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.
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.
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.
Death of a Naturalist
by Seamus Heaney.
Faber 1999 (1966)
It’s fascinating to read this collection of nearly three dozen short poems, individually each a gem, collectively a story of childhood and young adulthood leading to marriage. It very much reminds me of an album of photographs, or even those selections of instrumental miniatures called Albumblätter or Feuilles d’Album.
What do we observe? Scenes of countryside activities from the author’s childhood in County Derry, glimpses of individual lives in Belfast, reminiscences of a honeymoon taken, a sojourn on the islands of Aran. Vignettes they may be but they’re vivid and intense, self-contained and demanding to be savoured.
I’ve met one or two of these before, for example Blackberry-picking, which inspired me to write ‘I Hunted Dragons Once’, but to encounter them in their entirety is a very different experience. Too many to comment here on each individually, it’s also hard to make a selection of favourites because each one has its own merits; but try I must.
The Shepherd’s Crown
by Terry Pratchett, illustrated by Paul Kidby, afterword by Rob Wilkins.
In The Shepherd’s Crown Tiffany Aching may be said to come into her own, but in truth she has been coming into her own since she was nine, in the first of the Discworld novels featuring her life on the Chalk. Every couple of years she has come up against a testing adversary — the Fairy Queen, the Hiver, the Wintersmith, and the Cunning Man — and now, aged around seventeen, it seems as if she will have to prove herself yet again.
There is the added poignancy that this is also the last Discworld novel Terry Pratchett took a hand in completing (with the aid of Rob Wilkins and others) and, though not as adroitly finished as the previous titles were, Pratchett at his less than best is still an awesome beast.
At the core of this novel there is, as in all the Discworld novels I’ve so far read but especially in the Aching series, a big beating passionate heart, an organ symbolised by its very title.
“O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain…”
—Hamlet: Act I, Scene 5
I began with Comus, Milton’s 1634 masque, the touchstone of which I identified as chastity ensnared. Its horrifying story of a young woman trapped by a villain — smiling or otherwise — the likely victim of perdition through seduction is distressingly all too familiar these days. In Milton’s drama she puts up a spirited defence, but if it weren’t for the intervention of her brothers and a third party she may have indeed been lost; rescue, tragically, is all too rarely at hand in real life.
Many tales where the female is menaced by a male figure are still seen as inferring that it’s the woman who’s the instigator of her own victimhood, the architect of her own misfortunes. Like mythical Pandora or Psyche, who succumb to what’s often referred to as ‘transgressive curiosity’, they may stray where they shouldn’t, open storage containers, shine lights in dark corners, enter locked rooms or go widdershins. The astonishing message appears to be that it’s their own fault that they find trouble by, for instance, dressing provocatively, walking alone, or just being a woman.
But not all narratives take this line; whether implicitly or explicitly they pin the blame fully on the predator, the male — and more often than not it is a male — who perversely sees women as deserving abuse, rape or death. Many scholars have discussed this aspect and in what follows I shall allude to some of them (because, of course, my argument is in no way original). I want then to take up a couple or more threads: the implication that women bring misfortune on themselves; the intervention of one or more rescuers; and instances when sisters are actually doing it for themselves.
As a man of a certain age myself, the titular character of Roddy Doyle’s Charlie Savage is a kind of blood brother even though we don’t have the obvious things in common — football, the pub, dogs; for in this collection of reminiscences Charlie (via the author) reveals his bewilderment at changes in the world even while he valiantly tries to come to terms with them, a state of affairs those born in the middle of the last century may well recognise.
As a Dubliner himself Doyle is in an excellent position to portray Charlie’s daily habits in Ireland’s capital with a sympathetic eye — it helps that he appears to share a birth year with his eponymous hero — though we mustn’t be misled into thinking this Charlie is coterminous with his author.
The fifty-two vignettes, written as weekly instalments for the Irish Independent, chart Charlie’s stumbles through 2018, two years into a man-baby’s presidency and another two years before a global pandemic. But many of Charlie’s observations continue to have contemporary and, even with their Irish perspective, universal relevance.
As you know I tend not to do weekly or other regular bookish memes, but here’s a spin on one I couldn’t resist, especially as it related to Lory’s prompt Reading the Theatre. It’s posed by Helen of She Reads Novels and this is how she introduced her recent post:
“This week’s topic for Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl) is “Characters Whose Job I Wish I Had”. As Jana says we can put our own unique spin on each topic and as I wanted to join in with Lory’s Reading the Theatre month, I have chosen ten characters who have jobs connected with acting and the theatre. These are not all jobs I would like to have myself, but some of them sound fun!”
So, without much further ado here’s my take on Helen’s take; quotes (with links) are from my reviews.
“The wolfe also shall dwell with the lambe, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid and the calfe and the yong lion, and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
— Isaiah 11:6 (King James translation 1611)
Note that in this biblical quote there’s nowt about lions lying down with lambs, but the traditional paraphrase has a pleasing alliteration to it, does it not? And the proverb, In like a lion, out like a lamb, is even more euphonious, do you not agree?
Some speculate that both proverb and paraphrase are something to do with changing seasons. As it happens, when astrologically speaking Leo approaches Aries at the spring equinox I hope to be smack bang in the midst of several reading prompts, with a selection of book reviews to celebrate the themes which other book bloggers have concocted.
“Never judge a book by its cover, except if it’s a Jeffrey Archer”
— Traditional saying
If, when looking for a good read, we have already been attracted by a title or author or blurb, then that first opening sentence is crucial — especially in an age of channel-hopping, soundbites and eight-second attention spans. Have you switched off yet?
