Books · Reading Challenge

Read the Year: March

“Unknown Woman”

Since I spent most of the month finishing February’s novel, for March I settled on The Diary of Lady Murasaki, a short book with journal and letter extracts written by the woman known as Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese author and courtier, about her time in the service of Empress Shōshi, at the height of the famous Heian period. The main events documented in the diary are the birth of Prince Atsuhira, and the celebrations which followed. For comparison, Appendix 2 offers translations of records of these events made by male authors, and I was struck by the attention that Murasaki shows to the people involved in comparison to those authors. She details the reactions, interactions, and outfits of a wide range of participants, and builds a textured picture of the events that unfold, her gaze at times critical, at others empathetic. It’s a wonderful window into history, and astonishing to think, as the translator notes in the introduction, that this elegant, refined world existed at a time roughly 50 years prior to the Norman conquest. At the time she wrote this ‘diary’ Murasaki was already well known as the author of Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji), considered to be one of the first Japanese novels, and still revered as one of its greatest cultural works. Certainly one I’ll be adding to the TBR list.

Related Reading

Mary Catherine Bateson’s Composing a Life came to my attention via a Brain Pickings newsletter. A book examining the ways in which women construct their lives seemed like a good companion to the Diary, which moves between formal comment on public events, and inward-looking musing on what is possible for women. Composing a Life draws from the stories of five women (including the author), moving between the anecdotal, and published research. The main argument is that women have a long history of composing their lives through compromise and negotiation between personal ambition and desire, and societal pressures and responsibilities, and that there is potential in embracing this model for both men and women, rather than competitive ‘equality’. We’ll be in April before I finish this one, but I can already tell that I’ll be coming back to it.

Other Reading

Fictional Non-Fiction

Do D&D manuals class as fiction or non-fiction? They are books that offer the tools to tell a story, which suggests non-fiction, yet role-playing relies on suspension of disbelief, just as fiction. No doubt smarter people than I have answered this question. All I know is that I find them very enjoyable to read, both as a writer and gamer. This month I perused Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (an extension of the Player’s Handbook), and The Tomb of Annihilation (an adventure module set in the jungles of Chult). For me the latter wasn’t on a par with Storm King’s Thunder or The Curse of Strahd, but there were some fun ideas there (for a taste of ToA check out the 2017 Acquisitions Inc live shows on YouTube).


I’ve been reading Folk Fashion in a slow and thoughtful manner, as it raised questions for me around my own choices and processes of making. Broadly speaking, her thesis is that there is nothing inherently sustainable about making our own clothes if we engage with the process in the same mindset that we engage with fast fashion. She also explores the circumstances under which we feel permitted to alter or unmake existing designs and garments, and the ways in which we might encourage ourselves, and others, to do so. While this is a well-referenced, academic work, it is very readable, and I feel that I will be unpacking her insights and reflecting on my making for a while to come.

Running Total

Books Read: 20

Currently Reading: 5

Next Month

The next Read The Year prompt is to “Grab a book that will help you to explore your creativity” so I shall be working through Keri Smith’s The Imaginary World of… in April.

Books · Reading Challenge

Read The Year: February

“Obsessive Love”

Full disclosure: I have yet to finish Anna Karenina. This should not be taken as a criticism – it’s a result of my starting late, reading less than usual, and the style of the novel, which encourages a slow reading pace and close attention.

I knew very little about the novel going in: I knew it involved an affair between Anna and Vronsky, and was an examination of marriage and love, but there is also a secondary plot, interrelated with the first, about Levin, a friend of Anna’s brother, and Kitty, related to Anna by marriage (and a former flirtation of Vronsky’s) which examines the theme from a different angle.img_8727

Having read War and Peace a few years back, I remembered that Tolstoy can be quite wordy, but I had forgotten his talent for delineating characters. In some respects his knack resembles that of Elizabeth Gaskell (see last month’s post), in showing faults, and foibles, as well as the good, but his eye for character errs more toward the satirical than the sympathetic.

