Sunday, 31 October 2021

Comical Observations

 

What a lovely week! Thank you to my gorgeous friends Vikki & Dai for my hand-knitted hat to help me survive the British winter. It is much appreciated and very necessary! And to my lovely friend Audrey Haney for sending a copy of her recently published poetry collection. You can grab your copy by contacting her through Audrey's Poetry group on Facebook. If you run an indie bookshop, please do give her a boost and stock up. Thanks!

Tuesday, 26 October 2021

The English Monster

It is annoying when publishers don't release a high-quality large cover image for people to use on their blogs. Anyway, I liked the cover of this one, felt a bit Rivers of London:

In the east end of Regency London, two families lie butchered. Residents of the notorious Ratcliffe Highway, the victims bear the mark of unprecedented brutality.

Panic sweeps the country as its public cries for justice. But these murders stem from an older horror, its source a sea voyage two centuries old. In a ship owned by Queen Elizabeth herself, a young man embarks on England's first venture into a new trade: human souls.

As a nation's sins ripen and bloom, to be harvested in a bloody frenzy on the twisted streets of Regency Wapping, an English Monster is born. 

This one was very atmospheric, a lot of detailed description of places and people that helped bring it to life. A nice, mysterious start. Though my head just wasn't quite in the right place for this. I think it was because I was so busy packing for the UK and listening to it in between Clockwork Angel, which had all of my attention. I lost the thread a little. There was a sort of supernatural element to it, with a man who didn't age, but also very realistic elements as well. There was an interesting character called l'Olonnais, who was a French pirate. Someone who didn't make an appearance on Black Sails, but who sounds as though he probably should have done.

There was also mention of The Mysteries of Udolpho in there, Ann Radcliffe... when the book is about the Ratcliffe Highway murders... probably over-thinking that a little too much.

Like all nods between Englishmen, this one carries an enormity of meaning. "We are sailing in uncharted waters," it says.

I have to say, it is rare that I fail to follow the plot of a story. I think I just wasn't paying full attention. The introduction of the supernatural to what was otherwise a realistic murder, based on true events, threw me a little. It felt like two different genres that didn't sit entirely easy with one another. 

There was also mention of the Zong, a notorious slave ship where many of the people being transported were thrown overboard and drowned as part of an insurance scam. This felt a bit thrown in there without much explanation of why the ship was so infamous. I first learned about this through Laura Shepherd-Robinson's period crime novel Blood & Sugar. I feel that novel really brought the horror of it to the forefront and built a solid whodunnit around those events, whereas this threw in a lot of references without them being central to the story.

So, this was descriptive and atmospheric, but could have picked up the pace a little. But, again, that could also just have been me, listening whilst packing and doing other things.

Monday, 25 October 2021

Jordan Persegati

 

I am really liking  Jordan Persegati's take on life. There was something a little Salad Fingers about his voice at the beginning of this. He also does his own creepypasta short stories with artwork.

 

 


Tuesday, 12 October 2021

The Infernal Devices #1 - Clockwork Angel


Oooh, yes, yes, yes.

Love is the most dangerous magic of all....

Something terrifying is waiting for Tessa Gray in London's Downworld, where vampires, warlocks and other supernatural folk stalk the gaslit streets. Tessa seeks refuge with the Shadowhunters, a band of warriors dedicated to ridding the world of demons. Tessa finds herself fascinated by and torn between two best friends....

First in the best-selling prequel series to The Mortal Instruments, set in Victorian London.

Bought this on a whim. I occasionally get this mad fantasy itch and go hunting for something to scratch it. I'm exceedingly picky and haven't had much luck lately, but this one was delightful. Ticked all the boxes. Something almost Diana Wynne Jones-esque about it, with the kick-ass female character, the moody, broody Welsh arsehole of a magical male lead, and the detailed fantastical world in which they live. I guess DWJ meets Rivers of London. Very enjoyable, and choosing between Will and Jem is impossible. 

There's a lovely lick of steampunk in there, with an army of demonic automatons and, of course, the titular clockwork angel. 

I also loved that each chapter started with a homage to some of the greatest gothic and classic verse. Rossetti's Goblin Market was in there, Byron, Wilde, Kipling and Tennyson. It was joyous. A chocolate box of fancies. You can find a full list here.

