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.

It’s my birthday and I’ll blog if I want to…

I hope you’re singing that – or at least humming along.

I though I’d use my birthday privileges to blather on about my Hundred Book Challenge – which is now well over the ton, by the way.

I was given Brian Aldiss’ Frankenstein Unbound by an older girl on whom I had a crush at Wakefield Girls High School. I had never encountered that sort of Science Fiction before – erudite, serious and yet happy to play with previous literature. Rather mind expanding.

Frankenstein's monster stands in a moonlit graveyard

Artwork by Chris Priestley

As is its source – Mary Shelley’s astonishing Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. Such huge ideas begun at 18 and published at 20 – inspiring stuff. It also led to the dark and rather moving Mister Creecher by Chris Priestley - I loved the way my sympathy was shifted from one character to another so deftly. I have to say this idea of messing about with Proper Books is a refreshing one to me – watch out the Brontes and Miss Austen.

I have a soft spot for the Gothick imagination – so I will give Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl the mention it could have had. Not only is it beautifully produced but it is fun.

A girl in a purple Regency dress holds up a ghost mouse.

Next on my list is The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. You can’t really use the word epic now because of the baggage labels dangling from it – but I loved the scale of it all, that similarity to saga on one hand and the baroque complexity on the other. I revel in books where the amazing intersects the everyday without one character blinking.

To be honest I don’t really know what the difference is between magical realism and fantasy. I am not sure that I care. I just know that I adore the books that nurture wonder in me. Which leads me like a Will-o’-the-wisp to David Almond and My Name is Mina.

It was dreadfully difficult to choose just one of his – but I settled on Mina for the playfulness and experimentation. It references and informs Skellig, of course – yet stands on its own. It’s a bit bonkers and I’m not at all sure about it – but that’s what’s good. I have learned to enjoy the challenging and the flawed and the downright weird.

Sir Gawain is confronted by a huge green knight - with an axe.

My final choice this time, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, surely comes under the weird category. I love its alliteration [this is the Tolkien translation, unsurprisingly] – and the language. It’s my dialect – near enough, and I will always have time for the honest, the earthy and the Northern. So Ted Hughes Remains of Elmet is in there and A Kestrel for a Knave [Kes] Barry Hines ought to be.

Fay Goodwin’s photographs in my edition of Ted Hughes’ poetry are soaked in the spirit of the Pennines, and the film Kes was shot close to where I used to live. I love all that grim-up-north brooding intensity – but I also love send-ups. How on earth could I have missed out Stanley Bagshaw and the Twenty Two Ton Whale? Glorious mickey-taking fun from Bob Wilson.

In Huddersgate, famed for its tramlines,

Up North where it’s boring and slow

Stanley Bagshaw resides with his grandma

At Number 4 Prince Albert Row…

 

Addenda

Some more thoughts on The 100-book Challenge.

Don't panic They're only Vogons -by Bob Jonkman CC

Of course, I reserve the right to alter, update and generally mess around with my own list. Inevitably, I found dreadful omissions – and I have reconsidered putting other forms of writing in. Surely they deserve their own list?

The most interesting thing for me was seeing the connections and clusters of influences on my own writing – sparkling like dewdrops on a cobweb. None of that will make sense to you, Dear Reader, if I do not spell out what I see as the highlights. A heap of books is quite interesting in itself – but how much more so if someone enthuses with joy and detail.

So here goes.

The first book leads me to a facet I admire in other writers – but haven’t even attempted – humour. Douglas Adams’ Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had such unexpected comedy – it was a new and startling thing. Could you do that in Science Fiction? It appeared you could. The vigour of it all is something I aspire to – and the joyous use of words.  Such characters ! Who can forget Slartibartfast and the coast of Norway, Marvin the Paranoid Android – or Vogon Poetry?

In this batch, I’m going to include the anarchic and bitter Catch-22 by Joseph Heller , Henry Tumour by Anthony McGowan, and The Radleys by Matt Haig. They all deal with dark and important things – without being po-faced. Any book that can make me laugh and cry has to be good.

