Monday 27 June 2022

Dangerous Dimensions ed. by Henry Bartholomew

From time to time the British Library send me these wonderful collections of weird short stories for review and I feel so grateful as they're always enjoyable and fun and I get such a thrill when a new one arrives. This one is Dangerous Dimensions: Mind Bending Tales of the Mathematical Weird edited by Henry Bartholomew.

This is a collection of 12 stories written by 11 different authors. From the blurb on the cover:

'... early weird fiction probes the very boundaries of reality - the laws and limits of time, space and matter. 

Now I don't claim to understand this sort of thing, I suppose it's the territory of physicists and mathematicians and those in possession of far more brain cells than me. So this collection was a bit of a challenge for me in places but hey-ho, I'm nothing if not a Game Old Bird.

So these are the stories in this anthology:

1. The Plattner Story - H.G. Wells. I do love a good Wells short story and this one tells of a man whose organs are on the opposite side of his body to that which they should be. He wasn't born like that so how did that happen? Beautifully written as you would expect and reminds me that I really must get around to a reread of The War of the Worlds.

2. The Hall Bedroom - Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman. A woman in reduced circumstances takes in boarders in order to make a living. She puts one of them in the hall bedroom and what happens when he wakes in the middle of the night and finds his room is much bigger than it should be is the basis of this story. Good one. I've got a whole volume of this author's work from the British Library publishers and look forward to reading it.

3. Space -  John Buchan. Not an author one normally associates with weird fiction but this story that asks the question, 'What if the space all around us is full of things we cannot see'? illustrates that no matter which genre an author generally belongs to he or she is usually quite capable of writing something else entirely. This was quite creepy and really rather good. 

4. A Victim of Higher Space - Algernon Blackwood. This is a John Silence story, Blackwood's psychic detective, and recounts the story of a man trapped in the 4th. dimension and how Silence tries to save him.

5. The Pikestaffe Case - Algernon Blackwood. Miss Speke, an ex-governess, takes in lodgers. One of the men she takes in is a higher mathematician and she thinks he will fit nicely with the clergyman and bank official she already has staying. (We all can guess where this is going.) Said mathematician takes a dislike to a full length mirror in the room, constantly turning it to the wall. He orders all kinds of books and large amounts of supplies but when she checks his room Miss Speke can find no sign of them. Slowly the new lodger starts to fill her with dread... This was one of my favourite stories in the book. Blackwood is so good at creating menacing atmospheres and I've long been a big fan of his writing.

6. The Hounds of Tindalos - Frank Belknap Long. This is apparently one of the first Cthulhu Mythos stories 'not' written by H.P. Lovecraft and tells of a mystic/ascetic type who takes a new drug that he thinks will take him back in time. But how far?

7. The Trap - H.P. Lovecraft and Henry Whitehead. This is another 'old mirror' story (who doesn't love one of those?) A teacher in a boy's school has one and an inquisitive boy touches it with his finger and the finger is pulled in and disappears. Naturally, said boy can't resist coming back on the quiet... Very good yarn.

8. The Living Equation - Nat Schachner. A (mad) scientist builds a machine intended to create new mathematical equations. Naturally a burglar breaks in and inadvertantly sets it off. I liked the idea of this one but found it a bit over complicated to read.

9. Infinity Zero - Donald Wandrei. This 'end of the world' type story has a world war raging. A chemical lab is hit by an unusual bomb which I've noticed is never a Good Thing. Scary premise, well written and thought provoking. Make that 'very' scary...

10. The Library of Babel - Jorge Luis Borges. I think this was about a library and its potential for weirdness but it lost me a page or two in. I wrote, 'No clue' in my notebook, so make of that what you will.

11.  And He Built a Crooked House - Robert Heinlein. How can I be a sci-fi and have to admit that I've read very little by one of the most famous writers in the genre. And what a mistake that is as this was an excellent yarn about an architect who builds a house for someone with more money than sense. The architect builds it as an exploration of 'Hinton's tesseract'. (Don't assume I know what that is.) So er... 'things happen' when Hubby and the overbearing wife (loved her) go to view what's been built for them. Really great story this one.

12. Slips Take Over - Miriam Allen deFord. Chap walks into a bar for a drink and someone in the bar tells him that he can see that he's just inadvertantly slipped over from another dimension. This is news to the first chap who begs to differ but is he right? The idea behind this creeped me right out and this was another favourite in the collection. 

So the stories in this collection were  originally published between 1896 and 1964. Every single one of them was superbly and intelligently written - OK, sometimes 'too' intelligently - and I do often wonder whether sometimes I love the style of writing as much, if not more, than the tale being recounted. I love immersing myself in a story whose language sucks me in and allows me to wallow in the author's brilliant way with words. Because, to be honest, this is a solid anthology rather than an excellent one. 'But' every story is worth a read (OK, I'm not so sure about The Library of Babel) and some of them were just terrific.

I have quite a few more of these weird story anthologies to read and review including a Christmas one and a Cornish one. This make me very happy. 

