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2020 in Books – in which I once again fail to pick an outright winner…. ;D

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As is traditional on the Ramblings, I’m going to take a look back over my year of reading to pick out some highlights. It certainly has been a very strange and unpleasant year, unlike any I’ve known – I hope 2021 will be better, but who knows what’s to come. Books have, as always, been a comfort and my coping mechanism; and I *have* read a little more than usual, despite the strains of coping with a pandemic world. As usual, I’m not going to do any kind of countdown or top ten – let’s just look at the bookish things which have kept me going!

Comfort reading

A favourite from this year’s BLCC’s releases!

2020 has most definitely been year when there’s been a need for comfort reading. My go-to books are Golden Age crime and once again the British Library Crime Classics have been a source of great joy. I’ve read a good number, and not a dud amongst them! I’ve also felt the urge to do a sudden bit of re-reading – for example, at one point needing pick up Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and revisit the wonderfully perfect ending. Longing for less complex times, I guess.

Indie Presses and Subscriptions

Some of the treats from my Renard Press sub.

If this year has been anything for me, it’s been the year of indie presses and subscriptions! Despite the lockdowns and restrictions, it’s been a joy to see independent publishers flourishing, supported by the love of serious readers and booklovers. I have spent happy hours with many wonderful indie imprints, authors and books, including Notting Hill Editions, Little Toller, Fum d’Estampa, Salt, Galley Beggar, Sublunary Editions and Renard Press; in fact, I did a nice little Q&A with Will Dady, the man behind the latter, for Shiny New Books. And of course it’s been lovely to keep up with Fizcarraldo Editions, who’ve released some quite marvellous volumes this year.

Which leads me on to…

Challenges/Events

I tend to steer away from most of these nowadays, as I find I get all enthusiastic about joining in then instantly want to go off in another direction! However, I did get involved in a Twitter-based readalong of the marvellous Malicroix (published by NYRB Classics), thanks to the influence of Dorian Stuber! A wonderful book and a great joy to take part in this! I’ve managed to reboot some of my personal reading projects, and even expand their scope – let’s see how that works out then…

Fitzcarraldos – I love Fitzcarraldos…

I also ended up co-hosting a two week celebration of the aforementioned Fitzcarraldo with Lizzy – Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight. Not only was this great fun, but it also got me reading quite a bit of my TBR – result! 😀

Which leads me on to…

Reading Weeks

As usual, Simon and I co-hosted two Reading Club Weeks this year, focused on 1920 and 1956. These are always such fun – if you haven’t encountered them, we basically read whatever we want from the year in question, review, post on blogs and other social media and share ideas of great books from the year. We’ll be hosting another in April 2021 so do join in! 😀

Social Media

Social media of all kinds has become pretty much a lifeline over 2020 and it’s been great to be able to keep in touch over the various platforms. Book Twitter is particularly lovely and I have been lucky enough to interact with some wonderful people on there. There have been postcards going around the world and moral support offered to our online friends who have suffered losses over the year. It is a lovely place to visit. Of course, there are always so many reading events to tempt me there, but mostly I manage to hold back because I know I will fail… I didn’t with Malicroix though, so result!

A little pile of my Harvill Leopards!

Twitter was also responsible for the Harvill Leopard Hunt, as it shall be titled, where a number of interested bookish people contributed to a wonderful master list of books issued in that imprint by Tim at Half Print Press. It was huge fun being involved in the detective work, and the resulting checklist is a thing of great beauty and use – you can check it out here! (Do take a look at Half Pint Press too – they produce some gorgeous things!)

Roland Barthes, a documentary and another interview!

Although I was often looking for comfort reads, it hasn’t all been lightweight this year. In particular, I seem to have been haunted by the spirit of Roland Barthes! I first read his Mythologies back at the end of 2019, reviewing it in January this year, and have revisited his work at various points over the year. He’s not always an easy read, but certainly fascinating, stimulating and thought-provoking!

Professor Richard Clay with Dr. Lonnie Bunch (c. Clearstory/BBC)

This also tied in with my Documentary of Year (and Decade!) 21st Century Mythologies with Richard Clay – it was quite superb, and I was delighted to welcome Richard back onto the Ramblings for a return interview. He’s always such an interesting interviewee, brimming with ideas! No doubt I shall continue to return to Barthes – there are several titles I have lurking on the TBR…

Shiny New Books

I continued to provide some reviews for Shiny New Books, the wonderful independent recommendations website. I always enjoy reading other people’s contributions and SNB covers such a wide range of books. Always worth checking out if you’re not sure what to read next, or want to find out what’s come out recently and is worth reading!

Trends in my reading

A translated work I enjoyed very much this year, which led on to many other reading ideas…

I’ve continued to read a lot in translation, from the Russian of course but also from French, German, Portuguese, Polish…. I’ve enjoyed poetry, and also a lot of non-fiction this year. There have been times when I’ve felt that I couldn’t engage properly with fiction, and so essays, philosophy, history, nature writing, travel writing and books which don’t actually fit into any category have been there for me to turn to in times of need. I plan to continue to follow no path but my own and read what I *need* to read!

