Friday, 31 January 2014

A New Reading Challenge Idea!

Thinking today about a Reading Challenge I was talking to Stuart about last night. Now I'm obsessed with the idea of choosing a big popular novel for each year of the twentieth century and zigzagging through all the genres. (Making sure, too, that they're all available for free on Gutenberg, at least for the earlier years.) It started out as an idea for Stuart - but then I got into the idea of having a go myself. Now we're thinking of doing it in tandem. 

For me, it'd be a great chance to finally get to some books that I've always meant to read - and perhaps to construct a picture in my head of the twentieth century through its popular fiction classics, rather than just the literary classics narrative that I got through doing literature degrees.

So who's with us? 

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

'Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore' by Robin Sloan

It’s a funny thing about reading this novel, but towards the end I started to realise that it contained echoes of other books I’ve been reading this month. There’s the classic children’s fantasy novel series that the young hipster characters revere and carry with them into adult life (Fan Girl). There’s the young characters themselves and their excruciating brightness and cleverness, and their preoccupation with the way books will outlive us (Fault in Our Stars). And there’s also the mysterious fellowship of monks holed up in a mysterious Sanctus Sanctorum, getting up to murky business and keeping an age-old secret that they themselves don’t fully understand (Sanctus).

As you know, I move zig-zag-wise through my reading, so little ripples of meaning and ideas ought to be more or less accidental, or the product of my own overactive imagination. Plus, in Mr Penumbra’s case, it was a book recommendation from Stuart, and not a choice that I made via my own intuition.

So, I’m not sure what it means – or portends! – other than the contemporary novel is obsessing about things like electronic media, textuality as something you get embroiled in as an adventure, magical fantasy epics and secrets guarded by corrupt and ancient cults.

I liked ‘Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookshop’ a great deal. I like most of all the action that takes place in the tall, narrow bookshop in San Francisco – from the narrator’s early nightshifts, when he decides something nefarious to do with secret codes is going on, right up until the ending, when he gives a power-point presentation to all the characters to explain everything he has learned. There are some wonderful characters (usually the shady ones – I wasn’t so keen on some of the show-off prodigies who came centre stage) and some lovely twists to do with things like computer scanners made out of flat-pack cardboard, complete and unabridged audiobooks read by the author, museums for knitted pullovers and ubiquitous fonts.

Everything in this novel is hiding another secret inside itself, and I liked the journey our hapless-stroke-brilliant narrator makes on his way to uncovering an ultimately (…spoilers) rather modest and friendly meaning to it all.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Tatty Old Paperbacks

There's really nothing better than heaps of tatty old paperbacks, is there?

Monday, 27 January 2014

Mostly about 'Animal Magic' by Andrew Barrow

I felt a little bit bad on Friday, for not finding more things in ‘Sanctus’ to like. I went to town and walked around and – here’s one of my Friday treats – I sat in a crowded coffee shop and resisted the urge to get out my notebooks and start working again. I simply read, and at the back of my mind let my thoughts tick over about ‘Sanctus’ and my blog… and how, really, it’s important for me to say what I really think of books – not just because I know people pick up recommendations from here – but also because I’m still and always figuring out for myself why certain books work for me and others don’t. After all these years of reading and writing, I’m still trying to work these things out…

I think I don’t, in the end, enjoy or value books that don’t feel as if they absolutely had to be written. They can be the heaviest, densest, most serious thing in the world, or they can be the lightest and most flippant of soufflĂ©s – but if they don’t have that urgency about them, then it’s no good to me. I have to feel that getting them into the world was chancy and difficult and something their author wanted to do more than anything else…

That’s certainly how I felt about the book I was reading on Friday and Saturday – John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars.’ It’s a wonderful book. I don’t have much to say about it. It just feels necessary in all sorts of ways. The boy and girl at the heart of it remind me a little of the sassy and cool kids in Mary Rodgers’ wonderful kids’ books of the 60s and 70s. It’s an uplifting book. I know it’s one I’ll go back to over the years. It’s another book with a fictional book at its heart – which is a recurring motif with me in recent times.

