Deceivers ever

Simulacrum by Aonghus Fallon.
Independently published, 2017 (2012).

Estote ergo prudentes sicut serpentes, et simplices sicut columbae. – ‘Therefore be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.’ — Matthew X, 6

County Wicklow, 1954. It’s the centenary of when the Catholic church promulgated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, and so now a so-called Marian year is declared by the pope to focus the faithful’s attention on God’s ability to create a special individual free from the stain of sin.

But the Archbishop of Dublin puts it to his protégé Ignatius Flood that in the Wicklow hills another kind of creation is going on, one that is wickedly sinful: the making of things that give the appearance of living and breathing creatures, the unholy fabrication of simulacra.

But when the young novitiate priest gets to the isolated farmhouse and meets its inhabitants how is he to judge what he finds? Who is the creator, who the creature? Will he ever discover the truth when everything around him seems to be in flux?

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The demiurge of Fillory

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The Magician’s Land
by Lev Grossman.
Arrow Books, 2015 (2014).

“What do you do, Quentin?”
[Plum] said it as if she were not completely convinced it was his real name.
“Not much,” he said. “My discipline is mending.”

Chapter 6

The third book of Lev Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy is indeed largely about mending, about fixing things that are broken, about returning affairs to their pristine state. But is the former dilettante Quentin, apparently washed up and at a loss, the one to do it?

We’ve followed him through his student days at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, his adventures with Brakebills graduates in the magical land of Fillory, and then his utter banishment from there. As The Magician’s Land opens he finds himself in a strange New Jersey bookstore, drawn there by an enigmatic note.

And suddenly he’s besieged by memories of the Books of Fillory – a fantasy series penned in the early 20th century by American emigré Christopher Plover – when he’s invited to join a team, a select group tasked with retrieving a suitcase. When it emerges that the suitcase is embossed with the initials of a character who featured in the books but turned out not to be fictional, all the signs seem to suggest Quentin may be returning to Fillory – but will it be the Fillory he knew?

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Neither here nor there

Renaissance set 1
‘Set design for a tragic scene’ by Sebastiano Serlio (1475 – 1554)

The Magician King: A Novel
by Lev Grossman.
William Heinemann, 2011.

A sequel to a successful novel is always a difficult task for a writer. A major dilemma is whether to stick to a successful formula or whether to plough new furrows in an attempt to avoid a sense of déjà-vu; either way risks alienating stern literary critics on the one hand or diehard fans on the other. One strategy is to combine both approaches, and Grossman’s second offering in a trilogy does exactly that: we’re dished up a lot of the same but also a fair seasoning of new elements which fortunately manage to refresh the taste buds.

The Magicians focused its gaze on Quentin Coldwater as he entered Brakebills College, a centre for learning the discipline of magic. We saw how, through an obsession with a fantasy series written by one Christopher Plover, Quentin and a group of fellow Brakebills graduates eventually managed to visit the land of Fillory.

However, something is rotten in the state of Fillory, and in combating the Beast (in whom Quentin had inadvertently awoken an unwelcome awareness of Brakebills) great sacrifices have to be made — not only severe injury but also a fate as bad as death. The first novel ends with Quentin, his Brakebills contemporaries Eliot and Janet, plus the frankly rather strange Julia, finding a way back to Fillory, life on Earth having proved rather, well, mundane.

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A book of Fillory tales

The Magicians
by Lev Grossman.
Arrow Books, 2009.

Martin Chatwin was not an ordinary boy, but he thought that he was. In fact he was unusually clever and brave and kind for his age, he just didn’t know it. Martin thought that he was just an ordinary boy…
— Christopher Plover, The World in the Walls

You will of course have heard of the popular Fillory series by the late Christopher Plover (pronounced ‘Pluvver’, like the wading bird). In order the five titles are The World in the Walls, The Girl Who Told Time, The Flying Forest, The Secret Sea and The Wandering Dune.

