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A Reading Experience

I know how much effort an author has to make in order to produce a finished story, much more for a novel than a short story, granted, but even the shortest piece of fiction requires a high degree of attention. Anyone who attempts it deserves to be given some leeway.

And yet. And yet.

There are exceptions.

A couple of months ago the good lady was approached by someone via her blog to ask if she would like to receive a certain book for review, a book which happened to be labelled Science Fiction. She replied that she had too many books to read but mentioned that I read SF so the offered was extended to me. I accepted despite some misgivings. The book duly arrived (from the US with a heavy postage on it) and those misgivings multiplied. Its appearance had the stamp of print on demand on it and a look that implied self-publishing. There was a named publisher on the copyright page though, Fulton Books Inc, so I thought it might be okay.

Wrong.

So wrong.

I’m not going to name the book here but I will post the review on the blog at a later date. I won’t put the usual “Pedant’s corner” addendum on the review but include that here (see below) to give a flavour of it. I think it’s the longest such I’ve ever had but it could have been many times the length and still not encompassed all its stumbles.

After one day of reading, I googled the “publisher.” It “is the most affordable solution for publishing your manuscript.” Yes. It’s a vanity publisher, a self-publishing racket, if you will.

Nevertheless I kept on with it. I felt under an obligation as I had agreed to review it and the author had taken the trouble to send it to me.

Most novels have at least some typos, some clumsiness of expression – that’s to be expected – but this book had infelicities on every page, sometimes many – whether grammatical, syntactical, in spelling (even allowing for USianisms,) or in its punctuation; words were used in ways askew from their accepted meanings (separated for divided, relented for refrained from, radiate for radiant,) it contained sentences that made no sense. The whole thing gave the impression of being hammered out on the keyboard and thrown into the world not fully formed. There was no sign of revision or editing, certainly none of proof-reading. None of the things a reputable publisher would at least make some sort of fist of.

Reading it was like reading through a distorting mirror or in a language that wasn’t quite English, certainly not English as we know it. (To be generous to the author this may have been an attempt on his part to render future changes in the language via his prose but other parts of the novel were resolutely quotidian and so challenge that interpretation; challenge it severely; challenge it to destruction. There is no comparison here to the likes of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.)

At times it felt as if a sort of meaning might be glimpsed through the forest of words, a ray of understanding of a possible new method of expression, an almost making of sense. But humans are hard-wired to discern patterns from chaos, to see images in cloud formations or in the dappling of light through trees: that tantalising flicker never did quite coalesce. There was no substance to it.

It was as if the text had been written by a machine or possibly run several times between different languages through a ropy translation engine. Disorienting. And did I say the characters were one-dimensional?

Lesson learned.

Accept review copies only through recognised outlets.

As to the review, I’ll be as gentle as I can with it when I do post it.

Pedant’s corner:- in the epigraph; Leonard da Vinci (x 2, the usual ‘Leonardo’ was used in the book’s text,) deign (design.) Most of the following occurred in the first few chapters. Thereafter I only noted down particularly glaring incidences:
skullduggery (skulduggery,) “the skyline of Chicago that ebbed from the distance” (either, ‘ebbed into the distance, or, ‘swelled from the distance’) “the water smoothed to a placid.” (To a placid what?) “the world had change in the last decade” (changed. This is only one of many inappropriate verb tenses employed in the book. There were also many failures of agreement of subject and verb, along with innumerable stray quotation mark, with ‘where’ and ‘were’ being frequently mixed up,) “that thrived on carbon dioxides” (carbon dioxide; carbon does have two oxides, but only one of them is a dioxide,) “Terra farming” (several instances, terraforming is the usual term,) “spectrums of color not comparable to anything he’d seen on Earth” (1, spectra; 2, human colour perception does not depend on the viewer’s location, on Earth or anywhere else,) “maneuvered into a parking space between a police patrol vehicle;” (it parked inside another vehicle?) “a pail face” (pale face, pail was used again later for pale,) “a man lay dead on his back in the position he had fallen” (where he had fallen,) “identification card” (many instances; ‘identity card’.) “Next to that image appeared a coded script of information she had been trained to read was projected from the computerized crime kit on the floor.” (That is a sentence which, like many others here, needs revising.) “‘……the GSR.’ ‘The Galactic Smugglers Ring,’ Thad defined the acronym.” (Another acronym was also elaborated in the next sentence by a character whom we were then told was defining that acronym.) “Dexter pushed over a pillow then stopped when he saw a sparkling grey rock underneath a pillow” (the same pillow or a different one?) “when its it processed” (when it’s processed,) “‘but that was in zero gravity, the laws are different here on Earth.’” (It wasn’t in zero gravity; the previous speaker had referred to jumping off lunar rock faces, moons exert gravitational attraction: also the law of gravity is exactly the same everywhere in the universe – “the laws” are not different on Earth,) “to almost to an obsession” (only one ‘to’ required.) Dexter says something to Gail even though five lines above she had been referred to as not yet being present in the room, we’re told when she does step into the room – at the bottom of that same page. “Now that he was within several feet from his target” (either, ‘Now that he was several feet from his target’, or, ‘Now that he was within several feet of his target’,) “with the world’s resources that their disposal the birth a new day, a new world came from the ashes” (at their disposal, birth of a new day,) “sir name” (several times; the usual term is ‘surname’. To be generous to him it may be that Cargile here is trying to suggest a future form of English but when there is a perfectly usable term understood by its intended readership in the present day, that’s not necessary,) “on it’s surface” (its. OK, many writers are prone to this substitution,) “down on his hunches” (a simple typo, the correct ‘haunches’ is used elsewhere,) “the normal gene pole” (gene pool.) “‘That’s not what I met, sir.’” (‘not what I meant’,) “‘A grin crept across his face of amusement’” (I like the concept of a face of amusement, but the suntax here is awry,) “at top her gloved hand” (atop – used later,) “bringing the rifle to bare on target” (to bear,) “soft and none threatening” (non-threatening.) “‘The weather net will … then return current temperature to sixty-eight degrees Celsius’” (if its ‘current’ it’s already at that point and does not need to be returned. And ‘sixty-eight degrees Celsius’? People would likely die of heat stroke within seconds, 68o Fahrenheit would be much more comfortable.) “‘When Homo Sapiens encountered Homo Erectus and ‘Neanderthal’” (Neanderthal, yes, but Homo Sapiens came long after Homo Erectus became extinct, “taken a back” (aback.) “Dexter took those last words like a parent forwarding his disobedience would be his demise.” (??? I can not make sense of that sen tence in any way.) “He glanced to either of his team members” (both members, not ‘either’.) “He suddenly lurched his head to the roof of the bay compartment.” (That is one for Thog’s masterclass.)
On the back page blurb: “artificial human’s labor” (humans’,) “a part of humanities utopian society” (humanity’s.)

