reading

Rediscovering Maigret

The only Maigret paperback I have ever owned

This year after not reading any of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels for years I’ve read three as ebooks from the library: Maigret and the Man on the Bench, Maigret Takes a Room, and Maigret’s Mistake. I’d forgotten how gently melancholy they could be, as Maigret sits and ponders in cafes or his office, smoking his pipe. Rather than running around chasing people he seems to potter around Paris asking questions, slotting pieces of the puzzle together, occasionally sending his assistant Janvier off to track someone down. When they do corner the villain, Maigret is usually more disappointed than angry, particularly if they are young. I hadn’t picked up on his underlying sadness at never having children, before, but it is mentioned in all three books I think.

I used to read Maigret as a child, probably even before I started on Agatha Christie at eleven or so. My dad borrowed them from the library and before I had my own adult borrower’s card I would read some of them too before he returned them. I dare say the racier themes passed me by but the atmosphere and the central characters stayed with me, and when Michael Gambon starred in the TV adaptation in the early 90s my dad and I watched them together. For years, it was Gambon who portrayed Jules Maigret in my head when I read the books, but this year he was replaced by Rowan Atkinson’s kind paternalism. That change made me realise how wonderfully Atkinson had portrayed Maigret in the ITV adaptations a few years ago. We watched them at the time with OneMonkey’s parents, as I recall, and now OneMonkey’s dad has started reading the novels on my recommendation.

I turned to Maigret as a literary comfort blanket, an easy throwback to childhood without going the full Paddington. It worked on that level but I also enjoyed the story on its own terms, hence returning for more. They’re not cosy crime, the three I’ve read this year date from the 1950s and have sordid and grubby elements, hunger and desperation. It’s Maigret’s attitude, his understanding, that makes them in any way comforting. In these days of paperback door-stoppers the Maigret novels are refreshingly short, a wet weekend read that I can immerse myself in. I’m glad I’ve rediscovered Simenon’s Maigret. Thankfully he wrote more than seventy novels in the series so there are plenty more for me to revisit.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite detective, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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I Love The Bones Of You by Christopher Eccleston

Christopher Eccleston is probably my favourite Doctor of the revived Doctor Who, but it’s his public anger about the lack of opportunity for working class actors and his willingness to admit to mental health problems that really made me respect him. I watched Lemn Sissay and Christopher Eccleston discuss their memoirs for the Bradford Literature Festival in 2020, just the pair of them in conversation about their vastly different upbringings a few miles apart in what is now Greater Manchester. I honestly can’t remember whether I’d just read My Name Is Why or if I was intending to, but I know that a couple of weeks after that event I was buying an ebook on Kobo and spotted that I Love The Bones Of You was the 99p daily deal so I decided to give it a go. It’s taken me a while to be brave enough to read it because I got the impression it was largely about the effects of his dad’s dementia and my mum’s been suffering for a few years now. Indeed I cried my way through the last couple of chapters which do focus on his dad’s plight but although it’s mentioned earlier – foreshadowed if you like – it’s by no means the core of the book.

Thankfully it’s not a celebrity memoir either, full of name-dropping and amusing anecdotes. The trouble is, I’m not sure what it is. He does have important things to say about many things such as the stigma attached to mental illness, the assumption that anorexia only happens to girls, and how damaging a traditional northern working class stoicism can be when actually the stronger thing to do would be to ask for help. He also highlights how the opportunities he was afforded as a drama student in the 80s don’t exist for young people starting out now, and how in a precarious job market (like acting, but not only acting) there’s a pressure to conform and to put up with discomfort or bad behaviour. Also, shockingly, that post-breakdown he was seen as an insurance risk which could (and certainly would in a less-established actor) restrict his ability to work, thus encouraging people to cover up problems. I don’t agree with him on everything, but I do agree that sometimes ‘working class chip’ and ‘professional northerner’ are used to lazily dismiss genuine grievances.

There isn’t a simple chronological autobiography here, in fact I felt like I was floundering in a stream of consciousness in the early chapters, confused at times as to what era we were in and if that was before or after some particular event. On the other hand he does go off on short tangents now and then about making this TV series or that film. I appreciated his respect for writers who are trying to inform as they entertain, and I finished the book with a couple of TV series I wanted to watch. I often want to be that kind of writer but aside from Twelve Weeks’ Rest I’m not sure I’ve managed it. There’s an element of catharsis, writing-as-therapy, and I sincerely hope it helped him to explore for instance what masculinity means when you’re northern and working class, particularly in the 70s when he was hitting his teens. I recognised too much of that self-policing mindset that leads to internalised problems that erupt much later. It’s not my story to tell but someone close to me was also suicidally depressed in his fifties and to read Eccleston’s take on his own breakdown was painful.

Things being not your story to tell can hamper memoir, of course, and there’s some of that in I Love The Bones Of You. He has two older brothers and naturally they make the odd appearance but it would have been interesting to know how their getting married and having sons of their own informed his ideas of masculinity or his relationship with them or his dad. I sensed that he wanted to keep their tales private though, and their families are only mentioned in passing with reference to a funeral. It’s perfectly reasonable to want to keep your living family out of the limelight – his dad had been dead for seven years I believe, by the time the book came out in 2019 – but it’s a shame that some interesting angles were therefore left unexplored.

I didn’t give up on it, partly I felt I owed it to him for being so brave as to pour all that onto a page and send it out for strangers to read and judge. There’s a raw openness to it that I admired even as it made me feel uncomfortable. It’s not so much a warts and all portrait as a tight close-up on the warts such that you’re left wondering about the wider view. In summary, I’m glad I read it but I felt scoured out by the end. And for the record, I would watch a BBC Who Do You Think You Are about his farm labourer and factory worker ancestors; I’m from long lines of agricultural labourers, miners and mill-hands myself.

If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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The Split by Laura Kay

Lesbian rom-com, mostly set in Yorkshire and includes a cat. What’s not to love? I mentioned in September that I’d bought The Split after seeing Laura Kay at a Stay-at-Home litfest session on romantic comedy novels but hadn’t read it yet. Well, now I have and it was great.

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Unemployed teacher Ally’s been ditched by the love of her life in London, so she packs a change of clothes and the cat and crawls home to her dad in Sheffield. Much as she’d love to wallow while she waits for Emily to realise how much she misses the cat (and hopefully Ally), her dad’s not about to let that happen. It seems her childhood friend Jeremy’s crawled back home after heartbreak too and their respective parents figure they might cheer each other up as well as get each other out of the house. Reluctant at first, they soon fall back into their old groove and of course Ally’s going to sign up for the half-marathon in solidarity when Jeremy decides that’s the way to get his boyfriend back. Happily, though the training might well kill her, Ally’s at least found an attractive young running coach but she’s probably straight. Isn’t she?

The tagline was, ‘The laugh-out-loud read we all need right now’. I don’t normally trust ‘laugh out loud…’ quotes, in fact it’s often enough to put me off, but I genuinely did laugh out loud a fair few times. This was the easy-to-read rom com I was looking for all those weeks ago. It was much more me than The Cornish Cream Tea Bus and not only because I’m bisexual and not very feminine. It was full of normal people who work in shops, schools, a call centre, and go to old man pubs and chip shops. They regularly travel by bus, and when Ally leaves London she does so by train not car, in fact it’s mentioned later that she can’t drive. Training for a half-marathon doesn’t magically make them fit, slim, healthy and happy. And of course it’s set in Yorkshire.

The one downside is that Ally turns out to be an irresponsible cat-owner, which has put OneMonkey off reading it. On the whole though I zipped through and really enjoyed it. More than anything, it was a real affirmation of friendship.

