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Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

Harper Perennial, 2007, 210 p

 Magic for Beginners cover

This is a book of short stories by Link, who has won multiple awards for her fiction.

The Faery Handbag. Made by Genevieve’s grandmother from an old dog skin, the eponymous bag opens three ways. One is just a normal bag, another leads to a capacious land where centuries elapse while only a single night has passed outside the bag, a third contains the bag’s guardian (the dog whose skin it was made from – and who is not a happy bunny.) Told with such confidence that it even warns the reader not to believe a word of it and also comments on the art of storywriting, “It’s hard work telling everything in the right order,” Link’s skill here is to make sense of nonsense, logic out of the bizarre.

The Hortlak. Eric works with Batu at an All-Night Convenience Store. Eric likes Charley, a woman who drives past regularly with dogs about to be put down but he never talks to her and is jealous of the fact that Batu is teaching her Turkish. The store is close to Canada and has some Canadian customers but is also frequented by zombies from the Ausible Chasm just across the road. The blend of the mundane (the store and the talk of changing the face of retail) and the bizarre (the zombies and the ghosts of dogs Batu says haunt Charley’s car, which are nevertheless treated matter-of-factly) gives the story its frisson. And the Hortlak of the title? I have no idea. It’s never mentioned.

The Cannon. Couched as a question and answer dialogue this is about emm…. a cannon – from which people are shot into the air to fly for miles without apparently suffering any injuries.

Stone Animals. A couple and their two children move into a new house whose entrance is flanked by stone rabbits. As the lawn gradually fills with rabbits they come to feel everything is haunted.

Catskin. A tale of witches, and how they get their children, of revenge, of sewing people into catskins so that they take on the attributes of a cat, and which may, just may, have been written to enable a pun on the word pussy.

Some Zombie Contingency Plans. A former jailbird who thinks a lot about zombies, icebergs and art gatecrashes a party and takes the girl of the house into his confidence.

The Great Divorce. A man who is married to a dead woman – “It has only been in the last two decades that the living have been in the habit of marrying the dead, and it is still not common practice” – and has three dead children with her, wants a divorce, “Divorcing the dead is still less common.” He consults a medium – mediums know what the dead are like.

Magic for Beginners. A tale about Jeremy Mars, one of a group of teenagers who are avid fans of a magnificently bonkers and elusively scheduled TV show called The Library, but who themselves appear in episodes of the show. The story is beautifully written; about burgeoning sexuality, embarrassing parents, the highs and lows of friendship (and the characterisation is very good) but it doesn’t really go anywhere. (Except Las Vegas, where Jeremy’s mum has inherited a wedding chapel and a phone booth.) Contains the questionable assertion, “That’s the trouble about being a writer. You know how every story goes.”

Lull contains a tale within a tale within the tale, about a poker playing group, time running backwards and a cheerleader and the Devil.

Link is without doubt a stylist, but that style is unusual, full of meanderings and discursions, and never far from a core of disorientation. Oddness is the keynote of almost every sentence. Individually the stories would be intriguing and striking but one after the other they add up to a niggle about how Link’s world corresponds to the real one.

Pedant’s corner:- Bajadoz (Bajadoz?) sucessful (successful,) if you had to chose one (choose.)

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Canongate, 2014, 592 p

 The Book of Strange New Things cover

Despite having Dutch nationality, Michel Faber, by virtue of living in Scotland for 20 years and being published here, appears on the list of 100 Best Scottish books with his first novel, Under the Skin. That’s gone on my tbr list but I read this as it was one of the nominees for the Clarke Award this year.

Pastor Peter Leigh has been taken on by a mysterious company called USIC to become a missionary to the indigenous inhabitants of the planet Oasis. (This is a strange place with a day, and hence also a night, that each last 72 hours but, as described here, has a not very diverse ecology.) The selection process meant that Peter’s wife Beatrice – also interviewed by USIC – did not accompany him but they are able to write to each other via a communication device known as the Shoot.

