Friday, 28 June 2013

A Surprise in the Post

In the post today we had a really lovely surprise. Facebook pal, Fester fan and all round lovely person, Patricia Bilton sent us this! It's a beautifully designed, stitched and framed sampler, celebrating our much-loved little Fester Cat. I think it's one of the nicest things anyone's ever done for us - just out of the blue, heartfelt, and very touching indeed. Thank you!

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The Happiest of Time Travel

'Recollection of our past together is the happiest of time travel' - Richard 


That quote from the beginning of his novel 'Somewhere in Time' would have been relevant yesterday, following news of its author's death. It's much more relevant today, when I've had news of the sudden death of a very old friend of mine. That news i'm still trying to process.

Tonight I was planning to watch 'Somewhere in Time' or maybe 'Legend of Hell House.' Maybe even looking out an episode or two of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits that Matheson wrote. Something light-hearted, maybe, in remembrance of a great writer of twisty mysteries.

For the more personal loss I'm planning to listen to Marc Bolan, the Cure. Music like that, and to think about when we were all thirteen.

On my blog today I was going to write about my recent reading. You can see the books in the pictures above. I didn't have masses to say about Helen Dunmore, or Kathleen MacMahon or Hannah Richell. They were all pretty entertaining. Maybe, after spending a few weeks reading WH Smith / Richard and Judy - promoted novels I'm going past my point of tolerance for these very glossy and smooth books? They've been groomed and titivated like show pets, some of these books - and in the case of the debut novelists, I think they've been robbed of some of their vitality in the process.  (But so what? a cynical voice at the back of my mind asks... They'll sell shitloads anyway. Especially if they're easy-to-read. What do I know anyway..?!) I *did* like the soapiness and slight trashiness of 'Secrets of the Tides' - but I'm tired of novels with extremely rich characters at the centre of the action - which was true or this one, and 'This is How it Ends.' But maybe that's just a taste thing..?  The Dunmore ghost story was fun - but again, so slick and well-mannered that it had next to no shocks... and it suffered from being a bit too tasteful. I kept thinking - this is Hammer, for goodness' sake! It was all quite decorous and calm... and put me in mind of those Marks & Spencer's food adverts. ('This isn't just any old ghost story... it's a Marks and Spencers' ghost story...')

My big find came from Longsight library last week - and I just read it overnight. Sebastian Stuart's 'The Hour Between', which is a few years' old and published by Alyson press in the US - but not here. Somehow a lone copy found its way to Longsight and I'm very glad it did. In a way it's exactly the book i've been looking for without knowing it. It's a gay coming of age story, in America of the late 60s - with kids in a crazy school where they are just allowed to run riot. It's about the friendship between the narrator and his best girlfriend - the daughter of a movie star and a girl heading for tragedy and / or stardom herself. It's all written with such a smooth, charming lightness of touch. It's hilarious and tender and tragic - with cameos from Andy Warhol and Roddy McDowell and such a thickly colourful, tangible atmosphere of dizzy, naive Sixties idealism that you could put it in a bucket and use it for tie-dye. It's one of those books that was so good I was hardly aware that I was reading.

And it wasn't pushed by anyone. It wasn't in an offer - three books for 12 pounds! Or blagged about on official websites or blogged about by breathless fans. It was just *there*. Unassumingly waiting in the stacks and being quietly divine.

I was delighted to learn - after a little online looking about - that Sebastian Stuart has written some murder mysteries, too - and a tie-in novel for a soap opera!

Just go and find 'The Hour Between.' If I was going to start a Book Club of my own and exhort everyone to join in - this would be the first book I'd recommend whole-heartedly to you all. It's like Liza in 'Cabaret' meets 'The Magicians' with a whole lot of 'Catcher in the Rye' - but gay, gay, gay and just bliss.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

This Wednesday at the Didsbury Arts Festival


Paul Magrs & Philip Craggs
LIFE ON MAGRS: Novelist Paul Magrs reads excerpts from various of his mysterious adventures in time and space, supported by Phil Craggs.

The Northern Lawn Tennis Club, Palatine Road, Manchester, M20 3YA
0161 445 3093

...and the link is here

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Flashback - To 'The Stuff of Nightmares' from 2009

I'm going to post some flashbacks and excerpts from various old projects of mine. Here's a favourite moment from 'The Stuff of Nightmares' - which was a Doctor who audiobook recorded by Tom Baker and published in 2009. Four years ago already..! 


