Perks of being a reader

Amongst all the debate about Kathleen Hale’s piece in the Guardian and the Goodreads reviewer allegedly* hit over the head with a bottle by an enraged author, I want to put my emphasis on the positive aspects of reading and reviewing.

*it is under police investigation at present


10 reasons to review - with examples

  1. Finding works and writers you never expected – Gail Carriger’s Etiquette & Espionage, China Mieville’s Railsea, Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne Trilogy, Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who …series
  2. Seeing  authors grow and change over time – Frances Hardinge, Chris Priestley, Celia Rees, Jonathan Stroud
  3. Developing relationships within the community – readers, writers, publicists, editors. Chutzpah pays off.  My experience so far has been overwhelmingly good. I love it when I tweet or comment and make someone’s day – or I get hold of a book I really wanted.
  4. Improving your understanding of the book market. I’ve much more idea of age-ranges, the style of different imprints and the likely readership than I had before.
  5. Matching the right book with the right reader. I cannot emphasise this enough. A reviewer’s purpose is to unite the people who like that-sort-of-thing with their preferred reading material. It’s not for me to judge – the thing’s been written. I know what love and care goes into the vast majority of writing for young people that I read – what earthly good could come of me slagging it off?
  6. Investigating good and sometimes great writing. How does it work? What can I steal?  [ Please don’t take that too literally] Even with works that really aren’t my thing, I have learned a lot by thinking about why.
  7. Inspiring me to write. We’re all ‘just adding pebbles to the cairn’ as Maeve Binchy put it so beautifully. Not rivals – fellow creators.
  8. Receiving books for free – how wonderful is that? If I can bear to, I pass appropriate ones to my local library – doubly pleasing.
  9. Occasionally getting books well before they come out. I feel so honoured when that happens. Hint hint publishers!
  10. Pleasure.
MESSY BOOKCASE

Shelfie

I mostly write for Serendipity Reviews and occasionally for Fantasy Book Review. I read the whole book – or I don’t review it. Why not join me?

 

Character Actress

I’d never make a Hollywood leading lady – but I can do character.

This evening I am braving possible thunderstorms and the rumblings of my own trepidation to attend  the annual SCBWI BI Agents Party at Foyles Grand Design of a new bookshop. Choosing what to wear was tricky enough – but archfiend Nick Cook has issued us with a second badge.

We have to select one character from children’s lit we’d like to be. Crumbs. Where to start? All of them is not an acceptable answer. One close to me seems good.

Hermione? Well, I am a bit of know-it-all but she is too recent. If I included all the  children’s characters I have grown to love as an adult, it would be impossible. Also I suspect Hermione will be very popular – as will delightful bookworm Matilda.

Eowyn? I think that’s cheating. OK I read LOTR when I was still a child but she’s not really a children‘s character. So how about Alan Garner’s Susan? Could be – I was utterly convinced that a bracelet of my grandmother’s with blue tear-drop stones was a magical talisman – and I’d get two books to inhabit (three if you count ‘Boneland’).

What about the other Susan – Narnian queen and healer ? Well, putting aside The Problem of Susan for another day, she does get four books to go at – but she is a bit of a bystander. I feel like that with Jane Drew in ‘The Dark is Rising’ books – I don’t really remember her that well.

That goes for many others – and I won’t pick ones I only really know from films or TV. Princess Eilonwy from The Chronicles of Prydain is too pretty, and so too is Princess Irene. Never could  be doing with that. I will admit to fancying a few ‘baddies’ , though. Empress Jadis of Charn – who wouldn’t want to  be remembered this way?

But she was a dem fine woman, sir, a dem fine woman.

That’s grown up me speaking, I suspect. Still, I’m far more fond of Captain Hook than Tinker Bell or Wendy – though I do have soft spot for Tiger Lily. She used bow-and-arrows in my mind – and how marvellous was that?

Of course, I can gender-swap. That gives me Kay Harker and Eustace Scrubb. Yes I know – Eustace is a complete prig – but he gets to be a dragon and learns his lesson. I’ve always loved that. I can identify with the miseries and misfits – Eeyore, Puddleglum, Bard the Bowman [though he gets a bit grand].

Well, time has run out. I have made my choice. If you’re at the Agents Party, you’ll know. If not, I will reveal all tomorrow.

All fuss and fairytales

There has been quite a bit of uproar about Richard Dawkins supposed opinions on Fairy tales and their effect on children.

Do listen to https://audioboo.fm/boos/2226602-richard-dawkins-fairy-tales-can-be-beneficial-for-children to hear what Richard Dawkins actually said on Radio 4 and if you want some silly fun, follow  on Twitter.

I don’t intend to comment on over-simplified reporting or whether Mr Dawkins stirred up controversy for the sake of notoriety – whilst these are interesting topics, this is a blog about writing after all.

What I do want to do is to celebrate the love for fairy tales and fantasy I share with thousands of others – and to think about why this is a good thing.

First of all, stories must entertain – and stories with magic of one sort or another can absolutely enthrall both children and adults. The glorious inventiveness of, say Catherynne  M.Valente or Frances Hardinge, uses enchantment to engage. We delight in sheer ingenuity  – and that I think has much to do with Einstein’s point of view.

