Posts Tagged ‘Short Stories’

mercy pity peace and love jon rumer goddenMercy, Pity, Peace and Love: Stories by Rumer and Jon Godden ~ 1989. This edition: Quill, William Morrow, 1989. Paperback. ISBN: 0-688-10965-9. 160 pages. Also published as Indian Dust in the U.K., Macmillan, 1989, with identical format and content.

My rating: I have somewhat mixed feelings about this collection of stories mostly by Rumer, because so many are already included in her 1957 collection, Mooltiki, and reading Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love felt very much like déjà vu all over again. But then I got to the very few (four out of fifteen) stories by Rumer’s sister Jon, and those were good enough to still my pangs of annoyance. To be fair, all of these short stories are actually very good, and if you haven’t read the rather obscure Mooltiki, you will be coming to them with fresh and appreciative eyes.

I think in this case I will award the collection as a whole a most respectable 8/10. (Along with the recycled stories, the two also-repeated poems made me knock it back a half point; Rumer Godden was a much more accomplished prose writer; her poems are just “not quite” for me; something just a bit jarring with the phrasing, I think.)

The intent of the collection is to celebrate the India that the Godden sisters knew and loved; they spent most of their childhood years in India, and significant amounts of their adult lives there as well. Rumer and Jon also collaborated on a beautifully written joint childhood memoir, Two Under the Indian Sun, which I read with pleasure some years ago.

Reader Alert! This is the same book as Indian Dust. Both were published in 1989, but Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love is the American title, from Macmillan, with Indian Dust the British title, from Macmillan. I had recently ordered Indian Dust, thinking it was another collection of stories, and was greatly disappointed to find it was identical to the one I already owned, under the Mercy, Pity title.

  • Bengal River by Rumer Godden – a poem – from Mooltiki. First stanza is the best.
Nothing can mollify the sky,
the river knows
only its weight and solitude, and heat, sun-tempered cold,
and emptiness and birds; a boat; trees; fine white sand,
and deltas of cool mud; porpoises; crocodiles;
and rafts of floating hyacinth; pools and water-whirls
and, nurtured in blue mussel shells, the sunset river pearls…
                                                                                                            … … …
  • Possession – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

The rice field lay farthest from the village, nearest the road. On all sides the plain unrolled in the sun with a pattern of white clouds, white pampas grass in autumn and white paddy birds, and glimpses of sky-reflecting water from the jheels or shallow pools. The sky met the horizon evenly all the way round in the flatness of the plain, an immense weight of sky above the little field, but the old peasant Dhandu did not look at the sky, he looked at his field; he did not know that it was little; to him it was the whole world. He would take his small son Narayan by the wrist and walk with him and say, ‘This field belonged to my grandfather and your great-grandfather; to my father and your grandfather; it is mine, it will be yours.’

But life-plans may go horribly awry; Dhandu’s does not follow its anticipated path; in an ironic ending, which I somehow found reminiscent of W.W. Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw, the field stays with Dhandu but is forever lost to his son.

  • Rahmin – by Rumer Godden – new to this collection.

An anecdote concerning a series of encounters with a minor craftsman, who proves to be representative of a vast class of Indian society balanced on the knife edge of survival.

  • Monkey – by Jon Godden

Another anecdote, this time by Jon, telling of an encounter with a neighbour’s pet monkey, and the chain of events set off by its biting the author. Fascinating glimpse into the pet-owning culture of upper middle class Calcutta, where Jon was part of a mixed Anglo and Indian community.

  • Sister Malone and the Obstinate Manby Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

Sister Malone, the nun in charge of a charity hospital in Calcutta, is unshaken by the horrible sufferings all around her and does great good with her nursing abilities, but her continual effort to share her religious faith with those she heals goes unheeded. One day Sister Malone meets a man who has truly put all of his trust in God, but she cannot reconcile this with her own conception of what faith should be.

  • The Grey Budgerigar – by Jon Godden

Heart-rending short description of a valiant pet bird and its sad fate.

  • Children of Aloysius – by Rumer Godden – new to this collection.

A modest seamstress is offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make her fortune.

  • The Oyster – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

A Bhramini Hindu student, who has travelled abroad to study in England, visits Paris with a friend and is forced to examine the role of compromise in the formation of his own developing character.

  • Kashmiri Winter – by Rumer Godden – a poem – from Mooltiki.
Big Sister, Hungry Sister and the Greedy Dwarf of Ice,
these are forty days of winter, then twenty and then ten…

   … … …

  • The Wild Duck – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

A young Kashmiri hunter, longing for winter to be over, thinks of his time the previous year among the high mountains hunting ibex.

  • The Carpet – by Jon Godden

The long process of acquiring – or rather, being led into buying by a master salesman – a beautiful Persian carpet. Beautifully observed; gently humorous.

  • Red Doe – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

A vignette of a young nomad riding up the mountain to fetch his unseen new wife. Sensitive and poignant.

  • The Little Black Ram – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

An orphan boy,

… a young thief, a bully, noisy, quarrelsome and turbulent, against everyone with everyone against him…

finds his place in the world through his care of a black ram lamb.

  • Miss Passano – by Jon Godden

Miss Passano is disgusted by her fellow humans, and meditates upon a world without them, where only she would remain, in service to the animals she so greatly loves.

  • Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love – by Rumer Godden – new to this collection

Ganesh Dey attempts to write on these concepts – Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love – for his doctoral thesis. A gently ironical and emotionally powerful story, possibly the best of the collection in its summation of the contradictions of human nature and how we actually treat each other versus how we view our relationships and interactions.

