The pleasure of essays

 

I’m pretty much a fiction reader, although I have read non-fiction over the years, mostly biography and history. I remember reading a book on the early Christian saint, Columba. I was much taken with it but I have never been able to find that book again. I also read a biography of Isadora Duncan that started an infatuation of free-wheeling arty women of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, leading on to Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.

Lately, however, I’ve found myself gravitating to more non-fiction and admiring it for its writerly qualities. A book that opened my eyes was Cheryl Strayed ‘Wild’. On the face of it this was a relatively simple story about a trek along the Pacific Crest Trail in North America but Strayed made it into a riveting narrative that was tense, insightful, introspective and a wonderful invocation of place and exploration of embodiment. I couldn’t quite work out how she’d pulled it off.

After Strayed, I was dumbstruck by a book that I had dismissed because it was a bestseller (and Oprah and everyone loved it) – ‘Wild Swans’ by Jung Chang. What a staggering book this is – beautifully written and structured covering an incredible period in history (late imperial China through to post-Mao) with the unique insight of the author’s parents who were early party members (not even their loyalty or rank could protect them from the ravages of Maoism).

After recovering from this, I stumbled on to Helen Garner’s collection of essays, ‘Everywhere I Look’. Taught, acutely observed, these essays made me realise that the pleasure of language, used with art and precision, could apply equally to non-fiction as fiction, and an essay can yield all the punch and meaning of a short story.

I found this also in Maggie O’Farrell’s book ‘I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death’. While some of these brushes with death are more serious and dramatic than others, each essay is a master class in constructing a narrative. O’Farrell brings all her fiction writing skill to bear on instilling meaning, reflection, emotion, horror and humour in these gems of stories. The first one in the collection, which deals with her encounter with a man on a lonely path by a lake who turns out to be a rapist and murderer is like a novel in miniature – what wonderful economy of style to achieve this. O’Farrell recalls all these events from the present time and so can move back and forward in time weaving around them threads of meaning. She also creates resonances between the pieces so, for example, we find out in a later essay why Maggie was sickly and bullied in school in an earlier piece. She is unsentimental about her younger self, and the reader is sometimes frustrated at her actions, but after ‘Cerebellum’ I had to reassess my reactions.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Penelope Lively’s ‘Dancing Fish and Ammonites’ (bizarrely also published as ‘Ammonites and Leaping Fish’). Now eighty years old, Lively writes wonderfully on the trials, indignities, frustrations but also freedoms of old age. Again, a fiction writer whose prose is muscular, studied and a joy to read. She reminded me of why I love George Orwell’s essays so much (‘A Nice Cup of Tea’, for example) ­– wry, humorous and just so beautifully written. Lively also touches on her childhood (she wrote a wonderful autobiography around this time in Eqypt in ‘Jacaranda, Oleander’) and the essay here conveys what it was like coming back to cold and grey post-war Britain). Other sections of the book deal with her reading and writing life, and an extended essay on memory where she over-philosophises somewhat (the least interesting section for me) but, still, a writer at the top of her powers.

 

Top Reads of 2017

Looking back over the books I read in 2017, I notice that I did read quite a bit of schlock. By shlock I generally mean genre books that are written to thrill, excite, divert, transport one to an exotic, unusual or just very different environment, all for entertainment. They are the sort of book you don’t like to admit to reading such as the romance thrillers of Mary Stewart (I read two of these – The Gabrielle Hounds set in Lebanon and the novella, Wind Off the Small Isles, set in the Canary Islands) or they are children’s/YA books like Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries (I gobbled down The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag).

Nevertheless, I did read some more worthy tomes, and was glad to see that out of the 37 books I read, eleven were literary, and one a classic (Middlemarch). I was surprised that I read only two crime books, six fantasy/speculative and also only two kids/YA (Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls and the Flavia de Luce).

