Course of Mirrors; an Odyssey. By Ashen Venema

Ana’s is a sheltered, privileged, life, but all is not well. Her parents live in separate mansions, on opposite sides of a river gorge. Ana, as go between, must carry their messages across the bridge that connects them.

I cannot recall when I first sensed the unspoken thing that mother kept from me, like an ache she passively resigned herself to. I thought my existence was to blame. The secret’s dark spell imprisoned me more than the walls surrounding Katun Court and mother’s mansion.

In fiction, a secret is a promise. Having planted it, Ana moves away, shows us scenes from her childhood in her fractured family, and tells us about the kingdom they live in. There are lyrical descriptions where personalities are developed and put into context:

…we travelled in all seasons. During winter months, the northern horizon of Kars and Estan was rimmed by snow caps resembling a parade of porcelain elephants…

I was strapped onto a pony so I could ride with him next to mother’s carriage along unbending roads through the rocky terrain of Kars. And onwards through the flatlands of Estan straight and gridded like a chessboard…

Mother was tense and irritable on these journeys. She preferred Nimrich, where narrow tracks circled copses ad lakes and riddled the ancient woodlands.

We are in an alternative reality. As the summary on the back of the novel puts it, the setting is mythical. Since myth includes all kinds of mystery the unfolding story is limitless, as Ana soon proves to be.

The formative years are soon past, and for her nineteenth birthday, Ana’s cousins arrive with an invite, ‘”Let’s climb the Gazal…” Among the mountains behind us, the Gazal was the most daunting…’ This will be her first adventure, demonstrating to herself, and us, her potential to face challenges and dangers.

After that, it’s only a matter of time before her dreams and questions lead to rebellion:

Something in me snapped. a force beyond caring compelled me to confront my father.

Ana sets out on her ‘odyssey’.

There are progressions and set-backs, some bleakly dark. The lone road is a place where Ana learns to distinguish between allies and foes, and to explore the meanings of love, friendship and betrayal.

This is a bildungsroman story, in other words, a journey that mirrors the ‘psychological and moral growth of the protagonist’. It would be tricky to tell you more of the way Ana’s story unfolds without presenting ‘spoilers’, so I’ll leave you with the Cambridge Dictionary definition for Odyssey: a long trip or period involving a lot of different and exciting activities, especially while searching for something.

Ashen says that she was inspired by 1001 Nights, and Ursula le Guin, and I can see how that has worked. There were moments when I recognised the influence of both, and more moments that were entirely Ashen Venema’s. It made an interesting and entertaining journey.

Ashen Venema is a poet, philosopher, writer, therapist, photographer. If you’d like to learn more about her, you might drop by her interesting blog, that is also called, Course of Mirrors, where she reflects on her experiences.

Where Lorna Doone meets The Godfather, & The War of the Worlds.

Go on, admit it, my title has intrigued you, at least a little, hasn’t it?

No, this isn’t a review of a new ‘mash-up’ novel, though I’d be quite interested to see how ‘girt* Jan Ridd’ and his family would measure up to an alien invasion. I’ve not been impressed by his dealings with the Doone ‘gang’, who have been robbing, raping and pillaging the Exmoor neighbourhood for decades, while everyone shrugs and says, ‘Well, what do you expect? Poor things, loosing that rich estate in Scotland, then being banished by the King, it’s not surprising they’re bitter.’

Several of my reading groups have seen parallels with Francis Ford Coppola’s, The Godfather. Sir Ensor, the patriarch of the Doones, like Vito Corleone, is a traditionalist who demands respect and is supported by a crooked lawyer, in this case, his son, ‘The Councillor’.

The Councillor’s son, Carver, is evil. He’s the distillation of all the bitterness in Sir Ensor and The Councillor. Of course, we only see any of these characters through the eyes of our narrator, John (aka Jan) Ridd, who is competing with Carver for Lorna. Despite John’s repeated assurances about his own honesty, I can’t help feeling that there may be some bias in the story he’s telling.

Carver, as his nickname might suggest, lacks the subtlety or charm of Michael Corleone. What he has in spades, is muscle and ambition, oh, and wives. Yes, your read me right, it turns out that Carver has so far strayed from the path of respectability that when the den of thieves finally is challenged, he is discovered to be keeping ‘ten or a dozen‘ wives – so many in fact, John can’t be exact. As for the children, there’s no attempt to count them!