The New Life by Orhan Pamuk

faber and faber, 1998 (according to the publication page but post 2006 as the cover and author blurb both mention Pamuk’s Nobel Prize,) 300 p. Translated from the Turkish Yeni Hayat (Ilepşim Yaymarlı, 1994,) by Güneli Gün.

 The New Life cover

One day narrator Osman Akif read a book and his whole life changed. He had glimpsed the book in the hand of Janan, a girl at the same college as him, stumbled on a copy in a second-hand bookstall that afternoon and immediately bought it. His obsession with the book spilled over into one with the girl, whom he befriended along with her boyfriend Mehmet (later also known as Nahit, and later still Osman – there are reasons for these name shifts.) Mehmet was apparently shot during a student demonstration but Osman knew he survived and walked away so set out to find him, taking Janan along with him. This involved many bus journeys through the heart of Turkey, many videos of films watched while travelling, and several bus crashes. (There is something of that fixation of J G Ballard about this aspect of the book.)

A flavour of the text is given by Osman’s thought that “it was not right for Janan even to imagine the land of perdition, heartbreak and bloodshed because in that twilight land illuminated by the book, Death, Love, and Terror wandered like hapless ghosts in the guise of downtrodden, heartbroken men with frozen faces who packed guns.”

Reading The New Life is an odd experience at times. Osman addresses some sentences to ‘Angel’ but it is never entirely clear (at least, not to me) who Angel is meant to be. Turkish life is illuminated in the margins; the family who moved in across from Osman the day he first read the book, once more in a Pamuk novel the salience of football (sadly always named soccer by the translator,) the statues of Atatürk in seemingly every town square, the endless cafés and bus stations, the past of Osman’s Uncle Rıfkı, a railwayman who wrote children’s stories which starred Turkish children as the heroes of US Western tales, the redolence of New Life brand caramels, defunct in the narrator’s present. Uncle Rıfkı also wrote an adult book, which was banned, with only a few copies surviving in the wild. That book was also titled The New Life and is that same book which obsessed Osman.

In their final meeting Mehmet tells Osman, “‘A good book is something that reminds us of the whole world ….. a piece of writing that implies things that don’t exist, a kind of absence, or death …. But it is futile to look outside the book for a realm that is located beyond the words.’” As if to underline the literary nature of this endeavour, the niceties of its twists and turns, the narrator at one point asks, has the reader “extended enough attention and intellect at every turn of this book?” and describes himself in these terms; “In people like me whose lives have slipped off the track, sorrow presents itself in the form of rage that wants to pass itself off as cleverness. And it’s the desire to be clever that finally spoils everything.”

The New Life may be clever, but it’s not clever clever. And it’s not spoiled by any of this philosophising.

Pedant’s corner:- In the “by the same author” list, Instanbul (Istanbul,) on the publication page, “Orhan Pumuk” (Pamuk.) Otherwise; “the lay of the land” (it’s ‘lie of the land’,) “there were an odd number of bottle caps” (there was an odd number,) maws (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth,) “life’s mystery will become manifested to me” (‘manifest’ would be more forceful,) djins (djinns,) “Andre Maurois’ novel” (Maurois’s. This must be the correct formulation since the final ‘s’ in Maurois is unsounded and so, in order to make a possessive, the extra ‘s’ after the apostrophe must be added,) exploitive (exploitative,) “had really waked me up” (woken.)

