Thursday, 23 October 2014

My continued absence!

Anyone trying to read my blog may have noticed my rather lengthy absence. There are two reasons for this - most recent is the failure of our broadband connection, which has now lasted nearly a month!! I do hope that normal service will resume soon, but I can tell you, it is extremely inconvenient. Though possibly of benefit to local coffee shops.

The other reason is that not only the broadband is broken - I am too :-(

I'm having problems with my hands, which aren't working very well, and lots of things have got rather difficult. Typing not the least of them. Posts for the time being, always supposing we get out connection back, may be rather brief. Not at all sure about getting the hands back, but my robo-glove is quite entertaining.

I did manage a review on the last issue of Shiny New Books, though, and you can find it here, along with lots of terrific reviews by other people.

Looking on the bright side, we had an addition to the family. This is Loki, a 6-month old rescue - wicked, exuberant, affectionate and the plague of both dogs. You'll be seeing plenty more of him, I'm sure.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

The New Policeman by Kate Thompson

Who knows where the time goes?

I'm convinced that, if you want to find books that are truly original, you have to look at writing for children and young adults – it's not exclusive, but the exploration of ideas seems to be so much more interesting when it's aimed at people whose minds are open to new experiences. Of course, adults can be open to new experience too, but I find it's much less common.

The New Policeman is a glorious example of original writing. What it owes to earlier works is its use of legend, and yes, of course I can see influences there -- Charles De Lint comes to mind, and there feels like a kind of dialogue between Thompson and Jo Walton, whose stunning Among Others I finished recently, but my idol Alan Garner's in there too.

The first of a trilogy, The New Policeman nearly defies description if I'm not to give too much plot away – it's sometimes almost tempting to do what I've seen some other bloggers do, and copy the blurb, but it's not really my style. JJ Liddy is a young musician living in a small town in Galway, on the edge of that area called The Burren which always seems to me to be intensely magical in itself. Despite being a place where the rest of the world often thinks time has stood still, the people of Kinvara are constantly aware that time always seems to be rushing by:
For a while it was all anyone talked about, once the weather was out of the way. Then they didn't talk about it any more. What was the point? And besides, where was the time to talk about time? People didn't call to each other's houses any more; not to sit and chat over a cup of tea, anyway. Everyone was always on their way somewhere, or up to their eyes in something, or racing around trying to find someone or, more often, merely trying to catch up with themselves.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? But JJ thinks it might be time someone did something about it. In the process he finds out quite a bit about his forebears and the music that runs through his family, and meets some truly memorable people, including the mysterious new policeman of the title. There's a dream quality to the story, appropriate to one where time has gone haywire, but that doesn't meant that it lacks pace or excitement, or laughter and tragedy. Woven through the whole book, like a line from JJ's fiddle, is Irish music, with a traditional tune ending each chapter: readers can play the tunes themselves, listen to a set of reels and jigs from the book on the author's website (where you can also hear Kate Thompson reading from it), or even embark on a hunt for them on YouTube. I don't guarantee you'll find them all – I haven't had time to try many myself as the book, sadly, has to go back to the library – but I suspect most will be there.

The New Policeman won both the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize (the 2014 longlist has just been announced) and the Whitbread Children's Book Award in 2005.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Beyond Belief by Helen Smith

Emily Castle investigates future crimes. I’m guessing that when author Helen Smith first thought of this notion it seemed fun and quirky – now, I am certain that I’ve heard our government suggest that it would be a good way to save on public spending. However, I think the government solution would be to lock up all young men in hoodies, whereas Emily thinks about her dead dog, Jessie. 

Now, I have to say that when Helen Smith asked me (quite some time ago – sorry, Helen!) if I would like to read and review her latest book, I hadn’t quite appreciated that it was the third in a series – not that it would really have made a difference to my reply, I’d read one of her books, Alison Wonderland, earlier and found it funny and original. But I must admit that when I finished Beyond Belief I wasn’t entirely clear about the exact role that Jessie played in solving future crimes, given that Emily is quite emphatic that she’s not a spirit guide, or anything like that, but it didn’t in any way affect my enjoyment of the book, and I did, when I finished, download a copy of the short story which begins the series, Three Sisters. Not sure that it entirely cleared up the Jessie question, but it was a good story.

Emily’s thinking about whether to get a permanent job instead of temping when her neighbour Dr Muriel asks her to accompany her to a conference on the nature of belief – Belief and Beyond – ostensibly to take notes. For the first time the attendees will include mediums, hypnotists, and other fringe practitioners, in an attempt to find common ground with academia, and there are rumours that a death will take place at the event, perhaps because a notable stage magician has issued a challenge to delegates to prove the existence of the paranormal and has offered a huge reward. So far, so Jonathan Creek, but without the duffel coat. Dr Muriel hopes that if Emily documents the rumours, a pattern may emerge and prevent a death, if indeed, one is planned.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a good deal of the last twenty years organising conferences, that I seem to be an absolute sucker for plots which involve them. The weirder the delegates the better.  And here, there is a satisfactory cohort of English eccentrics, complete with floaty scarves, silver-topped canes, wigs and deceased dogs – because Emily is not entirely exempt from charges of eccentricity herself: “Emily had never quite found a job that suited her, a boyfriend who was clever enough for her, or a home that was close enough to the centre of London to make the commute to work tolerable.”  Anyway, to make me even happier, Belief and Beyond will take place in Torquay, memorable largely as the setting for Fawlty Towers – you’ve got to love the Royal Society for Science and Culture’s optimism in choosing such an ill-omened venue.

