Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “books”

The Secret of Killimooin

The Secret Of Killimooin (Enid Blyton's Secret Island Series)The Secret Of Killimooin by Enid Blyton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are some children’s books that adults enjoy as much as, or even more than children do. But Enid Blyton’s books are not among them. I’ve just finished reading The Enid Blyton story, which examines her life and work, and it also makes this point. Most children love her books, and most adults don’t. So I thought I’d re-read a couple of books by Enid Blyton to refresh my memory.

This one is the first Enid Blyton book I ever read, at the age of about 8 or 9 or so, and I’ve always thought it was one of her best, though when reading it again as an adult it looks somewhat different. One of the first things that one notices about many Enid Blyton books is what is nowadays called “food porn”. She goes into ecstatic descriptions of food. But then so does C.S. Lewis in Prince Caspian and in some of the other Narnia books. But Lewis is usually making a point about feasts being associated with celebration and community. In his descriptions of feasts there is usually some element of that, so that most of them have overtones of a Messianic banquet. In Blyton there is less of that. It is more food for the same of food.

Many books of advice to would-be authors of children’s books say that one should not “write down” to children. But Enid Blyton does “write down” to children. In The Secret of Killimooin almost every second sentence ends with an exclamation mark. She writes in exclamations: “…he had a surprise that was most unexpected!” Adults tend to notice such redundancies and to be rather annoyed by them, but children don’t.

In her dialogues Blyton even sometimes makes characters speak in exclamations, which real children rarely do — Oh, I say!… What a marvellous surprise!… golly, it will be grand! — yet real children also don’t seem to notice it much.

Yet I also have some vague and rather disturbing memories –that when I was younger and read a lot of these books I thought that perhaps I ought to speak like that, because that was the way proper children spoke, especially those who were destined to have adventures. Or is that just “false memory syndrome”? Or perhaps another grey moment.

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The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (Tales of Alderley, #1)The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve just been re-reading some Alan Garner books. This time I read them in reverse, starting with The Owl Service, then Elidor followed by The Moon of Gomrath and now The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

I still rate them pretty highly as children’s fantasy novels, but perhaps reading them in reverse order puts them in a different perspective. The first two, the “Alderley” tales, both end in scenes of confused violence. In the case of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen it wasn’t as good as I remembered it, because of that. And I became aware of more of the plot holes. I still give it five stars though.

It’s about two children staying on a farm, and one of them, Susan, has a bracelet with a magic stone that holds the key to the reserve forces of good being held in a cave under a hill. The forces of evil want to get the stone to destroy the reserve force and increase their own power, so they conspire to steal it.

A common feature of quite a lot of children’s fantasy novels is the underground tunnel sequence. Quite a lot of non-fantasy stories also have it. A good many of Enid Blyton‘s “Adventure” and “Secret” series feature underground tunnels and caves. They are present in The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis and in the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien. I am sure one could find many other examples. But The Weirdstone of Brisingamen has absolutely, incontrovertibly, the most terrifying, claustrophobic and horrific underground cavern sequence I have ever read.

When I was 11-13 years old, perhaps inspired by reading such stories, I explored stormwater drains. The first ones were the ones that drained the sports fields at our school (St Stithians, Randburg, in case you were wondering). Others had explored them — they emptied into a stream and a small dam, and they had climbed up the round concrete pipes, which, I think, were about 2ft 6in in diameter. The told stories about people getting claustrophobia in there, and having to slap their faces (how? you couldn’t turn round) and encountering a scorpion. So it was with some trepidation that I first climbed up them. You couldn’t crawl on all fours, there wasn’t room for that. Just the thought was scary before I tried it. Alan Garner’s novel is ten times scarier than that. Later I explored the stormwater drains of Sandringham, Johannesburg. The lower broader bits were big enough to ride a bike up, but they got narrower when they reached the Sydenham border, and there we used to sit and frighten pedestrians and cyclists with hollow booming tunnel-amplified voices that came from beneath their feet. And one still occasionally reads news items about kids who were doing that and got downed when a sudden thunderstorm struck and they couldn’t get out in time. Rushing rainwater travels a lot faster than a crawling child. But Alan Garner’s book is much, much scarier than that.

