Monday, 3 October 2016

Happy Things.

Hi friends! I realise that this year has been fairly quiet on the bloggy front, and especially when it comes to reviews.

I've been working full-time since one of my colleagues retired, which has given me a much more regular weekly routine, although my working week is a day behind everyone else's. I don't want to go into much detail, but the last few weeks have been pretty stressful, and I've been trying to make some changes to my life to keep it from getting on top of me. For one thing, I'm drastically reducing my caffeine intake. I can't function without my morning cup of coffee, but for the rest of the day, I've been switching it for peppermint tea, to try to keep the anxiety fireworks in my brain to a minimum. I think it's helping a lot - but how I miss my coffee!

At the beginning of this year I signed up to Ali Edwards' One Little Word project, the idea being that each month you take part in a different challenge to make you take to heart the word you've decided represents something you want to concentrate on in your life. My word was "peace," but I have to confess I haven't done any of the challenges since the beginning of the summer. And yet I still feel that it's been ticking over in the back of my mind, helping me make decisions, and surprising me sometimes with wider definitions that contribute towards a peaceful mind and lifestyle.

One project that has continued and been very beneficial has been my Good Days journal. I think we can all agree that 2016 has been an exceptionally awful year all round, yet even so, I've managed to fill an entire notebook with good memories, a record of all the things I've done, achieved and enjoyed this year, so when New Year's Eve comes around, I'll have proof that I haven't wasted the year. I've loved doing this, and plan to make this an annual project.

I've also made a Happy Box for the really bad days. I wrapped a shoe box in bright paper and filled it with things to help to cheer me up when I really need it. There are cards from friends, humorous and uplifting little books, emergency chocolate and tea, Anne of Green Gables on DVD, a cross-stitch set, a little notebook of Things That Make Me Happy, and there's a little scrapbook of miscellanous encouraging things. Fortunately, I haven't needed it very often.

I turn 31 tomorrow. I was absolutely dreading my thirtieth birthday, mostly because back when I left university, I told myself, "Life is scary and uncertain now, but by the time you're 30 you'll be settled. And then 30 approached, life was still scary and uncertain, and I couldn't see the other side. And nothing's changed, but I'm feeling positive about 31. I'm on the verge of making some big decisions - and guess what! It's still scary and uncertain. I suspect that is the condition we call "life."

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Sleeping Giants - Sylvain Neuvel

When Rose Franklin was eleven years old, she fell through the earth and was found lying in the palm of an enormous metallic hand, surrounded by indecipherable glowing symbols carved into the walls of the underground chamber that opened up beneath her. This strange discovery shaped the course of this girl's life, and as an adult, she heads up a team of scientists investigating this impossible artifact. The hand lay dormant beneath the ground for millennia, but was composed of materials that just could not have come from Earth. Where did it come from? Why was it buried, and how was it that Rose should happen to stumble upon it? These are just some of the questions that Doctor Franklin wants answers to. Then other parts from the same gigantic figure start showing up, and it is no longer simply the business of scientists, but all of humanity.

The narrative of Sleeping Giants is written entirely in the form of interviews and journal entries, focusing on a few main characters connected to the discovery. Doctor Rose Franklin, of course, is one, and the "obdurate, volatile and irascible" army helicopter pilot Kara Resnik (who I am sure must have her origins in Battlestar Galactica's Kara "Starbuck" Thrace.) Then there are Kara's co-pilot Ryan Mitchell and linguist Vincent Couture, whose job is to find meaning in the glowing symbols, and the dangerously ambitious geneticist Alyssa Papantoniou. But the most interesting character of all was the unnamed interviewer. We do not know who he is - if they really are a he, that is, I can't remember if that's confirmed or assumed - what his role is, or his motivations; he clearly holds some position of power, because he knows too much about everything and is not afraid to coerce, blackmail manipulate people into doing things that go against everything they believe in. There is something off about his polite, stilted way of speaking, and I wondered whether he was connected to whichever alien race buried the pieces of the giant figure long ago. I pictured him much like the Observers in Fringe, softly-spoken, an "uncanny valley" version of human that is not quite convincing, the puppet-master behind the scenes of everything.

