Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “books”

Boneland by Alan Garner

Boneland (Tales of Alderley, #3)Boneland by Alan Garner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is almost impossible to say anything about this book without spoilers, so I hope that anyone who reads this has already read the book.

It is a sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. In those books twelve-year-old Colin and Susan go to stay on a farm near Alderley Edge in Cheshire, England, and discover that the Edge is haunted by all kinds of strange creatures, malicious goblins, suspicious fairies and elves and the like, and there is a strange woman, a witch, who seems to have evil designs on them, and especially a stone that Susan had inherited.

Some of the creatures, good and evil, that they encounter are from local folklore, and others from stories from further afield. Eventually the children overcome the forces of evil, and are left in peace for a while.

Boneland is set much further in the future, where Colin has grown up and become a professor of astrophysics.

One problem that Professor Colin Whisterfield has is that though he has an exceptionally good memory, he can remember very little of his childhood before he was 13.

He works at the Jodrell Bank radio telescope, and spends much of his time at work trying to find a twin sister that he thought he had, whom he believes has vanished into the Pleiades, riding on a horse. He has a bad conscience about wasting his employers’ time on this personal project, and so at one point he resigns, but his resignation is not accepted.

He is also worried about his missing sister, whom he can hardly remember, and thinks he might be going mad, so he visits a psychotherapist, Meg, She tries to probe his memories, but there are some places in his past where he both wants to go and fears to go.

It is impossible to go beyond this point without spoilers, so if you’ve read the book and want to go further, see my original review on GoodReads. See also my review of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

If you have read any of these books and written a review of any of them in a blog or elsewhere, please leave a link to your review in the comments below.

 

The Reader’s Companion to the Twentieth-Century Novel (review)

The Reader's Companion to the Twentieth-Century Novel (The Reader's Companion)The Reader’s Companion to the Twentieth-Century Novel by Peter Parker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found this book quite useful to pick up at odd moments when there was nothing else to do, when Eskom was doing its load-shedding and the electricity was off, for example.

The plot summaries and comments on the selected novels were generally quite good, and served to remind me of books I had read and half forgotten, or to note ones that I had not read but might be worth reading.

One of the weak points, however, was the novels selected for inclusion. Of course one cannot include everything worth reading in the period in a single volume, but one of the first things I noticed about it was that it made no mention of the novels of Charles Williams. It dis seem to include almost every published novel by Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. They are both authors I quite like, and I think their best work ought to have been included, but Waugh, in particular wrote some quite mediocre stuff, and they could easily have been dropped in favour of Williams.

There were several books by Somerset Maugham, who described himself, quite accurately, I think, as being in the very first rank of the second raters. There was a rather patronising article on C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, with no mention of his science fiction.

The book was also published in 1993, when there were still seven years of the twentieth century to run — did they think that nobody would write anything worth reading in what was left of it?

View all my reviews

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and DisappearedThe Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A picaresque novel about Allan Karlsson, who decided that he did not want to attend his hundredth birthday party at the old-age home where he was staying so he decided to leave, with no particular plan for what he was going to do.

He has various improbable adventures, and the story is told with a series of flashbacks to his life story. He was a self-taught explosives expert, and as such had played a minor but significant part in various world events, learning several languages along the way and earning the gratitude of several powerful politicians.

I read it mainly because I had seen a film based on the book which I had enjoyed, and from what I could remember of it the film seemed to adhere quite closely to the book.

While it is primarily a picaresque novel, the story seems to overlap several other genres. On one level it is a crime novel, a police procedural, though also with a lot of incompetent bumbling — in the film version it is more like The Lavender Hill Mob than a serious whodunit. But perhaps these are all part of the picaresque genre anyway.

View all my reviews

A deadly trade (whodunit set in Botswana)

A Deadly Trade (Detective Kubu, #2)A Deadly Trade by Michael Stanley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having read one book featuring detective David “Kubu” Bengu and enjoyed it, when we found another in the local library we grabbed it, and found it just as enjoyable. It’s set in Botswana, which, though I have only visited it a few times, is sufficiently close to home to feel “local” and almost familiar territory — at least I can picture the landscapes in most of the places described.

In this one two guests at a remote tourist camp in northern Botswana are murdered, while a third has disappeared, and naturally becomes the prime suspect. Then two others who were present in the camp on the fatal night are also murdered, but while staying at different camps in different parts of Botswana.

The characters, plots and settings feel authentic in the “this could have happened” sense, which is what one looks for in a whodunit. The only thing that seemed as though it didn’t fit was the names of the characters. In a novel dealing with international crime and plots and murders of tourists, and ex-Zimbabweans living in Botswana one expects to have foreign names, but when characters said to belong to old Batswana families have Zulu names, some kind of explanation seems to be called for, but is not forthcoming.

