Friday 30 August 2013

15 Day Book Blogger Challenge: Day Thirteen

Day 13: Describe one underappreciated book EVERYONE should read.

This is a difficult one. Everyone? I am well aware how different everyone's reading tastes are, so instead I will offer two.

Tell The Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt quietly slipped into the bookshops and libraries earlier this year with the minimum of fuss, but really deserves to have been noticed. It's a quiet sort of story about a teenage girl coming to terms with the death of her beloved uncle. It is a thoughtful, very honest story about family, loneliness, art, unrequited love and growing up, with a family portrait as the centrepiece.

Redshirts by John Scalzi is a must-read for Star Trek fans, or indeed anyone familiar with the trope of the expendable extra whose only function in a story is to die horribly in order to give a sense of peril to the plot. This is their story. The tagline on the front cover reads: "They were expendable... until they started comparing notes."

Warning: this book causes idiotic giggling. Read in public at your own peril! Redshirts is a wonderful parody, "recursive and meta" and completely annihilates the Fourth Wall. I'm not sure if it's objectively good, or whether I enjoyed it because I stumbled upon it at the same time I found myself inadvertantly and bewilderedly falling in love with Star Trek, but it is very clever and the most fun I've had from a book in a long time.

Sunday 25 August 2013

Bout of Books 8.0: Sunday

Bout of Books

This morning was a grey, dull day and impossible to wake up. A single coffee wasn't enough, and unfortunately I've been feeling and acting somewhat like a she-Hulk this morning. Sincere apologies to those who were on the receiving end. Have a Nutella cupcake as a peace offering. She-Hulk likes baking cake, apparently.

I haven't done a lot of reading, again, today, because I got stuck writing a new scene for my Rilla of Ingleside adaptation. (Actual writing, guys! Two days in a row!) Where yesterday's work involved a lot of typing up from the original work, reworking speeches and scenes, today I had to use my imagination to flesh out characters who are important in the series but don't have an awful lot of on-screen time in the novel. In particular, though this is the story of the younger generation, I wanted to make Anne and Gilbert still recognizable as the characters countless readers have fallen in love with. In Rilla, they are mostly just Doctor Blythe and his wife: wise and patient and lacking the spark that makes their personalities so, well, them. 

I'm up to the 19th century in Necropolis, which has described the shift in people's attitudes to death over the years, from pragmatic acceptance to sentimentality, from memento mori to lavish memorials. The book also, briefly, told of 23-year-old Jane Webb, author of a book
Set in 2126, in an England that had reverted to absolute monarchy, this featured prototypes for espresso machines, air-conditioning and, most prophetically, 'a communication system that permitted instant world dissemination of news.'
This chick predicted the internet. Why have we never heard of her? And they say there's no place for women in science fiction!

I don't expect to finish Necropolis tonight. I plan to watch a couple of episodes of one of my many box sets, then have an early night. (It may be a bank holiday tomorrow, but I still have to work. Here's hoping for a sunny day so that everyone'll go to the beach and let me make a start on my huge list of things to be done this week.)

All in all, it's been a good readathon. I didn't expect to read all of the books on my list - Cuckoo's Calling and Perdido Street Station are still outstanding - but my to-read pile is starting to look like it's getting under control now. I must rectify that.

Saturday 24 August 2013

Bout of Books 8.0: Saturday


After a lovely - but too quick - day off with plenty of reading, I was back at work today, where I spent much of the time manning the front till. This is not one of my favourite jobs as I'm not allowed to wander off and get anything productive done, but just have to stand there and serve customers. Most are friendly or neutral - I haven't had any really unpleasant people for a while - but smiling at everyone is tiring. Still, the coming week has plenty of other work to do, and I spent the last part of the afternoon making lists with bullet-points, trying to organise every small detail of what I have to do on each day. (I am a fervent believer in lists. They make the jobs feel less overwhelming, and it is a nice feeling to cross items off.)

I couldn't get to sleep for ages last night, for no one's fault but my own. I tell myself that the computer must go OFF at 10PM on a work night, and that I must wind down with a book for half an hour to an hour before switching off the light, but that time crept to 10.20... 10.30... 10.45... I was in bed by about 11, but my mind was still whirring. So I made a start on my next read: Necropolis by Catharine Arnold. It is a beautifully macabre history of London, the people who died there and the burial rites throughout the centuries. I continued with this book at lunch time, and have got up to the various plague epidemics before the Great Fire of London. Having lived in London for a few years, I do love to find out about the stranger things in its history. It is a very strange city.

I had intended to read more when I got into work, but instead, inspired by the video I watched and shared yesterday, of Neil Gaiman's advice for budding writers, I brushed the cobwebs off an old project: a screenplay adaptation of L. M. Montgomery's Rilla of Ingleside. My recent "work" on this project has been a scene-by-scene outline, but though I hadn't finished the planning, I felt it was time to jump in and actually do some writing. First drafts can be edited, but blank pages can't.

Friday 23 August 2013

Bout of Books 8.0: Friday

Bout of Books


No work today, thankfully - forcing myself awake was an uphill struggle, though I've only been back at work for two days! I've had breakfast and coffee, done a bit of cleaning and still I'm feeling half-zombie. Blame it on the weather, I think. (I'd prefer that to getting ill.)

