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“…literally hundreds of possibilities…” @BL_Publishing #sciencefictionclassics

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I have to confess to hitting a bit of a wall after finishing Klotsvog and the Derrida/Barthes essay; a kind of book hangover, I suppose, although it was more like an attack of havering indecision where I just couldn’t settle to any book and everything I picked up just didn’t grab me. After having a reshuffle of the piles, I decided to have a try with a collection of short stories – and boy, was it the right book at the right time! The volume in question is from marvellous British Library Publishing, who often feature on the Ramblings, mostly with their Crime Classics range. However, this is something a little different…

As well as the Crime Classics, BL also produce Science Fiction Classics, and I’ve read and covered a few of these in the past. They really are most entertaining, and I confess to being very behind with reading them… However, this particular book is a bit special as it’s kind of a crossover volume. Called “Future Crimes” and released this year, the subtitle gives it away – ‘Mysteries and Detection through Time and Space’. Yes, this is a mash-up of Classic Science Fiction and Classic Crime and it’s inspired as well as being quite brilliant!

The collection is edited by Mike Ashley, who also provides the introduction, and it’s clear that he’s as important to the curation of the Sci Fi Classics as is Martin Edwards to the Crime Classics. The book is a satisfyingly chunky one, and contains ten stories from an intriguing range of authors. Some are well-respected names in sci fi circles, like Asimov, John Brunner and E.C. Tubb; others are better known for their crime writing like Jacques Futrelle and P.D. James; then there’s Anne McCaffrey, usually bracketed as fantasy, and some names which are new to me. What these stories have in common, though, is a mystery or crime of some sort, and a science fiction element or setting.

I have to say up front that all of these stories make marvellous reading; whether you’re a fan of science fiction or not, these are wonderfully written tales with mysteries which will flummox you and ingenious concepts which take the fighting of crime further than normal. The opener, for example – “Elsewhen” by Anthony Boucher – looks at the possibility of using time travel to aid in committing a crime; yet it seems firmly set in classic crime territory, with a very clever denouement. A similar element exists in “The Absolutely Perfect Murder”, a humorous short by Miriam Allen deFord which closes the collection.

There *are* of course stories set in space: John Brunner’s “Puzzle for Spacemen” deals with the effects of being in space on mental health, and also the complexities of telepathy, whilst locating all of this in a kind of locked-room mystery. “Death of a Telepath” by George Chailey and “Apple” by Anne McCaffrey also explore telepathy and kinetic powers, with mysteries to be solved in both cases, but also issues raised about humanity and tolerance and understanding of those different to us. “Nonentity” by E.C. Tubb goes to similar territory with a closed group of people fighting for survival and not tolerating those who are different to them.

In fact, accepting and living alongside those who aren’t like us is probably one of the strongest threads in the book, and it takes centre stage with P.D. James’s “Murder, 1986”; written in 1970, it envisages a divided world where elements of the population are infected with a space disease and so lesser citizens. Murder is still murder though… Jacques Futrelle’s “The Flying Eye” is quite Wellsian, and although the mystery is perhaps slighter than in the other stories, it’s still very entertaining. Asimov, as might be expected, explores the robotic angle in his story “Mirror Image”; setting out his three laws of robotics, he features two humans and two robots who tell mirror image stories about an event; one must be lying, but robots cannot lie, so how will the truth be found out?

As you can see, I’ve left one story until the last, and that’s “Legwork” by Eric Frank Russell. I don’t usually like to single out favourites from an anthology of short stories, but this one was a real treat and I loved it from start to finish. At just over 60 pages it’s a long short story, and it hails from the 1950s in the middle of the Cold War. An ancient and super-intelligent alien entity comes down to Earth to investigate it for colonisation; as a superior being, able to manipulate human minds, it should be able to outfox the plodding human beings and gather all the data it needs before returning to its people to arrange invasion. However, despite the author reminding the reader at several junctures that humanity doesn’t have flashes of brilliance but proceeds through dogged legwork, that legwork proves to be quite a match for the invader. I shan’t say more for fear of spoiling the story for potential readers, but it was a pure joy from start to finish; brilliantly constructed, with small-town American settings, local cops and newsmen, I suppose it’s a bit like a 50s B-movie in story form – but because there are no creaky special effects, it travels better than they do! Anyway, I loved it to bits, and it was the real jewel in the crown of an excellent collection!

