Milestones or millstones?

Milestone opposite Myrtle Villa, Llanteg, Pembrokeshire © Copyright welshbabe and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence

Two-thirds of the way through the year and it’s a good moment to take stock. Which authors read, what books completed, what goals reached, what satisfaction achieved. That’ll be the who, what, when, where dealt with, and maybe the how, but as to why — that’ll require some introspection and I’m always a bit wary of that.

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Spooky portal fantasy

Neil Gaiman: Coraline. The Graphic Novel
Adapted and illustrated by P Craig Russell
Colourist: Lovern Kindzierski; letterer: Todd Klein
Bloomsbury 2008

Gaiman’s Coraline is a chilling portal fantasy, a warped version of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) as seen through a distorting prism, and here impressively presented in graphic novel form. Coraline’s family moves to a flat in an old decaying mansion, but her parents are too wrapped up in themselves and their work to pay much attention to her. In her boredom, exasperated at the rather dotty aged residents in the other flats, she explores the house and eventually finds a locked door.

Though it’s bricked up she soon somehow finds herself through on the other side, only to find herself confronted by a psychic vampire of an ‘other’ mother with button eyes, eventually becoming trapped in a nightmare existence. However, just as Alice had both her Dinah and the Cheshire Cat, Coraline has a feline helper as adviser and companion, guiding her through the labyrinth and assisting her with the tricksy obstacles the other mother puts in her way.

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Joining dots

Siobhan Dowd: The London Eye Mystery
Introduction by Robin Stevens
Penguin 2016 (2007)

Here’s a wonderful variation on the locked-room mystery: how can a boy who is seen to enter a pod on the famous London Eye wheel somehow disappear when the pod docks again half an hour later? Salim’s cousins, Ted and Kat, are left baffled, as are his estranged parents and Ted and Kat’s parents, not to mention the police. But by coming up with hypotheses for that disappearance and evaluating them, and by some clever underhand sleuthing, Ted and Kat slowly inch towards a solution; the worry is that, as time goes on, finding Salim will come too late to save him.

On the surface this sounds like a run-of-the-mill adventure story where children prove more than the equals of the police in solving a mystery. But The London Eye Mystery is not your average juvenile crime novel: there is a grounding in reality, in the hopes and fears of family life, in the recklessness that sometimes typifies adolescence, and in aspects of the mental processes someone on the autism spectrum may go through.

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Three score and ten

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

Nineteen forty-eight isn’t a particularly memorable year in history, though a few significant events are attached to it. In Britain the first post-war Olympic Games took place in London over the summer, and a National Health Service was established. In Europe the Berlin Blockade signalled an escalation in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and its former allies during the Second World War while in Paris the United Nations agreed a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And in a little town on the Sussex coast in England a baby boy was born…

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Mischievous, not misleading

giuseppemariacrespi_bookshelves
Giuseppe Maria Crespi’s Bookshelves (Wikimedia)

Edwin Moore and Fiona Mackenzie Moore
Concise Dictionary of Art and Literature
Tiger Books International 1993

With entries ranging from Alvar Aalto to Francisco Zurbarán spread over 440-plus pages this is my kind of book, whether I’m dipping in, looking up a specific reference or finding that one entry leads to another. The clues are in the book’s title: there are short paragraphs on artists and writers, on artistic schools and techniques and on writing styles and genres.

Opening a double page at random I find a discussion (page 340) on Realism in both literature and art which includes references to George Eliot, Courbet, Gorky and Magic Realism; on the opposite page I can read about Redskins and Palefaces — not an obscure title by Arthur Ransome but a phrase to distinguish those who write about the outdoors (such as Hemingway) and those who focus on ‘indoor’ matters (Henry James is cited) — and, lower down the page, I find a note about relief sculpture in all its forms.

