Wednesday, October 31, 2012

My Life in Books: Series Three: Day Four

Stu is otherwise known as Winston's Dad, and knows more about literature in translation than anyone I know.  His blog is a fantastic resource for the literature of so many countries.

Florence blogs at Miss Darcy's Library, and I am grateful to her for getting me finally to read some Rosamond Lehmann, after she led a Reading Week devoted to this author earlier in 2012.

Qu. 1.) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you? Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.

Stu: I did very much grow up in a bookish house. My earliest memories are of my dad reading on the chair, in the car waiting for my mum, and his hour long visits to toilet at home with his book reading! That said our tastes in books are very different - my dad is an escapist reader, thrillers westerns and spy novels. He also reads maybe double the number of books I do.  My grandparents were also very bookish - my gran was a crime fan so holidays were spent reading but also looking through her collection of old paperbacks with their slightly creepy sixties and fifties covers.  Her favourite writer was Agatha Christie.  My other gran was an English teacher and headmistress so her shelves open my eyes to classics and although I don't read as many as I should these days, I discovered names like Saki and Dickens in her shelves. Also she maybe inspired one of my favourite childhood books, which is The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, as she had a old version of The Lord of the Rings that I found very enticing as a kid with its cover and Runic writing - so I was given The Hobbit when I was about ten as The Lord of the Rings was maybe too had for me at that age. I fell in love with the idea of far away places and adventures in them.

Florence: I grew up in a diplomatic household, and every two to three years we’d up stakes and move to another country. It was difficult keeping up transatlantic friendships, and I learnt early on to rely on books rather than people for comfort and companionship. It helped that wherever we lived, there were always books all around us. Every night after dinner my siblings and I gathered on my parents’ bed for story-hour, and my mother read aloud from all the great classics. When we grew too old for children’s books she swapped them for Jane Austen, Margaret Mitchell, or Tanizaki. It was only when I finished high-school and moved to Paris that the tradition finally – sadly – came to an end.

If I had to pick one book from my childhood (oh how hard it is to choose!), it would probably be E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle. I was very keen on tales of magic and adventure, and I read and enjoyed a great many of them, but only The Enchanted Castle had statues that came alive in the moonlight, and an invitation to dine with the Greek gods on an island in the middle of a lake!

Qu. 2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed? What was going on in your life at this point?

Stu: I always say my first truly grown up book... well I have mentioned The Hound of the Baskervilles in a post on my own blog, but maybe I'll mention another book I read around same time (that would be about fourteen or fifteen) that maybe gives a clue to my later reading tastes, and that is The Plague by Albert Camus.  A dark book about how people react when a plague breaks out and I, in a way, associate with this as my parents had got divorced in my early teens and my mum remarried and I gained a brother and sister and a step father who I didn't and still don't get on with. So a book about people struggling with life maybe rung home as my teens years weren't the happiest for me, in reflection, as I never felt at home in my late teens so writers like Camus then the beat writers gave me a outlet on my life. Damn that sounds depressing but it has affected the rest of my life.  There were of course good times but as a growing teen I felt alone at times and angry at the world.

Florence: I was twelve when I first read Jane Eyre. I tried Pride and Prejudice first and found Austen so dry that I gave up at the end of the first page, vowing never to open the book again (luckily, I have gone back on that vow multiple times since then!). We were living in Cape Town at the time, and I vividly recall the sunshine pouring into my bedroom and the way I leaned over and put P&P back on the shelf, with a small but decided plunk. For some peculiar reason, that is the image that has stayed with me, rather than the drum-roll moment when I first opened Jane Eyre. And there should have been a drum-roll! For I fell utterly, irremediably, head over heels in love with Jane and Rochester. It was the first time I met a heroine who was neither a princess nor the most beautiful girl in all the kingdom – and yet, poor, obscure, and plain as Jane was, she was wonderful! So full of fire, and so unquenchable... She and Rochester are still my favourite literary couple.

Qu. 3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in early adulthood - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Stu: Well, early adulthood saw me leave Cheshire where I grew up and move to Northumberland where my dad and step mum had relocated.  Still angry, I ended up eventually living in Germany with a German girl. At this point my angry young man part of my life had come to its end really, and I asked my dad as he came over to Germany to visit to bring some books over from the wonderful Barter Books.  So my dad, the escapist reader, brought half a dozen books, a couple of which were books in translation by German writers as I was in Germany. One of these was The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse - a coming of age novel about games of intelligence and maybe living outside the world just for intellect.  Now, how to bring this into my own life... well, as many of you may know or may not I support people with learning disablities and have done since I returned to England nearly twenty years ago. I do this job because I love to see the people I support achieve things and have found my personality is suited to this job: I'm very patient and a great reader of people's emotions and a good listener, so I know how to help the people I support. Anyway I'm sure there is a link between Hesse and my job!

Florence: As a teenager I was very fond of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Emily trilogy, which I always preferred to the Anne of Green Gables series. Emily was so much more mysterious than Anne, and I loved New Moon and the aunts. In fact, though I couldn’t have put it in so many words then, the Emily books – and especially the last one, Emily’s Quest – appealed to me because it combined everything that is most important to me: a quaint old house, a large and eccentric family, and writing. That’s always what bugged me the most about Anne Shirley: she was a failed writer. And she accepted that. Whereas Emily never gave up. She was going to be writer whether people liked it or not! I wanted to be like her – and I still do..

Qu. 4.) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last year or two, and how has blogging changed your reading habits?

