Tagfantasy

Fantasy, Galley Beggar style: Mordew by Alex Pheby

It’s a year or so now since I heard that Alex Pheby’s third Galley Beggar Press novel was going to be fantasy. I was intrigued as to what sort of fantasy novel Galley Beggar might publish, but also wanted to have some idea of what Pheby’s other work was like. That’s what led me to read Lucia earlier this year. It was a powerful experience of vivid language… and so was Mordew.

Reading this book took me back to China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, and the sense of a fantasy novel that was vibrant and wide open, that could go anywhere it wanted. Mordew is built on archetypal foundations: Nathan Treeves, a boy from the slums with a mysterious ‘Spark’, is sent on a mission by the powerful Master of the city of Mordew. There are echoes of many a classic fantasy city, but Pheby’s novel is something all of its own.

For a start, there’s the writing. Here, towards the beginning, is Nathan wading through a patch of Living Mud, which can spontaneously generate life-forms:

Deeper and there were things brushing his knees, some the size of a finger, moving through the darkness. Then, occasionally, the touch of something on his thighs, seeking, groping, flinching away by reflex. There was nothing to fear – he told himself – since whatever these things were, they had no will, and would be dead in minutes, dissolving back into the Living Mud. They meant nothing to anyone. They meant nothing. 

It’s easier for Nathan to tell himself these things are nothing than for him to act that way in reality. This passage made my skin crawl when I read it!

Mordew also lingers in my mind because of the extent to which Pheby pushes his novel’s imagination. I could list examples, but I find that I don’t want to, because a large part of this novel’s effect lies in the discovery. Suffice it to say that, if you like the sound of Mordew, I highly recommend it.

Lolly Willowes –Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) was a new name to me, but I was intrigued by the sound of her 1926 debut Lolly Willowes, newly reissued in Penguin Modern Classics. What I found in it was a very enjoyable character study.

Born in 1874, Laura Willowes grows up indifferent to the societal expectations of a woman her age:

Being without coquetry she did not feel herself bound to feign a degree of entertainment which she had not experienced, and the same deficiency made her insensible to the duty of every marriageable young woman to be charming…

Laura lives in the family home with her father – no marriage for her. After her father’s death, she reluctantly moves to London to stay with her elder brother’s family, where she is consigned to the role of Aunt Lolly.

But Laura longs for more from life. It seems the First World War might herald change, as suddenly she has a vocation (albeit the fairly tedious one of doing up parcels). But it’s not to be: “When the better days to come came, they proved to be modelled as closely as possible upon the days that were past.”

If there is to be change, then, it will have to come from Laura herself. In 1921, she announces that she is moving to a village in Buckinghamshire, seemingly on impulse (she starts thinking about it after buying some chrysanthemums that were grown in the county). But the real reason becomes apparent: Laura is leaving to practise witchcraft.

The quality that draws Laura to the countryside is underlined when it’s about to be taken from her. At one point, Laura’s nephew Titus joins her in the village. He has an instinctive understanding of the countryside, but it’s a mechanistic one. Laura understands the place on a more spiritual level, though she can feel this slipping away from her:

The woods judged her by her company, and hushed their talk as she passed by with Titus. Silence heard them coming, and fled out of the fields, the hills locked up their thoughts, and became so many grassy mounds to be walked up and walked down.

With Titus around, Laura finds herself reverting back to being Aunt Lolly. It’s a situation that seems impossible to escape – but there are ways…

Lolly Willowes is the story of a woman turning her back on prescribed social roles and forging her own path, in what turns out to be spectacular fashion. I recommend it warmly.

Three reviews: Modiano, Roffey, Foenkinos

Three more short reviews that were originally published on my Instagram.

Patrick Modiano, Villa Triste (1975)
Translated from the French by John Cullen (2016)

A few years ago, I enjoyed reading three of Patrick Modiano’s novels. When I mentioned one of them in a recommendation series on Instagram, I had a hankering to read him again. So I took Villa Triste down from the shelf, and experienced a welcome return to Modiano’s world.

