, everyone has exceptions.” And she’s probably right. Would a straw poll based on blog comments give a clearer picture?
After sifting through comments on both our blogs here’s where I found responders to both blogs roughly stood on a continuum between hating and liking spoilers:

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Mapping Willoughby Chase

Nostell Priory, Morris's Country Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen (1880) Wikipedia Commons
Nostell Priory, Morris’s Country Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen (1880) Wikipedia Commons

I’m sure I’m not the only person to wonder about the placenames scattered throughout the Dido Twite series and particularly in Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Some places certainly have correspondences in our world, viz. London, or the Canary Islands. But others appear on no modern A to Z or guidebook to Britain. So, if it hasn’t already been done it’s certainly high time to begin compiling a gazetteer to Dido’s World, which naturally I shall be adding to as we make our royal progress through the sequence (courtesy, of course, of James III).

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Sugaring the pill

Dahl, Llandaff
Roald with his sisters Else and Alfhild, at Llandaff

Roald Dahl Boy: Tales of Childhood Puffin Books 1986 (1984)

Boy is less an autobiography than a patchy memoir of Roald Dahl’s youth, up to the point in his early twenties when a world war rudely interrupted everybody’s planned trajectories. But that’s not to say his life had been uneventful before then — this account is full of memories of home, family, school, acquaintances and holidays, many of which were to supply material for his published fiction. As he says of the incidents he recounts, some are funny, some painful, some unpleasant, but “all are true”.

Many are very vivid, perhaps too vivid, especially the things he witnessed or experienced at his schools. Though I am of a generation three decades adrift from Roald Dahl my experience of a boys school was uncomfortably close to what he describes, first at Llandaff Cathedral School near Cardiff, then at St Peter’s boarding school in Weston-Super-Mare, and finally at Repton, the Derbyshire public school. What comes through is Continue reading “Sugaring the pill”

Dido Twite’s World

winter sleepwalker
Winter landscape

Here I was promising a companion piece or two to my review of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and yet I’ve gone and entitled this post “Dido Twite’s World” when Dido doesn’t even appear in the first title of the sequence! What’s going on?!

Well, there’s no real agreement what to call this series of loosely-related books. They’re often called The Wolves Chronicles, but wolves don’t always appear — in fact I can at this moment only recall two or three of the books making reference to them. Occasionally, inspired by the introduction to Wolves, reference is made to ‘the James III sequence’, perhaps in the same way that we often refer to our own 19th-century as ‘Victorian’ even though that monarch ruled only for a little over sixty years of it, and despite it sometimes being applied to countries outside the British Empire.

Now I shall be calling this sequence the Dido Twite series as much as I talk about the Wolves Chronicles, simply because Dido appears in at least eight out of the twelve novels officially in the canon — thirteen if you include Midnight is a Place, but that’s another discussion! There’s another reason for me to think of it in this way: because, you see, I have a theory that Dido became a sort of alter ego for the author. Joan Aiken was born in 1924 and, I surmise from a bit of teasing out of details, Dido Twite was born a hundred years before, in 1824. But I anticipate myself, Continue reading “Dido Twite’s World”

Absolute hell

Roald Dahl in 1982By Hans van Dijk / Anefo - Derived from Nationaal Archief, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36726305
Roald Dahl in 1982 by Hans van Dijk / Anefo, derived from Nationaal Archief, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36726305

If Roald Dahl was still alive he’d be approaching his 100th birthday in September 2016. As it is he died in 1990, but not before leaving an extraordinary legacy of books for adults and, of course, children. In 1984 he published a memoir of his early years, Boy: Tales of a Childhood, and towards the end of this he compares the life of the writer that he became with one of his first jobs, working for Shell. “I began to realize how simple life could be if one had a regular routine to follow with fixed hours and a fixed salary and very little original thinking to do,” he writes, one suspects with his tongue firmly lodged in his cheek. “The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman.”

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A fine modern classic

Eurasian Wolf By Mas3cf (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Eurasian Wolf: Mas3cf (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Joan Aiken The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Illustrated from drawings by Pat Marriott
Puffin Books 1968 (1962)

The action of this book takes place in a period of English history that never happened — shortly after the accession to the throne of Good King James III in 1832 …

Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase fits into no one category. From the introductory note one might assume it belongs to the genre called Uchronia (“no time”) in which it becomes clear that at some stage in the past history diverged from its familiar course; in this case the Jacobite rebellion succeeded and the Stuarts continued to reign in Britain from the middle of the 18th century. It is also on the frontiers of Utopia (“no place”) in that the England described includes places and distances which only by a large stretch of the imagination co-exist in our own world: Willoughby Chase House and the town of Blastburn seem to be located somewhere around Humberside, and yet we’re told the walking distance from Blastburn to London is about four hundred miles (in reality from the Humber to the capital is only around 200 miles by modern roads).

On another level the novel is a Dickensian parody: orphans (real or assumed) have to cope with bitter winters, reversals of fortunes and conniving villains with quirky names only to — one hopes — overcome their plight with a mixture of natural cunning, kind helpers and a measure of good luck. But this is also a children’s book and, as such books usually confirm, events are seen almost entirely through the eyes of youngsters. It lingers somewhere on the continuum between fairytale and fantasy, albeit that there is no magic involved, but with a large pinch of Gothick thrown in for good measure, complete with secret passages and rambling suites of rooms.

And where do the wolves come in?

