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The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

Penguin, 1960, 141 p.

 The Ballad of Peckham Rye cover

Dougal Douglas has been hired by Meadows, Meade & Grindley, manufacturers of nylon textiles, because “the time has come to take on an Arts man.” The novel relates the effect this appointment has on some of the workforce and also on the inhabitants of Miss Frierne’s lodging house where he holds a tenancy. One of these effects is that Humphrey Place jilted his intended, Dixie Morse, at the altar, an incident referred to in the book’s first lines but not fully described till later.

I confess I find myself totally underwhelmed by Spark’s writing. There is something about it which is just too detached. I never feel I get close to understanding why her characters behave the way they do, what motivates them; Humphrey’s jilting of Dixie being a case in point. Spark is held in high regard though, so maybe it’s my expectations of fiction that are at fault.

That this was published in another time – nearly sixty years ago now – is evidenced by the casual use of the phrase “nigger minstrels”.

I have two more Sparks on my to be read shelves so I will be coming back to her – but perhaps not in the immediate future.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing end quotation mark after a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “ the brussels” (Brussels,) Hooch (it’s heeooch, or heeugh.) “‘You did, a matter of fact’” (the phrase is ‘as a matter of fact’ but this was in dialogue,) ditto “‘What you know about kids?’” (What do you know?)

A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk

faber and faber, 2015, 613 p including v p Contents, ii p Aktaş and Karataş family tree, v p Index of characters and vii p Chronology. Translated from theTurkish Kafamda bir tuhaflik by Ekin Orlap.

 A Strangeness in my Mind cover

This is the story of Mevlut Karataş who wanders the streets of Istanbul at night selling boza – a kind of fermented drink concocted so as Turks could believe they were not actually drinking alcohol even though they were – from the panniers hung from the pole across his shoulders. While the narrative is mainly carried by a third person account of Mevlut’s life and thoughts, the viewpoints of many of the individuals connected to Mevlut are interpolated into the text. All of these are written in the first person and introduced by that narrator’s name. Though all the details of Mevlut’s life from his arrival in Istanbul to help his father on his boza rounds, through his prolonged and ultimately unfruitful sojourn at the Atatürk Secondary School for Boys, his years conscripted in the army, the attempts to sell yoghurt, ice cream and cooked rice, the other ventures into employment, cashier in a café, car park guard, electricity inspector – residents of Istanbul seem to have been very creative in the ways they could steal electricity from the supply company – it is his love life which provides the book’s main thrust.

The first chapter depicts the defining incident in Mevlut’s life, and it is as magic realist as you could wish – only not magical at all. For three years Mevlut had been writing letters to Rayiha, a girl whose eyes he had stared into at the wedding of his cousin Korkut. Korkut’s brother Süleyman agrees to help Mevlut elope with Rayiha and arranges the deed. When Mevlut glimpses the girl in the back of Süleyman’s van that night he is bewildered to discover she is not the one he thought he had been writing to. Nevertheless, he marries her, comes to love her and have two daughters with her. Süleyman’s deception, of course, (he had designs on the girl with the eyes, Rayiha’s sister, Sadiha, himself,) has ramifications throughout the book.

Many observations about love are made within the text. Hadji Hamit Vural avows, “‘if you’re going to love a girl as deeply as your brother here … you’ve got to make sure to start loving her after you’re married …… but if you fall in love before that .. and you sit down to discuss the bride price with the girl’s father, then those cunning, crafty fathers will ask you for the moon … Most couples would not fall in love if they got to know each other even just a little bit before getting married …. There is also the kind that happens when two people get married and fall in love after that … and that can only happen when you marry someone you don’t know.’” Süleyman’s later lover Melahat (a stage performer under the name Mahinur Mehrem) lets us know that, “‘I could write a book about all the men I’ve known, and then I would also end up on trial for insulting Turkishness.’”

The changing face of the city into whose nooks and crannies Mevlut wanders plying his wares and the evolution of Turkish life become major themes, with the political ups and downs a background never fully occupying Mevlut’s mind; but a sense of the role played by emphasising the nation is never far away, “in this night, pure and everlasting, like an old fairy tale, being Turkish felt infinitely better than being poor.”

