29 January 2022

Wildlord -- another novel in the tradition of Alan Garner


Wildlord by Philip Womack
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the second novel I've read this month that seems to have been written in the tradition of the early Alan Garner, which is what I was hoping it would be after reading about it on Twitter. The first was Wildwood by Helen Scott Taylor, with the review immediately preceding this one

In this story Tom Swinton, an orphan, is invited by his uncle to spend his holidays on his farm in Suffolk, and he is keen to go, because the alternative is to spend the holidays alone at the empty school, even though he has never met the uncle. When he arrives, he is met by a strange taciturn boy who seems to be his own age, and a somewhat more talkative but equally strange girl. His uncle, and the house are more strange still, and seems almost paranoid about setting up magical barriers to keep some fairy-like creatures at bay.

The more he learns about the place and his uncle, the less Tom likes it, and Tom wonders whether it might not be better to spend his holiday at school, but then there are obstacles to his leaving. His uncle seems to have invited Tom there for a sinister purpose, though it is difficult to find out what that purpose is, but Tom also discovers that he had magical powers of his own, which seem to run in the family. The only think that seems normal abut the place is the dog, which helps to keep Tom sane, and he also receives some support from a human girl who had joined the fairy-like Samdhya people.

I had to order this book specially, because the local bookshop did not stock it, but I learnt of it through a favourable mention on Twitter. Those who enjoyed the Harry Potter stories and early Alan Garner stories might also enjoy itmight also like it. It's a good and exciting read, though I thought some of the scenes at the climax were a bit over the top, and debated whether to give it four or five stars, but in then end thought it deserved five. 

I might have made more comments on the story, the plot and the characters, but I see that there have been very few other reviews, and so I'll save that kind of discussion for when more people have read it.

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06 January 2022

Wildwood, a novel in the tradition of Alan Garner


Wildwood by Helen Scott Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More than fifty years ago I read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner, and went on to read his other children's books, and wished he'd written more, or that someone else would, and now someone else has. This book is certainly in the same genre, though see below for a discussion of what exactly that genre is. The protagonist, Todd Hunter, is a teenager, but the story had more in common with Alan Garner's children's novels than his teenage ones like The Owl Service and Red Shift.

Todd Hunter's father has been missing for five years, and he doesn't get on well with his mother's new boyfriend, so when the rest of the family go to spend their holidays with the mother's boyfriend's family in France, Todd goes to stay with his paternal grandfather in a small Cornish fishing village. There he hopes to learn more about his father, and even perhaps to learn something about the mystery of his disappearance.

Todd's grandfather John runs a grocery shop, in which Todd helps out occasionally. There are few young people of his own age in the village. He meets a rather unpleasant boy of about his age, Andrew Bishop, who, like Todd, doesn't get on with his stepfather. But soon after Todd's arrival, Andrew disappears, and Todd discovers his body at the foot of a cliff. The police rule his death accidental, but Todd suspects that he was murdered by his stepfather, perhaps reflecting his dislike of his own stepfather, and decides to investigate Andrew's death on his own. He also meets a teenage girl, Marigold, whom he finds quite attractive, but is rather wary of, because he discovers that her mother is reputed to be a witch.

Before he has been in the village a week, Todd find himself investigating several mysteries -- his father's disappearance, Andrew's death, and a cult of the Green Man, which several people seem to be involved in. He also befriends an artist, Shaun, and his pet dog Picasso. Shaun, like Todd, is not originally from the village, and sometimes Todd finds his outsider's point of view refreshing. The longer he spends there, the more he feels he wants to get out, and the more he learns about the place and its history, and the activities of its present inhabitants, who seem determined to keep him there forever, the more he wants to leave.

I found it an exciting book, full of unexpected plot twists, though towards the end some of them became too inconsistent and inexplicable, with some characters shifting a bit too rapidly back and forth between loyalty and betrayal to be convincing.

The book seems to be only available on Smashwords,  and if you like juvenile books with adventure, mystery, ghosts and a touch of supernatural magic, it's definitely worth a read. You can see a fuller description on the Smashwords site here.

As I said at the beginning, I thought this book would appeal to people who liked Alan Garner's children's books. I would say that this one is roughly in the same genre. But what genre is that, and how does one describe it? On Smashwords, Wildwood is described as "Y/A Paranormal" and I don't think I've ever seen Alan Garner's books described as "paranormal" before. I have written a couple of children's books in the same genre, and described them as "children's adventure/fantasy", though one of my reviewers did classify one of them as "paranormal-fantasy". In adult books with similar themes, the novels of Charles Williams have been described as "supernatural thrillers", but never, as far as I am aware, as "paranormal".