In suggesting these parallels I’m not claiming that Mario Puzo once read Lorna Doone, though I wish I could have asked him. These are outlaw stories, and it could be argued that both rely on stereotypes. I do, however, wonder if Puzo ever saw one of the film versions. His novel, The Godfather, was published in 1969. Four of the six Lorna Doone films had been made by then, and one of the two series for the BBC.

I’ve seen extracts of all except the 1912 and 1963 versions, which don’t seem to exist any more. The rest seem, to me, to say as much about the decade they have been produced in as they do about the original they draw from. That’s not so surprising. To convey all of the events and nuances of this hefty novel would take more hours than have yet been given to it.

Lorna Doone has also been adapted for stage and radio. As has, HG Wells’ novel, The War of The Worlds.

I’ve been watching the latest screen version of that, on the BBC (it finished last night), for the last three weeks. The selling point, for yet another remake, was the claim that it kept closer to the book than others had.

I’m not so sure that’s true, but I’ve enjoyed it. As I have every other version I’ve watched, despite (or maybe because of) the liberties taken.

Wikipedia lists 10 direct screen adaptations, and 14 for radio (including the famous 1938 Orson Welles version). Add to that the musical interpretations (Jeff Wayne’s was not the only one), plus numerous comic books and sequels, that’s a lot of inspiring.

There was no implied criticism in wondering why the story was getting another incarnation, only curiosity. I was reminded that someone funded the 2000 Lorna Doone film only ten years after the previous version had been made. Even in these fast moving times, that surely counts as being within living memory. So,why?

Well, I have a theory. I think both novels foreground plot rather than character. Maybe those kinds of stories leave more room for the adapter, or even the well-known actors.

* Girt: dialect version of great – meaning ‘large’ or ‘very big’.

Chickens, eggs, and travelling through time with RD Blackmore.

Seventeenth century Exmoor has been my virtual home for around seven weeks now, and I feel that my feet are comfortably settled under John Ridd’s table. He’s been an entertaining host, though as a twenty-first century woman, to begin with, I did have some problems adjusting.

It’s hardly my first time in Restoration Britain. I have vivid memories of skating along the frozen River Thames with Virginia Woolf’s, Orlando; and wandering the Welsh hills with Lucy Walter and the young prince who would be crowned as Charles II, in The Child From The Sea, by Elizabeth Goudge.

Antonia Frazer, Jean Plaidy and Margaret Irwin introduced me to some of the key political characters and events for this period. However, apart from Orlando, the main characters in those and other novels, have tended to be strong females.

I’ve been asking myself, ‘do I love history because of historical fiction, or historical fiction because I love history?’ Maybe I might also ask, ‘did those adventures distort my idea of history?’

Although I knew that most women, in those times, were constrained, contained and restricted, I was usually too busy cheering on the rebels to think about what day-to-day life was like for the majority. RD Blackmore’s novel forced me to think of them in domestic spheres.

Women are ideally soft, submissive, and lovely to look at. John describes his sister, Annie, as:

…of a pleasing face, and very gentle manner, almost like a lady, some people said; but without any airs whatever, only trying to give satisfaction.

She’s also a paragon, keeping the kitchen immaculate and constantly cooking up massive delicious meals for the family and all visitors.

Lorna Doone, the woman of John’s dreams, lacks practical skills, but then, she’s a lady.

I could not but behold her manner, as she went before me, all her grace, and lovely sweetness, and her sense of what she was.

She was a different being; not woman enough to do anything bad, yet enough of a woman for man to adore.

I could have grown tired of all these characters, if I hadn’t begun to notice that there was an interesting gap between what John said, and what the women were doing. While they could not be described as active, in a modern sense, it became apparent that they were often at odds with John’s ideals.

John’s mother, for example, when her husband is murdered, walks into the hideout where the criminals are living to ‘speak her mind’ to them.

Now, after all, what right had she, a common farmer’s widow, to take it amiss that men of birth thought fit to kill her husband? And the Doones were of very high birth, as all we clods of Exmoor knew; and we had enough of good teaching… to feel that all we had belonged of right to those above us. therefore my mother was half-ashamed, that she could not help complaining.

It’s a moment that holds a key to so much of this story. A great wrong has been committed, in a time when rights are with the strongest. There is no police-force to turn to, there is only class. The society described is close to feudal. Everyone should know their place. And yet, here is Sarah Ridd, approaching her betters to tell them that she, and her children, have been harmed by their actions.

