Sunday Post

Light pink English rose on a bush

Summer is here. The last few days have been blazing hot. I took some time off work to try and rest and recuperate from the fatigue that’s gripped me recently. I’ve been getting eight and a half hours of sleep at night, plus the odd afternoon nap and I’m feeling a lot better this weekend.

The soundtrack to the week has been the gorgeous ‘Anian’ by Welsh folk band 9Bach. Top track, ‘Cyfaddefa’

The Albums that Made me #7 – Simon & Garfunkel, ‘Greatest Hits’ (1972)

One of my colleagues shared a video from a Simon and Garfunkel concert the other day and it reminded me to pick up the ‘albums that made me’ series that I started a couple of years ago.

I must have been around six or seven years old when I began to notice the music of Simon and Garfunkel playing in the house. My Dad was a big fan. I have a very clear memory of asking my parents how they were doing the harmonies and feeling completely amazed that voices could do that. I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard. Even now, listening to them always gives me chills down my spine.

I’m not actually sure which album my parents owned. I think it was probably the Greatest Hits compilation from 1972.

But the song I’ve chosen to share is one from the Concert in Central Park in 1982 because something about this album brings back the sense of magic I felt as a child.

Poem of the week, ‘The Little Book of Cheerful Thoughts’ by Jeffrey Harrison

‘I rest my case,

placing the booklet

back by its petite

companions Sweet Nothings

and Simple Wisdom

but not The Book of Sorrows,

a multivolume set

like the old Britannica

that each of us receives

in installments

of unpredictable

heft and frequency

over a lifetime.’


Extract from Jeffrey Harrison, ‘The Little Book of Cheerful Thoughts‘ at Poets.Org

Sunday Post

This week has been a lot. Some very difficult emotional stuff surfaced again, plus I had to deal with something that triggers my anxiety. But it hasn’t been all bad. The weather has been really warm and sunny and I saw my sister’s family for the time in over a year.

The weekend has been quite nice and restful. We’ve been bingeing the comedy series ‘Ghosts‘ which we absolutely love. I’ve started reading Company of Liars by Karen Maitland and I’m enjoying it so far. We went to the local farmer’s market and I cooked a delicious aubergine and goat’s cheese gratin.

I’ve rewarded myself for getting through last week with First Aid Kit’s superb new Leonard Cohen tribute album, Who By Fire. Song of the week, ‘You Want it Darker’:

Sapphic Link Love #13

Out and about, Ichthyosaurus: Mary Anning and queer palaeontology

Slate, How modernist lesbians made Paris the ‘Sapphic Centre of the Western World’

The Observer, Gay, communist and female: why M15 blacklisted the poet Valentine Ackland

Wellcome Collection, The shocking ‘treatment’ to make lesbians straight

Atlas Obscura, How lesbian luminaries put together a groundbreaking cookbook

The Advocate, Amy Ray, the Indigo Girls and the Soundtrack of our Gay Lives

Gretchen Rubin, Alison Bechdel (on her new book), “I’ve Always Known Physical Exertion and Movement Are Vital Somehow for My Creative Process.”

Autostraddle, An interview with Minnie Bruce Pratt on the ocasion of ‘Magnified’ her latest poetry collection

Bank Holiday Weekend Post

The weather is finally warming up after a very cold spring.

I’ve been struggling with fatigue again over the last couple of months. I know that I’ve been incredibly lucky and privileged during this crisis, but the long months of working from home and the constant low level stress and anxiety of living through a pandemic are definitely getting to me. Almost everyone I know is feeling exhausted, if not burned out.

Work has continued to be very busy. We’ve had a recruitment drive and I have two new members of my team. I’m also doing an ILM level 5 leadership course which is pretty intense. I’m just trying to rest as much as possible when I’m not working.

But we’ve both had our first doses of vaccine, so that’s a relief. Next week I’m going to see my sister and her family for the first time in over a year which is exciting. As I anticipated, I’m going to be the kind of person who feels reluctant and anxious about lockdown easing, so I’m just taking it one day at a time and doing small things like going to the farmer’s market. I think I’ll feel more confident once I’ve had my second jab.

I’d like to get back to posting weekly updates because I find it helpful for marking time and I’ll be trying to do that again from now on.

Lockdown Crime Fiction Round-up

I’ve read more crime fiction than I usually do over the last fourteen months, so here’s a lockdown round-up bringing it all together in one post.

Ruth Ware, The Turn of the Key (2019)

A heart-poundingly addictive page-turner about a young woman who takes a job as a nanny for a wealthy family who just happen to live in a sinister ‘smart’ house located in the middle of nowhere. All is not as it seems, including our protagonist! The Turn of the Key is a wild ride and quite terrifying in places. Ware updates classic gothic tropes in a book that plays expertly on our fears about a world that seems to be increasingly controlled by invisible technology. The smart house is a masterpeice of the uncanny. She also has some things to say about gender and class. I loved it!