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ellison wonderland signet 1974 harlan ellison 001Ellison Wonderland by Harlan Ellison ~ 1962. This edition: Signet, 1974. Paperback. 178 pages.

My rating: Collectively, I think maybe 7/10. The individual stories vary in their appeal. In general, I like the dark twisters better than the emotion-tugging ones. Perhaps I’ll stick some ratings on them below.

Tripping back in time to long ago teen reading days when I happily dabbled in science fiction, starting with Ray Bradbury’s fantastical Martian Chronicles – the entry level drug, as it were – and soon moving on to Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and others of its ilk, and, finally, discovering the more than slightly twisted short stories of the ever-angry Harlan Ellison.

Rounding up potential reading for the Century of Books, I pulled this collection of early pulp shorts by Ellison from my son’s bookshelf. He (my son, not Ellison, of course) has taken over my collection of vintage sci-fi, and if I want to time travel the genre I need to make a special effort to go out to the cabin, stand on a rickety old kitchen chair and ascend to the top bunk bed (no ladder – my son and his friends being athletic and bounding types), and, kneeling gingerly amongst the flotsam and jetsam which finds its way to that mostly uninhabited space, go through the book shelves stacked high with a varied collection of  (forgive the lazy stereotype) “guy books” – loads of falling-apart World’s Best Sci-Fi collections, most of Heinlein’s output, John Steinbeck, Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, Nicholas Monsarrat, John le Carre, Ian Fleming, John Christopher, Bertrand R. Brinley, Robert Ludlum, Michael Crichton – you get the drift.

Leafing through the dusty Harlan Ellison paperbacks, I waffled between Shatterday, Stalking the Nightmare, Gentleman Junkie, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream… and then I settled on this one, as rather less strident than some of the others. The 1974 reissue also has the bonus of introductory commentary by the author to each of the sixteen stories, always a fascinating addition to such collections, adding context to these otherwise rather innocuous “pulp mag” shorts.

When Harlan Ellison is good, he is very, very good, but when he is bad… well, you know the rest of that little nursery rhyme tag. A few of these stories are highly memorable; the rest, maybe not so much. But still something of a must-read collection for the vintage speculative fiction/sci-fi buff.

  • Introduction: The Man on the Mushroom – 1974 – Ellison describes the events surrounding the first publication of this collection in 1962, and the utter financial and emotional destitution attendant upon his migration from Chicago to Hollywood, California, and the exceedingly welcome publisher’s cheque which validated his writerly ambitions.
  • Commuter’s Problem – 1957 – “Thing” was all I could call it, and it had a million tentacles. An ordinary guy living in modest suburbia is vaguely troubled by the not-quite-normal functioning (including the weird garden plant referred to in the first-sentence quote) of the household next door. And then one day the absent-minded morning commute goes on a stop too far. Much too far…  Spoiler: Earth is just a suburb. Good for a chuckle: 7/10
  • Do-It-Yourself – 1961 – Madge retina-printed her identity on the receipt, fished in her apron for a coin, and came up with a thirty-center. It’s amazing what one can purchase by mail order. Like a no-fail, do-it-yourself murder kit. Watch out, loutish husband Carl. (But maybe Carl reads the same back-of-the-magazine ads himself…) Brilliant. This sort of thing is why I keep Harlan on the shelf: 10/10
  • The Silver Corridor – 1956 – “We can’t be responsible for death or disfigurement, you know,” reminded the duelsmaster. Two opinionated academics take their elemental disagreement with each other to the next level, in a literal battle of the minds. Cleverly imagined: 10/10
  • All the Sounds of Fear – 1962 – “Give me some light!” The ultimate Method Actor goes too far. Interesting concept: 5/10
  • Gnomebody – 1956 – Did you ever feel your nose running and you wanted to wipe it, but you couldn’t? A teenage social misfit meets his magical counterpart. Nice twist at ending which I totally didn’t see coming: 7/10
  • The Sky is Burning – 1958 – They came flaming down out of a lemon sky, and the first day, ten thousand died. Intergalactic lemmings, with a bleak message for Earth. Brrr: 7/10
  • Mealtime – 1958 – While the ship Circe burned its way like some eternal Roman Candle  through the surrounding dark of forever… Homo superior? The crew of a far-roving Catalog Ship mapping the planets of unknown stars gets an unnerving comeuppance. This little story has a sting in its tail, but it felt a bit awkward in execution: 5/10
  • The Very Last Day of a Good Woman –  1958 – Finally, he knew the world was going to end. Arthur Fulbright knows the future, and doesn’t want to die a virgin. Multiple things going on here, rather darkly. Kind of icky: 5/10
  • Battlefield – 1958 – The first needle of the “day” came over Copernicus Sector at 0545…and seven seconds. Earthly conflicts are now fought out on the moon, with clinical accuracy of elimination of opponents. The combatants commute to and fro, sharing the same shuttles and getting together to socialize in their downtime, for “peace on Earth” is well-maintained. An eerie tale, all too chillingly possible, one feels: 10/10
  • Deal From the Bottom – 1960 – There was really quite a simple reason for Maxim Hirt’s presence in the death cell. A condemned man sells his soul to the devil for a reprieve. Too bad Maxim has always been a bungler… Okay, I laughed: 7/10
  • The Wind Beyond the Mountains – 1958 – Wummel saw the shining thing come down. The crew of a planetary exploration mission need to find a justification to keep their jobs from being cut. Maybe a live specimen from a strange small planet will help? This one didn’t quite get off the ground, in my opinion, though it had its moments: 4/10
  • Back to the Drawing Boards – 1958 – Perhaps it was inevitable, and perhaps it was only a natural result of the twisted eugenics that produced Leon Packett. Robotics expert Packett is screwed over by his employers. Revenge is inevitable. Beware compound interest! 7/10
  • Nothing for My Noon Meal – 1958 –  There was a patch of Fluhs growing out beyond the spikes, and I tried to cultivate them, and bring them around, but somehow they weren’t drawing enough, and they died off before they could mature. Marooned on a small, barren planet, with his wife’s body entombed in their broken spaceship, a lone man is succoured by oxygen-producing native plants. A chance at escape presents itself; can he bring himself to leave this place he once called Hell? Awkwardly poignant: 4/10
  • Hadj – 1956 – It had taken almost a year to elect Herber. The Masters of the Universe show up and order an envoy from Earth, but at the end of the long journey to the home world, a humiliating slap-down awaits. A four-page snippet of a story, saved from readerly dismissal by being wryly funny: 6/10
  • Rain, Rain, Go Away – 1956 – Sometimes I wish I were a duck, mused Hobert Krouse. Trapped in a dismal job, in a perpetually rain-drenched city, Hobert occasionally intones the childhood incantation, with generally successful results. But then one day it is “the other day”… and Hobert finds himself in a bit of a situation. We leave him surreally floating: 5/10
  • In Lonely Lands – 1958 – Pederson knew night was falling over Sytris Major; blind, still he knew that the Martian night had arrived; the harp crickets had come out. Coming to Mars to live out his few remaining years, Pederson at last finds a kindred spirit who eases his troubled soul. Flirting with the stickily sentimental here, Harlan. Not one of my favourites of this collection; too gosh-darn poignantly sweet: 4/10

