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For indeed I am the sort of charlatan they seek to discredit. I am not what they say I am, but my deceptions are harmless and, I do believe, helpful at a time of personal loss.

I am a very nervous sleeper and sadly in our new abode the sound of passing vehicles – not to mention overhead flights – causes our little unit to wobble somewhat. Every time I jolt awake. This, as you can imagine, is quite annoying. But then I made the mistake of joking that any other creaks and steps could be the sounds of our own personal poltergeist. My beloved other half immediately freaked. See personally I cannot really see any reason to fear the ‘other side’, psychic phenomena, ectoplasmic stains, or indeed fallen angels. I lie awake at night terrified about home invasions and a piece of satellite falling from space and impacting on my roof…but the supernatural? Completely uninterested in it.

Magic as such is something I have difficulty with, because it seems like so much empty spectacle. There is a necessity to believe in order to be halfway impressed to begin with. In The Prestige Christopher Priest attempts to straddle that borderline,  that fudging of spectacle and the occult.

The rivalry between two late 19th century magicians comes to consume both their lives, a dual obsession that spurs them into more audacious feats. The Prestige presents the respective accounts of this contest from the points of view of Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier. This is not merely competitiveness, with both parties going out of their way to sabotage their rival’s acts. As they are both practiced in exploiting the gullibility of their patrons, whether it be through stage magic or séances for the dead, they know the weak-spots of each other’s craft, the key moment to stage and accuse the performer of being a fraud.

Then Borden’s act ‘The Transported Man’, involving him appearing in two places on stage mere moments apart, drives Angier to even more outrageous efforts. Borden has not employed any trickery that the other magician recognizes. He has somehow managed to achieve genuine magic. In his attempts to top the ‘Transported Man’, Angier travels to America and returns with a revolutionary new act ‘In A Flash’. Having consulted with the genius scientific recluse Nikola Tesla, Angier seemingly has confounding the laws of physics itself. Both men become so consumed by thoughts of revenge, that their intentions soon border on murderous.

The story is bookended by their descendents attempting to discover the reasons behind this intense rivalry, which has actually survived their deaths – assuming that the diaries left by Angier and Borden actually do present an accurate picture of events.

This is the second book by Priest that I have read. The first, The Inverted World, rested on a central idea that was quite interested, but the book overall felt strained. The Roshomon approach of The Prestige should create a sense of mystery, but once Borden’s secret – hinted at by suggestive choices in language during his diary – becomes clear, the book feels like it is frustratingly delaying the moment of the reveal.

Priest’s writing imitates the suspense and suggestiveness of the magician’s performance, but the characters are so deluded by their mutual hatred that their insistent company becomes wearying. The shared love of a woman named Olivia comes to seem spurious – is she just a beard for their homoerotic fascination for one another?

There is an interesting moment when Angier describes his impressions of Tesla “when I had seen his lecture in London he had all the appearance of a member of my own profession, taking the same delight in surprising and mystifying the audience, yet, unlike a magician, being more than willing, anxious even, to reveal and share his secrets.” Of course that was Tesla’s tragedy, that he did not guard his insights jealously enough.

The historical asides of this book are momentarily interesting, but for the most part The Prestige feels overlong and wearying with its venom and spite.

The Prestige

There was one additional thing I can hardly bring myself to mention: an expectancy. I sensed it, felt it hovering lightly in the air. The house was awaiting its new owners, impatient for its life’s work and purpose to begin. It was almost as if it was – repudiating me, but that is too strong.

Yet I was aware that a distance had opened up between us. The intimacy of our relationship, the three-way interplay of myself, Teddy, house – it was no longer there. And more than that, it was as if it had never been. It had blown away, just like my money. Vanished without a trace, and from this day forward I could be nothing but a casual visitor.

I felt I was trespassing in my own house.