The authors (for Michael Stanley is a composite) leave enough clues scattered around the text to challenge the reader to solve the mystery.

View all my reviews

South African Camelot

Today at our Neoinklings literary coffee klatsch we started off by discussing some of the problems of the country. Every day there is news of more political scandals and more corruption. The rich robbing the poor on a grand scale in the VBS bank scandal. Racism is making a comeback on a grand scale too, especially after being deliberately and assiduously promoted by the British PR firm Bell Pottinger.

There’s the story of land reform. One day our President is going around handing out title deeds to people and telling them how important and valuable they are, and the next day he is saying how expropriating land without compensation will solve all our problems, thus rendering the title deeds worthless. And expropriating land without compensation will make it much easier for the government to hand it over to foreign mining companies in places like Xolobeni.

And at this point David Levey asked why we weren’t talking about books, and I thought that it was actually a good lead in to a book I have just been reading, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green.

Roger Lancelyn Green was a member of the original Inklings literary discussion group, many of whom were very interested in the mythos of King Arthur. They incorporated elements of the Arthurian legends into their own writing. There are echoes of it in C.S. Lewis’s novels, especially in That Hideous Strength. Charles Williams retold many of the stories in his poetry. Much of their work on this topic was collected here: Taliessin through Logres, The Region of the Summer Stars, and Arthurian Torso.

Roger Lancelyn Green retells many of the stories in prose, for children. They have been retold many times, by many authors, in both prose and poetry. Since they are told for children there is no critical apparatus: no footnotes or cross-reference or explanations. Such explanations as are needed are incorporated into the text. But Green tells the stories in such a way as to bring out more clearly the Inklings’ take on them. One of the things that many of the Inklings emphasised was the distinction between Britain and Logres.

King Arthur’s adventures did not end when he had defeated the Saxons and brought peace to Britain: for though he had set up the realm of Logres — the land of true good and piety, nobleness and right living — the evil was always breaking in to attack the good. It would need many books to tell the story of every adventure that befell during his reign — that brief period of light set like a star of Heaven in the midst of the Dark Ages…

And that is where I see a parallel with South Africa. In the mid-1990s we experienced a brief period of light set like a star of Heaven in the midst of the Dark Ages. Apartheid, like the Saxons, had been driven out. “And the Saxons throughout the whole of Britain, and in Scotland also, fled away in their ships, or else swore to be King Arthur’s loyal subjects.”

In this way peace came to the whole island for a great many years: though still there were robbers and outlaws, cruel knights and evil magicians dwelling in the depths of forests and deep among the mountains, ever ready to break the peace and stain the realm of Logres in one wicked way or another.

The evil that threatened Logres was not merely external. It came from within. The Realm of Logres was set in the land of Britain, and Britain kept breaking through and threatening Logres. And so we read of the magic of Nimue and Morgana le Fay, how Nimue buries Merlin, and Morgana le Fay provokes fights between friends. The whole story is a kind of analogy of South Africa, where in 1994 we had a brief glimpse of our Logres, but even during the glimpses it was tainted with evil. How Jacob Zuma, who was once a loyal knight of the Round Table, became a usurper, and allowed evil to flourish. Could Winnie Mandela be cast in the role of Morgana le Fay, or perhaps the cap would fit Victoria Geoghegan better.

It’s not, of course, an allegory of South Africa, but there are many symbolic analogies, and one could probably find similar analogies to life in other countries as well. Maybe this is why the stories of King Arthur are told and retold, because they have an almost universal appeal and applicability.

Another version I have also been re-reading is The Quest of the Holy Grail. It concentrates on only one aspect of the mythos, the quest of the Grail. It’s also full of medieval moralising. Perhaps that’s why I prefer Green’s version — his modern moralising is more to my taste. But maybe I ought to heed the medieval moralising as well. The modern one deals with sins I am more aware of in others, the medieval one makes me feel uncomfortable because it reminds me of sins that I am more aware of in myself.

Death of the Mantis, a whodunit set in southern Africa

Death of the MantisDeath of the Mantis by Michael Stanley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A whodunit set locally in Southern Africa.

Detective Inspector David “Kubu” Bengu of the Botswana CID is asked to help with the investigation into the murder of a game ranger in the remote south-western part of the country. When a Namibian geologist discovers the corpse of another Namibian visitor Detective Kubu suspects that the murders are linked, and goes to Windhoek to follow up. There are tales of an old treasure map, purported to show the inland source of the alluvial diamonds on Namibia’s coast. After checking other earlier mysterious deaths that had originally been thought to be accidental it seems that the Botswana police are looking for a serial killer who must be caught before he kills again.