Ivory Apples by Lisa Goldstein

Tachyon, 2019, 278 p.

Ivy and her increasingly more exotically named sisters, Beatriz, Amaranth and Semiramis, motherless for a few years when the book begins, have been brought up to keep the secret of their great-aunt Maeve’s identity. Over fifty years ago, under her real name of Adela Madden, Maeve had written a book called Ivory Apples, describing a fantasy town. The book was a slow-burning success but Maeve soon withdrew from social communication. In the interim her work and fantasy world has gained an enthusiastic following, with websites devoted to the book’s meaning – trawled for clues to Maeve’s real identity and the messages her replies to letters (in fact supplied first by Ivy’s mother but now by her father Philip who also deals with Maeve’s finances,) may contain – annual conventions and the like. The family visits Maeve every month or so in order for Philip to do this work.

On one visit Ivy takes a walk through the nearby woods and finds a lake hitherto unknown to her. Maeve is swimming there naked and the trees which surround it are festooned with sprites. As she is leaving, one of these jumps at Ivy and penetrates into her body, squeezing into her every extremity, filling her with a kind of exhilaration and heightened awareness. The sprite thereafter is a more or less constant presence in her awareness (unless he withdraws into himself) and she names him Piper. She is warned by Maeve not to tell her sisters and to be careful, to choose wisely, that sprites have the attributes of tricksters.

One day in the park the children are befriended by a Ms Burden, who soon inveigles herself into the family’s lives then prevails upon Philip to investigate a noise in her basement but he dies there. His will comes as a shock to the girls as it entrusts them to Ms Burden’s care. Thereafter her previous solicitude becomes callousness, neglect and gaslighting (the embodiment of a wicked stepmother even though Philip hadn’t ever considered marrying her.) It is her persistent questioning of them about Aunt Maeve that reveals her real interest, though. She is on a quest to find the present day whereabouts of two original Greek muses, Talia and Claudio, and believes Maeve knows where they might be found or is in contact with them.

Ivy undergoes various adventures, running away from home followed by a life on the streets in which the presence of Piper is a great asset to her, the discovery of the depths of Ms Burden’s perfidy, her meeting with a female private investigator to whom she is attracted, becoming Maeve’s carer then journeying into the fantasy town, before the denouement. In the meantime she becomes a published poet with the raised awareness which Piper has brought her (sprites can act as muses and so apparently heighten your artistry. Ivy speculates that Shakespeare, Bach, Dante etc had been so inspired – a thought which to my mind does a disservice to their artistic endeavour) and meditates on the leach-like qualities of a writer, “I learned later that every writer did this with people they knew, that we were all vampires, feeding on other people’s experiences,” which is true to an extent but again devalues the importance of imagination.

Goldstein certainly writes well and it is gratifying to read a fantasy which doesn’t have a cod-mediæval setting (with its potentially iffy political stance) and to have the villain of the piece resolutely human.

Pedant’s corner:- “as studied my hands” (as I studied my hands,) “an apparition would appear” (yes, that’s what apparitions do.) “Like my sprite, he played music, and like my sprite, he played music” (was this repetition intentional or was the second half of the sentence supposed to be different?) “‘I don’t think you’re supposed to put warmed up peas and carrots on pizzas’” is said to be about culinary habits in England but I’ve never heard of anyone doing that, imposter (impostor,) a lot (a lot.) “‘Do you know who’s president?’” (President,) a missing full stop, Claudia (elsewhere always Claudio,) “to come back with me” (to come back to me makes more sense,) “in places ad smeeled strongly of smoke” (and smelled strongly.)

And the Cock Crew by Fionn MacColla

Canongate Classics, 1995, 184 p, plus vi p Introduction by John Herdman. First published 1945.

The author, Thomas Douglas Macdonald, adopted the pen name Fionn MacColla (the Introduction always spells this as Mac Colla) on taking up writing. In his work he seems to have made it his mission to document the loss of the Highland Gaelic culture and way of life. And the Cock Crew is in line with this undertaking as it is set during the onset of the Highland Clearances. It also examines the crisis of conscience of a profoundly Calvinist minister, known as Zachary Wiseman to non-Highlanders but Maighstir Sachairi to his flock.

Over twenty years before the events of the novel Maighstir Sachairi had arrived in Gleann Luachrach (or Glen Loochry, as rendered in a later sentence uttered by a non-Gael) to find it to his mind far too frivolous and ungodly. Under his influence the people had slowly come round to his way of thinking and behaviour except, perhaps, for Fearchar the poet. The times are, however, about to change. “Something else has come among us, something from altogether outside our way of life, and a man has to take account of it although he doesn’t even understand it or know what it wants for him…..Nowadays a man has to honour God and the Factor.”

