The Meaningful Five

 

sofas

Well it’s been an odd sort of a day, where I’ve mostly been exasperated and twitchy, but this morning there was a slightly lovely happening on twitter: I was bored waiting for the bus, so I decided to ask people what were the five most important books to them personally, with the hashtag #meaningful5

It went down quite well, and I was greatly cheered by the outpouring of book-love and enthusiasm. A big thank you to everyone you contributed today, and especially to Alasdair Stuart and Emma Maree, who actually went and wrote blog posts about it. Huzzah!

If you wrote a blog or if you want to contribute your Meaningful Five, please do stick details in the comments.

Geeky Book Chat Club 4: Into Chatness

Hello all! It’s Friday and I’m feeling particularly indecisive today (really, you should have seen me trying to decide which t-shirt to wear this morning, and I only have one clean one left) so rather than forcing myself to decide on a topic I’m inviting you to another geeky book chat. As ever, answer whichever questions you like and please do get chatty in the comments!

Name a book or a short story that still haunts you. Why has it stayed with you for so long?

Speaking of short stories, any favourite short stories of all time?

Is there a character you wish you’d written?

How important are editors? (this might be referencing a certain blog post that was doing the rounds this morning)

Fanfiction – good thing, bad thing, don’t care?

Random Reading Update

I’ve recently finished reading John Connolly’s The Burning Soul (the 10th Charlie Parker book) which was as good as ever – the cover confused me a little because (spoilers) no one actually gets set on fire in a cornfield, although in previous Parker books people have been set alight in unpleasant ways. This led me to contemplate the interplay between title, cover and actual book content, particularly with regards to Crime fiction; I don’t particularly want to see Charlie Parker on the front of the book because how he looks to me is obviously very specific to my imagination, and I don’t really want that tweaked by an artist’s impression (this is without going into how much of Charlie’s character comes from his voice and actions rather than the sparing bits of physical description in the books themselves – Parker is a shadowy soul in my head, a beloved character whose face isn’t always clear, but with whom I have walked some very dark paths). And, this being crime fiction, I also don’t want spoilerfic images on the cover – mob types wielding guns, hidden crawlspaces, Angel and Louis arguing. So what are you left with? Strange and unsettling imagery, essentially – covers that give you a flavour of the book without telling you exactly what it’s about, which is as it should be, I think, particularly for that genre. Anyway, if for some crazy reason you haven’t read this series, I highly recommend it – crime fiction with supernatural elements and a lovely, mournful atmosphere (and a healthy vein of dry humour).

 

 

At the same time as that I’ve been reading Doug Strider’s SF pulp novella Space Danger!, recently made available in all good ebook places. As most of you will know, Doug (or Marty) is my partner, and he is very fucking funny; his surreal sense of humour is all over this – someone described it as the Navy Lark meets Douglas Adams via the way of Dan Dare comics, and I giggled mightily through it.

 

 

Before that slightly odd pairing I read Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World, a crazy jambalaya of a book about the end of the world and what comes after. It’s fabulous, meandering and yet not meandering – the story kicks off in rousing style, and we’re all set for an adventure into unknown territory… and then we leap backwards for an extended flashback. Except of course, that the flashback is the story, and all the meandering and, quite frankly, joyous footnotery are secretly immensely important. It’s impossible to talk about it much without giving too much away, but this is a vivid, bursting-with-ideas book, full of genuine humour and emotion (I’m beginning to think that a sense of humour is my one deal-breaking prerequisite for a book. If a book is utterly po-faced I just can’t get through it).

 

 

And now I’m on to Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks, which is one of those books where if you mention you haven’t read it, people will hiss at you and throw things. I went through a big Iain Banks phase in my early twenties, but somehow managed to miss this one, so I’ve some catching up to do.

            What are you reading at the moment? Anything good? Tell me, I’m horribly nosey.

