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#1954Club – what a bumper year it was! But where next??? 😊

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Well, that was a bit of a wonderful week, wasn’t it? I suspected from the start that 1954 would be a great year, and it really was! So many marvellous books have been read and discussed, and I imagine that all of your tbrs are now bulging – I’ve certainly added quite a few titles to the wishlist.

Anyway, below are the books I read for 1954 (the Maigret isn’t pictured because it was an e-book) and they turned out to be a marvellous selection. Classic crime is always likely to make an appearance, and both the Simenon and the Mitchell were wonderful reads. “The Horse and His Boy” was a much more enjoyable experience than I anticipated; and the double-header of two parts of the “Lord of the Rings” was just perfect.

However, the week was not without its glitches! I stumbled across a couple of issues with dates; somehow, I got it into my head that Mervyn Peake’s “The Craft of the Lead Pencil” was published in 1954 when in face it came out in 1946! As I had read this before I realised, I’ll post some thoughts about it at a later date! Then I had included Mishima’s “Sound of the Waves” as a possible read but my copy said 1956 in the front. I discarded it as an option and then realised that it came out in Japanese in 1954 but the translation was 1956 – doh!!! I was going to say that I need to always check the actual book rather than an online list, but that’s obvs not the case. I guess for the next club I shall just have to look more closely.

More seriously, I encountered a DNF! I had actually bought a book specifically to read for 1954, and it was one I’d been keen on tracking down for a while – “Pictures from an Institution” by Randall Jarrell. I picked up a lovely old orange Penguin copy and started it enthustically; however, I soon faltered and found that what I’d seen described as a humorous novel was not only leaving me cold but actually starting to irritate. It may just be that the timing was wrong for this book, but I really struggled – not only to find it funny, but also to regard it as a coherent work! I love a satirical book when done well, but with this I felt that a sequence of aphorisms, one-liners and metaphors does not make a novel and it quickly became tiresome. I haven’t ruled out giving it another try, and it may be that in a different frame of mind I might enjoy. But for this week I didn’t…

At the end of the day, though, that doesn’t matter because I did love what I read, and would happily keep on reading more from 1954 – here are just a few of the options which got away and which I’d like to keep on my radar:

Yes – I won’t give up on the Jarrell just yet!

But the #1954Club was a wonderful week of reading for me where I reconnected with authors and books I love, and which were a part of making me the person and reader I am. I hope you had a good week too, and please keep leaving details of your posts if I’ve missed them – I will catch up with linking as soon as possible.

As for our next Club week, Simon and I have put our heads together and come up with the year for October – which will be (drum roll….) – the #1929Club which will run from 24th-30th October 2022!!! Simon suggested it and it looks to have the potential to be as good as 1954. So you have had plenty of warning and we look forward to joining you all for our next club in six months’ time! Thanks so much to Simon for creating this event and co-hosting – it’s been a blast!

#1954Club – following the fellowship into perilous landscapes… #TheTwoTowers #Tolkien

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Well, as you can see, when it came to choosing my last read for the #1954Club, I followed my heart…

I was so immersed in the word of Middle Earth that despite all the other lovely options for 1954, the fact that “The Two Towers” was also from that year and that I longed to continue following the tale of the Ring made it impossible for me to read anything else. So I picked up “The Two Towers” and continued to lose myself in Tolkien‘s wonderful land. I’ll try to involve spoilers when sharing my thoughts, but inevitably plot elements will be discussed so please look away if you haven’t read these books yet!

“The Two Towers” takes up where “Fellowship…” finished, with the group becoming fragmented and under attack from the enemy. The first volume in the sequence, although split into two Books, was pretty much chronological, following the fellowship as they travelled on their quest. “Towers…” is again split into two Books, but each follows a different strand of the tale; the first goes with the scattered companions, following their various battles, encounters and adventures; the second follows Frodo and Sam as they try to carry out the missions they’ve taken on. Neither group will find their journey particularly easy.

Book 1 subdivides the adventures even more; Aragorn, Legolas and Gimly make one party, trying to track Merry and Pippin who have been swept off by the enemy. Encounters with the fierce Riders of Rohan, an unexpected and joyful reappearance and the gaining of new allies are one element; but the adventure of the two Hobbits is one of the most memorable parts of the book, where they gain in strength and bravery as well as meeting some very unusual beings who will turn out to help the forces of good. This is the book where Saruman is dealt with, to a certain extent, and there is hope that the tide will turn in favour of the allies. However, Saruman is only a small foe, compared with others…

Meanwhile, Book 2 finds Frodo and Sam travelling through bleak and horrible landscapes in an attempt to reach Mordor; and they have an unexpected guide with them, one who cannot be trusted. The Hobbits, too, encounter unexpected allies who offer welcome respite; but their road is a hard one, their guide is slippery and their are unknown perils to come. “Towers…” ends again on a cliffhanger moment, with the forces of evil gathering for a final battle, and the quest of Frodo and Sam in danger of failure. Once again, Tolkien leaves the reader breathless and desperate to carry on with the next book!!

