September 2012

Books read this month:

  1. Boneshaker. Cherie Priest.
  2. Till We Have Faces. C. S. Lewis.
  3. The Otherworld according to descriptions in medieval literature. Howard R. Patch.
  4. The King of Attolia. Megan Whalen Turner.
  5. Reaching Out. Henri J. M. Nouwen.

Best new read: Till We Have Faces
Best (only) reread: The King of Attolia
Best non-fiction: Reaching Out

I feel like I read more than five books this month, but apparently not? Hm.

Rereading books

I recently finished rereading The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner, and because it is the third in a (fantastic!) series, I will not review it, lest I give away spoilers. (Even if Megan Whalen Turner says that the first book of the series spoils this one. But I think that you can’t read the second book without having read the first, and The King of Attolia spoils the second novel, so… The first book is The Thief. Go read it.) But a book post is due nonetheless, as it is Sunday.

According to my fellow writer and friend Hanna, you can learn a lot about a person by the books they read, and you can learn everything about a person by the books they reread. I for one reread a lot of books, so I will not list them all, but here are a few books I’ve reread over the years (in no particular order):

  1. The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner *
  2. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin *
  3. The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
  4. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
  5. The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
  6. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  7. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  8. Dune by Frank Herbert
  9. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
  10. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
  11. The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
  12. Sir Orfeo edited by A. J. Bliss

* these are the books that I have read annually for the past four years or so…

Supposedly this tells you all you need to know about me.

Favourite things

‘The’ heron:

‘The’ local heron is difficult to take a photo of: this particular picture is from a couple of years ago when I happened to have my camera with me while walking along the Kinnessburn. (‘The’ in inverted commas because there are actually three herons, but one usually only sees one at a time. And despite seeing three herons flying together, I’m still somewhat skeptical that all three live here year-round…) But seeing the heron always makes me smile, especially now that I’ve been seeing it more frequently recently…


Lola and I had observed several Polish people in the parks in Warsaw gathering chestnuts. Curious, and feeling adventurous, we decided to experiment.

So I climbed a tree, shaking a couple of the branches to rain down chestnuts to the ground, where Lola gathered them up.


Later, we looked up how to roast them. When Lola pulled them out of the oven, I set to peeling them. Then popped one of them into my mouth… and spat it out again. They were incredibly bitter. We decided that maybe roasting chestnuts wasn’t for us after all…

(More about Poland when I’m back in Scotland and have uploaded my own photos, instead of cheekily using Lola’s!)

Till We Have Faces

Opening line: ‘I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of the gods.’

Orual is the eldest daughter of the King of Glome, a small country somewhere in the Mediterranean. In this complaint against the gods, she writes how the gods have wronged her by stealing away the most beautiful, most beloved thing she had in the world: her youngest sister Istra, also called Psyche. Orual recounts the history of Glome and her place in it. In the process of telling her story, Orual discovers that the past isn’t quite what she thought it was, and that the gods can speak for themselves.

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C. S. Lewis is a retelling of the Cupid & Psyche myth. I knew as much when I began reading it; even so, I was taken by surprise that the central character was not Psyche herself, but one of her sisters. I was fascinated by how a myth I knew so well was retold in an interesting, fresh new way. This is one of those novels that, without you realising it, grips you and keeps you reading. Not necessarily because you want to find out what happens next, but because you care about the characters. This is, perhaps, the best fiction I have read by Lewis. It had been on my radar for several years now and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.

Favourite things

Behind Sallies:

I don’t know what to call this part of St Salvator’s College. It isn’t the quad. It is behind the college, where graduation garden parties are sometimes held, and the rest of the year is more or less forgotten. It is quiet, green, and one of my favourite places to go sit in the sunshine. I’ve often come here for lunch breaks from the museum, being ideally located just across the street and yet behind a wall so I don’t feel like I am eating lunch in the shadow of work. Morning and early afternoon are the best times to sit on this particular bench, to take advantage of the sunshine. (This picture was taken later.)


The Fairy Queen points out five roads to the Otherworld in Thomas of Erceldoune: heaven, paradise, purgatory, hell, and ‘ȝone es my awenne’. She gives no name for her country, but in Sir Orfeo it is once referred to as ‘lond off fairi’. What then do I call it in my chapter on Otherworlds, including the fairy otherworld?

Not ‘Fairyland’. That sounds like a playhouse sold by Mattel or Disney. ‘Land of Fairy’ is cumbersome and will rack up my wordcount. I had originally thought to call the place simply ‘Fairy’; yet to do so risks confusion between Fairy the concept and Fairy the place. There needs to be a technical reason for whichever term I choose, because I am writing an academic thesis, not a popular nonfiction book.

Do not suggest I use ‘Avalon’, for part of this chapter will determine whether Avalon functions as a type of fairy otherworld in the first place.

So I turn to the Middle English Dictionary. It offers ‘The country or home of supernatural or legendary creatures; also, a land of such creatures’ as the first definition for ‘fairie’ and its variants, but now, then, which spelling to choose?

Just a sampling of the thoughts that pass through this PhD student’s mind…


Opening line: ‘Unpaved, uneven trails pretended to be roads; they tied the nation’s coasts together like laces holding a boot, binding it with crossed strings and crossed fingers.’

Driven by rumours of gold in the Klondike, prospectors stream to the Pacific Northwest, stopping in Seattle on their way north. Russian prospectors commission the inventor and scientist to build for them a great drilling machine. But on its first run, Leviticus Blue’s Boneshaker machine destroys most of downtown Seattle and releases a subterranean gas that turns all who breathe it into the living dead. The city is quarantined, surrounded by a great wall that keeps the Blight and the undead inside, and the living out. Blue’s widow and son escape, living a hard life on the Outskirts. When he is a teenager, Ezekiel resolves to clear his father’s name on a quest that takes him into the heart of Blight-stricken Seattle. His mother goes after him; once inside, both Briar and Ezekiel find that there is more in Seattle than the Blight gas and its victims…

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest is a steampunk alternate history science-fiction novel about zombies. It is the second steampunk novel I have attempted to read (the first being Heart of Iron by Ekaterina Sedia, which I chose not to finish for writing style reasons). I’m not entirely convinced that steampunk works well in the written form — for visual modes of storytelling it’s a lot of fun, but, for me at least, it was less so in a book. Even so, if you want a light-hearted read about zombies, pirates, historical conceits, then this would be a good book for you.

Has anyone read other steampunk fiction? What would you recommend?

O, wailey wailey wailey!

Alas, and weylawey! Ros has left for her new life in Liverpool, leaving me housemateless until my new housemate arrives next week. Though I’ve already found a few things she (inevitably) left behind, the house is bereft of her presence. I’ve since bought a radio and a toaster to replace those which were hers. Now to motivate myself to clean the house and do other Life Admin things because it is Autumn and the Start of Term, and I’d like to start the next academic year with my life more or less in ‘order’.

But oh! Ros is gone! No more breakfast chats and domestics over the proper way to take the bin out to the road, no more dancing around each other in the kitchen and laughing at the radio presenters, no more listening to Ros practice the cello whilst I read downstairs or write away the dark nights of November. It will be quiet without Ros’s soprano filling its rooms and halls. This house, with the two of us in it for the last two years, has been our home, and it is strange to think she will not be coming back tonight or in a few days.

Instead a new person will be moving in, who is nice and I’m sure we’ll get along. New memories will be made in this quirky house with red carpet and a yellow kitchen…