Fiction Uncovered

fiction uncovered logoTwo trips into London in one week (see here for the other), is going out a lot for me! I wouldn’t have missed last nights Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize at the Jerwood Space in Southwark for the world. Many thanks to the enterprising Simon Savidge, (I’m calling him that as he loves projects) who was not only one of this year’s judges, but was able to invite a group of fellow bloggers. So I caught up with Kim and David, but finally got to meet Simon’s OH ‘The Beard’, Eric, Rob and KateNaomi and Nina. Rob & Kate, Naomi and David have all been guest columnists on the Fiction Uncovered blog too – it was great company.

But the evening was really about the books and their authors. The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize is five years old this year, and is the only prize to solely award British writers, celebrating great British fiction. There were 15 novels longlisted and the prize-money was spread between eight of them, each receiving £5k plus a handbound edition of their book thanks to the generosity of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, and the winners were:

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L-R: Bethan Roberts, Carys Davies, Jo Mazelis, Grace McCleen, Lavie Tidhar, Susan Barker, Emma Jane Unsworth, David Whitehouse. Photo: A Gaskell

  • The Incarnations – Susan Barker (Transworld)
  • The Redemption of Galen Pike – Carys Davies (Salt)
  • The Offering – Grace McCleen (Sceptre)
  • Significance – Jo Mazelis (Seren Books)
  • Mother Island – Bethan Roberts (Chatto & Windus)
  • A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth (Canongate Books)
  • Mobile Library – David Whitehouse (Picador)
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Bethan Roberts with the judges L-R: India Knight, Matthew Bates, Bethan, Cathy Galvin and Simon. Photo: A Gaskell

A special mention from me must go to Bethan Roberts, who comes from Abingdon where I live and has many a fan in the local literary community. I reviewed Mother Island for Shiny New Books and interviewed her about it here. I was so delighted for her to be ‘Jerwooded’.

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View east down Union St, Southwark. Photo: A Gaskell

It was also lovely to meet Emma Jane Unsworth and her wonderful mum!  I’m so looking forward to reading Animals now.

What a fabulous evening – and a glorious sunset was just beginning to envelop the Shard as I left just after 8.30pm to go home.

 

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The first in a long line of crime novels

Naked in Death by J.D.Robb

naked in deathLast week, Victoria over at Tales from the Reading Room wrote a post about Obsession in Death, the latest in J.D.Robb’s long-running crime series featuring detective Eve Dallas. In fact, it turns out that Obsession in Death is the fiftieth in the series! I knew that I had the first novel in the sequence somewhere on my shelves, and felt compelled to dig it out and see how Dallas began…

As Victoria said, Robb/Roberts is known for her philanthropy which is lovely. She is also known for being a writing machine, producing countless novels each year, romances as Roberts, crime as Robb. Naked in Death was published in 1995 – the first of fifty, so that’s two or three per year of this series alone.

Eve Dallas is thirty. She’s a Lieutenant in the NYPSD (the ‘S’ is for Security). At the start of the novel she is called out to a murder – it turns out to be the grand-daughter of a senator who is running for his party nomination on a ‘moral’ ticket. His grand-daughter in one of those f***-you type career choices has been working as a ‘licenced companion’ – a prostitute. The scene is grisly – she was killed with 3 bullets from a hand-gun. There’s a note under the body saying 1 of 6.

Naturally, the senator is all over the department wanting to keep things closed down, but Dallas knows there may be more deaths – and there will be.  The killer seems to be expert at bypassing security systems and leaving no trace, but in true psychopath style he sends Dallas videos.

One of the immediate suspects is Roarke, an Irishman. He’s a tycoon, he owns the building she was killed in, he collects guns – which are now antiques. He has to be a suspect – if only he wasn’t so sexy – because you just know that Dallas and him will end up in the sack for some truly purple prose – lancing spears and all that!

Enough of the plot, for it was entirely predictable, I guessed whodunnit halfway in, but the pieces didn’t fall into place until later.

You don’t really read series like this for the crimes. They’re incidental, you read them for the characters. You hope for some development – and reading between the lines in Victoria’s review I can surmise that apart from Dallas and Roarke ending up married, that little has changed in fifty books. However: Naked is set in 2058; Obsession is set in 2060. So these fifty books move forward just two years.  My – that’s a full case-book of murders for anyone!

Note that near-future timeline. In 2058, guns have been outlawed, become collectors items only. Prostitutes have become legal, licenced. Various gadgets make modern life easier, but as far as I could see offer no improvements in quality of life. None but the rich can afford real coffee. Roarke is planning a space resort – so Richard Branson may continue to dream on. Yet, it’s all too familiar – in a way it’s not futuristic enough in its detail. Apart from the guns, there seemed no need to set it in the future, and even now there are collectors of old firearms – the perp could have used contemporary collectibles.

What of Dallas and Roarke? Well she is of course a feisty superwoman, and Roarke may as well be a superman, not so much Clarke Kent, but Bruce Wayne – his money can buy him anything.  Dallas is damaged goods, abused as a child – holding it all in ever since. Roarke is a chancer who hit lucky and made enough money to go legit.  She is a good policewoman with the appropriate contempt for authority and is not afraid to bend the rules. He is just sickening – too handsome, too rich, too lovey, too much!