It was now past midnight. The sky was utterly dark, and the stillness of the heavy air foreboded storm. Suddenly the clouds were seared by a blinding flash. Branched lightning smote down upon the eastward hills. For a staring moment the watchers on the walls saw all the space between them and the Dike lit with white light: it was boiling and crawling with black shapes, some squat and broad, some tall and grim, with high helms and stable shields. Hundreds and hundreds more pouring over the Dike and through the breach. The dark tide flowed up to the walls from cliff to cliff. Thunder rolled in the valley. Rain came lashing down.

When I read “Fellowship…” I must admit to going through rather like a hot knife through butter; I was loving it so much I raced on. Here, I tried to pace myself a little (though I still find the book a remarkably quick and easy read – perhaps a legacy from having read it so many times!) When it comes to LOTR, the words “sweeping” and “epic” are often applied, and it certainly is a tale which encompasses huge events and a long quest. Despite this, however, it’s a very human story and you never lose touch with the characters, their personalities and destinies. This is perhaps best exemplified in the Helm’s Deep chapter where Tolkien’s narrative is quite masterly; he covers the ebbs and flows of a huge battle which never loses you in rhetoric and always is compelling – he really was a brilliant writer and I was impressed once again by his expert handling of his material. Some parts the reader experiences “live”; some parts are told in retrospect; and Tolkien is always completely in control.

… songs like trees bear fruit only in their own time and their own way: and sometimes they are withered untimely.

What is also quite marvellous is his inventive imagination; more erudite commentators than I will probably be able to provide further info about the sources of much of Tolkien’s creations, but the world he creates, and the living beings he peoples it with, are so original and unforgettable. I also noticed this time round how his tone gradually changes; LOTR starts off in relatively light-hearted fashion, with songs and adventure and only an underlying darkness. However, as the tale develops, characters grow in stature and the peril facing them becomes darker and seemingly more invincible; there are still moments of light-hearted Hobbit humour to lift the mood, but it’s clear by the end of “Towers…” that the world will be changed forever by the events taking place and that some peoples and ways of life will pass from sight forever. Even the songs and lyrics lose their light-heartedness, drawing on ancient myths and legends, or relating dark stories, and I found many of these very affecting.

I have lived to see strange days. Long we have attended our beasts and our fields, built our houses, wrought our tools, written way to help in the wars of Minas Tirith. And that we called the life of Men, the way of the world. We cared little for what lay beyond the borders of our land. Songs we have that tell of these things, but we are forgetting them, teaching them only to children, as a careless custom. And now the songs have come down among us out of strange places, and walk visible under the Sun.

As you can probably gather, I was perhaps even more immersed in this book than the first! The whole reading experience was just a marvellous one and I was once again transported into the narrative, living the events alongside the characters. There’s not a dull moment, the setting is vividly conjured (and helped along by the beautiful map in the back of my edition) and Middle Earth and its denizens are as real to me as they ever were. Tolkien’s prose is really beautiful and evocative in places, in a way I hadn’t perhaps appreciated before, and that lyrical quality runs through the book. I definitely did the right thing in revisiting these stories in the original edition I first read them (although I *do* remember them as being physically bigger – but then, I was a child!!); and thank goodness for the #1954Club giving me that nudge to re-read. It’s quite clear that these books are as precious to me as the ring is to Gollum!!! The only issue now is – do I simply continue to ignore the screaming TBR and carry on with my re-read to journey’s end??

 

#1954Club – a great detective in unfamiliar territory #maigret #simenon

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I’ve long been a fan of Simenon‘s wonderful Maigret stories, and these have been much on my mind lately as I’ve been enjoying watching the lovely black and white repeats of the Rupert Davies series from the early 1960s on Talking Pictures TV. He’s a marvellous Maigret as far as I’m concerned (and I believe Simenon approved too!) and so I really felt as if I should see if I had a 1954 mystery to read for the club! Well, the prolific Simenon published *three* Maigrets in 1954!!! One I think I have read (“Maigret Goes to School”), and it’s one of those titles I used to own as it’s in my old booklist folder; the second, “Maigret and the Dead Girl” I’m not sure about; but “Maigret and the Minister” I was pretty sure was new to me, so I did manage to source a digital copy (translated by Ros Schwartz). E-reading is not usually for me, but I managed for what is a short book (Simenon *is* usually to the point…) and it was a fascinating experience!

“Maigret and the Minister” sees the detective wrenched out of his usual comfort zone, as he’s summoned to a secret meeting with a desperate cabinet minister. A highly sensitive report, relating to the collapse of a specially built children’s home which killed many, has gone missing and the minister will be implicated in accusations of hiding things. The press are on the trail, the minister is under surveillance and does not know who he can trust, and his appeal to Maigret for help seems like a last resort. The detective hates politics, but senses he shares the same kind of background as the minister; a country heritage which makes him still something of an insider in the big city; and so he agrees to help.

