Category Archives: Books

Book A Day Challenge Week 4

The final week. Only two months late. Fail. But still, now I can go back to normal blog posts that will hopefully happen a bit more frequently. I heard there was a second one running through July. Haha. Jog on, son.

Day 22 – Out of print

The Log of the Ark – Kenneth Walker (illus. G Boumphrey)

log of the ark

This is a lovely children’s book from 1923, though I first read it when I was already an adult. It is a different take on the story of Noah’s Ark, featuring talking animals and a few now sadly extinct species such as Luminous Puffins and Wumpety-Dumps. It is funny and heart-breaking and beautifully explains why some animals hunt others. All the animals start off as friends, but by the end of the journey (through the slimy, nefarious deeds of the Scub) tensions are mounting… If you ever find a copy; grab it. The one on our shelf is falling apart from numerous re-reads.

 

Day 23 – Made to read at school

Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

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Writing essays about books often ruins them forever, but I still think fondly about Far From the Madding Crowd. I’m not desperate to read it again, mind, but when you wade through the bucolic idyll there’s some weighty issues in there. Illegitimacy, women’s lib, sex and death and obsession… it’s all there. Like the Archers before the Archers.

 

Day 24 – Hooked me into reading

Redwall – Brian Jacques

RedwallBookCover

For all I stole my sister’s books, or got in fights with her, she sometimes read to me when I was little. I have no idea why this occasionally happened. I asked her one day what she was reading, and it was Redwall and she started to read it to me. Wow, what a story! I must have been seven or eight? I could of course read for myself by then, but the Redwall series isn’t exactly light on word-count. By the time I was in secondary, I was pinching the series from her, but it was that first telling of Redwall that lit the fire of storytelling in my brain. Thank you, sister!

 

Day 25 – Never finished it

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell  – Susanna Clarke

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This would seem right up my alley, wouldn’t it? But… meh… I just couldn’t get to grips with it. It’s still on my shelf, and I keep promising to re-visit it one day. It’s survived various house moves without getting given away. This winter’s project, perhaps?

 

Day 26 – Should have sold more copies

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I have no idea. I don’t really know if the books I buy are bestsellers or not. All of the books on this list over the whole month I would implore people to buy, or borrow from somewhere. How would I even find out if they sold well? I mean, I can give you some recommendations… Twelve by Jasper Kent is for horror and history fans, Masquerade by Rivka Spicer is for dark romance and urban fans – no fifty shades stuff though – and The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is for sci-fi, modern exoticism fans.

 

Day 27 – Want to be one of the characters

Harry Potter and the… – J K Rowling

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I mean, come on, I pretty much AM Hermione Granger.

 

Day 28 – Bought at my favourite independent bookshop

Every cross stitch pattern book a person could possibly want. *pleased sigh* The below is only a selection.

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Day 29 – The one I have re-read most often

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I have a cadre of favourites that I cycle between. Ready, Player One, The Lies of Locke Lamora, Pride and Prejudice, Chocolat and Feet of Clay. Bitch got range, y’all. Above all of those though, I think I’ve probably read The Girl Guide Handbook more than anything else in my life, ever.

 

Day 30 – The book I’d save if my house were burning down

Conversations with Spirits – E O Higgins

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Like trying to decide which child to save… this was super tough. But given the rainbow-vomit review I did of this book, I had to pick it. If nothing else, he signed the darn thing, so in 100 years when my grandchildren are talking to the android of Fiona Bruce on Antiques Roadshow, hopefully it’ll help them retire to Mars. Plus it is an amazing marble statue of a book.

 

Well, that’s it, folks! Please look back over all thirty days’ worth, or trawl through the #bookadayuk hashtag on Twitter to find some great reads. My TBR pile grows larger every day…

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Book A Day Challenge Week 2

Time for the #bookadayuk week two collection!

Out of all the things that are my favourite things, books are definitely and forever top of the list. Sorry, potential future husband! I am both envious of and have sympathy for the poor people in the @boroughpress offices who are retweeting, favouriting and commenting way outside of office hours. Are you abusing some poor intern, Borough Press??? Good.

So..

Day 8 – More than one copy

JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

They put a spell on me

They put a spell on me

I own this book in three languages: English, French and Spanish. I will one day own the whole series in all three. I’m currently at Eng 7, Fr 3 and Esp 1. I am a first-gen Potter fan. I was turning eleven when book one came out and I spent all summer waiting for my letter. PS is the only book in the series (in English) that I have in paperback. I couldn’t wait for the paperback for the rest. I think waiting for the next Potter book was my introduction to the frustration of reading ongoing series.

 

Day 9 – Film or TV tie-in

Various

I read them first! Before they were pictures!

I read them first! Before they were pictures!

I tend to avoid buying books that have the film-related cover. I don’t think I have any of those! I have a fair few books that have since been made into films or TV shows, though!

