I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space…

I’m not great with self-imposed challenges, as you may have noticed: I didn’t complete an author alphabet challenge a couple of years ago, barely started on an attempt to read more authors not from an Anglo-American milieu, stalling on my task of reducing my to-be-read pile of books. In fact by instinct I’m a bit of a flibbertigibbet, strolling from one random title to another, as the mood takes me.

Only, my randonneur leanings may not be as random as I thought.

Continue reading “Threads”

Magic, literature and landscapes

An old photograph of Dunluce Castle, Country Antrim, Northern Ireland: the ruins are a possible model for Cair Paravel in C S Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia

What is it about literary landscapes that makes some of us want to be there? And when the places are fictional how can we still put ourselves in those spaces?

Continue reading “Magic, literature and landscapes”

Drowning sorrows

Jem Lester: Shtum.
Orion 2017 (2016)

For many of us life already makes huge demands — relationships, health and wellbeing, financial concerns, managing a work-life balance — but when you have a dependent with severe autism those demands are compounded, and can bring one close to breaking point. However much love is given out. Jem Lester’s Shtum is about a man in just such a position; but while it is drawn largely on the author’s own experiences bringing up a son on the autistic spectrum it is nevertheless fiction. Still, autism runs as a major strand throughout. Shtum is also about how its manifestation here fits into a bigger picture involving individuals, institutions and collective responses.

Continue reading “Drowning sorrows”

The naming game

Elmo Lincoln, the first screen Tarzan, was born in 1889, the year after the 'real' Tarzan's birth. He wears the rope and locket described in the book, though his headband may be there to keep his wig on.
Elmo Lincoln, the first screen Tarzan, was born in 1889, the year after the ‘real’ Tarzan’s birth. He wears the rope and locket described in the book, though his headband may be there to keep his wig on. Here Tarzan is teaching himself to read using a picture book.

I’ve talked before about character names in fiction, for example in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and in Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I’ve noted that certain authors are drawn to choosing significant names for their protagonists, authors such as A S Byatt in The Biographer’s Tale and in Angels & Insects. Donna Leon chose to call her truth-seeking heroine in The Jewels of Paradise Pellegrini, after the Italian name for a pilgrim, and the magizoologist Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them bears names that mark him out as a scientist (Newton) whilst also being able to transform (from larva to eft to newt) and survive in different environments (the newt, a kind of salamander, lives both in water and on land, while the Scamander is a river near ancient Troy).

Yet it appears that many authors don’t go in for universally significant or symbolic names for their leading men and women, especially when it comes to realistic novels set in a contemporary world. For example, Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child has the parents of Luke, Helen, Jane, Paul and Ben simply as David and Harriet Lovatt, and unless these names had personal significance for the author (as a difficult ‘family’ member had for Lessing’s life) I can’t see that these are anything other than what any ordinary middleclass family might choose. Again, in Patricia Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January is it apparent that Rydal Keener or the couple Chester and Colette MacFarlane have anything special about their names other than they seem typically North American? Perhaps the fact that Chester and Rydal are both derived from place names is more noteworthy than I can fathom.

But if the characters’ names neither obviously conform to the conventions of their setting nor have a personal resonance for the author (or at least one that they wish to share) do we have to fall back on significance or symbolism as guiding spirits? What do online gurus have to say about choosing the names of characters? I’ve selected three of these advisers.

Continue reading “The naming game”

The Perills of the Conjuration of Spirits by the Ignorant


Lines ‘ciphered from a torn & tattered Script
found in an ancient Book of Holy Writ;
when thou hast o’ercome th’Initial Dread,
shalt find a timely Ode writ large instead

After thou hast prepared the charmed circle as heretofore describ’d, recite these words with an almighty voice, never wavering.

HAIL, thou that from this Husk’s late gone,
Acknowledge that I adjure thee to come:
Let no harm come to me nor Wight nor any
Living Creature; thus I bind thee fast, to
Own all Service to me, & Obedience,
Who dost bid thee ne’er part from me
Expressly; without Fraud, Dissimulation or Deceit
Enter into Pact to do whate’er desired
Now & evermore, till discharged be!


