Monday, 31 December 2012

Reading Resolutions for 2013

This house is filled with books! Most of them read, I would say - but there are lots of Lingerers here, too - those that are still hanging about, looking hopeful.

On the last day of the year I'm looking ahead to what I want to read in 2013 - and, although there are lots of brand new things on the horizon (a new Susan Cooper, a new Douglas Kennedy! All kind of recommendations that are snagging my attention) - there are a few resolutions I've made to do with the books that are already here.

First of all - those Lingerers. I want to seek out books that have waited to be read so long I've simply stopped being able to see them. Yesterday, for instance, I plucked up Noelle Gordon's 'My Life at Crossroads' - a behind-the-scenes paperback from 1975 that feels like it's been around ever since first publication. More on that soon, I hope - but it turned out to be a rewarding random sampling of the TBR pile.

(Actually, these accompanying photos are misleading - hardly any unread books appear on these pics. These shelves are all very well-read and well-loved. They've got more to do with my....)

Second reading resolution. And that's to do with the 1990s. For some reason, this blustery, pewter-coloured New Year's Eve has put me in mind of 20 years ago - and what I was reading then. What was new and what I was discovering in the early 1990s. I'm thinking about early 90s books by Tony Warren, John Irving, Jeanette Winterson, David Leavitt, Amy Tan. Looking back at my Reading Record book it's easy to pick out a list of favourites from the 1990s i'd love to return to now.

Thinking about 1993 a lot at the moment - and how much I read and wrote that year. The early part of the year was when I sat down and wrote my first published short story and the second half of my fourth novel (which turned out to be the first i published.) Stuff was coming together, into proper shape, all that time ago - and it'd be interesting to see some of what I was reading. (For me, anyway..!)

A third resolution was one I was thinking about a couple of weeks ago, spurred on by a discussion on Gallifreybase forum. There people were talking about assembling a Doctor Who original novel marathon. Everyone was to choose a novel per Doctor, working through all eleven between January and the November anniversary. I love the idea of this - and it would be a way of visiting 'new' missing adventures for each Doctor - if I read one of my unread Who's each month. Or maybe they could be revisitations of favourites? I'd love to go back to, say, the late, great Craig Hinton's Doctor Who books.

Well, we'll see. Lots to reread, lots to find new and anew.

This time of year - this very week - always used to be about having book vouchers. Almost every Christmas I'd have had a voucher from someone, and the gap between Christmas and New Year was the time for visiting shops in Durham or Darlington, or as far afield as Newcastle, and wondering what to spend it on. This was when bookshops like Waterstones put out on their display tables *everything* that had been recently published - and the result was wonderfully bewildering. It was how I tried all sorts of new stuff and started off with authors who I then followed for years and years, in some cases.

So how about you? Any resolutions? Any reading challenges?

I don't want to set up some kind of plotted-out path or booklist for myself - not too harshly, anyway. As you know, I like to follow my own wayward route. But I would certainly like to uncover some of the treasure that's already here. (I'm reminded of the bit towards the end of The Box of Delights - when the waterfall boy warns the villainous Abner Brown that the precious Box will be under his hand that very day. Abner's too busy running around causing mayhem and scooping up rubies and sapphires to even know when the Box of Delights is very close by.  If only he'd stopped and looked under his nose..!

Happy New Year, everyone!

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Most Memorable Books of 2012 - Part 2

I'm back with the second half of my top 20 books of the year. Again, they're only in the order I read them through 2012. I really would have problems putting them in order of preference!

The third, I think, in this delightful, witty Cosy Mystery series featuring Beatrix Potter and her friends in Hawkshead and its environs. I thoroughly enjoyed the volumes in this set that I read this summer - but this one most of all - coinciding with our trip to Hawkshead this June.

A YA novel i'd been unaware of - and that felt like something I already knew well, as I sat down to read it. One to return to, i think - on long summer afternoons in the future.

A book I was aware of - and it had always looked like a mawkish gift book. But it's wonderful.

My favourite Doctor Who book in a long time. A complete story in itself (for once!), with a vivid, interesting, human cast and a great setting. Some lovely set-pieces and action; a perfectly-rendered Doctor - and even some strange flash forwards and writerly games going on. Bliss.

A fantastic E.F Benson continuation / pastiche. Really, really funny. All favourite characters present and correct. Camping and whooping it up like mad.

She never seems to let me down! Two by Julie Cohen this year to choose from - and this one was my favourite.

