Bookworm Briefs – September

So it’s the next edition of Bookworm Briefs, due on 1 October and sidling in to the blog on 11 October instead.

This could be because I’m a free spirit who refuses to be imprisoned by the patriarchal shackles of a man-made date and time construct, or because I’m an elemental child whose muse waxes and wanes with the phases of the moon. Or, it could be that I went on holiday and am also a bit lazy.

You, dear reader, shall decide.

What I read

A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman Marvellous Ways cover

I usually save the big hardback purchases for Christmas but, as part of my jolly literary weekend at Budlitfest, I treated myself to a couple of hardback beauties; including Winman’s second novel after 2011’s excellent When God was a Rabbit.

The story is about Marvellous Ways, an old woman living alone in an isolated Cornish creek waiting for one last event before she dies. The event is the arrival of Francis Drake, an incredibly damaged WWII soldier, on the run from the horrors in his own mind.

If you like a nice, linear narrative firmly rooted in reality, this is not the book for you. However, if you’re prepared to become completely submerged in ideas and emotions, myths and fairy tales; if you’re happy to hold the mermaid’s hand and let her lead you downstream and out to sea, then you will adore this book.

There is so much to pick out of this novel, but in her Budlitfest talk Winman mentioned the importance of names. This is something I’ve noticed is often a feature of magical realism or fantasy novels – in LoTR for example Aragorn has three different names depending on his role and the stage he is on in his journey, Gandalf goes from the Grey to the White when he is reborn; in Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden novels knowing the real name of a magical being gives you immense power over them. For Marvellous Ways her name is her identity and her gift – her father wrote it down when she was born and and she carries it in a shell box around her neck. There is magic in her name.

Drake mostly sees his name as a tired joke and an encumberance, but comes to realise that it too has wonderful meaning. A character who brings love and serenity is called Peace, a woman who becomes bitter has her name corrupted from Mrs Heart to Mrs Hard, and the difference between great pain and great love can hinge on the few letters that change Jim to Jack.

They clung to each other and loved as if it was their last chance at love and where he entered he never left. And that was the night they began to share dreams because that’s what happens when you both know the weight of another’s soul.

I think to get the full benefit of this novel you have to read it twice. The first time you can sail through, carried along by the beautiful ebb and flow of the words. It reads almost like an epic poem; a story to be read aloud so the sounds, the rhythms and the music of the words can be savoured.

On a second reading you can really take the time to delve in to the huge themes of the book; memory, identity, pain, love, destiny, friendship, family, belief, loyalty and hope. So much is covered here and, like beachcombing, what at first seems to be a simple landscape offers so much more to explore and treasure.

This really is a stunning, breathtaking gift of a book and I urge you to read and enjoy it. Winman writes with such beauty and such poetry, I can’t think of anything better to read on a chilly autumn evening.

She gave thanks for her life, for every flower and tree and shrub that had held an imprint of her time, her youth, her middle age, her longing, her body, her sorrow, her laughter, her plans, her tiredness, her fate. This was the scene of her theatre.

Francis Plug: How to be a Public Author by Paul Ewen

Francis Plug cover

My next holiday read was wildly different but completely appropriate; dealing as it does with author events.

Francis Plug is a part-time gardener and aspiring writer. His concern about the increasingly public nature of an author’s duties leads him to write a book to help fellow writers develop the skills needed to navigate the unsettling world of appearances and events. Determined to learn only from the very best, Plug attends events for Booker Prize-winning authors – watching what they do, meeting them and getting them to sign first editions of their work.

It’s a laudable aim and is only let down by the fact that Plug is a chronic and chaotic alcoholic whose grasp on reality is tenuous at best.

This is a deeply funny book. Francis Plug is witty, observant and smart and, in his drunken adventures, he’s inventive and shameless. The author event structure is saved from becoming repetitive by including Plug’s apposite reflections on money, the economy, the point of author events, social behaviours and social class.

What makes them seek out the quivering human flesh, blood and bone marrow of the author… They have to follow Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse back to the changing rooms and smell the sweat from the red-faced puppeteers.

