A Little Escapism for the Good of the Morale…

 

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Sometimes, when life is stark, the only thing for me is one of Shakespeare’s plays: I suppose it is those ‘universal themes’ that bring things back into perspective.

But sometimes, conversely, I feel like reading some escapist nonsense.  Intentional comedy or often, ridiculous melodramatic stories which can make for wonderful unintentional comedic scenes, and that is nearly as good.  Then there is good dark comedy. Also, I do enjoy a well written fantasy.

So, these being times when even those given least to worrying could do with some light relief, here are some amusing pieces of escapism.

‘The Fourth Universe’ by Robert Wingfield (2015).

In my opinion, the funniest of all the books in the saga of ‘Dan Chronicles’, and a wonderful spoof of all sorts of genres. Here is one of my favourite paragraphs: –

‘The Magus stood in a small odorous group of soaked doku in the rain outside the spaceport. “Where do I go now?” he wondered as he tried to shoo them away. To his surprise, no helpful taxi drivers arrived to take him to solve his mission, no mysterious snipers attempted to end his life, in a fact, nobody even attempted to shine his shoes. At least he took comfort in the fact that it was raining, so it must be in the right place. It was always raining in films when you were close to mission end.’

There follows in due course a ridiculous and decisive confrontation between the Magus and his unfeeling nemisis.

You can buy the print version of this book at a distount from INCA here

Or the Kindle version from Amazon here

A long time favourite of mine is the second of the Bertie Wooster and Jeeves series, the 1934 novel, ‘Right Ho, Jeeves’, which I have always thought the funniest.

For dark comedy, I don’t think one can do better than the currently unfashionable writer Patrick Hamilton, who was at the height of his fame between the 1930’s and the 1950’s. His 1947 novel ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ generally considered to be his masteriece, is set in Henley-on-Thames (renamed Thames Ditton) in a genteel boarding house ridiculously called The Rosamund Tea Rooms: –

‘…One’s responsibility in regard to the black out had been the occasion of one of Mrs Payne’s famous notes. ‘N.B. Visitors will be held personally responsible for completing their own black outs in their bedrooms.” – This being pinned, sensibly enough (Mrs Payne was nothing if not sensible), under the light switch. Mrs. Payne left or pinned up notes everywhere, austerely, endlessly – making one feel, at times, that a sort of paper-chase had been taking place in the Rosamund Tea Rooms – but a nasty, admonitory sort of paper chase. All innovaatins were heralded by notes, and all withdrawals and adjustments thus proclaimed. Experienced guests were well aware that to take the smallest step in an original or unusual direction would be to provoke a sharp note within twenty-four hours at the outside, and they therefore, for the post part, abandoned originality.’

Here, the quiet and fair-minded Miss Roach refuses to be intimidated by the boarding house tyrant, the idiotic Mr Thawaites. In the words of the blurb on my Oxford Paperback edition, ‘Disturbing the blighted resignation of (the guests’) lives come the vulgar and coquettish Vicki Kugelmann, and Lieutenant Pike, the American serviceman…’

A different sort of dark comedy is to be found in another classic story, the short ghost story ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen. In this, a collector of antique china named Martha Pym is staying over the Christmas period with some relatives in a remote part of Essex. A few years ago, she bought a Crown Derby set at a local auction held in one of the isolated local houses, only to find a plate missing. She goes to collect the missing one from the new owner of the house, and becomes involved in a grotesque adventure.

‘The house sprang up suddenly on a knoll ringed with rotting trees, encompassed by an old brick wall…It was a square built, substantial house with “Nothing wrong with it but the situation,” Miss Pym decided…She noticed at the far end of the garden, in the corner of the wall, a headstone showing above the colourless grass’.

The person who answers the door presents a startling appearance: ‘Her gross, flaccid figure was completely shapeless and she wore a badly cut, full dress of no colour at all, but stained with earth and damp from where Miss Pym supposed that she had been doing some futile gardening…another ridiculous touch about the poor old lady was her short hair(In that era, women were not expected to cut their hair at all).

An absurd conversation follows between Martha Pym and the owner:-

‘“…I generally sit in the garden.”

“In the garden? But surely not in this weather?”