Importing material from Earth to Oasis is very costly indeed and the base depends to a large extent on the Oasan crop, whiteflower, which (handily) can be converted to various Earth-like foods when harvested at different stages of its cycle. However the aliens (of whom we only hear of one group) have moved away from the USIC base and Peter has to spend over an Oasan day out of contact in order to further his mission. His immersion in this task leads to a gradual estrangement both from the humans at the base and from Bea.

The religious missionary to another planet concept may be new to mainstream readers of Faber’s work but Science Fiction readers have been on this sort of territory before; most notably with A Case of Conscience and The Sparrow, however here the crisis of conscience that interaction with aliens usually engenders in the missionary is undergone not by Peter but by Bea left at home on an Earth where various disasters – to the Maldives, Guatemala, Pakistan and a Britain falling apart economically and socially (along the way Tesco’s goes bust; I read this book a few weeks after my local Tesco’s closed) – are occurring and the couple’s cat Joshua comes to a sticky end.

Another unusual feature here is that the locals are actually avid to learn about Jesus and to hear from the King James Bible (the Book of Strange New Things as they call it.) The slow unravelling of their need for this good news holds what little SF tension the book provides. Faber is more interested in the aliens’ effect on Peter and the deterioration of his relationship with Bea. Faber renders the Oasans’ inability to pronounce the “s” “t” and “ch” sounds in English by using symbols (easily decipherable in context.) He then gives us Peter’s final speech to them almost entirely in these symbols but I wasn’t engrossed enough to try to decode them.

As a novel of how distance can undermine a relationship this is fine but, despite the aliens, it doesn’t really hit the SF buttons.

Pedant’s corner:- tourniquetted (tourniqueted?) imposter (impostor,) after a some hesitation, “glotch of submersion into the liquid-filled crib” (glotch seems to be a coinage, it doesn’t conform to the definition I found in the urban dictionary.) The text is full of Usianisms – lonesome, Styrofoam, Band-Aids, Caucasian, trunk, Cub Scout rather than just Cub, but uses British spellings, eg foetus. There is a reference to cameras with film in them (to be fair technology seems not to work well on Oasis) and to Georgia being in the Russian Federation as opposed to an independent state. I noted frequent instances of “seconds (or minutes) later” and a few of “within minutes/seconds.”

The Vacant Casualty by Patty O’Furniture

A Parody, Boxtree, 2012, 247 p

 The Vacant Casualty cover

I saw this in one of my local libraries and couldn’t resist. The words, “Is it a murder mystery? Is it biting social satire? Who knows? Who cares? You’re not my mother – where am I?” adorn the front cover and the Praise on the back reads, ‘Quite simply one of the world’s leading prose stylists – and a wonderful wife’ – Derek O’Furniture; ‘Writing Crooked House was pure pleasure and I feel justified in my belief that it is one of my best’ – Agatha Christie; ‘With Trans-Europe Express Kraftwerk single-handedly popularised the electric music genre’ – NME; ‘Johnny is progressing very well with the oboe, but might take a little more care with his fingering’ – Miss Pripps, Music Teacher.

With blurb like that you know you’re not in for a serious read and so it turns out. Terry Fairbreath has disappeared from the small town of Mumford – a village dominated by the fact that a famous author of fantasy books lives there. Despite the locals never mentioning the author’s name – indeed they take great pains not to – this has brought tourists to the town, which is now festooned with Olde Shoppes – including Ye Olde Cure-iosity Shoppe (Chemist) and the Olde DVD Shoppe. (How soon such things date.)

Despite the resonances invoked by this there is only one supernatural element in the book; the appearance of an ogre which at one point chases our two main characters Reginald Bradley, recently promoted to Detective Inspector, and journalist Sam Easton, who is researching police work for a proposed novel. Bradley has doubts about his suitability to fill his new role, Easton provides advice dredged from his memories of crime novels and TV series. In the end the whole thing ends up as more of a parody of detective fiction than of fantasy.