Outstanding books

I’m not going to pick a best of the year, because I can’t. The kind of books I read are so disparate that it seems unfair to measure them against each other. However, I *shall* highlight some particularly special reads from 2020.

First up, I have ended the year reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland and it’s a stunning book. Mesmerising writing and brimming with ideas and visions, it certainly lives up to its hype and it was the perfect book with which to finish off the year.

I’m a huge fan of Paul Morley’s writing, and so was delighted to be able to review his latest book, A Sound Mind, for Shiny New Books. A wonderfully Morley-esque exploration of classic music in all its shapes and forms, I absolutely loved it.

Another author whose work I’ve loved for a long time is M. John Harrison. He’s hit the public eye a bit more than usual recently, and this year saw the release of a new novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. It’s another stunning read, proof that Harrison’s powers only increase with the years, and I was so pleased to see it win the Goldsmiths Prize! Lovely Comma Press also released a collection of his stories, Settling the World, which was another outstanding read.

A newer discovery for me is Andrew Lees; I read his wonderful book Mentored by a Madman last year, in a lovely paperback from Notting Hill Editions; it was a marvellous read, and Lees is such a good writer – in this book proving that literature and science go together. NHE published a new book by Lees this year, Brazil That Never Was, and I absolutely loved it. I described it in my review as a “wonderful blend of travelogue, memoir and reflection”, and Lees’ storytelling skills produced an atmospheric and memorable read. I can’t wait for his next book!

I can’t finish this section without mention of Square Haunting, which I covered in February for Shiny New Books. A quite brilliant book covering the lives of five inspirational women living in the same square in London, although at different times, it was an unforgettable read as well as an amazing work of scholarship – and it deserves all the praise it’s had!

*****

Frankly, that’s probably enough for one post – if I go on any longer I shall end up reliving the whole year and with 2020, that’s not something I necessarily want to do. The books I’ve read this year have been 99.9% pure joy (with the very occasional dud…) Whatever 2021 chucks our way I shall hang onto books as a way of maintaining some kind of sanity. Here’s to a better year for us all!

“There is more, but the handwriting is difficult to interpret.” @mjohnharrison @commapress

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Settling the World: Selected Stories by M. John Harrison

M. John Harrison should need no introduction here, as he’s an author I’ve regularly lauded on the Ramblings. I first read his work back in my early twenties, when I was looking for something else which would feed my addiction for anything like Mervyn Peake. A random review sent me in the direction of the Viriconium books (which I don’t think are anything like Peake, to be honest – nothing is like Peake…), and I was an instant Harrison obsessive, gathering everything I could by him – which was not so easy at the time. As you’ll be able to see from a picture further down this post, I have any number of old crumbly editions of his work, picked up with great excitement in second hand shops in those pre-Internet days, plus quite a few sci fi anthologies featuring his stories. I’ve been reading him ever since, and took great joy in reconnecting with his work on the blog back at the start of 2016. A number of his works have appeared here since, most recently his latest novel “The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again”, which I covered for Shiny New Books.

I was naturally very excited, therefore, when I heard that Comma Press were issuing a selection of his short stories (particularly as I rate his work in this form very highly indeed). They’ve previously released a marvellous collection called “You Should Come With Me Now” back in 2017, gathering recent stories; however, the new book is a ‘selected’ volume entitled “Settling the World”. Crucially, this is a career-spanning anthology, and I was delighted when the publishers kindly provided a copy for review!

Harrison’s work first began appearing in print in the 1960s, initially in magazines and anthologies; the first published collection was “The Machine in Shaft Ten” in 1975 (which I reviewed here). Harrison is a prolific writer of short works, and actually keeping track can be complicated as there are so many, and published in many different places. I have a sort of checklist but it’s by no means complete. Add in that the stories have often changed over the years depending on where they appear, and you can see that reading M. John Harrison is always an interesting experience!

Anyway! Enough waffle and on to the book. “Settling the World” contains seventeen stories; the earliest is “The Causeway” from 1971, and the most recent are from our current very troubled year of 2020. The book helpfully gives at the start the original publication date and location, and it fascinates me to see how during a career of over 50 years of writing, Harrison has produced work of such quality which never fails to intrigue and unnerve.

Every day, as we ingest our untailored paste of environmental microplastics, hormones and other transformative pollutants, we move a little further in, losing a little more of what it used to mean to be human and gaining a little more of what it means now.

I was, of course, particularly pleased to see some stories from “Machine…” resurface, as I rate that collection very highly. However, the collection “The Ice Monkey” from 1983 is well represented too, and these stories are particularly stunning. The title story is especially memorable, mixing elements of the unexplained and climbing, two strands of interest in Harrison’s work which often converge. To be honest, he rarely writes what would be called a conventional narrative (which is one of the things I love about his work); and even when something starts out like that (“The Course of the Heart”, perhaps) it doesn’t stay like that. I was also really pleased about the inclusion of the excellent and rather spooky “Doe Lea” which I read and reviewed in chapbook form last year; it’s a wonderfully disconcerting piece of work and deserves a wider audience.

