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The Kar-Chee Reign by Avram Davidson

In The Kar-Chee Reign and Rogue Dragon, Ace, 1979, (192 p out of 381.)

The overall book, two novels in the one volume, is not a “proper” Ace Double as it does not have two authors and the second one isn’t printed upside down – and backwards – in relation to the first as in the classic doubles. It is also curious in that according to the copyright dates, 1966 and 1965 respectively, the sequel seems to have been published before the novel it is set after. Aspects of the setting and the occasional word choice (eg huntshoon as in shoes for hunting) made me wonder if Davidson had a Scottish background or connection but I couldn’t find one that was obvious.

The Kar-Chee Reign and Rogue Dragon cover

In The Kar-Chee Reign Earth’s resources have been depleted almost to zero, mainly due to its human inhabitants stripping it to make their voyages to the stars. All but forgotten by the diaspora, it has fallen to the Kar-chee – accompanied by their “dragons” – a species which specialises in extracting the last drop of resource from apparently worked out sources. They instigated violent earth movements, disrupting the land’s surface, changing the geography.

A small group in the new Britland – comprised from the new landmass connecting the former Western Isles, part of Ireland and the Isle of Man – survives without much contact with the aliens. But one day the aliens come and a few humans attack and kill them. This brings the dragons down on the settlement and the survivors flee on a raft. After exhausting most of the food they had brought on board they are rescued by a set of religious zealots who believe the Kar-chee are God’s revenge on humans for loose-living. Despite the strictures of their rescuers a few of them venture into a vast set of caverns and there do battle with the Kar-chee.

I must say this was better written than I had been expecting (I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Davidson before.) While plot is more or less everything in this type of tale (with a nod to setting) Davidson doesn’t neglect to give us character to sit alongside. While the chief zealot – and his wife – are pretty one-dimensional (then again, religious zealots tend to be so) others are complex enough to be getting on with.

Pedant’s corner:- the name of the aliens is spelled Kar-Chee in the title but Kar-chee in the text. Rowen (elsewhere Rowan,) dispell (dispel,) condescention (condescension,) gutteral (guttural.) “A pile of its timbers were stacked neatly” (a pile was stacked,) payed your own way (paid,) “buy the observation of the clouds” (by the observation,) “the ark-and the raft-group” (the ark- and the raft-group,) paniers (panniers,) painers (panniers,) afriad (afraid,) “there were a number of them” (there was a number,) Lors’ (Lors’s.) “And they silently followed them. All of them.” (And they silently followed him.) “The men’s face were grimed,” (faces,) “lay of land” (lie of land.) “It if can be done” (If it can be done.) “It was fixed into the wall of the pit firmly and on all sides were fixed into the wall of the pit firmly and on all sides were fixed the other struts,” (that second “fixed into the wall of the pit firmly and on all sides were” needs removed,) Lor’s (Lors’s,) racheting (ratcheting,) “the pattern of preceedings” (proceedings,) battless (battles.)

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

The Reprint Society, 1965, 187 p.

Memento Mori cover

The cast of characters here consists of elderly people some of whom are in a home. While the driver of the plot seems to be the reception by some of them of telephone calls wherein the recipient is enjoined to, “Remember you must die,” the police can make no headway in discovering the culprit, whose voice is described differently by different people, and there is an indication that the whole scenario is due to hallucinations. Yes, one of the elderly is beaten to death during a burglary but this was opportunistic, the result of an overheard conversation revealing the victim would be home alone.

A lot is made of the past indiscretions of both Godfrey Colston and his wife, Charmian – the first’s known to his spouse (though he believes they aren’t and is subject to blackmail as a result,) the second’s not to her husband (at least early on,) with, respectively, Lisa Black and Guy Leet.

I’ve seen this book described as one of the great novels of the 1950s. Not for me it isn’t. It’s well written certainly, but in total felt a bit inconsequential.

Pedant’s corner:- “a old woman” (an,) Symons’ (Symons’s, we had “James’s” correctly,) “‘Gwen!’ she screams. ‘Gwen!’” (screamed, the rest of the paragraph is in past tense,) a missing full stop, a missing end quote right at the end of the last section.