However, there are many other elements up against Maigret and his team, and it seems that the Sûreté are also investigating; there are some very funny scenes when the two forces keep running into each other, and comments from the locals being interrogated who are obviously fed up with the amount of police asking them questions! Despite the fact that politics is involved, Maigret will bring all his criminal experience to play to try and track down the thief and help save the minister from prosecution.

This is an unusual title, as there’s no murder, Maigret obviously really hates the investigation and his team aren’t that happy either. But it does throw open the door on the kind of political corruption that was presumably going on in France at the time, and of course watching Maigret in action is always entertaining. What’s interesting also is that Maigret is often impartial; he never judges the many kinds of people he comes across, and often seems particularly kind to underdogs. Here, however, neither Maigret nor his creator hide their hatred of the political machinations and corruption encountered and I did wonder if the author was using his character and the book to get his views across!

So an interesting and enjoyable and perhaps unexpected Maigret from 1954. I see that the story was adapted for the Davies series and shall be very interested to see what the TV show makes of it. But in the meantime, it’s obvious I need to keep exploring the Maigrets I haven’t read!

 

#1954Club – embarking on an epic quest with a group of old friends… #fellowshipofthering

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Back in 2017, I shared how I’d tracked down a set of books with great sentimental weight; a battered but just about intact second edition set of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”sequence, which my dad and I had read from the library when I was in my early teens. Although I own my own paperback set, I wanted to revisit them as I’d actually originally encountered them; and at the time I optimistically predicted re-reading them over that summer.

Well, fast forward to 2022 and of course they hadn’t come off the shelf… However, when Simon and I settled on 1954 for our next club it was soon obvious that the first volume in the set, “The Fellowship of The Ring” was published in that year and therefore qualified! Despite the many, many wonderful books jostling for my attention, it just felt that the time was right for me to get reacquainted with Middle Earth; and so finally the sentimental purchase has seen the light of day!

Even if you haven’t read LOTR you possibly know the plot (and this post does discuss certain plot devices, though I don’t know if they can be called spoilers). Anyway, in an earlier story “The Hobbit”, a small furry-footed creature also sometimes called a Halfling stumbled into the world of dragons, dwarves, elves, wizards and treasure. The adventures he had were exciting and sometimes dangerous; but importantly for LOTR, he came into the possession of a magic ring which made the wearer invisible and brought that back to his homeland of The Shire. “The Fellowship of the Ring” opens with a short summary of this story, before going on to return us to The Shire for the start of our quest. Here Bilbo Baggins, the original titular hobbit, has lived in relative peace since his adventures; but he longs to go off on adventures again, despite his increasing age, and plans to leave secretly after celebrating a big birthday along with his nephew, young Frodo. His friend, the wizard Gandalf, turns up to see him off as well as ensuring he passes on the magic ring to Frodo; for Gandalf has learned much about the history of the ring, and has concerns.

The ring, it seems, is not just a magic trinket; in fact it’s a great ring of power and once Bilbo is safely away, Gandalf unburdens himself to Frodo, revealing the very great danger the ring could bring to not only The Shire but also the whole of Middle Earth. Created by an evil power but previously thought lost, that evil eye is now searching for the ring and the world is in peril. Frodo and his good friends Sam, Merry and Pippin are urged to set off on a quest for advice, help and perhaps to even consider destroying the ring. It’s a perilous task which will take him far from The Shire, encountering strange Rangers, Elves, Dwarves, powerful men from the south and all manner of strange creatures. A small peaceable creature is perhaps not the most obvious protagonist for a story this epic, but Hobbits turn out to be stronger and braver than you might imagine…

With a story of this length and complexity I can only really touch on the plot here; but I will say that Tolkien could really come up with, and write, a wonderfully compelling narrative! The rural and countrified Shire, with its tidy and peaceful Hobbit residents, is beautifully realised, and the characters come alive from the start. Yet almost straight away there is darkness; the second chapter, “The Shadows of the Past”, where Gandalf relates the story of the ring, is a marvellous piece of writing which sets out quite clearly the scale of the evil up against which the good characters will come. As the four Hobbits travel on their way, in the first of two books which make up this volume, heading for the House of Elrond, an Elvish haven, they are dogged by chilling foes and there are encounters which make your spine tingle.

The end of the first book ends on a point of high drama – Tolkien was very good at leaving you with a cliffhanger! – and the second book sees the setting up of the titular Fellowship. At this point, we’ve encountered one of my favourite characters, Strider the Ranger, and his development over the books is wonderful to watch. The Elf Legolas and Dwarf Gimli now join the cast and as the group sets off to make its way east they will be beset by danger, not only from Orcs but also from the temptations of the ring. A stop at Lothlorien refreshes them but there are more perils ahead and the Fellowship will be shattered, leaving us on another cliffhanger…

To be honest, I’m not going to be able to give a very rational response to my re-reading of this because it *was* a really emotional experience. I was intensely obssessed by LOTR in my very early twenties, re-reading it over and over, and so many of the events were familiar here; and indeed I felt as if I was encountering long lost friends. However, re-reading is always a time to notice things you haven’t before, and I was struck (as I am with the re-reads of the Narnia books) at just how brilliant a storyteller Tolkien was. His narrative is beautifully paced, his settings magnificiently conjured, and as always I felt as if I was travelling alongside the Hobbits and their friends. It’s the kind of storytelling that completely absorbs you into what’s happening; and I found myself racing through the 400-odd pages in sheer delight.

