Ragnarok

by A.S. Byatt

No, not the one with a Hemsworth, this is ‘The End of The Gods’, retold by the Booker  winning author and poet.

Hmm. I struggled with this, in part due to the lengthy quasi-religious opening half where not much happens but the earth is created, partly through an endless succession of clauses, subbed, perhaps, to pack in the pretty time consuming act of world-building, but partly, for style, I felt.

It is a retelling of the classic of Icelandic lore over the shoulder of a young girl, living through the war, who sees in the death of the gods a parallel to her own father’s death [SPOILER] only, when he returns from the war, she is gifted a hope for the future that the original text doesn’t contain.

I almost gave up on this, amidst the fashionable insistences that ‘life’s too short to read books you don’t love’. This is something I can kind of agree with, but this felt like it was an important book and so I persevered and in the end, I’m glad I did, if only for the essay at the end which clarified what I had hoped I would find in the fiction: an exploration of how Myths and stories are all for the retelling (something which fascinates me enough to write a book that investigates such a thing myself).

And, the book itself is a beautiful object. Hats off to (publisher) Canongate for investing in the typography and set; the attention to detail in the separately coloured chapter heads and the use of illustrations, which all give it the feeling of a classic, and although I didn’t enjoy in an obvious, immediate way, I will look to add a copy to my shelves for the purpose of rereading and to have: there is surely more here than I gleaned first time.

As an addendum, I read this over the weekend, by Daisy Johnson, describing allusions she wanted to make in Everything Under to Oedipus, which made me want to read it again.

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The Uninvited

A YA mystery thriller by Tim Wynne-Jones that was likeable, well written and engaging.

It concerns a triangle of characters whose histories are deeply (biologically) intertwined and features a convincing scenario in which to discuss forbidden lust. The most evocative passages happen on the water, where someone lurks under the overhanging trees… watching the girl with whom he has become obsessed…

But who is ‘he’? Is it the brother she does not know she has, or is he watching the creepy old guy who’s started hanging around?

There’s no big theme or deeper meaning here, really: it’s a mystery that solves itself within its own pages.

-and is also the first of an accidental series of reads based on water: after this, I’ve turned to Everything Under by Daisy Johnson (review to come) and glanced at Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler which opens with her account of rediscovering Birmingham via its canals. I look forward to reading more of that one soon.

Unscored.

 

 

 

 

Picnic At Hanging Rock

by Joan Lindsay

Where better to discuss sex and violence, than on a picnic with young ladies, on St Valentine’s day?

This was always a pictorial story in my mind, with the 1975 film and the recent BBC drama. I shall have to watch the film again, because I didn’t think the TV made a *great* job of tugging (snigger) the subtext, or relating the story’s visceral violence to its pulsating underbelly (oo-er).

This was a dense read which I struggled to care much about to begin with: I’d started reading before the series, wanting to see that after finishing the Joan Lindsay novel, but they ended up overlapping and, well… the TV is just easier, isn’t it?

Following the St Valentine’s day exchange of cards between the girls (in honour of the god of symbolic love, no less) and their subsequent disappearance, the story expands to include a wider cast while focussing for the most part on the male lead, who also found himself on the altar, on the day of the sacrifice: did he perform the act literally? Did he take what he wanted? Is he hero or villain?

The sexual imagery sort of popped into focus for me, around about p100, and it became a much more interesting book. It was suddenly the depiction of the crucible: the anvil on which the young women at the story’s centre were being judged, or called to account, or sacrificed as virgins.

There are five women in all. A teacher, three close friends and an outsider; a girl none of them have much time for. Fundamentally, though, she is a girl: she is not curious of the mystery of the ‘hanging’ ‘ROCK’ (Now… is this maybe just me? Maybe I have an unhealthy imagination, but that pendulous, HARD, transformative visual of the location… just makes me think of a penis? Is seems to fit with the unspoken unmentionability of the girls’ symbolic mounting of the great altar; they are legend-tripping there way into womanhood. Is that just me? Am I weird? Oh god… no, don’t tell me.) Anyway, the girl doesn’t go.

All this (sex) and violence makes a very moral novel. It is also about class and the ultimate triumph of good, when the [SPOILER ALERT] hero is shown to have performed acts of heroism for womankind, and his good influence spreads to his adopted manservant, whose parallel misfortune goes unknown, and who is, in the end, rewarded both financially  (with a big cheque) and spiritually, when he pays it forward, creating the ‘perfect life’ for a young couple.