I am becoming wary of reading any further books featuring teachers. My dad was a teacher and I have worked with Education departments in the time, so I have a lot of empathy for the profession. Yet every book I read involving a teacher these days seems to involve child abuse of  one form or another. Not comfortable reading, certainly not something I would choose to read. So it would take an extra special author to attract me to this kind of story.

Luckily Virginia Duigan is just such an author.

Thea is a retired school principal who has enjoyed her lonesome existence in the Blue Mountains accompanied only by her dog Teddy. Unfortunately due to a slight hiccup in her finances – and the complete loss of her savings – she has been forced to sell her dream home. The couple who buy the property, Frank and Ellice, are trendy hipster who seem inoffensive enough at first, but Thea cannot help but feel resentful as she is forced to retreat to the old hut she owns on a neighbouring plot.

Then she meets the couple’s adopted child Kim. The young girl, abandoned by Frank’s absent brother, instantly bond with Teddy much to Thea’s initial annoyance. However, as time she passes she discovers a kindred spirit in the twelve-year-old, a girl who is as out of time as Thea, eagerly devouring old books and adopting the older woman’s speech patterns.

During this period of upheaval in her life, Thea has also been attending a series of writing classes. Though she is fond of quirky rhymes, she feels insecure about her own literary talents. As the book progresses it becomes clear that her classes are also intended to facilitate a long-overdue catharsis, concerned with a teaching colleague from years before named Matthew. Thea still carries a massive burden of guilt related to the dishonourable end to her teaching career. This influences her growing sense of responsibility for Kim, as well as her concerns over Ellice and Frank’s parenting skills.

Duigan captures Thea’s voice brilliantly, clinging to very proper phrasing and anachronistic expressions, her bitterness the preservative that keeps her out of time. In effect her slow thaw due to Kim, her comparing of Frank to the mysterious Matthew from years ago, and the increasing use of personal insights in her writing, are all signs that Thea is slowly but surely building up to a single, climactic act.

The Precipice is a strongly observed and insightful novel, from this very gifted author.

With thanks to Random House for this review copy.

‘What’s it like?’ I asked.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Being fictional.’

‘Ah!’ replied Snell slowly. ‘Yes – fictional.’

I realized too late that I had gone too far – it was how I imagined a dog would feel if you brought up the question of distemper in polite conversation.

I have a curious relationship with the writing of Jasper Fforde. So far I have read three of his Thursday Next books and all three of them on planes. Why these books about books, a universe of books navigable by humans, a wonderful mixture of Doctor Who, John Kendrick Bangs‘s A House-Boat on the River Styxx and Douglas Adams – why choose this series in particular to help battle the longeurs and boredom of plane travel?

I have no idea, but it works a treat.

On the run from the monolithic Goliath Corpoation in the real world, Thursday Next has accepted an offer of taking refuge in a terrible novel, all part of the ‘Character Exchange Programme’ requiring only that she fulfil the role of the character she is replacing. The book, Caversham Heights, is an awful crime thriller riddled with clichés and famously unreadable. A perfect hiding place for Thursday, secreted away in the Well of Lost Plots, where fiction itself is alive.

It affords her the chance to recover from the tragedy of losing her husband Landen, wiped from existence by a diabolical fictional loose in the real world, as well as protect her pregnancy (courtesy of aforementioned non-existent partner). She is also studying under her mentor Miss Haversham to become an agent of Jurisfiction, dedicated to maintaining the integrity of book plots. There is also the small matter of two Russian gossips spoiling the plot of Anna Karenina through intrusive footnotes and the strange disappearance of punctuation from Ulysses.

A number of fictional characters are dying in mysterious circumstances. Next is convinced that a murderous conspiracy, somehow relating to the launch of UltraWord™, is responsible. There is also the matter of a mnemomorph, an infection of the mind, eroding her memories of Landen.

The Thursday Next series has a great sense of fun about it, as well as a great sweep of literary references. The footnoterphone takes the ball dropped by Flann O’Brien and Terry Pratchett and runs with it. Fforde is not above parodying the cantina scene from Star Wars, or introducing the cast of Wuthering Heights all taking part in an anger management course. The preening prima donna Heathcliff is a highlight of the novel.