We’re left to decide whether she’s brave or foolhardy, in making herself vulnerable to a gang well known for rapine, pillage and murder. She may never do anything so outrageous again, but the potential of all women for acts of bravery has been presented.

It may be more than I should expect from a book that was written a hundred and fifty years ago, set in a time a hundred and ninety years before that. Perhaps it signals the beginning of a pattern.

Recent release: You Beneath Your Skin, by Damyanti Biswas.

This week, thanks to Damyanti’s new novel, I’ve visited Delhi. Unlike the average tourist trip, this one included glimpses of family life, walks through some of the seamier areas, plus a ghetto.

I’ve had several guides. First was Anjali Morgan, an American born psychiatrist who has lived in the city with her autistic son, Nikhil, for twelve years, and is about to help investigate a horrific crime.

The story opens with a crisis. Nikhil has jumped out of Anjali’s car, as they were driving away from the shopping mal, because he was not allowed to buy an extra toy.

A worried mother, trapped in a queue of moving traffic and confronted by guards who do not understand the significance of Nikhil’s condition and vulnerability, is a strong story hook. It also allows a great deal of information to be conveyed, economically.

We have setting, colour and context, in the dialogue:

Madamji.‘ A short Nepali guard in a beige uniform hurried up the slope towards her, his whistle shrieking. ‘Yahan parking allowed yihin hai.’

‘I’m sorry.’ Anjali tried to remember the Hindi words, but they’d fled, along with her composure. ‘My son has run away.’

She speaks Hindi as a second language, but as the opening makes clear, to the guard and his supervisor, she is an outsider.

The sight of a light skinned, blond-haired woman, taller and broader than him…

Partial-outsiders, in stories, make excellent guides for a reader trying to settle themselves in unfamiliar territory. They move through the everyday details comfortably, but include things that locals might take for granted. There are, however, some things that an outsider will miss completely, or could be expected to drift off into long explanations.

Damyanti provides us with Several ‘insider’ perspectives. There is an official, and male, view of the action from Jatin Bhatt, Special Commissioner of Crime with the Delhi Police. His side of the story opens in a meeting with his father-in-law, Commissioner Mehra.

Jatin stared at the badge on Mehra’s shoulder… that marked Delhi’s Chief of Police. He wanted it when Mehra retired next year.

A female perspective is presented by his sister, Maya. She’s both traditional and modern. Her role as private detective brings into contrast the modes and methods of the official police-force. Her friendship with Anjali and Nikhil is a key component to the action and outcome of the story.

But there are several other voices too, all providing fresh perspectives on a variety of issues around the crime and the society of Delhi. It’s been an interesting trip, raising lots of questions, even as it resolved the criminal case.

All the proceeds from this novel go to project WHY and Stop Acid Attacks. To find out more, check in with Damyantiwrites.com

Just published: Jean Lee’s new novella.

Night’s Tooth is a fantasy western. Everything we need to know about what this story is going to do is set up in the opening sentence.

Sumac tucks the brass buttons off the last Confederacy coat into his pocket, before tossing it into the dying fire.

Here we have a character with an interesting name. I happen to know that Sumac is a type of tree, known in Britain as Stag’s Horn. Is this relevant?

I always assume names are potentially important, and since I have the botanical reference in my head, every time Sumac is mentioned, I get a momentary memory of the tree. I also know that sumac powder can be bought for cooking with, though I’ve never used it.

But I digress. Why is Sumac keeping the buttons rather than the coats? That’s intriguing, particularly since the next sentence explains something of where he is, and where the coats have come from.

The road up from Bad Axe had been long and cold, and none of the Wanted papers mentioned anything about Slit Mick’s armed companions.

Confederacy coats confirm I’m in America, and the period is some time in, or after the 1860s. It’s winter, and Sumac has travelled a long way. He must be formidable, because in the next sentence we discover not only that he’s killed the whole gang, also that he ‘enjoyed‘ the challenge.

Sumac, then, is impressively ruthless. I won’t say admirably, since the next thing he does is to pick human flesh from between his teeth. In case we’ve misunderstood the significance of that, this section finishes with Sumac thinking about the dead men as part of the ‘food chain‘.

Here is no cosy hero, despite his appearance.