I’m not going to tell you any more about the plot, because I think you ought to read the book for yourself. There’s so much to enjoy here and my casting list is already underway – I have a very firm idea of who’s going to play Dr Muriel, for instance. She’s probably my absolute favourite character, I love her way of just throwing out ideas because she thinks they are interesting. And Gerald Ayode, the President of the Society (which used to be called the Royal Society for Science and Spiritualism), is very endearing in his efforts to embrace technology and modern life by tweeting from the conference. The conference atmosphere is very convincing, too, take it from me.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

A Sunday maggot...

 Fuchsia magellanica at Paxton House

Yet again my poor blog is being neglected and I'm afraid the weather is to blame, as one reason is that I've been spending a lot of time in the garden and greenhouse, making up for years of summers when I couldn't leave my desk. I haven't even been doing much reading, in comparison with past years, because it's not just the garden that's been taking up my time. Since I'm no longer travelling to London regularly, the pattern of my life has altered, and allowed some new projects.

I'm doing a course on The Literature of the Country House (the rest of this afternoon will be spent completing last week's work) which, as always with me, has prompted quite a bit of reading round the subject, which nicely dovetails with research for a talk I'll be giving later in the year. A search on the library catalogue yielded very few books which were helpful - so far, I've only found one that I could actually borrow, and one that would have necessitated a journey the length of Northumberland to read, but a trawl on Amazon turned up quite a few, and happily I had a couple of gift vouchers to spend. Okay, my selection was slightly influenced by choosing books priced at 1p plus postage, but one of the acquisitions has been Mark Girouard's definitive Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History, so I'm happy!

Last week a whole day was given over to a costume photoshoot -- we were lucky with the weather and the generosity of friends who allowed the use of their photographic studio (and indeed, much of their house, and provided lunch!). I'll post more about this anon -- we didn't get through everything and still have Edwardian underwear and stockings to shoot, and I don't yet have copies of the photographs. Somewhat carried away by the fun of the day, with lovely models and lots of laughter, I found myself volunteering to make costumes for a production that second son is appearing in. It's funny, at the start of the day I had simply offered to do a bit of alteration to some shirt collars and so on, by the afternoon I'd said that I would cut a pattern and make three skirts for a beach scene. I may be borrowing the same friend's wonderfully equipped sewing room, since the work space on my desk is about 18 x 36 inches. And my sewing machine is at the bottom of a pile of stuff upstairs -- I think!

Despite all this busy-ness, second son and I did manage an afternoon outing to nearby Paxton House, with the express purpose of taking photographs. He has recently upgraded his camera and, along with a zoom lens, it weighs a ton! It's meant that I've inherited the original camera, as long as he's not on a job where he needs a second one, and I've got to learn to use it. Mostly I switch it to Auto and hope for the best, but I'm already frustrated by not being able to focus on two things at once. I was pretty excited, though, to be able to take a picture of a newt. Well, two newts, but there must have been hundreds in the pond.

Palmate newts

Great crested newt

For what felt like the first time in about a hundred years, I taught some Playford dances. For the uninitiated, these are the dances that turn up in film and TV adaptations of Jane Austen -- the six-part version of Pride and Prejudice used some of my favourites including Mr Beveridge's Maggot (a maggot is a piece of whimsy, and not something the newts above might eat). They are called "Playford" because in 1651 the first edition of The English Dancing Master was published by John Playford. It proved so popular that it was followed by a number of editions up to 1728, with over a thousand dances being described and other publishers cashing in on the enthusiasm for country dance. Some dances have wonderfully fanciful names -- Gathering Peascods, Mutual Love, Pleasures of the Town and Indian Queen to name a few, and there are lots of maggots. They are lovely to dance, often flowing and graceful, sometimes riotous, but even the Morpeth Rant needn't be too demanding for new dancers. Our group laughs a lot and we sometimes abandon a dance until next week when we might summon the collective brainpower to work out a tricky figure.

Funny, there were several things I meant to write about today and I don't seem to have got to any of them. Next Sunday perhaps...

