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365 days of women's lit

Archive for November 2011

Mary Stewart: Wildfire at Midnight

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Every now and then you are introduced to a writer (thanks stuartblessman) who you can’t believe you’ve managed to get so far through life without discovering. Such a one for me is Mary Stewart, the English popular novelist famed for knitting together the romance and mystery genres (and author of the Merlin trilogy), who was awarded an honorary doctorate by Durham University in 2009 for her lifetime’s work.

Advised to read ‘pretty much anything’ by her, I picked out Wildfire at Midnight on the strength of Amazon’s breathless blurb about ritualistic murders and webs of fear and suspicion (I am not nearly as high-minded as I sometimes like to think).

Stewart did not disappoint. Sweeping me along with her heroine Gianetta, a recent divorcee and former model still in her early twenties, she immersed me in her deliciously nostalgic scene setting, homing in on a lonely hotel on the Isle of Skye where a large cast of characters is struggling to come to terms with the sacrifice of a crofter‘s daughter up on the neighbouring mountain.

What I hadn’t expected was how funny Stewart would be. Easy and conversational, her narrative style is peppered with jokes and gentle swipes at the idiosyncrasies of many of her creations, while losing none of the suspense required to make the story work. Reading her at her best is like reading Agatha Christie with a healthy dollop of Nancy Mitford stirred in.

There are one or two blots on the copybook though: the plot relies on a series of apparent coincidences that bring a lot of people who know each other together in a remote location, straining credulity early on (although some of this is later explained away), and the whole thing turns on Gianetta’s adherence to a rather quaint moral code, which although attributable to her Roman Catholic background is not adequately explained for the modern reader to buy into wholesale.

I could also have lived without a few of the more unfortunate turns of phrase: it will be a while before I manage to get the thought of ‘the excited hands of the butcher coming behind me’ out of my head.

However, much of this is probably down to the fact that Wildfire at Midnight was only Stewart’s second book and it doesn’t take away from how downright enjoyable the experience of reading her is. It would be interesting to see how Stewart’s style and the moral universe of her characters shifted as her career progressed. Doubtless I’ll be back for more.

Photo by Y Ballester

Written by londonchoirgirl

November 28, 2011 at 2:26 pm

Maile Chapman: Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto

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There can be few ancient Greek tragedies more disturbing than Euripides’ The Bacchae. Building to the cataclysmic scene in which the possessed women of Thebes tear their kinsman Pentheus limb from limb, it packs a serious punch and continues to be lauded by critics who hail it variously as a comment on the dangers of fundamentalism, a parable of excess, and a portrait of the dark desires that seethe within us all.

This sinister ambiguity is something that US writer Maile Chapman harnesses in her excellent first novel, Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto. It is set in a sanatorium in the eerie fringe world of northern Finland and follows a group of women caught somewhere between health and madness as they encounter, battle, and ultimately enact urges and feelings that the world does not allow them to express.

Events move slowly, yet, like the water shifting beneath the thick ice that forms as the sunless winter sets in, emotions stir beneath them, giving a dizzying significance to the catalogue of petty grudges and trivial incidents that the book records. This is heightened by the butterfly narrative, which flits from mind to mind, picking up the pitiful memories of Nurse Sunny here, the sexual trauma of her patient Julia there, and the thousand paranoid impulses, peeves and preoccupations that clutter the consciousnesses of the people who inhabit this halfway house between oblivion and the world.

At first, this can be frustrating as you struggle to catch on to concrete details about the characters that form, merge and mutate before your eyes. But Chapman knows what she’s doing: out of the mist of sensations and impressions a weird, collective consciousness forms that is at once everyone and no-one portrayed and that drives the plot through to its ghastly conclusion.

Reading the work, you become uncomfortably aware that yours is the mind in which its events are playing out. When the depths of the winter pass and the narrative draws to a close, you put the book down with awe, unease and, yes, a faint twinge of guilt.

Picture by Numinosity

Written by londonchoirgirl

November 23, 2011 at 1:26 pm

Diana Wynne Jones: Howl’s Moving Castle

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You’d have to have been taking part in a three-year BBC 4 social documentary recreating the living conditions of 18th century crofters not to have picked up on the YA hype that’s been going around lately. Young adult fiction (just in case you are still struggling out of your smock) is massive and, as one literary agent tweeted breathlessly from the Frankfurt Book Fair last month, even publishers who would never have dipped their toes into the teen lit market before are crying out for dystopia, fantasy, werewolves and vampires.