So there we have it. Naked in Death combines crime with a steamy romance.  I liked the crime part, and squirmed a bit with the romance. As a whole, I enjoyed reading Naked in Death in exactly the same way as I enjoyed reading The Da Vinci Code. With no expectations, it was very easy to read throwaway grisly fun. (5.5/10)

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Source: Own copy.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):
Naked In Death: 1Glory In Death: 2 etc by J.D. Robb. Piatkus paperbacks, around 400 pages.

 

 

An evening with Bethan Roberts

It was off to my favourite place in Abingdon (Mostly Books, where else!) on Thursday for an evening with one of the town’s favourite authors – Bethan Roberts. Born and bred in Abingdon, it was Bethan’s third visit to the bookshop, and for those of us who’ve been to see her talk each time, it’s like meeting an old friend – she remembers everyone. There was also a good turn-out from her friends and family, so it’s always a bit of a homecoming for Bethan, who now lives in Brighton.

mother islandThis time she was here to talk about her fourth novel, the newly published Mother Island. (I will be reviewing it for Shiny New Books in our mid-August inbetweeny issue, together with an extended interview.) Bethan’s third novel My Policeman, featuring a love triangle in 1950s Brighton was stunningly good, making me weep towards the end and was my ‘best three hankie book’ of 2012, (my review here) so I had really looking forward to her latest.

In introducing Mother Island, Bethan gave us her sales pitch: She said she had nailed a basic description of the book early on – ‘It’s about a nanny who steals a child!’ – so if you like psychological thrillers – this book is for you. It’s also about Anglesey, where her dad grew up, a beautiful, mysterious and difficult place – so if you like scenery and bridges – this book is for you. It’s also about motherhood and post-natal depression, art and life-drawing – so if you like reading about any of them – this book is for you. She admitted she felt uneasy about the thrillerish nature of the basic premise, as the novel is about so much more than this.

Maggie is Nula’s cousin, and nanny to toddler Samuel. But there is history between the two women, going back to when Maggie was a teenager, living in Anglesey and Nula and her father came to stay for the summer. I won’t say more for now…

20140731_194657_resizedBethan read to us from the prologue, in which Maggie actually abducts the little boy, followed by conversation with shop-owner Mark and questions from the audience. Mark asked if Bethan was worried about the book being marketed as psycho-nanny, and what did Bethan’s childminder think of it?  Bethan had been worried, but her part-time nanny had read the book and was OK with it – phew!

They also discussed Bethan’s move of publisher from Serpent’s Tail to Chatto & Windus for My Policeman. Bethan said that Serpent’s Tail had been, and still are, wonderful for her first two novels, but their editing process was short, and she felt that to improve as a writer a more involving and longer process with her publisher would be better, Chatto’s goes round several times. With Mother Island, she had started with Nula, knowing that Maggie would be a big part – but it became Maggie’s book in the edit.

20140731_203916_resizedThe inspiration for the book came from Bethan wanting to write about Anglesey. Originally she’d thought of a turn of the century setting, but being a new mother didn’t have time for the research – so she turned to her own life for the first time, and memories of many happy holidays there. (Incidentally, the boathouse in the novel does exist – it was a ruin, but has now been chi-chied up and was for sale at nearly 500k!). She particularly wanted to write a novel about motherhood and bringing up young children too – there aren’t many that show how difficult it can be.

Mother Island was a fantastic and involving novel to read – I highly recommend it. Bethan is lovely and I wish her every success. See you next time!

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Mother Islandby Bethan Roberts. Pub July 2014 by Chatto & Windus, Hardback, 320 pages.
My Policeman by Bethan Roberts, paperback.

Thoughts on my header photo

I’ve been mostly writing reviews for Shiny New Books this week after finishing Frog Music, but wanted to write something on the blog for the weekend…

My eye caught my header photo which when taken a few years ago, I compiled a shelf of favourite reads over the years, mostly those getting a full five stars from me. I’ve read a lot of wonderful books since, but I still think the row above represents a fair selection of the wide range of novels that I like to read, so I’ll probably leave it for now. I haven’t reviewed all of them on this blog, but quite a few do feature, so I thought I’d revisit my old posts on books above. So from left to right and in alphabetical order of their authors too…

death of grassDouble Indemnity by James M Cain. 136 pages of classic noir with a crooked insurance agent, a femme fatale and a husband to murder.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher. The 1956 breakthrough novel from the creator of The Tripods.

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey. It was reading one of the original cowboy novels from 1912 that cemented my love of literary westerns.

SpyMy Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time by Liz Jensen. Jensen is one of those authors who writes entirely different novels every time. This steampunky time travel love story is the funniest thing I’ve read by her so far. A real hoot.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John Le Carre. Possibly my favourite spy novel ever. It feels so authentic, and Alec Leamas is Richard Burton.

peyton placeLet the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Simply the best vampire novel there is (and possibly the goriest too – you have been warned).

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious. This epic novel set the benchmark for every soap opera and small town drama that followed. Beautifully written.

True Grit by Charles Portis. Forget the film, read the book.