I must confess that for the early half of The Well of Lost Plots Fforde seemed to be overindulging his love of this literary in-jokes and bookworld metaphysics. However, once the actual plot kicks in the meta-critique takes a backseat to the business of advancing the narrative of Next’s adventures. The book is also extremely funny. Below is my favourite exchange of the book, occuring during a deadly trip into an out of print Enid Blyton novel:

‘If you’re exchanging golliwogs for monkeys, you’re in the wrong book,’ he said.

Compulsive reading, with a welcome sense of fun and literary references.

The vampire recovered his equanimity quickly enough. He reared away from Alexia, knocking over a nearby tea trolley. Physical contact broken, his fangs reappeared. Clearly not the sharpest of prongs, he then darted forward from the neck like a serpent, driving in for another chomp.

‘I say!’ said Alexia to the vampire. ‘We have not even been introduced!’

Certain books tell you all you need to know about them very quickly. The above exchange occurs on the second page of Soulless: An Alexia Tarabotti Novel.  Immediately I knew what to expect from this novel. Quite reassuring really.

Alexia Tarabotti suffers from an indelicate social standing. She is both twenty-five years old and unmarried. What is more, to add to her near-outcast status, she is half-Italian and considered far too bookish for a lady hoping to wed in late-nineteenth century London. What is less well known about Alexia though is that she also lacks a soul, a quality which defines her in the files of Queen Victoria’s Bureau of Unnatural Registry as a preternatural, an extremely rare condition that allows her to literally ‘defang’ vampires and werewolves at a touch.

For her though this is simply yet another questionable trait inherited from her deceased father. Her mother, Mrs. Loontwill, has since made a more respectable match and guided two further daughters into society, whose pale skin and chatter contrasting sharply with their half-sister.

Then Alexia is forced to dispatch a vampire attacker at a ball! The indignity of it all. BUR agents and werewolves Lord Maccon and his beta Professor Lyall interview Alexia at the scene. She reveals that she noticed the vampire was unaware of any of the proper social conventions for a member of the undead class to observe, plus his fashion sense was dreadful, indicating that someone is transforming humans outside of the London vampire set, known as hives. Maccon and Alexia exchange barbed comments, both having reached a highly negative opinion of the other. However, over the next few days as our parasol-sporting heroine discovers more about the conspiracy behind her attack, it is Lord Maccon who continues to come to her aid, even rescuing her from a monstrous figure with wax-like skin and an eerie grin. Could the Lord Earl of Woolsey’s feelings for her extend beyond his outward shows of irritation? Has she finally made a suitable match for a husband? And where are all these uncouth vampires coming from?

This book is an absolute delight. Mixing Wodehousian banter and innuendo with the social climbing drama of a Jane Austen novel and then serving up a heady melange that includes many different varieties of supernatural beastie, Gail Carriger has produced a masterful debut. In a sense this book is a natural successor to the mash-up phase of the past few years, which has begun to endure something of a backlash.

Here the paranormal romance features a courtship that raises a hearty chuckle, the monsters of the gothic novel restrained by societal convention to hilarious effect. Lord Maccon is not only an alpha male, he is an alpha werewolf male and Scottish to boot, which leads to no end of mockery by Alexia, herself considered too headstrong and fixed in her ideas by her contemporaries. The banter between them is sustained beautifully, with the rueful Professor Lyall acting as an occasional agent of Cupid.

Of course any work of escapism deserves a worthy central plot and Carriger fashions up a terrific yarn involving religious intolerance of the undead and twisted science. Overall this is a great package, with lots of clever little touches accessorising the main story in a fitting manner.

I am happily converted and am eager to gobble down the rest of the series. Madame Carriger, I doff my hat to you.

“How did you become a boy, Corinna, and a Folk Keeper?”

