Confound their language

Vintage GWR LMS poster of Christ Church, Oxford

Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence:
An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution
by Rebecca F Kuang.
Harper Voyager, 2022.

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

Genesis 11:4

The geographical centre of England. Dreaming spires. Ivory towers. But violence? Revolution? But then this is also subtitled “an arcane history” in the chronology of the University of Oxford, so we may take the violence and the revolt with a pinch of salt: such things as are described can never happen, we may assume. Or can they?

Babel is epic, in all senses of the word.  It’s a story, sure enough, from the Greek ἔπος, epos, a speech, a song, demonstrating its love of language and literature; it’s composed to be on a grand scale, ranging to and fro from Guangzhou to Oxford and covering many years; it’s also epic in the modern sense of awesome, impressing through its ambition and sheer imaginative creativity; and it’s also epic in that it’s over five hundred pages long, which for some may be too much and for others deliciously intense.

In focusing on a quartet of language students in the 1830s it encourages us – successfully, I think – to invest in their personal and collective histories. But it also invites us to contemplate ethics, colonialism, racism, loyalty, and privilege; and above all we are asked to consider the necessity of violence in attempting to break the obduracy of those who rule while disregarding the needs of all in society.

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Do unto others

© C A Lovegrove

The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig.
Abacus, 2021 (2020).

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Luke 6:31

A little way into this modern morality tale Hannah – poverty-stricken, downtrodden, and en route to see her dying mother in Cornwall – is invited into a first-class carriage by Jinni. To Hannah’s surprise she finds herself making a pact with Jinni for each to murder the other’s husband, consciously echoing the central concept in Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. All that remains is, apparently, to see how this plays out.

I see, however, that I’m not the only reader to find this mix of mystery thriller and misery memoir hard going, primarily because anyone familiar with domestic abuse – personally or through a family member or acquaintance – will recognise all the classic signs: the physical and psychological abuse, the bullying and the financial strictures, the control exerted through coercion and threats, made especially unbearable when there are children involved.

So, if it weren’t for the murder mystery element in the novel and the literary parallels which the author referenced the sheer misery of proceedings would’ve been enough to have depressed this reader immeasurably. However, Amanda Craig raises hopes here that guilty parties will get their just desserts, not just echoing the Sermon on the Mount but also, as some may know, Charles Kingsley’s fairy Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid, the counterpart of Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby in The Water-Babies. Will Hannah – her name in Hebrew means ‘grace’ or ‘favoured one’ – conform to the hypothesis of nominative determinism?

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#TDiRS22: The Lost Land

Susan Cooper,

What happens in fantasy has come out of the universe of truth.

Susan Cooper.¹

A large section of the final book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence is set in what she calls The Lost Land – which, incidentally, is the name of her official website, In Silver on the Tree two of the protagonists, Will Stanton and Bran Davies, travel back in time to the City, the Country, and the Castle of this Lost Land to win a key object in their fight against the Dark.

A few readers feel confused by this episode. So many previous episodes in the sequence are set in real or nearly real places – Cornwall, Buckinghamshire, Wales – even if transformed by magic, and in a fictional present or past; but the Lost Land is so obviously a fantastical setting that it almost seems out of place.

In this discussion post I want to explore some of the author’s likely literary and historical inspirations for her Lost Land and suggest possible reasons for including the boys’ sojourn here in an area off the coast of Wales now covered by the sea.

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The goblin master

Arthur Rackham:
Masterpieces of Art

by Joseph Simas.
Flame Tree Publishing, 2015.

A treasured book in my childhood – unfortunately no longer in my possession – was The Arthur Rackham Fairy Book, a hardback first published in 1933 with “23 favourite tales” and a full-colour dust jacket labelled ‘Hop-o’-my-thumb went up to the Ogre softly and pulled off his seven-league boots.’

That selection of fairytales ranged from traditional English tales through Grimm, Perrault, Andersen, and even Washington Irving, to the Arabian Nights, and featured full-page colour illustrations by Rackham, with some black and white pen and ink vignettes and silhouettes peppered through the text.