The Year in Books: My Tippity Top 5 Reads of 2012

Well, we are in that tricksy limbo stage between Christmas and New Year’s Eve (or as a friend on twitter called it, Twixmas) so this seems a likely time to attempt one of those “summing up the year” posts, with notes on wisdom gained and lessons learnt. Since I have a notoriously bad short term memory and barely any wisdom I will be summing up the year by trying to remember the best books to grace my eyeballs in 2012.*

 

(later I will do a post on writing and where I am with that, because the status of writing at the moment is EXCITING)

 

So, best books. In no particular order:

 

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – one of many incredibly popular books I have avoided for years simply because it was always in the 3 for 2 offer at work. I know that sounds like a stupid reason, but when you spend five years of your life peeling stickers off the same handful of books you start to build a healthy resentment. Plus it was shelved in general fiction, a happenstance that can move a book down my TBR pile a few notches.

 

Well, I was wrong, and the shelving was wrong too. This book is science-fiction, no? A gorgeously confusing and lyrical trip through the lives of possibly reincarnated souls, Cloud Atlas is like the music being written by one of its principle characters, Robert Frobisher; we speed forward in time, and then back, always buffeted by echoes and hauntings. Brilliant, beautiful, moving.

 

Song

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller – this won the Orange Prize for Fiction this year, so I’m willing to bet it’s shelved downstairs in the more respectable General Fiction section, despite being the most fantasy book that ever fantasied. Honestly. This is your standard fantasy trope of a young hero growing to manhood and finding his calling, but told through the eyes of his friend and lover, Patroclus. It’s a vivid, dream-like book full of teenage lustings and tortured love, and the depictions of the gods are genuinely chilling.

 

 

The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie – this is a book about conflict; the futility of war, the grotty scrambling horror of it and the terrible waste of life. It’s also really fucking funny, and contains the sort of characters that I dearly wish populated all fantasy books; witty, morally dubious and above all, real. The highlight for me was Craw, your typical “I’m getting too old for this shit” soldier, who faces several difficult decisions throughout the course of the book and continually tries to do the right thing, despite the hopeless shitstorm of war and muck.

 

House

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson – Yes, I’m really quite behind on this one. I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle last year and it instantly rocketed into my top 10 books of all time, so I was looking forward to this; not to mention that Stephen King is a big fan too. It’s a genuinely weird, hypnotic novel, with possibly the most chilling opening paragraph I’ve ever read. It scares and delights in equal measure, until you realise that the delights are in fact all a trick of Hill House, and you are as much under its spell as Eleanor.

 

Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell – According to Goodreads I read four books in this series at the beginning of the year, but since I don’t exactly trust Goodreads or my own terrible memory I am plucking this one out for praise. The Saxon series tells the story of Alfred the Great through the eyes of Uhtred, a Viking raised as a Saxon and grown to become one of the king’s most trusted warriors. My little summary makes it sound terribly dry, but Uhtred the Wicked is a fabulous example of a first person narrative that drips with character, and Cornwell is extremely skilled at taking huge historic events and bringing them down to a personal level. If you’re a fantasy fan who perhaps hasn’t quite taken the step into historical fiction, I highly recommend this series and Cornwell’s retelling of the Arthur myths in the Warlord trilogy.

 

And that’s it! A special mention for The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King – I re-read the first three Dark Tower books this year and that one particularly still blows me away. Great stuff.

 

So what about you? What were your best reads of 2012 and what are you looking forward to next year?

 

* I should note that I also read many excellent books by writers who are also friends – I decided not to include them here because inevitably I would forget someone and then look like an Evil McFannypants. I may do a follow-up post titled “You Should Read These Books or I Will Give You a Severe Look”.

 

 

 

A brief word on Rivers of London

Rivers-of-london

A while ago, my lovely friends Darren and Laura bought me a hardback, signed copy of Rivers of London. They reasoned that it looked to be exactly my cup of tea, and it was dedicated to a dear mutual friend of ours. It went on my to be read pile and then stayed there for a bit, because at the same time I got a kindle, and the whizzbang bit of tech was my new best friend.