Eight Keys to Eden by Mark Clifton

Pan, 1965, 171 p.

Eight Keys to Eden cover

On an Earth seemingly one political entity, long after a global conflict rendered the old powers otiose, decision making and problem solving has been delegated to a small group of highly trained thinkers called Extrapolators, E for short, whose jurisdiction is unquestioned save by elements of the planet’s police force. The plot kicks off when all communication with the colony known as Eden, suspiciously admirably suited to human life, is broken off. A junior (therefore not fully qualified) E named Calvin Gray is given the task of finding out exactly what has happened, a decision police chief Gunderson sees as an opportunity to bring the Es under police control.

Dogged by police interference and pursuit Gray travels to Eden where all evidence of human settlement has disappeared, the landscape being as it had before the colonists arrived. Any humans their devices can image are naked. On landing the party is approached by three naked humans and then the landing ship plus the rescue expedition members’ clothes also disappear. The communication breakdown was occasioned by every human artefact being removed by such mysterious means. Moreover any attempt by humans to manipulate the environment is now subverted. They cannot rub sticks together to make fire. They do not even leave footprints in the sand. The humans can survive as there is no problem eating and drinking provided no artificial means are employed in so doing. Plants, berries, raw fish are all fine. In addition in this new dispensation, people cannot concentrate on one thing for very long. The pursuing police ship nevertheless is able to image the scenes on Eden. The pictures of naked humans are seized on by Gunderson as evidence of immorality and the lever which will allow him to bring the Es to heel.

This is one of the areas where the novel shows its age. Gender roles and attitudes are firmly those of the late 1950s, their universality and infinite application unquestioned. Despite near enough instantaneous interstellar travel – the journey from Earth to Eden does take time but it is in the order of hours, not years – and the communication between Earth and the ships round Eden is depicted as having no delay, photographs require chemical processing and development, not to mention physical storage space.

Attempts at further landings to make arrests are prevented by an invisible barrier. However, E Gray proves up to his task, it seems Eden was a kind of lure to bring such an individual to the planet. Under the influence of the powers that control Eden he discovers that far from reality being a matter of equality in mathematical terms as in e = mc2 (here rendered as E = MC2) it is more fundamentally due to proportionality rather than equality. Merely finding the right way to think about it enables Gray to begin to manipulate matter.

It is the story that drives this. The characters are barely two-dimensional, their motivations simple, their interactions perfunctory. Almost as an aside Clifton implies that self-centredness is the basis of human attitude and behaviour – which is a dubious assertion at best. However, the sentiment, “any police officer will swear to any lie to back up another police officer because he might need the favour returned tomorrow,” is probably applicable anywhere, anytime.

Pedant’s corner:- hiccough (hiccup, any comparison to a cough is misplaced,) meteorolgist (metereologist, used correctly later,) chisms (context implies schisms,) “had men ever been able to settle their differences, had man been able to get along peacefully with himself, he might have developed no civilization at all” (it’s a mistaken notion in the first place since civilisation – note the “s” in British English – is entirely due to cooperation between humans; but context demands “never” for that ‘ever”,) “collar and hames rubs on their necks” (harness rubs?) “a flock of shore birds were busy” (a flock was busy,) laying (lying – used correctly a couple of times later,) “the way a herd of animals take shelter” (takes shelter,) “right were to look” (where,) “the top administrative brass were assembled” (the top brass was assembled.) “The both of them listened” (Both of them listened; or, the pair of them listened,) “he told himself that all wasn’t lost” (that not all was lost,) “but all was not lost” (but not all was lost,) innured (inured.)

Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken

Illustrated by Pat Marriott.

Vintage, 2012, 290 p.

 Black Hearts in Battersea cover

This is a sequel of sorts to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. However it does not follow the fortunes of the two main characters from that book but rather those of their friend Simon. He has received a message from Dr Field containing an invitation to take up a place at a school of drawing in London and to lodge in the same house as himself. However, when Simon reaches Rose Alley no-one admits to knowing the Doctor. He was first met there by Dido Twite, a perky child, though neglected by her parents. It soon becomes apparent that underhand activities are taking place in the house. Mr Twite sings Hanoverian songs (in this setting the Stuarts were never displaced from the British throne that second time) and Simon inadvertently stumbles on a stash of guns in the basement.

