September 24th, 2011


Books 43 to 47

Book 43: "From Aberystwyth With Love" by Malcolm Pryce

'The sock is from the Hughesovka Museum Of Our Forefathers' Suffering. I used to be the principal curator. As you know, this museum charts the centuries of tyranny and oppression that caused that great Welsh Moses, John Hughes, to throw off the imperialist yoke and lead his people out of servitude to the promised land.'
'Is there really such a place as Hughesovka?'
'You ask such a thing of me?'
'We learned about it in school; they told us it was the only Welsh-speaking community east of the Greenwich meridian – it always struck me as improbable.'
'In our schools we found tales of Aberystwyth equally hard to credit.

A Welsh Russian named Uncle Vanya asks Louie and Calamity to find out what happened to a young girl called Gethsemane Walters, who disappeared from the town of Abercuawg near Aberystwyth over thirty years before, and pays their fee with one of Yuri Gagarin's socks! The investigation takes Louie and Calamity to the drowned village of Abercuawg which is now reappearing from under the reservoir due to a prolonged drought, and then to Hughesovka disguised as spinning-wheel salesmen, before they work out what happened to Gethsemane and to Uncle Vanya's daughter.

Much to my surprise, I found that Hughesovka (aka Yuzovka, later renamed Stalino and now called Donetsk) is a real place, although John Hughes was from Merthyr Tydfil not Aberystwyth and almost all the Welsh workers returned to Britain after the Russian Revolution.

Although quite sad in parts, this was much more fun than the previous book in the series, "Don't Cry For Me, Aberystwyth".

Book 44: ""The Story Of Gunnlaug The Worm-Tongue And Raven The Skald" by Anonymous

It is told of Gunnlaug that he was quick of growth in his early youth, big, and strong; his hair was light red, and very goodly of fashion; he was dark-eyed, somewhat ugly-nosed, yet of lovesome countenance; thin of flank he was, and broad of shoulder, and the best-wrought of men; his whole mind was very masterful; eager was he from his youth up, and in all wise unsparing and hardy; he was a great skald, but somewhat bitter in his rhyming, and therefore was he called Gunnlaug Worm-tongue.

The story begins with a guest of Thorstein Egilsson having a prophetic dream about his host's unborn daughter Helga the Fair. In his dream she appears as a swan fought over by an eagle and another fowl, and the remainder of the saga tells how her life unfolds as foretold, as the skalds Gunnlaug and Raven fighting over her.

Having read various Icelandic sagas before, I am now finding that the same characters pop up in more than one saga. Helga's father Thorstein Egillsson is the son of Egill Skallagrímsson and appears in Egil's Saga, and Helga spends her early life in the household of her uncle by marriage, Olaf Peacock, who has a much larger role in the Laxdaela Saga.

Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu was translated into archaic English by Eirikr Magnusson and William Morris in 1875, and I am not impressed by their translation of the poetry in this saga. Most of the skalds' songs are incomprehensible and I had to re-read them a few times before they started to make any sort of sense, which is not something I found when reading Egil's saga, for example.

Book 45: "Death of an Ordinary Man" by Glen Duncan

In spite of himself Nathan came out of suspension with a mixture of voyeuristic guilt and pride in her courage. This was beauty. He forgot everything else, even the pills on the desk. This was his daughter, in full flight. She was so like Cheryl, the way Cheryl used to be, the curiosity that wrecked and elevated her.

The story takes place on the day of Nathan's funeral. He finds himself drifting through the house, avoiding the lure of a room with a door and a white bed. which seem to be offering him the choice between sleep and going on somewhere else. As he watches the people at his wake he finds that he can read their thoughts and that getting to close to certain people and objects, catapults him back into memories of his opts or the past of his family or friends.

Nathan always thought of his wife Cheryl as being much more alive than him, but she is a cold and distant presence in the book, who never seems as real as their children Luke and Gina. Nathan remembers their youngest child who died a few years before, but he can't remember how she died, or for that matter, how he himself died.

In some ways this book reminded me of the film "The Swimmer", since to start with everything seems normal (apart from Nathan being dead, obviously), but as he relives earlier events and begins to remember, his life seems to disintegrate.

Book 46: "Stalking Fiona" by Nigel Williams

There, alone in the quiet house, I picked up the first page of Paul's letter to me. I wanted to read it like a love letter but of course I didn't. I read it like a detective, looking for clues and traps.I read it like a critic, trying to understand the hidden meaning of each sentence, and why each word had been chosen. Because this is a story about how things look, about how a tone of voice or a trick of style can betray you and, most importantly, how words on a page can lie as easily and cruelly as the false lover in whose arms you may have fallen peacefully asleep.

After Fiona McMillan has been attacked twice by a masked man, she discovers a clue that tells her that it must be one of the three men she works with. When she receives a package containing several versions of the events, including an anonymous account by her attacker, she is sure that he intends to kill her and is determined to unmask him before that can happen, but it doesn't help that everyone seems to be lying, hiding things or at any rate being inconsistent and getting their dates mixed up.

I liked Fiona's decision not to be a victim, despite being terrified and obeying her attacker's order to tell no-one about the first attack, but I wasn't sure about the ending, which was a little abrupt and quite ambiguous (although that's not always a bad thing).

Book 47: "The Game" by A. S. Byatt

Like certain reptiles she had learned to survive by leaving in Julia's hand the dead stump of the tail by which she had been grasped. One could even, she thought, sacrifice a more necessary limb, a hand, a foot, which would not grow again, and still survive. One could do this for ever, so long as one was not touched to the quick. Let Julia store and catalogue the limp relicts of what had been Cassandra. Successive skins, discarded hair and nails, the dead stuff of witchcraft, like the photographs, like the fiction.

At the start of the story, it seemed that Simon would be the snake who came between sisters Cassandra and Julia and ruined their relationship with each other, but then I realised that Simon had problems of his own and was in many ways just another piece in the Looking- Glass chess game whose moves and maps had been laid out long before his arrival. Oxford don Cassandra has spent her life trying to protect her own privacy and keep her little sister out, while Julia was desperate to be allowed in, but was careless with her sister's secrets.

When SImon comes back into their lives twenty years nearly twenty years after leaving to study snakes, it seems that they may be able to repair their relationship but then Julia ruins everything. Julia is a novelist who uses her husband and child as raw material for her best-selling novels and seems lacking in empathy, constantly having to ask her husband whether she is behaving badly, and asking another friend if she has written a wicked novel, when she should have realised herself that writing it was the ultimate betrayal. I prefer Cassandra but that is probably because she is the character most like me, as she isn't really any more likeable than Julia or SImon.