The Shipping News - 1st UK paperbackThe Shipping News by Annie Proulx. This novel is still up there in my top ten, love it to bits.

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve. Written for teens, but a wonderful read for any age, Reeve’s novel puts a different ‘spin’ on Merlin and Arthurian legend.

Blood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick. It’s hard to believe that this fictionalised biography of Arthur Ransome’s time in Russia was written for teens, it’s that good. Sedgwick is my favourite YA author without a doubt.

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. In just 193 pages, you get a slice of how hard life is for a poor family in the Ozark mountains when Ree has to go searching for her pa. The film is also wonderful.

It’s a shame that favourites like Flowers for Algernon and Ray Robinson’s wonderful debut Electricity were books I read just before I started blogging. Perhaps I should revisit them and review them now. It also reminds me that it’s ages since I read a Christopher Brookmyre book.

Having done this, it’s got me thinking of course!
I may just have to start searching out a new set of more recent great reads for my header photo now.
What do you think?

A Trio of Short Reviews

I thought I’d sneak a couple of short book reviews into that week between Christmas and New Year.  Too bloated with turkey, booze and chocolate to concentrate on reading, I often find I’m scouring the web at this time for stuff to read and do!

The Last Kings of Sark by Rosa Rankin-Gee

last kings of sarkThis is the story of new graduate Jude, who is engaged to be a tutor during the summer to Pip, a sixteen year old boy and Sofi, a young Polish cook from Ealing. The action takes place initially on the island of Sark (one of the smaller Channel Islands between England and France).

It’s an odd household. Eddy, Pip’s father, is often absent, away on business. Esmé, Pip’s French mother, mostly stays upstairs and never appears to eat anything. Pip doesn’t want a tutor, but it is to prepare him for school on the mainland for the sixth form. Sofi, meanwhile is full of life, and not a very good cook!  When Eddy goes away on an extended trip, the three drop lessons and get a life. Needless to say summer doesn’t last forever and the trio have to part after an extended farewell. The last part of the novel looks back several years later at where the three of them are now, and how they wish they could rekindle that summer.

This was a beautifully crafted novel, but not enough happened in it for me. Narrated by the quieter Jude, Sofi dominates the story and her weird little flashes of insight can’t make up for her limited ambitions and love of partying. Pip is underdrawn, and I couldn’t bond with Jude either, and wanted to know why Esmé was so reclusive. This could have been brilliant, but was rather so-so for me. (6/10, review copy)

The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah

orphan choirThis was another novel I really wanted to love – Sophie Hannah turning her hand to a short horror novel in Hammer’s new imprint.

Set in and around Cambridge and Hannah’s invented Spilling, The Orphan Choir concerns Louise Beeston, a woman who is slowly being driven mad on all sides (we think): by her neighbour’s late night parties that always end with the same Queen song played at loud volume; by her husband who wants to get their expensive house sandblasted, which will mean covering the windows and living in the dark for weeks; by Dr Freeman, the choirmaster of the boarding school where her seven year old son is a chorister – Joseph has to board, and he is taking him away from her; and the voices of children singing! She finds escape, persuading her husband to buy them a second home in a gated community near Spilling, but after an idyllic start the voices start again. Is she going mad?

While I could understand Louise’s problems, especially with her son having to board at only seven years old, I didn’t like her at all. The first half of this quite short book went on for so long with the spat between Louise and her noisy neighbour, I got a bit fed up with it, then the second half rushed by, getting twistier and twistier in Hannah’s trademark style, and I reached the end thinking what just happened?  However, Hannah is always readable, and her twisty plots are something else – I look forward to her next horror outing, but this one missed being a hit for me. (6.5/10, own copy)

Dr Who: Last of the Gadarene by Mark Gatiss

bbc-book-50th-3I love all Mark Gatiss’ TV work, but I’ve not read one of his novels before. This Dr Who one, reissued as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations probably wasn’t the best place to start, I should have tried one of his Lucifer Box novels perhaps?

This novel features the third incarnation of Dr Who, as played by Jon Pertwee together with his assistant Jo Grant. The Dr was Earth-bound at this stage of Who-history and worked for UNIT, investigating supernatural phenomena.  Set in a disused RAF base in East Anglia, which is taken over by a secretive organisation. Local villagers go missing, only to return grinning inanely, having been taken over by the Gadarene who are invading Earth as their own planet is dying.

It may have had a classic plot, but there were quite a few boring bits in this novel, and the Doctor didn’t appear until over a quarter of the way in. I didn’t quite warm to Gatiss’ style of writing here either – a little overdone in places, and quite adverby. Basically though, I’m not a fan of the third doctor – his outfit, cape and yellow vintage car (Bessie) wasn’t my cup of tea, even if the Maggots (remember them?) scared me stiff (though not as much as the Yeti).  (6/10, own copy)

Sorry to end my book reviewing of the year with several books that didn’t quite make the grade for me – but you may think differently!

