reading

Book reviewing

There’s a new review of an old book on my A Random Walk Through Speculative Fiction outpost at Luna Station Quarterly – I finally read The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin (I know, sometimes I don’t know where I’ve been or how I miss these things). Anyway I’ve read it now, and it was great (one for the PKD fans I think).

I’ll also be part of the blog tour for freshly-released novel The Last of the Bowmans by J Paul Henderson this Sunday, so drop by to read further thoughts on that. You might already have read my review of it at The Bookbag.

All that and preparing for Ilkley Writers to be on the radio, too! More of which anon, but suffice to say I’m excited (and yet cool and nonchalant, obviously).

Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

If you’ve dismissed Stephen King as ‘just a horror writer’ but you like a good thriller or a tense detective novel, swallow your preconceptions and give Mr Mercedes a go. There’s less gore than in many a contemporary crime novel, and not the slightest hint of the supernatural. I’ve been a Stephen King fan for nearly twenty-five years (though I do think he’s had a few sub-standard offerings over the years, everyone has off-days after all) and I think this is up there with his best.

Bill Hodges is a retired police detective, lonely and bored without the job that made up his entire adult life. Mr Mercedes is the one that got away, the last big case of Bill’s career. We as readers know his identity from the start (from the synopsis on the back cover, in fact) and we have to sit back and bite our nails as Bill Hodges is (unofficially) back on the case, hunting the guy down as he prepares to strike again. He’s not a policeman any more, he doesn’t even have a private detective licence, all he can do is use his brains and all those years of experience, and sail as close to the wind as he needs to.

As this was Stephen King, the characters felt like real people, the book itself was easy to read, and the cranking of tension was spot on. The only bit I didn’t buy was a particular character having an AC/DC ringtone (same one as OneMonkey’s, in fact) – he just didn’t strike me as a metaller and it’s never explained. I think we can agree that’s a minor point though.

What struck me as particularly interesting (especially as, like I said, I’ve been reading Stephen King novels for close to a quarter of a century) was the amazing cultural disconnect I felt while I read this novel. All the other books I read last year that were wholly or partly set in America (of which there weren’t many, actually – an interesting fact in itself) were set in a historical or alternative past – I can’t think when I last read contemporary American fiction. Mainly it was the little things, characters reaching for their ‘cell’ rather than their ‘mobile’, or some TV channel or brand of beer I assume is real (because I did recognise some others) but haven’t heard of. In what version of reality is chicken, gravy, biscuits and coleslaw an acceptable meal, let alone one you would buy as the default offering in a fast food restaurant? I’m fairly sure that ‘biscuits’ in this context doesn’t mean what it means in the UK, but I honestly can’t think of any plausible definition of biscuits that would make this make sense. Why on earth is getting someone cremated (not buried) a big deal, why would you mock up a coffin to look like metal (when they’re usually wood, hence the term ‘wooden overcoat’) and is it usual for families to put corpses on display at a funeral home, where they then hold the service (rather than at a church or crematorium)? Fascinating, but oddly more foreign-feeling than all the Scandinavian crime novels I read last year.

Changing reading habits

We’ve had all the lists of 2015 now, we’ve even had most of the What I’m Looking Forward To Reading In 2016, so I feel like I can chuck my reading stats post your way. Savour this, it’s been a year in the making.

About this time last year I made this graph:

2014chart

Why? Well, because I’m sad like that. Anyway, I noticed that I’d read more books published in the 19th century than in 2014 (and I’m pretty sure all the 2014 books were ones I read because of the Ilkley Literature Festival). I declared my intention to read more newly-published books in 2015 and challenged myself not to read any 19th century novels (incidentally, I’m not a fan of reading challenges in general, but this was mainly me testing my will-power, a shelf-full of Anthony Trollope being my equivalent of a big bowl of sweets). This was the result (and yes I went back and adjusted the 2014 y-axis to match):

2015chart

See the big gap marked 19th C? That’s me not having read any 19th century books at all (I never mentioned anything about the 18th century). And look at all the 2015 books I read! Some of that is the Ilkley Literature Festival again, and some of it is down to the wonderful Sue from The Bookbag who posts me paperbacks when I’ve got time to review them.

Right, now I’ve proved I can drag myself up to date, somebody pass me a Palliser novel quick.

Christmas reading

image

This Christmas I said it with books to my parents, Big Brother, The Nephew, and one of the two friends I give presents to. As you can see from the left hand side of the picture, I got a few books myself (plus money for ebooks including Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless) and I’m looking forward to finding the time to read some of those in the next few weeks. The right hand side of the picture shows the book I’m reading at the moment, which I bought in autumn with last year’s Christmas money. Maybe I need to get quicker at working through the To Read pile.

I hope all of you had a good festive period, found the time to read, got some good book recommendations (or indeed some good books) from friends and family and are generally feeling rested. Here’s to 2016.

Traditional festive ramblings

Owl cake

Christmas cake dressed as an owl, made by my talented friend

Although the weather might be making you think otherwise, it is very nearly Christmas. Mince pie consumption is nearing its peak, books of the year lists are everywhere you turn, and it’s almost time for the Doctor Who special. For those of us lucky enough to have a reasonable chunk of holiday it’s the last chance to read all those books we promised ourselves this year and it’s also a great concentrated writing slot.

