Of chivalry and shysters

Landing craft LCT

Hammond Innes: Dead and Alive
Fontana 1990 (1946)

With a title doubtless designed to recall those wanted posters from the wild west of America, Innes’ novel is about an equally lawless region, Italy in the immediate aftermath of the second world war. And yet it opens, not in the dry, fly-ridden south of that Mediterranean peninsula but on the cold, wet North Cornish coast.

Intriguingly, the star turn opening the show is a wreck. Specifically a landing craft, an LCT Mark 4, stranded on Boscastle beach not far from King Arthur’s Castle at Tintagel. And it will lead to a quest in which narrator David Cunningham will play the chivalrous knight seeking a damsel in distress.

But not before he, his business partner and his crew of two have black marketeers, gun runners, resurgent fascists, gangsters, a forger and a rapist to cope with, and a ruined infrastructure to negotiate.

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Square pegs

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Louis Sachar: Holes
Bloomsbury 2000 (1998)

This immensely readable YA novel is a delight: it presents like real-life contemporary fiction but is littered with almost impossible coincidences; it feels like a piece of fantasy at times but is unrelenting in its portrayal of societal realities; it’s peopled by individuals who one moment may be stereotypical and the next become complex and unpredictable.

Stanley Yelnats has been accused and convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. His sentence is to go to Camp Green Lake, a correctional institute where boys are expected to dig regulation-sized holes to build good character.

And yet all is not as it seems: we are already alerted to the fact that Stanley didn’t commit a crime, that — suspiciously — his name is palindromic, that the institute is neither green nor by a lake, and that everyone there is a metaphorical square peg who will never fit the round hole they’re expected to dig.

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A doughty psychopomp

Martha Wells:
Emilie & the Hollow World
Strange Chemistry 2013

Having run away from her straitlaced relatives orphan stowaway Emilie has found that she is not on the conventional steamship she expected; instead she finds the vessel under attack, a gentleman who is part scales and part fur, and a totally unconventional voyage that takes her under the sea to unknown lands.

For this is a not your average Edwardian adventure tale of derring-do; this is a steampunk novel where Jules Verne meets Edgar Rice Burroughs or H G Wells hobnobs with Rider Haggard, and this is a world both like and yet unlike our own.

Because, as the title tells us, it is a planet where we discover a world within a world: the earth of this universe is hollow.

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Hispaniola ahoy

Treasure Island map
Map of Treasure Island, as first published

R L Stevenson: Treasure Island
Facsimile edition Fabbri Publishing 1990 (1883)

There and back again:
pirates, gold and adventure!
The sea-cook’s the star.

Revisiting a classic first encountered half a century ago is like going back to a place first known in childhood: there are mixed hopes and fears, expectations and unknowns. Will it be as you remembered? Will you be disappointed? Above all, will you like it as much?

Treasure Island (and Treasure Island, the place) lived up to those memories and, with hindsight and experience and maturity, was even richer and more (there, I’ve said it) awesome. I was awed by Stevenson’s easy command of words (he was only just 30 when he began the novel) and his ability to re-imagine a world that existed 120 years before the 1880s, when the novel that sealed his reputation was published. And I was filled with real wonder that it came across exactly as I recalled: the language, the descriptions, the personalities; and the whole was made so much more vivid by a closer reading of the sections that I had passed over in a more desultory fashion: the action around the stockade and the passage of the Hispaniola around the island.

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A northern struggle

Ursus maritimus (http://thegraphicsfairy.com/polar-bear-printable/)

Philip Pullman: Once Upon a Time in the North
Engravings by John Lawrence
David Fickling Books 2008

A Texas cowboy. A gas balloon. A settlement by the Barents Sea. A polar bear. Local politics. Dirty secrets. And … Action! Philip Pullman’s fantasy of derring-do near the Arctic Circle paints a vivid picture that reads like a film script synopsis as well as playing in the mind’s eye like a graphic novel. Set some 35 years before the events in the His Dark Materials trilogy Once Upon a Time in the North directly references a Sergio Leone spaghetti western in its title; like Once Upon a Time in the West we have a frontier town and potential conflict based on land exploitation (oil reserves here instead of a railroad), plus a hero figure determined to defeat a vicious gunslinger with whom he has unfinished business.

But this is where the comparisons end. While Pullman may have been inspired by Leone’s film, his main purpose is to introduce the story of how the young Lee Scoresby gets to meet Iorek Byrnison, a panserbjørne or fighting polar bear, and how they establish an alliance long before they meet Lyra in Northern Lights. This novella then is a prequel — unlike the standalone movie — giving us background on Lee and Iorek’s characters and how it is that a cowboy appears to be an accomplished aeronaut in the frozen north.

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A fine weird imagination

1881 unexplored
The parts of the world (vertical stripes) still ‘unexplored’ by Western nations around 1881

H Rider Haggard King Solomon’s Mines
Reader’s Digest Association 1996 (1885)

Haggard wrote this as a reaction to Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883); he believed he could write a more exciting novel, leading him in King Solomon’s Mines to produce an action-filled first-person narrative that sold sensationally well on its eventual publication in 1885. In some ways the quest plot is similar — a group of adventurers sets out, map in hand, to a previously unknown destination, surviving natural dangers, privations, battles and treachery along the way — but where Stevenson’s narrative is epistolary, deliberately archaic (it was set a hundred years before the author’s time) and occasionally backtracked in time Haggard’s storyline is contemporary, follows Time’s arrow, and is mostly told in breathless prose. It set the tone for the numerous Boy’s Own stories that were to follow in its wake.

As with Treasure Island the author tries hard to create verisimilitude by seemingly accurate details. Continue reading “A fine weird imagination”

Outsiders and Samaritans

SS Normandie 1932-46
A passenger liner The Samaritan features in Jon Walter’s novel Close to the Wind (photo shows SS Normandie, 1932-46)

Jon Walter Close to the Wind
David Fickling Books 2015 (2014)

Dominating this book — on its cover and in the text — is an ocean liner. The first part narrates the hopes and fears attending her boarding, the second part narrates the trip and the third the aftermath. As a metaphor for refugees in transit it has taken on added resonance these days, what with the crises over migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Africa, the Channel Tunnel from France and through Turkey into Europe from Syria (and we mustn’t ignore other international situations, such as the boat people struggling to get to Australia). In truth of course the situation with regard to refugees is that — as with the poor in the Gospel accounts — they are always with us: to humankind’s perpetual shame there will always be migrants (whether branded as economic or illegal) as also asylum seekers fleeing persecution or war in hopes of a safe haven.

The refugees in this story are fleeing a volatile situation in an unnamed country, perhaps in Eastern Europe or the Balkans (maybe somewhere like Albania), at an unspecified period but in relatively recent times (perhaps the 1990s). The narration largely focuses on Malik Kusak (with his mix of Arab and Polish names) and, for a while, his grandfather (whom he calls Papa, perhaps because that’s what Malik’s mother called him). They have fled from home to a sea port; here they are hoping to meet up with Malik’s mother and travel to safety on board the last humanitarian ship to leave the country, fittingly called The Samaritan. But as is the way of things — especially during conflicts — not all goes according to plan, and Malik finds he is sailing dangerously close to the wind even before he sets foot on deck.

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