“You get used to the weather. You have no idea how used one gets to the weather.”

“I suppose so,” conceded Miss Pym doubtfully…’

Later on, the person whom Martha Pym assumes to be the last owner Miss Lefain informs her visitor that she frightens people away from the house:

‘”Frighten them away!” replied Martha Pym. “However do you do that?”

“It doesn’t seem difficult; people are so easily frightened, aren’t they?”

‘Miss Pym suddenly remembered that Hartleys had the reputation of being haunted – perhaps the queer old thing played on that. “I suppose you’ve never seen a ghost?” she asked pleasantly. “I’d rather like to see one, you know –”.’

This story can be found on project Gutenbeburg and various other sites for classic stories.

Then again, fantasy stories, whether comic, tragic, or both, are often an enjoyable form of escape from everyday concerns.Rebecca Lochlann’s ‘Child of the Erinyes’ series is excellent for that. I have expressed my admiration for the series before, and here is the link on amazon here

Then again, there is nothing like a fairy story for a temporary escape from reality, and when it is funny, then it is perfect. Here is one of my all time favourites, ‘The Blackwood Crusade’ by Jo Danilo. here

And finally, how about vampires for a way of getting away from everyday troubles? Lauryn Apirl’s ‘Unearthed After Sunset’ is horrifying and funny at the same time.
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‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ by Sarah J Maas: Certainly a Page Turner

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I read ‘Court of Thorns and Roses’ by Sarah J Maas because I was intrigued by the praise given to it in the excellent book of writing advice ‘How to Write a Page Turner’ by Jordan Rosenfeld. The author was evidently drawn in by the series of which this is the first, and a great admirer of Maas’ writing in general.

I wasn’t actually sure if this was aimed at a Young Adults or adults. The level of erotica is slightly higher than might be expected in a typical YA, but mild for an adult novel.

I was pleasantly surprised – even staggered – by the strength of the writing. I thought the plot well thought out but as wildly improbable as fairy stories normally are, yet that powerful writing did indeed make it exactly the page turner Jordan Rosenfeld found it for me.

It is a version of The Beauty and the Beast theme. Rather disappointingly, this beast isn’t really ugly at all, being forced to wear a mask instead. To me that slightly undermines the moral of the fairy tale. However, he does turn into a beast, a giant wolf, when he wants to travel outside the realm of the Spring Court where he rules. It is in this form that Feyre first comes to know him.

Feyre comes from a family of déclassé gentry reduced to living among the villagers in what seems to be a form of mediaeval Great Britain. This realm has been invaded and taken over by magical beings known as the Fae , and after a bitter war the humans have been driven back to an area that on the map in the beginning of the book is an equivalent to the south east and south west of England and some of the lower home counties.

Feyre’s family don’t seem to be any good at growing food, and there is besides no mention of the common land and grazing rights available to peasants under feudalism, so they accordingly largely rely on her to support them through honing her hunting skills.

One day she fights and kills a great wolf, skins him, and sells his pelt in the market. Unfortunately, this is actually a High Fae in disguise.

In due course, his great friend Tamsin, High Lord of the Spring Court, comes to claim Feyre whom he will keep in bondage in exchange for the murder.

Fortunately, this bondage does not include sexual abuse, as it might in some dismal Fantasy Come Bodice Ripper.

In fact, once at the court, Feyre is left more or less to her own devices, and only gradually develops any sort of a relationship with Tamsin and Lucien. At first, she is enthralled to have the materials and the time to indulge in her passion for painting. Tamsin shows himself generous in obtaining materials for her, and his interest in her work is what first brings them together.

Then, gradually, Feyre begins to learn the history of Tamsin, his relative Lucien, the masked servants, and the threat that surrounds them from the dread place under the mountain.

Normally, a writer can get away with a good deal of improbability by employing humour and introducing a spoof element into the work, or to provide an element of ironical detachment. This is not a technique that Sarah J. Maas uses. In fact, it is a comment on how impressive the writing generally is she tells this fantastic tale largely without any recourse to irony and yet still draws the reader in to the wildly improbabable events.

