writing

Reviews of a couple of books

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I’ve had a couple of new reviews up in the last week or so. My review of The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan (as promised a few weeks ago) is now at Luna Station Quarterly. It’s a sort of fairy tale, certainly a beautifully imagined SF novel, and surprisingly for my Random Walk Through Speculative Fiction slot, pretty recent (out in paperback in the UK either this month or last).

The other review is The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick, another free book from The Bookbag. Nothing SF about this one, it’s about an old widower from York having a series of entertaining/poignant adventures.

Go read the reviews, then read the books. I’m enjoying the lifting of my self-imposed Trollope ban by reading The Prime Minister at the moment. I shan’t review it, but you can imagine the joy it’s bringing me.

Radio catch up

This time last week I was still buzzing from the excitement of being on the radio. Those of you with flash enabled can catch up on the Chapel FM website, we start about a quarter of an hour in, with a burst of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit (and we finished with a quick blast of The Damned’s version of the same song. I chose that one, did you guess?). Feedback so far has been positive, and we had a fabulous time making the programme. I have a new respect for radio presenters.

In the programme there are 2 stories by Andrea Hardaker, a story and 2 poems from Rosalind York, and 2 stories from me (Viv’s 64th from The Little Book of Northern Women, and a short piece of comic fantasy called Can’t Stop the Rock. It’s about reanimating dead rock stars, I wrote it a couple of years ago but maybe this is the year we need to put it into action).

Constructive criticism welcome, as always, but I hope you enjoy listening.

Crumbs! I’m on the radio tomorrow

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A notebook such as I might be reading from, but you won’t know because it’s radio

The Chapel FM Writing on Air Festival is well under way and it’s less than 24 hours till I’ll be in Studio 2 with Andrea Hardaker and Rosalind York from Ilkley Writers. Our programme, Down the Rabbit Hole, is about inspiration, northern writing, and why we write what we do. Between us there’s a good 25 minutes of poems and stories amongst the chat (and a sprinkling of musical confetti).

I’ve been going on about this radio lark, I know, but it’s exciting. I listen to an awful lot of radio and it’s the pinnacle of success for me (far more exciting than television), partly because it’s so mysterious. Through voices and sound effects whole worlds are created. Tomorrow as you listen to us speaking (I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’ll be tuning in) you will all have different images in your minds, even if you know what we all look like. The fact that my stories are printed out on the back of junk mail that’s been folded and put in my pocket a few times won’t come across on air – it will sound exactly the same as if I was reading from a gilt-edged book with a ribbon marking my place.

I’ve been dipping into the rest of the festival so far, quite a varied programme and you can listen to anything you’ve missed via the listen again page. Andrea and Rosalind are getting ready to take part in tonight’s Readathon, where an entire book is read out in a literary relay all through the night. I’ve opted for a good night’s sleep instead. Wish me luck…

Quick round-up

I hope regular visitors haven’t been pining too terribly, but in my defence I’ve had visitors, been ill, and lost track of the days during a week off work for Easter. I have been reading lots of books though, and there’s a couple of new reviews up at The Bookbag, both crime novels of a sort. Firstly, from a few weeks ago Hester and Harriet by Hilary Spiers, in which a couple of old women get caught up in sinister goings-on while trying to help a homeless young woman in a genteel village. Then there’s The Bursar’s Wife by EG Rodford, where a grumpy middle-aged private detective (who must be related to Ed Reardon) does surveillance work around Cambridge and stumbles into something sordid that ends up a bit close to home.

I’ve also read another one of the Peter Grant novels by Ben Aaronovitch, in which PC Grant continues to learn magic in a forgotten branch of the Metropolitan Police. Grant is such a likeable character and there’s such an obvious love for and depth of knowledge about London that they’re a delight to read. Essentially police procedurals but involving weird stuff that the everyday police don’t want to get involved in if they can at all help it.

My most recent read was The Gracekeepers by Glasgow-based author Kirsty Logan, which is fabulous and magnificent, and I shall be reviewing it forthwith. Huge thanks to my eagle-eyed dad for spotting a review of it in The Guardian a while ago and suggesting it should go on my To Read list.