Forever nostalgic for a missing childhood gem I therefore pounced on this art book when I spotted it in the library to help ease the ache of loss; and a delightful romp through the range of Rackham’s œuvre it certainly proved.

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Winter fuel

Pembrokeshire garden © C A Lovegrove

RSPB Pocket Birds
by Jonathan Elphick and John Woodward.
Dorling Kindersley 2003.

17th January, 2013. As I write this there is a female Great Spotted Woodpecker on the bird feeder, hammering away at the fat balls.

I don’t hear it early morning now as it taps the bark on the dying Scots pine outside – maybe there’s no live food available, or maybe I’m not waking early enough – but it’s got bolder and no longer flies away in fright when we appear at the window, as the occasional shy jay does. The woodpecker is a sight to swell the heart, with its striking pied plumage and the bold splash of red under its tail clearly visible as it feeds.

As it’s winter now, with the first appearances of sleet and snow, it’s vital to keep the feeders replenished with mixed seed and fat balls to provide fuel for wild birds.

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Humour is the salt

Paper-cut by Hans Christian Andersen

Fairy Tales and Stories
by Hans Christian Andersen,
translated with an introduction by Reginald Spink.
Illustrations by the author.
Everyman’s Library No 4, 1960.

“My aim was to be the writer for all ages; the naīve was only one element of the fairy tales, and humour was the salt in them.”
– Andersen.

Introduction, vii

Hans Christian Andersen wrote more than 150 fairytales and short stories, several of which are not only familiar but well-loved around the world. ‘The Little Mermaid,’ ‘The Ugly Duckling,’ ‘Thumbelina,’ ‘The Princess on the Pea,’ ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, ‘The Little Match Girl’ – the mere mention of the titles is often enough to evoke the entirety of each tale in our minds.

It’s sometimes easy to forget they’re not entirely traditional tales because they were penned and published by an eccentric Danish writer two centuries ago; and yet they’ve achieved traditional status partly because Andersen based many of them on the stories he’d heard growing up, or written highly individual variations on tales he’d read from The Arabian Nights and the collections by the Brothers Grimm.

Yet, apart from the often repeated stories, whether retold straight or adapted in various media, there are a host of his other whimsical, even melancholy, narratives which remain generally unknown or ignored, pieces which deserve seeking out to be enjoyed, or at least turned over in the mind. As a whole it’s a collection I personally have found worth keeping by the bed to dip into.

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Incidental extras

Frederic Edwin Church’s 1865 painting “Aurora Borealis”: Wikipedia Commons

“Everything has a meaning, if only we could read it.”
— ‘Lyra and the Birds’

The recently published short story The Collectors by Philip Pullman was a moderately satisfying stopgap while we awaited the final volume of his The Book of Dust, which is anticipated as the completion of the saga of Lyra Silvertongue and her dæmon Pantalaimon.

Following on from the His Dark Materials trilogy The Book of Dust has been extending the long journey that began in 1995 with Northern Lights (titled The Golden Compass in North America in case the UK title was assumed to indicate a nonfiction book, but erroneous in that the alethiometer is neither golden nor indeed a compass).

But Pullman has been filling in some of the gaps with what I consider as incidental extras, giving us bits of history to enlarge the background to places and personages in Lyra’s world, feeding us tantalising tidbits to assuage our literary cravings.

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Grave concerns

A Tale of Two Glass Towns
by Nicola Friar.
Olympia Publishers, 2023.

Two timelines: 1999-2000 and 2019-2020. Two settings: Norfolk and Cheshire. Two protagonists – or are they the same? And multiple themes: computer bugs and viruses, aliens and refugees, glass manufacturing and Verdopolis. Nicola Friar’s debut children’s novel weaves personal matters into a more universal narrative about how we, whether young or old, try to deal with weighty matters like acceptance of difference, fear of the unknown, and the ache of bereavement.