I will be back in a day or two with my BOOKS OF THE YEAR post.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Last Kings of Sark by Rosa Rankin-Gee. Pub Virago Nov 2013. Hardback 288 pages.
The Orphan Choir (Hammer) by Sophie Hannah. Pub Hammer Oct 2013. Hardback 336 pages
Doctor Who: Last of the Gaderene: 50th Anniversary Edition (Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Collection) by Mark Gatiss, pub 2000, BBC paperback 320 pages.

Ten Books that Represent Great Britain

A couple of days ago, Simon at Savidge Reads and Thomas at My Porch created a new meme (Yes Simon, I know you didn’t want to call it a meme, but it is one – a nice one!). The challenge is to pick ten books that sum up your own country geographically but authors from that country. Simon has also made his post WWII in its scope – so a state of the nation picture as well.

I couldn’t resist the challenge. I have also kept it current in scope, and all books I’ve written about on this blog. The one bit I couldn’t do, and apologies to the land of my mother’s birth, but I have had to make it a Great Britain list (i.e. England, Wales and Scotland) rather than UK, as I couldn’t find a book to include for Northern Ireland. So here goes (all the links are to my reviews):

Firstly London and the Home Counties:

balthazar jones1. Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo by Julia Stuart.

This novel represents heritage and London Transport. Heritage through the titular Balthazar Jones being a Beefeater at the Tower, put in charge of the Queen’s Royal Menagerie, and LT through his wife Hebe working in the Underground’s lost property office where all of human life can be found. It sounds as though it should be an historical novel, but it was a lovely surprise to find that it was modern.  Charming and touching in equal measure, with some lovely comic moments.

rivers of london2. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

This novel represents rivers and my birthplace. The first in a series of paranormal police procedurals, there is a rich vein of fun running through this book – which leads to the raiding of a vampires’ nest in Purley (my birthplace), but you’ll never look at Covent Garden or Bloomsbury in the same way after reading it either.  The great rivers being personified by modern day Gods and Goddesses adds a more serious mythological flow to the narrative.  Hugely imaginative, there are now four books in the series. (Note to self – get reading them!).

mr loverman3. Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

This pick is all about diversity.  At its heart is Barrington Walker, a sharp-suited seventy-four year old who emigrated to Hackney from Antigua in the 1960s.  Barry has a big secret, since his childhood his friend Morris has been his lover.  Barry’s wife Carmel, thinks he’s a philandering womaniser, whereas Morris is urging him to finally do right by him.  Add two contrary daughters to the mix and you have a richly bittersweet and hilarious family drama. I loved every page of this book.

Moving northwards to the Midlands

200px-TheSecretDiaryOfAdrianMole4. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend

Adrian Mole is one of the funniest characters ever written. A product of working class folk in the Midlands, he is pompous in his unshakeable belief that he could be a great writer, but loveable too.  His eight volumes of diaries take him from his early teens through to forty, chronicling the decades from the 1980s into the noughties with superb wit.

Now moving north and east to Yorkshire …

gods own5. God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin

The North York Moors come to life in this story of a young man and his dog. Stuck working on the farm and virtually ignored by his parents, teenager Sam wanders the Moors. Then a family of incomers move into the area and he falls for their daughter. Rich in nature and landscape, and enhanced with a smattering of Yorkshire dialect, this novel was a fine debut and Raisin was picked as one of Granta’s latest Young British Writers under 40.

Going west …

mills all quiet6. All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills

Set in the Lake District during off-season, Mills’s hilarious novel encapsulates the plight of the outsider trying to fit into a community, when a plucky tourist stays on after his holiday looking for work.  The book also highlights that it’s always a long way round lakes by road, especially by milk float. All of Mills’s novels are primarily about men and their work, and this one – his second – is still his best.

We now hop over the border into Scotland …

stonemouth7. Stonemouth by Iain Banks

I would have included Banks’s The Crow Road, but haven’t read it during the life of my blog – so Stonemouth represents his writing instead. A Scottish seaside town is the setting for the funeral of the grandfather of the Murston clan, one of Stonemouth’s two ruling families. Stewart Gilmour is returning under a truce for it five years after they ran him out of town. Will he survive the long weekend? Will he see Ellie again? Cracking dialogue, punchy action, and some beautiful writing make this a fabulous read.

hamish mcbeath 18. Death of a Gossip by M C Beaton

Completely opposite in style to Iain Banks’s characters is Hamish Macbeth – the canny police constable that would like an easy life on Scotland’s scenic west coast.  Beaton is the current queen of the cosy mystery and the combination of the beautiful location, fun characters, and Hamish’s laid-back style of investigation all combine to make murder seem almost nothing to worry about! Personally I much prefer Hamish to her other long series featuring Agatha Raisin. The first two in the series were fun – I have another 25 to go!

Then down we go into Wales …

mab1

9. White Ravens by Owen Sheers

Representing farming and the food cycle, this short novel is a retelling of the story of Branwen, daughter of Llyr, from the second branch of the Mabinogion – a set of medieval Welsh stories of Celtic origin.  The beginning is set on a farm beset with foot and mouth. The farming brothers go out stealing lambs to supply fancy restaurants in London, and their sister Rhi has to drive the van one day. At the Tower of London (there again!) she meets an old man who tells her a story of raven chicks, and an act of revenge of savage butchery. Grim but gripping with Sheers’ powerful writing.