Sumac’s built like a god, a girl told him once, a god of the old country. He asked which country that was. She called it Norway.

Worrying as some of his actions and attitudes are, Sumac is the focus of our attention. The narration is third person, but we experience the world, and events, as he does. The gang, nearly blew Sumac’s ear clean off when he came for Mick, so it was only right Sumac had his fun with those worthless hunks of meat… Did you note that, ‘only right‘?

I can’t say I’m comfortable with the idea that Sumac had his fun. But I’m in the-world-of-story, and Jean is making it easy for me to accept the unacceptable. Besides, with a name like Slit Mick, the outcome was always going to be bloody. But just in case you did begin reading in the expectation of a traditional Western, that’s been rectified.

It soon becomes clear that Sumac is not human. Besides his appetites and attitudes, he is able to transform into a cougar and use natural magic. His observations about the way the world works are intriguingly alternative.

The men’s photographs are so grainy Sumac wonders why anyone bothers with that technological contraption of wood and glass to do what anyone’s done just fine with pencils and paint.

The narrative voice is also interesting. It’s third person, but so close to Sumac that it assumes the oddities of his sentence structures, a distinctive, colloquial, syntax. Look for instance, at what happens when Sumac arrives at the sheriff’s office, with Slit Mick’s body, to collect the two thousand dollar bounty.

Sumac makes no never mind about the bloody handprint he leaves on the knob.

There’s not much time to wonder, though. Slit Mick is small-fry compared to the big prize Sumac is really after, a mysterious character known as, Night’s Tooth.

“Sumac don’t dare lose him, not now, not when he’s so close Sumac can catch his canine scent riding the snow and coal dust.”

The hunt is on. We’ve yet to discover the true nature of any of the creatures roaming the town, or the full extent of what is at stake. This is an edge of the seat, full speed journey, with plenty of unexpected twists.

Once Upon a Time in the North concludes my #10booksofsummerchallenge

Yes, you have just read my title correctly, I’ve finished the summer reading challenge set by Cathy, at 746 Books! Philip Pullman’s novella is the one I kept for last and I finished it in one sitting.

There are still five days to the challenge deadline. No last minute race against the clock for me, I’m calm: I’m sorted. This is unheard of. So, why is it that I don’t feel efficient?

Maybe because I was a little, just a little, disappointed in the book I’d looked forwards to.

As an object, it is delightfully bookish. A lot of thought went into the design and manufacture. For a start, it’s hand-sized. If it had followed standard dimensions, it would have been a narrow volume.

Because it’s short in height, there are more pages, and the spine is wide enough to display the author, title and publisher, comfortably. It looks attractive on the shelf. If I were into interior design, I could imagine wanting a row of them, in matching and contrasting colours.

I wanted to read it. I’ve been savouring the moment of beginning since several months before this challenge started.

The inside reminded me of expensive notebooks, the paper is just that quality that demands such neat perfection I would worry about making the first mark. This is not just a book to own, or to treasure, it’s an artefact that might have come from the parallel universe it describes.

The lovely woodcut illustrations, by John Lawrence are part of the other-wordly charm. The larger ones are footnotes to the action, the thumbnails are story divisions. There are no numbered, or named, chapters. It’s a book that demonstrates how the combination of paper, ink and content can enhance a reading experience.

After the story ends, there is an appendix. Newspaper clippings, letters, year-book extracts, rules for a game and an academic certificate are included. While this book is a prequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy for the readers in this universe, in the universe it describes, What we’ve read is an historical document.

It wasn’t only the quality of the paper that kept me turning the pages. The story was nicely paced, right from the opening line.

The battered cargo balloon came in out of a rainstorm over the White Sea, losing height rapidly and swaying in the strong north-west wind as the pilot trimmed the vanes and tried to adjust the gas-valve.

It’s a pretty spectacular entrance for Lee Scoresby and his daemon, Hester. They’re drifters, in the best American western tradition. Having won his balloon in a poker game, Lee is ‘blown by the winds of chance‘ into Novy Odense, in the Arctic, a place that ‘looked like a place where there was work to be done.’

The first thing he establishes on landing is that the work he’s looking for is not about striking it rich in the expected manner. He’s not there because of the ‘oil rush‘, even if he does look to the locals like ‘a roughneck‘. The question at the opening of the book, then, is what does Lee Scoresby want?