I found it an enthralling story, perhaps because of the “local” angle. Most of the crime novels we get to read here are set far away on other continents. This one is relatively close, being set in neighbouring countries which we have visited.

Kang in Botswana, through which Inspector Kubu travels on his way to Windhoek, is 773 km from our house. For a whodunit fan in London reading about the exploits of Swedish detective Kurt Wallander by Henning Mankell, Ystad, where Inspector Wallander is based is 1343 km from London. I did read a South African whodunit a few years ago, What Hidden Lies (see my review here). But that was set in Cape Town, more than twice as far away as Kang in Botswana, and also further away than Ystad is from London.

The detective stories from Botswana that are likely to be most familiar to readers outside that country are the series that begin with The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Be warned that this is nothing like that. These are not private investigators looking for lost pets and errant husbands. These are cops trying to catch a serial killer. I suppose one thing they do have in common, however, are that the scenes are well set, and the characters are well described.

As with some of the Inspector Wallander books, one of the factors in the killings is a cultural clash, in this case between Batswana cops and Bushmen. The first body is discovered by Bushmen, and they immediately become suspects. The only question I have about the authenticity of the setting is why so many of the character seem to have Zulu names. It’s not impossible, of course, but it does seem a bit disproportionate.

You can get an idea of what the countryside in the story looks like from our journey through the same country a few years ago — from Kang to Windhoek..

Anyway, I recommend it to whodunit fans in southern Africa, and perhaps those further afield might enjoy it too.

View all my reviews

Pet Sematary

Pet SemataryPet Sematary by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The other night they showed the film of Pet Sematary on TV, and I thought it was quite good, and stuck quite closely to the book. Well it would, since Stephen King wrote the screenplay. So after seeing the film, I thought it was time to reread the book, which I had last read about 25 years ago.

On rereading it I decided to up its rating to 5 stars. I really think it’s the best of Stephen King‘s books, and that was confirmed for me in rereading it after seeing the film. The difference in the number of stars is because I’ve come to think differently about his monsters since I first read it. I used to think that evil monsters in fiction should tell use something about the nature of evil. I suppose I was thinking that the protagonist, who is good, fights the monster, who is evil;. That, at least, is what happens in Dracula.

It was only afterwards that I really understood that in this book, as in some of other books, the monster just just a prompt to the battle of good and evil that takes place in the protagonist’s heart. I’ve written more about that in another blog post, dealing with another of Stephen King’s books that I have recently reread, here Danse Macabre: monsters in literature and life | Khanya.

That post also contains a review (with spoilers] of Pet Sematary, which doesn’t leave much to say about it here, other than a plot summary that doesn’t give away too much of the story.

Louis Creed, a medical doctor, gets a new job at a university clinic in Ludlow, Maine, and moves there with his wife Rachel and children Eileen aged 5 and Gage aged 18 months. They are happy in their new house, and their neighbours across the road, a retired couple, Jud and Norma Cranston, make them welcome. Behind the house is a wood, part of which is included in the Creeds’ property, but it goes on for 50 miles, and beyond the Creed land is a wilderness whose ownership is disputed between the US Federal Government, the State of Maine and the Micmac Indians. A path leads up into the woods to a pet cemetery, where generations of the children of the town have buried their pets.

Jud Cranston takes the family on a walk to the pet cemetery, and tells how he had buried his own pet dog there when he was a child. The path seems to go on beyond the cemetery, but the way is blocked by a fallen tree, and Jud Colston warns that it would be too dangerous to try to climb over it.

On his first day in his new job Louis Creed is faced with a badly injured student, who was knocked down by a car while jogging. The dying student apparently knows his name, and warns him to stay away from the pet cemetery, and above all not to go beyond it.

See also:

View all my reviews

Genius, shades, ancestors and more

Our literary coffee klatsch this morning was quite long, and in fact lasted well into the afternoon. I can’t remember everything that we talked about or all the books that were mentioned, and I’m writing this mainly to confirm a couple of half-remembered titles. And this will be a blog post in the original sense of the word — a web log, with lots of links to click on if you want to know more

David Levey said he had been reading a lot of short stories lately, mainly science-fiction. Among them was an anthology by Brian Aldiss, A Science Fiction Omnibus.

The story that particularly struck him was The Answer by Fredric Brown, and he mentioned that another in the anthology has a metaphysical significance: Sole Solution by Eric Frank Russell, in which a deity comes into being, experiencing excruciating loneliness. He/she/it creates infinite worlds and creatures to escape this condition.

