Gaiety in the Graveyard

Murky goings-on in 1926 London, and mysterious doings in a cemetery, among other good reads this time.

Issue #38, Sunday 5 February 2023

Bookish News

New and Upcoming Releases

Space Crone by Ursula K. Le Guin – Silver Press

Coming March 2023

Celebrated author Ursula K. Le Guin witnessed the rebellions and upheavals of the twentieth century, including women’s liberation, the civil rights movement and anti-war and environmental activism. Spanning fifty years of her life and work fighting for social and environmental justice, Space Crone brings together Le Guin’s writings on feminism and gender for the first time. Gathering speeches, essays and stories, Space Crone offers new insights into her imaginative, multispecies feminist consciousness: from its roots in her ecological and anti-war concerns, to her self-education about racism and her writing on motherhood and ageing.

Ursula Le Guin was a wonderful writer, teacher and thinker. Just about everything she ever wrote is well worth reading and contemplating.

More details

Taken by Dinuka McKenzie

Detective Sergeant Kate Miles is back from maternity leave and struggling on multiple fronts - the pressures of a second child, financial strain from her husband losing his job, and a corruption scandal that may involve her father.

When an infant goes missing, Kate finds herself fronting a high-profile and emotionally fraught case. Was baby Sienna removed from her bassinet by an unknown abductor or is the answer much closer to home?

Dinuka McKenzie’s debut novel, The Torrent, was pretty good, so I’ll certainly be checking this one out.

Buy it at Readings

Crows Nest by Nikki Mottram

Fleeing problems in her own marriage, child protection worker Dana Gibson leaves Sydney for a job in the Queensland town of Toowoomba. Her first house call is to nearby Crows Nest to assess the children of Sandra Kirby, which results in her getting both her new boss and a local detective offside. Dana soon learns that, in the country, city rules do not apply.

More interesting-looking crime fiction from an Australian author.

Buy it at Readings

Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor

Equal parts crime thriller and family saga, transporting readers from the dusty villages of Uttar Pradesh to the urban energy of New Delhi, Age of Vice is an intoxicating novel of gangsters and lovers, false friendships, forbidden romance, and the consequences of corruption. It is binge-worthy entertainment at its literary best.

I’m sure that I ought to be reading more by writers from other countries. This one looks particularly interesting.

Buy it at Readings

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

This book is set in 1926 in an England trying to forget and move on from the loss of life in the Great War (1914-1918). Its central theme is on the night club scene in London at the time and the more-than-slightly-crooked people who ran the clubs.

The novel opens with an eager crowd outside the gates of Holloway Prison, awaiting the release of “Ma” Coker. “Ma” or Nellie Coker, we learn subsequently, is the matriarch of a family running a series of night clubs across London. She’s been in jail for breaching the licensing laws controlling the sale of alcohol but it’s also suspected that her clubs are a front for prostitution.

Shrines of Gaiety gives us the viewpoints of a host of characters around this central theme. There’s Nellie Coker herself, and each of her many children, from the eldest, Niven, returned from fighting in the trenches, down to young Kitty, in her early teens and possibly the cleverest of them all.

We’re introduced to a police officer investigating Coker’s activities, Detective Chief Inspector John Frobisher. Frobisher is also trying to sort out corrupt police in the Bow Street Station to which he’s recently been assigned. He’s a dedicated man in his official position, but suffers greatly at home from the mental illness of his French wife.

And then there’s perhaps the most interesting character in the book, Gwendolyn Kelling, in her early 30s, who has just moved to London, leaving behind her job as a librarian in York, to look for two young girls, Freda and Florence, who have run away from their homes in York, apparently to seek their fortunes on the stage in London, but who have not been heard of since. In this quest she meets up with Inspector Frobisher, who is investigating Nellie Coker’s clubs in particular because he suspects a connection with the deaths or disappearances of a series of similar young women.

Gwendolyn isn’t the mousy librarian she might seem on the surface, however, but an intelligent and independent woman determined to seek her own way in life. She eagerly accepts Frobisher’s suggestion that she go undercover into Nellie’s clubs and report back to him. She gets in deeper than she expects.

Nellie Coker, meanwhile, has her own concerns as she battles to fight off two separate attempts by men to take over her clubs, who are using a variety of corrupt methods to do so. Though she’s now getting old, Nellie is however certainly no push-over.

Each of these characters is well-developed and full of interest, and the many different threads of story interact in a satisfying way. The background appears to be well-researched (and in fact the character of Nellie Coker, the author tells us, is based on the real-life Kate Meyrick, known in her time as the Queen of Soho’s club scene).

My only complaint, really, is that the novel winds up rather too quickly for my taste, with an ambiguous ending for Gwendolyn, and then each of the other story threads are rapidly brought to a close. I suppose it’s a familiar complaint from readers, but I would have liked the book to have gone on a bit longer and have explored the characters’ subsquent histories more fully. Mind you, many of Atkinson’s books end in a similarly ambiguous way, or at least in a way that leaves you thinking and sometimes puzzling.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Shrines of Gaiety a lot.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Opening a book intended for readers in their early to mid-teens with the murder of a whole family doesn’t seem like the kind of thing which ought to work, but I think Neil Gaiman carries it off very effectively.

Given that The Graveyard Book won the British Carnegie Medal and the American Newberry Medal as the best book for children in 2009 and then went on to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel in the same year, others thought he did, too.

As the book opens, it’s night-time and the man who has already stabbed three members of the same family in their own house wipes the blood off his knife and heads upstairs to the bedroom of the sole remaining member of the family, a baby just old enough to be called a toddler. But when he gets there, the child has gone. Disconcerted, the murderer leaves the house and begins searching in the streets.