There is also a fascinating relationship between Plug and his wealthy gardening client Mr Stapleton. The two men are linked by the Booker novels – Mr Stapleton the banker owns them all, but has never read them. Francis Plug, the gardener could never afford them but knows them inside out. It’s Mr Stapleton’s first editions that Plug gets signed, and dedicated, rendering them all worthless. Mr Stapleton doesn’t even notice.

My main reaction to Public Author though is that it’s incredibly sad. Plug is a clever man, but he’s lonely and awkward; descending page by page in to an alcohol-fuelled fantasy world. His Booker quest is the only framework that gives his life meaning and his main source of social interaction and friendship. Leading to a heartbreaking scene with DBC Pierre.

Although I wasn’t made of money, what better way to spend what little I had than on a fine wine for a Booker Prize-winning author.

This is a clever, nuanced book and:

  • it’s from independent British publisher Galley Beggar Press so you can feel warm and fuzzy about supporting them. They’re doing some really interesting titles so worth a look at their site.
  • my copy came pre-signed by Paul Ewen. Presumably a pre-emptive strike to avoid having to meet drunk-as-a-wheelbarrow readers who want to be friends, and may have horse poo concealed about their person.
  • the cover quote from Hilary Mantel is pure genius.


I’ve had a bit of a mad run on the book acquisition front this month. September TBR pile

From Budlitfest I bought:

From Bookbridgr I got:

And from Orion I won:

This is all lovely, but I may need to give up work to get them all read.

Coming up

After September’s giddy joys of Budlitfest and a week in Cornwall reading on the beach and drinking cider, I continue my life of gay dissipation by going to see Benedict Cumberbatch in the NT Live screening of Hamlet on 15 October.

Having neither the time or the money to visit London, NT Live is a godsend and I hope whoever thought it up got a big promotion and a lovely certificate.

The joy of digital

Sing it: “We are living in a digital world and I am a digital girl!”

Alright I know you didn’t sing it, but you get my point.

I love digital; my day job basically consists of me trying to create the best websites I can while sneakily checking Twitter and pretending it’s for work; and I go home in the evenings to watch time-shifted telly, spend more time on Twitter and buy books online.

And the books I buy are always honest-to-goodness paper ones.

I’ve had the ebook vs paper book conversation more times than I can count (alright then, about six times) and I am a staunch believer that paper books are far, far better than their pixel brethren – I’ll blog about why later.

However, I do think there is a wonderful marriage to be had between lovely papery books and magical interactive digital. And there’s a Twitter account at the moment which, to my mind, is absolutely nailing how this should be done.

Cover of Slade House by David Mitchell

Another beautiful cover

David Mitchell’s new novel Slade House is due out in October and as a precursor to the release of the book he’s tweeting an account for one of his characters.

@I_Bombadil is the Twitter account for a man obessessed with his co-worker, Lottie. They work at the same company in London and, as she doesn’t have a clue who he is, he’s taken a 21st Century approach to the love letter and is tweeting his love for her.

Over the course of the daily tweets he shares the ‘loving’ things he’s doing such as noticing her outfits, sending her roses on her birthday, hacking her emails and her phone, checking her sister’s smear test results…

Lottie also has a Twitter account, which is currently locked at @TuttiLottie


Slade House actually started life as a Twitter short story so it’s the obvious marketing approach. And the events of the novel culminate on 31 October 2015, so presumably the Twitter narrative and the novel will weave together at that point.

Tweets from @I_Bombadil

I love this approach. And I think that the possibilities for mixing paper and digital are absolutely dizzying.

I’ll never give up my paper books; I don’t think digital can replace them and I don’t think it should try. What it can do brilliantly well is augment and embellish a book in clever, fun and original ways – opening up texts to readers who may not otherwise find them – especially useful for those books with teeny tiny marketing budgets (i.e. most of them).

I know some of you are ebook enthusiasts and/or digital citizens – what do you think? Do you want Spotify playlists with your books? Online ‘DVD extras’ style content?


Meanwhile keep an eye on @I_Bombadil – because, let’s face it, that’s really not going to end well. And who wouldn’t want to read about that?

Review: The Woman Who Stole My Life

What to say? What to say?

Confession 1: Although I love Marian Keyes so much I’d drink her bath water, I don’t like The Woman Who Stole My Life.