Sleeping Giants is a relatively short book, but epic in scope and awe. It examines the wonders of scientific discovery - but also the inevitability of its noble purposes quickly becoming corrupted and used for political and financial gain, and bigger and more devastating means of warfare. It gives a frightening picture of a human race bent on destroying itself before backing down. And yet there is a glimmer of hope there, too. It is the first part of a series, possibly a trilogy, yet it is complete in itself - though its epilogue leaves you hanging with a beast of a sequel-hook. I turned the final page and shouted "WHAT?!!"  Sleeping Giants is a compulsively readable, well-crafted masterpiece, and I await the sequel eagerly.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The Fair Fight - Anna Freeman

It is the end of the eighteenth century, around the same time that Jane Austen was writing of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. Down in Bristol, three people are living very different lives. Ruth Webber was born and brought up in a brothel, but was offered an alternative life at a young age: to box at the local tavern and later on, at the fair. Charlotte Dryer, nee Sinclair, survivor of the smallpox that killed all her family except for her and her abusive brother Perry, is trapped in a loveless and lonely marriage. Meanwhile, George Bowden, the bisexual youngest son of minor gentry, is a lovable scoundrel looking to make an honest - or dishonest -living the best way he can. The three lives come together one evening, the night of Ruth's fight at the Bristol fair...

I found it really fascinating to learn through this novel about women in Regency England who defied the gender norms and took to prize-fighting on a stage. It is such a shocking, violent life when set beside Jane Austen's world of balls and courtships. So it's rather a shame that the book only focuses on that particular aspect for part of the story; Ruth's patron, Granville Dryer soon switches his attentions to training up her gentle giant husband Tom, instead. But the women's fights are not confined only to the stage; for both Ruth and Charlotte, under very different circumstances, every day brings its own battles.

Ruth was the richest character, the strongest voice. Her narrative is full of 18th century Bristolian slang; men are "cullies," babies are "babbers," to fight is to "mill," and to punch is to "fib." She is a most unladylike woman, shocking everyone she comes into contact with by her rough and aggressive manner. She is a fighter. But when she forms attachments, she is just as fierce in her loyalty.

Charlotte, by contrast, appears to be a proper lady, but she burns with an inner fire in need of an outlet. She is desperate to rebel against her repressive life. Her husband, Granville, is a thoroughly contemptible character. He is not a bully like Perry Sinclair, Charlotte's drunken brother, but he is unforgivably selfish and heedless of others. He values other people as far as they are useful or entertaining, but when that is no longer true, they just cease to exist for him.

I thought that the third narrator, George's story was the weakest part of an otherwise well-plotted and gripping novel. It starts off well, but seems to be dropped partway through, and when it resumes, although his actions do affect the other two story strands, his thread is not so tightly woven in as the rest of the book.

The Fair Fight is an exciting, punchy page-turner, with characters you grow to love (except for those you have to hate.) It shows a different side to a popular era in historical fiction, celebrating women who broke away from gender expectations at a time when a woman's role was seemingly fixed in place. An excellent read, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Book to Film: L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables (2016)

As a general rule, I don't really approve of remaking classic films. But a second, or fourth, or nineteenth filmed adaptation of a book is not the same thing as a remake, and so when I heard that there was to be a new film of my book, Anne of Green Gables, I was not one of the Megan Follows devotees who bewailed that the 1985 series was untouchable. Because, excellent as that series is (at least, the first one) having multiple adaptations available sends you back to the source material. All on-screen Annes are imitations of the Platonic Ideal Anne found in the pages of L.M.Montgomery's novels. And as far as I'm concerned, the more Anne the better.

