The fun stats of blogging …

Itry not to look at my blog stats too often. Outwardly I don’t worry about rankings and the number of page views, it’s not my primary motivation for blogging. Internally, of course I’m always flattered when the blog get lots of hits and good rankings – who wouldn’t be?!  What is always fascinating though, is how people get to your blog. Some of the search terms can make you giggle…

One such search phrase was “Jumping sex”well I can work that one out.  I posted about Jilly Cooper’s Riders back in January. Lots of variations on that search lead to the same post too. Another search which included the words “Knickers Off” led back to my post about the first two volumes of Charlie Higson’s zombie series – I’d called the post Zombie Mayhem to Scare Your Pants Off. I bet that was different to what the searcher expected!

Having said I wasn’t interested in page views, I am really – but not in the way you’re thinking – I was just looking at those posts that have historically got the most visits in total.

Top of the list by far is my post after seeing the film of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. It’s a shame in a way it was the post about the film, rather than the book. It’s followed by: a post on the first graphic novel I reviewed on the blog – The Crow by James O’Barr; then An Evening with Toby Mundy a talk I went to by the boss of Atlantic Books – strange it still gets a lot of visits; and then a post entitled My Life in Comics and Magazines.

Notice how they’re all posts that are not about conventional books. The most recent of them was the Salmon Fishing one which was published this May. The others are over a year old, the Toby Mundy one was in December 2010, yet somehow they are still getting hits, and still registering in my most viewed posts. When I work out the secret I’ll let you know!

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By the way, if you’ve enjoyed these lovely drop capital graphics, they come from a site called Daily Drop Cap and are free to use in personal blogs etc.


I gave in to the hype …

The Casual Vacancyby J K Rowling

So I’ve given in to the hype and got me a cheap copy of JK’s new adult book, and it will be my weekend reading…

I see the knives are already out on Amazon with 50% of the 50+ reader reviews so far being negative.

I’m really hoping that it’ll be better than that.  It’s 500 pages though.  Fingers crossed. Report back next week.

Crime always soars in a heatwave …

The Summer of Dead Toys by Antonio Hill

translated from the Spanish by Laura McGloughlin

Inspector Héctor Salgado is a hot-blooded Argentine working in Barcelona. As the book opens, he has recently returned from enforced leave after he beat up a suspect in a Voodoo/paedophile trafficking ring.

Investigation 1231-R
Resolution Pending

Three short lines noted in black felt-tip pen on a yellow post-it note attached to a file of the same colour. So as not to see them, Superintendent Savall opened the file and looked over its contents. As if he didn’t already know them by heart. Statements. Affidavit. Medical reports. Police brutality. Photographs of that scumbag’s injuries. Photographs of that unfortunate Nigerian girls. Photographs of the flat in the Raval where they had the girls corralled. Even various newspaper cuttings, some – very few, thank God – deliberately narrating their own version of the facts, emphasizing concepts like injustice, racism and abuse of power. He slammed the file shut and looked at the clock on his desk. Ten past nine. Fifty minutes. He was moving his chair back to stretch out his legs when someone knocked on the door and opened it almost simultaneously.
‘Is he here,’ he asked.

Still suspended from active police work, Salgado’s boss asks him to unofficially look into the death of a teenager from one of Barcelona’s richest families. He quickly finds that there are many skeletons to be pulled from their closets, whilst the fallout from the Voodoo case continues.

I liked Salgado – he’s rarely called Héctor. Being an Argentine, he’s an outsider, divorced with a teenaged son and living on his own. He’s obviously a bit of a maverick, and he has vices – all good things for a fictional policeman!

I wasn’t so taken with the two policewomen working with him on the two cases though – I tended to get confused between them – they blended into each other. Salgado’s boss is unusally not a caricature either which, funnily, still makes him a little one-dimensional – but he’s only a bit player.

The book was terribly slow to get going – stifling itself in Barcelona’s heat, and then once on the move, there were twists and turns galore. A bit more pace in the early stages would have made it a more gripping read. Considering that the novel is set over just five days, the first couple seemed more than twenty-four hours long. One day I long to visit Barcelona, but its attractions barely featured in this novel which could have been set in any Mediterranean city.

I enjoyed the book enough to finish it, and would probably read another Salgado mystery, hoping for more development of character and setting in subsequent outings. (6.5/10)

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I received this book to review via the Amazon Vine programme. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Summer of Dead Toys by Antonio Hill, pub May 2012 by Doubleday, Hardback 320 pages.