In a later hand, this followeth:

Continue reading “The Perills of the Conjuration of Spirits by the Ignorant”

The sea all day

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) after Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels)
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) after Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels)

Julia Rochester The House at the Edge of the World
Penguin 2016 (2015)

A man falls from a high point into the sea and is lost. I am reminded of the myth of Icarus, the son of Daedalus, who on his way to freedom flew too close to the sun so that its heat melted the wax holding together the feathers of his artificial wings and he fell from the heavens. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting on this subject famously shows his fall as unnoticed by ordinary people such as a ploughman, a shepherd and an angler.

But when John Venton falls off a cliff somewhere facing the North Atlantic on the southwestern peninsula of England his absence is very definitely noticed by his family — by his wife Valerie, by his twin children Morwenna and Corwin, by his father Matthew — and by his friend Bob, who was too drunk at the time to notice what happened. The impact that this disappearance (no body is ever found) has on the evidently dysfunctional family is far-reaching, stretching years into the future; and the time comes when the twins, who were of school-leaving age when their father disappeared, start to question the received wisdom.

Continue reading “The sea all day”

Happy Families

Master Bones

Doris Lessing The Fifth Child
Paladin 1989 (1988)

A curious novella, this, and a horror story of sorts. Beginning in a Swinging-Sixties England — when David and Harriet meet and fall in love — it traces the story of how the couple attempt to set up a model suburban Happy Family in the face of disapproval from their own families who, irony of ironies, have their own problems of failed relationships. As Harriet and David produce four offspring one after another their large house becomes a popular venue for the extended family and friends during the long school holidays; with childcare help from Harriet’s mother and financial support from David’s father this otherwise unsustainable operation limps along from year to year. Until Harriet discovers she’s expecting a fifth child.

Continue reading “Happy Families”

The minx (1)

Crayon drawing by 3-year-old (Wikipedia Commons)
Crayon drawing by 3-year-old (Wikipedia Commons)

Repost, now 1/4 posts of a short story

Minnie was three going on four when she realised she had a special ability. With parents and siblings all keen on fantasy movies she naturally thought of it as her superpower, one she had to keep secret.

She knew all about secret identities — after all she was really Jasmine but everyone called her Minnie, and very apt as she was the youngest in the family. Her mum had wanted to call her after Hermione in the Harry Potter stories but she was shouted down by the rest of the family. So Minnie she became, at home, at playgroup and in nursery class.

She only gradually became aware of her superpower. A natural mimic, Minnie showed her dislike of certain individuals by copying and exaggerating their actions — behind their backs of course; she soon learned the folly of imitating them to their faces. With an unwelcome house visitor or an over-strict teacher she would stand or walk behind them, echoing their movements, perfecting an innocent look when the victim wondered why bystanders were laughing.

It was when she stumbled as she followed a flustered supply teacher to a corner that she noticed the teacher also stumble and collide with a stack of chairs. Her curiosity piqued, further experimentation seemed to indicate to her quick mind a causal relationship. If while staring intently at the back of an adult’s neck she nodded her head, so did the perplexed adult. If, sitting behind a new pupil in assembly, she slapped her own forehead, so did the confused child in front of her. If, on the bus to the shopping centre with her mum she rubbed her chin vigorously, so did the smelly woman sitting two seats ahead of her.

She was a bright girl; she realised she could turn this ability to her advantage so she practised in secret, without anyone watching, till her usual audience forgot her original antics. Sitting in the window of the family’s front room she would gaze intently at passers-by, picking her nose or scratching at an imaginary itch, and was always rewarded by the resulting copycat reactions. And she practised and practised, convinced there would come a time when she could save the world or defeat a Dark Lord with her amazing superpower.

One day, into Minnie’s class came a new boy, Darren. She took an instant dislike to him. In assembly she was delighted to find she was sat on the floor in the row behind him. She waited for the right moment and then, staring hard at him, began to pinch her upper left arm really hard. But Darren didn’t oblige; instead he turned around to her; and on his face was what she knew from superhero movies to be a supervillain’s evil smile. He knew! Her eyes widened in sudden fear.

Then, as he watched her, he began, very deliberately, to scratch his cheeks with his nails, ugly red marks appearing on his skin. And there was a lurch in Minnie’s heart as she involuntarily raised her hands to her own face.