“I changed my name on the Foundling Certificate. It’s been four years now.”

But I said no more. He needn’t know I was sent to the Rhysbridge Home with a shipment of other ophans, including one boy who had apprenticed to become the Home’s new Folk Keeper. He needn’t know I took advantage of being unknown to them all to steal a pair of breeches, cut my hair, and turn myself into Corin. I will never tell anyone how I frightened the new Folk Keeper so dreadfully his very first night in the Cellar that he fled. I do not like to think of what I did – of how he screamed! – but I force myself to write it. I cannot let myself go soft.

A month ago I put out a general call through Twitter for book recommendations. As fast as fingers could type I got a series of great recommendations, including Franny Billingsley‘s Chime (which unfortunately my library did not have a copy of), so I tracked down this other title by her. If folks out there have any other Young Adult fiction books to pass on, please drop me a line here, or on Twitter.

Corinne is the Folk Keeper of Rhysbridge, disguised as an orphan boy (absent the last two letters of her name). The role is of extreme importance to the community. The Folk are an implacable species of carnivorous phantoms, that can only be appeased by the provision of certain sacrifices by a ‘Keeper’. Corinne has tricked and deceived her way into learning the trade of the Folk Keeper and through her status is enabled to maintain the pretence of being a boy. While she was never apprenticed and directly taught knowledge of how to protect the inhabitants of Rhysbridge, ‘Corin’, has talents of her own. Her hair grows to an extraordinary length during the night and she can call to mind the exact time to the minute.

Then one day the Lord Hartley Merton arrives at Rhysbridge and changes her life, even as his ebbs away. Corinne is adopted by his family and made the Folk Keeper of their estate Cliffsend – much larger in scale, with many secrets in its long history, including that of the Lord’s first wife, the tragic Rona. The Folk who reside there are also much savager. Corinne’s simple tricks will not be enough to hold them off and for all her stolen insight into the business of Keepers, she finds her skills are not sufficient.

In order to survive she will need to learn more about the Merton family. She develops a friendly relationship with the son of Hartley’s second wife, Finian, but as her feelings for him change, the Corin persona becomes harder to maintain. Also Sir Edward, the thwarted heir to the estate, seems to be plotting a coup that somehow involves Cliffsend’s new Folk Keeper.

Billingsley book is filled with subtle magicks, dark supernatural presences and hints of Celtic folklores. The Sealfolk in particular resemble Irish myths about selkies – in fact, a friend of mine was told growing up that she was a selkie by her brother. There is even a personification of death referred to briefly named Soulsucker, who is said to be warded off by black satin. I really enjoyed how the author introduced these local folk tales into her fictional world, adopting a darker hue with the blood sacrifices offered up to the Folk to prevent the bespoiling of crops.

The slow thawing of Corinne’s worldview is also delicately portrayed, which builds to a gentle romance with the perceptive Finian. In fact midway through this book, the high concept finally hit me between the eyes – this book is Yentl with added murderous ghosts!

Thoroughly enjoyable, with a neat line in supernatural horror and an entertaining mystery. I must follow up on Twitter recommendations more often.

‘We put our children in the hands of your people because we think we can trust you. If we can’t trust the university, who can we trust? We never thought we were sending our daughter into a nest of vipers. No, Professor Lurie, you may be high and mighty and have all kinds of degrees, but if I was you I’d be very ashamed of myself, so help me God. If I’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick, now is your chance to say, but I don’t think so, I can see it from your face.’

Now is his chance indeed: let him who would speak, speak. But he stands tongue-tied, the blood thudding in his ears. A viper: how can he deny it?

‘Excuse me,’ he whispers, ‘I have business to attend to.’ Like a thing of wood, he turns and leaves.

Well folks, I am back. Yesterday was a fantastic day, spent with friends, family and my beautiful bride on a stunning headland by Austinmer beach overlooking the Pacific ocean. It could not have gone better. Stephanie and I had the opportunity to renew our vows in the company of people we wished could have come to our first wedding in Ireland – so instead we brought the wedding to them.