I’ve lauded the British Library Crime Classics releases many a time on the Ramblings; but have read fewer of the Science Fiction classics (which needs to be rectified). However, even if you don’t think you like sci fi, I would really urge you to give one of these releases a try. This particular anthology would be a brilliant place to start, with its fusion of sci fi and crime, and it was a wonderfully engrossing and distracting read which really hit the spot just when I needed it. Highly recommended! 😀

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

Exploring the writings of Rose Macaulay @KateHandheld @BL_Publishing #RoseMacaulay

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Trends in publishing have always waxed and waned, with authors moving in and out of fashion, some being forgotten for a while and then making a return, while others disappear into obscurity forever. Fortunately, there has been a tendency in the 21st century to revisit many lost authors, bringing them back into print and celebrating their work. One such writer is Rose Macaulay and I want to explore her life and work a little today on the Ramblings.

My Macaulay collection…..

Rose Macaulay is mainly known for her 1956 novel “The Towers of Trebizond”, with its memorable opening line; yet she was an astonishingly prolific writer, publishing novels, poetry, biography and journalism. Virago reprinted a number of her books in its Modern Classics range, but she still seemed to stay under the radar. Yet she was a Dame of the British Empire, highly regarded in her time, and mixed with all manner of intellectuals and luminaries; so why has such a prolific author, renowned for making her living from her writing, slipped out of view?

It’s interesting to note that Macaulay’s Wikipedia entry confirms that she was best known for her last novel, the aforementioned “Towers…” although she had been publishing since 1906. However, her range was broad, she cited Virginia Woolf as an influence, and her work is not easily categorised, which perhaps made it hard for people to evaluate, or indeed pigeonhole, her! Again, her novels took on big topics like pacificism, politics and religion, and this may have affected her perceived readability. However, with the number of strings to her bow, it’s difficult to know why she isn’t a bigger name; and so it’s lovely to see that there’s a resurgence of interest in her books, and much of that must be credited to Handheld Press!

Handheld have reissued a number of Macaulay’s works in their beautiful editions, and seem to taken upon themselves on a mission to raise her profile, which is most laudable! Interestingly, the publisher has been focusing on some of the earlier books, from 1916-1920, and a fascinating selection they are too. I’ve been fortunate enough to cover two of them on Shiny New Books, which I’ll mention below, and the third, “Potterism” was reviewed by Hayley Anderton (from Desperate Reader) on Shiny – you can read her thoughts here.

First up, I read “What Not”, subtitled “A Prophetic Comedy”, and first published in 1918. The book is a fascinating, prescient look at how life could be post-WW1, as the population of Britain tried to rebuild their lives, forging a new path and a new world. It’s a book that pre-empts Huxley’s “Brave New World” and deserves to be recognised for its forward thinking and attempts to explore how humanity could improve itself. It’s also very funny, and if you want to read my whole review, it’s here.

The second Handheld Macaulay I read was “Non-Combatants and Others“, which is a powerful and, again, ahead of its time piece of work. Published in 1916, it was the first anti-war novel to be released (while the conflict was still going on!) and it’s a compelling piece of writing which addresses many issues, including whether we can stand apart from the world and what’s happening in it, or whether we should wade in and try to change things. The novel was enhanced by reading the other pieces included in the book: a collection of Macaulay’s journalism, published between 1936 and 1945, where she reflects upon, and despairs about, what’s happening to Europe. The last piece in the book, a powerful short story “Miss Anstruther’s Letters” (which drawns upon Macaulay’s own life) made for a devastating end to an unforgettable book. Again, you can read my full review here.

Pleasingly, other publishers are also reissuing Macaulay’s books, with the British Library Women Writers series including her “Dangerous Ages” from 1921 (which I’ve still to read, though Harriet at Shiny New Books has reviewed it here); so it seems that the author’s early works are now starting to get the appreciation they deserve. And as someone who loves a pretty book (shallow? moi?) I have to say that both the Handheld and BL editions are gorgeous, though different. Both are beautifully designed and have supporting material; and in the case of the Handheld editions, some excellent scholarly notes and introductions.