What was not surprising is that I continue to overwhelmingly read female writers – 29 out of 37, and my top books for the year are all by women. Of the male writers, my favourite book was Hisham Matar’s gentle and atmospheric Anatomy of a Disappearance. In many ways this novel about an adolescent boy who has complex feelings towards his father’s new beautiful, young wife and the guilt he feels when his father goes missing, and he and his stepmother have to search for him, reminded me in tone of one of my favourite books of the year, Susanna Moore’s wonderful My Old Sweetheart. Here the adolescent is a girl, not a boy, trying to cope with an erratic, beautiful mother and distant father on their ravishingly-described estate in Hawaii (Matar’s beautifully-described setting is a 1950s Alexandria).

Top 3 books

Wild Swans by Jung Chang
This book taught me so much about Maoist China. It was told from the inside because Jung’s parents were fairly high-up Communists having joined the movement during WWII. Her parents were idealists and their lives are told with insight and poignancy. How Jung managed to put together this huge book from interviews with her family, and make it so utterly compelling, is a marvel – it goes from her grandmother’s experience the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century, through her parents’ time in the rise of Communism, and the true horror of Mao, onto Jung’s own experiences as a child and young woman, until she eventually gets a chance to escape to the West. It is an epic, it is beautifully written and constructed, and it is one of those rare books that takes you convincingly into an alien culture. Amazing.

My Old Sweetheart by Susanna Moore
One of those books that you click with. The main character, Lily, is the sensitive, conflicted adolescent that I, rather nostalgically, relate to. Everything is felt deeply, the mother is idolised, yet fatally flawed, and we know that Lily is going to be hurt. It’s a life of beauty, ennui, longing. It’s like a Katherine Mansfield short story, or the delicious, sad, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn
Better late than never to come to this wonderful fantasy novel set in a reimagined medieval Japan. The two main characters: Takeo and Kaede, both teenagers when it starts are wonderfully realised, and both constrained, one way or another, by the strictly codified society they live in. I fell in love with the world-weary but essentially good Lord Shigeru, as did Takeo when Shigeru rescued him from the warlord who had destroyed his village. Takeo has to learn to craft his powers, and control his impulses, while Kaede has to survive being a hostage in a rival clan’s castle. These books (Tales of Otori) are beautifully written, paced superbly, great plotting, exciting, sad, gory – just everything you want from fantasy/historical fiction.

My Old Sweetheart and What Lies Between Us

My Old Sweetheart by Susanna Moore & What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera

My old sweetheartThere is a similarity in these novels, although one was written in 1982 and the other is 2016. Moore’s novel is set in lush, tropical Hawaii and is centred on a young, uncertain teenage girl, Lily. Lily’s mother is beautiful but prey to bouts of mania and depression, and Lily’s father, Sheridan, a doctor at the local hospital (and also a wealthy plantation owner) is remote. Of course Lily and her sister and brother always take their dreamy, wilful, imaginative mother’s side against their father. Munaweera’s novel likewise has a heady, exotic setting: this time Sri Lanka. We meet the narrator as a young girl; her mother is also beautiful, but like Lily’s mother she is never confident in her marriage as she comes from a lower social cast than her husband. The father, here, is similarly remote: a university professor this time, and also independently wealthy so that he gets his way, cloistered in his study, while mother and daughter bend to his will.

In both novels we see the parents through the daughter’s eyes – and the lens is coloured. They see their parents as are remote, quixotic, unpredictable, perhaps even dangerous. Not surprisingly the girls look elsewhere for companionship: Lily with a Japanese boy, Tosi, informally adopted by Sheridan but who acts as a servant, and the girl in “What Lies Between Us”, with a yard boy, Samson, as she follows him around in the burgeoning garden and watches as he cleans the pond slick with lilies and fish. Both author’s reveal a love for the beauty of their tropical childhoods, and the descriptions are evocative and ravishing.

