Rooms in a doll’s house

Tove Jansson: Art in Nature
Dockskåpet (1978) translated by Thomas Teal
Sort Of Books 2012

Art in Nature presents us with extraordinarily intimate portraits of Finns and others caught up in a variety of situations. Taking its English title from the first of these eleven offerings by Tove Jansson, its original Swedish title was actually drawn from the fifth story, ‘The Doll’s House’. I can only assume it was retitled to avoid confusion with Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, but it is just as apt as a label for the whole collection because many of the subjects have a connection with artistic endeavours, through sculpture, cartoons, drama, novels and painting.

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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.

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In darkest New England

country road

Collections of short stories can complicate the reader’s fiction experience. In particular, when the pieces are drawn from a range of the writer’s oeuvre — even when especially selected because they share a theme — they may vary in tone, in pace, in quality and in length, and may thus lack the uniformity of style and purpose that a single novel usually supplies. And this may only be the start of possible difficulties for the reader.

One way to bypass such anxieties could be to only consider the stories on a one by one basis. Thus it is that I am spreading out my appreciation of two writers by only reading single pieces interspersed with longer work by other writers. Angela Carter’s Black Venus tales (also published as Saints and Strangers) and a collection of H P Lovecraft’s horror stories entitled The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (edited by S T Joshi) are being enjoyed singly in between my tackling other longer works. And two of these pieces I’ve selected as being the last of my 2016 Reading New England choices. (This, you may remember, is one of Lory Hess’ challenges on her Emerald City Book Review blog, due to end on the 31st December.)

Let me introduce you to them.

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Slow and stately

Pavane
Pavane, “The Dance in the Garden” Early 16th-century illumination from Roman de la Rose, Toulouse, British Library Harley MS 4425, fol. 14v http://www.britanynica.com/media/full/6868

Keith Roberts Pavane Victor Gollancz 1995 (1968)

On a warm July evening of the year 1588, in the royal palace of Greenwich, London, a woman lay dying, an assassin’s bullet lodged in abdomen and chest. Her face was lined, her teeth blackened, and death lent her no dignity; but her last breath started echoes that ran out to shake a hemisphere. For the Faery Queen, Elizabeth the First, paramount ruler of England, was no more…

In between a degree in Music and, amongst other things, playing in an electric folk band I sang lute songs. Not very well, I must add, but accompanied very ably by a lutenist and a bass viol player. Rather than being seen as art songs these airs — by Campion, Morley, Dowland and others — telling of love and woe and of paganism and nature must have displayed a clear kinship with the traditional airs and folk themes normally sung in the club, and seemed to go down well despite my artless renditions.

One of the best known of John Dowland’s collection of airs called Lachrime (‘Tears’) is the heart-rending ‘Flow My Teares’ from his Second Booke of Songs or Ayres of 1600. It is in the form of a pavane, a slow and stately dance of the period, the sections structured here as AABBC (where C is the coda or tailpiece and A and B contrasting melodies). Whether Keith Roberts intended it so or not, it’s possible to use Dowland’s words as a counterpoint to Roberts’ narrative, and that’s what I intend to do.

But first, the Prologue…

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A Faerie primer

3graces
The Three Graces from Botticelli’s Primavera (circa 1482) in the Uffizi, Florence

Susanna Clarke The Ladies of Grace Adieu
Illustrated by Charles Vess
Bloomsbury 2007 (2006)

I have quite a few illustrated reprints of 19th- and early 20th-century folk- and fairy-tale collections on my shelves, some even facsimiles of the originals, and so this collection of short stories by the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in many ways seemed familiar. Not only were the Charles Vess illustrations deliberately reminiscent of those of Arthur Rackham and his ilk, but the writing often recalled antiquarian texts with the occasional scholarly footnotes. In fact I was often reminded of the ghost stories of M R James in that they seemed as if written by an earlier avatar of that academic.

Above all, of course, the style was unmistakably that of Susanna Clarke’s own magnificent debut novel with its Regency aesthetic and period spelling — and no worse for that. That this collection has been compared unfavourably with that doorstopper of a fantasy is unfortunate since it should be judged solely as a group of short fictions: as such it is much more successful than many an uneven selection of miscellaneous tales, even those by a single author.

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Mixing genres

the-planet-earth

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”

Spoiler alerts!

paperbacks
Re-shelving in progress

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I used to glance at the end of any novel I was reading to get an inkling of how it would turn out. It may have been a quirk of youth, the same way that modern youngsters playing platform video games research what ‘cheats’ are available to help get them onto the next level.

(Of course non-fiction usually plays by different rules, especially those titles on the scholarly end of the spectrum: the old advice on writing essays — “Say what you’re going to say, say it, and then say what you’ve just said” — generally applies, with the work’s conclusions revealed on the back cover or dust jacket (or, as in the case of papers, in the Abstract). The principle here is less what you conclude and more how you get to your conclusion.)

So. Spoilers. You either hate ’em or love ’em.

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