Humdrum and lacklustre

graves

Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill.
Profile Books 2014 (2013)

Hugh Meredith is a junior doctor in the first decade or so of the twentieth century, lodging near Fleet Street in London and training nearby at the fictitious medical school of St Luke’s. He is drawn into a mysterious enterprise set up by fellow students Walter Powell and Rafe McAllister, namely bringing a dead person back to life. The results of witnessing the experiment come literally to haunt him in this novella by Susan Hill.

The question I asked myself is, does this short story (a little over 100 pages) live up to the reputation that the author’s ghost tales have established for her?

The answer, surprisingly and disappointingly, is no.

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No smoke without fire

Antique Corona typewriter, Book-ish, Crickhowell © C A Lovegrove

The Moving Finger
by Agatha Christie.
Miss Marple No 4.
Fontana / HarperCollinsPublishers 1961 (1942)

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

From ‘The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam’, translated by Edward Fitzgerald.

Our narrator, Jerry Burton, has arrived in Lymstock to recuperate after an aircraft accident, accompanied by his not unattractive sister Johanna. However, instead of the countryside tranquillity he has been prescribed by his surgeon he finds the village a hotbed of wagging tongues after poison pen letters have been delivered to selected individuals — including, in next to no time, his sister.

Then a solicitor’s wife apparently commits suicide as a result of receiving one of these notes. A week later a maid in the same household is found brutally murdered and her body hidden; despite the police investigating nobody seems very close to finding out who the killer is and how the murder might be related to the anonymous letters.

That is until, finally, the vicar’s wife decides to call in someone whom she describes as an expert, someone who knows the ins and outs of village life in all its labyrinthine ways. It’s Jerry who unexpectedly provides the clues he has been unconsciously sifting through, and which lead to the correct solution the expert arrives at; also unexpectedly, he discovers the true love he has, unknown to himself, been seeking for a while.

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An Enchanted Summer

Talisman. With magic formulae, Ya c Ali at top right. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Half Magic
by Edward Eager.
Drawings by N M Bodecker.
Puffin Books 1968 (1954).

It was fine weather, warm and blue-skied and full of possibilities, and the day began well, with a glint of something metal in a crack in the sidewalk. ‘Ooh, a lucky nickel!’ Jane said, and scooped it into her pocket with the rest of her allowance, still jingling there unspent.

Chapter 1, ‘How It Began’

Thus begins a period of enchantment for four young siblings from Toledo, Ohio, a week when they learn the wisdom of the adage “Be careful what you wish for” but also the understanding of when to give it all up. Along the way we the readers gain enjoyment from a narrative that appeals both to young imaginations and to maturer minds who love witty yet also wise writing.

Jane, who finds the talisman, is the oldest: a little hot-headed and bossy but otherwise admirable. Mark is the only boy, around eleven years old, and fairly pragmatic. Katharine is the most bookish of the lot (though they’re all avid fans of the nearest library) and often spouting literary references. Martha is the youngest, easily bored but surprisingly full of sensible ideas.

Their mother Alison, working as a “woman’s journalist” to keep the family afloat in 1920s Toledo after the death of the children’s father, fears for her sanity when odd inexplicable things start happening, and dares not get too fond of the funny but nice Mr Smith who rescues this very 20th-century damsel in distress. All is made more complex by the existence of the weird half magic which the “lucky nickel” bestows on whoever possesses it. And worries begin to grow that its magic will eventually wear out.

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Big Thinks

Illustration for Comus by Arthur Rackham, 1921

The Island of Doctor Moreau
by H G Wells.
Introduction by Adam Roberts (2009).
SF Masterworks.
Gollancz 2017 (1896).

These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes.

Chapter 14: ‘Doctor Moreau explains’

After a collision at sea Edward Prendick survives by being picked up by a ship delivering supplies to Noble’s Island in the South Pacific. But the vicissitudes he has already suffered are as nothing to those he encounters after being reluctantly landed on the domain of a certain Dr Moreau: as in Shakespeare’s The Tempest “the island is full of noises” and Prendick is unprepared for the creatures that produce them.

Francisco Goya captioned his famous aquatint The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters with “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.” In The Island of Doctor Moreau Wells only just reins in the novella’s impossible monsters with a veneer of rationality, and even then the impossible monsters strain our credulity, reinforcing our sense of a nightmare scenario: the reader will wonder what fresh hell awaits them as they turn each page.

