Grave concerns

A Tale of Two Glass Towns
by Nicola Friar.
Olympia Publishers, 2023.

Two timelines: 1999-2000 and 2019-2020. Two settings: Norfolk and Cheshire. Two protagonists – or are they the same? And multiple themes: computer bugs and viruses, aliens and refugees, glass manufacturing and Verdopolis. Nicola Friar’s debut children’s novel weaves personal matters into a more universal narrative about how we, whether young or old, try to deal with weighty matters like acceptance of difference, fear of the unknown, and the ache of bereavement.

Seen largely through the eyes of seven-year-old Theo, this tale aims to reflect the anxieties of a youngster trying to make sense of a confusing world on the cusp of the 21st century, anxieties manifested in vivid dreams involving an amorphous fog, a graveyard, and Bob – a bichon frise – who acts as Theo’s psychopomp through the mists of time.

It’s a brave endeavour to write about what one personally holds dear in a story that ostensibly is pure fiction, but the author to a large extent walks that liminal path with a careful and determined tread. The result is a narrative which, though not quite perfect, should appeal to the sensitive young reader who shares similar worries about what the future may hold for themselves and for their nearest and dearest.

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The first desperate struggle

Sir Hiram Maxim’s flying machine, 1891-4, on its rails

‘The Argonauts of the Air’ (1895)
by H G Wells,
in Selected Short Stories.
Penguin, 1958.

“… this story, which was written only to tell how the first of all flying-machines was launched and flew.”

In the last decade of the 19th century men like Otto Lilienthal and Sir Hiram Maxim experimented with gliders and heavier-than-air craft to attempt the conquest of the air. Maxim effectively stopped practical trials after an unfortunate accident in 1894, leaving it to fiction writers to imagine how the first powered flight might turn out until the Wright Brothers actually achieved success in 1903.

H G Wells rose to the occasion in his short story ‘The Argonauts of the Air’, first published in 1895, the year following when Maxim ceased his trials. He borrowed some aspects from Maxim’s abandoned flying-machine, but sited his craft’s launch track southwest of London rather than to the east.

Are the Wellsian engineers more successful than Maxim’s? Do his argonauts actually make it into the air? The writer leaves us guessing right to the final page or so.

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Blue jewel in the darkness: #LoveHain

Starry sky (WordPress Free Photo Library)

Rocannon’s World (1966)
by Ursula K Le Guin,
in Worlds of Exile and Illusion.
Orb Books, 1996.

“I ride with Olhor, who seeks to hear his enemy’s voice, who has traveled through the great dark, who has seen the World hang like a blue jewel in the darkness.”
— Chapter VII

An ethnologist from the League of All Worlds is studying one of the hominid species on an unnamed planet, formally known as Fomalhaut II, when his returning team are killed by a bomb. It appears that the League’s opponents, the inhabitants of the planet Faraday, have established a secret base on this uncharted world from which to launch a preemptive strike against the League. This is the major inciting incident that propels the novel forward.

But before this scenario establishes that we are in science fiction territory a prologue (based on a short story from 1964) places us firmly in a fantasy setting with an account of an heirloom being retrieved from underground troglodytes: we are introduced to a pseudo-medieval society, living in castles, mounted on flying steeds, treating with elvish and dwarvish beings, and a heroine who visits and journeys from a subterranean kingdom, only to return home to find everyone she knew has either died or grown old.

The author’s first published novel, Rocannon’s World was also the first title set in the author’s Hainish universe; as a work we could justifiably term a science fantasy it lays out many of Le Guin’s principal concerns — balanced and sustainable living, environmentalism, psychology and anthropology, morality, human imagination, and much more — all contained within a rarely predictable narrative framework.

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Seven inventive plots

Jan Mark 1943—2006

A Can of Worms and other stories
by Jan Mark.
Red Fox, 1992 (1990).

“Once I’ve finished a book that’s all I wanted to say about those people in that situation, I might, I very often do wish I’d written it differently, but I never want to write more.”

In this septet of tales by the late Jan Mark she explores the world as experienced by seven British teens still of school age: in the narratives the youngsters reveal their hopes and fears, their obsessions and yearnings, how they might occupy their free time and cope with family situations. School and homework may demand their attention but it’s their imaginative endeavours that we observe.

And each and every one is a standalone tale. Book or short story, her well-delineated individuals appear once and once only because she’ll have said all she wants to say about them and the particular situation they find themselves in.