The stories here, like all Harrison’s work, defy classification; there are sci fi influenced stories like the title one, where God has been rediscovered and towed back to Earth, but is not what you might originally think; or “The Crisis” from 2017, which features a kind of jelly-like alien entity focusing its visits to our world on the financial centres. Then there are tales like “The Incalling” from 1978 with strange occult undertones and unexplained rituals; or “The East” from 1996, a story centred on a refugee – but from *what* ‘East’? Then, of course, there is “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium”, a story which has appeared in numerous MJH anthologies or collections, and even been subject to a change in title and focus which might be considered startling…

The rest of my MJH collection (apart from a Viriconium anthology currently loaned to Eldest Child…)

Well, you get the picture. The joy of reading M. John Harrison is that nothing is ever what it seems, and even those stories which could notionally be called sci fi are never that straightforward. Interestingly, reading this wonderful mixture of old and new I sensed resonances between a number of the stories and other works by MJH. “The Incalling”, for example, hints at events in “The Course of the Heart” and seemed to me to have echoes in “The Sunken Land…

Much of the crescent was untenanted. In company with the surrounding streets it had been built as a genteel transit camp and matured as a ghetto. Now it was a long declining dream. I stood at the door of Mrs Sprake’s house, staring at the cracked flags, the forgotten net curtains bunched and sagging like dirty ectoplasm, the tilted first-floor balconies with their strange repetitive wrought-iron figures, and wondering if it might not be better to leave now before anyone had time to answer the bell. All the other doors were boarded up. Old paint hung like shredded wallpaper from the inner curve of an arched window. Across the road one whole building was missing from the terrace – fireplaces and outlines of extinct rooms clung to the walls of the flanking houses.

And one element I picked up on whilst reading this stories was the sheer skill of Harrison’s writing. His prose is excellent, often stopping you short at some marvellous juxtapositions; but I particularly noticed his sense of place and the landscapes he uses in his stories. His characters often occupy marginal spaces, parts of cities or places which are often in a state of complete entropy. Harrison lived in London during the 1960s and 1970s, a time when areas of it were still being rebuilt (and the pre-gentifrication areas are conjured brilliantly). In fact, as someone who can remember the 1970s well and the 1960s a bit, I recognised these outlands; the edges of towns and cities where the old tenements were being demolished and replaced by tower blocks; and those almost primitive, decaying areas are vivid settings for his stories.

In truth, this exemplary collection could more accurately be titled “Unsettling the World”; Harrison’s stories disturb our everyday placidity, and his characters, existing in liminal areas which seem to straddle our world and another stranger one, often experience unexplained events which are the stuff of nightmares. “Settling the World” is a marvellous collection in every sense of the word; it’s an excellent introduction to the range of M. John Harrison’s writing over the length of his career; and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

(Review copy kind provided by Comma Press, for which many thanks! You can get a copy of the book direct from the publisher here)

On My Book Table… 10 – a variety of external influences!

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(NB – none of these books is actually *on* the table in the pictures below, but never mind….)

I am nothing if not susceptible to suggestion when it comes to books, and I’ve long lamented the bad (good!) influence of Book Twitter. Specific books themselves, too, have often been responsible for other books arriving at the Ramblings; and there does seem to have been a fair amount of that happening lately… I *have* been sharing pictures on Twitter, but I thought it might be nice to update on the blog some of the more recent arrivals – plus some bookish subscriptions I might just have happened to take out…

The “Philosophy of Walking” effect…

One recent subscription which I took out was to the Verso Book Club, and I shared some thoughts about it here. I offered a little giveaway of a spare book and that will go out to Clare Topping, so I hope she enjoys it! However, one book I ordered from their amazing 50% off sale was “The Philosophy of Walking” by Frederic Gros. It called to me strongly recently and I couldn’t resist (and a review will follow eventually…). However, it’s that most dangerous of things, a book which creates all manner of ideas and lists of other books you want to read; it even has suggested further reading in the back! Now the effect of the body of the book was bad enough – I ended up hauling this little lot off various parts of the TBR…

Interestingly, the Wordsworth ties in nicely with the Romantics three part documentary which is on TV currently (I had been dying for lack of decent documentaries…) However, I also have added substantially to the wishlist, and wasn’t able to resist sending for this lovely thing:

In another piece of bookish synchronicity, the photograph on the cover of this edition is by the early pioneer of the art, Nadar, who featured in Julian Barnes’ “Levels of Life“…

Nerval is an author I’ve been aware of for decades; in fact, the little edition of “The Chimeras” you can see in one of the images above was one I acquired in the 1980s. However, I hadn’t looked at it for absolutely ages, and as I was particularly moved by his story in “Philosophy…” I decided I needed to read more. Truly, this book is a *really* bad influence!!

The Harvill Leopard books

There’s been a really interesting convo going on over on Book Twitter, and I wish I could remember who started it (although I know that Caustic Cover Critic was in there at the beginning)! However, the subject was the Harvill Leopard range of books, a numbered series issued between 1998 and 2005. Now, I own a few of these (and they’re lovely) – mine are mainly Russians, but they also issued a lot of Perec. Somehow, the subject of a complete list of the releases came up which caused a lot of interest, with bookish people pitching in. The very industrious Tim of Half Pint Press revealed that he had a spreadsheet he was attempting to compile (as there seemed to be no complete list). This led to loads of research, lots of chat and in the end Tim setting up the wonderful resource which is 300oddleopards! As well as a complete list (as far as can be gleaned at present) there are also pictures of back and front of as many of the books as he’s been able to gather, with lots of us joining in and sending images of our books!