Stu: Oh I'm going to twist the rules here and pick a publisher, if I can Simon, I want pick Peirene Press. I have loved all the books in the last few years, and as you may know they publish books in translation that have been called movie books because they take a couple of hours to read. But the main thing I love about them is, yes, they are short, but every book they have published has felt so much more than its size and if it wasn't for Meike the publisher, they wouldn't reach us in English. So yes, they were the first publisher to send me a book for the blog but also the reason the blog is here to highlight books in translation.  I hope that is ok - if you need to push me I'll name Stones in a Landslide as my favourite book by them but it is like picking your favourite child.

Florence: It was my best friend who pushed me to start a blog: it amuses him when I get all worked up about a book and do my best to get him to buy my latest favourite. Because he lives far away in the States, opportunities for heated debates about books are not as frequent as we would like, so he suggested a blog as a way of getting around that... And I am very glad he did! Apart from the many lovely blogs that I’ve come to know, and the countless fascinating titles I have added to my TBR list, I would never have discovered A. S. Byatt or Mary Stewart if it weren’t for blogging, and they both (albeit in very different ways) make my life much happier!

Paradoxically, though, blogging has slowed me down: I have trouble starting a new book until I’ve reviewed the one I’ve just finished, and because I take forever to write up my reviews, I actually read less now than I did before. Moral of the story: be organized and don’t procrastinate!

Qu. 5.) Finally - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

Stu: Oh guilty pleasure - I think I may have mentioned this on the blog before but it is dog biographies, books like Marley and Me.  Damn, that is my credibility gone now there! No, the truth is the blog is named after my own dog Winston and I just enjoy a bit of escapism reading a story of a dog's life, although usually get upset at the end and I can't even watch the film Marley and Me without crying loads. I just love dogs - man's best friend and in my case they have often been my best friend over last twenty years, well til I met my darling wife

Florence: No surprises in store for anyone here! I think my tastes in books are a pretty accurate reflection of my personality. There isn’t much guilt involved either – I would perhaps refrain from mentioning my enjoyment of Georgette Heyer novels in certain academic circles, but all in all, I don’t think one ought to be made to feel guilty about reading, whatever one might choose to read. As a matter of fact (since the truth will out!) my guilty pleasure is watching American TV series, such as Friends and Gilmore Girls. Hmm. Please don’t hold it against me! 

And... I've told you the other person's choices, anonymously. What do you think these choices say about their reader?

Florence, on Stu's choices: This was a fascinating list of titles to analyse! Though judging a person by what they read as a child is not exactly foolproof, I think that in this case, the choice of The Hobbit is very telling: it points towards an imaginative and adventurous mind - a trait the other titles tend to confirm. For the adolescent reader's forays into French and German literature (Camus and Hermann Hesse), and the adult's appreciation of the Peirene Press's very diverse European publications, reveal an open, curious mind and a desire to explore beyond the confines of the English literary canon which seem in perfect accordance with the child's love of Bilbo Baggins's adventures through Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains. Lastly, I think my mystery reader probably has a soft spot for animals, a kind heart and a sense of humour, or they wouldn't like Marley and Me so much. Definitely someone I'd like to meet!

Stu, on Florence's choices: Well my partner guest I feel has a love for the old fashioned - Nesbit is a old fashioned children's writer from the golden age of kids' fiction. I feel this is reflected even more with the choice of Jane Eyre and the Emily series. The choices show me a reader that likes their classics but Byatt shows me they like modern fiction too but maybe with an orange tinge? I feel this reader is maybe a good few years younger than me as I watched Friends in my twenties and loved it as well but was maybe too old for Gilmore Girls. So I'm seeing a passionate classic fan that maybe loves strong female writers of the here and now, and maybe the occasional YA book.

Waiting on Wednesday #104 - The Perfect Hope by Nora Roberts

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking The Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

My pick: The Perfect Hope (Inn BoonsBoro Trilogy #3) by Nora Roberts
The Montgomery brothers and their eccentric mother are breathing new life into the town of Boonsboro, Maryland, by restoring its historic hotel. And they’re finding their own lives revamped by love. This is Ryder’s story... Ryder is the hardest Montgomery brother to figure out — with a tough-as-nails outside and possibly nothing too soft underneath. He’s surly and unsociable, but when he straps on a tool belt, no woman can resist his sexy swagger. Except apparently Hope Beaumont, the innkeeper of his own Inn BoonsBoro. And though the Inn is running smoothly, thanks to Hope’s experience and unerring instincts, her big-city past is about to make an unwelcome — and embarrassing — appearance. Seeing Hope vulnerable stirs up Ryder’s emotions and makes him realize that while Hope may not be perfect, she just might be perfect for him...
November 6th 2012 by Berkley Trade

The final book of the Inn BoonsBoro series, finally Ryder and Hope together!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

My Life in Books: Series Three: Day Three

Tanya blogs at 20th Century Vox, and over the past year or so has turned into my conference buddy!  We've attended three together - and it's always lovely to catch-up.

Margaret is the nearest thing I have to a blog twin, since she started Books Please just two days after I started this blog!  She very kindly provided her own photos for her Life in Books.

Qu. 1.) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you? Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.

Tanya: My mother was (and is) a big reader - when I was a child, she would regularly announce that she was going upstairs to "tidy up", which actually meant "sit on the bed absorbed in a Georgette Heyer". She read to me all the time, took me to the library and generally encouraged me to read. An early storybook favourite was Pierre Bear, a story about a hunting bear who in the course of the text dispatches a seal and a moose, which he turns into 'thirteen jars of minced moose meat'. This may account for my conversion to vegetarianism at the age of six. The childhood favourite I'd like to pick, though, is Enid Blyton's In the Fifth at Malory Towers. This was given to me when I was about eight and I found it wonderfully exotic - dormitories, lacrosse and midnight feasts were symbols of a completely alien world - but totally engrossing. It didn't matter that I hadn't read the others; Enid Blyton's characters are never really that complex and I quickly worked out who was who. Best of all, it was one of a whole series of books - I could read all about the earlier schooldays of Darrell, Sally and Alicia (the latter was always my favourite). This was the first book that really allowed me, as a reader, to enter and experience a new imaginative world; and I suspect it shaped my taste for interwar fiction in later life.

