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Probably anyone who has ever done even the slightest amount of research has experienced those lovely moments of serendipity when you just happen upon the book you needed (even when you didn't know what it was). It seems to happen even more often with research into occult subjects.

I'm currently reading (slowly) The Magicians of the Golden Dawn: A Documentary History of a Magical Order 1887-1923 by Ellic Howe. The subtitle kind of gives it away -- it sounds like a thesis, and it is not the most exciting of reading experiences; but it does feel very factual, with dates pinned down and long quotations from letters written by the various major figures, so -- it is useful.

But looking for something more engagingly written on the same subject, I picked up my still-unread copy of The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats -- I bought it second-hand, most likely in a Half Price Books in Austin in the 1970s -- but it is one of those books (I have too many), bought on a whim, that I have carried around with me for decades without ever managing to read more than a random page or two. Today I thought I would just dip into it and see what Yeats wrote about his memories of the Golden Dawn. There is an index, but first I just opened it at random, somewhere near the middle -- the spine went *crack* -- oh, dear, it is well and truly broken now, between pages 226-227 -- and it was exactly what I needed to read, about one of the founders of the Golden Dawn, Macgregor Mathers, of whom Yeats wrote: "He like all that I have known, who have given themselves up to images, and to the speech of images, thought that when he had proved than an image could act independently of his mind, he had proved also that neither it, nor what it had spoken, had originated there."

The best thing I've read in the Howe book is from a letter written by Helen Rand to Annie Horniman on 10 October 1900, about a mysterious woman who called herself (among other names) Madame Horos. She was aged about 60, an American, and quite obese, although attractive. She "explained her great stoutness by saying she had absorbed Madame Blavatsky's spirit on the physical death of that lady and that had occasioned her swelling to such dimensions."

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I'm sitting here looking through old copies of "WiPlash" -- the monthly newsletter of Women in Publishing -- from the 1980s, a time when I was an active member (indeed, often typed up much of the newsletter) -- trying to prime my memory in preparation for oral history interviews next week, and I came across Elizabeth Jane Howard's "Desert Island Books" -- a feature I had forgotten about.

I doubt this has ever been published elsewhere, and it seems a pity for it to be forgotten, so I thought I'd share it here.

"When I was ten, had very limited pocket money and not enough to read, I bought long books. Doomed to a desert island, I think length would again become a serious consideration. There are a great many wonderful short, or shorter, works that I should hate to be without, but assuming rescue to be uncertain or hopeless, I think bulk is what I should go for.

I should take nothing but fiction so that there would be no shortage of company.

I'd chose Bleak House because I think it is one of the two best novels that Dickens wrote, and it is certainly the longest. Then (but these books are not in order of merit) I'd take The Charterhouse of Parma because it is my favourite Stendhal and from years of enjoyment I know it stands endless re-reading. On the bulk basis, I should take War and Peace but I'd probably choose Anna Karenina instead. Again, with George Eliot I ought to take Middlemarch, but I think I should fall for The Mill on the Floss because I love Maggie Tulliver so much.

I would take a collected edition of Shakespear because he would last me better than anybody. Apart from absolutely needing to have some poetry around, he would remind me not only of other peoples' but my own human nature; I should know what I had escaped from as well as what I was missing. I think, more than anyone else, he would stop me from feeling lonely.

I don't know whether there is a collected edition of Jane Austen - I do hope so - but if there isn't, I'd have to take Persuasion (often published with Northanger Abbey which is unfortunately not one of my favourite novels of Austen's.

Provided there was any notice of exile, I would call Carmen Callil and tell her that the least she could do to ameliorate my fate would be to publish at lightning speed a collected edition of Elizabeth Taylor's short stories, Hester Lilly, The Blush, The Devastating Boys -- the lot -- in one volume. I love and re-read all of Taylor's novels, but all the short stories would give me the spectrum of her classical genius.

Finally, and this would be a bit of a shot in the dark because I've only read them once, I think I would take Paul Scott's The Raj Quartet because I admire it, enjoyed its construction, love reading any novel set in India, and found its people interesting enough to spend more time with them."

