The opposite of a pageturner

The opposite of a pageturner

coverJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I like this book, but it is not a page turner. It reads like a Dickensian, Victorian drama, but Dickens it is not. I feel bad for not loving this book from the outset because so many people I know and who’s opinions I trust have loved this book, but conversely I also know people who have struggled. It’s been on my radar to read for several years but it is a big book – a very big book – and now never seemed the right time. I remember seeing a photo that a friend posted of who she made the book more manageable by doing the unthinkable to a book and slitting the spine in half and making it two volumes for the bus!

My catalyst for reading it now, was the major BBC TV adaptation of it this year, and for this reason I am glad that I’ve read it, but it is a book that is hardwork, and a very long slog. I mentioned how it reads like a Dickensian drama: possibly of the worst kind. A Dickensian drama it is not, and I think it is overlong. The story could have been tighter, and shorter, whilst being no less epic.

Also, I found myself wondering who I should be caring for? Jonathan Strange? Or Mr Norrell? Neither are particularly likeable. I think I might have been tempted to side more with The Gentleman, or The Raven King himself.

Suffolk Stories

Suffolk Stories

We had a bit of a quieter day today, heading off to Snape Maltings mid-morning to see an exhibition by the intriguingly-named Jelly Green; a local artist who usually paints livestock but in this exhibiton was showcasing more landscapes. We had a potter round some of the other crafty and antiques shops, and a home furnishings store that makes John Lewis look like cheap tat…

Then we had lunch on the quay before driving north up the coast to my all time favourite childhood haunt of Covehithe. St Andrew’s Church at Covehithe is the tiniest parish church you’ll ever find with the biggest, most out of proportion tower attached – its built in the ruins of an older church. The church never needed to be the size it was, but was built large and grand to show the status and wealth of its benefactor. Now, it sits perilously close to a crumbling cliff edge, and we’re told the latest estimates is that it only has until 2068 before it is swallowed up by the sea along with the manor house and cottages that surround it.

It used to be that you could either park at the church and walk down to Covehithe Broad, or drive on down the road and park up just before a barrier and talk along the cliffs to Benacre Broad. Now there is only one option, to park by the church and walk down through fields of pigs to the beach, and double-back (so long as the tide allows) for a 2 mile walk down the beach to get to Benacre. With a threatening sky, and the fear of less tide time than we thought, we saw sandmartins nesting in the cliffs, a WW2 bunker falling out the cliffs, and driftwood in the making from trees from the woodland above as they slipped onto the beach. 

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I have also come up with a new idea for a story based on Covehithe church. This one is a dark tale set 60 years from now. It’s not post-apocolyptic but it is a world where there are energy shortages, and electricity is rationed. Not everyone has cars anymore, dual carriageways have become spacious boulevards, and using The Internet is something you can only do at The Library (unless you are very well off), and the church of protagonists childhood is living on the borrowed time on the cliff edge as another storm is coming in from the sea.

The Story of Fairy Tales

The Story of Fairy Tales

21920805Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner

This is a must read for anyone and everyone who loves Fairy Tale. Published as one of Oxford University Press’ brilliant and incredible Short Introduction series of books and written by one of the world’s authorities on the subject this is a book to keep with you as companion to everything you read, and everywhere you go.

It’s one of those books that makes you want to quote from it on just about every, single, page. Its incredibly insightful, and very, very readable. I’ve learnt a lot, and I’ve also added a ton of stories and books and documentaries to my To Read/Watch/Listen to pile.

The Sixteen Day Weekend

On the eve of going back to work tomorrow its time for a little bit of a round-up of the last two weeks which have seen me largely oblivious to what day it was. There was our professional photoshoot near the beginning of the holiday which featured 300 photos, 7 cats, 3 chickens, 2 bad bunnies and a couple of humans, which was good fun and we got some good shots that we will probably (and sadly) never be able to afford to get printed (or even have the digital files from).

The real day-confusion though, I guess it all started a week last Friday on my Birthday. Emma took me to see Bekonscot Model Village – I always thought it was Beaconsfield (which it is in) Model Village when I have seen it on the brown signs on the M40 ever since I first came to the Oxford area twenty years ago(!). It’s a fantastic place full of childhood wonder…

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The thing is, that day out (and the Prezzo meal that followed it) made it seem a bit Saturday-ish (appropriately enough for our wedding anniversary any celebration-plans were dampened by waiting in all day for the Gas Man to Cometh and fix the boiler), and then we did Sunday-ish things on Saturday, so by the time we got to the bank holiday weekend I really didn’t know what day it was!