Josephine Tey, The Franchise Affair (1948)

I’ll call this one my ‘problematic fave’ because I had issues with its politics, which I wrote about at length here. But this story about two women accused of kidnapping a young girl is just so well written, compelling and perfectly constructed that it gave me one of the most enjoyable afternoons of reading that I’ve had in a long time. I’m now looking forward to exploring the rest of Tey’s work.

Tana French, The Wych Elm (2019)

Readers seem to be divided by The Wych Elm. I liked it but I can see why. It’s a very slow burn and quite different to French’s Dublin murder squad novels, being told from the perspective of a suspect, rather than a detective. Toby is a highly unreliable narrator, a once privileged and ‘lucky’ person, whose life begins to unravel when he is severely injured in a burgulary. He and his girlfriend go to stay with his terminally ill uncle while Toby recovers, but things only get worse when the skeleton of a school friend, who disappeared years ago, is found stuffed into a hole in the elm trree in the back garden. Toby finds himself under suspicion and begins to wonder if he might actually be guilty, while also suspecting his two cousins of hiding something. The Wych Elm isn’t really about a murder, it’s about memory and privilege, especially the privilege that creates completely different experiences of the world and allows some people not to ‘see’ what’s really going on.

Barbara Vine, A Dark Adapted Eye (1986)

I’ve seen this book on ‘best of’ crime fiction lists for years and thought I’d give it a go. My goodness, this is another page-turner. A Dark Adapted Eye is also a novel about seeing and not seeing. It’s an incrediblly compelling story about a murder which works backwards from the execution of the murderer, Vera Hillyard, as years later her neice, Faith, tries to piece together what really happened. It’s more of a ‘whydunnit’ than it whodunnut. The twist seems obvious about halfway through the book, but Vine (Ruth Rendell) is better than that and all your assumptions will be undermined by the end. An addictively unsettling read and hugely influential on the development of the twisted psychological thriller that’s so popular today.

Barbara Neely, Blanche on the Lamb (1992)

Barbara Neely’s novel, Blanche on the Lamb (1992) turns the cosy mystery genre on its head by making the hired help into the detective. It’s a brilliant twist on a genre in which servants often see ‘too much’ and may well end up dead as a result. The book is overtly political and delves into social justice issues. Blanche is a brave, angry heroine who uses the skills she’s gained as a maid to solve the mystery. A series I will be reading more of and one that deserves to be better known.

Alafair Burke, All Day and a Night (2014) and Long Gone (2011)

I read two thrillers by Alafair Burke, the fifth Elle Hatcher novel, All Day and a Night (2014) and one of her standalones, Long Gone (2011). Burke is very reliable and both books are good reads with her usual feminist themes. All Day and a Night is an intelligent thriller in which a young lawyer starts looking into the murder of her half-sister many years before. In Long Gone the daughter of a famous film director finds herself a suspect in a murder she didn’t commit. Long Gone has an absolutely preposterous plot, but was so pacy and enjoyable to read, I happily overlooked it (CN: rape theme, but not graphic).

Louise Penny, Chief Inspector Gamache series, Still Life and A Fatal Grace (2007)

I read the first two books in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, Still Life and A Fatal Grace. Set in Quebec, these are basically cosy mysteries (picturesque village setting, quirky characters, lots of descriptions of food and nice things), but there’s definitely an unsettling undertone that makes them interesting. Despite all the cosiness, I think Penny has quite a bleak view of human nature. Gamache is a bit of a ‘Gary Stu’ (he’s perfect, everyone loves him, except for people who are obviously evil) but if you don’t mind that too much, it’s a satisfyingly detailed world to sink into. Perfect reading for a rainy afternoon.

Dorothy L Sayers, The Nine Taylors (1934)

My first Lord Peter Whimsy novel. I really enjoyed this book, which is often considered one of her best. After a car accident strands Lord Peter in the isolated East Anglian village of Fenchurch St Paul, he finds himself recruited by the local bell ringers club for an all-night New Year ringing session, only then to be invited back a few months later when a mutilated corpse is discovered in the grave of a local woman. As he delves into the matter, Lord Peter finds that the murder may be connected to the theft of an emerald necklace many years before. The Nine Taylors has a complex, multilayered plot, an atmospheric setting and well-drawn characters, including the bells that increasingly take on a life of their own. Some aspects of this book haven’t aged that well, but if you’re going to read Sayers I think you just have to go with it really.

Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None (1939) and Death on the Nile (1929)

I’ve been slowly working my way through Agatha Christie’s works. Over the last year I read And Then There Were None and Death on the Nile. I really liked And Then There Were None. I can see why it’s considered a classic. It’s so well constructed, it’s a pleasure to read and the idea of making everyone guilty is very clever. Death on the Nile is a tense read, but not as good as I expected. The characters are all so unpleasant and the reveal is silly.