You will also know all about the Chatwin children — Martin, Rupert, Fiona, Helen and Jane — and how they manage to escape to the magical land of Fillory, where they have adventures before they are called back to their own world.

And you will remember that Martin was the only sibling to remain in Fillory because after The Wandering Dune the series just stopped, not long before Plover died in 1939.

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The famous little donkey

Pinocchio, illustration by Charles Folkard

Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi.
[Translated by Mary Alice Murray, 1892, line illustrations by Charles Folkard, 1911.]
Wordsworth Editions, 1995 (1883).

The Famous
Little Donkey
The Star of the Dance,
Will Make His First Appearance

Chapter 33

Carlo Lorenzini, better known after Tuscan town he grew up in as Carlo Collodi, published Le avventure di Pinocchio. La storia di un burattino (‘The adventures of Pinocchio: the history of a marionette’) in 1883, a scant seven years before his death aged just 63. The very first translation – into English – by Mary Alice Murray appeared within a decade of the original, and it remains the most readily available to this day.

While the outline of the story is well-known from the many, many adaptations – mostly for the screen – it’s always worth reminding ourselves of the original text, even if in translation, to see whether Collodi’s intended vision may not necessarily be what comes to the fore in modern retellings.

And it’s possible that by looking at the context and milieu from which it emerged our appreciation of this Italian fable, while remaining ‘fabulous’ in all senses of the word, will take on a very different hue to that with which we’re familiar, somewhat darker and more moralistic.

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The eye that fears a painted devil

Roof boss of the Devil eating Judas, Southwark Cathedral © C A Lovegrove

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver.
Line illustrations by Stephen McNally.
Head of Zeus, 2019.

“‘Tis the eye of childhood, That fears a painted devil.” — Macbeth Act II Scene II, 64-5

Michelle Paver’s historical novel, a combined murder mystery, Gothick fantasy and supernatural thriller, is a rich blend of psychological drama with elements of folklore, local dialect and period details, set in the East Anglian fens near Ely during the years leading to the Great War.

It’s also a tale of class divisions, domestic abuse and coercive control, set on an estate on the cusp of great changes, environmental as well as social. In addition to looking forward to the future – principally the 1960s, when fashions and attitudes had altered beyond all recognition – Wakenhyrst draws heavily from a past characterised by superstition and perilous existence.

And for those who love words and their meanings Wakenhyrst is chock-full of puns and allusions which can further enrich the reader’s enjoyment or, alternatively, merely add to the mysteries surrounding our young heroine Maud.

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Summer’s lease

20 Books of Summer

Hurray! I always look forward to a certain well-established annual event and Cathy of has reported that it’s time to, at the very least, start considering listing intended summer reads, all to be enjoyed over the months of June, July and August. I already have some titles planned, most already suggested by other memes or prompts, so I shall be including those in my proposed list.

I must be honest, though: I’m in a bit of a slump now and, if not quite a Slough of Despond, I’m feeling slightly dispirited. My mojo for reading, usually purring away quietly, is spluttering: I frequently pick up a book and then put it down after a page or so; it’s often a struggle to continue. A bout of Covid, the dire state of politics, international relations, the environment – they’re not helping the mood; and I sense I’m not alone in my mildly demotivated state.

I need a holiday, a different physical and mental environment; could be that a summer accompanied by a select group of varied books might be the tonic I need! So let’s see what I may choose …

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A place for your heart

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell.
Faber & Faber, 2013.

A baby girl is found floating in a cello case after a packet boat sinks in the English Channel, La Manche. Rescued by the thoroughly eccentric Charles Maxim she is named Sophie and brought up in a rambling house in London. And all will apparently be well until officialdom in the person of the upright and stern Miss Eliot arrives.

Charles is soon deemed to be an inappropriate guardian and Sophie looks destined for an orphanage. But what if Sophie’s mother also survived the ship sinking? Is there a clue to be found in the carcass of the cello case?