Similar with the fab Ms Matthews - I loved both her summer book and her Christmas book. But the Christmas one is *so* seething with life and fun that it's got to be in my list of the year's favourites. Definitely one to reread.

There's always an undertow of sadness in Miranda's Dickinson's novels - and this novel about a young widow setting up a choir is particularly moving in places, amongst all the froth and bubbles. It becomes a lovely, touching ensemble piece about connecting with new people.

Funnier, sharper, tarter and *shorter* than I was expecting. A lovely end-of-year surprise.

As was this return to fairy tales, which I made over Christmas. The jostling tales - from all over the world - every colour, every character, every kind of story possible. It's like falling into a whirlpool of stories at the source.

So - they were the highlights of my reading year! Of course, i've had to miss out many favourites. And I won't spoil the festive mood by bringing up the disappointments and the duds...

Looking back on the year and the list, it seems I've enjoyed books with a lot of strong emotion - but also with a bit of lightness, romance and froth. It's been a year of looking for fun - with a bit of excitement and adventure chucked in. (But isn't that true of every year..?) i think I've been enjoying books in which the writing hides itself - allowing the reader to enjoy sheer story - and to feel as if the writing was somehow effortless.

(interesting to  note - 9 out of these 20 i read on my kindle....!)

Friday, 28 December 2012

Most Memorable Books of My Year - Part 1

How are you all doing, in the middle of the week between Christmas and New Year? It's a very sleepy house here... and I'm thinking about compiling my list of favourite books of the year - just as I've done for the past two or three years here on my blog. This year I'll call them my most *memorable* books. Because that's what I'm trying to do - summoning up how well and clearly I remember them, at the end of the year.

In past years I've drawn up two lists - a top ten of brand new and a top ten of older books. But this time I think they're not evenly matched, so i'll give you an overall top twenty favourite books for this year. I hope you'll agree with some, or check out some of these you might have missed...

So, out of approx. 130 books read in 2012, here are the twenty that stand out sharply in my memory at the end of the year. They're presented in no other order than, more or less, the order in which I read them...

A cookery memoir and a published blog - which seems straightforward at first glimpse. It's so much more than that, of course. Subtle and delicious and about taking a daring leap into doing the thing you most want to do, now that you've discovered what it is.

The first volume in a vintage science fiction series about first contact with alien races. Exactly the kind of science fiction I enjoy - with lovely, real, larger-then-life characters jostling about in the universe on a wildly zig-zagging quest, with lots of explore and insurmountable odds.

First of two (so far) in this series about a mining town in Derbyshire in the early part of the twentieth century. It's all about culture clashes and unexpected calamities - and quite a lot of baking. Looking forward to the next.

Confident fantasy debut set in a transformed contemporary Edinburgh. Reportedly only the first in a series. Scary and exciting and brimming with imagination.

One of my favourite writers goes back into history, and the time of George the Third for a gossipy and slightly giddy novel of court intrigue - as tart and droll as I'd expect from Ms Graham.

Breaking my own rule in letting the same author be in my best-of list two years in a row. But I can't leave out this second thriller from Julia Crouch. A tale of actors and stalkers and a woman beset by two terrible men. Her books are outrageously gripping.

Wasn't expecting much of a period drama about the Titanic I bought on the platform at Stockport, round about the time of the anniversary. ITV / Julian Fellowes's rotten Titanic had tanked expensively, so I *did* want to read something *good* about the disaster. Much of Gill Paul's novel is about the aftermath and the waifs and strays washed up in New York - and I adored it.

Christmas week 2011 I was obsessed with 'The Other Boleyn Girl', which my friend Jamie had *made* me read. This was his present to me that week - and my second Gregory proved just as absorbing. This time with a little added dark enchantment, too. Even though it's from the middle of a sequence, this watery tale was easy to dip into. Need to read more of her, I think.

Soooo transparent in its heart-string tugging, its debt to the Guernsey Literary Society and its determination to become a lightly romantic ensemble cast movie...  it was still lovely and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Digging through ancient Puffins this summer brought to light this 1960s Catcher-in-the-Rye alternative - even more dark and resonant than Salinger, I thought. One of my best 'rescuings' from the secondhand shelves this year.

OK - that's my first ten. Ten more coming up later! Anyone else read any of these this year..?

