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Books review: What to read in January

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Books review: What to read in January
From a collection of magical novellas to the story of the end of the Enlightenment, these are the books you should read this month

Maiden, Mother, Crone by Joanne Harris

Maiden, Mother, Crone is a collation of three previously published novellas with three new short stories, all based on The Child Ballads, a collection of English and Scottish folk tales dating as far back as the 13th century. The stories have everything you want from an old folk tale: love, revenge, magic, mystery and that glorious quality of an un-Disneyfied fairytale grim tragedy. These are by no means faithful retellings of the tales, but as Harris tells us in the introduction, “stories that cannot change are doomed to die and to be forgotten.”
"The stories have everything you want from an old folk tale: love, revenge, magic, mystery and grim tragedy"
The first tale, “A Pocketful of Crows”, tells of a “travelling” girl—both in the usual sense, and in the ability to leap into other creatures and travel inside of them. She falls in love with a handsome prince and allows herself to be tamed, losing her magic and freedom. Of course, he breaks her heart and she’s then left powerless and heartbroken—but not for long.
Joanne Harris
The second novella, “The Blue Salt Road”, is about the selkie folk, who shift between seal and human. In this story, Harris allows herself a much more modern ending—not quite happy, but certainly more diplomatic than any versions I’ve come across. I won’t give it away, but the story is a delightful combination of selfish, guttural cruelty and empathy for all.
"This is perfect chilly winter reading, evoking stories told by the fireside, passed from one generation to the next"
In the third novella, titled “Orfeia”, Harris throws the text away a little. Loosely following a couple of ballads, and vaguely reminiscent of the Orpheus myth, it’s the only story set in the 21st century, although it quickly swerves into the fantastical with only a mention or two of a modern London.
Each main plot is followed by a complementary short story, often simply a different version of the same ballad, giving a glimpse of how many ways each tale could be told; how un-possessive the author must be with stories that have been around in one form or another for hundreds of years. This is perfect chilly winter reading, evoking images of stories told by the fireside and passed from one generation to the next. 
9781399614009
Maiden, Mother, Crone by Joanne Harris is published in hardback by Gollancz at £25

The End of Enlightenment by Richard Whatmore

This is not a book for beginners. If you only have a vague knowledge of the Enlightenment, just about know that the French had a revolution, and take most of your facts about the USA’s independence from Hamilton, you will be lost. Whatmore spares little thought for the amateur enthusiast who would need a thorough glossary to explain Smith’s mercantile system, Hume’s perfect commonwealth, and Rousseau’s social contract, as well as all the pre- and proceeding wars, the monarchy changes, and whatever was going on in the Dutch Republic, Spain and Italy. 
"If you already know your Brissot from your Burke, your Pitt from your Petty, this is an exhaustive and fascinating read"
On the other hand, if you already know your Brissot from your Burke, your Pitt from your Petty, this is an exhaustive and fascinating read on how the Enlightenment came to a bleak and grizzly end.
Whatmore takes us through each of the major voices remaining at the tail-end of the Enlightenment, exploring their origins and the philosophical journeys each of them necessarily took as the volatile politics of the late 1700s scuppered their beautiful ideals.
Edmund Burke
While each man and woman claims to fly the Enlightenment flag, it’s fascinating how at odds they were on major subjects such as slavery, colonialism and monarchy. That being said, it’s also interesting how much they claimed to be at odds over differences that now seem subtle to the point of non-existent.
There are also some major inconsistencies in argument: Burke, for example, “was horrified at the upsurge of xenophobic patriotism” while also accusing Native Americans of being “cannibals and torturers”; Wollstonecraft argued that while a woman was equal to a man, her place was firmly domestic, all this argued while she herself was propositioning a married couple with a ménage à trois. Whatmore doesn’t really spend much time analysing these hypocrisies, presumably because they’re clear as day, but it might have been interesting to see them all laid side by side, just so we could see quite how unfinished and abstract each of these philosophers’ and polemicists’ ideas were.
It’s amazing that the Enlightenment is such a vast subject that even a book simply covering its very end is absolutely rammed with facts and ideas. If you take nothing else from this book, you will at least understand how little you understand. 
The End of Enlightenment - jacket
The End of Enlightenment by Richard Whatmore is published in hardback by Allen Lane at £30
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