Modiano’s narrator looks back on his life age 18, at the time of the Algerian War in the early 1960s. Apparently seeking to dodge the draft, he flees to a lakeside town on the Swiss border. Calling himself Count Victor Chmara, he meets the fabulous young actress Yvonne, and her exuberant doctor friend René. Victor joins in with their golden social life, but of course nothing lasts forever. ⁣

There are themes typical of Modiano here: the elusive past, and the fragility of memory. Yvonne and René have their secrets as much as Victor, which means that happy-go-lucky life could dissolve as quickly as it began. ⁣

Published by Daunt Books Publishing.

Monique Roffey, The Mermaid of Black Conch (2020)

In 1976, Aycayia, a mermaid, appears off the shore of St Constance on the Caribbean island of Black Conch. She is captured by a group of visiting American fishermen, and left on the dock. A local man, David Baptiste, rescues Aycayia and hides her at his home. She begins to change back into a woman, and suddenly both she and David find themselves living new lives.

Monique Roffey’s (author of Archipelago) new novel is told in a mixture of voices: standard third-person narration; the dialect of David’s journal, looking back forty years later; the poetry of Aycayia’s own voice. It’s compelling stuff, and there are some really affecting moments, such as Aycayia and a deaf boy finding a connection through sign language. But nothing lasts forever, and a bittersweet ending waits in the wings. ⁣⁣

Published by Peepal Tree Press.

David Foenkinos, The Mystery of Henri Pick (2016)
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor (2020)

Over the last few years, I’ve become a big fan of Walter Presents, Channel 4’s streaming service for world drama. I’ve come across many an enjoyable show on there, and appreciate the fact that it’s curated – like a good bookshop. ⁣

Now, the curator of Walter Presents, Walter Iuzzolino, is branching out into books, selecting a series of titles to be published in translation by Pushkin Press. The first is this charming French literary mystery. ⁣

In the Breton town of Crozon is a library of rejected manuscripts, each left there by its author. A young editor persuades her publishing house to take on a lost book that she finds in the library – and it becomes a bestseller. The author is apparently the late Henri Pick, a pizza chef who, by all accounts, had no literary leanings whatsoever. Did he really write the book, or is there some other explanation? ⁣

Reading The Mystery of Henri Pick is like going on a scenic tour of the countryside, with diversions down interesting byways. It pokes gentle fun at ideas of literary celebrity, but most of all it’s enjoyable to read. ⁣

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 5-1

Here we are, then: my top 5 reading memories from the last decade. I knew how this countdown would end before I started compiling the list. The reading experiences I’m talking about here… more than anything, this is why I read.

The previous instalments of this series are available here: 50-41, 40-31, 30-21, 20-11, 10-6.

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Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 10-6

Now we come to the top 10 books in my list of memorable reading moments. I wanted to say a bit more with these, so I’ve split the ten in half. The top 5 will be up next Sunday, but for now, please enjoy numbers 10 through to 6. These are all books I have never forgotten, and doubt I ever will.

You can also catch up on previous instalments of this project here: 50-41, 40-31, 30-21, 20-11.

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Three reviews: Ogawa, Dusapin, Mesa

Today I’m rounding up three reviews that I’ve had published on other websites in the last few months. I would recommend all of these books…

First, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder). It’s one of my favourite books from this year’s International Booker Prize, a tale of loss set on an island where things disappear from living memory without warning. I’ve reviewed it for Strange Horizons.

The second book is Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins). The narrator is a young woman working at a guest house in the South Korean tourist town of Sokcho, who’s ill at ease with her life. The novel is a quiet exploration of a moment when that might be about to change. I’ve reviewed Winter in Sokcho for Shiny New Books.

Finally, we have Four by Four by Sara Mesa (translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore). This is a novel about the use and abuse of power, set in an exclusive college. I’ve reviewed the book for European Literature Network.

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 30-21

We’re now halfway through my list of reading highlights from the 2010s. I’ve really enjoyed compiling this list and reminiscing about some beloved books. Let me know if you’ve read any.

You can also read my previous instalments, nos. 50-41 and 40-31. Now, on to the next ten…

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Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 50-41

In 2009, the writer Stuart Evers posted his “50 best novels of the 2000s” on his blog. I wished I could have done the same, but I hadn’t kept track of my reading in enough detail.