Margaret: I did grow up in a book-loving family. It was my dad who read to me and made up stories as well and it was my mum who took me to the library each week. I don’t remember my dad reading many books, but my mum always had one on the go. Birthday and Christmas presents always included books and my aunties also used to give me books. I had my own bookcase that my dad made for me.

One of my childhood favourites is Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll.  My Great Aunty Sally gave it to me and I must have read it many, many times, loving the story and the illustrations. It actually sets a chess problem and although that is set out in the opening pages as I didn’t know anything about chess I didn’t bother with that and the story made absolute sense to me without understanding the chess moves. When I say sense, it is of course a nonsense plot, peopled with chess pieces and nursery rhyme characters, plenty of word games and puzzles, with bits of logic and philosophy thrown in. I loved it as a child and I love it now.

Qu. 2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed? What was going on in your life at this point?

Tanya: When I was thirteen, I went to Germany on a school exchange, and woefully underestimated the number of books I'd need to take. My hosts all spoke good English and there were a few English novels about the house; the one I picked up was The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie. I'd never read a crime novel before and although I must have read other 'grown-up' books by this time, this is the one I remember best. Perhaps this is because I was in an alien (if friendly) environment, and Christie's book took me back to the English village I'd left behind. Miss Marple, that insightful spinster, was also a personally reassuring figure: I had a lot of clever, unmarried great-aunts. The plot of this novel hinges on the truth that lies underneath appearances; with hindsight this seems to be a perfect text for the adolescent me, looking grown-up but not really feeling it..

Margaret: It’s hard to remember which book that would be. It was either Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice. I think it’s most likely to have been Jane Eyre because I remember watching a TV dramatisation at a friends house (we didn’t have a TV then) and being scared by the mad woman and I can still visualise the scene where she sets the house on fire. My mum had a copy of the book and so I read it, still scared by the mad woman but enthralled by the story. I don’t think much was going on in my life at that time apart from school and Girl Guides.

Qu. 3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in early adulthood - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Tanya: So hard to choose only one, but here goes: Barbara Trapido's Brother of the More Famous Jack, which I picked up randomly and read devotedly and repeatedly when I was about seventeen. If you don't know the book, it's the story of Katherine, a young Londoner, and her relationships with the family of her ebullient philosophy professor, Jacob Goldman. I loved the narrative style of this book, which is all told in first person but switches about between past and present tense. I loved the sophistication of it, and the way that sophistication is mediated through Katherine's naivety. I loved the unflinching way that the novel deals with pain. Most of all, though, this book showed me that there were other ways to live - that there was a big and complex world outside of sixth form and that I could get out and explore it, although my life turned out nothing like Katherine's. I'd also never read a book with so much swearing in it which was strangely liberating. My paperback copy of this fell apart after a year or so of obsessive re-reading, and my colleagues at the bookshop where I worked kindly gave me a hardback which I still have. I still love Barbara Trapido, too.

Margaret: I don’t think any book has helped me ‘set off in a certain direction in life’, because most of the books I’ve read were as a result of my interests rather than the other way round. In my early adulthood I didn’t read as many books as I did as a child, nor as I do now.

There is one book that I first read as a teenager that is still a favourite – Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings. When I was at Library School in my early twenties, it was ‘the book’ to read and talk about and I re-read it at that time and again later on several times. It’s such a satisfying book to read on a variety of levels. It’s fantasy, magic, myth, an epic tale about friendship, heroism and the fight between good and evil. It’s beautifully poetically written, with its own historical background, language and culture. It’s a page-turner, about a quest with a multitude of characters facing enormous perils and twists and turns that never fails each time I re-read it to entrance me. I suppose in some ways it’s a continuation of the fairy and fantasy tales I read and loved as a child, brought into the adult world.

Qu. 4.) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last year or two, and how has blogging changed your reading habits?

Tanya: I'm going to pick Roger Deakin's Waterlog which I read in 2009 and which was not only a pleasure in its own right but led me on to read a lot more nature and travel writing. Deakin's book is everything I like in non-fiction: incredibly expert but always interesting, diverse in content but consistent in theme, related to personal experience, and most of all beautifully written. Other book bloggers have opened up this type of writing for me and it's often from them that I've gleaned recommendations for writers like Robert MacFarlane and Kathleen Jamie. I love this type of writing because it sharpens and focuses my attention to the world I'm in, however mundane; it makes me look. It's also gloriously separate from the sort of thing I read for my PhD. I started blogging partly as a warm-up for my PhD, to get my critical skills in gear, and partly because I wanted a space to think and reflect on whatever I chose to read, PhD-releated or not. I think I re-read less as a result of the blog - partly because I want to read new material to write about, and partly because other bloggers' enthusiasms have enlarged my to-be-read list vastly.

Margaret: How hard to choose just one favourite book! But one book does stand out – Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It is of course, historical fiction, one of my favourite genres and it also stands out because it’s written in the present tense, which I normally avoid like the plague. However, even with this stumbling block and her slightly confusing use of the pronoun ‘he’, Hilary Mantel had me completely enthralled in this story of Thomas Cromwell. What I found most enjoyable was the way this book transported me back to that time, with Mantel’s descriptions of the pageantry, the people, the places and the beliefs and attitudes of the protagonists.

Blogging has most definitely changed my reading habits. I now read more carefully, although I’m still guilty of reading too fast and forgetting what I’ve read, but thinking about what to write about a book makes it so much more memorable. It’s also changed what I read. I now read much more widely than I did before, and it has introduced me to so many new-to-me authors and has taken me back to reading crime fiction, a genre I’d practically ignored for years.