Right, that’s about it for now. Did I mention I’m on the radio soon? As the schedule stands right now (though we’re still tweaking) I’ll be reading two stories – one from The Little Book of Northern Women, one you won’t have come across before – Andrea Hardaker will be reading two stories, and Rosalind York will be reading a story and a few poems. All interspersed with snippets of The Cure and The Kinks, The Fall and The Rolling Stones. Chapel FM, April 17th, 2.15pm (full schedule for the festival here). Be there or be awfully disappointed.

Hey, someone likes my blog

It seems that Brontë’s Page Turners has nominated me for the Real Neat Blog Award, which is nice as I’ve been enjoying her blog recently (pop across and read some of her book reviews, there’s enough crossover appeal that you should find something of interest).

This Real Neat Blog Award involves answering 7 questions, then asking 7 new questions which you nominate 7 other bloggers to answer. Now, as I’m relatively antisocial (which is why I spend my time reading books, writing books, writing about reading books, etc) I don’t know 7 bloggers and I’m not about to ask 7 strangers (or even 6 strangers and Van Demal) to answer a bunch of questions. Plus I haven’t really got time to think up 7 questions that sound interesting and original. Not when I’m supposed to be fine-tuning a radio programme (April 17th, Chapel FM Writing on Air Festival – be there or be unenlightened).

However, I will answer the questions I’ve been set, which are:

  1. How many books are on your TBR list?
  2. What is your greatest bibliophile skill?
  3. What is your finest bibliophile dream?
  4. What is your worst bibliophile nightmare?
  5. If you could thank one person for turning you on to the joys of reading, who would it be?
  6. If your partner is a fellow bibliophile, do you merge book collections i.e. get rid of duplicate copies of books you both have? Or is this too much to expect, even in a long-term relationship? Am I worrying about this too much?!!
  7. Paste and copy a picture of the most beautiful book you own.

 

  1. Assuming TBR means To Be Read, there are 12 books on the list, mainly SF reviews I’ve read in The Guardian or books I’ve spotted in the library and wasn’t in a position to read at the time. I also have at least a couple of dozen books on the small bookshelf that’s set aside for ‘I bought this in a charity shop and haven’t got round to it yet’ plus a small cupboard full of books borrowed off other people (mainly my dad at the moment), and nearly a dozen ebooks on my Kobo that I haven’t read yet.
  2. Ability to spot authors I’m interested in while scanning charity shop shelves at high speed.
  3. I’ve always quite fancied one of those galleried floor to ceiling bookshelves kind of libraries, with the wheeled ladders…
  4. Books are banned. Makes me shudder just thinking about it.
  5. Probably my dad, who has several floor to ceiling bookcases but no wheeled ladders.
  6. The only duplicates OneMonkey and I had were some physics textbooks and a few Terry Pratchett novels, some of which have been weeded out (I mean, we’ve only been sharing shelves for nearly 20 years).
  7. I have to retain an air of mystery. You’ll have to imagine it instead.

So there you have it, a minute insight into an apparently neat blog.

The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester

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Set mainly in November 1912 among the chaos of suffragette-besieged London, this debut novel is a rip-roaring rollercoaster of a romp through Edwardian society.

Frankie George (Francesca to her mother) is a trouser-wearing twenty-something reporter for the London Evening Gazette, relegated to the Ladies’ Page due to her gender (and, if we’re honest, her inexperience). With ageing ex-courtesan ‘Twinkle’ she writes week after week about fashion and high society when what she really wants is breaking news. Ebony Diamond is a suffragette who is also a trapeze artist, and when she goes missing shortly after Frankie tries to interview her, Frankie decides she could be on to something.

What follows is an adventure through hidden London, taking in the circus, Soho clubs, fetishists, suffragettes and sensationalist reporters. It’s done with a light touch despite featuring a couple of murders, and the outrageous character of Twinkle provides some highly amusing interludes.

Although the suffragettes feature heavily, I would say this novel is more about independence than about suffragettes specifically. Working women, trouser-wearing women, women who’ve left their husbands or want the vote, but in all cases don’t want the conventional life set down for them at birth. It makes for some odd alliances, and shows how it’s possible to be forward-thinking in one respect but utterly closed-minded in others.

Frankie was an endearingly flawed character, liable to go off half-cocked, untidy and disorganised, constantly broke and seemingly forever noticing how bad she smelt (sleeping in her only clean shirt yet again). The ‘Sapphic tendencies’ people kept accusing her of were never explicitly confirmed, but it added an extra dimension to the struggle for independence. She was generally optimistic and trying hard to help others and further her career.