Our protagonist narrates how, despite his biological training, nothing has prepared him for the devastating year he will experience on this slumbering sea-girt volcano. For here in this isolated dystopia he meets horrors he could never have imagined: a House of Pain, a sociopathic autocrat, a drunken assistant with his “man Friday,” M’ling, and other perversions of Creation.

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Pearls of every kind

From The Meadows of Gold
by Al-Masʿūdī,
translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone.
Penguin Great Journeys No 2,
Penguin Classics 2007 (947)

The author of this book compares himself to a man who, having found pearls of every kind and every shade scattered here and there, gathers them into a necklace and makes them a precious piece of jewellery…

’80. The author addresses his readers’

Born in Baghdad at the tail end of the ninth century CE, Masʿūdī or Al-Masʿūdī was intensely curious about the world around him, becoming an indefatigable traveller, researching and interviewing informants before authoring several original works.

Though only a couple of these books have survived the intervening millennium enough remains for Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone to have chosen and translated several chapters from a multi-volume work entitled The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Precious Gems, plus a few from The Book of Admonition and Revision. Taken as a whole their selection gives a good general impression of Al-Masʿūdī’s approach and the scope of his vision.

From this we can gather that he seems to have travelled extensively in the Middle East, perhaps in the role of a merchant trader, along the coast of the Indian subcontinent and very possibly through the East Indies, past Indochina and up to Guangzhou or Canton (here called Khānfū). What comes through are the very well-established trade and cultural connections right across the Old World, from Europe to Korea, connections which later writers such as Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville were also to take full advantage of.

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Of campfires and sagas

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The Brothers Lionheart
by Astrid Lindgren.
Swedish title: Bröderna Lejonhjärta (1973)
translated by Joan Tate (1975).
Illustrated by Ilon Wikland (1973).
Oxford University Press, 2009.

“This can’t be real. It’s like something out of an ancient dream.”

Karl Lionheart, Chapter 12.

King Richard of England received his nickname of Lionheart during the Crusades, but legend has it that when on the way home he was captured and a ransom demanded for his release, his troubadour Blondel discovered the castle in which he was imprisoned by hearing the king sing a verse of his favourite song.

Brothers Jonathan and Karl Lion have a similar relationship to each other, Jonathan telling his invalid young sibling tales about the country of Nangiyala where they will live after they die. When a succession of incidents means they are reunited in Nangiyala may they expect an idyllic existence, passing their days in campfires and sagas?

The Brothers Lionheart turns out however to be a tale of bravery and betrayals, and of cruelty and compassion when Nangiyala comes under threat from the neighbouring polity of Karmanyaka. Will little Karl find the courage he needs to live up to their acquired epithet of Lionheart and overcome his fears before tragedy strikes?

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Two-faced

Blood-red moon: WordPress Free Photo Library

Double Indemnity
by James M Cain.
Foreword by James Lee Burke.
Orion Books 2005 (1936).

The moon.

The final words we’re left with in this classic thriller gives us the image of Earth’s satellite. As a metaphor it is particularly apt: the lunar body is two-faced, always presenting the same side to us, and Cain’s novella deliberately gives us a one-sided account of what is happening.

But what we’re told, however dark it is, is not as dark as the side we don’t see. The narrator thinks he has all the facts, holds all the cards, is the prime mover in what transpires, and we go along with that. But the far side of the moon has its own secrets; and when at one point its disc seems to rise in the west over the Pacific Ocean we are alerted to the fact that not all is as it seems.

In the US insurance companies sometimes provide double indemnity, in other words they may pay double the face value of an insurance policy in certain circumstances such as when accidental death can be proved. Double indemnity is what the main protagonists are counting on when they plan the perfect murder; but will their plot be bedevilled by two-timing and double-cross?

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Kingsley’s riddle

Linley Sambourne
Linley Sambourne

The Water-Babies:
a Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby
by Charles Kingsley.
Edited with introduction and notes by Brian Alderson.
World’s Classics, Oxford University Press 1995 (1863)

The Water-Babies first appeared in book form in 1863, more than a century and a half ago. Though I was probably aware of it when younger, I must have read it for myself in the early 1960s in one of those cheap Dent’s children’s classics editions. A decade later I was re-reading it and taking notes, spurred on by the challenge Kingsley issues in his dedication:

Come read me my riddle, each good little man:
If you cannot read it, no grown-up folk can.