All the previous versions of Anne that I have seen have aged Anne up a bit, or a lot, from her original eleven years. Megan Follows' Anne (1985) started out as thirteen, Anne Shirley's Anne Shirley (1934) was fourteen, and although I've only seen the sequel to the BBC version from the '70s, it looks like Kim Braden would have been at least in her late teens. Both contemporary-set webseries Green Gables Fables and Project Green Gables started her story at the age of seventeen. But Ella Ballentine was closer to Anne's real age, and reminds us that she was in fact only a child, and yet she'd already been through so much. She is a resilient, loving little soul who has used her vivid imagination to survive a turbulent childhood and bring what comfort she can to others; we see her trying to cheer up other children in the orphanage and on the train to Prince Edward Island. When she speaks of her hardships, her matter-of-fact tone breaks the listeners' hearts, both in-universe and out, that nothing strikes her as unusual in living with guardians who she was sure meant to be good to her, or never having had a friend.  After such an existence, she revels in life in the countryside, and although Matthew and Marilla don't know what to make of her joy at such (to them) commonplace things as the scent of lilac, the flight of seagulls, they come to see their world as for the first time. This bright-eyed little girl with the fancy turn of phrase is both strange and endearing,

Of course, if Anne is the right age, so are Diana and her schoolmates, and so is Gilbert Blythe (13). He is very definitely a mischievous schoolboy and not a romantic hero. But this is Anne of Green Gables before it becomes a love story; its focus is on family and belonging, and a celebration of simple wonders. Diana is a true kindred spirit; the film shows us a little bit more of what draws her and Anne together, their love of fairy-tales and make-believe. Mrs Rachel Lynde provides a light comic touch. "Now, you know me, I'm not one to interfere..." Marilla Cuthbert is well-drawn, played by Sara Botsford, striking the right balance between severity and soft-heartedness. Martin Sheen's Matthew, was not quite Matthew Cuthbert as we know him. He's lovable, quiet and sweet, but not shy so much as introverted.

This film doesn't cover the whole book, but only Anne's first year at Green Gables. Still, it's better to take its time over the first half and do it well than to rush the entire book into a two-hour movie. It ends with a slight deviation from the original story, in order to have a satisfying conclusion part-way through, while still potentially leaving it open to a sequel.

And if this team does not make a sequel, there will be more of Miss Shirley to come next year on Netflix, with a new series simply entitled Anne. Watch this space.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The Bath Bookshop Crawl 2016

I wrote in my rereadathon wrap-up post that I've spent the end of my holiday in Cardiff and Bath. Although I was only away for four nights, I managed to fit a lot into my time away, catching up with two friends from the Isle of Wight, recording a podcast with one of them, seeing Going Postal in Cardiff, and the trip culminated in the Bath Bookshop Crawl on Saturday. This was another event organised by Bex, following on from the success of the London Bookshop Crawl at the beginning of the year.

The Bath Bookshop Crawl was smaller than the London one, but no less memorable. There were ten of us altogether, which was a good cosy number to get to know each other. We met in a coffee shop by the station for tea or milkshakes, all except for Ellie whose train was delayed. Our first bookshop stop was Good Buy Books, a little discount bookstore on the corner, whose selection might not be huge but had some great bargains and surprising gems. I snapped up a hardback copy of The Time Machine for a good price. Some of us went to explore the nearby wool shop and haberdashery, before regrouping and heading off towards the Guildhall market. Ellie joined us along the way, recognising a small huddle of people laden down with book bags. Bath is a nicely compact city, without too much of a walk between destinations (although I took a long time the previous day to orientate myself.

Next up Skoobs (no relation to Skoob Books in London, which is another great bookshop to check out, right by Russell Square tube station.) It was described as a second-hand bookstall in the marketplace, but that doesn't really do it justice; not just a table spread with dog-eared copies of The Da Vinci Code, Skoobs was a decent-sized small bookshop in its own right. There was a lovely selection of books of all genres, bookcases for children's books, fantasy and horror, romance and saga, general fiction - and quite probably a lot of non-fiction too, but I didn't see everything there. But there were a lot of children's books from my childhood and fantasy from my teenage years, all in editions that brought me out in nostalgia - and I finally completed my Malory Towers collection with "my" covers (Well, they all have the same pictures though some are different styles; the Dragon/Armada ones from the late '80s and early '90s.) I also bought The Outsiders, which I'm pretty sure I read as a teenager, but don't quite remember, and which I've found so many references to in the last few months. Several of us huddled round by the sci-fi, fantasy and horror shelves, and I sighed happily over the Dark Moon by Julia Gray, a long-forgotten series that devoured a crucial week or two of study-leave before my A-Levels. I also went off on a bit of a rant about how terrible Stephen King's Dreamcatcher is. Sorry people!