What LiesHowever, and not unexpectedly, there is trouble in paradise (in fact the girls are never at ease and this sense heightens the sights, smells, sounds of their lush islands). The danger and thrill surrounding Lily’s mother, Anna, is beautifully suggested in an early scene where the family, sans, father, swims out to an underwater cave. Only Lily dives under the water, following her mother, into the dark entrance and it is Lily who has to remind her that they should return before the tide is too high and they are cut off. In the case of Munaweera’s heroine, tragedy strikes in a drastically-described rainstorm, with a wild and rising river and its suggestive undercurrents. She is quickly packed off to a new life America where a suppressed memory ticks away waiting or its incendiary moment. Lily also faces a tragedy in which she is unwittingly a contributor, and she also becomes an exile, flitting from place to place, island to island, with her young daughter, and the faithful Tosi in tow. (If you are wondering, ‘my old sweetheart’ is the mother’s term of affection for Lily).

There is an languor and sadness about Susanna Moore’s novel; perhaps there is a suggestion of colonial guilt, there is certainly a sense of personal guilt, but this is all played out in a dreamy sort of way that reminded me of those other wonderful tropical novels ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys and Richard Hughes’s ‘High Wind in Jamaica’. There are no neat solutions, just small victories, small moves forward, redolent regret.

Munaweera’s novel fell away for me when the narrative moved to America – while the narrator’s relationship, and having a child, is well-described, I just wasn’t very interested in it. The author shapes the story as a mystery/thriller as we know from the beginning that the narrator has committed some sort of unforgivable crime. I felt this imposed a rigid structure on something that could have flowed more naturally and more organically

My top book read in 2016

a-golden-ageMy criteria for top book is simply the book I loved the most. I guess that is the book that resonated the most, that moved me, that drew me in to an absorbing, interesting world, that had characters I wanted to spend time with. On the whole I don’t read a book unless I think I’m going to enjoy it. The only exception is our book group books which I’m obliged to read. Luckily this year they were all good and interesting in their own way: Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’, Lily King’s wonderful ‘Euphoria’ (based on the life of Margaret Mead), Eggers’ spot-on Facebook/Google satire ‘The Circle’ and Imbolo Mbue’s flawed but fun migrant story ‘Behold the Dreamers’.

The first three are all honourable mentions as is Margret Atwood’s acute and wonderful ‘Stone Mattress’ (the book, a collection of stories, is uneven, though, but the title story is brilliant). Commendations also to Lucy Wood’s ‘Weathering’ – an atmospheric, moving and spooky tale set in a rain-drenched fenlands, and Atwood’s other wonderful and strange classic ‘Surfacing’ that somehow I had missed out on reading all these years – first published in 1972, if you can believe it. Joanne Harris’s ‘Gentlemen and Players’ was a satisfying, twisty thriller that I think they are making into a film.

But drum roll, or, more aptly, sit down quietly under a mango tree and sip a cup of Darjeeling – my favourite was ‘A Golden Age’ by Tahmima Anam. This wonderfully moving, sad and understated novel follows the lives of a mother Rehana and daughter Maya and son Sohail, at the time when Bangladesh was fighting for it’s independence from Pakistan. The novel captures you from the opening lines:

Dear Husband, I lost our children today …

How would she begin to tell him?

She got back into the rickshaw with the children … the graveyard was dotted with dusk mourners. They tossed flowers on the wet pelts of grass that grew over their loved ones. In the next row a man in a white cap cried into his hands. Beside him, an old woman clutched a spray of bokul.

Rehana held the round palms of her children.

‘Say goodbye to your father,’ she said, pointing to Iqbal’s grave.

The rest of the novel is Rehana’s explanation to her dead husband about what happened to her and their children. To get her children back from the court who has given custody to her wealthy brother in Lahore, Rehana scrounges money to build a house in her backyard that she rents out so that she can say she is financially independent. She is happy to be a widow cooking and having friends over and bringing up her children – feminist Maya and university radical Sohail. History, of course, steps in.

I’m conscious that this description would probably not draw anyone to read this book but, as with the best novels, it is not the plot: it is the atmosphere, the characters who get under your skin, the sense of the richness in human existence, shadowed by things none of us want to face.

I have Anam’s follow-up novel ‘The Good Muslim’ that follows Maya’s life to read this year.