If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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B is for books

As you can imagine, I spent my childhood surrounded by books. I had a shelf of my mum’s hardbacks from the forties and fifties, with titles like Amelia Goes to the Seaside, or Doris Of Buttercup Farm. I got my older cousins’ Bunty annuals and Enid Blyton boarding school books. I borrowed books from the local library and the school library. There were family trips to library sales, charity shops and secondhand bookshops on Saturdays to stock up, and for a few years my dad worked near a secondhand bookshop and would regularly come home bearing his lunchtime haul and dish them out among us. I won books as school prizes and I had fond relatives (and the family friends known as auntie and uncle) who gave me books or book tokens for Christmas and birthday.

I can still remember the thrill of a five pound book token, stuck like a hinged stamp on the inside of a greetings card. So much more exciting than its modern credit-card-alike equivalent. I would clutch it tightly as I prowled the children’s room of the New Bookshop in Cockermouth, terrified that it would somehow come adrift and be rendered void before I found the perfect reading material. Then as now I had an unvoiced fear of wasting it on a book I wouldn’t enjoy. I don’t remember ever doing so, but I wonder if that’s down to my dad’s guidance. I was often steered by him towards books or authors I might enjoy (who am I kidding? I still am), and I remember him reading the blurbs on books I’d picked up because of their attractive covers to check they were my sort of thing.

I vividly remember picking this for its cover

What with the paternal steering, hand-me-downs and secondhand purchases I ended up with an odd mix, some of them still (or still in the 1980s) considered children’s classics and others plain old-fashioned. I read Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven, Billy Bunter, Biggles, Bulldog Drummond, BB’s Little Grey Men and the Pat Smythe books beloved of my horse-mad mum (Pat Smythe was a famous showjumper in the 1950s). Most of them my contemporaries hadn’t even heard of, let alone read, but at least that prepared me for being completely out of step with them musically later on, when I bypassed Take That for The Clash thanks to Big Brother’s record collection.

Not common reading matter among my peers

B could also easily have been for baking, bacon butties, bread. If you enjoyed this one, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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In search of written rom com

Despite being a curmudgeonly cynic I have in recent years come to appreciate the rom com film genre. OneMonkey is an unrepentant romantic and through my existing love of Fred Astaire and Cary Grant films he’s gradually introduced me to such cinematic delights as How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Notting Hill, and Music and Lyrics. Lockdown, and the subsequent self-imposed lockdown-light, hit my reading hard: lack of concentration, lack of enthusiasm, lack of empathy. I’d caught part of a session on the romantic comedy novel, at the Stay-at-Home litfest and I wondered if that might be part of the answer. Perhaps a novel of light-hearted fluff would let me zip through, enjoying the ride, without having to conjure up strong emotions for fictional characters when I felt wrung-out due to too many strong emotions at home.

I had the remnants of a kobo voucher to spend so I bought a couple of e-books: The Split by Laura Kay which was one of the books featured at that Stay-at-Home litfest session, and The Cornish Cream Tea Bus by Cressida McLaughlin which OneMonkey picked for me.

The Cornish Cream Tea Bus (The Cornish Cream Tea series, Book 1) ebook by Cressida McLaughlin

The Cornish Cream Tea Bus is the first of a series set in the fictional village of Porthgolow in North Cornwall, each featuring different main characters, though I believe Charlie Quilter is in all of them somewhere. Charlie’s beloved uncle Hal has died and left her his vintage Routemaster bus, on which he used to do guided tours of the Cotswolds. Although Charlie can drive the bus, she’s a baker by trade and neither wants to give up the work she loves nor neglect her inheritance. Maybe if she can just take some time out to think, away from the messy split with her cheating partner Stuart, she can figure out how to combine the two. Luckily, her best friend has moved to Cornwall and has a spare room and endless patience. Certainly more patience than me.

Naturally, Charlie has love interests, that’s kind of what you expect with this genre, but a lot of it left me baffled. I don’t see the attraction of wide-shouldered, heavily-muscled arrogant men who wear suits and run their own business. I don’t really see my life reflected in designer dog-owning emotional women who wear high heels (and find said buff, arrogant men attractive), whose best friends are in marketing or ex-boyfriends are investment bankers. Perhaps it’s easier to be detached when it’s on screen or maybe it’s as simple as I literally can’t imagine these people, and when I’m reading about them that’s what I have to do.

Having said that, most of the fiction I read probably presents me with main characters whose backgrounds and motivations are different from my own, but I rarely have this problem. I wonder if certain types of realist fiction (by which I mean set now, in our world, portraying lives and events that could happen and are in some sense common) assume a certain viewpoint and feel they don’t have to go into details, so I’m never invited in. If the novel was about a serial killer, motivation would need to be set out and explored, if it was historical there would have to be context, but presumably everyone reading The Cornish Cream Tea Bus should understand exactly why some particular conversation calls for a bottle of wine, or why an otherwise capable person would go to pieces because a man had muscles visible beneath his shirt.

For plot reasons, Charlie jumped to a couple of conclusions no sane person would jump to. She also entirely failed to put two and two together and solve a mystery that was blindingly obvious (mind you, nobody else in the village did either). However, I read the whole novel so on some level it even worked its magic on me. I suspect that if you’re more comfortable with the wine, the buff men, the thirty-something professionals, this will be an excellent example of its type. It was surprisingly chaste, definitely no sex scenes and even the smouldering kisses were few and far between. The scenery was beautifully evoked and was very much part of the book, it almost made me want to visit Cornwall. There were some lovely moments involving pods of dolphins, and tense moments of both the romantic and plain old dramatic variety. There are many imaginative cakes, pastries, and decorated biscuits described, and I wouldn’t recommend reading it before a trip to the supermarket unless you want to come home with half the cream cake aisle.

I haven’t read The Split yet, having been lured away by epic fantasy, but when I do I’ll let you know what I thought.

If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Airedale by Dylan Byford

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Outside London, it’s pretty rare to find English sci-fi set in a real place. I can think of one or two set in Manchester, and Peter F Hamilton’s Greg Mandel series set in and around Rutland, but beyond that I’m struggling. It’s fair to say I was intrigued when I spotted one of the first novels from new crime publisher Northodox Press was ‘a near-future thriller’ set in a place I used to live: Airedale.

If you’re a dog-lover you might be familiar with the terrier of the same name, but I’m guessing that outside Yorkshire (probably even inside most of Yorkshire) the name won’t conjure up a place for you. As you might have guessed, it’s the dale (valley) where the River Aire runs, and these days houses Leeds commuters, many of them living in buildings that forty years ago were textile mills. There is also a UNESCO world heritage site, the mill village Saltaire. Dylan Byford has cleverly taken this geography and history and extrapolated it into a messy future. An unspecified time when another industry is disintegrating in the periodically flooded dale leaving empty warehouses and unemployment, Saltaire exists in a protective bubble, and northern politicians look to Durham rather than Westminster.

Airedale is a cyberpunk police procedural featuring politics, subversion, riots and local businessmen. It’s full of wonderful details of integrated technology and state surveillance, what’s changed and what hasn’t. Haz Edmundson is a contractor working for the police, what we might call a forensic computing expert who doesn’t usually have to deal with dead bodies. Except tonight, when for one reason or another he’s there when the body of an activist is discovered and he can’t let it go when it’s officially marked as an accidental death. How far is he prepared to go to uncover the truth? And who can he trust?