It’s a motif in a memoir I picked up unexpectedly on Saturday (in the remaindered book warehouse at Brierley Bar, just south of Buxton), ‘Animal Magic’ – Andrew Barrow’s memoir of his brother, who was killed in a car accident along with his fiancĂ© in the early 1970s. This is a strange, dark, funny little book. It’s about having a brother, first and foremost. It’s also about writing weird stories and drawing odd cartoons, bestiality and black humour, and hectic, ramshackle life in the West End of London in the 1960s. But most of all it’s a book about having a brother, and that sense of an accumulated, ineradicable past of in-jokes and ongoing private mythology. For decades Andrew Barrow has had his dead brother’s artwork and letters, and the manuscript of his single (rather odd) novel, ‘The Queue’ and he’s kept them like treasure. We get generous excerpts from the novel – which sounds like a glorious picaresque romp through a threatening landscape of lunatics and perverts, in the company of a raffish and sexy semi-human dachshund called Mary.

It’s a wonderful book, I think: grotesque and fey and addictive. It’s less interesting to me for the stuff about celebrity and Soho and the 1960s and all that gossipy stuff about ‘stellar promise’ and the poshery porn that gets the newspapers and middlebrow pundits all excited these days. For me the excitement is in the scary imaginary world that siblings create and decide to make public. The brothers here are like the Bronte sisters or the Lewis boys and their ‘Boxen’.

To me the book felt like something that really needed to be written one day. You get the sense of a writer who has longed to tell the world the story of a tragedy and a loss it would otherwise forget about. Like ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ it’s very much concerned with the few bits and scraps of pages that we leave behind us when we go, and the effort that must go into making sure they don’t simply get chucked away. 

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Return to Labyrinth

‘Oh!’ Jeremy said the other day. ‘Do you want a present?’

He’d found a carrier bag amongst all of his stuff lying about in our kitchen, and it held one of the Christmas presents he’d bought for me and forgotten until now, a month later.

It was ‘Labyrinth’ on Blu-ray. He knows it’s one of the films I’m daft about. We last watched it two years ago, and that seems a huge gap in time.

So that was our late night Friday movie this week – another return to the Labyrinth. It looks so beautiful in this sparkling new edition (everything is covered in glitter! Could we see that before?), and it has lost that awkwardness it had for a number of years – of looking a little stilted and 1980s.  Now it looks like a classic from decades ago – which, oddly enough, it suddenly is.

It made me think of how many of my favourite films are fantasies from the 1980s. There’s a wonderful list: Neverending Story, Time Bandits, Willow, the Princess Bride, Flash Gordon… Last March, during Fester’s final weekend with us, he lay on my lap as I spent all of good Friday watching the whole lot again in a marathon. He liked the bright flashing lights and the music, I think – plus the fact that I sat still for so long watching them.

Something else I love about these films: their unabashed silliness, in amongst the strangeness and the songs. I wonder if fantasy – in movies and books – has been taking itself a little more seriously in recent years? People are keener to build a franchise and an ongoing series… you can hear the world-building going on in the background, like a building site next door, drowning out some of the fun…

Though there have been films that have come close, in recent years, to summoning up the same feeling of, here’s a film I’m going to watch again and again through the years. ‘Paranorman’ was one, I think. The Sylvester McCoy scenes in ‘The Hobbit’ have that feeling, too - as do bits of the Disney Narnia adaptations.

(I STILL wish Bowie had managed to work ‘The Laughing Gnome’ into ‘Labyrinth’.)

Friday, 24 January 2014

'Tangerine Dream' and 'Sanctus'

The soundtrack of my week has been lashings of Tangerine Dream, a band I’ve never listened to before. But it turns out they’ve been going for as long as I’ve been alive, have recorded about 190 albums, and produce the kind of mesmeric, endless, spooky, electronic noodling that’s been missing from my life. Their music is just the kind of thing I need for reading and for writing to. It’s almost like having white noise playing, in order to drown out the everyday noise around me. Except it’s not white noise – it’s fuschia noise with silver stars and golden moons and gigantic clockwork bunnies doing cartwheels across the horizon.

