The Bittern

A BookLikes blog about imaginative and fantastical literature, cultural studies, and the history and literature of madness.
Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson 3.5 stars, for me. A brilliantly written, rollicking yarn. No subtext to speak of - it's really just an adventure novel, but that's no terrible thing. I'd have liked a little more characterisation, but this could only have been achieved at the cost of pace, which would actually impoverish the work as a whole. Thoroughly enjoyable, though - and still a masterclass for modern adventure writers.
The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare: 38 Fully-Dramatized Plays - Imogen Stubbs, John Gielgud, Eileen Atkins, Joseph Fiennes, Stubbs, Tom Treadwell, William Shakespeare My favourites:

Romeo & Juliet
Much Ado About Nothing
Measure for Measure

My least favourites:

The Comedy of Errors
The Taming of the Shrew
Love's Labour's Lost
Henry VIII
Henry VI Part I-III


Troilus & Cressida
Timon of Athens
The Two Noble Kinsmen


As You Like It
Henry IV Part I
Henry IV Part II

Barely remember:

The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Richard II
King John
The Merry Wives of Windsor
All's Well That Ends Well

These adaptations are great, presenting a fairly middle-of-the-road, unadventurous take on each play, which is just what I was looking for. The only major fault I found was the music, which was dull or intrusive by turns. A nice way of marking scene transitions, which would have worked brilliantly with, well... better music. The five stars is for Shakespeare's writing - sure, he stumbles occasionally, but even a Shakespearean stumble makes most modern writers look clumsy at best.
The Mammoth Book of Fantasy - Mike Ashley, Theodore R. Cogswell, Michael Moorcock, James Cawthorn, Roger Zelazny, Tanith Lee, Patricia A. McKillip, Louise Cooper, Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, Charles de Lint, A. Merritt, Ursula K. Le Guin, Lucius Shepard, James P. Blaylock, Lisa Goldstein, Jack I'll definitely be checking out more Harlan Ellison!

Paladin of the Lost Hour - Harlan Ellison ★★★★★
The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule - Lucius Shepard ★★★★½
Audience - Jack Womack ★★★★½
Nets of Silver and Gold - James P. Blaylock ★★★★
The Phantasma of Q_______ - Lisa Goldstein ★★★★
Lady of the Skulls - Patricia A. McKillip ★★★½
Kings in Darkness - Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn ★★★½
The Sunlight on the Water - Louise Cooper ★★★½
King Yvorian's Wager - Darrell Schweitzer ★★★½
The Golden Key - George Macdonald ★★★½
Yesterday Was Monday - Theodore Sturgeon ★★★½
The Hoard of the Gibbelins - Lord Dunsany ★★★½
Pixel Pixies - Charles de Lint ★★★
The Valley of the Worm - Robert E. Howard ★★★
The Moon Pool - A. Merritt ★★★
A Hero at the Gates - Tanith Lee ★★½
The Sorcerer Pharesm - Jack Vance ★★½
The Bells of Shoredan - Roger Zelazny ★★
The Howling Tower - Fritz Leiber ★★
The Last Hieroglyph - Clark Ashton Smith ★★
The Edge of the World - Michael Swanwick ★★
Darkrose and Diamond - Ursula K. Le Guin ★½
The Wall Around the World - Theodore R. Cogswell ★½
Writing and Madness: Literature/Philosophy/Psychoanalysis (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics (Stanford, Calif.) ) - Shoshana Felman, Martha Noel Evans, Martha Evans I have very divided opinions about this book. Firstly, I suspect that the English translation is problematic. Felman's language can be convoluted and frustrating. I'd also recommend a knowledge of Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and Freud before attempting to read this book - some of which I did not have. There are some particularly batty sections - the long chapter on The Turn of the Screw stands out, with its Freudian eroticisation of various plot elements I'm fairly sure James intended to be innocuous even at the subconscious level. But, for those interested in the theory and philosophy of madness, and the relationship between psychoanalysis and literature, I strongly recommend the chapter on Foucault/Derrida, and the interview between Felman and Philippe Sollers which concludes the volume. The studies are occasionally interesting but not essential. Approach the Lacan chapter at your peril.
How to Succeed As a Freelancer in Publishing: The Complete Guide - 'A Must-Have for any Freelancer who Wants to Earn a Decent Living in Publishing' - Emma Murray,  Charlie Wilson Great book, really lucid and informative. The authors know their stuff, and the input from various industry professionals is the icing on the cake.
Sour Sweet - Timothy Mo Not too impressed with this novel. I found it patronising, and the details of British-Chinese life were at times minute enough to be mundane. The Chen family plotline could have functioned equally well without the (mostly peripheral) Hung connection. Still, Mo is an excellent wordsmith and certain passages were sublime. 2.5 stars.
Sea of Silver Light  - Tad Williams 3.5 stars, really, but I'm rounding up because of the overall strength of the series.