Apart from that there’s a lot of running and hiding and trying to keep the stone out of the hands of the bad guys and a deus ex machina or two.There are quite a lot of allusions to mythology. The blurb’s like to describe this as “Celtic”, but that, I think, is because of the glamour that has been ascribed to the epithet “Celtic” in recent Western culture. In fact a lot of the mythology is Norse. Back when the book was fir5st published there was no Google, and one of the things that seemed to be missing was any explanation of the name Brisingamen. Perhaps Garner was hoping to provoke a generation of school children to be curious enough to find out for themselves, even though the only tool at their disposal was a card cataloge. And perhaps he succeeded in that aim too.

It’s a good tale well told, and well worth reading, I think. One can’t say much more without plot spoilers. But yes, the violence at the end is a bit much.

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Robert Goddard: pastiche and parody

The Ends of the Earth: (The Wide World - James Maxted 3)The Ends of the Earth: by Robert Goddard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third book of Robert Goddard’s spy trilogy. I’ve just finished reading the second and third books one after the other, so will comment on the series as a whole rather than on each volume separately.

It’s quite an enjoyable read, even though it has more plot holes than a colander and more loose ends than a bowl of spaghetti. It’s not up to Goddard’s usual standard, where the books are more carefully and believably plotted. Most of his best books are written to a formula in which a mystery in the past influences events in the present. There are echoes of that here, but in this book the “present” is itself in the past, as the main action of the story takes place immediately after the First World War, during and following the peace conference at Versailles, though it is influenced by events that had taken place nearly 30 years before.

But in most of Goddard’s other books the protagonist is usually an ordinary person who gets involved either accidentally, or in an unsuspecting way. Here, however, the protagonist is James “Max” Maxted, wartime flying ace and and James Bond-type swashbuckling hero. The second volume starts off reading like a sequel to The Thirty-nine Steps, which was set before the war, and this one is set after it. One of the characters even mentions The Thirty-Nine Steps. Perhaps the mention of the book is a hint that Robert Goddard is self-consciously writing a pastiche and a parody of the spy story genre, with hints of John Buchan, Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum. Perhaps the real challenge to the reader is to work out which bit is imitating whom. And perhaps in some parts he’s even parodying himself.

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The life and times of Michael K

Life and Times of Michael KLife and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Michael K is a gardener in Cape Town whose mother, a domestic servant, is ill, and fears she may lose her job, so he decides to take her back to Prince Albert in the Karroo, where she grew up. But there is a war on, and people need permits to travel, and though he applies, the permit is lost in red tape, so he decides to set out on foot, with his mother in a home-made wheelchair. She takes a turn for the worse, and is admitted to a hospital in Stellenbosch, where she dies and is cremated. Michael K continues alone, with his mother’s ashes, but has only the vaguest notion of the farm where she grew up from her description.

When he finds a farm that he thinks may be the right one, he find it abandoned, and so lives as a recluse, shunning human company and becoming self-sufficient, but though he has left the world, the world keeps breaking in on his solitude, and trying to remould him according to its own values.

It is well written, and has won several literary prizes. I found it more readable than other books by J.M. Coetzee, and quite a gripping story. The first part, about the journey to the farm, is reminiscent in a way of Sammy going south by W.H. Canaway, which describes a similar journey, though of a child rather than an adult. After Michael K becomes a recluse, it is quite different.

There is also a surreal quality to the book. It was first published in 1974, which was in the middle of the apartheid era, but there is no mention of apartheid in the book. Race is never mentioned, and so it seems unreal. The bureaucracy is there, but the people are more kindly than they were in that era. So while the book is set in South Africa geographically, it seems to be a South Africa in an alternative universe, as if it had taken a different turning, and developed in a different way.

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Boo! Hiss! to Corvus publishers and Phil Rickman

CrybbeCrybbe by Phil Rickman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I just got a new Phil Rickman book for my birthday, called Curfew. I was looking forward to reading a new Phil Rickman book, but when I opened it I discovered it was one we already had, but just sneakily published under a different title to con the public into thinking it was a new book, and so getting people to buy it twice.

Boo! Hiss! to Corvus publishers for this dishonest and fraudulent practice.

And Boo! Hiss! to Phil Rickman for letting them do it.