We don’t learn for a long time why these murders have occurred, but we gather from the frantic search by the murderer that it is somehow very important that this lost child also be killed.

The child, a boy, has wandered up the hill and into an old cemetery, now no longer used for burials but made part of a nature reserve. And in the graveyard, only able to be seen by innocent child-like eyes, there is a community of ghosts, the ghosts of the people buried there over many centuries.

As two of the ghosts, Mr. and Mrs. Owens, discover the baby and start to puzzle over why it is there, they are approached by the ghost of the child’s mother, freshly dead, who begs them to look after it and keep it safe. They quickly hide the baby in their tomb from the murderer who comes looking for it. After he has given up, the ghostly community debates the matter of whether to allow this living creature to dwell among them, the dead. But they eventually agree and Mr. and Mrs. Owens adopt the child, naming it “Nobody Owens”. This name becomes “Bod” for short.

He is also taken in hand by Silas, neither living nor dead, not a ghost but nevertheless dwelling at the cemetery, who agrees to become his guardian. Silas is the one entity able to come and go from the graveyard, to bring food and other necessities for the infant.

Much of the amusement and interest of the book is about the child’s rearing and education by the community of ghosts, most of whom date from the 18th century or earlier. Individuals among the ghosts are often amusingly introduced by the epitaph engraved on their headstones: “Miss Letitia Borrows, Spinster of This Parish, Who Did No Harm to No Man All the Dais of Her Life. Reader, Can You Say Likewise?”. Miss Borrows teaches Bod Grammar and Composition.

His education therefore is very unusual; as well as learning ordinary lessons, the ghosts try to teach him ghostly skills like Fading and Dreamwalking, skills which ultimately prove very useful indeed. Bod also becomes friendly with a young witch buried in unconsecrated ground outside the boundary of the cemetery.

Bod’s life is far from entirely safe. There are ghouls who try to carry him off; there’s a mysterious ancient entity called the Sleer who inhabits an ancient burrow under the hill; and most of all, there’s the man who murdered Bod’s human family, who is still searching for him in order to kill him; and the evil organisation behind the murderer. There is, of course, ultimately a deadly confrontation.

I liked this a lot. It’s a clever concept, well carried through, with plenty of interest and tension.

The edition I read, from Harper Collins, is wonderfully illustrated by Chris Riddell.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

It’s a very long time since I last read this classic of fantasy. Indeed, thinking back, I may only have read it once, back in the 1970s, so not all that long after it first came out in 1968. And it’s interesting how one’s memory of a book shifts. I had remembered it as a gentle coming-of-age fantasy about a young wizard and dragons, something unquestionably suitable for a middle-grade reader.

On re-reading it now, I’m finding two things: firstly how much of the story and action I had completely forgotten; and secondly, how much darker in tone it is compared with how I had remembered it. Young Ged is for much of the book not a very likeable character: he’s rude to people he should be grateful to, and the flaws of pride and ambition dominate him and lead him to make his greatest mistake. That mistake creates a nemesis which is genuinely scary.

Most of my readers will presumably have read A Wizard of Earthsea at some time, so I won’t do more than briefly summarise the plot.

The protagonist starts as a young boy in a small village on the island of Gont, one of many islands forming a scattered archipelago in the world called Earthsea. Though he’s just the local blacksmith’s son, after he demonstrates some magical talent he’s taken up by the wizard Ogion, who gives him his true name, Ged. Ged eventually impatient of Ogion’s slow tutoring and leaves to be trained on Roke Island. Here he rubs up against another student who he feels disrespects him, and eventually Ged boastfully claims he can call a spirit back from the Land of the Dead. In attempting this, however, he releases an evil Shadow into the world. This Shadow follows him for most of the book, and Ged flees it, knowing that it wants to consume him and absorb his magical power to do great evil.

Humbled, Ged tries to make amends. He has various adventures as he tries to do good with his wizardly power, but always he is conscious of the existence of the the Shadow in the world, and its relentless pursuit of him. Several times it catches up with him and almost defeats him.

I had forgotten entirely the long section of the book set on the island of Oskill where he dwells in the keep of the Lord of the Terrenon; this reads like a classic tale of the hero enchanted and bemused in the Land of Faery, living in apparent luxury and idleness until he discovers the heart of evil that lies within it. He escapes only with great difficulty and peril, and this experience becomes an inflection point in his story.

Only towards the latter part of the book is Ged able to change himself enough to turn on the Shadow and try to destroy it.

Ged is thus a classic tragic hero, flawed and vulnerable, led astray by pride and only able to conquer by recognising his flaws and addressing them with humility and penitence.

Earthsea became the background for a series of sequels, beginning with The Tombs of Atuan. Le Guin has done a wonderful job of world building in creating Earthsea, and her books set there are full of interest in their descriptions of the landscape, the history and the varied cultures which range across the islands.

Some have pointed out the Taoist influences of Le Guin’s work: Earthsea is depicted as a world in a delicate balance, and wizards must be careful not to disturb that balance too far: which is of course what Ged does in his hubris in trying to raise the dead.

I’m looking forward to re-reading (or in the case of the later books, reading for the first time) the other novels in the Earthsea series.

Currently Reading

Embassytown by China Miéville

I haven’t read much of Miéville’s work, but the books I have read have been really excellent: his juvenile Railsea and his blending of SF and crime in The City & The City. I’m assured that Embassytown is one of his best. I’m about halfway through at the moment and I’m impressed and intrigued.

Waiting on the Shelf

And that’s your lot. See you next time.

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