reading

One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson

bryson-cover_2699590a

Bill Bryson’s eminently readable style makes this doorstopper of a book about one spectacular summer most enjoyable. It was much more focused than At Home and I learnt all kinds of fascinating things. Mainly about early aircraft.

He managed to highlight the web of connections between all the big players at the time – politicians, newspaper men, aviators, inventors, sports stars. He also used the summer of 1927 as a gateway to other history (this laid the foundations for that or was the culmination of this) though it does seem to have been a particularly packed season. I wondered if you could get a similar book out of any year or if there really was something special about this one.

Charles Lindbergh and various attempts at long-distance flights are the unifying thread to the book but even though I’m not especially interested in that, Bill Bryson made it captivating. It’s the baseball sections that mystified me – he did throw in the odd explanation but I’m so unfamiliar with baseball that it didn’t help. I’m afraid I sort of skimmed them in the same way I do the hunting interludes in Anthony Trollope, or cricket matches in PG Wodehouse.

All in all though, an entertaining book about an age and a place that much has been written about. Certainly read it if you’ve enjoyed Bryson’s previous books regardless of subject matter, and give it a go if (like me) you have a certain fascination for 1920s America.

Morrissey’s infamous novel List of the Lost

I wavered for a while but in the end I couldn’t resist List of the Lost, Morrissey’s 2015 novel, particularly after enjoying his autobiography so much. I’d heard a lot about it but not what it was about, everyone had been so busy writing about the author and his style, and there was no synopsis on the paperback cover. For the first 42 of its 118 pages (that being where I gave up on it) List of the Lost is ostensibly about four young men in a relay team in 1975, in America. What it might really be about is a love of words, a hymn to lost youth, a regret for inexpert fumblings both in the arena of lust (physical) and love (mental).

It’s not so much a novel as one long (no chapters), melancholy (naturally) Morrissey song, supply your own music. There are flashes of lyrical brilliance, there’s some good imagery but as a piece of prose it’s overblown and hard to read, you end up breathless. It kind of wants to be a poem, and it spreads its poetic wordage like weeds across the pages, becoming uncontrolled and a touch repetitive. The dialogue is far from realistic but I didn’t get the impression that it was meant to be.

I have a feeling that if it was written by some lauded writer it would be nodded sagely over and dissected by undergraduates, whereas from Morrissey (a mere pop singer) it’s dismissed (and I veer towards the latter as the correct response in both cases). Either way I couldn’t finish it, but that’s at least as much to do with my complete lack of interest in narcissistic young American athletes as the way it’s written.

Approach with caution (borrow it from your local library, as I did, rather than buying a copy) but it may hold interest both for the Morrissey fans and the melancholy poets.

Reviews of a couple of books

image

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.

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

22912907

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.