Bloggers are on to it too. In fact many of the comments and feedback I’ve had for this site have involved recommendations of YA books to read. And one name has cropped up again and again: Diana Wynne Jones.

Published in 1986, one of the English writer’s most famous novels Howl’s Moving Castle has been reaping the benefits of the YA surge. Set in the magical kingdom of Ingary, it follows Sophie Hatter as she sets out to seek her fortune in the wake of being turned into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste. Sophie is thrown on the mercy of Wizard Howl, whose moving castle has been menacing her town, and who has a nasty reputation for sucking out the hearts of young girls. But of course nothing is quite as it first appears and before long she is striding around the country in seven league boots, casting all sorts of spells in an effort to defeat the witch and return Ingary to its happily ever after.

So far, so conventional. What lifts the narrative out of its fairytale formula, though, is the wit and verve with which Jones sets out her stall. We hear that magical folk only wear cloaks and buckled boots on festival days and would never dream of putting them on for work, and that ‘it is quite a risk to spank a wizard for getting hysterical about his hair’. And when Sophie makes it through the castle’s mysterious black exit to the weird land of Wales (where the provenance of Howl’s name — Howell — suddenly becomes clear) her response to cars and computers is a joy to read.

I loved it. But one of the things I loved most about it was how familiar it felt. Far from being part of a brave new genre, this book took me back to the children’s stories I got from my Mum’s collection — forgotten classics such as Marion St John Webb’s The Little Round House (London, 1956), which, for all their political incorrectness, managed to spin engrossing yarns with wit and clever observations layered on top.

Judging by Wynne Jones, I couldn’t help wondering whether YA fiction is simply what used to be thought of as good children’s lit. And if, instead of creating a magical new genre, publishers have simply shrunk childhood and pulled off the greatest marketing trick of the 21st century to date.

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Written by londonchoirgirl

November 17, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Heather Peace: All to Play For

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I first met Tom Chalmers six years ago when I went to interview him about his bold decision to launch his own publishing company at the age of just 25. It was the dawn of the mass-market e-book era, independent bookshops were folding like origami and the only works that mainstream publishers seemed interested in selling were ‘autobiographies’ by celebrities with one-word names. Watching Chalmers launch his plucky little list of Legend Press print titles on to the turbulent waters of the book trade felt like witnessing someone begin an attempt to row round the world in a bath tub: it was daring, intrepid and more than a bit mad.

So it was great to bump into Tom in a pub a couple of weeks ago and hear that, in spite of all the squalls, twisters and hurricanes buffeting the literary market in recent years, Legend Press continues to go from strength to strength. I was also intrigued to hear that, since taking on a female member of the editorial team, the list has incorporated more women’s lit, and was only too pleased to take up Tom’s offer of sampling one of the latest titles.

Judging by Heather Peace’s All to Play For, the company is in very good shape indeed. Ambitious and wide-ranging, this insider’s portrait of the BBC (Peace was a script editor in the corporation for much of the early-mid nineties) charts the careers of a group of misfits and megalomaniacs as they struggle to carve out a career in television in the face of cuts, political pressures and vicious micro-management.

At its very best, it feels as though Peace has snuck you past security at Television Centre and given you carte blanche to wander in and out of production meetings and scheduling sessions, rummaging through people’s desk drawers as you go. This is made even better by the fact that Peace clearly has an axe or two to grind about some aspects of the Beeb in the nineties and combines this with an ability to draw a range of compelling, believable characters to body forth her peeves in glorious Technicolor.

That said, the book could have done with some tighter editing. Rants on David Cameron’s government, the youth of today and the challenges of writing a novel can make you feel as though you’ve been cornered by someone’s verbose uncle at a party when you’re itching to talk to the more interesting people in the room (of which there are many). Unless you’re Nabokov writing Pale Fire, phrases such as ‘I’m rambling’ and ‘sorry if I’m labouring the point’ are usually a cry for the pruning shears.

Overall, though, in the best traditions of BBC scheduling, this is a highly enjoyable spread of light entertainment and cultural commentary with some moments of high drama thrown in. I found myself thinking about it when I wasn’t reading it and looking forward to the hour I could spend with it on the tube.  Congratulations to Peace and Legend Press. More please.

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Written by londonchoirgirl

November 1, 2011 at 11:02 am