Waterstone's was the biggest bookshop we visited, and it really is a beauty. They very kindly offered us a free lunch, and our scouts emerged from upstairs to tell us that there was a table set for us in the cookery section. One of the booksellers waited on us, giving us real VIP treatment, taking orders for toasted paninis, cakes, and plenty of tea and coffee, even giving us all goody-bags. I was just expecting a plate of triangle sandwiches and maybe a cupcake or two! I think we all felt a bit guilty that they went to so much trouble for us. We are not worthy! (But thank you so much, Waterstone's Bath, you really made it a special experience.) 

I bought two books: Fellside by M.R. Carey, the author of The Girl With All The Gifts, and The Race by Nina Allan, another book with a figure silhouetted against a starry sky on its cover. (Hey, that worked out well last time! This is apparently a very different kind of book to Small Angry Planet, however.) I also came away with a 99 Things That Bring Me Joy journal, to fill in and keep in my Happy Box. (I don't think I've written about my Happy Box before. Remind me to do a post about it some time.) 

Our next stop was Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights, which is a beautiful and I believe a rather famous bookshop. The decor was beautiful, with a wall of Tintin comics, tote bags on a ceiling, and the downstairs toilet had been decorated/doodled on by artist and illustrator Chris Riddell. In Waterstone's I had more or less decided to put off buying Joe Hill's latest tome The Fireman for another day - it was heavy and quite expensive - but I had no sooner set foot in Mr B's than I discovered they had signed copies for sale. So whoops, onto the pile it went! I also went in search of a book I'd noticed in Cardiff, The Fair Fight about lady boxers in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, which has been compared to and has a blurb by Sarah Waters - always a promising sign.

Our final bookshop was Topping and Company, just around the corner, a proper, elegant old-fashioned kind of bookshop, with high shelves with those long ladders that every book-loving little girl dreams of. There was a table full of hardback fiction, many signed first editions, with protective plastic covers. I only had enough money for one more book and was torn between The Essex Serpent and The Muse, before finally settling on the latter, because I'd really liked Jessie Burton's previous offering The MiniaturistWe were offered tea and biscuits while browsing; I'm not sure if that was a special bookshop crawl thing or whether all shoppers get to have afternoon tea as part of the Topping experience. We were all rather weary by that point and glad to have a sit down and put down our heavy tote bags for a while. 

We had one other shop on the itinerary, American Dream comics, but by the time we got there, it was about five minutes before closing time. The shop was quite a small one, with plenty of comics and Pop Vinyl figures. I don't read a lot of comics or graphic novels, and there wasn't time to have a good old browse. I did look for a Holtzmann figure from the new Ghostbusters film, but alas, I have not yet been able to find her.

Some of our number went home at that point, but six of us went over to the pub where my friend James, one of my fellow "People Under The Stairs" from high school, works. I'd met up with him the previous day, and we'd gone out for drinks - and I added him to the list of people I'd introduced to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. (That makes six that I know of.) The bar was busy, it being a Saturday night, but James was able to pop out of the kitchen briefly to say hello. We ordered drinks and food, and counted up our combined purchases. There were about 40 between the six of us, and I made it 76 altogether, a not-too-shabby contribution to the Bath bookselling economy.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Rereadathon 4: Part two and wrap-up

The Rereadathon was hosted by Bex.