The more you read Pamuk the more it becomes clear that his real subject, his true love, is Istanbul; though Turkishness in the wider sense is also important and affairs of the heart never far away. Here Mevlut’s friend Ferhat tells us that, “What makes city life so meaningful is the things we hide.” Pamuk’s œuvre has probed into those hidden places – more so in A Strangeness in my Mind as his previous books have tended to concentrate more on middle class Istanbul, whereas here our hero (as Pamuk refers to Mevlut several times, this is a knowing type of narration) is one of those for whom getting on in the world has always been difficult, he does not know enough of the right people, never accumulates sufficient capital to become affluent.

Again in a Pamuk novel set in modern times there is an acute consciousness of football, but here no hint of anyone called Orhan Pamuk. If Istanbul itself were not enough, allusions to a journalist character from The Black Book would tie this novel in with previous works.

Through all his modern novels – and arguably in those set in historical times – Pamuk has been picking away at the threads of Turkish life, the tensions between religion and the secular sphere, the restrictions set on the people by political, societal and religious dictats. It is almost possible having read enough Pamuk to feel you know something about Turkey, and especially about Istanbul. This may be a delusion but it’s closer to the truth than those without that experience can ever have.

Pedant’s corner:- no start quotation mark when a chapter begins with a piece of dialogue, shopwindows (shop windows. Is it one word in Turkish?) “enormous billboards that look up one whole side of a six- or seven story [sic] building” (took up makes more sense,) “thirty two liras” (isn’t the plural of lira just ‘lira’? Many instances of liras,) “he would open at random to a page” (‘he would open a page at random’ sounds a more natural construction,) the text refers to Argentina and England being at war, and to ‘English’ ships (that of course should be Britain and British respectively,) occasional omitted commas before and after direct speech, “provide the overhead” (in British English it’s ‘overheads’,) “the lay of all the neighbourhoods” (the lie.)

Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi

Gollancz, 2018, 328 p.

I had scheduled this post to appear when I was away but for some reason only the title appeared. I’ve now binned that one. Here’s the full version.

 Summerland cover

Rajaniemi’s first few novels were fairly dense narratives where not much concession by way of information dumping was made to the reader who in consequence was forced to do a bit of work in following their stories. As an approach this had its merits, as the rich, layered depths revealed themselves slowly and made for a more enriching read. By contrast Summerland has a more common narrative structure with no corresponding demands on the reader beyond suspension of disbelief. Given its timeline it could be classified as an Altered History but the milieu it depicts is really not one for which that description could fully apply being more sui generis.

Sometime towards the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries radio experiments led to contact with the world of the dead. Now a whole system of communications – via ectophone and ectomail – exists between the realms, the Queen rules from what is called Summerland, the Great War was won with the aid of ghastly apparitions like the ectotank, but still a kind of cold war exists between Great Britain and the USSR. Transition between the realms (ie death) is mediated via Tickets which provide a destination for a departed soul. Without a Ticket a dead person is subject to Fading as their soul evaporates away. This will also happen even to those who had a Ticket unless sufficient suffusions of a substance known as vim occur.

The book is set over several months in late 1938 and January 1939. There is no Nazi threat but renegade from the USSR and its own Summerland god engine, Iosef Dzhugashvili, is fomenting trouble in Spain.

Rachel White is an operative of the British security services entrusted with the protection of a Soviet defector. After telling her of the existence of a mole called Peter Bloom, he blows his brains out. Her report of this revelation to her superior is greeted with dismissal, her gender being seen as making her an obvious target for an attempt to foment suspicion and distrust. Bloom, is, however, known to be close to the Prime Minister, Herbert Blanco West (whose mere name is enough to trigger associations in the reader even before we learn of his past as a draper’s apprentice who had dreams of Martian invasions and invisible men.) Similarly Rajaniemi has a bit of fun in slotting in the likes of Guy Burgess, Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt as minor characters in his tale.

The plot then consists of the usual kind of spy story albeit complicated with interferences from the spirit realm whose denizens can take over bodies in the “live” world on a kind of hire basis but also monitor the emotions of the undead, thus making it difficult to lie to them. The tale is however – unusually for a spy story – told from the viewpoint of the spy, Bloom, as well as the would-be spycatcher, Rachel.