Haz is a wonderfully human character. A hopeless, unreliable, scruffy single dad who’s good at his job but not hard-boiled enough to deal with death in a detached way. He’s also apt to ask the wrong questions at the wrong moment, and land himself in trouble. I would happily read more books about him. If he can hang onto his life or his job long enough to star in them. There were a couple of interesting strands that weren’t fully followed up, in my view, and I don’t claim to completely understand the conclusions but I had a fabulous time along the way. Except for the bit near the start that’s really not for the arachnophobes (grit your teeth and race through it, it’s only half a dozen pages and only one of them is horrifying).

I didn’t pay for my copy because I won it in a draw on Twitter but other than them once reading (and rejecting) the manuscript of a crime novel of mine set in Newcastle, I have no relationship with Northodox and I don’t know Dylan Byford either. If you like William Gibson but have always wished someone would write in a similar vein but with uncool characters in small town Yorkshire (it can’t just be me), you are definitely onto a winner here. Similarly if you enjoyed the Greg Mandel series from Peter F Hamilton (I reviewed the first and second books a few years ago), or if you’re a fan of British police procedurals and you have an open mind on the SF elements. It does have a great sense of place, and I was initially attracted to it because of the setting, but I was hooked from the first page and the setting soon became the icing on a fine cake. Highly recommended, whether you know where Airedale is or not.

If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Slow Horses by Mick Herron

Offhand, I can’t think of any spy thrillers I’ve read before. Obviously I’ve seen The Ipcress File, and the Le Carre adaptations starring Alec Guinness, but I haven’t actually sat down and read any of the books behind them. I have my dad to thank for nudging me towards Mick Herron’s Slough House series, of which Slow Horses is the first volume.

About a year ago I started listening to the American spy comedy podcast Mission Rejected, and since I’d taken to calling my parents daily during lockdown and was somewhat lacking in conversation topics, I told my dad about it. He suggested I give Mick Herron’s novels a go, if inept spies were what I was after. Dark satire, rather than comedy, but most enjoyable. They weren’t available via the library ebook service, and pandemic restrictions have meant the Library of Mum and Dad has been off-limits for 18 months, plus of course if you’ve been here before you’ll know I’ve been trying to read the overlooked books on my shelves during lockdown. However, I read a Guardian interview with Mick Herron earlier this year and it prompted me to buy the first book in the series (as an ebook, to limit clutter).

“Plotting is pretty much secondary to me,” he says. “What really interests me is the characters and getting to grips with them, and them getting to grips with each other.”

Charlotte Higgins interview with Mick Herron, The Guardian, 15 Jan 2021

As you might guess from that quote, the mission is not the important bit, or rather, it doesn’t matter that much what it’s about. It’s all in the context of the War on Terror, with some stereotypical far-right nutcases kicking about. The meat of the book though is the relationships between the has-beens (or never-weres) at Slough House, and between Slough House as a whole and the ‘proper’ spies at Regent’s Park. None of whom bear any resemblance to the old-fashioned gentlemen in the Alec Guinness dramas. Jackson Lamb, the head of Slough House, is very much the Andy Dalziel of MI5 – crude, abrasive, but underestimate him at your peril. There’s also a walk-on part for Peter Judd, a right-wing politician described as a buffoon with floppy hair and a bicycle. Can’t think who he reminds me of…

Herron is good at sleight of hand, and there were a few places where I was misdirected and had to flick back a few pages to work out why. I also enjoyed his use of ‘if a passenger on the bus were to glance through the window, this is what they’d see’ kind of thing, rather than it all being from one character’s point of view. I doubt it’s a realistic picture of life in the modern secret service, but it’s full of interesting characters and I’m looking forward to working my way through the remaining six novels plus a few novellas.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Miniaturiste - Jessie Burton - Babelio

This 2014 debut novel is set in late 17th century Amsterdam (October 1686-January 1687, to be precise) and since I like good immersive historical fiction I’d been contemplating reading it since I first started spotting it in charity shops several years ago. It had been actually written on my To Read list for at least a couple of years, and I finally borrowed it recently as an ebook from the library. It seems to have flipped my fiction switch – I romped through it, and once I’d finished I was yearning for another novel (I’m on the spy novel Slow Horses by Mick Herron now, review probably to follow in due course).

Nella Oortman has come from the country to be the new teenage wife of a successful Amsterdam merchant twice her age. He buys her a dolls’ house version of their own house as an amusing distraction from his perpetual absence on business. Nella finds a mysterious miniaturist to craft the furnishings she requires, as she tries to settle in with her new sister-in-law and the surprisingly forward servants.

The miniaturist and the cabinet house are the least satisfying elements of the story, to my mind. The essence of the book is bound up in the intrigue, the performative piety, and the things that are not as they seem. The hypocrisy of a society which is so puritanical and yet their fortunes rest on sugar (indulgence) and slavery. It was wonderful on detail and catering for all senses – the smells from the canal and the kitchen, the tastes of the food they’re eating, as well as the usual sights and sounds. Including the occasional reminder that in the evening with only a couple of candles burning, there are lots of shadows for a young girl to jump at.

Even after reading the whole novel and re-reading the first few pages I still don’t quite understand the prologue and it didn’t feel like it fit, to me. However, given the enormous success of this novel I’m probably in a minority (or, given that I loved the novel anyway, maybe it doesn’t matter). If you enjoyed Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier you will love this, maybe Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy will have set you up to be well-disposed towards it too.

If I’ve helped you find your next book to read, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Why lie about reading?

I listened recently to a Backlisted episode from 2018, where they discussed How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard. Having never heard of either book or author, I assumed it was going to be satire about the kind of pompous windbag that always has to have been there or done that, no matter where the conversation turns. Weirdly, it didn’t seem to be.

Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

Bayard is a French literature professor, I believe, and seems to subscribe to the peculiar idea that it’s somehow embarrassing or shameful to admit to not having read a particular book. I guess if you’re teaching a course on it or writing a review of it, it might be – though I would say there are bigger problems there than saving face. I can’t think of any other circumstance where you would want to say you’d read a book when you hadn’t. Even in a book club, surely there’s a more interesting conversation to be had about why you couldn’t get past page six, than in trying to bluff your way through a discussion of major themes.

In the podcast a couple of them talked about working as booksellers and deceiving the customers. Who expects someone who works in their local bookshop to have read all the stock? I wouldn’t even expect the sci-fi specialist in Waterstones to have read everything on the sci-fi and fantasy shelves. What’s wrong with saying ‘no I haven’t read it but my friend raves about it’ or ‘I don’t really do cyberpunk but it got 5 stars in The Guardian’?

There was also mention of shady dealings with visiting authors. I think it’s much less rude to tell an author you haven’t (as yet) read their book than to pretend you have. I’ve been to many litfest events where I haven’t read the book and on the occasions I’ve ended up speaking to the author afterwards, I’ve truthfully told them the reason. That may have been because I had only heard of it due to the event (which is at least part of the reason they’re doing the event), or was on the library waiting list for a copy, or just hadn’t worked that far down the To Read pile yet. As a writer, I’d rather someone said they were keeping their friend company or had picked an event at random than pretend they’d read my work.

Cathy Rentzenbrink mentioned on the podcast her work with literacy charities, and how it can be intimidating to people starting to read when ‘everyone’ has read this massive list of books, so actually it’s good to admit you haven’t, and take the pressure off . I think my dad said something to me when I was in my late teens and still in my ‘ought to’ phase with books, about the ever-growing list of classics and not reading anything new till you’re thirty. The idea being that there was this nineteenth century list of classics that the educated man ought to have read, compiled when literacy was becoming a mass achievement in England, and nobody knocked Dickens off when they added Orwell, or replaced George Eliot with Virginia Woolf. Every generation added more books, more authors, so it got to the point where you’d have to read nothing but books on that list for several years once you move on to adult fiction, before you could start reading new releases and developing your own taste. And if you feel like you ‘ought to’ read all the Sunday Times bestsellers and the Booker prize shortlist to keep up with the cultural conversation, then maybe you never do develop your own taste.

