reading

Week 10: Return of the back (problem)

Hurrah for the Kobo Mini, small and light enough for me to pace around the flat with as I try to get some muscles working, and to hold above my face as I lie down and take the pressure off my errant spine. Believe me, it’s not nearly so easy with a thick paperback.

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That got me thinking about buying books, and I realised that apart from half a dozen bought as Christmas presents for friends and family, OneMonkey and I didn’t buy a single brand new physical book in 2016. Between us we bought 7 or 8 ebooks, having received Kobo vouchers for Christmas 2015, and we definitely bought a few books from charity shops for ourselves (and a selection of second-hand books for other people), but mainly we’ve been reading either library books (including ebooks), or books we’ve been given. Disloyalty to the book trade?

With the help of a laptop on a plastic crate that doesn’t wobble too much, placed on a kitchen worktop by OneMonkey, I’ve been able to finish writing a rumination on what it is about the north that inspires me, which I hope to be able to point you at a link to fairly soon. One thing my dayjob did have, a sit-stand desk so I could crank it up to standing height when I couldn’t bear to sit in a chair any longer. It occurs to me I could do with something similar at home. The kitchen worktop is wonderfully distraction free (if you don’t count the kettle and the tea-caddy) but sometimes it’s useful to have the computer in a room the wi-fi signal reaches.

The first story submission of 2017 was made this week, organisation continues for the Chapel FM Writing on Air festival (specifically the writing workshop we’re hosting at Seacroft library at the end of the month), and at the start of the week I wrote a few midweek blog posts, the first of which you’ve already had (thankfully, I’d scheduled it). Oh, and I finally read Pride and Prejudice since it was lurking on the Kobo and I had a lot of reading time on my hands. It was alright actually, quite amusing in places – maybe I should go lie down again.

Reading my way through 2016

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As far as number of books goes, my reading hit a bit of a dip in 2016 and most of those books I read because of writing. There’s the how-to books about writing, of which I read two this year and re-read a third. Then there’s the nine books Sue at the Bookbag kindly posted to me, to read and review. All of them this year I think were previously unknown to me before I picked them from a list of available books, so in that sense they were read for writing purposes (for the most part I’m very glad I did read them and as a whole batch I enjoyed them enormously, all I mean is that at the outset they were on my reading pile for a reason). I read two history books as background to my contribution to the Dangerous Women Project and another non-fiction book that I’m not sure how to categorise (environmental mindfulness?), as background for a potential future project with Alice Courvoisier. And I read four novels, and abandoned a few others partway through, so I could review female-authored SF for Luna Station Quarterly.

When I first signed up for reviewing at LSQ I did notice that I hadn’t read much female-authored SF in the previous couple of years, but I thought apart from anything it would be a useful way to redress the balance. How hard can it be to find four SF books a year written by women, when you have the whole of the local library and charity shops to go at? Maybe it’s the skew of the collection in my local library (and maybe this is why I hadn’t read much female-authored SF for a while) but I found myself pulling book after book off the shelf and dismissing it. Teenage vampires. Cliché-ridden steampunk. Sounds OK but it’s book 4 of the series. It got so that every time I went to the library I was scouring the fantasy and sci-fi shelves for female authors rather than books that grabbed my attention, and I started reading quite a few that sounded ok but were quickly abandoned when it became clear this was yet another book with a main character who was ‘feisty’ (incredibly feminine but with laddish behaviour as a way of proving something tiresome) or, particularly in urban fantasy ‘quirky’ (hey I have green hair and I might kiss other girls) and that was its main point.

I’m as happy as the next curmudgeon for there to be a romantic sub-plot to an epic fantasy (Tad Williams throws them in as main plots, for heaven’s sake – look at Bobby Dollar) but I don’t like mushy and I don’t like sentimental. I also don’t think female characters are shocking or even particularly interesting just because they don’t fit some kind of narrow old-fashioned ideal of heterosexual womanhood (meek and weak, with a skirt, a handbag, make-up and a glossy pony-tail). Ursula Le Guin and CJ Cherryh seem to have cottoned onto that a generation ago, so I’m not sure what went wrong since. Like I said, maybe we just don’t get much good stuff round here. Anyway, I quit reviewing for LSQ a couple of months ago.