Elly Griffiths, Ruth Galloway series

I read three more in Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway series, A Dying Fall, The Outcast Dead, and The Ghost Fields. This series provided my bedtime reading for the first part of last year, but I found myself losing interest as the books got more and more bogged down in silly relationships between not very interesting side-characters. Also, I’ve completely lost patience with Ruth and her mooning after Nelson. For goodness sake, get a grip woman! I think I’m done with this series.

Historical crime fiction

I read two historical crime novels, Heartstone by CJ Sansom (2010), fifth in the Matthew Shardlake series, and The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor, which is the first in the James Marwood and Car Lovett series. I usually enjoy Sansom’s Shardlake books, mainly because he’s created a whole world to sink into and the story always inolves a well-researched aspect of the period, in this case the Court of Wards and the war with France that led to the sinking of the Mary Rose. This is one of the less gruesome installments, but content note for a rape scene towards the end. I thought The Ashes of London was very well done and I liked the characters, but this one has a nasty rape scene at the beginning and ongoing references to rape and sexual threat which run throughout the book. This is not my kind of thing and it did put me off, so I might continue with the series, but I’m not sure.

Disapointments

Two books really disappointed me. There was The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz in which a bit of charming meta fiction could not make up for a boring detective and a lot of misogyny. Finally, my last read of 2020, was also one I found most disappointing and it’s Elly Griffiths again with The Postscript Murders. I enjoyed The Stranger Diaries so I was looking foward to this sequel. There were some clever ideas in there, but I thought the narrative was a mess; it leapt all over the place and there were far too many point of view characters. I thought the ending was a bit of a cheat too.

Ursula K Le Guin, City of Illusions (1967) – Hainish cycle re-read #3

‘I will tell you what I believe about you. I think you come from a lost world; I think you were not born on Earth. I think you came here, the first alien to return in a thousand years or more, bringing us a message or a sign’.

City of Illusions, p. 230.

And so I come to City of Illusions, the last book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s early Hainish trilogy. The end of the beginning, you might say. The last time I read this book, I remember it as the one I liked least. Did that change on re-reading? No and yes. It’s still my least favourite, but I was much more impressed the second time around and I would now say that it’s the most ambitious of the three.

City of Illusions begins on Earth. A family living in an isolated area discover a naked man in the woods who has no memory. His amber eyes suggest that he is not entirely human. They take him in and call him Falk. Over the next few years, he learns to speak and function like a human, but still can’t remember his past.

During this time, we find out that the ‘League of All Worlds’, referenced in Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile, has been broken and Earth is said to be under the control of a mysterious alien race known as the Shing who rule from a city called Es Toch. Zove, the old man of the house, believes that Falk may have come to Earth from an alien world founded by the ancient Leage before the fall. Determined to find out who he is, Falk decides to leave his friends and travel alone to the city.

About half of the book is taken up with Falk’s journey. He meets an old man in the forest who helps him. He is robbed by others. For a while, he is imprisoned in the camp of a violent group called the Bainaisha where he meets a woman called Estrel with whom he escapes. Estrel claims to be a wanderer who has been to Es Toch and tells him there is nothing to fear from the Shing. They become lovers although Falk senses there is something not quite right about her. Everyone he meets on his journey seems to give him mysterious, coded advice that he doesn’t really understand!

When they eventually arrive at Es Toch, Falk finds (rather unsurprisingly) that he has been betrayed by Estrel who was working for the Shing all along. This is conveyed in a long, hallucinatory sequence, from which Falk awakes to find himself in the hands of the Shing. They claim that they are ‘men’, not aliens, and that they sent Estrel to rescue him after he lost his memory in the ‘accident’ that destroyed his ship. He is introduced to a boy called Orry, the only other survivor of the crash who has been raised by the Shing. They claim that they want to help him remember his past, but unfortunately the procedure will destroy the Falk personality when his previous self is restored.

Despite their protestations to the contrary, Falk is quickly convinced that his hosts are sinister alien creatures masquerading as humans. They are suppressing the human population through a combination of terror, drugs and manipulation. He guesses that they probably want to find out where his home planet is so that they can attack it. But he agrees to undergo the restoration procedure in the hope that he will be strong enough to hold onto his memories of being Falk.

His real name, it turns out, is Agad Ramarren, and he is a descendant of Jacob Agat and Rolery from Planet of Exile. Generations later, their people finally left the planet in search of Earth and the League who abandoned them. Somehow, the Falk personality survives the restoration and now the two personalities must work together to escape the Shing and return to warn their homeworld.

My problem with City of Illusions remains the same as the last time I read it. It is a book full of ideas, but unfortunately ideas trump the character development and storytelling that are Le Guin’s strengths as a writer. The characters are not very well developed or interesting and it feels more like a series of scenes strung together rather than a coherent story. It’s like Le Guin is showing off what she can do and it’s a little too much.