Qu. 5.) Finally - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

Tanya: A guilty pleasure only because both contributors can be so evil: the letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh. I re-read these a lot with undiminished (and guilty) amusement as they vilify their friends, express vile political opinions (mainly Evelyn), tease unmercifully (mainly Nancy) and generally entertain each other. It's a great collection and very, very funny.

Margaret: Another difficult question, because I read quite widely, and have written on my blog about most of the books I’ve read over the last five years. But I rarely write about books on religion, even though I’ve read many books on Christianity and other religions ever since I was a teenager. One that I like very much is Karen Armstrong’s memoir The Spiral Staircase. Actually I like all the books by her that I’ve read, mainly on comparative religion. The Spiral Staircase is her account of her early life as a nun and traces her spiritual journey after she left her teaching order. It’s a sequel to her first autobiographical book, Through the Narrow Gate and is about her recovery from illness, panic attacks, seizures and depression, about her efforts to come to terms with the ‘real world’, and about her changing faith and her search for God.

And... I've told you the other person's choices, anonymously. What do you think these choices say about their reader?

Margaret, on Tanya's choices: I’ve only read the first two of theses books. I loved Enid Blyton’s books and nearly chose one as a favourite childhood book. And I’m a big Agatha Christie fan. So we started off in life with similar tastes. After that we diverge, and I’ve had to find out a bit about the books to make any comment. This person is probably someone who is younger than me, because he/she has chosen Brother of the More Famous Jack as a book read in early adulthood. I see it’s defined as ‘redefining the coming-of-age genre’, so it looks a good choice for a young adult.

I am interested in reading Waterlog, which I haven’t heard of before, even though I’m not too keen on swimming. A swimmer’s journey through Britain indicates an interest not only in outdoor swimming and in Britain but also in natural science, history and geography, which also interest me. Or, maybe this person is a keen swimmer? Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh is also an interesting choice, indicating a liking for twentieth century writers and social history. Overall, this is an eclectic reader.

Tanya, on Margaret's choices: These look like the choices of a person who really likes a long, involving book with lots of characters, a twisty plot, and the odd spot of magical intervention. I've yet to read Wolf Hall, but this and most of the other books are stories of quests in which a small or insignificant person triumphs against the odds in a world which might be confusing, hostile or dangerous. I couldn't work out why The Spiral Staircase might be a guilty pleasure - you'd have to have a highly serious reading habit for this to be a frivolous choice - so I imagine it is a surprising choice instead, perhaps of someone definitely not religious? But I don't find it surprising in this list - it has affinities with the other books, as there are elements of quest in Karen Armstrong's story, and the world can be as strange to her as Wonderland is to Alice. I think this person cheers for the underdog, admires a resolute hero(ine), and likes to contemplate the individual's place in the wider world. I also wonder if this person likes to accentuate the positive - these are, broadly, stories in which things work out, at least for the duration of the novel. This is probably also a reader who is at home with detail and complexity, unworried by a book with a huge cast, intricate plotting, or challenging ideas.

Monday, October 29, 2012

My Life in Books: Series Three: Day Two

Iris is one of the most prolific people in my Twitter feed, which is lovely, and the only Dutch person I know, I think... she blogs at Iris on Books.

Verity has several blogs, but is perhaps best known to SiaB readers at Verity's Virago Venture - she is also my line manager when I'm at work in the Bodleian!  Sorry I'm on holiday today, Verity, hope the reading room is quiet...

Qu. 1.) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you? Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.

Iris: I grew up in a household that consciously supported reading. I got my first library card - or, rather, my parents got me my first library card - when I was one year old. My parents read to me a lot, and I was impatient to start reading myself. I loved pretending I could read by turning the pages of well-known books, of which I knew the story by heart, and telling the story as I remembered it. I think I used to think of myself as a reader when I was young. If you asked me who I wanted to be like, it would have been Matilda and Belle (of Beauty and the Beast).

A favourite children's book is The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. I think this came out of a combination of movie-watching and reading, as our Sunday morning television used to broadcast lots of Swedish children's movies. The movies based on the stories by Astrid Lindgren were always favourites and it wasn't long before my mother pointed out her books to me at the library. What I loved about The Brothers Lionheart was the unconditional love between the brothers, the world-beyond-dead that Astrid Lindgren managed to paint first as picture perfect, before revealing its darker shades, and then leaving a particularly heroic role to the two brothers (who were children, and taken seriously as if they were adults, which is a big plus) in defeating that darkness. Of course, I might not have been able to articulate it as such when I was younger. However, the book had a lasting impression on me. Growing up in an atheist household, I was fascinated with the picture of life after dead. More so because it's idyllic atmosphere held much of what I would have considered a ideal setting myself: nature, bunnies, a small cottage/farm, and fruit from your own orchard.

Verity: I did indeed grow up in a houseful of books, although a lot of them were academic rather than literary. 80% of them belonged to my father who rarely reads fiction; my mother preferred to rely on the library for a constant supply of reading material and would take me weekly. I never got enough books (only allowed 8 at a time!) to last a whole week, so I'd often have to read them a couple of times, although my school did have a reasonable library which acted as a top-up. I had many favourite books, and was a great fan of Enid Blyton, so I am going to mention the Stories of Mr Pinkwhistle, a fat tome given to me one Christmas, which has gone down in family annals as the first book which I was unable to finish in one day.

Qu. 2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed? What was going on in your life at this point?