The existence in the realm of the dead of shadowy entities called Cullers who will leap on any detected activity in the zone and pounce to ensure its inhabitants will Fade is not made much of in Summerland whose text is mainly Earth-bound and taken up with White’s efforts to prove Bloom is a spy. There is slightly more to Rajaniemi’s story than this but its appeal lies in the idea of a parallel world of the dead and its ability to interact with the ‘real’ world rather than the plot it contains.

Pedant’s corner:- I read an advanced reading copy so many of these may have been changed for final publication. “could really use a person of your calibre” (the British English for this is ‘could really do with’,) “desk a parking lot for memos” (again, ‘parking lot’ is not British English,) “lay low” (lie low,) “none of the security measures were enough” (none … was enough,) “there were a number of small glass vials” (there was a number,) “ we have a bloody mess in our hands” (on our hands,) a missing full stop at a sentence end (x2,) “she lunched with the junior staff with the canteen” (in the canteen,) “more spare time in my hands” (on my hands,) a missing start quotation mark, ”she managed slur the words” (to slur,) “in the in the” (one ‘in the’ too many,) prime minister (x2, Prime Minister,) “reached a crescendo” (a crescendo is a process, not a culmination; ‘reached a climax’, Crookes’ (Crookes’s,) “gift of gab” (gift of the gab,) “‘the benefit of doubt’” (the benefit of the doubt,) “I could use a little flattery’” (I could do with a little flattery,) “‘I just I can’t help you’” (an ‘I’ too many,) “a fearsome, feathered hat” (doesn’t need that comma,) “‘Say, do you see….’” (No English Oxford student would start a question with ‘Say’. ‘I say’, perhaps, but not ‘Say’,) “Peter let go of the drainpipe caught the roof’s edge” (and caught,) “‘you do this it a lot’” (no need for the ‘it’,) “folded his lanky frame into his bench in with great difficulty” (no ‘in’ required,) a missing end quotation mark, “the groans of the old coach” (‘the old couch’ makes more sense,) “times ten” (multiplied by ten,) “‘what are you going ty do next.’” (Is a question so needs a question mark rather than a full stop,) Djugashvili (x3, elsewhere Dzhugashvili,) “Leading up her bar exam” (up to her bar exam,) “‘setting up a meet’” (a meeting,) Symonds’ (Symonds’s,) “rode in their wake of as they pushed their way” (‘in their wake as they pushed’,) dove (dived. Please,) “‘I could, in fact, use some advice’” (I could, in fact, do with some advice,) Rache (elsewhere always Rachel,) “the men’s room” (the gents,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) “the car’s hood” (the car’s bonnet,) “on a chair in cell” (in a cell.)

The Great Chain of Unbeing by Andrew Crumey

Dedalus, 2019, 335 p. Reviewed for Interzone 275, May-Jun 2018.

 The Great Chain of Unbeing cover

In his previous eight novels Crumey has constructed a strange niche for himself from his considerations of music, parallel worlds, imagined universes, the rendering of scientific concepts thought to be abstruse into accessible fictional form, all peopled with credible characters experiencing real human dilemmas. He is not beyond literary playfulness. Here we start with “The Unbeginning”, finish with “The Unending” and “The Introduction” comes as part three.
His latest novel is unconventional even in Crumey’s terms. It’s presented as a series of tales, which at first sight appear to have only the most tenuous of links between them (if any at all) yet on closer examination yield foreshadowings and echoes, subtle resonances – both with themselves and the rest of his oeuvre. We have a scene from the life of a man genetically blind due to his father’s exposure to H-bomb tests, a tale of mistaken identity on the international conference scene, an imagined interview, the thoughts of a lecturer undergoing a CT scan, how silk worms came to Europe, a man suspecting his wife of an affair, a fragment from a life of Beethoven, a young woman visiting her father on a Greek island after an abortion, the consciousness of a concert pianist who comes on like a hit man, the spying activities around the military secret that was early FM radio, a postman’s reminiscences, a lecture given by an insect, the story of The Burrows (a vast tunnelling project the length and breadth of Scotland) and the underground habitat which results, the invention of the word-camera which captures a scene and renders it in text, a woman bumping into someone she thought was dead (so reversing the previous collapse of her wave function,) a philosophical discussion of a Moslowski-Carlson machine to replicate Earth light years away, extracts from a truly awful SF novel inhabiting just that universe, a metaphor about the dangers of seeking fire.