And finally we join the dots, with a 627 mile journey from Devon to Northumbria…

harold fry10. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

A road novel with a difference. Retired Harold Fry sets out to post a letter to an old friend who he’s discovered is dying of cancer, but decides he’ll deliver it himself. Only problem – he’s in Devon and Queenie is in Berwick-upon-Tweed up by the Scottish border.  On his journey, Harold meets some wonderful people, gets to appreciate nature along the way, and finds himself becoming a celebrity and being taken advantage of. We also learn about Harold’s life, how he and his wife Maureen have ended up in a rut; It’s a tear-jerking page-turner that just manages to stay the right side of sentimentality.

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So that’s my ten books touring around Great Britain.  Having limited myself to those I’ve written about on my blog and British authors, I wasn’t able to include East Anglia, or the great northern conurbations of Manchester and Liverpool.  I would have liked to include a university novel for Oxford and Cambridge too, but couldn’t squeeze one in. Likewise, Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark with their northern and London novels which mostly weren’t quite contemporary enough.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my tour.  Feel free to have a go yourself and link back to Simon and Thomas.

Who’s your Doctor?

Doctor Who: Dreams of Empire by Justin Richards

We will get to the book eventually, but first I want to talk about Doctor Who a bit.

Royal Mail - Dr Who Stamps Booklet

Things are hotting up for the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who, and the memorabilia stakes are high. The Royal Mail have issued a set of eleven stamps with the eleven Doctors, a Monsters Minisheet, plus first class stamp booklets now (until stocks run out). I’ve bought one of each, plus a set of postcards of all the stamps – I’m such a geek!

Patrick Troughton - the 2nd Dr WhoBut then I have grown up with Doctor Who.  I was too little to really appreciate William Hartnell, the first Doctor, but I can remember it being on the telly as my parents watched it.  The first Doctor I actively watched was the second doctor – played by Patrick Troughton from 1966-69, whose persona of the Chaplinesque recorder-playing ‘cosmic hobo’ makes him My Doctor.

There are two serials (most early Who stories had 4 or 6 half-hour episodes) featuring Troughton that have remained imprinted in my memory since childhood – The Underwater Menace, and The Web of Fear.  Tragically, neither of these serials remains complete in the archives – episodes having been lost or wiped.

The Underwater Menace is set in an underwater city in which dwell the survivors of Atlantis. There was a horrifying scene in which the Doctor’s companion Polly, was going to be taken for conversion into a fish-person. Naturally she escapes, but as a not-quite seven year old, this scared me half to death – I couldn’t imagine a worse fate than being made into a giant pilchard – and I’ve never eaten that fish!

A Yeti - Dr Who - The Web of Fear (1968)The Web of Fear from 1968 however introduced another foe – The Yeti.  The costumes are laughable by today’s standards (the eyes glowed red), but the combination of Yeti and London Underground made me scared stiff of going on the old red tube trains (the newer silver ones were safe!) on trips up to London for several years. I was petrified.

Of course, part of the premise of Doctor Who has always been for the monsters to scare young children witless!  My daughter, now 12, is just about getting over her fear of the Weeping Angels from the current incarnation.

Finally, this brings me to a book.

There have been loads of Doctor Who adventures written, and as part of the 50th Anniversary celebrations, BBC books have chosen eleven books – one for each doctor, to re-publish in an Anniversary livery.  There are some well-known authors – Mark Gatiss, Ben Aaronovitch for instance, on the list but I opted for the novel chosen for the second doctor, by Justin Richards who is new to me.

50 Anniversary cover

Original cover

Dreams of Empire was first published in 1998 (right).  It’s slightly unusual for Doctor Who in that there are no monsters; instead it’s a novel of politics, that takes its inspiration from the Roman triumvirate of Caesar, Crassus and Pompey, and a power-play staged as a game of chess.

The Haddron Empire is being torn apart by civil war. The one man, Hans Kesar, who might be able to unite the factions is held in a cell on the prison fortress of Santespri, sited on an asteroid.  Kesar is one of three Consuls, and had been imprisoned following impeachment after his habit of going it alone resulted in the loss of the Republic’s fifth legion of robot warriors.

Two sets of visitors arrive on the barren rock. The first, unannounced, dematerialising in the depths of the castle, is the Doctor with his companions Jamie and Victoria; the second, official, is another of the triumvirate, Consul Milton Trayx come to visit Kesar. Trayx is an honorable man, and it has become clear to him that the other Consul Mathesohn is trying to outmanoeuvre them to reinstate the Empire under his control.

So the Doctor arrives into this tense political situation, and after some cat and mouse games with the guards, is finally captured having entered Kesar’s cell, where he is playing chess with Cruger, Kesar’s second in command.  Of course, he soon proves that he is no threat, and will prove useful to Trayx.

Eventually there will be a battle on the asteroid when the lost fifth legion of robot soldiers arrives to either kill or free Kesar (we’re not sure which), but before the shoot-out there is much politicking, a little espionage, and a lot of chess.

