Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Book Filled with Books

I started keeping a list of every book I read back in the spring of 1990. It was just a cheap notebook from a discount store in Darlington. The shop was called Boyes and it sold everything from linens to strange china ornaments of dogs wearing dresses. I bought two of these cheap 160 page books during the Easter break from college. In one I started writing the early chapters of what eventually became my novel, ‘Does it Show?’ And in the other I decided that I was at last going to keep a record of everything I read.

The first few pages were taken up with a list of everything that I could remember having read already. There’s a wonderful mishmash in those pages of beloved children’s books and entire series and cycles of books: Borrowers and Gummidges and Narnias and Doctor Who’s and Star Treks. There are also half-remembered books, or titles and authors I’m guessing at. There are evidences of more adolescent fads and phases – smatterings of Anne McCaffreys, Frank Herberts, James Herberts and Stephen Kings.

But Easter 1990 was when I started, all afresh, making a list of every book I chose and read for myself. It begins with a lovely combination of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and A.C Crispin writing about Spock and his long-lost son. Right from the start I enjoyed charting the elaborate, resolute zig-zagging of my reading habits. I’d go Nabokov – Baum - Burroughs – Dahl – Wells – Woolf and the logic of it would elude anyone but me at that moment. I would finish a book and see what my eye lit upon next.

Almost twenty four years later and that first book is almost – at last – completely full. It’s a chart in many different shades of ink of everywhere I’ve been inside my head. My handwriting begins orderly and small, very well-behaved, like a school kid keen not to blot his copy book. It goes through wilder, more abandoned phases and settles here and there into something more tidy, with a few elaborate flourishes as the years tick by. It’s only a list of titles and author names. I don’t offer an opinion or a review. Sometimes certain books are marked by a red felt tip dot that signifies extra special approval.

Each season is announced and underlined. Each summer’s reading is enclosed by headings and so are all the Christmases. Some books I have no memory of reading at all. Some titles are completely alien. Others make me cringe that I spent the time and energy and kept going until I finished the last page. Others make me wince that I didn’t try hard enough and gave up halfway through. I usually read about 110 books a year. That’s the average, I’d say.

Twenty three years ago I decided I needed to keep a comprehensive list because I had realized that reading was the most important thing (after writing) that I was spending all my time on. Reading for sheer pleasure, that is. At that point I was coming to the midpoint of my English degree and doing multiple modular courses, each with very heavy and involved reading lists – mandatory, secondary, indicative. There was a lot of reading I had to do, just to get my degree, but I made a decision early in 1990 that I needed to be reading way beyond the limits of my undergraduate course. I decided that I needed to buy a new book – something contemporary or at least twentieth century – every week. That was as much as I could afford both in terms of time and cash. It was about the pleasure of going into WH Smiths (and later that year, Waterstones, when they opened up their shop in Lancaster. They had chandeliers and dark wooden shelves and a fiction section directly underneath a hotel bedroom where Dickens and Wilkie Collins wrote a famous ghost story together.) It was about the pleasure of choosing a book that wasn’t on a reading list. A completely free choice. And in those early months and weeks I made some pretty good choices – almost at random I hit upon Christopher Isherwood, JD Salinger, John Irving.

All those years have gone by and the book has come to a sudden end – with Christmas this year and my anthology reading, and my utter absorption in the Salinger biography by David Shields and Shane Salerno. By flipping through the soft pages of my reading list (pale yellow like sugar creamed into butter when you’re making cakes) I can see where I’ve been and when I was obsessing or when I was excited or dull or disenchanted or enflamed with a new bookish romance. In most cases I can picture where I was sitting – which room, which building, which city – when I read almost anything.

It’s my travel diary.

I’ve been just about everywhere.

But in 2014 I’m starting a new reading diary. A new list. I took ages choosing exactly which book I’d need to write it all down in. The original reading list book is almost falling apart. Its stitched spine has frayed away. But it’s the notebook that’s been with me the longest. It’s always to hand and has been all that time, in a way almost no other book has. So the new one has to be durable and I have to be careful to fill it up with good things.