That factor, Master Byars, known to the glen’s inhabitants as “The Black Foreigner,” though he is in fact a Lowland Scot, has an abiding and visceral hatred of anything Gaelic and cannot bear even the sound of that language. His antipathy towards Gaels led him to believe his life had been threatened by local men who had thought him lost and offered to help him. He called a contingent of redcoats to accompany him to where he had summoned the local villagers to assemble in order to arraign them for this. Two other local ministers are on the factor’s side but Maighstir Sachairi temporarily resolves the confrontation by interviewing the men concerned and telling Byars, “They are a people upright, peaceable, temperate in their ways and righteous with their neighbours to a most seengular degree in our times and generation.” The resultant reprieve for the villagers leads them to believe that they are in Sachairi’s protection.

It is, though, the Black Foreigner’s intention to remove the people from the glens and to replace them with sheep. The clan leader, Mac ’Ic Eachainn, to whose forefathers the clans could have looked for succour in the past “is now no better than an Englishman,” lives down south, does not speak Gaelic and is in fact in favour of the new economic project.

There is an impediment to marrying in the glen in that any man who does so will lose his holdings and be banished. In the absence of a wedding, Mairi-daughter-of-Eaghann-Gasda, an otherwise devout and modest woman whom Maighstir Sachairi would not have believed capable of misdeeds, has become pregnant. She cites the marriage bar as an excuse and refuses to name the father. This throws Sachairi into a crisis of conscience, wondering if he can still truly discern the will of God. It is into this vacuum of decision that The Black Foreigner steps, taking advantage of Sachairi’s hesitancy to confront him about the burning of the heather at the neighbouring village in preparation for the sheep.

Sachairi’s discomfiture is compounded by a meeting with Fearchar in which the poet questions him concerning doctrine, “Poetry and music are sinful, we say – yet with poetry and music a man improves himself in his nature it seems…. How is it that a sin can be experienced as a good?” and in which he concedes that the light of the spirit could be withdrawn from one of the Elect without his knowing it, that one of the Elect could be mistaken as to whether a thing is according to the will of God or not. This compounds Saichari’s indecision and he withdraws from interaction with the community giving Byars the opportunity to carry out his evictions unhindered.

In that long conversation Fearchar posits the relation between two neighbouring nations, long in conflict as the larger tried in vain to conquer and subject the smaller. “The big nation understands at last that it is no use to try to conquer them by force of arms. Suppose they try another way … and by some trick get power over the smaller nation and unite them to themselves. And so they will get from pretended friendship and a trick what they could never win by war and arms.”

He names it. “England. There is a nation that would never rest – never until she had taken away our freedom ….. Now she is more subtle, for Cunning is her name. Now she comes with feigned friendship and with lying promises and gold for our traitors she is able to obtain it, and our liberty is at an end.” For Fearchar the adoption of the English language by those who did so meant they became English, indistinguishable from true Englishmen.

It is within these passages that are laid out Mac Colla’s concerns, the nature of Man’s relationship to God, the repressions inherent in Calvinism, and the replacement of Gaelic culture by this alien one. Concerns not entirely absent from the Scottish novel in general.

It is as a novel, though, that there is something lacking in And the Cock Crew. The characters seem too designed to illustrate the sides to the conflict to have substance as people in their own right. The incidents of cottage burning and removal of people from their homes and livelihoods, harrowing as they may have been, are not shown to us from their victims’ perspective, only from afar, or by others in their aftermath and so their impact is lessened somewhat.

Still, someone had to undertake the task of representing in fiction the brutal upheaval of the way of life of an ancient and hard done by people. Not that that will ever stop such things from happening.

Pedant’s corner:- Crew (that would be ‘crowed’ in English. Even in Scots I have never heard crew as the preterite of crow,) “a heavy hammer leaning leaningly against the anvil” (in what other manner does something lean?) “was caught at unawares” (was caught unawares.) In the list of Canongate Classics at the end of the book the author’s name is misspelled as Fiona.

Snapshot by Daniel Gray and Alan McCredie

Scenes and stories from the heartlands of Scottish football, Nutmeg, 2020, 208 p.

The introduction claims this book to be “a love letter to the charms of football …. a portal into a different kind of Scotland.” Well, maybe; but it’s a portal through which many people have travelled.

As an aside I notice on the cover photo (of a pitch on Eriskay) there are flags marking the halfway line. I thought those had been done away with years ago.

For each “chapter” we have a page or three of narrative. These describe in turn the unsung background people, the beating heart of every club, “ensuring our Saturdays have purpose, comfort and melancholy;” the return to normality and focus of a new season’s start; the contrasting fortunes of the two “wee” Rangers, of Berwick and of Cove; the bright promise of a ground you’ve never been to before; the “gentle pleasures” of football in the Borders (notwithstanding the brutalist concrete splendour of Gala Fairydean’s main stand;) the rigours and dangers of blaes pitches; the magic of a floodlit game, forever enchanting; the glory and misery of away trips; the local team as the heart of a community, embodied in its social club especially in Junior football; the joys of park football; the content the writer senses in the Highland League.

