Monday 21 September 2015

Rereadathon 2: Epilogue

Apologies that this blog went silent after about the first week of the rereadathon. I've been keeping up my rereading, fitting it around work and writing, but haven't been making notes as I went along. But it's been a great fortnight of rediscovering old and more recent favourites, and although I didn't get through my entire pile, I read the books I realistically expected to.

Final Stats:

Number of books read: 8
"Big" novels: 3
Which were: The Martian - Andy Weir
11.22.63 - Stephen King
Fingersmith - Sarah Waters
School stories: 5
Which were: First Term at Malory Towers - Enid Blyton
The School at the Chalet - Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
Charlotte Sometimes - Penelope Farmer
The Girl in the Blue Tunic - Jean Ure
First Term at Trebizon - Anne Digby
Total pages read: 2402
Favourite reread: 11.22.63

A few last thoughts.

It was an absolute joy to reread my two favourite books from last year, and one which I reread a couple of years earlier. Of these three "big" books, 11.22.63 was the one which kept me every bit as gripped as on the first reading, and has probably earned itself a place in my top five books of all time. I wanted to read The Martian again before the film was released, not realising it's coming out at the end of next week - just in time for my birthday! It's a really believable science fiction novel, a tale of survival, and a celebration of human creativity and spirit against incredible odds. I'm really looking forward to seeing it on the big screen. Fingersmith is a mischievous adventure full of scoundrels and rogues, skulduggery and double-crossing, although on a second reading I was a little bit more critical than the first time around, noticing in a few places when the plot was just a bit too contrived. But it's a lot of fun, nonetheless.

On boarding school stories

I read through a range of boarding-school stories in preparation for my NaNoWriMo project for this year, written between about 1926 and 1997. It's interesting just how many books and series in the genre begin with the protagonist being a new girl in her class, when everyone else has settled into school for a few terms and got to know each other - four of the five books I read conformed to that pattern, and in fact I intend to use it myself this November. Harry Potter, while drawing on the grand old tradition of British Boarding School literature, is unusual for introducing an entire new class at the same time - there are never any new kids or transfer students at Hogwarts, except for the first years each September.

Three of the books were conventional school-stories of lessons, games and pranks, while two had a fantastical or supernatural plot to them - ghosts and time-travel, the latter of which (Charlotte Sometimes) has a similar premise (in reverse) to my planned story, of a schoolgirl finding herself in a different time period and having to adjust to an alien way of life, while being mistaken for someone else. I was struck by how short the books were - most of them under 200 pages - and am aware that this is going to be a challenge for me, as I have a tendency for rambling on. My current work in progress is at nearly 100 000 words and only just past the halfway mark. I'm starting to grow concerned, although I expect to cut a lot in the next draft. If my NaNoWriMo target is 50 000 words in a month, I want to reach that word count without having too much more left to write afterwards.

What to read next?

Since this year, I've been sticking to a "read 3, buy 2" rule, which has lasted eight months, but now my to-read shelf is looking sadly empty, so I've decided to relax that a little. I'm certainly overdue a good old book-shopping spree, and in October I'm going to Hay-on-Wye and all its bookshops, as well as, hopefully, Stratford-upon-Avon with some of the other bloggers. (Is that still going ahead, guys?) I've picked out a few books for the rest of September, but that is, as ever, subject to my moods and whims. It does look as though I need to buy some books that aren't from the science fiction, fantasy and horror shelves, though!

Not pictured: Wintersmith and Small Gods by Terry Pratchett, and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, borrowed from my dad, and 3 of the 80p Penguin Mini Classics books.

Friday 11 September 2015

Rereadathon 2: part 2 Wednesday 9th-Friday 11th September

Hello! I haven't had an awful lot of rereading time in the last couple of days, as I was at work Wednesday and Thursday. Tuesday night, for some reason, I just could not get to sleep, and by the time about 2.30AM rolled around, I decided to get out one of my books to help wind my brain down. I finished The Martian on Tuesday evening, and so for that stupid o'clock read, I picked up Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's The School at the Chalet. 

