Anticipated Books (Summer-Autumn) 2015: Historical Fiction July-September

2015Welcome to the next post in my Anticipated Books series for the second half of 2015. Like fantasy, there were too many historical fiction books that caught my fancy for one post, so they’ve been split in two. For some of these I already have an (e)ARC or review copy, so they’ll definitely be read and reviewed. And for the rest, I’ll have to see whether I get the chance to get my hands on them!  Read More …

Anticipated Books (Winter-Spring) 2014: Historical Fiction April-June

2014Welcome to another post in my Anticipated Books series for the first half of 2014. This is the second half of my historical fiction list. There were just so many books that caught my fancy that I split them in two. For some of these I already have an (e)ARC or review copy, so they’ll definitely be read and reviewed. And for the rest, I’ll have to see whether I get the chance to get my hands on them!  Read More …

Anticipated Books (Summer-Fall) 2013: Historical Fiction July-September

2013Welcome to the next post in my Anticipated Books series for the second half of 2013. Like fantasy, there were too many books that caught my fancy for one post, so they’ve been split in two. For some of these I already have an (e)ARC or review copy, so they’ll definitely be read and reviewed. And for the rest, I’ll have to see whether I get the chance to get my hands on them!   Read More …

Anticipated Books (Summer-Fall) 2013: Fiction

2013Welcome to the fourth post in my Anticipated Books series for the second half of 2013. Today it’s time for my mainstream fiction picks. For some of these I already have an (e)ARC or review copy, so they’ll definitely be read and reviewed. And for the rest, I’ll have to see whether I get the chance to get my hands on them!

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Jack Wolf – The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones [Blog Tour]

jackwolf-rawheadbloodybonesThe year is 1750.

Tristan Hart, precociously talented student of medicine practising under the legendary Dr William Hunter. His obsession is the nature of pain and preventing it; the relationship between mind and matter and the existence of God. A product of the Age of Enlightenment, he is a rational man on a quest to cut through darkness and superstition with the brilliant blade of science.

Tristan Hart, madman and deviant. His obsession is the nature of pain, and causing it. A product of an age of faeries and goblins, gnomes and shape-shifting gypsies, he is on a quest to arouse the perfect scream and slay the daemon Raw Head who torments his dark days and long nights.

Troubled visionary, twisted genius, loving sadist. What is real and what imagined in Tristan Hart’s brutal, beautiful, complex world?

The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones is definitely something different. It’s a dark and twisted tale that leaves the reader both uncomfortable and fascinated. Wolf makes some interesting stylistic choices that might be hard for people to overlook, as they can be quite alienating if one isn’t prepared for them. However, I hope that people do look past these challenges, because beyond the presentation there is a tale worth reading and some interesting questions to ponder.

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Way Beyond Retro: Tales from the Thousand and One Nights

Welcome to another instalment of my semi-regular feature Way Beyond Retro. In this feature I’ll be reading the non-speculative books still in my TBR-pile. You can find more details on Way Beyond Retro in this introduction. Tales from the Thousand and One Nights is one of the books I rescued when my mother was throwing out most of her books when she emigrated. 

Originating from India, Persia and Arabia, the Tales from the Thousand and One Nights represent the lively expression of a lay and secular imagination in revolt against religious austerity and zeal in Oriental literature. They depict a fabulous and fanciful world of jinns and sorcerors, but their bawdiness, realism and variety of subject matter also firmly anchor them to everyday life. In this volume the translator has caught the freshness and spontaneity of the stories – which, although imaginative and extravagant, are a faithful mirror of medieval Islam.

When I got the pick of my mother’s books when she needed to get rid of them as she was emigrating, the reason I picked Tales from the Thousand and One Nights was twofold. First of all I was of the opinion that I ought to have read at least part of one of the great, classical literary influences, both on the literature I studied at university and on my beloved speculative genre. Second of all, I had bought Anthony O’Neill’s Scheherazade, a retelling of the story of Scheherazade, a few months earlier and never really got past the first twenty pages and I thought reading some of the original The Thousand and One Nights might help me get into the book more. Of course, this was almost ten years ago and both books have remained unread until now.

