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The Pleasure of Books

The Pleasure of Books

The Gifts of Reading by Robert Macfarlane

The woodcut cover of this short essay on gifting the pleasure through books hints too at the other theme of the book, that of journeys trodden on foot – a subject that Robert Macfarlane covers more in his book The Old Ways. So from the cover onwards, this is a small, pocket-sized volume to tempt you on, down a journey of physical paths, and tempting books.

It may only be 34 small pages, but it’s epic in scale, and has resulted in me adding another two books to my to read list. It’s also not a collection of words that leave you with poignancy. It’s a perfect volume to celebrate the joy, and the importance of reading, fitting for it’s purpose of celebrating Independent Booksellers.

Twenty years on: rekindling the JK Rowling magic

Twenty years on: rekindling the JK Rowling magic

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

It is scarcely credible to think that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is 20 years old this year. It is just as incredible to realise that in all that time I have only read it the once. Until now.

I figured that it was time for a long overdue re-read, and I was right. Reading the first adventure ten years after the last, and with all the films having gone between it was surprising how much of the detail of the book I had forgotten. It was near to halfway through the book before Harry had even arrived at Hogwarts, met Hermione, and been ‘sorted’ (still longer before he and Hermione became friends) but the pace was perfect througout.

I have always thought that some of the longer, later books could have done with more of an edit, and a tightening up of the story, because I think that this, the original, had that, and it shows.

The only question that remains for me now, is when to re-read book two? Sooner rather than later or pretend that it was as it was at the beginning and treat myself to one a year as Harry, Ron, and Hermione grow up and go through the Hogwarts years. After all, that, I think, is how they should be read by everyone rather than binging on them in almost one sitting.

A book of Meta: The Time Traveller’s Wife meets Mark Haddon

A book of Meta: The Time Traveller's Wife meets Mark Haddon

Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

This is at its heart the book about a writer, Meg, who is (unsuccessfully) writing her novel. She’s a successful ghostwriter for an author who doesn’t exist, and occasional journalist, but she is her own worst editor when it comes to writing her own book with more false starts and aborted attempts than she can count.

This is a book that is as curiously wonky as Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife and with characters and situations as disfunctional as a Mark Haddon novel (The Red House, A Spot of Bother, but it is also absolutely a meta book.

Meg struggles to write her book at the same time as she struggles with her own collapsing relationship. And it is this tumbling mix of events that gets confused with a “popular science” book she is reviewing about time and the universe, a device that serves to confuse us (and Meg) about the nature of truth and what is really happening to a point where us, the reader, like her, the writer within the book start to doubt our own existences.

Adventures under sail up and down the Norfolk Broads

Adventures under sail up and down the Norfolk Broads

Coot Club by Arthur Ransome

If Swallows and Amazons is the childhood classic to remember, Coot Club is its equal. We first encounter Dick and Dot in the book that comes before it when they are with the Swallows and the Amazons up in the northern lakes. In this story they holiday on the Norfolk Broads and we encounter the Coot Club.

I will always love the original story in this series but this is a story with more action and danger, and dare I say it, plot. When the Hullaballoos park their motor cruiser over the No. 7 nest of the Coot Club, Tom Dudgeon is forced to take matters into his own hands and casts the cruiser adrift so that the mother coot can return to her nest. As Tom evades the Hullaballoos he teaches Dick and Dot how to sail, with the help of fellow Coot Club members, the twins, Port and Starboard.

If characters ever needed a follow up story it is Port and Starboard. Whilst Dick, Dot, Tom and the Death and Glories get to have more adventures on The Broads in The Big Six, sadly this Port and Starboard’s only story.

Cosy-mystery or Comic-mystery?

Cosy-mystery or Comic-mystery?

Best Murder in Show (Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries Book 1) by Debbie Young

Debbie Young’s debut novel (she is the author already of various anthologies of short stories and non-fiction) is billed as a cosy-mystery – I would suggest the term comic-mystery – there are so many slight, humerous moments to this story that get you smiling.

Perhaps unsurprising for a novel that comes from the pen of an author who is also active in the Alliance of Independent Authors (I half-expected there to be a direct mention at one of the many village meetings!) and who is the founding director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival, this is a murder mystery that exudes literary and other bookish references. Take the Sophie Sayer’s name for instance. I’m really hoping that Hector Munro might become her Lord Peter Whimsy.