I could slip into a meditation on class, here, and who defines cultural norms and expectations (harking back to my last post on gatekeepers) but I’ll restrain myself. However, I will say that if you don’t have to read it for an exam, never read a book you don’t have reasonably high expectations of. Some will disappoint you, but honestly if you think an incredibly long nineteenth century book about whale-hunting sounds dull don’t feel obliged to waste whole days of your life on it just because Moby Dick’s a famous title. If anyone asks if you’ve read it, tell them it didn’t sound like your kind of thing. If they insist you must and you don’t want to argue (it is guaranteed to be someone’s favourite ever book, after all) tell them you’ll give it a go when your To Read pile is empty, confident in the knowledge it will never happen. I’m not saying you can’t ask them what they love about it, or let it lead to a pleasant conversation about books set at sea, just don’t try and convince them you read it thirty years ago and can’t quite recall the details. Own your unique blend of tastes and preferences.

Coincidentally, a couple of months before that podcast episode initially went out, I wrote the following here on my blog:

At any given gathering of writers, I can guarantee that someone will mention a book and at least one other person will have read it. Occasionally I’ll have heard of (but not read) it, often I haven’t even heard of the author and I marvel at this literary synchronicity that means that out of all the millions of books available in English, these two people in the same room have read the same one in the last few weeks. Then I wonder how I come across – do they all think I don’t read? I mention Ben Aaronovitch or Reginald Hill and they look blank. Terry Pratchett at least is a recognisable name even if they know nothing about his books. I give up, stay quiet, consider only going to genre-based gatherings.

Now I wonder if it was truly synchronicity or if some of them had been taking tips from Prof Bayard.

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Why own books?

I don’t mean why buy books, rather why bother hanging onto them once you’ve read them? Spending lockdown staring at our bookshelves and wondering why we had so many books, and how many we’d actually read, OneMonkey and I had a cull recently.

About a quarter of the books waiting to go

There are piles of books lying around our flat now, waiting for the charity shops to reopen so we can pass them on. They are mainly mine. Books that were my undergraduate set texts more than twenty years ago, second-hand books I haven’t read and can now admit I never will, books I have read but won’t read again. As we went through each shelf deciding which books to keep and which to jettison, it made me think about where I got them and why I kept them in the first place.

When I was a teenager, in fact probably into my early twenties, I stocked up on the books I thought I ‘ought’ to read. The ones I thought might be impressive (to whom?) on the bookshelves in my student digs. With the aid of the new Wordsworth cheap editions and the clearance shelf in Thornes and/or Dillons in Newcastle I got Tolstoy and Turgenev, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edith Wharton. Birthday book tokens got me Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (single volume abridged) and some of the optional reading for my philosophy of science modules. I even read most of them. Then I hung on to them for years, no intention of re-reading the ones I’d read, never getting round to the ones I hadn’t. They had become part of the furniture, being packed up and redeployed every time OneMonkey and I moved house (which we did six times in the eleven years after graduation).

Books, as you might expect, are a bit of a Proust’s madeleine for me. With most of my books, I pick it off the shelf and recall its acquisition. Often I get a flash of when or where I read it, if indeed I have. For most of those ‘ought’ books, I got nothing. I hadn’t read them because I got a flash of excitement when I read the blurb in the bookshop, I’d read them because I recognised the title or the author from a list somewhere. With a few honourable exceptions (Tolstoy, for one), I never connected with them. Now I’m in my forties, my hair shot with silver threads that match my glam metal scarves, I don’t care about having Plato or Hume on my shelves. I don’t even care that I haven’t read them (I did try Hume, but his punctuation and phraseology were impenetrable).

Those books joined the popular science books I’d left too long after graduation and didn’t understand, the history books on topics I was no longer interested in or that were written in a dull old-fashioned way. It was easier to ditch the second-hand books, the dog-eared ones I’d rescued from the bin at an Oxfam bookshop I volunteered at many years ago or the ones I’d bought at charity shops or library book-sales. The ones I’d bought new were harder (I paid good money for that!) and the ones that were gifts, harder still.

I find it hard to get rid of books that were gifts, even when they were wide of the mark. I can sometimes pass them on to someone else I know, but to hand them over to a charity shop, not knowing what kind of care they’ll subsequently receive, is too much. Of course, when you’re known to be a book-lover and your nearest and dearest give you books at every available opportunity but you live in a flat, there comes a time when even some of the presents have to go. The books friend T gave me for my 18th and 40th birthdays remain beside each other on the popular science and rock ‘n’ roll shelf (the shelving system only really makes sense to me), as do scattered others, but there are books from friends and family on the To Go piles. The cringing this is causing made me realise that part of the reason for keeping the gift books is so I can hope said friend or relative notices it on a visit and thinks better of me. Even though most of my friends and relatives rarely, if ever, get close to my bookshelves and probably wouldn’t recognise half the books they’d given me.

So we’re back to bookshelves as a means to impress. It made me think of the Twitter account Bookcase Credibility, which popped up at the start of lockdown in 2020 to offer tongue in cheek analysis of the shelves used as background by experts and politicians appearing on the news from their homes. I had a job interview by video call in February and I admit I agonised over which angle to have my chair at. In the end I realised that the books I’d be happiest about having on show (sci-fi and fantasy novels, northern and/or working-class history) were on the higher shelves and I could either do the interview standing up or just not mind. I ended up with Muppet DVDs on one side and a random collection of fiction on the other, most legible among which was probably the Scarlet Pimpernel omnibus (and yet, I did get the job).

How I ended up presenting my shelves

Why own books, then? I reckon they fall into four categories:

  • I (realistically) intend to read them but haven’t yet
  • reference volumes or say, a history book that I’ve read but might want to revisit for a fact or date
  • fiction or poetry that’s likely to be re-read, e.g. a seasonal collection or favourite Terry Pratchett
  • fiction I’m pretty sure I won’t re-read but holds fond memories that flood me when I pluck it from the shelf, possibly because it was a gift

Oh yes, and of course the ones I’d prefer to have as my public-facing background on a video call or author photo, but I’m pretty sure I’m hanging on to them for one of the four reasons above, anyway.

Oddly this is how I’d prefer to be seen. Many of you will be puzzled, I’m sure.

Why do you keep books, if you do? I’d love to know, so feel free to tell me in the comments (or on Twitter @JYSaville)

If I’ve got you thinking, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Wyldblood Magazine issue 1

Wyldblood Magazine is the new bi-monthly speculative fiction magazine from Wyldblood Press. For the writers, it’s a paying market based in the UK. For readers, it’s 11 stories ranging between 4 and 10 pages each, plus an author interview (Tiffani Angus) and some book reviews. The editor Mark Bilsborough was kind enough to send me a review copy, so here’s a quick scoot through what you can expect.

Coal Dust and Shadows by Holley Cornetto is a good old-fashioned eerie story set in a mining town in the USA. An odd girl is rescued from a mine, and seventeen-year-old Preston’s in love. But is this silent girl as innocent as she seems? One of my favourites from this issue.

Thawing by JL George is firmly in the realm of fantasy, set in a world where cold-bringing dragons are feared. A young girl is enthralled by the legend of the ice princess but how close is it to the truth?

The Butcher’s Dog by Peri Dwyer Worrell is a light-hearted tale of animal experiments, narrated by the dog of the title. Who is really in charge in this human-canine relationship?

