I Spy

My attention was drawn to a post which that wonderful literary gourmet Helen at She Reads Novels put up in June. In it she highlighted an I-Spy challenge that had been doing the rounds of the blogosphere and which rather appealed to me too. She limited her choice to historical titles, however, while I shall be looking at the whole gamut of my shelves, non-fiction as well as fiction. Here’s the challenge:

Find a book that contains (either on the cover or in the title) an example for each category. You must have a separate book for all 20, get as creative as you want . . .

Thus it was that I set out to waste spend a few precious moments minutes wildly carefully honing my choices for your possible delight. In a couple of cases I really did have problems fitting title to category, so I certainly had to exercise my spindly creative muscles…

See what you think.

To avoid mental indigestion I’ve separated the list of twenty categories into two halves. As it happens, most of these are titles I’ve yet to read, or have started but didn’t finish, or first read so long ago I’ve forgotten most of the content.

1. Food: James Branch Cabell’s The Cream of the Jest (1917) is the first one I exercised creativity over. From a fading bookmark I see I got as far as the end of the first chapter of this convolutes parody-cum-fantasy.
2. Transport: Ursula Le Guin’s Changing Planes (2002): another creative choice, as the title is a pun on airport waiting rooms as well as that shift into a different mental state we do during the interminable wait for the departure announcement. A less faded bookmark shows I got three-quarters through this before being distracted.
3. Weapon: Rosemary Sutcliff’s Swords at Sunset (1963) I actually read in the early seventies; this historical novel was the best of several I remember from that era, especially as the author made Arthur a credible Dark Age figure instead of a pseudo-medieval monarch.
4. Animal: in Christopher McGowan’s The Dragon Seekers (2001) the animals in question are dinosaurs, this being a historical overview of Victorian fossil hunters.
5. Number: Diana Wynne Jones’ unusual take on fairy lore, Power of Three (1973).
6. Something you read: the intention behind this category is to look out for titles featuring not just books but also newspapers, documents, maybe even electronic mail; I went for Henry James’ The Aspern Papers (reviewed here).
7. Body of water: Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) was reviewed here.
8. Product of fire: E Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) was reviewed here. (The phoenix is of course born from the ashes of its predecessor.)
9. Royalty: I’m not much into royalty but I do have Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905) sitting coyly on my shelves.
10. Architecture: based around a fantastic castle, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast (1950), the second of the renowned trilogy (if we discount the posthumous title completed by his wife from Peake’s notes) follows on from Titus Groan; my background notes for the latter are here, though I don’t think I ever got round to a review.

I suppose I could have followed the easy route here and just gone to non-fiction titles for categories like architecture, royalty, food and so on, but it seems as though that would go against the spirit of the exercise. Anyway, it’s so much more fun to see how far I could stretch a connection, as you can see.

11. Clothing: Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1836) is that author’s satire on fashion, clothing and the humans that wear them; another book I got part way through but hadn’t the maturity to really appreciate.
12. Family member: no, not the author but the key word in the title is why I chose Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue (1990).
13. Time of day: I quail at the intensity of the author, but am still looking forward to Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984).
14. Music: the late Oliver Sach’s Musicophilia (2008) is one of a handful of books on music and the brain that I own, all fascinating but all so far waiting for me to take the plunge instead of paddling in the shallows.
15. Paranormal being: Ambrose Bierce’s The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary (1967) is so enjoyable to dip into, particularly when one is searching for a really impish definition of a seemingly innocuous word.
16. Occupation: before Richard Dawkins’ notoriety as a so-called fundamentalist atheist he was a noted populariser of science, as in The Blind Watchmaker (1986). I’ve read Unweaving the Rainbow and The God Delusion, but even though I’ve only skimmed The Selfish Gene I sort of know what to expect from this title — insights from diverse viewpoints and disciplines.
17. Season: right now I’m rationing Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book (2003) to a chapter or two at a time so as to eke out its absolute delights.
18. Colour: another instance of me being creative, Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke (1985) is a fine homage to Victorian penny dreadfuls, with a really admirable leading protagonist.
19. Celestial body: Eva Ibbotson’s The Star of Kazan (2004) fits this category perfectly.
20. Something that grows: I can’t believe I still haven’t read Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree (2015) or any of her other titles; very remiss of me.

There, that wasn’t too bad, was it? Is this an exercise that appeals to you too? And if you’ve read any of the books I haven’t yet tackled, which one would you recommend I try sooner rather than later?

34 thoughts on “I Spy

  1. Little Princess is a good one, though it is a touch soppy if one compares it to The Secret Garden which I absolutely love. And she isn’t really a princess, so your lack of enthusiasm for royalty themed books shouldn’t be in the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I occasionally do ‘soppy’ so that’s alright, and as a commoner is involved that suits me! I don’t mind royalty so long as they don’t take themselves too seriously. I accompanied a local choir recently when they sang for a visit by Prince Charles, so slightly conflicted—just glad I didn’t have to shake his hand… 😁

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so achingly emotional so far, without in any way being overtly emotional—can’t thank you enough for recommending it. My partner (whom I let read it before me) has insisted I gift it to her afterwards so she can revisit it whenever she feels the need.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice collection, Chris! I am quite intrigued by Swords at Sunset and Gormenghast, which I never heard of, and I can recommend Sachs’ book, as well as those of Dawkins which popularize science 🙂 I enjoyed Nesbit’s Psammead series, The Story of the Amulet is still waiting for me, however The Little Princess is one of those books that are safer left only as a fond enough memory and not something to be reread 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I shall pass A Little Princess straight onto a grandchild once I’ve read it—unless they’re all grown up by the time I get around to it!

      I read the Nesbit a couple or so years ago but never reviewed it. My memory was that it felt more episodic than the others in the series and had some now questionable attitudes to indigenous peoples, but maybe a reread will help put it into perspective enough to give a balanced judgement.

      Oh, you may well love Peake’s Gormenghast series, Ola, I certainly do and have only read the first! Have a read of the pre-review posts that I link to and see what you think.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. piotrek

        Nesbit I’ve just started reading to my nieces, they enjoy it very much, and its also fun for me. Peake is on my list, and on my shelf, I definitely intend to read his opus one day.

        And Selfish Gene is just great, whatever one might think about Dawkins’ activism. For me, he could have just stopped there with his writing – it’s more powerful than anything he says right now, and subtle 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I agree, a lot of fun in Nesbit must be reading it aloud to a receptive audience — though obviously I haven’t had that particular Nesbit experience, I have read to our kids (when they were young) mostly picture books and preschool stories.

          I see that Dawkins has just embarrassed himself — again — on Twitter, but I am looking forward to The Blind Watchmaker nevertheless. And Peake, of course.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. This is an interesting challenge, isn’t it? I like your choices. You’ve mentioned a few books that I’ve enjoyed – particularly The Phoenix and the Carpet and the Gormenghast trilogy (which I really want to re-read soon) – and others, such as Swords at Sunset and The Summer Book, which I’m looking forward to reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for the inspiration, Helen, even though I know you said it wasn’t original to you. I did very much enjoy this as an exercise, an excuse to peruse my shelves, remind myself where books had actually ended up (no clear system to their shelving, unfortunately, other than convenience and serendipity) and a reason to share titles with others. Glad to see there’s significant overlap in our choices and tastes! I think you’d enjoy the Jansson too. 😊


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    1. Oh, that end of term feeling I know, whether you’re teaching or taught, autistic or not, you don’t appreciate how much stress it is / must have been until you have to stop.


    1. Thanks so much, Daphne, I definitely enjoyed rooting out these titles and I think you would too. Almost certainly I shall do this exercise again in a year or two!


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