The story begins at the village show, a highpoint in any yearly calendar, and in the shocking discovery of murder in a manner reminiscent of those pre-opening titles moments that anyone who has watched Death in Paridise will be be familiar with. The story winds back two months to Sophie’s arrival in the village to live in the house she has inherited from her aunt (has another murder taken place here too?). If I can leverage any criticism of this mystery is that much as I love reading the excentricities of the Cotswold village life I did at times want to move on to the murder and solving thereof the mystery a little bit quicker.

Sophie though, is a character with her own backstory that is not as simple as you might think (don’t all detectives have a troubled backstory?) and she must grapple with her own insecurities and life as she she stumbles through her own over-active imagination about what the villagers might be like and be capable of before she can solve the mystery at hand. Surely Carol, the gossiping proprieter of the village shop who is every bit a Susan Carter out The Archers, is capable of killing people, or if not has the motivations to do so.

I shall look forward to seeing where Sophie’s next adventure takes us.

A traditional tale of childhood adventure

A traditional tale of childhood adventure

The Fossil Hunters by Betty Salthouse

Who didn’t have a fascination for a fossils and dinosaurs as a child? This is a delightfully traditional tale of childhood adventure. Andy and Darren are two boys who dream of making a big archeological discovery in the woods near where they live.

As it says on the backcover, this is a book that “is set in the days before the internet when children looked for adventure out of doors rather than online”. Anyone remembers the 1980s TV summer holidays programme, Why Don’t You? will know exactly what the author means by this. The downside to this admission, and to little observances throughout the book, is that what could be a beautifully timeless tale is somewhat dated. For the most part this could be a story that happens now, with mobile phones and the internet just shelved as something not needed in the adventure much like Deborah Shepherd does in her book, The Underhill Buttons, but instead Betty Salthouse has decided to set it in I would guess the 1980s. The reference to fax machines jarred for me but then again, for those growing up as children now, maybe the description would be entirely appropriate as it is a technology that has all but vannished as quickly as it arrived.

These are small quibbles though to an otherwise excellently told adventure of children discovering something big. There was a brief glimpse of something fantastical but it was a dream sequence, and there was an all too current reference to something that might have been a climatic threat. A refreshingly traditional children’s tale.

We are the same / but I am different

We are the same / but I am different

Silent Voices: A Selection of Poems Written by Those Not Always Heard by Jo Allmond (Editor), Joy Thomas (Editor)

This is quite simply an outstanding anthology of poetry however you look at it. Every poem had me gripping the page and brought to tears. This is a book formed out of the friendship of two amazing people who met at a literary festival and found that they had a message to get across. What they have achieved in just one year is collecting together a set of poems that speak directly to the reader about what it’s like to care for, and be cared for, people of ‘difference’.

This is a book that should be pressed into the hands of every elected individual as to why we need more NHS and more social care. It is as the title says, the voices of the silent – those who are not always heard. Jess Hiles probably puts it the simplest, “We are the same / but I am different.”

Some of the authors included in this slim volume may only have one poem to tell; and some may never have considered that they could tell their tale in this way. This collection proves that everyone has a voice and should be heard and listened to. It is a book that I will be recommending to everyone I know.

Spring: the beginning of things

Spring: the beginning of things

Spring: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons by Melissa Harrison (Editor)

The calendar year may start in January in the depths of winter but for most, the year begins with Spring. This is the first in Melissa Harrison’s stand-out series of anthologies based around the four seasons. I started reading it with the seasons, having started with Autumn which was outstanding. This one doesn’t quite reach that level of perfection.

Like the other volumes in the series, Spring is a miscellany of poetry, prose, and nature writing by both contemporary and past authors. The format remains the same, of keeping you to the end before revealing the author and the date that it is from – often with surprises in store when you realise that something you thought was of the now, is actually from the nineteenth century.

The biggest joy of this book, is the last item in the anthology, featuring as it does a place which exudes the very essence of Spring from somewhere that I know and love very, very well.

Crows: the harbingers of death

Crows: the harbingers of death

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

I confess that when I first found out about this book – struck by the cover in a bookshop window – thought it was a beautiful tale of nature writing. That, it definitely is. I should have known really, after all, crows are the harbingers of death.

This is a book about grief, and loss, and adjusting to the death of your wife and mother to your two boys, and it is powerful reading. Half poetry, half prose, the witing is spartan and every word is carefully chosen. The honesty of it and lyrical, simplistic style reminds me of David Almonds books, but this is anything but a simplistic story.