  • For the stats. Five male writers out of 33 books. Two memoirs, one non-fiction, one classic, eleven fantasy or spec fiction, three crime, the rest general fiction. I will try to up the classics in 2017.

 

 

The Witches – Stacy Schiff

the-witchesThis book, a history of the Salem witch trials is the darling of the critics, and the dud of the reader. “J K Rowling meets Antony Beevor, Stephen King and Marina Warner” says The Times quote on the cover. ‘Schiff’s writing is to die for’ it effuses. Um, no. Schiff has taken a fascinating, utterly compelling subject and sucked the life out of it to leave a dried husk. Her convoluted, tortured sentences while perhaps, elegant, inventive and even witty on their own, when compiled one upon the other just serve to obfuscate an already extremely complicated and detailed account. No one can fault Schiff for her research: it is meticulous and wide-ranging. As well as getting the actual events of the accusations and trial, we get an account of the colony of New England, the land disputes and administration of Salem and surrounds; the family backgrounds and histories of the ministers, the judges, the governors, the scribe for the trials etc. etc. To complicate matters further, these accounts often form lengthy diversions interspersed through the narrative dragging the reader down intricate, detailed and boring rabbit holes. One wonders if the critics actually read the book they reviewed.

To be fair to Schiff, the lumpiness of the book is probably due to the type of documentary evidence available – we have the court records (though these are not complete and are often filtered through the opinion of the recorder), land dispute records, and histories of the officials (all men). There is a big gap in that there is little known about the teenage accusers (all female), and what is known is eked out by Schiff so that her take on the genuineness, or otherwise, of the girls is only revealed towards the very end of this lengthy account. Often the girls are described as though they are one shrieking, contorting entity.

I started out reading this book so angry and exasperated by what happened to the initial witches who were hanged – one was a beggar woman, and another sharp-tongued and opinionated: the type of women outsiders who fitted the medieval witch type a neighbour might accuse, but another, Rebecca Nurse, was a kind 71 year old church goer. Schiff goes to great length to establish that there were tribal enmities at work in the community in the form of lengthy land and inheritance disputes, and that this may be part of why some people (women and men) were accused, and how other people could be easily found to also testify against them. The Nurse clan did all they could to save Rebecca (such as getting up a petition), but to no avail.

At the beginning of the book it seemed incredible that the word of the accused girls could have been taken at face value. It all started with two young girls, ten and eleven, the daughter and niece of the local minister writhing and screaming, and saying they were being tormented. In the late 17th century, mishaps and misfortune was often attributed to witchcraft, and the church, including the puritan church, accepted the reality of the devil and demons. This meant the minister spent time at their bedsides praying and trying to work out who was bewitching them. The minister’s Indian servant, Tituba, was only too willing to interpret the girls’ visions. Schiff describes her as a ‘a brilliant raconteur’, her testimony ‘a hypnotic performance’ – her fulsome description of witches’ activities and rites set the scene for the accusations and confessions to follow. Schiff writes: “It was as if Tituba had handed out hallucinogens. The terrifying, psychedelic confession, rather than the voodoo of legend, was her contribution to the events of 1692.”

As the narrative progresses (as we begin to understand that leading questions are allowed in the court, that the gang of girls and young women accusers are able to writhe and shriek in court and say they are pricked and punched, they can fall to the floor when an accused looks at them, and to cry out that they see witches and their familiars – invisible to all except them – sitting on the rafters: all without being questioned themselves) you know that there is not going to be any common sense, compassion or fairness in the trials. One thing that riled me was the so-called ‘touch test’. The idea was that if one of the afflicted girls was touched by the witch, their symptoms would cease because the ‘power’ was reabsorbed back into the witch. Of course this test could be easily verified by blindfolding the girl and having a few different people touch her to see if only the touch of the accused worked but, no, they didn’t blindfold her, they blindfolded the accused!

The other truly exasperating thing, is that the court was run by educated men, and at this time it meant educated at Harvard. It was never really explained how such men closed their ears to any dissenting voices – they were forever sending letters to senior churchmen in Boston or New York senior asking for their advice on the matter, and then ignoring the advice. For example, they were warned not to rely on ‘spectral’ evidence alone – this is the visions of invisible witches, their familiars, accounts of being asked to sign the devil’s book etc. – yet often evidence used to convict was of this sort. The ridiculous touch test was supposed to be true evidence, and so was used extensively.