A Gleam of Gold by Dorothy A Winsor is a fantasy tale in a land where magic is seen as barbaric. We meet Jarka as he begins to learn the mastery of his magical skills. This reads like a selfcontained excerpt from a longer story, there’s definitely a sense of a fully-formed world out there with a past and a future.

Bargaining with Frogs by Stephanie Kraner is a fun take on the frog prince fairytale.

Et In Vanadia Ego by Rosemary Sgroi is science-fiction. In a society geared for cyclists, where energy is currency, a young man has fallen in love with a woman from Vanadia, the last outpost of capitalism.

Little Escher by Robert Borski. Is there more to a little boy’s drawing ability than his father thinks?

A Murder of Crows by Jacey Bedford is a gripping story with a noir edge. Anka works for the Port Authority, basically she’s a cop, and having just lost an apprentice she’s determined to go it alone when her greatest foe shows up in the city. My personal favourite, I think, and anyone else with a fondness for William Gibson’s style will probably also love this one.

The Paint-Over Artist by Mark Rigney is sci-fi initially feeling like fantasy. A secluded authoritarian state, and the woman whose job it is to paint over graffiti and subversive slogans. Another favourite of mine.

Souls of Smoke and Ash by Sydney Paige Guerrero is set in the Philippines and nudges into vampire territory without the gore. It’s a compelling character-driven tale of betrayal, teenage identity and loneliness.

The Klizzys by Bonnie West is a sad and unsettling tale of a grieving child and imaginary friends.

The stories range in tone from light-hearted to dark and tense, and cover sub-genres across the speculative spectrum. Not every story will be to everyone’s taste, and it’s skewed towards fantasy but only because the submissions were, I think – if you want to redress the balance submit some good sci-fi, or nudge your favourite sci-fi short story writer to do so. Wyldblood magazine has the potential to become one of those broad-taste SF mags like Interzone, where you know you’ll find stories of a certain calibre and there’s sure to be something to entice you, even if you won’t like every story in every issue.

The interview with Tiffani Angus was interesting and really made me want to read her novel – my To Read list just keeps on growing. Threading the Labyrinth is essentially about the garden of a large English house, over several centuries. She gave some insight into the amount (and types) of research involved in writing real history with fantasy and time travel elements. The editor then rounds out the issue with a few book reviews – most of them seem to be books that didn’t quite satisfy him! However, he gives the sort of detailed reasons that should help you work out whether the book still sounds like it’s your cup of tea.

It would be nice to see some commissioned artwork in the magazine but I know that racks up the costs so maybe it’s unrealistic at this early stage. It can enhance a good SF story though. I guess you’d expect that viewpoint from the founder of International Illustrator Appreciation Day

Issue 2 is due out mid-March as print, pdf, epub and mobi editions. You can buy individual print or electronic copies or take out a subscription at the Wyldblood website, individual copies are also available via Amazon.

Light reading for the new year

I’m determined to write more book reviews and recommendations this year. I’ve persuaded myself that they needn’t be full-on 600 word reviews with references to previous works and links to where to buy them. I still might help someone find a good book to try, by writing a paragraph or two about why I did or didn’t enjoy it, and who it might appeal to. So here we go for the first two books I read in 2021, both of which were short and (to a greater or lesser degree) humourous: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos and Tales From the Folly by Ben Aaronovitch.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was on my To Read list because of the Backlisted podcast about it. I jotted down after listening last year that ‘apparently it’s quite PG Wodehouse’ and what with it being set (and indeed written) in the 1920s I was looking forward to reading it. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the Marilyn Monroe film of the same name but I only have vague recollections of a long-distance boat trip, I certainly don’t think the film follows the story of the book closely. While it has some laugh out loud moments and some flashes of great satire, this novel is not in shouting distance of the same league as PG Wodehouse. It’s written as a diary by dim-but-scheming gold-digger Lorelei, who has the ability to wrap any man around her little finger and make even the meanest English aristocrat dip into his wallet to procure her some expensive trinkets. I found her writing style tiresome after a while – beginning most sentences with ‘so’, scattering ‘I mean’ everywhere, and spelling the odd word wrong e.g. landguage. Lorelei and her wise-cracking friend Dorothy leave New York for an adventure in Europe, financed by a gentleman of Lorelei’s acquaintance, naturally. A series of amusing escapades follow, and Lorelei somehow manages to get out of all the scrapes she gets herself into. Readable enough, short, and very much of its time. I think if you enjoy the Mapp and Lucia books (which I didn’t) you’ll enjoy it more than I did. There is a sequel, I believe, but I’m not about to seek it out.

Tales From the Folly is a Rivers of London short story collection from 2020 and is strictly for the fans. As I understand it, this is a gathering up of all the short stories that Ben Aaronovitch has written for special editions of his novels and novellas. Each one has a short (paragraph-long) introduction saying when it’s set and what prompted it. The first half of the book is stories from the point of view of the main character Peter Grant, and the rest of the stories are centred on other characters. I’ve read all the Rivers of London novels except the latest one, plus one of the novellas, and I still had trouble remembering what some bits referred to. There was a whole first-person story from a minor character’s point of view, and I spent most of it trying to work out who the character was (no name being mentioned for a long time) and then trying to remember where that name had cropped up in the novels. That said, if you are already familiar with Rivers of London you’ll enjoy these extras and there are some good stories and interesting ideas here. I thought the Peter Grant stories worked better than the other characters, on the whole.

It’s no coincidence that I chose short, light-hearted fiction to start the year. I’ve seen people setting themselves reading challenges for 2021, and declaring that they’ll be reading outside their comfort zone, reading difficult books, reading a certain proportion of books by this or that category of author. I didn’t read as many books as I expected last year. I started a few and gave up, I took weeks to get through some, I had long periods when I didn’t seem to be able to read at all. Some of that is the lack of commuting (which is where I did most of my reading for the preceding 2 years) but the disruption and worry that lasted through most of 2020 played its part. I generally read for pleasure. I don’t want to read ‘difficult’ fiction now I’m in my forties, though I might have thought I was ‘supposed to’ when I was younger. Even if I pick up non-fiction, I choose books I think I’ll enjoy if I’m intending to read the whole thing rather than dipping in here and there for research. So my declaration of intent for 2021 is to read whatever the hell I fancy, and if that means sticking mainly within SF and crime (or SF-crime, like Rivers of London) then so be it. My dad tells me that fantastic fiction is useful for finding similar authors, if you’ve exhausted the back catalogue of your favourites.

If I’ve helped you find your next book to read, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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2020: a year of not much reading

The traditional look back over what I read during the year just gone, as an excuse to round up the reviews I wrote, and provide a few mini-reviews of the books I didn’t review at the time. I only read 20 physical books in 2020, most of which are pictured below, split into non-fiction and fiction. I also read 14 e-books and listened to 4 audiobooks, but for various reasons the audiobooks never get counted in any of my totals. I read even fewer books in 2020 than I had in 2019, and as I noted a year ago, 2019 was my joint-lowest book-tally of the decade. The proportions were broadly similar though: about two-thirds of it was fiction, just over half the fiction was sci-fi and fantasy and just over a third of it was crime. Some of it was both.

An eclectic selection of non-fiction I read in 2020

As you can see from the photo above, my non-fiction reading was pretty wide-ranging. I started with the pair of Simon Armitage books my sisters bought me for Christmas 2019. In Walking Home, Simon Armitage (now the poet laureate) walks the Pennine Way in the reverse of the usual direction, starting in Scotland and ending up near his house in West Yorkshire. It’s an entertaining journey through the north, sometimes walking with friends, sometimes with strangers and sometimes alone, but each night doing a poetry reading in an attempt to pay for bed and board. Walking Away is a similar format a couple of years later, but this time he’s walking in an unfamiliar part of the country, the south-west coast. I didn’t enjoy Walking Away as much, partly because I got the sense that he wasn’t enjoying the trip as much. He comes across as almost mourngy at times – his back hurts, his feet hurt, he’s not in the mood for a reading, he’s not enjoying the company of the strangers who’ve come to walk with him – and the book has a faintly dissatisfied air like a contractual obligation album from a band you used to like. If you’ve enjoyed any of his prose though, give Walking Home a go.