This is definitely not a story for the faint-hearted. It is a story to make you think though.

Rediscovering the Old Ways

Rediscovering the Old Ways

The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot by Robert Macfarlane

This book is not quite what I expected. Not that I really knew much of what I did expect. I imagined that it might be travel writing by a man walking the old ways (the tracks, roads, and laylines of the past) and discovering are flora, fauna, culture, and history along the way. I wouldn’t say that its not that, but its not that imediately.

In fact it’s fair to say that Robert Macfarlane’s writing style took a little getting used to but by the time I got the chapters on walking across the Broomway or sailing in Scottish waters I was in love with the rhythm and movement and stories of the chapters; each one and essay of not just the old ways that we have trod, but the old ways that we have lived.

This is a book to inspire you to get out in the country and get away from the towns and cities and the rush of life and reconnect with the land and learn more about it and our history in the process.

The Book that is absolute and honest and filled with the disfunction of human nature

The Book that is absolute and honest and filled with the disfunction of human nature

The Book by Jessica Bell

Wow! Just wow! This is fast-paced, powerful story that grabs you at the first page and carries you to the very last page. Half pages of a journal (The Book) written by Bonnie’s mother and father, and half Bonnie’s own story in her own words it leads you through her conception, birth, and life. It is also interspliced with transcriptions from her meetings with her psychiatrist

We never discover exactly what Bonnie’s condition is, but I suspect that she has Aspergers or otherwise on the autism spectrum. She is ferociously intelligent and quick-witted but absolutely literal.

Jessica Bell’s writing is similarly, and absolutely, honest. It is reminiscent of Mark Haddon at his very best as she draws the nature and behavour of a cast of disfunctional but all too real and believable characters. Just make sure you’re sitting down for the ending when it hits you.

Adventures in poetry

Selected Poetry of John Clare by John Clare, edited by Jonathan Bate

It’s been a perrennial ambition of mine to read more poetry. Unlike last year when I fulfilled an aim to read Tolstoy’s War & Peace, poetry is much more of a struggle for me, and that pains me. I wonder whether that my aspergers and the way I ‘read’ things literally causes me an added problem with poetry where it is is, ‘all’ metaphor?

So why this volume of John Clare? And why now? I’ve been reading some nature writing recently, principally Melissa Harrison’s Autumn and found myself exposed to his work. I also work with Simon Kövesi – one of the leading experts on John Clare – an instigator in the biopic, By Ourselves and I have found myself drawn to find out more about the man and his poetry.

This volume, edited by Jonathan Bate, is an excellent primer to one of our finest working class, romantic poets. Obstensivly it’s just a collection of his poetry, but I found it to be so much more than that. In the way that it’s collected together it reads like an autobiography – an autobiography of verse and song. Starting with the innocence of the countryside and the village traditions, it moves through a period of ‘fame’ and into a more political phase, and then, a wayward abandom of directly critiquing society and the ruling classes, to a quiet reflection and introspection.

This is a volume of poetry that makes you realise how much we have lost of our heritage and our ways of doing things. Farming back then, was hard, backbreaking work but we were so more connected with nature and the natural rhythms of the seasons that we have lost by now. This makes me sad. At the same time, some of the most poignant of John Clare’s poetry succeeds in giving optomism for the future.

Powerful and disturbing drama from Creation Theatre

George Orwell’s 1984 is just as relevant, possibly more relevant, today as ever it was. It was and is a disturbing book, and Creation Theatre‘s production at Oxford’s Mathematical Institute was always going to be a difficult watch.

It feels odd to say it, but it was bloody fantastic, epic and powerful. It was not an easy watch though. It was both Creation Theatre at it’s best, utilising a unique space in an inventive, effective way, and totally new – normally their shows are fun and fantastic and have you come out feeling good about yourself.

The show began with us corralled us into the bar area beneath a geometrically astounding atrium with the actors heard talking through speakers from where they could be seen on the bridges above. And then we split off in our row orders to be led into the auditorium (in itself a Big Brother-esque act of separation and control). The stage itself was the underground entrance way to the building, in which we watched the action played out in front of us and on computer monitors. The theatre crew were clearly on view working away in the background like they themselves were Big Brother or the Thought Police.

The show featured nudity, scenes of a sexual nature, and simulated torture but it was absolutely in context and very cleverly portrayed. By the end of the play we are left ourselves doubting what is truth and reality. Powerful, emotive drama, absolutely worth putting yourself through if you can get to see it before it closes on Sunday 5 March.