The Chalet School series is one of the longer-running girls' boarding school series, running to about 60 books, begun in the 1920s and ending in the '60s. As you might expect, it changes a lot over the course of the books, and this week I decided to go back to where it all began. 24-year-old Madge Bettany decides to start an English girls' school in the Austrian Tirol, near a lake a little way from Innsbruck. Her first pupil is her twelve-year-old sister Joey, who is a bright spark, with a big heart and a passion for life, but whose physical strength does not match up to her boundless enthusiasm. There are only nine pupils on the first day of term: as well as Joey, there is another English girl from the same school, Grizel; Simone Lecoutier, the shy and clingy niece of the French mistress and deputy head, and six Austrians from the nearby village, ranging from nine to sixteen. It's been a long time since I went right back to the beginning, where there is a really cosy, intimate setting, and you get to know all the characters really well. The school grows and grows, and before long Madge leaves the school to get married, but new teachers come in, and pupils from across Europe and beyond. (Although entirely white, except for one Indian girl in one book, despite a couple of the books having misleading titles. I wanted A Chalet School from Kenya to be about an actual Kenyan girl, not an English child whose parents worked abroad!)

Of course, when Elinor Brent-Dyer started writing her school stories in the mid-1920s, she had no way of knowing that real-world events would force the plot to take a drastic turn if it were to continue in 1939, resulting in the excellent Chalet School in Exile. This is outstanding, not just in the series, but in the literary canon in general, as a contemporary account of Austria during the Anschluss, as seen from Britain. It's a hair-raising tale of adventure and courage, as well as sadness, as Madge and Joey, who, although this point are no longer part of the Chalet School, are still attached to it, have to close down their beloved school which they'd built up from one chalet and a handful of children, and escape and start again. On Guernsey, for a little while, then onto the Welsh border for the duration of the war.

I suppose there are three main segments of the Chalet School series: the Austrian years, mostly when Joey is a schoolgirl, then the war years, during which the school moves around several times, and then, finally, returning to Switzerland for the rest of the series. By this point, Joey is married, and the focus moves onto her eldest daughters, triplets called Len, Con and Margot - as well as an older girl called Mary-Lou, who readers either love or hate. I find her a bit too good to be true. She gets away with more than her contemporaries, has to make a project of "improving" any new girl who doesn't quite fit in, and is far too familiar with the teachers, but this is excused because "it's not cheek, it's just Mary-Lou." She really takes the biscuit in one of the books when she is made head girl of the school and her response is "oh, no, I couldn't possibly" after being the unelected leader of the senior school for years. And then, the very next chapter, she gets a special award for - I don't know - being Mary-Lou. "Oh, no, I couldn't possibly." Stupid or false modesty just comes across as stupid and false.

The other book I've been rereading is Stephen King's excellent 11.22.63 which I'm just about used to writing the date the wrong way round now. The hero, Jake, is currently living in 1950s Derry, Maine, in the aftermath of IT. Now I've read IT, the setting is even more eerie and unsettling, and I'm able to appreciate all the references to the previous novel. I haven't got as far into it as I'd hoped, as I spent this morning having a writing session (forsaking my usual local coffee shop for Starbucks - I am ashamed!) and then wandering around the town, looking in the other bookshops and admiring the autumn fashions, with their turning-leaf colours and chunky knitted jumpers. I've bought some wool to make myself a hoodie, in multi-coloured blue and purple shades, and I've also just started teaching myself to crochet with a new magazine partwork, each one teaching a new stitch or two, and with a pattern for a different kind of granny-square which will join together to make a patchwork blanket. I don't intend to buy the entire series - I've no idea how many will be in this series - but enough to make a variety of blanket squares. But I can't crochet and read at the same time, so I'll start knitting the hoodie this evening.

This weekend is the Bestival festival, at Robin Hill Country Park a few miles from my house. I always kind of dread this festival. the Isle of Wight music festival is closer to home, but at least the music stops at about midnight. It's not been unheard of for Bestival events to keep me awake until 4 in the morning with thumping bass on a Friday night. And I have to get up at half past 7 for work on Saturdays. Ugh ugh. So I'm prepared for a long reading night tonight, although I might also take my duvet downstairs and sleep on the sofa, as I don't think it is as audible from the front room. We'll see.

Bex's Rereadathon Challenge

Last time, Bex asked which is the one book you reread over and over again. This time, she wants a list. Book bloggers love lists, right?

