books

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a surprisingly short book, for modern fantasy. Or perhaps I just read it particularly fast. I seemed to be completely immersed for a brief moment, then I emerged into the sunlight again and it was all over. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it.

This is a novel about childhood (and myths, and books). The different priorities, different realities, of children and adults. It’s about deeper truths, small pleasures, and what happens as we grow up (or grow older, anyway). The vast majority of the book is told from a seven year old boy’s point of view, as remembered by his middle-aged self; childlike, with a grown-up veneer. It’s a dark fairytale bordering on horror story, with a wonderfully British cosiness round the edges. It’s about a little boy, befriended by the older girl down the lane who claims her family’s duckpond is an ocean.

If you much preferred American Gods to Stardust, then you might not be immediately grabbed by this as it’s closer to the spirit of the latter than the former, I would say. If you’ve never read any Neil Gaiman but enjoyed John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things, or even Lisey’s Story by Stephen King, give The Ocean at the End of the Lane a go. Vivid imagery and a rattling pace, with a poignant core.

Shaking up and looking back

Has it really been almost six years since I started this blog? This is not the first but it is the biggest overhaul I’ve done (new theme, new pages, new layout). My publications list is grouped differently, to make it easier to find what you’re looking for. I have pages to showcase each of my books (and wordclouds to summarise each story in The Little Book of Northern Women). There is a page for comics I’ve done as part of Ostragoth Publishing – you can even download the comics for free so if you ‘don’t do comics’ you can give them a go without wasting anything except a tiny chunk of your time. It’s like sharpening all my pencils when I should be writing, only a bit higher tech.

While I was rearranging though I started reading back through some old posts and reminding myself what I’ve been up to since 2008. Mainly writing stories it seems, or reading, sometimes reading about writing. Occasionally listening to music or having a good old rant about politics or class. Or education (usually in relation to class but also gender). If you’ve taken the cue from my first post and been out to spot facts along the way, you may have picked up that I’m from Yorkshire, I’m a socialist, I listen to a lot of rock and metal (including what now gets called hair metal and I probably used to call glam), I’m opinionated and I’m fond of history.

I’ve posted over 50 book reviews, apparently – you can read them all via the book review tag in the tag cloud. There’s fantasy, science fiction, short story collections, graphic novels, history. Works in translation, e-books and physical books, books set in Yorkshire. Books I want everyone to read, and books I didn’t even make it all the way through. That will continue – I’ve already written a couple more reviews that I haven’t posted yet.

There are definite themes on this blog. My lack of organisation, for instance, which gets a mention back in November 2008, progresses to the use of a calendar in 2011, and yet we’re firmly back in disorganised territory by May this year (despite the pink diary I got for Christmas). Also accents, dialect and their rendering in print (usually in terms of someone having annoyed me. Maybe another theme is me getting annoyed about things). I’ve trumpeted my successes, bemoaned the odd failure (and the advent of the ConDem coalition) and indulged in bah-humbuggery each Christmas.

By far the most-viewed post has been the one I wrote in March 2011 about The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart (Yorkshire, class, education and history all at the same time!), though sadly the one I wrote in response to a poor BBC programme about culture in The North in 1960 has been largely overlooked.

So, whether you’re a regular visitor or this is the first time you’ve stumbled into my literary domain, have a look around – there’s plenty to go at. Leave me a comment, let me know what you do or don’t like on the blog, or come and say hello on twitter.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

Not so long ago my dad expressed amazement that I hadn’t read The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, a staple of working-class literature. Being, if not quite a dutiful daughter, at least frequently guided by his reading recommendations, I downloaded the ebook from ManyBooks.

This 1910 novel follows for a year or so a group of painters and decorators in the South of England, from the teenage apprentice to the old men with failing eyesight, as they work for or are sacked in turn by Rushton’s. Every profiteering trick is exposed, from Rushton charging the house-holder for more coats of paint than have been used, to hiring general labourers (cheap rates) for a skilled job or sacking skilled workers then, knowing they’re desperate for work, re-hiring them at reduced rates. The philanthropy referred to is the selfless drive to increase Rushton’s profits, shown by almost all of the workers we meet in the book.

A distressing picture of working-class life at the time is portrayed, similar to that seen in Seebohm Rowntree’s study of York from a few years earlier, so it was presumably widespread. Families facing destitution no matter how hard they work, trapped by colluding employers and greedy landlords. Illness and malnourishment as a way of life, and the upper and middle classes so out of touch, with their let them eat cake attitudes. To say I enjoyed The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists would seem wrong – it made me angry, frustrated, and gave me a frightening glimpse into the lives of my Edwardian ancestors – but I’m glad I read it.

Tressell was a socialist and the way he portrays the bosses and the conniving town councillors (mainly, of course, the same group of people) might be straying into caricature. However, through the character of Owen being persuaded to deliver lectures on socialism to his workmates on rainy lunchtimes (we could do with a laugh – tell us again why money’s the cause of poverty, ha ha) he argues persuasively for an alternative system and I defy anyone to read it and say his ideas aren’t logical (you are, naturally, free to disagree with it on principle). The sad thing is we achieved so much of it (the NHS, the welfare state, nationalised railways) and now it’s being dismantled again, so that some of the book has modern echoes. Some cynics would say there’s been a deliberate policy to return us to the days of Tressell and his mates, but I’m not sure if it isn’t one of those ‘don’t attribute to malice what incompetence can explain’ situations. That and let them eat cake.