Of course, The Water-Babies was written for his youngest son, Grenville Arthur, who was just five when the last chapter was serialised in Macmillan’s Magazine, but I felt that I was included amongst the ‘all other good little boys’ of the dedication. But being from a hundred and more years later I could hardly be expected to get all the references, and so began decades of intermittent desultory research.

This 1995 issue with Brian Alderson’s introduction, extensive notes, select bibliography and chronology of Kingsley’s life both confirmed and hugely expanded my understanding of the novel; but to be honest I still feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of this fascinating if flawed masterpiece. This review, therefore, can only hint at the solution to Kingsley’s sly riddle.

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From whimsy to saga

winged

The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien.
George Allen & Unwin (3rd edition 1972)

Wizard at the door?
Twelve dwarves too? You’ll be telling
me a dragon’s next!
I must have spent my childhood and adolescence skim-reading most of the literature I was introduced to, gaining impressionist pictures of those works but missing much of the subtlety of language, characterisation and narrative. Having taken it on myself in recent years to begin re-reading those books with more attentiveness The Hobbit seemed a natural choice.
Rather than merely summarising what must be one of the most familiar tales in modern fantasy I’ve opted to discuss the personal insights that this re-reading suggested to me.

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Nights at the opera

The Witness for the Dead
by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette).
Solaris / Rebellion Publishing Ltd 2021

He stared at me as if I’d told him I could hear fishes singing.

Sometimes the effectiveness of a novel can be judged by whether it can make you believe in impossible things, such as being able to hear fish singing. On this basis The Witness for the Dead fulfils this criterion with flying colours, even though no piscine choirs are involved. Elves and goblins are involved, however, as are listening to the dead, dowsing for individuals’ whereabouts, and confronting ghouls and ghosts; and yet far from been presented with a succession of tired fantasy tropes we’re instead served a nuanced character study and an engaging crime fiction.

In the imperial state of Ethuveraz Thara Celehar is a prelate of Ulis, the divinity who has charge of both death’s dominions and the moon. Thara is also a Witness for the Dead in the provincial city of Amalo, a calling that depends on his ability to tap into the emotions and last thoughts of those who’ve died either by violent means or in unclear circumstances, and thus to speak for them.

But Celehar’s status within the Ulineise hierarchy is anomalous, attracting political jealousy as well as support, and though accorded respect for his abilities he is regarded by many with suspicion, even fear. And his past hides a potential scandal which, though previously hushed up, could jeopardise everything for him.

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Bridgebuilding

imperial_sofa_topkapi
Interior of the Imperial Hall (Hünkar Sofası) at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul (by Gryffindor)

The Goblin Emperor
by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette).
Tor Books 2014.

When readers whose judgement you trust recommend this novel and even go as far as re-reading it within a short space of time you know there is something special about it.

And yet what on the surface of it makes it outstanding? It’s fantasy, yes — the title suggests as much — and there’s worldbuilding, and there’s the disregarded child who’s an orphan, and there are seemingly unpronounceable names, everything in fact that screams at the lover of contemporary novels to pass over this book. And I too, who ordinarily enjoys fantasy, am one who tends to put a book back on the bookshop pile when faced with a cast list of — it feels like — thousands, all with alien names.

So I have to ask myself then why I found this such an unputdownable title, and then perhaps attempt to persuade you to give it a try.

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Calla and a blessing

© C A Lovegrove

How to be Brave
by Daisy May Johnson.
Pushkin Children’s Books 2021.

Good Sister Christine nodded. “People who tell you what not to read are generally not good people,” she said.

‘The Secrets of Good Sister Christine’

When a book begins ‘This is a story about three things’ and lists them as being brave, an Amazonian duck, and footnotes, you know this is no common or garden novel. Yes, if you’re a fan of Enid Blyton, Elinor Brent-Dyer and Angela Brazil, and have expectations that How to be Brave will be in the mould of classic girls boarding school fiction, you won’t be disappointed — but it’s so much more than that.

It’s a satisfying tale of how adversity of all kinds is overcome, but in place of the magic associated with fantasy we have a kind of heightened reality — because The School of the Good Sisters at Little Hampden has no ordinary curriculum and no ordinary teaching staff: here the subjects on the timetable include not just cooking but also welding, survival skills, helicopter maintenance and sundry surprising topics, and the teachers here happen to be what’s called a Blessing of Nuns.

