Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Top 10 Tuesday: Best of 2016 so far

Hello! Can you believe we're halfway through the year already? It must be time to review my favourite reads of this year so far.

Top Ten Tuesday is the brainchild of the Broke and the Bookish.

  1. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. Anyone who was with me on the London Book Crawl in February won't be at all surprised to see this book on my list; it's a wonderful science fiction saga that follows a wonderfully diverse spaceship crew, and not the military or the elite, but the workers in charge of building a wormhole from one part of the galaxy to another. It's a space opera that doesn't revolve around the human race, but one that celebrates difference, empathy and everyone's common person-hood throughout everything, with well-realised characters and species, people I loved spending time with, a very well-built story universe. I've been putting it into everyone's hands and making them read it if they like sci-fi.
  2. Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik. This was my first impulse-buy of the year, the story of a Muslim woman commissioned with writing a dating book just after a break-up. Sofia is smart, stubborn, witty and likeable, and I felt as though she was a friend after reading just a few pages. Her family and friends are flawed but good-hearted, and I laughed aloud many times reading about their exploits and misadventures - although I shed a few tears as well. 
  3. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. One of the most unusual and imaginiative works of twenty-first century fantasy, set in an alternative Regency England where the world of fairies is just a step away. It is dangerously easy to lose yourself in this tale of two magicians awakening forces that might be more powerful than they anticipate.
  4. The Stand by Stephen King. A truly frightening apocalyptic thriller and tale of survival after a killer flu wipes out most of the world's population. Perhaps not one to read while suffering from flu yourself, as I did! King does what he does best: makes us care about his characters before throwing his arsenal of horrible things at them. At it's heart, it's a tale of good versus evil.
  5. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells: The original time-travel story; it is funny, scary, and an interesting commentary on contemporary Victorian class divides; without this novella, science fiction as we know it today would be unrecogniseable. Yet it's more than just the prototype; The Time Machine is as fresh as if it were written recently.
  6. Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller: Part family drama, part dark fairytale, Our Endless Numbered Days tells the story of a girl smuggled away from civilisation by her father, and brought up as a survivalist in the woods. I found it a little slow to start, but it grew into a twisty tale of secrets and lies at the heart of a family.
  7. When I Was Invisible by Dorothy Koomson:  The story of two best friends who have grown apart; their shared experiences leading to very different lives and choices. Not always an easy read, but one with a humanity that softens the blow. The mysteries and the characters make this a "one more chapter" book, and it was unusual to have a main character who had spent many years as a nun.
  8. Breakfast At Tiffany's by Truman Capote: We all know the film, but reading the book, a novella of 100 pages, I felt like I was discovering it for the first time. I'm not sure I like Holly Golightly, but she's an interesting character, for the flashes of vulnerability beneath her glamorous, "manic-pixie" persona. It is a friendship story, not a romance. The novella feels sadder than the movie, untidier in plotting - things don't necessarily work out the way that the rules of story dictate - which I appreciated. 
  9. The Ghost Hunters by Neil Spring: A creepy gothic novel, a story-within-a-story, somewhat based on real events and people, though told from the perspective of a fictional secretary and assistant to the titular ghost hunter, Harry Spring, who is sceptical about the "supernatural activity" he investigates, and exploits those who turn to him for help. But can he have an answer for everything? 
  10. There But For The by Ali Smith: I'm not sure I should include this as I'm only halfway through, but there is a wonderful poetry to Ali Smith's writing. She plays with language seemingly effortlessly, and the narrative flows through the lives and minds touched by one individual. An absolute joy to read.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Independent Booksellers Week Q&A tag

I was tagged by Bex to answer this questionnaire in honour of Independent Booksellers' Week - which also reminded me that I was long overdue a visit to the labyrinthine Ryde Bookshop (see below) to add another book or two to my to-read shelf. (Or four, as it turned out. But it's all for a good cause, helping to keep a favourite business going.) So thank you Bex, and anyone else who wants to write about their bookshopping experience, consider yourself tagged!

What book(s) are currently in your bag?
Speak by Louisa Hall. It's about lifelike robots, how voice and memory come to shape personality, and takes us from a young woman travelling to the American colonies in the 17th century, via Alan Turing, to a future where a genius programmer is under trial for coming dangerously close to creating new life.

What's the last great book you read?
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells - the book where all the time-travel stories began. For some reason I associate science fiction with summer reading.

Which book have you gifted the most?
People who know me will not be in the least bit surprised to learn that I have probably given multiples copies of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman and Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery to those deprived individuals who had not read them. Also, at the Bookshop Crawl in February I took great glee in just putting all the Long Way to a Small Angry Planet paperbacks into everyone's hands - although they bought those themselves.

What's your favourite independent bookshop?

Just the one? Can't do that, I'm afraid. On the Isle of Wight, the big one is Ryde Bookshop: three stories high, with books packed into every nook and cranny. It looks quite small and when you go in: a room of new books, then one with CDs and DVDs, with children's at the back. But then you go through the door to find three stories of second-hand books stuffed into every nook and cranny: On the ground floor: travel and genre fiction (science fiction, crime and romance), and I always head straight for science fiction at the back. At the foot of the stairs are old hardback classics, and a box of vintage postcards to rummage through. Upstairs, there's the children's room, which seems to be arranged by era as well as alphabetical order: paperbacks from my childhood, vintage hardbacks - usually plenty of the old school stories. There's a spinner with Enid Blytons and Babysitter's Clubs and so on, and a little cubbyhole with more recent children's fiction. Also, collector's items, old annuals on every subject, Guinness World Records, and so on. General paperback fiction is shelved along the landing and up the second flight of stairs. There are two rooms with non-fiction: history, religion, etc. The top landing has shelves of psychology, sociology, and there's a room for hardback fiction and cookery, and another for the arts. There are two men who run the bookshop: the manager is rather taciturn, while his assistant is very chatty.

Then on to London, where there is a bookshop to fit every specification: new and second-hand and antiquarian, arts bookshops, comic book shops, radical political bookshops, an LGBT bookshop, bookshops with cafes, bookshops in marketplaces, large and shiny or cramped and dusty. Foyle's is a must, although now they've opened several branches I'm not sure they're quite the same sort of independent any more. Persephone is cosy and vintage, specialising in half-forgotten women's writing from the first half of the 21st century, all in smart, plain grey covers with pretty endpapers. The London Review Bookshop picks out books the staff like best, rather than the safe bestselling authors. But my favourite little all-purpose bookshop is Primrose Hill, quite a small shop but one packed full of treasures. The last time I went in, one of their regulars was asking for recommendations and the bookseller whizzed around the little shop from author to author. "You liked this book, didn't you...? Then you'll enjoy that one." Lovely, personalised service. And it's right next door to a cafe, and on a sunny day there's nothing better than to pop next door, get a coffee and maybe a cake to take out to Primrose Hill or Regent's Park with your new book.

And last year I took a trip to Hay-on-Wye, a little town on the border between England and Wales which is a famous bookselling town, especially full of second-hand bookshops. One shop is a massive converted cinema, but I was particularly struck by Richard Booth's bookshop. With its dark red and cream exterior, it is a very handsome bookshop indeed, and inside, it has old and new books side-by-side on smart wooden shelves and custom-made signage over the aisles. Booth's has its own cafe, a Folio Society reading room, and even a cinema! Which makes a striking contrast when you go in search for science fiction, crime or romance in the basement. It was rather hilariously austere, with a stone floor, low dark ceiling, and when I went, the lights were out at one end. It seemed that the popular stuff had been shoved away out of sight, so as not to sully the smart, intellectual, high-brow image of the rest of the shop. But in that cellar the shelves just went back and back, full of trashy old '70s and '80s sci-fi paperbacks with ridiculous covers, Doctor Who and Star Trek tie-in novels. I was in my element!

What's been your favourite book recommended by a bookseller/Booktuber/blogger?