The other thing he has a go at in the novel is (as Ruskin often does) the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed Christians, congratulating themselves for attending church or chapel every Sunday yet with a ready excuse for any suggestion of Christ’s that doesn’t suit them. Things like giving charity, loving neighbours, not being a selfish and exploitative money-grabbing hardcase.

Although it’s making a strong political point, this is an engaging novel with quite a sprinkling of humour and biting satire, and I found myself wanting to know what happened to the characters. It is a bit old-fashioned in its delivery and its use of pointed names (Sir Graball D’Encloseland, Mr Sweater, Mr Grinder, Crass the foreman), but if you’re generally happy reading Victorian or Edwardian novels that shouldn’t bother you. Even if (especially if?) you’re not a lefty of historical bent, I would urge you to give this book a go.

Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer

Alex Lomax is the only private detective on Mars, scraping a living under the protective dome of New Klondike. Like all the best fictional private detectives he’s got a nice line in wisecracks, an eye for the ladies and a reputation that precedes him. New Klondike likewise is a typical frontier town full of fossil-hunters determined to strike it rich, people on the run, corrupt cops. And a writer in residence.

I’m sorry to say I hadn’t heard of Robert J Sawyer before this novel, or maybe the name just hadn’t sunk in – it seems he’s won a whole mantelpiece full of awards over the last few years – but I’ll be looking out for more of his work. Red Planet Blues was an assured romp through a twisty plot full of double-crossing, kidnap, murder and mistaken identity. It all starts with what seems like a simple missing person case, but then Lomax starts to uncover things that might be best left undisturbed. Like the truth about what happened to the men who first found fossils on Mars and started the fortune-hunting rush. All this in low gravity, with the added complication of essentially immortal transfers (people rich enough to upload their mind into custom-built and largely indestructible android bodies).

The novel is handled with wry humour, but it has its share of grit and science. If you like your Chandler and Hammett but aren’t averse to some future-set extra-terrestrial fiction, I would recommend reading Red Planet Blues.

#Bookaday, volume the third

I’ll make this the last outing for #bookaday and I’ll cherry-pick, in a vain attempt to avoid boredom. So, where were we..?

BOOKADAY_JuneAt the risk of sounding pretentious (I know, not like me at all) I can’t believe more people haven’t read Remembrance of Things Past. Lots of people have heard of Proust, they may even use the word Proustian in relation to sensation-triggered memories, but I’ve yet to find anyone else who admits to having made it past the first part (if you have, leave a comment and end my solitude). Maybe the fact that I read epic fantasy novels conditioned me for it, but I loved the total immersion and also the ability to (if I remember correctly) write a few thousand pages without actually naming your main character. It’s one of the few novels I’ve read twice (see number 29, below) and it’s left such vivid images in my mind that I can step into the setting of the novel at will. Marvellous stuff.

If I say I’m moving on to number 19 now, I guess regulars will groan, and chorus The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart. It might get overtaken by The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressel at some point, but I haven’t finished reading that yet. What can I say? I get fired up about inequality, education, working class opportunities and any mixture thereof.

I’ve got a lot of out of print books, that’s part of the fun of second-hand bookshops.

23 and 25 kind of go hand in hand. Any book we were made to read at school, I’m unlikely to have finished. I definitely didn’t finish Jane Eyre, Far From the Madding Crowd or a world war 2 book which may have been The Machine-Gunners by Robert Westall. I vaguely remember asking friend T what happened in The Lord of the Flies so I suspect I didn’t get to the end of that one either. I probably finished Animal Farm because it was George Orwell, and I know I read The Hobbit but I’m pretty sure I’d already done so before it was flung at us in the classroom. As you might guess, 23 and 24 are diametrically opposed. Thankfully I was enthused about reading long before school started to try and spoil it, and my earliest memory isn’t early enough to capture it (though Spot the Dog will have been part of it, so a brief nod to his creator Eric Hill, who died recently).

Should have sold more copies? Clearly that’s The Little Book of Northern Women by JY Saville, a rewarding collection of short stories that’s not just for girls, and a snip at only 99p…

I’m not going to admit here which bookload of characters I’d want to be among (although I probably have done already, there’s a lot of posts on this blog now). Those who know me, in real life or through long readership, could probably have a good guess. Answers on a postcard (or a comment box, if you feel like it).

Which brings me to re-reading. A few years ago I explained why I rarely re-read books (I do re-read blog posts, and you can do the same here), so I’m not sure there are any books (except children’s books, books I’ve written, or books I’ve proof-read for other people) that I’ve read more than twice. Big Brother reads A Christmas Carol every festive season (Dickens and I don’t get on, so I had a hard enough time getting through it the once). I know someone who rarely reads anything but Jane Austen and has to buy new copies as the old ones wear out. Honestly, my most-read book is almost certainly A Bear Called Paddington. If you’ve ever seen me in a situation where a hard stare is called for, that might explain a lot.