(By Elizabeth Jane Howard; first appeared in undated, unnumbered issue of WiPlash -- from internal evidence published October/November 1984)

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I read 70 books this year, of which only a baker’s dozen were first published in 2014. Some I bought, some I got from the library, a few were sent me gratis. I used to review for The Times, now I don’t, and when the occasional review copy turns up – especially if it is a book I actually want to read – in these days of not-being-a-reviewer, I feel a little guilty, getting something for nothing.

So, although it is a little late, for what it’s worth, here’s my round-up of the ones the publishers sent me, and the others...which are all worth reading.

The ones I was sent:

ANNIHILATION and AUTHORITY by Jeff VanderMeer – The first two volumes of the “Southern Reach” trilogy (the 3rd now awaits my attention), they came with a certain amount of hype attached, which has a tendency to make me start reading with a critical chip on my shoulder....but that chip was soon knocked off. These have to be among the most interesting and memorable new novels of the year. I preferred the second to the first, which may be unusual. But I found a coolness to the tone of the first book made it interesting more than engaging, and somehow the all-female cast of the expedition in the first book did not convince me....I kept seeing them as men. It’s probably just me, because when I went back, there was never anything that seemed specifically masculine, and I liked the way the author avoided cliché and the usual feminine markers, but...I was forever reminding myself: “these are supposed to be women.” I might have a different take if I reread it, and I will say that these books strike me as being well worth re-reading. The 2nd volume is very different to the first – or so it seemed – yet it also carries on the story, adds to it, makes you reconsider both events and characters from the first – and I found myself much more interested in the main character of this one, and more engaged by the voice. Perhaps I shouldn’t even be writing about the two books without having read the third, but... they were, after all, published individually. I don’t know yet if they are really one very long book divided into three parts, or three quite short novels dealing with parts of a connected story. They are also, physically, quite desirable objects. They feel nice to hold, are beautifully designed; a good, clear, readable type-face, and nice packaging. Real books are not dead. Take that, e-books! (Published by Fourth Estate)

FUTURE PERFECT by Chris Evans and Roy Kettle – Times are strange indeed – and the future of publishing looks grim -- when a science fiction novel as clever, inventive and purely entertaining as this one by two previously professionally published authors was turned down often enough that the authors decided to publish it themselves. This book is likely to be read with special enjoyment by long-time fans of the genre (Chris and Roy are fans themselves), but the plot and ideas are intriguing enough to appeal to a much wider audience. It would even work as a movie. My only complaint is that it’s a little longer than it should have been. I admit, I tend to think most books published these days are too long, but once I was past the half-way point here I began to get impatient with some scenes that went on just a little too long, or needn’t have been included at all, as they began to frustrate my desire to get on with the story – to find out the answers behind the teasing and deliciously convoluted plot – without offering much in way of compensation. (Published by Pitchblende Books, ISBN 9780992879006 )

AN ENGLISH GHOST STORY by Kim Newman – I do love a good ghost story, and Kim Newman is such an original (and well-informed) writer, in whatever genre he tackles, that I expected something really special. It turned out to be a nicely atmospheric, engaging tale about a family going off the “start a new life” in an old house in the country – could there be a more traditional and clichéd opening to a haunted house story? But instead of being a horrible, spooky old place that will clearly be nothing but trouble (so you wonder why the characters could be so stupid), the property is one that anyone might fall in love with.... Drawing on history, literature and the lore of the land, the author combines fantasy and horror tropes, as dreams turn to nightmares. I had a few quibbles – when it came to those particular plot-challenges of our times, the mobile phone and the internet, I am sorry to report the hurdle was not cleared -- but Kim met the major challenge of writing exactly what he promises with the title – an original, yet classic, and very English, ghost story. (Published by Titan Books.)