As the story develops, so do the characters; the peaceful, perhaps slightly funny, little Hobbits soon grow in moral stature, developing bravery and resilience, yet always being realistic – no cardboard cut-out heroes here, Tolkien’s characters can be flawed and full of self-doubt. His world-building was incredibly skilful, and often based on linguistics with whole Elvish languages invented by the authors. He *does* perhaps occasionally overdo it with the lyrics in the volume – I did at one point want to slap Tom Bombadil when he launched into yet another song – but I daresay that’s just me. As I mentioned, Strider makes his debut as a weathered traveller, but as the book progresses he becomes a more powerful figure who is revealed as a warrior of great heritage. The camaraderie which develops between the members of the Fellowship is wonderful to see, and will lead in many cases to unexpected yet firm friendships.

You may not have read the LOTR books, thinking that you don’t like fantasy (and bizarrely I’ve seen the books described as science fiction!!!) But this is world-building at its finest; Tolkien relates this story as if it’s just a section of a greater narrative, and because of his knowledge of myth and legend his story is pitch-perfect, wonderfully rich and completely convincing. I would certainly urge you to have a go and give yourself up to this epic and unforgettable tale; the story is a wonderful read.

So needless to say, I ended the book breathless and was left with a massive book hangover. My brain is telling me that I need to go and read some other books from the TBR, whereas my heart just wants to dive into the next book and follow Frodo, Sam and their friends on the next stage of the adventure. What shall I do?????

#1954Club -a guest post considers a classic sci fi short!

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Today I’m happy to welcome Mr. Kaggsy back to the Ramblings with a post on a short novel which is a favourite of his. As usual, he’s chosen something which has also been adapted for more than one movie (he’s more of a film than book man!!) – I hope you’ll find his thoughts interesting and probably I should give a Spoiler Alert as he does discuss the plot in some detail! 😀

Richard Matheson might be less familiar as an author, but his works have been adapted for many screen productions. “I Am Legend” (IAL) is still in print after nearly 70 years, having had many publishings, movie tie-in and Folio editions. However, no hardcover edition appeared until 1970 (US) and 1974 (UK; not shown below as the cover is quite plain). The Matheson name has been seen during many decades on screen, he having nearly a hundred credits for movies and television productions. His writings, including TV and film screenplays, have been in print or used in productions since the 1950s, and his earliest stories and poems were already being published in his childhood years.

Born in New Jersey in 1926, he grew up in Brooklyn and had articles in print from 1950, followed by novels, the third of which was IAL. In the second half of the decade he provided the basis for his first film, from his novel “The (Incredible) Shrinking Man”. Up to his passing, in 2013 in California, he was still active in writing and interviews. I particularly enjoyed his “Bid Time Return” novel, which became a hit movie as “Somewhere in Time” (1980), although the book was more believable and sympathetic. His screenplay “Duel”, about a huge truck menacing a terrified driver, was Steven Spielberg’s first (TV) movie.

IAL was given a cinema adaptation in 1964 as “The Last Man on Earth” which was more of a vehicle for actor Vincent Price. There followed two blockbusters, “The Omega Man” (1971) and “I Am Legend”, with Charlton Heston and Will Smith respectively in the lead. These movies all departed from the original  basis and there have been calls for a film faithful to the original. Matheson’s stories continue to appear as productions, audiobooks and even comics and graphic novels, with talk of a IAL screen ‘prequel’.

Gold Medal, 1954 US; Transworld Publishers US, 1956; Corgi, 1960.

The novel IAL was quite bold for 1954, offering a different take on the timeworn vampire genre. The novel presents the account of Robert Neville, as the apparent sole survivor of a plague which has infected and transformed all other humans. At sub-50,000 words, the book is beyond accepted novella length, but the third person chronicle is all the more taut for that. From the first line, Neville’s fate is already sealed and the opening establishes his plight, a Robinson Crusoe-like setting, but a nightmarish one. The story is more in a scientific form than horror, the ‘enemy’ ranks are not vampires in the traditional sense; what were ordinary, everyday people, became infected by bacteria. They are driven to destroy Neville, cursing him for having ‘pure’ blood, and desperate to be rid of him; he is a constant reminder of the time before they came to be as they are. Contrasting with the traditional creatures from folklore, there is no sense of mythical beings, needing to feed on blood, in Matheson’s novel. Instead the afflicted souls are an embodiment of a bacterial threat from nature.

