A heavy responsibility well acquitted

Diana-Wynne-Jones

Diana Wynne Jones
Reflections: On the Magic of Writing
Foreword by Neil Gaiman

Greenwillow Books 2012

Where to start? Diana Wynne Jones was a very individual and distinctive voice within British fantasy writing, highly regarded and rightly so, though that recognition was perhaps long coming: for example, though I was aware of the name I only first read her work in 2004, on a strong recommendation, beginning with The Merlin Conspiracy. However, from then on I was hooked. She had a growing loyal following from the mid-seventies onwards, but perhaps the fillip to her popularity came with an audience keen for more fiction along the lines of the Harry Potter books, aided by the success of the Japanese animated film of her Howl’s Moving Castle. Sadly, within a relatively little time she discovered she had cancer, dying just two years later in 2011.

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Who is the Dark Lord?

The citadel of Derkholm?

Roland Chesney has found a way to access a parallel world, a world of real fantasy and magic. For four decades he has sent Pilgrim Parties on tourist package holidays to these lands, forcing one hapless individual after another to become the Dark Lord for the duration while the tourists attempt to defeat his forces. The question is, will this be the last year that this exploitation of an innocent population happens, the year when the worm turns?

There are Dark Lords aplenty in modern fantasy: take your pick from Sauron, Darth Vader, Voldemort or any one of a multitude of evil megalomaniacs. Yet Diana Wynne Jones’ comic fantasy The Dark Lord of Derkholm is different, and an intriguing tale, full of mysteries — some of which get solved by the end of the novel, others seemingly insoluble. =Tamar Lindsay very kindly agreed to pen this guest post attempting to answer the question, “Who is the Dark Lord?”


Calmgrove has kindly offered me space to set out some ideas I have about Dark Lord of Derkholm, which is one of my favorite books. This discussion involves major spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book already, go read it.

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A slow smouldering

Old Place, Linfield, Sussex, one possible model for Poynton
(credit: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/4639885)

Henry James: The Spoils of Poynton
Edited with an introduction by David Lodge, notes by Patricia Crick
Penguin Classics 1987 (1897)

This is an extraordinarily intense novella: intense in its use of language and intense in its unremitting focus on just two or three characters. First and foremost in the cast list is Fleda Vetch, a young woman whose superior quick-wittedness and taste are balanced by her apparent plainness and moral rectitude; next is the manipulative Mrs Adela Gereth, a widow to whom the unmarried Fleda becomes a companion. Owen Gereth, Mrs Gereth’s son, has lately inherited Poynton Place, thereby becoming a most eligible if rather vapid bachelor. Further down the cast list come Mona Brigstock, a philistine but strong-minded young woman, as manipulative as Mrs Gereth, and her mother Mrs Brigstock. Fleda’s sister Maggie and a scant handful of other individuals have even more minor parts, either walk-on/walk-off or completely offstage.

I use the phrase cast list intentionally: James apparently used his failed attempt at writing for the stage to better effect here. We have set ‘scenes’, played out on a limited number of stage sets; and — in the manner of Ibsen, for instance — all the attention is placed on the psychological drama. The main crises of the narrative, and the final climactic incident, essentially take place ‘offstage’; foregrounded are the ever-evolving to-and-fro of relationships and interactions.

And what are these relationships and interactions? Essentially they’re founded on the fact that Mrs Gereth’s impressionable son Owen has fallen for the pretty but rather vulgar Mona, who it soon becomes clear will have no intrinsic appreciation for the antique treasures that the elder Gereths have accumulated over a lifetime at Poynton. Under the terms of her late husband’s will Mrs Gereth will be forever separated from both the house and its possessions unless she can persuade Owen to fall for a more suitable young woman, one with taste and sensitivity, one who can cajole Owen into letting his mother continue in residence; in short, one Fleda Vetch.

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Cockatoo memento mori

Cockatoo (image credit: http://thegraphicsfairy.com/vintage-clip-art-cockatoo-engraving-natural-history/)

Grandmother Mary once had a canary (or so it was said at the zoo)
though I was distracted, nay, even attracted by large piles of elephant poo.
It wasn’t the smell — this much I could tell — that drew my attention to these,
nor even the texture or neat architecture occasioning all my unease
but the terrible sight which ramped up my fright: a gaunt yellow-grey cockatoo!
The song that it sung as it strode up the dung was turning the air somewhat blue!

“Grandmother Mary once had a canary!” it trilled, but with four-letter words.
The bulk of the song was equally strong — it even appalled other birds.
The story it told in language so bold concerned sweet Grandmother Mary:
the bird did insist, “She’s a mad scientist and, me, I was once her canary!
She fed me oceans of foul-smelling potions to turn me from fair looks to foul.
Convinced, the old meanie, that she was Athene, she tried to change me to an owl!
She got it quite wrong,” or so went its song, “mistaking Birds Custard for glue —
for Grandmother Mary ate something real scary — and turned into elephant poo!

Old Gran we interred, as advised by the bird, soon after its heart-rending story.
It raves this sad song on her grave all day long: a cockatoo memento mori.


Doggerel inspired by the first line of the parody of the Scottish Cock o’ the North song and dance tune. One of the many bawdy versions includes these lines:

Aunty Mary had a canary up the leg of her drawers
When she farted it departed to a round of applause.