  • Anne of Green Gables. C'mon, you know me better than to expect me to omit this one! I'll reread at least one of the Anne books pretty much every year. Not necessarily the entire series, but I can't go very long without spending some time with my favourite redhead: Anne of Green Gables, Anne of the Island are the usual candidates, but also Rilla of Ingleside (although that is more centred upon her children as young adults.)
  • The Lord of the Rings. Back in my sixth form and student days I just could not put these books down. I'd start reading every November, at first in preparation for the film adaptations, and then because it had become tradition. I don't read it quite so frequently any more, but I have read it three more times since starting my blog seven years ago.
  • Harry Potter. The ultimate in comfort reading; I start getting the urge for a reread about every two years, usually in the autumn or winter.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia. These have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I saw the BBC adaptation back when they used to show serialised children's classics on a Sunday night in the lead-up to Christmas, and when I was about seven, Dad sat me down and began to read: "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." I was thrilled to discover this was part of a series with my beloved The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I stuck little pictures to the back of my wardrobe and would sit in there and imagine myself away. And I always try to reread The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe before Christmas, and some of the other books in the series in the appropriate time of the year: The Magician's Nephew in spring, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader at the end of Summer (hmm... must be about time to reread that again...) etcetera, etcetera.
  • Neverwhere. This was the book that made me fall in love with Neil Gaiman's writing. He created a new mythology for London, out of the names of the places, and it just made sense. It was like just scratching away the surface to make sense of a city that is, when you come to think of it, quite strange. I've reread all of his books on my bookcase at least once, I think, except for the Trigger Warning collection which only came out this year. American Gods and Good Omens should also feature on this list, as I've reread them at least three times since buying them. American Gods, in particular, I find new things on every reread (and is also on my reserve rereadathon pile) and Good Omens is just so funny.
  • Discworld. With 41 books, of course I don't do a complete reread every year, but there are certain sub-series within the series that I return to most often. Top of that list are the first few Watch books: Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms and Feet of Clay, as well as the masterpiece Night Watch. Then there are the Witches books: Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Lords and Ladies and Maskerade. Hogfather gets read a lot at Christmas, and if I don't read the book, I'll watch the TV film. And Going Postal and Monstrous Regiment are others that appear regularly. I'm filling in the gaps this year; there are now only 4 left I haven't read.
So, what about you? Do any of these books or series appear regularly on your reading list, or are your favourite rereads completely different? 

Monday 7 September 2015

Rereadathon 2: part 1 - Mon 7th & Tues 8th September


Hurrah! The long-awaited Rereadathon 2.0 is here at last. We had so much fun rediscovering old favourites back in April that Bex decided to bring back a bigger and better Rereadathon for the autumn; just the right time to settle down to a day of reading books that you know you'll love because you've read them before. Guaranteed no duds!

After a lot of deliberation, I've narrowed down my to-read list to a manageable amount (even if the resulting stack won't fit in a single pile on my shelf.) I've chosen five books I've discovered in the last two or three years: The Martian, 11.22.63, Fingersmith, American Gods and Fangirl, but interspersed with these big reads (and some of them really are doorstoppers) I've also picked out a few of my favourite school stories from childhood, to read in preparation for this November's NaNoWriMo project which will draw on that story tradition and mix it up with a bit of time travel and geekery. From my school-stories box I've selected The School at the Chalet and Jo of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer First Term at Malory Towers, The Twins at St Clares and The Naughtiest Girl in the School from Enid Blyton, Anne Digby's First Term at Trebizon (a slightly more contemporary boarding school series) Charlotte Sometimes which features time-travel in a similar but different way from my project, and The Girl in the Blue Tunic by Jean Ure, which is a ghost story. So quite a variety within the genre.

But for today, I'm starting with Andy Weir's The Martian, to remind myself of it before the film is released. I've just discovered that the cinema date for the movie has been moved forward to the weekend of my 30th birthday at the beginning of October - what a treat! I've found it easier to get into this time around, as I've remembered most of the astronaut terms that befuddled me the first time around, but it's still quite a slow start, very science-heavy, and I didn't really like science at school. (More to the point, I don't think I liked science lessons. It was an all-girl class, and there was a lot of pairs work, and I was usually the odd one out having to tag on with another two people's experiments. But I quite liked physics and some chemistry, and science fiction has reignited my interest in actual science, especially if it involves space.)

Monday Stats

Books read today: The Martian
Today's page count: 230
Books finished this week: 0
Quote of the day: "Fear my botany powers!"