I adore Keyes so much that it genuinely saddens me to write that; and it gets worse.

Confession 2: Apart from The Mystery of Mercy Close, I’ve struggled with her last three novels.

These are words that I never thought I’d say about the author of Watermelon; one of my favourite books of all time. I discovered Keyes about twenty years ago when my best friend’s mum gave me an advance copy of Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married and I have adored her ever since. Usually classed as a chicklit author, Keyes has always seemed a cut above the rest; with fuller characters, smarter dialogue and much funnier jokes. Usually when the blurb says a novel is ‘laugh-out-loud funny!’ you can expect a couple of smirks at best, but I remember laughing till I cried at Watermelon.

Funnily enough, I’d always heard that it was Los Angeles that was full of nutters, not New York.

The Woman who Stole my Life focuses on Stella Sweeney, an Irish mother of two, working with her sister in a beautician business and married to successful interior designer-cum-frustrated artist Ryan. Her hum-drum life is knocked wildly off-course when she succumbs to the rare Guillian-Barre Syndrome which renders her paralysed except for her eyes. Her illness, and eventual recovery, lasts eleven months and the novel examines the repercussions of this experience on Stella, her family and her friends.

The relatively straight-forward story is made more interesting by a twin track structure which shows us Stella now, living back in Ireland with her son after something has gone horribly wrong, and extracts from her own book which details her illness and hospital experience.

So, the story is good, the structure tantalises and yet… I just didn’t like it. The problem is there’s not a single likeable character in the book.

Lovely cover art though

Lovely cover art though

She’s the centre of the novel, but Stella has no discernible personality. I desperately wanted to like her, but her most definitive character feature is her complete inability to stand up for herself, ever. Instead of identifying with the hero, or rooting for her, I found myself shouting; “Get a bloody spine woman!” many, many times.

Everyone else in the novel is selfish, self-centred and almost completely devoid of empathy. Excepting love-interest Mannix who is very caring and cordially disliked by everyone, and Stella’s sister Karen who distinguishes herself by being the most spectacular bitch. I suspect she’s meant to come across as the straight-talking, no-nonsense type that Keyes drew so beautifully in the Walsh family novels; but instead she just seems mean. The silver medal goes to Ryan who is completely vile. By the end of this book I actually started to wonder if Keyes was writing a particularly spiteful world, or if I just know an unusually high number of nice people.

The other thing that I struggled with is the idea that Stella becomes a writer. Her self-help book, One Blink at a Time starts off a self-published pamphlet of ‘sayings’ that Stella blinked out when she was sick. The novel hinges on the idea that Stella can, with no background in writing at all, get a publishing deal, write almost an entire book about her experience and write lots of supporting articles to publicise it while maintaining a range of social media channels to promote herself. I write for a living and I’m not sure where I’d start with all that.



It’s not all bad. The usual Keye’s hallmarks are there; beautiful insights, pop culture references and a wonderful ear for dialogue, but ultimately if you’re looking for a funny, clever, bittersweet novel read Watermelon instead. In fact just read Watermelon anyway, it’s ace.


Bookworm briefs: August

Ooh! Aah! It’s a new regular feature. Bookworm Briefs will be a monthly dash through my reading, anything that’s been recklessly added to my already impossible-to-ever-complete TBR and any bookish activities I’ve been involved in. I’ll publish Bookworm Briefs on the first of each month and, as it’s important to start as you mean to go on, this one is already a day late. Marvellous.

What I read

The Watchmaker of Filigree StreetThe Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
I was so wonderfully surprised by this. I borrowed it from the library on the back of a slew of Twitter recommendations, and because the artwork on the hardback version is completely arresting. There’s something very old-fashioned about the narrative; it’s slow and steady and it’s clever. It’s refreshing to read an author who expects you to pay attention and read between the lines. The writing is crisp and considered, her dialogue is both witty and natural and she draws her characters with real affection. This is Natasha Pulley’s debut novel and on the basis of this I’m very excited to see what comes next.

I love this book. It’s well-researched, well-written and has, at its centre, a genuinely moving love story. This is the book for you if you like a rewarding slow-burner, a vaguely steampunk historical mystery and a sweet love story with a dash of magic. Read it; love it; immediately attempt to acquire a clockwork octopus.