I’m looking forward to next year’s reading already. My first resolution is no more self-imposed reading lists or reading piles. I’m not going to oppress myself with silly schemes. I’m going to read one at a time and then move onto the thing that next catches my eye – in that moment of dizzy liberation between stories. The very thing that I want to read next, in that moment. That’s how you get the true zig-zagging going on. That excitement of how one book always leads to the next.

And – in true January resolution fashion – let’s try a little self-imposed ban on book buying. Just for a while. I think I’ll spend some time on the stockpiles and all that squirreled-away treasure.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Christmas Anthology Reading

I’ve got a whole collection of Christmas books and anthologies, but most of them are still boxed away. New ones somehow fell into my lap just in time for the holiday. I love reading excerpts and classic chapters over the festive period. It’s like dropping in to see old friends.

I was in the Whitby Bookshop at the start of December and their Christmas display was lit by candles, following a power failure brought on the by the storms and flooding they’d had that week. I discovered a new anthology put together by Vintage books that must come close to being one of the most perfect Christmas books I’ve read.

It starts with M.R James’ ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ and takes in bits of Scrooge, Jeeves and Wooster, Ratty and Mole, the Gift of the Magi – and John Cheever’s story about the elevator man who gets drunk and deluged with misbegotten gains. Whoever put the book together got it just about spot on (Only an overlong and not-at-all Christmassy tale by Edith Wharton lets the side down.) It was wonderful to hit the right stories at just the right times over the days and nights of Christmas week. I read Dylan Thomas in bed very last thing on Christmas Eve, and Truman Capote’s wonderful story about Sook and the Christmas cakes on Christmas Morning.

I found another, much older anthology in a Heaton Moor charity shop – ‘The Christmas Book’ edited by James Reeves in 1968. It’s a lovely selection, overlapping with many others, but distinguished mainly by Raymond Briggs’ line drawings and colour plates. These include an illustration of Paddington Bear in bed with his Christmas loot – illuminated fuzzily by those distinctive, slightly murky, Raymond Briggs coloured pencils.

I got an amazing gift from a friend of mine, Richard, who is downsizing his extensive book collection. Two children’s anthologies – ‘The Mammoth Wonder Book’ from the 30s and ‘The Modern Children’s Library of Knowledge Voume Seven: The World of Books’ from the 60s. Both from a time when books for children were like hugely generous Boxes of Delight. They each contains hundreds of excerpts and drawings – retelling ancient tales, presenting bits of relatively new ones – and mixing them all up like the ingredients of the spiciest Christmas cake you’ve ever had. A book that brings together Dick Turpin and the Minotaur and Brer Rabbit and Eeyore is just about perfection, I think.   

Saturday, 28 December 2013

How's Everyone Doing?

I hope everyone's been having a good festive season?  i thought I'd post my Christmas Day drawing - of our tree and our golden reindeer. I do so little drawing these days, compared to how much I used to. But I love it when I do.

I'm looking forward to 2014 for all kinds of reasons. And I've been thinking of things I'm going to do with my blog, too. I hope my regular readers liked my serialised Christmas story. I'm thinking of maybe  trying out some new stories on you like that in future. What do you think? Which characters would you like to see again..? And what kind of stories? Let me know!

I'll also be reading lots and hopefully telling you about all those books, too. Mostly I just want to keep it all going. i love having a blog and putting up just what I like. It reminds me of being in Junior School and making up my own school magazines and begging my poor teacher to print copies on the school bander machine (with that smudgy, strong-smelling purple ink.)

I love getting your comments and emails, too. Keep them coming! And let me know what you're doing, and writing, reading and drawing. And let me know about your blog, too, if you have one. I'm very chuffed to have regular readers on here.

If I don't see you - or post here - before next Wednesday (though i'm sure i will!) - Happy New Year!

Friday, 27 December 2013

Mrs Wibbsey's Festive Diary - Part 7



Christmas Day

Even with all the goings-on in the night I’m feeling unusually festive when I go downstairs on Christmas morning. I shall treat myself to hedgerow jam on my toast and cream in my coffee. Let’s push the boat out.

In a way, it would be nice if there was a knock at the door and someone was calling. It would be lovely to have a surprise.

Down in the dining room before the hearth that strange devil dog is waiting to greet me. Cheery tone as he wishes me a Merry Christmas. Taking me aback somewhat.

