Review – The Table of Less Valued Knights

Cover of The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie PhillipsThe Table of Less Valued Knights, Marie Phillips

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this one when I requested it. On the one hand, I love Arthuriana and I have enjoyed several loose interpretations of it, even humorous/light-hearted ones. On the other hand, I’m not very good at humour myself, and can be a bit snooty about anything that messes too much with my views on Arthuriana.

It turns out, I really enjoyed it, and read it in pretty much one go. I love that while there is humour, it’s pretty gentle: it doesn’t single out any character as a laughing stock, and the characters aren’t there just to be laughed at. They’re still people, with goals of their own, and they’re likeable people at that. I somewhat feared Sir Humphrey would just be a laughable oaf, but he turns out to be a good guy even if he doesn’t subscribe to the kind of honour culture the Round Table stands for.

It is all very modern and anachronistic: there’s customs officials between the kingdoms, for example, for the sake of absurdity. There’s also pretty liberal views on LGBT people, including a knight who prefers to be called Gwendoline, and a gay relationship driving part of the plot.

All in all, it’s fun, and I’m really glad I read it. The tone is maybe reminiscent of Gerald Morris, albeit for adults, but otherwise it’s quite a fresh take on the idea of Camelot.

Rating: 4/5

Advertisement

Thursday Thoughts: Spoilers

This week’s Thursday Thoughts topic is spoilers. Now, I am weird about spoilers. I tend to want to know everything’s going to turn out okay, so I like spoilers in that sense, but… then there’s the problem I have with Supernatural, where things don’t turn out okay, or don’t stay okay for very long. I haven’t watched past early season five because of this, because just — my precious babies. So I’m somewhat the same with books. If it’s triggering my anxiety at all, I definitely look up spoilers (and find myself wishing book bloggers would just spill the beans, sometimes).

There are various studies actually showing that knowing spoilers doesn’t spoil a story for most people, which is interesting. For me, well, my academic focus was Arthuriana. I think everyone knows what happens there, the star-crossed lovers, etc, etc. I this for me that’s a lovely example of the way spoilers can’t spoil a story. You know what’s going to happen, you just don’t know exactly how, and you don’t know how the characters will react minute by minute. Some versions of the Arthurian story move me to tears (John Steinbeck, I’m looking at you), while some make me wish I believed in burning books (Marion Zimmer Bradley). And yet, it’s basically the same story; it has the same bones.

I’m a big fan of fairytales, too, and that’s the same sort of deal. You know that Sleeping Beauty’s going to prick her finger on a spindle, whether real or metaphorical, and fall into an enchanted sleep. It’s how exactly it’s going to come about that you read for.

On the other hand, I’m dodging Age of Ultron spoilers right and left while still trying to gawp at the pictures of the Avengers’ new outfits, so I guess it depends on the media. Knowing spoilers for some things will stop me from watching, not only because I’m nervous for the characters, but also if I know I’m going to be embarrassed for them. Early season three of NCIS, I’mma looking at you.

No Throwback Thursday this week because I was working too hard today to have time to set it up. (Aka, now you know my secret — I throw most of my posts together last minute.)

Nothing says I love you like a book

No matter what the occasion, I try to buy people a book. It means some adaptation, and buying books I don’t normally buy — paranormal romance for my sister, certain types of non-fiction for my dad, violent crime fiction for one of my ex-housemates — but I do like to think about it, to pick out something that just fits. (I have one major failure: my best friend since childhood, Laura. Craft books, yes, but anything you could settle down and read… she doesn’t have the time/patience for it unless she’s on holiday, and then her taste is for chick lit type stuff. Hm, an idea strikes…) Luckily, a lot of people around me share my taste: Amy, my partner, my mum, to a great extent my sister.

So yeah, you know I love you when I come home from the charity shop glowing with glee and a stack of books carefully picked out just to suit your taste. My former housemates should be pretty familiar with this situation.

Anyway, I thought I’d share a couple of my happily united book couple successes — and then, if you like, you can comment with a book and some facts about someone, and see whether I can think of something.

For Dad: You Are Not So Smart, by David McRaney. Because whether he likes it or not, some of it is very relevant to things he believes about himself. Granted, he probably didn’t see it that way, but he did carry the book around with him from Christmas to the New Year. He’s a non-fiction reader, gave up on fiction a long time ago, but his knowledge tends to be widespread and general, so I always try to aim for something like this, rather than something super-technical.

For Mum: The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay. The Fionavar Tapestry and Tigana came first, I think, but it was Lions that had her texting me at three in the morning from Italy or Spain or whatever fancy conference she was at. (This is reciprocal more than any other book-giving relationship I have: she introduced me to Isaac Asimov, Robin Hobb and Dorothy L. Sayers, among others.)

For Squirt (my sister): The most memorable occasion was when I handed over her first Alastair Reynolds book, Century Rain. She’s been a fan ever since, and it actually kickstarted her into doing a lot more reading. I think her trust for my taste began at that moment. We actually went to a reading/signing by Alastair Reynolds, and her knees were practically knocking with nerves — my fierce little sister’s knees were knocking!