The journey to finding that out includes a few false starts, and blind alleys. Tension builds, shifts and rebuilds. There is a neatly plotted rise in tension.

There is a ‘but’, for me, though.

His Dark Materials were also books of ideas. Soon after they were published discussion began on what was happening below the surface of the action. The story included, if the reader chose to look, additional layers to interpret. It was perfectly acceptable to race through the adventure without recognising anything else happening, of course. But for some of us, the icing on this cake was recognising references, and identifying how they worked.

Although the Dark Materials trilogy was sold in the children’s section, most reviews claim it was written without a specific audience in mind. If I’d checked some other reviews before starting this novella, I would have realised that despite the film references, Once Upon a Time in The North is a book for children. It wasn’t a disappointment, this is beautifully written and paced.

But I probably won’t be tempted by any more of the spin-offs, despite the tactile design.

Prisoners, escapades and histories: my #10booksofsummer.

This week I’ve finished three more books from the ten I chose for the reading challenge set by Cathy, at 746 books, Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart, Coraline by Neil Gaiman and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.

I’ve little to say about Coraline. It’s a competent novel, but I don’t think it would have appealed to me as a child. There were nice moments, and it wasn’t a struggle. Other reviewers have been positive and Henry Selick made it into a film, in 2009. I just didn’t feel any magic.

Huckleberry Finn, on the other hand, grabbed me by the heart and pulled me into his story. I wished I’d read it when I was young. Though I probably would have missed some of the humour.

That book was made by Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mostly.

I loved every moment until Tom Sawyer came back in and took over. Why, of why did Twain do that? Oh, I know it made commercial sense, and that he thought of Huck as a spin off from the highly successful Tom Sawyer, but I so much preferred honest Huck. As, I’m sure, the long suffering Jim must have, too.

I’ve passed Huckleberry to my fourteen year-old nephew, to while-away the hours of a long journey. I’m looking forward to finding out if it works for him, too.

It’s a good job Tom Sawyer is not part of this challenge. I’m not sure I can face him, yet.

I first heard about Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart on the BBC Radio 4 book show, A Good Read, in 2013. I bought a copy, but it stayed on my TBR shelf.

Then last year, it won the Cheltenham Booker 1958 debate. As Claire and I drove home, I said, ‘I’ve got to read that novel, now.’ But somehow, the time has never been right.

When I gathered books for this challenge, Things Fall Apart was the first I decided on. So I was sorry when I couldn’t engage with Okonkwo, the main character. It’s what I expect to do when the opening paragraph seems to offer a hero.

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten…

There’s a lovely description of the wrestling match. But, as soon as Okonkwo has won the story jumps forwards, ‘That was many years ago, twenty or more...’ Now, Okonkwo has a ‘severe look‘, and he walks ‘as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often.‘ In case, like me, you thought that sounded a little playful, the next aspect of this character portrait reverses that:

He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men.

There are no parallel descriptions of how he behaves when happy. Instead, it is clear that Okonkwo is a repressed and repressive character, who doesn’t allow even his family to get close. If they couldn’t, then why should I be allowed to do so?

The narrator did his best, providing me with influences and events that could explain Okonkwo. ‘Fortunately, among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father.‘ Respect, then is his goal, and we’ve already been shown that to earn that, he must be, ‘a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father...’

I could understand, but I struggled to empathise. ‘Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children.‘ My sympathies were with them, fleeting though the glimpses of individuals were.

Yet, I read on. I began to think about why that was.

Every detail counts. It feeds the story. Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, reclines ‘on a mud bed in his hut playing on his flute.’ He’s a lazy man, ‘a failure‘ with huge debts. Okonkwo, on the other hand, ‘stretched himself on his bamboo bed‘. It’s night-time when he goes to rest.

Domestic detail is threaded through the dialogue and action without explanation. Gourds were filled with palm-wine when Unoka ‘made merry‘; a kola nut disc was broken and shared by two men beginning a discussion; prayers were said and the talk was of yam growing, or the threat of heavy rain. Wives kept to their own huts in the compound, cooking meals and raising their children. I was not a stranger being shown something unusual, I was taking part in something ordinary.

I became involved in the domestic, social and spiritual realities of Okonkwo’s community. I had a place in the village. I shared the struggles and dangers, the everyday routines and expectations.

That’s clever. Achebe has taken the advice to ‘show, not tell’ to another level.This is a fine and powerful story. It cut through what I thought I knew about history and civilisation.