Part 2 of #Bookaday

Time for the second instalment of my responses to this:
BOOKADAY_June
I’d got as far as number 8 last time, so let me think of something film or TV related. Obviously there are masses of books on the shelves that have been made into films or TV series, or indeed vice versa (like some of the early Doctor Who novels). However, the one I’m going to pick is a boxed set of 3 paperbacks from the Michael Palin travel programmes: Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, and Full Circle. The paperbacks don’t have all the photos that the big coffee-table versions had, and I probably saw less than half the episodes on TV, but Michael Palin’s gentle enthusiasm for foreign parts forms the core of my (very much armchair-based) interest in far-flung places.

Which book reminds me of someone I love? Quicker to list the ones that don’t. Among the many given to me by friend T there’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, which set me off on Tracy Chevalier. There are the ones that used to belong to my dad’s late uncle, unashamedly intellectual with a dreadful line in puns (much like my dad, in fact). The one I’m going with though is a book I’ve only got an electronic copy of, having first read Big Brother’s paperback many years ago: The Condition of the Working Class in England, by Friedrich Engels. Inextricably bound up with Big Brother, his outlook and influence. For better or worse (make your own mind up), he’s a big reason I am who I am today.

Ah, the pull of secondhand bookshops. Even now I have to make a big effort to walk past an open charity shop, and I have great memories of exploring the ever-expanding labyrinth of Michael Moon’s cornucopia of books in Whitehaven as a child. The majority of my books, and the ones in the Library of Mum and Dad are second hand, many of them with irritatingly limpet-like price stickers from the now defunct Roblyns in Huddersfield, regular haunt of my dad in the late 80s. One wonderful day in the early 90s, friend T and I were taken round every bookshop in some small Pennine town by her dad and had a fab time unearthing treasures. We once had a family day out to the old station bookshop at Alnwick. Can you see why picking one gem might be tricky? How about William Cobbett’s Cottage Economy, bought from a second hand bookshop at Pitlochry station moments before our train pulled in?

I’m not sure I always pretended to have read the books I was supposed to read at school, and outside of that the question doesn’t make sense so I’ll move on to laughter. Humour’s a tricky one to pull off, much harder to write than you might think (believe me, I’ve tried) so I have great respect for those authors who manage it consistently. Do they make me laugh though, really? Is it more of a smile to myself as I pass over the page? Strongest contenders could well be from the likes of Terry Pratchett, Robert Rankin, Jasper Fforde or the broader realms of comic fantasy. I’ve read a lot of comic fantasy (which you might not expect if you came across me in one of my more serious moods), I’ve written a fair bit too and most of it’s not very good. Except All the Room in the World which made it into Bards and Sages Quarterly a few years ago.

Phew, this is getting long so 14 is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ’nuff said. Calvin’s dad from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes cartoons gets my vote for top fictional father, though I read the first couple of chapters of Pride and Prejudice a while ago and Mr Bennet’s long-suffering wit reminded me of my dad and therefore deserves a mention.

Back to the books…

Jumping on the #Bookaday bandwagon

The last few days, I’ve kept seeing people on Twitter flash up this picture:

BOOKADAY_JuneSince it doesn’t seem to be trying to sell me anything I figured I may as well join in, and some of the categories beg a bit of discussion so I’ll do it here where I can waffle more than 140 characters allows.

Favourite book from childhood ties in nicely with the YouGov poll of favourite children’s books from the other day, which I would have blogged about earlier in the week if I’d had time. Maybe another day. Childhood covers a long period though, from Meg and Mog to Biggles Flies Again, via Little Women and The School at the Chalet (as with the poll of favourites, most of my reading material seems to have been from long before I was born). My favourite book aged 4 would be quite different from my favourite aged 11, and the ones I look back on with fondness now may not have been my favourites at the time. I still love (and quote regularly) both Winnie the Pooh and Paddington, but I’m going to choose a book called Dragon in Danger, by Rosemary Manning, which was from a series about a little girl who befriends an old (and as I recall, most polite) dragon. I suspect it had quite a profound effect on my later reading habits. (As an aside, I just searched for the author’s surname online as I could only get as far as Rosemary unaided, then realised if I’d wheeled my desk chair 3 feet to the right I could have stuck my head out of the study to read the spine of the book on one of the hall bookcases. Modern life, eh?)

The one that’s springing to mind as a bargain is Poverty: A Study of Town Life by Seebohm Rowntree, I can’t even remember how much it was but certainly less than half an hour’s pay at the shop I worked at around that time. Not the first (1901) edition, I think it’s from 1909 but I was delighted with it then and I’m happy to own it now. It had a blue cover I think, too (that one’s in the bookcase on the other leg of the L-shaped hall. It would require getting up and walking).

Who’s my favourite author today? That’s the question I’d need to answer before I could pick my least favourite book by them. I read reviews, I take notice of other people I know who like the author, so I tend not to bother with the books I don’t think I’ll take to, hence even my least favourite is one I’ll probably have enjoyed. Maskerade by Terry Pratchett’s a contender, though.

