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?
Remembering a piece of advice that a sailor had once given her, [Dido] said to the boy, “When’s your birthday? Mine’s the first of March.”
‘When you talk to a savage or a native,’ Noah Gusset had said, ‘always tell him some secret about yourself — your birthday, your father’s name, your favourite food — tell him your secret and ask him his. That’s a token of trust; soon’s you know each other a bit, then you can be friends.’
We have already begun to look at the personages in Joan Aiken’s alternate history fantasy Dido and Pa and now it’s time to conclude that prosopography. From Petworth in West Sussex and Wapping in the East End of London we now move to Chelsea and other parts of southeast England to examine who we will be meeting in these places. Here is the usual spoiler alert. As if it is needed.
E Nesbit: New Treasure Seekers Puffin Classics 1982 (1904)
The well-meaning but accident-prone Bastable siblings are given another outing by Edith Nesbit, following on from the success of The Story of the Treasure Seekers(1899) and The Wouldbegoods (1900). We reacquaint ourselves with the ‘anonymous’ author Oswald, with all his familiar malapropisms and self-proclaimed modesty, along with his siblings Dora (the sensible eldest) and then, after Oswald, Dicky (his frequent lieutenant), Alice, Noël (a wouldbe poet), and Horace Octavius (or H. O.).
The thirteen episodes often reference exotic places (including Rome, China, Italy or the Golden Orient) though we never leave the confines of Kent: they also ‘big up’ the protagonists (‘The Intrepid Explorer and His Lieutenant’), suggest dastardly deeds are afoot (‘Archibald the Unpleasant’, ‘The Turk in Chains; or, Richard’s Revenge’) or feature the Bastables’ charitable but doomed attempts to remedy the scrapes they have got themselves into (‘The Conscience-Pudding’ and ‘The Poor and Needy’). As ever, you sense their hearts are in the right place even if their steps constantly lead them astray. Even when they are involved in revenge (at least twice!) you feel they are attempting to right wrongs to the best of their imagination, ability and reasoning.
Eric Ambler: The Mask of Dimitrios Introduction by Mark Mazower
Penguin Modern Classics 2009 (1939)
Charles Latimer is a full-time writer of what we might now called ‘cosies’, detective novels set in English country houses and the like, with lurid titles such as A Bloody Shovel, Murder’s Arms and No Doornail This. Having given up a post in academia to dedicate himself to his new métier he is travelling around Europe contemplating a new plot when he unexpectedly meets up with a fan in Istanbul.
It turns out Colonel Haki is a police inspector, who happens to mention that a body has just been retrieved from the Bosphorus, identified as a man called Dimitrios. Latimer is intrigued and, while surreptitiously investigating further, finds himself embroiled in a complex web of drug smuggling, human trafficking, political intrigue, financial corruption and murder. Too late he finds himself liable to become another murder victim as his amateur investigations take him around the Balkans and then back across the continent via Geneva to Paris.
Europe between the wars was volatile, to say the least. Whether on the margins — in Turkey, say, or Bulgaria — or nearer the west there was in the late 1930s an undercurrent of dark doings under the deceptively still surface of everyday affairs. That undertow had been evident for some time: in the third chapter, entitled 1922, Ambler actually gives a synopsis of the bloody events in Smyrna (modern Izmir) involving Turkish and Greek soldiers in massacres and reprisals. Out of this turmoil appeared the character known as Dimitrios. He left behind an interrupted trail of murder and assassination before the watery emergence of the body viewed by the Englishman on a Turkish mortuary slab in 1938. Latimer decides to try to fill in those gaps, seeking the dubious help of a Polish agent, a Danish colleague of Dimitrios and others whose affiliations should have put a more sensible man off the whole enterprise.
Daphne Lee (editor): Malaysian Tales. Retold & remixed Foreword by Adèle Geras ZI Publications, Malaysia 2011
Sixteen tales, fourteen authors, one culture, all united in demonstrating the vitality of narrative traditions from the Malay peninsula. Drawing from myth, folklore, legend and oral history, these are refurbished tales in distinctive voices with individual tones, approaches and narrative styles. A few are straightforward retellings but most spin their stories — as all creative writings do — to give them contemporary relevance, either through placing them in modern contexts or drawing out themes latent in the originals. Daphne Lee has exercised a careful editorial judgement to commission and sequence these, and each tale has a brief afterword to explain how each contributor has arrived at their choice and treatment.
And what a range of treatments we are offered. Modernised tales which bring out psychological truths about personal relationships. A fable analogous to the story of the Gingerbread Man which uses updated language, puns and twists. A legend about a vampiric raja now turned into a pitch for a teenage movie. A tale about how Singapore is saved repurposed to explain why the saviour might have been condemned to death. A curious tradition about a rock that eats a mother is given the science fiction treatment. Each tale is rooted in Malay traditions but hybridised to give startling new blooms.
The hyena was showing the wolf around his Trophy Room.
“That’s the CEO of a global oil conglomerate,” he said, indicating the head of a startled human male displayed on the wall.
They moved on. “Careful as you step on that rug,” he said, as the wolf nearly tripped over the flayed skin of a former leader of the western world whose lips were twisted into a snarl, wispy ginger hair barely concealing a flakey scalp.
They passed an internet trillionaire in a display cabinet, his stuffed body posed in the act of taking off some virtual reality glasses, revealing an obsessive, glassy stare.
“And of course you ate them before they were displayed?” remarked the wolf conversationally.
“Good god, no,” replied the hyena, dismissing the thought with a wave of his paw, “I have herds of ordinary humans available for meat, and of course…
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.