Common People is a collection of short memoir pieces from known and hitherto unknown writers from working-class backgrounds, several of whom I chat to now and then on Twitter, which gave it an added thrill for me. There are a variety of tales in there and I recommend it whether you think you might recognise any of the experiences in it or not. Maybe particularly if not. The Kinks book was heavily class-based too, but definitely for the Kinks fans as you need a certain level of familiarity with their early albums.

I wrote about Footsteps when I read it, and gave links to scanned-in copies of the original memoirs on archive.org, which is also where I found an excellent account of the Luddites around Cleckheaton. You might be surprised at the local history books or niche memoirs you can find there – have a nose around if you have even the slightest interest in history beyond the national level and the famous names. I also listened to the audiobook of Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem, via the library and the Borrowbox app. Lara searches the tidal Thames for historical artefacts and I found her account fascinating despite my unfamiliarity with London. I suspect I missed out on great pictures though so if you have the chance, get hold of the actual book.

I reviewed An Indifference of Birds a few months ago – highly recommended for the interested amateur birdwatcher, particularly urban-based. I haven’t reviewed English Pastoral by James Rebanks because I don’t know where to start but I think it should be read by every politician, everyone on the board at supermarkets, and everyone who has the luxury of choice when it comes to food (by which I mean, their first priority isn’t maximum nutrition per pound due to their tiny food budget). James Rebanks is a Cumbrian farmer and in this book full of love and a sense of responsibility, he looks back at the way his grandfather farmed, where it all went wrong in his father’s generation, and how James and his children might be able to start putting things right. It talks about soil health and the downward spiral of artificial fertilisers, but also about the land and the wildlife, and it’s written beautifully. In a similar vein but with a different focus is Wilding by Isabella Tree, which OneMonkey and I listened to (again via the library). I started out bristling at these entitled aristocrats but it is a fascinating account of switching from intensive farming to a system that’s more in tune with nature, and I learnt a lot about counterproductive government incentives for agriculture.

Some of the fiction I read in 2020. Mostly I read e-books

Now to fiction. I did read a few physical books, as shown in the photo above. Mainly they were second-hand copies that were already on the To Read shelf when lockdown hit, a couple were ordered via Hive (which supports independent bookshops) or the Waterstones site. Mostly, however, I read e-books: a couple via the library and Borrowbox, some direct from small publishers, several from Kobo (since I have a Kobo mini), and one out-of-copyright downloaded for free.

I did an SFF round-up in the summer, gave a quick recommendation of Diary of a Somebody by Brian Bilston, and individually reviewed The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes and Big Sky by Kate Atkinson. Big Sky was the fifth in a series where I’d read the preceding four, and there were a few similar continuations during the year (by Tad Williams, Reginald Hill, Georges Simenon, CJ Sansom, Vic James, Jodi Taylor) so I don’t think I have any more reviews to give. I will, however, mention the audiobook of Early Riser by Jasper Fforde. A standalone novel, this is set in an alternative Wales where Tom Jones is still known for Delilah, but most humans hibernate every winter to avoid the arctic conditions. Nothing is quite as it seems, and poor Charlie Worthing’s about to get caught up in a winter nobody wants to experience, least of all him. The level of detailed imaginative brilliance was breathtaking but the reading by Thomas Hunt gave it an extra dimension and I’m glad I listened to the audiobook from the library (so we could both ‘read’ it at once) rather than read the book.

I’ve already read two books in 2021, reviews to follow shortly, but if I just helped you find your next book to read you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Not just a year but a decade in books

As is becoming sort of traditional, I thought I’d have a quick look back at what I read during the last year. The photo below is by no means a scientific sample but it does skew towards non-fiction, which is what the year felt like it did.

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Some of the books I read in 2019

However, given that the Guardian kept on reminding me it wasn’t just a new year but a new decade, I had a look back through my reading lists 2010-2019 and as a proportion I actually read more non-fiction in both 2018 and 2013 than I did in 2019 so I’m not sure why it felt so prominent.

As ever, there were library books (only 2 that I got all the way through, it’s scandalous), e-books (8), and books I’ve subsequently given away (2) and hence aren’t represented in the picture. Plus the ones I couldn’t be bothered to pull off shelves in 3 different rooms and pile on the floor (apologies to Messrs Hobsbawm and Wodehouse, among others).

Standout novels of my reading year were probably the first two volumes of the Dark Gifts trilogy by Vic James (I still haven’t read the third) and the Joe Sixsmith series from Reginald Hill (from the nineties, by the author best known for detectives Dalziel and Pascoe).

I read such a range of non-fiction in 2019, from Bruce Dickinson’s fab autobiography What Does This Button Do? to a selection of books about the north or being working class, the brilliant Gig by Simon Armitage, and a couple of economics books. It doesn’t make sense to say which was ‘best’ but Erebus by Michael Palin, The Northumbrians by Dan Jackson, and Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane both got me thinking and got me wanting to write some kind of follow-on or response.

I only read 39 books in 2019, the joint lowest total of the decade (alongside 2011). I’d like to say it’s because I’ve been writing so much instead, but it’s really not. Just over half the fiction was sci-fi or fantasy, which is about average for the decade, and just over a third was crime, which is on the high end. Though come to think of it, both novels so far in 2020 have been crime so maybe I’m going through a phase (riding a crime wave?). I should dust off the half-written detective novel this year.

Over the decade I’ve read 479 books, though I’m quite sure a few of them will have been the same book again (there’s a book on writing crime fiction that I remember getting out of the library twice, for a start). It might be a lot if you stick them in one bookcase but less than 500 in 10 years is not that many. When I think about how many new books come out in a year, even just in the genres I’m interested in, it gets a little overwhelming. It also makes me feel less bad about abandoning a long fantasy series partway through if it’s no longer absolutely compelling me to read on. I never felt guilty about not reading the must-reads and award-winners just because someone told me to, so no change there.

Writing with an outward gaze

There’s an image of writers as self-absorbed navel-gazers. Alone in the attic with a typewriter, capturing important words that the cruel and/or philistine public doesn’t want to read or hear. These days, of course, it’s been taken to a whole new level by bloggers and self-publishers (yes, like me). It’s so easy to sit here and tell as much of the world as cares to take notice how your novel’s doing; how many submissions, rejections, invitations and events are filling your world; how many books you’ve read; how many words you’ve written…

Sometimes I’m reminded that it doesn’t have to be like that, or not all of it at any rate (I kind of like reading the personal side from other writers so I hope some of you enjoy similar from me). Applying to be a writer in residence focusing on climate change last month made me properly consider the possibilities for writing as a force for good (or for change, anyway – ‘good’ is often a judgement made in hindsight).

Anyone who’s ever written sci-fi has probably consciously chosen to use fiction to highlight the bad things about the present or to show the better things that could be, whether it’s to do with discrimination, the state of politics, or the environment. Personally, I think it’s harder to do outside of genre fiction (you can do it in crime or historical fiction to a certain extent as well as in SF) but not impossible. As readers, you know how a powerful story can stay with you and maybe change your views or attitudes, it can certainly make you have a long, hard think about the views you already hold. So, remember you can use your fiction to make people think.