 

 

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the silver thorn hugh walpoleThe Silver Thorn: A Book of Stories by Hugh Walpole ~ 1928. This edition: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1928. Hardcover. 333 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

Fifteen short stories by the prolific Hugh Walpole, originally published in various periodicals between 1922 and 1928. An eclectic mix, including several quietly creepy horror stories: The Tiger, The Tarn, Major Wilbraham, and, in my opinion, for its Kafkaesque atmosphere, The Dove.

A more than readable collection, though I didn’t feel that most of these were “top rank” for the short story genre of their era. They share something of a common theme, of yearning for various things, and of regret for decisions made in the past, and of the inexorability of fate and the urges – with varying degrees of success –  to go against it.

A gentle yet pervasively melancholy mood hovers over these stories, though they have a certain degree of humour and occasional happy resolutions, though always with an ironic twist. Shadows of the recent Great War and its effect on the collective psyche are very apparent in this collection; an interesting example of English literature between the 20th Century’s two world wars.

  • The Little Donkeys with the Crimson Saddles – Two lady-friends keep shop together (fancy work and antiquities) in Silverton-on-Sea, but their happy establishment appears to be about to dissolve when the younger receives a proposal of marriage from a very eligible man.
  • The Tiger – Londoner Homer Brown dreams of being hunted by a tiger in the jungle; the dream accompanies him to New York, where it comes inexorably to a shocking climax.
  • No Unkindness Intended – Elderly, slovenly, ineffectual Mr. Hannaway, vicar of a city parish, is offhandedly dismissed from parlour after parlour, and things look dreary indeed until his path crosses that of a similarly situated small dog.
  • Ecstasy – A modestly successful poet who has been musing about his life and his twenty-year-old marriage and wondering where the ecstasy of the younger years has vanished to spends an afternoon with a tramp and regains hold of the key to contentment.
  • A Picture – Two lovers discover their essential differences over opinions of a small oil painting.
  • Old Elizabeth – A Portrait – An unemotional family, habitually unsentimental, are brought to their figurative knees by an elderly servant.
  • The Etching – Bullying Mrs. Gabriel goes too far when her otherwise meek husband discovers and indulges a passion for collecting old etchings.
  • Chinese Horses – This is one of the star stories of the collection, to my mind, elaborating on the theme of the first story, The Little Donkeys. Middle-aged Miss Henrietta Maxwell has nothing in the world but her beloved house, which she is forced to let due to financial difficulties after the war. An opportunity arises to bring her standard of living back to a higher level, but is it worth the compromises required?
  • The Tarn – The second horror story of the collection, and a very effective one at that. Author Fenwick’s life has always been shadowed by the more successful Foster; now the two are together as Foster seeks conciliation for the bitterness Fenwick feels. Fenwick isn’t really interested in making friends with his rival…
  • Major Wilbraham – An unusual story about a retired army major and his personal religious epiphany and its tragic – or is it truly tragic? – result. I am undecided as to whether this is a supernatural tale, or merely an attempt by the author at a religious allegory of sorts.
  • A Silly Old Fool – A chance remark by a patronizing wealthy parishioner changes Canon Morphew’s life, as he becomes aware of the possibility of seeking and attaining romantic love. But striving is not always rewarded with success…
  • The Enemy – Bookseller Harding is annoyed by the insistence of chatty neighbour Tonks to act as though they are close friends. He really just wants to be left alone to go his solitary way. Or does he?
  • The Enemy in Ambush – Stiff and very proper Captain John Ford boards out in Moscow with a family of emotional Russians, with a view to improving his Russian language skills. Cultures clash, with the stiff upper lip taking precedence, until Mrs. Ford shows up to accompany her husband home.
  • The Dove – In the years after the Great War, society seeks to understand the root causes of the recent conflict. One Percy Alderness-Slumber is inspired to go to Germany to investigate the feelings and emotions of the common people, hoping to gain some insight to bring back to England and share. His meekness and well-meaning lead to his ultimate undoing, as he becomes embroiled in a Kafkaesque scenario with his German landlady. A horror story not involving the supernatural realm, and one I know I will remember with a quiet shudder. Looking over the stories in this collection, I’m wondering if The Dove doesn’t rather stand out, along with Chinese Horses, as my most personally memorable.
  • Bachelors – Harry and his ten-tears-older brother Robin live in single happiness in the cathedral town of Polchester, and are well established as local “characters”. But one day Harry proposes to and is accepted to fluffily vivacious Miss Pinsent, and everything goes sideways for Robin. But is it a quiet personal tragedy, or a chance to live his own life at last?