The problem here seems to be that for many people "fantasy" implies that the story is set in a location out of this world, and these stories are not (with the partial exception of Alan Garner's Elidor). The problem with "paranormal", for me at least, is that it evokes images of movies like Ghostbusters, and rather misguided attempts to measure spiritual phenomena with material instruments, like using a photographic light meter to measure the light from the transfiguration of Jesus, or parlour tricks like Uri Geller bending teaspoons.

Anyway, whatever you want to call this genre, I like it, and am glad to see other people writing it, and hope to write some more in it myself.  Another book in the same genre is The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, which I had read a few months before reading this one. As I explained in my review of The Dark is Rising, one of the things I didn't like much about that book was that the protagonist was not really human, but had superpowers, and there is a hint of that in Wildwood, where we are frequently told that Todd Hunter has a "hunter's instinct" that makes him different from everyone else. It's one of the reasons I gave the book four stars rather than five, not because it makes it a bad book or anything, but the star rating is subjective, how much a particular reader likes a book, and I don't much like books where the protagonist has superpowers, even when, as in the case of Todd Hunter, they so often fail at a critical moment.

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01 January 2022

The Plumed Serpent

The Plumed Serpent

The Plumed Serpent by D.H. Lawrence
My rating: 2 of 5 stars


A long rambling waffling book about two men who found a neopagan religion in Mexico and an Irishwoman who marries one of them, and spends half the book trying to decide whether to marry him, and the other half wondering whether she ought to have done so.

Kate Leslie, a wealthy middle-aged Irish tourist on holiday in Mexico, meets a Mexican general, and his friend, a wealthy landowner, and goes to visit their part of the country, where she extends her stay indefinitely. She helps to rescue the landowner from some would-be assassins, and is asked to marry the general and join the pantheon of their neopagan religion, in which the landowner is Quetzalcoatl, the eponymous plumed serpent deity, while the general is Huitzilopochtli. Kate is ambivalent about her assigned role as divine consort to Huitzilopochtli, and remains so to the end.

There are some good descriptive passages in the book, but they are spoilt by going on for too long, being repetitive, and eventually becoming boring. Lawrence seems to get carried away by his own verbosity, and doesn't know when to stop. And the descriptions of the neopagan religion also become very preachy, overdone and boring (see what I did there? That's one of Lawrence's little tricks -- as I repeated "boring", so Lawrence repeats key words in his descriptions).

So why, if it was so long-winded, preachy and dull, did I bother to buy and read this book?

The answer goes back to my youth in the early to mid-1960s, when I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg. The university English department had made its own literary neopagan religion, in which D.H. Lawrence was the chief deity, with a supporting cast of Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Shakespeare, and their very own incarnate Huitzilopochtli, H.W.D. Manson, the greatest playwright since Shakespeare. I didn't earn any brownie points with my tuto, Christina van Heyningen, when I said that I liked Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Eugene Ionesco better than Manson's The Counsellors.

But I still thought I ought to read at least one D.H. Lawrence novel to see what all the fuss had been about, and I picked this one because it was exotic, at least to Lawrence, and wasn't full of coal mines, the English Midlands, and the early 20th-century working class. 

 As Kate is indecisive throughout the book, Lawrence (or at least his characters) can't make up their minds and they often expound inconsistent ideas, as does Lawrence when giving his omniscient narrator's opinion. The white and the dark-skinned races should never meet, and should have their own religions, their own cultures, their own way of life -- "own affairs" as the old apartheid ideology used to put it. But this will eventually lead to a new man, with new blood and all will be one. Oh yes, there's lot about blood in this story. It's a very bloody book, starting from the opening bullfight scene and drifting off into the obscure philosophy about how white blood and black blood should never mix, but will eventually become one, or something.

White blood is superior to dark blood, but the time of supremacy of dark blood is coming. And aristocratic blood is better than the blood of peons. Lawrence appears to believe in a kind of Nazi uebermensch:

The star which is a man's innermost clue, which rules the power of the blood on the one hand and the power of the spirit on the other. For this, the only thing which is supreme above all power in a man, and at the same time, is power; which far transcends knowledge, the strange star between the sky and the waters of the first cosmos; this is man's divinity. And some men are not divine at all. They have only faculties. They are slaves, or they should be slaves.
Read it quickly, and it can sound profound. Read it paying more attention, and its profundities are as empty as those of the Unman in C.S. Lewis's Perelandra, and the only bit that actually says anything, other than meaningless symbols and abstractions, is the last sentence: Lawrence believes that some men are born slaves and others are born masters, and that's as it should be. It was probably passages like this that led some critics to say that Lawrence was being fascist here. But half the book is like this -- boring pretentious pseudo-spiritual twaddle.

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