I’m not a chess expert, but after the chapter in which we were introduced to ‘The Knight’s Tour’ it became clear that the Doctor is the white knight.  For he arrives, goes everywhere, get’s his fingers into everything, then arrives back at the beginning, whereupon he leaves!

knights tour (from Mathworld)

The Knight’s Tour is a chess problem in which you have to move the knight around the board in legal moves, never landing on the same square twice, except for returning to the starting position in a ‘closed tour’ comprising 64 moves. There are hundreds of thousands of different possibilities apparently.

This was, like a chess game, a complexly plotted novel in which not enough really happens. There was, however, more than enough blood and gore. This, and its complicated nature definitely make it a novel for older teens and adults,  people rarely die nastily on the TV.

I thought that the author captured the personality of the second Doctor rather well.  He was slightly batty, yet obviously learned, keen to educate the boorish Jamie and to protect Victoria, never letting on how much he knows – or doesn’t know, playing his recorder to give him thinking time.  He can also be a clown, and there is a running gag involving sandwiches.

It did lack real villains of substance though and there was too much politicking and not enough of the Doctor himself ironicall. It all seemed quite familiar somehow too  – I’ve watched too much Doctor Who and Star Trek over the years.  So, this is not the novel in this series to start with – unless the 2nd Doctor is ‘your doctor’ and you like chess.  However, I will happily read a couple more …

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Doctor Who: Dreams of Empire by Justin Richards, BBC Books paperback.

Rewarding YA reading for Grown-ups! Let me persuade you…

I’m in my early fifties prime (!) and I’m not afraid to say that I love reading modern YA books now and then … but only good ones, naturally.  By using the term ‘YA’ here, I’m distinguishing them from those books we usually call ‘children’s classics’ (which still appeal to readers young and old alike).  I’m concentrating on contemporary novels specifically aimed at older children/teenaged readers, usually 12+.

I passionately believe that the very best of modern YA writing can be as good as books for grown-ups, and equal to that of the children’s classics that we remember from our youth.  Many remain to be converted to this way of thinking, so I’d like to explain a bit, maybe encourage you as a grown-up to give a YA book a go, and offer a few suggestions for reading.

There’s an incentive if you make it all the way to the end of this post.  You may disagree with me too, and I don’t mind that at all. We each find our way to the things we like to read, but I’m trying to encourage an open attitude to at least try reading something different.  I will, however, be the first to admit that as an adult reader of a YA novel you do have to be a bit more picky …

That black cover!

One barrier is making your way past all the formulaic black covers of all the ‘Twi-likes’.  The paranormal romance genre has been the big marketing success of recent years in teen fiction, spawning werewolves, witches, angels – stories featuring all kinds of undead following in the vampires’ wake, (paralleled to a lesser extent by zombie mayhem aimed at boys).  Twilight wasn’t the first teen vampire novel by a long shot – L H Smith’s The Vampire Diaries were there way before for instance, but it was Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (my review here) that became the publishing phenomenon and really kick-started the whole shebang.  I’ve read a good variety of these paranormal high school romances; more than enough to know that although they can be enjoyable fun, they are for teenagers.  As an adult reader, I don’t need to read any more of them, even the rest of the Twilight series, (I have watched all the films though).

Now we’ve got that out of the way …

What are the differences between adult and YA literature?  

Well, they share the three major common elements of plot, character and writing style of all novels.  Many adults tend to favour writing style to dominate over plot or character – a debate that was the subject of a great post a while ago at Stuck in a book. What use is a great character or story if you can’t get into reading it after all.  Well, the same is true of YA books too,  but the balance between the three elements is often different.  I realise that by necessity I’m having to generalise here, but using my daughter’s reading experiences too, so go with me if you can …

Writing style in literature for younger readers does tend to be more direct.  Authors have to take great care with their language,  not using bad language unnecessarily, but keeping it appropriate to their audience.  Difficult subjects such as sex, drugs, alienation and all the good and bad bits of growing up – all these emotive issues need to be tackled with tact and sensitivity, again appropriate to their audience.  Sometimes I wish more adult books would moderate their language a bit – you can get fed up of too many profanities and graphic sex scenes.

What would a novel be without strong characters?  Pretty uninvolving, I think.  The only difference here is that the main protagonists in YA books tend to be younger, older teens themselves – an age their main readers can identify with.  This shouldn’t be a problem for the adult reader either.  There are so many adult novels with child or teen lead characters – the ‘coming of age’ novel in particular being its own sub-genre (see some of my reviews of these here.)  YA characters can, however, can often be defined by their actions, rather than their thoughts.

Plot though, does tend to come more highly up the scale for teens.  Younger readers need action.  They need things to happen all of the time – they can’t cope with pages of descriptive atmosphere or scene-setting.  This can sometimes make a YA novel seem rather relentless, you wish for a break.  The clever YA author will build in descriptive elements throughout whilst keeping a cracking plot going and coming up for breath now and then.  As we progress up the age scale, the action-quotient typically decreases a little to let the setting speak, and allow characters to pause for thought more too.

So, are you willing to have a go yet?  If yes, what could you read?

For starters, you won’t go far wrong if you pick one of the books that have been awarded the Carnegie Medal – an annual prize in the UK made to a writer of outstanding fiction for children. The medal is awarded by CILIP: the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals.  Admittedly, many of these winning books are for older children rather than teens – but they’re all great books.