Then it got really confusing, because on Tuesday we went off to celebrate my belated-birthday with my Mum and Dad for a couple of days (after that is, the Gas Man Returneth to actually fix the boiler). We went to a very nice nursery in Suffolk where we got my present from my parents which was in the form of an Espallier Royal Russett Apple tree for the garden. Then we went out to the dinner at the local hotel in a failed attempt to stalk the Springwatch team…

11109279_10153274860950630_1718929694820422193_nWednesday saw us making the short trip down to RSPB Minsmere for some more Springwatch-stalking. Within moments of us entering the (appropriately-named) Bittern Hide, not one, but two bitterns flew in from the right and landed in the reedbeds right in front of us. One of them proceeded to wade and swim out of the reeds in front of us. Brilliant stuff! We also heard them boom, and paid our respects to Spineless Simon, and heard the guys talking about an adder called Baldrick. :-)

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So, by the time we got to drive off into the sunset on Wednesday, whether it was Wednesday or Sunday (or indeed which Sunday) was really, all very confused. I could really do with another holiday. Oh, wait, in just nine working days time I will be getting one. :-)

The Story of Lewis (as seen through the eyes of Alice)

The Story of Lewis (as seen through the eyes of Alice)

24664952The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and The Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

I don’t read nearly as much non-fiction as I should, and hardly any biographies. Usually when I do read biographies I start off with enthusiasm only to flail and fall flat about 70-100 pages in (aka. get bored).

Not so with this all to readable new biography of Lewis Carroll, which I chanced upon when I heard it serialised on the BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week strand. It’s actually more, the story of the real Alice (or Alices) behind the Wonderland book, and through her the life of the man who wrote, photographed, and adored her.

Lewis Carroll was clearly an odd kind of character, and there has been much that has been speculated about what his motives and actions were, particularly when it comes to the blanked out and removed sections to his journals. That he loved children, it is without doubt, but through reading this account of his life, I think it is clear that he loved children only so far as either in relation to the time in which he lived (girls married much younger often to older men), or to that he was still very much a child himself in the world. To read anything further or untoward, is I think wrong.

Particularly in the first two parts of this book which deal with Before, and During Alice, it is packed with the most quoteable lines and insights, to feed your own Oxford/Alice/Wonderland stories. It’s a biography to make you want to read or re-read the two Alice books, time, and time again.

Dark, disturbing, and distopian

Dark, disturbing, and distopian

Adobe Photoshop PDFThe Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig

This is a dark and disturbing, distopian vision of the future. It’s set in a post-apocolyptic world – where The Blast is a thing of history. In this world everybody is born with a twin, and every pair of twins are born, one healthy and one disfigured in some way. Once they know which is which, they are branded and separated; the Alphas to live a good life of plenty, and the Omegas to be sent away. They would be destroyed if they could be, but they can’t as, just every pair of twins are born together, so they feel pain together, and will die together.

The Fire Sermon is a Big, ambitious book that is clearly the beginning of something bigger – a trilogy at the least I would guess. Cass, an Omega who manages to hide her disfigurment for years is a seer, but it is not her ability to see into the future that protects her and keeps her safe but it is her instinctiveness for what is right and wrong. In this she is unusual as she battles in her quest to find somewhere where she can be safe, and just stop running.

I read this book with no prior knowledge of what to expect, but the follow up story, when it comes will be highly anticipated.

Safety in numbers

Safety in numbers

On Friday I headed into London to take part in the Live In London fringe event to the IndieRecon 2015 conference. IndieReCon, now in its third year is a free, online, conference for Indie Authors. I remember chancing on it three years ago not long after I published my first novel, and it has continued to educate and inspire. This year, the timing of the conference was put back to coincide with the London Book Fair, and the fringe event staged in world-famous Foyles Bookstore was organised.

To say I wasn’t absolutely, completely, terrified at the prospect of going would have been somewhat of an understatement however, as always with these things, I think that just goes to show how amazing it was going to be.

Amongst about 150 other Indie Rooms, I got to listen to some interesting, educational, and just downright inspirational talks and discussions from some of the biggest players in the Indie Author world. I also got to meet some other writers, some of whom are local to Oxford. I think there might be a real future in an ALLi Oxford group, eh, Dan Holloway and JA Lang?

