fiction

Queen Lucia by EF Benson

This 1920 novel of middle-class country life never fulfilled its comic potential, sadly. There were a scattering of amusing episodes that went nowhere, and an awful lot of everyday life that made me shake my head in despair rather than laugh.

Mrs Emmeline Lucas, universally known as Lucia due to her pretentious scattering of Italian phrases in conversation, is undisputed queen of Riseholme society. This doesn’t seem like much of a prize to me, as the village of Riseholme appears to house some of the most vain, selfish, mean-spirited, shallow and catty members of the idle rich around. Nevertheless, where Lucia leads her subjects gleefully follow, at garden parties, musical evenings and the like. She sets the local tastes in art and literature despite having little qualification to do so. During the summer of this book, however, there are stirrings of rebellion – some of her subjects start trying to think for themselves, and what’s more, there are outside influences. Naturally, chaos ensues.

At times Queen Lucia feels like it’s going to be a satire, at other times a farce, but for me it never quite works as either and perhaps it only set out to be a gently comic novel that I’d have enjoyed if I’d been around at the time. It’s not angry socialism rearing up, for I’ve enjoyed a multitude of Evelyn Waugh, PG Wodehouse and F Scott Fitzgerald novels containing more than their fair share of spoilt rich creatures. I just couldn’t find any point of contact with patronising Mrs Lucas and her ‘silvery laugh’ and her baby talk (‘Me vewy sowwy’) though I did have some sympathy for her sidekick, camp middle-aged bachelor Georgie with his dyed hair, and talent for embroidery.

Queen Lucia is the first in a series and I believe some or all of the novels have been adapted for TV. That might be more successful as the comic potential could be developed and brought to the fore. I downloaded it for free so anyone who feels they might have more luck with it can do the same, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a surprisingly short book, for modern fantasy. Or perhaps I just read it particularly fast. I seemed to be completely immersed for a brief moment, then I emerged into the sunlight again and it was all over. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it.

This is a novel about childhood (and myths, and books). The different priorities, different realities, of children and adults. It’s about deeper truths, small pleasures, and what happens as we grow up (or grow older, anyway). The vast majority of the book is told from a seven year old boy’s point of view, as remembered by his middle-aged self; childlike, with a grown-up veneer. It’s a dark fairytale bordering on horror story, with a wonderfully British cosiness round the edges. It’s about a little boy, befriended by the older girl down the lane who claims her family’s duckpond is an ocean.

If you much preferred American Gods to Stardust, then you might not be immediately grabbed by this as it’s closer to the spirit of the latter than the former, I would say. If you’ve never read any Neil Gaiman but enjoyed John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things, or even Lisey’s Story by Stephen King, give The Ocean at the End of the Lane a go. Vivid imagery and a rattling pace, with a poignant core.

Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer

Alex Lomax is the only private detective on Mars, scraping a living under the protective dome of New Klondike. Like all the best fictional private detectives he’s got a nice line in wisecracks, an eye for the ladies and a reputation that precedes him. New Klondike likewise is a typical frontier town full of fossil-hunters determined to strike it rich, people on the run, corrupt cops. And a writer in residence.

I’m sorry to say I hadn’t heard of Robert J Sawyer before this novel, or maybe the name just hadn’t sunk in – it seems he’s won a whole mantelpiece full of awards over the last few years – but I’ll be looking out for more of his work. Red Planet Blues was an assured romp through a twisty plot full of double-crossing, kidnap, murder and mistaken identity. It all starts with what seems like a simple missing person case, but then Lomax starts to uncover things that might be best left undisturbed. Like the truth about what happened to the men who first found fossils on Mars and started the fortune-hunting rush. All this in low gravity, with the added complication of essentially immortal transfers (people rich enough to upload their mind into custom-built and largely indestructible android bodies).

The novel is handled with wry humour, but it has its share of grit and science. If you like your Chandler and Hammett but aren’t averse to some future-set extra-terrestrial fiction, I would recommend reading Red Planet Blues.

Rider at the Gate by CJ Cherryh

As a one-sentence over-simplification you could describe Rider at the Gate as a kind of dark fantasy Western on a frontier planet with three-toed telepathic horses. That description will probably tell you whether or not you might be interested in the story, but it doesn’t do the novel justice. It’s about loyalty and secrets, family, hardship, and the difficult lesson that people can be complicated creatures with tangled motives.

Danny Fisher is an awkward teenager, town-born but lately chosen as a Rider by the young nighthorse whose self-image is best translated as Cloud. He’s all set to spend the winter in the Rider camp adjacent to his home town, where he can visit his God-fearing (and hence Rider-hating) family regularly for an uncomfortable shared meal, but it won’t necessarily be that straightforward. Reports arrive of a horse gone rogue; rogue horses can project images further and stronger than the others, catching everyone unawares and if they’re not careful, driving them to insanity or death. Danny gets caught up in a situation he isn’t prepared for, but the trail on the edge of winter isn’t the most forgiving place for a junior to make elementary mistakes.

