Twelve of the Best


New Year’s Eve: the traditional time for a review of the past year. Let me not here break with that tradition but instead put a bit of a spin on it, melding statistics and selectivity. I’m going to look back at the twelve most popular posts (1) by month in terms of the amount of likes and (2) by comments. Each measure is, I suppose, an indication of popularity, one in terms of attraction and the other in terms of interaction. Not very scientific perhaps, given that anyone can ‘like’ a post without having to read it and — remembering I try to acknowledge each observation with a response of my own — that half of the comments are likely to be by me. Still, there’s half a chance that readers may find some of these spurious statistics as interesting as I do.

Continue reading “Twelve of the Best”

Going up country

Persian warrior and Greek hoplite, 5C BCE kylix, National Museums of Scotland

Xenophon The Persian Expedition
Translated by Rex Warner, introduction by George Cawkwell
Penguin Classics 1972 (1949)

This is a fascinating record of how ten thousand Greek mercenaries invaded what is now Iraq on an ill-fated expedition, and how after various vicissitudes they made it back almost to their starting point. But this is no blockbuster thriller, nor is it a narrative of an incident in recent history; this all took place nearly two and a half millennia ago, before even Alexander the Great made his extraordinary foray from Macedonia to India. It’s told in the third person by an Athenian noble who makes himself the hero of his own story, but he’s not an entirely reliable narrator and the reader is warned that not everything he presents is the whole truth and nothing but.

Continue reading “Going up country”

In darkest New England

country road

Collections of short stories can complicate the reader’s fiction experience. In particular, when the pieces are drawn from a range of the writer’s oeuvre — even when especially selected because they share a theme — they may vary in tone, in pace, in quality and in length, and may thus lack the uniformity of style and purpose that a single novel usually supplies. And this may only be the start of possible difficulties for the reader.

One way to bypass such anxieties could be to only consider the stories on a one by one basis. Thus it is that I am spreading out my appreciation of two writers by only reading single pieces interspersed with longer work by other writers. Angela Carter’s Black Venus tales (also published as Saints and Strangers) and a collection of H P Lovecraft’s horror stories entitled The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (edited by S T Joshi) are being enjoyed singly in between my tackling other longer works. And two of these pieces I’ve selected as being the last of my 2016 Reading New England choices. (This, you may remember, is one of Lory Hess’ challenges on her Emerald City Book Review blog, due to end on the 31st December.)

Let me introduce you to them.

Continue reading “In darkest New England”

Conflict and magic

Rex Arturus: detail of 12th-century mosaic, Otranto Cathedral, Italy
Rex Arturus: detail of 12th-century mosaic, Otranto Cathedral, Italy

Joan Aiken The Kingdom and the Cave
Illustrated by Peter Bailey
Virago Modern Classics 2015 (1960)

This, the earliest of Joan Aiken’s published novels, written during the Second World War — when she was only seventeen –naturally has themes which reflect her times. War features of course, with ruthless tyrants, invading armies, aerial bombardment and a plucky state bumbling along. But also, from her teenage point of view, a certain optimism is evident, a sense that the young saw things more clearly than an older generation who were either wicked or well-meaning, duplicitous or incompetent.

If this all sounds very heavy stuff for a novel for the young it’s as well to know that this is a modern fairytale and not an allegorical history of a conflict. Thus, here we have a young prince, magic helpers in the form of talking animals, a device for making wishes come true, a prophecy, a quest and a journey to the underworld, just as in many fairytales. Michael is the young prince struggling with the Latin vocabulary set by his tutor, when he discovers that Mickle his cat is not only able to talk but has urgent news concerning the danger his country faces. It remains to Michael and his animal friends to find a way to defend Astalon.

Continue reading “Conflict and magic”

Christmastide in Camelot

Sir Gawain and King Arthur, with (below) the Green Knight [British Library]
Sir Gawain and King Arthur and (below) the Green Knight after Gawain had done the deed (British Library)

This king [Arthur] lodged at Camylot over Krystmasse with many a fair lord, the best of men, those noble brothers in arms all worthily of the Round Table, fittingly with fine revelry and care-free pleasures. On very many occasions they tourneyed there; these noble knights jousted very gallantly, and afterwards rode to court to dance and sing carols. For the feast was the same there for the whole fifteen days, with all the meat and mirth that men could devise.

