The Joy of Books (3)

One of the joys of moving to Crickhowell in 2014 was discovering it had an independent bookshop. Called, aptly, Book-ish, it was housed in lovely but cramped premises. That didn’t stop owner Emma from inaugurating the first Crickhowell Literary Festival in 2015.

I’ve blogged several times before about the festival so I won’t repeat myself here; instead I want to sing the praises of the bookshop now it’s firmly established on the High Street.

But don’t take it from me: Book-ish has won many, many awards.

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Random rummaging and reliable references

shelves

The Ultimate Book Guide: Over 600 great books for 8-12s
Daniel Hahn and Leonie Flynn (editors) Susan Reuben (associate editor)
Anne Fine, Children’s Laureate 2001-3 (introduction)
A & C Black 2004

I couldn’t resist picking this up secondhand, especially as I love books that I can dip into, for both reliable references and for random rummaging. Despite not being completely up-to-date (what printed publication can ever be?) or truly comprehensive (as far as I can see most of the books are Eurocentric or North American, so very little world literature) this is a volume I shall hang on to — that is, unless I get my hands on the 2009 edition (subtitle: Over 700 Great Books for 8-12s).

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There and back

“Reading is my favourite occupation, when I have leisure for it and books to read.” —Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey, Chapter XV

Centenaries are recognised as opportunities to focus on historic events, discoveries and inventions, and on the people associated with them.

This being principally a literary blog I’ve tried, not always too successfully, to use such milestones to examine key works and authors. Last year, for example, being the bicentary of the births of George Eliot and Herman Melville, I still failed to read Middlemarch by year’s end; but I did at least start Moby-Dick (and am virtually at the halfway point). And, of course, 1820 was the year that the whaler Essex was sunk by a bull whale, an incident that partly inspired Melville’s narrative.

This year I’ve alighted on a selection of authors and works associated with the years 1820 and 1920, and have placed them on a notional wishlist — but not as challenges or goals, heaven forfend — a selection which I now offer for your possible interest and consideration. So what’s included on this wishlist?

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Broken resolve

Huh! It’s a couple of days into January and I’ve already broken my blogging New Year resolution.

You know, the resolution I declared on 31st December 2019 that I would not to do any bookish challenges for 2020. Here on this very blog.

What a loser, fallen at the first hurdle! And what is this heinous oath-breaking I’ve committed? You’ll gasp with shock when you’re told. It’s — I can barely bear to say it — something that will freeze the blood of every bibliophile who ever tremblingly anticipated entering a bookshop, taking a book off a shelf, opening it …

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New Year wishes

Shelfie

It’s at the tail end of the year that I look forward to what literary delights the coming year has in store for me, what my wishes are concerning books to be read and discussed.

I’ve already put up a retrospective post here detailing how I got on with the challenges and goals I’d set myself for 2019; now it’s time to see if, knowing what I’ve actually achieved this year, I intend to be as ambitious for 2020.

The answer turns out to be both “yes” and “no”.

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“It hath made me mad”

Here follow final thoughts on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, certainly for 2019, and definitely for now on this blog. At this point I just want to say a few words for the woman with no real voice in the novel, Bertha Mason, the famous ‘madwoman in the attic’.

Of course, she doesn’t really reside in the attic; moreover, we’re not told the exact nature of her madness — neither do we hear her speak (she only laughs or snarls) nor is there someone to speak for her. Jean Rhys in 1966 famously attempted to do so, in Wide Sargasso Sea, though she changed the timeline somewhat to suit the purposes of her fiction. But it can’t really be argued that Rhys’ protagonist is the same as Charlotte’s Mrs Rochester, nor that this ‘prequel’ is fully compatible with the Victorian original.

Meanwhile, Brontë certainly knew the tale of Bluebeard, for she has Jane picture Rochester’s wife confined to Thornfield Hall’s third storey, along somewhere which is “like a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle,” and — recalling the young Jane’s terror at being locked in the Red Room of Gateshead as a punishment — we can imagine how such imprisonment might impact on a particularly volatile individual such as Bertha Mason.

But the simile in the phrase “like a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle” quietly signposts the fact that this is not a simple retelling of the fairytale; and that, despite the literary echoes, this is a vastly more complex narrative that works on several level, perhaps like the different storeys of Thornfield Hall.

Can we find Bertha anywhere in this literary labyrinth?

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Nearing journey’s end

Yay, it’s that time of year again when we glance back over twelve years of things mostly bookish, and I express heartfelt indebtedness to casual readers and followers alike for their likes, comments and even reblogs.

Meanwhile my Goodreads page tells me that I’ve achieved 135% of my 2019 reading goal, having completed 70 books compared to the planned 52. Not crowing or anything but I hope my commentaries have emphasised quality over quantity — especially as the shortest title is only eight pages long!

So, as with many of you fellow bloggers, we’ve at that point when we indulge in retrospection and reflection, the R & R of all dedicated readers. I don’t intend to bombard you with the full details of stats — I’ll leave the My Year in Books Goodreads page to do that — but I do beg your indulgence while I point out a few of my highlights.

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A sense of entitlement

Troutmark Books, Castle Arcade, Cardiff

No, not a comment on certain politicians — my word, aren’t there a lot of candidates for this epithet at the moment! — but a lovely pot boiler of a prompt otherwise called ‘My Life in Books 2019’ which was passed on by Annabel:

Using only books you have read this year (2019), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.