On so many occasions, I asked myself, ‘Why am I  so eager to read more of this?’ and yet, I always did go back to it. In other words, Jordan Rosenfeld was quite right to use it as an example of a book where you have to keep reading. This book draws the reader in and keeps her/him reading whether or not s/he wishes it, and surely that is exactly what all writers want.

No doubt the tension that Jordan Rosenfeld emphasizes as the key component to writing gripping fiction is a part of it. In fact, Maas uses all the tricks that Rosenfeld recommends in her writing advice –- which is no doubt one of the reasons why Rosenfeld admires her writing. Overall, then, it is worth reading ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ (and no doubt Maas’ other books) quite apart from any entertainment value, as examples of how a writer can use various techniques to arouse reader interest and sympathy, and keep her or him turning those pages.

Above all, the writing is exceptionally vivid. For instance:
‘But it was not my own doom that I contemplated into dread and rage and despair. As we rode on – the only sound snow crunching beneath paws and hooves – I alternated between a wretched smugness at the thought of my family starving and thus realising how important I was, and a blinding agony at the thought of my father begging in the streets, his ruined leg giving out on him as he stumbled from person to person…’

The developing love between Tamsin and Feyre is particularly well done. I feared some distasteful Stockholm Syndrome theme of a Captive Falling for Her Hateful Abuser, but thankfully, the story keeps well away from that. There is no question of the sexual relationship between Tamsin and Feyre being anything but consensual on her part.
Whether SM Captor Captive overtones are avoided as successfully in the next in the series, where I gather that the wickedly purring Rhysand claims Feyre was his for a certain number of months of the year, remains to be seen; still, after this first read, I am optimistic.

Generally, then, this was an impressive read. If it is YA, then it is enjoyable for adults as well. It is often exciting and the scenes are vividly portrayed. The characters are skillfully drawn, and the connection between between the female and male lead is very well done.

Feyre is a sympathetic herione. She is her own person, and honourable. Though outstandingly good looking, she is no Mary Sue, the sort who is admired by everyone she meets, even in rags. She gives little thought to glamour.

When we first meet her, she is in her role as hunter, tracking in the icy winter forest. She is loyal to her family (though resentful of having to fight to support them) and as good as her word to her mother to look after them. Raised to be a ‘young lady’ she is used to dismal poverty.

This is her reaction when she sees the ornate furniture of the Spring Court: ‘I didn’t need to know the worth of everything in this room to understand that the emerald curtains alone – silk, with gold velvet – would have fed us for a lifetime. A chill scuttled down my spine. It had been days since I’d left. The venison would be running low already.’

Tamsin, at first a remote and cold figure, oddly devoid of any social graces for the ruler of a once populous court, becomes increasingly symapthetic as Feyre and the reader come to know more of him and the demons he fights.

I have got three complaints; one is about the incongruous use of modern US speech by these characters who seemingly inhabit a version of the UK of the Middle Ages(and I don’t mean Shakespearian expressions like ‘trash’ and ‘right now’), but by using constructions such as,  ‘Stay the hell out of the cave.’

Another is the use of such sentences without pronouns or verbs, ie, ‘A growl.’ These are presumably done for effect, as I am sure so acomplished an author knows herself  that they are ungrammatical. Perhaps the editor put them in, believing that they make the text more readable for young adults.

I was also disappointed at the anachronisms. I know this is set in a fantasy version of Mediaeval Britain and not the real one – well, obviously, since as far as I know, we were never invaded by fairies, though we were by Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Norman French and many others – but there are great problems about the way that this mediaeval economy is depicted.

For instance, luxury items like chocolate (which of course, contains sugar) and tea, necessarily imported from abroad, are freely available to the general population in what seems to be a feudal economy with a small surplus and primitive transport. In the real Mediaeval UK, tea wasn’t affordable for most people until well into the eighteenth century, and then only as a treat, and honey was largely used as a sweetener instead of the luxury item ‘sweet salt’.

Then, there are incongruous features such as ‘the London Season’ being mentioned in passing. The London Season was a much later development, based about the timing of the sitting of the Houses of Parliament, and so odd in this presumably feudal setting.