For the prurient and bible-waving brother and sister meanwhile, there is an horrific death in the fire at their hotel, where they have just plotted their futures with blind, messianic zeal.

The book’s harshest judgement (and most descriptive violence) however, is reserved for the headmistress, whose futile manoeuvring to manage the crisis and clumsy attempts to keep the fee-paying parents in the dark, leads her inexorably back to the rock and her own moment on the altar.

Dense, impressive, subtle and yet blunt.

Penis out of five. Four. I said four.

 

ADDENDUM:

Ahead of writing this, I did a bit of Wikipedia-ing and discovered there was a final excised chapter, which sounds interesting, amplifying the supernatural sense which skirts the mysterious progress of the rock. I shan’t describe that as I haven’t read it yet, although NOW I KNOW WHAT REALLY HAPPENED.

 

 

Dr Jekyll & Mister Hyde

by Robert Louis Stevenson

A funny book. Not ‘ha-ha’ funny, as such (although it was a little quaint) but odd in that the idea, the concept at its core has outlived its source and been distorted too (certainly in my perception of it).

Events are viewed from the perspective of Mr Utterson, a lawyer and friend to Dr Jekyll, whose curiosity is piqued when he stumbles across, ‘the loathsome Edward Hyde’ one night on the street. A mutual friend of Utterson and Jekyll is later found dead, with Hyde placed at the scene. Events proceed as all the evidence and laboured explanations of the good Doctor’s butler point with an almost deafening clarity to the only possible answer: that the Doctor has been transformed. This however seems to be beyond the comprehension of Utterson. I don’t know; maybe it’s the benefit of living 130 years after the book’s publication, and it having become so synonymous with the idea at its core, but the signposts seem so clearly laid out, only a fool could not see them.

But here’s the funny thing. My perception of the titular leads was thus: the doctor as an ageing, slight man, whose physical primacy is behind him, and that the monster, Hyde, is a distended ogre; a beast of great presence and physical menace. The book however describes these attributes in reverse: Jekyll is a broad and physically impressive man, a fine specimen. His counterpart, however is small and wiry; a creature that cowers from the light and lurks in corners. It was this shift in moral equivalency, from then to now that took me aback: written today, surely that would be the arrangement? Isn’t that the wider perception? That the monster, the dark half, is an ungovernable rogue, whose ungovernability is described by his strength? That he cannot physically be stopped? Dunno. Tell me different.

The edition I read was paired with an even shorter tale, The Bottle Imp, which I liked much more.

Interesting. Three-and-a-dark-half out of 5.

 

Ready Player One

By Ernest Cline.

Here is my relationship with this book.

Beta Reader No2 saw a trailer for the movie, then spotted the book on a 2-for-3 deal at a supermarket and grabbed it. She read it quick and said it was ‘really good’.

I meanwhile, a man in my forties (and about whom the book is basically about/for) had read some high-falutin’ articles and analysis of the hub-bub regarding the movie (and its origin book, of which I confess I had not heard) and was expecting several white-male identity-crisis–sized holes in it.

Having now read it (but not yet seen the movie) I find the concerns voiced in the aforementioned high-falutin accounts were not wholly as billed. The one biggest hole (as in the XXL sitting on-his-ass-white-guy-one) was the retreating into the past to avoid the problems we have created in the real world.

To be honest, I thought that was exactly what the book was about: the analyst had spent so much time looking for evidence of his clever opinion to achieve the required word total/score set by his editor, that he sort of missed the wider view: the drive of the story in the real world demonstrated the problem at every turn (and elucidated it explicitly on a couple of occasions). Shown, not told, guy.

The depictions of racial and gender disparity were clunky and clenching so hard to be ‘different!’ And what an eye-roller the ‘big reveal’ was (yawn). The dialogue therein was …yeck. (It stiffens my resolve to add some diaspora lit to my reading list ahead of tackling book no2, tho, so… s’gud fam.)

Final boss: I enjoyed it. It’s a good yarn, well told. The last 30 pages felt a bit perfunctory, the pacing a bit uneven as we raced to the conclusion, but all in all:

HIGH SCORE TABLE

MHS…………………….5,000

RPO……………………..3,800