THE RABBIT BACK LITERATURE SOCIETY by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen – I think this one was actually published near the end of 2013, but nobody seems to have noticed it then, and I first encountered it in 2014, so....I get to make the rules. And this is one book too good to miss. It is a Finnish novel (translated by Lola M. Rogers), a book about writers and readers and librarians, one for people who love reading, and one of the strangest and most unusual fantasies I’ve ever read. It is hard to know what to compare it to....I was reminded at times of Haruki Murakami, of Jonathan Carroll (especially The Land of Laughs) and Tove Jansson. If that sounds appealing at all, believe me, you will want to read this strange and unusual novel. (Published by Pushkin Press.)

The ones I bought myself:

A LOVELY WAY TO BURN by Louise Welsh – I’ve loved everything I have read by this author. In this one, although there is a crime story involved, the setting is during a near-future pandemic in Britain, so there’s also a strong dystopian element. It is absolutely gripping, I did not want to stop reading, and my only complaint is that I was forced to stop -- there’s no real conclusion, because this is the first of a projected trilogy.

THE PAYING GUESTS by Sarah Waters – Another favourite author, but I didn’t like it as well as some others. As expected, it is an absorbingly (almost suffocatingly) detailed narrative that convincingly evokes an earlier time in London.

HOW TO BE BOTH by Ali Smith – Beautiful written, rather tricksy tale of art and history, of the past and of modern life....but I’m still not sure what to say about it. I may need to read it again, and soon.

THE PERIPHERAL by William Gibson – Reminded me I should read more science fiction to exercise my brain. There is a lot to figure out in the first part of the book, and I had a bit of a struggle – but a most enjoyable one. Fortunately, it does get easier, and it was a lot of fun. Plot, action, adventure, ideas, plus good writing.

LIAR, TEMPTRESS, SOLDIER, SPY: FOUR WOMEN UNDERCOVER IN THE CIVIL WAR by Karen Abbott. See, I don’t spend all my time reading fiction. Although I must confess this one is “narrative history” written with all the suspense, energy and occasionally overheated prose style of a best-selling novel -- and fantastically exciting. It is well-researched, well-documented, abundantly foot-noted....but not all of it is true. The author explains her decision to incorporate as part of her story the otherwise undocumented, far-fetched or utterly unbelievable stories her subjects told about themselves, inserting doubts or counter-facts only in the notes at the end, rather than interrupting the flow of narrative. Usually, I think it works. But I did object to one thing she included like that – supposedly the diary of a prostitute, but almost certainly a modern fake. Since it was not connected to any of the four women who were her main subjects, I thought she should have left it out, instead of adding to the mess of made-up documents and conspiracy theory that swirls about in that period.

FIVE CHILDREN ON THE WESTERN FRONT by Kate Saunders – This might be my favourite book of the year. I am such a big fan of E. Nesbit and all her books – but especially the “Five Children” books – that when I heard about this one I was fascinated but also horrified in case Kate Saunders had got it all horribly wrong. But how could it be done right? Well – she did get it right. It is lovely and funny and warm and heart-breaking. I feel E. Nesbit must have been hovering over her shoulder.

The ones I got from the library:

KNIGHTLY AND SON by Rohan Gavin – A smart, deductive thirteen-year-old sets out to solve the mystery that left his detective father in a coma.... Not quite as clever as I had hoped, but it is, after all, a book for children.

THE ZIG ZAG GIRL by Elly Griffiths – Set in Brighton in 1950, involving a series of murders that seem to be connected to magicians, and specifically to a group who were brought together during the war to concoct illusions to fool the enemy.... A smart, clever, well-paced and unusual mystery.

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I've just read BRING THE JUBILEE by Ward Moore -- don't know why it took me so long to get around to this one, because I've always heard good things about it. Not sure when I acquired my copy, but it is an ancient British paperback ("First Four Square Edition November 1965" Price 3'6 but someone wrote 12p. on the cover in biro), so my best guess is I picked up at a jumble sale -- could have been at any time in the past 30 years.

I've often heard this book cited as one of the first/best Civil War alternate histories; I don't know how many of those were around when Ward Moore wrote it back in 1955 -- there are certainly loads of them around now. Understandably, as the American Civil War continues to be discussed, dissected, argued over and refought to this day.