            Well, just recently I decided that if I wasn’t going to shove the very lovely hardback into my handbag then I would bloody well get the ebook version and read that. The hardback remains pristine on a shelf… the point is, I recently finished Rivers of London and now I’m on to Moon Over Soho, and I’m very glad I got my finger out and read it, because these books are great.

            I’ve read genre books before set in modern London, and apart from the fabulous Neverwhere I’ve never really connected with them. They never really felt like my London, the London I grew up in and work in and live in now, the London I love right down to my toes. Arronovitch knows the city and loves it, and he writes it brilliantly. It probably helps that he’s writing about places I have a fondness for (Soho, Covent Garden, Holborn) but it’s about more than that; PC Grant is a modern Londoner in every sense, and his droll affection for the city, wary street sense and family strife are London all over. Plus, he’s an immensely likeable and genuinely funny character; add that to a sprinkling of geeky references (how can you not love a book that mentions Doctor Who and Fringe and Playstations?) and a cast of supporting characters that brighten the story rather than distracting from it, and you’ve got a pretty top series of books, in my opinion. 

A Number of Small Updates Ultimately Signifying Nothing

Spirited-away-01

It occurred to me that I haven’t done one of those straight-forward, what’s going on at the minute sort of posts for a while, so here we go; prepare your ears for my latest escapades!

 

Ahem.

 

At the weekend I went to see Spirited Away on the big screen with my lovely friend Jenni. Spirited Away is one of my favourite movies (and I suspect one of Jenni’s too) so it was a real treat to see it in all its glory, and with an audience full of equally appreciative fans. Obviously Studio Ghibli have produced a lot of truly excellent films, but Spirited Away remains special to me for reasons that I can’t really put my finger on. Part of it, I think, is demonstrated by the picture above- the film makes me feel oddly peaceful, even in the midst of stink gods, No-faces eating everyone, and other weirdness. It’s impossible to watch this film and not feel quietly happy at the end of it.

 

Also at the weekend, I finished Camp Nanowrimo with a day to spare. Hurrah! And I appear to be doing the whole thing again this month, because I apparently want to test my sanity to the limits. This is good though, because it means I’ll have a complete first draft of The Snake House in two months, which I’m pretty certain would be something of a record for me. Dead Zoo Shuffle was almost that fast, but I wrote a Steampunk novella in the middle of it and that confused matters somewhat.

 

As for The Snake House itself, I will cautiously say it is going well. I’ve had to write about some very dark and nasty stuff, which has been more challenging than I expected, and in many ways I miss the freedom that straight-up fantasy books give you in terms of world-building and making up your own rules. However, my three old lady characters have been enormous fun to write and I’m finding out more and more about them every day, via that wonderful habit characters sometimes have of going off and doing whatever they like, or saying the wrong thing at exactly the wrong moment. This seems to happen even more with old lady characters.

 

I’m re-reading A Song of Ice and Fire. I know, I know, I only just finished A Dance With Dragons, but after a brief break to read Full Dark, No Stars (which was pretty good) I’ve decided to throw myself straight back in. There is a certain delicious fangirl joy in knowing what will be significant later, so you can pay extra special attention to certain events, and what this character says to that character at this time. I’ve got the first four books all together on a kindle edition, so I’ve been reading for a day and a half and I’m still only 1% in. Hmm.

 

 

And that’s it for now. There is other stuff to talk about coming up on the horizon, but I shall leave it where it is for the time being, like Chihiro’s distant lights. See you on the other side of Nano!