I’m assuming that Fiona Mackenzie Moore contributed the art entries and Edwin Moore the literary items, as the former also wrote the 1992 Dictionary of Art, while the latter, according to the Guardian, is a former senior editor who spent 18 years working in non-fiction publishing and now writes reference books. The literature entries are often characterised by sly humour and dry observations, such as this entry for Fiona Macleod:
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Magic, menace and the mundane

Ursula Le Guin: Tehanu: the Last Book of Earthsea
in The Earthsea Quartet
Puffin/Penguin Books 1993 (1990)

As a fantasy novel Tehanu is a tough read: it touches on child abuse, rape, misogyny, prejudice, paranoia, xenophobia, torture and psychopathy. But against all these evils we also witness loyalty, support, care, consolation, compassion and love. Does magic come into it? Well, a bit. And let’s not forget dragons, or at least one particular dragon.

This instalment of the Earthsea series is set immediately after the events in The Farthest Shore. That ended with the promise of a crowning and Sparrowhawk’s return to his place of birth, the island of Gont. Great events had shaken the archipelago, but one might have hoped that the overthrow of one evil would have returned Earthsea to some stability. Much has happened in the twenty years since Tenar was rescued from the Place of the Tombs on Atuan: the former child priestess has married a Gontish farmer, had children, and has lately been widowed. But things remain awry; indeed, they may be getting worse.

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Interrogatives

My Neighbour Totoro (1988) film poster

To reiterate, I don’t do blog awards. But occasionally I like to see what questions are asked and answer them for my own amusement. And maybe yours too!

Blogger Jean Lee (of Jean Lee’s World) posed a handful of interesting queries for recipients of the Liebster award. Yours truly came up with these rather shifty responses.

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The mood is melancholy

WordPress Free Media Library

Joan Aiken: Bone and Dream
A St Boan Mystery
Illustrated by Caroline Crossland
Red Fox 2002

The final novelette in Joan Aiken’s St Boan trilogy (sometimes called the St Ives trilogy) again features Ned Thorne, his Aunt Lal and Uncle Adam Carne during a spell in a Cornish seaside town. Summoned another time by his aunt to ‘sort out’ a little problem, he takes a bus instead of the train he took in In Thunder’s Pocket and notices a very clammed-up anxious girl on the same journey. It turns out she — Jonquil is her name — is taking over from her sister Fuchsia to be the new ‘muse’ for a rather overbearing poet called Sir Thomas Menhenitt, the Poet Laureate of Wessex. And Sir Thomas (his surname is genuinely Cornish) is as scary as his reputation suggests; Ned remembers his lines about encountering a thrush, which in fact perfectly sum up people’s reaction to him:

All I had wanted was to hear him sing,
My presence made him flinch and take to wing . . .

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My top ten mazes

Ritratto Di Gentiluomo by Bartolomeo Veneto in Bartolomeo Veneto, l’opera completa, Firenze: Centro Di, 1997. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve long had a fascination with mazes and labyrinthine paths, whether it be their patterns, their history, their symbolism or their psychology. My bible for a long time was W H Matthews’ classic overview Mazes and Labyrinths: their history and developments (first published in 1922 and republished in 1970). I also pored over G R Levy’s The Gate of Horn (1948, republished 1963) which looked at how caves may have contributed to the lore of the winding path, while taking copious notes from a library copy of Jack Lindsay’s fascinating Helen of Troy (1974).

I learnt the difference between unicursal and multicursal mazes, and also the correspondences between the classic Cretan labyrinth and the Christian maze (as typified in Chartres Cathedral); I taught myself how to draw the classic pattern freehand, and traced it out on beaches for the amusement of children and, later, grandchildren; I corresponded with experts (for example Adrian Fisher and Jeff Seward, author of Magical Paths) and exchanged notes and booklets on the subject with them.

And, of course, I read fiction that featured the labyrinth and the maze in all its wonderful variety.

Here are ten titles about these conundrums that I especially remember and value (links are to relevant reviews or discussions).