A gut-wrenchingly open and honest not seen since Maya Angelou

Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to be a Rebel (A Memoir) by Jessica Bell

Author, illustrator, singer, and songwriter, Jessica Bell is an inspiration to everyone who knows her. There is seemingly nothing she can’t do, and nothing she can’t handle. None of us are entirely as we seem though. We all have our demons that we face, and Jessica is no different. With a life that has ranged from metroplitan Australia (her birth home) to retreats on the Greek islands, and to Athens (where she now lives), Jessica tells it as it is.

I used music to fuel my writing. As time went by, I discovered I was more easily able to express my feelings that way. The problem was, those feelings were no longer mine. They were those of the characters in my books.

Jessica is probably best known as one of the new breed of Indie Author’s, and a successful and creative cover designer. This though is not primarily that story, but one of her childhood and beyond into adulthood, and her journey to becoming a pop/rock star. It is a story that is told frankly but with periods of reflection. The Dear Reflection of the title is Bell looking at herself and talking to herself about how her life has been, and where she has succeeded, and where she has made mistakes.

From a memory of playing shop with her grandparents as a childhood to observations on life, this is a book that is so full of quotable passages I found myself highlighting something on virtually every other page. It is a joy to read, marred only by the breakneck speed of the telling. Sometimes I just wanted the author to slow down a bit, stay longer, tell us more. Even at the speed that it does take though, here is so much more to tell. Part Five, takes from 2005 right up to the present day, and yet her Indie Author career is barely touched on. I shall look forward to reading about that side of her life in the follow-up to this debut memoir.

This is a gut-wrenchingly open and honest account of a life that, by the author’s own admission, has had it’s ups and downs – or to put it another way has had ecstatic highs and crushing lows – the like of which we haven’t seen that often since Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

Sometimes hardship leads to goodness. Every day of my life, I have to remind myself of this. I have to remind myself to stop listening to my reflection declare her insecurities and scepticism.

Boom! Not just a wize-cracking, page-turning adventure…

Boom! Not just a wize-cracking, page-turning adventure...

Boom! by Mark Haddon

This was a rollercoaster of read involving school teachers and aliens, a road trip and wise-cracking dialogue. It was fast and funny but it also lackd none of Mark Haddon’s trademark portrayal of family relationships, some disfunctional and some not.

Where at one point, you thought characters were going to take you (and the story) in one direction there is constant surprise around the next corner as it lurches you on in much the same way as Craterface’s motorbike. I think I might quite like to see a spin-off story about Craterface actually and/or Becky.

Amongst the crazy-fun story, you do get to learn more how not to judge people too quickly and that we all make mistakes, and we can all be a friend to another at different times, but not necessarily all the time.

A narrative of the darkest season

A narrative of the darkest season

Winter: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons by Melissa Harrison (Editor)

Like it’s sister book, Autumn, this is not just a collection of poetry, prose, and non-fiction but a narrative of the darkest season. It takes us through the cold winter months through, frosts and fog, and flurries of snow. We feel through the words the hard, frozen ground under foot, and the wildest of storms.

Diary entries keep us locked to natures calendar with its stories of winter survival and migratory escape. There are possibly more contemporary accounts in this volume than in Autumn but the writers still range across the centuries, and with the citations and dates not given until the end of each piece it is sometimes reassuringly hard to tell, and often a surprise!

The last few collected passages gently tease us of winter’s passing, and the promise of the season to come, echoing the hope that we all feel at the end of darkest of seasons.

A beautiful book of dragons and wizards

A beautiful book of dragons and wizards

White Mountain by Sophe E. Tallis

Tolkein’s The Hobbit aside, I do not often read the sword and sorcery fantasy that involves dragons, but Sophie Tallis’ White Mountain is too beautiful a book not to read. Even in the Kindle version, the illustrations by the author shine through and help you draw you into a world – epic in scale – and under control a dark and powerful wizzard.

The story has the feel of of Elizabeth Kerner’s Song in the Silence in the way that humans, wizards, and dragons co-exist in the world. Whenever I think of dragons I thing big, Tolkien Smaug-sized beasts that dwarf the other characters, and so I did stuggle a bit with placing the size of some of the dragons we meet in this story.

