(What can you buy for 80p?) Penguin’s literary tuck shop

The days of getting a pint for 80p were over before I was born. Nowadays 80p gets you a pint of milk and a packet of Angel Delight- (tasty but less mind-altering.)

For a treat that fattens the mind rather then the waistline, head to your nearest bookstore and pick up one of the new Penguin Classics range of 80p mini masterpieces.


In an enlightened move in the fight to save the book trade (and bring classics to the masses), Penguin have released 80 ‘Little Black Classics’: Small enough to fit in your handbag and cheap enough to be bought alongside your lunchtime meal deal.

Before embarking on a recent train journey I spent £1.60 and received in return, Jane Austen’s ‘The Beautiful Cassandra’ and Guy de Maupassant’s ‘Femme Fatale’: Literary snippets whose slimness is just as appealing as their price. Whilst the skinny volumes won’t appear as grand and imposing on your bookshpostera_1elf as their ancestors, the feeling of intimidation involved in embarking on a 500 page literary voyage is pleasantly absent, (as is the chance of being awoken by a tome of 19th century literature landing on your nose.) And let’s face it, carting a half tone of Dickens around the country is no fun for anyone.

It seems appropriate that the booklets, so perfect for train journey’s, have been released in celebration of the publishers 80th birthday. Allen Lane, (the gentleman who was so disgruntled with the choice of literature available at train station’s that he formed Penguin), would be delighted that his brain child is celebrating their birthday by providing excellent and affordable train reading material.

(Alternatively, you could buy yourself 4 Freddo’s and pretend you’re on the  Hogwarts Express).

For the full list of Little Black Classics click here



aGHAST at the lack of GORMEN

“We are all imprisoned by the dictionary. We choose out of that vast, paper-walled prison our convicts, the little black printed words, when in truth we need fresh sounds to utter, new enfranchised noises which would produce a new effect.”

Peake, Mervyn, Titus Groan

Employing the creative wordplay that typifies his work, Peake uses three lines to identify and illuminate the difference between a book that remains with you for as long as it takes to read, and those which, (like Gormenghast,) entrench themselves within your psyche. In short Peake explains the key to his success as a writer, or at least, the critical success of the Gormenghast trilogy. (An important distinction because whilst those brave enough might suggest that Peake’s masterpiece technically surpasses Tolkein’s, only the later one allows you to don pixeled elven  garb and traipse Mordor). http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/aug/16/gormenghast-masterpiece-mervyn-peake

Attempting to explain Peake’s ability to create mind altering description, critics have highlighted the writer’s occupation as an illustrator. However, whilst the artist’s eye is undoubtedly advantageous, I feel that Peake is able to drag his readers so wholly into Gormenghast because he is able to fuse together combinations of words and ideas that no other writer would consider. (Or at least none that I’ve read yet).

Hence why i’m aghast that i’ve clocked up almost a quarter century of literature loving life without brushing paths with Meryvn Peake’s Gormenghast Trillogy. For his descriptive abilities alone he should be on the syllabus.(And yeah, I appreciate the irony of using a corny play on words blog title to introduce a post celebrating excellent language use.)

This is how Peake begins to describe Gormenghast:

This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.

It’s curious though because whilst I feel enriched as a person and a writer for having read Gormenghast, I simultaneously acknowledge that there’s a lot you could dislike about the trilogy. (Not that any of the following criticisms excuse it for having missed the literary bandwagon). Unlike a lot of popular fiction, the work is not hugely plot driven and the dense layering of description often overwhelms the comparatively sparse dialogue. The characters additionally, one might recognise as pantomime heroes and villains; (the moody teenager, spluttering doctor and depressive king).

However, I’d argue that even the flaws simultaneously work to redeem themselves: Yes, the work is description heavy, but it’s not description in the normal necessary setting the scene sense. This description is made of chunks of art work that you consume it without ever checking how many pages are left. The characters, whilst arguably carved from the same block as stock panto figures, have their oddities so richly detailed and expanded upon that they, like the description, rise above their carving blocks. .

In consequence of my appreciation for the Gormenghast trilogy, I have dedicated a post to this lurking literary gem in order to alert as many people as possible that they need to read it instantly. (Go go go! To the bookstore!) However, if you’re one of the lucky ones whose brain is already creeping past Flay’s sleeping form, help me share the love for a wrongfully neglected masterpiece.

Happy Birthday Jane Austen

In honour of what would be Jane Austen’s 239th birthday, my blog today consists of not my own words but a collection of hers. 

‘If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”

Jane Austen, Emma

“She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me, and I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

“…when pain is over, the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure.”
Jane Austen, Persuasion

“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”
Jane Austen, Persuasion

“The person, be it gentlemen or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

“Time will explain.”
Jane Austen, Persuasion

“Oh! Do not attack me with your watch. A watch is always too fast or too slow. I cannot be dictated to by a watch.”
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

And last but not least, a nugget of motivation for all the writers out there battling against writers block;

“I am not at all in a humor for writing; I must write on till I am.”
Jane Austen

Do you feel there are better demonstrations of why the writers wit and wisdom have left her as one of the worlds most respected authors?

Happy Birthday Jane and thank-you.

George MacDonald’s ‘Phantasies’: Alice’s darker sibling and C.S.Lewis’s inspiration


‘I regard George MacDonald as my master’ wrote  C.S Lewis of the pioneering Scottish fantasy writer and Christian minister born in Aberdeen in 1824. 

Although surprisingly obscure today, the list of writers inspired by MacDonald’s literary endeavors includes eminent figures such as Tolkien, Carroll, Nesbit and Auden. The Scott himself though, found inspiration through German Religious theory, fantasy and nature. The consequential heterodox theology however, which formed the basis of his preaching’s, found little favour among his Arundel church parish and after struggling on a salary accordingly reduced by £50 per anum, MacDonald was forced to leave.

Unperturbed, the Scott constructed an alter of words with the help of the German Marchen, (a genre which, for want of a more fitting translation, we term ‘Fairy Tale’.) By employing fantasy as a means of illustrating his beliefs it is arguable that the preacher was enabled to leave a greater mark on civilisation, if not through his own work directly, then through that which it inspired. Arguably one of MacDonald’s most successful results is ‘Phantastes’, a Bildungsroman described its author as a ‘faerie romance for men and women’ . The winding narrative follows Anodos on a ‘dream like journey across a mysterious landscape’ which, beginning in his bedroom turned grassy glade, follows his metaphorical progress through forests, a labyrinth and the fairy palace.  Similar to Robert Louis Stevenson’s, Jekyll and Hyde, the reader is left to decide how far the story derives from  the ‘wandering dream of a diseased imagination’.

Fans of Alice in Wonderland’s wandering narrative and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’s morality laced fantasy will find the lesser know Phantastes a delight.  Even religious skeptics who shy away from Bunyan style allegories will appreciate MacDonald’s eloquently imagined narrative. The stream of language, that appears to echo the flow of the constant lakes/ river’s and seas encountered by Anodos, is reason enough to spend time in MacDonald’s Fairyland.

With its warning of religious currents and reasons why one would avoid Phantastes, this has not been the promotional post MacDonald might have hoped for, nonetheless I urge any interested in fantasy’s origins to have a romp through the fairy land that ‘baptised’ the imagination of Narnia’s creator.

‘It is no use trying to account for things in Fairy Land; and one who travels there soon learns to forget the very idea of doing so, and takes everything as it comes; like a child, who, being in a chronic condition of wonder, is surprised at nothing.’

All quotes are taken from Nick Page’s 2008 Special Annotated Edition

Text originally published in 1858