But, for us readers, it’s enough that – however briefly – we share those aspirations or disappointments, and sympathise or even empathise with each youngster, be we of the same age or somewhat older, perhaps with more jaded personalities or a more jaundiced view of life: it’s salutary then to remind oneself of the feelings we may once have had on the threshold of our adult lives.

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Aliases and anomalies

John Verney, The Island (Bournemouth & Poole College Collection)

The Evidence by Christopher Priest. Gollancz, 2021 (2020).

“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.”

Shakespeare, ‘Richard II’

Against his better judgement a crime writer, invited to an overseas conference, attends, and not only has to suffer huge inconveniences but is then reluctantly fed ideas for a plot based on a true crime by a retired cop.

No, that’s not quite the sum of it. In The Evidence we find ourselves on another world, one girdled by an island archipelago, which suffers gravitational anomalies and, in places, something called mutability which somehow changes the reality of events. And while much of the technology feels both contemporary and familiar the social and geopolitical systems are either arcane (as in feudal) or polarised (as in totalitarian versus more liberal systems).

On the other hand – how many hands do we have? – this is pure metafiction: an author describes the processes of writing fiction in this, an actual work of fiction, where sleight of hand, distraction, misdirection and mistaken perceptions are discussed and then perpetrated on the actual as well as the hypothetical reader. You either like what’s been done here or you feel you’ve had the wool pulled over your eyes. Is the narrator reliable or is he too affected by mutability at the deepest level?

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More blood? #NordicFINDS23

© C A Lovegrove

Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbø,
Mere Blod (2015)
translated by Neil Smith.
Vintage Books, 2016.

Finnmark is the furthest north you can go in Norway, further from the capital than Oslo itself is from London or Paris, so what reason has southerner Jon Hansen for being here? Is he really here to hunt grouse as he claims, or is he himself being hunted?

Nesbø knew this area in the 1970s and so its able to give his descriptions of the desolate Finnmark coastal countryside an especial realism for a thriller set in the same period. And the isolated Sámi communities – either engaged in herding or fishing, and either strict Protestant or traditional in their beliefs – mean any visiting strangers will understandably elicit a degree of curiosity.

Ulf – as Hansen says he’s called – gradually reveals details of his sordid Oslo life in this first person narrative, and we gradually piece together how precarious his position now is. And all is complicated by the fact that he is starting to feel an attachment to one individual in the community, and developing an easy relationship with that individual’s young son, Knut.

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Evolution or revolution

Fred Gambino Foundation trilogy cover art for Voyager Books
The planet Trantor: Fred Gambino Foundation trilogy cover art for Voyager Books

by Isaac Asimov.
Voyager, 1995 (1951).

‘A great psychologist such as [Hari] Sheldon could unravel human emotions and human reactions sufficiently to be able to predict broadly the historical sweep of the future.’ — Salvor Hardin

Part II: The Encyclopedists

I was first introduced to Asimov’s Foundation trilogy in the 1970s when listening to the BBC Radio dramatisations (probably in 1973). Though I at first liked the concept of psychohistory which underpins the storylines I became less enamoured of it after reading other fictional future histories, such as Olaf Stapledon’ Last and First Men (1930) or H G Wells’ 1933 classic The Shape of Things to Come – which, though successfully predicting war (beginning in 1940 and ending ten years later), thereafter got it spectacularly wrong in prophesying the demise of religion, the rise of a global benevolent despotism and a subsequent universal utopia.

If short-term prediction (albeit by just one individual) could go so wrong, what chance another fiction-writer postulating any more reliably a future history in millennia to come?

And yet — as I had hoped — a re-read, even one as long delayed as this, has helped me revise some of my first hasty opinions.

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Swedish babes in the wood: #NordicFINDS23

© C A Lovegrove

Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter /
Ronia Rövardotter (1981)
by Astrid Lindgren,
translated by Patricia Crampton.
Oxford University Press, 2010 (1983).

“I write fairy tales, and people need fairy tales. That’s how it’s always been. That’s how it is.”

First published in Swedish in 1981, Ronja Rövardotter was the last novel that Astrid Lindgren wrote at the age of 72, and it’s the kind of fairytale she thought people needed, essentially a Romeo and Juliet story but with a happy ending, set in an alternative medieval Sweden.

Matt and Lovis are in charge of a group of twelve robbers who waylay unwary travellers in what’s known as Matt’s Forest before retreating to their safe refuge on Matt’s Mountain, an eerie called Matt’s Fort approachable only by the Wolf’s Neck. There are no children however in the band – until one dark and stormy night when little Ronia is born, the baby girl who immediately becomes the apple of Matt’s eye.