Wednesday 22 June 2022

Into the Tangled Bank by Lev Parikian

This is my 3rd. book for the 20 Books of Summer '22 which is being hosted by 746 Books. I've had it on my tbr pile a couple of years now and it seemed like a good book for the summer reading challenge.

Lev Parikian sets out to discover what us Brits really mean when we say we love nature. Are we serious ramblers and campers, donning all the kit, grabbing the Kendal Mint Cake and marching off for days into the Scottish Highlands (and ending up having to be rescued by the Mountain Rescue people - sorry, me being cynical)? Do we just like a stroll along the coast, around a National Trust property or a local park? Or do we just love sitting in front of the telly watching David Attenborough commune with gorillas or the Spring Watch people having a jolly time? 

It's a very interesting question. The author begins his investigations in his own home:

'Whether we like it or not, we share our homes with other species: dust mites lurking in our mattresses; silver fish feeding off food scraps and scuttling off behind the skirting board; fruit flies, appearing as if from nowhere at the first sign of a half-mushy banana; daddy-longlegs, flapping about melodramatically near light bulbs; house flies, buzzing around aimlessly and failing to go out through the window you've pointedly opened for just such a purpose..,' 

As he points out,we're fascinated by all manner of creepy crawlies outdoors but find them indoors and we're not quite so enamoured. (My own particular aversion being house flies... although I'm not mad about spiders the size of your hand trotting indoors in September either.)

The garden is his next port of call, followed by his 'local patch'. Lev was a keen birder in his teens, then life happened, as it tends to, but now in his 40s he has returned to the hobby with renewed interest. Birders tend to have a 'local patch' where they do the majority of their bird watching and his is Norwood Park. But he also investigates other local patches, in one case, Gilbert White's in Hampshire. It's somewhere I've always fancied and I'm even more determined now as the countryside around the house sounds wonderful. (It's not far from Jane Austen's house at Alton so here's me dreaming of killing two birds with one stone. Not sure that's a good comparison to make when reviewing a nature book...)

Chapter by chapter Parikian deals with subjects such as nature programmes on TV and does this raise our expectations too much when we actually go out to view nature? Nature in captivity, zoos, Slimbridge wildlife reserve and how Peter Scott brought that into being. How the RSPB began... it was started by women who weren't allowed into the mens' bird watching clubs so they started their own. He takes a trip to the Isle of Skye (envy, envy, envy) and to Skokholm off the coast of Wales.

What I was really taken with in this book is the humour. He describes in one chapter how he tries to draw the birds he sees (as birders are supposed to be able to do), in one case a heron, and it's hilarious. To be honest the writing is superb and the best bit about it is his very British turn of phrase. Wonderful dry humour and I chuckled all the way through. Some of the references might only be understood by Brits but I can't imagine anyone giving up because of that. 

The final chapter took quite a turn for the unusual as the author turns to astronomy. I'm still not quite sure why but it was fascinating. He visits the International Dark Sky Park in Northumberland - one the darkest places in Europe - and goes to Joderall Bank in Cheshire to view the moon and our part of the galaxy. He concludes:

'We are an impossibly tiny speck. And that's fine. And if it scares the bejeezus out of people, I happen to find it somehow reassuring. Because all these encounters - the butterfly on the flower, the eagle over the water, the light from a distant star and all the rest of it - represent the slotting-in of a tiny piece of our universe jigsaw. We'll never come close to finishing it, but nonetheless we persevere, constructing our own little corner of it in the hope that one day we'll be able to stand far enough away for some of it to make sense.' 

Wonderful. If you have any interest in nature, the UK countryside, human nature, birds, insects, history and so on and so on, try this book. It will certainly be one of my favourite non-fiction books of the year.

Monday 13 June 2022

A quick catch-up

So, it's almost mid-June and I've yet to post about any books, even though I've been happily reading away as usual. I have several unreviewed books so to catch up I'll do a quick chat about each of them.

First up, The Burning Issue of the Day by T.E. Kinsey.

Lady Hardcastle and her maid/companion, Flo, set out to help a young suffragette who has been arrested for arson. A young, male journalist was killed in the attack, the police think it's an open and shut case but the woman protests her innocence. The leader of the local suffrage group, Lady Bickle, engages the two female sleuths to find out who did the deed. Helping them is their foe from a previous book, the female journalist, Dinah Caudle. There's antagonism at first but the three settle eventually to helping the local constabulory solve the crime. If your bag is angsty murder mysteries full of gritty realism and violent death then this series is certainly not for you. I hesitate slightly to call them 'cozies' though. True, there's no blood and gore and they're very gentle mysteries. But there's intelligent social comment in every book, and often historical detail I wasn't aware of. For instance I didn't realise there was quite so much opposition to women getting the vote and that it was often led by women themselves. The other thing that raises this series is the wonderful banter, it's genuinely funny the way Lady H. and Flo speak to each other. So yes, the books are cozy, but there's a lot more to them than that and I really enjoy the series.

Next, my first book for the 20 Books of Summer challenge, Fur Babies in France by Jacqueline Lambert.