Well, I didn't get to my target of page 400 of In One Person last night, unfortunately, but I am in the nice middle section of the book which means it will sit nicely on my book chair without flopping to one side or the other. This crafty little device means that I can read and knit at the same time.

Just before I fell asleep last night, I came to a plot revelation which came as an utter surprise to me, although it really shouldn't have done, as it was given away on the back cover! I just didn't know who/what the blurb was describing when I read the relevant part, probably due to the timeline-hopping narrative. I'm not sure if the writing was clever or if I was stupid. The extra knowledge makes earlier scenes read very differently, which plays into Irving's technique of repeating sentences or scenes, context adding extra layers of understanding. Interesting.


I've made good progress with In One Person, with about 150 pages still to go. (It's a big book.) I plan to finish the book today, and hopefully get started on my next (either Necropolis or The Cuckoo's Calling.) 

I love literature with bookish or nerdy protagonists, because bookish books lead to more books. (I recently read Lovecraft because he seemed inescapable in my reading of the darker side of fantasy.) Irving's protagonist has got a lot of his emotional education from both plays and novels, and I've just come across a reference to The Merchant of Venice, which is a Shakespeare play I've never read or seen, but have wanted to for a long time. Time to add my Complete Shakespeare to the to-read pile, I think. (Not that all the plays have to be read in the near future. Complete Shakespeare and Dickens doesn't count as to-be-read in the conventional way. They're there, waiting patiently, and hopefully all the works will get read at some point in my lifetime.)

Continuing with the Neil Gaiman theme that seems to have crept into this week's blog posts, I stumbled upon this video online full of wise words for budding writers. I haven't written an awful lot of fiction in the last couple of years, which has left me feeling rather lost and a bit empty, but Mr Gaiman's advice is encouraging and inspiring. 


I reached the end of In One Person, which is a solid, well-written and enjoyable literary novel of a man's life and the relationships and experiences which formed his identity. It's gently amusing in places, with likable characters and a good humour running throughout, but tinged with enough sadness to render the Independent's description of it as a "comedy" an odd choice. If I have a criticism, it is that the final quarter reads as somewhat of an obituary column - there are not many of Billy's friends and former lovers left by the end. Obviously, if this book charts the first sixty-odd years of a man's life, death of loved ones is inevitable, but it went a little over-the-top, in my opinion. In One Person was a read-once book for me, but it was well worth the time and investment. 

Thursday 22 August 2013

Bout of Books 8.0: Thursday

Bout of Books

Today has been another quiet, fairly unremarkable day at work, but I was pleased to unpack the new editions of American Gods and Neverwhere. Of course, it's great when we sell out of my favourite books, because it means I'm getting to share the love, but the shelves feel incomplete without them. And they have new, colourful covers! (If I'm totally honest, I think I prefer the old black paperbacks, but the new ones are also very nice and exciting in their novelty.)

I've been working my way through In One Person by John Irving, which is the first book I've read by this author. It's an enjoyable, character-based novel, which hops around the protagonist's timeline, from his teenage years at school, to travelling Europe as an adult, various lovers, male and female, and back to his childhood spent around the amateur theatre company his family were part of. The narrative seems to be arranged by theme rather than chronology, and gives an idea of how a person's character is formed by people and events throughout one's lifetime. I had planned to read a lot more this evening, but phoned my sister and ended up chatting for nearly an hour. I'd like to get to about page 400 before bedtime, though.

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Bout of Books 8.0: Wednesday (including Book Blogger 15-Day Challenge: Day Twelve)

Bout of Books


After my lovely long weekend, I returned to work today, where I have been surrounded by books and yet unable to read them. (If I owned my own business, I totally would, but as I am a mere minion, and not the mischievous yellow kind, it would be unwise.) It's been a pretty quiet day, with few jobs to do and none really urgent, and a lovely sunny day, so that most of our potential customers had better things to do than traipse around the shops. In many ways I prefer it when it's quiet, though the day passes slower, and I tend to disappear into my own head a bit. Today I found myself going back over Sunday's events, remembering little details I barely noticed at the time, such as the texture of Neil Gaiman's jacket and the awkward little shuffle-dance we did when he'd put his arm round me to pose for a photo, then realised that we were facing the wrong direction and the sun would ruin the picture. (Maybe I will stop bragging about Sunday by the end of the year. But NEIL GAIMAN, ladies and gentlemen!)

I found two more books at work to add to my wish-list: The Never List by Koethi Zan, and I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes, both of which are fairly new releases and only in hardback at present.

My best friend met me at lunch time, so as yet I haven't got any reading done today (which I will rectify once I've finished this update.) However, last night I began John Irving's most recent novel: In One Person. It seems to be about a man looking back over his life and loves, a character-driven novel. Narrator Billy has recounted the story of his parents' short-lived love affair and marriage, and there is some wonderfully vivid library-love (and librarian-love; Billy's first crush was on librarian Miss Frost.)