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the door in the hedge robin mckinleyThe Door in the Hedge by Robin McKinley ~ 1981. This edition: Firebird (Penguin), 2003. Softcover. ISBN: 0-698-11960-6. 216 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10.

Nudged on by a comment from Jenny (of the former Jenny’s Books, now all spiffed up and better than ever at Reading the End) on my yesterday’s post about Robin McKinley’s later book of short stories, A Knot in the Grain(1994),  I temporarily sidelined (again!) the Agatha Christie (The Murder on the Links) that I was sporadically reading and settled down to a power read of The Door in the Hedge instead.

I knew I’d read this collection of four short fantasy-fairy tale retellings before, but I honestly could not drag up any strong memories regarding it, just that I had mentally filed it in the “wordy” category of McKinley’s writings. And this re-reading proved me right on that count, though I was pleasantly surprised to find that the two stories Jenny liked the most, The Princess and the Frog, and The Twelve Dancing Princesses, were really pretty darned good, and my own favourites of the collection, too.

This was Robin McKinley’s second published work, after her very well-received first novel, Beauty (1978), which was a creative retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. The four stories in The Door in the Hedge follow that same pattern, though two of the stories are touted as original creations, versus re-imaginings.

The Stolen Princess

The last mortal kingdom before the unmeasured sweep of Faerieland begins has at best held an uneasy truce with its unpredictable neighbour…

And that uneasy truce is occasionally broken, with the abduction of the occasional child; a rare occurrence, indeed, but frequent enough to be always a nagging “maybe” in the minds of all parents. The faeries (for it must be them) are most interested in baby boys from birth till their first birthday, and in teenage girls in the first flower of blossoming womanhood, between the ages of sixteen and nineteen or so. And they always take the best: the most perfectly formed, the beautiful, the kind, the accomplished,  the wise. Who are never, ever, seen again…

So when the beloved king and queen of the mortal country produce a lovely princess, we just know that this is not going to end well. The princess is predictably spirited away on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, but this time, instead of just casting up hands and sighing forlornly, as this fantastical country’s parents are wont to do in these circumstances, the royal couple set off in pursuit, seeking to find the elusive boundary between the two realms, which, of course, proves to be the titular “door in the hedge”.

A not particularly original “original” tale; seriously overwritten in places, and with an overwhelmingly sweet ending, with every conceivable loose end neatly tied up.

The writing has moments of originality and great readability; the characters are quite genuinely likeable as well as being too beautiful, kind, gifted, nice, etc. for words, but the whole package oversteps my personal tolerance for tis kind of thing. On a scale of 1 to 10, I fear this one gets only an unenthusiastic 4 from me.

The Princess and the Frog

The princess in this case loses a terrible gift from a sinister suitor; a necklace of cloudy grey stones which emanates an awful power. She is afraid to admit she has dropped it in the garden pool; who knows what consequences her carelessness will bring?

She knelt at the edge of the pool and looked in; but while the water seemed clear, and the sunlight penetrated a long way, still she could not see the bottom, but only a misty greyness that drowned at last to utter black…

What a grand contrast this piece is to the first. This is a retelling of the well-known tale in which the young princess loses her golden ball, and then reluctantly adopts the helpful frog as a companion. In this version the princess is older, and she loses something much more crucial; the frog is welcomed with gratitude after his assistance, and the complexities of the scenario are rather more interesting than the usual morality tale about always keeping promises which the original is too often preachily presented as.

The helpful frog has a sense of humour; the princess is the antithesis of the spoiled little rich girl she is usually portrayed as; the suitor is gorgeously wicked; the denouement is absolutely predictable but yet with an element of surprise in the instinctive cleverness of the princess.

Well done, Robin McKinley. I hereby award this story a very respectable 9/10.

The Hunting of the Hind

This is the second “original” tale in the collection; “original” is in quotation marks because it contains strong traditional elements, though Robin McKinley has put together a story that goes in its own direction.

Here we have a beloved prince who becomes infatuated with a quest to follow and confront a beautiful golden deer which appears suddenly to hunting parties. The catch here is that every time someone rides off in pursuit, he comes home disappointed and forever marked by his pursuit; an deep depression descends upon him and he is never the same. Several men have nor returned; the worst is assumed.