For the girlfriend: Occasionally I try and break her heart with stuff like Civil War: Iron Man, but mostly I’m nice and push books like The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern) and A Face Like Glass (Frances Hardinge) her way. One of our oldest literary successes was The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper). There was also Robin McKinley’s Sunshine and Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry, and more recently Jo Walton’s work you can see we share very similar taste in books. On the other hand, Cherie Priest’s Bloodshot and Hellbent bored her to death, where I love love love loved them, so it’s not all perfect.

For Amy (former housemate): The biggest hit was Garth Nix’s work. It’s now become a yearly Christmas tradition: a Garth Nix book or series, every year. He’ll need to write more, soon, or I’m doomed. Given that Amy’s dyslexic, Spellwright by Blake Charlton could’ve gone either way, but she ended up liking it.

For Ruth (former housemate): This was a lucky one. She mentioned being interested in the Tudors and particularly Lady Jane Grey. I found Alison Weir’s Innocent Traitor a couple of days later in a charity shop.

For Lynn E. O’Connacht: I can’t actually remember anything specific here, but we’ve traded books fairly frequently, starting with her sending me King Arthur’s Death (trans. Brian Stone), which contains the alliterative and stanzaic Morte Arthure poems. Anna Elliott’s Twilight of Avalon is another Lynn sent me.

So… yeah. If I love you, expect a book this Christmas (if I can get you anything at all, which is a different matter).

Reading and rereading

I was thinking about the sort of content I can post here, and how to make sure there’s always some content going up at least once a week. I’ve pretty much decided that all reviews of ARCs will go up here, and any reviews of books I found particularly interesting. There’ll also be some giveaways, I’ll have my readathon progress posts here, and then there’ll be posts like this one: random topics related to books.

And what is this post about? Well, I was thinking today that I couldn’t actually pick my ten favourite books ever. But I could tell you the ten books/series I reread most. I am a rereader: it never actually occurred to me that was an odd thing until someone on Goodreads treated the idea with scorn. But while there’s so many books out there for me to get round to reading, there’s always more to find in the books I’ve already read — at least the good ones. So without further ado, and in no particular order because it already pains me to come up with a top ten in the first place…

(Well, okay, a bit extra ado — I’m adding links to reviews of these on Goodreads. If you have an account, I would super appreciate you clicking the like button there, if you do like them. It helps me get more ARCs, etc.)

#1 – The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

As a kid, I loved The Hobbit, and agitated for the day when my mother would let me read LotR. When she finally did, I was hooked. I probably read it at least once a year ’til I was about sixteen, and then I sort of caught the general bug going round about the various things wrong with Tolkien and lost interest. For a while. It was Ursula Le Guin’s essays in The Wave in the Mind that got me thinking about Tolkien again, and rediscovering his work; it was my MA that really got me digging into it. And god, guys, there’s so much there. I can actually understand people who find it boring, people who are troubled by his (lack of) portrayals of women, of non-white people, etc. But the sheer scale of the world he created, the seriousness he treated it with, I can’t help but love. I’ve reread LotR twice this year, I think — and I’m partway through a third time.

Reviews (from when I read the three books in twenty-four hours!): The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King.

#2 – Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay

Or probably just about anything by GGK. I actually usually have a problem getting into his books in the first place: his style takes some getting used to, for me, and some aspects of it annoy me (especially in his early novels). I love the world of Tigana, though, the characters and their intense feelings, the criticisms of colonialism that’re going on, and the way that he makes no promises of a happy ending. He walks a line of moral ambiguity quite well, allowing you to sympathise with both sides of the fight (at least in most cases; there is one unequivocal villain, but he isn’t really at the emotional heart of the story anyway).

Review.

#3 – The Dark is Rising Sequence, Susan Cooper

I suspect people who know me well are probably surprised this wasn’t the first one that came into my mind. I’m kind of surprised, too. I first experience The Dark is Rising through the BBC radio adaptation of the second book of the sequence — the cast was excellent, just perfect, and it gave me chills. I didn’t actually read the series until I was older, maybe about fifteen. And then I fell in love. It helps that the last two books are set in Wales. People who claim it’s morally black and white aren’t reading closely enough: there’s an absolutely lovely scene between John Rowlands and Will Stanton where they talk about that very issue, and conclude that while the Light and the Dark are like that, humanity is all shades in between.

The Arthurian elements help, too.

Reviews: Over Sea, Under Stone, The Dark is Rising, Greenwitch, The Grey King, Silver on the Tree.