 

Day 10 – Reminds me of someone I love

David Gemmell, Echoes of the Great Song

Not the original one I borrowed (which was beautiful) but the awful CGI reprint.

Not the original one I borrowed (which was beautiful) but the awful CGI reprint.

One of the first Gemmell books I read was a creased, well-thumbed paperback of Echoes that I was lent by my best friend. Whenever I read it, I think of him, and the journey we have taken together so far. Can’t wait to see where we go next.

 

Day 11 – Secondhand bookshop gem

Gaelic Self-taught

Ciamar a tha thu?

Ciamar a tha thu?

Language and learning languages is a big part of my life and now I live in the Highlands, it seems more important to tackle Gaelic (pronounced ‘gallic’ in Scotland) and this very dry, old-school, much re-printed little book will at some point be my guide. When I’m not busy doing everything else.

 

Day 12 – I pretend to have read it

Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Getting dusty

Getting dusty

I bought it, it sits on my shelf… that’s where it’s been for years. I know exactly what happens in the story, so now I never have to read it. I studied Far From the Madding Crowd at GCSE (pre-Gove) and sort of enjoyed it, so I bought Tess and now it sits there, judging me. Like buying a gym membership and never going.

 

Day 13 – One that makes me laugh

George Macdonald Fraser, The Pyrates

Always a great read, sa-ha!

Always a great read, sa-ha!

Fraser also wrote the Flashman books, if you’re thinking you know the name. My dad is a big fan and while I never got into Flashman, I did repeatedly steal The Pyrates. It’s anachronistic, farcical in places, and in a way similar in style to the Princess Bride. It takes all the best of pirate stereotypes and puts them in 1950s Technicolour. Think Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester mixed with a pinch of Carry On and The Voyages of Sinbad. It makes me laugh every time.

 

Day 14 – an old favourite

Noel Streatfeild, Ballet Shoes

Utterly charming

Utterly charming

Another one that I liberated from my sister’s shelf. I have never read any of the other Shoe books, though I often think about it. Ballet Shoes is such a charming book. It tells the story of three adopted sisters who choose a surname for themselves as they don’t belong to anyone else. They grow up in London and end up at a stage school because their guardian can’t afford to send them anywhere else. Pauline, the oldest, is blonde and blue-eyed and becomes a good actress. Posy, the youngest, is the daughter of a ballet dancer and thinks with her feet. And in the middle is Petrova who would rather make meccano models than do embroidery. The sisters grow up fast in a house full of lodgers who are needed to pay the rent. Everything turns out alright in the end of course.

 

Don’t forget to use the tag #bookadayuk if you’re joining in at home, and keeeeeep reading!

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Book A Day Challenge Week 1

If you follow me on Twitter (and if not, why not?) you’ll have seen that I’ve been taking part in the Book A Day challenge. Every day in June there was a different prompt or category of book to find. I thought I would collate my responses here, so that I could give a bit more of the stories behind each choice, as 140 characters doesn’t give me a lot of room for that.

Day 1 – Childhood favourite

Alan Garner, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

Best 4 shillings I wasn't alive to spend.

Best 4 shillings I wasn’t alive to spend.

I have posted about this book before. The copy I have is the 1963 trade paperback and it cost four shillings, back in the day. I snaffled it from my sister’s bookshelf along with the sequel, The Moon of Gomrath. I think both books were snaffled by my sister from my dad.

Why it’s a favourite: It’s a tale of two children drawn into an epic battle of good versus evil, right on their doorstep. It takes place in the real world (it actually does!) and it seeps into their mundane lives. Anyone could be an evil warlock! The owls in the barn are watchers sent by dwarves! Mineshafts are the entrances to a hidden goblin kingdom! Throughout the tale are elements of Arthurian legend, Welsh mythology and dark magic. It’s a pretty tense tale for a children’s book. It doesn’t talk down to the reader. I still read it now!

 

Day 2 – Best bargain

Clive Barker, Weaveworld

£3.95 at time of publication

£3.95 at time of publication

Clive Barker in 1988

Clive Barker in 1988

 

Apart from the picture of Clive Barker, circa 1988, in the back of the book, which was worth the £1 I paid alone, this is a stunner of a book. A whole civilisation woven into a rug to keep it safe? Some of the plot turns take a while to get your head around, and I didn’t immediately warm to Cal, the main character, but it just sucks you in and keeps going! Might have to re-read it… if only there were room on the “to-read” shelf!

 

Day 3 – A book with a blue cover

Laini Taylor, Dreams of Gods and Monsters

Can't wait to read it!!

Can’t wait to read it!!

Finally! The end of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy… I’ve not even opened it yet… it’s my latest real-book purchase. It is firmly at the top of the to-read pile. Ah, Karou… I’ve missed you! I need to hurry up and read it, because Rivka has been waiting for it too!