I’m about halfway through, and while I’m aware that things don’t end well for Anna, I’m allowing myself to hope a little for Levin and Kitty.

Related Reading

Madame Bovary seemed like a suitable accompaniment to Anna Karenina, but my slow pace meant I never got to it. However, Napoleon the Great, which I listened to on Audible, tied in more than I expected. The Napoleonic era was much earlier than Anna Karenina , which is set in the 1870s, but it was a time that fundamentally reshaped Europe, and the reforms which resulted from Alexander’s wars with Napoleon underpin the concerns of Tolstoy’s characters. In its own right Napoleon the Great is a fantastic book, which gave me a new perspective on both the man and his actions.

Other Reading

I’ve not read many adult books this month, partly because it’s been a short month, partly because the books I was concentrating on are so long.


I borrowed some Hulk comics through my Amazon Prime membership. I’ve never bothered to buy any of the Planet Hulk tie-ins, but I wanted to check them out because Thor: Ragnarok used some of the Hulk material. They’re interesting from that perspective, but I’m glad I didn’t buy them, as I don’t think I’d read them again.


Back in January, I ordered a book about Portuguese calçada (the mosaic-style, cobbled paving that is widely used in Portuguese cities). Calçada Portuguesa is a photograph book, but does briefly cover the history of calçada (which is of more recent provenance than I imagined, given its ubiquity in Portugal), and shows the spread the art form to former Portuguese territories worldwide. It’s also trilingual: Portuguese, English, and Chinese (I assume they mean Mandarin), which is a nice touch.

Running Total

Books Read: 12

Currently Reading: 8


Since I still have half of Anna Karenina to read, my March book needs to be short. The theme is ‘Read a book about a woman you hadn’t previously heard of’. I was planning to read a biography of Christine de Pizan, but have settled on the shorter The Diary of Lady Murasaki.

Books · Reading Challenge

Read the Year: January

“New Beginnings”

North and South: I chose Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel about the Industrial north for my first read. Margaret Hale and her family move from the rural south to Milton, a fictional town of cotton mills and nouveau riche mill owners. Gaskell uses these outsiders to show how completely divorced the lives of owners and employees are, and put forward the notion that the owners have a responsibility to the men they employ. Add in a Pride-and-Prejudice-esque love story, and a sub-plot with a mutineer family member to add complications, and this is a cracking read. While there is perhaps a touch more moralising than a modern reader may want, Gaskell is a keen observer of humanity, and sketches her characters with sympathy and honesty, allowing us to laugh at their foibles without despising them.

Related Books

Hard Times: Dickens’ Industrial novel suffered a little in comparison by being read immediately after North and South. I tend to roll my eyes when people start praising Dickens, because I don’t rate his writing ability very highly. His characters are rarely more than stereotypes, and his taste for melodrama is tedious. But his novels are very readable, and this one was no exception. Dickens focusses on the effect of environmental pressures on the formation of the individual, and in some ways the novel is a plea for the importance of leisure, entertainment, fictions, and imagination for a fulfilling life.

I also began both Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and Jenny Uglow’s biography of Elizabeth Gaskell. I found both hard work (though the biography is interesting), and will probably set them aside until I’ve finished my February challenge book.

Other Reading


Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children: I picked up this trilogy on a 3 for 2 offer and read it over the course of a weekend. The first novel has a Gothic feel, with its claustrophobic island setting, and uncertainty over what is real. The subsequent books have a more action feel to them and lose something as a result. The time travel and magical aspects expose plot holes if closely examined, and the ‘found photos’ are overused after the first novel, but this is a fun, readable series for those times when you need an undemanding read.


Dyeing to Spin & Knit: Colour is my primary draw when buying yarn, and I’ve been wanting to learn a little more about the processes used by independent dyers, and how these interact with the fibres being dyed. Felicia Lo’s book includes an overview of colour theory, instructions on different dyeing methods, and even advice on how to work with dyed spinning fibre and yarn to achieve different colour effects. It’s a great primer, and will be a valuable resource should I decide to try my hand at dyeing.