The match day experience of attending a midweek floodlit game in a minor league is highlighted by a photograph of a neglected bottle of orange juice and a mug with the word “Twat” printed on it sitting on top of a dugout.

Football’s past is given its due with photos of an iron fence and gate before where the main stand stood at The Gymnasium; trees striding down the terraces of Cathkin Park; a single Art Deco style wall still bearing the name Shawfield; the sole survivor of Brockville, a turnstile acting as a memorial in the car park of the town’s Morrisons; the overgrown terraces of Tinto Park, Benburb; Meadowbank stadium’s “oddly alluring air of otherness …. a little pocket of Leningrad tucked behind Arthur’s Seat.”

An even more melancholy note is struck by the mention of two Hibs supporters, one photographed on an away trip, who succumbed to Covid-19, with the final paragraphs devoted to the loss the average fan has experienced as a result of the pandemic’s suspension of the Saturday ritual.

Pedant’s corner:- “a 1,000” (either ‘a thousand’ or ‘1,000’. 1,000 does not stand for ‘thousand’, it is specifically ‘one thousand’; no one ever says, ‘a one thousand’,) “their 54 years of league football had ceased” (Berwick Rangers joined the Scottish League proper in 1955; 64 years, then; 68 if you count the Division C years,) Berwick fans in August “singing ‘Back to school tomorrow’ to visiting young fans of Scottish clubs” (unless it was a midweek game more likely ‘Back to school on Monday’,) Rangers’ (Rangers’s,) Rovers’ (Rovers’s,) “the club … are familiar” (the club … is familiar,) “the first senior league game at Cove’s Balmoral Stadium.” (Okay, the writer used a lower case ‘s’, but…. Cove have been Senior ever since they joined the Highland League, so, ‘their first game in a nationwide league,’) “Galashiels Fairydean Rovers FC” (the club’s name is Gala Fairydean Rovers FC.)

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

Book Three of The Neapolitan Novels. Middle Time.

Europa Editions, 2015, 411 p, including vii p Index of Characters and Notes on the Events of the Earlier Volumes. Translated from the Italian Storia di chi fugge e di di chi resta, (Edizioni E/O, 2013,) by Ann Goldstein.

This book carries on the tale of the life of Elena Greco, friend to Lila Cerullo, here following Elena into marriage and motherhood and illuminating Italian life in the late sixties/early seventies. Her husband is Pietro Airota, from a relatively well to do and influential family. The contrast between his background and hers, his atheism (which Elena shares) and her family’s traditionalism is illustrated when they visit Naples pre-marriage. On this visit, an acquaintance in Naples makes references to the dirty pages in her novel, whose publication came in the previous book, as being brave (but also true.) The novel itself, even the fact she left, would be enough to make her different but those pages mark her out, stamp her in the eyes of some of those she left behind as unworthy, tainted, all but a whore. Then a piece on industrial conditions in the sausage factory where Lila works is accepted by the newspaper L’Unità and brings her more attention/notoriety.

Married sex is a revelation for Elena. Though not a virgin, she had not had sex with her husband before the wedding and he is, to say the least, an unsympathetic lover. The birth of her first daughter, Adele, later pet-named Dede, brings the crushing responsibility of motherhood; the baby is unable to feed properly, her husband retreats into his work. Elena’s inability, and his reluctance, to cope requires the employment of a housekeeper/nanny. The novel Elena cobbles together in these circumstances is unpublishable, the lifeless articles she submits to L’Unità rejected. A second baby, another daughter, Elisa, is less trouble.

This was a turbulent time in Italy, with political violence referenced many times here. (As it also was in Europe; Rudi Dutschke and Daniel Cohn-Bendit are given a mention.) I did wonder how the political discussions and attitudes here (not to mention the atheism though that is more skated over) went down with Ferrante’s US readers as the left-wing leanings of most of Elena’s circle are fairly pronounced. Perhaps it is outdone by the feminism she comes to feel – both practical in her marriage situation and theoretical in the discussions she has with other women – especially in her writing, “no-one knew better than I did what it meant to make your own head masculine so that it would be accepted by the culture of men: I had done it, I was doing it,” which would certainly strike a chord.

Ferrrante’s Neapolitan Quartet has been widely discussed as a dissection of female friendship yet for many pages at the start of this instalment Lila is all but unmentioned. However, Elena is called to her side when Lila becomes ill (worn down by working at the sausage factory) and immediately goes to succour her and the blanks in Lila’s life in the interim are filled in. From then on, apart from a crucial incident where a decision by Lila reveals her in her complexity as almost unknowable, certainly unpredictable, they communicate mainly by telephone. Lila and Enzo, the man she lives with, teach themselves computing and begin to make a niche for themselves in the nascent computer industry. The dissolving margins which Lila once mentioned to Elena, when she feels people round her becoming insubstantial (and which may be the key to her personality) are here referred to only once.

