Saturday, 30 April 2011

Black God's Kiss - C L Moore

C L Moore, of course, being Catherine Moore. This is important. Even today, there are some who do not realise (a) that C L Moore was a woman and (b) just how important that was. And that’s before we get onto the book. Pulp fantasy has always had an image problem, not helped by fantasy art work (Paizo, take note). Yet like all branches of writing, above the 90% crap rises the 10% that is well written, innovative, and worthy of respect.

In a field dominated by men, the work of the few women writers tends to stand out anyway, but Catherine Moore went one further and gave us Jirel of Joiry. Because fantasy was not only dominated by male writers, but their protagonists were male as well. The only women were the ones you saw on the lurid covers. Helpless frails or dark, seductive (and invariably scheming and evil) priestesses or witches. Jirel was different. Oh, how she was different.

In the mid to late 1930s, Jirel was positively inspiring. A woman. Strong. Bold. A warrior and leader. Willing to tackle mortal and magical foes alike. Without once being portrayed as a clone of her male counterparts. And even in the company she kept (works by Lovecraft and Howard) she stood her ground.

Moore’s writing is rich. It is probably best to read these stories in instalments (as they were intended), because in one sitting it can be a bit much. But for all that, these are also beautifully written. Characterization of Jirel is complex and sensitive; the stories are simply but strongly plotted; and the scenes are well imagined and described. It is no wonder that not only did Moore open the way for many other women writers, especially in science fiction and fantasy, she set a high standard as the starting point for those that followed.

Moore was not the only woman writing sf and fantasy, but she gave us its first true female protagonist, someone who was far removed from the masturbatory fantasy art which Paizo has chosen to put on the cover of this collection. A shame. Given the huge amount of illustrative talent that exists, they could surely have found something more appropriate.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Asylum Piece - Anna Kavan

Anna Kavan – a character’s name from one of her earlier works, adopted by the author who went on to produce some astonishing work that is all too sadly neglected these days, despite the unflagging championship by her publisher. This was the first of her ‘new’ work, a series of interlinked vignettes that explore her recent experiences of breakdown and confinement in an asylum.

On the surface this does not sound like it makes for a cheerful work. And on the surface, it doesn’t. But this is not a dark work either. It is honest, at times chilling, often surreal, and offers the reader a glimpse into a troubled mind. Yet the overall picture is not one of derangement. Rather there is an underlying bewilderment. Why is this happening to me? And it manages this without once falling into self-pity.

This is down to the style. It is the simplicity that speaks of complexity, the straightforwardness that tells of a hideous maze just negotiated, the acuteness of observation that picks out the one slight detail which is most indicative of the inner state. It is the use of imagery and symbolism with such a light touch, you notice only the echoes and not the original call.

In some regards, the analysis of her own problems is extremely clinical. She reports events rather than trying to reproduce emotion. Yet this makes the work all the more effective, because it adds a layer of authenticity that histrionics would obscure: the sense of isolation, of looking in on one’s self, of trying to make sense of events when it is the world that seems deranged, of remaining unobtrusive in a Kafka-esque world where standing up gets one noticed by people one would rather not attract.

And the overall effect is intensely human and vibrant, all too aware of the prisons we make for ourselves as well as those made by others – physical, intellectual, emotional, metaphorical, and symbolic.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

The Dragonfly Pool - Eva Ibbotson

There is a great deal of the author in this book and it clearly draws on her own memories of the period leading up to the Second World War. Her father was a physiologist and the central character has a father who is a doctor. Ibbotson went to Dartington Hall School, which has transferred itself to the book as Delderton Hall. Bergania, the small European country that features in the book is not unlike parts of Austria, from which Ibbotson originated.

This reliance on her own experience allows Ibbotson to draw a compelling and realistic backdrop to a simple and powerful tale about friendship. True, it is aimed at a readership just reaching double figures, and once or twice points out things that an adult reader will long since have understood, but that does not hurt the book in any way. It does not talk down to its readers, it never breaks off a well paced story to fill in background detail, and it relishes the portraits it paints of the characters involved.

Tally, a young London girl is offered a scholarship to a school in Devon. Although she does not want to leave her father and aunts, she reluctantly agrees to go and soon discovers that not all private schools are the same. Delderton is a progressive school and there she blossoms. As a person whose only worries are for other people she is the driving force behind a cultural visit to a Europe on the brink of war and aids the escape of a prince from a country about to be overrun by the German army. Back in England they discover that fascists can be found in all walks of life and the prince must escape once again.

This manages to be an exciting story with welcome overtones of the anarchic humour of her ghost books. The characters are broadly sketched, yet have a core of realism that prevents them becoming grotesque. And it is packed with an impassioned view of the world that argues for the kind of education and upbringing that is all too often dismissed, especially by people who have no real knowledge of education. Yet that is never a lecture. Rather it forms an essential part of the story.

I can heartily recommend this to all adults, and especially those with children as it is not only a good read in its own right but comes from an author who can provide a bridge from the fantastical (do read her ghost books if you haven’t yet) to the magical in the everyday and sometime grim real world.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf

A book that is often compared with Joyce’s Ulysses, Mrs Dalloway is, for me (and insofar as they can actually be compared), by far the better of the two. I appreciate the Joyce, but it sags under its own weight. Mrs Dalloway, on the other hand, is seductive because of its apparent lightness.

This is not to say it is lightweight. Far from it, but like all good literature it is easy to read and then stays with you for days and weeks afterwards as you mull over the content, finding yourself delving into deeper and deeper layers of meaning and structure.

The basic idea is simplicity itself. On a June day in 1923, Clarissa Dalloway prepares for one of her renowned parties. During the same day, Septimus Smith, a soldier whose shell-shock has taken him to the edge of madness is taken by his wife to see a specialist.

Through various stylistic techniques – principally stream of consciousness, but also the melding of direct and indirect speech with voiced and unvoiced thought, and the use of cinematic cutting – we follow these characters and those who surround them. Whilst the two principal characters never meet, their lives do make contact. And through the contrasts and the histories of the characters Woolf addresses a number of issues.

It is a subtle book with a dream-like quality: one scene suggests another and time is a fluid medium. We move from inner thoughts to omniscient viewpoint. And the whole thing simmers on a low flame of hysteria. Which makes some events all the more startling. And although there appears to be nothing in the way of commentary about the novel, it is once you go back and start thinking about the undercurrents that the flavour really comes through. Like an Eliot poem where the most banal of events and existences serve to make you wonder about the alternatives and just how inevitable it all is.

A book like this is difficult to sum up in a few short paragraphs. Virginia Woolf is a favourite author of mine (who would have guessed) and I would heartily recommend this to anyone, not just because it is a great novel, but also because of the technique. It is worth studying for that alone.