Seen largely through the eyes of seven-year-old Theo, this tale aims to reflect the anxieties of a youngster trying to make sense of a confusing world on the cusp of the 21st century, anxieties manifested in vivid dreams involving an amorphous fog, a graveyard, and Bob – a bichon frise – who acts as Theo’s psychopomp through the mists of time.

It’s a brave endeavour to write about what one personally holds dear in a story that ostensibly is pure fiction, but the author to a large extent walks that liminal path with a careful and determined tread. The result is a narrative which, though not quite perfect, should appeal to the sensitive young reader who shares similar worries about what the future may hold for themselves and for their nearest and dearest.

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The first desperate struggle

Sir Hiram Maxim’s flying machine, 1891-4, on its rails

‘The Argonauts of the Air’ (1895)
by H G Wells,
in Selected Short Stories.
Penguin, 1958.

“… this story, which was written only to tell how the first of all flying-machines was launched and flew.”

In the last decade of the 19th century men like Otto Lilienthal and Sir Hiram Maxim experimented with gliders and heavier-than-air craft to attempt the conquest of the air. Maxim effectively stopped practical trials after an unfortunate accident in 1894, leaving it to fiction writers to imagine how the first powered flight might turn out until the Wright Brothers actually achieved success in 1903.

H G Wells rose to the occasion in his short story ‘The Argonauts of the Air’, first published in 1895, the year following when Maxim ceased his trials. He borrowed some aspects from Maxim’s abandoned flying-machine, but sited his craft’s launch track southwest of London rather than to the east.

Are the Wellsian engineers more successful than Maxim’s? Do his argonauts actually make it into the air? The writer leaves us guessing right to the final page or so.

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Blue jewel in the darkness: #LoveHain

Starry sky (WordPress Free Photo Library)

Rocannon’s World (1966)
by Ursula K Le Guin,
in Worlds of Exile and Illusion.
Orb Books, 1996.

“I ride with Olhor, who seeks to hear his enemy’s voice, who has traveled through the great dark, who has seen the World hang like a blue jewel in the darkness.”
— Chapter VII

An ethnologist from the League of All Worlds is studying one of the hominid species on an unnamed planet, formally known as Fomalhaut II, when his returning team are killed by a bomb. It appears that the League’s opponents, the inhabitants of the planet Faraday, have established a secret base on this uncharted world from which to launch a preemptive strike against the League. This is the major inciting incident that propels the novel forward.

But before this scenario establishes that we are in science fiction territory a prologue (based on a short story from 1964) places us firmly in a fantasy setting with an account of an heirloom being retrieved from underground troglodytes: we are introduced to a pseudo-medieval society, living in castles, mounted on flying steeds, treating with elvish and dwarvish beings, and a heroine who visits and journeys from a subterranean kingdom, only to return home to find everyone she knew has either died or grown old.

The author’s first published novel, Rocannon’s World was also the first title set in the author’s Hainish universe; as a work we could justifiably term a science fantasy it lays out many of Le Guin’s principal concerns — balanced and sustainable living, environmentalism, psychology and anthropology, morality, human imagination, and much more — all contained within a rarely predictable narrative framework.

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Seven inventive plots

Jan Mark 1943—2006

A Can of Worms and other stories
by Jan Mark.
Red Fox, 1992 (1990).

“Once I’ve finished a book that’s all I wanted to say about those people in that situation, I might, I very often do wish I’d written it differently, but I never want to write more.”

In this septet of tales by the late Jan Mark she explores the world as experienced by seven British teens still of school age: in the narratives the youngsters reveal their hopes and fears, their obsessions and yearnings, how they might occupy their free time and cope with family situations. School and homework may demand their attention but it’s their imaginative endeavours that we observe.

And each and every one is a standalone tale. Book or short story, her well-delineated individuals appear once and once only because she’ll have said all she wants to say about them and the particular situation they find themselves in.