Consider past years, weigh it up according to how well you know me, then answer the following questions:

  • How many words will I actually have written by January 3rd?
  • How many mince pies will I have eaten when I should really have been getting down to some serious editing?
  • At what point on Christmas Day will Big Brother and I dissect the Doctor Who special?
  • How many books will be given as presents in my immediate family?
  • How many of those will be second-hand?

Season’s greetings to all, and I’ll get back to listening to this Hives album, make another cup of tea, grab a mince pie, and try and finish reading The Establishment by Owen Jones before I’m overcome by festive lethargy.

The Honours by Tim Clare

Another one of those books I read based on a recommendation, this one after my dad read a review of it in The Guardian and pronounced it ‘your sort of thing’. As usual, the time between writing down the title and author, and actually reading the thing was quite long enough to have forgotten any kind of conversation about the book’s contents, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had an idea it was probably fantasy or sci-fi, but it was shelved under general adult fiction at the local library, and though the prologue makes it pretty clear the book has fantastical elements, the first half of the novel ticks along as an engaging 1930s thriller, all spies and intrigue and gathering warclouds, and I was beginning to doubt my interpretation. However, it’s definitely dark fantasy (bordering on horror in places).

Set in 1935, the central character is 12 year old Delphine Venner, a tomboy with an obsessive interest in war and guns. Going to live on a country estate with her upper middle class parents, as part of an exclusive rest home cum improvement society, the bored and lonely little girl goes exploring, living out fantasies of Great War trenches, and suspecting every grown-up she encounters (apart from her dad) as being Up To No Good. The truth, however, is beyond even Delphine’s imagination.

As you might expect there are secret passages for Delphine to find, good places to hide, woodland to explore and large grounds for her to wander in and keep out of everyone’s way. I found her an engaging character to follow, and all the bad decisions and character flaws necessary for the plot to unfold seemed to flow naturally from her age and background. Once the fantasy plot kicks in it’s gripping, but prior to that you have to be willing to tag along as this girl imagines her way through long, lonely days, overhearing cryptic conversation snippets that neither she nor we can interpret (OneMonkey found it dragged on him after a while, too big a gap between meeting Delphine and her world, and anything genuinely exciting happening). I suspect there will be a big overlap of readers with John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things.

Ilkley Literature Festival review: Liza Klaussmann and Jami Attenberg

Liza Klaussmann and Jami Attenberg were paired up on Sunday afternoon at the Ilkley Literature Festival because as well as both being American, both women have recently written novels whose main characters were real people. The idea fascinated me as I wanted to know whether all that historical detail helps or hinders a writer of fiction, and how much you should worry about misrepresenting them.

Liza’s novel (her second) is Villa America (which I’m afraid I haven’t read), bringing Sara and Gerald Murphy to centre stage amid their friends Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso etc, in 1920s France. Because most of her central characters were well-known and well-documented, Liza commented that she felt quite constrained in what she could write, having to ensure that everyone was in certain locations doing certain things at certain times, because it’s known that this was the case (in fact she said she envied Jami’s freedom, more of which in a moment). To give her an outlet for fiction – as she said, she’s a ‘professional liar’ and it’s hard not to make things up! – she invented a character who then threads among the real figures helping to bring out their inner lives.

Jami’s fifth book is Saint Mazie, which I’ve already reviewed here. Set in New York predominantly during the first 3 decades of the 20th century, it introduces us to Mazie Gordon-Phillips the ‘Queen of the Bowery’ who ran a cinema by day and helped homeless men at night. By contrast to the Murphys, almost nothing is recorded about Mazie, in fact Jami mentioned she’d found only two articles (on Mazie’s retirement and memorial service) and an obituary. One of the articles mentions that Mazie was going to write her memoirs, but they never seem to have appeared, and from such a tantalising glimpse into this extraordinary woman’s life Jami set out to write the memoirs that she would have loved to read. She knew a few places that Mazie had lived, and from that (and some trips around the relevant neighbourhoods in New York) she crafted her novel.

During the question and answer session I asked Jami what had made her structure the novel in the way she had, with Mazie’s diary entries, a few excerpts from her memoirs, interviews with people who’d known her, all woven together. She explained that she’d started out writing a straightforward memoir, with Mazie looking back on her life and telling her story, but it hadn’t felt immediate enough and she switched to the diary which lands the reader right into the events as they’re happening, with the interviewees adding a different viewpoint or the benefit of hindsight.

Both authors talked about the importance of book clubs, with the members buying the novel then recommending it to friends and family (the importance of word of mouth promotion). However, they did also mention the daunting task of doing skype interviews with book clubs. Liza had found the book clubbers to be keen and well-read, comparing her work to things she hadn’t read herself, and asking tough questions.

One last thing I’ll mention here is book covers. They were asked how much input they have into the covers of their books, and it sounds like sometimes at least they do have a choice. However, Jami told us about one of her books (which must be The Melting Season) where the cover was a woman running through a field of wheat (sure to appeal to the middle-aged book-clubbing woman) despite the story being ‘scandalous’ (Jami’s word) and about a woman running off to Las Vegas. It did make me think of the whole book cover problem, which I’ve read about before (and which Joanne Harris has handily complained about this week in terms of children’s books) where publishers have a market in mind, and some kind of formula for covers to appeal to that market (how? why?) and they just go with it. It doesn’t seem to have done Jami Attenberg’s career too much harm, though.