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Pink Fairy Book

An unexpected and early delight in my festive reading this Christmas has been Andrew Lang's 'Pink Fairy Book' from the late 1880s. It's one of those volumes - and series - that I was naturally aware of, and had even dipped into, but had never immersed myself in. And so i have now, and it's marvellous. Of course, I was wondering at first - why didn't I read this as a kid? And then I imagined being at school in Newton Aycliffe and carrying around 'The Pink Fairy Book.' My life would have been even more of a nightmare than it was. It would have confirmed everybody's liveliest suspicions. Also, at home, a book titled like that and covered in a bright pink dust wrapper would have been yanked out of my hands - in a home where the channel was routinely switched over if a celebrity 'puff' happened onto the screen...

What a cornucopia this single volume is. And the others all waiting in store! Like the colours of jelly beans left to moulder and fade in a deep dresser drawer, or the muted sherberty colours of sugared almonds. I had it in my mind that these were sanitised retelling - very twee and Victorian - full of admonishments and stern lessons. But - not a bit of it. They're beautifully retold - rendered from the Danish, Sicilian, Catalan, Swedish, German or Japanese - a whole worldful of princes and mermaids and reindeer and enchantresses and turtles. Reading one after the next your head starts to spin. Spells and counter-spells, promises and bargains and delivish tricks. It's all here.

A running theme I'm enjoying is that virtue and patience will be rewarded, and that vileness and trickery will - sooner or later - be dealt with sharply. If not by fate, then by a troll or a giant or a vengeful magical princess. So maybe these are quite moral tales, after all - but in a gently reassuring way (i find), rather than a coercive and patronising way.

For myself, I'm happy to be reminded that those who've done bad and spiteful things will be one day rewarded - if there's any justice in this fairy tale world - with the very curses they deserve. I've had some shitty things done to me this year  - but I'm going to forget about all of that now it's Christmas. I'm going to think about new stories of my own and new fairy tales and brand new worlds. And i guess that's the way to overcome adversity, isn't it? Make up somewhere delightfully new - and, this time, don't let the unworthy and untrustworthy in.

Look at this complete set of coloured Fairy Books. Aren't they just ravishing? Like the striated colours of Doctor Who's one-time scarf, I suddenly realise. Perhaps that's what that ludicrous piece of knitware signified all along...

Of course, I've been reading the Pink one in a very handy kindle edition. All the volumes are free online - and this seems like a marvellously rich treasure horde to discover.

Oh! And my other wonderful discovery this Christmas break - so far! - is Elizabeth Gaskell's 'Cranford.' Already the TV version is a great favourite - but I'd never read the novel. I hadn't suspected it would be as zippy and gossipy as it is. I think I expected it to be all heavy and drab with that weighty Victorian descriptive writing and endless pontificating from the author. But it's not a bit like that. It's like sitting down with an old friend - one who tells tales on neighbours and mutual friends - sometimes nipping ahead and telling the end before she tells the middle; sometimes missing bits out and doubling back, and seeing connections and consequences as she goes. It's another trove of lively, very fresh-feeling verbal story-sharing - every bit as vivid as Lang's fairy tales. I just wanted more of it!

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Irish Times Top Kids' Books!

Great news at the weekend that The Irish Times picked out 'The Ninnies' as one of the best books published for kids in 2012! Robert Dunbar's article is here!

And 'The Ninnies' is published by Obverse in a lovely, extremely limited hardback edition, with fantastic illustrations by Bret Herholz. Buy it on Amazon or here!

It's so good to get this recommendation - right at the end of a year that has been so incredibly difficult and challenging, both professionally and personally. I do everything I can to get my stories out there, into the world, and it's lovely to know that people are picking them up and reading them and recommending them to others. Thanks, Irish Times!

And thanks to all of those who've supported and bought and read my books, and been my friend this year.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Christmas Vinyl

Yesterday was the day for buying our tree - and for digging out the Christmas records!  Of course, we've had Christmas music playing for *weeks* by now - but all of it on CD (including all the cd compilations from over the years made for us or by us... and also endless replayings of Tori Amos's Christmas album, the best of Vince Guaraldi and Victor Hely-Hutchinson's Carol Symphony) But yesterday was for going through all the vinyl albums and hoiking out the very ancient and fragile favourites... Perfect to hear Geoff Love's 'Christmas Love' with that first whiff of the Scots Fir in the room.

Can you still buy spray-on snow, by the way? In 1981 we had the stickiest, most noxious, chemical stuff, like icy marshmallows in a high-pressured can - impossible to scrub off windows and furniture and glass baubles - but it smelled wonderful. It's still the most festive aroma I can imagine.

What's your favourite Christmassy records, then?