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan. When I bought this in London, the bookseller got very excited and raved on about how he'd just finished it, couldn't put it down, just had to know what happened next. It's a beautiful story, set in a world like our own, but flooded, and most people live on ships. It follows two girls: one who lives in a floating circus, with her performing bear, and the other lives alone on an island, responsible for the burial rites of those lost at sea. They meet once, and then fate keeps drawing them back together.

What's your favourite indie bookshop memory?

When I was little I used to go to the old Newport Book Centre and spend ages looking at the Enid Blyton books. I bought the Malory Towers books completely out of order, buying them as and when I found them in the shops. Sadly, the Book Centre has long since closed and been turned into a (rather grotty) pub. As fate would have it, I now work with one of the former booksellers.

What do bookshops mean to you? What do you love about them?

I think there's an art to book-shopping, going into a shop and spending time wandering around, in no great hurry, not on the look-out for anything in particular, having a browse to see what might catch your eye, perhaps chatting with the like-minded people who work there and don't look at you strangely when you just have to stroke the cover of your favourite book as you pass. There is something comforting in just being surrounded by books, as if some of the magic escapes out of the pages to build a safe place around you. You just don't get that by tapping on your keyboard or e-reader.

What are the books that made you? Which books have most affected or influenced you?

  • Oxford Reading Tree's Biff, Chip and Kipper series.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia - C. S. Lewis
  • Little House on the Prairie - Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Anne of Green Gables series - L. M. Montgomery
  • Swallows and Amazons series - Arthur Ransome
  • The Famous Five series - Enid Blyton
  • Malory Towers series - Enid Blyton, The Chalet School series - Elinor M. Brent-Dyer and the Trebizon series - Anne Digby.
  • Mystery Kids and Mystery Club books - Fiona Kelly.
  • The Discworld series - Terry Pratchett
  • To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
  • Harry Potter series - J. K. Rowling
  • The Lord of the Rings - J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Rilla of Ingleside - L. M. Montgomery (I'm counting this as separate from the rest of the Anne series because its impact hit me in a different way much later in life.)
  • A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
  • Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman
  • The Little Stranger and Fingersmith - Sarah Waters
  • The Shining - Stephen King
  • The Universe Versus Alex Woods - Gavin Extence
  • Tell The Wolves I'm Home - Carol Rifka Brunt
  • Watchmen - Alan Moore
  • 11.22.63 - Stephen King
  • The Elements of Eloquence - Mark Forsyth
  • Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged - Ayisha Malik
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet - Becky Chambers

What books do you recommend for Father's Day?

I bought my dad Mary Beard's SPQR about ancient Rome. But every dad has different interests and tastes. I had great fun putting together a display for Father's Day at work, trying to include as many subjects as possible: fiction, sport, humour, music, science, history, cooking, biographies, etc.

What book is at the top of your TBR pile?

It's a whole shelf, not a mere pile! But The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Paver has been one of my "read soon" books for about six months. Really need to get around to that one...

These questions originated from Will at Vintage Books here.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Isle of Wight Festival 2016

It's 1PM on a Monday, and I'm feeling very groggy-headed, achy, with a sore throat and still a weird ringing in my ears, but what a weekend! For one weekend every year our sleepy little retirement island becomes THE place to be when the famous Isle of Wight festival comes to town. It was a big event for a few years in the '60s and '70s, but when they brought it back when I was in high school, I never foresaw how huge it would become, up there with Glastonbury as one of the biggest music festivals in the UK. Right here, practically on my doorstep!

This is the third time I've been to the festival, the second time I've done the whole weekend, and easily the best. When I bought my ticket, there were no one-day options available, and no discounts for people who weren't camping on site. I probably wouldn't have bothered, but when I heard who was headlining on the Sunday night, I knew I had no choice in the matter, because how often do you get to see QUEEN playing so close to home? Queen, the music of my childhood, the ultimate rock band, it doesn't get any better than that.

People started arriving on Thursday, and although the main arena wasn't open until Friday, there were a few acts in the Big Top that evening. The main entrance was closed, so we had to trek another mile or so up the road to go in through the camp site. Luckily that was only for one evening, and the rest of the weekend we entered by the school and leisure centre. My sister came down to the island Thursday straight from work, and met me in time for Status Quo in the Big Top. We didn't get into the tent, though, nor very close, after somewhat slow service at the bar. No doubt that's why the guy in front of us had three bottles in his hand, to save time queuing. He was clearly enjoying himself greatly.

Friday and Saturday my manager let me leave work early, and we alternated between watching the acts on the main stage (Busted was one group, which we watched "because of nostalgia") and discovering some of the lesser-known bands in the smaller venues: the Hard Rock cafe, Cirque de la Quirk and the Jack Daniels tent. We met up with Dad in the Big Top when a group called Black Violin were on - very talented musicians. Friday night, the Stereophonics played the big stage and put on a fantastic show, followed by Faithless, although I went home after the Stereophonics as I don't really care for dance music, and fancied an earlier night as I still had to work the next day. But I could hear them from my bedroom, and they sounded pretty good (and to give the IOW festival credit, you can't hear much after midnight. Bestival, the other music festival, has been known to keep me up until four in the morning with its thudding bass, despite being further away from my house.) Saturday it was The Who (there were a lot of "old men with guitars" headlining this festival!) Jenny, Dad and I got really close to the stage for their set, maybe about 10 rows back from the stage, and thoroughly enjoyed rocking out to "My Generation," "Pinball Wizard" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" to name just a few of the huge hits they played. I apologise profusely for anyone I hit with my hair while headbanging.

Waiting for The Who. Didn't get pics of the band, though. Although I took a few photos of bands, for the 
most part I preferred to enjoy the moment rather than experiencing it through the lens of my camera phone.

Although it had been 12 years since David Bowie played the Isle of Wight festival, I felt really conscious of his absence, thinking he really ought to be there. Every other person seemed to have a cardboard mask of his face (there was a big fundraiser for Stand Up To Cancer, apparently, with a photo of thousands of David Bowies.) Ziggy Stardust make-up was in evidence on several faces too.

After three days of going straight from work to the festival, by Sunday I needed a few hours to just collapse and do nothing, so I ended up getting to the site around the same time as previous days after all. There was only one big act I was interested in - THE big act - so I spent the afternoon wandering around the Big Top and little stages seeing what was going on. There was Gutterdammerung's "Loudest silent movie on earth" in the Big Top, The Wholls in the Jack Daniels bar, and then as my metalhead sister went off to see Sixx AM, my eye was caught by a trio of bright-haired lasses on the stage at the Cirque de la Quirk stage (my favourite of the small venues.) These, I discovered, were the Lounge Kittens, who perform a wide variety of songs and genres in three-part harmony, cheeky, funny and very talented, ending their act with a medley of songs by performers from the weekend. They reminded me a little of Amanda Palmer, and I just discovered they're from Southampton! They were my favourite new discovery from the weekend (closely followed by Irish band the High Kings.)

The Lounge Kittens
 I met up with Jenny and Dad at the end of Sixx AM's set (going via the cocktail bar for a frozen dakry*) before weaving our way through the crowd during Ocean Colour Scene to get close to the main stage in plenty of time for Queen! It started to rain during the end of Ocean Colour scene, but considering the weather forecast and some of the downpours we've had recently, it was very light, and being short was shielded from the worst of it by the people around me. I'm normally really bad at crowds, but I was lucky that I didn't suffer from anxiety or claustrophobia at all this weekend.  I don't think I quite appreciated just how good a spot we had until I saw the photographs of the audience, how they filled the whole of Seaclose park, and I was within about ten metres from the stage.

A big cloth screen came down at half past eight while people prepared the stage for the starring act. The stage was extended out further to left and right and front centre, to bring the band even closer to the audience. We happily sang along with "Hey Jude" while we waited, and speculated on which songs they would open and close the show with. My guess was that "Bohemian Rhapsody," "We Will Rock You" or "We Are the Champions" would be the closing song, and Dad predicted "One Vision" as the opener - correctly, as it happened. Then the screens started showing Brian May, Roger Taylor and Adam Lambert walking down the backstage corridors, building the suspense, and then, live footage of them waiting behind the stage. And then... they were ON!