A body’s life, a life’s memories

Winter Journal by Paul Auster

I’ve been an Auster-fan ever since I first read The New York Trilogy in the late 1980s, which I re-read and reviewed here a couple of years ago. Between writing his novels, Auster also writes essays and volumes of memoir.

Winter Journal is a memoir largely told through the things that have happened to his body.  In his early sixties, Auster has become preoccupied with the first signs of old age – something his 74 year old actor friend Jean-Louis Trintignant put into perspective for him when Auster was 57…

“Paul, there’s just one thing I want to to tell you.  At fifty-seven, I felt old. Now, at seventy-four, I feel much younger than I did then.” You have no idea what he is trying to tell you, but you sense it is important to him, that he is attempting to share something of vital importance with you, and for that reason you do not ask him to explain what he means. For close to seven years now, you have continued to ponder his words, and although you still don’t know quite what to make of them, there have been glimmers, tiny moments when you feel you have almost penetrated the truth of what he was saying to you. Perhaps it is something as simple as this: that a man fears death more at fifty-seven than he does at seventy-four.

Auster starts by tellling his story through the things that have happened to his  body, an inventory of its scars – the one on his cheek which he got aged three and a half caused by having such fun sliding along a shiny floor that he never saw a protruding nail in a table leg; numerous other sporting ones – but only one broken bone.

He tells us everything, not sparing the details however painful –  the panic attacks that started after his mother’s death in 2002, and the car crash later that year that could have killed him, his wife and his family – he hasn’t driven since.

The other parallel track running through this memoir is a catalogue of all the homes in which Auster has lived his life, twenty-one of them, and thinking about the memories they invoke, about his parents, his friends, his girlfriends, his first wife, his second (author Siri Hustvedt), his children, but most of all his mother, whom he obviously adored, and simultaneously wished he’d known better.

The book is written in the second person – addressing himself; it gives a real sense of intimacy to his story. We frequently pop backwards in time as he remembers new things, but the general impetus is forward towards Auster as he is now at sixty-four looking forwards to the rest of his life.

Auster is an unconventional, analytical and eloquent writer, and this unconventional memoir was a delight to read, he can look with humour at himself as well as being serious.  He is one of those writers whom I always enjoy whether in novels or other forms, regardless of the critic’s views, but I have to say this memoir was one of the very best I’ve read. (9.5/10)

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I was sent a US copy of this book by its publisher Henry Holt & Co. Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

Winter Journal Pub 6 Sept by Faber, Hardback 240 pages.
The New York Trilogy: “City of Glass”, “Ghosts” and “Locked Room” by Paul Auster

Weekend musings & Giveaway results

This week has been rather busy physically and mentally; although I’ve been reading I haven’t had been in the right mind for blogging – so a big thank you again to my friend Julia for her midweek review for me.

Yesterday I did have a bit of a break, and filled it with a spontaneous garage sale – which meant my daughter and I carrying 400+ surplus books downstairs and setting up our stall augmented with some DVDs, CDs and other bits and pieces. Then we waited anxiously (in my daughter’s case), and reading a book in the sunshine in my case, for passers by. We made 10p short of £30 which is wonderful, and I will donate £5 of that to Helen & Douglas House children’s hospice in Oxford.

I’m still sorting out more books to go, and the next sunny, dry Saturday when we’re free we’ll do it again, then the remaining books will go to the charity shop. I also still have some more interesting/collectible/out of print books for sale – see the tab above.

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Lots of interesting books have arrived at Gaskell Towers recently – it’s always a dilemma of what to read next – as I still want to reduce the TBR piles, and not just read the latest new arrivals. Here are a few of the new ones though…

  • All Quiet on the Western Front – I’m an addict to the lovely tomes from The Folio Society, and am delighted to have been offered a free book by a publicist working for them. I chose this one as I’ve wanted to read it for years.
  • The Sacrifice (The Enemy) the fourth in Charlie Higson’s wonderful zombie series for older children, which I reviewed the first two of here.
  • The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers. A supernatural story set in 1816, the year that Byron and Shelley and co had a momentous house party on the shores of Lake Geneva. The Romantic poets get caught up in an adventure with a man whose wife was murdered on their wedding night as she slept beside him. I couldn’t resist this – just the thing for autumnal nights!
  • In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner arrived yesterday from Simon & Schuster. Set in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge’s rule of terror, it tell of seven year old Raami’s fight for survival. I know this is going to be gripping and tragic to read, but I do hope Raami survives.

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And finally, I have giveaway results – Thank you to everyone who commented and entered.

Firstly, the Sophie McKenzie giveaway of Missing Me.

The winners, picked at random were:

Rosie & Rosie Herridge

A total coincidence – two Rosies!
The books will come direct from the publisher.