They’re all beautifully written, pitch perfect to the milieux portrayed but also interspersed with a sly humour. “‘Bradley’s a real philosopher, incidentally, by which I mean a dead one,’” and in The Burrows section, “Some international medical authorities insisted that being starved of sunlight would cause long-term health problems but the Scots had been managing like that for centuries and it hadn’t done them any harm,” with ice-cream having a surprisingly prominent presence.

The text comments on itself, “A conventional novel or story collection is a sequence of parts in some predetermined order. We could of course read them any way we like,” and provides “layers of fiction”. Characters note variously a tendency to inconsistency, that imitation is the most fundamental human impulse, “‘We describe everything in terms of its similarity or difference compared to something else.’” That things aren’t what they seem or are described as being different to what they are. There are thoughts on a “past that wasn’t there,” “spurious influences”, “the night she didn’t have, with him instead of Matt. There is only now, she thought. Nothing else has any existence.” The five-second thrill of a life that never happened. The territory between being and non-being. One character says, “‘what neither of us can imagine is a universe without space and time,’” yet elsewhere we have, “‘Time is an appearance not a reality.’”

Despite “the interconnections by which the world is made a coherent whole,” even the most straightforward mainstream passages are saturated with subtle indeterminacies which it would be easy to overlook. Statements like, “‘You concentrate on that object…. visualise it as clearly as you can. Until it becomes no longer itself,’” or, “‘Alfredo Galli wanted to create a matrix of compositional elements through which numerous paths could be conceived, each a possible book with its own multiplicity of readings,’” and “History is an infinite superposition,” but “‘The universe is a circle…. A great chain of living and dying, giving and taking. Every moment is a link.’” “‘There is only one not many. No Difference, only Alike.’” Yet, “all literary style is really a kind of selection, a form of negation,” and “any path through the matrix of narrative possibilities should be a story not only scandalously disjointed but also inherently inconsistent: an appearance betraying its own unreality.”

What we have here is perhaps a literary expression of sonata form – “in the development the tunes get mixed up,” but with something to be discovered between the tones yet nevertheless totally accomplished.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- jack-in-the-boxes (just sounds odd to me. But what is a more sensible plural? Jacks-in-the-box? Jacks-in-boxes? Jacks-in-the-boxes?) “The audience were applauding” (the audience was,) “All the burden of his father’s ambitions were lifted” (the burden was lifted,) liquified (liquefied; liquefy was used earlier,) “Ten Downing Street” (usually 10 Downing Street,) “the way his generation speak” (speaks,) Guttenberg (Gutenberg,) “umbilical chord” (that’s a cord,) “Marks and Spencers” (Marks and Spencer’s,) midgie (there is no such thing; it’s a midge,) CO2 (CO2,) a missing quotation mark at the end of a piece of direct speech.

Fifty-One by Chris Barnham

Filles Vertes Publishing, 2018, 317 p. Reviewed for Interzone 275, May-Jun 2018.

 Fifty-One cover

This novel is centred on the explosion of a V-1 Flying Bomb in Lewisham, London, in 1944 where fifty-one people were killed, hence the book’s title. It also features time travel in a way which has unavoidably noticeable echoes of Connie Willis’s “Oxford” series of tales but is in some respects better plotted and certainly not so prone to the narrative deferral to which Willis seems so wedded. Do not be put off by the book’s cover, which admittedly does have a doodlebug on it, but otherwise conveys a misleading impression of the contents. There is an element of romance here and it drives part of the plot but it is by no means the narrative’s main concern.

In the early 2020s experiments at CERN led by one Axel Darnell showed certain particles to be travelling back in time. Soon (too soon?) this discovery was extended into sending back animals then humans and the OffTime organisation was set up not only to explore the past for historical knowledge but also to monitor and amend any changes in the timeline.