I had great fun pulling out some titles I hadn’t seen for a while (a few of them are above) and was happy to help with pulling together the site. It’s a wonderful initiative – do check it out if you have any interest in these books and authors, though I can’t promise it won’t be back for your bank balance and shelf space….

Bookish Subscriptions

I can’t remember the last time I actually joined up to any kind of bookish subscription; back in the day, I was in a good number of book clubs, but these fell along the wayside before the turn of the millennium and I haven’t signed up for one since. However, there have been any number of recent temptations, and of course the above-mentioned Verso Book Club!

And during lockdown, I did become very aware of the struggles facing smaller publishers and bookshops. I tried to shift my buying habits to support them (some Little Toller purchases resulted) and another couple of interesting presses caught my eye. One of these was Sublunary Editions, who I first stumbled across on Twitter (as I mentioned in my post on publisher Joshua Rothes’ intriguing book, “The Art of the Great Dictators“). They offer a subscription service, they have some wonderful sounding works coming up and so I succumbed – and this was my first delivery!

What’s so interesting about Sublunary is that their works come in a fascinating array of formats; there are more conventional books (although these are often not…), but the package also includes texts on separate sheets as well as art cards. It’s all rather wonderful and I’ll post more as I read my way through them. I’m looking forward to what comes next! 😀

My second subscription was recommended by a lovely Tweeter when I was offering the Verso giveaway; and it’s an initiative to publish more Catalan literature in translation by Fum d’Estampa Press. My reading of Catalan writing is probably non-existence so this was a good way to widen my horizons as well as obtaining some very pretty books – here are the first two:

Fum d’Estampa are on Patreon and they have a number of different levels of subscription (as is often the case of Patreon – I seem to spend a fair bit of time on there lately, as I also support the wonderful Backlisted Podcast, which I can highly recommend). Anyway, the books themselves are quite lovely and I’m looking forward to exploring further.

As for current reading and what’s actually *on* the Book Table? Well, I’m presently reading and loving the new collection of M. John Harrison stories, “Settling the World”, from the wonderful Comma Press (as you can see from the sidebar) and it’s excellent. Coming up soon – well, October of course will be time for the #1956Club, so I think I’d better start exploring some titles from that year! 😀

“deep and false waters” – exploring the Sunken Land over @ShinyNewBooks #mjohnharrison

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Regular readers of the Ramblings will be well aware of my love of the writing of M. John Harrison – goodness knows, I’ve covered it often enough here! Having encountered his Viriconium stories back when I was in my early twenties, I’ve followed his work with interest (and great joy) ever since. His books are impossible to categorise, which I love; ranging from fantasy and sci fi to more realistic novels and short stories, the consistent thing I find with MJH’s work is that nothing is what it seems…

I was therefore inordinately excited when I found out that MJH’s first novel for seven years was coming out, and completely delighted to be able to review it for Shiny New Books!

M. John Harrison – (c) Hugo Glendinning

I covered Harrison’s collection of short stories “You Should Come With Me Now” (released by Comma Press, who are about to issue a selection of short works from over many decades) back in 2017, and “Sunken” seems to me to share the same elements of strangeness, portraying characters living out their lives in a nebulous world.

Every field, she discovered, had its pylons; every field had its pool. The pylons made a curious muted ringing clatter, like a bottling plant heard on the wind from three miles away. As for the water, some of it looked shallow, some looked deep. Some pools were graced with a pylon of their own, or with a couple of willows or cows; some featured a single moorhen stalking about. When you got close, they all had a recent quality; they were as beachless as if water had been poured into a grassy hollow the night before. They glittered in the glassy light.

“Sunken” is a magnificent read, and as you might guess from the title and cover, water plays a strong part in the narrative… It’s a book I can’t recommend highly enough, a real triumph; so do hop over to Shiny and read my full review here! 😀

Short and deeply unsettling…. @mjohnharrison @nightjarpress #doelea

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It seems like today is a good day to post a few thoughts about a little limited edition chapbook I picked up recently (and got a bit excited about) – “Doe Lea” by M. John Harrison, from Nightjar Press. I’ve rambled on about MJH on the blog before; I’ve been reading his books for decades, and I love his writing. Very distinctive, very individual, often unsettling and defying categorisation – the sort of thing I love, really!

Anyway, I follow his website, and when he mentioned “Doe Lea” would be coming out in a signed, limited edition of 200 copies I was standing by to do that internet shopping magic as soon as it appeared on the Nightjar site. Which I duly did, and my copy arrived a couple of days later to much excitement at the Ramblings (and slight puzzlement from Mr. Kaggsy who, despite being supportive of my bookishness, doesn’t quite get why I get so worked up about literature….) However – back to “Doe Lea”.

I reviewed MJH’s collection “You Should Come With Me Now” back in 2017; a collection of shorter works of varying length, it really proved that the author is a master of whatever form of writing he takes on. “Doe Lea” would actually have fitted into the collection very well; 15 pages long, it’s a haunting and somewhat disconcerting story, taking a snapshot from the life of one man. As the tale begins, the narrator is leaving the hospital where his father has just died; he takes the train south from London towards the coast on his journey home, musing on memories of his father and how the latter had been affected by his final illness. The train develops some kind of fault and stops at a small place called “Doe Lea”, which oddly enough the narrator doesn’t seem to have noticed before.