Now for my 4th Blog-birthday giveaway – the winners, drawn randomly again, are:

Well done to you all. As none of you expressed a preference over which of the four books on offer, I’ll send a random pick, unless you change your mind when you send me your addresses. To remind you, the books on offer were:

  • Waiting for Robert Capa by Susanna Fortes (Review)
  • On the Cold Coasts by Vilborg Davidsdottir (Review)
  • The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (Review)
  • I Have Waited, and You Have Come by Martine McDonagh (Review)

Guest review of Ash by James Herbert

A few weeks ago I accepted a copy of British horror-meister James Herbert’s new novel ‘Ash‘ to review. I loved reading Herbert when I was younger, and thought it would be really fun to revisit him.

But I haven’t had time to fit reading it in yet, so I lent it to my good friend Julia, and today I’m turning over my blog to her for a guest post. Julia is a bookseller at my fab local indie bookshop Mostly Books and she specialises in SF&F, paranormal and YA books, and is a big fan of historical novels too…

Ash by James Herbert

James Herbert was one of my favourite authors in my teenage years and I spent many sleepless nights first reading his books and then hiding under the covers from the ghosts, rats and monsters he described so well. I was very excited to hear he had written a new book and clutching my copy of Ash I rushed home to read it and was not disappointed, the long wait was worth it.

In this book we revisit David Ash, the parapsychologist from Haunted and The Ghosts of Sleath, for a third installment of hauntings and mystery. Set in the Scottish castle of Comraich, run by the mysterious Inner Circle, sinister paranormal events, which culminate in the discovery of one of it’s residents hanging from a wall severely wounded and attached only by his own congealing blood, prompt the I.C. to contact Ash and ask for his help in investigating the strange occurrences.

To read a very gory quotation, highlight the text below! It’s not nice – you have been warned…

In sheer desperation Ash pushed his free left hand into his assailants snarling, brutish face. He thrust two stiffened fingers directly into the madman’s right eye, wincing as they passed through the half-closed lids and pushed against the repugnant softness of the eyeball itself. Then beyond, his fingers slithered over the white globe until they reached the hard matter behind.
Lukovic screeched as blood gushed from the ruined eye socket, a sound amplified by the limited confines of the lift, and instinctively yanked his head backwards. But the tips of Ash’s gore-sodden fingers had curled behind the eyeball, and when Lukovic pulled his head back the eyeball popped as through sucked out and dropped against his upper cheek, held there only by thin bloody tendrils.

The castle is home to a mixed bag of people all of whom have paid a great deal of money to permanently disappear and their individual stories interwoven with the history of the old castle make for a truly spine tingling read. Royal mysteries, war criminals and insane inmates not to mention political intrigue and conspiracy theories are all included in this fantastic novel from one of the masters of horror.

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Thank you Julia. It sounds intriguing, and … um, suitably gory! Looking forward to reading it though.

This book was kindly supplied by the publisher. Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Ash by James Herbert – pub Aug 30th by Macmillan, Hardback 600 pages.
Ash – Kindle version
Haunted, The Ghosts of Sleath both by James Herbert, paperbacks.

Illustrated books and crossover editions

I bought a signed first edition of the hardback of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, which I wrote about here. After looking at some of the illustrations, I sat it in my bookcase as being almost too nice/collectible to read. The initial paperback edition is just like a slightly smaller version of the hardback but with soft covers, so I didn’t buy a copy. It was beginning to look like I wouldn’t read the book until I was willing to overcome my aversion to keeping the hardback absolutely pristine!

However,  a publicist for Walker Books recently came to my rescue, by offering me a copy of the new un-illustrated edition aimed at crossover/adult audiences, (right).

The clean look of the new edition doesn’t look like a children’s book at all, does it?   I really like its cover, and would surely be tempted, had I not got the book already. Mind you, Jim Kay’s illustration for the cover of the original edition is not particularly child-like either in this case.  I actually read the story from the new paperback, but enjoyed (carefully) looking at the illustrations afterwards.

… And it got me thinking about crossover editions; grown-up covers vs. ones for children, illustrated versions of novels vs. no pictures…

Back in 1998 this book (left) appeared on the shelves of my local bookshop at the time – an experiment by the publishers after realising that adults were reading the first Harry Potter book too.  It was displayed in the adult new books section and I never realised it was a children’s book at all. I bought it, and read it later, just as the Harry Potter phenomenon was beginning to take off. I went on to acquire the rest of the series with adult covers too. This first one was such a success, the rest were published simultaneously with adult and children’s covers as standard.