Where this story succeeds marvellous is the relationship between the old, wizened Mr Agyk and his apprentice witch, Wendya, and through them their relationship with Gralen. No spoiler’s here, but the closing chapters are heartrending until the end…

Style over Story

Style over Story

So the season four finale of Sherlock was last night – don’t worry no spoilers here. As to what I made of it? Well, what can I say? On the whole, I enjoyed it, it was a good romp. But it left me somewhat unfulfilled. Where it worked best were the tiny little cases-within-a-case in the thoroughly modern and uniquely clever style.

But these cases showed up the main story-arc. Whilst these mini-cases are clearly lifted directly from Arthur Conan Doyle short stories and demonstrate Sherlock Holmes’ impossibly quick powers of deduction and reason, the frankly ridiculous story involving Sherlock’s sister(?!?) Eurus made you realise that whilst Mark Gatis is an accomplished writer and a Holmes fan, he is no Conan Doyle.

If Sherlock returns for a new series, and I do hope it does, then I really would like it to return with maybe 6 hour-long episodes that stuck more closely to the Arthur Conan Doyle stories whilst bringing them up to date in the 21st century. Remember back to the very first episode A Study in Pink that was lifted directly from A Study in Scarlet! That’s the kind of thing we need.

Winter magic in book form

Winter magic in book form

Winter Magic curated by Abi Elphinstone

Stories by Abi Elphinstone, Amy Alward, Emma Carroll, Berlie Doherty, Jamila Gavin, Michelle Harrison, Michelle Magorian, Geraldine McCaughrean, Lauren St John, Piers Torday, and Katherine Woodfine.

By their very nature, collections of short stories will be a mixed bag of winners and losers. This collection stands above that. Most collections are ‘edited by’ someone, but this book is different; this book is ‘curated by’ Abi Elphinson, and you really get the feeling that she has brought together these stories though a love of them much like objects are curated in a museum. She hasn’t touched, or changed these stories, just brought them together in one, beautiful volume.

There are some standout stories in here; A Night at the Frost Fair by Emma Carroll and Michelle Harrison’s The Voice in the Snow – proof if proof be needed that though short it maybe, a story can be big and powerful and perfect. I enjoyed The Magic of MidwinterThe Wishing Book by Piers Torday.

If it were possible to have Winter Magic: Volume II next Christmas, then it would be a treat beyond treats.

Review of the book year: 2016

Review of the book year: 2016

Only 42 books read this year, but one of those was the clasic of all clasics that is War & Peace, so I reckon that has got to equal about 6 regular books! I’ve also been fitting in more writing, not counting the training that I undertook for the 26 mile Stonehenge Trek back in September which pushed alot of things into the sidelines.

  • The Shark and the Albatross by John Aitchison
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
  • Song in the Silence by Elizabeth Kerner
  • The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone
  • The Princess and the Pea by Lauren Child
  • My Pen by Christopher Myers
  • An English Country House and Garden by Arthur J. Penn
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • My Second Life by Faye Bird
  • Shepard’s War by James Campbell
  • When the Floods Came by Clare Morrall
  • Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge
  • Jess the Goth Fairy by Jess Hiles
  • Shtum by Jem Lester
  • Hidcote by Helene Gammack
  • The Spider in the Corner of the Room by Nikki Owen
  • Day of the Vikings by J.F. Penn
  • Family, Friendships, Landscapes by Hugh Cecil
  • Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham
  • The Killing Files by Nikki Owen
  • The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
  • The Pier Falls & Other Stories by Mark Haddon
  • Rain by Melissa Harrison
  • The Other Alice by Michelle Harrison
  • Jonathan Unleashed by Meg Rosoff
  • Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
  • Swallowdale by Arthur Ransome
  • Broughton Castle by Paul Barker
  • In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll
  • The Map of Bones by Francesca Haig
  • Peter Duck by Arthur Ransome
  • Autumn by Melissa Harrison
  • Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel
  • The Trees by Ali Shaw
  • Under the Paw by Tom Cox
  • The Plumdog Path to Perfection by Emma Chichester Clark
  • Talk to the Tail by Tom Cox
  • Asterix and the Missing Scroll by Jean-Yves Ferri
  • The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore
  • What To Look For In Winter by E.L. Grant Watson
  • The Good, the Bad and the Furry by Tom Cox
  • How it Works: The Grandparent by Jason Hazeley

Books to recommend from this year? It’s a varied list but for all kinds of different reasons The Other Alice, Fingers In The Sparkle Jar, The Map of Bones, My Second Life, and Under The Paw. I also found time to re-read some childhood favourites, and for that reason I give you Swallows and Amazons.