Saturday, 28 November 2015

The Complete Peter Pan by JM Barrie

We all know the story of Peter Pan, yes, because we've all seen the Disney film (most likely numerous times)? That's what I thought, anyway. Despite knowing how far adapted the films can become from their source material, I hadn't given much thought to Peter Pan the book being different from Peter Pan the film. Not until I saw a stage adaptation late last year, which was familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I thought then (and most probably proclaimed on Twitter) that I simply MUST read Barrie's tale.

Fast forward a year and I still had not read the book, when lo!, I received an email about a new Alma Classics edition. Would I like to read it?, it said. Yes please, I said. This new edition includes Peter and Wendy, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, the play Peter Pan, and a whole bundle of extra material. It also has lovely illustrations by Joel Stewart.

The pictures are charming and help root the story as one for children... which isn't as clear cut as all that. In the sections at the back about the author and his works I learnt that Peter Pan had first appeared as a story within a story in an adult novel Barrie wrote, The Little White Bird. And there is plenty in Peter Pan that feels like it is talking directly to the grown-ups, or perhaps it's Barrie talking to himself. Tinker Bell turns up 'gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage. She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.' And it's dark, in the way that put me in mind of Roald Dahl at times. At the very beginning Barrie relates how Mr Darling went about deciding whether the children would be able to stay, as he tots up the family's finances:

' "Remember mumps", he warned her almost threateningly, and off he went again. "Mumps one pound, that is what I have put down, but I daresay it will be more like thirty shillings - don't speak - measles one five, German measles half a guinea, makes two fifteen six - don't waggle your finger - whooping cough, say fifteen shillings" - and so on it went, and it added up differently each time, but at last Wendy just got through, with mumps reduced to twelve six, and the two kinds of measles treated as one.'
In the world of Peter Pan, children are heartless, fathers are wrong-headed, and mothers are foolish. Boys want mothers and girls want husbands and babies. None of this, problematic though it is, would prevent me from sharing the story with children - not least because I know eight-year-old me would have scoffed at these characterisations as much as grown-up me does. And it's never insidious or hidden; the fact that these things are depicted blatantly makes them easy to spot and lends them an absurdity. I don't know if that's what the author intended, but it's how I read it.
Coming to the story so late, and with the weight of numerous adaptations and casual 'knowledge' about Barrie's life did make it harder for me to separate creator and creation. Finding Neverland has a lot to answer for. But I did enjoy the story. It has pirates and a crocodile, mermaids and fairies. It also has Tiger Lily and her tribe, which is a further problematic part of the book, one which made me wince. There's nothing I can or want to say in defence of the way the tribe is depicted. The publisher do a decent job of talking about the differences in attitudes when the book was written in the extra material at the back of the book. Peter Pan does feel a bit like an object lesson in acknowledging the problems in popular culture you enjoy.

I do think Alma have produced a very nice edition, pulling together the different stories and giving the additional information to contextualise the work. The illustrations are super, and it all comes in a very affordable paperback. Nice job!

I was sent a free copy of the book by the publisher for review purposes. Find out more about Alma Junior at their website. You can buy the book from Foyles (and I totally say that because I work there.)

Monday, 16 November 2015

My bookish week

I'm easing myself back into the blog with a bit of a round up with lots of pictures of what I've been reading and acquiring this week. You know, before I go all hardcore and attempt an actual book review.

This week I have read comics and fiction and memoir. I've also had some lovely books come in the post. First, to the reading...

Here's the comics I read (I know, it's not as many as I bought). Limbo is a new story full of amnesiac P.I. supernatural weirdness creepy crime boss sultry singer in peril action. The kind of thing I like.

I also like Sarah Moss's writing. A lot. I've been reading Night Waking on the bus and train this week, but am not quite halfway in yet. It's really very good. Very very good. There are very strong statements about motherhood and gender politics woven into an intriguing story. In places I found myself thinking about Helen Walsh's Go To Sleep, another excellent book.
Daddy's Girls is taking me ages to read, because I devote barely any time to it. It's entertaining but a bit throwaway, and there's not enough dirty bits to make it a properly satisfying bonkbuster.  I'm reading a chapter here and there.

Carrie Brownstein's memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is completely satisfying. I've read half of it this weekend and it brilliant. It's well told, with intelligence and a self-deprecating air that I'm finding very charming and endearing. I already loved her for Sleater-Kinney, of course, but I think I probably love her for her now too.
In the post this week have been some treasures. The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood looks set to cause a few tears when it's published in April next year, as does Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit next January.

I also have a copy of the sequel to The Dreamsnatcher, which I absolutely loved. The Shadow Keeper is out next February, and came in an exciting package with a puzzle to solve. And I'm in the acknowledgements!

