Monday, 3 June 2013

Books read in May

Secret Water – Arthur Ransome
Of all the Swallows and Amazons books, this has a special place in my affections. I read very few children’s books when I was young; I was much more interested in what the adults were up to. The Ransome books were amongst those few that I found interesting. And as we lived in Norfolk at the time, I had an affinity with the East Anglian set books (much as I loved and still love the Lake District). And of them all, I like this one especially because my sister bought me a copy of the hardback when I was about ten.

Of course, without a decent story, it would never have held my interest, all that other stuff notwithstanding. Like them all, on the surface not a lot happens. Kids go camping and sailing. But under this is a kind of anarchy (in its proper meaning). Their lives away from their parents are communal. They care for the weakest. They look after themselves and take responsibility for their actions. They also have a respect for the world around them.

There is another element to this particular story that fascinated me and that is map making. Hardly the stuff of high adventure, but I loved the idea that you could make a place your own without having to own it. Mapping and naming places so that they mean something to you rather than some official cartographer is an important way of keeping in touch with the world around you. A kind of nascent psychogeography.

Finally there is the innocence. It is not fey or naïve, it is what kids should be. And given that book was written on the eve of the second world war, it must have been at the back of Ransome’s mind that the Walker children had a father who was serving in the Royal Navy. However, this is fun and I love them.

A Hearse On May Day – Gladys Mitchell
Not one of Mitchell’s best, largely because any tension in the first section (despite the attempt at menace) and the fact that there is way too much business. In terms of an isolated village with strange goings on, it is more like an early episode of The Avengers. You know who the villains are, the red herrings are a tad too red and smelly to be taken seriously, there is zero characterisation, and Dame Beatrice and the police amble through familiar territory at a leisurely pace. Even so (and despite the poor production of this particular edition) it is a pleasurable enough read.

Daughter Of Dreams – Michael Moorcock
An Elric/von Beck novel, first of a trilogy, and originally titled The Dreamthief’s Daughter. Set during the first half of the Second World War, this is less pacy than the earlier Elric novels. It does not suffer much because of this, it is after all a first person narrative and Ulric von Bek is given to philosophical discursiveness. The Elric/von Beck adventures tie in with the strange pick ‘n’ mix mysticism of the Nazis who were known to have collected various holy relics in the belief they would aid them in their attempt to impose their twisted vision on the world. As a guardian of the grail and a mystical sword, von Bek becomes their target. He is aided by Oona, a mysterious woman, and by Elric, of whom von Bek is an avatar.

Weaving real world events with fantasy in a seamless fashion, Moorcock has extended his Elric novels into yet another dimension. His writing style has matured over the years (and relaxed without the pressure to produce novels on an almost weekly basis). Yet the pace and excitement is still there, never faltering despite the greater depth to the work with its ruminations on cruelty and the parallels it draws with today’s world.

I am, of course, a huge fan of Moorcock and have been since the late ‘60s. I’ve read this one before a number of times. It just keeps getting better.

Mercury – Anna Kavan
A manuscript discovered and published posthumously, this book is a close cousin to her work Ice. It employs the same basic themes, has a similar storyline, and explores the same ideas. In most cases, such a work would only be of interest to scholars looking to see how a work developed. But in the case of Mercury, it is a work in its own right and stands completely separate from Ice. Indeed, it draws power from the similarities simply because both books are about layers of reality, about dreams, about the ways in which we invent our lives and replay the incidents in them. Mercury, therefore, is another layer of Ice.

The remarkable thing is that this book that never made it to publication (for whatever written) is far better written than many that do. Compact, simple language that is made to do remarkable things and produce complex effects. Kavan is a proper writer who deserves much greater recognition.

Destiny’s Brother – Michael Moorcock
Originally ‘The Skrayling Tree’, this new edition has been retitled and packaged as part of the Gollancz re-issue. And as well as the joy of having it as part of a uniform paper edition, I can now collect and read Moorcock on my ereader.

This is an Elric story. Of sorts. He is a major character, but this is not the Elric of old. For one thing it is himself dreaming himself (you’d need to know about the Elric stories and the Melnibonean dream couches and I’m not going to explain all that – buy the books, the first: ‘Elric of Melniboné’ is now available and if you’ve never read them I envy you the journey). These later books are also written in a different style. The original Elric books were pulp fantasy at its very best – dark, pacy, and with as many ideas in a page as most writers today struggle to stretch across a 300 page volume.

The books, as the series progressed and tracked back on itself, became more settled affairs and took a bit more time. I have to confess I prefer the earlier ones, but that has as much to do with discovering a new writer and reading them for the first time. I fully appreciate Moorcock’s maturing as a writer; and I fully appreciate how he has made a virtue of that in the stories, especially when tackling our own dark history.

This book cleverly uses the Longfellow/Hiawatha story as one of its themes with the whole thing set in a mythical North American past. They myth and magic of native Americans is touched upon and woven skilfully into the wider Moorcock mythology of the multiverse with Elric and the von Beks combining to defeat an attempt to bring down the very Tree of Life.

And if the pace is now a little slower as we grow older, the chance to enjoy the scenery and one’s companions on the way is very much appreciated. Excellent stuff.