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde

The reason Kevin always slept fully dressed on the sofa when he had a perfectly good bedroom was because he had foreseen that he would die in his bed, and reasoned that if he stayed away from it he wouldn't die. That might sound daft until you consider that the Remarkable Kevin was our precognitive, a breed of sorceror who had tuned their attention to shuffling through the millions of potential futures and occasionally picking out a winner. But, as with all oracles, his visions could be vague and misleading.
Kevin has, in fact, received a hint that the Great Zambini might be due for another appearance. Not, as you might think from the name, a stage appearance, but a brief materialisation during which his employees at Kazam (the employment agency for sorcerors and soothsayers) might be able to catch up on his instructions:
The last time this happened, Kevin had us all staking out a village in the weekends-only Duchy of Cotswold, where Zambini reappeared for a full fifty-seven seconds before vanishing again. Despite fifteen of us dispersed around the village with eyes peeled, we missed Zambini when he turned up in a jam cupboard belonging to a Mrs Bishop.
The sixteen-year-old acting boss of Kazam, Jennifer Strange, really needs Zambini's help. Magic has faded to the point where it barely works at all, but despite this rival firm iMagic is currying favour with King Snodd IV of Hereford by promising that overall control of Magic will be his -- all that's needed is the appointment of iMagic boss the Amazing Blix to the new post of Court Mystician, and hey presto! the mobile telephone network that the king wants so badly will be reanimated. Jennifer knows that this is pure opportunism -- there simply isn't the magical power to draw on, and practitioners are in short supply too. Nonetheless, Blix manages to manoeuvre Kazam into a sorcerous dual with iMagic, and then starts playing very dirty indeed.

As with Fforde's adult novels, this one for younger readers has all his usual trademarks -- punning names, corporate-speak, subversions of familiar names and places, footnotes, and so on. My favourites here are the Transient Moose, who drifts around materialising and disappearing again and, of course, the Quarkbeast itself, proof, if any were needed, that Fforde must have grown up revelling, as I did, in the pursuit of the Questing Beast in T.H. White's The Once and Future King. The Song of the Quarkbeast is actually a sequel to The Last Dragonslayer, which I haven't read -- I didn't really have any difficulty picking up the ideas and jokes, but I have read several of Fforde's other books, which might be an advantage. Thursday Next fans will find themselves in familiar territory. If Fforde's humour works for you -- and it doesn't for everyone -- then I don't think it matters very much where you dive in. You'll be in for a lot of fun, some of it very silly indeed, and you'll almost certainly find that you start to care quite a lot about the characters. Happily, there is a third to come.

* I forgot to say that this is a review for Once Upon a Time VIII!

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Shiny shiny shiny

I meant to do a review post this weekend but other things keep interrupting. So I'm simply going to say that on Monday Shiny New Books: what to read next and why launches. Edited by four fantastic book bloggers, Simon of Stuck-in-a-Book, Harriet from Harriet Devine's Blog, Annabel from Annabel's House of Books and Victoria from Tales from the Reading Room, it's going to bring us reviews, recommendations, articles, even competitions. You can sign up for the newsletter on the website, like on Facebook, follow on Twitter, and follow on Feedly or Bloglines or Google + or whatever.

I haven't looked forward to anything so much for ages! I've been going round humming the Velvets' song all week: "Shiny, shiny, shiny books of leather...."

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Oh dear, I know I shouldn't but... Once Upon a Time VIII

It's spring, there are flowers in the garden and friends are posting their lists for Once Upon a Time VIII run by the indefatigable Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. His dedication in running this and other challenges is hugely impressive, and he always finds the most superbly seductive and beautiful artwork. How can I possibly hold out against the temptation to join in?

Well, you've guessed it, I can't. I'm signing up.

The Once Upon a Time VIII Challenge has a few rules:
Rule #1: Have fun.
Rule #2: HAVE FUN.
Rule #3: Don’t keep the fun to yourself, share it with us, please!
Rule #4: Do not be put off by the word “challenge”.
I'm going to be circumspect and only go for the lowest level, though, The Journey, so I'm not posting a "proper" list. (Isn't the little fox a darling...)

This is really as simple as the name implies. It means you are participating, but not committing yourself to any specific number of books. By signing up for The Journey you are agreeing to read at least one book within one of the four categories during March 21st to June 21st period. Just one book. If you choose to read more, fantastic! 

In a new venture -- for me at least -- I'm going to include audiobooks. It took me a long time to even remotely consider that an audiobook counted as a book -- after all, I'd never counted books adapted for the radio, or for film, as books, but I took to audiobooks to combat insomnia a couple of years ago and, unlike radio adaptations, I actively listen, and I don't buy abridged books. So, I guess, they are books!

It so happens that I've just started listening to Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It's a "re-read" -- I like rediscovering books I already know -- and it's being an absolute joy. The witch Anathema Device has just appeared. Oh, I so want to change my name to Anathema Device... no doubt one or two of my acquaintances might think it appropriate.

Last month Audible seduced me with a cheap offer, and I found two books by Charles de Lint, Memory and Dream and Widdershins. I've complained here before that some of de Lint's books are quite hard to get in the UK, so I'm really pleased to have these two.

Finally, I still have last year's Christmas present on my bedside table, and all I really needed was an excuse to get started. Not only is it full of fascinating essays, it's beautifully illustrated, in colour. The frontispiece is a double-page spread of the original cover of The Hobbit.

Magical Tales was produced to go with an exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford last year. I couldn't go to that, but I am going to savour every single word of the book. So it will be my "official" read for The Journey, and the audiobooks will be extras.

So, to everyone taking part in Once Upon a Time VIII, I wish you a very happy three months of reading/listening/watching!