I make coffee on the stove and when I return he’s looking at those books again. I sit and watch him. He uses a fuzzy kind of torch beam that comes out of his nose to turn the page and memorize everything he sees.

They look like kids’ books to me. Lurid illustrations. Very peculiar stories. They remind me of the only book I had as a child – The Wonder Book. I haven’t thought of that in years. Its cover was black and gold and I used to polish it up, I was so proud of having a book of my own.

‘Shall I read to you?’ asks the metal dog.

‘Why not?’ I smile and sip my cooling coffee. The Doctor used to sit here and tell me outlandish tales, whenever the mood took him. Outrageous things he claimed had happened to him on the journeys he made into the Omniverse in the days before he knew me or the days when he slipped off and left me here to mind the cottage.

The dog tells me about a queer kind of place. A world the Doctor once visited with his friends Sarah and Harry. A world where the men went off to live in the jungle. They actually lived within the fleshy leaves of huge cabbages. They were hiding from the women, who had turned rebellious and noisy, having fallen under the influence of a terrible yellowish-green monster. It was a cloud of vapour that approached from the horizon under a sky the colour of tomato soup.

‘The Sinister Sponge!’ I interrupt excitedly. And then I roll my eyes. ‘Oh, I know all about that awful old thing. The Doctor brought one back in the Tardis and kept it in the downstairs bathroom for more than a month. He was supposed to be returning it to its own dimension, somewhere or other. Then he forgot all about it and the ghastly thing just hung there behind the shower curtain in a horrible mood. I had to clean up after the wretched monster. Even after it had tried to take over my mind…’

The fire crackles and the grandfather clock ticks. It must be telling the wrong time. Surely it’s later than six in the morning. Outside it’s light, but a very muzzy, unclear sort of light that sparkles the frost. There’s no one out and about. The windows around the village green are all dark still.

The dog is telling me a tale about a world of spiders. They were bigger than even the spiders of Metebelis Three. And what’s worse, these spiders of Pergross had large, staring eyes for bodies. They built webs inside intricate, slime-filled jungles and they lured their victims by mesmerizing them with their spiraling irises. Their victims walk straight down a dark, all-seeing tunnel into the mind of the spider itself and there they find a sofa and a television set. And on the television set plays films of their whole lives and everything they ever did wrong…

‘Yes,’ I murmur. ‘I think I’ve heard of them… I think we even went to see the Eye-Spiders of Pergross once, the Doctor and I…’

But the dog has moved on and he’s describing the shrieking Sto-Cat: a robot made of bricks that floated through space boasting on many frequencies. And the Doctor’s friend Swee, who’d gone to the bad. Like so many old friends who’ve gone to the bad. And wasn’t it me – Fenella Wibbsey - standing in that alien desert, looking up to see the face of a Sphinx and realizing the thing was alive? Then it woke and looked down at me with the oldest eyes imaginable and I felt so tiny, having these adventures in space.

Do I remember these things because I was there, or do I just remember the Doctor’s voice telling me all about them? We were sitting in front of this fire when he told me improbable stuff and I always scoffed, though I knew there was a germ of truth in everything he said. But maybe I actually was there in the psychic jungle with his friend who looked like a cheetah? And I was in the Neuronic Nightmare world ruled by the man whose face was on fire. And the blue baboons who flew about the place on ships that looked like spoons and I laughed at first when I saw them and the Doctor said: hush! We’re at the very edge of the universe and those are the Thousand and One Doors to Elsewhere, Mrs Wibbsey.

Or was I just here in Nest Cottage? Peeling spuds, carrying out the rubbish and feeding the rabbits?

All at once the dog jerks into life. He’s off. The books he’s spread out on the floor slam shut of their own accord and he reverses across the stone flags, back into the hall. He bumps into the elephant foot umbrella stand and opens the front door wide.

‘Mistress Wibbsey!’ the dog calls me, and I hurry to catch up as he sets off down the garden path into the crisp morning. I’m on his trail, into the lane, and my slippered feet hardly touch the ground.

‘Dog? Where are we going?’