Running Total

Books read: 8

Currently reading: 5


Read the Year invites me to “get stuck into a story of obsessive love” in February, so I’m thinking it’s time to read Anna Karenina.

Books · Reading Challenge

A New Challenge

My past reading challenges have mainly served to instil good habits: to read more new books rather than re-reading old ones, and to make the effort to seek out varied voices. So far, so successful. However, as I reached the end of 2017, I realised that because my challenge had been unstructured – deliberately, so that I wasn’t bound to a list of ‘diverse reads’ curated by someone else, and had to do some work myself – it had become a source of stress. In hindsight I should have set the goal of reading a few books a month toward my challenge, and trusted that, as I discovered new authors, the actual number read would exceed my target.

When I began thinking about 2018, I knew that I wanted to read far more Victorian novels (my enduring love) than I’d managed to fit into 2017. I toyed with the the idea of a year of reading Victorian women: the novels I’d yet to tackle by the more famous authors, and a chance to unearth some of the lesser known (though popular in their time) authors. I was also quite taken with the idea of picking a theme, and reading around it: a novel or two and some secondary reading, but at the leisurely pace an English degree never quite allows.

I was still mulling over how to meld my two ideas when the New Year arrived, and I began Gaskell’s North and South anyway, confident that it would fit whatever challenge I ended up with. Then: serendipity. I noticed Penguin’s Read The Year challenge on Instagram, and January’s prompt fit North and South perfectly. I realised that many of the other prompts would work with Victorian authors, or allow me to read other Classics on my TBR lists. I had found a structure, and from the one book that fit the prompt I could devise secondary reading where interested. Or not, if I decided that the book was a dud.

I’ve begun plotting what I’ll read for the remaining prompts, drawing where I can on books I already own or know I can source from the library. I then plan to write a short review of each book, and some information on my other reading around it, for the blog each month – mostly in the interests of accountability.

I’ve also set myself a goal on Goodreads again this year. I was pleased to beat my target of 104 (2 books a week) last year, but, as I’ve mentioned before, I think I’ve found my level at just over 100 books a year, and circumstances won’t be different enough to warrant stretching myself in 2018.

So there you have my plan. Do let me know if you’re doing Penguin’s Read The Year Challenge (or any others) as it would be interesting to compare notes on what we hope to read.

Expect the first update at the end of the month.

Polymath Enthusiasms · Reading Challenge

Odds & (Week)ends #13

As you’ve probably guessed, I succumbed to illness, and deadlines, and Christmas craziness, and let the blogging lapse. I decided I’d finish off the year with a little look back at some of the things I’ve enjoyed.


I’m proud of having pushed myself to learn new techniques in 2017, and very aware that I’ve been lucky enough to benefit from some clear and expert patterns.

Clockwise from top left: Studies in Ice (Beatrice Perron Dahlen), accessories from The Simple Collection (Tin Can Knits), Selfoss slippers (Anne Curry), Bousta Beanie (Gudrun Johnston for Shetland Wool Week), Hitchhiker (Martina Behm), Cirro (Woolly Wormhead).

Books, Books, Books

I’ve read 127 books in 2017, though I’m speed-reading Sapiens (because it’s due back in a couple of days) so I might just sneak another in.

I think Goodreads were a little premature with their roundup.

According to Audible, I also accumulated a respectable number of minutes on audiobooks in 2017:

I have no idea what the deal is with Thursdays.

Total minutes are likely to go up in 2018, as the KnitBritish podcast is going monthly, and I’m all caught up on past episodes, so will have more time for audiobooks.

So far as the Reading Challenge goes, I read a total of 56 diverse books – which works out at slightly more than 1 book by a BAME/female/LGBT/non-Western author (or some combination of those categories) a week. This was just short of 50% of the total number of books I read, and covered both fiction and non-fiction. Particular highlights were Roshani Chokshi’s folklore-inspired Fantasy novels, N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series (which I need to finish in 2018), David Olusoga’s Black and British, and the fabulous Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.