But all my outrage at the goings on was suffocated by the detail and diversions, and oblique writing of Schiff – you can’t continue to be angry when you are ploughing through convoluted prose trying to work out what the hell is going on. I also thought the throw away ‘wit’ of Schiff, her tongue-in-cheek jokes, ironic remarks etc., deflated the true horror of what I was reading. Perhaps this was intentional – a way for Schiff to deal with something so confronting and frustrating, and for the reader to deal with it too. It may also be used as a way of hinting her position while maintaining a seemingly objective stance.

“Villages scratched their heads over enchanted fireplaces, ambulatory trees, and misplaced saucers but were more circumspect about those oddities, participating in another New England specialty: that of leaving things unsaid. After the acoustical runaway of the witchcraft crisis – the voices rising to a fever pitch – 1692 left in its wake a thundering reticence.”

As hinted here, there is little satisfaction to be had at the end of the book. Schiff does give some explanation but it is too little, too late. What she does achieve is to throw the reader into a maelstrom of detail to show that there is no easy explanation – there are one or two unreconstructed villains but she presents most participants as honestly trying to deal with an inexplicable problem: the seeming outbreak of the devil’s work in New England. Most people involved, including the accused as well as the accusers, the clergy and the authorities, did believe in witchcraft. At the height of the scare, hundreds of people were accused and arrested.

It is understandable that once the first cohort had been hanged proclaiming their innocence, that the judges could not admit they were wrong, and so were obliged to go on finding guilt, and signing execution orders. It is understandable that the accusers might be hysterics and truly afflicted by pain and visions – the very constricted lives of women and girls at the time contributing to this. It is understandable that people were afraid and lashed out, and that they accused others first for fear of being accused themselves later. SPOILER ALERT But other things are unforgiveable: the torturing of teenage boys into accusing their mother and others, the pressing to death of seventy-year-old man who would not confess, dragging a woman from her sickbed into a cold, crowded, lice-filled gaol where she died; women left to give birth on the gaol floor; the manacling of a five-year-old accused girl, who saw her baby sister die in front of her, and whose mother was hanged (when this orphan was finally released after eight months she was insane and would remain so for the rest of her life); the corrupt appropriation of the property of the accused etc. etc. There was no redress for these many crimes and there were only a few confessions by those involved that they had put innocents to death. Only one of the accuser girls later admitted to fabrication; she had to do this to be allowed back into the congregation. It is interesting that, although this issue of fabricating the whole thing is pivotal to a modern understanding of the trials, it didn’t appear to be the crux of the matter for the people of the day. Except for the one confessor, none of the other girls were held to account: they grew up and led ordinary lives, apparently.

All in all, “The Witches”, is a frustrating read. I would have dearly loved Schiff to be a more straightforward writer, her literary hijinks just complicated things for me. I do admire her, though, for making me see things through the eyes of people living in another time and place, however uncomfortable that process was.

The Book of Whispers – Kimberley Starr

9781925355512-1In the 11th century, young Tuscan, Luca de Falconi, joins a crusade with his father, the Conte. However, Luca isn’t any ordinary crusader – he can see demons and his father shows him a secret book held by the family written in an indecipherable language. It soon becomes apparent that there are some sinister forces at work, and the princes and clergy leading the crusade are inept, corrupt, or both.

When they reach Anatolia, Luca takes pity on a young woman, who wants to join them. Suzan’s mother is a mute, and is reviled by the members of a convent where she occupies a cell – like Luca, she is not what she seems, and neither is Suzan. Providentially Suzan is able to read the mysterious language of the book and she and Luca work out that the demons, who desire human bodies, are planning something when the crusaders makes it to Jerusalem.