Iris: I have been thinking about this for some time, because I am sure I must have read more "grown-up" books before I turned to the one I am writing about here, but I cannot for the life of me remember it. Perhaps because when I consider my reading life during the first years of high school it is dominated by Harry Potter. The book that changed me from a Harry Potter fangirl [which I still am] into one that fell head over heels in love with classics was, rather predictably, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Somehow, the reason why I started reading Pride and Prejudice was again connected to television. I became interested after seeing a glimpse of the 1995 television series on TV, before my father put on another channel because he didn't want to watch "such drivel". I remember looking up the name "Mr. Darcy" (the scene I saw was the one where Elizabeth meets Mr Darcy at Pemberly and exclaiming his name) on the internet, and finding out about Pride and Prejudice. I knew I had heard about the book before, I knew it was "a classic", but I really didn't have a clue what it was about [I still wonder how that is even possible]. The reason why I searched for it was because I saw what I considered to be a similar dress-style to the Little Women movie, which I really liked.. [oh, for all the silly reasons..]

So, I took Pride and Prejudice out of the school library and read it in two days straight. I stayed up late at night, pretending to be asleep but reading beneath the covers because I had to know what happened next. I hadn't yet gotten used to reading in English, and I remember being thoroughly confused about the meaning of the word "elopement", but I loved the love story. I loved the passion and the tension and the grand declarations combined with the restrained etiquette. I very much fell in love with the love story when I was 14. I desperately needed that love story having just lived through a horrible first relationship of my own, with a controlling boyfriend and all that jazz. It was only after Pride and Prejudice, after I had reread it numerous times, after I had desperately searched for another story that would make me feel like this one had, that I started appreciating Austen for everything she offers besides the love story. But because the book made me search for other classics, and because it was the first “grown-up” book I read in English (I had read Harry Potter in English before) I still consider it to be the starting point of my "adult" reading life. However, I cannot do that without giving Harry Potter its due too, for those were the books that truly made me define myself as a reader again, and a proud geek, and that made me turn to English books as I couldn't wait for the translation to appear.

Verity: The first "grown up" book I really enjoyed was Jane Eyre, aged about 10. A still-good-friend was even more of a precocious reader than me and would read whatever her parents had to hand. This ranged from Mills and Boon to a beautifully bound set of Jane Austen. I remember being impressed, obviously out loud, because our form tutor Mrs. Dickens then told me that the classics would be wasted on me. Red rag to the bull, and I found a paperback copy of Jane Eyre in our bookcases at home. I was gripped. Obviously at aged 10, and a lover of school stories, the school scenes at the beginning were of more interest to me than those involving Mr Rochester but I read it all.

Qu. 3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in early adulthood - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Iris: In a way I want to repeat the answer to the second question here, for Pride and Prejudice was a defining book for me. But I'll take "early adulthood" as meaning the years beyond teenage life and force myself to think of another title. Which then turns out to be, predictably, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. This is perhaps not so much a change from Pride and Prejudice and more of a logical follow-up, but for me it came with a different framework.

For one, Jane Eyre allowed me to think about a lot of things. Reading this book was not solely about the love story, but also about its other themes: religion, feminism, "othering", and coming-of-age. Whereas I only thought about other themes besides the love story later when it came to Pride and Prejudice, the other themes were part of the instant appeal of Jane Eyre.

I think Jane Eyre was a book I only understood later, as an adult. It wasn't for me when I was 14. I remember reading it back then, liking it, but not as much as I did when I was an "adult". There were things to it that I couldn't grasp, or wasn't ready to admit to myself. One of those things is almost certainly the more sexual overtones of the story. I have never been comfortable with the ideas of desire and sexual tension in books. One of the reasons why I loved Pride and Prejudice was that they were there, but hidden, concealed. Jane Eyre plays upon the same concealment, but it is also vastly more open about passion being a part of human nature. It is more muddy in that way. I am still not overtly open about sexuality, nor about "finding men attractive", or whatever, but I think Jane Eyre was part of a process that at least let me acknowledge it to myself, and some other online friends.

Jane Eyre also taught me a lot about loving a book that might not be perfect all-round. There are things to be said about Rochester's behaviour, and about the portrayal of his first wife in a way that recalls colonial discourse, that usually halt me in my tracks. It was the first book that taught me about how feelings of discomfort might join with feelings of all-round-love. I haven't been able to find a solution to this dilemma yet, except perhaps the acceptance that you can enjoy a story despite recognising its faults.

Verity: Aged 16 or 17 I read Lark Rise to Candleford, passed to me by my father. Obviously this was before the dreadful television adaption (sorry to those who enjoyed it!), and rather than as an inspiration for costume drama, this book had a key place in social history. It was fascinating to read an autobiography which showed the influence of things that I was studying at school (for example the early twentieth century Liberal Reforms - Flora Thompson mentions the elderly pensioners coming to collect their pensions from the Post Office and saying "God bless Lloyd George") and thus started to awaken an understanding in me that rather than a list of dates and wars, history could be about real people and their lives.

Qu. 4.) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last year or two, and how has blogging changed your reading habits?

Iris: One of the books that has turned into a favourite in recent years is Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. And it could only do so because I started blogging, since I believe I would never have found out about Lanagan's novels if it hadn't been for other bloggers being so passionate about them.

Tender Morsels challenged me, because I did not read much fantasy pre-blogging. I think I may even have been one of those readers who wasn't sure if it was correct to admit to liking fantasy before I became part of the online world. Genre reading is such a taboo in "the real world" sometimes. And it isn't often that the complexity of books that contain fantasy elements is acknowledged. Tender Morsels was my "big revelation" about the true beauty and complexity fantasy novels can have. About the big issues that can be tackled (abuse, rape, self-acceptance) in a balanced manner.

Tender Morsels is the perfect example of how blogging changed my (reading) life: reading outside my comfort zone was challenging, but rewarding, and blogging has motivated me to do this more than ever. Moreover, Tender Morsels was a gift from a blogger, and came recommended by yet another, which I think is what blogging means most of all: friendships created through a mutual conversations about books.