A little taste of the books I’ve read, loved, borrowed, hated, purchased, and loaned out this year.

Out and About

It would be easy to focus on how much time I spent being ill this year, but I also got to do some fun things, read some great books, play fun games, and drink a lot of coffee.

Six of the nine experiences pictured involved leaving the house 👍

Odds and Sods

  • I made it to the cinema for the first time in 3 years to see Thor: Ragnarok. I’m now counting down the days til I can download it, and then watch it over and over til I explode from laughing.
  • I finally got the sewing machine out and made some new floor cushion covers. It took 2 hours to sew 8 seams, and I had to fight the machine the whole way. Fun times.
  • Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency was my favourite show this year, and I’m torn between excitement for the new series in Jan, and disappointment that it’s supposedly the last one.


I have big knitting plans for 2018: a year of socks, garment knitting, the Good Intentions Club, and the Darning Masterclass at EYF. I’m also signed up to a couple of different yarn and pattern clubs. My 2017 Reading Challenge was good, but a little vague, so I’m simplifying things for 2018 (details to follow), in the hope of also demolishing my ever-increasing TBR pile. All of which I expect to share with you on here.

Take care, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Reading Challenge

2017 Reading Challenges

I’m participating in 2 reading challenges this year: the Goodreads Challenge, for which I pledged to read 104 books (double last year’s target), and a self-imposed challenge to read more diversely.

In the past few years I’ve managed to read double my target for the Goodreads challenge, increasing the target, year on year, accordingly. My total for the year so far is 84, so I’ll meet my target of 104, and may even exceed it, but I won’t be doubling it this year. At this point in my life, 104 seems to be the upper limit of the number of books I can read in a year. I should note that the actual amount I’ll have read is higher as I don’t count magazines, newspapers, or single issues of comic books. Or books read to the Tiny Tyrant for that matter.

I noticed when doing the Classics challenge last year that it was very easy to default to works by white, male authors, so I decided to work at increasing the diversity of my reading this year. I’ve been taking stock of my progress each quarter. January to March included 7 books by BAME and/or women authors out of a total 18 books. Between April and the end of June I read 14 out of a total 36 books. The second quarter flagged up that diversity is not always clear cut. Some of the books I read were diverse in terms of characters, but written by white, male authors. While I want to support BAME authors, I also want to see more diversity in the content of all books – and no, I don’t mean adding a single black or lgbtqa character who is expected to represent their entire community and likely therefore to descend into stereotype – I mean representing the world that most of us see everyday, which is far more varied than many books would have you believe. While I didn’t count Patrick Weekes’ Rogues of the Republic series (wonderfully inclusive and inventive fantasy) in my total, they’re certainly the type of book I want to read more of.

Since July 11 of a total 30 books read count toward my challenge. Outstanding among them are Roshani Chokshi’s Star-Touched Queen fantasy novels: a wonderful blend of Indian history, myth, and fairy tale whose heroines combine guts and vulnerability. I also greatly enjoyed David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History, which is a wonderful riposte to those who’d have you believe that there were no black people in Britain prior to the 1950s. What I’ve realised in this third quarter is how hard it can be to read diversely. When I took part in the Classics challenge last year it was very easy to pick a book at the start of the month; deliberately choosing diverse books requires more research and planning, and I’m conscious that I’ve slacked off at busy times. I think if I were to repeat this challenge, I would set an actual target rather than leave it to chance.

I have managed to keep the proportion of diverse books to about a third of my reading total, and I hope to maintain that in the final quarter, and beyond. I’ll let you know how it’s gone in December.

Books · Ex Libris

Ex Libris #1

I own a lot of books, but I have very few shelves, and lack space to add more. This means that most of my books live boxed up in storage. I make periodic forays to store books I’ve read, retrieve ones I need, and assure old favourites that they haven’t been forgotten. Like many bibliophiles, I love old books, and many of the books in my collection are out of print, or hard to find editions. Partly to remind myself of what I do own (and have yet to read in some cases), and partly for the joy of recommending favourites, and sharing how beautiful they are, I’ve decided to take a regular trip out to the ‘stacks’, so that I can do a monthly book post here.