I’ve read a few CJ Cherryh novels now, and been consistently impressed. Rider at the Gate was an easy read, laced with dry humour and well-drawn characters, including the nighthorses who each had unique personalities. The world was vividly conjured, from the snow-covered mountains of the High Wild to the poisoned industrial landscape further down, and the truck convoys the Riders are paid to protect. With the scattering of technology (diesel-powered trucks, phone lines strung alongside mountain passes) this is a bit grubbier and more down to earth than a lot of the more rose-tinted fantasy novels you might expect to involve horses, mountains and a quest, but I would say it’s more likely to appeal to the fantasy-reading end of the SF spectrum than the hard sci-fi crowd. There is an equally-enjoyable sequel called Cloud’s Rider.

In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard

I wasn’t familiar with the name Robert Goddard and would have been highly unlikely to pick this novel up, left to my own devices. However, that’s what recommendations are for, and on my last trip to the Library of Mum and Dad (like the Bank of Mum and Dad, but easier to come by and more edifying), this was handed to me as a good starting point into Goddard’s back catalogue.

The edition I read (Corgi paperback 2010) would have benefitted greatly from the attentions of a diligent proof-reader; the vast number of typos began to irritate me but thankfully the power of the story drew me on. In Pale Battalions is a finely-paced novel of family secrets, sacrifice and lies, where the nested narratives mirror the nested mysteries. Certainties are periodically overturned. The answer to some burning question swims into view, trailing in its wake a whole shoal of questions of a different hue.

Leonora Galloway is a seventy year old widow taking her daughter to visit a First World War memorial in France in 1986. It is the cue for an unburdening, a lifetime of living within the confines of a web of secrets being cast aside. Throughout the novel there is a theme of withholding information to protect someone, even if they don’t need that protection. What right has anyone to decide when is the right time to reveal surprising truths, and if the revelation comes too late would it have been better not to know?

The bulk of the novel takes place during the First World War, which might make this year a particularly suitable time to read it since commemorations are taking place all around. The quiet dignity of the prose and the unpacking of a mysterious past put me in mind of The House at Riverton by Kate Morton. I think readers of that novel would enjoy In Pale Battalions, as would anyone who enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s novels Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet.

Mixed genre messages – a bad idea?

Let’s assume you’re thinking of buying a short story collection, then you notice it’s a mixture of SF (science fiction, fantasy and the like) and what you might call mainstream, general, non-genre fiction.

Why do I ask? you ask (pretend you asked).Two reasons, one to do with writing and the other to do with reading. To take the latter first, I’ve recently read a Brian Aldiss collection, The Moment of Eclipse, and though it’s labelled as science fiction and most of the stories in it do fall firmly in that category, I’d say at least one doesn’t and a couple of others are tenuous. If the author hadn’t been ‘a science fiction writer’ I doubt anyone would have thought to label them that way. I enjoyed them, but it reminded me of when I read Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (as discussed here), shelved as sci-fi despite being nothing of the sort, which brought disappointment to my reading corner.

Which brings me to my vague thoughts of compiling another short story collection. When I put The Little Book of Northern Women together there was a story I toyed with including, but since it was strictly revolving round a northern female android I left it out (it’s since been published in Kzine issue 6). Undoubtedly there will be a crossover audience for my SF and non-genre stories but I figured people are often in the mood for one but not the other, and besides it would have been an unbalanced mix. Now I’ve accumulated a mass of SF, plus non-genre stories that don’t have a strong theme running through them. Should I consider blending them in the same publication, or keep to the segregation?

Time’s Echo by Pamela Hartshorne

Time’s Echo is a time-slip novel I read last year, set in both contemporary and late sixteenth-century York. Sparked by a few interesting names and a badly-behaved dog the author came across in court records during her PhD in Medieval History, the resulting novel is a flight of fantasy that feels as authentic and believable as Tracy Chevalier at her best, with enough detail to make the historical element seem well-researched without turning it into a textbook.

Grace Trewe, an independent young woman who’s travelled all over the world, inherits a terraced house in York. She could just leave everything to the solicitor, but on a whim she goes to the house for what’s meant to be a brief stay in an interesting historic town she’s not familiar with, before she joins some friends on another continent. Are her nightmares and strange experiences only a result of having been caught up in the Boxing Day tsunami? For Grace, who’s used to being able to pack up and move on whenever she needs to, the feeling that this time she might not be able to is most unnerving. Meanwhile in the sixteenth century, Hawise (try saying Louisa without the initial L and you won’t be far off) meets a stranger at the market and sets in motion a dangerous obsession that will echo down the centuries.

Time’s Echo is not simply a ghost story (though there is an element of the supernatural), it’s an entanglement of two time-frames. The story explores the patterns in our own lives and through history, the repeated mistakes and the seemingly inconsequential moments on which history pivots. The tension and sense of anticipation are accentuated by the swinging of the narrative between time-frames and there are echoes of some of the sixteenth-century characters and events in the contemporary narrative.

There was an inevitability to Hawise’s story, not least because we came in at the end of it; nevertheless, the final subtle twist was powerful and unexpected. Even when you think you know what’s about to happen, there’s a compulsion to read on just in case it was averted at the last minute. For a nearly five hundred page novel, this was a swift, fluid read and I found myself gripped from quite early on. I would say fans of well-written historical fiction (possibly even historical romance) would enjoy this as long as they’re not averse to a smattering of the supernatural and equally, fans of mild horror who fancy something historical might like to give it a go. There’s also a strong Yorkshire interest, set as it is among the streets of York.