Wednesday 17th - Sunday 21st August

What I've read: I found a copy of Carrie in the Oxfam bookshop this week, which was fortuitous. I think it was reading Carrie a couple of years ago that led to me rediscovering Stephen King. I'd read The Green Mile when I was in high school and didn't even realise it was by that Stephen King because it wasn't at all the sort of genre that I associated with the name, and I read Misery and The Shining as part of my university course. But I hadn't read any of his works since then. Carrie is his first novel, and it looks so tiny on my bookcase next to his door-stoppers like The Stand. 

And Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, which I've reread every year (except for last year, when I listened to the BBC adaptation instead) since I first discovered it. My copy is looking rather well-worn now, and I may have to get myself a second reading copy. (I did have a second copy, but I lent it out and haven't seen it since. I'm not lending out my scruffy old signed edition to anyone.)

What else I've been up to:

I didn't update the blog since last Monday or Tuesday because I've been away. First I went up to Cardiff for two days, to see my friend Anna and to watch Monstrous Productions' Going Postal, which was absolutely magnificent. The casting was spot-on, with the actors playing Moist Von Lipwig, Lord Vetinari and in particular Stanley (the pin enthusiast) the stand-out performers of a wonderful cast. They put on a Discworld adaptation every year, and since they started, have managed to raise over £20 000 for Alzheimers Research UK with their plays. The Going Postal run has finished now, but I thoroughly recommend going to see their next show if you can get to Cardiff. If my local theatre group were to put on a Discworld play, I would seriously consider getting back into amateur dramatics. (But which part would I audition for? Answers on a postcard please!)

After Cardiff, I took the train down to Bath, to make a weekend of it and take part in the Bath Bookshop Crawl (which I will write about in a separate post this week.) I also had the chance to catch up with James, one of my old school friends, who I hadn't seen for a couple of years. But he's one of those friends where it's easy to just pick up from where we left off and it's like we haven't been apart. He's moving to Canada in October, so I caught him just in time.

Rereadathon Wrap-Up

How many books did you end up re-reading? Six, in the end (seven if you include the short story "How The Marquis Got His Coat Back" which I sneaked in this morning after Neverwhere.)
  • On Writing - Stephen King
  • Anne of the Island - L. M. Montgomery
  • Feet of Clay - Terry Pratchett
  • Fangirl - Rainbow Rowell
  • Carrie - Stephen King
  • Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman
  • ("How The Marquis Got His Coat Back" - Neil Gaiman)
Which was your favourite re-read? Anne of the Island. I continue to be astonished that no matter how many times I read this series, it continues to affect me strongly, and I was in tears in the last couple of chapters - again.

What do you feel would have made the Re-Readathon a better event? A better organised host! I wanted to update more regularly and I totally flaked on the twitter chat, but unfortunately life got in the way this time around! Perhaps a few more events or challenges. Not too many - we don't want to lose too much reading time - but something to interact with the other rereadathonners.

Anything else? I see Bex was looking for a co-host for the next one. I VOLUNTEER! I feel I ought to take some responsibility for the rereadathon considering how I'm always the one badgering Bex about the next one. Maybe one for the new year?

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Rereadathon 4: Part one, Weds 10th - Tues 16th August

Thanks to Bex for hosting the Rereadathon

Wednesday 10th August:

Rereadathon #4 has begun! I always love these weeks of guilt-free rediscoveries of favourites. The last things I read were very much read-once books, so it's good to go back to something I know I'll enjoy. And this rereadathon just so happens to coincide with my summer holiday, so even more reading time for me! I'm hoping to read at least four or five books from my pile.

The TBR:

I'm more of a "mood" reader, so any to-read piles I create are only ever provisional. But the books listed are all ones I've fancied returning to for a while. Please excuse my untidy desk!

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft - Stephen King
Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman
Fangirl - Rainbow Rowell
Guards! Guards!, Men At Arms, Feet of Clay - Terry Pratchett (although I'll probably only read one of these, most likely Feet of Clay as I've been following Mark Reads Discworld and he's up to this one, making me want to reread.)
Watchmen - Alan Moore

Not pictured:
Either Pigeon Post or The Picts and the Martyrs - Arthur Ransome (I need to borrow these from my parents)
Carrie - Stephen King (I think this was a library book when I read it before so need to borrow it or buy my own copy.)