The real King Arthur ...My favourite Carnegie winner from 2008 is Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve.  It is a very different and brilliant take on Arthurian Legend with Merlin as a spin doctor.

I’m also a big fan of Patrick Ness, who won in 2012 with A Monster Calls (and 2011). It’s a simple story of a boy whose mother is dying of cancer, who can’t accept what’s happening, and a monster comes to help him through. As our book group found, this one wasn’t universally popular as an adult read, but did provoke good discussion.  You can hear Patrick talking to Simon Savidge about his writing for adults and children in a podcast at You Wrote the Book!.

This year’s Carnegie Shortlist (award in June) has some brilliant novels on it; I’ve read three so far, plus several that were longlisted that didn’t make it onto the shortlist. Some previous thoughts on the longlist are here, but the highlights for me are:

  • Blood red snow whiteMidwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick (review coming soon).  Sedgwick is my favourite YA author. Many of his novels have a magical edge to them, they nearly always have a darkness at their heart and are based on folktales and folklore. My favourite book of his though, is his fictional account of Arthur Ransome’s years in Russia Blood Red Snow White.  I particularly enjoy his writing style which seems ‘ageless’. My fingers are crossed that he may win this year.
  • A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle.  A bittersweet novel about dying which tells the story of four generations of women with great empathy and humour, and is typically Roddy Doyle too!
  • The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner. A complex and fantastical philosophical novel for teens. While The Double Shadow didn’t make it onto the shortlist; another of her novels did however – Maggot Moon is narrated by a boy with dyslexia, which Sally suffers from. I shall be reading it soon.

Some other authors of YA books that I’ve read and reviewed include Sally Nicholls, Charlie Higson for ‘zombie mayhem to scare your pants off’, Matt Haig creator of the crossover vampire family The Radleys, Cliff McNish.

These are just a few of the contemporary authors writing primarily for teens that I’ve read and enjoyed on an adult level; authors I will be returning to again and again.  There are so many more for me to explore, not least Diana Wynne Jones who died in 2011 and who has an army of adult fans, Meg Rossoff too, and, and, and … the list could go on for pages.

Which contemporary YA authors & books would you recommend to me?
Would you consider reading a YA novel?

As a final incentive, I’m offering one copy each of Here Lies Arthur, and Midwinterblood as a GIVEAWAY – open to any country to which the Book Depository delivers to.  To enter – just recommend any children’s or YA novel that makes a rewarding read for adults, ancient or modern.

Penguin Bloggers Night

penguinIt was pleasure and privilege to be invited once again to Penguin’s Bloggers Night held in the third floor gallery at Foyles.  Thank you to Penguin, and especially Lija there who arranged the evening.

It is always especially pleasurable to meet up with blogging friends old and new. It always amazes me that we all get on as if we’ve known each other for ages,  well, we have – online, but physically we don’t meet that often.  A quick namecheck to Sakura, Kim, Hayley, Simon S, Simon T, David, Polly @Novel_Insights and finally, it was lovely to meet Rachel aka @flossieteacake.

We were treated to readings from eight authors who have books out now or soon, a heady mixture of seasoned writers to debut novellists. I can honestly say that I would like to read all of the books showcased. We heard from:

Mohsin HamidHow To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia A life’s story in the guise of a self-help book. Witty and gritty.

warpaintAlicia FosterWarpaint. Not about make-up! Rather a group of women war artists during WWII. Fits in perfectly with my current reading trend to 1930s/WWII books. Lovely cover to this book too.

Rhidian Brook The Aftermath – An emotional thriller set in post-war occupied Germany. Apprently Ridley Scott has optioned this book. (published in May).

Catherine O’Flynn Mr Lynch’s Holiday – To be published this autumn.  A drama of father v son in an ex-pat community in Spain.  Sounds like another gritty read. Catherine herself was lovely – she volunteers at her local Oxfam shop once a week, and finds her own TBR piles growing since she started working there.

Bernardine EvaristoMr Loverman – To be published later this summer.  Bernardine read an hilarious passage about two older Caribbean gentlemen bickering – but I suspect there is a much more serious side to this novel about old people in this community.

James RobertsonJames RobertsonThe Professor of Truth – To be published this autumn.  Robertson prefaced his reading saying wryly – “All you need to know is there’s been a plane crash.”  We were straight into the aftermath of a plane being bombed over Scotland (Dunblane?), and a professor is searching for his wife and daughter at the hospital.  Some years ago I really enjoyed Robertson’s book The Testament of Gideon Mack, so look forward to this one, although it will be hard to read given the subject matter.

Joanna Rossiter The Sea Change – A debut novel with a dual narrative. A daughter is caught in a tsunami in India in the 1970s, and her mother after WWII who had had to abandon her home in Dorset.  Joanna read of the girl’s panic on seeing the tsunami and not knowing where her new husband was. (pub in May).

