Thursday, 14 July 2016

Winter is coming ... to the beach

Every year, at around about this time, I take a number of books off shelves and stack them in a corner of the flat.

Then, over the following period, they are shuffled, increased one day and decreased the next, as I debate whether or not this is the right selection for holiday reading and whether there are enough books or too many.

Every year, I am told by people that I should get a Kindle. Every year, I explain that:

I do not actually like reading books on a tablet;

if I drop a book on a damp beach, the damage will never be greater than a single lost book;

I distrust The Cloud and continue to prefer to actually have my ‘stuff’ under my control and my control alone.

The first part of this usually occurs a month or so before a trip. This time around, it has been just a few days – which possibly suggests how welcome the trip itself is going to be.

And while there is therefore little adjustment time, the pile itself reveals a considerable jolt in my reading habits over the last eight months or so.

Back in ancient times – okay, the end of the 1970s and beginning of the following decade – I ‘discovered’ horror and fantasy fiction.

In the case of the former, it was largely Stephen King and, in the latter, Tolkien and, a few years later, Terry Pratchett.

I read Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant novels avidly, plus works by William Horwood.

But then, Sir Terry apart, I drifted away from fantasy because it all really rather seemed to be largely inferior Lord of the Rings. This is possibly the point at which to state that, for vaguely complicated reasons, in my mid-twenties I did a series of commissioned illustrations of places from Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit for a hotel owner in Torquay who just happened to be called Tolkien and was a nephew of JRR.

Unfortunately (or not – I don’t recall them being stunning, and they took me an age) I have no record of them. Hey ho.

Be mother to your own Funko Pop dragon
Late last year, it seemed the time to pick up LoTR once more. Reading the first part again, I found myself thinking that Frodo is still wet and irritating, but I also enjoyed the poetic stuff much more, including Tom Bombadil.

And I moved from that to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy – works I’d been promising myself I should read for some years.

Thus far, I’ve only read the first book, Titus Groan: I didn’t find it a quick read, but it is a stunning one, and it reawakened by interest in fantasy. Surely there had to be works out there that didn’t just slavishly echo Tolkien’s formula?

One of the first books I found was Neil Gaiman’s American Gods – a sure fire hit given my predilection for Norse mythology (I have also been reading more extensively than before this year).

Half a dozen of the Sandman graphic novels sit on my shelves and there is also Dark Omens, a copy of the novel he co-wrote with Sir Terry years ago, but I had not dipped into any of his own novels.

Sure enough, I loved American Gods. I love Gaiman’s version of Odin and all the other gods from around the world that he brings to life.

The Other Half read and enjoyed it too, so his Anansi Boys is going with us on holiday.

The discovery of the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks has opened up a wonderful variety of works, including Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, which is a slow burner, but draws you inexorably under its spell.

What is not a slow burner, however, is George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones – the first book in a series that seems to have spawned a little TV show.

Now I haven’t even watched a trailer for the TV version, but the first 800-page volume utterly gripped me.

This is masterful storytelling – not least given the number of threads that Martin develops at the same time and his ability to ensure that the reader never becomes confused or loses track of what’s going on and who is who.
... or your own direwolf

I still haven’t watched any of the TV version, but I am now aware of the look of it and the actors playing the main characters – and also some of the collectibles that are available. It is, as you may gather, my new favourite thing (just in time to be able to join in with all the comparisons between the stories and the state of British politics) .

The second book was the first thing into this year’s book pile – followed a short while later by the third – or to be strictly accurate, part one of the third instalment.

TH White’s The Once and Future King – his series of novels about King Arthur, including The Sword in the Stone – makes the pile: another that The Other Half is also likely to indulge in. I’ve spent years thinking that I should read some version of Arthurian legend and the time has come.

After a recommendation from a delightful Polish barista in a local coffee shop, I have just been reading – and thoroughly enjoying – The Last Wish, a collection of short stories featuring Geralt, the witcher of Rivia, by Andrzej Sapkowski.

Blood of Elves, the first full novel, is already waiting on the shelf, but that is for another time.

For a change of flavour, the holiday fantasy is joined by two Maigret novels and one collection of three modern Italian crime fiction novellas.

But I already know that, as we head south on Friday, it will be A Clash of Kings that will be the first tome to be opened. I can hardly wait.

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