  • Who are you and where are you reading from? My name's Katie, and as I'm from the Isle of Wight. But the last part of the rereadathon will take place in Cardiff and Bath next week.
  • Do you re-read often? Is this your first re-readathon? I reread periodically, maybe one or two books a month, compared with six to eight new books. And no, I'm one of the founding rereadathonners (probably Bex's chief egger-on) and have taken part in all of them to date. 
  • Are you planning to read other things as well or re-read exclusively over the next 10 days? As I said earlier, I'm not a strict planner, but I have set this time aside for rereading.
  • Recommend us one book, what would it be? I'll go away from my usual two (Anne of Green Gables and Neverwhere) and suggest Stephen King's 11.22.63. It's a break away from the horror genre you might think of, and is a really smart, engrossing time-travel story, all about a man who goes back in time to try to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But time does not like to be messed around with, and meanwhile, Jake has made a comfortable life for himself in the 1960s, and fallen in love. It's a huge chunk of book, coming up for 800 pages, but definitely worth the commitment; There was a TV adaptation earlier this year, which was pretty good but only broadly followed the original story, and the book's strength lies in making you care about the characters' everyday lives just as much as the race-against time main plot. 
  • What are you reading first? On Writing by Stephen King. It's a mixture of autobiography and writing manual, one that creative writing instructors like to recommend, and through the book King shows how inspiration can come from the most unlikely sources. So far I've read through his childhood, early writing career and big breakthrough with Carrie, through his alcoholism and drug addiction, up to the point where his wife stepped in and demanded that he get his act together. 

What else I've been up to:

It was my best friend Judith's birthday today, and so she and I, her boyfriend, brother and youngest sister had a picnic in her local park. It's Cowes Week on the Isle of Wight - a big sailing regatta when lots of tourists come to the island, so the park was quite full, with a ferris wheel and posh car display going on, but we managed to bag a place under a favourite tree and eat chicken and salad, jammy scones and lots of cake and crisps, taking it easy and enjoying the atmosphere and each other's company. Also, my sister Jenny is home for a few days, so we took a drive out to the sea in a vain hunt for a decent sunset. It was too cloudy really, but she got some nice photos and we had a good sing-along to Queen in the car. Now I plan to do a bit more rereading before going to bed, hopefully a bit earlier than last night (about 1AM, as I'd waited up for Jenny to come down from London straight from work.)

Thursday 11th August

What I've read:

I spent most of this morning finishing off On Writing, where it becomes more of a writing manual. I don't necessarily agree with everything he says - I'm much more of a plotter than he is, and like to have at least a broad outline that becomes more detailed as my stories take shape. But he has some great advice; this book is a worthwhile read for any aspiring writer.

Now I'm rereading Anne of the Island, the third in L. M. Montgomery's series, which follows Anne Shirley through her college years, with new experiences and friendships and her first romances - which do not turn out at all as she had imagined as a child. She's just met the irrepressible Philippa Gordon for the first time - one of my favourite characters in the series.

What else I've been up to:

My sister, her best friend Becky and I went to the beach this afternoon, starting off with (another) picnic, swimming in the sea and throwing a ball around, before finishing off with massive ice creams. It had been cloudy all morning, but as we drove towards the coast, the sun came out and we had a glorious afternoon.

Although I've given myself a holiday from writing as well as work (I've got a couple of friends and family reading through my work in progress for feedback, a very nerve-wracking experience!) I just can't keep away. There are a couple of very different short stories brewing up in my head, and I'd like to get one of these ("Lola's Story") outlined before I return to Anne's adventures in Redmond College.

Friday 12th August

What I've been reading: After doing some laundry and chores, I spent the morning and early afternoon reading Anne of the Island out in the garden, as it was another gorgeously sunny day. With Anne I've bidden farewell to one of her childhood friends, turned down a couple of marriage proposals (including a very foolish rejection) and now am about to meet the brooding and romantic and incredibly dull "man of her dreams." Ugh, Roy Gardner!