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” EINSTEIN

Secondly, all stories that last act as settings for things we hold precious. They let us experience the results of hope and courage, love and steadfastness for example. They teach, more or less obviously through fable, and the wonder of the fairytale world helps us remember what we learned all the more.

Of course, realistic fiction can do this too – but for those with a taste for the extra-ordinary, characters like Iorek Byrnisson or Eowyn thrill us more. There’s more connection with these invented characters, their largeness and other-worldliness gives us space to explore ideas and emotions.

fairy-tales-are-more-than-true-not-because-they-tell-us-that-dragons-exist-but-because-they-tell-us-that-dragons-can-be-beaten-GKChesterton

My third and final point is more contentious. The first two could be agreed with by the most ardent rationalist – unless they regard all fiction as irresponsible lies.

However, I do hold with ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. It is the storyteller’s role to leave room for the numinous. My experience is that the deepest, most treasured parts of human life cannot be measured, weighed, dissected or rationalised  – and the wisest stories allow for this.

It should remain for the reader to explore how much is metaphor or magic – and how much is ‘real’.

I leave the last word to Joanne Harris via Katherine Langrish’s excellent blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles.

A story can bring down a government; or steal away a child’s heart; or build a religion; or just make us see the world differently. Storytellers come and go, but stories never die. And if that isn’t magic, then I don’t know what is.

 

Black & white engraving of a beautiful enchantress

The Enchantress by Howard Pyle [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What you should read – if you fancy it

A shameless variation on Janet Potter’s great idea found here.

WRITERS! 

Are you stuck for an idea?

Do your settings lack oomph?

Could your characters do with a fillip?
Still using the same old phrases?
LOOK NO FURTHER-

the solution is at hand…

Semmelweis - as a boy in 1830.

The best answer I know is in reading:

  • Read the books from the charity shop that have been scribbled in.
  • Read the artists’ statements beside weird stuff you love and don’t know why. Some are voiced with pretentious twaddle – others with magic.
  • Read old guide books to places you can never go.
  • Read tacky tourist maps – especially the badly translated. Follow trails and Blue Plaques. Those noticeboards that pigeons crap on.
  • Read ghost advertisements on the sides of brick walls. The nicknames of old streets. Half torn down posters. House names and pub signs.ghost-sign
  • Read biographies and newspaper announcements – hatches, matches and dispatches. Gravestones and alabaster monuments. Church leaflets and the lists of vicars, bellringers and flower rotas. Notices outside synagogues, mosques, and temples. Amazing names throng places of worship.
  • Read entries in historical directories for your town. Two Yeast Importers and three Tripe Dressers in Scarborough 1890 – who knew?
  • Read the handwritten ads on the shoe-shop window. Enjoy the rAnDom capital’s and folk punctuation.
  • Read pulp fiction and poetry, textbooks and travel writing. Steal unashamedly. Not just fragments of people, and glimpses of places but turns of phrase. And with novels – nick dirty great chunks of plot. If JMW Turner chose to copy Claude and many others to learn – why shouldn’t you?
  • Read magazines about interests that aren’t yours. Enquire within
  • Read vintage catalogues and recipe books, Shell Guides,  Enquire Within and tatty old National Geographics.
  • Read without shame – comics and battered Readers Digests, lurid trashy paperbacks that predate you, high-minded difficult stuff you ‘ought’ to have read before, things your friends hate.
  • Read again collections of fairy stories and folktales. Seek out urban myths and ‘true’ ghost stories.
  • Read Old Bailey trial reports and yellowy newspaper cuttings found as bookmarks.
  • Read anything and everything. Question it all.A girl reads a newspaper painted by Georgios Jakobides c.1882What would you add to my list?

Shake out those shelves

Of course you want more book suggestions to feed your habit…

Boromir-on-books

You want a courageous heroine – here’s a baker’s dozen of them:

  • The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – get two for the price of one – Bonnie and Sylvia.
  • My Name is Mina – Mina is imaginative, fragile and full of creative courage.
  • Jane Eyre – “I am a free human being with an independent will.” Enough said.
  • Chantress – Lucy, who finds her own voice in the midst of upheaval. A remarkable story full of the truth of creativity.
  • Matilda -“I’m wondering what to read next.” Matilda said. “I’ve finished all the children’s books.” Roald Dahl at his best.
  • The Ransom of Dond – Darra shows the courage of love in a beautiful myth.
  • Coraline – for goodness’ sake, read the book. She did not need a male sidekick to face the Other Mother.
  • A Face like Glass – Neverfell,  with her honesty and her expressions take on Caverna. A marvellous fantasy, with depth – and cheese.
  • The Visitors – deafblind Adeliza Golding is no Victorian victim!
  • The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland - Once you’ve met September, it’s hard to forget her.
  • Charlotte’s Web – I never thought I could love a spider.
  • The Book Thief –  ah lovely Liesel, naughty and curious and so alive.

yellow-tutu-girl

Escape to the country?

Each of these is so evocative of the place you will either want to dash there immediately – or avoid it like a sink-hole.