This prompt was based on the bookshop/library trope that people wander in and ask for “that book with the blue cover”, assuming the poor staff will know exactly what they mean.

Bonus: Here’s a round-up of all my blue-covered books! Extra points if you can name all the hidden ones at the back!

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Day 4 – Your least favourite book by your favourite author

Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride

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This one didn’t steal my heart.

I began my affair with Atwood when I yoinked my sister’s copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, aged 15. She had studied it at A Level and it was covered in her notes and highlighting. Considering the themes of the book, it was a good thing I had those annotations to help me get my teeth into the text in front of me. I’ve since read a handful of her books and though there may be books I’ve re-read more often, and books that are my favourites-of-all, Atwood is my favourite author. I love her style, I love the imagery she creates and I love her complex characters.

The Robber Bride is my least favourite of the books I’ve read. Perhaps in my desperation to read all her back catalogue I was too eager to realise that this book requires some life experience. I just didn’t engage with the characters because at the time I read it, I couldn’t really sympathise with them. My experience of love and betrayal and lies was limited at that point. My life did not revolve around matrimony and suburbia and the middle classes, which of course it totally does now I’m staring down the barrel of my late twenties. I think if I read it again I would connect with it better. I have no doubt I would best identify with Zenia.

 

Day 5 – The one that isn’t yours

Stephen King, Duma Key

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Unopened.

I confess, I have never read a Stephen King book. I have no desire to read the Dark Tower series; I don’t care how much you like them. I live extremely far away from pretty much everyone I am good friends with (before I met the good friends I made since moving) so when anyone from the time B.H. (Before Highlands) visits, it’s a heck of a trip.

Last year, one of those friends – an old uni housemate actually – hired some native guides and trekked all the way up here. She brought a couple of books with her, and she left Duma Key behind when she left. She says it’s good, but it just sits on my shelf in the living room so people think I’ve read it. She doesn’t want it back, either, as she is a bit crap at caring about her possessions. I’ll give it away eventually.

 

Day 6 – The one you always give as a gift

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

This book contains the best drawing of a sheep ever.

This book contains the best drawing of a sheep ever.

I don’t actually give books as gifts very often. I’m an extremely good gift-giver (right, J?) but on balance I’ve likely received 98% more books than I’ve given. I will give book tokens/vouchers, but people’s reading taste can be a bit too hard to judge if I don’t know them super well.

I have, however, given The Little Prince as a gift. It’s a book I own in three languages – English, French and Spanish – and one I fall in love with every time. Part of that is knowing the story of Exupéry himself, and part of that is the Prince. The story is bittersweet and timeless; a lost child in search of a way home and the adventures he has had along the way. It’s almost an Odyssey or a fairy tale. Even though I know how it ends, I still hope it will turn out differently but alas the type refuses to adjust itself.

 

Day 7 – Forgot I owned it

Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy

Gormen-ghastly to forget about it.

Gormen-ghastly to forget about it.

I am of course psychically linked to all my books, like a hivemind or a weird hoarder, so I don’t tend to forget I own books. I’m like a walking card catalogue for my precious, precious tomes. Gormenghast has been on my to-read shelf for ages, though, and my eyes tend to skip over it. Not because I don’t want to read it. No, no. I watched the BBC mini-series with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and fell hard. I am itching to read this book. I just want to do it justice. I want to have the time to read a decent chunk of it at once and not random snatches. I have read the first few chapters already. But now it languishes. That’s as close to forgotten as I get.

 

There’s still time to join in #bookaday or #bookadaychallenge on Twitter. The list of prompts is below. It’s been a great month so far and I’ve made a few literary connections already. It genuinely fills me with hope for the human race that there are other people out there in the world who enjoy language, literature and the amazing infinity of words and knowledge as much as I do (and possibly more). It sounds really twee, or insincere, but I feel like I’m part of the coolest club on Earth. And there’s still three weeks to go!

Prompts:

#bookaday

#bookaday click to enlarge

 

 

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Fairy Tales

Today, on the radio, as I drove into work, I heard that Richard Dawkins didn’t think fairy tales were good for children because it might encourage them to believe in things that weren’t real, and that they should instead focus on being cynical.

I was quite annoyed about that. Then I checked Dawkins’ Twitter feed and saw what he said.

“Interesting Q[uestion] what effect fairytales might have on children. Might foster supernaturalism. On balance more likely to help critical thinking.”

To be honest, I actually agree with him on the critical thinking front. I realised that among all the positives I could come up with about fairy stories was the idea that whatever magical content the story has (witches, dragons, magical swords, talking animals) the driving force of the story is usually if you use your brain, out-thinking the villain tends to work better than anything else. The whole point is that nothing is what it seems.