Verity: It's difficult to single out one book from the last year or two. I don't have so much time for reading, so I don't tend to continue to bother with books if they're not very good! I also have read quite a lot, maybe not this year, but in preceding years, which means I have a lot of books that I could recommend. I'm a big fan of Greyladies Books and I think the novels or "romances" by Susan Scarlett are just wonderful. Susan Scarlett was the pen name for Noel Streatfield, and I'd like to describe these books as like her children's books, but for adults. Certainly her adult novels under the Streatfield name can be quite bleak, but the Scarlett books are delightful and make wonderful holiday reading.

I came to blogging in 2008 I think. I was working in a very unstimulating job which didn't always occupy all of my time. Stuck-in-a-Book was one of the first blogs that I came across and I spent many hours going through the back posts and making lists of things that I might like to read. I felt that my reading was a little directionless at the time and apart from the weekend papers I had no idea how to find out about books that I might want to read, especially books which were not just being published. Stuck-in-a-Book and the other blogs that I found through it gave me lots of ideas and sent me off on the path of reading Persephone books and Viragoes (although I'd already encountered them in other guises previously). Now that I am back in a super-stimulating job, I don't have very much brain space for reading or blogging, but I do continue to read all of the blogs that I've started to follow and make notes of the books that I think I might like to read.

Qu. 5.) Finally - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

Iris: I used to answer Twilight to this question. I haven't reread it in a few years though, and lately I am having big-time problems with its story (even more so than before). Perhaps that might turn it into more a guilty pleasure, but I'd have to read it again to see if it would still pull me in like that.

After Twilight though.. I don't know. Perhaps I have been less willing to categorize books as "guilty pleasures" lately, for nothing truly comes to mind. I have browsed through the titles of books I read in the past two years, and I wouldn't define any of them as guilty pleasures. There is a lot of comfort reading in there, as well as YA titles such as Divergent or Matched. Some might define that as guilty pleasures, I guess.

Verity: I seem to have more and more guilty pleasures at the moment, as a stressful job being balanced with other things, doesn't leave me with as much time as I would like to concentrate on reading. In times like these, you can't go wrong with some chick lit, and Maeve Binchy, Marian Keyes, Adele Parks, Lisa Jewell and others can always be relied upon for something that's easy to read but not entirely frivolous. I have no shame at all about returning to children's books, and as an adult have built collections as diverse as the Chalet School and the Babysitters Club. I just wish they wouldn't shelve children's books in a separate room in the library! Talking of the library, another odd pleasure of mine, is to borrow books on entirely random subjects, just because they are free and interesting. I had a fascinating book out earlier in the year on how to run a B & B, something that I never intend to do, but it was fascinating. I suppose really that's what reading is all about - exploring and learning about other worlds from a place of safety.

And... I've told you the other person's choices, anonymously. What do you think these choices say about their reader?

Verity, on Iris's choices: It's nice to see that I have been paired with a blogger who has some similarities to me! Jane Eyre is always going to be a book that crops up for many people as significant. Whilst I haven't read Twilight, I could easily have included another cult YA book The Hunger Games as a guilty pleasure which I surprised myself by enjoying earlier this year. I have never read The Brothers Lionheart, but having looked it up on Amazon, I think I should redress this immediately although it looks as if I might make me cry. Seeing the inclusion of Tender Morsels in the list gave away this blogger's identity as someone whose blog I have been enjoying now for several years, I remember Iris mentioning it as something she really loved.

Iris on Verity's choices: My first reaction in seeing these titles was that this is a person I'd love to know - or a blogger I have probably already "met" in the online world. I have only read Jane Eyre myself, but Lark Rise to Candleford has long been among my must-read-soon titles. I think these titles show the picture of someone who likes "cozy" reading (in the sense that most books mentioned seem to portray a past life with a non-city setting and no whirlwind of things going on or a rush to the end of the plot). The person seems to enjoy romantic stories, but ones that offer something besides romance as well, and books with a strong emphasis on coming-of-age storylines. He or she also seems to favour English authors and settings, and the person seems very knowledgeable about them (Susan Scarlett isn't the first name that comes to mind for many!). If I would have to guess I'd say the person was born somewhere on the British Isles. While I know it's not much information I can offer, I think he or she must be one of those bloggers that make you feel like it'd be perfect to meet up for tea and cake, and with whom I would easily feel at ease.
[Simon: I should add that, unofficially, Iris suspected that Verity was her mystery partner!]

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Here we go again!

Well, our requests have all been sent, our nerves sufficiently frayed, and now the only to do is wait.

Well, wait and start another novel.

STAYING DEAD is our first novel. Our only novel. And when you have all your hopes and dreams resting on ONE thing, you tend to go just a teensy bit crazy.

Why won't you love me?!?
So, to offset the crazy, another story must be born!

You know, starting a second story is a very different experience than writing your first. For one thing, you know so much more about the industry than you did before. You can't just write a manuscript blindly! That's stupid! You have to query, you have to send your first 50, and if you're doing contests, you have to sell your story in 250 words or less! It's a REALLY different experience.

Hubby and I worked out the plot over the weekend, and it was a TOTALLY different experience than the first time. The first time, we were all "Oh, this is going to be awesome. EVERYONE will love this. They'd be stupid NOT to!"




Now, as we're working out plot elements, we're all like "Will this query well?", and "How will this look in a partial?"

Asking those exact same questions to us when we were plotting out STAYING DEAD would have resulted in a blank stare. We would have been all like "Why is Crazy Person saying crazy things? They should be less crazy and make more sense."

LESS crazy, you say? Why would anyone want THAT?
We've actually changed our plot because it made the query better. That's kind of a weird feeling. That exact same change took us MONTHS to figure out for our first story. And now we did it in an hour.