TBR Pile mini-challenge

Today's challenge is hosted by the lovely Ellie (and if you don't follow her blog, why not?) who asks:

Which 5 books are on top of your TBR (to be read) pile at this moment? and
If I gave you a wad of cash and sent you into a bookshop right now, which 5 books would you buy to add to the stack?
Well, thanks to some recent time off work and now this readathon, my to-read pile is becoming shamefully manageable, and therefore it must be about time for another splurge. However, that must wait until pay day; After buying and borrowing over 30 books in just over two months, I have forbidden myself to add to the pile until September.

Top of the pile are:

  1. The Cuckoo's Calling by "Robert Galbraith."
  2. Necropolis by Catharine Arnold
  3. Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
  4. The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton
  5. Marshmallows for Breakfast by Dorothy Koomson 
(I may, however, sneak a Gaiman reread after 3 or 4, however. It feels like time to reread Good Omens, Stardust or perhaps some of his short stories.)

And if you gave me money and told me to go wild in the bookshop, it would be difficult to know where to start (since adding a wishlist to the sidebar of my blog, it seems to change and increase on a daily basis.) Of course the two I added to the list today must be included. This is the list today. Tomorrow it could change.
  1. The Never List - Koethi Zan
  2. I am Pilgrim - Terry Hayes
  3. Quiet - Susan Cain
  4. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (and other concerns) - Mindy Kaling 
  5. Longbourn - Jo Baker.

15-day Book Blogger Challenge

Day 12: How do you fight blogger fatigue

If I'm really struggling to get a lot of reading or blogging done, I think it's good to take a break. After all, I read and write because I enjoy it, and if I'm completely uninspired, then forcing myself to read lots of books quickly doesn't help matters. This is one reason I rarely accept review books from the publishers: I'd rather read and review in my own time than to be held to a schedule. Instead, I allow myself a little time out to reread an old favourite and perhaps catch up on some DVD boxsets and films. Memes such as Top Ten Tuesdays and blog hops with discussion questions can be good to keep my blog going in times of blogger fatigue, and can prompt ideas for other posts, reminding me of the stories I love and what it is that makes me excited about them.

Tuesday 20 August 2013

Bout of Books 8.0: Tuesday

Bout of Books


Yesterday's Bout of Books did not produce amazing results for me, but at least I finally finished that Lovecraft book. I found the stories effective and creepy, once I'd got used to the prose, but this is an author who requires a lot of concentration; something I was lacking this weekend.

Today is another day off work for me, and I've had a lot more success reading Reconstructing Amelia in the garden by Kimberley McCreight. (I keep wanting to call it Finding Amelia for some reason, so if that alternative title turns up on the blog - sorry.) This book shows a mother trying to come to terms with her grief and uncover the mysteries surrounding the death of her teenage daughter. At first, it seems that Amelia committed suicide, a thing that her mother Kate can barely get her head around. And then evidence comes to light to suggest that Amelia was murdered.

McCreight uses a mixture of narrative techniques in the uncovering of the mystery, alternating between traditional third-person, past-tense scenes following Kate in November, snippets of text messages, emails and Facebook updates which are uncovered in the investigation, and flashback chapters from Amelia's point of view, which are told in the first person, as if in a diary. These last seem a bit strange to me, as the most intimate and personal voice is that of someone who is no longer around to have a voice. Still, I guess that's the point of the novel: to get posthumously reacquainted with Amelia as a person, rather than as the daughter Kate thought she was. The novel demonstrates the challenges of bringing up a daughter in the contemporary world, especially as a professional single parent, and showing how even a good mother-daughter relationship can hide secrets. Can a mother really know her daughter?

4:30 PM

Finished Reconstructing Amelia, which turned out to be a satisfying mystery (if some characters' actions were somewhat unlikely. Clues were sprinkled throughout the book like a jigsaw puzzle: you might figure out some answers before being told, but it is not until the end that you find out how they all fit together.

I used to want to have a family of my own, somewhen, but in the last few years I've sadly come to realise that I don't think I could be bear to be responsible for bringing up children with the world as it is today. Reconstructing Amelia reinforces that. The world has always been a horrifying and wild place for teenagers - see Lord of the Flies and Heathers, just as a couple of examples. But in this age of inescapable internet, smartphones, and a somewhat self-obsessed culture that encourages everyone to share everything with the world (says the blogger!) the teen's senses of immortality, independence and indiscretion, combined with perhaps not as much wisdom as one might think, can be explosive. We see the results on the news from time to time, and Reconstructing Amelia gives a fictional, extreme, but far from unprecedented example. (And I apologise if this sounds patronising to teenagers. It's not meant that way. I am just grateful that there was no such thing as Facebook when I was a kid and that my internet activities were limited to fangirling on boybands' forums, printing photos of said boyband members, and writing the occasional terrible fanfiction and angsty poetry. Who knows what might be out there if I'd had a Twitter account at fifteen?)

Monday 19 August 2013

Neil Gaiman likes my hat.