I spent a very disconsolate evening back here at Nest Cottage. At that point I was still catering for myself – Mrs Wibbsey hadn’t yet joined the household crew – and I made a gloomy supper of a tin of spam and some ginger biscuits topped off with a schooner of some rather sticky sherry. I pored over the local and national papers, clipping any articles to do with animals. The minister for transport, visiting an elderly aunt, had been mauled by wild dogs while in the corner shop buying almond slices for tea.

I sat late into the night, in the sitting room of my rented cottage, pondering on how to get my hands on a specimen of one of these daemonically possessed fauna.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to look very far.

The fire crackled right down to the last hot cinders and the night came creeping in around me, stealing under the doors and the ill-fitting windows of this ancient place.

With the night came the night-beasts.

I held very still. I was alert at the merest scrape of a claw on a cold window pane. The tiniest shriek of the frame as something levered it open.

I was being visited. It was past three a.m.

I didn’t even turn. I sat tensely expectant. Listening for the tread of paws or claws. And, as I said before, there was no hoarse breathing. No obvious signs of life. This was how the dead came stealing in. Pad pad pad on stuffing-filled limbs. The true stuff of nightmares, Brigadier.

Small enough to clamber through my window. Large enough to cause a heavy thump on the carpet when it landed in my room. I turned very very slowly to see. These stiff old joints of mine. I was dreading they would crack and give away the fact that I was awake.

It was a badger. A snuffling ursine brute, piebald and fanged, nudging its stealthy way towards me. Undoubtedly with the idea of doing me in. It knew where I had been that day for I still had the charnel house reek of that factory in my clothes. The badger flexed its talons and its black eyes glittered with hatred…

In a flash I was up on my feet, whirling around with the Times and all the other papers, flinging them over the beast as it prepared to spring. I leapt backwards and – aha! – the poker was glowing orange, smouldering in the remains of the fire. I grabbed it and brandished it furiously as the beast ripped its way through the colour supplements.

It snarled at me and came lumbering around the armchair, thumping its limbs on the rucked up carpet. I waved my burning poker in its face but the creature seemed to have lost its natural instincts. It outfaced the heat bravely and came running at me on clattering claws. I had no choice. I stabbed it hard through the muscular chest with my makeshift weapon and winced at the flying sparks and the horrid smell of burning fur.

Now the creature howled. A ghastly, unearthly noise. I pressed my advantage, withdrawing and stabbing again, urging the flames to catch. My assailant was nothing if not flammable, surely?

The badger twisted and thrashed. Its glass eyes gleamed with torpid dismay. Acrid smoke started to fill the air. And then there came a crash from the scullery kitchen. More of the creatures! The badger had not come alone. With strength borne of desperation I hoisted up the weakened form of my enemy and hauled him over to the coals.

In the kitchen was a scene of chaos. The windows had been smashed and three more beasts were clattering about. Crockery had been pushed off the draining board, smashing on the stone tiles. And here they were, the invaders. Small, but no less deadly and determined for that. Some awful rat thing, grabbing at my dressing gown cord. A snuffling leathery mole attempting to sink its fangs into my ankle. An amphibian monstrosity flinging itself off the Welsh Dresser. And everywhere that nasty smell of chemical preservatives.

I fought that night, Brigadier. I fought for my life. You know how I like to find a better way. A more peaceful solution. But these animals were dead shells, brimming with endless energy. I knew they would go on attacking me all night, with their tiny savage claws and teeth.

Diving onto the floor, I flung open the cupboard under the sink. I rummaged amongst the cleaning supplies which I had up to that point never even looked at. I improvised a rather nifty flame thrower using some kind of aerosol spray and a box of cook’s matches. Then I had the bleach out and I dashed it at the wicked little monsters. That made them squeal.

And then, during a lull in all the action it struck me. I was under attack by the cast of a crazed version of The Wind in the Willows! As the night air came whirling in through the broken kitchen windows, freezing the cottage right through, the battle redoubled and I turned into some kind of savage being, protecting home and hearth from the wild beasts. Really, Brigadier, you would hardly have recognised me.

At last it was over. I had defeated them, by fair means or foul. Whatever malign intelligence had animated these cadavers fled all of a sudden, it seemed, and the damaged beings dropped where they stood. Quite lifeless. And, battered, bruised and weirdly triumphant, I stood surveying the wreckage of my home-from-home.