My first candidate was close at hand, as it arrived last week, and is waiting to be read. It’s not especially beautiful, but I wanted to share it as there’s a bit of a story to the acquisition.

Allow me to set the scene: It was 1997 and our young Polymath had much more free time for reading. Some kind person, knowing my reading tastes (I was working my way along the SFF shelf at Norwich Central Library at the time), gave my mum an entire box of second-hand fantasy novels for me. There was some Fritz Leiber, a Pratchett or two, and a fascinating short novel about a group of kids who end up in a fantasy world of their own invention. Given I was the kind of kid who routinely checked old wardrobes for routes into Narnia, and was inspired to map my own fantasy worlds after reading The Hobbit, you’ll gather this struck a cord with me. At the same time, it was one of those novels that was a bit unsettling, that left questions unanswered and stayed with you after you’d finished.

I read the book a few times, and then it disappeared somewhere in the shuffle of moving away to Uni, and I never saw it again. From time to time I’ve thought about it, and wished I could read it again. There was just one problem. I couldn’t remember what it was called, or who had written it.

Fast forward to this summer, when, for some reason, I could not get the book out of my head. There was only one thing for it – write down everything I could remember, and take to the internet to track it down.

What did I know?

  • I was certain the author was female.
  • I knew that it was actually a sequel to an earlier book. The ending suggested that it might continue on as a trilogy.
  • There were four children (two girls, two boys) who were cousins. I was fairly sure the younger of the boys was called Paul.
  • It was set in the US.
  • The cousins met up in the holidays and acted out scenes set in the fantasy land they’d invented.
  • Somehow in the previous book they had ended up in their fantasy land and were playing the roles of Princes and Princesses.
  • There were unicorns.
  • Some sort of plot was afoot, and they didn’t know how or if they should prevent it.
  • In the end it was revealed that someone from the land itself was manipulating them. I was fairly sure this villain was called Claudia.

Armed with this knowledge, I turned to Google.

The first thing to note is that if you search for “children’s fantasy novel, 4 children, crossing worlds” or any variation on this, the first 100-odd entries are Narnia. My varied search terms also threw up Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series enough times for me to start questioning whether I had seriously misremembered the story. Next, I looked at Wikipedia lists for children’s fantasy novels by decade of publication. Nothing jumped out at me. Finally, I hit on the idea of trawling through the Wikipedia list of imaginary lands. I was sure that I would recognise the name of the place if I saw it. The Hidden Land stirred a memory, but, of course, was pretty much the only entry that didn’t link to it’s own page.

Back to Google I went, and, at last, found what I was looking for: Pamela Dean’s Hidden Land trilogy, the second book of which, The Hidden Land, I had once owned. I did have some of the details wrong – there were 5 children not 4, and the boy was called Patrick, not Paul – but I’d remembered a lot of it right, which is a testament to a good story. Despite a reprint in 2003 it doesn’t seem that this series has had anything like the attention that other children’s fantasy has received in the wake of the boy wizard, and they are now out of print again. I ordered a secondhand copy of The Secret Country (the first book), and will pick up the others in due course.

They seem to have rebranded it the ‘Secret Country Trilogy’ for the reprint – everything I found online refers to the Hidden Land. Interesting.
There’s something very satisfying about tracking down something that you’d thought was lost, and I’m looking forward to getting reacquainted with Pamela Dean’s work and finally reading the full story.

While I enjoy this kind of research, I appreciate not everyone is willing to read endless pages of Wikipedia lists. If you’re trying to track down a book, there are a number of places online (GoodReads and Reddit spring to mind) where you can put details of the book you’re trying to find and ask if anyone knows what it is. But if it features 4 children and an imaginary land, be prepared for every answer to be Narnia 🙂

Next Time: I will actually go out in the cold and look for a book, I swear. I’m thinking something from Classics, or the Oddments box.