As there’s like to be a delay before the train is fixed, the man wanders around Doe Lea; the place is small, oddly quiet, and there is a weird geographical feature. The people he encounters are unsettling; an air of stasis seems to hover over the town, having an almost hypnotic effect. The train will no doubt be fixed and will leave, but there are real doubts about whether man will get on it, who he actually is, and the slippery nature of the reality we are apparently reading about…

I shan’t say much more about “Doe Lea”, except to say that it was a really fascinating, beautifully written and disturbing piece of writing. Although nothing directly *scary* happens, there is an underlying sense of unease running through the whole story; MJH is quite brilliant about conveying that kind of thing in his work. Much is left unexplained and to the imagination, which is always a much more effective way of unsettling the reader. and there’s a blurring of identity which is quite unnerving. I have to say that if my train ever stopped at Doe Lea I don’t think I’d want to get out – and I’m glad I read this in the daytime, because I’m still wondering about the strange geographical feature…

So “Doe Lea” was a fitting read for Halloween; although I’m sad to say that I can’t encourage you madly to go off and buy a copy because it seems (unsurprisingly) to be sold out. MJH has a new book out next year (exciting!) and maybe “Doe Lea” will turn up in another collection some time – I certainly hope so, because it deserves a really wide audience! 😀

On My Book Table… 3 – an update!

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After the flurry of excitement and reading from 1930 for our recent Club Week, I thought it was about time I took stock and had a look at exactly what was on the Book Table; I frankly need to get a bit realistic about what I’m reading next, and there have also been some new arrivals at the Ramblings… So once I’d put away all the 1930 possibles, there was a bit more room to have a shuffle and a reorganise and a think about forthcoming reading; and after all that, I was left with these on the Table!

Yes – there are indeed a few newbies in the pile, though in fairness a couple of these are from the library. I reserved a shedload of Thomas Bernhard and that’s the last one to arrive; and Brian Bilston’s “Diary of a Somebody” was a must after I recently finished his marvellous poetry collection – review of the latter to follow shortly! Binet and the Lighthouses (sounds like an indie band…) have both previously appeared, but there are in fact five new review copies which have snuck in. The Stella Benson and Marie Belloc Lowndes are from the lovely Michael Walmer, and I have several of his titles standing by to read and review – all sounding very, very interesting. “The Government Inspector” is a lovely new translation of Gogol’s famous play from Alma which is calling strongly. And there are two fascinating Penguins which I’ll be covering for Shiny New Books. Once again, choices, choices…

So only two of these are purchases, picked up at the weekend when browsing the charity shops with Eldest and Youngest Child (who came home for a flying visit). I know nothing about the Fitz-James O’Brien book apart from the fact that it apparently channels Poe (which has to be good)!  But the other find was a beautiful pristine Virago that I was pretty sure I didn’t already have – and I was right!

I own a number of Elizabeth von Arnim’s books already, and things weren’t helped by the fact that someone had donated several of them and I was trying to work out what I had and what I already had read. Anyway, I chose correctly and this is in lovely condition, so I was very happy to bring it home at a bargain price.

I’m currently actually reading a book on the pile – the lighthouses one, which is fascinating so far. However, perched on the top is this very slim story which I intend to get to soon:

As I’ve mentioned previously, this is a limited edition short work by M. John Harrison, and as it’s apparently a bit spooky we’re getting close to the right time of the year to read it!

So that’s what’s on the Book Table post-1930 Club! Hopefully I’ll be reading more than one of them soon! 😀

 

On My Book Table… 2 – The Chunksters…

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I’m pleased to report that the Reading Chair and the Book Table have proved to be a great success chez Ramblings (well done, Mr. Kaggsy!) I have spent many a happy hour sitting comfortably with a book and a beverage; though alas, I don’t think I’ve tackled a single volume featured in my previous post about the table… That’s fairly typical of me, and I do have the excuse of the forthcoming 1930 Club which has necessitated some focus on the year in question. However, I thought I would share some images of what’s weighing down the table at the moment as possible reads – and they *are* quite chunky books!!

That’s a fairly imposing and daunting pile of books, isn’t it? Shall we take a look in more detail??

These two titles are on the book table for a good reason, i.e. the forthcoming #1930Club. I’ve mention John Dos Passos before, but not the Bunting (although of course I *have* wittered on about Basil on the Ramblings). All will become clear next week, hopefully…. 😉

Now – these three have been sitting around on the TBR for a while. “Imaginary Cities” (from Influx Press!!) was a Christmas gift from my brother some years back; “Night Walking” came into the house when Verso were having one of their oh-so-tempting sales; and the John Muir was a purchase on a whim because I wanted it (so there!) Having just watched a repeat of a documentary on Muir (which I somehow missed first time round) I’m keen to pick it up soon. We shall see…

These two lovelies are a little slimmer, but still very appealing. The Binet was on my book table last time, and has been on the TBR for as long as the Muir, as they arrived at the same time. The Colette is a beautiful edition of an anthology of extracts from her work, called “Earthly Paradise”. Apparently it’s now out of print and not at all cheap to get hold of – who knew? Makes me even more certain I must be careful about which books I prune when I pass some on to charity shops.