As in the foregoing Neapolitan novels there is a density here of apparently lived experience, a proliferation of detail, a fecundity of (re)construction, a layering of a life apparently recollected. As if to comment on this Lila tells Elena after her confusion over that decision of Lila’s, “But when do people ever speak truthfully and when do things ever happen unexpectedly? You know better than I that it’s all a fraud and that one thing follows another and then another.”

The ambiguity of the friendship (of all friendships?) is addressed when Elena herself tells us at the book’s crux, “I had wanted to become something – here was the point – only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind ….. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.” The relevance of Nino Sattore – with whom Elena has been besotted since her teenage years but who had an affair with Lila in Book Two – to this epiphany is not unravelled by the book’s ending which mercifully has less of the cliffhanger element the first two instalments had but which still leaves Elena’s life situation unresolved.

Pedant’s corner:- Marirosa (elsewhere always Mariarosa,) legitimatized (legitimised,) “and thought, She was once a pretty girl” (context suggests ‘and I thought, She was once a pretty girl’,) missing question marks at the end of sentences which are questions, “rather than aiming Stefano and his money” (aiming at Stefano.) “And at least Enzo in front of him, in the factory, women worn out by the work, by humiliations, by domestic obligations no less than Lila was.” (as a sentence that is missing something which would make it clear what it was meant to be saying,) “secretary of the union local” (in English ‘of the local union’ is more idiomatic,) “as if” three times in four lines, Vesuvio (x 2, usually ‘Vesuvius’,) waked (woken,) insured (ensured,) “men with drooping mustaches [sic] and a cloth cap on their head” (and cloth caps on their heads,) parallelopipeds (my dictionary categorises this variant spelling of parallelepipeds as ‘improper’.)

The Rosewater Insurrection by Tade Thompson

Orbit, 2019, 379 p.

This is the second in the author’s Rosewater trilogy of which I reviewed the first here.

In this instalment something is up with the alien named Wormwood, buried in a part of Nigeria, where the city of Rosewater has grown up around it. The latest clone of the human from whom it derives sustenance, Anthony, has failed to form properly. A woman called Alyssa Sutcliffe has woken up not knowing who she is – nor her husband and daughter – but with other memories intact. She does not know who she is, only that she is not Alyssa. The novel is told through various other viewpoints as well – some first person, others third – including two of the characters from the previous book in the sequence, Aminat, and Kaaro, plus Eric (an agent of S45 Nigeria’s security service) and the mayor of Rosewater, Jack Jacques, who is in dispute with the President of Nigeria and declares independence, relying on the alien’s presence to protect the city. There are also extracts from a novel titled Kudi by Walter Tanmola, who in addition narrates one section which focuses on his experiences after he is enlisted by Jacques to write an “impartial” chronicle of the independence struggle and during which he forms a relationship with a construct, Lora, who acts as Jacques’s advisor/personal assistant. And, too, we remake acquaintance with S45’s most formidable operative, Femi Alaagomeji, but only through other eyes.

Alien cells called xenoforms are infiltrating the bodies of humans, “‘We change the organisms and live in them. In you.’” S45 is involved in a project to try to separate these cells from living humans. The attempts are not going well. Alyssa is of particular interest as she is over 70% xenoform. Some of the novel is taken up with Aminat’s efforts to keep Alyssa away from S45’s attentions, some of it with the conflict between Rosewater and Nigeria, another strand deals with the xenosphere, a dream-like atlternative universe, into which Kaaro can take his consciousness and where he has a gryphon as an avatar. To add to all this an intrusive plant species, which may have been inspired by The Day of the Triffids but isn’t quite so threatening, is taking over Rosewater.

As in the previous book there is a lot going on; perhaps too much. At times it seems Thompson isn’t quite sure what kind of novel he wants this to be. It veers between thriller, fantasy, adventure story and quasi-allegory. The situation is so extreme that the characters don’t get the time to behave as humans (of course, at least two of them are not.) Certainly there is a third instalment to come, but I may leave that for a while.

At the end of the novel this edition has “extras” – a half page of author information and several pages of extract from another book by a different author. I do wish publishers would cease this practice. I do not understand who would read these. I’m certainly not going to start a book which I cannot possibly finish and may well find offputting in any case, so defeating the purpose. It has the effect of merely filling out the page count to make a book look bigger than it actually is.

Pedant’s corner:- “none ever return” (none ever returns.) “She is clothed in some diaphanous material, but it is like a nightgown and covers nothing” (if she’s clothed she is covered, a nightgown is also a covering. I suspect Thompson meant ‘hides nothing’,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) “none of them fit” (none of them fits,) staunches (stanches.) “It lays down” (It lies down,) floatation (flotation – used later,) “good to his word” (good as his word,) phosphorous (phosphorus,) “reaches a crescendo” (no, the crescendo is the increase, not its climax,) lay (lie,) “a skein of geese make their way” (a skein [of geese] makes its way,) ganglions (elsewhere ganglia is used for this plural.)

Light by Margaret Elphinstone

Canongate, 2007, 429 p.