Non-fiction is more obvious but is further from my comfort zone and if you’re predominantly a writer of fiction that probably goes for you, too. Creative non-fiction (real events relayed in a style more usual in fiction) or a personal essay can be more effective for persuasion than haranguing the reader in an article, but a concise, factual article can raise awareness of a situation or issue that’s not widely known.

Plays, films and podcasts can be anywhere on the spectrum between the two: from documentary via dramatisation of real events to full-on fiction. Events featuring readings (which again can be a blend of fact and fiction such as Alice Courvoisier and I have done in the past) can also be used. Even the (ahem) self-absorbed blog can be used in this way.

If this is getting your writing gears turning, the Royal Society of Literature have the Literature Matters awards (this year’s deadline is December 5th) to fund work which:

(a) will help connect with audiences or topics outside the usual reach of literature, and/or (b) will help generate public discussion about why literature matters.

Of course, writing an original work isn’t the only thing a writer can do to create change. You can help other people’s voices be heard, and depending on the type of change you’re after, just giving those workshops or providing that platform can be a change in itself.  You might be able to join (or create) a local group, festival, initiative, or community arts project. I say this knowing full well that it’s not always that easy (you may remember the cancellation of our Bradford libraries writing festival project a couple of years ago).

I’ll end with a mention for Chapel FM in Seacroft. I’ve loved being involved with Chapel FM, I’m continually amazed at the breadth of their output and the work they do as a community arts project. For the first time in a few years it looks like I won’t be taking part in their Writing on Air festival in March 2020 (I don’t drive, it’s a pain to get to by public transport from where I live, and previously I’ve been lucky enough to be collaborating with kind friends who gave me a lift) but I thought I’d give a small signal boost to their call for board members, and a couple of new staff members – they’re expanding again and I wish them the best of luck.

 

Why aren’t there more illustrations in fiction?

Ten years ago this week I made up International Illustrator Appreciation Day, so naturally enough I’ve been thinking about illustrations.

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Three very different illustrated novels

I’m halfway through The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, and though I didn’t realise they were there when I bought the book, I’ve been enjoying the illustrations that mark each new chapter:

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Illustration by Yoco Nagamiya

They set the scene in some way for the chapter to come, and unlike the cover art they depict the cat, Nana, as he’s described in the text. The wash style fits beautifully with the whimsy of this Japanese novel.

Not long ago I read Wyntertide, the second book in Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird trilogy. That, being a fantasy novel which also has a map, is the sort of territory you might expect illustrations, and indeed there are full-page pictures dotted through the book:

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Illustration by Sasha Laika

To me, these ones are reminiscent of the illustrations you might find in an old-fashioned children’s book, complete with a quote beneath, to show which part of the text they go with.

The ones that were delightfully unexpected and seemed a bit odd at first are these:

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Mid-text illustration by..?

This is from the Reginald Hill novel The Roar of the Butterflies, the final book in his Joe Sixsmith private detective series. Sadly it’s the only one of the series that I’ve got in this style (I bought them all second-hand), but OneMonkey particularly loved it. They’re not quite comedies but they’re light touch, and Joe is an easy-going central character so once you accept these drawings they work really well. I’m not altogether sure who drew them as I can’t find a direct reference, only that the cover art was by Christopher Burke.

Three different styles of novel, three genres, three different ways of arranging the illustrations (in among the text, full page within a chapter, chapter headings only). The only commonality being that these are all aimed at adults. In children’s books we often encounter illustrations like this but (maps in fantasy novels aside) rarely once we’re adults. Perhaps there’s an idea that they’re only for kids, and of course it adds an extra collaborator in to complicate deadlines and share the takings with, but I think they add something to the novel. Not everyone likes graphic novels, not all books lend themselves to that treatment, but surely there are lots of readers who’d appreciate a sprinkling of art in their books. We’re not demanding it because unless we’re reminded by books like these how nice it was to read text with illustrations when we were younger, we’ve forgotten what it is we’re missing out on.

Climate change fiction: some recommendations

Climate change and impending environmental catastrophe have been in the news somewhat over the last couple of weeks. It seemed like a good time to recommend some novels which deal with the topic, a few of which I’ve mentioned here before. Obviously some are more realistic than others as possible scenarios go but they’re all good to read and if they get you thinking about what you could do right now, so much the better.

I’ll start with Kim Stanley Robinson because of the books I’ve read, he’s done it best. There is a trilogy (Science in the Capital) which starts with Forty Signs of Rain, which I read a few years ago and loved. It’s full of detail, being set in Washington with the main characters including a government policy wonk and his statistician wife, and shows a near future where climate change is producing noticeable effects but society is mainly still ignoring it in the hope that it will go away. OneMonkey tried to read it but pronounced it dull and gave up – too much detail for his taste. However, I thought it was excellent in the way it showed the clash between capitalism, day to day politics, and scientific prediction. Also there was an interesting thread of Buddhism, as I recall. It was written over 15 years ago so we’re probably well within that near future now (and still the politicians say ‘I’d love to, but…’).

The other KSR is a stand-alone novel from a couple of years ago, New York 2140. You can read my review of it at The Bookbag, but suffice to say it’s full of great characters in a flooded Manhattan. Again, man-made problems and capitalism’s disregard for long-term consequences are major themes but amazingly he still manages to be optimistic.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is set in Thailand and deals with climate change, genetic modification, rampant capitalism and their interplay and consequences. It was brilliantly written and suitably tense but there are some pretty nasty bits in it, so maybe not for the overly squeamish.

The word ‘capitalism’ keeps cropping up here, doesn’t it? I’m partway through Economics: The User’s Guide by Ha-Joon Chang at the moment and it’s got interesting things to say about the view of consumerism as the be-all and end-all. Even the Extinction Rebellion protesters in London had a load of new-looking tents, stickers and plastic bits and bobs in the photos I saw. It’s a hard one. But I digress…

The classic Ursula Le Guin novel The Lathe of Heaven (you can read my review at Luna Station Quarterly) is set against a backdrop of climate change, an unhealthy future that some people obviously wish they could go back and change. The main focus of the book is the reality-changing dreams of a man named George Orr, but the setting gives a good view of a 1970s vision of the future.

If you’ve already read those, or want to explore further, you can find a list of other novels to try at the Wikipedia entry for the subgenre. I haven’t figured out yet whether it’s more environmentally friendly to produce physical books (you can after all use recycled paper and vegetable-based inks but you have to transport them) or e-books (you have to build an electronic device with all its rare materials but you could charge using renewable energy sources, and then there’s the storage capacity). Borrow a copy from a friend or your local library, is my advice. If you use the library (in the UK at least), they even give royalties to the author.

2018 via a stack of books

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A selection of books I read in 2018

Those of you who’ve been around a while know this year (for me) has been mixed to say the least, yet I still apparently managed to read 47 books, some of which I piled on the living room floor and took a photo of so you can approve/despair of my taste, a bit like I did for 2016.

Despite taking weeks and weeks to get through River of Gods I was surprised to note that 27 of those 47 books were fiction (at least a dozen speculative fiction). 13 of the remaining 20 were, as you might expect, covering history, the north, class, or a combination thereof.

I read 38 physical books and 9 e-books (hence the Kobo in the photo – it’s displaying The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad). Shockingly I only read 5 library books (2 of them were e-books) in 2018, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t borrow others and give up on them. I also borrowed 2 books from The Library of Mum and Dad, read 4 out-of-copyright e-books (the Conrad, an Anthony Trollope, Wordsworth’s guide to the Lakes, and a history of Hinduism and Buddhism from 1921), 13 books I’d either received as a present or won, one review copy from The Bookbag, 15 I bought second-hand, and a paltry 7 that I bought new. And all of the new books were bought with book tokens or Waterstones/Kobo vouchers that people had given me as presents – does that actually make it 20 of the year’s 47 that were presents and prizes?