A mixed bag here. Two are newly arrived at the Ramblings – “Seashaken Houses” is all about lighthouses (I love lighthouses) and I resisted it for ages in Waterstones and then gave in. The Cunard book sounded fascinating (I can’t remember where I heard about it) and as the local library didn’t have it, I was left with no choice… I’ve had the Shklovsky for ages and keep meaning to start it and don’t – story of my life, really…

More new arrivals, this time from the very lovely Notting Hill Editions. I reviewed John Berger’s book “What Time Is It” recently; it’s the final book of three published by NHE which he did with Selcuk Demirel. I was knocked out by “Time…” and so was delighted to receive the two earlier books “Cataract” and “Smoke” – such treats in store… The third book in the picture is a selection of Montaigne’s essays; I’d often thought of reading him and then Marina Sofia’s post pushed me over the edge. Thanks so much, NHE! :DD

Another three chunksters lurk on the table, again books that I’ve had around for a while. “Liberty” is about French Revolutionary women; “Romantic Outlaws” is about Mary Wollstonecroft and Mary Shelley; and “The Wives” is about spouses of Russian authors. I long to sink myself into all three at once, which is really not practical…

And finally, a couple of slim volumes which weren’t on the pile in the first image, but have managed to sneak into the house despite Mr. Kaggsy’s best efforts (ha! not really – I think he’s given up worrying about the books, realisiing he was fighting a losing battle…) “Nagasaki” is thanks to a post on the BookerTalk blog – I loved the sound of it and couldn’t resist. “Doe Lea” is VERY VERY exciting! It’s a limited edition chapbook short story by M. John Harrison (who is a big favourite here on the Ramblings as you might have noticed..); and it’s a signed copy, one of only 200. Goodness, I went into overdrive when I found out it was available. Most pleased that it arrived safely and can’t wait to read it, yet don’t want to because I want to savour it!

Well, there you are. The Book Table is groaning a little under the weight of all these mighty tomes, and of course “The Anatomy of Melancholy” seems to be in permanent residence there helping to add to the tonnage. With my fickle mind I may not actually end up reading *any* of these next; but it’s lovely to get my books out, have them on the table, flick through them and just *enjoy* having them around! The pleasures of being a bookaholic… ;D

Arrivals and depatures – an update on the state of the book piles! :D

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Those of you who follow me on social media may have noticed the odd image or two recently which might just have indicated the continuing arrival of books at the Ramblings. I cannot lie – they have been creeping in the door when Mr. Kaggsy’s guard is down (or in some cases getting delivered at work). And in the interests of full disclosure and more Gratuitous Book Pictures, it’s only fitting that I share them with you… ;D

Charity shops, of course, making things impossible for the book lover – I guess I should just stop going in them. However, even being as stringent and selective as I have been lately, these have made it past my barriers! The DeWitt is one I’ve wanted to read for ages, so a cheap copy in the Oxfam was irresistible. And Clive James’s essays cover all manner of topics of interest to me. The Finn book is another one riffing on “Three Men in a Boat” – well, I adore the original and so anything that takes that as a starting point is going to be interesting. And Mark Steel’s humourous take on the French Revolution sounds like it might have hidden depths – most intriguing.  As for “New Writings in SF” – well, thereby hangs a tale…

Lurid cover or what!!!!

In the Oxfam yesterday they’d obviously had a donation of a good number of vintage sci-fi titles including lots of “New Writings in SF”; so of course I had to check these out to see if there were any authors I was particularly interested in. If I’m honest, I was looking for uncollected M. John Harrison, as many of his early stories were in these volumes, and I wasn’t disappointed. One book had a story which reappeared in “The Machine in Shaft 10” so I left that behind, alas; but volume 14 had a story called “Green Five Renegade” and I was pretty sure it was new to me. Thank goodness for the ISFDB and a phone with data; a quick search revealed that the story has only been in anthologies so I snapped it up, particularly as it’s an early one. It cost a little more than I would usually pay which I guess reflects its rarity, but it *is* in really good nick. I would’ve liked to bring them all home – so many interesting authors! – but I had to draw the line somewhere…

There there is Verso and their rotten end of year 50% off sale. Quite impossible to resist and I settled on these two titles:

The Benjamin/Baudelaire combo is a no-brainer of course; and I borrowed the Adorno from the library and was intrigued, so was happy to get my own, Reasonably Priced, copy.

Has there been online buying? Yes, I’m afraid so, in the form of these:

A couple of books about Dostoevsky; Rousseau on walking; Proust short works; and a novel of the French Revolution. What’s not to love??

This also came from an online purchase:

I’m always happy to support indie publishers, and Salt are one of the best so I decided to splash out on another of their poetry titles. Why this one? No idea – I liked the sound of it and I liked the cover! I’ll report back on the contents….