While I'm doing a little showing off, here's one last book I got sent. It's called The Secrets of Generation and inside is an essay co-written by me. Really truly me in a proper book. I'm still not sure I believe it's truly happened, despite the evidence!

Saturday, 14 November 2015

The personal one

I've been a sporadic book blogger at best in recent times. It's probably not a huge surprise to those that know me in real life. The last year or more has been one of upheaval and change and huge life decisions. My life at the end of 2015 is not the same as the one I had at the beginning of 2014. Work, study, home, relationship  - none of these things have stayed the same. In the spirit of over-sharing, and because I don't compartmentalise my life well and everything affects everything else, this post is about how I started in one place and ended up in another.

Back at the start of last year I was working on my PhD and missing bookselling beyond measure. My branch of Waterstones had closed the previous year and I took redundancy rather than try and find another part-time position that would fit in with my studying. After 17 years with the company I was ready to make the break, and I was in a situation that made it viable for me to stop working for a while. I hated it. I missed my friends, my routine, the books... and I missed being part of something as amazing as bringing stories and people together. I hadn't understood how fundamental a part of me bookselling had become; the gap it left was almost unbearable.

It's horribly easy to lose yourself. Looking back (oh hindsight, you are a cruel thing) I can see this was happening even before my shop closed. A whole messy heap of things led to me becoming less sociable, more tightly buttoned, less and less happy, more and more numb. A serious bout of depression made me realise I needed to change things, but I didn't how or what to change then. I tried bits and pieces but nothing made much of a difference. Reading my diaries back shows a litany of trying and failing and trying again over and over. Last year, finally, the cycle broke. It was brutal, and I have probably cried more in the course of the last year and a half than in the rest of my life put together, but I think it had to happen.

I started work again last summer, at Foyles, and that's one of the best decisions I have ever made. The place is wonderful, the people are brilliant, and the work is constantly engaging and stimulating. Being back in a bookshop felt like coming home. I will hold the feeling of elation when I got the phone call offering me the job forever. Going back to work full-time meant needing to put my PhD on hold, which I did for a year, which has now become two years...

And that's because when I ought to have been enrolling I was in the process of moving. The break-up of my long-term relationship (a major event but not one I want to elaborate on) meant that inevitably I would need to find somewhere else to live. Last month I left my home of 13 years and moved into a little flat all of my own. There's a distinct sense of deja vu starting out on my own again, only it's not 1999 and I'm not in my mid-twenties anymore. But all any of us can do is keep going forward and try to be brave and give it our best shot. Because the alternative is to hide from the world and stop being ourselves and I tried that and it didn't work.

So here I am. Not where I expected to be, but it's OK, I can do this. I am kind of hoping 2016 will be less tumultuous though. Some good books, some decent films, a few interesting exhibitions, Adam Ant in concert, dancing (watching and doing), tea parties with my family, these are the things I'm hoping for next year. They're the same things I always want, but with luck I can enjoy them without the background anxiety and worry that's accompanied me for quite long enough. There's no going back, so here's to the future!

Monday, 31 August 2015

What should we be reading?

The short answer is, obviously, whatever the hell we damn well want.

It probably comes as no surprise that this blog post is prompted by a piece of 'journalism' in The Guardian by some bloke. I don't know the fella and I don't especially want to link to the piece directly because it's a piece of cynical clickbait that doesn't deserve the hits - but in the spirit of knowing what you're arguing against, it can be found here.

The substance of the article is that life is too short to read unworthy books, and that these books can be determined without having any knowledge of them whatsoever. And people who enjoy this lesser kind of work are lesser kinds of people. To sum up: Jane Austen good; Terry Pratchett bad. Yawn.

It was heartening to see my Twitter TL explode with rage at such nonsense. This tweet by Laura Lam sums up how I feel about reading:

Book snobbery is incredibly boring. I've worked in bookshops my whole adult life and one of the best things about that is having access to all the types of books. Today I might fancy reading something from the Booker Longlist, tomorrow I might fancy a picture book. Or a graphic novel, or a kids' classic, or a Regency romance, or a contemporary YA, or a cosy crime, or some hard sci-fi, or an epic fantasy. Or, you know, some non-fiction.

How and what I choose is my business. If I don't want to read something I don't have to; reading is a leisure activity and that means we get to choose how we spend that precious time. If I don't like the look of something, I can simply choose not to read it. I don't, however, get to pretend my choices are better than someone else's, and I certainly don't get to tell everyone else that they shouldn't be reading something because I've decided it's mediocre WHEN I'VE NOT EVEN READ ANY OF IT MYSELF. That would just be stupid.

