reading

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.

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.

Morrissey and Hynde: rock lives revealed

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Having not read a rock biography for years, so far this year I’ve read two: Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless and Morrissey’s Autobiography. I’ve admired Chrissie Hynde for many years and she was influencing my style by my late teens, whereas it took years for Morrissey to grow on me, and apart from an attempt to emulate his quiff at one point, I’m not sure he’s been a direct influence on me. It was interesting to pick up Reckless in the week that David Bowie died and find he’s one of the first people mentioned, and also interesting to note the crossover of adulation for Bowie and the New York Dolls (neither of whom I’ve ever been particularly enthused by) in both books. Hynde and Morrissey also make cameo appearances in each other’s memoirs. However, they’re really quite different affairs despite the pair of them being famous vegetarians whose bands began in the same country within a couple of years of each other.

Reckless is more what you’d expect from a rock biography. Drugs, squalid London squats, trouble with drummers, more drugs (I was actually shocked at the amount and variety, I guess she never struck me as the type). It’s written in a straightforward style that reflects how Chrissie Hynde’s frank persona comes across. We get lots of detail (sometimes maybe a bit more than we’d like) about the wild adventurous life she had even before she was in The Pretenders. She seems to be one of those people who’s on the fringes of history, her friend’s boyfriend was one of the four students shot at the Kent State University anti-war demo in 1970 (which Chrissie Hynde was also at, being a student there at the time), she seemed to meet quite a few big name rockers in Cleveland as a teenager, and she was in a band with 3 members of The Damned just before they left her to become The Damned (I’m not saying these are all comparable events, just trying to highlight the variety). You get a good flavour of the sixties and seventies alternative scene through the pages of Reckless.

Morrissey, on the other hand, though he definitely has trouble with drummers, doesn’t fit any of the other cliches. I picture him in hotel rooms bemoaning the substandard tea and paltry pair of shrink-wrapped custard creams. Not a rock star in the wild sense, and yet when you think about the headlines (tabloid as well as music press), the recognition, the adulation, the size of venues he’s played, it’s clear that he really is in every other sense.

At one point one of his neighbours (and, apparently, friends) was Alan Bennett, and once I’d read that I keep reading the odd line (e.g. no chance of a Rich Tea biscuit so don’t bother asking, when he visits Julie Burchill) in an Alan Bennett voice. I’m left with an urge to write a play in which Alan Bennett and Morrissey sit at a kitchen table with a pot of tea for an hour, playing the characters we think they are in real life.

Meanwhile, the shy, gawky boy is suddenly greying and avuncular and doesn’t know how that happened, and looking back on his life he catalogues the friends and relatives who died too young, from the uncle not much older than the teenage Morrissey to Kirsty MacColl twenty-five years later, and beyond. It is essentially a sad book full of loneliness, but laced with dry wit and flashes of the lyricism he’s always been admired for (by those who admire him). I can’t help but contrast Chrissie Hynde’s middle class upbringing and wasted stint at university with Morrissey’s Manchester-Irish family in and out of each other’s terraced houses, his depressing secondary modern and his stint on the dole. I know which one comes out of these memoirs seeming the more articulate and intelligent.

My dad, despite being the reason I got into both The Pretenders and The Smiths (we didn’t have many cassettes in the car during the 80s and I eventually grew to love most of them. Just not Roxy Music) groaned when I said I was reading Morrissey’s book. “But,” I said, “if you like Morrissey’s lyrics (which most Smiths/Morrissey fans do), and you have a sort of indulgent affection for him and the clangers he seems to drop in interviews (which again, I would say most Smiths/Morrissey fans do) I don’t see how you could help but love it. Unless it’s just that I’m still a pretentious fifteen-year-old at heart.” “Mmm,” said my dad. And really, there’s no answer to that.

February? What was that?

Even with the leapday, February ends tomorrow and I’ve essentially failed to blog for the whole month. It seems a matter of moments since it was January, and the weather was weirdly mild and all major deadlines and events were ages away.

I had my usual winter excuse of illness for pretty much the first half of the month, so that didn’t help. For a week I was feeling utterly pathetic. I was even too tired to read for a while (I know – I could hardly believe it either). I did (slowly) read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, which I’d been attracted to in a charity shop because I’d enjoyed The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and this novel was about comic book creators. Wonderfully written, set largely during the second world war (and just before and after), it has some bleak moments but also delightful oddness and humour. And it’s full of excitement about the possibility of comics, which had me itching to get back to work on a couple of half-finished comic ideas.

Brainstorming and planning for both the York Festival of Ideas (storytelling with Alice, like last year) and the Chapel FM Writing on Air Festival has been limping along, with rehearsals planned and notes scrawled. I’ve also had a new review up at The Bookbag (1930s Italian crime fiction reprinted). You see, although I’ve been quiet I haven’t been totally inactive.

March will be more obviously active, with some book reviews here and at The Bookbag, and possibly some musings on the EU referendum depending on how much I feel like alienating the apolitical (or indeed non-European) parts of my readership.