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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’?

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