What else I've been up to: I went down to Cowes this afternoon, where there's a bit of a festival atmosphere and lots of different kinds of street food and drinks tents (and even a giant teapot-shaped hut selling Pimms!) for the "red trouser yachtie brigade" who come to the Isle of Wight for the Cowes Week sailing events. It's a friends-and-family tradition to spend the Friday night either on the green by the seafront or having a barbecue on a more isolated stretch of beach, before watching the firework display that concludes the week. This year was no exception. I ran into my newest work colleague in the geek shop, and she joined us for a little while. Afterwards, I wasn't feeling particularly sociable and buried myself in my book, but I was in the sort of company where that is perfectly acceptable, and it was nice just to be with them, not doing very much, but eating paella and drinking rum and coke together.

My father has nearly finished reading my work in progress and has been giving me some helpful and encouraging feedback on it, a few last things to sort out in my final draft! I can't believe how close this story is to being ready for submission!

Saturday 13th August

What I've been reading: I finished off Anne of the Island, a book I've read so many times and know inside out, and yet I still found myself sniffling through the last couple of chapters. It's a powerful book when it can continue to have such an effect on you despite familiarity. Next up is Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett, "the one with the golems."

What else I've been up to: It's extremely rare for me to not be working on a Saturday, and even rarer to be at home for it. But it's been a rather quiet sort of day. My sister went home after lunch - the time she was on the island went so quickly! I made some arrangements with my friend Anna for when I go to Cardiff next week (before the Bath Bookshop Crawl.) My cousin Sally has also been on the island this week, touring with her choir, and I went to see them perform at one of the local churches this evening. They put on a lovely variety concert, traditional and popular songs as an ensemble, with a clarinet solo from one member of the group, and four of the lads forming a barbershop quartet. They're a very talented choir.

Sunday 14th August

What I've been reading: Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett. It's the third book in the City Watch sub-series, and one of the best, a proper whodunnit, in which Samuel Vimes and his team investigate the poisoning and attempted murder of Ankh-Morpork's fearsome tyrant Lord Vetinari (who nonetheless makes the city a little bit less dangerous than if he were not there.)

What else I've been up to: This morning I went to the dedication service for one of my oldest friends' two children, Zachary and Alexander. (Similar to a christening but this denomination leaves the actual baptism until you're old enough to decide for yourself.) The rest of the day was very quiet, leaving plenty of time to read my book and have a little nap, as I was feeling a little under the weather.

Monday 15th August

What I've been reading: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. It was a Christmas present from Ellie a few years ago, and I found a Christmas card inside it from her. It's a lovely story of family, self-discovery, friendship and first love, as well, of course, of the world of fanfiction and geekery. Yet I've found myself feeling a little sad while reading it. Protagonist Cath's feelings of growing apart from her twin sister made me think of one of someone who was one of my best friends for several years, who I love very dearly, and yet whenever I see her (which is less and less frequently each year) we no longer seem able to agree on anything. I haven't even heard from her since the new year, and I miss her. I miss the time when we used to be in tune with each other's thoughts, and could talk and laugh for hours on end. Such is life, I know, but I wish it wasn't. 

What else I've been up to: Very little. I had made plans to meet a (different) friend for dinner this evening, but she had to cancel. I've done a little crocheting, transferred some music files from my computer onto my phone, and now intend to finish Fangirl, possibly watch an episode or two of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Please note: I'm away from Wednesday 17th, and not taking my computer with me, so there won't be any more blog updates until after the rereadathon. I'll do a wrap-up post next week, and keep updating Instagram and possibly Twitter.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Sunday Summary: June and July in review; Rereadathon #4 is coming!