Some where close by, I’d have to stack Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons – replete with Starkadders, sukebind, and Graceless, Aimless, Feckless, and Pointless the cows. There’d have to be The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster – with the Jules Fieffer illustrations too. I love the ridiculous puns and have a very soft spot for the likes of Tock the Watch-dog Faintly Macabre, the not-so Wicked Which and The Mathemagician – and there’s a proper story .

Tock the Watch Dog

Richard Adams’ Watership Down comes next. I had to have this for three main reasons: it’s a saga, there’s a deep sense of landscape and there are animals that aren’t twee. I shall focus on the latter.

I am not a vegetarian – but I have thought hard about it. Generally, I don’t eat meat that I don’t know the provenance of – I buy organic or free range  or do without. Part of this is down to such reading. Almost anything by Dick King-Smith delights me – but The Sheep-Pig just tops the list.  I foolishly omitted Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty [guaranteed to make me weep buckets ] and Lloyd Alexander’s Book of Three where we meet Hen Wen the Oracular Pig for the first time from my original list. Mea culpa.

Good animal writing is tricky to pull off – but I’d have to say I still get great pleasure from Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So Stories [not to mention the wonderful, unpatronising language]. The valiant Reepicheep  made ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ just reach the top of my C.S.Lewis pile. [It has to have the original Pauline Baynes illustrations, of course.]

Reepicheep by Pauline Baynes

Third on the alphabetical list came Joan Aiken and I picked The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Two things I particularly cherish in it – alternate history (I read it late and had not known that you could do such a thing) and Winter. The use of a different ‘trouser leg of time’ [T. Pratchett, The Night Watch] leads to such wonders as much of Sir Terry’s work, and the haunting if flawed Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell by Susanna Clarke.

Ah but Winter! How that speaks to my Yorkshire soul. Three books I left out feature glorious evocations of snow: Dark Matter by Michelle Paver, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg and Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. All of these took me to crisply shown worlds and looked at them through strange and unsettling angles.

I’d have to have Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights as part of this Venn diagram – Serafina Pekkala, Iorek Byrnison, and Svalbard all inhabit my Winter imagination. So indeed does the White Witch but I can’t have another Narnia – but I will garner both The Box of Delights by John Masefield and The Children of Green Knowe into this corner. Both of these very different yet imaginative works finish a conflict between good and evil on Christmas Eve. I find it hard to think of a much more appropriate time. I’d better include Dicken’s A Christmas Carol – I do love a redemption story and I can be shamelessly sentimental at times.

I can’t believe I left out Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen – how could I forget brave Gerda and the Little Robber Girl? A wonderful Scandinavian adventure – with heroines.

The Snow Queen By Milo Winter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Next time – from Frankenstein to Sir Gawain.

Do let me know any suggestions you might have – or comments.

The Hundred-Book Challenge

Exploring the books that make me.

a little girl reads a book

I am indebted to David Rain – you can find the article about his reasoning  and the original challenge here.

The Challenge

  • list 100 books that you love
  • only ONE per author
  • any form or genre of writing is allowed – so long as you LOVE it

WARNING: this can take hours of happy research.

Here’s mine, purely in alphabetical order:

Adams, Douglas The Hitch-hikers’ Guide to the Universe
Adams, Richard Watership Down
Aiken, Joan The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Aldiss, Bryan Frankenstein Unbound
Allende, Isabel The House of the Spirits
Almond, David My Name is Mina
Anon Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Atkinson, Kate Behind the scenes at the Museum
Barber, Antonia The Ghosts
Bathurst, Bella The Lighthouse Stevensons
Blake, Quentin Mrs Armitage on Wheels
Boston, L. M. The Children of Green Knowe
Briggs, K. M. Hobberdy Dick
Bronte, Charlotte Jane Eyre
Butler-Greenfield, Amy Chantress
Clarke, Susanna Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Connolly, John The Book of Lost Things
Cooper, Susan Greenwitch
Crane, Nicholas Two Degrees West
Dahl, Roald Matilda
Doherty, Berlie Daughter of the Sea
Dowd, Siobhan The Ransom of Dond
Dunmore, Helen The Greatcoat
Dunsany, Lord The King of Elfland’s Daughter
Fox, Essie Elijah’s Mermaid
Francis, Sarah Odd Fish and Englishmen
Gaiman, Neil Coraline
Gardner, Sally Tinder
Garner, Alan The Stone Book Quartet
Gavin, Jamila Coram Boy
Gibbons, Stella Cold Comfort Farm
Gutterson, David Snow falling on Cedars
Haddon, Mark The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
Haig, Matt The Radleys
Hardinge, Frances A Face like Glass
Hardy, Thomas Collected Poetry
Harris, Joanne The Lollipop Shoes
Heller,Joseph Catch 22
Hill, Susan In the Springtime of the Year
Hodgson Burnett, Francis The Secret Garden
Hughes, Ted Remains of Elmet
Ihimaera, Witi The Whale Rider
Jansson, Tove The Summer Book
Juster, Norton The Phantom Tollbooth
Kemp, Gene The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler
Kingsley, Charles The Waterbabies
King-Smith, Dick The Sheep-Pig
Kipling, Rudyard The Just-So Stories
Lanagan, Margot The Brides of Rollrock Island
Langrish, Katherine, West of the Moon
LeGuin, Ursula A Wizard of Earthsea
Lewis, C. S. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Lively, Penelope Astercote
Macdonald, George The Princess and Curdie
MacFarlane, Robert The Old Ways
Mackay Brown, George Greenvoe
Manley-Hopkins, Gerald Major Poems
Mantel, Hilary Beyond Black
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia Love in the Time of Cholera
Mascull, Rebecca The Visitors
Masefield, John The Box of Delights
Mayne, William The Blue Book of Hob Stories
McCaughrean, Geraldine The  White Darkness
McGowan, Anthony Henry Tumour
Meade Faulkner, J. Moonfleet
Mieville, China Railsea
Monk Kidd, Susan The Secret Life of Bees
Morpurgo, Michael Grania O’Malley
Mosse, Kate The Mistletoe Bride
Murphy, Jill Five Minutes’ Peace
Newbery, Linda Lob
Nimmo, Jenny The Snow Spider
Norton, Trevor Reflections on a Summer Sea
Paver, Michelle Dark Matter
Pollock, Tom The City’s Son
Pratchett, Terry I shall wear Midnight
Price, Susan The Sterkarm Handshake
Priestley, Chris Mister Creecher
Proulx, Annie The Shipping News
Prue, Sally Cold Tom
Pullman, Philip The Northern Lights
Ruiz Zafon, Carlos The Name of the Wind
Seuss, Dr The Lorax
Shelley, Mary Frankenstein
Shreve, Anita Sea Glass
Sommer-Bodenburg, Angela The Little Vampire
Sutcliff, Rosemary Beowulf
Swift, Graham Waterland
Thomas, Edward Collected Poetry
Thompson, Kate The New Policeman
Thomson, David The People of the Sea
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings
Tremain, Rose Restoration
Valente, Catherynne M. The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland
Vickers, Salley Miss Garnett’s Angel
Vipont, Elfrida The Elephant and the Bad Baby
Walsh, Pat The Crowfield Curse
Wells, Philip Horsewhispering in the Military-Industrial Complex
Westall, Robert The Kingdom by the Sea
White, E.B. Charlotte’s Web
Zusak, Markus The Book Thief

So unsurprisingly, there are a fair few with more than a hint of fantasy or magical realism. There’s poetry and word-play in many, and definitely a sense of place pervading this selection. The sea and ghosts have a tendency to crop up – and heroines.

I am happy to put in links to The Hive ( which supports independent bookshops) for any title if you are interested – just let me know.

Now – go and do likewise. You might be surprised what you find out.

I love the SCBWI-BI Conference because…

  • I get to hug people I mostly ‘see’ on-line
  • I can talk to people who understand what a mad, wonderful thing it is we do
  • I have the chance to read something aloud that I have just written*- and no-one sniggers
  • I have the opportunity to ‘refill my well’ by gazing at the illustrators’ beautiful work
  • I see people I love and admire succeed – and it gives me joy and hope

Malorie Blackman smiling

(*in front of Malorie Blackman this year!)