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Righting the balance

Ursula Le Guin: The Farthest Shore
in The Earthsea Quartet
Puffin Books 1993 (1973)

When one comes to the end of a planned trilogy one always hopes for a sense of closure. But when I first read this there was also a sense of profound disappointment: yes, wrongs were righted, evil was overcome, but at what a cost! And yet, on a second reading and armed with hindsight, that disappointment was transmuted into acceptance as I started to understand the narrative arcs that applied to the whole trilogy.

With that understanding I think that the author’s intended ending was perfectly logical and absolutely in harmony with the preceding two novels. Because it also functions well enough as a standalone novel I can see how a new reader (and that was me, once upon a time) might feel bereft in the concluding pages; but Le Guin, in running counter to our expectations of a fantasy universe, showed what an original thinker she was and how her approach both overturned and reinvigorated the epic fantasy conventions of the time.

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Keys to mystery

Joan Aiken: The Song of Mat and Ben
A St Boan Mystery
Illustrated by Caroline Crossland
Red Fox 2001

Ned Thorne has had a dream similar to one his Aunt Lal has had, of two cherubic-faced boys in old-fashioned clothes entering the bookshop run by his Uncle Adam. Returning — not without mishap — to the Cornish town of St Boan, young Ned has to combat with blizzards, bullies and human bugbears, the ghostly appearances of those twins being just the prelude. The key that helped him solve a mystery in the first story, In Thunder’s Pocket, may prove to have a crucial part to play in The Song of Mat and Ben.

As well as the supernatural, the second novelette in the St Boan Mystery trilogy focuses on an artistic endeavour, much as the first dealt with sculpture and the third will feature poetry. This time it’s music, as the title makes clear: the song is a ballad about the siblings, Matthew and Benjamin Pernel, whose demises a century before has caused ripples of resentment down the years. The questions the reader will inevitably ask are, Does Ned manage to solve the mystery? and How are things resolved? As usual, Joan Aiken doesn’t disappoint in bringing things to unexpected but satisfying conclusions.

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Book lover’s day’s today?

Book-ish bookshop book van, Crickhowell, Wales

9th August is apparently Book lover’s day, according to some anonymous and apparently self-appointed committee who decide these things.

This is despite the fact that there is no end of special days for bibliophile and bibliomanes.

World Book Day is celebrated worldwide (early March in the UK and Ireland — aimed at younger readers — 23rd April for Catalunya and most of the rest of the world) and Independent Bookstore Day on the last Saturday in April for the US. There are even weeks dedicated to the acquisition of books, for instance Independent Bookshop Week in June for the UK.

As far as I’m concerned every day is Book Lover’s Day: remember, giving or receiving a book is not just for Christmas…

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An unmeasured desire for life

Inverted Commas 3: The modern world viewed from Earthsea

‘Nature is not unnatural. This is not a righting of the balance, but an upsetting of it. There is only one creature who can do that […] by an unmeasured desire for life.’

Sparrowhawk is speaking of humans, in Ursula Le Guin’s wonderfully immersive Earthsea fantasy The Farthest Shore (1973). And, as in all great fantasy, what he has to say — what she has to say — is as apposite to our own lives as it was in Earthsea.

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Cornish dream

Replica vitreous enamel sign

Joan Aiken: In Thunder’s Pocket: a St Boan Mystery
Illustrated by Caroline Crossland
Red Fox 2001

A young lad is sent to stay for a few days with his aunt and uncle in a coastal village in Cornwall, only to encounter mysterious goings-on involving seagulls, sculptures, a curse, a key and an egg. What is the connection between them all, and who or what is the boy from Wicca Steps?

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The most perfect book

Signe Hammarsten with Sophia Jansson, around 1968 (image: Margareta Ströšmstedt)

Tove Jansson: The Summer Book
Sommarboken (1972) translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal (1974)
Foreword by Esther Freud
Sort Of Books 2003

This is just the most perfect book; so perfect that I can scarcely bear to discuss it for fear of spoiling it. But I shall try; if at times I appear to be threading my way lightly round and through it, it’s because I fear my clumsy tread will destroy its sublime delicacy.

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