Aside from coming away from the conference excited that my forthcoming audiobook of Mr Tumnal is right on trend with where publishing is going, I have two specific actions to take forward: a) to move my non-Amazon print books from Createspace to IngramSpark inline with the Authors4Bookstores, and b) to edit and polish my spin-off Mr Tumnal story as an exclusive download for anyone signing up for my newsletter, and through this try and directly communicate with my readers and fans.

I’ve met a whole host of new people, who I hope will become friends. It was a truly inspiring day!

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A tale of delirium and disillusionment

A tale of delirium and disillusionment

20625696Vixen by Rosie Garland

The old adage goes that you should never judge a book by its cover. It’s true that I adore the cover of this book, and it’s also true that I decided to read this book because of the cover, which I guess in part means that my friend, the cover designer, did a really good job!

It wasn’t until I had this book in front of me that I realised that it’s author, Rosie Garland, was also the singer in Goth Band, the March Violets, who featured on the soundtrack to one of my favourite 80’s movies, Some Kind Of Wonderful. I know, completely unrelated, fascinatingly uninteresting fact for you.

This is an interesting, clever read in alluringly poetic and lyrical prose, that follows the arrival of the great plague to a village in Devon. It is told from the perspective of three protagonists, a Priest, a girl, and their maid (the Vixen or fox of the title). Where is starts off gentle and beautiful, we are plunged int disalusionament and delirium as our protagonists surcumb to the symptons and fate of the Black Death.

Writing Week: Day 4

Writing Week: Day 4

The day has been a little more overcast today than it has been, but no less pleasant. I busied myself with jobs this morning, getting the house all cleaned (in the full knowledge that with seven pesky cats, at least one of them would bring half the garden in with them and deposit it all over the floors – I think my efforts have actually survived quite well!).

And then suddenly it was lunchtime, so I made myself a nice chicken and ham salad, and sat outside and munched it whilst reading another chapter of The Story of Alice. Then I switched back to the novel du jour, Rosie Garland’s Vixen (which I’m discovering is a curious, very well written, but not entirely pleasant tale. And then after a chapter of that, I set to my own writing….

Another 1000 words or so done, and another chapter completed. If I can get another 1000 words written over the course of the weekend (weekend’s are usually less productive than weekdays, I find) then I’ll achieved a nice 10% of my novel written, which I think is a very good start.

 

 

7054 / 80000 words. 9% done!

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Writing Week: Day 3

Writing Week: Day 3

I have certainly picked a good week to have off, with another day of glorious sunshine and outside living, and another day giving my shorts an airing. I didn’t feel like the words have been burning quite as fiercely today (although I did manage another 1000 words so  clearly they must have been), however I do now know an awfully lot more about this story and where its going.

What I’m not so sure about is at what point Louis is going to re-enter the story, but then when he left book one at the end of part two I wasn’t sure exactly when he would reappear. The alternate Lewis has made some appearances in flashback and I’m enjoying the ‘other side of the story’ nature of alot of this book.

5943 / 80000 words. 7% done!

I’ve also been reading more today. Vixen, the book I chose to read based on the cover being designed by a ‘social media friend’ and sister of a colleague, is proving to be an intriguing and enjoyable read. Written in almost poetic beauty about villagers in Devon at the time of the Black Death, I was amused to find that its author Rosie Garland was a singer in a band who sung on the soundtrack to the 1980s film Some Kind of Wonderful.

Inspired by this week’s Radio 4 Book of the Week, I’ve also started reading the non-fiction book The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, partly because I’ve discovered that Mr Tumnal 2: The Imaginary Wife has echoes of Lewis Carroll and of Alice.

Writing Week: Day 2

Writing Week: Day 2

Took myself off on a bike ride today into town to stock up on ink cartridges to fuel my week’s writing and to pick up some more soft fruit and daffodils. I also planted our new plants and dug a big hole to bury Miss Wiggy at the back of the vegetable patch where she used to enjoy dust baths.

One of the joys of holidays is discovering by chance a really good book by way of BBC Radio 4’s Book Of The Week. I don’t know what was wrong with the advertised programme, but I’m really happy that it’s The Story Of Alice. Whilst I was in town I popped in to our local Indie bookstore and had a look at it. It’s a hefty tome… I think that it might be one for the kindle!