I’m not in a physical prison, but the tribute from Nelson Mandela, quoted on the cover, made me think about how complacent-thinking can fence us in. He said, ‘The writer in whose company the prison walls fell down.

A lot of ‘things‘ have been shaken, for me. I don’t say anything will ‘fall apart‘, but it’s good to be able to turn a story round and think again about the values of what has been lost.

Reading Akunin and Pratchett for the #10BooksofSummer challenge.

Putting Boris Akunin with Terry Pratchett feels like the clue to a cryptic crossword, or perhaps a literary riddle. They’re novels five and six from my Ten-Books-of-Summer challenge and, on first sight, an unlikely pairing. Not that I read them together, but the second did follow close-on-the-heels of the first. Given the way the month is slipping by, I felt I needed to make more effort with my reading schedule.

Let me start by being shallow. What drew me to Pelagia and The White Bulldog was the cover. I liked the colours, and the firm lines, as well as the details. It suggested setting and period. I’ve been caught out before by inaccurate book covers, but in this case, my instinct was true. Every detail is relevant, though I didn’t understand quite how cleverly D. Rink had interpreted the story until I’d finished the novel.

As an aside, here’s a hint for any publishers who might stumble across this post: there’s more than one advantage in employing an artist rather than trawling through out-of-copyright images for something that’s vaguely appropriate.

The story opens in medias res (that’s the technical term for ‘in the midst of things’) with a long sentence. I know there’s a lot of valuable advice out there about brevity and simplicity. I agree with it. I’ll go further – I try to abide by it, especially on my blog.

But occasionally, I stumble across a piece of writing that demonstrates how to break that rule. I didn’t itch to un-cap my red-correction pen when I read this opening sentence:

…But I should tell you that, come the apple festival of Transfiguration Day, when the sky begins to change from summer to autumn, it is the usual thing for our town to be overrun by a genuine plague of cicadas, so that by night, much as you might wish to sleep, you can never do it, what with all that interminable trilling on all sides, and the stars hanging way down low over your head, and especially with the moon dangling there only just above the tops of the bell-towers, for all the world like one of our renowned ‘smetna’ variety apples, the ones that the local merchants supply to the royal court and even take to the shows in Europe.

I hadn’t even realised just how long it was, until I started copying it out.

To have interrupted this flow with stronger punctuation would have broken the lyrical dream I was entering. The world presented is a different continent and historical period to mine, but the delivery draws me in.

The narrator is close beside us, ‘I should tell you...’ It’s confidential. He trusts us to understand and share his view. ‘You‘, he says, again and again. I do feel that this is a male voice, though I’m not sure why. A male author doesn’t have to signify a male narrator.

There are references to Sherlock Holmes and, apparently, Akunin was influenced by Umberto Eco’s, The Name of the Rose. This novel, however, feels like magical realism, though the set-up is quirky rather than fantastical. Sister Pelagia, a nun, is sent by His Grace Mitrofanii, Bishop of Zavolzhie, to discover who is trying to ‘murder’ his aunt’s valuable white bulldogs. As she investigates this crime, Pelagia stumbles across a whole host of additional situations.

This is a book that deserves careful reading. What can seem like inconsequential rambles into back-story will be key to the resolution. At its heart, this is a traditionally styled crime novel, with neatly deployed smoke and mirrors.

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents also uses a range of clever miss-directions. Maurice, a talking cat with questionable moral values, leads a clan of talking rats and a ‘stupid looking kid‘ who plays the flute. They’re travelling from town to town pulling a tremendous Pied Piper scam.

But, the rats, who used to live on the rubbish heap at the back of the University for Wizards, have begun to struggle with their recently acquired senses of individual identity. In doing so, they force Maurice, and us, to share their examination of actions and attitudes, and enter into philosophical and ethical avenues of debate.

The older clan member, Hamnpork, would rather ‘the Change‘ hadn’t happened. He thinks that ‘setting fire to a candle is a waste of perfectly good food.’

Dangerous Beans, though, was born after ‘the Change‘ happened. He is clear about why candles should be burned rather than eaten.

‘We have to be able to control the fire, sir,’ said Dangerous Beans calmly. ‘With the flame we make a statement to the darkness. We say: we are separate. We say: we are not just rats. We say: we are The Clan.’

