Around the world

© C A Lovegrove

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, they say. That’s as may be but, even though I don’t believe in hell, good intentions have certainly paved my route to reading more widely in world literature of late.

If ‘Around the World in Eighty Books’ as a popular meme smacks of hubris, Around the World in a Few Books seemed more realistic as far as I’m concerned. I therefore picked a couple or more flags to wave just to signal my intentions this year. One was Gilion Dumas’s European Reading Challenge, and another was Lory Hess’s Summer in Other Languages (whether works read in the original language or in translation).

As we approach the three-quarter point of the year Twenty Twenty-one dare I pause to take stock of where I’ve got to and what I’ve achieved? Well, of course I dare, hence what follows!

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Big Thinks

Illustration for Comus by Arthur Rackham, 1921

The Island of Doctor Moreau
by H G Wells.
Introduction by Adam Roberts (2009).
SF Masterworks.
Gollancz 2017 (1896).

These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes.

Chapter 14: ‘Doctor Moreau explains’

After a collision at sea Edward Prendick survives by being picked up by a ship delivering supplies to Noble’s Island in the South Pacific. But the vicissitudes he has already suffered are as nothing to those he encounters after being reluctantly landed on the domain of a certain Dr Moreau: as in Shakespeare’s The Tempest “the island is full of noises” and Prendick is unprepared for the creatures that produce them.

Francisco Goya captioned his famous aquatint The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters with “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.” In The Island of Doctor Moreau Wells only just reins in the novella’s impossible monsters with a veneer of rationality, and even then the impossible monsters strain our credulity, reinforcing our sense of a nightmare scenario: the reader will wonder what fresh hell awaits them as they turn each page.

Our protagonist narrates how, despite his biological training, nothing has prepared him for the devastating year he will experience on this slumbering sea-girt volcano. For here in this isolated dystopia he meets horrors he could never have imagined: a House of Pain, a sociopathic autocrat, a drunken assistant with his “man Friday,” M’ling, and other perversions of Creation.

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Pearls of every kind

From The Meadows of Gold
by Al-Masʿūdī,
translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone.
Penguin Great Journeys No 2,
Penguin Classics 2007 (947)

The author of this book compares himself to a man who, having found pearls of every kind and every shade scattered here and there, gathers them into a necklace and makes them a precious piece of jewellery…

’80. The author addresses his readers’

Born in Baghdad at the tail end of the ninth century CE, Masʿūdī or Al-Masʿūdī was intensely curious about the world around him, becoming an indefatigable traveller, researching and interviewing informants before authoring several original works.

Though only a couple of these books have survived the intervening millennium enough remains for Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone to have chosen and translated several chapters from a multi-volume work entitled The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Precious Gems, plus a few from The Book of Admonition and Revision. Taken as a whole their selection gives a good general impression of Al-Masʿūdī’s approach and the scope of his vision.

From this we can gather that he seems to have travelled extensively in the Middle East, perhaps in the role of a merchant trader, along the coast of the Indian subcontinent and very possibly through the East Indies, past Indochina and up to Guangzhou or Canton (here called Khānfū). What comes through are the very well-established trade and cultural connections right across the Old World, from Europe to Korea, connections which later writers such as Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville were also to take full advantage of.

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An unappetising mishmash

winged

Explore Dragons
by Richard Freeman,
illustrated by Ian Brown.
Heart of Albion Press 2006

There is a universal fascination for dragons that is hard to quantify: they seem to appeal to folklorists, fantasy fans and fossil hunters alike. C S Lewis famously wrote a short piece of alliterative verse which neatly encapsulates the kind of reaction that discussion of dragons can give rise to:

We were talking of DRAGONS, Tolkien and I
In a Berkshire bar. The big workman
Who had sat silent and sucked his pipe
All the evening, from his empty mug
With gleaming eye glanced towards us:
“I seen ’em myself!” he said fiercely.

Whether you’ve seen ’em or not, you will no doubt have something to say about them, whether they exist, let alone existed, what size or colour they were, whether they breathed fire or merely had a poisonous bite, or if they had wings.

And any book about dragons therefore raises expectations in all of us; will Explore Dragons fulfil those expectations for anyone?

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Meeting and greeting

© C A Lovegrove

You should know me by now, you’ll know I don’t usually like book tagging, in fact I don’t usually do tags. Specifically, I don’t do the kind of tags which pose all kinds of impertinent questions, almost up to but not quite asking “What is your PIN number?” (Don’t get me started on the tautology involved in that last phrase.)

But when, under the tag Good to Meetcha, Bookforager posted some quirky questions which I found strangely pertinent I was, dear Reader, extremely tempted. In fact I went further and swallowed the hook, the line and the veritable sinker.

I hate the usual “what do you do?” and “where are you from?” questions that normally get fired out upon making a new acquaintance. The answers invariably fail to give me any sense of the person I’m talking to, and feel … judge-y. So this tag is about the things I actually want to know when I first meet a new person (specifically, the ones I want to be friends with).

Bookforager, ‘Fun for Monday

How could I resist? More to the point, how can anyone resist such an inviting preamble?