There are trials and tribulations for Suzan and Luca along the way as they try to decipher the meaning of the book and survive the various skirmishes and sieges. Starr does not hold back on the violence and dubious nature of the crusade. The period description is rich in detail, even if the language, thoughts and relationships of the characters have a decidedly modern feel.

There is quite a complex plot, and the story is drawn along well by the device of the book, however, I thought some of the threads were tangential or not worked through properly, possibly because there may be a sequel in the making.

“The Book of Whispers” won the Text prize for an unpublished YA manuscript.

Travelling to Infinity – Jane Hawking

infinityThe photo on the front cover of Jane Hawking’s autobiography of her long marriage to Stephen Hawking shows a bookish long-haired Jane and a mop haired, handsome Stephen Hawking – both look cool and stylishly 60s. Yes, they did fall in love in the sixties – he a brilliant PhD student at Cambridge, she a languages student in London. The window for young love was terribly narrow as Stephen was given the motor neurone disease diagnosis in his early twenties – when he asked her to marry him he knew his prognosis, and so did she. The doctors gave him only a few years to live – they thought they should enjoy married life while they could; Jane tells us she loved him, and so of course she would marry him.

Her parents were less sanguine, and so were his, although, as it transpired they appeared to hand over responsibility for Stephen totally to Jane, and it was not long until that responsibility was particularly onerous.

One of the problems, perhaps, with this book is that it is, necessarily one sided – it’s Jane’s story. But that is the interest of it – it appears to be scrupulously honest, detailed, reflective and unflinching. We are given enough detail and context to make up our own minds.

In another writer’s hands, this account of a marriage, an astounding career, the visceral trials of disability, a family under strain and, ultimately, various degrees of betrayal, could have been prurient. But Jane goes to great lengths to show her love and dedication to Stephen, and to give credit to his work but we also see the increasing strain of it all, and how the struggling family is left to cope on their own (amazingly, it was not until very late in the piece that they got any nursing or home help at all).

On the face of it, they had an enviable life – Stephen was recognised early as a brilliant mind and he was given a number of posts at a college at Cambridge university. They lived in a heritage house in Little St Mary’s Lane close to the uni and the river, but the reality was the ‘posts’ Stephen held were paid miserably and the house was small, cramped and uncomfortable (he couldn’t teach so he didn’t go through the normal academic trajectory). Children soon came and Jane had to raise toddlers as well as assist Stephen who deteriorated quickly. Stephen insisted she go with him overseas to awards and conferences, to further his career, dragging the kids. She was privileged to go all over the world (the account of Soviet-era Russia is particularly interesting) but it was an incredible strain, and Stephen’s wishes were always paramount.

Jane makes much of how the wives were known as physics widows. Many of these women (Jane included) were qualified and intellectually gifted, but the physics always came first, and it would be beyond the pale to put your own interests before, you know, little things like: ‘the origin of the universe’, ‘black holes’ and ‘the theory of everything’. As the years wore on and Stephen became more severely disabled, he seemed to become more determined, more autocratic and demanding. Jane would be the first to say he was courageous in his suffering – before he had a tracheotomy, he had coughing fits during which he must have thought he was dying – but he appears to have utter confidence in his superiority and importance, and complete belief that Jane should devote her life to him, even above the children.

My reading is that Stephen was a complete tyrant, maybe he had to be to survive. On the positive side he loved his children, even though, and much to Jane’s bitter regret, he relied heavily on his eldest son (Robert) to help him physically, the responsibility depriving Robert of part of his childhood.

I couldn’t help but be on Jane’s side in this book. She was not a paragon of virtue but she did devote much of her young adult life, and middle age, to Stephen – she did manage to complete a PhD herself in this time but it took her over ten years to do so.

As is often the case in marriage breakups, when Stephen made a significant amount of money from the immense success of ‘A Brief History of Time’ Jane didn’t get to see the proceeds. As Stephen became more and more successful and famous, his body became more and more infirm – in the later stages of the marriage they could finally afford nurses to help look after Stephen. But for Jane this wasn’t a much-awaited respite but just more worry as the nurses squabbled, or were neglectful, or treated the family with contempt. Jane hated that the family, especially the school-aged children, had to relinquish their privacy.