It's been a weird couple of months, and the world is seeming like a very strange and unstable place at the moment. I've no intention of making much commentary on British politics as it is at the moment, (and as for the American apocalypse-in-the-making, well!) but things are certainly interesting at the moment. Thinking like a writer, I'm trying to jot as much as possible for future reference, when I'm sure 2016 will be a very identifiable historical setting for fiction. Thinking like a person who has to live here, though, it's been a bit of a struggle to get my head around. Hearing the beeps on radio 2 preceding the news and feeling that dread in the pit of my stomach, wondering, "Oh no, what now?" Perhaps that has a lot to do why the end of June and beginning of July were difficult, with migraines and anxiety feeding each other until they became a monster. (I'm feeling a lot better now overall, but the world is still a scary place.)

I had a bit of a reading slump for a few weeks, so I went back to some old favourites: Good Omens and The Railway Children, as well as the  latest in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series and the next book in the Geek Girl series. I gave in and bought the hardback... just a week or two before the paperback came out. So now my set doesn't match. Oops. Today I got stuck into the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play script, which I'm not going to tell you anything about at the moment, except that I enjoyed it very much. I'd prefer to see it on the stage - I'm sure it must look amazing with all the magic and special effects - but am not an obsessive enough fan to get in the internet queues for tickets at some point in the next few years.

I've actually had a bit of a social life in the last couple of weeks, shock horror! My mum's Canadian cousin Cedric was in the country with his family, and we went out for a meal, where I bonded over film and geekery with his teenage son Jeremy. I met a friend in Winchester, which is a good midway point between Kingston and the Isle of Wight. As usually happens when I meet up with friends, much of the time was spent in bookshops: first the Waterstone's, where Clare persuaded a fellow shopper to buy a particular kind of academic diary, then we went to the second-hand bookshop, which is over three stories. We found all sorts of curiosities in there; I came away with a graphic non-fiction by Raymond Briggs of The Snowman fame, all about his parents' lives, and a guidebook to the Isle of Wight from around 1926, which Clare kindly bought for me as an early birthday present. It was a fascinating read to see how much it's changed, most notably with the removal of all but one of the railway lines that were the main form of transport back then. After a pub lunch and taking refuge from the rain in the doorway of the cathedral (the cathedral itself was not open to the public that day) we went in search of P&G Wells, the town's independent new-books bookshop.

I've been to the cinema twice in the last ten days, to see the new Ghostbusters film. One word: Holtzmann!!! (Well, yes, there are more words but I'll save them for my review post.)

And of course I saw Star Trek Beyond this week, at a showing where I seemed to know half of the people in the cinema, including my old boss and his girlfriend, my other friend with his colleagues, and a rival bookseller. Now that's what cinema should be like - packed out with like-minded nerds. Finally, on Friday, my sister had a half-day and came down to Southampton, so I took the ferry straight after work and we went to our favourite pub The Hobbit for bright blue cocktails and catch-up.

Despite all my gallivanting, I also finished what I am hoping is my penultimate draft of the children's book I began writing last November for NaNoWriMo. (!!! I don't think I've ever got as far as a penultimate draft of anything before!!!) It's at a point where I'm going to give it to other people for feedback - scary stuff! So they can read through it while I take a bit of a break, watch a load of Star Trek DVDs, '90s sitcoms on Youtube, sit in the sun and swim in the sea, and perhaps actually make that jigsaw that's been sitting by my bed for a year!

I've got one more week of work, then two weeks' holiday, which coincides nicely with Bex's fourth rereadathon, running from 10th-20th August. I haven't got a definitive list of books I want to reread yet, but some ideas include:
  • Fangirl - Rainbow Rowell
  • Stephen King on Writing
  • Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman
  • Anne of the Island - L. M. Montgomery
  • Carrie - Stephen King
  • Watchmen - Alan Moore
  • Either Pigeon Post or The Picts and the Martyrs by Arthur Ransome.
Also in August, I'm going on a couple of little excursions: first to Cardiff, where a twitter friend @dorkomatic is acting in Monstrous Productions' play of Terry Pratchett's Going Postal. From Cardiff, I'm taking the train to Bath, for another bloggers' Bookshop Crawl (again organised by the fabulous Bex.) Hopefully, in both cities I'll get to meet up with old friends too. I love the summer!

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.

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