It's not a long life, killing demons; one tends to die young, and then they burn your body - dust to dust, in the literal sense. And then we vanish into the shadows of history, nary a mark on the page of a mundane book to remind the world that once we existed at all.

*

"Nice place to live, isn't it? Let's hope they left something behind other than filth. Forwarding addresses, a few severed limbs, a prostitute or two..."

"Indeed. Perhaps, if we're fortunate, we can still catch syphilis."

*
"Almost the first thing I realized when I came here was that my father never thought of himself as British, not the way an Englishman would. Real Englishmen are British first, and gentlemen second. Whatever else it is they might be—a doctor, a magistrate or landowner—comes third. For Shadowhunters it’s different. We are Nephilim, first and foremost, and only after that do we make a nod to whatever country we might have been born and bred in. And as for third, there is no third. We are only ever Shadowhunters. When other Nephilim look at me, they see only a Shadowhunter. Not like mundanes, who look at me and see a boy who is not entirely foreign but not quite like them either."

*

"They have all kinds of odd magic and things in Wales, you know."

(I think this formed the Howl connection for me).

Warlocks in this are known as 'Lilith’s Children,' which has been an interesting part about my research for Sargon. The name Lilith comes from the word lil in Sumerian, lilu (m)/lilitu (f) in Akkadian. They are spirits of the unburied deceased. They can also appear in child form, Sumerian kiskil lila, Akkadian ardat-lili, and rank among the type of demons that need to be banished. (Thanks to Leif Inselmann for that information). So, the thing about warlocks and procreation makes sense, as the Children of Lilith are dead anyway. 

The only thing that gave me pause was the pronunciation of Boudicca/Boadicea throughout the book. In the UK, she's commonly pronounced Boudicca (boo-dika) or, for the Romanisation, Boadicea (bow-da-see-a). The latter is usually among the older generation, I think? There has been a shift towards Boudicca over the years. However, the book narration keeps referring to her as bowa-da-see-a, which I'd never heard before. 


(click to enlarge)


So, according to the phonetics it is a legitimate pronunciation, though it's not one I'd ever heard before. It makes sense when the American character says it that way, but it's much more common to drop the (ɘ) in British English or use the modern pronunciation, Boudicca. I suppose they kept the pronunciation the same throughout so as not to confuse listeners too much, but as the American character learns about Boadicea from an English character, it might have been better to go with a more common British pronunciation. 

I realise I'm over-thinking this. Either way, Boadicea /Boudicca wins the prize for the most confusing name in history, and the narration of the audiobook was absolutely excellent. 

Highly recommend. I very rarely get into a series, but I downloaded the second one of these before I'd even finished the first.

Monday, 11 October 2021

The Tale of Genji - Vol I



Okay, well... this isn't the review I was hoping to write about the world's first novel. But, what good is a review if it isn't honest?

Murasaki Shikibu, born into the middle ranks of the aristocracy during the Heian period (794-1185 CE), wrote The Tale of Genji, widely considered the world's first novel, during the early years of the 11th century. Expansive, compelling, and sophisticated in its representation of ethical concerns and aesthetic ideals, Murasaki's tale came to occupy a central place in Japan's remarkable history of artistic achievement and is now recognized as a masterpiece of world literature.

The Tale of Genji is presented here in a flowing new translation for contemporary listeners, who will discover in its depiction of the culture of the imperial court the rich complexity of human experience that simultaneously resonates with and challenges their own. Washburn embeds annotations for accessibility and clarity and renders the poetry into triplets to create prosodic analogues of the original.

 

It was translated by Dennis Washburn and wonderfully narrated by Brian Nishii, and first and foremost I am exceedingly grateful for the opportunity to access such a historic work in English.

That said, it was singularly the most boring book I have ever read. Forty years on the planet, at least 29 of those as an avid reader, and I have never encountered something outside of a maths textbook that sent me to sleep so quickly.

And I really didn't want it to be that way. The first novel ever written, and by a woman - I was very excited to read it. But, at the same time, it does provide an interesting insight into the evolution of written storytelling. The Tale of Genji is a masterclass in what not to do in the modern age. It is almost entirely tell, don't show. We are told that characters (especially women) are inelegant, unsophisticated, deficient in some way - we are rarely afforded any insight into their private thoughts or their subtle mannerisms, and there is no subtext in the prose or dialect. It is very bluntly 'what you see is what you get.'

