Circles within circles

Porquerolles (credit: Bourrichon)

My Friend Maigret by Georges Simenon.
Translated by Nigel Ryan (1956).
Penguin Red Classic 2006 (1949)

The bells were still sending their circles of sound into the air.

Chapter 8

A petty crook has been shouting his mouth off about mon ami Maigret in a  popular hotel bar on one of the Îles d’Or off the southern French coast. The next day he is dead, shot first and his body mashed. Chief Inspector Maigret, shadowed by a colleague from Scotland Yard, is despatched to Porquerolles to investigate, leaving a drizzly late spring Paris for a balmy Mediterranean island.

Feeling his investigative style cramped by the English detective observing his famous methods Maigret finds himself additionally seduced by the sounds, smells and sights that assail his senses. Can he make progress in solving the mystery of who on the island would want Marcellin dead, and why?

As is familiar from many Maigret stories Simenon gets the reader to figuratively sit on the detective’s shoulder, sharing his thoughts and overhearing his quickfire questioning; the reader also has time to get caught up in descriptions of locale and prevailing atmospheres before Maigret’s final suspect or suspects are fingered.

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Lilith, the dragon and the frog prince

River Arno

New Penguin Parallel Text:
short stories in Italian / Racconti in Italiano.
Edited by Nick Roberts, Penguin Books 1999

A volume of nine short stories by nine 20th-century Italian writers has been with me for a score of years, not exactly studiously ignored but still incomprehensibly remaining unread. I’m not too sure why I hesitated because in translation they’ve been very satisfying, and although I’ve only read a selection of paragraphs from each story in the original the experience has been equally enlightening. At a time of pandemic only virtual travel is possible, so these brief narratives have evoked Italian life and lives really well when physical travel has been out of the question.

The authors whose names were familiar to me were Italo Calvino and Primo Levi, so it was interesting to comes across Leonardo Sciascia, Goffredo Parise, Stefano Benni and Antonio Tabucchi, while the female contributors who were included were Dacia Maraini, Susanna Tamaro and Sandra Petrignani. Nick Roberts (who translated a couple of the pieces) has done a great job selecting a variety in terms of subject, tone and style; and English versions by Avril Bardoni, Sharon Wood, Ruth Feldman, Tim Parks, Edward Williams, Charles Caroe and Chris Roberts have — as far as I can tell from my very limited command of Italian — have been very readable without being departing from the originals.

And what of the stories themselves? Here are psychological portraits, tales with a sting in the tale, insightful social narratives, reported conversations, a youngster’s stream of consciousness piece, even a satire, all very different and, like courses at a dinner, each needing a little time to savour and digest before moving on.

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Are you up for a Narniathon?

Image credit unknown

After I posted a review of Katherine Langrish’s excellent From Spare Oom to War Drobe one blogger expressed the thought “how wonderful a group read of the Narniad followed by Langrish’s book would be!” She teasingly added “Host it, Chris, host it next year!” And then another blogger joined in… Thanks so much, Laurie and Sandra, I hope you’re not offering me what could turn out a poisoned chalice!

Well, as leery as I am of potentially onerous commitments here I am actually contemplating it. Who knew? So what form should it take? When should it start? Which of the Chronicles of Narnia should a readalong begin with? And would any bloggers be interested in joining in?

I haven’t run a poll in quite a while so you lucky people will be treated to a short series now. To get you focused I’m borrowing a title previously used on social media (for, I think, watching screen adaptations of the series), namely Narniathon — short, precise and hopefully memorable.

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Summer, in summary: 2

“Books to the ceiling,
Books to the sky,
My pile of books is a mile high.
How I love them! How I need them!
I’ll have a long beard by the time I read them.”

Arnold Lobel

Between now and 1st September I shall be joining in Cathy’s activity 20 Books of Summer — except I’m going for a less strenuous fifteen books. I’ve already indicated a few of the books I’m hoping — nay, intending — to enjoy so I won’t repeat them here but, if you’ll humour me, I do want to advert to my mile-high pile of books.

During our Covid winter lockdown — longer in Wales than in, say, England — I found it relatively easy not to acquire new books: with most “non-essential” retail shops shut (though I’d argue, along with the French government, that books were in fact essential items) and with not being a great online shopper I found it gratifying to watch my shelves get a little more bare and cardboard boxes filling up with completed books for the Red Cross charity shop.

Now, however, to my shame and horror I am starting to requisition replacements faster than I’m consuming them. I blame retail outlets, ‘non-essential’ bookshops and charity shops once more being open for business. Because of course I can’t really put the blame on my weak-willed self, can I?

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Each one in its humour

Jizzle by John Wyndham.
Dennis Dobson 1974 (1954)

Fifteen short stories, five of which appeared originally in magazines like Argosy and Women’s Journal, run the gamut of fantasy, nearly all written in a tongue-in-cheek style not usually associated with the author of The Day of the Triffids or The Midwich Cuckoos.