The opening commences with Neville already having been battling both his nocturnal foe and his own decline into despair and desolation, the first words revealing his weary battle between survival and resignation: “On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.” Thus begins a tense balance between suspense and all-out aggression. Set in the ‘future’ of 1976, Neville faces mobs engaged in wanton destruction, violently tearing down or burning the remnants of the old world. In his fortified and hopefully protected city domain, the lone individual lives with his memories and imagination, playing classical music and relying on alcohol to prevent himself from straying into madness and suicidal thoughts. Starved of human company and simple conversation, he relies on his own deep instincts.

Neville has to check himself to remember that these beings were once like himself, some even known to him in the past. An unexpected organism mutation was neither his fault or theirs, but the deadly strain has seeded hatred within him and his aggressors. Essential defence steps see the isolated man busy during daytime, seeking out vampiric hiding places, clearing areas and strengthening his protections: “It was almost noon. Robert Neville was in his hothouse collecting a basketful of garlic. In the beginning it had made him sick to smell garlic in such quantity his stomach had been in a state of constant turmoil… All afternoon he made stakes.”

Darkness was always the danger time, but dull days could equally be risky: “That’s what was wrong with these cloudy days; you never knew when they were coming.” Mentions of his lost loved ones and his recreations of their imaginary presence reveal the extent of his loneliness, and the transference of blame and hate onto those from whom he has to defend himself. A moment of levity comes with Matheson having his protagonist reading Bram Stoker’s seminal work: “‘The strength of the vampire is that no one will believe in him.’ Thank you, Dr. Van Helsing, he thought, putting down his copy of ‘Dracula’. He sat staring moodily at the bookcase, listening to Brahms’ second piano concerto, a whisky sour in his right hand, a cigarette between his lips. It was true. The book was a hodgepodge of superstitions and soap-opera clichés, but that line was true; no one had believed in them, and how could they fight something they didn’t even believe in?’” Neville’s morose thoughts invade his mind: “At one time, the Dark and Middle Ages, to be succinct, the vampire’s power was great, the fear of him tremendous. He was anathema and still remains anathema. Society hates him.”

Bantam 1964, US; Walker and Company, 1970 US; Berkley 1971, US.

When safe to visit the cemetery and ‘speak’ to his lost loved ones, the burial ground is now untended: “The grass was so high that the weight of it had bent it over and it crunched under his heavy shoes as he walked. There was no sound but that of his shoes and the now senseless singing of birds.” Inwardly he pleads, “Virginia. Take me where you are.” At other times he goes over the pain of losing a child: “In his mind he saw a scene enacted once again. The great fire crackling, roaring yellow, sending its dense and grease-thick clouds into the sky. Kathy’s tiny body in his arms. The man coming up and snatching her away as if he were taking a bundle of rags… Him standing there while pile driver blows of horror drove him down with their impact.”

Neville is well aware that he could lose his mind. “The thought of forty more years of living as he was made him shudder.” At one point he almost philosophically addresses the assailants in the street below him: “They all stood looking up at him with their white faces. He stared back. And suddenly he thought, I’m the abnormal one now… Neville looked out over the new people of the earth. He knew he did not belong to them; he knew that, like the vampires, he was anathema and black terror to be destroyed.” As the book moves towards its end, the main figure’s bouts of depression and alcoholism engulf him, the bleak future facing him unbearable.

One critic wrote in 2005 that IAL “… is not a novel on vampires, nor even a horror nor sci-fi novel at all, in the deepest sense. Instead, it is perhaps the greatest novel written on human loneliness,” revering “… the supreme majesty of the existential masterpiece I Am Legend…” (Dan Schneider; International Writers Magazine). Matheson was also one of Stephen King’s favourite writers. In an interview Matheson described how “I believe in the ‘supernormal.’ To me there is nothing that goes against nature. If it seems incomprehensible, it’s because we haven’t been able to understand it yet.” Thus although the writer calls the IAL beings vampires, they are not in the gothic tradition.

I have seen all three film versions and agree with others’ interpretations of the story as not being what the screen adaptations delivered. Matheson’s forensic style in the novel has been acclaimed: “… a canonical work in the science fiction genre”. The author’s prose has also been hailed: “… as lean and as efficient as his hero”, with another commentator adding: “… Neville is gradually shown to be the real ‘mutant’. He is the only man left from the world as it was.”

The ending is as stark as the story and setting, confronting the changed world, as Neville takes the ultimate step to face the awful reality and find his peace:

“A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.

I am legend.”

Nelson Doubleday 1980, US; movie poster 1964; movie poster 1971. (The 2007 movie poster is simply a photo of actor Will Smith’s character.)