As The Byrds used to sing:

As through this life you travel
You meet some funny men
Some rob you with a six gun
And some with a fountain pen.

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The Angel’s Game (book review)

The Angel's Game (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, #2)The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third of the books I’ve read in Carlos Ruiz Zafón‘s Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, and I’ve just realised that I’ve neglected to write reviews of the other two either here in GoodReads or on my blog.

I read The Shadow of the Wind first, followed by The Prisoner of Heaven. But since the books follow in a series, and share many of the same characters, I think I might need to reread them in the correct order.

There is something about Zafón’s books that is reminiscent of Phil Rickman, with the shared characters, and the undertone of fantasy and horror. The difference is, as I can now see, that Zafón’s books need to be read in order, even though The Angel’s Game is a kind of prequel to The Shadow of the Wind.

In that respect they are more like C.S. Lewis‘s Narnia books, where it is better to read them in published order rather than the chronological order in the sequence of stories. Chronology is an obsession of modernity, and Lewis, in particular, was trying to lead his readers out of modernity into a mythical world.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón has a similar intertwining of the mythical and the modern, though in a somewhat darker and more adult way than Lewis.

Having said that, I’m not sure I can review The Angel’s Game now. I think I will have to re-read The Prisoner of Heaven first, since I have forgotten most of the plot.

So for now let me just say for that the series is about different generations of the Sempere family who run a bookshop in Barcelona, and the different generations of the family are introduced in turn to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where they are invited to leave a book that has been, or is likely to be forgotten, and to take one forgotten book and read it. Behind this lurks the idea that the book has something of the soul of its author and its readers embedded in it.

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Secret Africa by Lawrence G.; Green (book review)

Secret AfricaSecret Africa by Lawrence George Green

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading or re-reading quite a lot of books by Lawrence George Green lately, mainly because of my interest in family and local history, and I’ve been compiling an index to some of them. He is, or was, a raconteur and teller of travellers tales, which are often interesting and entertaining, if not always accurate. He was a journalist, and his books often read like a collection of newspaper features, which they probably are. He sometimes recycles stories, so that they appear in more than one of his books.

Secret Africa is one of his earlier books, and was rather disappointing. It was written before the Second World War, and reprinted in 1974, I thought I might index it, but discovered that there is nothing much worth indexing. Some chapters read like a lazy journalist’s rewrites of press releases, the sort of advertorials one sometimes sees on TV. The only thing interesting about them was that they are 80 years old, so one gets a view of a different period. The title, Secret Africa is misleading. There is nothing secret about most of it, it’s just PR stuff that people want you to know.

Even the more personal chapters — a description of a trip to Mauritius, for example — have the feeling of plugging a message from the sponsor, and are full of racism and snobbery as well.

The final chapter, a description of gold mining in Johannesburg, is full of statistics, so that it reads in places like a company report — how many tons of ore it takes to produce an ounce of gold, how much bars of gold were worth, how much it cost to sink a shaft, and of course the marvelous accommodation, food, recreational and healthcare facilities provided by the benevolent mining companies for their native mineworkers. Perhaps I’m unduly cynical about this, because at the same time I’ve been reading the biography of Walter and Albertina Sisulu by their daughter-in-law Elinor Sisulu, which describes how they helped to organise a miners’ strike to protest against the poor housing, pay, food and all the other stuff that Green praises from the PR blurb.

Lawrence George Green‘s best work was written in the 1950s and 1960s, and his earlier and later work seems to be dreck. This one definitely falls into that category. It seems to have been written before he hit his stride, and in the later ones he seems to be coasting on empty.

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Rose, by Martin Cruz Smith (book review)

RoseRose by Martin Cruz Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve read several books by Martin Cruz Smith, all whodunits featuring detective Arkady Renko, mostly set in Moscow in the late 20th or early 21st century. This one is different, as it is set in 19th-century England, in Lancashire, in the mining town of Wigan to be precise.

Some of the Renko books felt a bit surreal to me, but no more so than Bulgakov’s The master and Margarita, but this one felt a bit more jarring. I’ve been to Moscow, and I’ve never been to Wigan, but somehow the Wigan setting seemed less authentic than the Moscow ones, not so much the place itself, as the people in it. The story was interesting enough, and made me want to read on to see what happened, but it somehow felt inauthentic, as if it was set in some alternative universe, like Philip Pullman‘s His dark materials.