It is possible to sing my lines to Cock o’ the North — just — but you many need to take it at a funereal pace and possibly pop it into the minor key

The Joy of Books (1)

There’s something about book anticipation that gets to this particular bibliophile. When I was a kid I remember being intrigued by the packaging of Fry’s Five Boys chocolate bar with its fivefold image of one lad in various stages: Desperation, Pacification, Expectation, Acclamation and Realization. Maybe I won’t quite go through all five stages before acquiring the desired object — in my case, the book rather than a bar of chocolate — but that stage of expectation is one that I especially relish. Even the image of books (as in a watercolour of vintage paperbacks hanging on our wall) is enough to have me salivating.

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Multi-layered page-turner

Brian Aldiss, Helliconia:
Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer, Helliconia Winter

Gollancz SF Masterworks 2010

The Helliconian trilogy is a multi-layered composition, as long and as rich as The Lord of the Rings, as colourful as a medieval tapestry and as polemical as an eco-warrior’s handbook. Aldiss is a prolific author in various genres, not just in science fiction; but SF at its best can itself include a great many genres, and this trilogy therefore has aspects of romance, epic, fantasy, prose poetry and science writing all flourishing in symbiosis with each other. And, like any great narrative, it is not only a great page-turner but has you caring about its characters. Continue reading “Multi-layered page-turner”

Dial L for Library

Phone box library in Trecastle, Powys (https://www.instagram.com/p/BKDHBCGgYUE/?taken-by=calmgrove&hl=en)

These days most people have mobile phones (‘cellphones’ to transatlantic readers) and as a result many phone boxes (‘phone booths’) are becoming redundant, in the UK at least. As it is, many of those surviving and operating don’t accept cash, only cards (perhaps to lessen attempted thefts, probably because coinage is becoming a threatened species). The classic British red telephone boxes are being sold off as novelty items, garden ornaments or whatever, but a few — and more than a few, if Google Maps are to be believed — are being converted to … free libraries.

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The cat and the quilt

“Tabby drags her patchwork quilt up to the gate. She will not let it go.” One of Nicola Bayley’s illustrations for The Patchwork Cat

Nicola Bayley & William Mayne
The Patchwork Cat
Puffin Books 1984 (1981)

This picture book is both a delightful and a painful work to review. First the delight.

The text of The Patchwork Cat strikes a wonderful balance between using simple repetitious wording suitable for reading aloud to the preliterate child and pure prose poetry. Tabby the cat sleeps on a quilt. It is patchwork, like herself. She loves it. It’s the relationship she has with the quilt and with the milkman that form the focus of the narrative. “Oh milkman, milkman,” she says, “you can come and live at my house any time.” All is going well until the moment when she cannot find the patchwork quilt, her matching patchwork quilt.

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Regency murders

ratcliffe_poster

P D James and T A Critchley
The Maul and the Pear Tree:
the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811

Faber & Faber 2010

I deliberately began reading The Maul and the Pear Tree exactly two hundred years to the day that the horrific killing spree known as the Ratcliffe Highway murders began, on December 7th 1811. Four innocent people, including a babe in arms, were butchered in London’s East End that first night, stretching the rudimentary resources of the parish, the local magistrates and the Thames police based in Wapping. It inaugurated a period of terror, suspicion and xenophobia in St George’s and the neighbouring parishes and, through the medium of the press, a few weeks of morbid fascination in the public at large. It also led to questions in Parliament on the adequacy of current policing by neighbourhood watchmen, with a scornful analysis by the playwright Sheridan on the floor of the House of Commons.

Panic really set in when, twelve days later, a second attack resulting in three more horrific murders took place, also around the witching hour of midnight.

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Sighs, pie charts and statistics

1: LT author cloud

Many of you booklovers may well be familiar with LibraryThing, one of many sites available for cataloguing books you’ve read or that are in your library — plus all the other interaction expected on social media sites. Most if not all have useful facilities for examining your bookish stats, and LT is no exception. I like to occasionally peruse these to see what patterns and trends, if any, seem to be emerging.

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London is the hero

China Miéville Kraken: an Anatomy
Pan 2010

Welcome to London
and an underground of cults,
cops, criminals, squid.

There has been precious little discussion about the significance, if any, of Kraken’s subtitle. Anatomy, which now means the science of body structure, derives from Greek roots implying cutting open and, particularly, apart (what we’d now call an autopsy). I suggest that Kraken is not just about a giant squid specimen in the Natural History Museum (or rather, for most of the book, out of the Museum) but about how it is used to cut open the underbelly of an arcane and corrupt London and expose its putrefying innards.

Ultimately this urban fantasy is about the power of words. Continue reading “London is the hero”

A worm in the bud

Conrad Gesner and Edward Topsell: Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes and Serpents (1658)

Marie Brennan: A Natural History of Dragons:
a memoir by Lady Trent
Titan Books 2014 (2013)

I’ve had my eye on this for some time and for a number of reasons, but despite the delay in my reading there’s no denying the praise and esteem it has garnered from the start. The ‘Lady Trent’ of the title must be a close fit or at least parallel of author Bryn Neuenschwander (who writes under the Marie Brennan nom de plume): her background in anthropology, archaeology and folklore overlaps that of the fictional writer of this memoir. Certainly that same passion and expertise comes through strongly in the text of this fantasy, not failing to enthuse the sympathetic reader. And dragons: what heart can’t beat a little bit faster on reading this word?

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