For God’s sake, the closest I can get to medieval England is a Walter Scott novel. People shouldn’t be throwing away their history when it’s doing archery practice forty miles up the road.


Armada by Ernest Cline
The second book by Cline, which is spookily similar to, but not quite as good as, his first book; Ready Player One. Both of Cline’s books are love songs to 80s films and video games, and a sort of lit-by-the-evening-sun, coming of age American childhood which may only have existed in movies like The Goonies and Stand by Me. They’re marshmallow books – fun and easy to get through, but there’s limited nutritional value. Armada starts with a cracking concept, so good in fact that it’s already been covered in Ender’s Game, but it’s let down by the ending. However, Ready Player One is good fun, and definitely worth a read before the film version is released in 2017.


Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
As always a brilliant premise from Stephenson, but for some reason I’m struggling to get through it. The moon has broken in to seven pieces and will shatter into many more before it destroys the earth. The survival of the human race becomes focused on the crew of a satellite orbiting earth, and a project to adapt the ship to house as many people as possible before time runs out. It’s intriguing, but I’m struggling to get more than a few chapters in.



The First Bad Man by Miranda July The First Bad Man
Bought this for the cover alone, which seems to repel as much as it attracts. Forty pages in and the cover seems deeply appropriate for a narrative that is both fascinating and uncomfortable. I’m not exactly enjoying it, but I stood up reading it for 20 minutes because I was too engrossed to sit down.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Romance, sci-fi and another amazing cover – an honest to goodness work of art. Since buying it I’ve read this frank and moving interview with Faber which has added a new level to the novel. My reading of the novel will now be influenced by the knowledge of Faber’s real-life situation and I’m honestly not sure how I feel about that. Hmm…


Something Coming Through by Paul McAuley
Dystopian fantasy which seems to be in a similar vein to The Long Earth – there are multiple earths and shady affairs are happening on all of them. So far, lots to like about this. I’ll be doing a full review for Gollanz Geeks shortly.

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry PratchettThe Shepherd's Crown
Another book which is impossible to separate from the real-life events that loom large over it’s release. I’m going to take a rare diversion into sentimentality and say that for me this book shows what the best literature can be; a pact, a friendship, an understanding between a writer and a reader. A gossamer bond that can lead you into strange new worlds, and help you find your way back out again. I’m five chapters in to the last journey I’ll ever take with Terry Pratchett and every page feels like a joyful goodbye to a dear, dear friend.



Coming up

Budleigh Literary Festival
Budleigh Salterton (Bubbly Saltybum) is my favourite place in the world and for four days in September it will be full of sensational writers. I’m reading The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters in preparation and hoping to get in A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale before then too.



5 reasons I love Outlander… and 5 reasons I probably shouldn’t

Right, shuffle closer, I’m going to share something personal. Part of my brain is permanently frozen at age 17, and as a result I develop ridiculous, teenage passions for things. When I first discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer I binge-watched the whole first series in a day, I queued at midnight for Harry Potter (without the cover of a small child) and I actually have a Lord of the Rings tattoo. I’m essentially one bad decision and a bottle of tequila away from being this lady.

And soOutlander tv programme cover art to Outlander.

I’ve had the book for a few months, but it was the TV adaptation that first got me. I now love Outlander deeply, have already started gifting copies of the book to friends and family members and am developing a mild obsession with Scotland; but the grown-up part of my brain is aware that it has some flaws. So both parts of my brain have got together to write this review. And while you’re reading this I’ll be trying to drink whiskey and Googling tartan shawls…


Five reasons I bloody love Outlander

1. Production
You know a programme takes its production seriously when it has a herbalist on the crew. Ronald D Moore (the Outlander showrunner) knows exactly how to spend a clearly enormous budget to create a luscious, immersive experience. The sets are detailed, the Highlands are celebrated with long, loving scenery shots and the Emmy-nominated music is haunting (and it’s composed by a man named Bear). But for me it’s all about the costumes. Every outfit is gorgeous, especially the kilts. Dougal may be a sociopath; fathering children with abandon and fighting with everybody and everything including, at one point, a dining room, but he looks incredibly dapper doing it. If you want to know why the costumes look so amazing free up a significant chunk of time to read Terry Dresbach’s blog.

