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.)


Questionnaire:
  • 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.

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.

Sacrifice

  • 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.
Stu
  • 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. 
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