If there were any doubts about whether Queen were truly Queen without Freddie Mercury - and I didn't encounter any such sentiments, the atmosphere was electric with expectation and excitement - they were very quickly dispelled as "One Vision" opened the show, followed by saucy, energetic classics such as "Fat-Bottomed Girls," "Killer Queen" and "Don't Stop Me Now" - crowd-pleasing favourites which had us all singing along at the tops of our voices. There was only ever one Freddie Mercury, and Adam Lambert acknowledged he wasn't going to replace him, but pay tribute and celebrate his life and work, which he did whole-heartedly, bringing the flamboyance and eccentricity to the stage, posing suggestively on a throne in a feather jacket for "Killer Queen."

We were off to the left, just a few metres back.
Photo borrowed from Brian May's twitter.

Adam Lambert. He was right there!

But it wasn't all high jinks and innuendo. (Actually, come to think of it "Innuendo" was one of the songs that didn't make it onto the bill.) Around the mid-way point, the show quietened down for a while when Brian May dedicated "Love of My Life" to Freddie Mercury, and then video footage of Freddie finished off the song, where they seemed to sing to each other across the divide of time - yes, there were tears. And more when Lambert dedicated "Who Wants To Live Forever" - a poignant song at the best of times - to those murdered in the horrifying shooting in Orlando the day before, and to "everyone who's been a victim of senseless violence and hatred." And of course David Bowie was remembered with "Under Pressure" which I remember him performing at the festival 12 years ago. I didn't have a ticket that year, but watched from the other side of the river, back in the days when you could see the main stage from there. Now neither of the original singers are around, but the song lives on.

Freddie Mercury on the screen. Bad pic, 
but I like that it kind of symbolises 
the hole where he ought to be.
Adam Lambert left the stage for a while, while Roger Taylor and his son had a "drum-off." I'd never really paid much attention to the drums before this weekend, but there's been a lot of incredible drumming from these bands. And Brian May had a spot for his very impressive guitarmanship (On the way home Dad, a guitarist himself, explained some of the tricks May had been using.)

Adam and Brian visible on stage, Roger on the screen.
Queen performed most of their biggest hits in a phenomenal two-hour set, although "Bohemian Rhapsody" was a mixture of live performance from May, Taylor and Lambert, and video footage with Freddie Mercury on lead vocals. They came back for the head-banging guitar finale, and finished off with "Radio Ga Ga," before leaving the stage. But we were pretty much sure that they hadn't really left, and after a baffled quiet, started shouting for them to come back, chanting "We will, we will rock you!" Oh, they kept us waiting, but they returned, launching into what must be one of the most famous drum beats of all time. I wonder how many miles from the festival site, people knew EXACTLY which song was being played at that point. "We Will Rock You" segued into "We Are The Champions," then the band took their bows and finished with a glitter cannon and the national anthem. As they left the stage, a recording of David Bowie's "Heroes" and a firework display marked the end of the main festival. Actually, there was another act on in the big top, but we headed home, thinking that there was no better note to end on than Queen's phenomenal set. While we were walking home, we heard the whirr and saw the lights of a helicopter overhead, and a passer-by pointed out that was probably Queen leaving the island. I waved and shouted thanks. 

It's been an incredible weekend all round, for old favourites and new discoveries, certainly the best festival I've been to. However, I don't know where the Isle of Wight festival can go from here. How can next year possibly top this weekend? I just don't think it gets any better.

*strawberry, not banananananana

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Sunday Summary: May in Review

Wow, it feels like ages since I've written anything on here! Everything's fine, I just haven't felt much like writing reviews lately; I've read plenty of books but not had all that much to say about them. But I might ramble a little about a few of them in this post, we'll see.

Some of the things I've done

My work shifts have been all over the place the last few months, although fingers crossed they'll be getting back to something like normality from now on. We've got a new girl just starting at work, doing Sundays and a couple of afternoons in the week, and my manager told me she reminded her of a younger version of me. Having met her, briefly, I sort of agree. In about a two-minute conversation we compared our to-read piles, favourite books, and I already promised to lend her one of my four copies of Anne of Green Gables. I think reading that book is a quick way to get to know me! Must find out what her equivalent book is. I'm sure she'll have one.

When I haven't been at work I've been writing; I've picked up the children's story I began for NaNoWriMo last year and am giving serious thought to submitting it to Mslexia magazine's First Children's Book competition in the autumn. I've nearly finished the first draft, but have discovered I'm already over the suggested word count for a children's book!

I had a week off a couple of weeks ago and spent a couple of days up in London, staying with my sister Jenny. While she was at work I did some exploring, and some book shopping - although only on the first day. I also went up to Camden Market, which is awesome, and as it was a lovely sunny day, I walked up the road to Primrose Hill, where I spent the afternoon sitting on the grass and reading. The Primrose Hill bookshop is one of my new favourites; it's small and cosy. While I was in there, the bookseller, Chrissie, was whizzing around the shop finding recommendations for one of her regulars who wanted some holiday reading.

By some fortuitous chance, an old friend, Anna, happened to be in London the same week, and had got in touch with Jenny suggesting meeting up for drinks. So we found a nice little pub next to the British Library, called the Rocket, and spent a lovely evening between there and Pizza Express reminiscing about our schooldays, making little confessions about being horrid teenagers (only a little horrid, as teenagers go, but I think we were all a little relieved to find the others had no memory of the wrongs we'd felt terrible for years for doing to each other.)

And the following day, as a belated birthday treat for Jenny, we went to Shoreditch to Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium for tea: a cafe where cats roam free and say hello to and play with all the visitors. The cats are very well looked after - the entry fee pays for their welfare, they get days off and all have their own members of staff, and there are all sorts of toys and climbing apparatus to keep them amused (although one of the kittens liked nothing better than a scruffy piece of string. Because cat.)

I'm back on the Island now, for the time being, and am enjoying the summer sunshine. It's a bank holiday weekend, and tomorrow I'm heading for the beach. We're nearly into June and it's been quite warm; let's see if I'm brave enough to go in  the sea yet. I've sorted through my to-read shelf and pulled my science fiction books to the front, because for some reason I've come to think of that genre as good beach reading. I've got sci-fi classics (Iain M. Banks, Bradbury, Asimov, H. G. Wells) shiny new or newish books (The Book of Strange New Things, The Peripheral, Speak) and some weird and probably dreadful old books I've found in second-hand bookshops, which I will not name and shame in case I slander unrecognised gems.

Some of the Books I've read:

Beside Myself by Ann Morgan, and When I Was Invisible by Dorothy Koomson

These were publishers' proof copies that my sister got from work, and it was interesting to read them one after the other, because they shared several themes. In Beside Myself, a set of twins swap places as a prank one day - but then one of them refuses to switch back. Towards the end, one of the characters asked something along the lines of "What does it matter? You're twins, you live the same life, what does it matter which name you are called?" But even from a very early age, different expectations are put on Ellie and Helen. One is a leader, one is a follower. One is perceived as a good girl, the other as a troublemaker. People respond to the twins' actions in different ways according to who is perceived to be doing them. It was a dark, troubling read.

Meanwhile, When I Was Invisible follows the lives of best friends Roni and Nika (Both Veronica/ka Harper) whose lives take very different directions after a shared ordeal leads to one betraying the other. Roni returns home after spending several years as a nun, while Nika is trying to rebuild her life after witnessing a terrible crime. Also a rather heavy read, but I found it much more satisfying than Beside Myself.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Sparks

What I expected: A gender-flipped, feminist Dead Poet's Society. Progressive teacher shakes up the establishment but earns undying loyalty from her best students.
What I got: Miss Brodie shakes up the establishment, all right, but she is a manipulative, capricious and sharp-tongued woman who has affairs with other members of staff and sends some of her pupils down destructive paths. The narrative is curious, flitting between past and future and casually revealing what the girls' futures hold while they are still schoolgirls. Miss Brodie is rather more interesting and unsettling than the usual inspiring, unconventional schoolteacher figure, a deconstruction of the trope - except for the fact that she pre-dates many of the iconic examples!