The Thousand and One Nights are a collection of folk tales that found their current form in the early nineteenth century. Their first introduction into the West, however, was as early as 1707 when the French Orientalist Antoine Galland. He encountered the stories on his voyages in the East and brought them back and translated them into French. He wasn’t just a translator though, as I learned from the BBC4 program Secrets of the Arabian Nights, which serendipitously aired just as I’d started reading the book. Galland also adapted some stories, which he’d heard being told during his travels, to satisfy the rising demand for more Arabian Nights tales. After their introduction to the West, The Thousand and One Nights went through Europe like a wildfire, being in high demand in upper class drawing rooms. And while they have gone through many incarnations, being bowdlerised by the Victorians and turned into children’s stories by them as well, they have never disappeared into oblivion and have remained popular to this day.

The Thousand and One Nights contain strong themes of compassion, charity, loyalty and forgiveness. As illustrated by The Tale of Judar and his Brothers, where Judar keeps forgiving his brothers and providing for them, regardless of all their greed and scheming. Another strong theme connected to loyalty is the importance of familial relations. It is paramount to care for your family, not just your immediate family, but your extended family as well. And people cast each other in familial roles, even if strangers, as we see in the case of Sindbad the Sailor and Sindbad the Porter, where the former is rescued on his last journey by an old man, who makes him his son and heir by marrying him to his daughter. Familial relations can also be used to deceive, as illustrated by the Moor in Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp, who pretends to be his long lost uncle so he’ll help him recover the lamp.

Women are either Mary’s or Eves, though in some cases they may represent both, such as the three girls from The Porter and the Three Girls of Baghdad. These seem to be largely temptresses in their treatment of the porter, but when they later tell their stories to the Caliph they turn out to be victims of circumstance as well. This ambivalent view of the feminine seems to to move from harlots to housewives during the telling of the Tales by Scheherazade, as she wanted to show that not all women were faithless and treacherous and to convince her Sultan to let her live, or at least that is what the BBC show claimed. From the small selection of tales in this book, it is hard to distil this development.

The stories aren’t just fantastical in a speculative sense, but in a literal sense as well. The stories aren’t very logical, not even within the context of the stories. They are, however, very entertaining, ranging from morality tales, such as the Fable of the Donkey, the Ox, and the Farmer, to out and out farce, such as The Historic Fart. Yet these stories favour the rogues and ne’er-do-wells; being good and virtuous doesn’t always equal being rewarded, as illustrated by The Tale of Judar and his Brothers, where the forgiving and loyal Judar ends up being killed by his avaricious brothers. In this case fortune really does favour the brave, as shown by The Tale of Ma’aruf the Cobbler, where Ma’aruf’s outrageous lies become the truth and all’s well that ends well, much to Ma’aruf’s frind Ali’s dismay.

Much of (Middle) Eastern based fantasy draws on The Thousand and One Nights. In some cases more directly than others, such as Howard Andrew Jones’ The Desert of Souls, which is as the author himself says (to paraphrase) Sherlock Holmes meets Arabian Nights meets Sinbad crossed with Indiana Jones. Others are less obvious, but the story-within-a-story model such as used in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles, is the basis for The Thousand and One Nights. This model can even get very confusing as the nesting becomes Matruschka-like in proportions and it can get difficult to keep straight at which level the story is placed. One thing that I found striking, was the fact that the jinn in these stories aren’t half as treacherous as they are often portrayed. The only malicious jinn is the one from the The Fisherman and the Jinnee, the rest of the jinn in this selection of stories, is nothing more than magical, wishful-filling slaves.

Tales from The Thousand and One Nights was a very entertaining collection of tales taken from The Thousand and One Nights. These stories still need to be read, both because they are a classic in literary history and because they have such a profound influence on much of the Middle-Eastern inspired cultures in the speculative genre. But most importantly, these stories deserve to be read for themselves, as they are fun, adventurous and give a peek at a culture that is both exotic and fascinating.

Ursula Le Guin – The Earthsea Quartet

A superb work of fantasy, comparable with the work of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the Earthsea books follow the fortunes of the wizard Ged from his childhood to an age where magic is giving way to evil.

As a young dragonlord Ged, whose use-name is Sparrowhawk, is sent to the island of Roke to learn the true way of magic. A natural magician, Ged becomes an Archmage and helps the High Priestess Tenar escape from the labyrinth of darkness. But as the years pass, true magic and ancient ways are forced to submit to the powers of evil and death…

These four spellbinding works of imaginative genius offer a parable that is sometimes joyous, sometimes sobering, for readers of all ages.

The Earthsea Quartet, an omnibus version of all four Earthsea books, is another one of my #bookfails. I’d never read any Le Guin and this book has been standing in my bookcase since 1997. I did start it at the time I bought it, but I just couldn’t get past the first fifty to sixty pages. In this way it reminded me of The Lord of the Rings a lot, since I had similar problems there. It wasn’t just the false starts that made the books feel similar to me, it was the language as well. The share a similar stately feel in the rhythm of the prose. But were Tolkien uses the entire section set in the Shire to set up for the action, Le Guin sketches out the scene in three pages and away we go. Though it took me until Ged gets to the school in Roke to become fully immersed in the story.