It’s a pacey, character driven story. For those who care to look, it’s threaded through with satirical observations. Cultural myths about plague and rats are central. In the Author’s Note, at the end of the novel, Pratchett says:

I have read, in the past few months, more about rats than is good for me. Most of the true stuff… is so unbelievable that I didn’t include it in case readers thought I’d made it up.

There’s more than biological detail, though. He visits the Pied Piper, Dick Wittington, Puss-in-boots, Alice in Wonderland, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, plus Beatrix Potter and the legion of anthropomorphic story-writers who followed her.

As for James Herbert – remember his horror story about a pack of mutant rats that threaten human life? Pratchett turns that upsides-down. His rat-Clan have eaten the discarded ‘dribbly candle ends‘ and ‘green bubbly stuff‘ that are thrown so carelessly on the tip the rats knew as both ‘home‘ and ‘lunch‘. The result is the evolution of an heroic Clan, as keen as Sister Pelagia to think carefully about doing the right thing.

Improbable or not, the pairing of these two novels began to seem like a happy accident, with a lot of valuable writing practice in common.

Pastors and Masters, & The Guest Cat – two from my #10booksofsummer list

In case my title has you saying, ‘hashtag what?’ I’ll quickly remind you that back at the beginning of June, I volunteered to join the summer reading challenge set by 746 Books.

Still lost? Here’s the recap: I listed 10 books I intended to read, and review, before September 3rd. So far, I’ve completed one.

I know, I’m woefully behind. I’ve got six more Mondays between now and the end of the challenge, and next week I’m planning to do the Six Degrees one, instead. So even my dodgy maths confirms I’ve got to do some doubling-up, if I’m going to fit nine books into five posts.

Hence, this week, Ivy Compton-Burnett gets paired with Takashi Hiraide. The combination results in a title that seems to me suitable for an intriguing leap into magical realism. Perhaps I could have read alternated chapters from each. It’s a fleeting thought, probably indicative of hysteria. I have come through the other side of the combined 238 pages feeling a little disorientated.

I began in the suburb’s of Tokyo, in the late 1980s. My unnamed narrator led me quietly around the home he and his wife rented, explaining in great detail what it looked and felt like, and how they came to live there. I learn a lot about them and their lives, even before Chibi, the cat of the title, appeared.

This is a gently paced, reflective tale. When I checked up on the author, I was not surprised to find that Takashi Hiraide is a poet. The shaping of the story, the attention to detail, the presentation of key images seemed to lead me into areas of quiet contemplation. Even the opening, a description of a window in their kitchen, intrigued.

The small window in the corner of our kitchen bordered on a tall wooden fence, so close a person could barely pass by. From inside the house, its frosted glass looked like a dim movie screen. There was a small knothole in the wooden fence and the green of the bamboo hedge – which was about ten feet wide, to the north of the alley – was always projected on to the crude screen. Whenever someone walked by in the narrow alleyway, a figure formed, filling the entire window. Viewed from the dark interior of the house, sunny days seemed ever more vivid, and working perhaps on the same principle as a camera obscura, the figures of people walking past were turned upside down.

That window, it seemed to me, was the key to the way the narrator presented his world. There were backstories, digressions, contemplations and forward movement. It was one of the most relaxing and yet entertaining reads I’ve ever had. I read slowly, savouring the scenes.

What slowed me up with Pastors and Masters, on the other hand, was the need to concentrate. With hardly any description at all, and no scene-setting hints, I had to pick up my clues from a series of sharply observed dialogues between a challengingly large cast of characters for a small book.

It opens with a tirade that sets a pace, tone and style that never relents.

‘Well, this is a nice thing! A nice thing this school-mastering! Up at seven, and in a room with a black fire…I should have thought it might have occurred to one out of forty boys to poke it…’

The school remains unnamed, and so does the English university town. I finally pinned the period down during the dinner party that concludes the novel.

‘Well, we were certainly classed by the state with paupers and idiots and children, before we had the vote,’ said Miss Basden. ‘I mean we women were.’

Women in England who were householders, and over the age of 30, got the vote in 1918. But I got closer than that when a little later Miss Basden says:

‘I think these changes in the divorce laws will do a great deal towards equalising the position of women’…

I looked that one up and found The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923. The novel was published in 1925.

I enjoyed the repartee, though after getting lost twice in the first chapter, I wrote myself a character list. I was still using it at the end of the book for the dinner party.