Anne of Avonlea by L. M. Montgomery

Being the second book in my Anne of Green Gables omnibus, I used to read the two books back-to-back as a child, and Avonlea was just as much a favourite as its predecessor. Nowadays, though, I read it less often than Green Gables and Anne of the Island. It's a very episodic book, although the romance between Miss Lavendar Lewis and Stephen Irving towards the end foreshadows Anne and Gilbert's relationship (which for many readers - not this cynical old maid, though - is the main story of Anne.) It was lovely to reread after a few years, to meet Mr Harrison, to spend time seeing the Avonlea Village Improvement Society, to just spend the time with some old friends.

But the character of Paul Irving has come to irritate me no end, although with a feeling of guilt because he is in many ways a lot like Anne. Do different expectations for boys and girls influence what traits one can allow? But then Walter Blythe, in the later books, takes after his mother too, and he is one of my favourite characters. Walter has more depth of character, though, a melancholic temperament, inner turmoil, while Paul's ongoing struggle is with eating all his porridge. He's just so sickeningly good, and the "poetic" temperament Anne sees in him reminds me of nothing so much as Madeleine Bassett from Jeeves and Wooster as an eight-year-old boy.

Currently reading: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

The original time-travel adventure. I'm only a few chapters in so far, but it reads surprisingly fresh and contemporary, with its succinct explanation of the Fourth Dimension, and the Time Traveller's theories of the future evolution of mankind into a gentle, physically frail and unambitious race living in a paradise - or so it seems at first! This is a book that shaped science fiction as we know it: without it there would be no Doctor Who, no Back to the Future, and everything else would be quite different too!

I'm not sure when I'll get back to blogging regularly; probably not until I've finished my first draft of my work in progress, but watch this space. I will be back!

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Z for Zachariah

While looking through a box of old books from my childhood, I found a dystopian YA novel written long before dystopian YA Novels were A Thing. I read Z for Zachariah in year 8 for English, the year when we really started learning about Literature in earnest. My teacher was Mrs Leppard, and she split the class up into small groups to read and discuss one of a selection of science fiction and speculative fiction. Animal Farm, was one of the others on offer. I remember sitting with three other kids in the cloakroom or the library - (Jo Holt, Sam Irving and one other - possibly Mark Harrison) feeling, even then, that this was what it was to be a student.

Written in the 1970s, Z for Zachariah is set after a nuclear war wipes out masses of the population - perhaps most of the world, perhaps just a region. It is written as the diary of a teenage girl, Ann, whose family farm in a valley has escaped contamination. Her family ventured out of the valley to investigate, and were never seen again. With only the company of her dog, Faro, and the cows and chickens, Ann survives by farming and with resources from the nearby store. Then, one day, a stranger comes to the valley, dressed in a radiation suit. Although Ann is wary of the newcomer at first, she comes to his aid when he becomes sick from swimming in a contaminated stream, and they strike up a tentative friendship. But can he really be trusted?

I had very vivid memories of the first half of Z for Zachariah from reading it at thirteen; we spent several lessons reading the novel slowly, and discussing it, and I still, seventeen years on, could picture Ann's valley, her day-to-day life living without electricity in one green place surrounded by dead land. I recalled the arrival of John Loomis, her wariness of him, his sickness and Ann nursing him back to health. But I think we didn't have enough lessons - or perhaps we got sidetracked in our small groups - to read the entire novel, and the ending was more vague. I probably didn't understand all of what was being implied, or why Loomis went from being an ally to a threat one night. And I remember hurrying through the last chapters on the last day of term, so that I could hand my school book back to my teacher. (I since bought a copy in a charity shop or used bookstore, but hadn't reread it until yesterday.) But it lingered with me. There is a real sense of claustrophobia, when Ann is hiding in the valley. She can't leave, because there is only one radiation suit and Loomis guards it jealously. He gradually proves to be a complex and chilling character, a dangerous control freak, and Ann is trapped with him with no one else for miles around - or further - or anywhere.

Even now, in a bookish landscape full of apocalypses and dystopias, Z For Zachariah stands apart from the rest. It is effective in its simplicity: no totalitarian governments to bring down, no factions, hunger games or political intrigue, just two people in one little corner of the world, trying to survive.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Book Club: Katie and Judith read Stephen King's The Stand - Book 3

After spending over a month reading The Stand and not a lot else, I finally finished it at the weekend. It's been a wild ride. Fictional superflu. Actual flu. 2-person book club meetins at home, in the pub, in Costa and on the beach. My poor book is rather ragged-looking after just one read, and it's going to be a relief not having to carry that massive tome around with me everywhere. It's been the rare occasion when I've almost - almost - wished for an e-reader instead. 

Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers.

Loose Ends

  • By the end of Book 2, it still felt as though there was an awful lot of plot to go; the narrative was racing towards a conclusion before it felt ready - despite having already invested over a thousand pages in the book. How on earth was Stephen King going to tie up all the loose ends in the last 300? (That's almost the length of an ordinary paperback novel, and yet it seemed pitifully small.)
  • Well, one means he used was to simply cut off entire threads of story. The first few chapters see one character after another come to a sudden and brutal end, some before their stories really felt like they were beginning. Of the three spies sent to Randall Flagg's Las Vegas, two are dead within two chapters. Harold's story, too, is cut off suddenly; we are suddenly at the miserable end of his life, and see how he got there only in flashback. And Nadine. After years of grooming from Flagg to become his wife and the mother of monsters, one outburst and all his plans are thrown out of the window - literally!
  • Narratively, this should be most unsatisfying. It breaks all the rules of storytelling. And yet, somehow it works. The sudden demises of Dayna and the Judge in the first chapters show how dangerous and terrifying an enemy Flagg is, how our heroes are ostensibly powerless against him, that he can thwart their schemes so quickly, and yet... he is not in control either. 
  • One reason I was disappointed in Needful Things, one of King's other novels, was because it ended up in a bloodbath. Most of the characters ended up dead, and I stopped caring after a while. The Stand has a similar body count among the named cast, and yet it worked. The stakes were higher.


  • I could have kicked myself when he men from Boulder simply walked into Las Vegas and I finally realised what kind of story this was. How were four unarmed man going to do battle with Randall Flagg and his forces and live to tell the tale? They weren't meant to. That wasn't the plan. They were the sacrifice. And in retrospect it seemed obvious. The book is so full of Christian allegory - King even describes it as such in his introduction! Still, I shouted out in horror when I realised what Flagg had in store for the characters. 
  • So why, if they just had to show up and die, did they have to walk instead of drive? If they'd taken a car, how much suffering might have been prevented? But the walk was important; a test of character and faith. And, as Judith pointed out, it was about timing. They arrived, Flagg's gathered everyone together to make a spectacle of them, and the Trashcan Man shows up with his nuclear bomb. And so the plot strands all come together. Brutal.
  • Looking back over Mother Abagail's prophecy, I realised she didn't say that one character would die, she said that one would not reach the destination - and that was Stu. He falls in the desert and breaks his leg, and as his broken-hearted friends leave him behind, we learn that "they never saw Stu again." That was when I started to put the pieces together - because I was sure that Stu would survive, against all the odds. With the help of the dog, Kojak, and Tom Cullen, the surviving spy on his way home, Stu pulls through the impossible and heads back east towards Boulder.
  • I actually found Stu's journey home the most suspenseful part of the entire book. We think the danger is over - and then he starts having nightmares about Frannie's baby, opening up new fears. No, no, it has to be all right! There aren't enough pages left to do the alternative justice. Small spoilers remind us that we haven't actually seen anything that's going on in Boulder since they left. 
The End:
  • And then he arrives home to the worst news. The baby is alive - but it's got Captain Trips, the superflu that no one has ever survived. It's only a matter of time. But no. It can't die. Not this close to the end. Not after 1200 pages or so of waiting. And so I dared to hope that this child would have some sort of mutation that would allow it to throw off the disease - and when this turned out to be true I shouted "YES!" and punched the air. 
  • Although, ultimately, there was no battle in the end (and how many epic fantasies don't have a battle? It's just taken for granted these days. Nice to mix up the expectations there!) the only survivors of the main cast are Frannie, Stu, and Tom Cullen. Apart from Harold's bomb, the Free Zone has been largely safe, though, most of the casualties happened in Vegas or on the way. The community is growing. Yet, even so, my prediction about starting again once more proved correct, if not in the way I expected. Because, despite the increasing growth of the Boulder community, people are moving away again. The system begins to show the same flaws and problems as in the previous America. The Free Zone is now full of anonymous strangers, and with anonymity comes loss of community. So Stu and Frannie, with their baby (and another on the way) decide to move away, start again, US history unwinding again. They're going back to the pioneer life, away from everyone, out into the unknown. Very Little House on the Prairie. I was even right about the book ending on Mother Abagail's farm with Stu, Frannie and the baby. Although I wasn't expecting the new society to be that small!
  • Almost ending, I should say. The epilogue leaves us with a final glimpse of Randall Flagg, still out there, somewhere. And as I'm aware that there is some crossover with the Dark Tower series, of which I've only read the first two books, I'm wondering if that world is where he's ended up.
Ultimately, I found the ending a lot more satisfying than I'd expected to, based upon where book two left off. I've seen several people criticising the book for having a rushed ending, but I think there were good reasons for some storylines coming to a very sudden halt. Yes, The Stand has earned its place at the "good" end of King's work, and was definitely worth the time and emotional commitment invested into it. 