  1. In high school I was—
  2. People might be surprised by—
  3. I will never be—
  4. My fantasy job is—
  5. At the end of a long day I need—
  6. I hate—
  7. Wish I had—
  8. My family reunions are—
  9. At a party you’d find me with—
  10. I’ve never been to—
  11. A happy day includes—
  12. Motto I live by:
  13. On my bucket list is—
  14. In my next life, I want to have—

Of course, this presupposes that like any assiduous bookworm you’ve actually read over fourteen books.

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Many a quaint craft

You may have seen many a quaint craft in your day, for aught I know;—square-toed luggers; mountainous Japanese junks; butter-box galliots, and what not; but take my word for it, you never saw such a rare old craft as this same rare old Pequod. She was a ship of the old school…

I’ve been in a typhoon in the South China Sea when returning to Hong Kong in a China Navigation vessel in the 1950s; and crossed the Bay of Biscay in a vomit-inducing gale on a so-called mini-cruise in October — to be sure, a notorious time of year for storms.

Contrast these violent passages with more forgettable ‘calm sea and prosperous’ voyages to Japan, the Philippines and Thailand in my pre-teens, or numerous uneventful cross-channel ferry journeys to France as an adult.

Sailings have featured in recent reads, and though I’ve disembarked from them I’m still aboard another; I’m hoping maybe you’ll be interested in hearing what was jotted down in the captain’s logs for these several sea passages.

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5-Star Books in 5 Words

WordPress Free Photo Library

Fellow bloggers Imyril and Bookforager recommended this meme (though they didn’t originate it themselves) so I thought it a fun task for a post here. Maybe it’s one which may inspire you to attempt something similar.

1. Choose 5 books which you gave 5 stars [I’ve chosen fantasy titles books, read in 2019, which I rated on Goodreads].
2. Share 5 words that in some way describe why you liked it so much [I’ve used descriptive phrases rather than standalone adjectives].
3. Give no other explanations of those words. Some of the words may only make sense if you’ve read it yourself. [You might guess my reasons for liking these books despite the brevity.]

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Pattern seeking

WordPress Free Photo Library

Every so often I put up a post drawing together themes, or characters, or places. As we approach a turning point in the year — in this case, the end of 2019 — it is tempting to start a summative series of posts. But I shall resist that impulse, reserving such an approach for December.

This time I shall merely attempt to summarise what the last few books I’ve read have, or indeed don’t have, in common. Why? Because, like all of us, I am a pattern-seeking animal and like to check that life isn’t just a random sequence of events, with no meaning or significance at all.

Or so I’d like to believe!

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#WitchWeek2019 starts here

…Witch Week, when there is so much magic around in the world that all sorts of peculiar things happen…
Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones

Welcome to the sixth Witch Week where, aided and abetted by Lizzie Ross, I’m hosting what Lory of Emerald City Book Review originally planned as an annual event celebrating our favourite fantasy books and authors. This year’s theme — you may already have spotted it — is

VILLAINS

Diana Wynne Jones’ Witch Week (1983) is a fantasy set between Halloween and November 5th — Bonfire Night — marking the day in 1604 when Guy Fawkes was caught preparing to blow up Parliament. We’ve used this time frame to set up eight days of magic and mayhem for Witch Week 2019, beginning today.

Our readalong this year is Diana Wynne Jones’ Cart & Cwidder. A few of us had an earlier discourse on this, but we hope that some of you will join in a general discussion later in the week.

Here then is the schedule:

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City break

Edinburgh Castle, from Prince’s Street

We’ve just returned from a mini-break in The Athens of the North, also known as Edinburgh! This second visit gave us a little more time to not just revisit what we enjoyed before but to seek out some more delights — Holyrood House, Arthur’s Seat and the Botanical Gardens, for example.

As is our wont we walked everywhere, all the better to see the architectural highlights and quirks of the city’s built environment.

Literature wasn’t neglected either. I began racing (well, probably strolling leisurely) through Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street, a title I’ve had on my radar for a while thinking this would be an ideal occasion to get stuck into it, seeing as it’s set here. What an unexpected surprise then to see that Scotland Street actually exists! No Number 44, however… More on this later.

I also devoured a mini-collection of short stories by Diana Wynne Jones called Stopping for a Spell, an apposite title for the witching month of October. More too on this for another post.

And I polished off and posted a review of Nina Bawden’s The Witch’s Daughter, as you will have seen, which because set in Scotland (on the east coast, though, not the west) was an apt choice too for reasons both seasonal and sojourn-related.

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Lost in books

Posts may be a little more intermittent over the next few days: I am stewarding at the fifth Crickhowell Literary Festival, directed by Emma Corfield-Walters of Crickhowell’s bookshop Book-ish and by Anne Rowe, author and Emeritus Research Fellow at Kingston University. To top it all I’m also involved in a couple of musical performances.

After that I shall be away for a few days but shall still attempt to keep up a flow of posts, though one or two will be reposts from the archives. If I’m a little less assiduous at this time about liking or commenting on posts in blogs I follow I apologise in advance — you know it’s not personal!

Crickhowell Bridge, 1840