In the meantime Simon has enrolled in the Art School and encountered Justin, the heir to the Dukedom of Battersea, and a very poor artist, despite artistic ability running in the family. Also in Simon’s orbit is Sophie, his friend from the orphanage back home, who is now the Duchess’s lady’s maid. The Duke is an eccentric who befriends Simon through the medium of chess and asks him to clean one of his paintings. This, it turns out, has a representation of a Battersea ancestor to whom both Sophie and Simon bear a strong resemblance. It is immediately obvious where this is going and Aiken does not disappoint. In its working out, as befits a YA novel, we have breathless incident galore – a fire in a box at the opera, a sinking barge, shanghaiing, hot–air balloons, possibly poisoned mince pies, a gunpowder plot – before the villains are unmasked and the world brought to rights. (Well, most of it.) The characters are necessarily broad-brush but recognisable human types nevertheless. Yet quite why a putative James III (even if he would have been the eighth King of Scotland of that name) would be described as a Scottish gentleman, have a Scottish accent and speech patterns is beyond me. He would have been brought up as an English gentleman.

The book is slightly marred by its illustrations being misplaced so that they often occur just before the incident which they depict but it is all good fun.

Pedant’s corner:- “to show this good intentions” (his,) hoboy (hautboy. I suppose the spelling “hoboy” may have been adopted to avoid flummoxing Aiken’s younger readers but it is still wrong,) a missing full stop, topsy-turvey (topsy-turvy,) “the whole party were in charity with one another (the whole party was,) knit (knitted.)

Widdershins by Oliver Onions

Penguin, 1939, 244 p.

Widdershins cover

This is a book of eight short stories – well, one is a novella – first published in 1911, by Yorkshireman Onions. He wrote well, each of the stories holds the attention and his characterization is good. All have at least a hint of the strange or unnatural. They stand up even a century after writing.

In the combined ghost and horror story The Beckoning Fair One a writer takes a flat in an otherwise empty house and finds he can no longer continue the novel he has been working on, nor the enthusiasm for much else. I was reminded a bit of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.
Phantas is the story of the captain of a becalmed – and sinking – galleon out of the port of Rye, who dreams of a means of propulsion which would enable ships to avoid such a predicament. Out of the mists looms a grey, steam-driven modern destroyer.
Rooum is one of those unlettered men who has a natural flair for competency in his trade. He questions our unnamed narrator about molecules and osmosis as he feels he is occasionally subject to a kind of interpersonal merging.
The register in which Benlian is told is a familiar one to readers of Fantasy or Science Fiction, a realist depiction of a weird phenomenon. Benlian is a sculptor whose essence is increasingly opaque to photography, a man passing away, into his sculpture. The possibility that the narrator is mad rather spoils things though.
In Io a young woman who is convalescing tries to remember the dreams she had during her illness so as to enter their reality.
The Accident occurs when a man about to meet an old adversary in an attempt at reconciliation has a vision of how the encounter will – must – turn out.
The Cigarette Case is one of those shaggy dog stories of the “as told me by a friend” variety.
In Hic Jacet a successful author of detective fiction – a thinly veiled model, this – is asked to write the “Life” of an artist friend (who did not compromise his integrity for commercial success) and finds the gods of writing are against the project.

Pedant’s corner:- accidently (accidentally,) a missing end quotation mark. “But an effort of will he put them aside” (either ‘By an effort of will’, or, ‘But by an effort of will.’) “I seemed so natural” (context also supports ‘It seemed so natural.’) “whiskys and soda” (whiskies; but at least we weren’t subjected to ‘whisky and sodas’.) “ A group of scene-shifters were” (a group was,) plaintains (plantains,) pigmy (I prefer pygmy,) “penumbia of shadow” (penumbra,) “I confess that the position had effect of the thing startled me for a moment” (I can’t parse this phrase at all,) “his position involved a premium on which the rich amateur, he merely replied…” (seems to be missing a word after “amateur”, besogne (besoin,) “the abiquitous presence” (ubiquitous, I suspect.)