I did read some fabulous books in 2016, including a couple more in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series (police procedurals in a fantasy-overlaid London) and some Anthony Trollope novels, after my self-imposed Trollope fast in 2015. A few I read out of curiosity and was surprised at my immense enjoyment:  Morrissey’s autobiography for instance, as well as the slightly cynical fantasy novel The Magician King by Lev Grossman, Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey (which I haven’t posted the review of yet – keep your eyes peeled) and The Blackbird Singularity the breathtaking debut from Matt Wilven in which a man full of grief and hope loses his mind. The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan was every bit as fabulous a fantasy novel as it sounded and The Devil’s Feast by MJ Carter was a richly imagined historical crime novel with real chef Alexis Soyer as one of the main characters.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of my reading year, but I’d love to hear what anyone else has enjoyed reading in 2016, or if you agree/disagree with any of my comments.

Week 9: Research and the art of getting sidetracked

The week between Christmas and New Year – Twixtmas, as I’ve heard it referred to rather delightfully – is an odd time of suspended normality. OneMonkey and I had nothing particular to do, nowhere to be, I was full of cold most of the week and the weather wasn’t enticing us onto the moor much. What to do in those circumstances? Why, read, of course.

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As well as the end of a fantasy novel and the start of an intriguing crime novel (set in Mumbai, probably to be reviewed here later) I’ve read acres of newsprint. Online, naturally.

The trouble I always find with (historical) research is that I find everything fascinating: grain prices, shipping reports, court circulars. I start out quite innocently with a Bradford Observer from the mid-nineteenth century and before I know it I’ve hopped to the trials of a new steam coach (1837) and thence to 1812 where I ricochet between Luddite riots (and their associated trials), the assassination of the Prime Minister, a short account of the largest sheep a local butcher had ever slaughtered, and the abandonment of the leather tax (when the government, joined up as ever, realised it would be paying most of it on military equipment). Every single one of these articles (plus the inspection of militia regiments, the tragic death by fire of a small child, and a spate of highway robberies outside Wakefield) sparks story ideas and a whole series of questions. I start to forget what I was researching in the first place.

Amazingly I have found time this week to work on the semi-rural fantasy novel (now over 22,000 words), look back on the year in reading (probably to follow in its own post) and write some shorter pieces. I also ate the last mince pie of the season.

I hereby raise my mug of Earl Grey to all of you and to the coming year, may the two have a harmonious coexistence.

Week 8: Leave it till after Christmas

This has been a week of friends, family, and hedonism (2 pints of real ale, 4 chocolates and a glass of mulled cider. Not all on the same day, obviously). A week of train travel (no excuse needed to spend hours reading), abandoning routine, and Christmas Day.

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A selection of my Christmas goodies

I rediscovered my ability to write with music on, this year, so the albums I got for Christmas don’t have to compete with writing time. I’m afraid I didn’t do any writing on Christmas Day, nor did I watch the Doctor Who special for later discussion with Big Brother. We were together, in a house with no TV, at the time it was on so he hasn’t seen it either. As usual, books both new and second-hand were passed around the family as presents, and I’m waiting to borrow the copy of Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography BB received.

I hope you, dear reader, had a safe and enjoyable Christmas with your preferred level of hedonism and book-gifts. If you haven’t already, may I suggest you listen to Radio 4’s wonderful adaptation of Simon Brett’s Charles Paris series, the festive instalment is on the iplayer now, with Bill Nighy as Charles in The Cinderella Killer. I wish I could write like that…

Week 7: Libraries and summaries

I had to restrain myself in the library this week, which took a lot of doing. In fact I went directly to the shelf I was hoping to find book two of a series on, picked it up and took it to the counter. I know from painful experience that when my back is almost feeling better, carrying a thick hardback book for a couple of miles is a bad idea (you would think I could have worked that out without needing empirical evidence), so thankfully the second book in William Horwood’s Hyddenworld series is much thinner than the first, and was a paperback. Proper epic fantasy with prophecies, immortals, Anglo-Saxon artefacts, and some great characters. And available in the library.

