Operating in the dark

Reconstruction of part of Knossos complex, Crete (Wikimedia Commons)

Ursula Le Guin: The Tombs of Atuan (1971)
in The Earthsea Quartet 1993 Penguin

Sequels are notoriously hard things to pull off; many authors struggle. Does one offer a second helping of the same ingredients on the grounds that readers seem to like more of the same, with just a few details changed for the sake of variety? Or does the writer go with something radically different and risk alienating fans of the original?

The second of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels goes with the second option, and certainly this is tough for some readers; but Le Guin is of that class of author who not only needs to challenge herself through her craft but to also avoid treading the same tracks as before. It’s a measure of her talent as a writer that she rises magnificently to the challenge while being a doggedly resolute pathfinder. So it’s entirely appropriate that much of The Tombs of Atuan involves the protagonists negotiating the complexities of a multicursal labyrinth with all its twisting passages and dead ends.

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Further fiends and friends

Elephant’s howdah, presented to her majesty by the Newab Nazim, The Illustrated Exhibitor Guide to the Great Exhibition, 1851

The second part of the Who’s Who of Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree, in which we venture to Petworth and to London, and encounter strangers and friends
Warning! Ahead lurk many more spoilers . . .

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Friends and fiends

The sunken tilting yard, Tegleaze Manor, in the moonlight (Pat Marriott)

Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree (reviewed here) has a few dozen fairly distinctive characters, though some readers may find it hard to keep a track of them all. This post aims to provide a Who’s Who of individuals mentioned in the novel. As is the custom, the usual proviso about spoilers applies.

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Someone of her own

A Carriage and Pair, with Coachman (1774) by Paul Sandby (Yale Center for British Art, Wikimedia Commons)

Joan Aiken: The Cuckoo Tree
Illustrated by Pat Marriott
Red Fox 2004 (1971)

Our young heroine, Dido Twite, has finally returned to England after years away in “furrin parts overseas” but instead of a calm steady progress from the south coast to London, her place of birth, we find her hurtling in a death-defying dash — in the dark — on a mission of the greatest urgency. When the carriage-and-pair she and her fellow passenger, Captain Owen Hughes, are travelling in is stranded in the middle of nowhere after an accident, she is precipitated into an adventure involving conspiracies, inheritances, smuggling, witchery and, of course, danger.

Naturally this is almost everything that one expects to find in one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, but we also hope we’ll encounter friendship, loyalty, bravery, honesty and resourcefulness, especially when we know that Dido is involved. She’ll need all those virtues in this further instalment of the alternate history series in which the Hanoverian monarchs are the pretenders to the British throne rather than the Stuarts.

In addition, for Aiken fans there’s the draw of knowing that much of this story is set in a corner of the world Joan knew very well — part of the South Downs now in West Sussex, on the road running northeast from Chichester towards the historic town of Petworth. Not only can we feel the genuine sense of place that comes with a novel set in real locations but also the emotional connections the author may have had for here — albeit with frequent dark shadows obscuring our view.

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Not dead yet

Independent Bookshop Week 2018 will take place 16 – 23 June. IBW is part of the Books Are My Bag campaign, and seeks to celebrate independent bookshops in the UK and Ireland.

The death of bookshops — and in particular independent bookshops — has been announced several times in the last few years, but it seems to have been a premature pronouncement. The steady decline in the UK has at last been arrested, and new independent bookshops have even been opening. It’s nothing to be complacent about, though, as indies can of course only survive if they get paying customers through the doors.

This trend has been matched by another development reported last month, the conclusion of a University of Arizona study being that millennials may prefer physical books over eBooks for reasons of “ownership, limiting usage experience, and value perceptions”. What this boils down to is this:

Readers have a constricted sense of ownership of digital books versus physical books; there are restrictions on sharing eBooks with friends, or gifting or selling the books, thus reducing their value.

Then there is the sense of being more emotionally attached to physical books, with physical books helping to establish a sense of self and belonging. This appears to be related to nostalgia for certain childhood books.