About a dozen other short SF stories have religious resonances, collected in other anthologies, They are by luminaries such as Arthur C Clarke, The Nine Billion Names of God, and Isaac Asimov, The Last Question and Hell-Fire. The finest, though, is by Ursula K le Guin, The Field of Vision. An astronaut sees God, and goes not only mad but blind.

Janneke Weidema had brought along a book of essays by John Woolman, and was particularly impressed with what he had written about Quakers and slaves. He had said that Quakers should not own slaves. Not only was slavery bad for the slaves, it was bad for the slave owners as well, and dehumanised both.

Literary Coffee Klatsch at Cafe 41 on Eastwood Road. Left to Right: Val Hayes, Tony McGregor, Janneke Weidema, David Levey

Val mentioned The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, which we had both read, a story of a person’s life pieced together from diaries, letters, newspaper cuttings etc., some real, some fictional. The protagonist was an associate of a famous artist, Diego Rivera, who sheltered Trotsky when he was on the run from Stalin, and it gives one a feel for some aspects of the history of the period.

That reminded me of another similar story with a local flavour, Recessional for Grace, by Marguerite Poland — A student of African languages comes across an incomplete dictionary of African cattle terms, and decides to write on it for her doctoral thesis. As she does her research, however, she becomes more and more interested in the compiler, a Dr C.J. Godfrey, who died in 1963, and her research tends towards biography, which disconcerts her supervisor. She visits the place where he was born, and the school he attended, and the place where he did his research, and also becomes interested in his relationship with Mrs Grace Wilmot, a war widow and teacher at the local school, who assisted him in his research. The cattle and their names are gradually revealed as a metaphor for love. The descriptions in the book range from very accurate to sloppily researched. Rural shops are described in evocative detail, but with the Methodist Church it is all wrong.

Another one by the same author, also set in the Eastern Cape, was Shades, also a historical novel, and an “eternal triangle” love story.

Another one I had read recently was The Writer’s Voice: A Workshop for Writers in Africa, by Dorian Haarhoff, which stressed the need for people who did not think they could write to tell their stories.

I noted in my review that the author had several motivational anecdotes designed to inspire people to write, but which I found interesting in their own right, as things to write about. One of these was the ancient Roman concept of Genius,, which Haarhoff mentioned in passing was similar to African concepts of ancestor veneration. “If one served one’s genius well during life, the genius became a lar, or household god, after one’s death. If one neglected one’s potential the genius became a spook, a troublesome spirit who plagues the living”.

I recalled learning about lares and penates in Latin lessons at school, but had not made the link between them and the genius. The lares were particularly associated with the hearth, and that seemed to me remarkably similar to the Zulu belief that one could meet one’s deceased grandfather, sometimes in the form of a snake, by the fireplace (isiko). And perhaps this is related to the biblical account of Rachel and her father’s gods (Genesis 31:17-55).

I was aware that one reason that early Christians were persecuted because they refused to worship the Genius of Caesar — they were not expected to worship the flesh and blood emperor. Only one emperor thought he was a god in his flesh and blood, Caligula, and even his contemporaries knew that he was nuts.

But the concept of genius is interesting, and I found more about it in another book I had just returned to the library, Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes and Goblins: an Encyclopedia of the Little People, by Carol Rose.

There was the Russian concept of domovoi, the household spirit that lived by the stove. In Russia, with its cold winters the stove is a much bigger affair than the Zulu isiko, but the principle is the same. And in the Moomintroll books by Tove Jansson at least one of the books mentions “the ancestor behind the stove”.

All this puts me in mind of the “little gods” referred to in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and the Christian concept of guardian angels.  And perhaps egregores, too (clicking that link will take you to a lot of stuff).

On the theme of ancestors, and also with links to the Eastern Cape, Janneke Weidema spoke of someone South African Quakers regarded as a spiritual ancestor, Richard Gush of Salem. Guy Butler had written a play about him. Another whom they regarded as a spiritual ancestor was King Moshoeshoe I of Lesotho, That caused a few raised eyebrows among the rest of us — Richard Gush was a Quaker, King Moshoeshoe wasn’t, in his lifetime at least. Did the Quakers, like the Mormons, admit people to membership after death. Janneke hastened to assure us that that was not the case. But Moshoeshoe was a peaceable monarch, and so was regarded as an ancestor in the genealogy of ideas. David mentioned the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, who had said that good pagans were “anonymous Christians” as a possibly similar idea. Tony mentioned a booklet he had been reading, Islam is…, which said, in effect that everyone is a Muslim only they don’t know it yet. It also said that Islam did not condone war.