The two Handheld releases which I’ve read, as mentioned earlier in the post, have been wonderful; and I’m pleased to say that I’ve been reading another two Macaulay-related books they’re issuing! One is a most fascinating work by Sarah LeFanu, “Dreaming of Rose” which I’ll be covering on Wednesday; and on Saturday I’ll be writing about Macaulay’s “Personal Pleasures”, an idiosyncratic collection of her thoughts on the things which bring her joy.

In the meantime, I do encourage you to dip your toe in and read some Rose Macaulay; she was a marvellous, clever, funny and often profound author who’s a joy to read and who has much to say which is still very relevant to our modern world. And it’s not as if it’s hard to get hold of some very pretty editions of her work… ;D

Kissing May goodbye and thinking about June! ;D

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As well as being the last day of May, today is a Bank Holiday in the UK and also the Summer Half Term in schools. So I’m hoping to get a little time to rest, relax and read – which will be quite perfect! Looking back on May, it’s been a manic month in real life, but I *have* managed to read some lovely, lovely books and here they are:

I’m really happy about the books I read, and there were no disappointments so I count that as a result! Impossible to pick favourites, but the Dostoevsky and Plath/Sexton biographies were both pretty outstanding.

As for June, I’m currently keeping my options fairly open. However, one thing I *am* certain about is that I’m taking part in a blog tour for one of the new British Library Women Writers titles – and that post will be up on Wednesday. Spoiler alert – I loved the book – tune in to see what I thought of it!

There are, of course, numerous challenges floating about in the blogosphere, most notably “20 Books of Summer”, hosted by Cathy from 746Books. I’ve always steered clear of this, not because I don’t think it’s a great event – it really is a good one! And I think I would have no trouble completing it because I’ve been known to read close to that many books in a month. The issue I would have is sticking to a list – I am notoriously bad at that, even failing when I make my own plans, which is why I mostly stick to my random reading trends following my whims. However, there *are* a good number of books I’m circling with an intention to read soon, and here are some:

Barthes and Derrida are calling; but there’s Stepanova and bell hooks – all so tempting….

This impressive pile has some of the chunkier volumes which are lurking, and I’ve been wondering about making them some kind of summer reading project; perhaps a low-pressure intention to dip into Whitman and “Aurora Leigh” over the summer holidays and just enjoy them, maybe reading alongside other books.

There’s also the ginormous pile of review books which never seems to get any smaller! Here’s a towering heap of them and they all sound absolutely marvellous too!

But for now, there’s June to get through, so I shall continue to let my grasshopper mind guide me on my reading journey! What plans do you have for June and summer reading? 😀

On My Book Table… 4 – decisions, decisions!

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Since I last reported on the state of my Book Table, it has been through several changes as there have been bookish comings and goings as well as raging indecision about what to read next. This of course is particularly bad at what is a busy time of year, but as I’m now off work for the festive season, it seemed a good time to tidy up a little and take stock. So here is the current state of the Table itself:

As you can probably tell, there are a number of heavyweight books on there (and I don’t mean in size necessarily, but in content). Shall we take a closer look?

This stack is mainly review books – some lovely British Library Editions, glorious Russians from Pushkin Press, an intriguing title from Michael Walmer and an author new to me from NYRB. Then there’s “Jam Today”, a book I was very excited to track down recently. All of these would be ideal next reads.

This is what I mean by heavyweight… Essays, short fiction, Montaigne, Proust, Pessoa, philosophy. I’d like to read them all at once, which is not helpful. Especially as I feel as if I could quite easily have a month of reading nothing but Fitzcarraldo books!

