Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Child Eater, by Rachel Pollack (Jo Fletcher Books, 2014)

Rachel Pollack has been off my radar for far too long, and this novel (or two braided novellas that eventually combine) is a welcome return.

In alternate chapters we are in a kind of fantasyland with a boy called Matyas who wants to learn the magic that will give him the secret of flight, and in the present day, with Jack Wisdom, who falls in love with and marries Rebecca, a woman who we the readers know to be some sort of supernatural selkie-like being (her apparent ability to communicate with squirrels is a clue). They have a son, Simon, and the relationship falls apart when Jack comes across his wife holding their baby son above the flames of a fire. We the readers have heard of such folk-tale motifs before, but all Jack can do is assume that there is something appalling going on. Left to bring Simon up on his own, Jack does his best, but when Simon begins to show signs of being able to mind-read, what can he do? Meanwhile, back in fantasyland, Matyas runs away from his father’s inn to a kind of college for wizards, where he becomes servant to the enigmatic Veil and, in running errands for her, learns something about magic, and more about the history of wizardry in this world.

Each story reflects the other, leading up to the identity of the eponymous “Child Eater”, who appears in Jack/Simon’s world as something like a serial-killer out of a Steven King novel. Pollack’s tone, however, is both lighter and closer to fantasy archetypes than King (a kind of Tarot pack plays a significant part in linking the two narratives together and there are, throughout, clever little nods to what Tolkien dubbed the “cauldron of story”) and she is particularly strong with character. Matyas is ambitious, determined, and though not evil neither is he particularly nice. Jack is caring, but not particularly astute. The two seem to complement each other in the same way as their stories echo and intertwine. When Simon falls into the hands of Dr Reina, who offers to cure his mental troubles, there is great danger, but by then each side of the story is beginning to leak into the other, and we get why this is a novel rather than two novellas.

Far too much fantasy now is by-numbers. This isn’t. It’s one of the best fantasies I’ve read in a long while and I can’t understand why people haven’t been enthusing about it to me. Very cleverly done, with a sense of wit and invention that make you realise what you’ve been missing in fantasy.

Just to be awkward . . .  this is nothing to do with sf&f at all . . .

Stuart Maconie, The People’s Songs (Ebury Press, 2013)

Stuart Maconie is always worth reading, even though in his book Pies and Prejudice he’s wrong about Chester and Harrogate . . .and specifically he’s a music presenter in the old fashioned sense. That is to say, he loves the stuff he’s playing; he’s genuine and he has a wide taste in music . In this book he takes 50 (or 49: there’s a reason which is to do with the fact that the listeners to his radio show were to choose the 50th) songs which mean something to the British psyche: not great songs, but songs which reflect something about what it feels to be British. Some of these songs are songs which you hate at the time, or despise because they’re commercial, but after the passage of years they become first a guilty pleasure and finally you actually like them. This is pop music which “which wears its demotic, romantic, exhibitionist heart on its sleeve”.

He begins with Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet again” a song of utmost sentimentality that nevertheless captures the anxiety and fragile hope of a nation at war. Then there’s Winifred Atwell, a Caribbean woman singalong piano tunes were mammoth hits and whose 1953 “Coronation Rag” was something of a praise-song to the new Queen Elizabeth and who is probably not even known enough today to be unfashionable.(Like the later Millie of “My Boy Lollipop”, here because the song symbolized the growing fashion for Caribbean styles of music like blue-beat, file under “novelty” and forget. Maconie also lists Cliff Richard’s anemic “Move It”: the first British rock-and-roll hit. It’s not that he’s wrong to note its importance – indeed he’s right; I guess that my quibble is that Cliff’s “brooding, animal presence” (Maconie’s words, not, I hasten to add, mine) is overshadowed by Hank B. Marvin’s guitar. Though Maconie notes that Marvin’s influence “cannot be overstated either”, I think more could have been made of how Cliff’s early hits are carried by Marvin’s guitar – and the Shadows’ instrumentals were wonderful mini-symphonies. Rightly, perhaps, the influence of Joe Meek and the Tornadoes “Telstar” is brought to the fore, as pioneering electronic music and the science fiction influence. Nice to see Delia Derbyshire getting a name-check in this context, too.

