Thursday, 25 March 2010

Once Upon A Time IV

Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings runs some truly life-enhancing challenges, of which my absolute favourite is the Once Upon a Time Challenge. I’ve spent a very satisfying hour already, looking at other people’s lists and deciding what to include on my own.

I’ve decided upon Quests the First and Fourth–for Quest the First I shall be reading 5 books that fit somewhere within the Once Upon a Time categories: fantasy, folklore, fairytale and mythology, while for Quest the Fourth I’m planning to read Ursula Le Guin’s essays on writing fantasy, The Language of the Night (with thanks to Nymeth, who gave me the idea) and Alexander Porteus’ The Forest in Folklore and Mythology, which was first published in 1928. I bought this last year and it’s been sitting rather reproachfully by my bed ever since. Its first chapter is called The Forests of Eld! It coincides nicely with my current reading, Oliver Rackham’s History of the Countryside, which starts by discussing received wisdom about the history of forests in Britain, from which I am learning a good deal.

I’m also going to join in the short story weekends when I can, because I found a book of short stories that I couldn’t resist, since they are on my favourite Green Man theme. It will fit well with the Porteus book. And I’ve just seen that it’s on Carl’s list, too. I’ve added The Ladies of Grace Adieu, as well, because I think I’ve still got a couple of stories to left to read; the same goes for The Wind from Nowhere, because I’ve been rationing its stories–I don’t want to finish it.

I’ve listed my reading pool by category, but I’m going to allow myself some leeway so I don’t have to read one from each. Some will come from the TBR pile and others from the library (and I have already bought two, which wasn’t the idea at all!) but there is more fantasy than anything else, which most closely reflects what I want to read right now.

The list makes me want to plunge straight into reading, but I'll have to restrain myself a little longer, as I have a conference to run in less than a fortnight. I'll probably take one of the books with me to read, but it will have to be chosen carefully: it must be absorbing enough to hold my attention and help me unwind at the end of a long day, but not so much that I can't bear to stop reading. That's a challenge in itself, with a list lovingly compiled for un-put-downable qualities!

Kate Griffin, A Madness of Angels
Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Prince of Mist
Clive Barker, Abarat / Abarat 2
Stephen Hunt, The Rise of the Iron Moon
Diana Wynne Jones, The Dark Lord of Derkholm
Frances Hardinge, Verdigris Deep
Neil Gaiman, 1602 (graphic novel)

Jeanette Winterson, Weight
Victor Pelevin, The Helmet of Horror

Macdonald Harris, The Little People
Nicholas Stuart Gray, The Stone Cage

Frederick Grice, Folk Tales of the North Country

Ursula Le Guin, The Language of the Night
Alexander Porteus, The Forest in Folklore and Mythology

For short story weekends
Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (eds), Tales from the Mythic Forest
Susanna Clarke, The Ladies of Grace Adieu
Nicholas Stuart Gray, The Wind from Nowhere

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Fire Along the Frontier

Tonight 84-mile-long Hadrian’s Wall will be illuminated along its full extent from east to west. The first beacon will be lit at Segedunum (Wallsend) and the event will culminate in a procession in Carlisle, with street entertainment (the line of lights will reach Carlisle (or Luguvalium) at about 6.40pm. I wish I were close enough to see the Wall when it’s lit up – it’s going to be a reasonably clear evening, I think, and it should be spectacular.

I find it satisfying that it should be taking place on the day I started reading for my own personal challenge: (re)reading the novels of Rosemary Sutcliff, one of my favourite authors as a child. In my teens I progressed to her adult books, Sword at Sunset feeding my fascination with King Arthur by turning him into a plausible historical character. But then she faded from my sight.

A couple of years ago, however, I read her memoir of her childhood, Blue Remembered Hills, which came as a beautifully bound limited edition from Slightly Foxed – it was the delight of the edition that attracted me as much as a loved author, I must admit.  But it’s so immensely readable that it reawakened my interest. She talks about beginning to write:
Almost from the beginning I felt cramped as a miniature painter and I think my first urge to break out into writing was the result of this. One can write as big as one needs; no canvas is too large to be unmanageable.
So I began to scribble, at first purely for the pleasure of scribbling, and without any idea of getting published. It was a delight, a way of escape, and in early years it had the added attraction of being a forbidden delight, a way of escape that must be kept secret.
She had had a childhood racked by illness (she suffered from Still’s Disease), and the loneliness caused by disability and long periods in hospital seems to be one of the most fertile hothouses for the imagination (I can’t help but recall those pictures of the young Robert Louis Stevenson waking from fevered dreams, in my ghastly school reading book – how these things linger!), helped perhaps by a mother for whom reading was a natural habit. She lacked much formal education, and her family persuaded her that painting would offer a living; although he heart was never entirely in it, her training as a miniaturist may have encouraged the detail of daily life which is present in her novels, fleshing out a distant historical past so that it becomes real to the reader. She was intrigued, too, by continuity – how the landscape we see today has been inhabited by people going about their everyday lives, in an unbroken line. I am too, and she was undoubtedly one of the writers who made me so. In a comment on my last post, callmemadam says Sutcliff made her turn to history – she made me study Latin, albeit briefly, but long enough to accrue quite a bit of the history of Roman Britain (I was much better at placenames than at declension) and, as I’ve already mentioned, fuelled a lifelong obsession with the Arthurian legends.

