In which I think about settling down with a good book

Ahoy there and apologies for blogging tardiness. Unfortunately people keep luring me away from my nice safe sofa-laptop bubble by trying to give me money to teach people stuff, which is tiresome, but does lead to having money to buy things, which is nice.

Anyhow, you find me, dear readerist, in a time of great trauma, because, right at the moment, I don’t really have a book on the go.

Now some of you probably won’t appreciate why that’s traumatic. Some of you will be the sorts of people who dip in and out of a book as the mood takes them, and have no more emotional attachment to the idea of reading that they would to a passable movie or the end of a series of Grand Designs (although, I’m not sure series of Grand Designs ever actually end, they just morph without warning into repeats of older episodes). Anyhow, we are a very egalitarian and open-minded blog here. We welcome all sorts of people, regardless of race, gender or preference in flavour of fruit pastel. So you people who aren’t fully fledged Book Types are welcome along with everyone else. I do, however, reserve the right to give you very slightly suspicious glances from time to time, and pop a plastic cover down before I let you sit on the good chairs.

Part of the reason I am without book at the present time, is that I am in the midst of working through the plot for a new novel idea. When I’m deep in a first draft or in working through initial plot ideas, I quite often find that my reading tails off a bit. It’s as if my brain can only be fully immersed in one story at a time. For the same reason, I think, I only ever have one book on the go at any given moment. Some people can deal with more than one. EngineerBoy often has an “upstairs” and a “downstairs” book in progress at the same time. This causes me to peer at him suspiciously quite a lot, and occasionally look at bungalows on estate agency websites as a last resort to break him out of this bizarre and worrying habit.

Right now though, I need a book to read. I’m starting to get a bit twitchy for lack of book. It needs to be absorbing enough for me to get into easily but not so mentally taxing that it interferes with writer brain doing its important story development, and also not so light and frothy that I my brain isn’t engaged at all. It can be fiction or non-fiction. It might even be something that’s already on my not-as-big-as-it-sometimes-is To Read pile, all of which look interesting, but none of which are screaming “Read me now!” in a sufficiently loud voice.

to read pile

So please help me out with suggestions. What books have you properly loved recently and why? And, any writers out there, can you read and write alongside one another or are they just mutually exclusive activities?

In which I belatedly think about World Book Day

World Book Day! Of course. That’s what I should have blogged about last week. I sat in my little purple office thinking, “What should I blog about?” and ended up on poverty and social mobility which was fine, albeit a bit ranty, but it actually was World Book Day, and I am a wannabe writer and non-wannabe reader. It was obvious, and I missed it. Sorry.

So what we’re all going to do now, is agree to pretend that it’s still World Book Day and I’m entirely punctually blogging on the topic of the day. I’ll give you a moment, if you wish, to pop off and change into whatever you were wearing last Thursday for added verisimilitude.

Are you ready? Then I shall begin. Well, World Book Day, eh? What is there to say? Actually what is there to say? Something book-related I suppose. Judging from the photos adorning my mummy-friends’ facebook and twitter feeds it would appear that going to school dressed as a fictional character is a big World Book Day thing. So let’s start with that. Which character would you dress up as, if you weren’t one of those responsible adults with a job where turning up in Hogwarts’ robes makes colleagues walk the long way around the office to avoid your desk?

It’s a tricky one. Lots of my favourite fictional characters are from contempory fiction which doesn’t really lend itself to playing dress-up. If the character you’re dressing up as is from the same age group and time period as you, there’s a risk no-one will notice that you’re in costume, which has some advantages in the workplace but is not really In The Spirit Of The Thing.

Children’s books probably provide a richer seam for quality costume work, tending as they do, to be heavily people by Wizards,Vampires,Pirates, Talking animals and the like. I think I could rock a Worst Witch costume, and I was very fond of her as a child. In our younger days, my sister and I did bear more than a passing resemblance to Beverly Cleary’s utterly brillant Beezus and Ramona so that’s an option (and no, I’m not offering you a picture of our younger selves for comparison.)

Beezus_and_Ramona

Fantasy fiction must also provide good dressing up opportunities. Terry Pratchett gives you exciting options of wizards, witches, vampires, policemen, vampire policemen and trolls. A troll suit might be tricky to build though, so maybe not.

I think my fantasy dress-up pick at the end of the day is going to be a bit of a classic. I’m going to go Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre

Now I know she’s billed as being a bit plain, which isn’t ideal for dress-up, but I don’t think I can bring myself to abandon Jane for one of those flightly Austen heroines just in the name of prettier hair. Jane it has to be. Sensibly attired, unflatteringly centre-parted but resourceful and intelligent. Go Jane! Go Jane!

So what about you? Remembering  that it’s still last Thursday, who will you be dressing up as for school today?

Where I get all sci-fi and fantasyish and do a bit of reviewing.

Sometime ago I commented on this very blog that I’m in favour of doing what every teacher I’ve ever had advised and reading widely. I think I said it here. I definitely said it though, and it was definitely right-headed thinking when I did say it.

In that spirit I tend to read a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, and of different genres of fiction. Recently, though, I seem to have been stuck on a bit of a sci-fi/fantasy roll, and so I thought, “Hey!” (Yes, I actually thought “Hey!” with the exclamation mark and everything) “Why don’t I write a sci-fi/fantasy themed book review blogpost?” And I could think of no good reason why not, and there are no responsible adults around to stop me, so here it is.