That dilemma at the heart of her journalistic efforts was another good strand of the book. Just because it’s a good story doesn’t mean you should publish it, it could ruin lives. How far is she willing to go for her newspaper career?

Lucy Ribchester had obviously done plenty of historical research (and then played fast and loose with bits of it, as any good historic fiction writer needs to), but at times it did feel a bit like she’d thrown everything and the kitchen sink at the book. There were a couple of circumstances or sub-plots that I assumed would become relevant later, but never seemed to.

I wouldn’t be sure how to categorise this novel. Historical fiction yes, but with humour and a modern touch that made me (who has read a fair bit of steampunk) keep expecting it to take off on a flight of fancy. In a way that was supplied by the trapeze element, I certainly learnt more about circus performers than suffragettes from reading The Hourglass Factory. There was a murder investigation running through the book, but it wasn’t really a whodunnit. There is an element of thriller later on as facts come together and the race is on. In the end it’s about Frankie trying to get on with life on her own terms, and landing herself in varying amounts of trouble and friendship along the way.

The Establishment by Owen Jones

Owen Jones is northern, a socialist, and he writes for The Guardian. I even agree with his viewpoint a fair amount of the time (both in this book and in his articles). I should have loved The Establishment, but unfortunately I didn’t – something about the way it’s put together got my back up and made me start picking his arguments apart. If it does that to a comrade (yes I am using that in a slightly tongue in cheek way), how far will it go towards persuading an adversary?

The premise of the book is that a small, influential band – the big players in the commercial world, the media, the City – bypass democracy by having a quiet word with our elected politicians so they can have things their own way, no matter what the people want. In essence there is (so the theory goes) a prevailing ‘establishment’ viewpoint and to rock the boat is to invite reprisal, from being missed off someone’s Christmas list to being hounded by an unsympathetic and less than straightforward media. In many ways reading The Establishment (subtitled ‘and how they get away with it’) was like having a concentrated dose of Private Eye (and will be familiar territory to Eye readers) but with added sensationalism that fell somewhere between That’s Life and Our Tune. For me (and maybe I’m hard-hearted) the laying-it-on-thick sentimentality of the section about one woman’s loss of a son at Hillsborough undermined the very real tragedy of that day for her and her family, as well as the important point Jones was making about the shocking behaviour of the police and media.

When it comes to the webs of power and the shadowy connections between politicians of all stripes, corporate interests and high-profile journalists there are things that should be pointed out more widely, there are definitely things to worry about, and there are things I think shouldn’t be allowed (Gordon Brown’s wife apparently being high up in a financial PR firm when he was PM and had recently been Chancellor, for instance). Some of it comes across here as a bit conspiracy theorist though: this MP was seen having dinner with a family friend who works for this big firm who would benefit from a change in the law! The scandal is not that this group of people who went to school or university together, or worked together in their first jobs, are still friends now that they’ve diversified into government, lobbying, the BBC etc (I’d be more worried if they claimed not to be) but that so many of the influential jobs in the Westminster-media bubble are filled by such a small pool of candidates from such similar backgrounds.

The book sometimes got a bit repetitive (maybe in some cases he was just trying to ram a point home) and while it’s clearly been a long time in the making, with copious research and a long programme of interviews with influential people, it felt like the end product had been thrown together in a hurry, with the same sentence appearing in two consecutive paragraphs or a sentence both beginning and ending with ‘in 1994’ for example.

Where the book is stronger is the ‘Conclusion: a democratic revolution’ chapter. This is where the author’s passion comes through in a coherent argument about why anti-establishment types need to present a proper alternative, not just rail against what’s there now. I wonder how different this (and several arguments earlier in the book) would have been if there was the slightest hint that Jeremy Corbyn might be about to become Labour leader.

In short, while I applaud the intention, this book just didn’t do it for me. I’m not saying don’t read it (I still learnt a few things from it), but I recommend that you read some Owen Jones articles from The Guardian, read some Private Eye, and if you want to know about vested interests and spin, read the marvellous novel The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey or, even better, A History of the Protestant Reformation by William Cobbett (which I’ve written about here).