It is May 1831. The lighthouse on Ellan Bride, a small island south of the Isle of Man, was once owned and run by the Duke of Atholl but its care has recently passed into that of the Scottish based Commissioners of Northern Lights. The Ellan Bride light is obsolescent and a team to survey the island for the purpose of replacing it is about to arrive. For the past five years since the death of Jim Geddes, his unmarried sister Lucy has been lightkeeper, assisted by Jim’s widow Diya and the three children they have between them. Diya is of Indian extraction, brought to the Isle of Man by her father, an official of the East India Company, but reduced in circumstances after both he and his mother had died. The mechanics of keeping the light going, lighting the lantern, the daily cleaning of the lenses and windows, the care the Geddeses take, are revealed in detail as are the exigencies of everyday life in an isolated location. The news of the survey and the likelihood of their imminent removal from their living – the idea of a female lightkeeper is unlikely to recommend itself to the Commissioners – has perturbed the Geddeses, whose ancestral responsibility the light has been for generations.

The main surveyor is Archie Buchanan, who has an invitation to join Captain Fitzroy on HMS Beagle, and therefore the promise of adventure, in his pocket but his surveying commission to fulfil in the meantime. He is accompanied by Benjamin Groat who does most of the groundwork while Buchanan records notes, an activity for which the children dub him the Writing Man.The third member of the party, Drew Scott, got himself in bother and put in jail in Castletown on the Isle so they are a man short, allowing Lucy’s son Billy the chance of paid employment (twopence a day; a man’s wage even though he is only ten years old) for the first time. This puts a crack into the relationship between the Geddes children who had formed a pact to frustrate the surveyors if possible.

We see events from many viewpoints – all the above save Diya’s younger daughter Mally, who mainly because of her youth is the only one not to impact on the unfolding story – and what plot there is is packed into the three-day spell for which the surveyors are on the island but through their reminiscences and thoughts the past histories of all the characters are also unfolded. Elphinstone evokes her scenes well, the transition from sail to steam, the evolution of lighthouse keeping, the remoteness of the island – Ireland, England and even the Mull of Galloway are the far lands, sometimes lost in the mists – Diya’s awareness that position once lost cannot be regained, the class-consciousness of all the adults, the breakthrough to a hitherto unlikely communication when Buchanan reveales a particular enthusiasm. The tale may be small scale – the impact of the strangers on the Geddes family dynamics and of them on the members of the survey party – but universal human drives, fear, love, hope, compassion, are all conjured up. Each of the characters is an individual, each has a different way of expressing her- or himself.

Elphinstone again displays the Scottish novelist’s flair for evoking landscape – and necessarily in this case seascape. Added to this are descriptions of the island’s flowers, the local wildlife, particularly the seals and seabirds, the never-ending shifts of the tides and the passing shipping near or far. Indeed, the island is so well brought to mind that it is almost a character in its own right and its topography as revealed to Buchanan through his survey and laid down to Billy via the map he has drawn is crucial to a sub-plot.

My only caveats are that one of the relationships which evolve in the novel perhaps develops too quickly and that maybe on occasion the narrative lingers a little too long on the surroundings. But that last is an indicator of how involved Elphinstone makes the reader in the characters’ interactions, how eager to know what happens to them.

Pedant’s corner:- Master Forbes’ (Forbes’s,) Wells’ (x 4, Wells’s,) Geddes’ (Geddes’s,) some missing commas before pieces of direct speech, “‘I wish no hear no more about it.’” (wish to hear,) “Et in Arcadia ego. Even this must pass.” (Yes, the “I” is usually taken to mean death but Et in Arcadia Ego translates as, “Even in Arcadia I am here,” rather than “Even this must pass.”

The Menace From Farside by Ian McDonald

Tor.com, 2019, 153 p. Published in Interzone 285, Jan-Feb 2020.

 The Menace From Farside cover

This novella is set in the milieu of McDonald’s Luna series of books which might have been designed to illustrate the mantra that “Lady Luna knows a thousand ways to kill you.” As an aphorism this calls to mind The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I don’t know whether McDonald has read that book (I confess I haven’t) but it could be a possible inspiration.

In The Menace From Farside our narrator is Emer Corcoran who hates her name and prefers to be called Cariad. Initially it appears that she may be addressing the reader directly – on first sight a fine literary touch – but it turns out that these interludes in which she gives her views on the intricacies of story-telling and construction, relationships, the forever beyond reach lure of Earth, among other things, she is talking to a psychiatric bot as a kind of debriefing after an escapade in which she was involved (and incidentally made her famous on the Moon) and which her narrative goes on to describe.

A background sociological aspect of McDonald’s tale (but with a tangential impact on the plot) is the existence on the Moon of the arrangement of the ring marriage, wherein each member is married to two spouses, a derecho/a and an iz, left and right. This provides an SSSS, super-stable support system, said to be great for kids as it provides a network of ceegees (care givers.) When Cariad opines, “‘when it comes to love, rings are the craziest of all possible families, apart from all the others,’” McDonald manages to allude to both Tolstoy and Churchill in the one sentence.