The reference to the town seeing off a plan to dump tens of thousands of remaindered crappy parodies written by “talentless half-brained hacks” trying “to make a quick buck off the back of genuinely successful authors by writing things with similar titles and book covers” is perhaps a step too far. I did like though, “an ancient stone wall constructed of paving slabs,” which had this not been a parody would have been a contender for Pedant’s Corner.

Pedant’s corner: snuck, the first fifteen of the Mumford rugby league team (only thirteen to a side in rugby league I’m afraid,) linem of business (line,) two film noirs (films noir,) from whence, Styrofoam cups is USian – as is fire department – slew (slewed,) and a paragraph indent occurring in the middle of a sentence.

Annals of the Parish by John Galt

Or the Chronicle of Dalmailing during the Ministry of the Rev Micah Balwhidder, written by himself.
Oxford University Press World’s Classics, 1986, 272 p – including xiv p Introduction, 1 p Note on the Text, 2 p Select Bibliography, 3 p Chronology of John Galt, 3 p Textual Notes, 29 p Explanatory Notes.

Annals of the Parish cover

Not just one of the 100 Best Scottish books but a World’s Classic no less, and set in the interesting times of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries so taking in growing industrialisation and, at a distance, the American War of Independence and The French Revolution. The book is couched as the parish memoirs of the Rev Balwhidder who is at first not welcomed by his new congregation as being imposed on them by the parish’s heritors but wins them over soon enough. Initially he refers to Dalmailing as the clachan (village) but the town grows in size when manufacturing begins.

While, as Galt himself admitted Annals of the Parish is not a novel since it has no plot, the book still has enough human activity to sustain interest. Characters are sketched economically and develop by repeated exposure to their doings. Mrs Malcolm in particular engages the narrator’s and hence the reader’s sympathies. Some of the lesser characters’ names are playful. Mr Cayenne has a temper, the mason is a Mr Trowel, there is a Mr Toddy who owns a drinking establishment, Mr Cylindar is an engineer, the doctors Tanzey and Marigold are named after medicinal plants.

There are many biblical allusions and several animadversions against Roman Catholicism – to be expected of a Presbyterian minister of the time, though the Parish elders and Rev Balwhidder himself mellow in this regard later in the book as a consequence of the French Revolution. At one point he observes that, “The world is such a wheel carriage that it might properly be called the WHIRL’D.” (If someone 200 years ago could write that how much more would their disorientation be now?)

Modern sensibilities may be a little shocked by the mention of a “blackamoor” servant named “Sambo” (my quotation marks.) And there is the phrase “avaricious Jew” – though that epithet is directed at the Rev Balwhidder when he seeks an augmentation of his stipend.

In the notes it is said that the word Utilitarian – and thus its ism? – might have been lost (Jeremy Bentham gave it up for ‘greatest happiness principle’) had not John Stuart Mill recovered it from Annals of the Parish.

For a piece of fiction with no plot Annals of the Parish is surprisingly readable, even two centuries on. As a portrait of small town Scottish life at the time it is admirable and its lessons not applicable to Scotland alone.

Pedant’s corner:- David and Goliah (Goliath,) but if was one of misfortune (it.) Once again I noticed dulness with one “l” and there was “when I now recal to mind.” There is one use of the word bairns for children but otherwise weans is used throughout.

Queen of the States by Josephine Saxton

Women’s Press, 1986, 182 p

Queen of the States cover

After her car mysteriously conks out one day, Magdalen Hayward wakes up in a strange room to find she has been abducted by aliens who have no concept of time, know next to nothing about humans but can “speak” directly into her head through a meaning transmitter and conjure furniture, fixtures, fittings and fabulous food out of thin air. Neither do they understand gender so she tells them ramblingly that, “Maleness (is) the power to be superior without effort, thousands of years of conditioning having given them (men) that.” The aliens tell Magdalen she has “seven concentric selves, all interlocking, making forty nine states of being, each with seven levels of intensity and each in contact with the forty nine states plus contact with the original seven at all times and places, and a central consciousness which can freely move about to any point in the network. To us this is a very limited experience of consciousness.” Magdalen also has dreams in which she is a patient in a mental hospital where she claims to be Queen of the United States. About her mental states she tells a doctor, “I move about from one existence to another, on several planes at the same time.”