In the flap text the books are called parables, stories that illustrate a lesson or moral, and the books certainly do that. Each book seems to have its own lesson, while the overarching leitmotif for the books seems to be fear in all its facets and not to let oneself be limited by it. Each book has its own protagonist who has to deal with fear, be it their own or other people’s. Two of the books include a physical journey, while the other two are more spiritual journeys. But in all of them the journey is more important than the destination. There is a lot of symbolism in the books, such as the maze in the Tombs of Atuan, the juxtaposition between the rise of the new king in The Farthest Shore and Ged’s waning power, and the echoing of Ged meeting the Archmage at the fountain on his arrival on Roke and his similarly receiving Arren.

My favourite character in the books is Tenar. I like that we got her history as a girl in The Tombs of Atuan and later got to see the story of her later life in Tehanu. In both books we see her strength and courage and I love how she takes charge of her own life in both of the books. On the whole Tehanu is my favourite of all four books, since everything comes full circle here and all our protagonists return. And of course light conquers dark yet again.

If I had one complaint with the books, it would be that the story didn’t seem finished. This could have been intentional, as a sort of “Endless struggle of good against evil” cycle. It also leaves room for perhaps one more book, in fact a collection of short stories, Tales of Earthsea, and a final novel, The Other Wind, were published in 2001. The Earthsea Quartet remains a classic of the speculative genre, written by one of its Grand Masters. Any fan of the genre should have read some Le Guin and these books. I know I’ll be looking to read more of Ms Le Guin’s work.

Way Beyond Retro: Frances Burney – Evelina

Welcome to another instalment of my semi-regular feature Way Beyond Retro. In this feature I’ll be reading the non-speculative books still in my TBR-pile. You can find more details on Way Beyond Retro in this introductionEvelina was one of the books I bought as research for the thesis I never finished and consequently I never read the book. It is the last of four 18th century novels in this series, as the previous three books are also leftovers from the thesis-that-wasn’t-to-be.

Frances Burney - Evelina
Not actually the cover of my copy,
but I can’t find that online!

Written in secret, the manuscript copied for her publisher in disguised handwriting, Frances Burney’s first novel Evelina appeared anonymously in 1778.

It was a sequel to Caroline Evelyn, the novel burned by its author when she was fifteen; Evelina, the apparently illegitimate daughter of vanished Caroline, happily enters a society much more dangerous than she realizes. Subtitled The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World the novel records in letters its young heroine’s encounters with society, both high and low, in London and at fashionable watering places.

The novel explores representation and performance, social mores and masks, in a world full of distractions, from overturned coaches to golden automata, from opera to malevolent monkeys. Evelina is also a ‘family romance’, and, as Margaret Anne Doody’s Introduction indicates, it is acutely observant of the social laws regarding power, authority and authorship, which the author herself had to subvert, at least in part, like her naïve letter-writing heroine.

The above is a great summary of what the novel is about. It describes the themes, the content and the importance of the work in the author’s life and body of work. What it can’t convey is the book’s wonderfully engaging tone of voice. Evelina is an epistolary novel, which follows Evelina in her first year out in society. The letters are those written by Evelina, on the one hand, and her foster father Reverend Villars on the other. Evelina writes mainly to the Reverend Villars and her best friend Maria Mirvan, but there are also a few loose letters to others. Some other authors appear, but their letters are always included in the letters written by Evelina and Villars. The tone of the novel is fun and it is very readable despite its 18th century peculiarities of spelling and words.

The novel is about class in both senses of the word: status and manners. You may be of a higher class, but still have no manners and vice versa. The story seems to illustrate that class is something you’re born with, you either have it or you don’t. If you’re born without it, you can put on the mask but it doesn’t make you genteel. Both Sir Clement and Mr. Smith are examples of this; Sir Clement is an unmannered oaf, who based on his title and status in society thinks he can behave as he likes and get away with it. Mr. Smith, in contrast is not born of the upper class and hopes to convince people that he has a claim to gentility by adopting upper class manners and opinions. Of course, he gets it wrong most of the time. Evelina is the opposite; seemingly born out if wedlock to a Lord, she is raised in less exalted circles than her birth would have entitled her to had she been legitimate. Despite this she possesses all the social niceties and virtues expected of her when entering society, although she is hampered by her great naivety.