Anyway, it surprised me. It was nothing like I expected. (I think the title made me think there would be lots of marching and battlefields.) It is set mostly in the 1930s-1940s in the defeated United States, a small, backward, impoverished and very racist country, and is a first-person account by a poor, bookish, very ordinary young man from the country -- mostly it is about how he stumbles towards maturity, falling into fraught, argumentative love-affairs with women who are far more ambitious and intelligent than he is (he knows it, too), until at last he settles down with a quiet, intuitive woman who adores him... although he still hardly knows what he wants to do with his life.

The theme of the book (I wouldn't exactly call it a moral, but it might be) seems to be that non-action is as powerful as action. Refusing to choose is also a choice; you can't opt out of life. Even trying to stand by and do nothing can have drastic consequences.

I did like the way the decisive moment that changes the outcome of the war was handled. It seemed as likely as what really happened, too, although I was less convinced by the resultant history as experienced not only by the defeated side, but the rest of the world. But it is a good read -- I'm glad I finally got around to it.

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Edith Olivier wrote a strange and wonderful short novel called "The Love Child" about the relationship between a young woman and the imaginary friend of her childhood who comes alive years later; it was reprinted by Virago in the 1980s, which is when I discovered it. She wrote some other books, none of which I'd ever read, until, just now, as I was going through my too-many volumes, I came across her memoirs, "Without Knowing Mr Walkley." I wasn't really sure why I had it, and thought I might get rid of it -- but of course I could not do that without having read it, so I began.

Right away, I came across something rather wonderful -- it reminded me of so many of my favourite children's books from the past, but it also made me wonder if any children today could possibly live like this. Bear in mind, she was one of 10 children and grew up in an English rectory in Wiltshire:

...the Rectory was, like all houses, far bigger for the children than for the grown-ups. Children use parts of the house which are hardly even seen by their elders. There were at Wilton Rectory long secret passages in the roof, which were entered from the attic through bolted doors. Here we stepped, in semi-darkness, from beam to beam, over spaces where lay a hollow plaster floor; and now and again we came upon a complicated barricade of interlacing roof supports which had to be got through somehow.....Then there were numbers of cupboards in the walls, in which we spent our afternoons when it was too wet to go out. In every house, an immense amount of space is lost to the grown-up people who never sit in cupboards.

But the best bit of the book, and obviously the reason I had to buy it in the first place, are the chapters called "Revenants of the Plain" and "Things Past Explaining." Not only was Edith Olivier related to the famous Miss Moberley (one of the "two ladies " who famously time-slipped at Versailles, and wrote about it in "An Adventure") but she had her own time-slip adventure at -- of all the wonderful places -- Avebury. She also had some other odd and interesting things happen to her, although I admit I did skim-read much of the book.

My copy is only an old "Reader's Union" reprint from 1939, so it doesn't have the lovely Rex Whistler title page of the original Faber edition. But even that one does not seem to be wanted; I notice that someone tried to sell their first edition on e-Bay last month -- 99pence as the opening bid, no reserve -- and did not get a single offer.

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I've had regular, paid book-reviewing slots in the past, but not now. But even though I informed the various publishers who had me on their lists for free review copies so they wouldn't waste money sending me books, I still get a few, from time to time. Some, I very much appreciate, because I can't afford to buy all the books I'd like to read, and neither can our local library service. Some are of no interest to me -- I wouldn't want to read them even if I was being paid -- so I recycle them as quickly as I can, hoping they'll find the readers they were meant for in the wider world beyond Torinturk.