Monday, 18 April 2016

Book Club: Katie and Judith read Stephen King's The Stand - Book 2, Chapters 51-60.

This update is rather belated as I spent a week somewhat appropriately struck down with the flu. I never get flu - I think this is the second time in thirty years, and so the timing of this was rather hilarious.* In the second half of Book 2 of The Stand, all our good guys have come together and settled down in Boulder, Colorado, and are working together to form a new society, known as The Free Zone. Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, the evil Randall Flagg has got his own community.

Spoilers aplenty! Read on at your own risk!

Life in the Free Zone

  • Judith got very annoyed that even after the world's been turned upside-down, there seems to be the old expectations of gender roles: the women (ie Frannie) do the housework, while the men go out and do manual labour. Of course, we only really see the domestic arrangements of a few families. But Stu seemed surprised at first to see Frannie washing and mending when there are stores full of clothes for the taking. But that's no way to live - chuck out clothes instead of washing them. Still, Stu is a Good Egg and promises to take turns hand-washing the laundry (at least until the power's back on and "Frannie" can use a washing machine again.
  • And anyway, what are they doing with all the rubbish, all the empty food cans and waste? I didn't see any mention of bin men. Is the water still on? Do they have a plumber? These are the details we want to know!
  • Judith's grumbles of last week were that the Free Zone residents appeared to be recreating the same old way of life as they were familiar with from the old America. But money is useless now. Ownership doesn't seem to matter. If what you need is available, it's there for the taking - if it isn't, improvise. 
  • Of course, these resources won't last forever. For now, the Free Zone residents just want to survive the winter.

The Committee

  • There are a lot of committee meetings in this part of the book! And sure enough, most of the named protagonists are on the committee - it does seem a little bit cliquey, and we didn't much like Glen Bateman's conversation with Stu in the previous section, which seems to be all about how to ensure that their in-crowd get nominated. 
  • One of their tasks is to organise a team of spies to go over to Las Vegas against Flagg, and I didn't feel at all comfortable with the way that this group of seven took responsibility for picking out their "volunteers" in their absence, in full knowledge of their probable fates. For two of the spies, at least - the Judge and Dayna - they would at least get to make an informed decision, even if they can't very well feel able to decline. But the third was the mentally challenged Tom Cullen, and that just doesn't sit right with me. But, although Tom is "not playing with a full deck," it seems that he's got the rest of his cards stashed away in his subconscious, so if you hypnotise him, he's able to understand and consent to being sent off on his own into mortal danger, even if he doesn't remember it afterwards. No, this did not sit well with me at all.

Nadine, Harold - and Larry

  • It's a very black-and-white world: there are the good guys and there are Flagg's people. Nadine and Larry are on the line - they could go either way. One decision shapes both of their fates: when Nadine tries to seduce Larry, but he's having none of it. It seems quite rare in fiction for a character to actually resist temptation! So, good for Larry. It's just a shame bad consequences came of him making the right decision...
  • Yet, as Judith pointed out, Larry cannot be held responsible for Nadine's actions, and if it was the moment that marked Nadine's downfall, Larry's choice of loyalty to Lucy over lust was the moment that marked his redemption. If he'd gone with Nadine, would he have been able to save her - or would she have dragged him down with her? (I see parallels of abusive relationships where one person thinks they can change another.)
  • Instead, Nadine turns to Harold, and this is where his nastiness, his martyr complex and his venomous hatred turn his loyalties over to Flagg once and for all. I was still shocked by what happened next...

Wasted Characters?

  • I was Most Displeased by the death of Nick Andros in Harold's explosion. Nick had been my favourite protagonist in the first book of The Stand. but once he arrived at Boulder he seemed to disappear somewhat. Sure, he sat on the committee, and his connection to Tom was a key plot point, but it felt rather as though King didn't know what to do with him, so got him blown up, instead! As Judith pointed out, his lack of a voice meant that he kind of got lost in the crowd once Boulder began filling up with people.
  • Similarly, Mother Abagail, who was such a strong force for good, just vanished halfway through the book, returning to bring prophecies and then die. Her role seemed to be as a catalyst for plot events, rather than as an actual character.
Predictions for Book 3:
  • That the focus will shift to the four remaining white (probably) male able-bodied members of the committee as they trek out to Las Vegas to confront Randall Flagg somehow.
  • Somehow the four of them: Stu, Larry. Glen Bateman and Ralph (who we don't really know very well) have to take on Randall Flagg and his entire company. It seems like a doomed mission of foolishness, and I just don't know how they can hope to win in whatever battle is coming up. I'm sure they will defeat - if not destroy - Flagg, but King's got his work cut out to impress me with whatever deus ex machina he'll use to make this a battle and not a suicide mission.**
  • Mother Abagail predicted that one member of the group will die. That seems to fit Larry's journey of character growth: redemption equals death. 
  • Judith reckons that the book might end with the beginning of the battle.
  • I think that whatever happens, the population will suffer even more great losses, and will end up starting another new society from scratch, with a very small and simple community. Perhaps it will end, after all, in Mother Abagail's farm.
  • I'm pretty sure Stu and Frannie will survive, and we've had so much invested in Frannie's baby that I really hope that it will live too. As a family, they'll be a symbol of hope for the future in a broken world. Also I feel like Tom Cullen has a charmed aura of Author Protection. Despite all the odds, he'll be okay.

*Not hilarious.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Book Club: Katie and Judith read Stephen King's The Stand - Book 2, Chapters 43-50.

Spoiler alert: This post goes into a lot more detail than a general review. My literature-brain is at work.

Book one of The Stand saw most of the world's population killed by a super-deadly, weaponised version of the 'flu, engineered by the US military, and accidentally released into its own population. The few survivors are scattered and wandering, a few of them teaming up while looking for somewhere to go, something to do, now the world as they know it has come crashing down. They are being haunted by strange dreams and dark nightmares, seeming to call to them from across the country...

