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.

My TBR

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.

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.

 

My TBR

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.

 

A LITTLE REWARD FOR A LIFE WELL LIVED. FOR I CAN SEE THE BALANCE AND YOU HAVE LEFT THE WORLD MUCH BETTER THAN YOU FOUND IT, AND IF YOU ASK ME, said Death, NOBODY COULD DO ANY BETTER THAN THAT . . .

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.