Is there usually some sword action? Yes. But the end-boss-fight tends to be preceded by the hero or heroine getting the info first. There’s a helpful old woman/bird/talking cooking pot that gives guidance and steers the protagonist away from just blundering in. I’m thinking of “How Ian Direach got the blue Falcon” or “The Princess Bella-Flor” and such stories. The hero overcomes the problems and dilemmas set before him by being brave, yes, but also by being kind and listening to wise counsel.

While writing this I was  waiting for Dawkins himself to speak on BBC World Service about the issue, and get a better idea of what he actually thinks.

What do we even class as fairy tales? The first ones that come to mind are the big obvious Disney ones: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, The Little Mermaid… the ones with wilting princesses and fairy godmothers. That’s only the tip of the iceberg. I point you towards Andrew Lang’s collections of folk tales from across the world. He tracked down and wrote up oral tales that were being lost. At home, I have the Orange Fairy Book. It has stories from Scotland and Ireland, Spain, Scandinavia… and most of those are about young people (not always children) solving problems and kicking ass. They’re practical and often brutal.

Illustration by Pogany, W. (mid 20thC)

The Goose Girl (Grimm) Illustration by Pogany, W. (mid 20thC)

Dawkins seems to be all about the quest for truth. In stories like “The Enchanted Wreath”, “The Bird of Truth” and “The Goose-girl”, self-serving, lying characters do all they can to keep the truth from coming out. Eventually it always does. Of course, the premise is usually about false brides, but I guess they’re a product of their time. The point is, it’s still relevant to modern day. The wronged party sticks to their beliefs and plugs away, seeking justice or a way to get their voice heard. The more the liars work to keep the truth from coming out, the bigger the mess, and the harsher the punishment from the King/Prince/Universe. It’s also a reminder that good people, who seem intelligent, can be taken in by smooth talking.

What about Anansi and the trickster tradition? Brer Rabbit, Reynard the Fox? Those tales are all about outsmarting your adversaries. They’re about quick wits and comeuppances.  Sometimes the trickster is the one who falls into his own trap, but that teaches its own lesson: alright, be smart… just don’t forget your social skills.

Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby

Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby

Have now heard him on World Service and made some quick bullet points from what he said.

–          Fostering supernaturalism is a downside of fairy stories

–          Fairy stories beneficial for learning there are stories that are not true: can learn to differentiate between reality and fantasy, and gives children exposure to making those judgements

–          enjoyment: good to stretch the mind beyond the mundane (he points out that science  and science fiction can also fire the imagination/curiosity)

–          Child psychology issue  – why do children stop believing in Santa/Tooth Fairy/dragons but grow into adults who still believe in God? (to be honest that is an interesting question and I say that as a Christian)

–          How do we make the distinction between frog à prince and water à wine? (in his opinion both are equally fairy stories)

So I missed his point and he didn’t mention any of mine. Dawkins is arguing that stories as whole bubbles can be used to compare fantasy with reality. Not a bad point, and I think we all go through the internal process of analysing fairy tales or doing a mental check against reality when we’re children. It doesn’t take long to get the idea that in stories dogs can talk, but Mrs Next Door’s labrador can’t. That’s a natural thing and it happens anyway. I assume that’s what he means. I don’t think he’s asking parents or teachers to make children explain or write essays stating that they understand these points. We don’t have to show children a biology textbook alongside The Frog Prince, or get them to do background research on the rich/poor divide when they’re reading The Prince and the Pauper. He’s pointing out something we do without prompting already.

On the other hand, I think he’s selling kids short. Children are not stupid. The awesome part of being a youngling of your species is your endless capacity for learning. Children are infinitely absorbent sponges of knowledge be it street-smarts or academic. They are constantly adapting to new environments and experiences. They’re like natural Borg.

Joanne Harris (oh my beloved Chocolat) is quite passionate about this today. She tweeted:

“Children instinctively understand the distinction between “telling lies” and “pretending”. Why then do some adults find it such a challenge?”

and that’s a reasonable point. Children are among the biggest, meanest cynics on the planet. Anyone with a three-year-old can attest to that. They know you don’t actually have their nose, they know exactly where you hid the chocolate biscuits, and they know that a pumpkin can’t really turn into a carriage. Perhaps because from birth (until they can decide for themselves what they want to read) they are told stories, they appreciate being in on the joke. They go along with it, perhaps because they pityingly think that you still believe, but they’re not fooled. I have been fixed with the withering stare of a small child who thinks I’m an idiot for talking – outside the context of sanctioned pretending-time – about mermaids or dragons. “Poor you,” their eyes say, “you gullible fool”, before they pat me on the hand and ask for juice. Fairy stories, or any kind of fiction really, are not lies.

That’s where the enjoyment comes in. Children (and adults too!) like to pretend. Fairy stories give all children the chance to experience high adventure, danger and excitement without the need for fancy gadgets, downloadable content, or surround sound. They don’t need to worry about if they can afford it, they don’t have to share their imagination with eight siblings like they do their toys. All they have to do is let themselves dismiss reality for a while. It’ll still be there when they come back.