Both Sir Clement and Mr. Smith gave me the creeps, their almost obsessive pursuit of Evelina is disturbing, but shows the vulnerability of young women in society in the era. Reputation is key, something of which Evelina is well aware. When she’s forced to go out in public with her low relations, she fears running into anyone she knows from higher up in society especially Mr. Orville. The vicarious shame Evelina feels for the Branghtons and Mrs Duval is at once hilarious and tragic. It a different sort of shame than the one she feels for the rudeness of Captain Mirvan and, to an extent, Sir Clement. The latter springs from her feeling they should know better, but being powerless to correct them, where with the Branghtons it is more shame to have to acknowledge the connection.

With its romantic story, the hilarious shenanigans instigated by Captain Mirvan, its almost satiric look at class and society and, most of all, with its endearing protagonist, Evelina is a lovely read, which kept me thoroughly entertained. Evelina deserves to be read today and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes the works of Jane Austen.

Way Beyond Retro: Tobias Smollett – The Expedition of Humphry Clinker

Welcome to another instalment of my semi-regular feature Way Beyond Retro. In this feature I’ll be reading the non-speculative books still in my TBR-pile. You can find more details on Way Beyond Retro in this introduction. The Expedition of Humphry Clinker was one of the books I bought as research for the thesis I never finished and consequently I never read the book. It is the third of four 18th century novels in this series, as the previous two and the next book are also leftovers from the thesis-that-wasn’t-to-be.

Tough, splenetic, and widely experienced, of all the great novelists of his time Tobias Smollett is one who registered best the bawdy, brutal side of the eighteenth-century life. Towards the end of his life, however, he grew mellower, and Humphry Clinker (1771) is a tale of high good humour. Squire Bramble’s picaresque tour of the Britain of George III has enough eccentric characters and comic adventures for several lifetimes, and a wealth of local colour.

Published in June 1771, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker was to be Tobias Smollett’s last novel. The author died in September of the same year. Though Smollett is most remembered for his picaresque works, such as The Adventures of Roderick RandomHumphry Clinker is more of a travelogue than a picaresque. It is not the ending or the plot that is the story, but the scenery on the way. There isn’t really a solid plot to the story; Bramble takes his niece, nephew and sister on a tour of the Isle after collecting Liddy from her school, after she got in trouble for falling in love with a common player boy. This indiscretion and its ultimate resolution and Mrs Tabitha’s attempts at landing herself a husband would seem to be the closest we get to a traditional storyline. But again, this isn’t the point of the novel. The portrayal of contemporary British life is far more important and if you are looking for a glimpse of what eighteenth century life was like for the well off, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker provides just that and in spades.

Humphry Clinker is an epistolary novel and this episodic form of narration suits the wandering tale very well. It allows Smollett to jump ahead in time at will, but also to give us several viewpoints on the same event. Smollett’s touch is deft, the voices of the narrators are distinct and each is different in style and tone. Liddy sounds girlish and teeny, Jere typifies the collegiate boy and Bramble is ponderous and serious, but with a good heart. The other two letter writers are more defined by style than tone, both Mrs Tabitha and Win are recognisable from their atrocious spelling and grammar. This serves as excellent comic relief, but also serves to drive home points about their personalities; Tabitha is shown in all her self-important and self-serving ignorance, while Win is shown to be a barely literate, rather naive serving girl. The titular Humphry Clinker isn’t one of the correspondents, in fact he only appears after about a quarter of the book.

The title of the book seems to be a bit of a pun. The titles of all of Smollett’s other books start with The Adventures of. This one is the only one starting with The Expedition. Of course this refers to their travels, with Clinker as one of the party, but it can also seem to refer to Clinker’s eventual upward mobility.

In the introduction to the book, written by its editor, Angus Ross, the narrative is said to contain parts of Smollett’s earlier writings. These passages are easily identified as they are often disguised as harangues by Bramble on the state of society. Bramble seems to be Smollett’s mouthpiece; Smollett is known for his rather autobiographical streak in his writing and while both Jere and Bramble have long pieces which seem to have been lifted from earlier works, Bramble is the one who expresses opinions, while Jere more or less provides background information. While these ‘lifted’ sections were easily identified in the text, they never feel clunky or information dump-like, they flow from the narrative and serve to build the characters. They actually made me smile more often than not, as it seemed Bramble had the eternal ‘old man’s complaint’ most of the time: ‘In my time, when I was younger everything was better.’