Most books in the world don’t belong to me. The library book I’m halfway through (Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer) for instance. There are some books in the house that were bought for OneMonkey, and some I’ve borrowed from my dad, but since both fall under the ‘what’s yours is mine’ heading, I don’t think that counts.

Now number 6 really perplexed me: The book you always give as a gift. As though there are books that simply everyone will enjoy. I can’t think of any book that I’ve bought more than one person as a gift except possibly OneMonkey and The Nephew, and even then it might have been my sister that bought it for OneMonkey. Isn’t part of the joy of giving and receiving books the personalisation behind it? I read this synopsis and thought of you. Or I read this book and knew you’d enjoy it so I’m passing it on. Maybe there are lots of people out there with whole swathes of friends and family with similar tastes in literature. Though if that’s the case, why are they not sharing?

I’ll get ahead a couple of days by being equally perplexed at number 7 (why wouldn’t I know the contents of my bookshelves intimately? Good grief!), and confessing that there is one Terry Pratchett novel that got overlooked when OneMonkey and I amalgamated our books many years ago and removed the duplicates. Somehow we’ve never quite got round to ditching that second copy of Witches Abroad.

So there you go, a ‘fascinating’ (maybe if you squint) romp through a week and a bit of book-related wittering. I would love to know anyone else’s responses, to all or a selected few of the prompts themselves, or indeed to my answers. But don’t let it distract you from your reading time.

Notebooks and writers

An article on the BBC news website caught my eye last week, Writers’ notebooks – a junkyard of the mind. Naturally, being a curious writing type I had a look and though I’m not clear what prompted the article, it was on the whole an entertaining potter about the pages of one chap’s notebooks. He made them look and sound so exciting, full of curious facts, enigmatic diagrams and sketches, research on things that sound like they might be useful someday, revisited and built up in layers. My notebooks are really not like that.

Diagram of Centrified City

Aside from this diagram of Centrified City (from the notes for the novel I finished the first draft of in January), my notebooks are pretty much full of writing. Logical, fill a whole page top to bottom, linear prose. I feel guilty if I leave the last few lines blank to start something on a fresh page. If I want to revisit something I write a suitable heading (‘That crime story with the cat, cont. from 3rd May’ – at least it’s all in chronological order) and keep going. I occasionally repeat myself or contradict myself but both of those are illuminating in their own way.

I do write lists. Lists of prompts I can use for exercises. Lists of stories I need to tweak or submit. Lists of objects a character owns. I also write ideas for blog posts, character names, descriptions of things I’ve seen, snippets of dialogue I’ve overheard. Whole stories, sometimes. Then if it’s not something I can type up quickly I take photos of the pages so at least I’ve got a back-up. You never know when the cat will jump onto the desk quicker than you can grab the full mug.

So why is any of this interesting? Is it interesting (other than to me)? Well, the FutureLearn creative writing course I’m in the middle of has been banging on about notebooks too. Keep one, write in it every day, develop ideas there. Jot down every little thing that’s of interest: words you like the sound of, descriptions of people and places, half-baked ideas. Stuff it with postcards and pictures ripped from magazines (that’ll be why they have those little pouches in the back of some notebooks I suppose), of places you want to write about or people who look like your main characters.

pile of hardback notebooksWriters’ notebooks sound like grand things. I imagine them (real writers) swanning into a fancy cafe, probably in Paris, a Moleskine notebook and a fountain pen clutched in one hand. They sit there observing, making notes and sketches, perhaps pressing flowers from the table decoration between their expensive pages, tucking scraps of menu into the back. Whereas I (an imaginary writer?) scribble in biro, cramped on a commuter train. None of my notebooks have cost more than £3, and some of them (unused desk diaries for instance) are other people’s cast-offs and hence free. I feel as though in some undefined way I’m missing out, then I remember what it is that makes a notebook into a writer’s notebook: it has writing in, put there by someone who habitually writes.

I can return to my scribbling content, though with a mild lingering envy of research-filled diagrams and pressed flowers.

Rider at the Gate by CJ Cherryh

As a one-sentence over-simplification you could describe Rider at the Gate as a kind of dark fantasy Western on a frontier planet with three-toed telepathic horses. That description will probably tell you whether or not you might be interested in the story, but it doesn’t do the novel justice. It’s about loyalty and secrets, family, hardship, and the difficult lesson that people can be complicated creatures with tangled motives.

Danny Fisher is an awkward teenager, town-born but lately chosen as a Rider by the young nighthorse whose self-image is best translated as Cloud. He’s all set to spend the winter in the Rider camp adjacent to his home town, where he can visit his God-fearing (and hence Rider-hating) family regularly for an uncomfortable shared meal, but it won’t necessarily be that straightforward. Reports arrive of a horse gone rogue; rogue horses can project images further and stronger than the others, catching everyone unawares and if they’re not careful, driving them to insanity or death. Danny gets caught up in a situation he isn’t prepared for, but the trail on the edge of winter isn’t the most forgiving place for a junior to make elementary mistakes.