The prince follows the deer, comes home raving, and slides into a feared-to-be-fatal decline. His younger half-sister, the kingdom’s neglected princess, then goes off on her own quest to solve the mystery, and to save her brother’s life.

I don’t think it will be a spoiler to mention that of course she succeeds.

This was the weakest tale of the four, to my mind. The characters never came to life; their actions are clumsily presented and then glossed over, and much is asked of the reader in order to accept the progress of the narrative; it never really worked for me. Too many “glowing eyes” and “tall stallions” and (not really explained) “malicious spells” and a weird (and also unexplained) laying on of hands “empty your mind” thing going on at the dramatic climax. The magical happy ending inspired not a contented smile, but a desire to violently chuck the book into the nearest waste receptacle.

This one gets a 3.5/10. It had a certain early promise in the storyline, but it went way past my personal tolerance level for unexplained fantasy magic. And it was, as my daughter would say, way too mooshy at the end.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses

What a relief to turn to the last story, a retelling of the old fairy tale of the same name. In this one, Robin McKinley redeems herself after the overblown slosh of the Golden Hind thing, by presenting an extremely likeable, slightly cynical, tired old soldier as her hero. I loved this guy; he did everything right, for all the right reasons.

We never get to really know the princesses in question, aside from little glances now and again, but the story is so nicely presented that it doesn’t really matter. There is also a cloak of invisibility which has almost as much character as the hero it hides. Here’s the bit where the soldier and the cloak come together, after a predictable good deed to a typically important (in fairy tale world) innocuous-seeming old crone.

“Wait a moment,” said the old woman; and he waited, gladly. She walked – swiftly, for a woman so old and weak that she had trouble drawing up her bucket from the well – the few steps to her cottage, and disappeared within. She was gone long enough that the soldier began to feel foolish for his sudden hope that she was a wise woman after all and would assist him. “Probably she is gone to find my some keepsake trinket, a clay dog, a luck charm made from birds’ feathers that she has not seen in years and has forgotten where it lies,” he said to himself. “But perhaps she will give me bread and cheese for what she has eaten of mine; for cities, I believe, are not often friendly to a poor wanderer.”

But it was none of these things she held in her hands when she returned to him. It was, instead, a cape…”(W)oven of the shadows that hide the hare from the fox, the mouse from the hawk, and the lovers from those who would forbid their love…”

Along with the cloak the crone proffers some useful advice; the soldier files it away in his shrewd mind, and it serves him in good stead once he is locked in the bedchamber with the his king’s twelve daughters, and as he follows them to their sinister dancing floor…

Nicely done. This one rates an approving 8.5/10.

*****

Judging this collection against A Knot in the Grain, I have to admit that I personally liked the later collection better. It was a bit more astringent, and way more “clean” – in an editorial way – tighter and better edited; the writing overall was more assured, and the writer’s unique voice much more developed. And, much as I often find Robin McKinley’s writing a little too over-the-top and descriptively overwritten, I do find it interesting and admirable that she has continued to develop her style as the years go on, and to experiment with new ideas, some of which (ahem – Sunshineabsolutely loved that one, the anti-Twilight vampire novel) work out very well indeed.

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a knot in the grain robin mckinleyA Knot in the Grain and Other Stories by Robin McKinley ~ 1994. This edition: Harper Trophy, 1995. Softcover. ISBN: 0-06-44064-0. 192 pages.

My rating: 8/10, with the aside that these five short stories are über-fantasy-romantic, perhaps a tiny bit too fantastical for anyone past the age of about, oh, probably 13 or so.

Or maybe not. For anyone, teen to adult, this is total escape lit. Especially nice if you’ve already spent time in Damar.

I seriously love the cover illustration on this one, all romantically Burne-Jonesy. It’s by someone named Bryan Leister, and kudos to him, because it is perfect.

This is a collection of five short stories, three of which were previously published in other anthologies. Two are obviously set in the alternative-reality world Damar of The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, two more are set in an unnamed alternative world, which could be Damar, and the last is set in the “real” world, in contemporary times. All feature completely sympathetic, strong female characters, and their male counterparts.

The Healer (1982)

The child was born just as the first faint rays of dawn made their way through the cracks between the shutters. The lantern-wick burned low. The new father bowed his head over his wife’s hands as the midwife smiled at the mite of humanity in her arms. Black curls framed the tiny face; the child gave a gasp of shock, then filled its lungs for its first cry in this world; but when the little mouth opened, no sound came out. The midwife tightened her hands on the warm wet skin as the baby gave a sudden writhe, and closed its mouth as if it knew that it had failed at something expected of it. Then the eyes stared up into the midwife’s own, black, and clearer than a newborn’s should be, and deep in them such a look of sorrow that tears rose in the midwife’s own eyes.

The baby, Lily, has been born without a voice, but she has another trait that more than makes up for that lack, at least in the eyes of the world: the gift of healing. Lily grows up beloved of her parents and ever-increasing siblings, and at the age of twelve she becomes apprentice to the midwife who was present at her birth. The two live together in love and harmony, until one day, when Lily is twenty, and she encounters a mysterious stranger on the road who can communicate with her mind-to-mind, without spoken words. Turns out that Sahath is an ex-mage, a once-accomplished master of the arcane arts, who has inexplicably lost most of his powers. One thing leads to another, and soon Lily and Sahath are sharing not just unspoken conversations but shyly blushing glances. And when Sahath puts forward the suggestion that perhaps his old mage-master could help Lily find her lost voice, the resulting journey to the mountain lake of the mysterious Luthe (yes, fellow Damar fans, that Luthe) brings all sorts of potentials to fruition.