Outlander clothes

2. Writing
I was gripped after the first two chapters of Outlander. The writing is detailed but pacey, and Gabaldon’s characters are well-rounded. She’s also a tireless researcher and I do always like the feeling of learning something accidentally while enjoying a good story. For me the filmed version improves on the novel. Episode 7 ‘The Wedding’ is almost perfect – the writing is flawless, with a clever narrative framing device which allows the events to unfold in a much more interesting sequence. There are also some lovely subtle touches in the series; it was the second viewing when I realised the relevance of Geillis complaining that she was going to “a fucking barbeque!”

3. Casting
The casting is so nearly perfect. Jamie and Claire are crucial obviously, and for me are spot on to the book; but what really makes Outlander work is the excellent supporting cast. It’s an embarrassment of riches when you can draft in the likes of Tim McInnerny, James Fleet, Douglas Henshall (Nick Cutter!) and Simon Callow for short, slightly mad, guest appearances. A strong supporting cast makes a fictional world work and everyone in Outlander draws you in. My personal favourites are Laura Donnelly as Jenny and Graham McTavish as Dougal, but the honours must go to brave (and utterly terrifying) Tobias Menzies. I’m only sad we’ll never know how the conversation went as his agent tried to explain exactly what was required in this role…

4. Claire
I LOVE Claire – proper big capital letters love. The novel has a great premise, but it was Claire’s strength and humour that kept me reading. She’s a tough, clever, skilled, sweary, funny woman who, in a hyper-masculine world, earns the respect of almost everyone she meets. For me, the really great thing about Claire is that she is an unashamedly, unapologetically sexual being. It is, (although it shouldn’t be in 2015) refreshing and exciting to see a female protagonist who gets what she wants and enjoys herself. Outlander also proves that it is possible to have elegant and dignified sex scenes that are still very erotic.

5. Romance
I like romance. Real life is full of work and bills and toddlers weeing on the carpet (that’s not just my house, right?), so I want to be swept off my feet and I want to feel tingles. And Outlander delivers by the bucket-load. It’s an epic, magical romance which builds slowly and then absolutely sizzles. I also love the casting of Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe; I came to the programme without the expectations of the book so they are Jamie and Claire for me. I love Outlander because it sweeps me off my feet and gives me a world I want to spend time in.

Outlander - Jamie and Claire

Five reasons I probably shouldn’t

1. Plot holes
Seriously, holes so big you could drive a horse and cart through them. The biggest and most glaringly obvious; when Jamie rescues Claire from Fort William why doesn’t he just kill Randall? This is the man who has horrifically scarred him, raped (as far as he knows) his sister, attempted to rape his wife and put a price on his head – and the only reason given is that Jamie can’t kill an unarmed man? And why doesn’t Dougal just kill Claire and Jamie when they’re on the road? Obviously it’s because Outlander would be a pamphlet rather than an eight book epic, but that shouldn’t be the only reason.

2. Angry Claire
I love Claire, but she is very, very angry. I can understand that if you go for a nice walk and suddenly find yourself 200 years in the past looking down the business end of a musket you’re going to be a bit short-tempered, but it’s hard as a reader to engage with someone who’s annoyed for 700 pages. And I can’t help but think that if she wasn’t so aggressive and unsympathetic to Laoghaire and Father Bain they may not have been quite so keen to set her on fire.

3. The book is too long
There’s a scene in the book where Claire fights wolves with her bare hands. Sometimes the editorial decisions are right there in front of you.

4. The dodgy lines
Outlander contains two of the worst lines I have ever read. Claire gets one and Jamie gets one so at least they’re evenly distributed, but they are teeth-itchingly bad. What’s really upsetting is that they both make it in to the programme.

5. Episode 16
There’s really no way to talk about Outlander without mentioning how much sexual violence there is. Even in a post-Game of Thrones world, episode 16 ‘To Ransom a Man’s Soul’ is brutal and, for me at least, impossible to watch fully. There’s a couple of things here; the first is that there seems to be a weirdly relaxed attitude to rape in areas of the book – the story of Jamie being almost assaulted at age 16 is played for laughs by everybody including Jamie himself. Secondly the programme seems to deal much better with this until the very end when it opts for a staggeringly graphic approach. I know the programme makers have justified this decision, but I’m still not convinced it really adds anything to the narrative. We know Jamie is broken, I’m not sure what we gain by seeing it happen. If you want to read more there’s a really thoughtful article on Entertainment Weekly.