This is book 1 in the author's 'Adventure Caravanning with Dogs' series and relates how the author and her husband were both made reduntant from their jobs at the same time and had to re-evaluate their lives. Somehow they made a decision to sell up, buy a caravan and use it to tour Europe along with their four dogs. Jackie and Mark are both keen wind-surfers and generally quite out-doorsy types so that added to the attraction, the idea that they could park up near beaches and spend long weeks indulging in their favourite pastime. For their first expedition they decide on France and we follow them as first-time caravanners, complete novices learning how to cope with life towing a caravan and living on caravan sites. I enjoyed this very much. Jackie Lambert writes very well and doesn't skimp on the details of their various learning curves and disasters and she describes it all with a great deal of humour. There are four books so far, charting their trips to Germany and Romania and then the fourth book is about the pandemic. I have all of them as I bought them as a job-lot for my Kindle. I think I'm going to enjoy reading them.

Lastly: Beach Read by Emily Henry, which is my second book for the 20 Books of Summer.

Romance author, January Andrews, has been left a house near a beach somewhere on the shores of Lake Michigan. It's been left to her by her late father who died suddenly, and who she has discovered was living a double life, he had a girlfriend that he sometimes lived there with. January has a deadline for her next book but has writer's block and decides to go and live in her father's house. Next door lives Augustus 'Gus' Everett. January and Gus knew each other in grad school when they were both doing a writing class. She felt he had looked down on her romance genre because he was a writer of literary books. But now both of them have writer's block. So they decide to swap genres, Gus will write a romance novel and January will write a 'serious' literary book. That will work, won't it? So. This is a hugely popular book that I thought I would love and then didn't. I didn't hate it, not at all. It's well written, has a lot of humour and the setting on the lake was different. I think I just reached the end of my tether with the two main protaganists quite quickly. They annoyed me with their self-absorption, there was too much wallowing, too much non-communication. I wanted to yell, 'For PITY'S sake, get a grip!' So there you go, each to his own, lots of people loved this and I can see why, I just don't think it's aimed at Cynical Old Biddies like me. 

I hope your June reading is going well?

Friday 10 June 2022

A few jigsaw puzzles

As well as reading a lot, I tend to have a jigsaw puzzle on the go most of the time too. I prefer to do bigger ones, 3,000 pieces are my favourite, but I'm not fussy, I'll do any size but rarely less than 1,000. Here are a few I've done this year, starting with my latest.

This one is called Tiles of Barcelona, it's 3,000 pieces and because there's so much repetition was fairly tricky to be honest. Very much worth all the effort though. Would love to go to Barcelona to see the actual tiles.

This 1,500 piece puzzle was lent to me by my daughter. It's one of the prettiest I've done in ages. Very 'Miss Marple'. 

This one was 1,000 pieces, and a delight to do with all those lovely crafty bits and pieces.

Another 1,000 piece puzzle, one of a series called The Classical Collection of Light and I've managed to get hold of quite a few of them to do, mainly from ebay or my daughter. They're not easy to do but gorgeous when complete.

And finally, another 1,000 piece one (perhaps I do a lot more of that size than I realised) is this Where's Wally? puzzle, given to me by a dear friend. Not easy, as I'm sure you'll have guessed, and a bit bonkers, but great fun to do.

I am reading but am in the middle of two books so it'll be a few days before I'm ready to do another book post. But I hope you're all well and enjoying your June reading? I've started the 20 Books of Summer challenge, read one book and my current two are for that as well. Fun, fun!

Thursday 2 June 2022

Books read in May

So, May has come and gone and I've no idea what I've got to show for it apart from a load of digging in the veggie garden, a week away in Cornwall and my first ever Strictly Come Dancing live show. (As part of the audience, I wasn't on stage seductively dancing the Argentine Tango... ) So really, I suppose that's not a bad month. I also managed to read 9 books, (10 really but I finished book 10 yesterday so I'm counting that for June.) 

So these are the books:

42. The Search - Nora Roberts 

43. The West Country Winery - Lizzie Lovell 

44. Thursdays at Eight - Debbie Macomber 

45. Ghosts Among Us - James Van Praagh (very good)

46. Long Road to Mercy - David Baldacci 

47. Stans by Me - Ged Gillmore (OK)

48. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet - Becky Chambers 

49. Along the Med on a Bike Called Reggie - Andrew P. Sykes (very good)

50. Battles at Thrush Green - Miss Read (delightful)

Quite a variety there, strangely for me only 2 of them could be called crime stories, the Nora Roberts and the David Baldacci. I'm keeping nicely to my plan of reading at least one science-fiction book a month and last month's, the Becky Chambers, was really good. My non-fic tally was not bad at 3, and I pootled around the world quite widely: All the 'Stans' of Central Asia, from Greece to Portugal on a bike, I spent time in Washington State and California and even travelled into outer space. Not bad for one month. 

So now it's June and the start of The 20 Books of Summer challenge.

My list of 20 books is HERE.

And I've started with this non-fiction travel book by Jaqueline Lambert:

There are 4 books in the series and this is book 1, really enjoying it so far.

So, onwards into June. I hope you're all well and finding something good to read.