Generally, I can swing either way on sci-fi and fantasy. I’m properly quite addicted to Terry Pratchett (to the point of wondering whether there’s a boxed set of all the Discworld novels that I could pass off as a single volume if I’m ever on Desert Island Discs). On the opposite end of the scale I don’t think I’d manage to finish Lord of the Rings even if I was marooned on a desert island and it was the only book. Doctor Who, I have adored since Peter Davidson’s incumbency. Star Wars (whisper it quietly so as to avoid actual physical violence) I can pretty much take or leave. Obviously, I’m talking original trilogy here. The prequels serve no purpose at all beyond providing an emergency Ewan McGregor fix and there are better ways to get that (Moulin Rouge, A Life Less Ordinary & Shallow Grave would be my picks). Even with the originals, I see that they’re culturally iconic, but I’ve watched them all, right through once in the cinema. I’d have no actual hard objection to seeing them again, but it wouldn’t obviously enhance my life.

So that’s where I stand on fantasy and sci-fi generally. Love some. Hate some. Tolerate others. Before I descend into separating all fantasy into Howard from Fresh Meat – if you’re not watching it, you should – style Good and Bad lists (Buffy=Good, Heroes series 1=Good, Rest of Heroes=Bad etc.), lets move onto some actual reviewing.

I’ve read three books with a fantasy vibe lately: The Untied Kingdom by Kate Johnson, Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde and American Gods by Neil Gaiman. They’re probably all more fantasy than sci-fi, but I don’t really have the mental energy to debate the difference. I could term them speculative fiction, but that sounds a tad unnecessarily wordy. Let’s just call them books and be done with it.

 

First up – Kate Johnson’s The Untied Kingdom

This novel is essentially a fantasy romance. The plot hangs off a regular girl from contempory Britain slipping through a crack in time and space and finding herself in an alternate version of reality, where the country is economically and technologically backward and in the midst of a civil war.

Judging from the acknowledgements, Johnson’s a bit of a fantasy fan herself, as she credits Terry Pratchett and Joss Whedon amongst her inspirations. There’s certainly more than a little bit of Discworld’s Sam Vimes about her male lead, and a big dollop of Bernard Cornwell’s Napoleonic Wars hero, Richard Sharpe. Nothing wrong with that – both are good templates for the tough working class boy made good character at the centre of this story.

I applaud the writer’s ambition. There’s a lot of advice given to writers about what you can and can’t do within a genre. Romance is a genre seen as being aimed squarely at women. Sci-fi has more of a teenage boy reputation. Putting the two together takes nerve, and it’s a risk which is largely sucessful. If anything I’d have liked a bit more of the alternate reality woven in around the central romance plot, but it’s a good read, and it’s brilliant to find a contemperary romance that feels original and has such an interesting premise. This novel is also one that demands a sequel. Without giving away the ending, I really do want to know what these characters do next.

 

Second up, Jasper Fforde and Shades of Grey.

Fforde is one of the big hitters in the comic fantasy market. He’s the author behind the successful Nursery Crimes and Thursday Next series. Shades of Grey is the first in a potential new series, and is based around the premise that people can only see certain colours, and colour perception is attribute around which society is organised. Good writing should engage a reader’s senses, so writing about characters who don’t perceive the world the way the reader does is hard. Two thumbs way way up to Fforde for absolutely pulling this off. Rather than alienating the reader from the characters, their world feels immediate and real.

In a sense this novel is 1984 with an magnified sense of the absurd. You have a dystopian society, an everyman protagonist who is starting to doubt the society he’s living in, and perhaps the beginnings of a relationship with a more rebellious politically aware woman. It’s intended to be the first in a series, and I think it’s probably the first time since the blessed JK hung up her Hogwarts quill that I’ve finished a book feeling bereft at the wait for the next installment. For me Fforde’s earlier series took a little while to warm up – the later books are much better than the earlier ones. This time he’s hit the ground running. Loved this book.

 

And finally, in my little fantasy reading phase, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Gaiman himself is a bit of a god in the sci-fi/fantasy world, and he’s done some truly fabulous stuff. His Doctor Who ep in the last season was a stand out, and Good Omens (co-written with Sir Terry of Pratchett) is a proper pageturner. The premise of American Gods is intriguing – people from all over the globe populated America, so what happened to the gods they brought with them? Have those gods survived and what has been lost in translation to their new home? And how will they respond to the new “religions” of modern life?

I did struggle to get into this book – it’s not that I wouldn’t recommend it, but it’s a Big Book. I think it is one to take on holiday or on a long train journey – somewhere where you’re going to be able to settle down and read for a couple of hours at a time. It’s one that you need to read your way into. It took me a while to get going with, I think, because I was pushed for time and reading only a few pages at a go.

We do also need to talk about the length. The edition I have is labelled “Author’s Preferred Text” – words which I naturally greet with the same trepidation as the phrase “Director’s Cut.” Sure – it could mean that the evil corporate sales people bowdlerised your work and you’ve now been able to restore the fully glory of your artistic vision. More often I just think that writers and directors need to know when to step away from the thing they’re working on and move on. Anyway. Gaiman acknowledges that this edition is 12000 words longer than the originally published version. I haven’t done a comparison, so I don’t know which words were added, but my feeling is that this book is slightly longer than it needs to be. So, I would recommend this book, but I would probably suggest seeking out the shorter original text and saving it for a day when you can really settle down with it and immerse your brain in Gaiman’s world.

So that is what I have been reading of late. Next up I’m going into a Crime phase (reading, not doing). It was quite rightly pointed out to me, by my very wise senior sibling, that for all my “Read widely” waffle I very rarely read crime fiction. To right this wrong, she has also provided me with a shelf of crime fiction to get my teeth into. CJ Sansom, Minette Walters, Harlan Coben and Michael Rowbotham here I come.