How glad I was only to be an observer at that feast. It was littered with snide asides, direct and indirect personal verbal attacks. Whoever repeats that old saying about sticks and stones should check out the interplay between these characters. Part of the power of their exchanges is created by the absence of authorial comment or explanation.

Compton-Burnett has been described as dangerous. She’s been compared to Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker and Pinter. I’m inclined to agree. Maybe I’ll track down another of her novels and see how they compare. But when I do, I’ll set myself a gap from any other kind of reading.

Tom Hanks, short stories.

This week I’ve been reading the seventeen stories in Uncommon Type, by Tom Hanks. I’ve been curious about what kind of writer he might be ever since reading a selection of the mixed reviews he picked up when it was published in 2017. Obviously, not curious enough, because I didn’t buy it. But a couple of weeks ago Mike offered to lend me his copy.

I’ve just finished it, so this is my mixed review:

Top of my likes is Alan Bean Plus Four. It was published in The New Yorker in 2014, and you can still read it online. It begins:

Travelling to the moon was way less complicated this year than it was back in 1969, as the four of us proved, not that anyone gives a whoop. 

The Starry Night, 1889, Vincent van Gogh

The style is light, the concept is fun, and there’s enough confidence about the technical details to convince me that in some Heath-Robinson manner, the narrator, Steve, MDash and Anna do construct a rocket, in the narrator’s back-yard.

We’d have no Mission Control to boss us around, so I ripped out all the Comm. I replaced every bolt, screw, hinge, clip, and connector with duct tape (three bucks a roll at Home Depot). 

I like science fiction, and I like absurd. I also like economy – it’s not just the thriftyness of the duct tape I’m referring to, this story wasted no words on backstory. I wonder if one of the reasons for that was because it picked up characters from an earlier story, Three Exhausting Weeks.

This was the opening story. I liked the characters, once I’d got into the story, but I found it a slow, slightly confusing, start.

Day 1

Anna said there was only one place to find a meaningful gift for MDash – the Antique Warehouse, not so much a place for old treasures as a permanent swap meet in what used to be the Lux Theatre.

MDash, it turns out is Mohammed Dayax-Abdo, who is ‘about to become a naturalized U.S. citizen…’ I’m still not clear about the definition of a ‘swap meet‘. I began to feel it wasn’t necessary to, which might suggest that segment could have been cut. However, the narration does reflect the narrator’s personality.

Understand that Anna and I have known each other since high school… We didn’t date, but hung out in the same crowd, and liked each other. After a few years of college, and a few more of taking care of my mom, I got my licence and pretended to make a living in real estate for a while.

He’s a chatty, laid-back, drifting kind of guy. He’s not daft, he’s been to college, remember. But not ambitious either, so I allowed for the odd sideways ramble.

Anna, on the other hand, has a ‘keen eye for the smallest of details and left no stones unturned, uninspected, unrecorded, or unreplaced if they needed replacing.’

By page three, I’d warmed to them both, and become intrigued by their contrasts. I wasn’t skipping past words, I’d tuned-in to the delivery style, and stayed with them for the full three weeks. The outcome wasn’t a surprise, but that’s fine. It felt true, and I was glad to have shared their journey.

With the third story about these four characters, Steve Wong is Perfect, I did skim lines and even paragraphs. Maybe it was just too much detail about bowling – though I didn’t have a problem with that when I watched The Big Labowski.

Top of my dislikes, were the four Hank Fiset stories. They were set out as newspaper feature pieces. Hank being a journalist who is struggling with modern life. Everything about them seemed cliched. One of them includes a section that Hank writes on his phone to demonstrate how predictive texting will affect the way he writes, surely that’s a very old joke, now.

I also failed to stay with Stay With Us, which is a short movie script. It opens with a complicated collage of scene-setting shots, and a montage of character names, some famous. Maybe, if it had been filmed, I’d be writing a rave review: on paper, I was soon confused and lost.

Overall, I did like the collection. The stories are not high-literature, but most of them have a clear dramatic arc, strong characterisation and include some lovely moments.

I thought the idea of using typewriters as a means to link the stories together was fun. In some it’s central, in others it’s a throw-away line. At times I forgot they were significant, even though they were central to the plot.

Will I be buying my own copy? Well no. Interesting as they were, and I am glad I’ve read them, I think once was enough.