The Stagman (1984)

She grew up in her uncle’s shadow, for her uncle was made Regent when her father was placed beside her mother in the royal tomb. Her uncle was a cold, proud man, who, because he chose to wear plain clothing and to eat simple food, claimed that he was not interested in worldly things, but this was not so…

The princess grows up under the oppressive shadow of her quietly malicious uncle, until, on her name day, when she is to be declared queen, she is instead offered as a living sacrifice to the mysterious Stagman, half-man, half-deer, who has been summoned forth by the Regent’s magicings in a swirl of ominous storms. The people of the kingdom raise no objection to the sacrifice of their princess; it is well known that she is a poor thing, of weak mind, for has not the Regent himself tried his hardest to educate her, without notable success? Into the cave then goes the maiden, to be chained to the stone wall to await her sacrificial fate. But things don’t go quite as the Regent has planned…

Luthe reappears in this story, offering succour to the Princess Ruen, unnamed until the end of her desperate journey to the inevitable mountain lake.

Touk’s House (1985)

In the best fairy tale tradition, a woodcutter steals into a witch’s garden for herbs to save his beloved youngest daughter’s life, is caught, and forfeits his next child to the witch, who claims she wants an apprentice to pass along her herb lore to. And then, still in best fairy tale tradition, things do not turn out as one would anticipate. For starters, the child in question, young Erana, has absolutely no aptitude for messing about with plants…

That’s all I’m going to say about this one; it is quite delightful, and my favourite story of the five in this book. You’ll just need to read it for yourself! (And, one more thing, because it’s by Robin McKinley – you probably don’t need me to tell you this – but it predictably morphs into a love story.)

Buttercups (1994)

There was an old farmer who married a young wife…

… but contrary to predictions, all goes well. At least until the farmer’s curiosity arouses a sleeping power emanating from Buttercup Hill…

A lovely story of a May-December romance, with two genuinely good people at its heart. A rather unusual story, this one, which doesn’t turn to tragedy as it so easily might in another author’s hands.

A Knot in the Grain (1994)

The last story in the collection returns from not-quite-here lands to contemporary times. High school student Annabelle reluctantly accompanies her family to their new home in a quiet New England town. She’s left all of her lifelong friends behind, and is having a hard time finding her new groove. Spending her summer visiting the library and rereading childhood favourites (thus giving the author a nice venue for mentioning her own favourites, from E. Nesbit to Mary Norton to Diana Wynne Jones, with a tiny shameless plug for McKinley’s partner, fellow author Peter Dickinson – I admit I chuckled a bit at that one, though I’m not much of a Dickinson fan) Annabelle is just plain ready for something to happen.

Which it does. One day, while staring at the ceiling in her attic hideaway, Annabelle notices an interesting knot in the wooden beam, which turns out to be the key to a hidden staircase, and another room. And in the room Annabelle finds a box. A box full of… well, I can’t tell you. (Nor can Annabelle.) But interesting things transpire, in a low-key sort of way.

A cute story, with a very likeable bunch of teenagers, including our heroine. Very nice. Just a titch too good to be true, though? (Says Inner Cynic.) Well, nice is a legitimate state of being, too…

*****

I feel like I should say something to sum up this collection. It’s a competently written group of stories, and very typical of the author’s early work, before she got into the edgier, darker, more adult realms of Deerskin and Sunshine. These fairy tales are aimed at the young teen reader and up, and the first four are strongly tinted with the veiled eroticism which is present in all of her longer novels. These heroines definitely all have hidden depths, and their male counterparts tend to be of the smoldering passion, glance-full-of-meaning type. Nothing to make one even blush, but it’s definitely there.

All in all, there’s not much to criticize. No masterpieces here, but it definitely should be on the shelf of every McKinley fan. I find myself rereading this one every so often; one day I’ll replace my battered ex-library paperback discard with a better, preferably hardcover copy. So – probably a recommendation, if you need it!

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the lost salt gift of blood 2 alistair macleodThe Lost Salt Gift of Blood by Alistair MacLeod ~ 1976. This edition: New Canadian Library, 1989. Afterword by Joyce Carol Oates. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-9969-X. 160 pages.

My rating: 10/10 for the writing, no debate there. For reading “pleasure”, which of course is an extremely individual definition, I’m struggling with a rating. I’ll willingly put this on the keeper shelf, but I strongly suspect I may never read it again. The well-turned phrases are lovely in and of themselves, but the subject matter is so very bleak. This book makes me so glad I’m not in high school any more. What a godsend to keen Can-Lit teachers!

I started off reading this book with no foreknowledge of what the tone would be, though I suspected less than frivolous, what with the earnest back cover blurb:

The stories of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood are remarkably simple – a family is drawn together by shared and separate losses, a child’s reality conflicts with his parents’ memories, a young man struggles to come to terms with the loss of his father.

Yet each piece of writing in this critically acclaimed collection is infused with a powerful life of its own, a precision of language and a scrupulous fidelity to the reality of time and place, of sea and Maritime farm.

Focusing on the complexities and abiding mysteries at the heart of human relationships, the seven stories of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood map the close bonds and impassable chasms that lie between man and woman, parent and child.