Again, this seems to be a version of mediaeval Great Britain where birth control other than coitus interruptus has been discovered.  Feyre mentions using it, apropos her enjoying a fairly casual sexual relationship with the village youth Isaac. I suppose that would have been arguably possible in an era of a primitive understanding of science;certainly, it is true that various ‘primitive’ cultures have had a good understanding of women’s fertility and have used herbal means to control it. I assume that the difference regarding the influence of the Church from the Great Britian of the real mediaeval age is one reason why Feyre’s having a lover outside marriage is not seen as wholly outrageous. She is also allowed to dress in trousers without comment, which of course,  would have been wholly beyond the pale in the non fantasy UK of that era.

Overall, though, despite these minor drawbacks, ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ is a fantasy story that draws you in before you know it and one which I recommend. I will probably go on to read the others in the series.

Stonehenge as a Backdrop for Novels

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Just before Whitsun I went to see Stonehenge, staying a couple of miles away in Amesbury.  Oddly, although I have always lived towards the west of the UK, I had never got round to visiting.

It was wonderful weather when we went. I had not expected there to be much atmosphere, given that if you go at a normal hour you are fair way from the stones. Oddly enough, despite the crowds and distance, I could still pick up on one, which I felt must be very intense, both at the rising and setting of the sun. The site is surrounded by grazing, staring sheep, and we saw two leverets dashing across the grass, a sight that made me very happy, hares being so scarce these days. The visitor centre was not as incongruous in the landscape as I had feared.Stonehenge_visitors_centre

I also thought how wonderful the surrounding Wiltshire countryside was. In a truly parochial way, I have always assumed that countryside of Buckinghamshire and Denbighshire as the most beautiful in the UK; Now I thought that the rounded hills of Wiltshire easily rivalled them. I have read that the chalky hills in the surrounding countryside meant that in the Neolithic era, when the whole of the UK was forested, this area was less so, and it was perhaps for this reason that it was used as a site for the monument.

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It seems to have been a hill fort besides, and there are pits that were thought to have held great totem like structures  dating perhaps from 8,000 BC, long before Stonehenge itself was built in 2500 BC in the early Bronze Age. Oddly enough, it was not until the nineteenth century that the great age of the structure was understood. It was blithely dismissed as having been built in the Iron Age, shortly before the Roman occupation. In the Middle Ages, the problem that has always haunted researchers – however those great stones were transported from perhaps as far away as Pembrokeshire in South Wales— was explained by Merlin’s magic.

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Various theories have been advanced over the centuries as to its original use. Some have thought it a giant astronomical computer, some a religious site, and it is, of course, of great religious significance to Druids for the festival of the summer solstice.

Privately owned after the crown ceased to own the lands, it was once in the possession of the various landowning families, and in fact auctioned by Knight, Frank and Rutley Estate Agents, in Salisbury on 21 September 1915 as ‘Stonehenge with about 30  acres…of adjoining downland’.

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After the National Trust acquired the monolith and the surrounding countryside, it was freely open to the public until 1977, when the need to protect the site led the organisation to erect the surrounding fence. Old sketches and photographs illustrate how much the site had fallen into decay before the restoration work began.

It seems typical of we British, somehow, that for so many centuries we should have neglected this marvel of antiquity on our doorstep, while overawed by the ruined of Ancient Greece.

It  will certainly surprise no-one to read that after visiting Stonehenge and Wiltshire, I have decided to locate the concluding part of the work I am drafting at the moment in Wiltshire, with the final scene played out near Stonehenge – which has long been surrounded by myths about time.

In this, I am just about as unoriginal as I could be, of course. Countless novels have been centred about Stonehenge, particularly historical fantasies, while others have used the monolith as a dramatic backdrop to pivotal scenes or their grand finale, from Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of D’Ubervilles’ onwards.