I really don’t want to touch the “The Bible is (not) fiction” hornet’s nest. I am a Christian who believes in God, and I don’t mind whether you do or not, or if you believe in a different God. That’s your business, as my beliefs are mine. But objectively, Jesus feeding the five thousand with the loaves and fishes, or walking on water… neither of those would be out of place in a fairy tale. Clearly there is a whole lot more to religion and faith than that, and it isn’t the main point of this post, but I didn’t want to just gloss over it. I can see why as a non-believer it would be difficult to see the difference, is all.

The two Caskets - a story of a good sister and a lazy sister who both get exactly what their behaviour deserves!

The two Caskets – a story of a good sister and a lazy sister who both get exactly what their behaviour deserves!

Critical Thinking is indeed a skill that we should all become basically competent at, and for the most part our daily decision-making is based on it; consciously or unconsciously. But there is a lot more to the contents of the stories that Dawkins seems to acknowledge. Yes, they are enjoyable and feed the imagination, but they’re also a good way of showing:

–          in order to overcome problems you need to take action

–          evil happens where good people do nothing

–          friendship and kindness are two extremely powerful things

–          helping those in need is never wasted time

–          using your brain is often more effective than physical force

–          sitting around complaining while others do the work doesn’t go well in the long run

–          schemers and liars get their bad karma dealt out to them in spades

–          there is good advice out there, if only you listen to it

The problem with all that is of course that it is intangible and unmeasurable: you can’t quantify the emotional benefits of kindness. But I find those points just as useful life lessons as Dawkins does the power of logic and analysis. People cannot be dissected and measured; they are irrational, emotional, reactive. Fairy stories help us to work through complex issues by making them manageable. Memorable simple stories stick with us through our whole lives. If we stand up to bullies, does it matter that it’s because we remember Belle standing up to Gaston? If we are brave enough to tell our boss we found some problems with their latest awesome project, does it matter that we were inspired by the boy in the Emperor’s New Clothes?

There is room for both mine and Dawkins’ opinions on why fairy stories are beneficial: as whole constructs or for their hidden lessons, I hope we can agree that everyone – not just children – should use all available resources to make informed decisions on how they live their lives. Whether that’s scouring a narrative for implausibility or remembering that showing people kindness makes people more likely to be kind to you, isn’t it just a good thing people are thinking about it?

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Ascendent

It’s another glorious Saturday afternoon after a week of downpours, stormy rumblings, and muggy greyness. Rivka, Ivory and I have been out sunning ourselves with a pot of tea and some cake, and have returned in good spirits and ready to tackle the Saturday Night portion of the weekend.

Last weekend, Rivka bought a Game of Thrones 1-3 box set and we have been working our way through season one. I have seen season one already, but Rivka and Ivory haven’t (too busy writing!) so it’s nice to see them getting their teeth into it. We’ve all read the books (hahaha, a massive fantasy series we’ve not read between us?! Challenge accepted.) so the plot isn’t a surprise, but it’s quite fun, knowing what is coming, to go back to the beginning. Deaths so far have been minimal and boobs gratuitous.

I have not yet read A Dance With Dragons, so I’m not 100% up to date, but that’s only because I wanted to re-read the others first. The trouble is, I swept through one two and three (parts one and two) that by the time I got to A Feast for Crows again, I was sick of Westeros and started reading something else to have a break. Then I forgot what happened, again, and was bracing myself for a re-re-read. The other day I was so sick of putting everything off that I just read the book summary of AFFC so I could get on with it! Then I decided I wasn’t actually that bothered, and read the summary for ADWD as well. Mistake. I found out something really juicy and was gutted I’d spoilered myself. Now I won’t get the same OMG WHUT reaction when I read it. Patience, especially when it comes to my obsessions, is not my strong suit.

At the moment though I have been reading Robin Hobb. I have the Farseer trilogy in paperback and The Soldier Son trilogy on my Kindle, snapped up in a 0.99 sale (yay!) but her books are no less weighty than Martin or Feist. I read Assassin’s Apprentice about eighteen months ago and never got around to carrying on. Now I’m just over halfway through Royal Assassin and all wrapped up in classic high fantasy. I need it to ground myself.

I have posted before about books and using them as mood stabilisers. Reading is never just about the book for me. If I’m re-reading an old favourite it is partly to remember the time I first read it. I read Chocolat at Lent not just because the narrative spans that time frame. It reminds me of the darkness of winter evenings and chunky knitwear and the promise of spring.

Gemmell, and other high fantasy, takes me back to simpler times, and the long summers of my teens when I could literally spend a week in the holidays stretched out on my bed boxed in by a palisade of words. Sunny mornings in the garden where the grass in the shade was still slicked with dew.