There are two main settings, London in 2040 where the offices of OffTime are located and the same city during the 1940s war years. A prologue set in Koblenz in 1954 does rather give the game away about where we might be headed and we return there for the epilogue.
In the main story Jacob Wesson and his partner (in the romantic sense) Hannah Benedict are part of an OffTime team sent to 1941 to thwart an assassination attempt on Churchill. From the off there are odd aspects to this venture, including why it is even necessary, and of course things do not go smoothly. Jacob’s retrieval to 2040 in the middle of an air-raid is interrupted by a mysterious voice. Instead he jumps to 1943. While in 1941 Jacob (literally) bumped into one Amy Jenkins – about whose life we had been told in a previous chapter – then disturbed her wedding preparations. In implementing the “lost retrieval” protocol he meets up again with Amy (widowed in the same air-raid which disrupted the retrieval), and eventually despairing of being brought back to his own time allows himself to form an attraction to her. When contact is finally made Jacob has no option but to return to 2040, leaving Amy behind. But she follows him to the pick-up point and is projected into her future – against the supposed laws of time travel. Jacob and his team are faced with the dilemma of what to do with her and more importantly, what else have they not been told?

If you examine this in any detail it all vanishes in smoke of course. Any alteration of past events scenario is necessarily prone to that, however – unless it restores the time we know. There are certain pointers, though, that the past into which the team is sent is not our past (the “real” past?) and the 2040 shown here always seems contingent.

There are some problematic aspects to the narrative. Barnham has a tendency to tell the reader things rather than show them. The information dumping is not well integrated into the text and at times too crude. There is a bagginess to the prose, a tendency to repetition of things we already know. The necessity to make a time jump naked in order to avoid temporarily debilitating nausea was also a bit of hand-waving overkill. The dynamics of the relationship between Jacob and Hannah are underplayed and, for a supposed grand passion, that between Jacob and Amy is too restrained.

This is a US publication and so accommodations must be made but putting transatlantic speech patterns* into the mouths of 1940s Londoners can only jar with the British reader. Particularly egregious was the substitution of “Mum” by “Mom” in the wording of a famous wartime poster which consequently totally fails to embody the pun necessary for its effect. And that’s a pity as it immediately hauls said reader out of the story.

For all that, fans of a good time travel romp will enjoy this. The plotting is clever (if transparent, so that the twist in the tail came as not entirely a surprise.) Were Barnham to be more confident in his ability – and in the reader’s – eliminate repetition, tighten up on info-dumping and expand on characterisations sometimes too closely linked to plot necessities, his creations would breathe more freely.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- *eg “‘we can go help them’” (go and help them,) “‘will go find’” (go and find.) “Be Like Dad, Keep Mom” (“Keep Mom” makes absolutely no sense. Unlike “keep mum”, which means “don’t say anything”.) “to get back with the program” (not a phraseology appropriate to a 1940s Londoner.)
Otherwise; “probably” appeared twice within the space of one line, “‘Keep out of sight and be ready to get into position right on the dot?’” (isn’t a question so needs no question mark,) “Code One” (really? Nothing more original for an emergency signal?) “The Heinkel bombers” (just “the Heinkels”, bombers is unnecessary,) “and what was doing there” (what was he doing there.) “‘But I finally I have some news’” (drop one of those “I”s ), “or tables, to be precise since she’d pushed” (the comma is misplaced “or tables to be precise, since she’d pushed”.) Jenkins’ (Jenkins’s,) “Amy had never seen a color (sic) photograph” (but coloured cinema films surely?) “the shops on this side of the Thames were closed for the weekend” (for Sunday maybe, but not the whole weekend,) practice (I thought the USian was always practise,) “get ahold” (get a hold,) “within a few days they’d break out and advance south towards Paris” (the D-Day breakout took longer than a few days after D-Day and Paris was east of the landing area, perhaps an indication of this not being “our” past.)

Shoreline of Infinity 11: Spring 2018

The New Curiosity Shop, 134 p.

All-women issue published on International Women’s Day.