Today has been a glorious Spring day with warmth and sun, and I felt the need to reacquaint myself with my knees and dig out my shorts for the first time this year. It’s been one of those days when I’ve possibly not been that active, but I feel healthy because I’ve been outside all day. And I have been productive too – another 1000 words or so done. This novel is beginning to come together in mind.

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5047 / 80000 words. 6% done!

Writing Week: Day 1

Writing Week: Day 1

After the Easter Break, my plan was to devote some serious time to my writing. Today is that weird and wonderful day that sits between Easter hols and annual leave – the random extra day that those of us are given in the university sector.

It was one of those perfect days where I was productive (did washing, touched up paintwork in the house, re-oiled some bookshelves), relaxed (read some more of a good book in the garden), and I still had time to lose myself for an afternoon in my own writing – and in the garden and the Spring sunshine too.

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3761 / 80000 words. 5% done!

A dark and nasty (but gripping) read

A dark and nasty (but gripping) read

21480930Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn probably describes this story best as “dark and nasty” at the end of the author interview that features at the end of the book. At it’s heart this is a really, really simple story of a wife who suddenly goes missing on her wedding anniversary an no one knows what’s happened to her.

It’s a page-turning thriller that will keep you gripped (and intrigued) to the very end. When I first heard of this book I knew nothing about it, and as I read it, I kept wondering what direction it was going to take. It’s a story that from the beginning could so easily take a magic realism turn. Is Amy real or a figment of Nick’s imagination? Is Nick the imaginary one? Has Amy been created somehow by Amy’s writer parents? In the end it’s clear that this is taking an all too real thriller.

Far from the simple story, this is a Big book, and a complex read full of twists and turns that will keep you guessing right up to the very, last, page. It’s a perfect example of how there are two sides to every story. As the story oscilates between Amy’s story and Nick’s so the reader’s allegances change. Is Amy a good girl wronged by Nick? Is Nick the innocent party. It soon becomes clear that nothing is that simple and clear cut.

As to what happens after the final page…? We can only speculate…

Companion-piece to a modern classic

Companion-piece to a modern classic

25114590The Collectors by Philip Pullman

When the existence of this new short story set in the His Dark Materials universe popped up on my social media feed, I bought it straight away! It’s the most gorgeously perfect little spin off short story that lets you relish in the best bits of Lyra’s world.

I say Lyra’s world but we don’t actually know which world we are in – I suspect an altogether new one as there are no daemon’s. It’s a story about a painting and a sculpture and is a must read for anyone who wondered what really did happen to Mrs Coulter.

Published now to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the publication of Northern Lights I am reminded of exactly where I was when I discovered these books, right back there at the beginning. It was by chance, in the Winchester branch of Waterstone’s. I knew nothing of this book except for the Carnegie medal on the cover and the front cover printed free of both title and author (these reserved for the back) to let the illustration of the Alethiometer to tempt you in. I would refer to this front illustration often as I devoured this book, and tried to read it as Lyra might have.

The Collectors is a fitting celebration of Lyra’s Oxford, and the twenty year’s of joy and inspiration that those books have brought me. My only criticism is that there does not seem to be a print copy to buy.

Acquainting myself with the Discworld

Acquainting myself with the Discworld

13536272Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

There are apparently different ‘entry’ points to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, and in retrospect, I suspect that year’s ago when I read The Colour of Magic – it being the first – was probably the wrong decision.

Equal Rites was much more my kind of book from the start. Not knowing much about the Discworld universe, it was nice to be seeing the story through, and wanting to side with, the character of the Esk, a girl who should have been the eighth son of an eighth son, and thus the next wizard in the family. We learn about Pratchett’s wizarding world as she learns about them, and my relationship with this book is all going very well for at least the first half of the book with nice remisinces of Diana Wynne Jones…

Until they reach the Unseen University, and it takes an altogether weirder – and probably Pratchettesque – turn with an (I found) increasingly annoying omnisicient narrator. There’s nothing wrong with omnisicent narrators but I do like them to be couched in the world of the story too, and not as this one was, talking at us with an all-knowing, Earth-based knowledge.