Such raucous fun and merriment to hear, noise by day and dancing by night, all was utmost joyousness in halls and chambers with lords and ladies as best delighted them. With all the joy in the world they abode there together, the most famed knights save Christ himself and the loveliest ladies that ever lived, and the comeliest king reigning, for all these fair folk in the hall were in the prime of their life.

The most fortunate under heaven, the king the greatest in temperament — it would now be hard to describe so sturdy a host on that hill.

• Literal translation of an extract from the 14C poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the unique manuscript of which is in the British Library.

Christmastide — which runs from Christmas Day to Epiphany (January 5th) — represents the original Twelve Days of Christmas; this traditionally marked the seasonal turnaround after the dark days of midwinter. To the medieval mind a legendary Arthurian court would naturally have celebrated it too.

Also known as Yuletide, this was a time when, in historic times, carollers would go round wassailing, wishing neighbours and drinking their health from a wassail bowl. However, unlike with this Arthurian Christmas, there wouldn’t usually be an offer from a Green Knight to chop his head off, so long as he could do the same to you a year and a day later …

In the words of the Gloucestershire Wassail I wish you, my fellow bloggers, the very best for this holiday season, with a promise to resurface sometime between Christmas and the New Year:

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Mount TBR Challenge


As 2016 grinds to a halt I’ve decided to eschew all challenges bar one for the New Year. Gone will be the author alphabet, the vague goals of revisiting loved book series or evening up the gender balance. In will be a determination to tackle my pile of to-be-read (or, in some cases, to-be-reread) tomes in between new-to-me books.

To that end I shall go for My Reader’s Block Mount TBR Challenge, which I spotted featured on Lory’s Emerald City Book Review. This involves consuming a set number of TBR books according to your capacity. As you can see from the Challenge Levels listed below, this can range from twelve to over one hundred and fifty books. I’m going for the gentle ascent of Pike’s Peak but, as anyone can ascertain from the not too onerous rules, I shall upgrade as and when I see fit. Now, unlike some, I shan’t be specifying at this stage what I shall go for — I’m not that organised! — but for anyone interested I shall be doing updates through the year.

And that’s it! Do you have a mountain to climb? And do you fancy this challenge too?

Pike’s Peak: Read 12 books from your TBR pile/s
Mount Blanc: Read 24 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Vancouver: Read 36 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Ararat: Read 48 books from your TBR piles/s
Mt. Kilimanjaro: Read 60 books from your TBR pile/s
El Toro: Read 75 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Everest: Read 100 books from your TBR pile/s

Mount Olympus (Mars): Read 150+ books from your TBR pile/s

My Reader’s Block Rules Continue reading “Mount TBR Challenge”



I’m afraid this is just going to be one of those rambling posts, a blog entry in which some kind of theme, argument or conclusion may possibly suggest itself. Or not. So here goes.

Book reviews have stalled a bit. It’s not from want of reading — au contraire, I’m ploughing on with several books at once. It’s just that I’ve got to that stage of dawdling, not committing, one which no doubt we all hit from time to time. Exploring the world of ideas? I’m either wading through a mass of ideas — where they float like bubbles or balloons, insubstantial or ungraspable — or there’s a distinct vacuity inside my skull, where I feel I’ve nothing of worth to add. I’ve started drafting three reviews and then thought in each case, Have I got anything new to say about this? Do I want to post about the same old ‘same old’?

Continue reading “Rambling”

Post-truth: alive and well

Romanesque grotesque on font, Brecon Cathedral

It’s time, whether you like it or not, for some more superfluous post-truth arse-licking material (better known by its initials) to be analysed and then despatched down the refuse chute. First up is in the category of irrelevant statements.

I decided to have some shared funds to diversify my cash.

Yeah, like anyone cares, Anonymous Person. Unless of course I click on your link … and then my cash may well be diversified to somewhere I can’t access or even trace.

Flattery will get you nowhere
Some posters try the oleaginous, unctuous approach, occasionally in a language that’s other than broken English.

Hi, all is going nicely here and of course every one is sharing facts, that’s genuinely excellent, keep up writing.