 Shoreline of Infinity 11 cover

In Pull up a Log,a Guest Editors Pippa Goldschmidt, Caroline Grebell and Monica Burns note that some potential contributors to this special issue did not want to be cordoned off in such a way, bemoaning the general lack of submissions to SF markets by women writers, but rejoice in the many good submissions received – too many for this one edition, and lament the passing of Ursula Le Guin to whom they dedicate the issue.

Unusually we start with a poem, Speculative Fiction by Katherine McMahon. Later on the non-fiction has S J McGeachy’s “Frankenstein: the Nuts and Bolts of Genre Mash-up”b wherein the essayist feels Mary Shelley’s greatest achievement wasn’t so much the invention of a new genre but in ignoring the constraints of a previous one where in effect women didn’t matter. “Confessions of a Science Fiction She-nerd” by Jonatha Kottler tells us how the author got into SF, there is an interview with Lisanne Normann conducted by Caroline Grebell, “Noise and Sparks: Beyond the Mountains” by Ruth E J Booth finds the author disappointed in the Wonder Woman film’s failure to resonate with her personally while recognising it did with others, and arguing for more diverse stories on the mainstream. Reviews has only books by female authors all reviewed by women. Marija Smitsc finds Helen Segdwick’s The Growing Season slightly flawed, Eris Youngd looks at Lidia Yulnavitch’s Book of Joan,e Shelly Bryant’s collection Launch Pad lacks dynamism made up for by ambition according to Georgina Murray,f Samantha Dolang appreciates N K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and Lucy Powellh calls The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers a tour de force. To that last I can only say, “What?” Multiversei has six poems by three poets, Catherine Edmunds, Paige Smith and Katie Fanthorpe.
As to the fiction:
A Slow Unfurling of Truth1 by Aliette de Bodard is a human tale of betrayal, filial duty and redemption wound round a memory encoding device in a colonially exploited setting.
In Write ME2 by Emily Bowles women’s bodies are being adapted to service the preservation of language in order to maintain male privilege and power.
Heading for the Border3 by Karen Heuler is set in a post-apocalyptic world invaded by aliens who bombed a nuclear reactor. Two women scratch a living selling cosmetics from the back of a truck to help improve the survivors’ morale.
Lith Amenti’s Sacrifice for a Broken Sky4 has a father about to sacrifice his daughter to placate what appears to be a black hole tearing at the fabric of the world. It isn’t, quite, and the story’s resolution doesn’t fit with its beginning.
In Do No Harm5 by Anna Ibbotson the reward for coming in the top two in an online virtual reality cancer eradicating game is to treat patients in the real world. The top guy is very casual about the process.
#No Bad Vibes6 by Katy Lemon is narrated via alien edited audio transcripts of and commentary on posts by an internet influencer. The aliens are using her to promote their message. Misunderstandings are mutual.
Sim Bajwa’s HR Confidential7 is a set of recorded exchanges between an employee and Human Resources along with their accompanying memos. The employee’s complaints relate to an overbearing line manager and the company’s subsequent efforts to improve productivity.
In Pearls That Were His Eyes8 by Jen Downes, a soldier conscripted due to bankruptcy is injured in an attack but the ocean into which he falls, apparently to his death, is riddled with downed military medical bots.