In addition the school has two extra advantages in its favour: it has a library stocked with the most appropriate literature — books by Eva Ibbotson, Noël Streatfeild and Elizabeth Goudge for example, even The Lord of the Rings — and shelves, cupboards and drawers storing cakes of every kind, exquisite pâtisseries and biscuits including pink wafers. And of course architecturally it has all the best bits of Malory Towers, Hogwarts, and The Turrets.

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Unhallowed eve

Robertson Davies

Leaven of Malice
by Robertson Davies,
in the Salterton Trilogy.
Penguin Books 2011 (1954).

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November…

Salterton, Ontario, 31st October 1949. An apparently innocuous announcement of an engagement appears in the Salterton paper The Bellman, but it will function like yeast in dough: once the fermentation process starts the components cannot be separated out. It turns out that ferment indeed is the purpose of the notice, the leaven that instigates the action, but whose is the malice that lies behind it, what is their motivation, and do they truly know how far the mixture will rise?

The second of Robertson Davies’s instalments in his Salterton Trilogy brings in some of the characters from the first, but it works equally well in isolation. We are given a picture of the bourgeoisie of a fictional provincial Canadian Town, one blessed with university, cathedral and an independent press, with most of the cast of characters acquainted with each other by name or in person. In such a seething cauldron the chances of submerged rivalries and hurt egos bubbling to the surface are infinite, and so it proves.

Despite the character list approaching (as I estimate) fifty individuals the main actors in Leaven of Malice are easy to distinguish, and what soon emerges as a comedy of manners manages also to be crime fiction without a murder, a courtroom drama without a court, a romance where dislike doesn’t run smooth, and a Halloween tale where some ghosts are eventually laid to rest.

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A moralising purpose

Engraving by Thomas Bewick

Jane Austen and the Clergy
by Irene Collins.
The Hambledon Press 2002 (1994).

There’s a neat correspondence between a study examining Jane Austen’s models for fictional clergy, notably the snobby Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, and the fact that such a study was undertaken by a scholar by the name of Collins. But this work is more than just a discussion of Mr Collins, Mr Tilney, Mr Elton, Dr Grant, Mr Bennet and others: it underlines how important Jane’s own clerical background was in forming the bedrock of not only her fiction but also her life.

Originally published in 1994, Jane Austen and the Clergy appeared just in time for the reignition of Austen mania brought about by the adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for television in 1995, making the late Irene Collins (she died in 2015) a bit of a celebrity for Austen fans. Ever since I began reading Austen for myself I’ve been delving into this volume bit by bit till I now feel able to make some assessment of its undoubted worth.

In fact this study feels like a labour of love for the author. At times it’s unclear whom it’s aimed at: is it other literary scholars, the general public, Austen fans, or church historians? But, approached with care and attention by the reasonably intelligent reader it is undoubtedly enlightening on all fronts and an excellent commentary for those embarking on a reread of Jane’s published oeuvres.

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A seasonal frisson

© C A Lovegrove

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories
by P D James,
foreword by Val McDermid (2016).
Faber & Faber 2017 (2016)

[W]hen it happened to the newly promoted Sergeant Adam Dalgliesh his first thought was that he had somehow become involved in one of those Christmas short stories written to provide a seasonal frisson for the readers of an upmarket weekly magazine.

‘The Twelve Clues of Christmas’

This collection of four short stories, some almost novelettes, can be read any time of year even if three of the pieces are set around a Christmas gone wrong. Spanning three decades of the author’s creativity, they were first published in newspapers (the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times), in a collection (Detection Club Anthology) or independently (by a certain Clive Irving, who I assume is the journalist and author of that name).

Though ‘The Mistletoe Murder’ had already been in the author’s 2001 Murder in Triplicate collection, having the quartet of tales brought together in one volume — and thus no longer ephemeral — is as much a treat as it’s to have a masterclass in the variety of ways classic crime fiction can be proffered up. While each is very individual the tales as a whole exhibit some commonalities, such as either being based in a country house, or having cases investigated by Adam Dalgliesh, or describing victims being murdered in novel ways.

We have, as introductions to the quartet, two additional treats, a Foreword by fellow crime writer Val McDermid and, from 2001, a Preface by James herself. While not essential to an enjoyment of the main courses they do serve as welcome apéritifs (or, if one prefers, later digestifs); and the collection as a whole gains extra piquancy from being a posthumous publication, the author having died in 2014.

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