Hopeless, hapless, helpless

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño,
Chris Andrews translator 2010
Picador 2011 (1999)

Paris, April 1938
Young widow Madame Reynaud approaches Pierre Pain, war pensioner and mesmerist, with an unusual request. Would he attend to César Vallejo who is dying in a Paris hospital? The doctors have no idea why he is expiring, nor why he is hiccupping. Perhaps Monsieur Pain, with his unorthodox skills, can help?

Thus begins this novella by the late Roberto Bolaño, and the reader is soon plunged into a world of paranoia and mystery set in a miserably wet capital on the eve of war. Can we believe what we read when it’s told by such an unreliable narrator? Especially when he doesn’t seem to know what’s going on either?

Continue reading “Hopeless, hapless, helpless”

Wordplay and swordplay

Cyfarthfa Castle, Merthyr Tydfil

Andrzej Sapkowski: The Last Wish
Ostatnie życzenie (1993),
translated from the Polish by Danusia Stok (2007)
Gollancz 2012

What fun this is to read, and what fun Sapkowski must’ve had writing it! It both pays homage to and takes the mickey out of the swords-and-sorcery genre; it subverts the classic fairytales it plunders while respecting their power and integrity; and it revels in witty dialogue and pithy wordplays only to cut them short with bloody cut-and-thrust swordplay worthy of a movie swashbuckler like Douglas Fairbanks Snr.

This is a prime example of the author accomplishing that seeming paradox, having his cake and eating it. He simultaneously deconstructs so-called High or Epic Fantasy by pointing out its use of problematic clichés and then celebrates them by taking them seriously.

And what a character to have take centre stage: Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher trained to tackle the monsters that threaten the communities of this late medieval world, using weapons-skill and magic, and all in the face of fear and suspicion from those very societies he is trying to save.

Continue reading “Wordplay and swordplay”

Bitter aftertaste

Patricia Highsmith: Sour Tales for Sweethearts
Virago 2015 (1975)

Here are four domestic vignettes, all with a bitter ending, by the mistress of the twisted tale. ‘The Hand’ tells us that asking a father for his daughter’s hand may not bring the result the young man making the request expected; nor is the ending what we the readers may have expected. ‘The Invalid, or, The Bed-Ridden’ is a morality tale for those who would feign illness or disability, while in ‘The Fully-Licensed Whore, or, The Wife’ the titular character proves she can have her cake and eat it. Finally, ‘The Female Novelist’ features a writer with a heap of rejection slips and a wayward husband; where is she going to get her inspiration from?

Delicious little tales, these, with that unpleasant aftertaste that characterises Highsmith. Three of the pieces involve death, two the result of murder, the fourth might even hint at thoughts of violence. She uses a sparse narrative style, concentrating on description with few adjectives (except when necessary) and fewer adverbs. Occasionally a protagonist’s thoughts are revealed, but they are rarely profound.

The archaic titles of a couple of the tales only helps to distance the writer and the reader from the personnel. Highsmith is like a behavioural scientist, observing rats as they go about in their constrained environments and tweaking the controls to get them to do something out of the ordinary. It’s not a pretty sight, but for the reader it’s morbidly fascinating.

Continue reading “Bitter aftertaste”

To savour, and to save

The Human Eye (credit: http://thegraphicsfairy.com/vintage-clip-art-eye-diagram/)

Joan Aiken: A Bundle of Nerves:
stories of horror, suspense and fantasy

Cover illustration Peter Goodfellow
Peacock (Penguin) Books 1978 (1976)

Nineteen short stories are collected here, the majority originally appearing in Argosy — a British magazine which appeared between 1926 and 1974 and for which Joan Aiken was Features Editor (from 1955 to 1960). They are indeed ‘stories of horror, suspense and fantasy’, and though rather mild — if occasionally racy — by today’s tastes they were, and still are, perfect for the young teenage readership the collection aims at.

Continue reading “To savour, and to save”

A Matter of Lives and DEATH

dwjmonth-2017

Over at Kristen’s We Be Reading blog the annual March Magics celebration of the work of Diana Wynne Jones — to which was recently added the fiction of Sir Terry Pratchett — will be observed, starting tomorrow. Both authors, giants in their respected fantasy fields, are much missed by their legions of fans (a cliché, I know, but they are legion). As Kristen writes,

DWJ March began in March 2012 as a celebration of Diana Wynne Jones and last year I added Terry Pratchett as he had passed the year before. I changed the name to March Magics but a few of us didn’t want to let go of the DWJ March name so now it kind of has two names. I guess this is the 6th year of the event!

