Saturday, 6 August 2016

Super Special Summer Picnic Book Chase

My nieces and nephews and I have a monthly book club, called Book Chase (although it sometimes gains an extra 's' to become Book Chasse). The rules are simple: we all bring something we've read during the last month, talk about it to each other, and eat snacks. We live tweet each meeting with the hashtag BookChase. Sometimes, when we remember, we Storify all the tweets too. This month, we remembered!

Friday, 1 January 2016

Reading Resolutions

Happy New Year!

That's 2015 done and dusted, here's to 2016 and let's hope it's filled with love and laughter, friends and fun, books and cake. And really, that's about as far as my resolutions go but I do have a few projects in mind for the coming year and beyond.

This year there are two anniversaries I want to celebrate. The first is the two hundredth anniversary of Charlotte Bronte's birth on 21st April.
Jane Eyre is one of my most favourite stories of all and I've lost count of the number of times I've read it over the years. I'll be re-reading it yet again come April, but before then I plan to read the other three novels Charlotte wrote starting with Shirley this month. I'm quite keen to read the new Claire Harman biography of Charlotte Bronte too at some point.

The other anniversary is that of Shakespeare's death 400 years ago on 23rd April. I've finally admitted to myself that reading the same half dozen plays over and over isn't the same as having read all the plays. This year I will endeavour to add some new ones to my list, although I'm still probably going to start with The Winter's Tale as a warm up exercise... 

I've also vowed to read more Alexandre Dumas this year because his stories thrill me now as ever. The rush of excitement from a mixture of historical setting, intrigue, swashbuckling heroes and bloody brilliant female characters is so very often what I want and what Dumas so often provides. I also want to read the biography of his father that came out not that long ago, The Black Count by Tom Reiss. A decent biography of Dumas himself would be welcome, if anyone knows of one.

More general reading aims are to be more aware of who I'm reading. The Diverse December campaign has grown into Read Diverse 2016. Naomi at The Writes of Women and Dan at From Inside the Dog are continuing their campaign to get people to be more thoughtful and wide-ranging in choosing the books they read, and highlighting the work of BAME and LGBT authors. I read far more women than men, but the overwhelming majority are white women. Reading is what I do for pleasure, even if I do it compulsively - therefore I will only read what I want. But what I want are stories that engage and absorb me, that wrap me in their magic and live inside me and I don't want to miss out on stories I might love because I forget to look around a little harder. Seeking out new authors to adore is fun; this year I want to do it with more awareness of whose voices I'm hearing.

More than anything, this year I will read because I love reading. I need to cram stories into my head and my heart no less now than I did as a child. Reading isn't something I do as a worthy exercise or to improve myself. I consume stories because I don't know how not to and have no interest in finding out. And now I'm off to read a book!

Saturday, 5 December 2015

How to Stuff Up Christmas by Rosie Blake

'Tis the season to be jolly. Unless you've found an intimate picture of another woman on your fiance's phone... 
Eve is heartbroken after discovering her fiance is cheating on her. Being surrounded by the joys of Christmas is more than Eve can bear, so she chooses to avoid the festivities by spending Christmas alone on a houseboat in Pangbourne. Eve gets gets an unexpected seasonal surprise when handsome local vet Greg comes to her rescue one day, and continues to visit Eve's boat on a mission to transform her from Kitchen Disaster Zone to Culinary Queen.
But where does Greg keep disappearing to? What does Eve's best friend Daisy know that she isn't telling? And why is there an angry goose stalking Eve's boat?

This book illustrates how special a thing it is to have people send you books out of the blue; it's a privilege and a pleasure. I wouldn't have known about this book, let alone read and loved it, if it hadn't landed in my letterbox. I'm very happy it did, because I enjoyed the hours it kept me company. It made my commute immeasurably better, it made me laugh and sigh, it reduced me to tears once, and it gave me recipes!

Our hero, the aptly and seasonally named Eve, is struggling to rise from the ashes of her once-perfect relationship. She's determined To Do Something For Herself, To Be Independent Once More, and Put Her Sorrow Away For Good.I know how she feels. Nurturing her neglected creativity with a pottery class and renting a houseboat seem good places to start, even if it means she'll disappoint her mum by not being home for Christmas. Eve's family are lovely; they squabble and support and try to do the best for each other. I loved her dad's garish outfits and her sister Harriet's awesome efficiency. It's a really heart-warming portrait of a family, in no way perfect, caring and infuriating - to me that feels very real.

I'm a little resistant to romance in books... with women waiting for a man to come along and make things better and complete them. I want there to be positive portraits of single women because obviously it's entirely possible to have a full and happy life without a partner. But I'll tell you a secret, my resistance is a little bit because I'd love to be swept off my feet by some sweet guy that totally respects my independence but also wants to go to the Tower of London with me eight times a year and indulge my need to be constantly fed stories, and I do get a bit cross with myself for 'giving in' to this feeling. Basically, what I'm trying to say is that the romance threads in stories can unsettle my equilibrium (and that I read through the lens of my own life. A lot.) Anyway, despite everything I just said, I liked the romance bit in How to Stuff Up Christmas! Contrary, me? Yep. But, also, there's no sense that Eve is waiting or looking for or jumping into a new relationship. If, however, someone who could be a great person to get to know better comes along, why turn away from the opportunity.

How to Stuff Up Christmas is a super December read, and it's reminded me again to keep reassessing my own reading habits. When we limit ourselves, we lose out. It's an entertaining and funny story, good company, and about a pretty ordinary set of people - and that is meant as a huge compliment. The cover is also so cute and glittery- I've not got a high-res picture so you'll have to take my word for it! And did I mention the recipes that head chapters intermittently throughout the book? They're great too - Daisy's Chocolate Biscuit Cake would go down very well right about now, please. Thanks go to Corvus for sending me the book, and Rosie Blake for writing it - Merry Christmas!

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.