No sooner had I read that there would be An Evening With Neil Gaiman at Portsmouth Guildhall, than I had clicked away to buy myself a ticket. My favourite living author in the nearest city? And signing things as well? Yes please! And then it was announced that an unnamed bus lane in Southsea would be named after Mr Gaiman's latest novel: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, in a ceremony the same day, and that Neil would be there to uncover the road sign. Might as well go over a bit earlier, then.

I got off the hovercraft at 1PM, to allow plenty of time to locate the lane and get myself something to eat. As I started wandering along the Esplanade, part of my brain became aware that the man walking towards me seemed to be walking strangely. Backwards. Because he was holding a video camera filming someone OH MY GOSH THAT'S NEIL GAIMAN WITH HIM WALKING RIGHT PAST ME. Instinct urged me to rush over and start fangirling. But no, he was being filmed (apparently giving the cameraman a guided tour of Portsmouth) and the last thing they needed was for some mad fangirl to ruin the take. It felt so strange to see this familiar face from TV and internet and book jackets right there in the flesh and instantly recognised and unexpected. (Perhaps somewhere on the internet, a video of Neil in Portsmouth includes a shot of a woman in a red hat and dress double-taking and staring gormlessly after him. Sorry, if so.)

Perhaps it was best for me to have a bit of private fangirling before I actually got to meet my hero properly. By the time Neil turned up to uncover the road sign, I was quite calm, sensible and civilised. Well, mostly. It was very strange to find a crowd of people standing by a bus stop staring at a covered road sign. I arrived quite early on, and most people present seemed to be official types, though I got chatting to a lady by admiring her Firefly T-shirt. Then I was asked, "Are you KatieWhoCanRead?" The guy behind me introduced himself as Chris, better known to me as Chalbo, a fellow blogger and Isle of Wight resident. 

We could see Neil, sitting in the park doing interviews with various media types, but at last he came up to the lane, where he talked about growing up in Portsmouth, and how pleased he was to be part of the city's literary heritage; how he had been encouraged as a boy by the fact that people from Portsmouth could become great writers. The sign was uncovered, and the city's Poet Laureate read two of her poems. 

After the ceremony, I wasn't sure whether or not to hang around, but my feet would not let me leave. Neil was introduced to various important people, and journalists, and then got chatting to those fans who had stayed in the area, posing for photos and offering hugs. Let me just say now, Neil Gaiman is absolutely charming, taking an interest in all of his fans individually. The crowds were dispersing when I got up the nerve to say hello, but he said, "Ah, the lady with the amazing hat!" sounding happy to meet me. (I always think that for famous people, doing the signings and posing for photos must a thing to be endured rather than enjoyed, but Neil has a way of making every fan feel special.)

Between the road naming ceremony and the evening event, I checked into the Holiday Inn near the hovercraft terminal. I'd decided to stay in Southsea overnight, because I had no idea how late the signing would go on, and did not want to risk missing getting my Ocean and Neverwhere signed because I had to go back to the Island. There was a bookstall in the main auditorium absolutely loaded with Neil Gaiman books of all kinds. That was my kind of bookstall! It was such an amazing feeling to be sat in the packed Guildhall with like-minded people. When I see someone reading, I can never rest until I know what their book is, and it was so wonderful that 1. so many people were reading while they waited, and 2. they were all reading books by my favourite author!

Neil was preceded onto the stage by a Dalek, much to everyone's surprise, a Dalek he warned might look like a dummy, but would start moving 45 minutes into the evening and inflict on us all a messy death. Thank you very much, Mr Gaiman! It was not a talk so much as an informal interview with some bearded man who had something to do with the arts in Portsmouth, but whose name and exact role I did not catch. Neil spoke about his busy year: his picture book Chu's Day, about a baby panda; his Calendar of Tales project, Doctor Who, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, forthcoming video game project Wayward Manor, and his new children's book, Fortunately the Milk. There was a question-and-answer session, and Neil read  passages from Ocean, and the beginning of Fortunately the Milk. The latter may be aimed at primary-school-aged children, but I plan to buy a copy for myself. Neil explained that since he'd written his story, The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish, he'd been feeling slightly guilty about its portrayal of fathers as lazy bodies hidden behind newspapers. So, Fortunately the Milk is the story of a father who is whisked away on wild adventures on the way home from the shop. And it is hilarious.

I knew that there would be an unprecedented queue for the signing afterwards. I knew Neil's signing events often comprised thousands of autographs, and that it was not unknown for him to still be signing at 1 in the morning. I wasn't quite prepared for what that would look like. The ushers called us up row by row, at random, and the queue snaked around the outside of the auditorium. It was indeed a very slow process. I didn't mind, though. I had my books. I was in no hurry, and I was very glad that I'd booked that hotel, though I had left it late, and it was quite pricey for my budget. But if the queue was moving slowly, it meant that Neil was spending time talking to the people. To pass the time, one usher passed around a microphone, asking people to tell jokes or sing songs. For some reason, there was a cheese theme to many of the jokes, and they were of groan-worthy quality: so unfunny they were funny. Chris and his friend (sister?) had to leave early to get back to the Island, and I'm not sure whether they got to queue-jump and get books signed or not. It must have been half past 11 before my row even got to start queuing - two and a half hours after Neil left the stage. There was some grumbling from people in the row behind us, but generally everyone seemed happy enough to be there that we were patient, making friends. (Some people complimented me on my red outfit. It feels very weird to have people look at me because I look good. Usually I feel like if people are staring at me, it's because my dorkiness is visible. This may be left over from school insecurities.) I got to know the people behind me in the queue: Abbi, her girlfriend Jessica, and Jessica's brother (Josh?). Abbi was reading American Gods aloud complete with voices, and I eavesdropped shamelessly. I learned that she had adapted Neverwhere as a student play two years ago. I wish I could have seen it.