#1954 – a boy, a girl and two talking horses! #narniathon21

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If you’re a regular visitor to the Ramblings, you’ll know that I’m taking part in a monthly readalong of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, under the title of #Narniathon21, organised by Chris at Calmgrove. And very fortunately the book for April is “The Horse and His Boy” which just happens to have been published in 1954 – wonderful timing there! I’ve greatly enjoyed my revisits to Narnia so far, as I adored the books as a child, but haven’t re-read them for decades; however, I approached “Horse…” with a little trepidation, as it’s the one I feel I know least well, and I have memories of not being particularly fond of it…

“The Horse and His Boy” was the fifth book to be published in the Narnia chronicles, and it takes a step away from what might be considered the usual formula. The first four books run in sequence, with each shedding a few of the characters from the previous book(s) and introducing new ones; although there are gaps in time between events (which are longer in Narnia than in our world), the books do follow on. However, the events of “Horse…” (which were actually mentioned in passing within the previous book) are ‘historical’, in that they take place during the reign of the four Pevensie children from “Lion…” If one were to read the books in the modern suggested chronological order, this would actually be the third – and frankly, I’m even more convinced that would be rubbish after doing my reread in the published order!! But I digress…

“Horse…” opens ‘far south in Calormen’ where a young boy called Shasta lives near the sea with his father, a fisherman. His is not a happy life, however; his father is often cruel, Shasta spends all of his time working, and when he has a chance to dream, his heart is drawn to the landscape of the north. However, when a rich Calormene noble appears and wants to buy the boy, Shasta discovers that he’s not actually the fisherman’s son; and when he also discovers that the nobleman’s horse is a talking one from Narnia called Bree, the pair agree to run away and head for Narnia and the north. Fortunately, Bree has a lot of horse sense, as Shasta is brash and naive; but the pair manage to avoid some perils and at one point while encountering fierce lions, they run into Aravis, a Calormene princess who is running away from an arranged marriage. She also has a Narnian horse, Hwinn, and the quartet join forces to try to escape the barbarian country; however, encounters with visting Narnians will reveal even more secrets, and tensions between the two countries will lead to dramatic battle.

Well – I actually enjoyed “Horse…” a whole lot more than I expected to, and it’s obvious I hadn’t read it as much as the other Narnia books because I had forgotten how much involvement there was from the Narnian people themselves! The book is a marvellous adventure, with the party getting split up and reunited, flights across the desert dividing Calormen on the south from Narnia and Archenland in the North, and of course various characters (including Bree!) learning some lessons from Aslan. The latter dips in and out of the story, and his punishment for a transgression of Aravis’s is quite harsh! But the book was a wonderfully satisfying read, and I’m sorry I neglected it in the past. I suspect that the spacing out of the books to monthly reads does help – that gap allows the previous book to settle and the mind to prepare for the next adventure.

Reading “Horse…” nowadays, however, is not without its problems. The portrayal of the Calormene people has led to accusations of racism, and it’s true that they certainly conform to the kind of stereotypes you would expect from a man of Lewis’s background, writing when he was writing. This is unfortunate, and I was aware of it in the background as I was reading; although Lewis does portray Aravis positively, and the Narnian royalty visiting Calormen treat their hosts with respect. It’s a knotty issue, one which often comes up reading older books; and my personal response is to acknowledge that a work was written in a time when this kind of attitude prevailed, and hope that we have moved on from it. Alas, in our modern, conflicted world I don’t know that’s always the case.

Putting that aside, though, I really enjoyed spending time with Bree and Shasta, Hwinn and Aravis, and I do think “Horse…” is a worthy part of the Narnia series. It gives a wider look at Narnia and its environs, allows us to see some of the Pevensies in Narnia while they were ruling, and of course deepens our relationship with Aslan. 1954 was quite a year for fantasy books for adults and children, coming from the pens of a pair of professors; “Horse…” was a marvellous read, and it will be interesting to see what Lewis’s friend Tolkien was up to at the same time… 😉

#1954Club – looking back at some previous reads!

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As soon as Simon and I had decided on 1954 for our next club, I started having a look round to see which books were published during that year and it soon became clear that it was a bumper one! Today I thought I would take a look back at some previous titles I’ve read from the year – and there really are some wonderful ones!

Firstly, here’s an image of some of the 1954 books I read pre-blog and which still live on my shelves. There’s used to be “Lord of the Flies” which I read decades ago, but no longer own. Truth be told, I would happily have revisited any of the above. Christie is always a joy, of course, as are Mishima and Simenon. Huxley was read so long ago I can recall nothing about the book – I believe I acquired in my teens when I first fell in love with The Doors! I had a bit of a Stein/Toklas thing in my twenties, and that’s when I acquired “The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book” – flicking through it I recognised bits and would rather like another read. As for “The Mandarins“, again in my twenties I fell in love with French literature and read a *lot* of Simone de Beauvoir; however, this title sat on the shelves for years until I finally read it and adored it. Really, all of these books make me think I should have a month or two (or maybe a year…) of just re-reading…

As for 1954 books which have appeared on the Ramblings, well here are a few!

I was very late coming to the works of Tove Jansson; I think her “Summer Book” was the first I read, and I moved on to read more adult works as well as all of the lovely Moomins. “Moominsummerr Madness” appeared in 1954, and I said of it in 2015:

Apart from looking for deeper meanings, the stories are just a fun read; the characters are appealing and funny, and Jansson’s illustrations are wonderful.