The sensory aspect of physical books is important: smell, feel, sight. Books collections are also used to express identity to visitors. While minimalists prefer digital books because they take up less physical space, many US participants in the study said eBooks felt more like renting than buying.

Significantly, many older readers prefer certain aspects of ebooks, for example e-readers are lightweight compared to physical books and enable the reader to zoom in on text.

For longtime fans of physical books little of this comes as a surprise. It just seems curious it has taken academics until recently to obtain the data that seems to confirm what many of us knew.

Of course this doesn’t guarantee that booklovers will get their stash from indies when they could get the same cheaper elsewhere — from bookshop chains or online, for example — so independents have to work hard to entice bibliophiles in, for example with cafés, book signings, book-related events, themed displays and the like.

Sadly, not all of us happen to live, as I do, just a hundred metres from the nearest indie. But if you do, please support it, especially during this year’s Independent Bookshop Week. You know the old adage: Use it or Lose it. And remember that INDY is also an acronym for I’m Not Dead Yet . . .

I’m Not Dead Yet. Strictly speaking, the phrase from Monty Python and the Holy Grail is “I’m not dead,” but in the musical Spamalot this gets transformed into “I am not dead yet…”


University of Arizona press release
https://uanews.arizona.edu/story/why-your-ebook-might-not-feel-yours
Academic abstract
Helm, S.V., Ligon, V., Stovall, T. et al. Electronic Markets (2018) 28: 177.
https://doi.org/10.1007/s12525-018-0293-6

Independent Bookshop Week is not to be confused with Independent Bookstore Day in the US, “a one-day national party that takes place at indie bookstores across the country on the last Saturday in April” every year.

Breaching the fourth wall

High Street, Oxford in the mid-20th century

Edmund Crispin: The Moving Toyshop
Heron Books Library of Crime 1981 (1946)

Imagine a locked-room mystery in which everybody seems to have a cast-iron alibi and access to the murder victim appears impossible. Now imagine a scenario with the fourth wall torn away, or at least the veil between the actors on the stage and the theatre audience being occasionally parted. That is the premise of this novel, an intermittently metafictional take on the murder of a middle-aged woman. But where is the body, and where’s the evidence of any violence having taken place?

The Moving Toyshop has garnered much praise from those who ought to know about classic whodunits but it’s still disconcerting for a relative newcomer like myself to find characters imagining titles for the book they’re appearing in and referring to the book’s author by name. Bearing in mind the title (taken from Pope’s parody The Rape of the Lock) we have always to be aware that the author is trifling with us.

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“A small slipshod girl”

Screen grab from http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/letters.html

I’m about to begin (again) The Cuckoo Tree, another of the titles in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles also known as the James III sequence or, as I like to think of it, the Dido Twite series, after the character who takes a lead role in all but four of the novels. This particular instalment is one that will have been particularly close to the author’s heart, being set in and around the area where Joan and her family lived a good part of their lives, namely the South Downs in West Sussex.

So I was particularly pleased to read “Who was Dido Twite?”, a recent post on the ever delightful Joan Aiken blog in which we are introduced to a number of part-inspirations for the character of the irrepressible Dido: one real-life human for definite, a literary predecessor and of course the late author herself.

What I especially liked about this post was that two of the people mentioned (one now an Australian granny, the other an American writer called Jackie Hedeman) are still living, and that Joan’s daughter Lizza was recently able to make connections with both.

The unnamed Australian woman made a significant contribution to Dido’s character when the Aiken family moved to Petworth in Sussex (where some of the action in The Cuckoo Tree was to take place); Jackie Hedeman was to gently pester the author as to the literary influence, but to no avail — until she recently spotted a clue on the official Joan Aiken website, an experience which she then described online in an entrancing post.

If you haven’t encountered Dido Twite before — and longtime followers of this blog will hardly been able to avoid her — then you should take the opportunity. I hope to persuade any ditherers in a future review (with its associated posts) of The Cuckoo Tree.