Glitter of Mica by Jessie Kesson

Paul Harris, 1982, 159 p, including 6 p Introduction by William Donaldson. First published 1963.

Glitter of Mica cover

Glitter of Mica is another tale of life in rural Scotland, in the parish of Caldwell, somewhere north and east of Aberdeen. This short novel is similar in some respects to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song in that the shadow of change hangs over the town and it begins with a recitation of the area’s history. The pre-Second World War past of protagonist Hugh Riddel is gone into as the son of an itinerant fee’d farm hand who could never settle and was never retained until he came to Darklands and cemented his place as a Dairyman. The main thrust of the book is, though, set in the post war period.

The narrative structure is not linear, Kesson adopts a variety of viewpoints to tell her tale delineating life and attitudes in Caldwell through the eyes of Hugh, his wife Isa, his daughter Helen, Sue Tatt (the local woman of easy virtue) and the upstart Charlie Anson. Moreover in its first few pages the book’s defining moment is referred to as being in the very recent past with most of the narrative then circling round and leading up to that point.

The sense of social hierarchy being breached is never far away, the awareness that an increase in equality had come with the war but was still thought unseemly highlighted by the reactions to Hugh’s recent “Address to the Ladies” at a Burns Supper. Yet class differences still prevail. ‘If you’re poor you’re plain mad. If you’re rich they’ve got an easier name for you. A Nervous Breakdown.’

As an exemplar of a certain kind of Scottish fiction this would be hard to beat. It is worth reading for itself though.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; Endinbro’ (Edinbro’.) “None of the characters are complex people.” (None is a complex person.) Otherwise; God Knows’ (God Knows’s,) “a sun ranging from half a crown to ten shillings” (a sum,) Robbie Burns’ (Burns’s,) a missing end quote mark, Darklands’ (Darklands’s,) calender (calendar,) “before if shocked” (it.) “He had even less illusions” (fewer,) sime wind (some wind,) “loathe to let them go” (loath, or loth.)

The New Road by Neil Munro

B & W, 1994, 353 p, plus v p Introduction by Brian D Osborne. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

The New Road cover

Another Scottish novel which scratches the Jacobite itch, though this time fairly tangentially. The setting, 1733 or 1734, in that period between Marr’s 1715 rebellion, the even more abortive 1819 rising, and that of Charles Edward Stuart in 1745 is an unusual one though. It is the time when General Wade’s project of building roads to help pacify the Highlands is well underway, thus giving the book its title.

Æneas Macmaster (yes, the spelling does have the ligature) has been denied his inheritance by his father Paul’s unwise decision to partake in the 1819 rising even though dying in the aftermath of the Battle of Glen Shiel. The present laird of Drimdorran House, Alexander Duncanson, has nevertheless engaged him as tutor in Cæsar’s Gallic Wars to his daughter, Margaret, and his ward. One evening Æneas’s pupils fail to turn up for their lesson and he tracks Margaret down to Drimdorran’s dovecote, where she is evidently awaiting an assignation. A mysterious figure prowls around outside and when Æneas is brought before Duncanson, it is apparent the laird is far from pleased with him as he is unable to explain the night’s affairs without compromising Margaret, which he is too gentlemanly to do. This leads to Æneas undertaking a journey north to enhance the business interests of his uncle Alan-Iain-Alan-Ogg, in the company of Ninian Campbell, an agent of the government. Eschewing the New Road, the pair duck and weave through the hills and on to Inverness. Along the way many adventures and scrapes befall them, arousing inevitable echoes of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. It is here the story diverges from that template, though, as comments made to them raise doubts as to the circumstances of Æneas’s father’s death.

The foray to Lord Lovat’s Dounie Castle and the possibility of that gentleman’s potential treachery turn out – despicable character though he may be – to be incidental to the book’s main thrust, which becomes increasingly concerned with Ninian’s efforts to uncover the true story behind the demise of the older Macmaster and the younger’s disinheritance.