I’ve read a few CJ Cherryh novels now, and been consistently impressed. Rider at the Gate was an easy read, laced with dry humour and well-drawn characters, including the nighthorses who each had unique personalities. The world was vividly conjured, from the snow-covered mountains of the High Wild to the poisoned industrial landscape further down, and the truck convoys the Riders are paid to protect. With the scattering of technology (diesel-powered trucks, phone lines strung alongside mountain passes) this is a bit grubbier and more down to earth than a lot of the more rose-tinted fantasy novels you might expect to involve horses, mountains and a quest, but I would say it’s more likely to appeal to the fantasy-reading end of the SF spectrum than the hard sci-fi crowd. There is an equally-enjoyable sequel called Cloud’s Rider.

In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard

I wasn’t familiar with the name Robert Goddard and would have been highly unlikely to pick this novel up, left to my own devices. However, that’s what recommendations are for, and on my last trip to the Library of Mum and Dad (like the Bank of Mum and Dad, but easier to come by and more edifying), this was handed to me as a good starting point into Goddard’s back catalogue.

The edition I read (Corgi paperback 2010) would have benefitted greatly from the attentions of a diligent proof-reader; the vast number of typos began to irritate me but thankfully the power of the story drew me on. In Pale Battalions is a finely-paced novel of family secrets, sacrifice and lies, where the nested narratives mirror the nested mysteries. Certainties are periodically overturned. The answer to some burning question swims into view, trailing in its wake a whole shoal of questions of a different hue.

Leonora Galloway is a seventy year old widow taking her daughter to visit a First World War memorial in France in 1986. It is the cue for an unburdening, a lifetime of living within the confines of a web of secrets being cast aside. Throughout the novel there is a theme of withholding information to protect someone, even if they don’t need that protection. What right has anyone to decide when is the right time to reveal surprising truths, and if the revelation comes too late would it have been better not to know?

The bulk of the novel takes place during the First World War, which might make this year a particularly suitable time to read it since commemorations are taking place all around. The quiet dignity of the prose and the unpacking of a mysterious past put me in mind of The House at Riverton by Kate Morton. I think readers of that novel would enjoy In Pale Battalions, as would anyone who enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s novels Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet.

Reading habits and class

A survey by Booktrust this week appears to reveal a class divide in reading habits. No real surprise there, education generally exhibits some form of class divide and there’s no obvious reason this would be different. I haven’t seen the survey itself, only articles on the BBC and Guardian websites (and public comments thereon), but it does seem quite a small sample, it’s not clear whether they include e-books in their definition of books (doesn’t sound like it, oddly) and I would argue about cause and effect. As well as the class definitions they use. However, it does lead me to a few observations.

One is that this kind of survey (particularly the bit about the numbers of books owned by different types of household) should tell the powers that be all they need to know about why closing down public libraries is a Bad Thing. I suspect they know this already, sadly.

Another is that class or income don’t go hand in hand with reading habits, it’s attitude that matters. All three of my grandparents that I knew were avid readers, library users, and encouraged my reading as a child. Though not all of them would have admitted it by the time I was on the scene, they were all working class and had different levels of formal education, gained by different routes. Presumably the common thread was that they saw, or came from families who saw, education as a good thing and reading as a perfectly reasonable pastime. It’s not likely that anyone will choose to read for enjoyment, however well-off or middle-class they are, if they know they’ll be looked on as odd by the people around them.

Thirdly, and this is where the now-obligatory mention of Richard Hoggart appears (see my post about The Uses of Literacy here), who says reading a book is the be-all and end-all? The articles about the survey mention (the horror!) that The Youth prefer social media and the internet to a book. Now unless I’ve missed the popularisation of truly sci-fi technology whereby images are beamed direct from the internet to a teenager’s brain via subcutaneous wi-fi nodes, surely they will be reading during (some of) this web-surfing. Does reading the latest unauthorised biography of a teen pop sensation in hardback require more thought and effort than reading daily update articles on the same topic? Don’t they read blogs (obviously not this one as it’s not cool enough… Having said that, I’m sure I have some followers who at least claim to be under 21), gig reviews, wikipedia?

Fourthly, has anyone looked at the benefits of reading per se? I’m in the middle of a MOOC on The Challenges of Global Poverty from the economics department at MIT and I’m rather keen on the idea of randomized control trials at the moment, but has anyone systematically looked at how all this book stuff helps? Does reading absolutely anything (fiction, magazines, recipes, blogs) exercise the mind in some fundamental way, or is there something specific to reading longer texts (a novel, a biography), and does listening to the audiobook have the same effect? Or is it all just correlation – households with lots of books tend to be populated with people who will (when they’re not reading) have a serious conversation with each other, provoking thought even in the member of the household who would honestly rather be playing World of Warcraft?

There was a fifthly, but I got distracted by OneMonkey and the prospect of a cup of tea so (as you all sigh with relief) I’ll raise that cup of tea to the memory of Tony Benn, and shut up.

World Book Day. Kind of.

It’s World Book Day, apparently. But only in the UK. And though various book-related twitter accounts are asking everyone what they’re reading (In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard, since you ask), the event itself seems to be aimed at children and to be run through schools. Though most of the parents I’ve spoken to today (not that many, admittedly) have children who weren’t taking part.

