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 Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett, illustrated by Paul Kidby, afterword by Rob Wilkins. Doubleday 2015
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.
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 Shall Wear Midnight
by Terry Pratchett, illustrated by Paul Kidby.
Corgi Books 2011 (2010)
How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags? What is’t you do?
— Macbeth IV/1
Terry Pratchett is full of surprises. Because this, the fourth in the Tiffany Aching series of Discworld novels, is marketed as ‘for younger readers’ one might not anticipate that this is considerably darker than its predecessors, despite the expected humour and wit. And yet, with Tiffany being fifteen going on sixteen, perhaps with her growing maturity a more realistic view of what’s possible in Discworld is inevitable.
Neil Gaiman, in his introduction to Pratchett’s collection A Slip of the Keyboard, noted that “There is a fury to Terry Pratchett’s writing,” and that is more than evident here in the stark opening and much of what follows. Some of that rage may have been tied up with his diagnosis for Alzheimer’s a couple of years before, but he had always been furious about injustices and that comes through very strongly here.
But don’t think I Shall Wear Midnight is a miserable instalment in Tiffany’s story: this is a heart-warming coming-of-age tale, even for a young witch who’s already mature and responsible beyond her years. The interweaving of the traditional folksong Pleasant and Delightful gives — for old folkies like me, born the same year as Pratchett — the story an added piquancy with its themes of love, leave-taking and loss, and may bring a tear or two to the eye.
Terry Pratchett: Wyrd Sisters
Corgi Books 1989 (1988)
‘You know, Hwel, I reckon responsible behaviour is something to get when you grow older. Like varicose veins.’
— Tomjon in ‘Wyrd Sisters’
The fourth in Pratchett’s Discworld series is full of witches behaving badly, meddling yet not meddling in the affairs of men. Preceded by Equal Rites it focuses on the kingdom of Lancre with its usurping ruler Duke Felmet and his wife, a castle full of ghosts, a troupe of travelling players and the aforementioned witch trio of Esme Weatherwax, Gytha Ogg and Magrat Garlick.
It’s not the assassination itself that sets things awry — Lancre has seen dastardly deeds done to royalty before and survived — but the misrule following it, and Granny Weatherwax senses the land is unhappy. For this reason and others (such as her being a dyed-in-the-wool contrarian) she determines, along with her coven of three, to nudge things along a bit.
And that includes a bit of messing around with time, accomplished in a manner similar to the ending of Superman the Movie, except with a black-caped Granny flying her broomstick round the kingdom.
It’s coming up to that time of year when the door to one season starts shutting while another slowly swings ajar.
Following my New Year commitment not to commit to specifics concerning my 2020 reading I’m not therefore going to detail what exactly I intend to read for March — mainly because I have no idea at the moment!
Nevertheless, vague possibilities are coalescing around upcoming events in the reading calendar.
Find the story, Granny Weatherwax always said. She believed that the world was full of story shapes. If you let them, they controlled you. But if you studied them, if you found out about them . . . you could use them, you could change them . . .
We’ve met Tiffany Aching before, in The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky, and know that she is a young witch on the Discworld’s Chalk, the uplands where the principal occupation is shepherding. In Wintersmith she is on the cusp of her teens but has already ratcheted up an impressive CV, having defeated the Fairy Queen and overcome a crisis of identity in the form of the Hiver.
Here, however, she has a rather more challenging antagonist in the form of the embodiment (if that’s the right word for a disembodied being) of the coldest season of the year. To stop the Wintersmith’s personal interest in her and the prospect of the land permanently locked in snow and ice she has to understand the power of story.
And for us to fully appreciate Wintersmith I too believe, like Granny Weatherwax, that we have to find and study story shapes to comprehend how Pratchett uses them to control, in ever so satisfyingly a fashion, his narrative.
This preview post is to flag up two of the books I shall be reviewing for March Magics, the book event founded by Kristen Meston of We Be Reading to highlight the work of Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett.
In a couple of days I will be looking at the third in the Tiffany Aching series, Wintersmith. I’ve already drawn attention to this in a post, but you may possibly feel inclined to also look at my reviews of the first two books: The Wee Free Men and A Hat full of Sky.