But the night of Ronia’s birth a terrific lightning bolt splits the castle asunder. And in time that other part of the castle separated by what’s termed Hell’s Gap is taken over by a rival band of robbers led by Borka, to Matt’s impotent rage. The scene is thus set for a bitter feud between the two groups; will brave young Ronia be able to reconcile the rivals or will things turn out entirely differently from the usual narrative predictions for children’s stories?

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#TDiRS22: By Pendragon’s sword

The Square, Aberdyfi, 2022 © C A Lovegrove

Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper.
With a note by the author, 2013.
Margaret K McElderry Books, 2013 (1977).

When light from the lost land shall return,
Six Sleepers shall ride, six Signs shall burn,
And where the midsummer tree grows tall
By Pendragon’s sword the Dark shall fall.

‘Silver on the Tree’

The longest and the last of Susan Cooper‘s fantasy sequence is also the most far-ranging and complex of the series. Bringing together many if not most of the principal characters we’ve met previously, it also introduces us to one final individual who has a key part to play in the sequence’s resolution. It’s fitting therefore that like Cooper herself he should be a maker and a wordsmith as well as a poet out of history.

Moving from Buckinghamshire to Gwynedd, and from the ‘present-day’ – the 1970s – to times historical and legendary, this tale takes the unwary reader, like the five youngsters in the novel, through a whirlwind of emotions, information and impressions; it conjures up dreamlike images and primeval, nightmarish fears; and it provides both comfort and wonderment.

Above all, the narrative thrust artfully conceals the poetic skill that Cooper brings to her creation; like a finely-wrought artefact its splendour dazzles, but closer inspection reveals its subtle intricacy, balance and presentation of motifs. Ungainly it may at times appear but I believe this quality gives it its distinctive character; and of course life is nothing if not ungainly.

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Death dons the false beard

© C A Lovegrove

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett.
Penguin Books, 2022 (1996).

Was the Hogfather a god? Why not? thought Susan. There were sacrifices, after all. All that sherry and pork pie. And he made commandments and rewarded the good and he knew what you were doing. If you believed, nice things happened to you. Sometimes you found him in a grotto, and sometimes he was up there in the sky…

On Discworld every Hogswatchnight the Hogfather is expected to take his sledge drawn by four pigs to visit  every child and deliver appropriate gifts. But this particular Hogswatch there is a problem: the figure widely believed to be merely a figment of the collective imagination appears to have been assassinated, and it therefore falls to another figure to secretly stand in for the role of “the Fat Man”.

But his dissembling has aroused the suspicion and then irritation of his granddaughter Susan of Sto Helit, who feels compelled to get involved as Hogswatchnight plays out. Temporarily abandoning her role as governess to Gawain and Twyla Gaiter she steps outside time in an attempt to resolve matters, picking up a decidedly odd divinity along the way.

Nothing in Discworld is straightforward, however, for on its ill-lit motorways of logical narrative there inevitably lurk dirty great big DIVERSION signs, with traffic cones leading the unwary traveller on to confusing roundabouts; take any exit and it’ll lead to murky backstreets thronged with shady characters and clueless bystanders. All that’s certain is that we’ll eventually reach Journey’s End, but where that will leave us is anybody’s guess.

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The copy-editor and her nemesis

Kensington in the 1950s (Roger Mayne Archive)

A Far Cry from Kensington
by Muriel Spark.
Introduction by Ali Smith.
Virago Books, 2009 (1988).

Spark’s novel is a deliciously piquant story about truth-telling, told by a character one almost suspects at times to be an unreliable narrator when her account is so spiky and vicious. Yet how can one doubt that war-bride Mrs Hawkins, whose training as a copy-editor is to shear away redundant prose, is giving us the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Her nemesis is Hector Bartlett, a dreadful literary hack whom she calls to his face un pisseur de copie, an act which will have repercussions in the form of lost employment, subterfuge, conspiracy, pseudoscience and suicide.

But A Far Cry from Kensington is far from being a satirical revenge tragedy involving a pisseur de copie and a copy-editor. Set in postwar London in the mid-50s during a period when Spark was herself beginning to establish herself as a novelist, this evokes conditions in the capital and the personnel she was then familiar with, even fictionalising a vendetta she’d been involved in, so that it’s easy to accept this account as reflecting veracity.