Nonetheless, any encouragement to read, particularly for children who are bombarded by the competing distractions of the modern world (cue the headshake and ‘it weren’t like that in my day’) has to be a good thing. Niche as it seems to be, there is no reason not to take World Book Day at something more like face value and use it as an excuse to read a book from a different country. It could be in translation (or, if you’re multilingual, in a foreign language) or you could dive into the world of English language books from other places like Canada, New Zealand, Ireland.

I have to admit, I don’t always know (or indeed care) where the author hails from, when I read a book. If it’s set in the south of England, like In Pale Battalions, I’ll probably assume the author’s English (having just looked it up, Goddard is indeed from the south of England), and maybe it’s the setting that’s the key, not the author’s nationality. You can go anywhere in the pages of a book, experience other cultures and viewpoints, other priorities and ways of whiling away the day. You could go around the world in 80 books. Maybe that could be an aim for the next World Book Day.

Mixed genre messages – a bad idea?

Let’s assume you’re thinking of buying a short story collection, then you notice it’s a mixture of SF (science fiction, fantasy and the like) and what you might call mainstream, general, non-genre fiction.

Why do I ask? you ask (pretend you asked).Two reasons, one to do with writing and the other to do with reading. To take the latter first, I’ve recently read a Brian Aldiss collection, The Moment of Eclipse, and though it’s labelled as science fiction and most of the stories in it do fall firmly in that category, I’d say at least one doesn’t and a couple of others are tenuous. If the author hadn’t been ‘a science fiction writer’ I doubt anyone would have thought to label them that way. I enjoyed them, but it reminded me of when I read Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (as discussed here), shelved as sci-fi despite being nothing of the sort, which brought disappointment to my reading corner.

Which brings me to my vague thoughts of compiling another short story collection. When I put The Little Book of Northern Women together there was a story I toyed with including, but since it was strictly revolving round a northern female android I left it out (it’s since been published in Kzine issue 6). Undoubtedly there will be a crossover audience for my SF and non-genre stories but I figured people are often in the mood for one but not the other, and besides it would have been an unbalanced mix. Now I’ve accumulated a mass of SF, plus non-genre stories that don’t have a strong theme running through them. Should I consider blending them in the same publication, or keep to the segregation?

Time’s Echo by Pamela Hartshorne

Time’s Echo is a time-slip novel I read last year, set in both contemporary and late sixteenth-century York. Sparked by a few interesting names and a badly-behaved dog the author came across in court records during her PhD in Medieval History, the resulting novel is a flight of fantasy that feels as authentic and believable as Tracy Chevalier at her best, with enough detail to make the historical element seem well-researched without turning it into a textbook.

Grace Trewe, an independent young woman who’s travelled all over the world, inherits a terraced house in York. She could just leave everything to the solicitor, but on a whim she goes to the house for what’s meant to be a brief stay in an interesting historic town she’s not familiar with, before she joins some friends on another continent. Are her nightmares and strange experiences only a result of having been caught up in the Boxing Day tsunami? For Grace, who’s used to being able to pack up and move on whenever she needs to, the feeling that this time she might not be able to is most unnerving. Meanwhile in the sixteenth century, Hawise (try saying Louisa without the initial L and you won’t be far off) meets a stranger at the market and sets in motion a dangerous obsession that will echo down the centuries.

Time’s Echo is not simply a ghost story (though there is an element of the supernatural), it’s an entanglement of two time-frames. The story explores the patterns in our own lives and through history, the repeated mistakes and the seemingly inconsequential moments on which history pivots. The tension and sense of anticipation are accentuated by the swinging of the narrative between time-frames and there are echoes of some of the sixteenth-century characters and events in the contemporary narrative.

There was an inevitability to Hawise’s story, not least because we came in at the end of it; nevertheless, the final subtle twist was powerful and unexpected. Even when you think you know what’s about to happen, there’s a compulsion to read on just in case it was averted at the last minute. For a nearly five hundred page novel, this was a swift, fluid read and I found myself gripped from quite early on. I would say fans of well-written historical fiction (possibly even historical romance) would enjoy this as long as they’re not averse to a smattering of the supernatural and equally, fans of mild horror who fancy something historical might like to give it a go. There’s also a strong Yorkshire interest, set as it is among the streets of York.

Putting faces to names at the Ilkley litfest

It’s that time of year again, both the Morley and Ilkley literature festivals are on and West Yorkshire is abuzz with writers and their fans. In these days of media saturation when everyone has their photo on the web or at the top of their newspaper column (whose silly idea was that? It’s like DJs, my mental image is often more suited to their style so a photo of them looking too young, old, cheerful, grumpy, fashionable or tweedy only spoils things) I suppose I’m not literally putting faces to names. Seeing people in person is quite different though.

So far the famous names I’ve been to see are Jonathan Dimbleby (at Any Questions, a marvellous experience which left me bemoaning the lack of a modern-day William Cobbett. Again), Peter Snow (the enthusiasm of the man! An hour of him waving his arms around on stage could make me interested in almost anything) and on Wednesday, Louise Doughty.