Later in the month—on the anniversary of her death, the 26th—I shall be returning to Diana Wynne Jones’ land of Ingary by re-reviewing her most famous title, Howl’s Moving Castle. An earlier review appeared here, but a recent reread (and my usual mental meanderings) have encouraged me to think further on this: and an episode in Wales means this also counts as an entry for the Wales Readathon, Dewithon. (There were two sequels, Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways. And I’ll be posting an overview of Diana’s fiction later in the month.)
If you haven’t discovered either or both of these authors you might do worse than made a foray into their works this month (and maybe glance at my links) . . .
Tomorrow sees the meteorological first day of spring with the arrival of March, a month which itself begins with St David’s Day.
For the next 31 days I shall be joining in the Wales Readathon (akaDewithon19) by reading and reviewing books with a Welsh slant, right through to the end of the month; and you can do so too by going to Paula Bardell-Hedley’s Dewithon HQ page at Book Jotter, where you will find many bookish hints relating to Welsh literature.
This blog’s post will also focus on two great fantasy writers who left us in past March months, Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, in the event now known as March Magics.
This was inaugurated by Kristen Meston at WeBeReading back in 2012 as DWJ March, to celebrate Diana’s legacy the year after her death, before morphing to include Sir Terry’s work after he died in March 2015.
As Kristen writes, it gives us an excuse to read our favourite DWJ and STP titles, “to pick up the books from these authors that never get old, the ones that we’ve read dozens of times already but plan to read at least a dozen more times.”
Kristen’s outline schedule is:
Saturday, 9th March — Discussion for Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men
Saturday, 23rd March — Discussion for Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle
Finally, Cathy Brown of 746books, co-host with The Fluff is Raging‘s Niall, has been successfully running Reading Ireland Month (St Patrick’s Day is March 17th) for some years now: it’s also known as Begorrathon. I hadn’t got round to joining in before but this year I hope to start in a small way.
The schedule runs thusly:
25th February–3rd March – Contemporary Irish Novels
4th–10th March – Classic Irish Novels
11th–17th March – Irish Short Story Collections
18th–24th March – Irish Non-Fiction
25th–31st March – Miscellaneous (Drama, Poetry, Film etc)
If you’re joining in on social media with any or all of these events don’t forget to use the following hashtags:
#dewithon19 (or #WalesReadathon)
#MarchMagics (or #DWJMarch)
and #Begorrathon19 (or #readingirelandmonth19)
to share how you’re participating.
As I shall too!
“In like a lion, out like a lamb.”
— Proverb about the weather for March. Or it may be about astrology. Or possibly something else. Maybe reading? Yes, it’s about reading!
With a little over a month to go to a miserable Brexit, I thought I’d quote this skipping rhyme from Terry Pratchett’s fantasy Wintersmith to illustrate my belief that for some people you can provide the ingredients that make up a human but they may still lack the essentials that would make them truly humane.
These are the Things that Make a Man
“Iron enough to make a nail,
Lime enough to paint a wall,
Water enough to drown a dog,
Sulphur enough to stop the fleas,
Potash enough to wash a shirt,
Gold enough to buy a bean,
Silver enough to coat a pin,
Lead enough to ballast a bird,
Phosphor enough to light the town,
Poison enough to kill a cow,
Strength enough to build a home,
Time enough to hold a child,
Love enough to break a heart.”
Here’s the related track from folk rock band Steeleye Span, from their 2013 Wintersmith album which was inspired by Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching novels:
Another waffly post, I’m afraid, but at least it’s mercifully short.
I’ve been diverting myself with a quick dip into Terry Pratchett (in a manner of speaking) in anticipation of March Magics; this last, hosted annually by Kristen of We Be Reading, is a respectful celebration of the work of Pratchett and of Diana Wynne Jones who both died during this month in, respectively, 2015 (March 12th) and 2011 (March 26th).
Now I didn’t mean to, but I found myself picking up the third Tiffany Aching book, Wintersmith, even though I’d intended to leave it till next month. It must have been due to the promised snowful in Britain — unlike North America’s recent dreadful polar vortex and a less deadly dump in much of Britain, the white stuff forecast for my part of Wales turned out however to be a bit of a damp squib.