Also, their music at certain points in their history sounds very much like the strange and expansive score from a lavish Dr who movie from the early 1980s. It’s like Roger Limb and the Radiophonic Workshop writ large.

I realized that electronic music is something that Dr Who should never have left behind. All that lush orchestral stuff they’ve had since 2005 can be sweet sometimes – and it was a novelty when it first came in, BUT, now Dr Who sounds just like any other show. It’s generic incidentally music. Dr Who was electronic-sounding and spookily brutalist. It looked and sounded like nothing else on TV. Now that’s not the case, and I think that’s a shame.

Speaking of generic things… I’ve had my first reading disappointment of the year. It had to happen, didn’t it? I took a chance and picked up ‘Sanctus’ by Simon Toyne. I thought it was about time that I read one of those huge thrillerish tomes about monks killing each other and long-hidden secrets coming to light and lots of international travel, action, adventure, guns, car chases, clues, computers etc etc. I thought it would all be a bit like ‘The Omen’ crossed with ‘Indiana Jones.’

I was amazed to find it was an almost entirely static adventure novel! People jump off mountains and parachute into them, and chase each other and shoot each other, but it all feels like a bit of a faff on, really. And the thing that makes it seem like that is that the characters aren’t alive enough. They are superheroes. Even the supposedly ordinary journalist / (spoilers)… Siamese twin character at the heart of the story. She’s pretty much a cipher who quickly becomes a superhero, dashing about, doing superhuman things and taking in her stride the plainly impossible things that start to happen around her.

Is this a feature of the global conspiracy / action adventure / biblical mystery genre thing? Characters as broadly and brightly drawn as characters are in a computer game?

At least I found out that it wasn’t the kind of thing for me – but not because of the violence or the technology, but the anaemic characterization.

Since then, though, I’ve picked up John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars’, in which the characters are so real and beautifully drawn it’s like you’re sitting next to them, right from page one, and can’t leave their side until the book ends. I’m halfway through and don’t want it to finish. It feels rare and unique, which is all I want when I pick up a book.

So I’m left thinking – this Friday – why are there so many novels out there setting out on purpose to be just the same as a whole lot of other books? And do they really set out to have recognizable types of characters for the reader to plug into as an easy viewpoint place-holder? I mean, what’s the point of that..? I’m not being snobby, I hope. I’m guessing that books like ‘Sanctus’ have loyal and loving fans – who don’t set as much store in the kinds of fictional qualities I prefer.

Are they reading more like watching an action movie, or playing a game on a screen? This is what I’m trying to understand, I think. It really feels like someone has scarified ‘Sanctus’ like one of its victim-monks and bled it completely dry – leaving behind only the ossified husk of a screen treatment… Is that what it’s all about? Writing a story that’s all ready to transcend to the next lucrative level? There’s obviously money behind it all, and the arcane secrets of selling to a mass audience… but it’s a shame that such empty books are produced as a result and their – at times, inspired – ideas get squandered in their haste to fit squarely inside a marketable slot.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Could it be Magic?

Here's a very nice blog about Magical Realism in fiction, looking at a different book in each post. Today it was all about my novel 'Could it be Magic?' from way back in 1998. It was lovely to read this, and to remember how I loved writing that 'magical realist' stuff, and setting novels on the Estates where I grew up.

Oh, but I was patronised for it! For coming from the north-east, for writing about a heterogenous mix of characters and bringing in surrealism. I was patronised by the papers, the critics, the 'literary establishment' - all that lot, whoever they are. One of the first literary parties I went to that my publisher Vintage had organised, for an anthology I was in - and a very famous editor said to me, 'You are dressed in things I would give to the poor.'

It was - despite stuff like that - a very exciting time to be publishing my first books, in the mid to late Nineties, and I snagged myself a fancy lectureship teaching the MA at UEA about that time, too. For a little while it felt like these kinds of literary bastions were starting to let in the hoi-polloi...