Regular readers will have seen that name before, as she heads the fun (occasionally bonkers) community that is the Telegraph Short Story Club. Having been semi-regular there for over a year, when I introduced myself at the signing table she greeted me like she knew me, thus turning the tables on the sort of familiarity from strangers she must experience all the time. Having been to panel talks before when I’ve only had something (probably second-hand) for one person to sign, and having said to someone at another signing table ‘I read your book out of the library, it was good’ before moving on leaving us both slightly embarrassed, this time I excelled myself. Apple Tree Yard, the novel Louise was promoting, having only come out in hardback this summer, I’d joined the queue for the solitary library copy at the start of August, finally collecting it two days before the talk. Not only did I not have the book for her to sign, I’d only read the first 20 pages.

Of course, being a pro she happily signed my Wallace and Gromit notebook where I’d written the first draft of my response to this week’s SSC Friday Challenge. Next stop, Melvyn Bragg. I haven’t got anything for him to sign, either.

August and the disruption of routines

This week it feels like pretty much everyone (except me) is on holiday. On a train where people are usually standing in the aisles, I’ve had an empty seat beside me every day. The building I work in is quiet, little footfall on the stairs, no banging of doors or ringing phones. The library at lunchtime is almost deserted.

Partly because I’m in a writing lull brought on by the lethargy of warm summer days and partly because I’ve got the opportunity, I’m shaking it up a bit, not sitting in my regular seat. Yesterday I was among distracting art books, today I walked past the tempting colours of an enormous book on stained glass and settled in an alcove of poetry and plays. A wall of Shakespeare to one side, and Milton, Donne and Marvell to the other.

Investigating my surroundings – which, after all, was the point of sitting somewhere new – I felt slightly guilty to notice several names on the Milton et al wall that I didn’t recognise. I don’t always remember the names of authors even when I’ve read a novel of theirs, but I find that particularly with poetry or short stories the name doesn’t have time to imprint in my mind so it’s not necessarily a sign that I’m unfamiliar with their work (though that’s probably the case as well, here). Having re-attempted poetry recently (reading it, not writing it) after a long period of apathy or confusion, I’ve come to the conclusion that I hadn’t flicked my poetry off-switch as I’d thought, I was just reading the wrong poetry.

A couple of months ago I picked up a book helpfully titled Modern Poetry (post-WW1 to the sixties, I think) and started reading one or two poems per evening. I spent enough time to reflect on subject and language but not so long that it started to feel like I was dissecting the poem. If, after that reflection, I still didn’t get it I moved on and accepted that one poet (or maybe even one poem) wasn’t for me. Along the way I’ve discovered that I like some poets I’d never heard of, I don’t like a few whose names were familiar, and interestingly I already knew a few poems by poets I would claim never to have come across (and whose names have already escaped me again, but now I know where to look them up, at least). Maybe tomorrow I should return to the poetry and plays alcove, pick an unknown and dive in.

Choosing books with a Yorkshire theme

As I’ve said many times before: so many books, so little time. Leaving aside for the moment the deeper question of why I’m adding to the problem by publishing my own, the main question is how to narrow the field. A slightly arbitrary and parochial way of doing it is to seek out books with some relevance to where you live, or were born, or spent the happiest years of your life, or… You get the idea.

Regular readers will have spotted that I’m a proud Yorkshireman (Yorkshirewoman just doesn’t sound right) so what better way to navigate through the overcrowded bibliographic waters than to look for books with a Yorkshire connection.

Friend T has assisted on this front several times, introducing me to the delights of AS Byatt via Possession (“you’ll like it, it’s partly set in Whitby”), and Kate Atkinson via Behind the Scenes at the Museum (read my review here). I mentioned these gifts on Twitter recently and Pamela Hartshorne pointed out this website of York authors which I’ll need to look into further. (Incidentally, has anyone done a similar site for Bradford yet?)

Please don’t imagine that I only ever read books with some connection to the county of my birth; that would just be weird. However, in the packed genre of crime for example, I like a helping hand, a nudge in some direction because there are just so many books out there to choose from, and I’m not alone in this. My mum started reading Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels because of their Yorkshire setting, and I recently started her off on Peter Robinson’s books for the same reason.

As a child I had a couple of bad experiences of Yorkshire-related works, but thankfully it didn’t put me off. I remember The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett being recommended as it was set in Yorkshire but I can’t remember if I got to the end. I seem to recall (bearing in mind I haven’t touched it in twenty-five years or more) Yorkshire dialect written in a way that almost seemed like a caricature, and only for characters you were supposed to look down on (see my earlier post on written dialect). Jane Eyre (the Brontes usually being classed as Yorkshire writers) was a book we had to read at school, and I know I didn’t get very far with that, in fact I didn’t know what happened after Jane’s friend dies of TB, till I looked up the plot online this evening. Some of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books make a bit more sense now.

Even now, choosing a book on this basis isn’t a guarantee of success (see my reviews of Saville and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell) but if you don’t know where next to turn in your quest for literary satisfaction, it’s a way of taking a step in a new direction. You might find some surprising gems.

Oh, and Happy Yorkshire Day.

At Home by Bill Bryson

As a rule I like Bill Bryson books, they’re cosy while not being afraid to point out some uncomfortable truths, and they’re usually quite funny while they’re about it. At Home definitely had its funny moments, and a plethora of interesting facts, but it left me vaguely dissatisfied.