Another exercise for creative writing class, inviting participants to imagine an individual with a superpower. In response to a few requests I’ve now continued Minnie’s story to a suitable conclusion in a series of four consecutive posts; you’ll be pleased to know that this then constituted the full assignment I completed for the unit on writing short stories

The minx (2)

Miss Turner was not very happy. In fact she was quite miserable. Her infant class was not respecting her, and it wasn’t just because she was covering for a popular teacher on maternity leave. She was having difficulty engaging with the majority of her charges largely because a few unruly pupils took up most of her attention. And, not helping at all, inexplicable things were happening to her, things like falling into a stack of storage boxes, or frantically scratching herself vigorously as though a packet of itching powder had been poured down the back of her blouse, or squirming uncomfortably in her seat for minutes on end when she was reading a story to the class.

And now it was happening again. That new boy, Darren – who looked like trouble the moment she set eyes on him – was not facing the front as he should be in assembly but distracting that girl behind him. Of course it had to be Minnie, the bane of her life, constantly the centre of the class’s attention but always looking so smugly innocent and smiley. Except now she was looking rather frightened. Click! Miss Turner snapped her fingers and gave the customary sharp shush! It had the required effect: Darren turned to the front, Minnie crumpled and the assembly continued as if nothing had happened.

But Miss Turner felt defeated; it was as if a great weight was pushing her shoulders down, squashing her frame. She struggled through assembly in a daze, hardly aware of shepherding her charges back to the classroom, or of learning assistants supervising the distrubution of reading books. What she was suddenly aware of, through a mist of tears, was a small figure in the corridor hugging her legs, gently rubbing the back of her thigh and going shhh, there-there as if to a baby. She was extremely surprised to see the figure below her was Minnie and — behind her – a curious but wary Darren, watching and alert and wide-eyed.

From then on things somehow improved. It was little things: pupils paying rapt attention to her instructions and leaping up to help hand things out without being asked, eager hands shooting up when there were questions to be answered and young voices joining in eagerly with songs and prayers. And she no longer felt anxious when Minnie or Darren watched her intently; she put it down to her increasing confidence that she no longer tripped over her feet or spilled the tray of learning materials in arithmetic. She began to feel good about herself; maybe she would apply for that permanent post once the maternity cover was up.

* * * * *

Minnie was slightly distraught when her new friend Darren moved to the parallel class in the new school year, but at least she got to see him at break and lunchtimes and when they went to play at each other’s houses at weekends and during holidays. There was nothing they liked better than dressing up as caped and masked superheroes and going out into the garden or to the park; here they zapped and postured and gestured to their hearts’ content but, luckily, with little discomfort to other people. Being children they naturally got their own back on bullies when the occasion demanded but ever since Miss Turner they’d developed a sense of justice and fair play. They worked on ever more inventive but subtle ways to right wrongs, wordlessly sharing sleights-of-hand and enjoying each other’s inventiveness.

Minnie’s parents were keen ComicCon fans, a passion Minnie shared, especially the dressing up. Darren too was often taken along to conventions, their favourite get-ups being characters from The Beano. Dennis the Menace* and Minnie the Minx had similar outfits – striped red and black sweaters or long-sleeved T-shirts with short black trousers – so the pair went dressed as the terrible twosome (Minnie of course with ginger plaits under the trademark beret). Here they caused as much mayhem as the characters they played but, past masters that they were, nobody ever suspected them of mishaps. For example, when passers-by unwittingly knocked over piles of paperbacks at book-signings, not once but several times, the two were just innocent bystanders; or when Darth Vader kept stumbling into the paths of oncoming fans (while simultaneously trying to maintain his dignity and awesomeness) Darren and Minnie were always several steps behind.

Naturally Minnie came to be known as ‘Minx’ by family and friends, though Darren ‘the Menace’ – rather quieter and less garrulous than Minnie – managed to keep his alter ego separate.

In their last years at primary school Minnie and Darren started making up their own comics. Darren was the main artist while Minnie authored and lettered the speech bubbles that emerged from characters’ mouths. This joint obsession began to nudge out practising their superpowers, though never entirely: their joint comic project — The Adventures of Psychic Man and Ghoul Girl (secret identities ‘Si Kick’ and ‘Grace Yard’) — was deeply informed by their own experiences.

Then came the bombshell: Darren’s family was upping sticks to move back to the Northeast of England. To her utter dismay Minnie suddenly found she had a bottomless hole inside her, am emotional whirlpool which sucked down the best of everything – friendliness, enthusiasm and happiness – and turned her remaining world into a mush of grey. Like porridge without any interesting bits.


