Lingering alchemical imagery

Alchemical sun and moonJeanette Winterson
The Battle of the Sun
Bloomsbury Publishing 2010

It is London in 1601, but things are not quite as history would have us believe. The life of the young protagonist, Jack, is about to take a turn away from the future planned out for him, and he goes from being a pawn in a game played by others to one where his resourcefulness and bravery lead to his transformation into a person of some power.

The Battle of the Sun comes over as dreamlike, with figures from alchemical treatises, supernatural happenings and irrational actions all assuming an aura of reality and plausibility, as often happens in dreams. Jeanette Winterson’s declared mode of writing here is to let the action emerge from the situations she conjures up, and much of the first part of the book introduces characters and places and scenarios that seemingly lack resolution until a character from another of her children’s novels — Silver from Tanglewreck (2006) — intrudes herself, at which point the plot gathers momentum and a sense of direction before reaching a satisfying conclusion. Continue reading “Lingering alchemical imagery”

The lore of the ring

Buckingham Palace, with the Victoria Memorial (1911), from an old postcard
Buckingham Palace, with the Victoria Memorial (1911), from an old postcard

Kiki Hamilton The Faerie Ring Tor Teen 2011

Eighteen seventy-one was an eventful year, by many accounts. There was the disaster that was the Paris Commune, when thousands — maybe as many as twenty thousand — communards were massacred during ‘Bloody Week’ in May. But there were positives too, such as Queen Victoria opening the Albert Hall in memory of her late husband. In literature Edward Bulwer-Lytton published The Coming Race, a novel about the Vril-ya, winged super-humans who lived under the surface of the earth. This was the year too that Lewis Carroll published Alice Through the Looking Glass. 1871 is also the year in which Kiki Hamilton’s novel is set, the action taking place in a Dickensian London (Dickens had died the year before) of toffs and pickpockets. But this isn’t really a novel where social realism is to the fore, as the title strongly suggests.

Continue reading “The lore of the ring”

Apprentice psychopomp

roof boss
Grotesque roof boss, Southwark Cathedral, London

Chris Westwood Ministry of Pandemonium
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books 2011

A sensitive boy who frequents graveyards. Who sees the spirits of the recently departed. Who displays extraordinary artistic gifts. Who finds it hard to make friends when he starts a new school. And a boy whose father has mysteriously disappeared and a mother who is seriously ill. In other words, a youngster who fulfils many of the prime requirements for the outsider protagonist of a novel. This is Ben Harvester, who is drawn into a world of ghosts and demons and, in the process, discovers the latent abilities he has arising out of that sensitivity, a sensitivity that encompasses both his artistic gifts and his concern for those less well off than himself.

Through a rather odd stranger, Mr October  — whose name conjures up that witching period of Halloween or Samhain, with its feasts of the dead — Ben is introduced to the secret Ministry of Pandemonium. As you might expect from a word coined by Milton for Paradise Lost, this synonym for disorder and chaos simply means “all the demons”. It transpires that the Ministry’s job is to locate lost souls and open the door to another world for them before demons gets to them — no easy task given the magnitude of the task. Will Ben manage to put off his inquisitive new friend Becky Sanborne before she discovers his unlikely calling? And what is the secret of his mother’s exhaustion and the explanation for his father’s disappearance? Continue reading “Apprentice psychopomp”

The bourn from which no traveller returns

GB at night

Neil Gaiman Neverwhere:
The Author’s Preferred Text

Headline Review 2005 (1996)

In fairytales the overlooked, usually youngest son or daughter in a family commits an act of kindness that allows him or her to succeed where the other brothers or sisters didn’t. Sometimes the act of kindness is misplaced, as in the Arabian Nights tale of the genie in the bottle, and potential disaster follows. In this fantasy Scotsman Richard Mayhew comes to London and rescues a young woman from her pursuers, as a result of which his life is changed forever. He passes into London Below, supposedly the bourn from which no traveller returns. This is an Otherworld — at times a Dante-esque Inferno, other times reminiscent of Tudor or Restoration London — which has successfully reappeared in various modern guises, in Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana (1978) for example, Andrew Sinclair’s Gog (1967) and more recently in Miéville’s fantasies such as Kraken (2010).

Neverwhere‘s strengths largely lie in those fairytale motifs that much good fantasy draws from:  Continue reading “The bourn from which no traveller returns”

A long hot summer

dad's cup

Maggie O’Farrell
Instructions for a Heatwave
Tinder Press 2013

July 2014. It seemed appropriate to be reading a novel set in 1976 in drought-ridden Britain at roughly the same time of year and in temperatures of around 30 degrees Celsius. Seeing that it took almost four days to relive the four days that an Irish Catholic family finds itself plunged into crisis, and that the reading virtually coincided with a rather more amenable visit by children and grandchildren, it was tempting to compare and contrast the two periods separated by nearly four decades; however, this is a terrific novel to enjoy at any time of year, spread over any length of time and in any circumstances, and I found it easy to resist the temptation.

July 1976. Meet the Riordans: Robert and Gretta, Irish-born, living in Highbury, London; Michael Francis, married to Claire, living in Stoke Newington; Monica, once married to Joe but now to Peter, living in Gloucestershire; and Aoife — pronounced Eefuh — living in New York. While Robert and Gretta are part of the Irish diaspora, they still own a cottage on Omey Island off Connemara, Galway, where family holidays have been taken over the years.

On the morning of Thursday July 15th Robert Riordan disappears, Continue reading “A long hot summer”

Suspending disbelief

punch2

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”

Characters that stick in the memory

Charles Dickens (aged 27 in 1839) by Daniel Maclise Wikipedia Commons / National Portrait Gallery
Charles Dickens (aged 27 in 1839) by Daniel Maclise
Wikipedia Commons / National Portrait Gallery

Charles Dickens Great Expectations
Collins Classic, HarperPress 2010 (1861)

Characters stick in
my memory: Estella,
Joe, Miss H. And yours?

I find it hard to distinguish between the images furnished by my first reading of this and by the BBC serialisation in the 60s. I suspect that the TV version came first and influenced my rather rapid reading of the novel where I omitted all the characterisation, social commentary, landscape descriptions and comedy in favour of rooting out the plain narrative. So, Great Expectations for me then was a mix of two themes, the rags-to-riches story of Pip and the boy-meets-girl-but-it-doesn’t-go-smoothly tale of Pip’s infatuation with Estella, and hang the rich tapestry of life in early 19th-century rural Kent and teeming London which Dickens grew up with.

I’m so glad I gave this a second chance, and that with maturity and experience am able to more fully appreciate the subtleties and nuances of Dickens’ story. Continue reading “Characters that stick in the memory”