Coming to Sir Terry too late

Coming to Sir Terry too late

23346759Truckers: The First Book of the Nomes by Terry Pratchett

When Terry Pratchett sadly died last week I felt terrible guilt that I had not fallen in love with his books in the way that so many people (and most of my friends had). I remember his books being recommended to me, in particular his Discworld books, and read the first in the series – The Colour of Magic – accordingly. I remember being distinctly underwhelmed by it to the point that I didn’t read any more.

In the days after Terry Pratchet’s death I discovered that there are several ‘entry’ points to the series, and that The Colour of Magic is not one of the better one’s and that I am not alone in missing out on the books. I went and purchased two books to start me off, this one, and Equal Rites to kick start the Discworld books.

Truckers is a delightful modern fairy tale with echoes of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers and Diana Wynne Jones’ The Power of Three and is set squarely in our here and now real world. But its a different take on our world. It’s our world seen through new eyes, that don’t understand our enviroment and interpret what they see through their own frames of reference. It’s very much the kind of fantasy that I am at home with.

My second solar eclipse

My second solar eclipse

When I woke up this morning I really thought that my luck was going to be out when it came to enjoying a second partial solar eclipse with a sky of leaden grey clouds. Emma had made me a box projector though, and I wasn’t going to be defeated, so I went to work, feeling sure that maybe, the greyness was a bit brighter.

On 11 August 1999 I experienced my first solar eclipse. I remember that day perfectly. I was working in the Journals Marketing department at OUP as a temp (yes, I was then still yet to land my first permanent, full-time job), my home computer consisted of an aging black and white laptop running Windows 3.1, and my mobile phone was the size of a brick and made calls, and only calls, in the UK only. The day was bright blue sky and sunshine and we spent half an hour in the office going to the window with our Eclipse glasses and checking the status of the eclipse, before doing a bit more work, then looking again, until…

…everyone decamped outside to the small car park at the back of the building to watch the main event. I remember the birds stopped singing, and the light – it didn’t get dark – went to this weird, washed out, colourless daylight.

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Sixteen year’s on and, I’ve been in full-time work for sixteen years now (with a brief hiatus into temping after I got replaced by a machine), I have constant contact to email, social media is not just a Thing but part of my Job Title, my mobile fits in my pocket, sends and receives texts, goes on the internet, and, if I’m lucky makes telephone calls.

This year, the weather was altogether uncertain. I carried my pinhole projector into work, and upon entering the office, Kirsty was quick to suggest that I was going to be disappointed, that the leaden grey skies were going to remain through and beyond the eclipse time.

Then, a moment of brightness. We looked out the windows, and could see the sun, and the moon already taking a bite out of the sun! We must have been on the border line of sun and cloud and the weather gods played nice for us, as the clouds parted to allow us to view the eclipse. Back in 1999, the path of totality crossed Cornwall and in Oxford we must have had about 95% eclipse. Today, we had only 85% and you could see the difference in light. The day did darken but not, I thought, as much as it did 16 years ago. But the cold, it got so cold – cold as night – but in the middle of the day. Just incredible.

Our next partial eclipse will not be for another 11 years, when totality will miss the UK completely again but we will get 90% coverage as it sweeps down north to south to the west of us on 12 August 2026. Get those Eclipse glasses at the ready…

A Saga of Epic Proportions

22740513A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1) by George R.R. Martin

Game of Thrones is a phenonemon that everyone seems to read and/or watched and have been raving about. I actually ended up reading this pretty much concurrently with watching season one of the TV series which might or might not have been a good idea, although I have to say it does seem to be a pretty faithful adaptation.

This is a Big book with a sprawling cast of characters. I was reminded of what Diana Wynne Jones said about maps in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland as I waded through pages and pages of maps at the beginning and wondered how I would keep track of things – short of The Wall in the distant north I’m not sure if I ever really did.

The book is also what I would describe (for want of a better word) as classic ‘sword’n’sorcery’ or high fantasy – the stuff of swords and swordplay, dragons and deception, and battles, whereas ‘my’ kind of fantasy is more your ‘realworld fantasy’ or magical realism. That said I enjoyed the way that the stories (for there are many) are character driven and are told through chapters that are for and about single characters. In this way I felt it was a bit like an Icelandic Saga of old.

My favourite stories were the one’s that involved the young, the in-experienced, or the cast out, who are set to find themselves and learn who it is they must defeat to stay alive. Thus, I found myself most engaged with Bran, Arya, Jon, and Daenerys: all characters to survive until the next book.