Vintage and Chatto and Windus never really managed to sell very many copies of my books. They didn't know what to call them, or what to do with them. They thought they were soap operas because they weren't about middle class characters. And then they dropped me quite quickly, once my editor left. But I loved doing those books while the going was good. I wrote a trilogy! My first books out formed a great, ambitious, literary trilogy - and one that was seething with life and love and jokes and tropes from every genre going.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Catching up on a Week's Reading...

Am I behind writing about what I’ve been reading? I guess I am. I’ve been zigging-zagging from book to book all week and keeping to my plan of only deciding what’s next when I get to the gap between volumes…

This time last week I spent the whole day with Denis O’Donnell’s lovely cat memoir, ‘Paw Tracks in Moonlight’, which is mostly about the first year in the life of a cat the author rescued in the mid-60s. The action all takes place in the wilds of Northumberland, where a single young teacher goes to live in what sound like idyllic surroundings. In the depths of winter he finds a female Maine Coon caught in a cruel mantrap. Though he’s too late to save her life, he manages to keep on of her kittens alive – and this turns out to be Toby Jug, the hero of the book. It’s a really lovely against-all-odds story about friendship and survival.

Then I spent much of the week inside a wonderful novel that I happened upon by chance. Rainbow Rowell’s ‘Fangirl’ is (I think) her fourth and it’s a delight from start to finish. It’s long but not long enough. I just wanted more. I read it on my kronky old Kindle and I was pressing that button so hard when I got to 100%, hoping there’d be more pages. That’s how much I loved it.

It reminded me so much of being in college. Of writing stories for workshops and writing Fan Fiction at the same time, and the whole lot vying for time with real life and all my other work. The friendships and the characters and the dramas that Cath encounters were so familiar and real. It’s been a long time since I read anything that really caught that excitement of writing fiction, and living inside the stories you’re writing. Rainbow Rowell has a wonderfully readable voice. Her prose has that addictive quality. Everyone is likable, too – even the flaky mother and the slightly skanky room mate.

What else? Well, then I was straight into the very funny and touching ‘Adventures With the Wife in Space’ by Neil Perryman, in which a Dr Who fan exactly my age spends over two years playing every single episode of the Show for his wife to watch and notes down all of her responses – which are incisive and sometimes hilarious. She should be script-editing today’s Dr Who. The whole thing is wonderfully excruciating – especially in the anecdotal stuff about going to Dr Who conventions. (John Levene comes out of the thing particularly brilliantly.) I can see this book as a quirky Brit movie already – a road trip movie about sitting mostly still. It’s a love story, really, and all the starships and rubber monsters are just a pretext, as they always were.

And my week has finished with two days hooked on Liane Moriaty’s ‘The Husband’s Secret’ – which is fabulously scandalous and, again, addictive. It’s like moving into a new street and everyone coming round to tell you all the neighbours’ most shocking, long-held secrets. Another big recommendation from me.

The year’s going well so far. I haven’t opened a duff book yet…! Let’s see if my lucky reading streak continues…

Friday, 17 January 2014

Your Memories of the Annual Years?

So - fans of the Dr Who Annuals. Tell me your favourite memories of reading and collecting these strange books. Best quotes might well get used in 'The Annual Years.'

You can email me at or add a comment here.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

I, Frankenstein

I noticed that the buses of Manchester are sporting adverts for a new film adaptation of Frankenstein: one in which the monster manages into the present day and goes onto, presumably, wreak havoc. 'I, Frankenstein' they've called this undoubted blockbuster.

Would it be ridiculous to imagine a relaunch of 'Never the Bride' with a change of look and boldly entitled: 'I, Brenda'...?


And, as if by magic, the wonderful Matt Cresswell sent me this:

Sunday, 12 January 2014

First Flower of 2014

A bit of sun in Levenshulme yesterday, and it was a relief to see the year's first flower, straining its way out of the window box.

Yesterday was given over to a leisurely visit to Cheadle Hulme - Jeremy at the garden centre, me looking at the second hand books and Charity shops. I invested in yet another Alice - this one from the Eighties and illustrated by Anthony Browne. I was just reminding myself last week that I need to reread Alice - and a new artist seems a good way to revisit this favourite of all books.