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Christmassy Day Out in Manchester

Rosie and Rhid arrived yesterday from Wales, for a trip round the Christmas Markets in Manchester. They came bearing home-made scones and pictures of their new kittens. Even though it rained a little, we had a really lovely day around the town - completely exhausting ourselves going to many of our favourite places.

We went to one of my very favourite bookshops - the eccentric and fantastic Paramount Books on Shude Hil. There's a sale on at the moment - including these poor toys lined up on the settee.

The day passed wonderfully in a blur of Rupert Bear annuals, hot sausages in mustardy ketchuppy barms, Spiderman comics and Baileys Lattes and Chocolate cake. Bliss!

Thursday, 13 December 2012

VINCE COSMOS now has his own website, courtesy of Bafflegab Productions! Featuring interviews, photos, streaming tracks and a full biography of the Seventies' greatest glam rock star! It's here!

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

deciding on my books of the year

One of my favourite jobs of the year is coming up - and that's announcing my favourite books of the year, here on my blog!  I've done this three (four?) years in a row, and this year i thought i'd make it easier by keeping a master list of absolute favourites as I went along. i'm not sure that's helped at all, though. I'll wrangle with the list of everything i've read for a little while yet, i think.

it was a year that began for me with a rereading of the Hobbit - a book that's been scorched on my memory since we read it at school when i was about seven. I think our class only read highlights together, and I sat at home with our fake leatherbound bookclub edition. So much of it was still so vivid - the ogres and the spider and gollum!  but were all these endless battle scenes always here? i guess they were. And i bet they're in the blummin' fillum, too.

looking through the list of books through the year i can see a recent hankering for historical fiction. This was probably set off by last year's christmas discovery of Phllippa Gregory - who held me captive all the holiday season. Through the year i've dipped into a few different epochs and historical adventures, it seems, by a range of different writers. This year has also been a year for exploring historical and contemporary romance novels. It's been a very romantic year, i think.

i also did a fair amount of rereading and comfort reading - which is always handy when i've a lot of my own writing to do. So i went back to those favourites from susan coper and c s lewis - and this time i went as far back as Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree trilogy - and i think that was all for a fantasy novel i half wrote this year and put aside for a while when other commitments called.

I can see patches of classic science fiction and golden age detective fiction in my reading patterns this year, as i went to fill in patches i'd previously missed. I also had crazes on certain people - like when i started reading a whole chunk of sequential kids' novels by Penelope Lively, or rediscovered my adoration of the books of writing guru Natalie Goldberg and needed to catch up with her more recent work.

Oh, and of course I read some stinkers, too. Sometimes by accident, something - even - on purpose! Maybe i'll talk about some of those when I come to present my review of 2012. At the moment i'm looking at a scribbled list of about 122 books i've spent time with this year and it seems like a lifetime's endless supply. A gloriously disorganised mish mash. I feel the need to sort it out somehow, and find a narrative through my reading this year...

at this point, i think i'd go so far as to say that it's been a year all about favourite characters. Following old ones and finding new ones... and reading has been about spending more and more time with particular friendly faces.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Must-Read Monday - 10th December


"Double acts don’t come any closer than the The Two Ronnies.

Messrs Barker and Corbett kept a nation laughing for two decades, and yet despite the rigorous work that went into writing, rehearsing and broadcasting almost a hundred episodes to millions of viewers each week, the pair never shared a cross word.

For the first time, Ronnie Corbett tells the story of the their rise from theatre, through The Frost Report and into their own legendary show, as well as how some of their greatest sketches, including Mastermind and Fork Handles, came into being.

This is the story of one of the great British institutions of the last thirty years, and a hilarious and moving look inside the working lives of two of our most-beloved comedians."

Steve Cole recommended this memoir to me, and I picked it up in town last week. It's been out for a few years - and it's Ronnie Corbett looking back on a long career with his comedy partner. I was having a christmassy wander about town, found this in Barnardo's, and next thing i knew, i was sitting in Nero's with a chai latte, completely transported to the early 1960s, where in a theatre bar where the author was working, the Two Ronnies met for the first time. It seems to be co-written / spruced up by David Nobbs and the writing has a sweet conversational breeziness to it. I *love* showbiz memoirs of the 60s and 70s.