I've recently discovered that I can have good reading days and good writing days, but it is very difficult to motivate myself to start a writing session once I've got myself lost in someone else's good book. Yesterday was a prime example of that. I scheduled a mid-afternoon writing session to break up my reading day. That got shifted to after dinner... which slipped back to about ten PM before I actually got started. Whoops! So I determined that today, I would take my laptop down to my favourite local coffee shop for an hour or two before my scheduled hairdresser appointment this afternoon. But it was too early to really set out, so I picked up the first Malory Towers book... just for a chapter or two...

Oh, Katie.

First Term at Malory Towers was my introduction to the girls' school story genre, when I was about 9 years old and would read almost nothing but Enid Blyton books. I wasn't expecting a school story, and was very confused at first by the main character being called Darrell but having female pronouns. (Remind me to tell you about my primary school recorder teacher, Mr Ashley, who wore a skirt and and was referred to as "she." It wasn't until I saw her leaving card when she retired that I learned her name was actually Miss Rashley...)

Objectively, the Malory Towers books aren't very well written. The first one starts off with my most detested trope of all: the character standing in front of a mirror and telling the reader - out loud in this case - what she sees. But it has a really vivid sense of place and character, and I absolutely loved it. But there are a lot of things in the book that have always bothered me, big and little (as well as finding new things to pick holes in later on.)
  • The big one: Gwendoline Lacey. She's a dreadful character: vain and spoilt, lazy, underhand and a bully. And yet I've never felt that the books treated her very well. She's written off before she ever sets foot in the school. No one really gives her the opportunity to become a better person, and she spends six years utterly unhappy. For all that people keep saying "Malory Towers will do her good," we never see this in action, and she leaves school at eighteen just as lonely and unpleasant as she started. It's probably the most grimly realistic part of Enid Blyton's school stories, but stands out because she's so keen to make morals out of most things, but never do we get the sense that the intended moral of Gwendoline's story is, "if a person is dismissed as a spoilt brat she'll never learn to be anything else." They wouldn't stand for that in the Chalet School, I'll tell you that much. And I really want to write an alternative version of events where Gwendoline does find encouragement and friendship at school, and does become a decent human being.
  • What kind of school has its very own operating theatre in the sick room? When Sally Hope falls ill with appendicitis, instead of rushing her to hospital, they call in a surgeon, and because their "usual" surgeon is away, they get Darrell's father who just so happens to be in the area (despite it taking an entire day for Darrell to take the train from her home to school. They had both lunch and tea on the train.) I realise it's needed for plot purposes, but really?
  • The tenth member of the North Tower dormitory is mentioned only twice: a "shy, colourless child" called Violet who no one ever noticed if she was there or not. I notice her, because I always liked the name Violet (at least since I played Violet Beauregarde in my year 4 school play of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Twenty years on, the protagonist of my novel is also called Violet.) By book two, even Enid Blyton has forgotten she ever existed. I'm hoping she got transferred into one of the other tower boarding houses and made some friends there, but I have an alternative headcanon which shows her fading away like that girl (was her name Marcie?) in Buffy, and becoming a vengeful ghost...
  • There's a lot of silliness of exclusive friendships, with Darrell being so disappointed that Alicia already has a friend, because apparently at Malory Towers your best friend is your only friend...
  • In what universe can a brown and orange school uniform be described as "jolly nice?" And yet the Chalet School use the same colours as Malory Towers. I've only ever seen one brown school uniform in my life. It was... pretty drab. When I was a kid, I was always designing school uniforms for my fictional boarding schools. This was never a colour scheme that appealed to me in the slightest.
  • They use purple ink for school work? The climax of the first book revolves around a fountain pen with violet ink. Now I use violet ink in my pen, but for schoolwork it was strictly blue or black, and I would have thought that would have been stricter in the 1940s when this was written. (I told you some of my nitpicks are pretty small.)
I did manage to get a scene written this afternoon, which means that this evening I can concentrate on finishing The Martian. It's really getting exciting now...

Tuesday Stats:

Books read today: First Term at Malory Towers
The Martian
Pages read today: 172 so far
Books finished this week: 1
Quote of the day: "As with most of life's problems, this one can be solved by a box of pure radiation." (This quote from The Martian, not Malory Towers!) 

Friday 4 September 2015

The Shepherd's Crown - Terry Pratchett

The publication of the forty-first and final book in Sir Terry Pratchett's beloved Discworld series last Thursday was the saddest book launch I've ever known.* I sold two copies to a lady with tears in her eyes on the day of release, and, indeed, every time I pass the display stand I feel that twinge of sadness -  and I have not yet got used to reading the biographical blurb written in the past tense without wanting to hit something. There's been a sense of solidarity between bookseller and customer, a shared grief and love. The effect has been extraordinary.