Best cafe in Cheadle - and one of my favourites in the whole city - is the Big Bite, which is homely and cheap with its comfy booths and colossal Breakfast Barms oozing fried egg and scorched bacon and proper frothy coffee, too (as opposed to the ubiquitous too-milky lattes) - and here I sat with a cheese toastie, thoroughly enjoying 'The Gipsy in the Parlour' - Margery Sharp's tartly funny novel from 1953, all about Victorian sisters-in-law and monstrous cuckoos-in-the-nest. Sharp is now famous mostly for her series of children's books about 'The Rescuers' (and justly so: it's a wonderful series of books.) But her novels for grown-ups are fabulous and wickedly funny. She always makes us love her adventuresome villainesses. (Thanks to Nick @ Pile of Leaves for finding this one for me, as a Christmas surprise. Sharp's books can be quite hard to come by.)

Friday, 10 January 2014

A Great Reading Week

A really great week for reading - that began with us in Perth and me reading Nina Sankovitch's inspiring memoir - and saw us returning to Manchester and a rapturous welcome home from Bernard Socks. I had a mid-week spent devouring Neil Gaiman's 'Ocean at the End of the Lane' and just this tea time I finished a couple of days with Armistead Maupin's 'The Days of Anna Madrigal' - which was just *bliss.*

What have you been reading this week, then?

Thursday, 9 January 2014

'Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading' by Nina Sankovitch

So much of this book made complete sense to me. Reading book after book, almost to the exclusion of everything else, seems a wonderful idea. Nina Sankovitch’s memoir ‘Tolstoy and the Purple Chair’ is about a woman who decides to slow down her life following a number of years in full, busy flight from grieving her sister’s early death. Sankovitch’s family was a bookish one already and we get glimpses of how she and her sisters and parents would use books to fill their evenings and mark the years. When it comes time to take a healing pause in her life, it’s natural for Nina to create a reading space for herself and to take up the challenge of reading and reviewing a book a day for a full year.

It’s an almost fairy tale image – the seclusion and the seemingly-impossible task. It’s also a very alluring thing to read about – especially at the start of a new year, when I’m thinking about my own year of reading in advance, and making various plans for my own escapes from the everyday. I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘zig-zagging’ from book to book, and how one book always suggests another, and about not letting yourself choose what to read next until the very last moment, so that you never feel cluttered or encumbered. This is exactly what Nina does. Each morning she writes her review for yesterday’s book and then goes to select the next from the shelf beside her purple chair. It’s a wonderful ritual and an act of dedication to learning and convalescence.

She writes about it all very well, too. The book is teeming with the titles and characters from other books and we read with a pencil in hand, jotting down suggestions, as all addicted readers do. I like the way her family life crowds in around the secluded music room and her cat-scented chair, and sometimes holding to her schedule gets fraught (shades of ‘Julie and Julia’s frantic self-imposed targets here.) There are some intensely moving family stories and memories delved into, triggered by the books she’s reading. They weave about each other subtly in a manner reminiscent of W.G Sebald, whose ‘The Emigrants’ is discussed here.

It’s all about erudition worn lightly, and a blend of meditation and chat. Throughout, it feels like here’s a friend telling us about books we might like to try – and about the fact that, if you dig deep enough, for long enough, and if you can keep track of your thoughts as you make your reading journey – you start to see and feel connections without even trying. This book is all about the sheer exhilaration of reading and how, when you’re in that particular state, the books themselves drop away, and all the words, and it’s like taking part in some endless, complex, timeless conversation with people who are still – and always will be – here.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

'Salinger' by David Shields and Shane Salerno

I’ve been guilty over the years of making JD Salinger into a bit of a hero. (I’ve got several writing heroes and I spend too much time longing for more work from them, and I probably reread them too much than is good for me, as well – Salinger, Anne Tyler, Angela Carter, Armistead Maupin, Truman Capote, Christopher Isherwood.) I’m not sure I can do that hero thing in the same way now, having read ‘Salinger’ by David Shields and Shane Salerno. JD comes out of it all as a bit of an old git.