The truth is, everyone is sharing lies, not facts, and that’s not genuinely excellent. But I’m glad for the observation that all is going nicely here.

I am honestly grateful towards this site who has provided this passage that is wonderful at here’s proprietor.

Aw, sweet. I do like a statement that suggests I can trust the speaker. As with the politician who answers an interviewer’s question with, “Well, to be honest …” Of course, we were always hoping you as a politician would say something approaching the truth.

I could not refrain from commenting. Well written!

Thanks. But honestly, I wish you really had refrained.

Me a encantado el articulo, un saludo.

Hola! to you too. And your point is … ?

Good posts, beautiful blog. Congratulations.
Welcome to see my creations …

I was nearly convinced there. Until you invited me up to see your etchings.

Now some questions that require no answers, but I honestly couldn’t refrain from commenting:

Fantastic post, however, I was wanting to know if you could write a little more on this topic? I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit more. Kudos!

Ah, you’d like me to write a little bit more? There, is that enough?

And here’s a couple of questions that obviously originate from one and the same source:

1. This post is worth everyone’s focus. When can I find more out?

2. This post may be everyone’s that is worth consideration. When could I find more out?

Well, dummy, you can find out more when you bother to read the article in the first place.

You can’t beat combo
Last in the current batch of superfluous post-truth arse-licking material is what must be the ideal comment: one that combines irrelevancy, flattery and pointless questions. Here is a recent contender.

Have you ever considered about adding a little bit more than just your articles? I mean, what you say is important and everything. But think about if you added some great visuals or videos to give your posts more “pop”! Your content is excellent but with pics and videos, this website could undeniably be one of the very best in its field. Fantastic blog!

Undeniably your comment is one of the very best in its field, and what is says is important and everything. Sadly, all it’s missing is a bit more pop. Anyway, my friend, you could try reading the actual content of my blog first, maybe try the words? Welcome to my creations.

• WARNING The grammar police have gone through these unsolicited messages with a fine-toothed comb. However some mistakes have slipped through the net for the purposes of establishing authenticity

Traveller between worlds

The Union Pacific M-10000 City of Salina at Kansas City Union Station, late 1930s. Photo credit: Union Pacific Museum
Union Pacific M-10000 City of Salina at Kansas City Union Station, late 1930s. Credit: Union Pacific Museum

Philip Reeve Railhead
Oxford University Press 2016 (2015)

Imagine yourself at the end of the second millennium. Or maybe a lot later. Everything around then would be unimaginable, right? Just like our current world would be unimaginable to anyone living under Norman or Plantagenet rule if they were plucked from their time into ours. But some things would be similar, surely? Perhaps the romantic appeal of train locomotives would somehow allow these machines to linger in some form, graffiti art still plastering the sides of engines and carriages, but maybe they’d have some kind of personality hardwired in. And people would still love train travel so much that, like petrolheads with cars today, they would be known as railheads.

This is just what Philip Reeve has concocted in the first of a new series of novels. Here he has trains taking on a similar nostalgia mantle with which his traction cities and airships were clothed for his earlier sequence, the wonderful future steampunk series beginning with Mortal Engines. As with Mortal Engines and its prequels he plays with themes exploring whether artificial intelligence can ever develop human qualities such as empathy, loyalty and even love. It is to his credit that, however preposterous his concepts might seem when baldly spelled out, he nevertheless manages to create a credible universe to house them, with enough back references to our own times to lever our suspended disbelief into this future dystopian cosmos.

Continue reading “Traveller between worlds”

Rereading revisited

A corner of a secondhand bookshop in Brecon, Powys

I’ve touched on the pleasures of rereading a couple of times before, notably when I was contemplating a mammoth weeding out of books prior to moving house. I trust it’s something all us bibliophiles do, a delight like that of listening again to a well-loved piece of music or taking a favourite walk for the umpteenth time. As with that walk, different perspectives can present themselves depending on changing seasons, or moods, or circumstances.

A recent article by Julian Barnes focused on how maturity often ensured that rereading a book after some time — or maybe even reading for the first time a work by an author you’d assiduously avoided reading in your youth — caused you to think of it rather differently, sometimes for the better.