For the record I am not writing this as a diehard Discworld fan leaping to the defence of a favourite author. I've read a few but they don't connect with me as they do for so many other people. But the joy that they bring to people, the brilliant conversations I've had with customers about what the books mean to them, the excitement on publication day of a new title - that's one of the other best things about being a bookseller.

There are many books that live within me: Tales of the City; Riders; Interview With The Vampire; The Darling Buds of May; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Ender's Game; Jane Eyre; The Sunne in Splendour - to pluck just a few from my head. They are from different genres, written at different times, and by very different authors (some of whom are problematic, but knowing this after committing the book to my heart means the story is still lodged there). None of my choices here could be considered highbrow, but then I'm not entirely sure I know, or care, what that means. I've never worked in a bookshop where the highbrow fiction was shelved differently to 'the rest'. And if I had my way, I'd de-genre the whole of fiction anyway and let people explore shelves and shelves of stories free of the constraints that genre labels bring.

I read for many different reasons. Sometimes I want my brain to fizz with new ideas, sometimes I want to be comforted by an old favourite. And sometimes I read because the world is horribly overwhelming and I need the ritual of sitting with a book, turning pages and concentrating on someone else's words to give me space to breathe and be. And I don't need anybody policing my choices. It's thoughtless and unkind to denigrate other's reading choices. We are all free to not like certain books, and it is certainly possible to construct an argument about why a particular book is not for you, or to point out serious problems in books you have read. Just don't pretend your reading choices are superior, it's a nonsense.

I will continue to read widely and voraciously, scooping up treasure wherever I find it. I might even re-read Mansfield Park, because to be truthful I can't remember a thing about it.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

The Magnificent Lizzie Brown and the Mysterious Phantom by Vicki Lockwood

Join Lizzie Brown, the fortuneteller’s assistant, and her gang of circus friends, as they try to uncover the identity of the mysterious phantom.

In Victorian London, a masked figure has been robbing houses and evading the police. When Lizzie Brown has a psychic vision about the burglar, she knows she has to act. But this phantom is proving to be more dangerous than a tightrope without a safety net…

The Magnificent Lizzie Brown and the Mysterious Phantom is the first in a new series of books featuring Lizzie and the Penny Gaff Gang, from Curious Fox. It’s aimed at kids aged 9+, and it is a very enjoyable story. It has adventure and mystery and peril, along with friendship and loyalty.

Lizzie Brown is determined to earn an honest living; she doesn’t want to be a no-good thief like her father. At the beginning of the book an almighty row between the pair means Lizzie has little choice but to run as far as she can from her dad. She ends up seeking refuge at a circus, where she almost accidentally becomes one of the acts when her fortune telling ability comes to light.

There are two parts of the story really. There’s the puzzle of the phantom - a violent housebreaker making headline news daily and terrorising the capital. Lizzie and her circus friends decide to unmask the fiend. It is a pretty exciting story, but it’s the strong bonds the circus gang have that stood out for me. Lizzie finds a group of friends that support each other and are fiercely loyal. They also expect people to behave decently and are not afraid to make a stand against unacceptable behaviour and meanness. I liked that and didn’t think it was overtly message-y.

I really did like the book so what I’m going to talk about now is not to take away from it, it’s really more something I’m curious about. The author of the book is given as Vicki Lockwood, but the copyright inside belongs to Hothouse Fiction. I checked this because I was already wondering whether Lockwood was a real person or an amalgamation of writers – not that I can say for sure why this popped into my head. I’m still not entirely sure. I looked up Hothouse Fiction and they are a collaborative writing agency that produces series of children’s books.

It’s an interesting, and certainly not new, concept. Big series of books for younger readers are quite often written collaboratively. But it’s something I’m not so familiar with for the older kids’ book. I googled “Vicki Lockwood author” but didn’t get anything beyond hits for this series of books. As I said, I’m curious and this is because I’ve got so used to getting to know authors. Twitter has completely changed how we interact with the people who create the stories we fall in love with. Added to that are the brilliant events that happen in bookshops, and of course big meet-ups such as YALC and blogger events. All these things mean we can meet authors, hear them speak, and talk to them both off and online. I’ve met some amazing children’s/YA authors on Twitter, and gone on to meet some of them for real too. I think what I’m trying to reach for here is that it seems that readers might be missing out if there’s not an actual Vicki Lockwood.

I have been thinking about it not just from my own perspective, but from the younger age group too. The children in my family have had some great interactions with their favourite authors online and in bookshops. My youngest niece Pickle went positively pink with delight when Alex T. Smith spoke to her via the magic of Twitter, to pick just one example. Letting an author know you loved their book AND getting a response – well, these are both wonderful things.