By then dawn was coming up. Luckily, no one in the village had noticed the small war in my cottage. It’s one of those places where the locals let you keep yourself to yourself, which is rather a relief in my line of work. 

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Midsummer 2013 Top Ten Reads

Ok - here's my middle-of-the-year The-Story-so-Far Top Ten Reads of 2013!

It's not quite the end of June, but it's coming up to midsummer's night and that seems like a good time to  post up a reading list.

I've written about most of these books in the past six months - and i've included links below to the relevant blog pages.

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Tarnished by Julia Crouch

A Cottage by the Sea by Carole Matthews

Dear Thing by Julie Cohen

The True Secret of Writing by Natalie Goldberg

Heft by Liz Moore

The Light Between Oceans by M.L Stedman

One Moment, One Morning by Sarah Rayner

The Wheel of Ice by Stephen Baxter

The Wheel of Ice

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Pigeon English, The Age of Miracles and The Sea Change

Stephen Kelman's 'Pigeon English' has a wonderful ending. There's a fantastic surge at the end of the book - it's all about the start of the school holidays - and it takes you abruptly to the finish. The actual finish suddenly seems inevitable, but it took me by surprise. It resounds beautifully and it's a terrific final few pages.

The rest, to me, seemed to drag in places in story-terms. The real punch of the book is in its linguistic verve and the sustaining of the point of view. It meanders a bit and would have made a punchier shorter novel, maybe. I still didn't feel I knew the other characters much by the end of it all. I wanted more about the woman who kept burning her finger prints off, for example. It's a book full of tantalising glimpses.

Then I was on to 'The Age of Miracles' by Karen Thompson Walker - a science fiction novel, really - about the suburbs in California and how the world looks from the point of view of a fairly ordinary family when a strange global phenomenon is unleashed. Days are getting longer and no one knows why. It could be to do with climate change or cosmic disasters; it could be a metaphor for economic collapse or clashes of faith or globalisation. All we really know about are the effects, and they are detailed scrupulously by the narrator - a young girl who watches and records everything - including her mother's disintegration, her father's secrets, and the strange adaptations that the human race has to make to accommodate those extra hours of 'white light.'

It's another book about racing towards inevitability - and disaster and death making themselves felt in very humdrum locales. In this case, though, the suspense is apparent all the way through the book. Food hoarding, radiation sickness, and the persecution of outsiders - it's all here, as it would be in any story belonging to the 'cosy catastrophe' genre (the genre of global collapse as experienced by a local community) and it all feels very real. My favourite moments are those when the changes start *creeping* into the lives of the characters - such as when the narrator becomes aware that her piano teacher's birds are dying, and birds are dropping out of the sky all over the world. I love the scenes with the flooded mansions by the ocean - the narrator and her father finding sea urchins in the sinks and pods of whales stranded on the beaches. It's a darkly lyrical book - as the best science fiction often is.

Both novels feature a scene in which their child characters leave their prints and names in cement as it solidifies. It's an interesting rhyme across two random contemporary novels. As if they both tap into a current neurosis for leaving something of permanance behind?

Joanna Rossiter's 'The Sea Change' shares a similar theme, in a way. Its two time zones - a war time village which gets evacuated and abandoned, and an Indian town hit by a tsunami thirty years later - are both swept clean and denuded of human stuff. Both intersecting story arcs are concerned with the figures left coping when the war or the ocean comes rushing through a landscape. I found Rossiter's book a very touching one - a little more textured and nuanced than its Richard and Judy stable-mates, perhaps. The writing is a bit meatier and self-consciously literary - and that's no bad thing. I did wonder though, whether it didn't get a little high-flown in its ambitions for what is, essentially, an inter-generational family saga about the war and secrets and disjunctures between mothers and daughters. Also, I wasn't sure about the mother and her journey into India at the end - it all seems a bit quick and easy for her, somehow, after a more or less sedentary lifetime. Sometimes I found the drama of it all pitched a little too loftily... as if the characters' lives were taking on a bit too much deliberate significance. I just liked hearing about them as they were and I struggled a bit when the book became a bit 'novelly'.

