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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Roarsome

“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.

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Beginnings

Oliver Tobias Arthur of the Britons, broadcast by HTV in 1972

“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?

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Blogging and lockdown

Blogging for me (and maybe for you too) has been a saving grace for the last year and especially during lockdowns. Much social media has been awash with political indignation, pandemic worries and personal tragedies, but having an outlet focused on books has been one positive thing to look forward to and think about, largely because it is so concerned with creativity.

Having a book blogging community has therefore been a real boon, else it would have been calling into a void with only one’s own echoes coming back. I’m so grateful, thank you all, and I hope I have been able to perform a similar service back to all of you.

But I also know that fatigue can hit, as some of you have been posting, all while we individually try to cope with sustained levels of anxiety and stress caused by outside factors. And some of you have indicated that you’ve needed to take a break from a demanding schedule of writing and posting. I think I may be approaching that point.

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Twenty-one books

Ursula K Le Guin 1929-2018

There’s a meme going around under the heading of 21 books in 2021 — and I’m very tempted to adapt it for my own purposes as yet another prompt to guide my reading. I’ve already decided on a number of other prompts to take me month by month (or season by season) through the year, so you’d think I’d have enough by now to get on with. So did I until an anniversary hoved into view.

Today marks three years since the untimely death of Ursula Le Guin and I’ve realised that I have one of my periodic yearnings to revisit her worlds. I’ve therefore been trying to decide whether to reread one of her novels (as I did recently with Orsinian Tales and Rocannon’s World) or to tackle a title new to me (such as Malafrena, The Eye of the Heron or Four Ways to Forgiveness). Or indeed whether to go for both options.

And then I thought of how I might in fact use this meme: in amongst all my other prompts I’d not calculated how to create space on my bookshelves for any new tomes, so why not formulate my own twist for this twelvemonth, when lockdown has knocked down any physical bookshop browsing? I present to you … 21 TBR Books in 2021.

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The best-laid plans

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Each year recently I’ve resolved to either eschew reading challenges altogether or make them manageable by calling them goals or wishes. And each year I find myself sorely tempted by shiny new-to-me memes.

It will surprise none of you that 2021 seems to be the same old same old. In 2016 I succeeded in completing the quantity of books I’d aimed (in the Goodreads Reading Challenge) for by year’s end simply by underestimating the number I was certain to finish, and that’s continued to be the case for five years. But other goals have been more elusive: the fifty titles I listed to be ticked off for the Classics Club challenge ending 2020 remained unachieved, even though I changed some of my choices.

So, Twenty-Twenty-one, how goes it?

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2020 in books

A selection of the 80+ titles I was able to choose from

Thanks to Annabel‘s example I’m posting my version of this alternative view of my year in the world of literature.

Using only books you have read in 2020, answer these prompts. Try not to repeat a book title.

Luckily I had quite a range of completed books to choose from, more than eighty! Links in the titles will take you to my reviews. Disclaimer: Not all the statements are true…

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The House Beautiful

Sebastiano Serlio, Set design for a comic scene

“Behold there was a very stately palace before him, the name of which was Beautiful; and it stood just by the highway side.”
— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

Reading Susanna Clarke‘s novel Piranesi awoke all kinds of echoes for me. The repetition, especially, of the narrator’s paean of praise to the place in which he resided — The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite — reminded me of texts such as John Bunyan‘s Pilgrim’s Progress and the refuge to which Christian sought entry, the Palace Beautiful, the way to it guarded by a pair of chained lions (not unrelated to Aslan, I suspect).

But there were other literary reverberations which were set up in my mind, stretching from classical Greece and Rome to this century; in the event that you may find of interest I’ve put together the following illustrated essay.

Be warned, though: in discussing the ideas behind various works of fiction I shall be giving away the odd secret or spoiler so, if you haven’t read them, you may want to skim over or even skip the text and just enjoy the illustrations.