But, reading it again, I did feel more impressed by her ambition here. I can see now that City of Illusions is very influenced by the new wave of science fiction with its hallucinatory qualities, it’s focus on subjectivity and the self, what’s real and what isn’t, and its attempt to push the envelope. Le Guin will pick up some of these themes again, more or less successfully, in her most new wave novel, The Lathe of Heaven (1971).

Looking back on this early trilogy from the perspective of someone who has read all the Hainish stories, I say again that one of the most impressive things about this whole trilogy is what it reveals about Le Guin’s process as a writer. She had an ability to recognise and develop her own good ideas and drop the weaker ones. From these books, we get the ansible, mind speech and the beginnings of the Ekumen, all of which will become foundations of the world building in later masterpieces like The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness.

Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions are still very much worth reading, both as entertaining science fiction stories in their own right and for what they show us of a great writer’s early development. If you’re new to Le Guin, though, I wouldn’t recommend starting here.

This post is the third in my Hainish cycle re-read.

Sapphic link love #12

Ms Magazine, The very queer history of the suffrage movement

Waltham Forest Echo, The East End women who fought for gay rights

The Guardian, How lesbian label Olivia shook up music

Believer, Art by women about women making art about women

pop matters, 90 years on ‘Olivia’ remains a classic of lesbian literature

Hyperallergenic, How Tessa Boffin, One of the Leading Lesbian Artists of the AIDS Crisis, Vanished From History (NSFW!)

Autostraddle, An interview with Minnie Bruce Pratt

The Lesbrary, 11 sapphic chefs for your cookbook collection

Country Queer, Amy Ray’s queer country story

Autostraddle, No Adam for Eve: the quiet history of lesbian pulp

Wild Women in Josephine Tey’s ‘The Franchise Affair’ (1948)

Josephine Tey’s 1948 mystery, The Franchise Affair, is so well-written, beautifully paced and gripping that I sat down and read it in one afternoon. The novel’s politics are problematic, to say the least, but it’s just so damn enjoyable to read.

Tey’s classic page-turner has stayed with me and, since I finished reading it, I’ve found myself pondering its more disturbing aspects. In her essay, The Lost Girl, the novelist Sarah Waters has written brilliantly about the troubling conservatism of The Franchise Affair, and the classist and misogynist allegiances within its narrative. The novel is packed full of simmering tensions about gender and class which are played out in the stories of two ‘wild’ women, both of whom are trying to live their lives outside the bounds of patriarchally-defined gender roles.

SPOILER ALERT: spoilers for the plot of The Franchise Affair below the cut

Continue reading

Sunday Post – Signs of Spring

Reeds and branches of budding pussy willow taken against a clear blue sky.

I’ve been feeling exhausted again these last few weeks, which is why I haven’t published any posts since January, despite having several in various stages of draft. I think the fatigue is really kicking in now for a lot of people.

The weather continues mostly cold and blustery here, but it’s the Equinox next weekend and at least there are some signs of spring being on the way.

I turned forty-four in February. It does feel unsettling to realise that I’m only six years away from the fifty mark. It’s not getting older that bothers me (I’m rather enjoying that overall), it’s the sense of time passing and this anxiety about whether I’m doing what I should be doing with my life. Am I wasting time??? But this is probably not the best year for those kinds of worries! Anyway, I had quite a nice ‘lockdown birthday’ in the end.

One of my friends bought me a window bird feeder and now we’re getting daily visits from little blue tits which is cheering. It’s a great idea if you don’t have a garden. I’m seeing more bird activity locally. Lots of greenfinches and goldfinches and a few stonechats.

I managed to have one long walk to a nearby beach and did a little bit of fossil hunting.

One of the highlights of the last couple of months has been ‘rediscovering’ music. I always used to listen to a lot of music, but it’s tailed off over the last couple of years. Working from home has given me the opportunity to have music on in the background while I work and it’s really improved my mood.

This weekend sees the one-year anniversary of the last time I left Cardiff! It’s been twelve months since I went more than three miles from the place where I live. That’s quite a strange thought.

Lockdown restrictions are starting to ease in Wales, but I can’t imagine I’m going to to do anything different, except go for some longer walks and perhaps meet up with a few people outside when that’s allowed again.

Sunday Post

A flowery patterned mug full of bright yellow turmeric tea sitting in a table next to a light blue stump tea pot.
Ginger, turmeric and black pepper tea

We had a dusting of snow this morning. Other parts of Wales got a lot more, but it didn’t last long here. I’ve been feeling sad this week and had a little meltdown last night. Nothing to do with the COVID situation, just the usual stuff. I had some helpful talks with my partner, though, and actually gained some useful insights.

Working from home feels harder at the moment. I’m extremely grateful and privileged to have a job that allows me to work at home, so I feel like I shouldn’t complain, but it is starting to grind me down a bit at this point. I’ve been listening to music in the background while I work which helps lift my mood.

I finished Still Life by Louise Penny which I really enjoyed – very cosy mystery and well-written. I’m working on City of Illusions, the next book in my Ursula Le Guin re-read and I’m enjoying Underland by Robert MacFarlane.

