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.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The Girl Who Walked on Air by Emma Carroll

Oh, this is a super book and confirms (as if needed) that I love Emma Carroll’s stories. This is Emma’s second novel; her first, Frost Hollow Hall, was nominated for the Branford Boase Award last year and was one of my favourites of the whole list. As I said then, it is the best kind of old-fashioned storytelling, and that is without doubt a compliment.
The Girl Who Walked on Air is another exciting adventure, with secrets to uncover and challenges to meet and adversity to conquer. In Louie we have another bold hero, who dares to dream and face up to the world even when she’s scared and alone. She is a showstopper, no mistake.

The first chapter is a grabber – we are right in the heart of the circus with all its drama, magic and danger. We meet ringmaster Ned, circus owner Mr Chipchase and his daughter Kitty, Jasper the trapeze artist, and Pip, Louie’s faithful dog. And the scene is set for Louie’s campaign to be a showstopper to begin in earnest.

Blondin carrying his manager
I enjoyed the story hugely, and loved all the bits about Blondin and Niagara Falls. Tightrope walking looks so impossible and impressive, I find it really quite enthralling. Keeping on the funambulist theme for a mo, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann has Philippe Petit’s daring Twin Towers walk at its heart and is worth reading for the opening section about that escapade alone.

Back to The Girl Who Walked on Air… brilliant book, gorgeous cover, totally recommended! And if you love Emma Carroll as much as me you’ll no doubt be thrilled that it’s not long to wait until her third book is published. In Darkling Wood is out in July – the cover is another absolute stunner, designed by the same person as for The Girl Who Walked on Air, Julian de Narvaez. There’s a sneak peek on Emma’s website here.

The Girl Who Walked on Air is published in paperback, by Faber & Faber. I bought my copy from a bookshop.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

What I Read

I’m testing out the idea of a weekly What I Read Last Week blog post to see if I like it. I’m hoping it will act as a jog to my memory and perhaps even an aid to reflection on what I’ve been reading, but without the formality of a review structure.

In the last week I’ve been quite focused on reading Desmond Elliott longlist titles. I devoured The Bees by Laline Paull over Saturday and Sunday. My scepticism about a bee narrator was completely unfounded, happily. I’ve not had much success with animal narrators in recent years, but Flora 717 is sufficiently alien that it felt removed from the everyday, and the story does not attempt to be either cute or humorous (this is a good thing). For me, the novel works brilliantly.

I also read Chop Chop by Simon Wroe. I doubt I would’ve come across this if it hadn’t been on the Desmond Elliott longlist. It was a bit of a hard read for me at times; my vegetarian sensibilities took a battering now and then. The atmosphere of a professional (and I use the term lightly) kitchen is well done and I liked the way the idea of narrators is played with. I’m still undecided about how well the story holds together – I’m mulling it over…

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller is most impressive so far. Both the story and the storytelling wrapped around me and I was hard pressed to put the book down unfinished. The survivalist theme and how that seclusion could affect a child has actually made me think about Emma Donoghue’s Room again, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly. I look forward to finishing the rest of the story and putting some missing pieces together.

 In non-Desmond Elliott reading, I finished Emma Carroll’s The Girl Who Walked on Air. This is a book full of wonders and bravery, more of which later this week. I’ve also been reading Alix Christie’s Gutenberg’s Apprentice. This historical fiction is right up my street, with the birth of printing, religious turmoil, and characters striving to make their mark on the world.

I think that’s it, reading wise, but, I did see a production of Peter Pan on Saturday evening that made me think it really is time I read the book. I’ve watched the Disney version and Hook and Finding Neverland, and read Disney versions to assorted small people as well as the Ladybird Classic. But, I am not convinced I have ever read the actual J.M. Barrie book. This I will rectify.

The Desmond Elliott Longlist 2015

This year, I am rather excited to be part of Dan’s (@utterbiblio) shadow judging panel for the Desmond Elliott Prize. Along with David, Zoe, El, and of course Dan himself, we’re reading, discussing and judging the nominated books – making the longlist into a shortlist and finally coming up with a winner. There’s more about our plans and us on Dan’s blog here.

The list is varied and beautifully gender balanced! It’s interesting for me to think about this prize for debut fiction. It is making me consider not only what else I have read in the last year that would make my own longlist but also what I value in a story, and whether that is different for a debut novel. The way prizes are divided up into genres is also making me think about how little that actually occurs to me when I reach for a book – the bookseller in me is aware that I’m reading a kids’/fantasy/historical/translated/debut but the reader in me approaches them with the same desire to find a connection. That said, I love the excitement of the new, the buzz a debut can provoke, the thrill of not knowing what you’re going to find between the covers…
Issy Bradly and Elizabeth is Missing are hiding somewhere; The Wake I still need to acquire.
I’d read three of the longlist before it was announced, and thanks to the lovely long weekend I have read another two and half since. I read The Miniaturist, A Song for Issy Bradley, and Elizabeth is Missing last year. This weekend I have read Chop Chop, The Bees, and half of Our Endless Numbered Days.
Everything I have read has stimulated me in some way or another. Whether I’ve read my winner yet remains to be seen.

I aim to write something about all of the books over the next six weeks, before the shortlist is announced, and I can’t wait to start discussing them with my fellow shadow judges. To the books!