Neil had been signing for over three hours by the time we got to the table - and yet he was still lovely, interested, friendly. He really is ridiculously charming, remembering me from the road naming, and thanking me for coming along. "And that remains a nice hat," he said. 

Yesterday was ridiculously, impossibly perfect, better than I could have realistically hoped for. Accidentally passing Neil on the esplanade, having twitter and blogger friends introducing themselves, people reading aloud in the queue, and my favourite living author remembering me (and my hat) - these were all things that I had idly imagined, but didn't really expect. Such days are to be cherished and remembered for a long, long time.

Bout of Books 8.0 Progress Report

Bout of Books


Pages read today: 92
Stories read today: "The Shadow over Innsmouth" and"The Haunter of the Dark" from The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H. P. Lovecraft
Places I have read: Southsea Coffee Co. cafe, Southsea beach, Southsea-Ryde hovercraft, Number 9 bus, bed
Edible Accompaniments: Cappuccino, fruit and seed flapjack
Today #insixwords: Still fangirling after meeting Neil Gaiman!
Running total: 2 short stories; 92 pages


Pages read today: 395
Books read today: Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberley McCreight
Places I have read: bed, garden
Edible Accompaniments: Toffee ice cream, Graze "Marvellous Macaroon"
Today #insixwords: Relieved I'm no longer a teenager
Running total: 2 short stories, 1 book, 497 pages


Pages read today: 78
Books read today: In One Person by John Irving
Places I have read: home
Edible Accompaniments: Graze BBQ nibbles
Today #insixwords: back at work, head in clouds
Running total: 2 short stories, 1 1/6 books, 575 pages


Pages read today: 170
Books read today: In One Person by John Irving
Places I have read: Lunch room at work, home
Edible Accompaniments: Chicken caesar wrap, doughnut, cheesy Doritos
Today #insixwords: Shouldn't have been surprised, but was.
Running total: 2 short stories, 1 1/2 books, 745 pages


Pages read today: 338
Books read today: In One Person by John Irving
Places I have read: home
Edible Accompaniments: Graze "Raspberry swirl," raspberry ripple choc-ice, Maoam sticks, apple, plenty of coffee
Today #insixwords: lazy greedy day, finished my book
Running total: 2 short stories, 2 books, 1083 pages


Pages read today: 67
Books read today: Necropolis by Catharine Arnold
Places I have read: Bed (at stupid o'clock), Lunch room at work
Edible Accompaniments: coffee, ham and cream cheese bagel, wine
Today #insixwords: Distracted by writing; that's good, right?
Running total: 2 short stories, 2 books and a bit, 1150 pages


Pages read today: 55
Books read today: Necropolis by Catharine Arnold
Places I have read: home
Edible Accompaniments: Nutella cupcakes and coffee
Final total: 2 short stories, 2 1/2 books, 1205 pages

Bout of Books 8.0: Monday

Bout of Books

It seems that no sooner has one readathon finished than another has begun. Bout of Books is back with another week-long readathon, and as it so happens, this falls on a week in which I'm working only three days, leaving me plenty of time to do nothing but read ALL the books and blog about it. Or at least, that was the plan. At 8PM on day 1, I have managed to read a single longish short story.

My goals:

As usual, I'm not going to set any strict rules for myself, but I do intend to significantly reduce my to-read pile (pictured on my blog sidebar to the left.) I also intend to visit other bloggers, participate in a few challenges, and to write a bit of a reading journal, with a new post each day tracking my progress. I also hope to take this opportunity to finish off the 15-Day Book Bloggers' Challenge.

At the moment, the most likely books I plan to read are:

A Cuckoo's Calling: Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
Reconstructing Amelia: Kimberley McCreight
In One Person: John Irving
Necropolis: Catharine Arnold
I also hope to start China Mieville's epic Perdido Street Station, and to finish Lovecraft's Call of Cthulhu. (Just one story left to go; should be done by this evening.)


Bout of Books week began for me in a hotel in Southsea. I woke late (not having got to sleep until 2AM, for Neil Gaiman-related reasons which I will write about in a separate post) and took my book on a little walk around the town: to the Southsea Coffee Co. for breakfast and then to the beach. 

I've been reading H. P. Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Tales for two weeks now, and was down to the last two stories. Lately, so much of my reading has led back to Lovecraft, and it felt compulsory to fill in this gap in my literary knowledge. It took me a while to get used to Lovecraft's particular brand of writing: descriptive, verbose, and quite stodgy, yet often leaving only a vague and nebulous impression of Something Very Not Right Here. I grew frustrated with "indescribable horrors." You're a writer, man, I grumbled, you're being paid to describe things. Still, his tales are creepy and evocative, and today's story is perhaps the best I've read so far. "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" paints a vivid picture of a dilapidated fishing town, once a thriving dwelling, now delaying and filled with hostile, reclusive and uncanny residents. If you read one Lovecraft story, make it this one: a classic work of American gothic literature (and not a vampire in sight.)