But these are just quibbles really, when I enjoyed the book a great deal, on the whole. I enjoyed all three of these. I'm thoroughly enjoying my summer of reading up-to-the-minute stuff. It's all very interesting to me. And i hope my thoughts are of interest, too!

It's almost the end of June - and I think pretty soon I'm going to present my mid-year top ten. I'm going to share with you my favourite books of the year so far..!

So...what are you reading just now?

Monday, 17 June 2013

Old Things Fall Apart...

I really like the way the paperbacks gradually fall apart.

Fourth Anniversary of this Blog... and a competition!

Bernard Socks is settling in so well! He's a very relaxed cat (apart from his Mad Half Hours, which sometimes happen right in the middle of the night.) Mostly though he likes to cuddle up on my lap while i'm reading.

I'll catch you up what what I've been reading in the next day or so (as well as giving you details of a reading i'm giving at the Didsbury Arts Festival next week, and making up my Year's BEST books at the rapidly-approaching halfway point in 2013...!), I just wanted to post a quick update in the meantime - because I realised that my blog is four years old..!

It really started in earnest in June 2009 in its old home on Wordpress - and all that seems a long time ago now. A great deal has gone since then - and i've read quite a few books in that time, too. I've also written quite a lot, too! In that time I've published the second half of the Brenda and Effie books, and all the Audiogo Tom Baker Doctor Who audiobooks - fifteen of them! I've gone freelance as a writer in that time - and had the idea for and helped start the Green Carnation Prize. Obverse books has sprung up all down to the amazing efforts of Stuart Douglas, and they've published a few stories of mine - including my kids' book, 'The Ninnies.'

I must admit, there have been some *awful* times personally in those last four years - but there have been some brilliant ones, too.

But the blog is there like a lifeline throughout - and it's become the place where i talk about what i'm reading, but also where I share my news with my readers. I've got such a great bunch of readers - very loyal and quite vocal - in person, on facebook and on here. I love hearing what you've got to say!


I thought I'd run a little competition to celebrate four years of my blog. I'll send a signed copy of the most recent novel, 'Brenda and Effie Forever!' to the winner. I want you to tell me what your favourite blog post of mine was - on this blog or the previous one - and tell me why it was your favourite. My favourite answer gets the prize! (And if you've already got the book, we'll figure out getting you something you don't have.)

Saturday, 15 June 2013

The Fiction Doctor is in!

Remember - the Fiction Doctor's here for all your 

critiquing needs! 

Details here 


'Paul was a brilliant tutor during my years at UEA all that time ago. He helped me to see the adventure in the writing, to have fun creating my first published novel, Happy Accidents. He also enabled me to stop fretting about what I *thought* a writer should be writing about. You know, those *big* stories. The big stories are the little stories. I finally saw that. Paul will help you over those humps, he'll allow you to see the big picture on your small screen. He'll also help you enjoy the sparks 
that will happen on the journey.'

Dr Tiffany Murray

“A fiction critique from Paul is both positive and insightful. It may be a matter of pointing out flaws that you already know are there, but won't really believe or try to fix until a professional tells you so, or it may be a matter of observing and clarifying your story in ways you had never even considered - either way, your story and your writing will come out of the experience much stronger.”

Aaron Starum.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Hammer Chillers..!

Have you listened to 'Hammer Chillers' yet?

It's a new spooky anthology series from Hammer films, working in collaboration with Bafflegab Productions. They're available for download, one a week, on Fridays - with a cd release coming later in the year.

There are some wonderful writers and performers involved - and a wide range of scary stories that span the genre. I'm dead chuffed to have my work appearing alongside writers such as Stephen Volk and Christopher Fowler. My episode is number three - and it's a very nasty domestic thriller called 'Spanish Ladies'. Available from next Friday, it's very much a homage to the old 'Hammer House of Horror' TV show from 1980.

I've been thinking a lot about horror stories on radio, and how the audio medium is the best place for scary stuff. I guess that's because it all goes back to ghost stories and terror tales being primarily an oral tradition - whether they're being told around a campfire or in front of a blazing hearth. There's also that amazing tradition of radio serials and anthology series of the 1930s and 40s, especially in the US. For several years I was completely obsessed with crackly, bootlegged copies of shows such as 'The Strange Doctor Weird' and 'Lights Out'. All of those shows went out live, with actors all standing round microphones together - and someone doing all the sound effects live in the studio. It always sounds like radio in those days was masses of fun. I love the stories about people like Arch Obler - radio horror writer extraordinaire - splitting open cabbages and various other vegetables with kitchen knives to get the grisly sound effects just right...!