Now he’s running across the Green and the frost crackles underfoot. He’s gliding and I’m accelerating too… Nothing aches. Nothing breaks. I’m running like I used to when I was a girl.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Mrs Wibbsey's Festive Diary - Part 6




I’m sitting up in bed and at first it’s like the devil himself has come in my room. I let out a shriek before I realise it’s that blessed robot dog.

‘Forgive me, mistress,’ he says in that strange, polite voice, and then, all of a sudden it’s like he’s reading my mind.

No, more than that.

I can see my past floating out in front of me. Like ectoplasm.

Long time since I saw ectoplasm. All that floaty, nasty stuff, like candy floss but with a supernatural aspect.

Not since the days of Mr Wibbsey. Not since him. And his peripatetic spiritualist church.

And I can see him now. High up in the cab of that van, with me at his side, chugging through the winding roads of Norfolk, visiting each small village in turn. I was his unwilling helpmeet. I wanted nothing to do with all that dark stuff. Turning up in villages and calling up the dead. Scaring the locals out of their skins when all they wanted was a bit of peace and reassurance. He was a devil, Mr Wibbsey. I’ve tried for so long to forget him.

Why’s this robot dog reminding me?

He’s perching on the bedclothes. His little castors are resting on the candlewick bedspread. Somehow that impassive face of his looks regretful. He’s sorry for making me relive moments from my dreadful past.

I see the day I left Mr Wibbsey. That terrible day when the old man tried to stop me. When I smashed his crystal ball and he howled like all the demons in hell were after him. He went running into the sea and I never stopped him.

When they dragged him back up the shingle the next morning his eyes were gone. The Cromer police were horrified.

I knew already though, that Mr Wibbsey had never had no eyes.

Not in his head.

The robot dog shows me – pictures coming through that glimmering, pinkish cloud that hovers over my bed – how I found happiness of a sort. Living in that little town. Finding a job in that museum. How it became like a palace to me. I was so proud of being in charge of all the Curiosities.

This creature must be a spirit to know all of this. And to know about the eyes of Mr Wibbsey. Mechanical or not, he must be a hound from hell. Made of minerals and metals forged by the spirits down below.

‘Get out! Get out!’ I shriek at him and the dog stares at me sadly.

Then he turns and glides out of the attic room.

Dawn’s coming up. It’s Christmas morning out there but I find myself still stuck inside the faraway past.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Mrs Wibbsey's Festive Diary - Part 5




It’s Christmas Eve and I am alone. I draw all the curtains and shut out the noise of the warbling, awful carol singers on the Green. I light the fire and microwave myself some scrambled eggs.

He won’t have a dish of water or any kind of food. He says he doesn’t need it.

I sit down in the chair by the hearth and stare at him. ‘Well, then. How is he?’

‘Do you mean in the time period relative to the Mistress or to this unit?’ says the dog-thing, and I don’t know what he means.

‘Is he well? Since he was last here, I mean…’

The dog looks helpless. ‘I don’t know,’ he says.

All night the dog roves about the house, sniffing in cupboards and hunting through drawers. When I lie in my bed up in the attic I can hear wooden doors crashing, and then the unearthly buzz as he floats up the staircases. He’s prying into every room. Before I went to bed he wouldn’t tell me what he was looking for.

He showed some interest in the old books the Doctor keeps in his study. Those lurid books he had delivered from Ebay. ‘Ah, not just ordinary Ebay, Wibbs,’ he beamed at me as the curious-looking postman came up the garden path. ‘Ebay in a different dimension, slightly tangential to this one.’

Those are the books the dog unit set about scanning with his red laser eye. Took him a good couple of hours. I left him to it and went to bed. Happy Christmas Fenella, I thought.

Mrs Wibbsey's Festive Diary - Part 4



24th December

I surprise them all at The Hollyhocks next door. And I actually turn up. I even put a nice dress on for them, and a bit of lipstick.

Tish Madoc opens the door and her eyebrows go up. ‘We didn’t think you would, my dear!’

‘Well, here I am,’ say I stiffly, and push a half-empty bottle of Tio Pepe into her arms.

It’s everso festive in there. Deirdre Whatsit is wearing a summer frock and everyone’s got party hats on. It’s very noisy and jolly and they’re full of talk about the pantomime and other goings-on around Hexford. I start to regret being so distant of late. I’ve been cutting myself off.