These seven stories are intense and perfectly crafted; I can easily believe that Alistair MacLeod spent a year writing each one; they feel perfected, pared down, edited for maximum effect to the nth degree. Marvelous writing.

But I came away from my reading – which I spaced out over a week or so because this isn’t the sort of stuff one can take in all at one sitting – feeling so terribly sad, which may in itself be the strongest tribute I can give to the power of MacLeod’s writing.

*****

These are all stories of “place”, very specifically regional, focussed on Cape Breton. The sea and the land are characters as much as any of the sentient creatures that occupy their worlds.

  • In the Fall ~ The teenage narrator, the oldest of six children, remembers the autumn his father was forced to sell his beloved old horse to the knacker. Heart-wrenching.  I have a very low tolerance for betrayal of old animals scenarios – hence my real-life situation of supporting a number of geriatric creatures in various stages of decline – so I almost bailed on the book at this point, but doggedly kept on. Though it never got much more cheerful…people started dropping in the following episodes. But, oh! – the evocative writing!

It is hard to realize that this is the same ocean that is the crystal blue of summer when only the thin oil-slicks left by the fishing boats or the startling whiteness of the riding seagulls mar its azure sameness. Now it is roiled and angry, and almost anguished; hurling up the brown dirty balls of scudding foam, the sticks of pulpwood from some lonely freighter, the caps of unknown men, buoys from mangled fishing nets and the inevitable bottles that contained no messages. And always also the shreds of blackened and stringy seaweed that it has ripped and torn from its own lower regions, as if this is the season for self-mutilation – the pulling out of the secret, private, unseen hair.

  • The Vastness of the Dark ~ A boy leaves home on his eighteenth birthday, with little plan but that he must get away from his here and now, and travel forward into something different.

(After the Cumberland No. 2 coal mine explosion)… I remember again… the return of my father and the haunted greyness of his face and after the younger children were in bed the quiet and hushed conversations of seeping gas and lack of oxygen and the wild and belching smoke and flames of the subterranean fires nourished there by the everlasting seams of the dark and diamond coal. And also of the finding of the remains of men flattened and crushed if they died beneath the downrushing roofs of rock or if they had been blown apart by the explosion itself, transformed into forever lost and irredeemable pieces of themselves; hands and feet and blown-away faces and reproductive organs and severed ropes of intestines festooning the twisted pipes and spikes like grotesque Christmas-tree loops and chunks of hair-clinging flesh. Men transformed into grisly jig-saw puzzles that could never more be solved.

  • The Lost Salt Gift of Blood ~ A successful Toronto businessman returns to the Newfoundland community he has long left behind, to take a look at his illegitimate son who has recently been orphaned by the death of his mother and stepfather. Yearnings of fatherhood stir within him; should he tell the boy who he is?
  • The Return ~ A ten-year-old boy makes the trip from Montreal to visit his Cape Breton grandparents for the first time.
  • The Golden Gift of Grey ~ A teenage boy lives a secret life, visiting the pool hall after classes and forming a friendship with the man who was the cause of his father coming to Cape Breton from Kentucky ten years ago.
  • The Boat ~ An adult son remembers his father, and their life together on their fishing boat.
  • The Road to Rankin’s Point ~ This was the most personally moving and my favourite of all these seven stories. A terminally ill grandson returns to his elderly grandmother’s farm, seeking peace and a place to die.

I could easily have included excerpts from each of these stories – the most difficult task would have been deciding what to highlight among so many memorable passages –  but I will instead leave you to discover them for yourself, if you so choose.

A good review from another blogger is here: City Scrivener – The Lost Salt Gift of Blood

A very readable scholarly examination of the stories is here: SCL – Studies in Canadian Literature – The Lost Salt Gift of Blood

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the shout & other stories robert graves 001The Shout and other stories by Robert Graves ~ 1965. This edition: Penguin, 1978. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-00.4832-4. 300 pages.

My rating: 7/10.

A generous and widely eclectic sampling of Robert Graves’ short stories and personal anecdotes. While a bit uneven, as might be expected in an anthology spanning some forty years or so of one man’s writing career, but there is enough excellent reading in this book to make it a certain keeper.

The stories are grouped under three broad headings: English Stories, Roman Stories, and Majorcan Stories, but the first and third categories show quite a wide range in style, settings and topics. The three Roman Stories are the tightest grouping, theme-wise.

I enjoyed reading most of these, and came away feeling keen to continue to develop my acquaintanceship with the prolific Robert Graves. I do believe I might be ready to tackle his ambitious I, Claudius. If it is anything like the three Roman Stories in this collection, it will be very good indeed. I’ve been holding out for a better edition, as mine is a fat paperback with a cracked spine and tiny print (these unreliable middle-aged eyes are giving me grief lately), but I think I will dip in and see how it goes. If I like it I’ll upgrade to a physically nicer edition. Anyway, I’m straying off topic. Back to the volume at hand!

*****

From the author’s Introduction:

The first of these stories, The Shout, was written in 1924; and the last, Christmas Truce, in 1962. Most of them, including such improbable ones as Kill Them! Kill Them!, The Whitaker Negroes, Old Papa Johnson and A Toast to Ava Gardner, are true, though occasional names and references have been altered. Nor can I claim to have invented the factual details even of She Landed Yesterday, or An Appointment for Candlemas. In fact, a correspondent who read She Landed Yesterday reproached me for not mentioning the two French copper coins found in the coffin-doll’s pocket; and An Appointment for Candlemas brought members of the revived British witch cult to my door in search of information about flying ointments and such like. Pure fiction is beyond my imaginative range; I fetched back the main elements of The Shout from a cricket-match at Littlemore Asylum, Oxford.