And finally, I’ve been spoiled by some review books from a couple of lovely publishers:

Notting Hill Editions, who produce the loveliest essay collections and intriguing titles, sent me a volume I’d somehow missed of Virginia Woolf’s “Essays on the Self”; I can’t wait. “Mentored by a Madman” is a new title which draws on the influence of William S. Burroughs. I read *a lot* by the latter back in the day, so I’m very interested to see what this one is about.

And the three titles by or about Jozef Czapski are from NYRB; another author new to me but one whose work sounds absolutely fascinating. Thank you, lovely publishers.

That’s quite a number of books, isn’t it? Lest you imagine the Ramblings to be collapsing under the weight of printed paper, however, I should reassure you that I *am* being sensible and pruning books I’m never going to read or revisit; a process that’s surprisingly a bit easier than I expected. Here’s just a couple of boxes of books which will be winging their way to the Samaritans Book Cave soon. So hopefully the house won’t collapse any time soon! ;D

2017 – or, Distracted by Documentaries…

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That might seem an odd title for a post rounding up my thoughts on my best reads of the year, but I fear that my reading rate has actually slowed down quite a lot over recent months and I suspect that might have something to do with my constantly being distracted by the BBC…..

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

This all kind of began over the summer months with the series of programmes on BBC4  focussing on Utopias of all sorts, and in particular Prof. Richard Clay’s three-part series on the subject (I also blame him for sending me off down a bit of an iconoclasm rabbit hole…) Since then, I seem to have been awash with documentaries of all sorts, from classical music through Margaret Atwood to Mexican art, all of which are a bit distracting and take the mind away from books (or send the mind off in strange directions after other books aside from the ones I was meant to be reading…) So my rate of reading has slowed down a bit I think generally because of this, and spending time in chunksters like “War and Peace” and “Crime and Punishment” has compounded the problem.

However, I have read some absolutely marvellous books this year; I never do anything as formal as a top ten, but here are a few of my highlights. And note that two of them have been read in December, so yes! doing one of these lists before January is premature! So – here goes…

Russians

This blog would not be about my reading without having a lot of Russians in there, and 2017 was by necessity dominated by them. It has been, of course, a year of marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of the outstanding books of the year for me were ones dealing with this. China Mieville’s October and the collection 1917, put together by Boris Dralyuk, were fine books which really brought the events of a century ago alive and both will stay with me.

On the Russian fiction front, I spent a great deal of time with some classic chunksters. Finally reading “War and Peace” was a milestone for me, and revisiting “Crime and Punishment” by my beloved Dostoevsky was also a special experience.

There were new treats too, in the form of “The Return of Munchausen” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and “Memoirs of a Revolutionary” by Victor Serge. Both authors are recent discoveries and both I would now count as amongst my favourites.  And the wonderful collection of Russian Emigre Short Stories, collected by Bryan Karetnyk and which I covered for Shiny New Books, was a real eye-opener and treat.

Still with Russia, but with non-Russian authors, I actually loved to bits two novels set in that country – “A Gentleman from Moscow” by Amor Towles; and “The Noise of Time”, Julian Barnes’ masterly portrayal of Shostakovich. Really, as a lover of Russian culture and history, I *have* rather been spoiled this year!

Classic Crime

Unsurprisingly, given my taste for it, I’ve delved into a lot of classic crime this year. Much of it has come in the form of lovely books from the British Library Crime Classics editions; and I find it hard to pick favourites from them, although “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a real treat.

I also discovered John Dickson Carr with a vengeance. It’s not for nothing he’s known as the king of the locked-room mystery, and I’ve spent many a happy hour with Dr. Gideon Fell this year.

Margaret Atwood

A living legend. A genius. ‘Nuff said. I rediscovered her work this year too, and definitely want to keep that trend going during 2018. Certainly, her non fiction books have been a real revelation and I can’t praise her highly enough.

Translated literature

There has been a *lot* of translated literature flowing through the Ramblings this year – and if I was more organised I daresay I could get the spreadsheet I keep my list of books read in to work out some statistics. I suspect there could well be more translated that native language books in there – maybe I’ll calculate one day…

Anyway, spending time with Georges Perec is always a joy and I read more of his works this year. I still have a book or two left unread, thank goodness – I dread getting to the last of his works available to me in English.

And one of the highlights of my reading year, during December was the book “Malacqua” – an author and book new to me which I stumbled upon because of the recommendation on the front from Italo Calvino. An unusual, hypnotic and memorable work.

Sci-Fi (or slipstream or speculative fiction or whatever  you want to call it…)

I’ve always dipped into this kind of genre over the years, but during 2017 I really reconnected, after dipping into Soviet sci-fi during 2016. The late, great Brian Aldiss is turning out to be something of a treasure, but my main incursions into the genre came via M. John Harrison. I read some of his shorter works for the 1968 Club and then had the joy (also in the last month of the year!) of reading his newest collection of shorter works, “You Should Come With Me Now”. It’s a powerful and unforgettable work and another book of the year arriving at the last minute.

Reading Clubs

On the subject of the reading clubs I co-host with Simon at Stuck in a Book, we spent time in 1951 and 1968 last year, and we have 1977 lined up for this one – do join in if you can, these events are such fun!

2018 – plans or not?