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Bohemian rhapsody

Prague. Photo by Julius Silver, Pexels

“Prague is one of the most interesting towns in Europe. Its stones are saturated with history and romance; its every suburb must have been a battlefield. It is the town that conceived the Reformation and hatched the Thirty Years’ War. But half Prague’s troubles, one imagines, might have been saved to it, had it possessed windows less large and temptingly convenient.”
— Jerome K Jerome, ‘Three Men on the Bummel”

Prague. Not a city I’ve ever been to but it wears a kind of aura as the capital of the Czech Republic — a country right in the physical centre of Europe and an apt symbol of the heart of the continent — and is thus a place I feel I ought to visit.

Being set centrally in what is deemed Mitteleuropa—nestled within Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria—Prague has also been at the crossroads of movements of people, with a turbulent and troublesome history, and yet historically it seems to retain a mystical attraction for freethinkers and revolutionaries.

And of course as the main city of ancient Bohemia it has a huge cultural capital in fictional terms, as I have discovered from recent, current and future reads.

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More brief narratives

I recently mentioned that I had several collections of short stories in hand which I intended to get round to in the near future using the tag the Library of Brief Narratives. It’s my intention to include as many short story titles as I can bear throughout 2021, but to get off to a flying start by reviewing a couple of them in December.

I’ve already listed selections and collections with or including realist themes. Now, as a further amuse-bouche for you all, comes another listing of titles with a more speculative range of genres, from SF and fantasy through fairytales and on to horror and suspense.

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How to modernise classics

There’s a fashion for rewriting literary classics in modern dress, whether Shakespeare’s plays or Victorian novels, just as Ancient Greek plays were fair game for such treatment in the past, and as Norse mythology has provided such inspiration in recent years.

But much more remains to be exploited, not least the possibilities suggested by title manipulation. Here are some examples, offered gratis to anyone who feels they want to run with them.

Provided they include the acknowledgement “from an idea by …” on the title pages. Or not.

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To cut a tale short

Collections of short stories are, I’ve found, tricky things to review compared to a solid novel or longish novella. The reasons are as various as the pieces in the collection can be:

  1. there may be too many individual stories to cover them all in any detail;
  2. mere listing of the contents doesn’t, in my view, constitute a review but often that seems to be main option, which is a disservice to those hoping to decide whether to read the volume;
  3. the selection may be uneven in quality with any poor specimens bringing down the standard of the collection and thus one’s overall assessment;
  4. the variety in terms of subject matter, tone, length and order also make an overall assessment difficult.

But without reviews how is one to tread the labyrinth of the Library of Brief Narratives? I have a number of such collections in my purview waiting for my perusal and assessment so I have those paths to follow.

In the meantime, here is an overview of some of the collections I have reviewed, with brief commentary, for those (like, I think, Cath Humphries) hoping for signposts to new pastures. For this first of two posts I look at collections with a realist slant (links are to my reviews).

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Further reading

Artwork by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com.

Approaching the last two months of this extraordinary year — one which I’m sure is seared into our collective consciousness — I thought I’d briefly, with your gracious acquiescence, take stock.

Goodreads tells me I’ve read 70 titles so far in 2020, surpassing my modest target of 60 for the whole year. Bar one or two I’ve reviewed them all too, on Goodreads as well as here. As the year progressed (even as conditions globally regressed) I determined to be less constrained by goals and targets and challenges and go mainly for comfort reading, even if some titles weren’t necessarily comfortable reading.

So, as November and December beckon, what am I likely to have piled up by my elbow?

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Errant

Bastardised shop sign from Hereford (?)

“To err is human, to forgive divine.”
— from An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope.

You may have noticed I’ve become a little bit obsessive in recent months: loads of books read — blog posts appearing every two days — reviews getting longer and wordier — strident statements occasionally appearing… If you’d wondered (if indeed you’ve happened to notice) then I think the time has come for a little bit of self-reflection on my part and an attempt at an explanation.

I think this flurry of activity comes as much from displacement activity as it does from genuine bookish pleasure. The reasons for that displacement aren’t hard to divine: the pandemic for one, which affects everyone; the crisis arising from global heating, which should be concerning everyone; and the nightmare political situation in too many countries which, closely bound up with the first two reasons, has divided everyone almost as much as any physical wall.

And because of all this I’ve alighted on the usually sage sayings of Alexander Pope.

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