An end in sight

As we start to pass through the portals of the New Year you may have noticed I still haven’t fully reviewed 2018. But how can one truly review something that isn’t yet complete? Let one meal be finished before we can start digesting, I say, and then we can contemplate the next smorgasbord!

Here then — on the last day of the year — is my look back at the last year’s achievements, presented with a clean conscience that 2018 is indeed done and dusted, or will be by the time many of you read this …

Now, statistics can be boring unless one draws conclusions from them, so I’ll accentuate the conclusions but row back on the number crunching!

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The Last Ten Books tag

This is a marvellous tag which I borrowed from Annabel at AnnaBookBel, after she borrowed it in her turn … and maybe you will be enthused enough to do the same!

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Promises of special things

Inverted commas 5: Will Stanton’s Christmas

Christmas Eve. It was the day when the delight of Christmas really took fire in the Stanton family. Hints and glimmerings and promises of special things, which had flashed in and out of life for weeks before, now suddenly blossomed into a constant glad expectancy. The house was full of wonderful baking smells from the kitchen, in the corner of which Gwen could be found putting the final touches to the icing of the Christmas cake. Her mother had made the cake three weeks before; the Christmas pudding, three months before that.

In Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (1973) Will Stanton’s family is preparing for the great day in their little corner of England. The conifer, grown locally, is fetched into the house:

When they carried the tree ceremonially through the front door, the twins seized it with cross-boards and screwdrivers, to give it a base. At the other end of the room Mary and Barbara sat in a rustling sea of coloured paper, cutting it into strips, red, yellow, blue, green, and gluing them into interlocked circles for paper-chains.

For them, as for many families, the decorating of the tree is left to the night before, all such ornamentation remaining until Twelfth Night when the Feast of the Epiphany (marking the visit by the Three Magi) takes place.

Out of the boxes came all the familiar decorations that would turn the life of the family into a festival for twelve nights and days: the golden-haired figure for the top of the tree; the strings of jewel-coloured lights. Then there were the fragile glass Christmas-tree balls, lovingly preserved for years. Half-spheres whorled like red and gold-green seashells, slender glass spears, spider-webs of silvery glass threads and beads; on the dark limbs of the tree they hung and gently turned, shimmering.

All of the foregoing sounds like many a traditional Christmas. The next day there will be the visit to the village church for the Christmas Day service. But little else is overtly religious — the tree, the yule log, the preparations for feasting, the paper chains and greenery strewn around, all smack of a pagan midwinter festival more than the advent of a deity. At the local Manor the songs remain resolutely heathen in inspiration: a traditional wassailing song, the lullaby known as the Coventry Carol, Good King Wenceslas based on a medieval Bohemian legend.

And then Will later will find himself reading lines from The Book of Gramarye, verses that at first sight appear traditional but in truth are out of time:

He that sees blowing the wild wood tree,
And peewits circling their watery glass,
Dreams about Strangers that yet may be
Dark to our eyes, Alas!

There are hints that old Welsh myths are interwoven here, in lines translated by Robert Graves from his reconstruction of the sixth-century Cad Goddeu or ‘The Battle of the Trees’, a Welsh poem from The Book of Taliesin which he included in the mythic study The White Goddess:

I have plundered the fern | Through all secrets I spie;
Old Math ap Mathonwy | Knew no more than I.

And when Will encounters Herne the Hunter in Windsor Forest, the secrets of the battle between Light and Dark will be laid bare. In The Dark is Rising the author emphasises that the time of the midwinter solstice and the Twelve Days of Christmas are a magical and significant time of year.

No doubt this is one of the reasons the Church chose this period to celebrate the advent of Christ, whose actual birthday we are never told and will have no real way of knowing: throughout the northern hemisphere there are old traditions which some of us moderns consider essentially ‘Christian’ in basis but which in fact have long been there to mark the change of season and the turning of the year, the days of darkness turning towards the light.

But of course you all knew that.


A review of The Dark is Rising will appear in due course but, in the meantime, may I wish everybody the very best of Christmases, however you celebrate it!

Ten fictional books

Image credit: WordPress Free Media Library

I don’t think I’m the only person to be intrigued, even fascinated, by make-believe fictional books that appear in real fictional books. The kind of books that you could almost credit existed once, indeed heartily wish did exist in fact, whether or not you have any intention of reading them.

While reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising I recently did a little list of these works that I’d really like to imagine as existing and available, if not in our own then at least in some parallel universe. Various websites have selections of such fictional books — for example, Wikipedia’s is here — but I’ve deliberately not consulted these, relying instead on memories of novels I’ve read (all links are to my reviews or posts) or intend to read soon.

The sources for the fictional books are listed afterwards: the books themselves are in no particular order other than as they occurred to me.

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The story so far

Books read and reviewed in Goodreads 2018 Reading Challenge, as of December 15th: https://www.goodreads.com/user_challenges/10308469

A little over halfway through the last month of the year, and it’s time to see how my bookish year has gone so far. I set myself an easy Goodreads challenge to read forty books in 2018 but soon upped it to fifty-two as I passed the first benchmark well within forty weeks. I’ve reviewed 53 books for the Goodreads challenge, but I’ve actually read two more, with two reviews in preparation (titles by Kate Atkinson and Natalie Babbitt). I may well hit fifty-six or more by year’s end as I’m reading two more at the moment.

Of course, I know I’m a lightweight compared to many of you so these are just observations (obvs!) and not a boast.

Another goal I’d set myself for this year was to even up the gender balance in terms of authors read. How did I do?

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Vita at Sissinghurst

The gatehouse tower to Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, home to Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson, serves as an entry point to this illustrated post placing Vita in context before a review of her final novel. Her presence is evident in lettered tiles set into a window sill on the turret stairs.

Continuing up the stairs …

… the visitor soon is able to enjoy the views of the garden ‘rooms’ set out by Vita and Harold:

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Cardiff BookTalk Le Guin event

Cardiff BookTalk describes itself as “the book group with a difference: we listen to experts on great literature and then explore the big themes from the books in lively conversation.” Recently its members have been exploring science fiction and fantasy genres, including a screening and discussion of the biopic Mary Shelley as part of Cardiff FrankenFest, a contribution to a worldwide Frankenreads initiative.

Earlier this week I managed to attend a special discussion of Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and hope you’ll enjoy the report on the evening that follows, not least because Lizzie Ross and I hosted a Witch Week event which included posts on Le Guin. This year marks not only UKLG’s death in January but also the fiftieth anniversary of the groundbreaking A Wizard of Earthsea, and as a feminist she remains a notable figure in a year that has seen the #MeToo movement take off, plus the centenary of partial women’s suffrage being won in the UK, along with unofficial recognition of 2018 as being the year of the woman. And not before time, as most years irritatingly seem to be dedicated to only half of the world’s population.

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