So too with music. I’ve been building a “summer” playlist, but the tracks are those that take me back to different times. Some are good driving songs, others played on crackling radios in the park. Party songs and bands that had a heyday. Hearing Ocean Colour Scene and Hanson zooms me into my teens (I refuse to say “my youth” – I’m still young!) the way that Meat Loaf and the Eagles dump me smack bang into the bedroom of my first boyfriend.

Reading, writing, music… they cannot exist free of context. Ivory, I know, with her Darkness Falls books, has found catharsis in reliving difficult situations from her past. They say write about what you know. Rivka’s The Last Ancient series is set at a boarding school. Rivka went to a similar one (though presumably one without secret witches? Maybe not…). When I go back to Once Bitten I am back at uni, third year, struggling to find my feet again after a year abroad. Murder Express makes me restless, as I have mostly added to it when on the move. Quril draws together the many parts of my weird brain and makes me a little Zen.

I need those drafts. Expedition to the computer shop tomorrow. I will be writing again by this time tomorrow.

In the meantime, I feel in the mood to rearrange my bedroom furniture, though I doubt I have the motivation to empty the shelves of books and the drawers of my dresser to make them light enough to lift alone. I am yearning to rebuild my world around me. I think the sun has charged me up a little and I am stirring just like the ever-chirping birds.

Read this blog post again. I’m getting a bit eloquent. It’s spring clean time. It’s building time. It’s action stations for my insides.

 

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Intertwined and Unravelled

In spite of having two weeks off to go on adventures and get on with the mountain of stuff I have to do before the end of the month, I have of course been reading. At the time of writing, I have read two Gena Showalter books: Intertwined and Unravelled. By the time of posting (#scheduling) I might well have caved and bought the third instalment, Twisted.

I saw Unravelled in The Works and thought it looked interesting so I looked it up when I got home. Of course it was a book 2 so I had to get the book 1. I suppose you would classify them as YA books, and they’re of a supernatural nature.

The main characters are Aden and Mary Ann, who are weirdly connected in a way that as of the end of book 2 hasn’t really been explained. It partly has in terms of real world reasons, but not in terms of supernatural reasons. They are teenagers in Nowhere-specials-ville.

Mary Ann is a normal girl with a psychotherapist for a father, so she is intelligent and preppy in the classic quiet-girl way. She even has a blonde, bubbly best friend who is clearly way cooler than her! Standard.

Aden is a boy with some troubles. He’s been passed around the foster system and is labelled as an early-onset schizophrenic. He talks to himself a lot. Except he isn’t talking to himself. He’s talking to the four souls trapped in his body along with his own. Those souls each have a special power: one can timetravel, one involuntarily raises the dead, one can possess people and the last one can see death visions. Not so standard.

That would be enough of a supernatural element on its own, but Showalter also throws in first vampires and werewolves, and then ghosts and goblins and fairies and witches turn up… you’d think that would be overpowering but as Mary Ann herself says, if vampires and werewolves are real, why not everything else? And apart from the goblins (who are of course subhuman, as is tradition) they blend in to the human population more or less, so you have to know what to look for to spot one.

Anyway, the soul that predicts things (Elijah) has been giving Aden visions of a beautiful brunette that will come into his life and change everything. He sees Mary Ann one day and thinks it is her, and follows her, but this sets off a whole other supernatural event that builds nicely through the first book and spills into the second.

What I like about these characters is that there’s no soppy love triangle. People are destined for each other and they find them when they’re meant to. No one is torn between two people they really love. This cuts down on a lot of pointless moping about and leaves us free to enjoy the action. There is definitely some angst in there (there has to be when humans and supernatural races intermingle) but it doesn’t overpower the whole plot. There’s no random heart-to-heart conversations in the middle of battle, for example. Because there wouldn’t be! If you’re not totally focused on getting the job done, you won’t survive to have that Feels conversation.

While there are some comforting standards in these books (the supernatural are arrogantly superior to puny humans!) Showalter throws in some twists that keep things grounded and more gritty than a pure Twilight fantasy. I can’t even think of a time when I thought to myself “why the hell would s/he do/say THAT?!” so that should give you a clue. I am intrigued by how things turn out in book three, and whether there is or ever will be a book four. Oh wait, no, there was one character who had really weird motivations that made no sense. Someone is out for revenge on someone who didn’t do anything to them. There’s a bit of an Elder Wand situation re: King of the Vampires and someone who lost seems to have forgotten who they lost to.

I’m warning you, Showalter, if I get to the end of book three and there’s a cliffhanger and no book four forthcoming… I’ll slip through Fairy Tale and out into your closet and FIND YOU.

You can find Intertwined here (Kindle edition).

You can follow Gena Showalter on Twitter here.