It is also possibly one of the longest works in existence. Volume one is 35.5 hours long, and volume two is 37 hours long. I thought Bill Homewood deserved a medal for narrating 68 hours of Les Miserables, but Brian Nishii probably deserves a lifetime achievement award. It even beats War and Peace.

Unlike Les Mis, absolutely nothing seems to happen in Genji. It is purely a litany of his romantic conquests, more than a few that are not only distasteful by today's standards, but also shocked other characters in the story at that time: abducting a child from her father to raise her as his wife, making sexual advances on his own daughter, and climbing through windows to persuade women to have sex with him in the middle of the night. Genji is entirely self-obsessed and uses his privilege and good looks to 'seduce' (mostly coerce) women into sex. He's not a loveable rogue, there's nothing picaresque about him, he is just utterly unlikeable - for 35 straight hours. I don't know about the rest because I haven't listened to it. I think I need a couple of years' break before I tackle volume two.

It is worth pointing out that, as a story, it's dreadful, but as a piece of historical documentation about the customs and culture of the time, it is intriguing. So, a distinction should really be made between its entertainment value and its historical worth.


Google banner from Japan celebrating 1,000
years since The Tale of Genji. 
1 November 2008

One of the interesting historical points came quite early on, where it spoke of young boys receiving their first pair of trousers:

When the young prince turned three, the court observed the ceremony of the donning of his first trousers.

This was called 'breeching' in Europe and America:

Breeching was the occasion when a small boy was first dressed in breeches or trousers. From the mid-16th century until the late 19th or early 20th century, young boys in the Western world were unbreeched and wore gowns or dresses until an age that varied between two and eight... Breeching was an important rite of passage in the life of a boy, looked forward to with much excitement, and often celebrated with a small party. It often marked the point at which the father became more involved with the raising of a boy. - Wiki

Interesting that a custom from 1,000 years ago in China was also popular 500 years ago in Europe. The reasons cited are practical, for potty training.

Something else that piqued my interest was the mention of sea tangle, a type of seaweed that I discovered here in Rwanda a year or two ago. 



As I mention in the video, I think the most intriguing aspect of the book is why Murasaki Shikibu, if she was indeed a real person and a woman, chose to write such a misogynistic, unlikeable character, and why that proved so popular at the time?

My key theory is that the book is supposed to be read as a satire, not as straight fiction. If you consider that women of the age were not often formally educated, and if they were, they weren't supposed to flaunt it, then holding up a mirror to male society and saying 'aha, we know what you get up to,' would have been quite shocking. Perhaps it made the women laugh and provided men with a checklist of bad behaviour to make themselves feel better: 'yes, I might be a rogue, but I haven't done half the things Genji has.'

And I know it sounds hypocritical of me to berate a character for doing 'whatever he likes to whoever he likes,' especially after Rosy Hours, but I like to think that was at least entertaining? Not too predictable? A little subversive? Genji is more like what would happen if you took all the murder and mayhem out of American Psycho and just left the Phil Collins passages. 

I don't know. I can't quite figure it out. 

If you have any ideas, do drop a comment.

I'm really glad I have access to this and was afforded the opportunity to read it. Like I say, the translation and narration are excellent. I'm just mystified by the work itself. Especially when you take the poetry of ancient Mesopotamia from around 4,000 years ago, where women are liberated as fuck in fiction, constantly talking about their vulvas and wrapping male gods around their little fingers. It just seems odd that there's no real adventure or story behind it - other than sexual conquest. At least with the Mesopotamians you got sexual conquest, journeys to the underworld, devastating floods, islands where no one grows old... rich fantasy. There's a couple of demonic spirits in this who cause sickness, death and mental illness, but they're few and far between. Mostly, it's just Genji trying to get off with his daughter or anyone else in a skirt. 

Enough now. I think you get the gist. I'd love to hear from anyone who really liked it, and what they liked about it. I'm trying to view it from different angles to see if there's something I've missed.

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Interview: William Bracewell

 

My incredibly talented, down-to-earth and exceedingly Welsh cousin, Billy, talking about his career in ballet. If you ever get the chance to see him dance live, please do.