A long time ago, I wrote quite a lot of reviews for free -- the book itself was payment enough. And when I was very young, even though I'd bought the book myself, writing reviews for fanzines was a way to get published and join in the wider conversation. I still like talking about books, sharing my opinions with others, but writing reviews gets harder and harder for me. I'm not even talking about serious criticism, just a few paragraphs. Whenever I have to do it, I agonize over every word. Part of this is to do with my awareness that the author will see what I've written -- and knowing how the slightest misunderstanding or negative remark can wound. So if I'm going to say something negative (and even sticking with books I've enjoyed reading, there's usually something that could be improved) I want it to be as accurate, substantiated, and yet as gentle as possible. But I am also thinking about potential readers, not just the author; I want to give them a clear idea of whether or not they might like this book. Is it worth their time and money? People don't all like the same things. I love making recommendations to my friends and to people who come into the library when I'm working there -- I can do that because I know something about their taste and interests, and what other books they like. I'm always suspicious of those books that supposedly "everyone" will love -- that's why I've never read "Captain Corelli's Mandolin", for one.

OK, all the above is me trying to work myself up to writing a couple of brief book reviews, in response to books I was sent for free by publishers and publicists....either that, or to justify why I will never write another review, anywhere, ever....

Which is it to be?

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Reading THE HAUNTED BOOK by Jeremy Dyson (try it, you'll like it) in which he mentions a book that had a powerful impact on him (or at least the narrator of the book, which may or may not be the same thing) -- HAUNTED BRITAIN by the wonderfully named Antony D. Hippisley Coxe -- sent me back to that very book, which also had a major impact on me, although I was rather older than Dyson at the time (and still am). I bought my copy in The Atlantis Bookshop on Museum Street in London during my first visit to that city in the late summer of 1976. I don't have my own (fading) memory to thank for my certainty about this; the book carries a small sticker on the inside cover with the logo and address of The Atlantis Bookshop. Do bookshops still do this? I love finding those unobtrusive reminders of where a book was originally purchased.

Anyway, I ADORED this book, which bears signs of much reading, including marks in yellow high-lighter -- that was me, making notes to myself for places I hoped to visit someday, if not during my first visit in 1976, then at some later date. My next visit to Britain was in 1979, before, during and after the Worldcon in Brighton. Just the other day, while trying (and failing) to clear out some of the clutter in my office, I came across an old notebook, dated August 1979, that I used on that trip. In the first few pages are notes I made before leaving home -- details of my flight numbers and times, addresses (that of The Atlantis Bookshop among them), lists of people I intended to buy presents for (for my sister "Baboon print or etching" -- I found it, too) -- and also lists of my fave haunted spots, culled from "Haunted Britain", that I thought I might visit, divided by location: three in London, three in Wales, and three in Scotland. I didn't actually make it to Scotland in 1979, but of course I have now been living here for the past 22 years. Here's my Scottish choice from back then:

Ashintully Castle -- N.E. of Kirkmichael in Angus - Most haunted house in Scotland [n.b. have still never been there!]
Dunbarre castle -- site on Barry Hill; Guinevere's tombstone in museum in Meigle [nope, nor there]
near Kilberry in Argyll -- the seat of the Cailleach "the hollow of the mare"

....and we have a winner. Amazingly, I ended up living on the Kilberry Road, less than 10 miles from "the hollow of the mare" -- which I probably drive past several times a year, at least -- but still haven't had any supernatural experiences. That I was aware of.

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Current Location: not far from Carse

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I've been thinking about ash trees a lot recently, for the obvious reason -- ash die-back crisis, possible extinction event looming.

There was an ash tree in the backyard of the house I lived in for about the first twelve years of my life, and because my parents bought the house as it was in the process of being built, I suspect the tree was about my own age. I always loved that tree -- it was the first tree I ever climbed, and the only tree big enough for me to climb in the general area. Other memories connected to it include a pinata hung from the lowest branch for a birthday party, and the way the leaves curled up as they died and fell, some of them becoming fragile brown rings that I would (briefly) wear on my fingers.