* Note: This is the British comics character which first appeared in The Beano on March 7th, 1951. It preceded — by just five days — the US Dennis the Menace character which first featured in a syndicated newspaper comic strip on March 12th, 1951.

The minx (3)


Minnie’s parents were worried. They’d just come back from a parents evening with Minnie’s tutor Mr George. It was clear that Minnie’s inwardness and solitary habits, which they’d gradually got used to at home, was manifesting itself rather differently at her new secondary school. Here she’d become mute and withdrawn, and any attempt to draw her into social interactions had met with silent hostility. And it was getting worse.

“Jemima, er, Jasmine seems to be somehow causing disruption in every class she attends, but she’s never seen to be doing anything,” reported Mr George with obvious concern. “It’s like she’s the middle of a – well — a kind of whirlwind, but she’s the still centre of it. Other students seem to trip into each other in the aisle, or science equipment gets knocked off lab tops by elbows, or students who are friends with each other poke or slap each other. Jemima, um, just sits and twitches in her seat, or is a few feet away when a line of kids falls over like dominoes. I find it very puzzling, very worrying indeed. We just can’t put our finger on it.”

A very taciturn Minnie smouldered in her room when confronted by her parents. When they left a little while later an uneasy truce seemed to hold. Her mother later said she knew now what people meant when they said the atmosphere was electric. An hour or so after everyone had gone to bed bangs and crashes were heard downstairs. Her father, armed with a tennis racquet, stealthily entered the kitchen and narrowly missed being hit by a heavy plate falling off the dresser. The kitchen clock fell off the wall and the light – which he’d switched on as he went in – fizzed before exploding. He hastily shut the door and retreated into the hall. After several hair-raising minutes the sound of bumps came to a halt; cautiously peeking in he saw by the light of a torch that the kitchen table had moved and blocked the back door, and the cutlery drawer had emptied itself onto the floor.

There were no more manifestations that night but nobody slept a wink, even though the house was as silent as the grave.

* * * * *

Ms Runciman listened. “The priest we called in to exorcise the kitchen stayed in there for only three minutes. He’d fallen and gashed his head but wouldn’t stay to have it looked at. We had ghost hunters in after that but either they couldn’t get a reading or their machines stopped working. You’re our last hope, Ms Runciman: a friend said poltergeists were linked to young people entering, um, puberty and, um, we wondered …”

Ms Runciman did see Minnie, but it was neither in her certificate-lined office nor in Minnie’s bedroom; instead the two of them went off for a walk on the common. They were gone some time, long enough for Minnie’s parents to consider whether one or both had been abducted. Their return was eventually announced by the sound of excited chatter, the like of which Minnie’s parents realised they hadn’t heard since the last term of primary school. Minnie and Ms Runciman subsequently went for many more walks, and the child everybody once knew re-emerged from her cocoon like a new butterfly.

The poltergeist ceased its visits, replaced by the surprise appearance of Darren, whose family were on holiday from Newcastle. The two went for long walks, Ms Runciman often joining them along the way. When Darren returned to the Northeast the youngsters still kept in contact; and somehow it seemed that Minnie had turned a corner. At home she worked on graphic novels and at school regularly got top marks in English.

Her parents heaved a collective sigh of relief, finally able to pay more attention to Minnie’s older siblings. They didn’t really understand Ms Runciman’s report (which seemed to say very little but with very many long words) — they were just grateful some normality had returned.

The minx (4)


A gaggle of excited teenagers chanted “Jas-mine! Jas-mine!” as she entered the convention hall. Afterwards there was a long queue in front of her desk, individuals clutching copies of her graphic novels along with special pens for signing. Just before the appointed time the arts reporter from the national broadsheet approached her desk; she was still inscribing copies for the last few eager fans. Minnie recognised the smug glassy smirk – she’d seen it enough times – and smiled her own secret smile.

“Hi, Julian Fortescue,” he said by way of introduction, placing his Dictaphone ostentatiously by the reducing pile of novels. It was only a matter of time, Minnie thought as he launched into his spiel. It wasn’t long coming.

“Don’t you think fantasy is a bit, well, the wrong thing to feed to young minds — y’know, putting impossible dreams into their heads? After all, it’s escapist in the final analysis when they should really be concentrating on getting good exam results and decent jobs, don’t you agree? It doesn’t, you know, put food in anyone’s belly and money in the bank – unless of course, haha, you’re a bestselling author!”