Though jumping from time-travel to artificial intelligence via surreal fantasy, fairytale, legend and myth, these tales nearly always involve individuals caught up in situations beyond their comprehension or control, often to their discomfiture but mostly to our amusement. Though a couple are told in the first person the majority are fly-on-the-wall observational pieces, thus allowing us the privilege of becoming aware of how matters stand a short while before understanding dawns on the unfortunate victims.

Because victims they generally are: and it’s Fate, in the guise of the author, that determines whether they emerge sadder and wiser or don’t emerge at all…

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Desert Island Reads

Islets off the Pembrokeshire coast © C A Lovegrove

Here’s a fun idea the imaginative and inventive imyril thought up recently for the meme Wyrd & Wonder (which celebrates all things fantastical).Desert Island Discs – the classic BBC radio show that inspired this post – allows players to take (a) eight musical tracks (not albums!), (b) a single book (plus the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible or a more appropriate religious / philosophical book of choice as a freebie) and (c) a random ‘luxury’ item to make island life bearable.”

For Desert Island Reads, imyril switches things around. “Castaways may have: (a) eight books – your Desert Island Reads float ashore in a watertight chest, phew! (b) a podcast, TV show or movie – for when you really can’t read any more, (c) one thing you just can’t do without — favourite food, something comforting, a touch of luxury – this can be pretty much whatever you like, so long as it’s inanimate, can’t help you escape or communicate with the outside world. (Don’t worry: you already have access to any medication you require to manage medical conditions, plus a well-stocked first aid kit.)”

I thought I might find this easy, but it turns out I was wrong: I should have taken warning from the fact that my notional choice of eight pieces of music for Desert Island Discs would vary from day to day, even hour to hour! Nevertheless, here goes.

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Suffolk jinks

Southwold Pier © C A Lovegrove

As coronavirus restrictions on travel began to be lifted across the UK nations we were able to grab a holiday in self-catering accommodation in Suffolk for a special anniversary. That this would involve driving a few hundred miles there and back was a penance worth suffering, and the weather, even if not perfect, was at least tolerable.

We stayed near the pretty town of Southwold which meant walks on the beach and in the vicinity as well as chances to see relatives within driving distance, but a big if unexpected bonus for me was to discover local literary connections. The first real indication of these was a mural of George Orwell on Southwold pier by street artist Charlie Uzzel-Edwards, aka Pure Evil.

Tempting though it was to title this post The Road to Southwold Pier (I settled for a covert allusion to a popular colour for house façades) a little bit of digging revealed a few more literary figures of note, which I’d now like to share with you if you’d be kind enough to bear with me.

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Having a blast

Summer reading, had me a blast… The last two or three summers I’ve joined in with Cathy’s meme Twenty Books of Summer and, even if I’ve gone for a softer option like last year’s Ten Books, I’ve generally managed to complete a score of titles.

This year I’m again joining the ever expanding cohort of bloggers (who happen to be readers) participating in this event, and I’m going for a total of fifteen books. Here’s why.

I want to combine this meme with a couple of others — easy as it’s all about personal choice of reading — but also want to include some chunksters. This will mean a slower rate of consumption of course, but I hope that an average of five books a month (summer counts as between 1st June and the first day of September) will be manageable.

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A world of pure hue

In my reread of The Lord of the Rings I’ve paused at the Ford of Bruinen, the ending of Book I in The Fellowship of the Ring, so I can take stock of the way I’ve come. In so doing I note that the cover of my one-volume edition features a design by John Howe of Gandalf the Grey in full flow; however my first single volume copy had a design by Pauline Baynes front and back, adapted from her earlier slipcase design for the three volumes of Tolkien’s epic, with Gandalf and the hobbits gazing out over a Middle-earth landscape as one’s first view.

What sticks out for me from both Pauline Baynes designs is the strong use of colour — the yellow-gold of the trees framing the inset images, the bold red of the title and author’s name, the greens of the Shire-like landscape on the front cover, the blue tinge of Mordor’s spiky landscape on the reverse.

Memories of those colours, along with Tolkien’s own illustrations for the third edition in 1966 of The Hobbit, drew me back to an essay I remembered reading in Mythlore, a journal focused on Tolkien, Lewis, and Charles Williams, as well as on general fantasy and mythic studies. Did I still have it? I rummaged amongst miscellaneous papers and magazines I’d brought with me over at least three house moves, and there it was, Mythlore 26, Winter 1981, Volume 7, No 4. I dived straight in.

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A complicated world

Carneddau landscape by Kyffin Williams, Amgueddfa Cymru (photo C A Lovegrove)

The Gift by Peter Dickinson.
Illustrated by Gareth Floyd.
The Children’s Book Club 1974 (1973)

“Were you knowing you had the gift, Davy? […] It is said to run in your family—Dadda’s family. Often it misses a generation. But usually there is one of your blood alive who can see pictures in other people’s minds.”

Chapter 1, Granny. The Gift.

The Gift is a powerful story for teenage readers from the pen of Peter Dickinson, a novel that works at several levels to appeal to many ages, emotional capacities and intellects. It also crosses the permeable frontiers between fantasy, social realism, and thriller, as well as border-hopping between North Wales and England’s South Midlands.