Tuesday 13 August 2013

15-Day Book Blogging Challenge: Day Eleven

Day 11: Show off! 5 of your best blog posts!

1. The 50 Greatest Harry Potter Moments.

This one is what it says on the tin. My definitive top fifty moments from the entire series, both books and movies - but if I've forgotten one of your favourite scenes, lines or characters, let me know!

2. When Children's Books Were Two-And-Sixpence

An old post from the days before I actually had more than a couple of followers, before I'd found a book blogging community. In which I rant about kids' classic books being updated for a modern audience.

3: Adults: Why do you read YA?

From 2010, I wrote this post shortly after I'd rediscovered that teen fiction was not all shallow fluff. Also contains pictures of me as a scrawny teenager for you to laugh at.

4. Theatre: Much Ado About Nothing

A review of William Shakespeare's comedy, as performed in London by a certain Mr D. Tennant and Ms C. Tate. Be warned: contains fangirling.

5. V for Vendetta

A review in my very occasional "Graphic Novel Novice" series, this review compares book and film, setting the book against the context in which it was written, and how the different versions of the story complement each other.

Monday 12 August 2013

15 Day Book Blogging Challenge: Days Nine and Ten

Day 9: Why do you blog about books?

Quite honestly, I blog about books, because most people get tired of me talking about my latest read long before I'm finished with the topic. My English Literature degree taught me how to analyse books, take them apart and study the bits, and believe it or not, this actually enhanced my enjoyment of reading, rather than destroying it. But if I try talking about symbolism, symmetry, foreshadowing, themes, tropes and archetypes as an answer to "what are you reading?" my average acquaintance's eyes start to glaze over. I think fondly of the summer after Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was published, talking for hours with my friend Hannah (another English major) analysing Snape's every action and searching the text with a fine-tooth comb to try to puzzle out the mystery of his motives. But such friends, such conversations, are quite few and far-between, here on the Isle of Wight.

I used to haunt the Lord of the Rings forums, which were great for discussing the works of J R R Tolkien, but less so for Anne of Green Gables or Enid Blyton. I'd find forums, but the posts might be one sentence long, updated maybe once a month. I wanted to talk in depth about Rilla of Ingleside but also Twilight, and also about Neil Gaiman; I had my feet in many fanbases that did not overlap. So I set up the blog, in the hope that other people would find my posts and contribute to the discussion. And when writing blog posts, I can edit my thoughts as I write and so, I hope, my reviews make a bit more sense than my incoherent and rambling fangirling.

Day 10: How do you choose what to read next?

Quite simply, I read whatever I'm in the mood for at the time. My to-read pile has quite a variety of genres: non-fiction, romance, thriller, horror, science fiction and fantasy, as well as the hundreds of books on my shelves. If I have a library book due back, or if I've had a book borrowed from a friend for too long, I'll read that. I don't very often accept free books from authors or publishers, because I don't want reading to become a chore. I'd rather have the freedom to read what I want, when I want, and decide whether or not I have enough to say about it to make it worthwhile reviewing.

Sunday 11 August 2013

The Casual Vacancy - J. K. Rowling

After the Harry Potter series established J.K. Rowling as the most famous author in the world, it was a brave decision for her to move away from the series, genre and age group which made her name and fortune, venturing into the Muggle world for her first adult novel. The press release for the book was vague: a local Councillor dies, throwing his small-town community into an uproar in the attempt to elect the right person to fill his place.

Seriously? I thought when I heard the title and synopsis. Local politics? Yawn. But The Casual Vacancy isn't about politics, it's about people. Focusing on a small community, a few central families, J. K. Rowling delves beneath the seedy stories of the average British newspaper, and explores the humans behind the headlines. The Casual Vacancy is compulsively readable, but slower-paced than the action-packed, plot-driven Potter books. The town of Pagford is a microcosm of Britain, with a large cast of characters selected from all walks of life: the smug, wealthy Councillor and Deli owner Howard Mollison, Doctor Parminder Jawanda and her family, teachers and social workers, to Terri, Krystal and Robbie Weedon who live on the council estate, The Fields, on the border between Pagford and nearby Yarvil.

The Weedons are those people: the bottom of the pecking order, despised by all. Mum Terri is a recovering heroin addict, many times fallen off the wagon and on her last chance, teenage daughter Krystal is promiscuous, foul-mouthed, generally considered to be trouble, but she loves her family, and is just trying to make the best of the rough world she was born into. Barry Fairbrother thought she was worth a chance at a better life, but now Barry is dead, and the future of her council estate and the addiction clinic which is trying to save her mother, are in doubt. Pagford doesn't want an estate full of the unemployed, single parents, drug addicts, "People Like That." It lowers the tone of the town. Why should Pagford have to take responsibility for People Like That? People Like That intrude on the Respectable Citizens' comfort zones. The Respectable Citizens can't just make People Like That disappear, but they'd rather not have to acknowledge their existence.

