With perfect timing, I have some Christmas fare for you today. Admittedly, I probably wouldn’t have read these at the right time unless I had occasions to read them for, so without further ado…
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
“Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!”
“How awful!” said Lucy.
I’m reading from my 1996 Folio Society set which is numbered in chronological rather than publishing order, The Lion… being preceeded by the later published Narnia origins story, The Magician’s Nephew. Inside, all the old illustrations by Pauline Baynes are included, so it feels familiar, although I haven’t read it since childhood. I’m not really going to review the book here, just give a few reflections – Chris will be hosting a discussion on it after Christmas.
I have, however, seen, and rather enjoyed the 2005 film, and now can only associate James McEvoy as Mr Tumnus and the eerily wonderful Tilda Swinton as Jadis, but that’s no bad thing. You may recall the voice of Aslan in the film is Liam Neeson, who purrs his way through. But funnily enough I’ve just read Brian Cox’s autobiography in which he reveals that he was hired as Aslan but got fired (for the only time in his career!) for being too ebullient, Neeson was his replacement.
It only took a couple of hours reading in bed to speed through the book, bringing back many happy memories, especially of the first two-thirds, while it is still wintery. Once spring arrives, and we’re effectively approaching Easter, the Christian allegory starts to get a bit in-yer-face, although as a child I didn’t realise this. Now I resolutely kept my faith with the more mystical concept of ‘deep magic’.
Maybe I’ll see some of you over at Chris’s discussion in a week or so’s time? Meanwhile I shall get started on Prince Caspian.
Source: Own copy.
The Misteltoe Murder and Other Stories by PD James
Taking a break from going through the alphabet for our Christmas book group read, we chose a seasonal title for the festive season – we’ll be discussing it in January, so just a few notes here.
This slim volume, published posthumously, collects four of James’ short stories not available elsewhere. The book is introduced by Val McDermid, who reminds us of James’ love of Golden Age crime stories, and prompts us to look out for references to Christie et al. In the Preface, James herself discusses the role of the short story, which formed much of early crime fare thanks to Poe, Conan Doyle and their peers and successors in the field. She explains the particular art of writing a good short crime story:
Characterisation is as important as in he novel, btut he essentials of a personality must be established with an economy of words. The plot must be strong but not too complex, and the denouement, to which every sentence of the narrative should inexorably lead, must surprise the reader but not leave him feeling cheated. All should command the most ingenious element of the short story: the shock of surprise. The good short story is accordingly difficult to write well, but in this busy age it can provide one of the most satisfactory reading experiences.
Absolutely! Accordingly, all four of James’ stories here follow that advice faithfully, and every enjoyable they were too.
In the title story, a seventy-year-old writer looks back to Christmas 1940 when she was a young war-widow, travelling to spend Christmas with her grandmother whom she had met just the once before due to a feud with her mother, and to make the acquaintance for the first time of her cousin Paul. Arriving, she finds her grandmother has another guest, a distant relation, who has come to value some coins.
I disliked him on sight and was grateful to my grandmother for not having suggested that he should drive me from London. The crass insensitivity of his greeting–‘You didn’t tell me, Paul, that I was to meet a pretty young widow’–reinforced my initial prejudice against what, with the intolerance of youth, I thought of as a type.
He ends up dead of course – and the denouement is superb. Nuff said on that one.
The second story, A Very Commonplace Murder, is rather more creepy. There’s a hint of Rear Window about it, but subverted – as the man who we think sees a crime through the window opposite, shouldn’t have been in the office. He’d stolen back in to work after having discovered a stack of porn locked in his boss’ desk!
The final two stories feature Adam Dalgliesh, James’ intellectual detective hero. In the first, Dalgliesh is asked to verify that a large potential donation to the church is clean money. The second takes us back in Dalgliesh’s career to when he was a new Sergeant – and is a direct homage to Christie’s The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, a Poirot short story.
In summary, a masterly quartet from the much-missed James.
Source: Own copy. 2016 paperback from Faber Books, 136 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.