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Interestingly, it was in Peter Ackroyd’s  brilliantly evocative  tale of horror, human sacrifice, and time defying synchronicities,‘Hawksmoor’  –  which only mentions a trip to Stonehenge in passing – that I found the most riveting description.  The antagonist, and in fact satanist Nicholas Dyer, an architect commissioned to build  London churches following the 1666 Great Fire of London, goes with Sir Christopher Wren to see the monolith:

The latter part of the journey from the entrance to Wiltshire was very rough and abounded with Jolts…and so it was with much relief that we left the Coach at Salisbury and hired two Horses for the road across the Avon to the Plain and Stone-henge. When we came to the edge of this sacred Place, we tethered our Horses to the Posts provided, and then, with the Sunne directly above us, walked over the short grass which continually cropt by the flocks of Sheep) seemed to spring us forward to the great Stones.  I stood back a little as Sir Chris. walked on, and I considered the Edifice with steadinesse; there was nothing here to break the Angles of Sight,  and as I gazed I opened my Mouth to cry out but my Cry was silent. I was struck by an exstatic Reverie in which all the surface of this place seemed to me Stone, and I became Stone as I joined the Earth which flew on like a Stone through the Firnament. And thus I stood till the Kaw of a Crow roused me; and yet even the call of the black Bird was an Occasion for Terrour, since it was not of this Time. I know not how long a Period I had traversed in my Mind, but Sir Chris. was still within my Sight when my eyes were cleared of Mist…

Then the Rain fell in great Drops, and we sheltered beneath the lintel of one great Stone as it turned from gray to blew and green with the Moisture. And when I leaned my Back against that Stone I felt in the Fabrick the Labour and Agonie of those who had erected it…’

That description of Stonehenge as it must have been in the eighteenth century would be pretty hard to beat.

 

 

 

 

 

Genre Fiction, Romantic Novels and Escapism

220px-amalie-augusteOne of the complaints often aired by romance readers is that the genre is despised as escapism, and yet this insult is not so often aimed at other forms of genre fiction.

There is some justice in this complaint.   Yes, there are highly escapist elements  to romantic novels – but often they are ones which they only share with other fiction written as light relief.

For instance, if there are a disproportionately high number of fearless, ripped macho types featuring as heroes in romantic novels, then the same could be said of the heroes of action/ adventure stories aimed at a male readership .

Neither are the adventures of the characters in these stories any more probable, though they tend to concentrate on macho adventures to the exclusion of the emotional side of life. In this way, these two forms of fiction – romance and the sort of action/adventure novels that  attract a largely male readership might be said to represent two opposite ends of a spectrum.

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I may not be fair in showing these two covers as they come from long defunct magazines of the nineteen-fifties. But I thought I would put them in by way of entertainment.  I’d like to acknowledge that the adaption of the first was by Shunk, by the way…

Then there is fantasy, a genre about as unrelated to prosaic reality as you can get. (This is also straying from the point; I seem to be doing a lot of that in this article, but I read a blog about writing fantasy which said of dagger wielding leather clad female warriors:  ‘Enough…I mean we’re here, right?’ That’s rather a pity: that is a sort of  female stereotype I  rather enjoy).

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But there is certainly some justification to the charge of romance being unrealistic, even apart from the preponderance of billionaires in contemporary romances and dukes in Regency romances (there have only ever been about twenty-five non-royal dukedoms in the UK) and the often, wildly improbable HEAs.

One aspect I have noticed is the lack of sordid details in the stories. I have commented before on how there seems to be an agreement that heroes should never vomit, even when suffering from concussion, and that the women never need to evacuate when held captive.  There may well be exceptions, and I’d like to hear of them.

This particularly applies to historical romance. There seems to be a tendency to write stories where, for instance, the characters inhabit a Georgian or Regency London wholly devoid of the filthy streets or wretched beggars.

While the Mayfair aristocracy may have avoided walking through the sordid muck which littered the streets through going everywhere by carriage (and employing a footman to run ahead to clear the way of pedestrians, at least), they could hardly avoid being exposed to general dirt and squalor.

That was why in cities and in London in particular, the reception rooms were on the first floor. That way, the evil smells of the street outside were less likely to penetrate.

Of course, by modern standards, even people from the leisured classes would have been fairly grubby themselves. Bathing too often was seen as bad for the health. 110px-Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_-_Torse,_effet_de_soleil

It’s understandable that stories which aim to provide the reader with light entertainment are going to pass over these sordid facts.

However, I do think that this concentration on the upper class in historical romance, and limiting the working -class characters to obliging servants and inn-keepers, can lead to the consensus oriented, a-political view of society which is often presented in historical romances. It is too easy for that approach to ally the readers of historical romanced with a sentimental and even a reactionary view of history. That only can be a bad thing.