Despite the landscape of the West Highlands being described in detail (landscape is a recurring feature of Scots literature) scarcely three pages are set on the new road itself, (while the two are making their way back to Inveraray) though the opportunity – again as in much Scottish literature – is taken to lament the passing of the old, to decry the incursion of the modern. Yet Ninian observes that the new road in turn will one day be superseded and have its own ghosts.

Pedant’s corner:- in the back cover puff Macmaster is spelled MacMaster. In the text General Wade is referred to as Marshal, a rank he did not actually acquire till 1743. Otherwise; Æneas’ (Æneas’s,) “tha baffling visitation” (the,) Forbes’ (Forbes’s,) a missing comma before a quote x 2, “said Æneas, Still dubious” (still,) “Sim ’s” (Sim’s,) hoised sail (hoisted?) years ago ’s (ago’s,) coud (could,) “were ‘stretch thy hand! ’”” (“were ‘stretch thy hand!’”) “my lord ’s no’ worth a docken” (lord’s no’ worth,) “were better than the old, He” (the old. He.)

The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan

Harvill Secker, 2018, 309 p, plus iv p Glossary of Chapter Titles and i p Bibliography.

 The Gloaming cover

Set on an unnamed Scottish island, The Gloaming is an extended riff on the selkie legend, with additional elements of the fantastic. Mainly concerned with the lives of Islay, Mara and Barra, the three children of an ex-boxer, Peter, and a former ballerina, Signe, incomers to the island who live in a large house – complete with shark jaw for a doorway – which they intend to convert slowly from dilapidation to a hotel, it also explores familial resentments and duties. Barring the first’s, its chapter titles contain one word – ballet terms for those about Signe, boxing ones for Peter, and Scots for the children. While in some cases these are apposite, in others the connection between the title and the chapter’s content seems more than a little forced, if it exists at all.

When inhabitants of the island are about to die they start to slow down. This is an indication they will turn to stone, a fantastical conceit of Logan’s whereby the bodies end up on a hill as statues, a process usually attended by the island’s inhabitants as a ceremonial act but sometimes undertaken alone. This whimsy is not really explored fully as the hub around which the story revolves is Mara, who suffers a facial disfigurement the night she tries (and fails) to rescue Barra from drowning. In later life she forms an attachment to Pearl, a later incomer to the island, whose house lies within a hill and who at first can be read as the embodiment of the selkie legend. On their first meeting Pearl tells Mara she is a mermaid, by which she means she performs as one in an aquatic travelling show. Their later sojourn away from the island as a double act (selkies always leave) is a brief interlude only though. The pull of family is too strong.

Logan does pull off some tricks with apparent narrative viewpoint but her asides on readerly expectation of a story’s destination prefigure too strongly her intentions.

The Gloaming is fine as far as it goes, certainly better, more cohesive, than the author’s previous novel The Gracekeepers.

Pedant’s corner:- “When he arrived he wouldn’t fail to miss her” (context demands, “he wouldn’t fail to see her”,) “the sort that comes in packs of four at discount shops and only shattered if you threw them hard on a tiled floor” (and only shatter if you throw them.) “Didn’t that use to be…” (used to be,) “‘whatever I have to do make her see’” (to do to make her see.) In the Glossary; besom is defined as “a broom, a woman of loose morals and a cheeky child.” (A broom, definitely but I’ve not heard it used in the context of a woman of loose morals, only of one cheeky or nosy) drouthy is given as thirsty for strong drink (it just means thirsty, not necessarily for strong drink,) mauchit (spelled this way the “ch” would be pronounced as in loch; it isn’t. The online dictionary of Scots language has mockit – one instance of maukit – though I have seen mocket.)

Eclipse by John Banville

Picador, 2010, 218 p. First published in 2000.

Eclipse cover

Actor Alexander Cleave (the same Cleave who would reappear in Banville’s later Shroud and Ancient Light, it seems I have read this sequence of Banville books out of publication order) has retired from the stage and gone back to his childhood home. It is somewhat rundown, but holds memories in nearly every room. In it Cleave hears faint sounds and imagines it might be haunted – in fact sees his father one day in a doorway. But it turns out Quirke, the solicitor charged with its care, and his fifteen year-old daughter, Lily, who has been taken on ostensibly as a housekeeper, are living in some of the vacant rooms.