Then begins a desperate search which will take the two fugitives, Sophie and Charles, to Paris where – as in London – a battle of wits and skills will take place between officious, sometimes corrupt adults and the pre-teen Sophie and her child-like yet wise guardian Charles.

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The veil of illusion

‘La maja desnuda’ by Francisco Goya, Prado Museum.

Maya by Jostein Gaarder.
Translated by James Anderson.
Phoenix House, Orion Books, 2000 (1999).

‘Everything is connected,’ José said.

‘Bellis perennis’

Where to begin when discussing a Jostein Gaarder novel? Do we start with the principal characters as suits our expectations for a work of fiction? Or do we begin the big philosophical concepts that Gaarder’s novels  almost always seem to focus on? Or is this a false choice given that humans are, as one character here suggests, ‘hyperindividualistic master-mammals’ blessed or cursed with a capacity for thinking big thoughts?

The apparent ambiguity comes when a group of visitors from different nations – Australia, Spain, England, Norway, Italy, the US – find themselves thrown together on a Fijian island anticipating the approaching new millennium. (Pedant that I am, that changeover point actually arrived at the end of 2000, not the beginning, but no matter.)

Near the 180° date-line, where you can have one foot planted in what will be yesterday and the other in what would be tomorrow, one of the narrators at a resort muses ‘Wasn’t it a bit strange that almost all the guests at the Maravu went round talking about the same thing?’ And this indeed is the central enigma that the reader also tries to fathom, continually foiled by a jester-suited figure.

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Empathy for the rebel

Jason disgorged by the dragon of Colchis, with Athena and the Golden Fleece:  vase figure in Vatican Museum
Jason, disgorged by the dragon of Colchis, with Athena and the Golden Fleece: vase figure in Vatican Museum

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum.
Orion Books, 2004 (1980).

I’m not a violent person. I grew up watching American TV serials where the Lone Ranger shot revolvers out of baddies’ hands (who then merely had a sprained wrist to nurse) or comedies such as The Three Stooges which — like a Tom and Jerry cartoon — allowed the victims to recover with a shake of the head after a potentially life-threatening concussion to the brainbox department. Violence was depicted, the consequences papered over. I was uncomfortable with it, but that was all that was on offer.

These days, as it has been for several decades now, violence is more graphic in entertainment media, whether films, comics or video games. Not just villains are hurt but innocent bystanders and targeted victims. The alarm is raised every so often about how the consumption of this vicariously experienced violence without appreciation of the consequences stunts one’s capacity to exhibit empathy and how it can encourage sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies.

I mention this not to stir up more argument and controversy but to contextualise my normal avoidance of thrillers in whatever form.

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Most excellent: #ReadingTheTheatre

‘The Tragedy of Arthur’ (image credit: Random House)

The Tragedy of Arthur, a novel
by Arthur Phillips.
Gerald Duckworth & Company, 2011.

“Imperfect is the glass of other’s eyes
Wherein we seek in hope of handsome glimpse
Yet find dim shapes, reversed and versed again,
Which will not ease our self-love’s appetites.”

— Act II Scene vii

Fiction is a lie that readers are willingly complicit in, for even when we know it’s all sham we allow ourselves to be hoodwinked. At least, until we reach the final page. Verisimilitude, truthlikeness notwithstanding, our capacity to suspend disbelief, to temper scepticism with a degree of rosy-spectacled optimism gives fictional realism a chance to temporarily worm its way into our belief system.

And so it is with Arthur Phillips’s The Tragedy of Arthur. Here are lies masquerading as truth, with a purported historical document and a memoir dressed up as nonfiction, daring us to naysay it. Try as I might I couldn’t help but hop from a desire to accept what was on the page to an amused stance in which I knew it was all an elaborate con.

And Arthur Phillips – or rather “Arthur Phillips” – aided in that fence-hopping by himself continually oscillating from doubter to believer, and back again. Is the five-act quarto drama which completed this account a unique historic document or an ingenious fake?