20130327_200111Jonathan CoeExpo 58 – An unassuming civil servant is sent to Brussels to the World’s Fair to keep an eye on things.  Coe read us an hilarious excerpt involving an exhibit about the history of the toilet.  Being a huge fan of his books, I managed to get a fangirl moment, and got him to sign an ARC for me.  When I asked if the book was a full-on comedy, he assured me that despite the funny bit he read, it had plenty of melancholy as well.  I can’t wait to read this novel, but it won’t be published until autumn. (Sorry about my poor picture.)

It was a lovely evening, with the added bonus of getting a bagful of books to take home (thank you).

Which side of the fence are you on?

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

Everyone who encounters this book will have a point of view about it.

The author is a global phenomenon through the Harry Potter series: she’s worked her way up to being a multimillionaire from being a single mum, and does a lot for charity. Now she’s taken a risk, and moved on from Harry and his chums, to publish her first adult novel – for a different publisher too, (shame about the cover).

Opinion is polarised – on one hand, the knives are out, and on the other there are those who think she’s done a brave thing and are raving positively about the book.  So where does my own opinion sit?

I hope you won’t be disappointed, but I’m going to sit firmly on the fence.  You see, I really enjoyed parts of it, but I do recognise that it is far from perfect.

Before I go into detail, a little scene-setting… Pagford is a sleepy little West Country town that is thrown into turmoil when Barry Fairbrother, leader of one faction on the Parish Council drops dead at the Golf Club.  His demise causes a ‘Casual Vacancy’ on the Council, and its leader, Howard Mollison, sees his opportunity to take control and get rid of the Fields, the local council estate that stands in Pagford parish, but ought to belong to Yarvil, the neighbouring large town.

You see, Barry was a local boy done good – born and bred on the wrong side of town in the Fields, he devoted his life to helping local people, especially the Weedons, and particularly Krystal and her junkie single mother who is incapable of looking after her little brother (by a different father of course). He got Krystal into the posh Pagford school, where she stands out like a sore thumb being a chav, but becomes a key member of the girls rowing squad.

The town is full of dysfunctional families, each fitting an archetype that will be familiar to anyone who watches any soap opera, (or listens in the case of The Archers – I’m listening to the weekly omnibus as I write this). Apart from the Weedons, there are the Mollisons – the local bigwigs, shop owners at the centre of things in town; the Walls – Colin is deputy head at school, Tessa is school Councillor, their son Fats can’t wait to be shot of his father; the Jawindas – a professional Sikh family – Parminder is a GP, Vikram is a heart surgeon, and they live in the old vicarage, and their ugly duckling daughter Sukhvinder who has very low self esteem. There’s also the Prices, whose son Arf will set a rolling stone in motion that threatens to overwhelm the town; and finally, the Bawdens, moved from London – a social worker mother and her confident daughter – are the main families from a large cast of lesser characters.

Barry Fairbrother was dead. Snuffed out. Cut down. No event of national importance, no war, no stock-market collapse, no terrorist attack, could have sparked in Shirley (Mollison) the awe, the avid interest and feverish speculation that currently consumed her.
She had hated Barry Fairbrother. Shirley and her husband, usually as one in all their friendships and enmities, had been a little out of step in this. Howard  had sometimes  confessed himself entertained by the bearded little man who opposed him so relentlessly across the scratched tables of Pagford Church Hall; but Shirley made no distinction between the political and the personal. Barry had opposed Howard in the central quest of his life, and this made Barry Fairbrother her bitter enemy.

So we have the set up for a soap opera of class war between the richer and poorer of the Parish, and oneupmanship between the families jockeying for position in the town.  I liked the premise of the plot, and was hoping for a comedy with a biting edge.

You know the story is ultimately going to be a train wreck, but it took so long to build up a full head of steam.  It was around page three hundred before things really started happening, which left two hundred for the main events.  The novel is so character-driven, that the plot tended to get squeezed out.

We could have lost a third of the novel and got a funny and fast paced story, rather than a bloated character study in which everything is over-described and listy – viz the sentence in the quote above: ‘No event of national importance, no war, no stock-market collapse, no terrorist attack, could have sparked in Shirley the awe, the avid interest and feverish speculation that currently consumed her’.  Much has been made of Rowling’s robust modern language, but you don’t really notice it until the ‘c’ word appears – and you take a short sharp intake of breath, and carry on.

Almost all of the characters are unsympathetic too, the events bringing out the nasty side in virtually all of them, (mostly Slytherins then?).  All the little England stereotypes you can think of, except a male gay couple now I come to think of it, are present.

The other things that are all present (if the book hadn’t been 500 pages, I’d have said shoe-horned), are all the issues – obesity, self-harm, OCD, single mothers, rehab, spots, social workers, sex and drugs … there’s little room left for rock’n’roll.

If you think of it as a debut novel, there is often a tendency for authors to put all their initial good ideas into one book, and that’s what I feel Rowling has done here.  It was too long, too descriptive, and too full of everything. It attempted to be light-hearted, but wasn’t funny enough which meant I didn’t care about the characters, it tried too hard to be everything to everyone.

All the above sounds as if I didn’t enjoy the book, but that’s not true. It was an interesting read, seeing a writer in transition. Here’s to the next one. (6/10)

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I bought this book. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. Pub 27th Sept by Little, Brown. Hardback, 512 pages.