Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Alrightreads: Castles

It took me the best part of a decade to make it through Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, so I don't feel like fortifying myself inside another castle-bound epic just yet. Here are some shorter books about castles, or that may turn out to be using 'castle' in the title symbolically or whatever, you know what authors are like.


P. G. Wodehouse, Something Fresh (a.k.a. Something New)

1915 / Audiobook / 190 pages / UK

***

I've never found Wodehouse to be the comedy god others do. He doesn't have the inherently funny way with words of a Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, and his winding together of disparate, blatantly-telegraphed plot points isn't as satisfying as a David Renwick or Larry David. Plus, I know we're laughing at the idle, incompetent, undeserving rich, but spending so much time around these asses is still annoying.

It gets points for having a surprisingly strong female character and a character named Threepwood.


Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

1962 / Audiobook / 214 pages / USA

*****

What if Wednesday Addams was a real person? What if American Psycho was palatable? What if a classic Gothic novel had a reasonable page count?

Shirley Jackson's final novel should be required reading for adolescent goth girls everywhere, and for grown men who are adolescent goth girls at heart.


Italo Calvino, The Castle of Crossed Destinies (Il castello dei destini incrociati)

1969 / Ebook / 144 pages / Italy

****

Italo Calvino wrote one of my favourite books of 2015 (not that I can remember anything about it now) and another one that amazed me in concept, but less in execution.

This tale of mysteriously mute travellers telling their stories via Tarot cards, unreliably interpreted by our narrator, falls into the latter category. My enthusiasm for playing along with the digital Visconti-Sforza deck on tarot.com petered out after the first couple of yarns. Great idea though.


Gene Wolfe, The Castle of the Otter: A Book About the Book of the New Sun

1982 / Ebook / 117 pages / USA

**

Before The Book of the New Sun was even complete, its author unapologetically wrote his own fanzine/fansite in book form. Featuring self-interviews, answers to mainly imagined FAQs, glossaries of obscure words and names, a jokes page and, best of all, obsolete insights into the early-1980s US SF publishing industry.

Originally a very limited edition before it was collected with other odds and sods, I don't think Wolfe intended this vanity project to still be knocking about decades later. I enjoyed the New Sun books, though it wasn't totally my thing, and this had made me appreciate it more on a technical level at least. There's a chance I'm the least fanatical Gene Wolfe reader to ever bother reading this curio, and since even I got something out of it, I'm glad it exists.


Dave Morris, Knightmare: Fortress of Assassins

1990 / Ebook / 113 pages / UK

***

"The wight seizes you and proceeds to tear you limb from limb. A very disarming chap, as I'm sure you would agree if you were still alive."

I had one of these Knightmare books as a child, and won't have been alone in hugely preferring the interactive gamebook half to the opening novella, which barely has anything to do with the series. At least Treguard's in this one, albeit in name only. Its bloody tale of crusades, decapitation, dismemberment, disembowelling and child death is oddly targeted at slightly more mature readers than the usual Children's ITV demographic, but they probably tuned in for Knightmare anyway.

The gamebook part is fairly brief and repetitive, but still brilliant. Featuring familiar characters and scenarios and smart riddles that I didn't always crack even as someone way too old to be playing, it's just what the fans would have wanted and a perfect introduction to the gamebook format too. Much better than those rubbish Sonic the Hedgehog gamebooks I moved on to next.


Iain Banks, A Song of Stone

1997 / Audiobook / 280 pages / UK

***

Banks' "mainstream" novels never shied away from being off-puttingly unpleasant, but he seems to be yearning for a Wasp Factory level of infamy here, only a lot more predictable. He wrote a better castle story in Walking on Glass, and Kurt Vonnegut's Slapstick is a funnier take on the whole sordid business.


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