And finally, Barthes… Three physical books (there is a digital one too) and the Binet book about Barthes which has been on the Table for months. I am nearing the end of “Mythologies”, but unsure whether I should read another Barthes straight off or let the first settle a bit…

Of course, there are the birthday arrivals which came into the house recently and haven’t made it to the Book Table yet (and they’ll no doubt be joined by some Christmas arrivals at some point soon). A further complication exists in the form of the Book Token my work presented me with on my birthday which is itching to be spent. An embarrassment of riches, but I do find that the more choices I have, the harder the decision becomes! What would *you* read next??? 😀

The dilemmas of bibliophiles through the ages… @BL_Publishing @shedworking

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Shelf Life by Alex Johnson

British Library Publishing have been rather spoiling me recently with unexpected review books; “The Pocket Detective” was an unexpected treat, and another perfect-for-me volume popped through the letter box recently in the form of “Shelf Life”. An anthology of writings about books and reading collected and annotated by Alex Johnson, it contains some real gems from a dazzling array of illustrious writers.

If you love books, you most likely also love books about books, and so this is going to be an essential collection for you. It not only covers the reasons for reading, the pleasures and benefits it brings, and the dangers of not reading enough, but also spreads its net wider. So we consider the problems of physically housing a library (a subject familiar to all bibliophiles); the dangers of letting children near your treasured volumes; and, lawks a-mercy, the difficulty of destroying them (excuse me while I have an attack of vapours….) Although I jest a little; I know that charity shops have been swamped by donations of vast amounts of unwanted “50 Shades…” books, so J.C. Squire does maybe have a point…

It isn’t all flippancy though; the rather grumpy Schopenhauer discusses the psychological implications of random, trivial reading (he’s obviously not a fan of chick-lit then, nor of Hegel it seems from his comments here…) He also urges caution in reading too much and not allowing yourself time to think about the book just read, encouraging giving yourself the mental space to assimilate the reading. Theodore Roosevelt warns against swamping one’s soul in the sea of vapidity which overwhelms him who reads only “the last new books”. And the book also includes what might perhaps the most famous essay on books, Walter Benjamin‘s “Unpacking My Library”, which I’d read before and which never fails to delight.

By Michael D Beckwith [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

One of the most absorbing of the essays is that of Gladstone (the famous British PM) who discusses the issues surrounding the construction of your personal library, and the vagaries of cataloguing, wrestling with the eternal problem facing the bibliophile of how and where to categorise and shelf those pesky volumes – proving that nothing changes in the world of books! Intriguingly, while I was reading this particular part of the book, I invested half an hour in a somewhat lightweight but occasionally diverting little series on BBC2, “Monkman and Seagull’s Genius Guide To Britain“; in a strange case of serendipity, during the episode I watched the brainy pair visited Gladstone’s personal library which I’d just read about, and it was lovely to actually see the place. It’s housed in a building which also offers hotel rooms, so that you can stay overnight and look at the books – heaven! 🙂

Needless to say, “Shelf Life” is packed to the gills with gems and I could have quoted half of it. However, I’ll share a few of my favourite lines with you:

Charles Lamb on the condition of library books: How they speak of the thousand thumbs, that have turned over their pages with delight!

Theodore Roosevelt on how a reader’s choice of book may reflect their state of mind: If he does not care for Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Sebastopol, and The Cossacks he misses much; but if he cares for The Kreutzer Sonata he had better make up his mind that for pathological reasons he will be wise thereafter to avoid Tolstoy entirely. Tolstoy is an interesting and stimulating writer, but an exceedingly unsafe moral adviser.

Gladstone on the importance of classic works: Books require no eulogy from me; none could be permitted me, when they already drawn their testimonials from Cicero and Macaulay. But books are the voices of the dead. They are a main instrument of communion with the vast human procession of the other world. They are the allies of the thought of man… In a room well filled with them, no one has felt or can feel solitary.

“Shelf Life” is a real delight of a book. Johnson, who has a number of blogs (including a very interesting looking one all about bookshelves!), clearly knows his stuff and the selection of essays here is wonderfully varied, entertaining and fascinating. I mentioned the dreaded C-word recently when I blogged about “The Pocket Detective” and I fear that “Shelf Life” is another essential potential gift for the book lover in your life. And, hey – it will add to your pile of books about books so that you’ll have the perfect solution to one aspect of shelving your books by having to give them a dedicated space of their own! 🙂

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