I started 2017 giving myself few challenges and reading plans or restrictions – which seems to have worked best for me, and I plan to continue on that road for 2018. I don’t function well as a reader if I feel that I *must* read a book; instead I intend another year of No Plans At All and simply following the reading muse!

One reading challenge I *will* try to drop in on occasionally is HeavenAli’s centenary read-along for Muriel Spark. I’ve read a fair bit of Spark over recent years, but there are plenty of titles I haven’t read so if the timing is right, I’ll be there…

I must too say thank you to all who drop in here, leave comments, discuss and recommend books – I always love engaging with people about reading, and look forward to interacting with you all in 2018. And thanks also to the lovely publishers who’ve provided review copies this year (and contributed to the lack of space in my house…)

Apart from that – lead on, Reading Muse, I’m right behind you…. 🙂

The slippery nature of reality @mjohnharrison @commapress

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You Should Come With Me Now by M. John Harrison

As the press blurb states, MJH is considered by many a figurehead of genre writing in the UK. His stories first began appearing in sci-fi collections in the 1960s, and he went on to produce some stunning novels featuring the fictional world of Viriconium, which are landmarks of speculative writing in my view. As well as many other sci-fi works (including the highly regarded “Kefahuchi Tract ” trilogy), he’s written mainstream novels and numerous quite brilliant short stories – the latter format being, of course, the one he began with. MJH aficionados tend to be a bit passionate and protective about his work; I think he’s one of the hidden jewels in the literary crown of this country, and so I was very, very excited by the prospect of a new collection of shorter works.

“You Should Come With Me Now”, published by Comma Press, contains a remarkable variety of works, ranging in length from half-page flash fiction fragments to longer stories, and all are frankly brilliant. In fact, the title and cover illustration are apt, as we are encouraged to take Harrison’s hand very trustingly and let him lead us into the labyrinth of his dazzling, unsettling and quite unique stories.

The shorter works are intriguing: tantalising fragments which tease you into wondering what would happen if they were developed into something longer, yet still satisfying in their own right. They’re often dry and laced with dark humour, reflecting the sheer fertility of MJH’s mind (and how can you not love an author who casually drops mention of Woolf. Mansfield and Richardson into a story?)

As for the longer pieces – well, where do I start? He’s a master of the twist and his stories constantly subvert your expectations. “In Autotelia” is a fine example; what begins as something which could be a relatively straightforward tale of a person on a train in an ordinary setting soon displays disturbing elements and ends by completely overturning any expectations you might have had. It’s the kind of storytelling MJH does so well and it’s amply on display here.

The realms created by MJH are often nebulous and undefined, and maybe that’s what I love about them. World-building can be too absolute, and since the real world is a fluid place, perhaps our fictional alternatives should be too. Certainly, the relationship between the places and people we’re reading about here and what we see outside our window is often unclear, which adds to the unsettling quality of the stories. Harrison’s work often negotiates the slippery intersection between reality and the fantastic in all its shapes and forms, an area notoriously difficult to navigate and which he handles with aplomb. Within all this, however, MJH is a wonderfully acute observer of human behaviour with all its foibles, quirks and eccentricities; whatever the setting, whether real world now or future world or world off to the side somewhere, humans are always humans…

M. John Harrison

The stories range far and wide over subjects as diverse as visiting aliens and the complexity of relationships in the modern age. MJH often looks at the darker side of things, but there is plenty of spiky wit too. Picking favourites would be unfair with such a rich and varied collection but I particularly noted: “Animals”, an unnerving take on the ghost story, featuring a woman encountering a tangible presence in a rented cottage; “The Good Detective”, perhaps the ultimate story of alienation from the modern world and your own psyche; “Psychoarcheology”, which takes the discovery of the remains of Richard III and riffs on it; “Imaginary Reviews” a series of capsule reviews of books which may or may not exist; and similarly “Babies from Sand”, a series of short numbered paragraphs peopled with shifting names, fluid characters and possibly spurious paintings. It’s not for nothing that the book is subtitled “Stories for Ghosts” as so many of the beings and their situations are undefined, fleeting and often not really there.

I was happily reading away and then suddenly, boom! About two-thirds of the way through the book we are clearly back in the vicinity of Viriconium with the story “Jack of Mercy’s”. Although this is not stated explicitly, any regular reader will recognise the names Crome, Ashlyme and Audsley King, which is enough of a giveaway. The tone of the writing in this story seemed to me to be particularly Viriconium-ish too; although that ever-shifting, ever-changing, ever-fluid place seems to have edged ever closer to our own world over the years, so much so that the lines are very blurred here. Needless to say, this was a particular treasure in the collection.

“You Should Come With Me Now” showcases Harrison at his best and each of these pieces, short or long, is an absolute gem, distinct and remarkable in its own right (which is something you can’t often say about a book of shorter works). The writing us just stunning; his powers have not ebbed over the years and if anything they’ve strengthened with maturity. I could go on and on about how brilliant these stories are; “You Should Come With Me Now” is a virtuoso performance by a master of his art, and a highlight of my reading year. What else do I need to say to convince you to make sure you read this book? 🙂

If I’ve managed to interest you at all in M. John Harrison, you can follow his blog here.

Review copy kindly provided by Comma Press, for which many, many thanks! 🙂

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