Despite loving reading fiction for children, I would not have bought the original edition (right) for myself. Before my daughter was born, I didn’t browse the children’s shelves at all, so I wouldn’t have spotted it. However I didn’t feel duped by buying a children’s book in an adult cover, accepting it as a great fun read – but after the series took off, I then wouldn’t have minded if I couldn’t get the adult cover.

Popping back to A Monster Calls for a moment … one bookshop I went into recently had the new edition in their teen section – maybe reading a book with illustrations is more infra dig for them than adults!?

Day of the triffids – Patrick Leger for the Folio Society

In general, I like illustrations in books. I collect Folio Society editions which always have beautiful plates from specially commissioned artists (e.g. left), and these pictures do enhance the reading experience, if you can bear to handle the lovely books, that is.

Many of my favourite children’s books were/are illustrated – like Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr, but few adult books have illustrations normally bar an occasional chapter heading as in the charming Don Camillo books by Giovanni Guareschi (right).

As adults, we are more often supposed to visualise the plot, setting and characters in a book for ourselves, not letting illustrations colour our imagination. Those novels that do have them tend to be lighter fare or the special editions above.  I can think of few serious novels bar Dickens that have pictures.

I realise I’ve been rambling without much real point in this post – so let me finish by asking you a couple of questions.

What do you think of crossover editions?  Do you feel duped into reading a children’s book, or pleased to find a (hopefully good) read that you wouldn’t otherwise have discovered?

Do you like a good illustration in a novel, or do they get in the way of your own picture of what’s happening?

An exceptional story for all ages…

A Monster Callsby Patrick Ness
The British writer Siobhan Dowd won the Carnegie Medal posthumously in 2009 for her last book, Bog Child.  She’d started working on another, but died of breast cancer before she had started writing. Her outline was handed to Patrick Ness, author of the acclaimed Chaos Walking trilogy and he wrote the book she didn’t have time to.  A Monster Calls went on to win the 2012 CILIP Carnegie Medal and the Kate Greenaway Award for its illustrator Jim Kay – the first time a book has achieved both.

The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.
Conor was awake when it came.
He’d had a nightmare. Well not a nightmare. The nightmare. The one he’d been having a lot lately. The one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming. The one with the hands slipping from his grasp, no matter how hard he tried to hold on. The one that always ended with-
“Go away,” Conor whispered into the darkness of his bedroom, trying to push the nightmare back, not let it follow him into the world of waking. “Go away now.”
He glanced over at the clock his mum had put on his bedside table.12.7. Seven minutes past midnight. Which was late for a school night, late for a Sunday, certainly.
He’d told no one about the nightmare. Not his mum, obviously, but no one else either, not his dad in their fortnightly (or so) phone call, definitely not his grandma, and no one at school. Absolutely not.
Whatever happened in the nightmare was something no one else ever needed to know.
Conor blinked groggily at his room, then he frowned. There was something he was missing. He sat up in his bed, waking a bit more. The nightmare was slipping from him, but there was something he couldn’t put his finger on, something different, something-
He listened, straining against the silence, but all he could hear was the occasional tick from the empty downstairs or a rustle of bedding from his mum’s room next door.
And then something. Something he realized was the thing that had woken him.
Someone was calling his name.

Conor is thirteen.  He’s alone and doesn’t know what to do. His mum has cancer, and the treatments don’t seem to be working any more. His dad has a new family across the pond; his grandma is too un-grandma-ish; and he’s being bullied at school. It’s no surprise he is confused and angry with life and has nightmares.

When the monster comes for him, he is unfazed by it’s appearance, but scared at its purpose. This personification of earth magic wants to tell him stories, to show him that life isn’t black and white, that good things can come from bad. It wants him to acknowledge the truth.

This is a beautiful book. The original illustrated edition has the brooding monochrome drawings by Jim Kay which are so evocative of the elemental tree man monster and Conor’s dilemma.

It is a simple story, gut-wrenching, yet in its way, heart-warming in its bravery, with a young protagonist that is entirely believable and in desperate need of help. Ness has taken Dowd’s idea and run with it to create an exceptional novel that can resonate with all ages, and especially with anyone who’s ever lost someone close to them.

By its inevitable end I was blubbering like a baby, remembering my own mum who died from breast cancer a couple of years ago. It felt good to cry. This book helped. (10/10)

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I bought my original illustrated copy, and the publisher, Walker Books, kindly sent me the new edition – thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

A Monster Calls: Illustrated Paperbackby Patrick Ness
A Monster Calls (non illustrated)by Patrick Ness
Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd

Four candles? No, fork’andles. ‘Andles for forks!