The prevailing sense I had while reading this novel can be summarised by the proverbial The more things change, the more they stay the same. Smollett gives us a snap shot of his time and includes the plaints uttered by its inhabitants. Funnily, a lot of the complaints are still uttered today, both by the old and not-so old. It gives the book a sense of timelessness and relevance for the modern-day reader. Add to this the fact that it is as humorous as The Adventures of Roderick Random and you have a great read, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Highly recommended for people who want to explore some of the classics of British literature!

Way Beyond Retro – Beowulf

Welcome to another instalment of my semi-regular feature Way Beyond Retro. In this feature I’ll be reading the non-speculative books still in my TBR-pile. You can find more details on Way Beyond Retro in this introduction. Beowulf is another of the texts I had to read from at university. Having only read the lines prescribed, I never read the entire text. When I picked up the book from my shelf, I discovered that my Penguin Classic edition was an untranslated Old-English edition. Since it’s been over 10 years since I actually learned how to translate Old English and I’ve forgotten most of it, I borrowed a copy of the Norton Critical Edition of Seamus Heaney’s translation, published in 2002, from work. 

Eighth-century in its origin, Beowulf is an epic Anglo-Saxon poem and one of the earliest texts in Engish literature. Of the 32.000 lines of Anglo-Saxon writing preserved over one-tenth of these are the lines of the Beowulf. The poem describes the journey of the young Beowulf to the Danish court of King Hrothgar, which is besieged by a monster called Grendel. Beowulf vows to take on Grendel and relieve the court of his oppression. He succeeds, but incurs the wrath of Grendel’s mother, who comes to the court to take revenge. Beowulf follows her to her underwater lair and slays her. Triumphant, our hero returns home to Geat-land, where, after several heroic deaths in the family, he assumes the throne. Beowulf becomes a wise and well-beloved king, but when his country becomes plagued by a dragon, he once again dons his armour to slay a monster and save his people. He kills the dragon, but loses his life in the process. He is buried in grand style by his grieving retainers, who we leave standing next to his grave site, contemplating their loss and the greatness of their fallen hero.

The manuscript which contains Beowulf (MS Cotton Vitellius A. XV, housed at the British Library) is a collection of stories about wondrous creatures. It is preceded by The Passion of St. Christopher, The Wonders of the East and a Letter of Alexander to Aristotle and followed by a poem on the Old Testament heroine Judith. So even placed in this context the story seems to fit into the speculative. It certainly is a horror story, with the monsters creeping in at night and terrorising the people at the Danish court. While there is a strong Christian influence in the narrative, Beowulf, Hrothgar and company are firmly pagan:

Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed
offerings to idols, swore oaths
that the killer of souls might come to their aid
and save the people. That was their way,
their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts
they remembered hell. (ll. 175-180)

The story is based in history, since it references many historical kings, battles and places, but it is a history that has been moulded into legend.

While Beowulf was originally composed orally and then written down, unlike the much later dated Mabinogion, it is a far more fluent whole. The story is far less fragmented, with the only large shift in time being the fifty years between Beowulf’s fighting Grendel and his mother and his fighting of the dragon. As such it is far easier to follow and for me more enjoyable.

So what is speculative in Beowulf? The question is rather, what is not speculative? Beowulf is filled with heroes and monsters. Besides Grendel and his dam, there are dragons, trolls and sea monsters. The latter not just being found in the mere where Grendel and his mother live, but also in the sea, as mentioned in the swimming episode told during the banquet. If Beowulf was written today, it could be classified as a sword and sorcery tale. You could also argue that a modern day version of Grendel could be portrayed as a zombie. He rends flesh and eats people, he is other, though he still has human qualities, being a descendant of Cain. In this sense, Beowulf doesn’t seem outdated. On the contrary, it seems far less so than younger tales such as the Mabinogion and some of the Arthurian Romances.

Beowulf remains a ripping good yarn, which one can imagine being told at a feast or round the fire to great enthusiasm of the listeners. Indeed, it drew great enthusiasm from me as a reader. The translation I read (and quoted from above), was the one by Seamus Heaney, first published in 2000. It’s a beautifully translated piece of poetry. Heaney has tried to be faithful to not just the letter of the original, but the spirit. The result is a text that is not just a translation, but has a soul all of its own. Heaney makes this ancient story accessible to modern readers, without losing the feel of the original. Beowulf is one of the cornerstones of British literary history and as such is compulsory reading for any student of English. But most of all, the book should be read for the story it tells: of the man called Beowulf and the monsters he fights.