The Casual Vacancy burns with an anger, a passionate call for justice for the social outcasts comparable to Dickens at his strongest: an exposure of hypocrisy, prejudice and complacency and forcing us to look at People Like That as human beings. If we can write off the poor as being only responsible for their own predicament, then it spares us the need for uncomfortable compassion. Rowling challenges us to ask ourselves: what right do we as humans have to give up on our fellow-creatures? How dare we? If The Casual Vacancy is a character study of a nation, it is a damning one. Pagford is a town of smug, self-satisfied and self-obsessed Daily Mail readers without a thought for anyone outside their own head. They may not be all bad; some have redeeming qualities, while even the most grotesque have moments to evoke pity, if nothing grander, but no one is entirely likable.

If I have a criticism of the book, it's that Rowling seems to have squeezed too many "issues" into the book: there are poverty, drugs, teenage sex, bullying and cyber-bullying, self-harm, domestic abuse (physical, emotional and sexual,) rape, suicide, mental illness, adultery. All the taboos in writing for children have been taken away, and any word, theme or scene that would be inappropriate in her previous work seems to have found a home in The Casual Vacancy. I wouldn't call any of it gratuitous, though it could be if Rowling were a less sincere or capable writer, but I suspect it may be a little too much for one novel.

Despite the awfulness of most of its characters, The Casual Vacancy made me care, because Rowling's storytelling and fury drove the story on. The prose is easily readable, but the themes are challenging, and you can't walk away from it unchanged. Scenes of confrontation can be as angering as reading the comments at the bottom of a news article on anything to do with welfare and the benefits system. It is not a happy book, and nor should it be: its impact would be cheapened by a happy-ever-after. If there were closure for Krystal and Terri, the reader could put the book down satisfied and forget, become comfortable and complacent citizens of Pagford. With an unsatisfactory ending, we can hope that the readers might be challenged to make more of an effort to make the story spill into the real world and try to give hope to the real-life Krystals and Terris. This seems to be Rowling's challenge to her readers. Don't be those people. Surely Humanity can do better than that? Don't be Pagford. 

15-Day Book Blogging Challenge: Day Eight

Day 8: Quick! Write 15 bullet points of things that appeal to you on blogs.

  1. Personal replies to comments. Always good to be listened to and have ongoing conversations
  2. Discussion posts about themes, genres, characters, reading habits, etc. etc.
  3. Wide variety of books reviewed - old, new, different genres, different age groups... surprise me.
  4. Well-written content: correct spelling and grammar, and intelligent discussion of the books reviewed. I'm not asking for a thesis, just an idea of why you liked or didn't like a particular read.
  5. Pictures! Give me something pretty to look at. 
  6. Blogs that are quick to load and don't make my computer freeze up. My laptop, Ruby, needs to be treated gently, and so I won't visit your site if it crashes the internet every time I try to read it. 
  7. Book-to-film comparisons. Is the book always better, or only nearly always?
  8. Non-book-related posts, whether that be personal updates, film reviews, shoe collection analysis, crafty creations or beautiful baking. I like to get to know the blogger as well as their reading taste.
  9. Rants - whether about feminism or web etiquette or whether the word "indescribable" should be banished from every writer's vocabulary, it's great that people are passionate about things, whether I agree or disagree with the points made.
  10. Features, posts or styles that are unique to this particular blogger; not just the same memes and reviews that can be found on a hundred other blogs. (N.b. Memes are great starting points, and I particularly love the Top Ten Tuesdays, but I think your blog benefits from using them sparingly and mixing them with original content.)
  11. Theme weeks or months: for example a week of Jane Austen posts, Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy, LGBT in teen literature or Round the World in Eighty Books. (Feel free to swipe any of these feature ideas for your own blogs.)
  12. Geekery! Science fiction, fantasy, comic books... a well-placed Princess Bride, Firefly or Star Trek reference will go a long way in making me like you. Geekery combined with handcrafts, doubly so.
  13. Likewise, a love of Anne of Green Gables will pretty much guarantee that I will love you forever. Especially if you mention the lesser-known, later books in the series. 
  14. Twitter! It's certainly not essential, but it gives me another way to connect with a blogger and get to know them as a person.
  15. Bloggers who don't take blogging too seriously. Who do it because they just can't shut up about books, and if anyone from the book industry takes an interest, then that's just a bonus. Book-lovers who want to connect with other book-lovers.

Saturday 10 August 2013

15 Day Book Blogger Challenge: Day Seven

I'm back! I've had to manage the past week borrowing computers and tweeting with my mobile phone, but my computer has been repaired, and business as usual. On the plus side, I've got a decent amount of reading done in my week off, so expect some more reviews very soon.

Day 7: Talk about your blogging quirks.

What constitutes a quirk, I wonder? I'm sure I have my own little eccentricities when it comes to blogging, but I don't know of any other way to do it so... I dunno.