“A Whiter Shade of Pale” sums up psychedelia, and “Shipbuilding” the ”Falklands” years, though the Who’s “5.15” is maybe not the best song to encapsulate the mod movement (Also from Quadrophenia, “Cut My Hair” is a better song though Maconie’s choice was the single, and he’s talking about singles rather than album tracks) and in fact Maconie says little about the song itself. Any of the Who’s first three singles might have been better here. And there’s Bowie’s “Starman”. The thrill which hit a generation of 14 years-olds when Bowie sang “I had to phone someone so I picked on you” straight to camera and “smiles flirtatiously, points and twirls a beckoning finger at every mesmerised, outsider kid in the land” is one of those moments in pop history, like buying the Velvet Underground’s first album when it was first released, or being at the Sex Pistols’ first gig, that even people who weren’t there remember vividly. I certainly wasn’t there, and had encountered Bowie much earlier*, but yes, this all makes sense to me.

Many of the later songs I have yet to have opinions about (read: they don’t resonate with my life particularly strongly), and there are always quibbles (see above) about some. Maconie’s point, I’ll re-emphasise, is that these are not always great songs – “Things Can Only Get Better” is probably debased by being picked up as the “New Labour” theme song, though it isn’t a desperately good song in the first place. The point is, though, that is was such a “song for the moment”, as the Specials’ “Ghost Town” (a better song: at least, I can still remember how it goes) encapsulated the discontent of the Thatcher years. But this is a neat social-history-told-in-music of the past fifty or sixty years, and an entertaining read as well as being a good soundtrack.

*all right, if I must be snobbish: through hearing “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” (David Bowie and the Lower Third) on pirate radio in the 60s. Maconie references pirate radio through “Whiter Shade of Pale” and, more lengthily, through Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga” describing the liberation given by offshore stations such as Radio Caroline and Radio London. My quibble here is that Maconie is describing more fully the phenomenon of “songs about radio” and the sentiment offered by Elvis Costello in “Radio, Radio” (“I wanna bite the hand that feeds me”) It could have been interesting to look at some of those songs which became hits through being played on the pirates, or even those which were played endlessly and never became hits, such as the Bowie track, or David McWilliams’s “Days of Pearly Spencer”, or anything by Kaleidoscope or Episode 6 or Eclection.

, , , was going to be the title of this blog until I changed my mind. But I may still use it for editorial-y stuff.

The idea of this blog is to find a place for reviews and short essays. I thought it  would be an interesting idea to present reviews of books (mostly sf&F, but not always) which come my way and see how many I could put up over the next twelve months and what it showed about my reading. Then I realised that writing about everything I read would be not a pleasure but a chore (and I tend to re-read, so what to do about that?) plus I have at least one major research project on, which involves a hell of a lot of reading and re-reading, not all of which would be relevant to  this kind of blog (and the thing is, that  for those projects I’m writing,  I don’t always want to write again for the blog). So this is  going to be hobbyist material — stuff I’m reading because I want to and part of the pleasure is writing the quick summary of reaction and maybe —maybe coming back to things later.

Though, just to be awkward, reviews and short essays I’ve published in the past in places which may not be found by anyone who’s likely to see this blog may find there way here, just so I can give them another airing and/or a more permanent place. Just to keep up with the times, I’ll also post links to reviews I’ve published elsewhere on the Web, in Strange Horizons, for instance

Then of course, I had a kind of existential thing about blogging and the internet generally and delayed the whole thing. At the moment I feel that a lot of harm is being done on the internet, and my tolerance for idiocy is becoming shorter; so I am not going to look kindly on examples of contraventions of common  courtesy. And that is all I have to say on that subject, save that this is me, and I am not speaking on behalf of any organisations I am involved with.

So, slowly but surely material is going to appear. This is an experiment, and it is unfinished (more links and references to other blogs will appear), but bear with me.