The advent of the nurses also, unwittingly, brought about the end of the marriage. Stephen left the family for one of the nurses, Elaine Mason. By all accounts, Elaine appeared to idolise Stephen – she would berate Jane, accusing her of not giving up everything for Stephen, the great man. Jane, by her own account, was shell-shocked at Stephen’s request for a divorce, however, from an outsider’s viewpoint her (admittedly platonic) relationship with another man – Jonathan – over many years, must have allowed Stephen to feel he was justified in looking elsewhere. Jonathan did help the family with assisting with meals, chores, transport and physically helping Stephen but, if Jane and he were in love, it must have been obvious to everyone and humiliating for Stephen, although he never said so. Perhaps it took Elaine to point it out.

The whole Stephen/Elaine thing takes up very little space in this long book, and Jane doesn’t dwell on it. You can learn more online about the accusations of abuse and the subsequent divorce. For Jane’s part, she married Jonathan, renovated a house in France and wrote her own very successful book. Latterly, it appears that Stephen and Jane have become friends again – apparently Stephen thought the film made of their early life ‘The Theory of Everything’ was a pretty accurate account – perhaps flattered at Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of him – that would be just like Stephen’s immense ego.

Spec Fic Reading Challenge

Okay. I don’t know why I’ve done this, especially as it is already July but I’m doing a Worlds Without JTEnd “Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge” – 12 books in 12 months. The idea is to read spec fiction and fantasy by women writers you haven’t read before. Looking over my ‘read’ books for this year, I notice I have already read a few:

  • “Juniper Time” by Kate Wilhelm. This spec fiction novel was written in 1978 and I was drawn to its funky cover. Jean is a post-grad linguist working in a university in the US in a time of society breakdown. If you have a job, you’re protected but she can’t continue to work for her compromised boss so she leaves and for a time lives in a decaying ‘new town’. After being attacked she flees to her grandfather’s old abandoned ranch. Meanwhile her childhood friend Cluny is an astronaut but the space station he works on is slated for closure until a mysterious object is found Witchweekfloating in space near it. Both Cluny’s father and Jean’s were astronauts – both dying in suspicious circumstances. The threads link when Jean is called on to try to decipher what is written on the extraterrestrial object. I enjoyed this book but it was extremely strange and oblique with a lot of philosophising.
  • “Witch Week” Diana Wynne Jones. This is a wonderful children’s book about orphan children of witches who have been liquidated by the state. In school any hint of magical abilities could prove fatal. It is funny, clever, tense, with great characters. Written in 1982, it predates “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, but it is similar in many ways. Fantastic – I definitely will read the others in the series.Uprooted
  • “Uprooted” by Naomi Novik. This fantasy, again featuring a witch, is influenced by Eastern European fairytales. Agnieszka is a peasant girl who is chosen by a wizard, the Dragon, to live in his castle for ten years. Girls (as servants) are selected in return for the wizard protecting the villagers of the valley from the sinister, encroaching forest. Agnieszka turns out to have magical abilities much to the annoyance of the Dragon. She has to learn to use them in time to help him ward off the growing power of the forest. Quite a lot of fun but it gets darker as the story progresses.
  • “Blythewood” by Carol Goodman. For some reason this novel is not on the Worlds BlythewoodWithout End database so I can’t include it in the challenge. This is YA boarding school fantasy. It starts with Avaline being rescued from a fire at the sweat house where she’s forced to work after her mother dies. The rescuer is a strangely attractive man who flees the scene afterwards. Her mother’s strange past is crystallised when Avaline gains entry to the prestigious Blythewood Academy. Naturally the students aren’t normal students and Blythewood is a place where they train to fight evil forces. There are some YA aspects that are a bit annoying, but on the whole it is an exciting and absorbing read. There are two sequels so far – “Ravencliffe” and “Hawthorn”.

So now to find some more women SF writers that I haven’t read. I have Marge Piercy’s “Woman on the Edge of Time” in my sights.