  • I blog sporadically. Sometimes I go for weeks without posting, and other times I write several posts at once, then schedule them to be published over a few days. I can't remember how many times I've come back from an accidental or planned hiatus with an apology for my absence, wondering vaguely if anyone's actually noticed I've been gone.
  • I have a notebook with me at all times, as well as my reading book, so that I can jot down any thoughts as I have them, later to be written up in review form.
  • I outline my reviews before writing them, trying to have at least three paragraphs: introduction and/or synopsis, details of the plot, themes, characters, etc. and then a conclusion. Perhaps this is left over from my English degree essay-planning. 
  • I like to photograph my book piles and shelves, though most of the pictures don't end up on the blog. 
  • I find it very difficult to give books star (or button) ratings, because sometimes my enjoyment of a book and my admiration of the writing are two very different matters. It's difficult to compare enjoyment of completely different books, anyway.
  • I procrastinate a lot. If I'm struggling with a review, I tend to write a sentence, go on twitter, write another, catch up with Facebook, finish the paragraph, lose myself in a TvTropes tabsplosion... you get the gist. Part of my brain keeps ticking over while I'm distracted by mindless internetting. It seems to help...

Wednesday 7 August 2013

15 Day Book Blogging Challenge: Day Six

Day 6: Describe how you shop for books.

As I wrote on my first post of this challenge, there is a certain art to book shopping, and it's not just about getting the best bargains - although I would be lying if I said I didn't take advantage of a good bargain. Considering that my job is to sell books, you could say that part of my brain is constantly book-shopping, keeping an eye out for a good read, and knowing when is the best time to buy a certain title because of special offers, staff discounts and limited-period money-off coupons. However, you can't browse for books in your own workplace, because you know exactly what is where, so I am known in the rival bookshop across the road, which has a bigger range than we do.

And if I visit another town, I simply have to visit their bookshops, and hopefully not come home empty-handed. I like to buy something we don't sell in our shop, something unusual or new - or old.

I avoid Amazon like the plague, and if a book is unavailable in shops, I'd rather order it instore for full price even than going onto the same shop's website. I'd rather support a physical bookstore than its online equivalent. Also, I don't buy books in supermarkets. I think I've been deterred by all the customers coming in and whining, "It's cheaper in Tesco/on Amazon," and vowed never again. Bookshops all the way!

Tuesday 6 August 2013

15 Day Blogging Challenge: Day Five

Apologies for the delayed update. Unfortunately my laptop is being repaired at present, so I'm having to borrow the computers of friendsandrelations for valuable internetting. I miss my computer.

Day 5: Recommend a tear-jerker.

First of all I was going to go with The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, being the most recent book to require tissues, but that's perhaps too obvious, and no doubt you have all read it already. So instead I will go with the book that caused me to, literally, sit up all night reading through tears: Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

The final book in the Anne of Green Gables series is quite a departure from the rest of the books, and devastating for many reasons. By this time, Anne Shirley has been happily married to Gilbert Blythe for over twenty years, and has six grown-up or teenage children. But it is 1914, and the world is about to change forever with the outbreak of the First World War.

As you might guess from the title, Anne Shirley is not the focus of this novel. She is always there, but in the background, while the novel concentrates on her children, especially fifteen-year-old Rilla, and nineteen-year-old Walter.

Rilla is a very bittersweet read, especially if you think back to the beginning of Anne's tale as the ever-optimistic, imaginative redhead in a timeless village community. The war brings Anne and the Blythe family into the real world, and reality hits hard. How can Anne's story end with such heartbreak and devastation? But Rilla is an outstanding piece of writing, a contemporary study of World War 1 from the point of view of those left behind, the families who had to watch from afar, to carry on with life and hope that their loved ones would return. It also works as a stand-alone novel. It helps to have read the previous books in the series, but it is not essential.

Friday 2 August 2013

15 Day Book Blogging Challenge: Day Four

Day 4: What was the last book you've thrown across the room?

That's an easy one: XO by Jeffery Deaver. It was not a great book - a pretty good thriller story, with an interesting premise, twists and turns galore, though not very well written. (There was a lot of telling, not showing, "she thought," "he remembered," that sort of thing.) But there was one point where Mr Deaver made us think something terrible had happened. It's a crime thriller, lots of terrible things happen, but there was one particular event that took things to a new level of awful, the killer crossing the Moral Event Horizon.

Except he didn't. Deaver was trolling us all along. And I fell for it. And the book fell out of my hand to the other side of the garden, where it ended up covered in grass stains. Um, oops?

Thursday 1 August 2013

15 Day Book Blogging Challenge: Day Three

Day 3: Who is your blogging BFF?

It's got to be Ellie the bookshop girl. Her blog is fun and informal, a mixture of book reviews, personal posts (with photos and funny gifs) and ranting about the grim reality behind the romantic ideal of running your very own bookshop. Tragically, not all bookshop customers are kindred spirits, folks!

Ellie's the only blogger I've met in real life, when I visited the Peak District earlier this year, and bought up a huge bag of books from her shop. She's just as lovely in real life as she comes across in her blog, and it's great to meet someone for the first time and feel like you've known them forever. (And she makes my book-buying habits look positively saintly!)
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