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
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