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Of campfires and sagas

WordPress Free Photo Library

The Brothers Lionheart
by Astrid Lindgren.
Swedish title: Bröderna Lejonhjärta (1973)
translated by Joan Tate (1975).
Illustrated by Ilon Wikland (1973).
Oxford University Press, 2009.

“This can’t be real. It’s like something out of an ancient dream.”

Karl Lionheart, Chapter 12.

King Richard of England received his nickname of Lionheart during the Crusades, but legend has it that when on the way home he was captured and a ransom demanded for his release, his troubadour Blondel discovered the castle in which he was imprisoned by hearing the king sing a verse of his favourite song.

Brothers Jonathan and Karl Lion have a similar relationship to each other, Jonathan telling his invalid young sibling tales about the country of Nangiyala where they will live after they die. When a succession of incidents means they are reunited in Nangiyala may they expect an idyllic existence, passing their days in campfires and sagas?

The Brothers Lionheart turns out however to be a tale of bravery and betrayals, and of cruelty and compassion when Nangiyala comes under threat from the neighbouring polity of Karmanyaka. Will little Karl find the courage he needs to live up to their acquired epithet of Lionheart and overcome his fears before tragedy strikes?

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Two-faced

Blood-red moon: WordPress Free Photo Library

Double Indemnity
by James M Cain.
Foreword by James Lee Burke.
Orion Books 2005 (1936).

The moon.

The final words we’re left with in this classic thriller gives us the image of Earth’s satellite. As a metaphor it is particularly apt: the lunar body is two-faced, always presenting the same side to us, and Cain’s novella deliberately gives us a one-sided account of what is happening.

But what we’re told, however dark it is, is not as dark as the side we don’t see. The narrator thinks he has all the facts, holds all the cards, is the prime mover in what transpires, and we go along with that. But the far side of the moon has its own secrets; and when at one point its disc seems to rise in the west over the Pacific Ocean we are alerted to the fact that not all is as it seems.

In the US insurance companies sometimes provide double indemnity, in other words they may pay double the face value of an insurance policy in certain circumstances such as when accidental death can be proved. Double indemnity is what the main protagonists are counting on when they plan the perfect murder; but will their plot be bedevilled by two-timing and double-cross?

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Kingsley’s riddle

Linley Sambourne
Linley Sambourne

The Water-Babies:
a Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby
by Charles Kingsley.
Edited with introduction and notes by Brian Alderson.
World’s Classics, Oxford University Press 1995 (1863)

The Water-Babies first appeared in book form in 1863, more than a century and a half ago. Though I was probably aware of it when younger, I must have read it for myself in the early 1960s in one of those cheap Dent’s children’s classics editions. A decade later I was re-reading it and taking notes, spurred on by the challenge Kingsley issues in his dedication:

Come read me my riddle, each good little man:
If you cannot read it, no grown-up folk can.

Of course, The Water-Babies was written for his youngest son, Grenville Arthur, who was just five when the last chapter was serialised in Macmillan’s Magazine, but I felt that I was included amongst the ‘all other good little boys’ of the dedication. But being from a hundred and more years later I could hardly be expected to get all the references, and so began decades of intermittent desultory research.

This 1995 issue with Brian Alderson’s introduction, extensive notes, select bibliography and chronology of Kingsley’s life both confirmed and hugely expanded my understanding of the novel; but to be honest I still feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of this fascinating if flawed masterpiece. This review, therefore, can only hint at the solution to Kingsley’s sly riddle.

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Echoes and anticipations

Detail from Sutton Hoo helmet © C A Lovegrove

Yet the apparently casual form of the interlace is deceptive; it actually has a very subtle kind of cohesion. No part of the narrative can be removed without damage to the whole, for within any given section there are echoes of previous parts and anticipations of later ones.

Richard C West, ‘The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings‘.

As I start The Two Towers in my latest reread of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings I come to the fact that a fellowship of nine — consisting of hobbits, men, wizard, elf and dwarf — which the author has so carefully put together and taken through various vicissitudes, is now scattered almost literally to the four winds.

Why, a third of the way through his epic fantasy, does he deliberately unravel a plait that he has woven together out of various strands, the timelines of our nine individuals? Is it because, as we will soon intuit, he wants to replait these threads into a bigger whole?

An interpretation which has increasingly won favour in recent years — that Tolkien structured his narrative using interlace technique — serves us well enough in considering the apparent splintering of the plotline, and why any dismay felt by the innocent reader only makes sense when seen as part of a bigger plan.

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From whimsy to saga

winged

The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien.
George Allen & Unwin (3rd edition 1972)

Wizard at the door?
Twelve dwarves too? You’ll be telling
me a dragon’s next!
I must have spent my childhood and adolescence skim-reading most of the literature I was introduced to, gaining impressionist pictures of those works but missing much of the subtlety of language, characterisation and narrative. Having taken it on myself in recent years to begin re-reading those books with more attentiveness The Hobbit seemed a natural choice.
Rather than merely summarising what must be one of the most familiar tales in modern fantasy I’ve opted to discuss the personal insights that this re-reading suggested to me.