As with all specialist literature, Arthurian prose literature should predispose the sympathetic reader to read on, not move on. Here, for that reader, is the beginning of the classic example of that literature, from the fifteenth century:
Hit befel in the dayes of Uther Pendragon, when he was kynge of all Englond and so regned, that there was a myghty duke in Cornewaill that helde warre ageynst hym long tyme, and the duke was called the duke of Tyntagil
(Thomas Malory, in Vinaver 1954).
How did that grab you? Are you on the edge of your seat? Or are you yawning already? And do 20th century re-tellings of Malory follow that pattern?
In the old days, as it is told, there was a king in Britain named Uther Pendragon (Picard 1955).
This is clearly a literary descendant of Malory, but some concession has been made for a juvenile readership in that it is shorter and punchier without losing its poetic, almost biblical cadences.
Here is another opening:
After wicked King Vortigern had first invited the Saxons to settle in Britain and help him to fight the Picts and Scots, the land was never long at peace (Green 1953).
A lot of information is offered, and assumptions made about prior historical knowledge. For this version, the author’s principle is that “the great legends, like the best of the fairy tales, must be retold from age to age: there is always something new to be found in them, and each retelling brings them freshly and more vividly before a new generation” (Green 1953, 13). There are some value judgements here, aren’t there? Malory is not vivid enough for us moderns; and Retellings are always fresh. In some instances there may be an element of truth in these assumptions. Here now is the beginning of T H White’s re-casting of Malory:
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology (White 1958).
There is nothing here initially to suggest an Arthurian setting, but the combination of whimsy and exactitude may be sufficiently intriguing to draw a non-Arthurian further into the book. This is certainly both a vivid and a fresher approach to the Matter. How have other Arthurian authors approached their craft?
Having recently completed and been impressed by Ursula K le Guin’s Malafrena (1979), a novel set in her imagined country of Orsinia in the early 19th century, I thought I would compose a few thoughts about its history and geography before posting a review.
I’ve already discussed her bleak but beautiful short story collection called Orsinian Tales, in which a series of vignettes detailing lives lived during a thousand years of Orsinian history gives us a flavour of this fictional nation somewhere east of central Europe. Referenced as Orciny in China Miéville’s fantasy The City and the City, Le Guin’s landlocked country is the sort of polity that may well have existed in Europe’s chequered history which — not unlike Miéville’s twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma somewhere at the edge of Europe — seems to have slipped out of most Europeans’ consciousness.
Now may be a good time to set the scene for what we may expect in a review of Malafrena, and for that we need maps and a bit of historical context.
Today, on the eve of the halfway mark for the twenty-eight days of February, I’m already getting excited about March. As well as planning on reading books for the Wales Readathon and Reading Ireland Month I’m hoping to revisit titles by the late Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, both of whom left us in this month.
I’m glad to see that Kristen at https://WeBeReading.com is again running March Magics, the annual celebration of these two fantasy writers (who were both West Country authors by adoption, with connections to my hometown Bristol).
Kristen’s introductory post gives an outline plan of the focus of this year’s event, and I’d like to share with you her principal aims and how my response may shape up.
“I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit […]. The other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities, and in any case it is weary work to compose a map from a story.”
— Tolkien to the novelist Naomi Mitchison (1954)
These days, when most people have a satnav app on their smartphone, a sense of how places relate to each other may be declining in many individual consciousnesses even as sales of road atlases and street maps continue to drop: less than ten years ago The Times reported that in the UK “the days of the dog-eared road atlas in the glove compartment are numbered: 2014 is expected to be the first year in which the majority of drivers use sat navs.”
This may not necessarily mean that we are losing an ability to navigate, however, merely that driving to somewhere new may be divorced from everyday reality when we’re using a device like a satnav or an app, because we’re able to allow a machine to dictate where we go while we concentrate on something else.
Generally, however, when we become familiar with layout and directions we can rely on what’s called a cognitive map.
“To everything (turn, turn, turn) There is a season (turn, turn, turn) And a time to every purpose Under heaven.”
As we drift past Imbolc and Candlemas, halfway points between the midwinter solstice and the spring equinox, I have been considering how season-centred some of my recent reading has been. And even my current read, Le Guin’s Malafrena, has so far been calibrated by principal periods of the year, especially the long hot summers and the winter feasts.
It might be an interesting exercise to consider how much fiction relies on not just space — and I’ll discuss this a bit more presently — but on the passage of time, especially certain liminal occasions; for, let’s face it, every moment is a liminal experience, balanced on a fulcrum of the present, between past and future, and frequently fraught with promise and danger.
I was born the year before Nineteen Eighty-Fourwas published: it was doubtless written and completed during 1948, with the future date arrived at by simply reversing the final two digits. I’ve now read a couple of titles for Vintage Scifi Month but, as with 1984,Flowers for Algernon doesn’t apparently strictly doesn’t count as “vintage” because it was published in 1966, well after I was born (the rule of thumb for this “not-a-challenge”). But, luckily for me, 1898’s The War of the Worlds indeed does count, and has now been read and reviewed here.
As a matter of interest, I decided to see what did qualify as vintage SF for someone of my age. And, depending what one counts as Science Fiction, it turns out the answer is … “quite a lot”, providing one includes scientific romances, allegories and other speculative titles that seem to cross genres.
Here then is a list of what I currently estimate as a personal Vintage Scifi, calculated from a couple of online timelines of the genre: I shall be travelling backwards in time which, in the circumstances, seems quite apt.
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.