All we survey

Neptune (NASA image)

John Dickinson: We
David Fickling Books 2010

I found this an utterly gripping novel, especially after the slow and steady start signalled by its opening:

He had asked to be alone when he woke. After all, he had reasoned, from now on he would always be alone.

But are we really, truly alone? Will there be, though we may not be aware of the fact, someone else? Are we, like Cowper’s Alexander Selkirk, wrong in our assumptions that we are monarchs of all we survey, that we’re “out of humanity’s reach” and must finish our “journey alone” even at the edge of space?

This issue is at the heart of this novel, questions about Earth’s uniqueness as a cradle for life. And if there is life ‘out there’, what form will it take?

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Dark deeds and the Devil

Alpine glacier, from a 19th century print
Alpine glacier, from a 19th century print

Philip Pullman:
Count Karlstein
Doubleday 2002 (1982)

Exactly four decades ago this year [2013] as a student teacher I took part in a college production of Weber’s Der Freischütz, when I sang in the chorus and took a minor role as Prince Ottokar. First performed in 1821 this was a landmark opera sung in German, adapting native folksongs — the famous ‘Huntsmen’s Song’ has affinities with the traditional English tune ‘Strawberry Fair’, which may even have been influenced by Weber’s tune — and featuring supernatural Gothic horror.

The Gothic horror tradition was also purloined by Mary Shelley when she first composed Frankenstein while sojourning near Geneva in 1816, though the novel wasn’t published until 1818. One of the crucial scenes takes place on a glacier near Mont Blanc — coincidentally, we were holidaying one summer in Chamonix when our son was reading Frankenstein as a set text for school, within sight of the very same Mer de Glace glacier where Viktor Frankenstein is confronted by his monster.

These personal memories came flooding back when reading this early piece of fiction by His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman.

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Midnight at midwinter

A grim-looking Grimsby, in the 19th century

We come now to the penultimate post in a series of discussions of Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (1974). We know to the year and the day when the novel opens — 30th October 1842 — which is explicitly noted in the first few pages by one of the protagonists. This gives us both a starting point for the action and also a hint as to the kind of themes and concepts the author may be including as the story develops.

Over ten chapters I calculate that the plot takes us from the last days of October to the last day of the year. And, if I am correct to assume that Midnight is a Place can be retrospectively included in the series of novels that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) then this 1842 date will prove crucial in determining the chronology of the Wolves Chronicles after the end of Dido and Pa (1987).

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Seesaw sympathies

Brighton Front (postcard image: Old UK photos)

E F Benson:
The Blotting Book
Vintage Classics 2013 (1908)

Set partly in Brighton and partly in Falmer (on the road east to Lewes, East Sussex) this crime novel — less a whodunit, more a courtroom drama — is a stylish period piece, an Edwardian mystery with just a hint of the supernatural in the guise of a prophetic dream. In a way this novella doesn’t quite make up its mind what kind of genre it intends to be so includes a bit of everything, even including a bit of financial advice along the lines of *the value of your investments may go down as well as up*.

The essential plot is so simple that to do more than recount the basic set-up would be to give the game away. Let me introduce the two lawyer partnership based in Brighton of Edward Taynton and Godfrey Mills. Then let’s meet two of their clients, the widow Mrs Assheton and her son Morris, a young man soon to be of age, a ‘racey’ chap who likes fast cars. Morris hopes to be engaged to Madge Templeton, daughter of Sir Richard and Lady Templeton.

When one of these individuals disappears an Inspector Figgis gets involved, and when matters eventually come to court we finally learn not so much who-did-what as how-it-all-happened, amidst all the to and fro of legal proceedings and timely revelations. Fraud, gambling, blackmail, slander, forgery, murder — it’s all here, but as this involves the upper middle classes rest assured that it’s mostly quite genteel, there’s little or no gratuitous violence and the lower classes know their place.

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The reader in the midst of the action

sperm-whale

Nathaniel Philbrick:
In the Heart of the Sea
HarperCollins 2001

This is one of those rare non-fiction books that encourages you to continue reading in the same way that a good novel keeps you glued to the page. All the more remarkable, then, that this study gives the background to a true-life saga that inspired one of the great but arguably most difficult novels, Moby-Dick, a work that I’ve always struggled to complete.

In the Heart of the Sea (the title inspired by an extract from Melville’s book, as the end of the epilogue makes clear) has now made me all the more determined to tackle Moby-Dick again, but this time with more understanding, appreciation and stamina.

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A sad tale’s best for winter

Spider in amber (Wikipedia Commons)
Spider in amber (Wikipedia Commons)

Jostein Gaarder: The Ringmaster’s Daughter
(original title Sirkusdirektørens datter 2001)
Translated by James Anderson
Phoenix 2003

The Baltic Sea is well known for its amber, solidified resin from forests around 44 million years old, and frequently trapped in these deposits are various flora and fauna of the period. The most striking image in The Ringmaster’s Daughter, which symbolises one of its major themes, is of a spider caught in this matrix, just like its victims might be caught in its web.

The story that gives the novel its title concerns a trapeze artist who falls and breaks her neck. As the ringmaster bends over her injured body he sees an amber trinket on a slender chain around her neck, which he recognises as one he had given to a daughter he hasn’t seen for years.

The importance of this tale of the lost daughter is underlined by it being told, with variations, three times during the course of the novel, in the presence of each of the three most important women in the narrator’s life.

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Findism, not escapism

Kidslit: a random selection of children’s fiction

Katherine Rundell:
Why You Should Read Children’s Books
Even Though You Are So Old and Wise
Bloomsbury Publishing 2019

This insightful and beautifully written essay fits into a slim 63-page hardback but contains as many worthy gems as many a longer study. In nearly a dozen sections Katherine Rundell, herself a children’s author, makes a powerful case for juvenile fiction not being inferior to adult fiction but worthy in its own right; and, more than that, it can offer what much adult fiction can’t or won’t.

The author tries to put her finger on what those qualities are and, in my opinion, pretty much succeeds. All this review will aim to do is to give a flavour of the main points she enumerates.

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