So I know it’s wobbly in places, but I love it. I actually love Ronald D Moore’s version a bit more than I love Gabaldon’s, but it’s basically all brilliant.

Outlander cast still


The birthday haul

Happy birthday to me

Happy birthday to me

Ok, so strictly speaking not a haul and one of them is for Booey, but I’m still very happy with this.

The Moth is a book of 50 short stories – they’re all true and were all first told at live storytelling events across America. I rarely do non-fiction and even more rarely do short stories so this will be way out of my comfort zone; always a good thing. It’s also got a beautiful gold and silver embossed cover so I’ll be leaving it artfully lying around the place.

I really don’t need to say anything about A God in Ruins. I love Kate Atkinson and am pretty sure that even her shopping lists are works of literary greatness. This will be brilliant.

Booey’s bonus book is a children’s story written, illustrated and hand lettered by Margaret Atwood. The illustrations and lettering are gorgeous – who knew Margaret Atwood had amazing art skills? The story owes more than a little to Dr Seuss, there’s lots of toddler-friendly repetition and Booey already seems quite taken with it. It also includes a cd of Atwood reading the story, which means that at some point in the future we may enjoy a car journey listening to something other than The Gruffalo repeated 15 times. So that’s good.

And finally, a shiny new bag. As a proud supporter of independent bookshops, my sister bought all three from Mr B’s in Bath. I’ve never been, partly because I haven’t been to Bath in years and partly because I’m afraid that once I go in to that shop I will never, ever leave.

Review-ish: The Olive Branch

Honestly, I’ve been trying to write this review for over a week. In fact it took me two days to read the book and I’ve been mulling over this post for about 10 days.

The problem is I started this blog to record the passion I feel for books and book-related things. I wanted a place to shout about the stuff I love and hate; an alternative to just confusing my husband with a random stream of consciousness about books he’ll never read and films he’ll never watch. I’ve only written about things I feel I genuinely have something to say about, and the bottom line is that I have almost nothing to say about The Olive Branch. This is an issue for me because I received an advance copy of the book in return for a review.

So, after  trying to write something ‘review-ish’ and then reflecting on why I couldn’t, I’ve come to a couple of important decisions.

  1. No more review copies. I’m not interested in creating a book review blog – and as this exercise shows I probably couldn’t. I’ll read what I want. Of course if I can get a review copy of a book I want to read I’ll be on it like a car bonnet, but I suspect that will be a very small Venn diagram indeed.
  2. I’m not going to try and write in a ‘review’ style. Either I write from the heart with passion and truth or I don’t write at all. I’ll list all the books I read on my Goodreads page, but I’ll only write about the ones that actually move me – whether that’s because they move me to buy everyone I know a copy, or they move me to hurl them forcibly in to the sea.


The Olive Branch cover artSo, now we’ve cleared that up I will, in good faith, share my actual thoughts about The Olive Branch by Jo Thomas

A romantic novel is not about the destination – when the cover blurb asks will Ruthie make her rundown olive farm work and find love with her tempestuous neighbour? The answer is yes, she definitely will. We know where we’re going with a romance, what we want is a charming journey with likeable people. For me The Olive Branch is an average journey with alright people – I simply can’t feel any more for it than that.

In one scene author Jo Thomas makes the idea of kissing a man who has literally been drinking olive oil sound incredibly sexy. That’s no mean feat and she should probably get some sort of award just for that.

Not long after Ruthie arrives in Italy she meets a mafia-type who extracts money for protection from her. This seems quite sinister and looks like a potentially interesting sub-plot; it is never mentioned again.

And my final thought is an editorial one – there are many exclamation mark in this book and only one of them (used in direct speech by a character exclaiming something) actually adds anything at all to the text. If you’re ever wondering whether to use an exclamation mark, remember the words of the great F Scott Fitzgerald:

“Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”