There’s a lot of talk about that curious occasion, two Christmases ago, when the whole of our village was transported to a far distant planet. And then it got brought home again at the start of the new year. People talk about it in hushed tones and eye me through the press of bodies in Deirdre’s living room. I can see them doing it. They think they’re space travelers. They know I know more about the whole business than they ever will.

See? I stand apart from everyone else. My adventures in the universe make me different to them all.

Tish Madoc brings over some nibbles from the buffet and corners me. She wants to know all about the other adventures. The ones I never talk about. She’s avid for impossible details. And I think, well I’m hanged if I’m telling you anything. Just so you can write another of one of your silly e-books. I’ve seen her sitting in the conservatory at the back of Deirdre’s. You can see right in from the back of Nest Cottage. Tish Madoc at her electronic typewriter, writing e-books and smoking e-cigarettes.

Is it her electronic typewriter I’ve been hearing, I wonder? Has it become louder, somehow? Or is it… and this seems absurd even as I think it… is it somehow creeping round my door of its own volition and trying to get in? Is her typewriter as keen as she is on getting hold of my stories of outer space?

They all wish it had been them. The villagers all saw a little bit of time and space that Christmas and, even though they were terrified and thought they’d never get home, they still want more.

But that magic has gone. Those chances have fled.

I slip out of the party at the Hollyhocks as it starts getting rowdy. Deirdre cranks up the sound on her stereo and they roll up the rug in the living room and they’re starting to dance. Jitterbugging about.

And I go home.

I go in through the back kitchen. As soon as I’m in there, clicking on the light, I know I’m not alone in Nest Cottage.

If my hair wasn’t in this bun it would all be standing on end, I can tell you.

I know what having intruders is like. I’ve had aliens and ghosts and robots trespassing in here.  I keep a cricket bat under the sink, ready to wallop them. As I hug it to my chest I move carefully towards the main sitting and dining room. I can hear that queer electronical noise again.

‘Regrets, mistress,’ pipes a high, tinny voice. ‘You were not in and so I had to melt the front door lock.’

I stare and stare and still the thing doesn’t make any sense.

It’s a metal dog on the flagstones in front of the stove. Looking up at me with a single red, glowing eye.

‘Keep back,’ I brandish the cricket bat at him.

He seems to frown and take a step closer. No, not a step. He glides along the floor.

‘Mistress, violence is not necessary. I mean you no harm.’

‘What are you? Who sent you? And where do you come from?’ But even as I bark out these questions I realise I already know the answers.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Mrs Wibbsey's Festive Diary - Part 3



23rd December

There was a thump at the door very early on. I was up and mopping the floors. I heard the letterbox rattle and thought: that’s curiously early. I never went running. Let them wait.

I forgot about it and later, passing through the hallway I saw there was a little card shoved under the door. Another takeaway opened up, I thought. Or hate mail.

But it wasn’t. It was like computer print-out lettering. It read:

‘Mistress. I knocked but you were out. This unit will call again.’

This unit, I thought? What the devil’s that about? And why are they calling me mistress?

I felt a bit cross and – I must say – rather nervous. I’ve reached a point in life where I don’t want or like new and unexpected things.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Mrs Wibbsey's Festive Diary - Part 2



22nd December

Snow on the green today, and all over the hedgerows. I put on a festive record to cheer the place up and wondered about trimming a tree. I never bothered last year. All the decorations are gathering dust in the attic and if that’s not symbolic I don’t know what is.

Saw the vicar on my way to the butcher’s. I’ve put my name down for a big bird. In a fit of optimism I plumped for a whole turkey. Surely there’ll be surprise company this year. Surely there will?

You know, I think there will be. I can feel it in my water.

The vicar asked if I’d be coming to the pantomime on Boxing Day. He’s wearing that woebegone look, like I let them all down by not taking part this year. Well, they can lump it. Fenella Wibbsey can’t be at everyone’s beck and call. I had to stay here, didn’t I? I couldn’t be out gallivanting and rehearsing every night and running up costumes for Sleeping Beauty. My duty is to be here, at the cottage. Waiting for the call to arms. Sooner or later the Doctor’s going to turn up, out of the blue, and need me. I just know it.