The soundtrack to the week has been Blackbirds and Thrushes by Niamh Parsons. It’s such a beautiful album.

Ursula K Le Guin, Planet of Exile (1966) – Hainish Cycle re-read #2

Planet of Exile, the second in Le Guin’s early Hainish trilogy, is a significant improvement on the first, Rocannon’s World. The story is much more coherent, the world wonderfully drawn, and the characters far better developed than in the first novel. Planet of Exile is actually one of my favourite books by Le Guin; it’s a beautiful, evocative and, at times, frightening story.

Set at the beginning of winter on a planet in which seasons last 5000 days (around fourteen earth years), Rolery, a young woman from an indiginous hunter-gatherer tribe, visits the city of Landin, a place inhabited by aliens who came to her world hundreds of years ago. They keep themselves apart and are known by her people as the Farborns. While walking on the beach below the city, Rolery is almost caught by a fast moving tide and only escapes because one of the Farborns, Jakob Agat, warns her telepathically using mindspeech, inadvertently creating a bond between them.

I just love the opening. It’s so atmospheric with its images of the giant causeway leading out to the tower rock and the roaring of the tide as it chases Rolery back towards the city and Jakob.

Planet of Exile further develops one of Le Guin’s Hainish tropes, ‘Mindspeech’, a form of telepathy which first appears in Rocannon’s World – it becomes apparent that the ‘Farborn’ are the descendents of Semley and Mogian’s people from that novel. Mindspeech seems to be something that most people can develop with practice, but some have a natural aptitude, including Rolery, much to the surprise of the people of Landin who believe only they have the skill.

Planet of Exile is about the relationship between Rolery and Jakob and the relationship between their two peoples, as they prepare for the long winter and face a common enemy, the aggressive Gaal from the South who are coming in vast numbers to invade their lands and take their resources.

The Farborn are a dwindling people, their colony abandoned centuries ago by the League of All Worlds. They don’t know why they have been left in this exile, ‘Their records say only that the ship left. A white spear of metal, longer than a whole city, standing on a feather of fire.’ Now fewer children are born every year, so they turn to the Askatevar for help.

Jakob Agat goes to the chief of Rolery’s people, her father, an old man named Wold, to propose an alliance against the Gaal. Wold listens, but he must convince his own people and the other tribes which will be difficult. Jakob, meanwhile, struggles with the attitudes of his own people who look down on the Askatevarans. Neither really regard the other as ‘human’. Cultural tensions are inflamed by a burgeoning romance between Rolery and Jakob. Before they can heal the divide, the Gaal attack and the surviving Askatevarans take refuge in the city of Landin where both peoples must get over their prejudices and preconceptions and work together as they prepare for siege. The representation of the people of Tevar is deeply imbibed by Le Guin’s interest in anthropology, perhaps so much as to feel a bit unsubtle now.

There is a theme in the book of old ways dying out so that something new can emerge. This is symbolised in the two old leaders, Alla Pasfal in Landin and the old chief Wold in Tevar. Both are stubborn and difficult people and Wold’s attitudes are misogynist, but there is something powerfully moving in his ‘last foray’ as he leads the women with young children across the causeway to the league hall, ‘across the vasty dizzy air-road to the black and terrible house’.

‘To die, then, he must return across the bleak, changeless landscape of his boyhood, he must reenter the white world of the storms.’

The middle section of the book is a long seige of the city which Le Guin manages to make tense and exciting, but perhaps most frightening is the introduction of the Snow Ghouls, terrifying creatues of the winter with their small heads swaying on their long, curving necks as they run across the snow towards their prey.

During this time, Rolery and Jakob establish their relationship as two people who have found freedom in their very differences. Separate, they were frustrated and unhappy with their roles in life, but together they have joy and possiblity. I really like the representation of their love story and, if I have a complaint, I wish Le Guin had given it more time. The novel ends with Jakob and Rolery hopeful that they will be able to have children together, even as they face the daunting prospect of winter: ‘Five thousand nights of winter, five thousand days of it, the rest of their youth and maybe the rest of their lives’.

In some ways, Planet of Exile feels like the precursor to The Left Hand of Darkness, which features an even longer winter, a deep relationship between two people from different worlds and has mindspeech as a central trope. But Planet of Exile is its own book too, one in which we see Le Guin really starting to play to her strengths as a writer of science fiction.

This post is the second in my Hainish Cycle re-read.

Sunday Post: Small Celebrations

The sun rising over a calm sea on a clear morning

This week we celebrated the tenth anniversary of our civil partnership. We’re not really into anniversaries, but any excuse to celebrate at the moment, right? So we got some beer, ordered takeout and watched Ocean’s 8.

I’ve been feeling depressed by the state of the UK. The COVID-19 situation continues to be very bad here with the NHS struggling to cope. Plus we’re barely two weeks into Brexit proper and already the UK government wants to reintroduce bee-killing pesticides and is launching an attack on worker’s rights. That didn’t take long.