All this is reminiscent of Marge Piercy’s A Woman Out of Time and as in that novel tends to undermine the possibility of this being a work of SF. When a teacher in the mental hospital tells Magdalen she is “writing a science fiction novel… I had thought of doing it from the point of view of a mental hospital patient, so that people could have a choice of realities,” this disjunction is compounded rather than defrayed. (As well as appearing in that quote there were several other references to science fiction. It’s almost as if Saxton is trying to convince us of something.)

To Magdalen the true situation makes no difference. “If this was a delusion it did not matter: it was convincing enough to be real, therefore was real.” Her husband Clive believes Magdalen is not mad, simply in a different state of consciousness from himself. She is, of course, queen of the states.

When the aliens ruminate upon providing Magdalen with a male companion the narrative shifts from Magdalen’s viewpoint and we start to inhabit other people’s consciousnesses; Magdalen’s psychiatrist Abel Murgatroyd, Clive, his mistress Miriam Goldsmith, Royston Hartwell (a dreadlocked psychiatric student,) Louis Sakoian (a man Magdalen met in the US) – all of whom except Royston and Sakoian are disturbed in one way or another. Miriam dreams she is Magdalen, whom she knows thinks that, “There must be a better state of being than this.”

Escaped from her confines and on a motorway, the aliens return to Magdalen and tell her that any possible male companions vibrations’ are “unsuitable for you at present.” But she already knew that. Meanwhile vehicles coast to a halt all round where she is stopped. Towards the novel’s conclusion she disdains the thought of taking up with Louis and thinks, “I’m on my own planet, out to lunch, and I like it by myself.”

Is this an SF novel? The chronicle of a disturbed mind? Take your pick.

Pedant’s corner:- gasolene, terrrified, “The can create things” (they can…) smidgeon, avocadoes (avocados? Inserting an e in the plural of words ending in “o” is not a universal rule.)

Starhaven by Robert Silverberg

In The Chalice of Death, Planet Stories, 2012, 90 p. First published as Starhaven, 1958, as by Ivar Jorgensen.

Starhaven cover

Another of Silverberg’s early potboilers. Here Johnny Mantell, former researcher at Klingsan Defence Systems but for seven years a beachcomber on the planet Mulciber, has to flee justice when a tourist picks a fight with him and dies. He steals a spaceship and heads for Starhaven, “a sanctuary for people like us, who couldn’t make the grade or fit in with organised society. Drifters and crooks and has-beens can go to Starhaven.” This criminal’s planet was built and is ruled with an iron hand by Ben Thurdan. The premise is that all the criminal tendencies cancel each other out and so a sort of law prevails. Starhaven’s constitution is simple, “Expect the same treatment that you hand out to others,” and “ You’ll do whatever Ben Thurdan tells you to do without, argument, question, or hesitation.”

On arrival Mantell is subjected to a psychprobe, which reveals him to have an unusual level of will but also to be guilty of the murder of which he remembers himself innocent. Soon after, Mantell begins to be struck by episodes in which he is not quite himself. Thurdan employs him to build a personal defence screen to prevent assassination. Meanwhile Mantell is much taken by Thurdan’s assistant Myra and also gradually finds himself drawn into a plot to remove Thurdan from power.

Of its time and far from Silverberg’s 60s heights. I only read it for completist reasons.