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Treading the labyrinth

Reconstruction of part of Knossos complex (Wikipedia Commons)
Reconstruction of part of the Knossos complex (Wikipedia Commons)

Patricia Highsmith:
The Two Faces of January.
Sphere 2014 (1964)

With the action mostly set in Athens, Crete and Marseille — the French port an ancient Greek colony — it’s hardly surprising that Highsmith’s crime novel has the feel of a classical legend. From the title (The Two Faces of January is a nod to the Roman two-headed god Janus whose month opened the year) to a crucial scene in Knossos (reputedly the inspiration for the Cretan labyrinth) we can’t help but be aware that this very 20th-century tragedy has its affinities, its roots even, in the ancient world; for all its modern trappings the story turns on eternal human failings like hubris, that pride that can bring down both the guilty and the innocent.

This novel is a play with just three leading characters and a small cast of bit players. Chester MacFarlane is an American conman hiding out in Europe with his young wife Colette. Rydal Keener is an intelligent young American avoiding confrontation with his critical father before feeling guilty for having not attended his funeral. Chester survives under numerous aliases but has little facility with modern foreign languages like Greek; Rydal is fluent in French, Italian and Greek and so is in a position to help Chester and Colette when a Greek detective is inadvertently killed. Why does Rydal help the couple? Is it just because Chester reminds him of his father and Colette of his first love?

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Stories both exciting and different

Peter Dickinson in 1999 Photo: Brian Smith
Peter Dickinson in 1999 Photo: Brian Smith (Daily Telegraph)

In my current phase (though I suspect it’ll be a permanent phase) of mixing re-reads in with titles and writers new to me it struck me that an overview of some of the authors I’m revisiting might give an indication of why I find them eminently readable. Oddly, the book I’m reading and enjoying now — The Ropemaker (shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 2001 and winning the Mythopoeic Award in 2002) — is a fantasy novel by one of these writers which, even though it’s been sitting on my shelves for a couple of years, proves to be a title I hadn’t tackled before.

The Ropemaker‘s creator Peter Dickinson, who died at the age of 88 in December 2015, authored a wide range of books including children’s novels and detective stories. Rather to his disgust he was perhaps best known for The Changes Trilogy which appeared as separate children’s novels nearly fifty years ago, beginning with The Weathermonger (1968) and continuing with Heartsease (1969) and The Devil’s Children (1970). The Weathermonger, while perhaps the weakest of the three, is the most Arthurian, an aspect which attracted it to me when I first read it many years ago. In the author’s own words, “The Weathermonger sprang from a nightmare. I had lain awake retelling the dream, putting myself in charge of it, outwitting or defeating its monsters, in order to get back to sleep, but instead had spent the rest of the night finishing the story in my head.” This dream furnished the premise of the trilogy, “set in a near-future England in which use of machines is equated with witchcraft,” all brought on by the chance re-awakening of that archetypal wizard Merlin.

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Every book is a world

bookshop window
Bookshop window display (Book-ish, Crickhowell, Wales)

Gabrielle Zevin The Storied Life of  A.J. Fikry Abacus 2015 (2014)

A book about books, the love of books, booklovers, selling books, writing books, quoting books, reviewing books, talking about books — what’s not to like? Add to that memorable characters whom you can get to love and care for, a few who either achieve a kind of redemption or get their just deserts, who live and breathe and die and live on; and what you glimpse is a little world, a kind of microcosm of the greater world we all inhabit — or would like to inhabit.

A. J. Fikry is the owner of Island Books, a bookstore on the fictional Alice Island off the coast of Massachusetts, only reachable by ferry from Hyannis. He is a curmudgeon, true, but a curmudgeon with good reason — personal tragedy has touched his life and coloured his world view. After his loved one dies book sales flatline; a valued book of his — an edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s early poem Tamerlane — is then stolen, an irritatingly pushy new agent from Knightley Press appears and, to cap it all, a two-year-old orphan is left in his care. Not only is he out of his comfort zone but there is little prospect of him finding his way back again. What’s a man to do?

I shan’t be spoiling matters by suggesting that he finds a kind of redemption and a new sense of purpose when he decides to adopt Maya, the bright young toddler who enchants him with her love of books. Through her he reconnects with family, makes new friends, cleans up his life, revitalises his business, even learns to love again. But there is unfinished business still awaiting him at the end of a dozen or so years, one that adds more than a touch of poignancy to this tale.

I found The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry absolutely delightful. Each chapter is headed by a book title and a short discussion by A.J. addressed to a teenage Maya; the title itself or an aspect of the book usually relates to what happens in that chapter, but I found I didn’t need to know much about any of the books to appreciate the thoughts and ideas that A.J. expounds, reflections that clearly indicate his belief that books are not an escape from life but a vital spark that makes life worth living. There is too a metafictional parallel: the stolen Poe edition dealt with the regret Tamerlane felt at the end of his life after forsaking true love for worldly power and success. As one of the strong themes in this novel, it is a message perhaps for us all; and it is echoed by the Rumi quote prefacing all: come on, sweetheart | let’s adore one another | before there is no more | of you and me.

There is a fascinating cast to discover peopling this book, which helps to underscore the message on the faded “sign over the porch of the purple Victorian cottage” declaring No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World. Reminding us of our interconnectedness with others it also emphasises that through books we may experience a wider life; and through writing we can speak as if by magic to future generations, even allowing them to love us when we are no longer in this world.

No man

This is my Massachusetts entry for Lory’s Reading New England Challenge at Emerald City Book Review, which may be a bit of a cheat as Alice Island doesn’t exist, but one or two scenes actually take place on the mainland — even straying to Rhode Island — so I hope it just squeezes in!

Author alphabet 2016: Z for Zevin