The introduction to Cariad’s ring of a new “husband” for her mother, also brought into her life his daughter Sidibe Sissay. Cariad rather resents this intrusion into her “family.” Cariad fears heights and Sidibe’s effortless use of a special winged suit to fly from Osman Tower on a visit to the cavernous centre of the habitat of Queen of the South compounds her feelings. As a result Cariad conceives a scheme to take her “siblings” to visit the site of the first human footprint on the Moon – almost half the Moon distant – as a way for her to take back control. (Those last three words have a particular resonance for contemporary British readers. For the more general SF audience McDonald also explicitly references the phrase, ‘Make it so,’ as a sentence which leaders are supposed to utter.)

The scenes on the Moon’s surface are vaguely reminiscent of Arthur C Clarke’s novel A Fall of Moondust and short story Robin Hood FRS mainly because of that background. In McDonald’s vision, however, less untrammelled considerations intrude. At Queen of the South, the sun only ever appears to crawl around the rim of the crater in which the habitat is sited. On their journey, our group of adventurers find its full glare unsettling, their possible vulnerability to cosmic ray impacts troubling. And this Moon being McDonald’s Luna, things do not go entirely smoothly for them.

Quite what transpires, and the contribution to that of the dog-eat-dog nature of Luna’s overall organisation, plus the importance of the Moonloop – a sort of slingshot orbiting at very low level to wheech cargoes off into space or capture them on the way down – to the resolution of Cariad’s story I’ll leave to the reader to discover.

Through Cariad, McDonald adds in another comment about writing. “You know what makes storytellers laugh? That people really think their story reveals something about the person who tells it. It doesn’t. Stories are control. First, last, always. It tells you something about who’s hearing it.”

McDonald’s control is never in doubt.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- My copy was an ARC (proof.) Some or all of these may have been corrected for the final print run.)
ass (it’s arse,) “your shine up your image” (you shine up your image,) “‘your idea of family and parents are so ancient’” (your idea …… is so ancient,) “with radarand seismics” (radar and seismics,) “a ring of warning lights flash” (a ring …. flashes,) “the thing not do” (not to do,) “that’s what makes the gut lurches” (lurch would seem more grammatical,) “onto bridge” (onto the bridge,) “There’ dusters” (There’s dusters or, more preferably, there’re dusters,) “pulled into chest” (into his chest,) “is going notice” (going to notice,) “it’s won’t be open wide enough” (it won’t be open.) “‘Do want me to count off …’” (Do you want me to count off,) phosphorous (phosphorus,) Tranquility base (Tranquillity, please,) “humanity’s first steps on the moon” (humanity’s first steps on the Moon,) “tells Kobe to told her left arm” (to hold her left arm,) “the smiles goes out of me” (the smiles go out of me,) “the moon want to kill you” (the Moon wants to kill you,) “his right arms swings” (his right arm swings,) “how to they get back” (how do they.) “That when the consequences arrive.” (That’s when..,) heard-earned (hard-earned.)

Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez

Picador, 1983, 126 p. Translated from the Spanish, Crónica de una muerte anunciada (La Oveja Negra, Colombia, 1981,) by Gregory Rabasa.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold cover

“On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on,” is the arresting first sentence of this novel. However, I was immediately struck by its resemblance to the first sentence of the same author’s One Hundred Years of Solitude; a sentence I discussed here, as being a form of authorial cheating.

The corresponding cheat in this book, if in fact it is a cheat, is not so pronounced. We already know someone is to die, the title has told us as much, and that the death is inevitable. (Meanwhile I note that Colonel Aureliano Buendía, presumably the same one from One Hundred Years of Solitude, is mentioned some pages later.) This (short, 122 page, large print) book is an account of the events leading up to that death as related by our unnamed narrator – but there are two textual hints that we are intended to believe that it is the author himself – from recollections he solicited from the witnesses many years after.

It was the day after the wedding of Angelo Vicario and Bayardo San Román and the morning after he had returned her to her parent’s house saying she had not been a virgin. Angelo Vicario had not been impressed with him on their first meeting but the advances of Bayardo San Román, son of an influential family, and a charmer of her parents and brothers Pedro and Pablo had not been easy to refuse. On her furnishing the name of Santiago Nasar as her deflowerer (though the narrator expresses doubts as to the truth of this) Pedro and Pablo resolved to kill him. They lay in wait in the store over the road from his house for him to return from seeing the bishop passing by in his boat.

Most of the people in the town seemed to be aware of their intentions but variously passed them off as drunken boasting, thought they would not carry it through, or that Nasar must already know about it and had taken steps to avoid his fate, or else were unable to see how to prevent it.

The catalogue of happenstance and accident by which the chronicle unfolds is like an inexorable, grinding, avalanche, terrible and tragic in its certainty, but bathetic in detail. Márquez delineates it masterfully.

Pedant’s corner:- proprietess (the usual word to denote a female owner is proprietrix,) organdy (organdie,) Cervantes’ (Cervantes’s.)

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