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Literary influences

As some of you know, I don’t as a matter of principle get involved in blogging awards because, being a bit of a maverick, I’d much rather be composing an original post than feeling constrained by the questions that inevitably accompany these awards.

But a recent literature-based question posted by Ola on receiving a blogging award for the Re-enchantment of the World blog rather appealed to me and had me scurrying to my bookshelves. Here then is the question, followed by my answer — even if I have no intention of nominating anybody else as I’m invited to do by the rules of the award:

Name (and, if you wish, describe) up to 11 books which influenced you the most.

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Putting the kind in mankind

https://aboutartanddesign.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/graysonperry_2243662k.jpg
Grayson Perry and a tapestry he designed, The Upper Class at Bay

Grayson Perry: The Descent of Man
Penguin 2016

It takes a bit of nerve to use the same title for your book as Charles Darwin did for his 1871 study, but in a way Grayson Perry seems to be saying that modern men are fully capable of evolving, and for the better. It should be possible for them to transition from their traditional dinosaur-like sense of what it is to be a man towards something more fitting for the future, more so now that we are in the era of #MeToo and with urgent demands for well overdue gender parity.

Who is Grayson Perry? This is his official bio from the paperback:

Grayson Perry is a man. He is also an award-winning artist, a Bafta-winning TV presenter, a Reith Lecturer and a bestselling author with traditional masculine traits like a desire to always be right and to overtake all other cyclists when going up big hills.

He is also adept at self-deprecation and incisive insights, as well as being a flamboyant cross-dresser (it’s hard to miss him in this role for many of his public appearances). A three-episode TV documentary, All Man, went on to explore aspects of masculinity touched on here, but in the meantime this autobiographical memoir explores Perry’s boyhood experiences — he was born in 1960 — and his changing perceptions of what it means to be a male in a modern world. What he reflects on may be rooted in an English perspective, but much of his ruminations has ramifications in the rest of the western world, and of course elsewhere.

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Circumlocations

Houses of Parliament with scaffolding and Westminster Bridge, late 20th century (credit: Bikeboy, Geograph http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2975216)

Circumlocution. The use of many words where fewer would do, especially in a deliberate attempt to be vague or evasive.
— Oxford English Dictionaries

There’s a old adage about how you can tell when a politician’s lying: when their lips move.

Well, that’s quite a cynical take on politics and those who are involved in politicking, but we often have a premonition that this adage has the ring of truth, don’t we? We’ve listened to and watched enough ministerial statements, panel discussions and live interviews to make that judgement; and we don’t always need their explicit body language to confirm it — whether from tone of voice, stumbles over phrases, shifty looks or too much unasked-for detail, these can all give the lie to many public utterances.

And in the era of fake news we cynics note with increasing frequency the evasions, the contradictory tweets, the prevarications and, above all, the smugness that such high-flying lowlife bestow on us with a complete and utter disdain. A recent interview with the British defence secretary on ITV merely underlined such disdain as the interviewee three times gave bland circumlocutions to a frustrated interviewer. Would that more of these cowardly entities that avoid accountability for their decisions and actions could, along with the interview, be similarly ‘terminated’.

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Updating masculinity

Perry’s self-referential stamp design, entitled Summer Exhibition, for the Royal Academy of Arts

Men’s rights
The right to be vulnerable
The right to be weak
The right to be wrong
The right to be intuitive
The right not to know
The right to be uncertain
The right to be flexible
The right not to be ashamed of any of these

This quote is Grayson Perry‘s manifesto for men, from his 2016 autobiography The Descent of Man.

It’s his attempt to provide a few pointers for how old school masculinity might be transformed to become more pluralistic and, well, more sensitive and kind.

Perry is a well-known British artist (winner of the Turner Prize in 2003), presenter of TV documentaries about art and society in Britain, and a cross-dresser.

He is one of a handful of artists invited to design Royal Mail stamps to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Society of Arts in London in 1768. He is also coordinating the summer exhibition which opens on the June 12th.


A review of The Descent of Man will appear here in due course