Being young frequently involves the seeking out of novelty, of stimulation and so on, while older minds may well consider more, weighing things up in the light of experience. Human beings have the propensity (though they may not often use it) of retaining their youthful ways, of somehow staying young, sometimes because it’s in their nature and sometimes from a deliberate effort not to stultify. The best thing, of course, would be to retain the advantages of both youth and age in one’s approach to life, the universe … and literature.


I went through much of my youth and teens in a rather befuddled and bemused state. I suspect that a lot of it stemmed from being on the autism spectrum as much as being of that particular, and peculiar, age. One of things I stumbled into doing before the age of 16 was the study of dead languages: Ancient Greek and Latin. I failed an O level in the former and scraped a pass with the latter, heaven knows how. If the past is a foreign country (“they do things differently there,” opined the first-person narrator of Hartley’s The Go-Between) then I was the archetypal innocent abroad. What I do recall is some slight acquaintance with two war campaign classics, Caesar’s De Bello Gallico and Xenophon’s Anabasis.

Now, I neither have nor had the slightest interest in battles, nor, at that time, familiarity with more than the southwest corner of France, and still less — none in fact — of Mesopotamia. These battles were not only in the past (“old, unhappy, far-off things” I’d have thought, as Wordsworth might have put it) but also took place in foreign countries, fulfilling both of Hartley’s paradigms in one; and they certainly did things differently there. The study of these set texts was limited to extracts, with synopses of whatever action went on in between. I failed to gain insights into anything other than a very distant bird’s eye view of the overall narrative, and could never raise up any enthusiasm for the events depicted, especially after struggling through vocabulary, syntax, conjugations and so on.

Jump half a century: I’ve just completed a whole read of Xenophon’s narrative, translated as The Persian Expedition, and my older self has experienced both the shock of recognition and the dropping of scales from the eyes. Events in Europe and the Middle East — from the two Gulf Wars to the eruption of Daesh, the conflict in Syria and the refugee crisis — have heightened my appreciation of events in 401 BCE, which is when a bunch of around ten thousand Greek mercenaries invaded the region, marching through what is now Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Armenia before heading back towards the Mediterranean end of Turkey. Some of the parallels are enlightening, as are the differences, a few of which I may bring up in a future review.

It’s been a similar experience with many of my other rereads: fresh perspectives and fresh delights, not to forget appreciations and occasionally criticisms. It’s never ever been a waste of time. I agree with Barnes: rereading is definitely both a pleasure and a necessity of age. And I would in many cases emphasise the latter.


Giant: illustration by Arthur Rackham
Giant: illustration by Arthur Rackham

When Mick was little he thought of big Gus as Shouty Man.

All he could think of while growing up was being big enough to give Gus a taste of his own medicine.

Only now, as a six footer, with Gus shrunk to a little wizened man, Mick realised what being Big truly meant.

· ( • ) ·

· Flash Fiction Fifty Five, a short story of only 55 words (including title)
More on giants in this review here

We Heart Libraries … or whatever

We ♥ Libraries: one of many visual library memes available online

People who love books love libraries.

That’s a sort of given, isn’t it? Those of a certain age usually see it as a place of hushed reverence, a temple of learning where obeisance is paid to the written word, from where you might even extract some small portion of the hallowed manna to enjoy privately for an extended period of time.

But if, traditionally, the library has been viewed as a “repository of resources” then today that paradigm has changed, evolved, morphed into the concept of the building as a place to support the entire community. The library is no more: the buzz phrase now is community hub. This is a place for the community to link to a global community via Wi-Fi; a venue for groups to meet, socialise or conduct business; a centre for education and training; a site for additional services and other agencies to share. This rebranding foresees a near future when all libraries are to be regarded as facilitators instead of deliverers.

Continue reading “We Heart Libraries … or whatever”

Message in a bottle

Entries invited for my first (and only) spam poetry competition:


footprints footprints

No matter
if some one searches
for his essential thing,

thus he/she wishes to be

that in detail,
so that thing is maintained
over here.

A recent, recycled entry in my ongoing spam poetry competition
Do you have a favourite bit of spoetry you think qualifies? Post it as a comment below; please note, it will only be considered if it ends up in my spam folder.

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