The memory of that tree was the reason I chose to plant an ash sapling in our back garden in Scotland the same winter that our daughter was born. I imagined it would be a good climbing tree for her...but in fact it remained quite small, with high slender branches, for far longer than I had expected, and she never did climb it. (She wasn't much of a tree-climber anyway.) Someone could, possibly, climb it now, but they would have to be a good bit more monkey-like than I am, and not weigh too much. Gazing out at it (it is, finally, after two decades, taller than the house, but still very slender and somewhat spindly) I finally realized ("twigged"? would that be the word to use here?) that I don't actually know if American and European ash trees are the same. When I checked an encyclopedia, I found a listing of fourteen different varieties that grow in the western and south-western United States. So...they all belong to the genus Fraxinus, but otherwise have their differences.

Although it didn't register with me until more recently, there's also a deeper family connection to this tree, as my great-grandmother Eugenia (that's her picture above) was born Eugenia Ash. Her father's family came from Maryland, and prior to that I have not been able to penetrate, but his Ash ancestors most likely came from England. The surname "Ash" in Old English would originally have signified "dweller by the ash-tree".

Here's something else I didn't know when I planted it (and I bet my parents didn't either): "...it was once considered to have a benign influence on the newborn. ... Long, long ago there were probably several ritual acts practised in honour of the ash, for its benefits and uses were numerous and diverse, unsurpassed in its values by any other tree." (from WARRIORS AND GUARDIANS: Native Highland Trees by Hugh Fife, Argyll Publishing, 1994.)

Of course, the world-tree of the ancient Norse culture, Yggdrasil, connecting heaven and earth, was a gigantic ash tree.

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Current Location: Argyll where the Ash grows
Current Mood: contemplative contemplative

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I first read Ernest Hemingway's wonderful memoir A MOVEABLE FEAST when I was in my late teens and fell under the spell of the idea of that place (Paris) and time (1920s) and, above all, of the image of that type of bohemiam literary/artistic life-style and world. I remember living in Austin in the 1970s, when I was in my early twenties, and that was MY version of Hemingway's Paris. (And not just because Howard Waldrop used to greet my boyfriend and me when we arrived at a gathering with loud, glad cries of: "Scott! Zelda!!") This all came back to me in a rush a few nights ago in Aviles (Spain) where I was attending the first Celsius 232 festival (an offshoot of the long-running Semana Negra in nearby Gijon) -- earlier, I'd been on a panel with George R.R. Martin, discussing how we came to write WINDHAVEN (recently published in a new Spanish edition as REFUGIO DEL VIENTO), and in the evening a young woman came up to me, eyes shining, to say how exciting it had been to hear me talking about the 1970s, and being a writer then, and had it been hard to be a woman writing science fiction back then? And I saw that for her, the 1970s were as distant and magical as the 1920s had seemed to me when I was her age...

Of course. It seemed strange to me, but it is not. In some ways, my years in Austin feel like they're just around the corner, as if I could easily go back and reconnect. (Although, when I do go back, I can't help noticing all the differences.) In other ways, I'm well aware that it was a different world in the 1970s.

Hemingway was only a couple of years older than I am now when he committed suicide. I think he felt everything he had been, everything that mattered to him, was gone. I don't feel that at all. But then my generation seems to be refusing to get old -- at least, in the old-fashioned way.

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Current Location: Argyll
Current Mood: contemplative contemplative

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Fretting today over possibility (e.g. got an email to say photographer was being sent, but no reply to my reply re: how to find me) that my picture may be taken for Scotland on Sunday this morning...what to wear? I love this top, but will my bra-strap show? Beads or scarf? (But I NEVER wear a scarf, except for practical purposes. Looks very arty...but is it ME?) Does it matter what jeans/leggings/etc I wear? Surely this isn't going to be a head-to-toe job? I have been assuming B&W, but what if it is colour -- then I'll wish I had picked something other than a grey top. I need a quick conclave with my most stylish girlfriends...but that is not so easy to arrange at short notice, with my friends so scattered, especially as me doing a style-show before the webcam really does NOT appeal.

And, of course, I am getting my hair cut this evening. What timing!! Why didn't I get a psychic flash last week to make the appointment for Tuesday instead?

Anyway, I would prefer to run a picture of my ancestor, as here.

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Current Location: Argyll

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