I only wrote a review of a few books I read this year, but to quickly run through a few others…

River of Gods by Ian McDonald is Indian-set sci-fi with strong AI themes, which will probably appeal to Alastair Reynolds fans. It has a large cast of characters, some of whom come together in the manner of a traditional multi-protagonist epic, others (if I recall correctly) skim by each other, more in the mode of Pulp Fiction. If this sounds appealing, I reviewed a fantastic sci-fi noir by Alastair Reynolds, and another Ian McDonald book (Brasyl).

Creation by Steve Grand is from nearly 20 years ago so artificial intelligence has come on since then, but OneMonkey (having read it back then and remembering it was still in the bookcase) recommended it to me around the time I started reading River of Gods and it was a fascinating and thought-provoking (non-fiction) read. My grasp of biology is pretty shaky but I have a strong programming background: some combination of those is probably useful to get the most out of it, but there’s a lot of pure thought in there (philosophy, if you will).

The Lost Words was our Christmas present from friend T, and is just beautiful. If you haven’t come across it (and if you haven’t, where have you been?) it’s a response to various nature words being removed from a new edition of a children’s dictionary. Those words have been gorgeously illustrated by Jackie Morris, and it’s aimed at children (they won’t appreciate it – get it for yourself).

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is sci-fi set in Thailand; climate change, genetic modification, rampant capitalism, it’s got the lot. I hadn’t heard of the author, I picked it up in a charity shop BOGOF and I’m so glad I did. The setting was unusual (I believe the author is American) and it was brilliantly written and suitably tense. There are some pretty nasty bits in it though.

The Tempest Tales by well-known crime author Walter Mosley (whose Easy Rawlins books I’ve enjoyed but never, it appears, reviewed) was an unusual novella. A man is mistakenly killed by the police in Harlem and St Peter decides he’s not allowed into heaven. The man argues that he’s not a sinner, he’s only ever done the best he, as a black man on a low income in the place and time he lives, could do – there follows a loosely connected novella/story collection showing episodes in his life as he tries to persuade the angel that’s been sent back to earth with him to let him into heaven. Humour, philosophy, and some good characters.

Finally, Kate Atkinson’s Emotionally Weird was an odd but great book that I raced through. The bulk of it is set at Dundee University in the 70s and has more than a hint of Tom Sharpe about it (I used to love his farces set in higher education). However, this being Kate Atkinson there’s a big family mystery wrapping the whole thing up, which I think will particularly appeal if you enjoyed Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

I hope you enjoyed some great books in 2018, and that your To Read shelf is looking as enticing as mine. In the spirit of admitting my limitations I’m intending only to blog once a month in 2019 so hopefully I’ll see you here on the last Sunday of January.

Happy New Year!

 

Audiobooks: do they count as reading?

The answer, as with most things worth thinking about is ‘it depends’. It depends on the person and their intention, and it probably depends on the book.

This topic seems to keep flaring up on social media and it gets quite heated. Accusations of laziness on one side, snobbery on the other, and all manner of unpleasantries in between. I don’t understand why anyone thinks there’s a blanket judgement to be made (or indeed why it matters, outside of education where a reading assignment might have a particular intention to do with recognising words).

For the sake of a straightforward look at this, let’s say we’re only talking about comfortable adult readers (or confident teens), not anyone who’s still developing their reading skills. And we’re only talking about unabridged versions of the books.

Many years ago my Nana’s cousin went blind and I remember her huge talking book machine with its chunky buttons, and tapes (easily the size of video cassettes) that she’d get in the post regularly from the RNIB. She would sit in her armchair in the same way she used to sit and read a paperback, and devote her entire attention to the novel being read to her, using her imagination in just the same way. I would class that as her reading a book – if you asked her afterwards about plot and characters or a host of other questions about the novel, she’d be just as able to answer them as she would if she’d sat down ten years earlier and read the words from the page herself.

On the other hand I listen to audiobooks all the time and I don’t call my experience reading at all. My local library uses Borrowbox, so you can borrow ebooks and audiobooks if you have the app on your phone or tablet. If I was sitting down to concentrate on a book I’d read it for myself because that’s a pastime I enjoy, which means audiobooks are always an added extra – I’m washing up, I’m doing stretches for my back, I’m eating my tea. My attention isn’t fully on the text. And unlike with a book where I would realise I was distracted (or perhaps hadn’t fully understood something) and read the paragraph again, I rarely rewind the playback on the tablet. I know I’ve missed bits, sometimes crucial bits, but perhaps because it feels like I’m listening to the radio and therefore just have to put up with a response drowned out by a neighbour’s excited dog, I shrug and continue.

Often, OneMonkey and I will put an audiobook on if we’re finding it hard to fall asleep, too many things buzzing round the brain on a Sunday night, for instance. The idea is we focus on the book instead of the distracting thoughts, but if it does its job really well, we fall asleep before the reading ends (Borrowbox has a handy timer for just such a situation). Do we rewind the next time we listen? No, of course we don’t. We’ll pick it up eventually, we think, and often if it’s fiction we’re right – the plot might still make sense even if we’ve missed some subtle twists and turns. If it’s non-fiction we’ve likely just missed a chunk and we’ll never know what it was. In either case we have of course missed out on some particular phrasing or use of language that the author worked hard on, so in the same way that I personally wouldn’t say I’d read a book if I’d skipped a chapter, I wouldn’t say I’d read any of these books either.

That ‘personally’ is an important word. I wouldn’t say I’d read a non-fiction book with a lot of graphs in it, if I’d skipped over all the graphs. Someone else, who doesn’t get as much out of graphs as I do, may well do, and that’s fine. Some people skim-read as a matter of course. Someone with better concentration than me (or who thinks to use the rewind facility) might have fully savoured and imagined every fiction audiobook they’ve ever listened to and properly considered all the non-fiction ones, in which case they could participate in discussions with other people who’d read them and no-one would know they hadn’t literally sat and turned the pages themselves, unless they happened to mention it.

Maybe that’s what it comes down to, for me – what did the reader/listener get out of the experience? Half the time when I listen to an audiobook (or a podcast) I’m looking for background noise, and if I absorb a bit of a story or some information it’s an added bonus, more akin to flicking through magazines in a waiting room than actually sitting down with a book. On the other hand if the book is your focus then it doesn’t matter whether you’re reading a paper copy and bending the page corners over, swiping your way through an ebook, listening to a mellifluous reading by a well-known actor, or having it transmitted directly to the brain via some neural connection that’s bound to be along in a few years. No one method is definitively better* than the others, it comes down to personal preference.

*as in a better experience for the individual, not level of word recall or any other quantitative aspects people have no doubt researched.

Sick of football? Let me read you some stories

So stunned was I by the England-Panama game that I failed to blog yesterday, but during (at least the second half of) England’s next match I’ll be in the local pub reading stories. Ilkley Writers are interspersing their stories and poems with a couple of 20-30 minute sets from singer-songwriter Lisa Marie Glover. Tickets are only a fiver and you’ll be supporting local creative types.PurpleRoomFlyer

Of course, given that most of you reading this won’t be in the vicinity of Ilkley on Thursday evening (or maybe you were, but you’re not reading this till next week and you’re cursing your poor timing), it seems only fair to remind you that you can listen to me reading a few of my stories (and an essay) here, and there’s a whole radio drama to go at, over at East Leeds FM. And if you’re still looking for distractions from the football, I can recommend a good book.