But one piece of good news for me personally is that my mum got her first dose of vaccine. She lives on her own and has been so good at sticking to the rules, so it’s really cheered her up.

The weather has been rainy, but I managed a few nice early morning walks. In birdwatching news, I saw a redstart for the first time. Plenty of tufted ducks, goosanders, turnstones, little grebes and song thrushes around too.

We did two online yoga classes this week and that definitely helped. I also managed to get some medication to treat my winter patches of ezcema which improved my general mood.

I have a bunch of books on the go. A colleague recommended Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series. I’m really enjoying the first one, Still Life, and I think this series might just hit the spot for my bedtime reading. I’m also enjoying Underland by Robert MacFarlane. I finished the second book in my Ursula Le Guin re-read, Planet of Exile, (post to follow soon) and have started the next one, City of Illusions.

A copy of Underland by Robert Macfarlane. The cover is a painting of a path through woodland.

The track of the week is ‘Beginning to Feel the Years’ by Brandi Carlile which feels appropriate for a few reasons!

Sunday Post – Start of the Year

I know the world is on fire, but I hope the first week of the year is treating you relatively gently. Despite everything that’s happening, I’m actually feeling better than I did this time last year when I was in a pretty bad way and suffering from an attack of grief.

But I have been feeling a bit depressed this week. It’s been very cold here and going back to work was harder than I expected. I had a nice break over the holidays, but opening up my laptop in my chilly spare room was not fun and I really struggled. I missed seeing my colleagues, there was no energy, and it felt like a very long week. At least it was quiet.

The best things about this week were the beautiful sunrises I saw during my morning walks. It’s been quite good for birdwatching. I’ve seen little grebes, goosanders, turnstones, a grey heron, tufted ducks, a few potchard, a stonechat, a wren, songthrushes, a few goldfinches and linnets. Most excitingly, I saw a redstart for the first time today.

I did some creative writing and started a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages. We got back to our yoga classes and next week my main goal is to be more proactive about stress management.

The soundtrack to the week has been two of my favourite wintery albums, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s The Letting Go and The Grotto by Kristin Hersh. Top track, ‘Deep Wilson’.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Rocannon’s World (1966) – Hainish Cycle re-read #1

Ursula Le Guin’s first published novel, Rocannon’s World, is one of those books that now feels more interesting for what it shows us about the development of a great writer, rather than for itself. If Le Guin had published nothing else, I think it would have been forgotten, except perhaps by the most dedicated of science fiction afficionados. This isn’t to say Rocannon’s World is bad – it isn’t – but when you compare it to masterpieces like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, it feels simplistic and underdeveloped. Still, it has good qualities and you can see Le Guin starting to find her voice as a science fiction writer. This book is the first in a loose trilogy of early ‘Hainish’ novels, along with Planet of Exile (1966) and City of Illusions (1967).

Rocannon’s World opens with a prologue, ‘Semley’s Necklace’, which was first published in 1964 as a short story called “Dowry of the Angyar”. A young woman called Semley leaves her pre-industrial, low-tech planet to retrieve a necklace for her dowry, which has fallen into the hands of a galactic power called the League of All Worlds and is being displayed in one of their museums. There she meets Rocannon who gives her the necklace. The story ends in tragedy because Semley cannot foresee the implications of faster than light space travel and returns to find her husband long dead and her baby daughter a young woman. Driven mad by grief, Semley disappears into the forest. ‘Semley’s Necklace’ is a haunting story in which we can already see themes that will feature throughout Le Guin’s work.

Rocannon later goes on an ethnological mission to this unnamed planet, where he discovers that an enemy of the League of All Worlds has established a military base and is killing its people. Rocannon’s ship is destroyed by this enemy and he finds himself alone with no way to contact the League and warn them, unless he can gain access to the enemy’s ‘Ansible’, a device that enables instantaneous communication across space. Rocannon allies with Semley’s people, the feudal Angyar, and with her grandson, Mogien, sets out to try and find the enemy base. He has several adventures along the way and meets the different sentient species that live on the world. Rocannon succeeds in his quest, but the ending, as you might expect, is bittersweet.

Rocannon’s World is still enjoyable to read because, even at this early stage in Le Guin’s career, her writing is lovely and the narrative is well-paced. However, the story feels like a series of scenes which are strung together, the worldbuliding is a bit of a mess (the enemy, for example, are just vague, off-screeen ‘baddies’) and the characters are thinly sketched. We know that the protagonist, Rocannon, is principled and good, but beyond that he’s hardly more than a point of view through which to watch the events of the story unfold. This is very different to the deep and nuanced characters and worlds that appear in the later books. The Angyar ride around on flying tigers called ‘windsteeds’ which is adorable, but not something you’d find in later Le Guin! The League of all Worlds is also a fuzzy, ambigous idea at this point; before developing into the more benevolent Ekumen, it appears to be a rather sinister and ruthless power that may be involved in exploiting less developed planets. The layering of a science fiction story over a high fantasy world is inventive and interesting, but also feels a little odd. It’s like a Tolkein world into which Le Guin has inserted characters with lazer guns.