Tony had also been reading books by Bishop John Robinson, most recently In the end, God. Tony thought I didn’t like John Robinson, but that’s not quite true. I think when he writes in his own field, the New Testament, his books are quite good. It’s when he strays into dogmatic theology that I disagree, because I think he represents Bourgeois theology | Khanya.

We strayed into lots of other topics not directly concerned with books. Among these topics was politics, and we thought that with a general election looming in 2019, we were all wishing that someone would start a party we could vote for. None of the existing main parties seem any good. Janneke summed them up with a simple phrase: Job Creation, Livlihood Destruction.

 

The Writer’s Voice

The Writer's Voice: A workbook for writers in AfricaThe Writer’s Voice: A workbook for writers in Africa by Dorian Haarhoff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A book about writing and encouraging people to write. I’ve read or looked at quite a number of these over the last few years, and you can find lots of advice for aspiring writers on the Web as well. I glance at a few of them when they appear in my Twitter feed, but there is a remarkable sameness about them all. I suspect that the writers of advice for writers have read very little other than books of advice to writers, and rehash it in blog articles and the like. I think if any aspiring writers took that advice seriously, all novels would be boring and formulaic, and eventually no one would read fiction anymore.

This one is somewhat different. For a start it is written for people in Southern Africa, and it is urging people who wouldn’t normally think of writing to tell their stories. I think that is a laudable aim. The convoluted history of Southern Africa over the last 70 years is a story that needs to be told if we are to make sense of it and of our lives, and it needs to be told from many different viewpoints.

So it lacks the usual advice on how to start your novel in the middle of things, with startling and violent events, and let the explanation of them percolate through afterwards. It also is a bit thin on practical advice on how to prepare your manuscript for publication and send it to a publisher. Perhaps that is wise, because such information easily becomes dated.

So much of the book is motivational, where to find your inspiration. And there are many different ways and places to find inspiration, so most readers of the book will find at least a few that may inspire them. Many of them are designed for use in a group, and so they won’t appeal to the solitary reader of the book.

One of the motivational stories he gives is of the writer’s genius. The Romans believed in the idea of a genius. The genius, a personal spirit, arrived at birth. And it carried a person’s full potential. He offers this quote:

The genius was considered a birthright, but it had to be nourished in order to survive… the ancient Roman was expected to make a birthday sacrifice to his or her genius. If one served one’s genius well during life, the genius became a lar, or household god, after one’s death. If one neglected one’s potential the genius became a spook, a troublesome spirit who plagues the living (Dove 1995:17).

The myth is not so far removed from some African belief systems. I believe we are born with a writer’s genius, a writer’s potential. For those of us who are literate, this belief contains a challenge which John Irving the novelist, calls ‘the necessary strict toiling with the language.’

I quite liked that, but I would be inclined to use it in a different way — to incororporate a genius into my story, rather than use it as an inspiration for a story.
View all my reviews

The Sword of Shannara

The Sword of ShannaraThe Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve seen books in the Shannara series around in bookshops and libraries for many years, but they never seemed to have the first book so I always gave it a miss. Then I found this one in the library, and I thought it might be worth a look to see what it was about, quite soon after reading Stephen King’s comment that if The Lord of the Rights had been written in “sword and sorcery” style, Sauron would have been the hero.

This one wasn’t quite as bad as that, but it wasn’t very good either. I’ve read a couple of others in the genre — Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings is one, but this one was a bit better than that.

I suppose the point of comparison with The Lord of the Rings is that this is a quest novel — a group of people are assembled by a mysterious figure (A Druid called Allanon in this case) to go on a long journey with many adventures on the way try to get hold of a mysterious talisman (the eponymous Sword of Shannara) before the bad guy does.

The world in which the story takes place is both over-described and under-described. Desolate places are described rather unconvincingly at great length — marshes and dry places in which nothing lives. But it is not until page 512 (of 664 in my edition) that there is any inkling that this world has horses, cavalry and wheeled vehicles. Until that point all travel seems to be on foot.

There are other odd inconsistencies — when those on the quest come to the Druid castle, which has just been captured by hostile gnomes, they find all the empty underground passages conveniently lighted by torches, and one wonders who lit them and replaced the torches when they burnt out. In the land there are four races, Men, Trolls, Gnomes and Dwarfs, but in various places they are all described as men or as human beings.

Not a very bad read, but not a very good one either. I don’t think I’ll be looking for the rest of the trilogy.

View all my reviews

Post Navigation