Ten years on, it’s a different story: thanks to this blog, I have a record of what I read, so I decided to put something together. I’m not calling it a ‘best of’, or even a list of favourites – it’s not meant to be that kind of exercise. Instead, I’ve chosen 50 books that have inspired strong memories.

My guidelines are: novels and short story collections allowed. First published in English or English translation during the 2010s, and read by me in that time (so nothing I’ve read this year). One book per author, except in one instance where I couldn’t choose between two.

The plan is to post my list in weekly instalments every Sunday. Here are the first ten entries. It’s a coincidence – but quite appropriate – that the writer who inspired my list is the first to appear on it…

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The Dollmaker – Nina Allan: a Strange Horizons review

I’m back at Strange Horizons this week, with a review of Nina Allan’s latest novel, The Dollmaker.

Nina is a long-time friend of this blog, and one of the authors I’ve written about most often – but never quite at this length. It was a pleasure to spend time thinking through The Dollmaker: on the surface, the novel is about a maker and collector of dolls paying a surprise visit to a correspondent, but it also explores how lives lived beside each other can be as distant as parallel worlds.

Click here to read my review in full.

The Dollmaker (2019) is published by riverrun in the UK and Other Press in the US.

Follow Me to Ground – Sue Rainsford

I like to follow the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, because I’m interested in the kind of fiction it stands for, and it’s good for highlighting worthwhile books that I might otherwise miss. Sue Rainsford’s debut novel, from the Irish publisher New Island Books, is one of those. It caught my interest on this year’s Republic of Consciousness longlist, and when I saw Daniel Davis Wood of Splice compare it on Twitter to The Man Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Ivan Répila, that was enough to convince me to read Follow Me to Ground.

Now that I’ve read both books, I agree with Daniel’s comparison: Rainsford’s novel has the same sense as Répila’s of taking place in its own bubble of reality, and I could even imagine it as a stylised animated film, like Attila’s Horse. Rainsford’s narrator is Ada, who lives with her father in a village whose inhabitants (which they call “Cures”) come to them for healing. Despite appearances, Ada and Father are not exactly human. Father can be positively animalistic:

There were nights when he’d let his spine loosen and go running on all fours through the woods, leaving sense and speech behind.

Ada doesn’t partake in that behaviour, but both she and Father were born in “the Ground”, the lawn of their house, which has mysterious properties and almost a mind of its own. Father has tamed a section of the Ground which they use to bury those Cures who require more intensive healing. Even their most straightforward curative techniques appear strange to our eyes:

Claudia Levine arrived at noon and I sang her belly open, sang her sickness away – tricked it into a little bowl under the table. Closed her up again, woke her up again. Told her she’d be sore in the morning, waved her away down the drive, poured her sickness down the drain.

The way Ada describes herself and Father, we never get a firm handle on exactly what they are or what they do. The net effect of this is to create a sense of mystery at the novel’s heart which gnaws away at the reader.

I once read an annoying story by China Miéville about magical playing cards, which essentially used evocative names (such as “the Four of Chimneys”) in lieu of revealing anything concrete about what these cards actually did. This technique didn’t work for me, because it just highlighted how arbitrary the whole thing was – to me, there was simply nothing behind the names. I find that Rainsford’s approach works much better: she reveals enough of Ada’s world to catch the imagination, but not so much as to much as to define it. The mystery remains alive.

Ada is in love with a Cure named Samson, and her relationship with him becomes central to Follow Me to Ground. She grows increasingly possessive of him, in the face of disapproval from both Father and Olivia, Samson’s sister. Here is where the novel’s approach really comes into its own, because the obsession gnawing away at Ada mirrors the reader’s sense of ungraspable strangeness. And (without wishing to say too much) the matter of what ultimately happens is driven by that same sense of unresolved mystery. I’m glad to have found Follow Me to Ground through the Republic of Consciousness Prize; I’ll be looking out for more of Sue Rainsford’s work, too.

Book details

Follow Me to Ground (2018) by Sue Rainsford, New Island Books, 204 pages, hardback (source: personal copy).

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