Continue reading “Most excellent: #ReadingTheTheatre”

Cat and mouse – and a rat

St James’s Park, London © C A Lovegrove

The Chase by Ava Glass,
first published as Alias Emma.
Penguin Books, 2023 (2022).

A cat and mouse game taking us through London’s streets. A possible rat who seems bent on jeopardising a covert mission. An enemy who seems to anticipate one’s every move. Ava Glass’s thriller not only keeps the reader on the edge of their seat but introduces us to a protagonist who deserves to survive after all that’s thrown at her.

But survival is not all that she has to accomplish because her mission is to persuade a potential victim to accept the protection that’s being offered to him, a protection he seems strangely unwilling to accept. Will his reluctance over-complicate matters, a situation already compromised when back-up fails to materialise?

The Chase is more than merely a chase, though that’s at the core of this novel; we are given backstories to encourage us to invest in characters, intrigue to keep us guessing, and familiar landmarks made sinister by the nature of the pursuit, the prospect of capture, and the reducing chances of escape.

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Abominable mirrors: #1940Club

#1940Club. Simon @ and Karen @

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’
by Jorge Luis Borges,
in Labyrinths. Selected Stories and Other Writings.
Translated from the Spanish by James E Irby.
Penguin Modern Classics, 1970 (1964).

The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding. They judge that metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature.

As reportedly the longest of Borges’ short stories, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ is also one of his more philosophical and, indeed, fantastic. It describes the discovery of a previously unrecorded country called Uqbar, then its curious relationship to a place called Tlön and, further, the existence of something called Orbis Tertius.

In discussing the thinking of the Tlön metaphysicians Borges seems to be partly reiterating his own mode of thinking: philosophy is astounding, is fantastic, but he does it in a way which reflects his wonder, his reading, his imagination and his playfulness.

And I use the word ‘reflect’ quite deliberately because the author not only introduces the idea of a mirror at the very start but also aims, in the words of Hamlet, “to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature” – the way we view our own world.

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Building castles in Spain

Roche Castle in ruins, 1880 print

The Teeth of the Gale by Joan Aiken.
Red Fox, 1997 (1988).

The resourceful teenager of Bridle the Wind has, five years later, turned into the resourceful young man of this, the final volume in the Felix Brooke trilogy, but though its speedy, almost perfunctory ending seemed to suggest the way was open for a follow-up, this was sadly not to be. A pity, as Felix is an engaging if slightly humourless character, and well matched by the prickly Juana, the object of his attentions.

As with Bridle the Wind and its predecessor Go Saddle the Sea, this volume is set in early 19th-century Spain following the Napoleonic Wars, now riven with rival political factions (as the author’s own Afterword helpfully tells us). Felix is persuaded to go on a mission to rescue the kidnapped children of a nobleman, but all is not as it initially seems even though enough clues are presented to the honest young man along the way.

The action ranges from Galicia in the north-west, across the Basque Country and Pamplona to the lands south of the central Pyrenees, thus covering some of the ground familiar from Felix’s earlier adventures, latterly with Juana.

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Peril in the Pyrenees


Bridle the Wind by Joan Aiken.
Puffin, 1986 (1983).

In the chaotic years that are the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars young Felix Brooke is journeying from England to his home in Galicia in Spain when he is shipwrecked off the Basque coast of France, thus precipitating the strange sequence of events in this novel.

He convalesces at the fictional Abbey of St Just de Seignanx, on the French coast near Bayonne (very much like Mont-St-Michel in France or St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall) but finds that due to a form of amnesia partly brought on by a supernatural happening he has lost three months of his life. Rescuing Juan, a youngster his own age, from hanging, he helps them both escape the terrifying Abbot Father Vespasian by trekking east before crossing the Pyrenees on their way to hoped-for freedom in Spain.

But, not unexpectedly, things don’t go to plan as they are haunted by the memory of the Abbot and chased by a group of brigands.

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