There’s definitely more to the Moomins than meets the eye, and I guess that’s why they can be appreciated by adults and children alike!

Francoise Sagan’s “Bonjour Tristesse” was her first novel and an instant hit. Telling the story of intense emotions in the south of Franch, with a sometimes unsympathetic teenage narrator, it probably set the tone for the rest of her works. I read it in 2014, again after it had lurked on the TBR for some time, and thought:

The characters, none of whom are particularly likeable, are very strongly portrayed, as is the hot and dreamy atmosphere of the South of France before the commercialism really took over. I really enjoyed getting lost in this book.

I do love books which take me to the South of France before the multi-millionaires took charge!

Finally from my previous 1954 reads is “Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead” by Barbara Comyns, a lovely old green Virago edition. Just look at that striking cover! I read and reviewed this back in 2012, and it was my first Comyns. In fact, if I’m honest, I don’t think I’ve read another since, though I have many on the TBR. Comyns gets much love from book bloggers and she’s a unique author – quirky and brilliant, based on my reading of this. I said at the time:

The story itself is full of death and disaster yet somehow manages to be funny, touching and very human. There is love, death, madness, laughter and sorrow. The cause of the madness is discovered (though I confess I did guess this quite soon!), although not soon enough to stop some very tragic deaths. Despite the story being quite gruesome in places it’s very, very enjoyable which is a tribute to Comyns’ skill as a writer. One of the most memorable Viragos I’ve read and highly enjoyable!

So those are just a few of my previous 1954 reads – it really *was* quite a year for books, wasn’t it? Have you read any of these? And what books from 1954 have you enjoyed in the past??

#1954Club – kicking off with the Alternative Queen of Crime!

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In our recent clubs, I’ve got into the habit of starting the week by reading a book by the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie; I’ve read and loved her books since my early teens and I always love the excuse for a revisit! However, although there’s a 1954 Christie title (“Destination Unknown”), I thought I would ring the changes with my first read for the 1954 Club and spend some time in the company of a perhaps underappreciated author who I recently rediscovered – the marvellous Gladys Mitchell and her extremely individual detective, Mrs. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley!

As I mentioned in my post earlier this month, Mitchell was highly regarded by writers such as Philip Larkin; she was an incredibly prolific author and her books were very popular; yet as I discovered whilst digging about for a 1954 title, her work is sporadically in print and many titles are hard to obtain. I guess her books are not as widely popular as Christie’s are, and her plots and characterisations *can* be a little outré; however, when she’s good, she’s very good and so I was keen to see what I could find for our club.

Well. There *was* a 1954 book and it’s “Faintley Speaking”. Frustratingly, I owned this book once; I have an old ringbinder full of lists of books I owned back in my 20s and the page of Mitchells is long and includes this title. However, I no longer have it, which was extremely irking – there’s much to be said for NOT culling your books. My heart sank a little when I did some online searching and realised that this was not one of the commonly available Mitchells; but I managed to track down a reasonably priced copy described as a ‘reading copy’, and awaited its arrival with trepidation. It actually turned out to be an old green Penguin much like the original one I owned, and it was intact and I’d describe it as ‘fair’, so I was happy. It may have fragile, browned pages but it’s holding up – at least I was able to read it!

Mitchell was writing Mrs. Bradley novels between 1929 and 1984, which is quite a range, and so “Faintley…” sits somewhere in the middle. Unlike “The Rising of the Moon”, Mrs. Bradley has a much more prominent place in the narrative and here she’s assisted by her secretary, Laura, a young Amazonian woman who can do all of the physical stuff Mrs. Bradley can’t. The book opens with Geoffrey Mandsell, an impoverished author, receiving a phone call in a phone box which was meant for someone else. The caller, who identifies herself as “Faintley speaking”, instructs Mandsell re the collection and delivery of a parcel, then rings off. Mandsell, with nothing else to do except get thrown out of his lodgings, complies and ends up setting off a chain of events which will involve murder, adventures on the high seas (or at least the English Channel!), undercover escapades and some very threatening characters!

Intriguingly, a lot of the action is set in a school, as a holidaying schoolboy, Mark, is involved in the discovery of a body, and the murder victim is a quiet schoolteacher! Laura spends some interesting time posing as a teacher whilst investigating, and it seems that education is not the placid profession you might expect. Mrs. Bradley also ranges far and wide, at one point whisking Mark off to France to see the caves of Lascaux, where you can find some of the earliest known graffiti, and where she also finds clues stretching back to wartime. There are boat chases, disappearing railway porters and networks of criminals – it’s all very satisfying!!

Miss Golightly greeted her charmingly, produced the school time-table, explained Laura’s part in it shortly and comprehensibly, showed her a list of school duties which included keeping a milk and dinner list, officiating in the playground during break, taking her turn at dinner duty, supervision of the cloakrooms, the banning of chewing-gum and strip-cartoon papers (for all), facial adornment (for the girls), lethal weapons (for the boys ), fountain-pens (for both sexes), and likewise personal bottles of ink.