#4 – Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, Dorothy L. Sayers

Particularly Strong Poison and Gaudy Night, where Peter and Harriet first meet and where Harriet finally agrees to marry Peter, respectively. I have a huge soft spot for all forms of this: the books, the tv series, the radio adaptations… Edward Petherbridge and Ian Carmichael were both such perfect Peters in different ways. When I was in hospital recovering from having my gallbladder removed, and I was having serious panic attacks (my blood oxygenation % was in the low 80s, I believe), they wouldn’t let my mother stay with me, so she put a Peter Wimsey audiobook on and left it by my pillow. I have no idea which book it was or even which narrator, though I think it was Edward Petherbridge, but I closed my eyes and focused on that and up came my blood oxygenation levels. Like magic. I love that Peter is mentally ill (PTSD), I love that he’s such an ass but he cares so much, I love his relationship with Harriet… the mysteries are second for me to the characters.

Selected reviews: Clouds of Witness, Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night.

#5 – Sunshine, Robin McKinley

If you can read this and not end up craving cinnamon rolls and all such things, I don’t think you’re human. I love that here we have a vampire who is a good guy and is still unsettling as anything. It’s not easy for him and Sunshine to get along — and Sunshine is a strong heroine and a real person who is scared and unsure and doesn’t know what the heck is going on, and doesn’t want to. Sometimes, she even does really stupid stuff. But you’re with her all the way, anyway.

Review.

#6 – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, anonymous

My partner refuses to read this on the grounds that if she didn’t like this, I’d probably break up with her. It’s not quite true, but I would be pretty upset. I didn’t think that much of it… and then I did a module devoted to it during my BA. We focused closely on the language, picking apart all of it for the rich tapestry of allusions and influence and… It’s just genius, and it’s awfully fun to read aloud, too. My favourite translation is probably the least accurate one, by Simon Armitage, but there are several other good ones. I own at least seven different translations, plus one with the original Middle English.

Selected reviews: Simon Armitage’s verse translation, J.R.R. Tolkien’s verse translation, W.R.J. Barron’s prose translation.

#7 – The Inheritance Trilogy, N.K. Jemisin

The first time I started reading this, I finished the first book that evening and pounced on the next book as soon as I could. I love the diversity in these books — race, gender, ability, sexuality, class… I just fell in love with the world right away, and never looked back. I’m less of a fan of her Dreamblood duology, but The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and its sequels are wonderful. She has a real knack with creating interesting narrators, and with telling a story that’s gripping and involving even if you don’t 100% like the characters. I would happily buy any of Jemisin’s work without even stopping to check the blurb, in future.

Reviews: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, The Kingdom of Gods.

#8 – The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, John Steinbeck

It actually starts out fairly weak, but as Steinbeck found his voice, he began to make the stories really live for me. They’re amusing and tender and fresh all at once — and yes, freshness is kind of hard when you’re working in the Arthurian tradition, especially when you’re retelling a specific version (in this case, Malory). This is one of the few versions of the story where I sympathise with Guinevere and Lancelot. Steinbeck never finished or properly edited this, and yet it’s still so powerful… I’d be almost scared to read it if he’d finished it. I’d definitely cry.

Review.

#9 – FAKE, Sanami Matoh

This was one of the first series of manga I ever read, and one of the first LGBT stories I ever came across outside of fandom. I loved Dee and Ryo and the development of their relationship, and when I’m feeling down, I often feel tempted to grab the first volume and dive right back in. What I really liked is that it isn’t just about how much Dee wants to bone Ryo: they take care of each other, they have personal crises and work crises, and they fight crime. And they fall in love. And it’s funny.

(I don’t have a good review to link to, for this series.)

#10 – Sword at Sunset, Rosemary Sutcliff

Technically, I’d be happy to read the whole series over and over again, but the arc from The Eagle of the Ninth is pretty tangential in this book — I wouldn’t be surprised if most people don’t notice it. I love the relationships in this book, the way that Gwenhwyfar and Arthur so honestly try to love one another, the way that Bedwyr and Arthur (and most of Arthur’s men, in fact), so palpably love one another. The intensity of that friendship… well, it can definitely be read as bordering on homoerotic. It’s also heart-wrenching, and just… the whole thing is beautiful.

Review.

And I could go on… I won’t, though. I will add two books that I suspect will make this list in future, though.

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern: I thought it was just gorgeous, the language and the ideas and the imagery and the relationships and the magic and, and, and…
A Face Like Glass, Frances Hardinge: It actually reminded me of The Night Circus, for a younger audience, in some undefinable way, that same sense of magic and wonder. I loved every scrap of it. I bought it on a whim and read it all in one go, and then started buying copies for everyone else — and asked for Hardinge’s other books for Christmas without even checking the blurbs, which is pretty rare for me. They’re still sat on my shelf, waiting for when I really deserve a treat…

The minute I post this, I will realise I’ve left someone off and agonise about who I could strike out to add them in. In fact, make that before I’ve even posted it — obviously Ursula Le Guin deserves to be in the list, probably more than a few of the others. The Earthsea Quartet is another of those series I could read over and over. My favourite thing about it is probably the way that throughout the stories, Le Guin recognises what she’s lacking (female characters, female power) and begins to critique her own work through adding to it.

You see what I did there? I snuck in thirteen books/series in all. Hah.