Here he laughed even more at his own joke.

* * * * *

Somehow he’d slipped and fallen on his back. One end of the trestle table had collapsed and the last few novels had fallen square onto his face. His Dictaphone had fallen off the dais and disappeared into a dark corner. Guffaws burst out from the remaining fans, Jasmine’s agent and the security staff who’d gathered round expectantly: they’d heard this sort of thing usually happened when Jasmine was confronted with unpleasant individuals.

After all, it was commonplace in The Minx — one of the most successful series of graphic novels to date — whenever a Dark Lord was involved.

Shelfmark 400

A municipal library, Prague © Jorge Royan / / CC-BY-SA-3.0
A municipal library, Prague © Jorge Royan / / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Sophie Divry The Library of Unrequited Love
Translated from the French by Siân Reynolds
Maclehose Press 2014 (2013)

I wanted to describe the battle between order and disorder, between love and bitterness, between conservatism and revolution. Shouldn’t literature always try to answer these two questions: what does it mean to be human? What is life? — Sophie Divry

Here is a short fiction about books and book-lovers, libraries and librarians, infatuation and infuriation. And how can one not be drawn by a novel with this particular title? Especially one which has been reduced in a sale, with a recommendation from the bookshop assistant that he’d only taken a short while to read it? (Perhaps that’s why it was at a bargain price: it had been ‘pre-read’.)

Other than long-dead authors there’s only one name in this book: Martin. Martin is a serious scholar using the facilities of some municipal library in the Paris region, ensconcing himself in the Geography and Town Planning section (Dewey class 910) located in the basement. He is lusted after by a frustrated spinster librarian who is fascinated by his neck, like the spine of a book. On this occasion she has discovered a hapless reader who while asleep had been locked in by mistake overnight, and takes the opportunity before the building officially opens to the public by subjecting him to a rant. A rant which for approaching ninety pages is one long paragraph.

Continue reading “Shelfmark 400”

Pretentious, moi? *


Forgive me, I’m still bleating on about Asperger Syndrome. To change animal metaphors: I’m a terrier with a rat, reading up about the condition, its incidence and how Aspies cope or don’t cope with it.

And — as this is a literary-leaning blog — along with fascinating AS-related non-fiction titles I’m devouring (many from Jessica Kingsley Publishers) I’m also finding that the fiction that I’m reading concurrently is taking on an added perspective when AS is taken into account.

Continue reading “Pretentious, moi? *”

Mixing genres


Robert Silverberg
Tales of Majipoor
Gollancz 2013

“They came from Old Earth.” When a Prologue begins with portentous words like these you might automatically assume you’re reading a science fiction title. Especially when you’re told the colonists have migrated to Majipoor, a giant planet with low gravitational pull, three large continents to inhabit and expand into, an indigenous population to interact with and aliens from other worlds to transplant onto.

And yet, science doesn’t feature too much in these short stories, though fiction of another genre does. Of the seven tales, three are specifically about magic, one implies magic with the ‘sending’ of vivid and detailed dreams and another includes what can only be called magical talismans to call up images of past events. We are indubitably in the realm of fantasy now, albeit fantasy on another planet instead of a supernatural Otherworld, and with intelligent alien life forms instead of elves and fairies.

Then what are we to make of the faintly philosophical themes that Silverberg touches on, themes such as the ethics of restoring historical artefacts, or claiming ‘divine inspiration’ as your own creation, or the nature of sacrilege and how that conflicts with scientific truth? Continue reading “Mixing genres”

Absolute hell

Roald Dahl in 1982By Hans van Dijk / Anefo - Derived from Nationaal Archief, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Roald Dahl in 1982 by Hans van Dijk / Anefo, derived from Nationaal Archief, CC BY-SA 3.0,

If Roald Dahl was still alive he’d be approaching his 100th birthday in September 2016. As it is he died in 1990, but not before leaving an extraordinary legacy of books for adults and, of course, children. In 1984 he published a memoir of his early years, Boy: Tales of a Childhood, and towards the end of this he compares the life of the writer that he became with one of his first jobs, working for Shell. “I began to realize how simple life could be if one had a regular routine to follow with fixed hours and a fixed salary and very little original thinking to do,” he writes, one suspects with his tongue firmly lodged in his cheek. “The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman.”

Continue reading “Absolute hell”