Davy Price is the youngest in a dysfunctional family, with a father who’s a fly-by-night chancer, a mother who occasionally ‘disappears’ on holiday with male acquaintances, an older brother who’ll become involved with a splinter group of Welsh nationalists, and a sister who doesn’t stand fools gladly but whom Davy values as a confidante.

After one particular familial upheaval the three children get dumped on the father’s mother — the trio’s fierce Welsh granny — and her gentle husband, known as Dadda, on a Welsh hill farm near a disused slate quarry. This is when Davy first discovers he has the ‘gift’ of seeing other people’s vision, the legend of how certain generations of the family have it, and how it can in fact be more a curse than otherwise. It will take a major crisis to bring things to a head, and a situation of great danger which may or may not free Davy of his dubious talent.

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Covens above!

Henry Fuseli’s 1796 painting ‘The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches’

As many of you know, the evening of April 30th, May Eve, is also known as Walpurgisnacht in Germany. The term comes of course from one of the religious feasts for St Walpurga, a 9th-century saint from Devon who went on to convert heathen Saxons on the continent, this particular feast day being 1st May.

Because May Day was an ancient seasonal festival — called Beltane in some cultures — some of the pagan beliefs and traditions associated with it have become mixed up with the saint, with the result that May Eve has become associated like Halloween with unchristian practices, with Saint Walpurga held up as a champion against magic, superstition and … witchcraft.

Witches have therefore had a mixed reception, from rabid persecution to modern mystique, from clichéd representations to wise women who are completely unassuming. That varied reception has been reflected in fiction and the media, and so I thought I might have a quick jaunt through some of the literary approaches authors have taken, using fiction (much of it for younger readers) which I’ve reviewed in blog posts over the last decade (links take you to those reviews).

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Looking forward to 1976

You know how I keep rabbiting on about avoiding overcommitting to reading events? Well, it appears I’m a bit of a recidivist because, despite it being six months in the future I going to join in a meme run by Kaggsy and Simon.

I’d enjoyed taking a little while out of my then reading schedule to fit in a Lovecraft short story for the 1936 Club at the very last moment. Now they’ve given notice of the 1976 Club to run from 11th to 17th October and I think with a bit of judicious planning I can just about sque-e-eze a few titles into that week.

And it turns out that I’ve already read and even reviewed quite a number of titles published some forty-five years ago.

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Marching off

The end of March, and a quarter of the way through the year after the year. Many readers have reported a slump in their reading (like many authors have noted lethargy where their writing is concerned) and I do understand that: the current global situation makes us all anxious and that hits us in different ways.

I find though that I can only really keep up my positivity through books; if I didn’t have access to books I’m not sure how I’d cope mentally because I’m an inveterate reader — social media, newspapers, food wrappers — and even my fallback, playing the piano, involves me doing a fair amount of sightreading scores.

Apologies, then, to those who are finding your literary mojo dampened: I do sympathise — even as I seek out the next thing to read, for my tottering TBR piles seem at the moment to be inexhaustible.

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Life in the realms of death

Imogen as Fidele, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (Wikimedia)

The Time of the Ghost
by Diana Wynne Jones,
illustrated by David Wyatt.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2001 (1981)

Corn yellow and running, came past me just now, the one bearing within her the power to give life in the realms of death.

As with so many of Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasies she weaves in so many strands — autobiographical, literary, supernatural and more — that it becomes almost like an ancient artefact or artwork, an object that mystifies as much as it magnetically draws one in, a magical narrative that repays a second read or more, and then a hefty bit of research and recall.

For example, the ghost of the title hears a voice from a longbarrow, the speaker mistaking a sister called Imogen for his long-dead daughter. This must surely be the Cunobelinus who was transformed in Shakespeare’s play into Cymbeline, who had a daughter called Imogen who was presumed to have been killed. And though the novel is set in North Hampshire the author draws from her childhood in Essex, the area with which Cymbeline and his family is associated.

So already we are seeing autobiographical and literary details being drawn together, but for the innocent reader what comes through most is a mystery story concerning a very strange family and a ghost who doesn’t know who she is.

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A dead man’s chest

Bartholomew Roberts, known as Barti Ddu or Black Bart

Welsh Pirates and Privateers
by Terry Breverton.
Gwasg Carreg Gwalch 2018.

Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest,
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum…

Who does not thrill to very mention of pirates? I do, for sure, and for all the usual reasons — the smell of open sea, the ship in full sail, the thrill of the chase, the bustle of action as other ships are sighted. I’m less enamoured of the usual clichés though — the pirate talk, the romantic notion of the sea thief with a heart of gold beneath their bluff exterior, the stereotyped clothing — though I blame that on an early addiction to documented history.

So you can imagine my delight in spotting this pocket-sized volume: over fifty named Welsh pirates, a profusely illustrated text on quality paper, a discussion on how Welsh seamen were a key element in the history of piracy and privateering, all by a writer who had already authored seven books on the subject, with this volume a revised and updated version of his 2003 title The Book of Welsh Pirates and Buccaneers.

But I was to discover there were two sides to my reaction to this acquisition: genuine delight mixed with some frustration.

The good bits first.

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