But, for us readers, it’s enough that – however briefly – we share those aspirations or disappointments, and sympathise or even empathise with each youngster, be we of the same age or somewhat older, perhaps with more jaded personalities or a more jaundiced view of life: it’s salutary then to remind oneself of the feelings we may once have had on the threshold of our adult lives.

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#LoveHain: Rocannon’s World

#LoveHain #UKLGsf

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin “redrew the map of modern science fiction, imagining a galactic confederation of human colonies founded by the planet Hain, an array of worlds whose divergent societies—the result of both evolution and genetic engineering—allow her to speculate on what is intrinsic in human nature.”

Incorporating ‘The Dowry of Angyar’ – a short story from 1964, here retitled as ‘Semley’s Necklace’ – Rocannon’s World (1966) was Ursula Le Guin’s first published novel and the first work to be considered in our #LoveHain readalong starting today, as 22nd January is the fifth anniversary of the author’s passing in 2018.

As I indicated in the introductory post, ‘Reading UKLG’s sf: #LoveHain’, for each of the eight published Hainish/Ekumen titles I shall pose three general questions (which you may either answer or ignore) to get discussion started in the comments; and here too is where you can link to your own discussions and/or reviews.

(Incidentally, you don’t have to sign up to join in the chat. And no need to commit to reading all the titles – dip in and out as and when it suits you!)

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Aliases and anomalies

John Verney, The Island (Bournemouth & Poole College Collection)

The Evidence by Christopher Priest. Gollancz, 2021 (2020).

“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.”

Shakespeare, ‘Richard II’

Against his better judgement a crime writer, invited to an overseas conference, attends, and not only has to suffer huge inconveniences but is then reluctantly fed ideas for a plot based on a true crime by a retired cop.

No, that’s not quite the sum of it. In The Evidence we find ourselves on another world, one girdled by an island archipelago, which suffers gravitational anomalies and, in places, something called mutability which somehow changes the reality of events. And while much of the technology feels both contemporary and familiar the social and geopolitical systems are either arcane (as in feudal) or polarised (as in totalitarian versus more liberal systems).

On the other hand – how many hands do we have? – this is pure metafiction: an author describes the processes of writing fiction in this, an actual work of fiction, where sleight of hand, distraction, misdirection and mistaken perceptions are discussed and then perpetrated on the actual as well as the hypothetical reader. You either like what’s been done here or you feel you’ve had the wool pulled over your eyes. Is the narrator reliable or is he too affected by mutability at the deepest level?

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Deep mythic roots

Replica Sutton Hoo helmet © C A Lovegrove

The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki.
Translated by Jesse L Byock.
Penguin Classics, 1999.

Put together in this form around 1400 CE, Hrolf’s Saga is a wonderfully barbaric tale, a composition with roots deep in northern mythology and, for its time, hardly touched by Christian values or notions of chivalry. The modern reader may recognise many elements and motifs familiar from other narratives and traditions – Beowulf and Hamlet, for example, the Nibelungenlied, even Arthurian legend – all of which suggests that the well of story is broad as well as deep.

Although for modern tastes it’s a narrative that may somewhat meander, switching its focus from one individual to another, there’s no doubting that the saga’s thrust is towards the story of a certain Hrolf, a part-historical, part-legendary figure around in fifth- or sixth-century Denmark, localised on the island of Sjælland (anglicised as Zealand).

Yet even though its action takes place in lands surrounding both the North Sea and the Baltic this saga was to find its final form across the North Atlantic in Iceland, settled by Norse descendants.

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12 TBR in 2023: #TBRyear10

This is self-explanatory. I hope so anyway! Twelve books from my to-be-read pile(s) that have been around since before 2022 and need to be given due consideration are slated to finally get the recognition they deserve – or had coming to them.

At the rate of roughly one every month that shouldn’t be too hard, should it? And it will be an additional incentive to create more shelf space of course – for new titles!

Adam Burgess ( is hosting this jamboree for the tenth year, and I’m duly tempted to join in, as detailed on this post. So – temptation having been yielded to – here goes!

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