Another year starts, and we’re all encouraged to plan ahead… Well, I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. I don’t have targets. I don’t set challenges.
What I have instead are goals: something to generally aim for but no pressure other than satisfaction at reaching them or even making the initial effort.
A better metaphor might be a framework: something that provides shape but the cladding for which is more random and the amount of cover more arbitrary. Imagine a big wide open goalmouth, the posts set wide apart and the crosspiece high, the netting a patchwork of different materials and loosely spread over. It’s pleasing to get the ball in the net but, heaven forfend, I’ve never had dreams of being a Premiership player…
So, Reading Goals. (No, not Reading Gaol, that was Oscar Wilde.)
Not long after the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere, three quarters of the way into March — a month in fact featuring two patron saints of Celtic countries — and I’ve missed marking this period in any special way. But anyway, what’s a date but an arbitrary point in the calendar? Measure time in any way other than by the solar year and all our anniversaries, birthdays and feast days count for little.
Still I feel a little bit put out because I failed to celebrate one of my favourite authors. Maybe it’s because I’ve read almost all her books. Maybe it’s because I’ve been too busy celebrating the bicentenary of another author — Mary Shelley, ‘onlie begetter’ of Frankenstein — or was still stupefied after a revisit of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea that I forgot to check in on Kristen’s We Be Reading blog where she hosts March Magics, a celebration of the worlds and works of Terry Pratchett and … Diana Wynne Jones.
Terry Pratchett: A Hat Full of Sky
Corgi 2012 (2004)
We’re all familiar with Alice going through the looking-glass into a topsy-turvy world, a world where she is able to look at things in a different way. Unexpectedly, Alice makes no attempt to find her own reflection: “The very first thing she did was to look whether there was a fire in the fireplace, and she was quite pleased to find that there was a real one.” For a child who could make the observation “Curiouser and curiouser!” she is singularly incurious about her own reflection; perhaps she is not as prone to self-reflection as we have thought.
This is not the case however with the heroine of this Terry Pratchett novel when she finds that she has no mirror in which to check her appearance, for when she devises a way to observe herself without one she finds she has to indulge in self-reflection of a different kind. A Hat Full of Sky is the second of the Tiffany Aching novels, set on Discworld. We not only get to meet the Nac Mac Feegles, Granny Weatherwax and lesser witch Miss Tick all over again but also to encounter new characters, especially Miss Level and her neighbours. But really the focus is Tiffany herself, how she is growing into her powers and how she’s becoming more mature (although, to be sure, she has already shown herself to the equal of many adults in maturity).
How many narratives are there, and how are they put together? Why are we often satisfied with some stories which, when described, sound trite or clichéd while other more complex tales, more diffuse or with an unexpected ending, fail to please or even prove unwelcome? Are we doomed to merely know what we like and to only like what we know?
I ask all these questions because I sometimes find different fictions I come across — and occasionally even non-fiction narratives — following parallel paths towards a similar conclusion even though they may not be obviously related in any way. And it turns out I may like them equally well even while unaware of those similarities, possibly because I’ve subconsciously recognised that they follow patterns that I find familiar. What might the impulse be that unites so many plots that superficially appear dissimilar?
I’ve read a few studies in my time about how stories are structured. There is the Aarne-Thompson tale types classification (named after Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, subsequently refined by Hans-Jörg Uther) which undertook to analyse folk narratives around the world, finding many commonalities; most discussion of folk- and fairytales refers to this system. There is Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1928) based on analysis of classic Russian fairytales, which I found strangely alluring despite its complexity.
I’ve also read Eugène Dorfman’s The Narreme in the Medieval Romance Epic: An Introduction to Narrative Structure (1971), which examines how many medieval romances appear to follow similar structural patterns. Then there’s Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) which tried to include all culture hero tales in a schema he called the monomyth. We mustn’t forget Christopher Booker’s often irritating study The Seven Basic Plots (2004) which attributed the success of many narratives to their following a limited number of templates, sometimes singly and at other times in combination.
So many approaches, so few answers in common. Is there another way to come at these conundrums, or at least suggest an alternative approach to why we seek out and enjoy particular patterns?
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.