In the 1980s i remember recording 'Fear on Four' so I could listen to them again and again... getting to learn what made these brilliantly compressed, succinct and spiky stories work so well.

Radio does full justice to tales of terror because it makes the listener complicit with what's going on. When you're in the dark, or wearing headphones, and sitting on your own... the story is happening inside your skull. And without visuals, you're creating your own. You're doing half the work. And so you are half-responsible for how much you're scaring yourself. And you become invested and involved in the language in a way that TV or film never lets you. You're in the dark with just a few voices - and at the mercy of what they're telling you...

Anyway - go and check them out! You can buy episodes individually, or as a series of six. Mark Morris's episode is released today!

I think Bafflegab have done a beautiful job on these, and I'm honoured to be a part of them.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Library Books

This week has seen the announcement that Levenshulme library has been saved! here's the Manchester Evening News report. I'm so proud of everyone - and Jeremy especially - for making this happen. It's a brilliant combination of ideas and practical solutions. It's a fantastic act of collaboration by everyone involved meaning that the library can stay alive until the new one opens up for business. I think everyone's ending up with more than they bargained for with the way things have turned out - and it's all down to the creativity and commitment of those working on this for the past few months.

I've written before about loving libraries - and about the periods in my life when I was borrowing books and records a lot (from the refuge of Newton Aycliffe's small, now-demolished library, or from Lancaster's sweet, ancient town library, or Manchester's grand old Central library, where I sat and wrote every morning for months on end ) and there were other times when I drifted away from libraries altogether. When we lived in Norwich it was terrible - since their central library burned down in the mid Nineties and there was nothing to use apart from the university library (which was never much fun...). Then they opened some kind of Millenium glass-walled nightmare in the year 2000 and it was all open-plan and a bit like a glitzy version of a Poundshop or Dorothy Perkins...

What I like about living round here is that we have the choice between the small and perfectly formed (and reprieved!) Levenshulme library - but there's also Longsight up the road, too. It's quite a different experience - but with a bigger stock and interesting potential for people-watching, it's well worth a visit. It's quite noisy - with all the various impromptu social gatherings going on - and people giving the computers a good clattering - and some solitary, crazy-looking souls sitting on futuristic armchairs glaring at you as you peruse the stacks...  but the staff are terribly friendly.

I've spent the last week devouring library loot. 'Dark Matter' by Michelle Paver is a ghost story I've meant to read for ages. I don't know how I failed to - but anyway - the blazing heat of our back garden was perfect for reading this tale of terror in the arctic tundra circa the 1930s. It's a wonderful book - perfectly judged in delivering its scares and the way it slowly, horribly ramps up the tension.

Justine Picardie's 'Daphne' was something i was keen to read, too - and had forgotten about. It's pretty good. I think it's hampered by sticking too close to the research and the real-life source material. It could be shorter, snappier, and less reverential. And what a terrible bunch of characters! The literary researcher characters in the contemporary bit seem to come from central casting. They're like the same snobby lot that you get in any old novel about literary detective work - not very engaging at all. The real heat of the book comes with the collision of the shady old man who hordes the Bronte manuscripts in his decrepit house in Leeds and Daphne du Maurier's fictionalised correspondence with him. The scene where she actually goes to visit - and he pretends to be someone else and not the man who invited her - is actually quite chilly, uncanny and sad. I wanted more of that sort of thing and less of the tiresomely self-regarding Hampstead brigade, really.

And now i'm on with Stephen Kelman's 'Pigeon English' - which is sweet, slangy, ramshackle and very successful in grounding us in this London council estate. I love the little interludes from the pigeon - these little feathery diatribes at the start of some of the chapters. It reminds me a bit of that tv show 'Mongrels'. Still halfway through this one, where I'm feeling the need of greater forward momentum, i think...  but I'll let you know how it goes.

Seems like the books i was choosing at Longsight last week are things that were from two or three years ago - the Richard and Judy's, the Booker listees and the things that book bloggers were slogging through back then. I didn't see *very* much that was bang up to date - and that's no surprise, given the cuts.

I don't mind being a couple of years behind with this contemporary stuff!

Isn't that what reading's always like? Having that feeling of forever catching up? Which is just another way of saying - thankfully - that we'll never run out of good things to read..?