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Conversations with Spirits

The Higgins version of “based on a true story”

“You saw a medium?”

“Several.”

“Did she make contact?”

“My wife? Yes, once…” I replied, “with the aid of a Mrs. Trubshawe, when I visited her in her lodgings in Bow.”

“And what message did she have for you?”

“She advised me to pay Mrs. Trubshawe sixpence. And when I asked why her voice sounded so different, I was informed that in the afterlife everyone has a cockney accent.”

(Chapter II – The Redoubtable Harry Price)

I first read part of Conversations with Spirits on a website called jottify.com where I used to be a member. It’s a site for writers to post their work and get comments and if they have finished stuff they could put it up for sale for ebooks and stuff. The author, E O Higgins, got the book picked up by Unbound and pushed for pledges. I pledged. I got a signed first edition.

Higgins and I regularly exchange witticisms (his are usually wittier) on Twitter and that makes talking about his book a little weird. I know I talk about Rivka’s books a lot but we live together and I cheerfully tell her the reactions her books give me. She writes quite emotive and stormy stuff. Spirits is altogether a more genteel affair. And I mean that in a good way.

I mentioned that I had been reading it in the bath. I consider such behaviour a little decadent. I never used to get the “reading in the bath” thing. But Spirits is a sumptuous book that deserves to be savoured. The opening line…

“I AWOKE IN the shadow of Sibella, the crumpled blackness of her crinoline dress hovering lightly before   me…”

(Chapter I – A Working Man)

it’s going to be iconic. It rolls around your brain like the first mouthful of a delightful scotch tickles the tongue. I always say that Chocolat is the book I wish I’d written, and that’s still true, but Conversations with Spirits is the book I wish I could paint onto myself like a full bodystocking tattoo. That one sentence fits the tone of the whole book: Sibella hovers with a shadowy form (from Hart’s dishevelled perspective) like an impatient spirit.

Set in 1917, it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Trelawney Hart is a drifting, cynical alcoholic with the brain of a cold hearted materialist. It is very easy to forget how young he actually is. I had a shock when I remembered Hart is only thirty-two, given his hard drinking and railroading speeches. He acts older than his years but then he has suffered: his upbringing was clinical and he has lost his wife (a large part of the need for drink). He lies and he bluffs and he stumbles (literally at times) from insult to injury to indignation in his quest to prove that there is nothing supernatural going on in Broadstairs. Hart has been engaged to witness and scrutinise a potential miracle: a man called J P Beasant walking through ten feet of solid brickwork.

The book involves the quite real personages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Price, the rise in popularity of mediums and spiritualists, and the academic conflict between the Materialist (realist/scientific) and the Spiritualist movements. Higgins wisely chooses to keep to the miracles end of things and steers clear of too much ghostly haunting of a sheets and chains kind. Those talkative spirits are both the liquor-induced whispers of memory and guilt that Hart is desperately trying to drown as well as the messages from beyond he delights in debunking. Hart scoffs at the supernatural and decries all mediums and psychics as being charlatans, but is (wilfully) ignorant that he is being haunted by his memories of Katherine. His refusal to acknowledge his turmoil does not make it any less real.

The spirits/spirits theme is there from the off

The spirits/spirits theme is there from the off

We know from the beginning, when Hart meets Price on the train, that of course it won’t be a miracle. There is a nice bit of foreshadowing where Hart demonstrates his powers of reasoning to explain a simple conjuring trick that Price performs that allows the reader to truly appreciate Hart’s disdain for anything irrational, including the behaviour of ordinary people. As the details of Hart’s education and upbringing splurge out in lumps when he’s feeling particularly callous or annoyed, we come to understand why Doyle compares him to Sherlock Holmes. There is no doubt that however carefully this spectacle is staged, Hart will figure it out and expose it. But it isn’t a straightforward journey.

The narrative is in the first person, making this fervent denial even more gripping. Going back to the opening, to Sibella, to the only woman in the book to have true substance, her concern (and affection) is seen from Hart’s perspective as nosiness and unwelcome interference. It is Sibella who arranges the first meeting with Doyle and who packs Hart’s luggage, though he is less than appreciative:

SIBELLA, IN HER usual marmish fashion, had packed a carpet-bag for me containing some fresh linens and toilet equipment. For whatever reason, she likes to do these things, and I have realised— perhaps a little late in our association— that it was easier just to accept these foibles. Not requiring the extra burden, however, it was my plan to deposit the bag in the Left Luggage office at Victoria railway station, should time permit it.

(Chapter II – The Redoubtable Harry Price)

She responds to Hart with lashing sarcasm and it is only after “four days of feminine criticism” on her part that he emerges from the first chasm of his grief following his wife’s death. As the book unfolds, it becomes clear how dependant Hart is on her: she even helps to organise and write up his manuscripts when she’s not busy making him get off the floor and drink something other than brandy. Though Hart blearily dismisses her caretaking as “mawkish” and “sentimental”, it does seem to occur to him that he appreciates her in his own way. After all, for a woman he is constantly criticising, he thinks about her a lot during the weekend.