Sea of Silver Light is a very slow starter - and a slow finisher, for that matter. Like the other Otherland books, it's far longer than it needs to be; I genuinely feel that it could be cut down by two thirds without losing much of value. Doubtless, die-hard fans would disagree, and this is the main reason why I can't count myself among them. Still, a very enjoyable and appropriately immersive series.
Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell Pitch-perfect; quite possibly the best book I've ever read.
Winter's Heart  - Robert Jordan A welcome return to form after a very shaky three-book run (reaching its zenith with The Path of Daggers, in which, effectively, nothing happens). I will always hold a special affection for the Wheel of Time, and the late Jordan's unique brand of snail-paced storytelling. Winter's Heart benefits from an excellent climactic sequence, but don't hold out such hopes for the first 600 pages.
Mister Monday  - Garth Nix This was really fun, and I wish I'd read it when I was younger. I have a suspicion that Nix writes children's fiction because he's not really capable of the depth and pacing that makes good 'adult' fantasy, but that's no terrible thing.
Madness: A Brief History - Roy Porter Erudite without being pretentious. I admire Porter for his attempts to make comprehensible a field of study which has often been dominated by scholars shouting very loudly but very incoherently. That said, I did detect a progressivist bias, as well as a hostility to some of Foucault's ideas. He's entitled to his opinions, of course, and there are doubtless many in the field who share them, but in an overview like this I felt that these elements could and should have been played down. Still, a very useful read.
Native British Trees (Wooden Books Gift Book) - Andy Thompson Thoroughly enjoyable, if rather succinct. Personally, a quick overview is what I wanted, but some may be disappointed by its brevity - more of a pamphlet than an encyclopaedia.
Mountain of Black Glass  - Tad Williams Halfway through, Otherland's third installment was looking to be the weakest yet. A rather slow and rambling first half is more than made up for by a phenomenal finale - I don't know how Williams will top this in the final volume, but I'm sure he'll manage it.
The Poetry of Birds - Simon Armitage What a great collection - and the notes (which I almost overlooked!) make it perfect. I like that the editors have given the more prolific bird poets (Clare and Hughes in particular) a louder voice than most; it makes complete sense, and although I remain ambivalent about the quality of Clare's poetry, it is perfect for this anthology. Simon Armitage offers some engaging thoughts in his afterword, and the book is thoroughly indexed and annotated. Anyone with a literary interest in birds (or an ornithological interest in literature) should pick up this book - they're bound to discover something new.
Was Beethoven a Birdwatcher?: A Quirky Look at Birds in History and Culture - David Turner, Joe Beale Very readable and informative, and packed with fascinating trivia. The author's matey tone can grate a little at times, but his heart is in the right place, and he is clearly both passionate and deeply knowledgeable about his subject matter.
The Black Spider - Jeremias Gotthelf, H.M. Waidson A short review for a short and disappointing story. I'd heard a lot of good things about The Black Spider, in spite of its relative obscurity. Thomas Mann once said that he admired Gotthelf's most enduring story "almost more than anything else in world literature", which makes me wonder if I missed something crucial by reading it in translation. The opening passage suggests a rather elegant, mellifluous prose style, but in my edition this was not sustained.

The story - perhaps best described as a parable, although the moral is at least a little ambiguous - sees a handful of medieval Swiss peasants make a pact with the Devil, who agrees to help them meet their lord's impossible demands in exchange for an unbaptized child. Although the Devil holds up his end of the bargain, the villagers are understandably reluctant, and try to circumvent their agreement by baptizing the first newborn immediately. This, as even (or especially?) the medieval peasant could surely have foreseen, makes the Devil pissed. He unleashes a plague upon the villagers in the form of a black spider which kills everything it touches. The menace is only stopped when a woman gives her life to trap the spider beneath a window post.

There follows a short second narrative, which tells of how the spider is briefly released by a malicious and ignorant farmhand, but then imprisoned again in essentially the same way as before.

So, what is the moral? "Don't make pacts with the Devil"? Or, "If you must make pacts with the Devil, you should at least stick to them"? I actually found this question more interesting than the content of the story itself, which, in my opinion, was too hung up on detail and could have been much shorter without losing anything worthwhile. Clearly, given the nature of the story (and that of Gotthelf, as a pastor) pacts with the Devil are a definite no-no. But the Devil, as a character, appears wholly reasonable in his actions - indeed, his role in this cautionary tale is an amalgamation of God and the Serpent in a Garden analogy; he is both tempter and the arbiter. I almost felt that he regretted having to request an unbaptized child; he's the Devil, and that's how he rolls, but he doesn't have to like it (as with all stories featuring the Devil, he steals the show completely).

The second narrative is not entirely useless - it helps to reinforce the sense in which the villagers' plight is self-inflicted. The theme of human agency is prominent; the villagers, seemingly helpless victims of higher powers, forgo the punishment of their lord and choose instead to risk damnation. And it is only by their own sacrifice that they are able - twice - to stifle the evil that they themselves have unleashed, without appeasing the Devil. God is conspicuously silent in this story, and characters who at one moment seem to hold the moral high ground are easily brought low. Perhaps the ethical ambiguity was Gotthelf's intention.

There's probably much more depth to this novella than meets the eye, but it didn't make a stunning first impression. I expect if I went back to it again, I'd find additional layers of meaning, and if I didn't have 195 countries left to read, I might give it another try.

A novel for each and every country of the world

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