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Random Bookshelf Shots

One of my favourite things to do is checking out other people's bookshelves. I thought I'd share a couple of quick snaps with you.

What I love about having radically disordered shelves are the juxtapositions you get. Books end up next to each other for no particular reason. Looking round here I can see that I made an effort at one point to corral my Angela Carters together, and my 'The Guardians' series of occult mysteries by 'Peter Saxon', and also my Paddington Bear collection. But others are pretty much haphazard.

When you've got a lot of books it's often about just finding space for them anywhere, rather than placing them in some kind of rational order.

At some point I must have assembled a little enclave of High Modernism - Joyce, Conrad and Woolf. But look at how their little party's been broken up by the Exorcist and Dallas...

Amongst the obvious things, there are gems - sometimes rare ones - that I keep meaning to draw to the attention of my blog readers. Do people know 'Songs in the Key of Z'? Irwin Chusid's brilliant book about Outsider music (with accompanying CDs?), or Delmore Schwartz's magical collection of stories, 'In Dreams Begin Responsibilities', (which Georgina Hammick made me read all those years ago)... Or Simon Crump's odd and anarchic novel, 'My Elvis Blackout'? Or the first and only novel of my friend, Reuben Lane, 'Throwing Stones at Jonathan'? That was a lovely book from the end of the last century - and I've stupidly lost contact with its author. (If you're out there, Reuben - get in touch!)

Friday, 7 June 2013

Summer Book Clubbing

The weather's been great in Manchester and I've been enjoying some proper summer reading.

I've ended up falling for a couple of Book Club promotions. First of all Waterstones - and i swore I never would again, after buying a couple of things from last year's summer book club and *loathing* them. I swore i'd never be so daft as to be swayed by the whole pre-packaged, gently coercive, intellectually-pretentious Waterstones fandango.

Yet I did and I'm glad I did because I ended up reading Liz Moore's 'Heft', which is a wonderful novel. It hits all the right notes for me - a bunch of outsidery characters in nothing-happening chapters that are slow, detailed, and thoroughly melancholic. It's slow-moving and gravid with unfolding tragedy, misunderstandings and hugely awkward situations. And each of the central characters is marvellously flawed and lovable. I know it's a book i'll want to revisit. So many gorgeous scenes. I wanted to punch the air even as my toes curled in embarrassment.

On a rainy afternoon in Stockport I rewarded myself with an afternoon of reading and mooching. I sat in Costa Coffee reading Liz Moore and I went into WH Smiths and fell into the Richard and Judy summer bookclub promotion. Yes, i sort-of despair at this stuff. The fact that the vast multiplicity of books published in any one season can be brutally whittled down to a spare selection that get heavily promoted by this well-oiled and hideously efficient media juggernaut. I hate the fact that the books are so heavily discounted that it makes even thinking about making a more unusual or individual choice seem like a wilful absurdity on the part of the consumer. I'm completely suspicious of the whole fast-foodiness of the posters, the promotion, the hype.

However, in nine years i've never read a book recommended by the R&J book club that I've disliked. Oh, maybe one. But that's still a pretty good score.

So - there I was - buying three and then reading three, one after the next, this past week. Three very slick novels of very different kinds. All Richard and Judys are solid, good reads, I've found. They're story-telling machines - very well constructed. Often with big human quandaries and dilemmas at their hearts. Often set beside the sea side.

I thoroughly enjoyed all three. Liza Klaussmann's 'Tigers in Red Weather' is a kind of dysfunctional family saga set over the middle of the twentieth century and set mostly on Long Island. The characters are beautifully drawn and the time scheme shuttles back and forth very neatly, sketching out the difficult moments and filling in the background to what is essentially a murder mystery. The publicity stuff makes much of this book's timely and superficial echoes of 'The Great Gatsby' - but i found it more to be like a rather hellish version of 'Valley of the Dolls' - and all the better for it. A proper summer blockbuster - with lots of glamour, highly-wrought behaviour and a bit of perversity, cocktails  and grisly murder.