I liked this Lizzie Brown and would happily recommend it, whether it’s written collaboratively or not won’t change that. The possibility that there isn’t a single author just got me thinking.

The Magnificent Lizzie Brown and the Mysterious Phantom is available now in paperback. Curious Fox very kindly sent me a copy. There are three other Lizzie Brown stories also available.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Reading Ulysses?

It’s Bloomsday and I have a confession to make:

I’ve tried to read Ulysses several times but have always lost momentum. Truthfully, I’ve never read further than a third of the way in. I’m not proud of this. Actually, I’m a little sad. I want to feel the elation of having read to the end. I want to find the pleasure and joy in the writing that so many other people experience. I want to read Ulysses.

I didn’t exactly mean to suggest we could have an office read-along for the next year, culminating in a great big hooray and sigh of relief next June 16th. I still have some colleagues to gently persuade, and I might see if anyone at work outside the web office would like to join in too. And as my Twitter friend Naomi (@frizbot) mentioned it, and I’m of the opinion that the more the merrier, if anyone else would like to join in then please do. I’d love it if anyone wanted to talk about the book here on the blog, or on Twitter (I’m @janesharp1671). I’m going to use the hashtag #JJUlysses on Twitter.

I haven’t really worked out any details as such yet (well I only thought of at lunchtime), but one book, one year, starting tomorrow with monthly meet-ups here on the 16th of each month. My edition has 933 pages. That’s 76 pages a month, or 18 a week, or two and a half a day. We can do that.

If anyone fancies joining let me know either here or on Twitter (or email or in person if we know each other in real life). If anyone has any ideas about how best to approach the book, let me know too please. I remember that the wonderful Dovegreyreader had a read together of the book a few years ago, so I might take a peek and see if she has any advice and tips for us. I think I’ll do another quick blog at the weekend once we’ve got a few days under our belt and firm up a schedule/strategy. Or we’ll just make it up as we go along. Reading Ulysses is on.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Judy Blume Read Along

Judy Blume is going to be at YALC this year. I can’t believe I’ve actually typed that sentence. GODDESS JUDY BLUME WILL BE AT YALC AND SO WILL I. I’m quite excited. When I was not quite a teenager, there was not a whole heap of Teen/YA books waiting on the shelves of bookshops and libraries to help us navigate the trials and pitfalls of growing up. But there was Judy Blume, and thank all that is good for her and her books full of normal everyday girls living with their normal everyday families and having normal everyday worries. These were characters it was easy to relate to and understand, and the stories were cunningly packed with advice that we could take and use. And the stories themselves were brilliant.

That’s how I remember Judy Blume, but I admit that the amount of time that’s elapsed since I read them can be measured not only in years but in decades. Keris Stainton’s idea of a Judy Blume read along leading up to YALC had me hopping with excitement; I have a burning desire to reconnect with books that were so important to me, and possibly to read some I missed the first time around. Six weeks, six books (you can find the whole schedule and more here at Keris’ blog).

Last week was the first week, and fittingly the read-along started with probably Judy’s most famous book, Forever. It truly is the ‘classic novel of first love, first sex and first heartbreak’ as proclaimed on the back of the book. It also accounts for the fact that very many girls and women are unable to hear the name Ralph without sniggering. Reading Forever was a rite of passage. I read it hidden away inside another book, sitting on my Pierrot beanbag in the corner of my room, hoping my nan wouldn’t ask what I was reading. (I can’t remember now why my nan was there at the time). It had a reputation for being something you didn’t show your parents, and I recall being quite wide-eyed at all the sex stuff. But what I remembered most was the loving relationship between Michael and Katherine.

Re-reading it has been a brilliant experience. The relationship still comes across as strong and supportive, although Michael is not so smooth as I remember him! Katherine is even more wonderful though, and her mature approach to sex is something to celebrate. The writing is so straightforward and clear, that even moments of embarrassment are handled as a normal part of physical relationship. Periods, contraception, premature ejaculation, how unsatisfying sex can be, and how good it feels to orgasm are all dealt with in a positive and reassuring way. It also shows that STIs and pregnancy can be the unintended result of sex and that being responsible for your own sexual health is the only way. It’s also warm and gently funny. I love this book.

I’m going to press this book into the hands of my eldest niece, tell her that she doesn’t need to keep it hidden, and if she has any questions she’s too embarrassed to ask her (totally cool) mum then I’m here for her. And if I don’t know the answer, I’ll ask Judy Blume.

This week’s book is Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret. I’m hoping I enjoy it even a fraction of how much I did last time I read it. Join in. There’s even a special hashtag on Twitter – #readalongralph – well, we can’t be grown up all the time.