Pedant’s corner:- two of the responses to Caroline Grebell’s Twitter requests, ‘Why do you read SciFi?’ ‘Your favourite female SciFi author?’ are printed twice – and I hate the contraction SciFi. It’s SF. a“there are a plethora of voices” (a plethora is singular, so ‘there is a plethora of voices’.) bH G Wells’ (Wells’s.) c“the brief mention to epigenetics” (mention of.) d‘geocatacysm’ (later in the review it’s ‘geocataclysm’,) ethe book’s cover – illustrated on the page – has The Book of Joan. f“For all intents and purposes” (is this USian? It’s ‘to all intents and purposes’,) sat (sitting,) “out with” (outwith.) gpalette (palate.) hChambers’ (Chambers’s,) Jenks’ (Jenks’s,) Chambers’ (this one wasn’t a possessive, so, Chambers.) iIn the author information; Edmunds’ (Edmunds’s,) “where she feel most at home” (feels.)
1“the back of their hands” (strictly that should be backs,) [“We should “] (that second quote mark is inverted in the text – an opening mark rather than a closing one – no doubt due to the character space between itself and ‘should’,) “Too young for everything that had might have happened off-world to him” (either ‘had’ or ‘might have’, not both,) “had insisted to come” (is not an English construction, ‘had insisted on coming’ is,) “she’d return the capital with one more authentication” (return to the capital,) “the man who pretended himself Simalli Fargeau” (again isn’t an English construction, ‘presented himself as’ or ‘pretended to be’.) 2written in USian, “a few strings savaged from a piano” (salvaged? Though, given the story’s premise savaged makes sense,) spit (the past tense is ‘spat’. I don’t care how USians say or spell it, it just is,) sprung (sprang.) “I on the other had simply gave him back one word at a time” (on the other hand.) 3Written in USian, Ikea (IKEA.) 4Written in USian, “Before, he thought before that he had prepared” (one ‘before’ too many I’d have thought,) “Hedda holds very last of her treasures” (holds the very last.) 5James’ (James’s,) “‘for hells sake’” (hell’s.) 6“individual specie traits” (‘specie’ means ‘in kind’ and hence ‘coins’. It is not the singular of species.) 7“‘For fucks suck’” (suck? And it should be fuck’s.) 8“this damn’ battle” (I fail to see the necessity of the apostrophe.)

Transformation by Mary Shelley

Alma Classics, 2019, 105 p plus 7 p Note on the text plus Notes.

 Transformation cover

This is a reprint of three of Shelley’s short stories originally published in the 1830s in the literary annual The Keepsake. “Spelling and punctuation have been standardized (sic), modernised and made consistent throughout.”

The first and title story, Transformation, is the tale of a prodigal waster, keen to worm himself back into the good books of his sweetheart’s father, offered a body swap by the devil to effect the desired outcome. The writing is obviously of its time but to modern eyes, overwrought.

The unfortunate narrator of The Mortal Immortal seemingly spurned by his beloved, inadvertently drinks an elixir concocted by his employer, the alchemist Cornelius Agrippa, and finds, eventually, he is immortal – or, at least, very long-lived. This is in the now long tradition of unexpected consequences stories.

The final tale, The Evil Eye, is a story of thwarted inheritance, skulduggery, child kidnap and coincidence in the Greece and Albania of Turkish times, apparently influenced by Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Thomas Hope’s Anastasius and Prosper Mérimée’s La Guzla. It suffers a little through being told rather than shown to us.

Reading these stories in the twenty-first century is an odd experience. What may, when written, have seemed fresh and new is perhaps diminished by the time that has since elapsed and the many authors who have followed in Shelley’s wake.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech.

The Land the Ravens Found by Naomi Mitchison

Collins, 1968, 190 p. Illustrated by Brian Alleridge.

The Land the Ravens Found cover

This is what may nowadays be called a YA novel. In a long-ago Caithness, still forested, Anlaf, the son of Thorstan the Red, himself son of Anlaf the White, longs to become an adult and go on raids with his father against the indigenous Scots. His future is unutterably altered when, perhaps due to information given to a Scot by one of his family’s thralls his father is killed on an expedition. Wise to the possibility of their new-forged vulnerability being exploited they build a boat and set sail for Iceland, the land the ravens found, where Anlaf’s grandmother, Aud, has kin.

Mitchison builds her story well, the obvious research required being well disguised. Reading this would be a relatively painless way for anyone to learn some history of the Dark Age period and the earliest settlement of Iceland. Particularly well-handled are the tensions between those adherents of the Old Faith and the New (Christianity,) the conventions of Viking society and the relative power women held, but the language is tailored to a young audience. Embedded within it is a prophecy that two of the characters are forebears of the first Europeans to have a child born in the Americas.

On the face of it this would seem to be Anlaf’s story but it is really more that of Aud, Cetil’s daughter. It is her family connections that bring the group to Iceland and her influence that pervades the book.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘Doesn’t he knew?’” (know,) prophecying (prophesying,) a missing full stop. In the Postscript; “There are any amount of stories” (There is any amount.)