Of course, favourite authors and people are always dying. Last year so many customers were grieving actress Lynda Bellingham, and we've lost Maeve Binchy, James Herbert and Iain Banks over the last few years; all of whom have been missed. Terry Pratchett was more personal. I first discovered the Discworld series in about 1999, around the time I turned 14 - these books have been close to my heart more than half my lifetime. And for a series for adults running to over 40 books is quite remarkable; I can't think of any others comparable. It's been going on so long it's hard to say goodbye.

But I think there is more to it than that. Terry Pratchett had a reputation as a writer of comic fantasy, a parody of fantasy tropes, and certainly that's how he began. But he was so much more than a sprinkler of cheap gags. As Discworld progressed, it gained a grounding in reality, thanks to its humanity, insight, the profound and hard-hitting truths cushioned with perfect wordplay that makes you think deeply as you laugh. He could skewer the flaws in people with a sharpened phrase; he also knew we could be so much better, and used his novels to spur his readers on, to be the best humans we know how to be - the rising ape. And so the setting became unremarkable, because despite the witches and wizards, werewolves and trolls, it was our world shown in the fairground hall of mirrors - strange, but showing the essence of reality in an unusual way.

"Times they is a-changing."
The Shepherd's Crown may not have been intended as the final book in the series, but there's no doubt that Sir Terry was aware that it could be, and I don't think you can divorce the novel from the context in which was written. There is a sadness within the pages, especially in the early chapters, a sadness but also comfort ant beauty that feels very, very personal, as Pratchett shapes his world with words. It weaves together story threads from throughout the series, especially the witch books (elder and younger generations) as well reflecting a poignant scene from Reaper Man and referring to the penultimate book (one of the four I have not yet read) Raising Steam. It very neatly bookends the series with Equal Rites which, while not being the first Discworld book, is the one that marked the series as being more than mere parody of fantasy.
"There will be a reckoning."
The Shepherd's Crown focuses on young witch Tiffany Aching, who is trying to protect her world from an invasion from fairyland. And these are no cute little fairies who grant wishes; these are the utterly amoral and terrifying. Pratchett creates an atmosphere of waiting and melancholy, of foreboding menace. It strikes me that the Discworld books for "children" have a darkness to them that is not featured so much in the books written for "adults" (although the line between these audiences is very fuzzy indeed.) It's a darkness of difficult decisions and everyday villainy, and Terry never talked down to his young readers.

But there are still lots and lots of punes, or play on words, and cultural references from the roundworld, and one of these made me groan so loudly that I alarmed my dad, who had read a few chapters but not yet finished the book.

There is a note from Terry's assistant at the end, explaining that although there is a beginning, a middle, an end, and all the bits in between, it is not perhaps as finished as it would have been if Pratchett had lived longer. And you can see that it is a bit rough around the edges. There are several very short paragraphs with elipses, and I wondered if they were intended to be longer. And perhaps the language is less polished than usual, the dialogue a bit more stilted, the subplots needing a bit more fleshing out. In some ways, The Shepherd's Crown is a skeleton novel. But Discworld fans know just how much life, warmth, wisdom and humanity can be found in Sir Terry's most famous skeleton. Terry continued to defy his "Embuggerance" to the end, as even in a slightly less-finished state, The Shepherd's Crown is one of the best things he's written in years.

And so, in a mixture of triumph and sadness, we've reached the end of the series, and it is a worthy and satisfying finale. But a world that stretches across continents and decades does not simply come to an end. Sam Vimes and the city watch still patrol the streets of Ankh-Morpork. Rincewind is still fleeing from one misadventure to the next, the Luggage hot on his heels. Right now, Nanny Ogg is probably quaffing scumble and carousing the seventeeth verse of the Hedgehog Song. Great A'Tuin swims on among the stars, and our beloved characters are still continuing about their business on his/her back, even if their exploits go unwritten now. And there are others, too, in another world, and we know that they in the good company of a reaper with a white horse called Binky and a love of cats. And perhaps, too, there is a man with a white beard and a black hat, a fire in his heart and a wit as sharp as Death's scythe.

Thank you, Sir Terry.

*although E.L. James's Grey earlier this year also made booksellers weep across the world. That was for very different reasons.
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