For anyone in the world who doesn’t know what I’m going on about, I suggest you pop over here and watch this sketch by the Two Ronnies, which is one of the funniest things ever, (and Wikipedia explains the whole thing further).

There’s a whole industry of tribute merchandise that has grown up around the Four Candles sketch. Loads of T-shirts … but also candles.

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Why the four candles? Well Gaskella is four today!

Thank you to everyone who has ever visited, returned, subscribed, linked, commented on, or just passed through my blog. I do hope to see you all again.

Meanwhile help me celebrate with another GIVEAWAY!  I’ve saved up four of the books I’ve read and enjoyed this year but don’t have space to store, to give to you. They’re all in near new condition – just a little edge scuffing, no spine creases. It’s open world-wide, but outside Europe, mailing will be by surface. Pick which book you’d like to win, or go for a random draw. You have until tea-time on Friday 21st to enter.

Just tell me the best book you’ve read this year, that I’ve not read. You might want to check on my 2012 Reading List and Titles Index, both tabbed at the top of the page.  So, here are the books on offer, with links to my reviews…

  • Waiting for Robert Capa by Susanna Fortes (Review)
  • On the Cold Coasts by Vilborg Davidsdottir (Review)
  • The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (Review)
  • I Have Waited, and You Have Come by Martine McDonagh (Review)

Good luck!

The remote effects of war …

The Coveby Ron Rash.

The fighting of WWI may be happening on the battlefields of Europe, but that doesn’t mean that remote communities in America don’t feel a ripple of its effects too…

Young men who volunteered are returning home maimed – Hank Shelton lost a hand, and he’s doing his best to renovate the family farm with his sister Laurel. The farm is in a gloomy cove, a hard area in which to prosper, and believed to be cursed. The Sheltons live there quietly which suits Laurel – trips to town are often a trial for her, the superstitious locals taking her birthmark for the sign of a witch.

She watched Hank walk up the boardwalk. He paused to shake hands with Marvin Alexander and was greeted with a nod and smile by a passing couple. In those two years they’d been in school together, it had been hard for both of them but worse for Laurel because of the birthmark. Yet she and Hank had never allowed any difference. At school, he’d fight boys older and bigger because of remarks just aimed at Laurel. Once something started, she’d done the same for him, clawing and biting anyone who took on Hank. Then Ellie Anthony, who sat near them, came down with polio. Her parents claimed Laurel and Hank the cause. Other parents vowed to keep their children out of school until Laurel and Hank were gone.
On trips to town after that, they’d been treated even worse. Besides the snubs and glares they’d grown used to, some people spat as she and Hank went by. A man threatened to horsewhip Slidell if he kept bringing them to town and one Saturday she and Hank had been hit by rotten eggs. Bad as it was, they’d at least endured it together, but since Hank’s return from Europe, most of the meanness had been directed only at Laurel. More than a hand had been left behind in Europe, people seemed to believe.

One day a stranger arrives from the woods, Laurel finds him in a clearing, having heard flute music wafting through the air. Walter doesn’t talk, he has few posessions, but agrees to help Hank on the farm for a while, and Laurel is attracted to this strong, mute musician. You just know it will end in tragedy when Walter’s story is revealed…

Interspersed between the chapters of the Shelton’s lives, are episodes featuring Sgt Chauncey Feith who runs the Army Recruitment Office in the town and is always perfectly attired in his uniform. He is also somewhat looked down upon by many townsfolk, because he has never gone to war he trains cadets hoping they’ll enlist when they’re old enough. He is obsessed with rooting out un-American activities and anything German, and is busy organising a home-coming for another injured GI, and he will have his part to play in the ensuing events.

Ron Rash has written a novel that is quietly devastating. Although Laurel’s life begins to look up, life in the cove always teeters on a knife-edge. It may be gloomy, but there are places the sun can reach. Rash uses these to create passages of lyrical fresh air, before the text has to get down to hard work again. He captures the strong bond and sibling tensions perfectly between Hank and Laurel who are young for farmers. It is left to their kindly neighbour Slidell to give some fatherly guidance, shame that the townsfolk don’t feel the same way.

The Cove is one of those novels in which not a lot appears to happen, but you’re drawn in by the wonderfully descriptive writing of the characters and their hard lives – and then you realise that lots has happened. (9/10)

I chose this book based on the cover quote from Daniel Woodrell, author of the fine backwoods novel Winter’s Bone. His recommendation was spot-on and Ron Rash is an author I will definitely explore further.

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I chose my book to review from a selection from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Coveby Ron Rash. Pub March 2012 by Canongate. Hardback 272 pages.
Winter’s Boneby Daniel Woodrell