Pedant’s corner:- one count of Thurban for Thurdan, several of quotation marks missing, “Only there was a pink blur waiting for him in this one.” ???? “He ducked, swept it under his mighty fumbling paws,” – I have no idea what the antecedent of that “it” might have been. I note here that Silverberg, too, could employ “time interval” later.

Tales from Angus by Violet Jacob

In Flemington and Tales from Angus, Canongate 2013, 269 p; including 9 p Introduction, 1 p Acknowledgements, 9 p Notes and 6 p Glossary.

 Flemington and Tales from Angus cover

Jacob was born into the Kennedy-Erskine family of the House of Dun near Montrose (and published the family history The Lairds of Dun in 1931. In the memorable stories of Tales From Angus her sympathy with, and compassion for, those born with fewer advantages, her intimacy with and love for the landscape of Angus, shine through. The summaries below do not capture her facility nor her powers of description. Again, the book’s introduction mentions some of the salient points in the stories. Read that afterwards.

Thievie. An old skinflint would do anything rather than hand over his life savings – even to his daughter.
The Disgracefulness of Auntie Thomson. On the arrival in town of a well-dressed stranger the daughter of an upright but proud couple (to flaunt their wealth they take a carriage to a further away Kirk rather than attend the one backing onto their land) turns down her suitor on the grounds his guardian, his Auntie Thomson – is too coarse. The twist here is obvious long before the end but enjoyable just the same.
The Debatable Land. An orphaned young woman taken in as a servant by a woman the attentions of whose son she finds abhorrent finds refuge with a traveller.
The Fiddler. A beautifully constructed tale of a woman haunted by her aid to one of the rebels hunted after Culloden and the fiddler who is the only other person in the know.
A Middle-Aged Drama. A widower takes on a housekeeper and gradually comes to appreciate her. But she has a secret.
Annie Cargill. A man visits his godfather’s house and is spooked by a grave in the adjacent cemetery. A fairly straightforward, but admirably written, ghost story.
The Watch-Tower. A shepherd shelters for the night in a watchtower and finds there an old acquaintance whom he perceives to be the notorious sheep-stealer recently escaped from a nearby jail. Others are on the hunt.
The Figurehead. The mate of the brig “William and Joann” is struck by the resemblance of a girl he sees on a stairhead in Montrose to his ship’s figurehead and starts to court her.
Euphemia. A young lass organises women to bring in a harvest on a Sunday when the men refuse supposedly for Sabbatarian reasons but really for the money.
The Overthrow of Adam Pitcaithley. The son of a farmer strikes up a friendship with a travelling lad but ignores him when in his Sunday finery. Not a wise move.
The Lum Hat. The manuscript of this story – of which a few pages were missing – was found in Jacob’s papers and first published in 1982, many years after her death. The missing pages do not affect the story’s thrust. Christina Mill has led a sheltered life in the house of her father (whose favourite ‘chimney pot’ hat provides the story’s title.) Her disastrous marriage to Baird, a sea captain, and thankfully swift widowhood when his ship founders, leads her to cling to the familiar.
The Fifty-Eight Wild Swans. A man all but bed-ridden with arthritis is struck by a desire to view the many swans newly arrived on a loch just out of sight from his house.
The Yellow Dog. A tale mostly at second hand as the story of the yellow dog, which may or may not be a ghost, is related by one of three men in a smiddy.
Anderson. The boy of the title rescues a kitten from the gaggle of boys about to take great pleasure in drowning it.

Among Jacob’s bons mots are, “No woman, no matter of what age, can be quite cold to the charm of a new garment.” “Hard-working men do not analyse one another much; they either do or do not accept one another, and that is all.” “He was one of the many old men in Scotland who always allude to death as a joke.” She also writes, “Scottish people are addicted, perhaps more than any other, to nicknames,” and repeats the same sentiment elsewhere. Is that a particularly Scottish trait? Her acute observation is particularly evident in The Lum Hat. “In a small town a stranger in church is a godsend.” The cook objects to Christina’s help because of “her passionate belief that the gentry should keep the pose thrust on them by God.” “The stars in their courses fought for Baird, as they do for most thrusters.” “…men married their wives for convenience mainly, and were lucky if they got any attraction thrown in.”