The narrative is almost all Cleave’s musings and remembrances – there is very little dialogue in the novel – yet despite there not being much in the way of plot (the only significant occurrence in the book occurs off the page) Banville readily manages to hold the attention. There is something almost liquid in his sentences, each is perfectly constructed and the word choices are usually immaculate.

The eclipse of the title is both actual (that of 1999 takes place during the course of the novel) but also metaphorical. That significant occurrence is, though, foreshadowed when Cleave says, ‘I have the feeling, the conviction, I can’t rid myself of it, that something has happened, something dreadful, and I haven’t taken sufficient notice, haven’t paid due regard, because I don’t know what it is.’

This is a portrait of a man who has glided through life apparently without it really touching him or he it, only approaching animation when pretending, on the stage, to be someone else, but in the end faced with that “something dreadful” about which nothing can be done. Most lives have at least one of those.

Pedant’s corner:- “outside of me” (outside me ,) “door hinges squeak tinily” (tinily? In a small way? I don’t think so. Tinnily makes more sense,) duffel coat (duffle coat is the British spelling) “carrying in one hand that seemed a trident” (what seemed a trident,) accordeon (accordion, several instances,) slips-ons (slip-ons,) “and Quirke he came forward” (doesn’t need the “he”.)

Not So Quiet …. by Helen Zenna Smith

Stepdaughters of War. Virago, 1988, 247 p. First published in 1930.

Not So Quiet ....cover

This is a novel about the experience of being a VAD ambulance driver during the Great War, something less than a cushy existence as it turns out. Not only are the volunteers exposed to the sufferings and mutilations, the deaths and quick funerals, of the soldiers, itself enough to scar for life, but their living conditions are appalling, their deprivations extreme. Starved of sleep, given execrable food – even the orderlies say they would not put up with the slop they are fed – lousy, harshly punished for minor transgressions by a martinet of a commandant. To them also falls the duty of keeping their ambulances clean, inside and out, on pain of failing the daily inspection; a task messy, grim and odorous as well as onerous. Only their camaraderie keeps them going – which is again a parallel with the soldiery they had enlisted to aid.

There is, too, the same mutual incomprehension between the VADs and their relatives at home as was experienced by the soldiers, the all but necessity of shielding the ignorant from the truths of war – partly due to the risk of being dismissed as cowardly, or a shirker. “A war to end war my mother writes. Never. In twenty years it will repeat itself. And twenty years after that. As long as we breed women like my mother and Mrs Evans-Mawnington.”

Not So Quiet…. would have been a worthwhile endeavour on its own but its genesis bears comment. The author (whose real name was Evadne Price) was approached to write something called All’s Quaint on the Western Front as by Erica Remarks, a parody of Erich Maria Remarque’s world famous novel Im Westen nichts Neues. As she thought this was an appalling concept (how could anyone not think so?) she resolved to write a book on women’s war experience, hence the novel’s subtitle Stepdaughters of War, basing it on the memories of a wartime ambulance driver, Winifred Constance Young. Not So Quiet mirrors many aspects of Remarque’s book but with more emphasis on daily routine. In this regard the ending is an apt echo, slipping out of the otherwise first person narration to provide a third person perspective on the effect on the soul of relentless exposure to suffering and death.

While it covers some of the same ground as did Vera Britain’s Testament of Youth there is more here of the details of VAD existence. This is certainly not a cheery book but it is a worthwhile one and is not in any way diminished by comparison with Remarque.

Pedant’s corner:- In the introductory segment about the author; Belson (Belsen.) Otherwise: “a true chip of the old block” (I’ve only ever seen that before as ‘a chip off the old block.’ Both make sense though,) iodiform (iodoform,) “one of the strings that holds a Union Jack” (the strings that hold a Union Jack,) flibberty-gibbert (flibberty-gibbet.)

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