The descriptions of coal mining were authentic, but it was the events and conversations on the surface that seemed out of place. A coal miner in Lancashire in 1872 likening something to a volcano? How many of them would have seen a volcano, or even a picture of one?

A zealous Evangelical clergyman speaking of Low Mass, or any kind of “Mass” at all? Such a thing would have been anathema to any Church of England Evangelical in that period. It’s a bit like Pullman’s use of terms like “Magisterium”, which clearly means something different in an alternative universe.

One is left wondering whether the surrealism is intended or not. The protagonist too is a bit surreal, an Indiana Jones-like character, but some of the other things in the book give the impression that it is intended to be a historical novel, authentic in time and place. It feels like 20th-century characters transported into a 19th-centry setting.

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Growing up in apartheid South Africa (book review)

The Persistence of MemoryThe Persistence of Memory by Tony Eprile

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Bildungsroman about growing up in apartheid South Africa — a white boy at school, then an army conscript, and afterwards.

I would like to be able to say that this book “tells it like it was” in the same way that Andre Brink‘s A Dry White Season does, but two things make me hesitate to say that. One is that I never served in the army, so I cannot say that the middle section, which deals with that, is accurate. Secondly, there are several inaccuracies about known things in the book, which cast doubt upon the accuracy of some of the other parts,

The inaccuracties bothered me. One of the most egregious errors is a reference to the Australian national rugby team as the All Blacks. Another was a reference to a Xhosa chief, Makhana, which goes on to say that Makhana wasn’t his real name, but a reference to his left-handedness. There is a footnote to the effect that his real name was Nxele. But it is Nxele, and not Makhana, which is a referwence to left-handedness.

At first sight these errors (and there are several more) are not about matters central to the plot, and one might attribute them to careless writing and editing. But on second thoughts, they relate to something that is central to the plot and is embodied in the very title of the book. The protagonist, we are told, has an excellent memory, and at one point, when he testifies before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the reliability of his memory is both demonstrated and brought into question.

If the protagonist’s memory is crucial to the plot, then perhaps these errors scattered through the book (told in the first persion) are intended as hints that the protagonist’s memory was not as good as he claimed it was, and therefore, far from “telling it like it is”, the book is a kind of bizarre fantasy, reminiscient of Jean Genet‘s The Balcony.

So though I wanted to give it four or five stars, in the end I gave it only three.

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This river awakens: puberty in a messed-up world

This River AwakensThis River Awakens by Steven Erikson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Until about halfway through this book, I wasn’t sure whether I was going to like it or not. It’s about a bunch of kids aged about 12 or 13 living in an in-between place somewhere between the city and farmlands. I lived in such a place when I was that age, so to that extent it felt familiar, but I wasn’t aware of the existence of such a bunch of messed-up people. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t there in the place where I grew up, just that I wasn’t aware of them. And I wouldn’t have dared to talk to my teachers the way those kids did.

The protagonist is one of the kids, Owen Brand, who has just moved to the area and so has to make friends from scratch, and one of the things that is rather confusing is that his viewpoint is in the first person, while the others are in the third person, but when he is just with one other person, and the viewpoint switches, one somtimes loses track of who is talking.

The messed-up people are just about everyone, friends, neighbours, teachers, family members. Part of the interest of the story is how Owen learns to cope with this, and how he and his family help to improve things for his girlfiend, who has an abusive father and an abused mother, and has learned to cope with adults by keeping them at arm’s length.

So there are good things to balance out the bad things, and nothing’s perfect, but that’s true to life too. In some ways Owen seems to represent the idea of coinherence of Charles Williams, with people taking on the burdens of others. Williams appeared to think that people could or would do this consciously and deliberately, but Owen does it almost unconsciously. And the kids are faced with things like sex, drugs and death, to the consternation of teachers, doctors and social workers, who are often just as messed up as everyone else.

In the end I liked the book, and liked it a lot. Perhaps I’ll read it again, because it’s the kind of book where there are lots of things you don’t see on the first reading, and perhaps not on the second or the third either.

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