I note that throughout Jacob employs the word “wean” for a child. Hitherto I had thought this a predominantly West Coast usage. On the East coast “bairn” had seemed to me to be exclusive. (It certainly is in Fife – and in The Sunday Post.) Perhaps its use stops just north of Dundee.

Pedant’s corner:- chrysophrase (chrysoprase,) standing in the white patch that then moon had laid, tried is used in the text where treid (the Scots for tread) appears in the glossary.

Famadihana on Fomalhaut IV by Eric Brown

The Telemass Quartet 1, P S Publishing, 2014, 88 p

 Famadihana on Fomalhaut-IV cover

This is the first of four novellas presumably centred round the beam-me-across-space technology Brown has dubbed Telemass and which, as I recall, made its first appearance in the author’s Meridian Days many moons ago.

Here, Matt Hendrick, a detective from Amsterdam, arrives by Telemass on the planet Avoel (Fomalhaut-IV) to seek his wife and the daughter she took with her when she left him. Once there he becomes embroiled with Tiana Tiandra, a woman whose girlfriend Lalla has also disappeared into the interior. The events of the novella are related to the goings-on of a strange cult inspired by the indigenous Avoeli who have a ritual similar to the famadihana of Madagascar from where most of the humans on Avoel originally derived. This involves the apparently dead being brought back to life. The story is mostly told in third person but small fragments from Tiana’s viewpoint are rendered in italics.

Brown does this sort of thing so well. His readers will be familiar with a protagonist not in a relationship at the story’s start or else getting over a failed one, a religion with a degree of bizzarrerie, a lost spouse or family member, strange aliens and may even expect a love interest to be encountered along the way. The entertainment comes with the twists he applies to these building blocks. In this novella the Avoel are perhaps a little too undeveloped, Hendrick’s relationship with Tiana is a bit precipitate and the resolution also feels a trifle rushed. Yet the whole thing is engaging, if perhaps lacking some of the warmth of Brown’s previous quartet for PS, Starship Seasons. But we’re only one story in. Time enough.

Pedant’s corner:- is a valued members of my congregation (member,) attempting to keep the irritation from her voice” (his voice makes more sense,) peered around it mass (its mass,) bears a passing a passing resemblance, not to hate met (me,) “He heard her breathing at her side (his.) And a fair sprinkling of instances of “time interval” later.

The Wall Around Eden by Joan Slonczewski

Women’s Press, 1991, 288 p

The Wall Around Eden cover

It’s the little things that niggle. One of the families in this book is Quaker, of the strict variety. And they address others as “thee” (except in the possessive when they use “thy”.) This is fine, but…. Bar once, they never use the form “thou” – and in the nominative case they ought to. I found this omission intensely irritating (though I’ll admit that “thou” would require, for example, the verb form “seest” as in “thou seest” rather than the author’s “thee sees.”) Do strict Quakers in the US actually use “thee” in this way? In any case Slonczewski and her characters are clearly aware that the “thou” form exists as in that one instance Daniel Scattergood uses it in the punning phrase “an I for a thou” when he and Isabel Garcia-Chase are exchanging images with an alien artefact. It also occurs in, “She had watched it for too long not to think of it as thou” when Isabel has an apparently wounded keeper at her mercy. Very annoying.

Then too, Slonczewski has her characters reference various works of Science Fiction which, although it provides a means of explaining the topographical relationship of the alien Pylons which link various human settlements together with a central core, comes over more as her demonstrating an awareness of the genre rather than something organic to her creations.