Kristen tells us she has for a while wanted to focus DWJ March on the figure of the enchanter Chrestomanci; of the seven books in the series she omits The Magicians of Caprona, Witch Week and the short story collection Mixed Magics only because they’re not directly about nine-lived enchanters. (Like cats, since you were wondering.)

She will pair these up with four of Pratchett’s five DEATH books (omitting Hogfather since she will be featuring it on her blog in December). I’ve already read and reviewed the Chrestomanci novels, plus one of the Pratchett titles, so shall instead be concentrating on the three Discworld novels featuring DEATH I haven’t as yet tried, Reaper Man, Soul Music and The Thief of Time — if I can acquire them in time!

The schedule, should you wish to join in, will be as follows (I’ve added links to my reviews where applicable):

Friday 3rd: DWJ’s Charmed Life review

Monday 6th: STP’s Mort review

Friday 10th: DWJ’s The Lives of Christopher Chant review

Tuesday 14th: STP’s Reaper Man

Friday 17th: DWJ’s Conrad’s Fate review

Wednesday 22nd: STP’s Soul Music

Sunday 26th: DWJ’s The Pinhoe Egg review

Friday 31st: STP’s The Thief of Time

I’m being selfish here: I need excuses to read Pratchett’s work but the sheer volume of his oeuvre is so daunting. I’ve read a collection of his non-fiction pieces, the aforementioned Mort, Equal Rites, Johnny and the Dead and Good Omens (which he co-authored with Neil Gaiman) but would really like to get on with more Discworld novels. I have The Colour of Magic on my shelves but am loath to start this as I’ve been warned off it a couple of times. (In a nice way, not with a horse’s head in the bed or anything like that.) So the three March Magics titles noted above may be just up my Ankh.

Flawed but human

DSC02141

Mark Haddon A Spot of Bother
Vintage 2007 (2006)

Paterfamilias George has reached a turning point in his life. He’s just retired — always a dangerous moment — and forced to confront the fact that all is not well in the family circle. Son Jamie is unhappy about his sister Katie’s choice for husband, even though Ray gets on well with Katie’s son Jacob. Jamie himself risks all when he neglects to invite lover Tony to Katie and Ray’s wedding. George’s wife Jean, meanwhile, is anxious that the wedding may disrupt a secret affair she’s having. As the wedding approaches and, foreshadowing the bother that is to come, tensions start bubbling to the surface his family are unaware that George has his own worry — a blemish on his hip, the spot to which the title also refers. This cloud in George’s sky presages the storm that is to come. Continue reading “Flawed but human”

Walk into my parlour

Jane Austen Lady Susan
(in Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon
Oxford World’s Classics 2008)

Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly,
‘Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
… Oh no, no,” said the little Fly, “to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.”

My July 2013 review of Austen’s Lady Susan, reposted just as a film adaptation arrives in cinemas (though now rebranded with a completely different Austen title as Love & Friendship — written when she was in her early teens) Continue reading “Walk into my parlour”

Don’t pass it on: pass on it

barcodeMax Barry Jennifer Government
Abacus 2004 (2002)

Jennifer Government is a novel that tries to have its cake and eat it. On the one hand it is an obvious satire on corporate power and greed and the inability of states to control these wayward creatures, on the other hand the story highlights individuals who by either opposing or aspiring to be major players in this selfish corporatism quite frequently espouse the self-same macho values that got corporatism where it is. While castigating the whole set-up Max Barry also revels in the rogue survivalist attitudes and actions that many of the characters display. Is it irony, or is he hedging his bets? Continue reading “Don’t pass it on: pass on it”

A perfect black comedy

autoroutePascal Garnier The A26
Gallic Books 2013
Melanie Florence, translator

Roads. Railway lines. Lives.
Where do they begin and end?
But end they must. Dead.

It’s the early nineties and a motorway is carving its way through the northeast French countryside. The construction of the A26 (the autoroute des Anglais as it now known) in its impersonal way inevitably affects the communities in its vicinity, disrupting lives in unforeseen ways and, in this novella, becoming an unexpected harbinger of death. Continue reading “A perfect black comedy”