I’m not going to give any more plot details because, as with all good Golden Age crime novels, so much of the joy of reading is from being in the hands of a master storyteller and watching it all unfold. Mitchell is in top form here, with the initial chapters giving no hint of where the plot will go, and what the crime actually is. Her characters are brilliantly realised, with Mark himself being another excellent portrayal of a younger person. The school setting was wonderfully familiar, and it has to be remembered that Mitchell herself taught for a large chunk of her life, and if I recall correctly from my readings of her books, schools do turn up on a regular basis! Mitchell makes some wonderfully barbed comments on unequal pay for men and women, with the scenes set in the school being very believable. Mrs. Bradley is, of course, a joy; she’s portrayed as a women who leers and cackles and yet her ugliness is contrasted with the most beautiful voice! A very singular character, and much as I love Diana Rigg, she was much too attractive an actress to play Mrs. Bradley on TV!

Anyway, that’s by the by perhaps; the bottom line is that I loved “Faintley Speaking” and I really think Mitchell should be the Alternative Queen of Crime! Her books may not be the massive sellers that the Christies are, and they may be quite odd at times, but she’s a wonderfully entertaining author and her best works are absolutely gripping. A cracking start to the #1954Club and a reminder to me to be a little more careful about the books I weed from the Ramblings… ;D

*****

So we’re onward and upward with the #1954Club! Do share what you’re reading and enjoying on my dedicated page for the club and I’ll link to your post – looking forward to hearing what bookish delights you discover! 😀

Coming up on Monday – let’s explore past books for the #1954Club :D

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Just a quick reminder that on Monday 18th April the #1954Club kicks off!!

If you’re new to this reading event, it’s a simple and lovely one co-hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book (whose idea these clubs were) and myself! Basically, a year is chosen and for a week we read, discover, explore and discuss books from that year. It’s very low pressure – you can read as much or as little as you like, as long as it’s from the year – and anyone is free to join in.

You can leave thoughts on your own blog, Instagram, Goodreads or indeed in the comments of either of our blogs (or both if you want to!) I shall have a dedicated page where I will collect together links to posts, so please do leave a comment there if I miss your contribution! (You can take a look at some of the previous years on my master page for the clubs).

Please ignore the Mishima – I got my books muddled and this one is from 1956!!

As you can see from the image of just a few possible titles I pulled out, there are many options for 1954 – it really was a bumper year! So do join in if this appeals to you, and we’ll so look forward to seeing what bookish treasures you dig out! 😀

Rolling into April – and the #1954Club!! :D

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Despite the fact that March brings warmer days and lovely welcome signs of spring, it’s not always my favourite month; as I work in finance, the financial year end and planning for the year ahead always dominate, with lots of horrible pressure and deadlines. So I have to say that April, and the impending Easter break, are very welcome at the moment!!

So how did my reading go last month? Well, possibly a little slower than usual – I must admit to feeling more tired than usual and so my concentration wasn’t brilliant. However, these are the books I read and loved – and loved them I mostly did! Even “Marching Spain”, which was a book with a few issues, still had its plus points!

March 22 reads

I always hate to pick favourites, but with this month I feel it’s pretty much impossible! So many great books and great authors – some old favourites and some new discoveries. Much bookish enjoyment has been had.

So – what does April have in store, book-wise? There are a few reading events which I’m continuing to take part in. First up is the LibraryThing Virago group monthly themed read, and this month is books with a name in the title. A quick scour of the shelves reveals these as just a few of the possibles! Although I’m still playing catch up with March (my review of the book I read will turn up here soon), these are all very appealing!

I’ve managed to stick to the #Narniathon so far, and April’s book is the fifth in the series, “The Horse and His Boy”. This is definitely the Narnia book I’ve read least, for reasons which will no doubt become clear! However, I shall definitely revisit it this month!

And by a wonderful coincidence, “Horse…” was published in 1954 and therefore is perfect for the main event this month – the #1954Club reading week which I’ve very much looking forward to co-hosting with Simon from Stuck in a Book! I find it hard to believe this will be the 14th club week we’ve hosted – how time flies!

Some possibilities for 1954!

If you haven’t joined in with one of these events before, basically just read whatever you fancy from 1954 and share your thoughts on it on whatever platform  you use – a blog, Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads etc. There will be a dedicated page on my site for you to leave links and so we will very much look forward to hearing about the books you’re reading and loving!!

Apart from this (which *will* take up a good bit of my time in April) I shall continue to plough my own furrow and go where the mood takes me. These are a few current books clamouring for my attention and any of them would be wonderfully distracting right now – does anything take your fancy on the pile??

So I’m hoping for a good reading month in April; certainly having a break from work may well help me to relax and read a little more, and maybe even get out into any spring sunshine! What are your plans for April – will you be joining us for 1954??? ;D

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