Having said all of that, parts of the story are really very well done. The bit in which Rocannon and Yahan find themselves in the power of a group of thugs who want to steal the necklace is genuinely tense and scary. For me, the best part of the book is the creepy, mindless, winged beings that take Rocannon and his friends captive. It’s genuinely frightening, although that effect is somewhat spoiled by the introduction, immediately afterwards, of cute little talking furry creatures!

What you do see thoughout the book is the emergence of the powerful themes that will be explored much more deeply in Le Guin’s later works. There is the question of who is ‘human’ and who is ‘alien’? There is the influence of anthropology on her worldbuilding. There are power relations between high and low-tech worlds. There are intense personal relationships between people who come from these different worlds. There is an interest in the ways that perceptions and beliefs about skin colour can structure societies. There is an underlying sense of tragedy and a belief that all actions come with consequences.

Rocannon’s World also contains ambiguous, post-colonial resonances with it’s depiction of a nameless (?) planet being ‘named’ by the galactic power as ‘Rocannon’s World’ and in it’s opening prologue about a valuable necklace being stolen from a people for display in a museum belonging to that power.

One thing that really struck me on re-reading this book, is Le Guin’s ability to recognise her own good ideas and return to them later. The ansible, for example, functions in Rocannon’s World as a classic ‘MacGugffin’, but she obviously spotted its potential and goes on to put it at the centre of one of her greatest works, The Dispossessed. We never see the flying tigers again, but we do see the development of the ansible. Probably a good call!

I enjoyed re-reading Rocannon’s World more than I expected, but don’t start here if you’re new to Le Guin. Start with one of the later and more famous books.

Next up, Planet of Exile, which I loved reading the first time around.

This post is the first in my Hainish Cycle re-read.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Hainish Cycle re-read for 2021

This feels like a good year to re-read Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish cycle from Rocannon’s World (1966) to the stories collected in The Birthday of the World (2002).

I’m going to read the books in order of publication because that seems to be the simplest approach:

  1. Rocannon’s World (1966)
  2. Planet of Exile (1966)
  3. City of Illusions (1967)
  4. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
  5. The Word for World is Forest (1972)
  6. The Dispossessed (1974)
  7. Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995)
  8. The Telling (2000)
  9. The Birthday of the World (2002)

I’ll use this list to link to any posts about the books.

The Happy Memories Jar

The jar

Last year I decided to start a happy memories jar. As someone prone to bouts of sadness, especially around Christmas and New Year, I thought this would be a nice way to remind myself about good things that have happened during the year.

Well, it certainly turned out to be an interesting time to start this project. I didn’t do it very consistently and I’m sure I missed things but here, in roughly chronological order, are my happy memories from 2020 …

The memories
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Science Fiction & Fantasy from Wales

Excited to discover that Wales now has its own science fiction and fantasy magazine called Gwyllion

Gwyllion is a non-profit, bi-annual genre fiction literary magazine which focuses on publishing science fiction, fantasy and horror from Wales. We publish two online issues a year as well as a limited run of physical copies.

2020 Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Round-up

An ereader with the cover of Network Effect by Martha Wells. It shows Murderbot standing on top of a space ship.

2020 was the year of Murderbot. I actually read Martha Wells’s delightful series about a grumpy, rogue cyborg and its (not) friends twice during the course of this year. I particularly enjoyed the new novel-length installment, Network Effect, which begins with our hero on the planet of Preservation working for its favourite human, Dr Mensah. Tasked with protecting members of her family while on a research expedition, Murderbot is reunited with its old (not) friend, a ship A.I. known as ART (Asshole Research Transport) and encounters a range of threats, including alien remnants and the usual corporate baddies, all the while trying to stop the stupid humans from getting themselves killed. Wonderful, heartwarming and exactly what I needed to read this year. Book six, Fugitive Telemetry will be published in April.

A copy of Jo Walton's book My Real Children on a table. The cover is a picture of a woman sitting on a suitcase and facing the sea.

However, the prize for the best work of SFF that I read this year has to go to My Real Children (2014) by Jo Walton. I suppose the book could be categorised more as speculative fiction, or alternative history, than strictly science fiction. It has elements of fantasy too. This story about an elderly woman with dementia who realises that she can remember two different lives is so rich, powerful and multilayered. I loved it and I don’t generally like alternative histories. It’s just a brilliant novel about women’s lives. This was my first book by Jo Walton and I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work.

My other favourite this year was Semiosis (2018) by Sue Burke. This is straight up science fiction which takes the classic and well-worn trope of humans trying to establish a colony on a hostile alien world and does something really fresh with it. The story is told over multiple generations of characters resulting in the feel of linked stories that are held together by the colony’s relationship with a sentient plant called Stevland. Great characters and worldbuilding and a narrative that enables Burke to tell different kinds of story. There’s even a murder mystery. I loved it.