Gentlemen and Players – Joanne Harris

Gentlemen and PlayersJoanne Harris is a interesting writer – very diverse in her output. I started out with her where most people did, “Chocolat” in 1999. It wasn’t really my sort of book but the fantasy element with its whiff of witchcraft was intriguing. Over the years, I looked at her other books but they didn’t appeal (“Five Quarters of the Orange”, “Coastliners”). I then came across “The Evil Seed”Harris’s first published book (1989)– a wonderful contemporary vampire thriller. I have no idea why this terrific book is not better known. A lot of her bibliographies, don’t include it at all. I then read Jigs and Reels, a satisfying collection of her short stories, and then the horribly titled “Lollipop Shoes”, which follows Chocolat’s heroine Vianne and her two daughters who are now living in Montmartre, and what happens when the seductively sinister Zozie comes into their lives. (I note that this book was later retitled The Girl with No Shadow for some editions).

I gave “Gentlemen and Players” to a relative for a present. When they didn’t read it for a couple of years, I repatriated it back to my place. They missed out on a fantastic suspense novel, cleverly constructed and compulsively readable. It is set in a boys’ boarding school, St Oswald’s, and has two narrators. One is the working class offspring of the school’s loyal ‘poThe evil seedrter’. Harris portrays a character who is both envious of the advantages of the wealthy boys at the school, who is unconfident and jealous, but also, especially in this person’s older voice, deliciously cynical, cutting and conniving. The other narrator is the about-to-retire classics master – also cynical about the school and the powers that be there but someone who is good at his job and liked by the boys (this is a lovely portrayal reminiscent of Mr Chips or, albeit is a less schmaltzy form, the teacher in Dead Poets Society).

We soon find out that our first narrator has infiltrated the school as a teacher and is now bent on wreaking revenge for a wrong that is slowly revealed through the story. The revenge starts out in small ways, things going missing and innocents being blamed, graffiti scrawled on teachers’ homes, but is then ratcheted up: pornography found on teachers’ computers and students going missing. Our narrator is keeping the classics master for a final coup de grace or, more appropriately, check mate. My edition of the novel has chess pieces to represent the two narrators – a white king for the classics master and a black pawn for the other narrator. The sections of the book also refer to a game of chess, and that’s what it is in the end as the two narrators battle it out for who will survive.

I’ve been careful what I’ve said here because there is a huge twist at the end that it would be unfair to reveal. Most reviewers have praised this device but I felt it wasn’t necessary. It is one of those twists which make you go back over the book to work out how you were fooled. Nevertheless “Gentlemen and Players” really is a virtuoso example of suspense writing.

Black Rabbit Hall – Eve Chase

Black_rabbitLuckily, with novels, usually you can tell from the subject, the tone, the style of writing and the characters whether it is going to be your sort of book or not pretty much straight up. Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase was unusual for me in that I loved the strand set in the late 60s with young heroine, Amber, and her family but was left cold by the contemporary strand centred around Lorna. While there was drama and interest in the first strand, and a tragedy that pulls the family apart with far-reaching consequences, twenty-something contemporary Lorna is self-satisfied, dull and annoying – the plot device that links her to Black Rabbit Hall is unbelievable and unlikely, and while she has to confront something in her past, her tribulations are trivial compared to those of the earlier family. There is also a light-hearted silliness in the contemporary strand that sat uneasily with the tension and growing unease in the 60s storyline, for me. This miscalculation was such a pity as Chase creates-a wonderful portrait of the Alton family, especially the children and Amber’s close, but fraught, relationship with her twin brother Toby. When the tragedy occurs and all sorts of strains are placed on the family, we really do get drawn into their world and a sense of rising crisis when a step mother and her handsome son are inserted into it. Amber’s innocence but also her need to grow up is poignantly and sensitively done.

I could hardly bear to read the pat ending to this book, when Lorna comes into her own. I don’t think she deserved her redemption. I won’t do a spoiler but the ending really made me angry like it was some sort of tacked on finery designed to pretty up the picture, but which in reality dragged it all down.