I gave the vicar short shrift and came home to get on with my rough puff pastry. That got rid of a few of my frustrations, walloping that lot about. I made two dozen mince pies. Far too many. I imagine they’ll all go stale like last year’s did.

Strange. I can hear that electronical noise again. And a smell… there’s a smell like burning wires. I went round checking all the sockets and fuses, but I can’t see anything amiss. Then I went to sit back by the fire and poured myself a little sherry. I’ve been knitting the longest scarf you ever saw. Just in case.

Mrs Wibbsey's Festive Diary - Part 1



21ST December.

I’ve been putting together a few festive treats, just in case YOU KNOW WHO comes back.

The past couple of Christmases I haven’t heard from him, but he’s bound to return soon, isn’t he? Hexford Village was where he loved coming home to at Christmas, he always used to say.

I’ve been across the green to the village store and I bought some nuts. Just a plain bag of mixed nuts. And some satsumas. I’m toying with the idea of doing my special stewed prunes again. He did admire them.

That Deidre Whatsit stopped me on my way back. Full of the joys, as per usual. Her face all aglow. She says she hopes I’ll join them for some eggnog on Christmas Eve. Just like last year. She and Tish Madoc, her snooty so-called cousin (who lives in with her) haven’t seen much of me lately, says she. Yes, I thought, and there’s a reason for that.

I’ve kept out of their way since Tish published her silly novel about us all. ‘Romance in the Milky Way’ indeed. I’m only relieved no sensible publisher would touch it and I’m not forced to see the ghastly thing when I go to the library or peruse the paperback carousel at the post office. Tish Madoc had absolutely no right to novelise our strange adventures in space and she knows it. It caused a proper rift between Mike and her. Put the kybosh on their blooming romance, or whatever kind of ménage was going on next door. Well, naturally it did. He’s military, isn’t he? Signed the official secrets act back in 1971 when they found lizard men living under Wenley Moor, did Mike, or so he told me. Everything’s on a need-to-know basis with him and he doesn’t want it all written about and published as an e-book, does he? We’ve seen neither hide nor hair of him in Hexford since Tish’s launch at the village hall.

What’s that funny buzzing? I’ve been hearing it all day. Something electrical. Not insects. Definitely not hornets. No, it’s like a hairdryer’s been left on in a distant room. Or the speakers on a faulty gramophone. A deep humming note.

Oh, but the cottage is quiet.

Funny, I’ve felt all day like someone’s watching me. I’ve been scrubbing out my smalls and it’s like someone’s looking right over my shoulder. My hackles have gone up.

Friday, 20 December 2013

My Top Ten Books of 2013

I've kept it to a final list of ten..! (I realise that overall this week I've flagged up 34 books in all - out of about 106 I've read this year...which sounds like a high proportion but, whatever else it's been, 2013 has been a good year for books.)

Here's my top recommendations:

Tarnished – Julia Crouch (A really very dark thriller indeed – about violent death and de-cluttering a bungalow.)

Heft – Liz Moore (A beautiful novel about redemption and drawing people together and being trapped in the house for years.)

Light Between Oceans – M.L Herdman (A hideous mistake has huge repercussions and lots of lovely stuff about lighthouses.)

The Hour Between – Sebastian Stuart (Hilarious, warm, - how to grow up clever and queer. Another one of my favourites from 2013 that I feel like rereading right now.)

The Paris Wife – Paula McLain (I never thought dreary old butch Hemingway would interest me as much as he did in two books this year (the other being Humphrey Carpenter’s group biography.) This is a fabulous novel about the neglected first wife and the vivid, dramatic life she hung onto.)

Briefs Encountered – Julian Clary (More touching and strange than I was expecting. A genuinely haunting and self-mocking novel.)

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris – Jenny Colgan (Brilliant and funny and I believe in absolutely everyone. The most persuasively romantic novel of my year.)

Longbourn – Jo Baker (Probably the best written book of my year. It’s a wonderful literary game. Deadly serious and wounding. A lovely counter-argument to recent, stupidly nostalgic celebrations of class inequalities.)

Calling Mrs Christmas – Carole Matthews (My favourite Matthews yet. Properly festive – and all about the possible cost of suddenly finding yourself on the brink of getting your heart’s desire.)