Shiloh by Shelby Foote

Vintage, 1991, 235 p.

 Shiloh cover

I first became aware of Shelby Foote through Ken Burns’s TV documentary on the US Civil War where his knowledge of the conflict in all its aspects seemed encyclopædic, his recall of incidents from it almost as if he had been there to witness the events himself. Then I found his three-volume narrative history of the war gracing the shelves of bookshops. I hadn’t really realised till I picked this book up that Foote had been a novelist before embarking on that historical venture. Five others of his fictional works are listed herein. It may indeed be fiction but this book could be read as a historical account of the battle of Shiloh with added humanising narrative touches giving personal perspectives on the battle. The tale is told via six points of view (three Confederate, three Yankee) spread over seven chapters, topped and tailed by the account of Lieutenant Palmer Metcalfe, aide de camp to General Sidney Johnston at the start of the battle.
One of the characters quotes an acquaintance as saying, “He said books about war were written to be read by God Amighty, because no one but God ever saw it that way. A book about war, to be read by men, ought to tell what each of the twelve of us saw in our own little corner. Then it would be the way it was – not to God but to us.
I saw what he meant but it was useless talking. Nobody would do it that way. It would be too jumbled. People when they read, and people when they write, want to be looking out of that big Eye in the sky, playing God.”

Foote does do it that way though, and it isn’t too jumbled.

He also brings out the contrast between how the Confederate soldiers thought about the war – as a crusade to build a new country – and the Yankee, simply doing what had to be done, fighting against something rather than for something.

Metcalfe tells us his father, a one-armed veteran of the Mexican war, was of the opinion the South always bore within itself the seeds of defeat, the Confederacy being conceived already moribund, sick from an old malady, incurable romanticism and misplaced chivalry, in love with the past, in love with death and also once told him, ‘War is more shovelry than chivalry.’

Foote voiced a similar sentiment in the Civil War series saying the South could never have won as the North always fought with one hand behind its back. He does, however, show Metcalfe thinking that pluck, élan, sheer force of will, as exemplified here, and in reality, in the person of Nathan Bedford Forrest can weigh more in the balance of fighting. Well, perhaps in one battle but not in a long war.

As far as Shiloh itself goes Metcalfe realizes the battle was lost through its orderly plan which he was so proud of helping create, that the way the Confederate lines were fed into each other resulted in their hopeless intermingling.

This is a superb book, bringing to life a time past and an experience of war which those of us who never had can appreciate and give thanks for missing.

Pedant’s corner:- verbal contractions are routinely given without apostrophes, wouldnt, couldnt, theyd, Ive, thats, its, youd, weren’t, etc, no matter who the narrator is. Exceptions are ‘I’m’, ‘We’ll’ and ‘I’d’. Prentiss’ (Prentiss’s,) Amighty (Almighty.)

A Different Light by Elizabeth A Lynn

Hamlyn, 1983, 173 p

A Different Light cover

Lynn is one of those 70s-80s writers who published more fantasy than SF and as a consequence kind of passed me by. A Different Light is certainly SF rather than Fantasy, though.
Its main viewpoint character, Jimson Anneca, is an artist with incurable cancer, controllable unless he goes off-world. He is frustrated by this restriction. Given the chance to travel to the off-chart world of Demea to retrieve some Masks for a client, he accepts. Once there he and his companions finds this supposedly uninhabited planet has occupants who object to removal of their culturally significant Masks which turn out to be some sort of mind amplifier. Thereafter the story morphs into a tale about telepathy. A Different Light is pretty run of the mill fare even for its time and shows its age when talking about tapes for recording and playback of brain states.

Pedant’s corner:- “Now, does he know what he’s talking about? wondered Jimson” (has a question mark in the middle of a sentence; not only is it in the middle of a sentence it is arguably unnecessary,) “a gravity of two gees” (a gravity of two g,) “the rainbow changing of the ship before it jumped was like watching a real rainbow” (eh?) Nexus’ (Nexus’s, x2.) “‘The dust is debris that once were stars,’” (debris that once was stars.) “Her skill insured that” (ensured; is ‘insured’ used in this context USian?)

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