So how about you guys? How many projects are you working on? Is it a good idea to have CPs vet the synopsis before starting the MS?

My Life in Books: Series Three: Day One

Jackie has been blogging at Farm Lane Books for many years, and we almost never agree on any book!  I'm looking forward to seeing what she chooses...

John blogs at The Asylum, which recently leapt over the coveted 1,000,000 blog views statistic (but he doesn't want to talk about it!  This is where I should point out that I write these introductions...)

Qu. 1.) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you? Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.

Jackie: I didn’t grow up in a book loving household. I don’t remember seeing either of my parents reading a book, although I know my Dad read two or three thrillers a year. My parents encouraged me to read by taking me to the library at regular intervals, but I never had any guidance over what to read and so picked books off the shelf at random. This meant that I didn’t read many classics and most of the books had little impact on me. The few books that did feel important were all chosen by teachers as part of my English lessons. A particular favourite was Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien which ignited my passion for dystopian fiction. I loved the central character, a girl forced to survive by herself after a nuclear holocaust killed her entire family. Her resourcefulness and courage was inspiring.

John: Neither of my parents read much when I was a child - I certainly never saw them sitting down with a book - but I was encouraged to read. We had one of those World of Knowledge-type encyclopedia sets which I used to curl up with. The only fiction I remember seeing at home (in my father's bedside cupboard, not out on display) were Henri Charrière's Papillon and Spike Milligan's Puckoon.

I also don't remember being read to, though I can't say for sure. One of my favourite childhood books was Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth. I loved its playfulness and trickery - qualities I still admire - and its joy in exploring letters and numbers was catnip to a little geek like me.

Qu. 2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed? What was going on in your life at this point?

Jackie:When I was about 16 I fell in love with William Horwood‘s Duncton Wood series. Each book was about 750 pages long and I was proud of myself for reading something with so many pages. The books follow a group of moles on a epic adventure, but although it sounds like a children’s book it definitely isn’t - there is enough rape, murder and torture to classify firmly that this is an adult novel. I think this series is a modern classic and am surprised it isn’t more well known. At the time I was living in the Lake District, enjoying an outdoor life involving canoeing, walking and lots of camping. I think this is the reason that this story set in the great outdoors resonated with me so much.

John: I didn't read much adult fiction until my late teens, in my last year or two at school. Before then it was stuff like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett: written for adults, yes, but highly appealing to younger readers.

The first two adult authors I really loved - and whose backlists I devoured - were John Irving and Iain Banks, when I was aged 17 or 18 (1990 or '91). Banks's Walking on Glass was recommended by a schoolfriend - I was doing my A-levels at the time. I adored its hard-to-connect mysteries (again, a quality I still admire) and went on to read all his novels: he'd written only five by then.

John Irving I stumbled on after being drawn by the armadillo cover of A Prayer for Owen Meany, which had just come out in paperback in the summer of 1990. Again I raced through his other novels, and I particularly remember sneaking quick reads of The Cider House Rules in my A-level Physics class, and behind the counter in the clothing store where I worked at weekends for the princely sum of £9.50 a day! I remember sneaking a new Irving into the house past my mum, knowing that I shouldn't be spending what little money I had on more books. Now I sneak new books into the house past my wife. Plus ca change!

Oddly, Banks and Irving are both authors whose new books I don't seek out any more. I think they might be the opposite of an acquired taste, though I still have a great deal of affection for the ones I read back then.

Qu. 3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in early adulthood - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Jackie: I read very little in early adulthood - having to work whilst doing a demanding chemistry degree meant I had very little free time. I got married straight after graduation and my husband and I bought a house together in Newcastle. Once there I started work as an analytical chemist and began reading again, although probably only about 10 books a year. During this time I was almost totally reliant on the Richard and Judy Book Club for my reading suggestions. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger was a favourite - I loved the romance and tragedy of it all.

John: I might have answered this above. But another of the first adult books I bought - again in 1990 - was Julian Barnes' A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. Like Walking on Glass, it's a fractured novel told in stories - arguably not a novel at all. I think those two books, looking back, were quite structurally adventurous ones to read as some of my earliest grown-up fiction, and might have forged my tolerance for non-traditional narratives. Another early favourite, Jeanette Winterson, whose terrific Sexing the Cherry I read a year or two later, and which I've reread probably more than any other book, is in the same boat. Both she and Barnes - who I think gets slightly unfair press - remain high on my personal league table.

Qu. 4.) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last year or two, and how has blogging changed your reading habits?

Jackie: I started blogging shortly after the birth of my second son - I was at home on my own and needed something to occupy my brain. I never expected to still be writing it four years later, but it has become a bit addictive. My knowledge of books has grown immeasurably and I have found a whole world of literature that I was previously unaware of. I now read a range of different books from across the globe and no longer rely on the blurbs of random books in my local library. I have also become more aware of the literary prizes and this led me to read my favourite book, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. It is set in India during the 1970s, a turbulent time for the country. It is a bleak, but inspiring tale that explains the difficulties faced by ordinary citizens of the country. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

John: Too many to choose from, but I'll plump for Maeve Brennan's story collection The Springs of Affection - out of print in the UK (predictably), but far more deserving of attention than many new books I see. The best stories are the half-dozen about Rose and Hubert Derdon, a Dublin couple in the mid-20th century. Frustration, friction and stasis have never been so beautifully put. William Faulkner, fiction editor of the New Yorker where Brennan worked for much of her life, said, "as a study of one kind of unhappy marriage, these stories are surely definitive." And who would dare to disagree?

I came to blogging in early 2007, having been a member of various book forums for years. I wanted a place of peace and quiet to think - hence Asylum. I think the exchange of ideas and recommendations that bloggers engage in has led me to read (a) more books in translation, and (b) more books by women, both of which I feel richer for having.