But to the tale. It’s set in the aftermath of an atomic war in which aliens called Keepers may or may not have had some part but where most of humanity and other life failed to survive the ensuing nuclear winter. Those who did now live in domed cities created by the aliens. These have an impenetrable barrier (the wall around Eden of the title) to the outside and also a walled off Pylon at their centre, plus flying aliens (or alien artifacts) called angelbees – who see infra-red – roaming the air inside the domes. There are very few of these environments – none in Europe – the main one is in Sydney, Australia, but ours is in Gwynwood, USA. Courtesy of the aliens the domed cities are kept in touch with each other by a teleportation technology.

Sunlight can penetrate the wall around Gwynwood but snow cannot; nor can animals – the outside is littered with the bones of the dying, humans among them, attracted there by its warmth and light in the days of nuclear winter – but there is weather inside (not to mention bluejays, mice and squirrels.) Despite references to the growing of crops and fruit – and their contamination with radiation via the groundwater – Gwynwood seems rather too small to create that internal weather, and to be self-sufficient. Yes, imports come in from Sydney but these seem to be mostly technological or medical. I did wonder how even the small number who live there managed to survive. Their existence is summed up by one of them remembering Chief Seattle, on being taken to the reservation, “It is the end of living and the beginning of survival.”

No matter; the main story is of Isabel’s quest to escape Gwynwood, join the Underground and eject the aliens from Earth. Somewhere along the way it turns into a yoyage of discovery about the nature of the Keepers and their purposes. Slonczewski does the discovery stuff very well and the central message – unusually for a post disaster novel – is of hope but I was left wanting more.

Pedant’s corner:- there was a “sprung” count of one (but sprang was used elsewhere,) the now very unPC, “We’ll watch the poofs at Les Girls.” “But King George (III) was a tyrant” is a very USian sentiment. We had crèche (for nativity scene,) rhinoceri (the word ending is plain wrong; its root isn’t from Latin, the English plural is rhinoceroses anyway,) calling an in unimaginable variety (in an,) polyhedrons (it’s from Greek so the plural is polyhedra,) shined (shone,) could have mowed us down (mown.)

The Screwtape Letters by C S Lewis

Letters from a senior to a junior Devil, Fount, 1991, 160 p (first published in 1942)

The Screwtape Letters cover

Many years ago, before we moved to Braintree, the good lady and I lived for a few months in Welwyn Garden City. We joined the library there and came across a book – which we both read and enjoyed – about angels and devils (and, I think, a war between Heaven and Hell.) Our recollection was, and is, that it was by someone reasonably well known, with a surname that began with a letter towards the end of the alphabet, but that the book wasn’t typical of his (it was a man) output. Since we moved from WGC we’ve never found the book elsewhere and can no longer remember its title nor who the author was.

When we heard of The Screwtape Letters both our thoughts were that, no, Lewis is too religiously minded to be the unknown author and his name does not begin with a letter in the latter half of the alphabet. I chanced upon this copy at a charity book sale and thought well, why not try it anyway?

The book is arranged as a series of epistles to “My Dear Wormwood” – the junior devil of the sub-title – all bar two of which are signed off with, “Your affectionate Uncle, Screwtape.” They outline Screwtape’s responses to Wormwood’s attempts to ensnare a soul and the various stratagems that may be employed for that purpose. In this Lewis highlights numerous human frailties and misconceptions, as he sees them. The whole thing is rather dry, coming over as an arid intellectual exercise, and strangely rooted in time by its many references to the “current European War.”

That book from Welwyn Garden City was funny and a delight. The Screwtape Letters is not.

Does my description of the WGC book strike a chord with anyone? Can you enlighten me as to its author and title? I’d like to read it again to see if it stands up to memory.

Pedant’s corner. All these despite this being a forty-fourth impression!:- dulness (that’s two books in a row now; did it used to be spelt that way?) strategem, in which a stranger self preyed upon a weaker (stronger self, surely?) “reckoning in light years” used as if a light year were a unit of time rather than distance, to watch a man doing something is not to make him to it (“make him do it” makes more sense,) a shell-like tetter (??? – tetter is a skin disease.)

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