For some reason, whenever I spot a fantasy novel that looks interesting, it turns out on further investigation to be part two (or sometimes part seven) of a series. Volume One is not a concept my local library seems to handle well. However, such is the charm of libraries – the random availability, the not knowing whether the book you want will be there or not (yes I have come across the concept of catalogues, and inter-library loans, but they take half the fun out of it). Like a lucky dip for reading material.

It seems entirely fitting, then, that Ilkley Writers (for whom last week I wrote a summary of our 2016) are proposing a radio programme about randomness and libraries, for the Chapel FM Writing on Air Festival in a few months. We might be pre-recording part of it in an actual library, which is quite exciting. My week has been spent getting into the serious discussion and planning stages with Andrea and Roz (it’s the same trio that did the programme last year), and thinking about unusual libraries. It’s a hard life…

Week 5: Sleighbells ring, I’m not listening

Somebody please tell me how it’s December 5th. I’ve had the first listen to the old Metal Christmas tape, I’ve eaten half a dozen mince pies, but I’m not getting what you’d call festive. There is no tinsel in my heart. Of course this won’t surprise anyone that much if they’ve ever encountered me in December before, but I do try (sometimes) to feel the excitement and capture the magic. In a non-consumer-capitalist way, obviously.

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Hat(s) courtesy Sister Number 1.

Closest I’ve got this year so far is via the fabulous sketches by Chris Mould for Matt Haig’s new children’s book The Girl Who Saved Christmas – he’s tweeting pages day by day I think. Incidentally, it looks like Chris Mould is from Bradford, which I honestly only noticed after I’d been bowled over by his illustrating style…

This week I’ve made two story submissions, and written nearly 6,000 words of the novel I was doing for NaNoWriMo (it got derailed so I’m giving it a bit longer). And read a lot of urban fantasy (which is relevant to the novel I’m writing).

Time to start thinking back on the (reading and writing) year, soon. How has yours been?

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

I kept picking up this novel in charity shops, my eye caught by the font on the spine every time (very suggestive of the 1920s, to me), reading the back and thinking Maybe. Then I stopped seeing it and after a while I spotted it again and immediately bought it in case I missed my chance. I’m so glad I did.

There was this jazz band in Berlin between the wars, mixed white, black, Jewish, German, American but what was important was the music. They loved to play music together. They gelled. Hiero Falk their young trumpet-player went missing in Paris in 1940, but not before they’d recorded enough to allow them a small following in years to come. Fifty-two years later Hiero’s two American band-mates have been invited to a Berlin jazz festival, the first time they’ve returned to the city. It brings a lot of memories and secrets bubbling to the surface and tests their seventy-year friendship to the limit.

I normally avoid second world war books. When I was little the black and white films on TV in an afternoon were heroic war adventures (when they weren’t either Cliff Richard or an Ealing comedy), and I had my fill of Biggles, The Silver Sword and The Machine Gunners, and repeated talk of Hitler in school history lessons, so by the time I started reading grown-up books at age 11 or 12, I made a conscious decision not to go there. Much as I love Evelyn Waugh, I have never read the Sword of Honour trilogy. The fact that this novel had its roots in pre-war Berlin and occupied Paris was the main reason for my hesitation in buying it in the first place. Though the narrative moves back and forth a little between 1992 and the late 30s/1940, it is predominantly a novel set in wartime and the build-up to war, but it’s the music that is the focus.

I’m not particularly knowledgeable about jazz though I recognised a few real names Edugyan introduced to the mix. However, I do understand the importance of music, I could relate to the drive, the brotherhood of true fans, the way they clung to it through everything that was happening, and the euphoria when the band was playing at its best. All that is conjured brilliantly, as is the nervy claustrophobia as the tension mounts. I found I was just as tense (if not more so) about whether they would get to cut the disc with the Big Name as about the imminent invasion of France. That is testament, I think, to the way this novel is about a few vivid characters rather than a time, a place or a movement.

All in all a powerful novel that leaves you thinking for a while afterwards, mainly about facing up to the past, and living with consequences. It did take me a few pages to get into the rhythm of the first-person narrative (one of the black American jazz musicians, using slang and with a tendency to say ‘a orange’ rather than ‘an orange’, for instance) but once I had, it seemed perfectly natural and easy to read. Definitely one for the music fans, genre not important – if you can take or leave the radio yourself I suspect you’ll struggle to understand some of the motives in the book.