Qu. 5.) Finally - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

Jackie: My guilty pleasure is cookbooks. I love cooking, especially when combined with chemistry to form molecular gastronomy. I’m normally happy cooking traditional food, but when I have the time I love to experiment with more unusual techniques. The only reason I feel guilty is because they cost so much. My current favourite is Bentley by Brent Savage, which is a stunning book to look at as well as one that contains many fantastic recipes.

John: Like other contributors to previous series, I don't really have guilty pleasures, being of the mind that nobody should be made to feel (to quote Kurt Vonnegut) "like something the cat drug in" over what they like. And I've sat here for half an hour trying, in vain, to think of any favourites of mine that are outside my usual field.

So I'll plump, perhaps sneakily, for Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's Tiddler: the Storytelling Fish. I love reading this book to my 3½-year-old son perhaps more than any other. True, I don't get to do my James-Mason-as-the-snake as with The Gruffalo, and I don't get to sing out of tune at the top of my voice as with Tabby McTat, but it's got such intricate and fast-moving rhymes, and such relentless rhythm, that I have been known to slip it into his bedtime selection in place of his own choices, just so I can have the pleasure of reading it all over again. Its only rival in this respect is Dr Seuss's Sleep Book, which has the advantage of being so long that it does actually send him to sleep.

And... I've told you the other person's choices, anonymously. What do you think these choices say about their reader?

John, on Jackie's choices: For a moment I thought this was Scott Pack, who likes both Horwood and The Time Traveler's Wife, but if the Niffenegger is the 'early adulthood' selection, well, old man Pack is far too ancient to have read that at that stage in his life. It was published in 2003, so I'm guessing my partner must be no older than their late 20s...

I'd never heard of Z for Zachariah, but it sounds like good, bleak, Wyndhamesque fun. Duncton Wood suggests an animal lover, or, along with Z for Zachariah, someone with a nascent interest in fantasy or the uncanny. Rohinton Mistry is a wonderful epic storyteller, whose books are full of heart and lively characters, and I think that this and The Time Traveler's Wife indicate someone who likes a strong involving storyline, even if it's not told in a linear way.

The last choice is entirely unexpected! A recipe book from a high-end Sydney restaurant? This makes me, rather obviously, think of someone Australian, and with a lot more patience and energy than me, and the only blogger I can think of off the top of my head who matches that description is Kim Forrester (Kimbofo), but she appeared in the last series (and chose Robert C. O'Brien too!), so I'm all out of ideas...

Jackie, on John's choices: The publication dates for these books are quite revealing. I think that the person who selected them is slightly older than me. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that they are 38-years-old. The inclusion of Tiddler indicates they have had exposure to children (or at least children’s books) in the last few years. I imagine they have children, one of which is around 5-years-old. The books are all quite gentle so I think whoever selected them is a quiet, kind individual who doesn’t like to do anything too dangerous. They probably have a cat and enjoy home baking.

Cecil the Pet Glacier by Matthea Harvey - ADVISABLE

Harvey, Matthea and Giselle Potter Cecil the Pet Glacier. 40 pgs. Schwartz & Wade Books, 2012. $17.99. PICTURE BOOK.

All Ruby wants is a normal childhood with normal friends and a normal pet - like a dog. But with her quirky parents tangoing across their front lawn, playing miniature ping pong games on airplanes, and eating their breakfast upside down, a normal life is hard to come by. Instead, Ruby spends countless hours playing with her identical dolls, The Three Jennifers. But on a trip to Norway, Ruby reluctantly ends up with a very strange pet, and it's not the nice, normal dog she wanted. It's a little glacier who follows her around - even to school - and needs to be fed pebbles on a daily basis. Ruby ignores the glacier, wishing he would go away, but when he risks his life in an act of kindness on her behalf, she's forced to reevaluate what she wants in a pet.

Like Ruby's parents, this picture book is far from ordinary. The author and illustrator clearly took great care in adding lots of bizarre little details to round out the characters, from the crocodile shaved in Ruby's topiary-loving dad's beard, to the glacier's refusal to eat gray pebbles.  While the details are fun, and the illustrations are vibrant, it is difficult to believe that a girl who has wanted to be normal her entire life would suddenly embrace oddity. Still, it's a fun story with a sweet ending. Note: Despite being a picture book, this is not a quick read as there is a lot of text on each page.

EL - ADVISABLE. Reviewed by: Caryn.

Amelia Rules: Her Permanent Record (Book 8) by Jimmy Gownley –NOT RECOMMENDED

Gownley, Jimmy Amelia Rules: Her Permanent Record (Book 8) 160 pgs. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2012. $8.79.  (Rating: G)
Amelia has a lot of roles –cheerleader, superhero, friend, and student. But when her Aunt Tanner goes missing, Amelia is panicked. She just knows that she can help. Luckily her best friends are there for her, and they take off by bus to a far-away town to look for her, based on Amelia’s hunch.
Does anyone else cringe when they hear about an elementary school aged cheerleader? Ugh! Not to mention the clandestine bus trip out of state!
The book started out  TOTALLY confusing, especially to a first time reader of this series - all of Amelia’s various ages and ‘roles’ talk together like a group of friends. The art style was a problem for me. I don’t think most people realize that comics are not that popular, its graphic novels that are what students want. This book was like old-fashioned comic book art of newspapers famous Family Circus. Boring. Students know the difference, most are used to top notch action packed graphics and innovative plots –which are often characteristics of graphic novels. On top all of that,  I thought the plot and character of Amelia were boring. So not a win if you are trying to incorporate graphic novels. See Zita the Spacegirl for a fantastic new series!
ELEMENTARY –NOT RECOMMENDED Reviewer: Stephanie School Librarian & Author.