 

On Finishing A Dance With Dragons (no spoilers)

So, that’s it. I have moved A Dance With Dragons from my “currently reading” file to my “finished” file (after having ritualistically read through the index of character names and houses- am I the only one to do that?) and I am bereft of book. I won’t do a big lengthy review or anything, but I will say it was great, I enjoyed it immensely, and that George Double R’d Martin is a wily sod. Despite the horrendously painful cliff-hangers he likes to torture us with, I can genuinely say that it was more than worth the wait. Big books take a long time to write (even small books can take a while, let’s be honest) and big excellent books with huge character histories, complicated intrigues and rollicking adventures… yes, they can take years to write. And I’m fine with that.

 

I expect I shall sulk for a while now, as I listlessly pick up other books and put them back down again, finding them lacking in some vital way (dragons, mainly) until I eventually have to accept the fact that A Song of Ice and Fire is pretty damn special, and I will have to read something else as we begin the agonizing wait for the next book.

 

Unless I just read them all again from the beginning. Then I can make a little folder on my kindle just for ASOIAF! Woot!

Women and Wizards- The Warlord Trilogy by Bernard Cornwell (potential spoilers for the first two books!)

Thewinterking

I’ve just finished the second book in Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord trilogy (a gutsy and gritty retelling of the Arthur mythos) and a bloody good read it is too. I’ve still got Excalibur to go, which I shall be reading as swiftly as possible before A Dance With Dragons comes out, and indeed these tales of swords, beards and heroism make a lovely almost-fantasy appetizer for the next George R.R Martin book.

 

What has impressed me in particular is the quality of female characters in the first two books (The Winter King and Enemy of God, go and grab copies) – previously my only experience of Cornwell was via the TV series Sharpe, which my partner is a big fan of (I rather like it myself), but it has to be said the ladies in the series don’t have a lot going for them. His first wife, sure, the Spanish rebel who kicked ass in her own right, she was excellent but inevitably she didn’t quite last the whole series, and then after her most of the female characters in Sharpe (the TV series, at least) are consigned to breathing heavily in garments not made to stand such stresses and throwing themselves (understandably, perhaps) at the eponymous hero. Even worse, one of his wives turns out to be an absolute rotter, who simpers and faints and gets off with Wesley Wyndham-Price instead.

 

However, in his King Arthur stories Bernard Cornwell has given us a cast full of extraordinary and interesting ladies; characters who are perhaps more memorable even than the male characters you remember from the Arthur mythology. There is Nimue, Merlin’s high priestess and childhood friend of our narrator- she is clever, ruthless, intermittently mad, and utterly determined. The portrayal of Guinevere is a fascinating one, as we meet a woman who is beautiful and knows it, and has infinitely more ambition than even Arthur himself- a woman constrained by the times she lives in, and looking for ways to break out. Even Ceinwyn, who could easily have been a winsome blond princess with little else to do but be the caring one, keeps things a little subversive by taking a vow never to marry, and instead takes her own path through life.

 

This is more like it. And there’s tons of other stuff to admire about the books of course, particularly Merlin, who is devious beyond measure and very, very funny, and Cornwell gives us a portrayal of pagan Britain that feels real, even if it is nearly impossible to know exactly how it all went down. I’m expecting to zoom through the third book now, and only partly because I know Westeros is waiting for me at the end of it.

 

Oh, and if you haven’t done so yet, please do check out the short story I posted below… it’s not Arthurian Fantasy but I am very close to 100 views and every plug helps! 😉

 

On the Importance of Being a Reader

Still no review of Dragon Age 2 I’m afraid. This is largely because I’ve, well, started playing it again, but I’m sure that my second play through as a bisexual mage will add all sorts of nuances to my final verdict (I called him Theon in the end, rather than Spanky).

