Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Ebony Hand by Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain is a local author whose work I came across when I was researching the county of Norfolk, where I have lived for the past two and a half years. I have never been drawn to her work before, when working in the bookshop, but was at a loss of short stories for my challenge and this, part of The Darkness of Wallis Simpson collection, seemed appropriate.

Set in the 1950s, still in the aftermath of the Second World War, The Ebony Hand is the story of a spinster living a contented quiet existence in a small Norfolk village. She works part-time in a haberdashery shop, a quiet job that she loves, and becomes enamoured with an ebony glove hand on the counter, that she polishes and dresses with loving care. After the death of her sister from influenza, her brother-in-law checks himself into the local mental asylum; leaving their thirteen-year-old daughter, Nicolina, with no family.to take care of her. Our protagonist takes the girl in and raises her, despite knowing little about raising children, and finds her peaceful life shattered. Determined to find a good husband for Nicolina, she settles upon Paul Swinton, a good hardworking young man devoted to her niece, but she is thwarted by teenage emotions.

My favourite passage concerned Nicolina’s father, a tragic figure in his madness, fixating on the bull in the field opposite the asylum and attempting to hatch eggs on his windowsill.

“Victor was given a small room with orange curtains and a view of some water-meadows where an old grey-white bull foraged for grass among kingcups and reeds. Victor said the bull and he were ‘as one’ in their abandonment and loneliness. He said Aviva had held his mind together by cradling his head between her breasts. He announced that the minds of every living being on the earth were held together by a single mortal and precarious thing.”

Another passage perfectly describes how someone can pin their hopes on something unusual and inanimate as this ebony hand.

“When Victor said what he said about our minds being held together by peculiar things, I thought to myself that the peculiar thing, in my personal case, was this wooden hand. It was well made and heavy and smooth. I polished it with Min cream once a week. I enjoyed the way it had never aged or altered. And I began to think that this hand was like the kind of man I had to find for Nicolina: somebody who would not change or die.”

The Ebony Hand has a gentleness to it, a sweet tragedy to its main character. All her time and effort is spent on this young girl who disappoints her, but to whom she remains loyal, the faithful aunt and protector. She focuses all her hopes on this inanimate object, the ebony hand, only to have the haberdashery close and the hand sold and lost beyond her reach. It is a fragile tale, of love, loss and longing. As someone relatively new to the world of short stories, I found it charming and bittersweet.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke

"Magic, madam, is
like wine and,
if you are not used
to it, it will make
you drunk."

Those of you who have read my blog in the past may have realised that I have fallen head over heels in love with Susanna Clarke's writing. I did not cope well with Dickens at school and to this day have never finished any of his novels. Then I discover Ms Clarke, who writes like a modern day Dickens, and her fabulous book, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. A mysterious journey through the Napoleonic era, following the rivalry of two magicians, and their effect on the fate of English magic. Now one of my favourite novels, and reviewed here, it left me wanting more.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a collection of short stories set in the same world as magic and faery as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. There are eight stories, each written in the same delectable style, and each delving into a different faery story.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu is perhaps the story most reminiscent of Clarke's first novel, introducing us to a trio of female magicians and their struggle to get accepted by their male counterparts. Jonathan Strange himself makes an appearance in this glorious tale of magic, superstition and vengeful owls.

On Lickerish Hill is the tale of a sly woman who sells her daughter to a nobleman, under the proviso that in the last month of the first year of their marriage, she must spin five skeins of flax every day. The young woman, as cunning as her mother, devises a way to fulfill her husbands demands, by making a deal with a fairy. All she has to do, is discover his name, or her life will be his.

Mrs Mabb is the sad tale of a young woman who loses her love to the mysterious Mrs Mabb. Only her determination can rescue her love.

The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse is an amusing story, set in Gaiman's fictional village of Wall. There in The Seventh Magpie Inn, the Duke of Wellington quarrels with a local villager over a pair of embroidery scissors and is later forced to cross the Wall to retrieve his stallion, released in spite by the angry man. There he discovers a small house where a young woman is embroidering some beautiful images of the Duke's past and possible future. When faced with his own death in gloriously coloured thread, the Duke must take matters into his own hand.

Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower, is a series of extracts from the diary of a young Italian man, who takes a position as cleric in a small town, where he has hopes over marrying well and creating a good home for himself. There he encounters a Fairy Widower, only to learn and discover more about his heritage and future destiny.

Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby is the tale of a young Jewish doctor and his fairy friend, travelling to visit a sick patient, when they come upon the poor begotten village of Thoresby. Tom is persuaded to build a fairy bridge across the river with unforeseen results.

Antickes and Frets is the tale of Mary, Queen of Scots, thrown into prison by her cousin, Elizabeth, and who ends up in the care of the Earl of Shrewsbury and his ambitious wife. She soon begins to suspect that the Countess had gotten where she was through dark means in her embroidery. Mary endeavours to use the same means to get rid of her cousin and thus usurp the throne of England.

The final story, John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner, is an amusing tale of a Charcoal Burner (and his pig Blakeman!), whose life is rudely interrupted by the Raven King himself, and who enlists Saints to have his revenge on Uskglass.

Clarke's style is perfect for me. She manages to write about a world so unusual and unfamiliar to us, yet makes it so evocative and believeable that I for one, got completely sucked in. Her writing is a sheer delight to read, and I found myself having to take breaks after each short story, just as I would with a great novel, in order to really digest and enjoy the experience. My fear was that the next story would never be as good, but each was as good as the last.

A fabulous collection by a wonderful author. I cannot recommend these stories enough, and dearly hope that Susanna Clarke writes more very soon.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Murder in Baker Street: New Tales of Sherlock Holmes


"Eleven times over, the stories written especially for this premier volume by some of the finest talents at work in crime fiction today -- Anne Perry, Loren D. Estleman, Gillian Linscott, Edward D. Hoch, Peter Tremayne, Stuart M. Kaminsky, Jon L. Breen, Bill Crider, Howard Engel, Carolyn Wheat, and L. B. Greenwood -- celebrate the keen mind, ratiocinative methods, personal eccentricities, and singular manners that epitomize the most admired fictional sleuth of all time: Sherlock Holmes.

More than a century has passed since Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes to the reading public, but no literary detective has yet to match the Great Detective in popularity and to command the esteem of such legions of fans -- not least among them the mystery writers who pay tribute to him in this collection. Ingeniously contrived and shrewdly executed, their tales revisit the comfortable clutter of the rooms at 221B Baker Street where Holmes in an old silk dressing gown, his gaze piercing and his fingers stained with chemicals or ink, again peruses a telling trifle or perhaps takes up his violin.

Again, too, the inscrutable Holmes and his redoubtable companion, Dr. Watson, display at their peerless best the science and arts of detection -- whether they are investigating a crime in the wilds of Africa or uncovering villainy in the heart of London, whether it's the case of the bloodless sock or borderline dandelions, a remarkable worm or a vampire's mark" -- from the inside flap

Introduction • Daniel Stashower
• The Man from Capetown • Stuart M. Kaminsky
• The Case of the Borderland Dandelions • Howard Engel
• The Siren of Sennen Cove • Peter Tremayne
• The Case of the Bloodless Sock • Anne Perry
• The Case of the Anonymous Author • Edward D. Hoch
• The Case of the Vampire’s Mark • Bill Crider
• The Hansom for Mr. Holmes • Gillian Linscott
• The Adventure of the Arabian Knight • Loren D. Estelman
• The Adventure of the Cheshire Cheese • Jon L. Breen
• Darkest Gold • L. B. Greenwood
• The Remarkable Worm • Carolyn Wheat
Sidelights on Sherlock Holmes • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
• 100 Years of Sherlock Holmes • Lloyd Rose
• And Now, a Word from Arthur Conan Doyle • Jon L. Lellenberg

My thoughts:

I enjoyed this collection of short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, especially the ones "The Siren of Sennen Cove" and "A Hansom for Mr. Holmes". I also liked the essay "100 Years of Sherlock Holmes" which looked at how the Holmes character has been portrayed over the years on stage and film.

Date read: 10/30/2008
Rating: 3*/5 = good
(SS) Yearly count: 5/5

Monday, December 1, 2008

Challenge Completed

I finished this challenge, 5 short story collections completed!
My Reads:
Skin, Roald Dahl
The Little Black Book of Stories, Byatt
Fragile Things, Gaiman
Mystery Stories of the Nineteenth Century, ed. Robert Etty
A Scent from a Strange Mountain, Robert Olen Butler

My favorite was definately Fragile Things, I love Gaiman so that wasn't unexpected, coming a close seconf was A Scent from a Strange Mountain, a collection of very simply told stories about Vietnamese citizens who moved to America as a result of the war.

I hadn't read many short stories till this challenge, now I seem to be reading a lot more of them in snatches.