  • Book one let us get to know the main cast of The Stand: Larry and Stu, Frannie and Nick, with glimpses into the lives of a couple of the bad guys, and brief sightings of the Dark Man, Randall Flagg, and an old lady called Mother Abagail, who seems to be his opposite number. Now we've figured them out, it's time to bring in a new supporting cast, to replace all the friends-and-relations wiped out by the virus.
  • The problem I found is that the new characters do not yet feel as fully-formed as those we've already spent time befriending (or whatever the opposite is.) All the groups of travellers are getting bigger, but with each chapter bringing in a new point-of-view, both Judith and I found ourselves needing to take a little time reminding ourselves of which newcomers were travelling with which old faces. 
  • We both found the narrative's treatment of the women newbies a little troubling. Nick, the Generally Good Egg, meets Julie, but as soon as she is introduced to his other companion, the simple-minded Tom Cullen, she stirs up trouble between them and Nick's dismissal of her (but not until after he's slept with her because of course) seems uncharacteristically brutal. I get that she was a troublemaker, I didn't like her right from the start, and obviously he's meant to have seen something inside her that is dangerous, but... I dunno. She felt very much like a lazy use of the "evil seductress" trope rather than a real person, and it didn't quite sit right with me. 
  • And Judith was bothered by Larry's treatment of Lucy. He's "in love with" Nadine, but not so much that if he can't get together with her, he won't make do with Lucy as second best. Lucy, too, seemed like a trope, rather than a character: the woman who is with a man who doesn't love her, because she doesn't expect any better. Judith's read a lot of bad sci-fi ("or good sci-fi by men who know nothing about women") and is so familiar with and so tired of that kind of two-dimensional character.
  • Of all the new characters, though, Nadine is the most interesting. I didn't trust her, right from the start; sneaking around behind Larry, rather than introducing herself to him. But on the surface, she seems decent enough: she loves children, doesn't believe in violence, is a virgin well into her thirties. And then it turns out she and the dark man go way back... Oh, she's never met him, as far as I can tell, but she's been dreaming of him since long before Captain Trips. Like Larry, she's walking the fine line between good and evil, but where Larry seems bad but will probably end up a hero, I have a very bad feeling about Nadine's plotline. I do not think it will end well at all.  

Doubles and contrasts
  • My English Literature brain has noticed a lot of pairs, doubles and contrasts throughout this page. You've got the people dreaming of both Abagail and Flagg, with their heaven-and-hell symbolism, and I've just highlighted how I can see Nadine acting as a dark mirror for Larry's character development. Then we've got Tom Cullen and the Trashcan Man - both a little broken, but one all goodness and one all bad.

  • The Stand is not the first "post-Apocalyptic" book I've read; there do seem to be a lot of them about, but this is unusual in really living up to the description. It's surprisingly religious in some ways, with a good-versus-evil battle for souls, and a lot of biblical imagery. And we've had Pestilence, or Plague, and Death. War is coming, and Judith has a bad feeling about their preparations against Famine.
  • Early on in the book, two characters discuss the weird phenomenon of trains and planes involved in accidents not being full to capacity, with a consistently higher no-show rate than those vehicles that reach their destinations OK. I'd heard a lot of stories about people who should have been on the trains and bus bombed in London in 2005, and Judith confirmed this: both her sister and her aunt ought to have been on the same train. One was early, the other late!
  • Boulder, Colorado, where the good guys eventually settle was a lot emptier than most of the towns the protagonists have passed through. Maybe the inhabitants thought they could escape the plague. But the plague was everywhere by the end. It seems very convenient for our guys, not to have so many bodies to bury. But maybe it is also foreshadowing another disaster approaching. (The very nature of this book tells us another disaster is approaching. But what will be the catalyst?)
  • War is coming, and Flagg has the advantage so far, with our heroes spending most of their time travelling and settling into their new city. Flagg has an arsenal of weapons, and, if Bateman is to be believed, most of the technical people. What on earth is Stephen King trying to say here? Computer nerds are evil, or technology is? Is he advocating an ending similar to the finale of the most recent version of Battlestar Galactica? It seems like a very harsh and simplistic judgement!
  • I asked if there was any significance to the locations where people have congregated. Neither Judith nor I have been to America, so we can't go from personal experience, but Las Vegas has a rather garish reputation of debauchery (and I'm sure it's lovely in real life. Well...) Also, it's surrounded by desert, so there's nowhere to run.
  • Abagail's farm in Nebraska seemed idyllic, all fertile and wholesome and old-fashioned. But it's not big enough for all the people flocking towards them, so they had to find a new place: Boulder, Colorado, a deserted city (as are they all, now, but this one has fewer corpses ruining the aesthetic.) But there does seem to be a sort of exiled-from-paradise theme here, too. 
  • The bit that made Judith the angriest in this section was Bateman's discussion of having to reinstate a political system in the free zone of Boulder. And, of course, it has to be the same old way of doing things as before: a hierarchy, a democracy, sure, but let's make sure that it's the sort of democracy that he and his people want. They'll have Mother Abagail as the nominal head, because she's the one the people have come to find, but really Bateman and his carefully-selected committee will be in charge. Stick to what is tried, tested, and not entirely broken, but for goodness' sake, don't try anything new.
  • Although Judith liked Bateman upon first meeting him, now she can't stand him, finding him manipulative and sly.
  • Politics, I think, is where the new utopian society will start to come apart.
  • But what's the alternative? In Las Vegas, where Randall Flagg is setting up his own domain, it is a democracy, ruled by fear. And Flagg may have called all the dark hearts towards him, but he is ruthless in disposing of anyone who is not "useful" to him.
  • So, as has already been mentioned, the characters have all been dreaming of Randall Flagg and Mother Abagail. Up to a point, fair enough. But their dreams are starting to shape too much of the plot. They're going to places because of dreams. They're getting valuable information from their dreams. And it's starting to nag at me that this feels like cheating. Sure, if everyone's having the same dreams, they'd say "hmm, that's weird," and "maybe there's something going on here," but it's bothering me how much trust they're putting in them, and it feels like lazy storytelling to me.
  • When Larry arrived at the free zone, he revealed that he'd been following a trail set by Harold Lauder. He had a far higher opinion of Harold than either Frannie or Judith and I did. It set me to wondering who had the more accurate impression of the guy. Larry judged him only by his actions, unprejudiced by Harold's age, personality or appearance. Is he ignorant or wise?
  • We discussed last week that Harold felt like a dangerously unhinged "protector" of Frannie. When he described Stu as "that guy," with all his preconceived ideas of the stereotype jock figure, I was thinking, no, Harold is the "that guy" of today's world, the self-described "nice guy" who makes a martyr of himself, whining about being "friendzoned" whenever a girl doesn't fancy him, and feeling all hard-done-by and entitled to another person's affections. Not a nice guy at all. 
  • As such, he seemed far too cheerful about Frannie and Stu becoming an item. He took it too well, and, after Fran's reflections after discussing Harold with Larry, you could almost wonder if, after all, Harold was more mature than we'd given him credit for. Then you remember he's spied on them together, stolen Frannie's diary, and generally acted much younger than his age, and it's all thrown into doubt. In the last couple of pages of chapter 50, we see Harold's perspective, and no, it is all an act. 
  • I never had a high opinion of Harold, but I was still shocked to see him plotting to actually go to Flagg and betray his fellow-survivors. All because he didn't get the girl. It seems that everyone who goes bad, ends up with Flagg. There's no grey areas. I'm not sure whether I like that or not. I suppose Harold's story shows the mundane sort of evil born of jealousy or selfishness or so on. Not all of the bad guys are the murderers and robbers and rapists. Some start off quite ordinary folk, with a weakness, and where there's a weakness, there's a vulnerability to the dark side.

So, what's to come? Now we've got all our main good guys together in Boulder, they've got to start building a community once more. There's a meeting been called to discuss leadership, politics and a legal system. Judith is concerned that no one's mentioned farming yet. Canned foods won't last forever, and people need fresh vegetables. They need doctors, surgeons - even appendicitis has proven fatal, now. Frannie'll need a midwife. Meanwhile, we know trouble is coming. War is coming, and they are unprepared. But before Flagg launches his assault on Boulder, in whatever form that will take, I think it will start corroding from within. ("Things fall apart; the centre does not hold.) Nadine is dangerous. Harold is dangerous. Larry is a risk. I think good will prevail, ultimately, but at a great cost, and Randall Flagg will not be utterly destroyed. I rather suspect that there will be yet another great collapse, and that the book will end with the last survivors having to start afresh yet again. Perhaps back at Mother Abagail's farm in Nebraska - but she will not be there. She's a hundred and eight. She will not survive the book.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Book Club: Katie and Judith read Stephen King's The Stand - Book 1.