ENGLISH STORIES: A variety of anecdotes and stories, most with some sort of “twist”.

  • The Shout ~ The otherwise seemingly normal resident of an insane asylum claims he has the power of the “terror shout”, which brings madness and even death to anyone within hearing range. Occultish and dark. Not one of my favourites, though it is memorable enough. 7/10.
  • Old Papa Johnson ~ “Old Papa Johnson” was once Crown Agent on Antarctica’s Desolation Island. His solitude is intruded upon by two uninvited guests, with dire consequences. 6/10.
  • Treacle Tart ~ In this short anecdote, eight-year-old Lord Julius Bloodstock unexpectedly descends upon a surprised prep school, but runs afoul of dietary rules, refusing his treacle tart and sparking something of a minor rebellion among the schoolboys. 6/10.
  • The Full Length ~ A portrait artist is asked to paint a picture of a recently deceased young lady whom he’s never seen, and who has never had her photograph taken. His solution is quite clever, and rather improbably lucky. 5/10.
  • Earth to Earth ~ A macabre little tale of an interest becoming an obsession. Dedicated composters, take warning! Queasily humorous; I laughed out loud with horrified glee at the ending. I *hope* this one was not true! This story would be right at home in a Roald Dahl (adult) story collection. 7/10.
  • Period Piece ~ A humorous little tale of a marital misunderstanding. 6/10.
  • Week-End at Cwm Tatws ~ Still channelling Roald Dahl at his darkest, Graves tells the story of a visit to a dentist gone very, very wrong. 6/10.
  • He Went Out to Buy a Rhine ~ A mysterious suicide turns out to have an esoteric explanation. 5/10.
  • Kill Them! Kill Them! ~ A poignant remembrance of a young man killed in the war. 6/10.
  • The French Thing ~ Gloriously funny tale of village life. Beware the vicarage daughter! Unexpected. Loved it. 10/10.
  • A Man May Not Marry His… ~ An odd little theological, medical and ethical debate about the implications of sex change operations. (I think.) 4/10.
  • An Appointment for Candlemas ~ An interview with a modern witch. Cheeky and funny. 8/10.
  • The Abominable Mr. Gunn ~ Memories of a sadistic schoolmaster. 6/10.
  • Harold Vesey at the Gates of Hell ~ An ironic little tale of village life. Nicely done. 7/10.
  • Christmas Truce ~ Christmas in the trenches, World War I. Enlightened commanders from the German and British sides arrange a temporary truce. 10/10.
  • You Win, Houdini! ~ The rise and fall and rise of a crooked minor magician turned army officer. 8/10.

ROMAN STORIES: That would be ancient Rome. These were all humorous in tone, and all excellent.

  • Epics Are Out of Fashion ~ Falling afoul of Emperor Nero is never a healthy idea, especially when one is a poet writing a thinly veiled mockery of that vindictive lord himself… 8/10
  • The Tenement: A Vision of Imperial Rome ~ This was my favourite story in the collection. An episode detailing daily life in ancient Rome. Brilliantly done; very funny, despite the tragic sudden ending! 10/10.
  • The Myconian ~ A provincial visitor from the island of Myconos is made acquainted with the dramatic and sporting diversions of Rome. Another 10/10.

MAJORCAN STORIES: Written during Graves’ long residence in Majorca, Spain.

  • They Say…They Say ~ gossip in the marketplace. 5/10.
  • 6 Valiant Bulls 6 ~ An epistolary episode detailing Spanish bullfighting, from “Margaret” to “Dearest Auntie May”. Not quite sure about this one; didn’t quite hit all its attempted high notes. 6/10.
  • A Bicycle in Majorca ~  The author’s personal anecdotal tale about civil bureaucracy in relation to the importation and retention of his sons’ British bicycles in Spain. Rather good. 8/10.
  • The Five Godfathers ~ Here’s Margaret gushing on to Auntie May again, this time detailing a confusing christening. Sort of amusing, but perhaps not as much as the author intended. 6/10.
  • Evidence of Affluence ~ A tale of revenge. This one works out very well, though I guessed the ending from a long way off. 8/10.
  • God Grant Your Honour Many Years ~ A misunderstanding and a happy resolution. Another amusing personal anecdote, well presented. 8/10.
  • The Viscountess and the Short-Haired Girl ~ A humorous tale of three Spaniards involved as witnesses in a slightly nefarious divorce case. In the end, everyone gets what they want. Complicated, but funny. 9/10.
  • A Toast to Ava Gardner ~ An appreciation of Ava Gardner, whom the author knew personally. Goes off on a divergent tangent or two. Rather sweet. 9/10.
  • The Lost Chinese ~ Another complicated tale, this time of playwrites and mistaken identities. Diverting. 7/10.
  • She Landed Yesterday ~ A nobleman commits suicide after dabbling in the occult. Love, betrayal and wounded pride move the narrative. 9/10.
  • The Whitaker Negroes ~ A horrifying portrait in an Irish antique shop leads back to America, and to a very strange story – part truth, part fable. 9/10.

*****

Note: Robert Graves is also the author of the recently reviewed Antigua, Penny, Puce, which I stumbled upon recently and subsequently found very diverting. A writer of broad range, well worth exploring.

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