I was free to enjoy the day and its festivities thanks to the sterling work of my fellow bloggers who agreed to lend a hand with ‘A book a day’, this week. Take a bow you folks. I am extremely grateful to you all.

So back to the business of book blogging.

David Lurie is a Cape Town college academic more suited to expounding on his theories about Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Byron through his writing, than actually teaching students. However, his published books have failed to attract any acclaim and his frustrations with his classes aside, it does provide him with an income. With two failed marriages behind him Lurie instead indulges in affairs with college staff, or spending his time with prostitutes, for sexual relief. Inevitably his overly analytical mind ruins whatever pleasure he may gain from these encounters.

Then Lurie embarks on an affair with an eighteen-year old student, which leads to an official complaint from her family and a disciplinary hearing. Refusing to engage with the process, as he sees it as a forced confessional, the professor instead agrees to leave the university.

He travels to his daughter Lucy’s home, an isolated farm in the wilds of the Eastern Cape. Lurie remarks upon her vulnerability to attack living in such a lonely place, but she insists that she has found meaning her. She cares for a number of dogs and introduces her father to Bev, a local woman who euthanises those pets that have been too badly wounded, or are too sick to survive. Lurie dismisses their concerns for animals as inflated sentiment. His daughter in return rejects his emphasis on abstract thinking and academic concerns.

However, when the farm is attacked, both father and daughter are confronted with their own powerlessness and react in very different ways.

Nominally the title of this book refers to the professional misconduct of Lurie. J.M. Coetzee narrates his protagonist’s increasing disenchantment with his life that has led him to the disciplinary impasse with the college board, his refusal to ‘confess’, a product of his own confused feelings on the affair. In his mind his encounter with the student came as a result of passion, something his own ex-wife dismisses by pointing out that no young woman wants to see a man of his age in the throes of sexual climax. Indeed Lurie seems to lust after the student’s youth more than anything. When he later sleeps with someone closer in age to himself he is initially disgusted by her body, but then continues the relationship. It is not like anyone else wants him.

However, Lurie also later feels disgraced by his inability to protect his daughter. Coetzee draws an odd parallel between his refusal to engage the board and Lucy’s to speak to her father about what happened.

In effect, the author tells us the woman who had embraced life in the countryside has been beaten by it. It takes the rarefied academic longer to realize the same.

This book left me angry. Its characters are defeated by life and Lurie’s sub-Yeatsian carping about noble minds tied to aging bodies I could not take seriously.

Dispiriting and defeated.

This is one of the greatest books ever written. To say that Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BCE- 17 CE) known as Ovid, was possessed of a monumental genius, is to somewhat understate his influence on writing, painting, sculpture, music and poetry for the last two millennia. There are few if any artists of worth, certainly of the western tradition (indeed other traditions have such geniuses from whom we could all learn), who have not been enthralled by his brilliant imagery, his insight into the human condition, the sweep of his epic narrative, his capacity to depict the depths of human depravity and the heights of love.

The cover of this Penguin edition, with its very clear and lyrical translation by David Raeburn, has a picture of Bernini’s incredibly beautiful sculpture of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne (1622), a scene from the dozens of stories in the Metamorphoses that are all threaded together by the theme of change, as life is indeed change, capturing the touching moment of Apollo and Daphne’s agonized frustrated lovemaking as she is transformed into a tree. The Metamorphoses weaves a difficult path brilliantly through Ovid’s vast knowledge of history and mythology, borrowing and rewriting Virgil, Lucretius and Homer to suit his own ends. This makes a great deal of sense, for in the life of an artist there comes a point of re-evaluation – an assessment and acknowledgement that she or he has arrived at the point they have through the influence and insights of others.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, reacting somewhat to the Roman idolized image of the gods, depicts them as deeply ambivalent beings. Some of the stories show them as monsters, vicious cruel murderers and rapists. Jove or Jupiter, is a dreadful being. As the king of the Gods with weighty responsibilities on him, he is also a psychopath, a serial rapist who uses his power to tryst with females of his fancy, fathering countless offspring to his wife’s horror and vengeful rage. This is hardly a sterling example of a moral life, an example of the kinds of godly behaviour in the Metamorphoses that leaves much to be desired.