At Home is subtitled ‘A Short History of Private Life’, and promises to give us insights into history via a tour of Bryson’s Norfolk rectory; the chapters are named after each of the rooms in his house. I enjoyed (via the iplayer) Lucy Worsley’s TV series If Walls Could Talk, in which she explored the changing nature of household life and the notion of privacy by looking at the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living room over the centuries, and I anticipated something similar in this book. Though probably with a  lot more asides and entertaining anecdotes.

In the end I think I found there were so many asides I lost track of the point, if there ever was one. In some chapters I was left with the feeling that he’d dug up some fascinating stories and couldn’t think of an obvious way to tie them to a room, so he’d sort of shoe-horned them in using a link so tenuous it had become invisible. The book is brimming with enthusiasm, as is usually the case with Bill Bryson, and I did enjoy (and read to the long-suffering OneMonkey) most of it, plus I learnt a few things (always a good thing when reading). However, it did feel a bit like a jumble at times, more like one of those books they put out at Christmas and people keep by the toilet for occasional browsing, than a history of anything in particular.

One (minor) niggle was that while he’s using an English house as a starting point, and mainly talking about English history, occasionally he’ll drop something American in. Logical, you might say – he is American, after all – but there was the odd startling fact that made me sit up and say ‘Really? I never knew that’ then it would become clear that I never knew that because it’s not true over here. That would have been fine, but there were places where I wasn’t sure if he meant in England, America or both, and I was left wondering.

All that said, I would imagine if you’ve ever enjoyed a Bill Bryson book you will find much to please you in At Home, particularly if you go into it without expecting much of a thread.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

To say how huge and influential Neil Gaiman is, he hasn’t written many novels (not true of comics of course or, latterly, children’s books). I enjoyed Good Omens, which is how I first discovered Neil Gaiman as a teenage Terry Pratchett fan in the early 90s, and in the last 10 years I’ve read Stardust and Anansi Boys (a particular favourite) but somehow not got round to American Gods, despite there being not much else to go at in the way of prose.

Turns out it was worth the wait. One of those total immersion novels where you completely believe in the world that’s created. And belief, when it comes down to it, is what the book is all about.

Shadow is in his early thirties, he’s about to be released early from prison and he’s looking forward to seeing his wife again. In the event, he’s released a few days earlier than he was expecting, so he can make it to her funeral in time. Three years of aching to be back with the person you love most, and she dies in a car crash before you can get to her. You’d be lost, wouldn’t you? Directionless. Ripe for being swept up into events beyond your control or comprehension. Something like, say, a war between gods.

It’s a road trip, it’s small town America, it’s mythic and epic and reverent and irreverent at the same time. It’s almost like Stephen King read The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, let it stew at the back of his mind for a few years then wrote a book haunted by it. Except it’s also unmistakably Neil Gaiman. There are coin tricks and cons, magic that’s misdirection and sleight of hand, and magic that is real and a lot less showy. It’s about love, loyalty, remembering and believing – be it in religion or yourself or your family, and it’s about what happens when the world moves on.

I very much doubt I’ll be waiting a dozen years to read the new one, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Print to ebook: what happened to the back-cover blurb?

Quite often when I’m reading a novel, usually during the first couple of chapters or if I’ve put the book aside for a few days, I’ll need to remind myself what the book’s about or where it’s set. Now I don’t think I’m particularly forgetful, and I doubt I’m the only person who has this problem, but it stems from never getting only one book out of the library at a time, and frequently leaving a book on the To Read pile for ages before I get round to it. Questions such as these arise:

  • Is this the one where the vaccine gets stolen, or the one where they accidentally travel forward in time and start a war?
  • That detail seems a bit out of place – is this in fact set in the 1960s? Or Australia? Or 1960s Australia? By default and until instructed otherwise I read contemporary-ish fiction as though it’s set in contemporary-ish England.
  • Is this a crime novel or literary fiction? If the former, the crime that’s just taken place will be what I need to focus my attention on, if the latter it’ll all be about the aftereffects, so I needn’t bother trying to spot clues.
  • Isn’t this a fantasy novel? So far it’s all in 1980s Manhattan and nothing unusual’s happening.

Particularly where it’s an author that’s new to me, and the title’s not giving that much away, I might have picked up a novel I’m not quite in the mood for today, which is where the synopsis on the back of the book comes in really handy. Simply flip the book over, scan the paragraph or two on the cover and you’re as clued in as you were when you first chose the book from the library or shop. Except you can’t do that with an ebook.

It seems fairly common with ebooks (and I’ve done it myself. Twice) that the front cover and the whole contents of the book are set up as if for a print book, with the copyright page, acknowledgements and all the rest of it. All that’s missing is the back cover. The blurb sits on the webpage that you found the ebook on, which is great when you’re choosing books, but by the time you get round to reading the thing three weeks later, on the bus with no wi-fi access, you have no idea what that blurb said. If I should ever release another ebook I’ll try and remember to slot the back-cover in somewhere, even if it’s not actually on the final page. In the meantime, compilers of ebooks please take note – some of us need a little reminder to put a novel in context.