"What happens when your happy ever after is suddenly and painfully taken away from you?
Elsie Maynard has a whole new life she never expected to have.
From inadvertently founding a choir like no other with former 80s rock star Woody Jensen, to daring to date again, Elsie steps out into an unknown future – a future that could include gorgeous designer Olly Hogarth, a man who seems intent on winning her heart. Overcoming problems, challenges and the occasional frustration – namely overconfident Torin Stewart who seems to be everywhere – Elsie believes she is making the most of her life.
But then a heartfelt request brings her to Paris – and the last item on a very important List.
Can Elsie take the final step and lay her past to rest? Join Elsie as she battles to start again, with the help of a disastrous, newly-formed singing group and her father and sister armed with dating hopefuls."

I thoroughly enjoyed her first two, missed her third - and this one looks a bit wintry and Parisian. Sold.


"A brand-new collection of Sherlock Holmes stories from a variety of exciting voices in modern horror and steampunk, including James Lovegrove, Justin Richards, Paul Magrs, Guy Adams, Mark Hodder. Edited by respected anthologist George Mann, and including a story by Mann himself."

Not out till February, but i've got an advance e-copy because i'm in it (with my first ever Sherlock story!) I've been looking forward to reading this ever since i first heard it was happening.


"'It doesn't matter. I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books.' Fifteen-year-old Morwenna lives in Wales with her twin sister and a mother who spins dark magic for ill. One day, Mori and her mother fight a powerful, magical battle that kills her sister and leaves Mori crippled. Devastated, Mori flees to her long-lost father in England. Adrift, outcast at boarding school, Mori retreats into the worlds she knows best: her magic and her books. She works a spell to meet kindred souls and continues to devour every fantasy and science fiction novel she can lay her hands on. But danger lurks... She knows her mother is looking for her and that when she finds her, there will be no escape."

I read about this on a round-up of 2012's best sf and fantasy that David Barnett did for the Independent, which is here. It sounds lovely - I really love books about *readers*.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Krampus in the Rue Morgue

Last night I watched the 1932 Universal 'Murders in the Rue Morgue', followed by 'The Raven', both starring Bela Lugosi. I don't think i've seen these before - they were somehow eclipsed by later Vincent Price / Poe schlockers and by Universal's own more famous monsterfests. But these are two wonderful movies. Lugosi is fabulous in them - twisty, grotesque, scheming, and madly wicked throughout. The scenes with the crazed gorilla dragging his love interest across the rooftops of Paris are wonderful.

I thought, it's a bit late for Hallowe'en Double Bills - though I never need an excuse to watch spooky old movies. But then I was reminded that last night was Krampus night - a hangover from Germanic custom - in which Santa's devilish counterpart comes to take the bad children away. It's just the hellish fall-out from the naughty-or-nice Christmas equation... and this year in particular I can think of one of two folk I'd be asking the Krampus to drag screaming and kicking into the filthy night.

I love these Krampus cards. Just imagine sending people Christmas cards telling them to bugger off to hell, with bells on.

Coincidentally, my friend Gillian sent me a copy of this card yesterday, that she had found online. A Christmas card with ghastly greetings from Bela Lugosi himself...!

I find that thought very cheering. Dracula himself hunched over his kitchen table, scribbling out his cards on Krampus night... and donning his cloak against the stinging rain as he goes out to pop them in the box.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Must Read Monday (Dec 3RD - late! i know!)

SENOR 105 Book One: The Gulf by Cody Quijano-Schell

"1970: Scientist, explorer and semi-retired Mexican wrestler Senor 105 returns to Mexico to discover the countryside is being overrun with a fresh influx of forbidden technology. He and his Parisian companion Shiela (a conglomeration of sentient Helium molecules) must travel to the Chicxulub Crater, traditionally the source of many menaces. They will have a hard time reaching the crater, as the Yucatan gang/cult the Terrible Kings don’t want them to reach it. Who is their leader and what is affecting the ocean’s tides? Who is the woman intent on obtaining a pair of silver antlers? Men made of gold, a sabotaged train and more mysteries from the depths of the Gulf!"

I'm halfway through this right now - the first in this delectable series of novellas about the science fiction adventures of a Mexican wrestler superhero. Cody's work is always surprising, sparkling and completely original!  And - look! - it's available on the Manleigh Halt e-books site at the moment for a cut price of 79p...!

Oh - DEATH CASTS NO SHADOW by P.G Larbalestier-  this lovely, lurid mystery novel i picked up in that very cold chapel bookshop in Whitby last month. Sorry the blurb is sideways - but what a blurb it is...!

And another sideway synopsis... and it's Barbara Euphan Todd's 'Miss Ranskill Comes Home' - which I've been after for years... I haven't read a Persephone book for ages, and it's about time i did.