I also re-read one of my old favourites A Closed and Common Orbit, the second in Becky Chamber’s Wayfarers series.

The cover of Nalo Hopkinson's collection, Falling in Love with Homonids. It shows a picture of a woman with thick black hair floating above her head.

Another really good read was Nalo Hopkinson’s short story collection Falling in Love with Hominids (2015). Some of the stories are a little closer to horror than I tend to like these days, but I really enjoyed them. The stories, which bring together the modern world with Afro Caribbean folklore, are thought provoking and powerfully imaginative. Some of them have really stayed with me since reading the collection. Check her out if you like short stories by Neil Gaimen, Kelly Link and even Stephen King.

My hand holding a copy of the Mammoth Book of Time Travel SF. The cover if a picture of people looking at a time travel machine.

The only anthology I read this year was The Mammoth Book of Time Travel SF (2013) edited by Mike Ashley. I love a time travel story and most of the ones collected here are good, so I enjoyed it, although I did notice the lack of authorial diversity on offer. However, a few of the stories are absolutely superb and ‘Red Letter Day’ by Kathryn Kristine Rusch will haunt me forever!

I also read and enjoyed two works of high fantasy, although its very far from being my favourite genre. I found Babara Hambly’s Dragonsbane (1985) hugely enjoyable. Set in an alternative medieval Scotland, a witch called Jenny Waynest and her partner, John Avesin, a noted dragonslayer, are persuaded by a young man to go back to his kingdom and kill a dragon. Of course they find that there are far worse things than dragons! A cracking fantasy adventure with a middle-aged couple at its heart which manages to say something quite profound about women and power.

The other work of high fantasy (and the oldest book I read in this genre) was The Dancers of Arun (1979) which is the second in Elizabeth A Lynn’s Chronicles of Tornor trilogy. I didn’t like it as much as the first one, Watchtower. The characters weren’t as interesting to me and the protagonist has a relationship which is, how shall I put it? … extremely slashy! But like all Lynn’s work it’s so beautifully written that it just carries you along. I probably will read the third book.

Moving on to books that didn’t work so well for me, there was the final installment in Theodora Goss’s Athena Club trilogy, The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl (2019). I loved the first book and liked the second but I’m not sure how I feel about the third. I quite enjoyed reading it and, in a way, I think it’s the tightest of the trilogy. Alice is a delight of a character. However, there were issues, including an evil ancient Egyptian woman (did we need this really?), a weird valorisation of the British empire (why?) and a painfully clunky romance between the protagonist and Sherlock Holmes. I’m sorry, but if you want to involve Sherlock Holmes in a heterosexual romance you need to do a LOT of work to develop that and make it work, not just throw it in with hardly a conversation between the characters and hope for the best. Overall, I found it a rather disappointing end to a trilogy that started out with a lot of potential.

A copy of Melmoth by Sarah Perry lying on a table. It has a black cover with a gold embossed pattern.

Then there were two books which might have disappointed me more because they couldn’t possibly live up to the hype than anything else! I found Sandra Newman’s The Heavens (2019) enjoyable to read in the sense that it was very clever and had glittering prose, but it felt like more style than substance to me. Although the modern part of the story had some moving and powerful moments, the Tudor bits never really worked for me and got increasingly messy as it went on. Melmoth (2018) by Sarah Perry also rather disappointed me. It’s very well-written, but it just had this tone of “I am using genre fiction in a clever way to convey very imporant points about history”. I felt like I was being thumped around the head. Both left me rather cold. It seems odd to be putting such lauded books on my ‘disappointing’ pile but there you go.

An ereader showing the cover of A Memory Called Empire. It shows a figure approaching an enormous spiked throne.

Finally, I’m sad to say that I did not enjoy Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire (2019). I was looking forward to this book. An ambassador getting involved in intrigue on an alien world sounds like just my kind of thing. Great ideas, but personally I found the characters and the world increasingly dull as it progressed.The only character I liked was dead for most of the story. I slogged all the way to the end and it felt like a very long haul for not much reward. Everyone else seemed to LOVE it though, so don’t let me put you off. Perhaps I’m just missing something with this one.

So overall, a mixed bag for science fiction and fantasy in 2020. Looking forward to more dragons, space ships, aliens and rogue cyborgs in 2021.

Winter Solstice reading

Nina Macloughlin’s absolutely gorgeous series of columns in the Paris Review: Inhale the Darkness, The Shadows before the Shadows, In Winter we Get Inside Each Other, Burn Something Today.

Anita Sethi, Dispatches from Darkness and Light

Phillip Metres, Solstice Prayer (excerpt, but the poet has kindly shared the rest on twitter)

A Solstice story from Nicola Griffith, Cold Wind