After finishing reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell at the beginning of March, you'd think I'd whizz through a load of the shorter books on my to-read shelf. But instead, I launched almost immediately into one of the biggest novels in any bookshop, Stephen King's epic The Stand. But not alone. This time I'm reading in company, with my best friend Judith (who beat me to the one and only copy in the library, so I had to buy my own. It was free on Waterstone's points, though, so I'm not complaining.) From time to time, Judith and I hold our own two-person book club, and this time I've made enough notes to share with you, you lucky, lucky people.

Spoiler warning: As a multi-part discussion, this will contain a lot more detail than a normal review.

Expectations and Surprises:

  • I knew very little about The Stand when I started reading it. All I knew was that it was a post-apocalyptic novel set after a super-flu wipes out most of the world's populations, and that its villain, Randall Flagg, is one of Stephen King's biggest baddies, and that he pops up in several other of King's novels in different guises, and also that there is some crossover with the Dark Tower series, of which I've read the first two books. As such, I won't be surprised if I see him there later on - and am not certain he hasn't already been mentioned.
  • I had images in my head of desert wasteland, of lots of people walking, of ravens and crows.
  • Judith has read The Stand before, probably at least ten years ago, and she was surprised at how long it took to set the scene; she had forgotten that we see so much of what the world was like before the flu virus, nicknamed "Captain Trips" set in. We get through the length of an ordinary book (about 400 pages) introducing the protagonists in their ordinary or not-so-ordinary lives, going about their business and facing their own challenges, big and little, before the virus breaks in and disrupts everything. I found myself so engrossed in the characters' stories that I'd almost forget about the main plot until King would remind us at the end of a chapter, and show how the virus is spreading from one person, across the country and to the entire world.

The characters

  • The designated protagonists are the survivors from each of the different subplots: Stu, one of the first to come into contact with "Captain Trips," Frannie, a college student who has just found out she's expecting a baby, Larry, a rock star with one hit record who has found himself in financial trouble, and Nick, a deaf and mute wanderer who had just found a place for himself, when the flu came to town, leaving him the last survivor. He was our favourite character, a guy who's had a bad lot in life, but who has made the best of things. A thoroughly Good Egg. (Great. He's going to die, isn't he? Probably in some kind of heroic sacrifice to save the world. He's that sort of character.)
  • Then there's Lloyd, who is simply repulsive, a criminal who has got mixed up in robbery and murder, and who found himself quite pleased with his new bad-guy image in jail... right up to the point at which he discovers he's facing the death sentence. It's difficult to feel sorry for Lloyd, and yet, once the flu hits and he's left alone in his cell, you wouldn't wish that onto anyone. Then Randall Flagg turns up. "Pleased to meet you!" he says, and I don't think it's a coincidence that I had already jotted down that very line (followed by "hope you've guessed my name") after reading the first couple of pages featuring Flagg. 
  • Nick might be my favourite character, and Judith's, but Larry Underwood seems the most complex, with the biggest "journey" ahead of him. He's not a good man, and deep inside, he knows that. He's weak-willed, selfish, often unkind. His own mother described him as a "taker." She loved him dearly, could see there was good inside him - but wished he'd do more to get in touch with that goodness. Already, The Stand is shaping up to have a big Good vs Evil conflict going on, with some characters falling each side of the divide. Larry could go either way. I predict that, ultimately, he'll be on the "good" side, but it'll be a long hard struggle for him.
  • Towards the end of book 1, the survivors are just starting to meet up with others, and we've got the beginnings of a new secondary cast. Frannie travels with her late best friend's little brother, Harold Lauder. He's a weird kid, pompous and nerdy, an intelligent teenager, a weird mixture of child and man. But at the end of part one, he shows some worrying, rather creepy tendencies. It's clear he's got a crush on Frannie, who is five years his senior, and feels protective towards her, but that protectiveness shows itself in a worrying, potentially dangerous way, when they meet up with Stu, betraying his feelings as a possessiveness that Judith described as thoroughly repulsive.


  • When Frannie comes home to tell her parents about her pregnancy, her mother and father show two very different approaches to morality in life. Her mother is very religious, with a rigid moral code - and utterly loveless, a very nasty woman. By contrast, her father is a gentle sort of man, who does not like to contradict his wife, but prefers a peaceful life. He lives his life by logic, science, reason. Yet, when it comes to Frannie's baby, he is surprised that his opinions are driven not by logic, or by generations of rules and laws, but by his emotions. I pondered on what kind of moral code will be of more use when building a new civilisation from scratch.
  • Judith's example was of a train heading towards five people on the railway track. If you had the power to flick a switch and save them, but by doing so, kill one person on the siding, would you do that? The logical answer is that one person dying is better than five, that, to quote Spock, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." But, according to a book she'd been reading (she did not name it) that is a psychopath's answer; most people's consciences would feel worse about killing one person by one's actions, even to save five, than to let them die through one's inaction, because they would die anyway. (And I decided that I didn't like either option, and that I'd just shout "GET OFF THE LINE!" because, to use another Wrath of Khan quote, "I don't believe in no-win scenarios.") But as for what sort of moral code will be the foundation of a new civilisation, and its strengths and weaknesses, we'll have to wait and see.
The Collapse of Civilisation
  • I chose the wrong time to read The Stand; when a vicious strain of flu and colds was doing its rounds, making me feel quite uneasy. But I also wondered about whether The Stand could be viewed as an allegory, or a warning, of anything else that might cause society to collapse. I looked up the poem that some of the characters discussed, W. B. Yeats' "The Second Coming," which was written after the First World War, or could also refer to the political situation of Ireland at the time. It's full of end-of-the-world imagery, and I felt that it sets the tone for the entire book. In the middle of the 20th century, people feared nuclear war could bring about the end of life as we know it, and I even thought about the UK of the moment, with the government making cuts upon cuts upon cuts, to the health service, to welfare for the disabled, the poor, the young, the old. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. How much more can this go on?
  • And Judith has been reading about all the old lost civilisations, where the top ends have grown more and more prosperous, the gulf between rich and poor grown wider and wider, until  -Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
  • Bateman, one of the people met along the way, serves as Mr Exposition, predicting a rather pessimistic future of small societies destroying each other. 
  • The most horrifying thing about The Stand is that the "Captain Trips" virus was entirely man-made, a biologically-engineered weapon. And the question raised is why? Who would be stupid enough to make something that would practically wipe out the entire world - and make no antidote? Yet it's entirely believable. Always, nations are making bigger and more horrifying weapons that they never expect to use, just to prove to actual and potential enemies that they're not to be messed with. But in this case, all it takes is one person getting out and doing the natural thing of running for it.
  • And what is worse: "Rome falls." They've got agents with phials of the germ all over the world. When it's too late for America, the whole world is going down too. I just don't understand that. Is it an attempt to stop anyone asking questions, to preserve the American military's reputation, even though they're too dead to care about the rest of the world's judgement? Horrific.
The Dreams:
  • The main characters have all started to have nightmares of Randall Flagg in a high place, most clearly in Nick's dream of being offered his hearing and a voice. It's an obvious biblical reference to Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness. 
  • By contrast, Nick has also dreamed of a ripe cornfield in Nebraska, and an old lady known as Mother Abagail. Judith was a bit confused by the cornfield, as she was sure it was supposed to symbolise innocence, nostalgia, simpler times - but, despite living on an Island with lots of farmland, it didn't have any personal associations for her. For me, the fertile farmland was set up as a contrast to the desert: life instead of death, good instead of evil.
In Conclusion:

By the end of book one, only a couple of the many characters introduced so far have met up, and they are all wandering fairly aimlessly. Nick is heading for Nebraska, Fran, Harold and Stu heading for Vermont, and I think Larry's in the same state, but has not met up with the rest. They are coming closer, but still in small clusters of people, nowhere near forming a society. I'd had the idea that The Stand would form one community, or maybe two (one good, one evil) but if so, it's still a good way into the future. Maybe, instead, it's an epic along the lines of Game of Thrones with the characters scattered all across the continent. I kind of wish I'd got a map where I could mark out all the characters' journeys, and where they are in relation to each other. 400-odd pages in, and we're at the point where I'd imagined the book to begin! Not that I mind; what I like best about Stephen King's good works is that he does take time just getting to know the characters, setting them up and drawing you in, making you care before throwing everything he's got at them. 