So we are left with a dilemma. The world order, the nature of existence, is terribly out of joint. How does one live? What constitutes a moral existence? What hope is there for humanity when the gods are mad or corrupt or all too human? Ovid describes the world and leads us to the doorway of moral choice. He describes these beings, these gods, largely products of a complex evolutionary cultural anthropomorphosis, as being as capable of horrible acts as they are equally capable of heartbreaking tenderness. When the sun god, (Helios to the Greeks, also Apollo to the Romans, but Phoebus to Ovid) allows his all too overconfident ambitious son Phaeton to take the reins of his sun chariot on its daily journey round the Earth, things go terribly wrong. This is when Phaeton, filled with cock-sure ignorance, loses control of the sun-chariot and sets the world on fire, almost burning the earth, is killed by a bolt from Jupiter to stop the destruction of everything. Thus the Earth is shrouded in darkness as the heartbroken Phoebus covers his radiant being with his cloak in inconsolable sorrow at the loss of his beloved son. It is a terrible time, a tragic moment, handled with incredible tenderness by Ovid.

Pain, joy, ambition, jealousy, longing, loneliness, the burden of giftedness, overwhelming infatuation, the loss of love, lies, deceit, moments of hilarity, power politics and horrific acts of revenge – in other words the full sweep of the human condition – mark his subject matter, and in the Metamorphoses, Ovid deals more than anything else with what it means to be a human being, trapped in time, a mere plaything of the fickle and vengeful gods. He deals with this subject with a level of emotional and psychological accuracy that leaves an unforgettable mark on the reader. It’s not without significance that Shakespeare was a lifelong reader of Ovid, and returned to him over and over to seek new themes for his plays and poetry.

Rome remains the cultural centre of Ovid’s personal universe, and the glory of Rome is his joy and love. Despite all its horrors and imperial cruelties it remains his personal point of reference. It is a mark of the poet Ovid’s truly extraordinary self-assurance that at the end of this very large and very readable book, filled as it is with super heroes and gods, monsters and victims, saints and mystics, he modestly asks Emperor Augustus to immortalize him. After all, he argues, he has written the Metamorphoses. This same emperor, disdaining Ovid’s tendency to write rather explicit poems about sex and seduction and taking lovers and, moreover, how to keep ones lover, as in the Amores and the Ars Amatoria, had exiled the heartbroken poet (a banishment celebrated by Turner in a painting in 1838). Ovid, who found the world of Rome his inspiration, never got over his exile and he never stopped wanting to go home. The cliché of an artist never being fully understood in his own time is very true of Ovid, who died in what is now Romania, where he is celebrated as one of their own.

BIO ORAN RYAN

Oran Ryan

Oran Ryan is a novelist, poet and playwright from Dublin.  His poetry, short stories and literary criticism have appeared in magazines worldwide.  His novels The Death of Finn and Ten Short Novels by Arthur Kruger, both published in 2006, and One Inch Punch, his third is to be published in 2011.  His work has also appeared in the anthologies Census 1 (2008), Census 2 (2009), Living Streets, Anthology of the Ranelagh Arts Festival (2009), Dublin 10 Journeys, One Destination (2010).  His play Don Quixote Has Been Promoted was performed at the Ranelagh Arts Festival 2009; his has been shortlisted for the P J O’Connor Award; his words were performed on stage at the Stone Theatre in Manhattan, New York in 2008 and in 2010 his Radio Play Christmas 1947 was performed live as part of KRCB FM 91.1 Twisted Christmas 8 Live performance in California, as well as broadcast on KRCB over Christmas 2010.

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