A perfect black comedy

autoroute

The A26 by Pascal Garnier,
Melanie Florence, translator.
Gallic Books 2013.

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”

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”

Flawed but human

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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”

Twists in the tales

"Veneto 0006" by Bartolomeo Veneto - Laura Pagnotta: Bartolomeo Veneto, l'opera completa, Firenze : Centro Di, 1997, ISBN 88-7038-316-4Bound. - Contains notes, bibliography and indices. - First catalogue raisonné of the complete works of Bartolomeo Veneto (ca. 1481-1531). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of a man with labyrinth design on his chest, by Bartolomeo Veneto, Italy, early 16th century. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Diana Wynne Jones editor
Hidden Turnings
Douglas Hill, Tanith Lee, Robert Westall, Garry Kilworth, Lisa Tuttle, Diana Wynne Jones, Mary Rayner, Geraldine Harris, Helen Cresswell, Emma Ball, Roger Zelazny, Terry Pratchett
Teens Mandarin 1990 (1989)

When, in the late eighties, Diana Wynne Jones was asked to choose authors for a short story collection the only stipulation was for twelve tales “to do with the imagination”. When the submissions came in the main theme they all shared was “hidden turnings of the mind” where the reader is led into “remarkable new places”, an aspect which easily suggested a title for the collection. The sad fact is that, of the twelve authors, half have since gone round their own hidden turnings: Robert Westall (1993), Roger Zelazny (1995), Helen Cresswell (2005), Douglas Hill (2007), Diana Wynne Jones herself (2011) and, most recently, Terry Pratchett (2015). How lovely though to have such an assemblage of writers, all authors whom the editor tells us she loved to read herself: “the people who keep me on the edge of my seat, or awake all night, or gently chuckling — or all these things — people who I think write really well.” The collection, then, sounds very promising.

Continue reading “Twists in the tales”

Intimations of mortality

roch-castle-1880

Diana Wynne Jones Howl’s Moving Castle
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2009 (1986)

At first sight it might seem strange that of all Diana Wynne Jones’ books (a) this should be chosen to make a film of, and (b) perhaps because of (a) this should be one of her best known titles. Why does this story, which she notes was inspired by a chance request by a young fan for a story about a castle that moves, strike such a chord with not just younger readers but also adults? Continue reading “Intimations of mortality”

Suspending disbelief

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Ben Aaronovitch Rivers of London Gollancz 2011

From the start I’d noted that Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London was mentioned in the same breath as China Miéville’s London-centred novels (such as Kraken) and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and so assumed that this was a fantasy about the belowground metropolis that involved magic. I now find it’s lumbered with the clunky sobriquet of ‘urban fantasy police procedural’, which has at least the virtue of describing what’s in the tin. Fantasy thriller is good enough for me, however.

Constable Peter Grant is coming to the end of his probationary period when he comes to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale who — coincidentally — is a wizard. Nightingale recognises that Peter has latent magical ability and recruits him as sorcerer’s apprentice. At the same time a disturbing series of murders is taking place which, despite a lot of hi-tech sleuthing, is proving hard to solve without resorting to the kind of magic to which Nightingale has access; and so young Grant is willy-nilly drawn in, below his depth. Throw into the mix the almost obligatory love-interest, fellow probationer WPC Lesley May, and Peter is in serious danger of drowning. And, bearing in mind that the title is a clue, he very nearly does.

I wanted to like this novel very much. Continue reading “Suspending disbelief”

Doing nothing in Ruritania

Czar Nicholas II and King George V
The two cousins Czar Nicholas II and King George V wearing each other’s uniforms

Anthony Hope
The Prisoner of Zenda
Puffin Classics 1994 (1894)

“I wonder when in the world you’re going to do anything, Rudolf?” said my brother’s wife. “You are nine-and-twenty,” she observed, “and you’ve done nothing but–”
“Knock about? It is true. Our family doesn’t need to do things.”

The behaviour of Rudolf Rassendyll, younger brother of Robert Lord Burlesdon, appears to live up to his family motto, which is Nil quae feci (roughly translated as ‘I’ve done nothing’). But by the end of The Prisoner of Zenda Rudolf’s actions have belied that motto — at least according to this account supposedly penned by the young man himself. Continue reading “Doing nothing in Ruritania”

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”