Which leads me on to my “challenge” – which isn’t really one at all, since I’m embarking alone on a journey along the Roman roads of Britain, from Isca Dumnoniorum in the south, where Marcus Flavius Aquila arrives to relieve the garrison, then northwards to Hadrian’s Wall and into the wilds north of Antonine’s Wall, beyond the pale of the Roman Empire. It’s not a journey I’m going to rush, there is no finishing date, and I’m starting in the obvious place with probably her most famous book, The Eagle of the Ninth, and then following the route through four further linked novels, spanning a publishing history from 1954 to 1980 (remarkable in itself): The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind and Frontier Wolf.  Essentially an armchair journey, I shall take the opportunity, whenever it presents itself, to refamiliarise myself with history and landscape, visiting any sites I can, such as Trinomontium (Melrose), a pleasant morning drive from here, or the Wall itself, reporting here on both books and visits. Blue Remembered Hills will be close at hand throughout, and for those who are interested, I've added a link to the blog written by Sutcliff's godson Anthony Lawton here and on the sidebar. Once I've read these Roman novels, I shall move on to the Arthurian series. If anyone wants to read along, you are very welcome! If you are reading one of Sutcliff's books, or have blogged about them already, please leave a link to your post in the comments.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Reading Harry Potter on the train

An article in the LA Times a couple of days ago considered the increasing interest in YA literature:
Many of today's young adult authors were born and raised in the 1960s and 1970s, when YA began to move beyond the staid, emotionless tales of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys in favor of more adventurous work from Judy Blume, Madeleine L'Engle and Robert Cormier. Now, they're turning out their own modern masterpieces.
That struck a chord with me, but it does something of a disservice to many authors of what would then be termed "children's books" who were anything but staid and emotionless. What about Alison Uttley's A Traveller in Time (1939), Elizabeth Goudge's The Little White Horse (1946), E.B. White's Charlotte's Web (1952) - I wept buckets at the end, even when I was reading it to my little brother - Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth ... I could go on for ages. Of my own list of 101 unmissable children's books published before 1975, most date from before 1960. And I only picked one book by each author.

I don't mean to imply that there isn't some tremendous YA literature out there: I think it's a wonderfully fertile area in writing, and I'm delighted if people are beginning to take it as seriously as it deserves. But many of the adults who are enjoying Garth Nix or J.K. Rowling might also enjoy Edward Eager or Geoffrey Trease.

There's more to come on Geranium Cat's Bookshelf on the subject of vintage books - watch this space!

Monday, 8 March 2010

Timoleon Vieta Come Home by Dan Rhodes

Dan Rhodes’ métier, I suspect, is really as a short story writer. In this book very little of the action takes place in the present, which acts mainly as a framework for a series of flashbacks  of the main character’s life and, in Part II, a series of vignettes about the people that the dog meets on its journey. The protagonist Cockroft is an unappealing and weak man, the kind of person that an inspector from the Battersea Dogs’ Home would never have considered as a suitable dog adopter. Of course, Timoleon Vieta, a mongrel and stray with beautiful eyes, adopts the old man himself, so on the whole we have to consider that his judgement may be flawed. Admittedly his reaction to the Bosnian - another stray who turns up at the old man’s cottage in Italy - seems quite sound, but Cockroft does not have the sense to listen to wiser counsel.

Pity - it could have saved us all a lot of grief. ‘Savagely funny,’ says The Times on the book’s (attractive) cover. I should have been warned. It didn’t make me laugh. I can see that there is wit, and the writing is well done; the structure, albeit slightly sprawling, works too. But it is too savage for me. Tragedy, even at its most bathetic, must have some kind of point to it, if it is to be worth reading, but I failed to see why I was being continually assaulted by stories of misery here. Not for me, this one. Moral: beware books with attractive covers. Or dogs.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Tulku by Peter Dickinson

Another re-read; sometime in the early 1980s, not long after it was first published, I found Tulku in the library. Both OH and I read it, and thought it a tremendous piece of storytelling. Although it disappeared from the local library I hadn’t forgotten it, and was delighted to find a copy in our local bookshop recently.

Except for the bare outlines of the story – a young boy, escaping from the Boxers during the Taiyuan massacre in 1900, reaches the Tibetan border where he meets a monk who is seeking a reincarnated lama – I had forgotten most of the narrative, and the story seemed entirely fresh to me. Thirteen-year-old Theo is the son of an American missionary killed in the massacre, and when he meets Mrs Jones, an indomitable Victorian plant hunter, he is prepared to dislike her for her vulgarity and even more for her ready cursing, but he allows himself to be persuaded into travelling with her to the safety of the nearest mission. Her eventual plan is to cross the border into the forbidden land of Tibet, where new plants may be found. On their way to seek the sanctuary of the mission for Theo, however, they again encounter the rebels, and they find themselves driven towards the border.