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Back to a former future

Towards the end of 2021 I did a little musing about the coming year, and mentioned a few authors and books I was considering on my wishlist for 2022. As we near the end of this year I shall indulge in a bit of reflection, considering what I actually read compared to what I listed.

First of all, I’m glad I managed to mark the birth of two authors in 1922, Sam Youd – better known under his pseudonym John Christopher – and Kurt Vonnegut with reads of, respectively, The Winter Swan and Cat’s Cradle. Regrettably I never got round to reading any authors who were born in 1972. Nor any titles published either a hundred or fifty years ago – except, I think, for Margery Williams’s The Velveteen Rabbit (1922). Oh, and the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic (1972) . . .

But I did get round to enjoying writings from elsewhere in those two decades, thanks to several memes such as Novellas in November. The 1920s included Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, H P Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, Margery Williams’s The Velveteen Rabbit, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Question Mark; the 1970s have featured most of The Dark is Rising sequence, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, and Jan Mark’s Thunder and Lightnings, among others. And of course loads of other stuff.

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Making the transition

On the Welsh coastal path © C A Lovegrove 2013

The Broken Bridge by Philip Pullman.
Young Picador, revised edition 2004 (1990).

‘You’re interested in painting?’
‘It’s the only thing—’ 
‘It’s not the only thing. It’s not even the most important thing.’ 
‘What . . .’ Ginny still couldn’t speak properly. ‘What is the most important thing?’ 
There was a long, long silence.

Chapter 14

Ginny Howard’s mother was from Haiti, and it’s from her that Ginny apparently inherits her artistic talents. She now lives with her widowed father in a Welsh village near the sea, and for a sixteen-year-old of mixed descent that isn’t easy.

Come the summer holidays after her exams and some of the mysteries concerning her mother and family start to emerge, upsetting the sensitive but determined teenager at that crucial period when she is making the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood.

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Beeb and blitz #BBC100
15th October 1940 bomb damage, Broadcasting House © BBC

Human Voices
by Penelope Fitzgerald.
Preface by Hermione Lee, 2013,
introduction by Mark Damazer, 2014. 
4th Estate, 2014 (1980).

“I prithee, | Remember I have done thee worthy service; | Told thee no lies, made thee no mistakings, served | Without or grudge or grumblings…”

The Tempest, I ii

If a novel can be termed ‘worthy’ it suggests that it deserves respect for its particular qualities, though not necessarily that it’s admirable or invites fondness. But describing it as ‘worthwhile’ implies that investment in terms of time, effort and consideration, and maybe even emotion, is its own reward.

How then to judge a story that, while supposedly merely focusing on a year in the life of a national institution and a handful of individuals working there, seems to address eternal human concerns such as what constitutes untruths, selfishness, injustice, and love, and which forty years after its publication (and itself forty years after the events it describes) remains not just relevant but as urgent as ever?

However fictional the novel’s characters patently are, the fact that the author actually worked at the BBC during the year in question gives the narrative the ring of authenticity. The closing references to Shakespeare’s The Tempest serve then as a metaphor for how fiction may reflect reality despite being, as Prospero says, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

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Love, hate, or indifference

Buddhist temple, Kek Lok Si (credit Daphne Lee)

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho.
Macmillan, 2021.

“She wasn’t Malaysian or American. Just as she wasn’t straight but she definitely wasn’t gay, if anyone was asking. She wasn’t her family’s Min, but she wasn’t the Jess who’d had a life under that name, before her dad had gotten sick. […] She was a walking nothing—a hole in the universe, perfect for letting the dead through.”

Chapter 17

Jessamyn Teoh accompanies her parents from the US back to Penang in Malaysia, a country she barely remembers. So it’s a shock for her to hear a very opinionated voice in her head claiming to be the ghost of Ah Ma, her maternal grandmother.

First shock over, Jess discovers Ah Ma had fallen out with Jess’s mother, and it’s something to do with Ah Ma having been a medium for a powerful local deity called Black Water Sister, named from a neighbouring locale. The third shock comes when she realises that Ah Ma, now a spirit herself, wants Jess to stop Black Water Sister’s shrine being developed by a powerful gang boss.

Jess – or Min, to use her Malaysian Chinese name – is therefore placed in a very difficult position, having to balance demands from all fronts – her parents, her secret girlfriend Sharanya, her relatives, her grandmother’s ghost, the boss, his gangsters, the boss’s son, construction workers, assorted gods and ghosts including, of course, the enraged Black Water Sister herself. What’s a girl to do?

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