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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Going Gothick

A quick reminder that Witch Week begins in roughly three weeks time. This runs from Hallowe’en to Bonfire Night, an event first begun by Lory Hess on The Emerald City Book Review, and is an annual series of guest posts.

Inspired by a fantasy by Diana Wynne Jones (called, naturally, Witch Week) this year’s event features Gothick as a theme, the perfect choice for this season.

This year my co-curator Lizzie Ross is hosting (I hosted last year) and I will be pointing you to her blog LizzieRossWriter.com for the posts: here’s her advance notice of what’s to come. Offerings lined up cover a range of literary areas, including a group read of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, but there’s much, much more!


In other news, this arrived in the post this morning, a Certificate of Higher Education in Creative Writing Studies from Aberystwyth University

Six degrees

It’s the start of October tomorrow and thus apparently time for Six Degrees of Separation (#6degrees), a meme posted by many bloggers I follow, run by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.

The idea is to start at the same place as other readers, then add six books to see where one ends up. It’s not a meme I normally do — I think I’ve only attempted it once before, and that was by liberally interpreting the rules — but I fancy a go now.

In October we start with a novella by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw,* a good choice for this time of year as it’s a classic ghost story. (Or is it?) Here starteth the chain of connections.

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This summer, in summary

Back at the beginning of June I opted to do Cathy Brown’s summer reading meme. This involved listing either ten, fifteen or twenty books one aimed to complete between the beginning of that month and the end of August.

Ever cautious I went for just ten titles, but in complete confidence that I would over the 93 days be close to not only reading but reviewing 20 books.

So how did I do?

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Globetrotting, bookwise

I’ve not thought of myself as particularly insular where history, geography and politics are concerned but I have been aware that for some years the literature I’ve tended to gravitate towards has been firmly Anglocentric, with occasional forays in the direction of North America.

There are many reasons for this sad state of affairs but no excuses — all I can say is that it’s particularly shameful to me that a childhood growing up in what was then called the Far East, plus a subsequent sprinkling of study in some of the so-called Romance languages of Europe, hasn’t led to a broader familiarity with world literature.

So . . . Reading All Around the World. I’m not actually doing this challenge, but a recent-ish post by Lory caught my eye and I thought I’d check where, bookwise, I’ve already travelled in this year of grace, two-thirds of the way through twenty-twenty, with 52 titles under my belt.

Not far, it turns out.

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The Ruin of Books and Sarcasm

Cover generator: https://nullk.github.io/penguin.html

Alex, who blogs on fantasy and science fiction at Spells and Spaceships and tweets as (at)BlogSpells, posted this fun tweet recently:

Create your YA novel title:

The _______ of ________ and _______

1) type of place you like travelling to most — forest, church, castle etc.
2) Last thing you held in your hand other than your phone
3) thing you’re most scared of

Mine, as you can see, came out as The Ruin of Books and Sarcasm which I fondly thought had the enigmatic feel of titles like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance.

I also used this cover generator to produce a suitably official-looking Penguin Classics title using a photo of part of a mural I saw in Bristol.

Here is a summary of the imagined blurb on the back cover, which may or may not encourage you to go out and buy it — virtually of course!

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