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Nights at the opera

The Witness for the Dead
by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette).
Solaris / Rebellion Publishing Ltd 2021

He stared at me as if I’d told him I could hear fishes singing.

Sometimes the effectiveness of a novel can be judged by whether it can make you believe in impossible things, such as being able to hear fish singing. On this basis The Witness for the Dead fulfils this criterion with flying colours, even though no piscine choirs are involved. Elves and goblins are involved, however, as are listening to the dead, dowsing for individuals’ whereabouts, and confronting ghouls and ghosts; and yet far from been presented with a succession of tired fantasy tropes we’re instead served a nuanced character study and an engaging crime fiction.

In the imperial state of Ethuveraz Thara Celehar is a prelate of Ulis, the divinity who has charge of both death’s dominions and the moon. Thara is also a Witness for the Dead in the provincial city of Amalo, a calling that depends on his ability to tap into the emotions and last thoughts of those who’ve died either by violent means or in unclear circumstances, and thus to speak for them.

But Celehar’s status within the Ulineise hierarchy is anomalous, attracting political jealousy as well as support, and though accorded respect for his abilities he is regarded by many with suspicion, even fear. And his past hides a potential scandal which, though previously hushed up, could jeopardise everything for him.

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Doing things differently there

© C A Lovegrove

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

L P Hartley, ‘The Go-Between’ (1953)

The famous opening sentence of The Go-Between is such a powerful statement, not only because it’s undoubtedly true but also because it taps into our profoundest perceptions of living in the here and now while retaining a sense of the past as being somehow alien.

‘Alien’ is itself a word freighted with several values — sometimes meaning something extraterrestrial, or in a pejorative sense as somehow wrong or unwelcome — unsurprising when we consider it derives from the Latin alienus indicating “of or belonging to another; not one’s own; foreign; strange.” That quality of otherness, of difference in kind, is thus added to the notion of distancing, as suits alienus deriving from an Indo-European root meaning “beyond”.

Hartley’s phrase therefore combines our perceptions of difference and distance while expressing much that both attracts and repels us about even our own history. And it may explain why we have a fascination for stories that take us out of ourselves, and which deliberately confront us with what may be very unfamiliar.

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Bridgebuilding

imperial_sofa_topkapi
Interior of the Imperial Hall (Hünkar Sofası) at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul (by Gryffindor)

The Goblin Emperor
by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette).
Tor Books 2014.

When readers whose judgement you trust recommend this novel and even go as far as re-reading it within a short space of time you know there is something special about it.

And yet what on the surface of it makes it outstanding? It’s fantasy, yes — the title suggests as much — and there’s worldbuilding, and there’s the disregarded child who’s an orphan, and there are seemingly unpronounceable names, everything in fact that screams at the lover of contemporary novels to pass over this book. And I too, who ordinarily enjoys fantasy, am one who tends to put a book back on the bookshop pile when faced with a cast list of — it feels like — thousands, all with alien names.

So I have to ask myself then why I found this such an unputdownable title, and then perhaps attempt to persuade you to give it a try.

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Perilously inebriated

@perilreaders

Autumn. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. And of things that go bump! in the night. (No, I don’t mean falling leaves.) In the Fall one’s fancies turn to thoughts of … Frights, Fears, Foul Secrets and Fouler Deeds. Which is why Readers Imbibing Peril, if the XVI following RIP is any guide, has proved so popular for so very long.

Mystery
Suspense
Thriller
Dark Fantasy
Gothic
Horror
Supernatural

I think I may be able to muster up a few titles as likely suspects for my own reading, but whether I’ll actually get round to reading any of them (or indeed none of them) is beside the point. The point being that it’s usually fun to consider one’s choices.

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Calla and a blessing

© C A Lovegrove

How to be Brave
by Daisy May Johnson.
Pushkin Children’s Books 2021.

Good Sister Christine nodded. “People who tell you what not to read are generally not good people,” she said.

‘The Secrets of Good Sister Christine’

When a book begins ‘This is a story about three things’ and lists them as being brave, an Amazonian duck, and footnotes, you know this is no common or garden novel. Yes, if you’re a fan of Enid Blyton, Elinor Brent-Dyer and Angela Brazil, and have expectations that How to be Brave will be in the mould of classic girls boarding school fiction, you won’t be disappointed — but it’s so much more than that.

It’s a satisfying tale of how adversity of all kinds is overcome, but in place of the magic associated with fantasy we have a kind of heightened reality — because The School of the Good Sisters at Little Hampden has no ordinary curriculum and no ordinary teaching staff: here the subjects on the timetable include not just cooking but also welding, survival skills, helicopter maintenance and sundry surprising topics, and the teachers here happen to be what’s called a Blessing of Nuns.

In addition the school has two extra advantages in its favour: it has a library stocked with the most appropriate literature — books by Eva Ibbotson, Noël Streatfeild and Elizabeth Goudge for example, even The Lord of the Rings — and shelves, cupboards and drawers storing cakes of every kind, exquisite pâtisseries and biscuits including pink wafers. And of course architecturally it has all the best bits of Malory Towers, Hogwarts, and The Turrets.

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