It’s a huge, generous compendium of quotations from many sources, pieced together rather like George Plimpton’s astonishingly good ‘overheard’ Truman Capote biography of the late Nineties. This volume isn’t as good as the Capote, but neither was Salinger’s life as unremittingly interesting. We learn some harrowing things about his war years, and some astounding things about his later days spent in pursuit of much younger women (including the actress Catherine Oxenberg in the mid-Eighties. Imagine the incongruity of being stalked by JD Salinger on the set of Dynasty..!) There are many wonderful moments of listening to unheard-of bits of Salinger – letters, mostly. It’s like tuning into a voice you never thought you’d hear again.

Except… one of the big coups of the book is the information its writers withhold till the very last page. And that’s all to do with the revelations of what Salinger was up to in his writing hut in the mountains for all those secluded years. And it looks like we have our answer at last, and that one day soon we’ll be able to read those secret books. That’s what I learned yesterday, when I got to the end of this biography.

More Salinger..! It takes me right back to being sixteen and those German Literature lessons. There were only four of us in the class. Nicola and me and two others – studying Schiller and Wilhelm Tell. We all got D’s for the exams right at the end of the course, because we didn’t stick anywhere near to the syllabus. Our young teacher got carried away with reading Kant and getting us thinking all about ‘understanding’ and revenge and conscience and stuff and how and why William Tell did what he did. We also got carried away with The Catcher in the Rye. Nicola had it first. The yellow Penguin edition of the 1980s, with the cover designed to look like a school exercise book. I read it next and I’ve always been grateful that I first read it when I was sixteen. It’s exactly the right time.

Then our teacher got his hands on it. It was his first teaching job. He came from Newcastle. Affable, ginger. A bit anarchic. Intent on mixing it up in our German lessons by bringing in too much – in fact, a disastrous, exam board-confounding amount of - philosophy. He borrowed Nic’s copy and came back saying he’d sat up all night reading it. It was the best novel that he’d ever read. And we spent whole lessons after that talking about Holden and Salinger.

School lessons were like that then. In English, just the year before, another teacher – Mr Watson – had been reading us Hemingway and, upon reaching the word ‘lunatic’ asked us if we knew its derivation. We didn’t? He talked about the moon and werewolves and loonies and psychos. He spent a whole hour-long lesson acting out Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ for us. Every single scene, playing all the parts and keeping us utterly enthralled. Again the syllabus was out of the window. But I’ve never forgotten that hour, or the ones we spent talking about Kant and ‘verstand’ and ‘vernunft’ and the Catcher in the Rye.

Those four books by Salinger were ones I eked out into my university years. I was nineteen when I first read the nine stories in the collection we in the UK know as ‘For Esme – with Love and Squalor.’ Quirky, colloquial, rebellious, anti-establishment, hip, and stuffed with wonderful concrete details. That’s what I was getting out of him, when I was first teaching myself to write. Also, I learned that no scene can be too small. Nor can it be too static or chatty. Write a whole story where someone lies in the bath, smoking and talking with someone sitting in the doorway. The true drama of short stories happens some place between the inside of your characters’ heads and the shabby world they’re living in.

Rereading all four books in recent years I’ve felt myself recoil from the latter stages when his mysticism creeps in and it all gets a bit didactic and obscure. But they’re still books I’ve returned to for almost thirty years, and I’ve loved the bean-spilling memoirs and investigations that have come along over the decades – I loved Ian Hamilton’s book and the daughter’s frightening memoir. But I’d been waiting for the Shields and Salerno book for a long time, I realized, as I read it throughout Christmas week.

Yeah, it spoils the mystique a bit. When you pull back the curtain and see that the Wizard of Oz is just a horrid little man with strange habits. I always thought JD Salinger had the best career and the best life possible. I thought he was a real hero. He was a hero – but he wasn’t really happy, and he wasn’t very nice. The whole thing will keep me thinking for a long time, and returning to his work. (I learned on New Year’s Eve that his ‘uncollected’ early stories are freely available on the internet…) I’ll go back to his work – and happily anticipate the new books to come.