'The Universe Versus Alex Woods' by Gavin Extence is rather lovely at times. The precocious teenager has a distinctive voice and, though I wasn't always convinced by it, it's well sustained throughout his adventures. I love the details about what it would be like to be hit in the head by a meteorite - and then to have your brain hoovered for grit and space-dust. He has a very sweet friendship with the Vietnam vet with whom he starts up his Kurt Vonnegut reading group... but sometimes i felt a bit sold short on some of the promises of the material, as we galloped towards the book's climax and its biggest selling point - which is the whole assisted-suicide issue. But I thought the whole thing was charming, by the end.

My favourite of the three has to be M.L Stedman's 'The Light Between Oceans' - which is one of those anxiety-inducing novels that are all about a moral quandary and characters that you feel are so real they make you want to explode with frustration when you seeing them make the wrong choices and doing the wrong things. This is a such a vividly imagined and realised novel. The oceans and the lighthouse and the little town on the coast of Australia are so well presented. It's all about passion and mistakes and desire for revenge - and about parents doing anything to keep their kids. And it's one of those fabulous, sweeping epics that keep you guessing the outcome right until the end. The final chapter was just wonderful.

I can see the lure in these book clubs. It's like not having to think about what you're going to read next. Just picking up the next in the pile and being reasonably assured that you're going to quite enjoy it, at least - and be swept away utterly at best.

I'm so used to picking my own eccentric way through the landscape of reading. I have been since I was about five. It's quite fun to give myself up to someone else's choices.

It's a bit like being on holiday.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Welcome Home to Bernard Socks!

We have a new addition to our household! He arrived last Saturday and already it seems like he's always been here. Please welcome Bernard Socks, everyone..!

The decision to give a home to another cat was a big one for Jeremy and I to take. As readers of this blog will know, Fester Cat was such a huge part of our lives, for so long. When he died at the end of March it seemed impossible to imagine someone else living here.

But it took us a couple of months to realise that it's not about *replacing* a lost friend. It's not about trying to get another cat to stand in his stead. It's more about the gap at the heart of the house, and seeing that what the home is missing is a cat. Another cat, who's distinctively himself, and who can make his own impression in his own way.

And also, we felt that we *ought* to give a home to another cat. There are so many out there who need to be rehomed.

We'll never forget Fester, of course.  It would be impossible to do that. Those Fester Cat years were very special.

But... here - in his own right - comes Bernard Socks.

He's only four years old. He's robust and large and quite noisy. He's very affectionate and interested in everything and everyone. He seems to be in love with every corner of our house and all the stuff in it.

We found him by first of all visiting the website of Tharg - which sounds like something from a science fiction comic - but is really a local cats' rehoming centre here in South Manchester. They do fantastic work there. Downstairs it's a charity shop raising money to help with cat-care, and everywhere else it's a cat's home, with all kinds of cats of many ages and descriptions waiting to find their new homes. It's quite overwhelming, when you first visit in person and see all these faces looking out at you from behind the glass doors of their cubicles. Some of them are very keen indeed to meet prospective new chums and you've got to restrain yourself from wanting to adopt a whole cat-gang and fill your house to the rafters.

The staff are so helpful and committed and just brilliant. The women there spent time and told us fantastic stories about their work in the local community - rescuing cats whose owners could no longer care for them; having abandoned kittens arrive in anonymous cardboard boxes, and bringing in feral monsters from the wild to rehabilitate them with affection and care. 'Oh, here's Mufasa,' said one volunteer. 'He was the terror of our neighbourhood until I managed to bring him in. We looked after him, had his whatsits removed and now he's a sweetie. That smell's just a bit of leaking testosterone. It'll clear up soon enough.' Mufasa glared at us and, we realised, was busily sending Rosemary in the cubby hole above quite delirious with his after-shave.

But though we visited with lots of other cats (Hiya Sugar and her kittens! Hello crazy, mad-friendly Jigger! And hello to sweet, solemn Felix!) we knew who we were really there for...

I had spotted Bernard Socks on their website. His tuxedo markings and the humbug swirl on his face had stood out as i was scrolling down the page.  His bright, curious expression had made him stand out, too. We went back three times to visit and to make sure that he was the one for us. With each return he seemed to recognise us and on our final visit he waited by the glass door of his cubby hole, as if he knew we weren't going to leave the place without him.

So, here we are. Summer's started and there's a new face round at ours. He's fitting in beautifully. Sometimes excitable and agog at all the new stuff. Other times ecstatic at the tummy tickles Jeremy is so good at giving. And in other moments Socks is completely chilled and content to fall asleep in my lap.

Welcome home.