It is Hart’s interactions with others – seen from his own clearly superior perspective – that give the book its best moments. He matches wits with Conan Doyle, finally getting a puissant last word that led to a full on chortle (which I won’t spoil); toys with Horrocks the long-suffering Hyperborea Club barman in full abuse of his social standing; and generally bullies his way through any situation. Hart is infuriating at times in the best possible way. He made me smile and cringe and snicker and glower so if nothing else this book gives the face a full workout. He isn’t necessarily a likeable character, but you can’t dislike him either. He is a person suffusing pathos and bedraggled pride from every brandy-clogged pore.

With a reluctant smile, Doyle added: “Between ourselves, I have always considered Knighthoods to be the badge of the provincial mayor.”

Nodding absently, I muttered: “I understand completely. I rarely ask people to use my title either.”

There was a moment’s pause within the carriage. Finally, Doyle leant forward in his chair: “Your title?”

“Oh? Didn’t you know?” I returned mildly. “I’m the eighth Duke of Roxburghe.”

(Chapter X – A Departure)

Beasant himself, the miracle worker, is a slightly pathetic figure that seems uncomfortable with the glare of the spotlight in which he has found himself. He is not a charismatic and flamboyant showman who is going to perform a spectacle; he is reserved and self-deprecating. Hart is not impressed with him when they meet by chance, though he manages to wangle an invitation to a small private séance anyway. Beasant reminds me of Sybill Trelawney from Harry Potter, in that it seems he does have a hint of real talent, revealed only subtly at first as he makes claims of a spirit guide and disembodied voices that Hart dismisses as the usual spiel.

Events at the séance, however, unsettle even a dyed-in-the-wool realist like Hart, and he later dreams of his wife. He wakes after the dream ends with his teeth falling out. It is a common theme of dreams but I doubt Higgins chose it at random. Losing teeth in dreams apparently represents feelings of powerlessness and difficulty dealing with loss, telling lies, and possibly even that the dreamer places all their faith and belief in the tangible and rejects the spiritual. Sounds about right. Thought you could sneak that one in, Higgins? I’m onto you.

Hart’s companion for most of the narrative is the bedraggled Billy Crouse, Ramsgate native, who is pressed into becoming Hart’s local ‘guide’. The two of them spend a lot of time drinking, though Billy is more used to cheap and nasty concoctions than the good stuff Hart is fond of. Hart feels sympathy for Billy as he too has lost his wife, and really the only thing that separates them is social class: Billy was a joiner while Hart is the son of a Colonel and by his own admission doesn’t work. Hart has been sheltered in the Hyperborea Club while Billy has been reduced to a vagrant. Their paths intersect and while Hart’s influence appears to be doing Billy some good – he can afford to eat properly and he has new clothes – Hart deteriorates through the weekend in both health and spirit.

Billy has a quiet dignity and a firm moral compass – he doesn’t like Hart lying to Beasant – but he knuckles under to Hart’s upper class bluster and becomes a useful gofer. He is also more intelligent than people give him credit for, including a sharp sense of humour. And of course he gets he best line in the whole book:

I blinked across at Billy, who was looking very intently at me. Finally, he broke the silence in the room and, in an anxious tone, uttered:

“You had your honeymoon en Basingstoke?”

(Chapter VIII – Lost Souls)

I was in the bath for that one.

So why do I want this book to be tattooed on me forever? Well, the language and vocabulary are stunning. When I read the first chapters on jottify it was clear that this was Higgins’s soul between the lines. The pages are dense with detail including newspaper articles and the manuscript of Doyle’s draft report following the ‘miracle’. No one ejaculates, but there is some hallooing which is always welcome. The tone wavers between condescending and self-pitying, with brief stops in arch and wry. Each word has clearly been chosen with care and with an attention to register and structure that frankly beggars belief. It has been sculpted. It has been honed. It is so worth it. There is not one wasted syllable in this book. It’s the leanest sirloin you could hope for.

You may remember I’m a less than staunch supporter of Neil Gaiman and his works quite often have a similarly super-edited quality to them, but the difference for me is that Higgins doesn’t get pretentious about it. Or maybe the whole book is so damned pretentious it’s hard to see the wood for the trees. But I don’t think so. The strength of the character voice and the eloquent language reminds me of Memoirs of a Geisha. The attention to period detail is luxuriant. From the brandy bottle bedecked endpapers to the excellent note about the font at the back of the print edition (I love this kind of education in my books) the only fault I can find is that it ends…

According to the man himself, paperbacks will be available from February 2014

Learn more about E O Higgins at his website or follow him on Twitter.

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