 

Instead I’ve been thinking about the importance of reading in regards to the process of writing. Lovely twitter peep @RozD has started a blog recently detailing her current challenge to read 100 hundred books (go here to check it out) and we briefly discussed the idea of reading as procrastination. But the truth is reading is an enormously important part of the writing process too. To be a writer, we are told, you must:

 

a) Write

b) Read

 

But, it’s a little tricksier than that I think. The actual physical act of writing, sitting your bum down and getting the words out, is obviously the key to being a writer. BUT, I am tempted to put reading on an equal footing. Firstly, if you don’t read, then why are you writing? If you don’t love books, then why do you want to make them? It sounds daft, but I have encountered people before who were rather in love with the idea of being a writer- on the surface it sounds cool, like you’re an eccentric lone wolf who drinks neat whisky and stares broodily out of windows whilst scribbling in a notebook*. But when I asked said people what their favourite books were and who they hoped to emulate, they would shuffle their feet and shrug and indicate that, well, they were only really interested in their own books. When they finally got around to starting them, that is.

      Also, without reading you have nothing to aspire to. Or, if you like, you won’t experience that snarky little rage that causes you to twirl your moustaches and think, “I could do better than this!” You would never be inspired, or informed, or enlightened by the simple marvellousness of the fiction that is available to us. If I hadn’t read Perdido Street Station, for example, I might still be labouring under the misapprehension that all fantasy had to look and sound a certain way. If I hadn’t read A Song of Ice and Fire I’d never have gotten a girl-boner for swords and written The Steel Walk (although I’m still unsure whether that was a good thing or a bad thing). The idea of writing without reading is incomprehensible. Mind-boggling. And so, when we spend hours giggling over Wodehouse or days dallying in the world of Jonathan Strange (as I have been doing lately) then we must not feel guilty, or that we are neglecting our writerly duties.

 

Because to write you have to a) write, and a) read.

 

*this is an accurate depiction of my life, obviously.

 

The Instant Kindle Convert

So, my lovely boyfriend bought me a Kindle for my birthday.

 

Previously I had remained rather neutral on the subject of e-readers. I’ve always been such a “paper” book person, you see; I work for a company that make beautiful hardback editions of classic books, I’ve a degree in illustration, and I studied bookbinding at art college. Most telling of all, there are just piles and piles of the things at home, so many that we sort of exist in a fort made of paper and text. I like the smell of them, the physical weight of a paperback or a hardback. In this, I thought, I would remain a luddite. Touch screen phones and wi-fi, yes, but e-readers- probably not.

 

It took me approximately 30 seconds to fall in love with the Kindle.

 

It is devilishly cute, for a start. The screen looks just like a page, not an electronic screen, and it is not remotely aren’t-I-trendy-and-flash like some electronic devices I could name. It’s easy to use and does everything it’s supposed to. It brings up pictures of fish and birds and Jules Verne if I leave it alone for a little while. But the thing that sold me on it, the thing that made me cling to it like a monkey with a chocolate dipped banana, the thing that means it hasn’t been out of my sight since the 19th is- I can now carry all the books I’m reading with me, all of the time.

 

This is significant. This is epic.

 

Because I’m one of those people who tends to be reading more than one book at a time. And everyday, when I leave for work, I have to look at each book in turn and decide which one I will cram into my handbag. This is never an easy decision for me; it’s rather like deciding which of your children to take to Disneyland, and which to send to the workhouse to eat gruel.

 

But now you can all come! Now we can all go on It’s a Small World and eat ice-cream and prance and sing and cavort with the sinister costumed things!

 

Um. Anyway, there is that, and the tremendous power of thinking “You know, I’ve never gotten around to reading Stephen King’s The Long Walk…” and hey, by the end of that sentence there it is, sitting on my Kindle waiting for me to read (it was brilliant, by the way, some of the best King I’ve read in years and years). There are dangers, obviously; for a book addict this is rather like being in a giant shop full of book-shaped cakes and the baker saying “They’re free! All free! But careful you don’t ruin your dinner.”

 

All in all, I think you can consider me converted. No doubt I’ll still continue to buy good ol’ paper books too, but the Kindle is here to stay. Now, on with The Anubis Gates!