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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

‘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.

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.

For good or for evil – and I firmly believe that it is for good – Mrs. Owens and her husband have taken this child under their protection. It is going to take more than just a couple of good-hearted souls to raise this child. It will,” said Silas, “take a graveyard.”

Between 2003 and 2004 I lived in Edinburgh. I still consider it one of the happiest times of my life (admittedly things have been quite rosy of late as well). Despite only living in the city for less than a year, I managed to move apartments three times (!), spending the longest period of time in a cosy flat on Dalkeith Road. Edinburgh is a beautiful part of the world, old and venerable, but with a vivacious social scene. It was not the living that concerned me though. It was the dead. On my street alone there were two graveyards. The Meadows, a large public park popular with picnickers in the summer was reputedly a black death burial ground. Sometimes while I wandered home through the park in the middle of the night I used to wonder if  the dead were to rise, would the living inhabitants of the city have a chance?

The Graveyard Book opens with a brutal murder of a family, which is survived by a small, nameless infant. Through a quirk of fate the child manages to crawl all the way to a local graveyard and is rescued from a horrible fate by the taciturn Silas and a group of ghosts who reside there. Mr and Mrs Owens, dead for centuries, are charged with raising the child. Silas, who is neither living or dead and therefore unable to enjoy the advantages of either, becomes the infant’s protector.

The man Jack is still hunting for him, somewhere out there in the city.

As no one knows the child’s name, he is given the moniker Nobody Owens, or ‘Bod’. Given the ‘Freedom of the Graveyard’, he learns how to hide from the living and some of the secrets of the dead (but not all of them of course – that will have to wait). After a few years Bod meets a lonely young girl, Scarlett, his first ‘living’ friend. She of course assumes he is imaginary. The world outside the graveyard remains a mystery to Bod. While some of the dead do help in his education, most of their knowledge is centuries out of date. Scarlett provides a rare insight into what ‘life’ is really like. While Silas is able to protect him within the gates, there are plenty of dangers inside as well. Ghouls go hunting among the graves at night and the souls buried in unconsecrated ground are restless. Bod will have to learn to survive, as the man Jack is waiting for him. As he grows older, the boy who lives with the dead becomes more eager to meet him and find justice for his murdered family.

Neil Gaiman has become an accomplished novelist since leaving comics. In fact, I find more to recommend in his writing with each title. Many people have sung the praises of American Gods which I found derivative of some of his earlier work with the Sandman comic. In all his work there are certain recurring ideas – once again Death appears here personified as a beautiful young woman – but over the years he has discovered an ever more confident voice as an young adult and children’s fiction author.

I have in the past been overly critical of Gaiman, though no fault of his own. I have no problem with his writing, so much as I do have one with some of his fans. I have heard some crow that Un Lun Dun had managed to out-Gaiman the author’s own Neverwhere.  With The Graveyard Book I feel that he has raised his game once again. The story combines his usual whimsy with a gripping and increasingly epic storyline. There is an incredible vision of a Ghoul City that resembles Gaiman’s depiction of Hell in Sandman. The killer of Bod’s family is referred to as ‘the man Jack’, and his introduction is chilling for the emphasis on his knife, lending it more agency than the murderer himself. Then there is the delightful device of giving the full name and epitaph of each of the graveyard ghosts when Bod meets them.

Simply put this is a lovingly written, smart and funny book about growing up with death.

Suppression is the road to harmony, the true way to us all getting along – myth-making the past, forgiving and loving and carrying on, sublimating the truth behind truth. Truth makes a soap opera of relations, manufacturing a hazy warm feeling of womb-like safety. It’s crucial. Truth is what we do to reality. We kill it. Truth is death. It is a prison from which there is no escape. Truth is the most addictive of narcotics. There is no cure from it. Once you are hooked, you die, with it or without it. Try fiction instead.

I remember once reading a, probably aprocryphal, quote attributed to James Joyce stating that all Irishmen secretly want to be the Messiah. I do not care if he never actually said that (he may have done – my google-fu is weak), I just love the notion of the Irish seeing Christ not as a moral example  to follow, but a position to aspire to. Catholicism is a large part of the Irish culture, its trickle-down effect one that Joyce in particular set about investigating and exposing in his work. Perhaps my recollection of this supposed quotation is a confusion of the scene from Ulysses when a group of drunken Irish ignore Bloom, who is of course a Jew, all the while loudly proclaiming that they are looking for the Messiah and would follow him anywhere.

Oran Ryan touches on Joyce in this novel, but thankfully does not feel beholden to him. There are aspects of Finnegans Wake to the proceedings, but cut with hints of Kafka as well.

We meet our principal narrator, Arthur Kruger, after his suicide in Heuston Station. This nonlife is a confusion of memories and identity, his past overlapping with alternate worlds. The ‘ten short novels’, of the title represent different levels of this existence. Arthur and his lover Aron reappear again and again throughout the novel, sometimes as ghosts haunting the other, sometimes never having lived at all. Arthur typically appears to be a frustrated writer, with Aron his muse, a free-spirited woman with a far greater degree of confidence. When Arthur discovers her sleeping in an abandoned hospital and insists that she is on top of a bomb he had previously left hidden there, she is more bemused than frightened by this evidently disturbed individual.

Each of the ten sections of the novel bear an individual title, either showing us events from a new perspective, or rewriting the lives of these two characters (think Jerry Cornelius running around inner-city Dublin). In Teaching Religion as a Foreign Language a still notdead Arthur engages in jesuitical debate about the existence of god. Policing the Dead Zone has Aron discover a rotting corpse – Arthur again – in her home that no one else can see. Genuinely Interesting People is a genuinely entertaining satire on the pompousness of the Dublin literary scene. Here Arthur in frustrated writer mode is left unimpressed by the success and pedigree of a vampiric academic.

It feels like a collection of short stories, but there is an overarching plot at work here, the theme of how fiction can sometimes be more real than life itself reoccuring again and again. Perhaps author Ryan is arguing that the Irish are haunted by a literary past difficult to live up to. The neologism ‘endbeginning’, that is used occasionally hints at the suspicion that life for authors begins after death. Much like in Alan Warner‘s Morvern Callar, Arthur’s novel is successful following his suicide. References to literature abound throughout, such as an insurance firm named Kafka & Kafka, or Arthur’s train station suicide blithely being described as an unfortunate Anna Karenin moment.

What emerges is a novel that is not afraid to adopt a quizzical tone, but also has a sense of humour about itself. Whimsy is intertwined with philosophical musings on life and death. Above all the author has pulled off the impressive feat of throwing Palahniuk, Joyce and Will Self into a blender and nevertheless producing something with a voice of its own. The prose carries the onrushing quality of free verse, which once again ties into the thoughtful style of the writing.

Intelligent, whimsically literate and definitively Irish, a fine novel.

With thanks to Seven Towers Publishing for my review copy.

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