The Irresistable Blueberry Bakeshop and Café – Mary Simses (It looks like cosy New England romance and just stuff about cakes. But it has some hilarious moments of people making wassocks of themselves when they really don’t want to. It’s fairytalish, sentimental and all about finding home again – but who cares? I loved it.)

Thursday, 19 December 2013

New Books by Favourite Authors

Another favourite category of reading. This is about catching up on the latest books from my roster of favourite writers. It’s also about dipping into the backlist of other favourites and finding something I haven’t discovered yet. Fortunately, there’s been time and space for both kinds this year.

Another list of books that could easily have featured in my overall top ten for 2013.

I realise I’m recommending a lot of books this year…! It’s been a good year for burying myself in books.

The Midnight Fox – Betsy Byars; On the Flipside – Nicholas Fisk; A Cottage by the Sea – Carole Matthews; Dear Thing – Julie Cohen; The True Secret of Writing – Natalie Goldberg; Geniuses Together – Humphrey Carpenter; Roast Mortem – Cleo Coyle.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Writers new to me in 2013

It’s not a proper year’s reading unless you’ve discovered writers you’ve never read before. Rereading is all very well, but you’ve got to make lots of time to listen for new voices. This year I’ve tried my best and the list is quite long… To avoid repeating myself I’ll miss out of this list those books that will appear on my overall favourites-of-the-year.

This year I’ve been pleased to read these books by these writers new to me:

One Moment, One Morning – Sarah Rayner; The Wheel of Ice – Stephen Baxter; Dark Matter – Michelle Paver; The Age of Miracles – Karen Thompson Walker; Secrets of the Tides – Hannah Richell; Happily Ever After – Harriet Evans; A Conspiracy of Alchemists – Liesl Schwartz; New York Christmas - R.J Scott ; Ali McNamara – Step Back in Time; Ghost Hunters - Neil Spring

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Favourite Re-reads of 2013

Every year I like to make sure I reread some of my books. Sometimes they come round in quite quick rotation, other times it takes twenty years.

I reread for different purposes. Often it’s just comfort reading: a chance to reunite with old friends. Other times it’s about wanting to go back and see what exactly it was I loved or admired about such-and-such a book, and making another attempt to squeeze something out of it, to learn from it. And with other books, perhaps I’m looking for a new angle, now that I’m a bit older. Has the book changed, or have I?

Also, rereading is about justifying to myself the fact that I’ve got a life and a house completely chockablock with the books I have read. Our recent roofing-and-ceiling disasters have only served to underline that. Even the undamaged books are currently in plastic boxes and piled to the ceiling, with only a fraction of the books I own accessible to me. Why do I keep them all? I wonder about this quite a lot, and much more in recent weeks. I look on almost in envy at the people I know who read things and pass them on easily, without a qualm.

What would be ideal, perhaps, would be to retain only ‘keepers’ that you know you’ll want to read again, and let all the rest return to the swirl of endless book exchanges. But… how do I know? How will I ever know what might become important as time moves on? What seems throwaway right now might be anything but when it comes to the future…

I love having a house filled with books because of those moments when someone’s talking and they trigger a thought or a memory, and you can turn to the exact book and give it to them, saying: ‘You need to read this! Here!’

Anyhow – this year I read mostly books that were new to me (the usual mix of brand new and older) and I sprinkled throughout the months various things that I wanted to study again.

And what I found is another virtue to rereading. Going back to books that I loved and books that I know are unquestionably good – it slows me down. It gives me focus. It gives me room to breathe. In almost every case the books in the following list of favourites were ones that I reread when I was on the point of panic this year. When rotten stuff was happening, or when I was having difficulties with my own work. These books – because I trust them – helped me orient myself and helped me to slow time down.

Looking at the books I revisited this year, I see that they were in different genres – literary, family saga, science fiction, fantasy and children’s fiction – but they were all excellent examples of each.

While England Sleeps – David Leavitt; The Many-Colored Land – Julian May; Magician’s Gambit – David Eddings; Ladder of Years – Anne Tyler; Yesterday’s Son – A.C Crispin; Charlotte’s Web – E.B White.