If you've read The Stand you're very welcome to add any thoughts to the comments below. I'll be posting our thoughts on the first half of Book 2 on Friday.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Rereadathon the Third: Part two - Saturday 26th - Wednesday 30th March


I finished American Gods yesterday, and although I've read it several times now, I'm feeling a hint of a book hangover; I can't get Shadow and Laura, Wednesday and Mr Nancy and all the rest out of my head. I spent the evening yesterday at a 50th birthday party, which was a really lovely evening, and read most of the stories in Through the Woods, a collection of gothic fairy tales in comic-book form. I left the last one until this morning, however. I remembered being really creeped out by one of the illustrations, and didn't really want that to be the image left in my mind after lights out. Yes, I'm a wimp.

And today I've got stuck back into Anne of Green Gables. If I must buy lots of different editions of my favourite book since childhood, it's only right that I read each one, and I've got a lovely collector's library, pocket-sized with gold edges and illustrations. I know that book inside out. If I found myself in the dystopian world of Fahrenheit 451, where books are banned and live on only because people memorise them word for word, Anne would be mine. I don't know it word for word,  and yet I can identify it from a half-glimpsed sentence on an e-reader screen. I can tell if the wording is slightly different from one edition to another. This copy I'm reading today has Marilla saying she didn't want a "Barnardo boy" instead of "'home' child," which was the wording I knew from my existing three copies. When was this changed?

It really struck me today how little legal protection orphans had back in the nineteenth century, when Anne of Green Gables was set. For one thing, Marilla and Matthew just decided the night before, that if Mrs Spencer was going over to the orphanage in Nova Scotia to adopt a child, she might as well pick one up for them too at the same time - like she's running grocery errands for them. There's no paperwork, they don't even need to go to the orphanage themselves to be assessed (hence the mix-up when they wanted a boy and got Anne instead.) Yes, Matthew and Marilla are good people, but they could be anyone. Mrs Spencer doesn't even take Anne all the way to Green Gables, but drops her off at the Bright River railway station in a strange place where she knows no one.  There's no follow-up; once Anne's off the hands of the orphanage trustees, we never hear from them again. If it weren't for Marilla's change of heart, she could have been fobbed off onto the awful Mrs Blewett and worked half to death, and no one would have any record of where she went or what happened to her. It's all rather sombre to think of what could have happened, if the story had gone differently.

Saturday Stats

Books read from: Through the Woods - Emily Carroll
Anne of Green Gables - L. M. Montgomery
Pages read: 202
Books finished this week: 2
Favourite reread so far: American Gods. 
On the menu: tuna couscous pot, apple, easter egg

Sunday and Monday

Although it's currently quite sunny, the last couple of days have been very temperamental weather-wise with Storm Katie hitting yesterday evening. (I had nothing to do with it, I swear!) So the usual Easter walk has been postponed, and I spent most of yesterday afternoon finishing Anne of Green Gables. What makes Anne stand out from the other children's books of the late 19th and early 20th century, is the way that L. M. Montgomery captures the spirit of childhood in a rural community. Anne is neither sickeningly good, nor do the scrapes she gets in read as though written as a moral lesson to the reader. Montgomery gently laughs at Anne's eccentricities, but does not diminish the soaring highs and crashing lows that might seem mundane but are important to the child. Anne is one of life's optimists, but you read enough sorrow between the lines to keep the sweetness from becoming cloying; the down-to-earth humour keeps Anne's precociousness from becoming twee. She's a bright, sparky child who has survived a tough life - having to care for her former foster mother's eight children (with twins three times in succession) while little more than an infant herself - through the escape of books and imagination. So it's heartwarming to see her delight as she discovers the simple pleasures: eating ice cream, sleeping in a spare-room bed, and to finally discover people who love her unconditionally. 

I've no idea how many times I've read Anne. As a child I would read the same books over and over and over again, and a family friend's enduring image of me is reading that book, with my hair in pigtails and wearing a straw summer hat. But it still has the power to make me laugh and love and cry. I cried twice yesterday, once when the uptight, repressed Marilla half-grieves that Anne has to grow up, and the other time - well, you know which part!

Today, (Monday) I switched off my alarm and let myself sleep as late as I liked (which was pretty late) although the weather outside gave me some strange and frightening dreams. As I've already said, I've been getting into a routine even on days when I'm not working, but bank holidays are different. Today I ought to take a break from the rereadathon to catch up with The Stand for this week's readalong segment with Judith (which reminds me, I need to type up last week's notes.) But I also want to get started on my reread of The Charioteer. 

Sunday Stats:

Books read from: Anne of Green Gables - L. M. Montgomery
Pages read today: 267
Total books finished: 3
Favourite reread so far: American Gods and Anne of Green Gables tie
On the menu: hot cross buns, Easter egg (seeing a theme here?) apple, sour cream and garlic Graze crostini snack

Monday Stats:

Books read from: The Charioteer - Mary Renault
Pages read today: 220
Total books finished: 3
Favourite reread so far: American Gods and Anne of Green Gables tie, but The Charioteer is up there too. Look, they're all excellent! That's why I'm rereading them.
On the menu: Bit of Rocky Road Easter egg, caramel shortbread, apple, Graze snacks.

Tuesday and Wednesday:

It's the last evening of the rereadathon, but I could quite happily do another week, and maybe I will, unofficially; I've still got Monstrous Regiment and Miranda Hart's autobiography, as well as others which got added to my mental list after the books I did read - notably, Anne of Avonlea and Anansi Boys. Yesterday (Tuesday) I spent the evening away from the rereads, as I was a bit behind on my reading of The Stand, although I came back to The Charioteer for another chapter before bed, and over breakfast this morning. The problem with having two books on the go at once - especially when they are two good books - is that you can't choose which one to pick up. But for now, I think I'll aim to finish The Charioteer by the end of today. I'm feeling a little sleepy, however, and might fall asleep quite early.


I finished The Charioteer at about 11PM, and I think I'm more satisfied with the ending on the second reading. Although I've concluded it is a happy ending, I find myself wondering about how the story will continue past the last page, and how much of a rollercoaster ride the characters are in for when the book is closed. I don't think that their problems will go away as easily as they, or we, would like. But they will endure the storms together, of that much I'm sure.

I am writing about these ink-and-paper people as if they are real, alive today, and that the next page is tomorrow, despite The Charioteer being written in the 1950s and set in the 1940s. That's the power of books, and why we like to return to books we've already read - to reacquaint ourselves with old friends, and try to know them better. When I was about 17, I read an author's afterward for a novel I studied at school, where they wrote something along the lines of, "People keep asking me what happened to the characters after the events of the book. Nothing happened! It's a story! They don't exist off the page!" I'm certainly misquoting this author's words, and probably misrepresenting what they were trying to say, but it was the message I took away, and I've never quite forgiven that author since. 

Tuesday Stats:

Rereadathon books read from: The Charioteer - Mary Renault
Rereadathon pages read today: 31
Other reading: The Stand - Stephen King
Total books finished: 3
Favourite reread: Anne, American Gods (see above)
On the menu: Apple, Bit of Easter egg, Graze cheesey corn snack

Wednesday Stats:

Rereadathon books read from: The Charioteer - Mary Renault
Rereadathon pages read today: 168
Other reading: The Stand - Stephen King
Total books finished: 4
Favourite reread: See above
On the menu: Special K cereal, chocolate brownie bites.

Final summary:

Books read: American Gods - Neil Gaiman
Through the Woods - Emily Carroll
Anne of Green Gables - L. M. Montgomery
The Charioteer - Mary Renault
Pages read: 1592
Best reading day: Sunday (267 pages)
Average: 159 pages per day

Thanks again to Bex for hosting the rereadathon. I've really enjoyed it. Another one in the autumn perhaps? 
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