My Valentine’s Recommendation : A romance with a dark heart

Image : Pixabay

Valentine’s Day is around the corner – well, around the corner and long the corridor a bit, but definitely within spitting distance – and that being the case, I’ll be absent from Word Shamble for a few days.

Now, I know many of you are cynical about the event, trussing a 3rd century Roman saint to selling chocolates and jewellery and overpriced flowers, pressurising lovers into expensive purchases to prove the depth of something as ephemeral as love.

You have a right to feel cynical. The heart shaped balloons and cutesy ‘wuv woo’ bears and cards, the way manufacturers package seemingly unrelated items in red just to sell them to men desperate to get themselves out of trouble … It’s capitalism run riot and it ain’t pretty.

May I suggest an alternative to this unpleasantness?

Those who’ve followed this blog a while will already know my attachment to certain books – every reader has them, those tomes that burrow into your psyche, often at a young age, and squat in your brains like benevolent worms, raising their heads and twitching their tales every now and then to make their presence felt.

For me, Precious Bane by Mary Webb is one such book.

Set in the Shropshire of the early nineteenth century, it focuses on Prue Sarn, cursed with a ‘precious bane’ (a hare lip) that seems to rule her out of marriage, out of happiness, that shapes her life, her personality and her destiny.

Yes, it’s terrifically romantic and melodramatic – there are love spinnings and sin eaters and wise men. There’s a fair amount of yearning, of chaste glances between Prue and the gentle, magnificently named weaver Kester Woodseaves.

There’s darkness too. Unfathomable lakes, moody landscapes, curses, folk magic, pain, humiliation, betrayal, death – lots of death.

But aside from the fabulous prose, here’s a wonderful thing about the book. Prue is not Disney Cinderella beautiful. She is outshone by her best friend, seen as ugly and shunned. But she is brave and loyal and decent and all of that makes her shine through as a character, means that she’s no wishy-washy heroine who gets a fit of the vapours when spoken to unkindly. She works the fields – she drives a sodding plough, for heaven’s sake – and even though she suffers greatly, she is nothing like a victim.

So, here’s my recommendation.

Leave the chocolates, leave the flowers (okay, buy the flowers – I am a florist after all!), leave the teddy bears (no, really LEAVE the bears) and buy a copy of Precious Bane instead.

It’s one of the few truly romantic novels I’ve ever read.

And if you doubt the quality of Webb’s writing because you’ve never heard of her, take a look here to see why The Guardian newspaper’s Eloise Millar thinks she’s better than Thomas Hardy.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. See you on the other side.

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Why buying bargain books is better than putting pic n mix in your pants – probably

Modern high street bookshop

Image: Pixabay

I’m a BAD shopper.

I don’t mean in the urban slang sense, of course. A white, middle aged English woman using urban slang is about as pleasant a sight as you’d expect it to be, innit, and I suspect could cause serious trauma, blu-blu-blood.

A helpline would have to be set up and one of those messages broadcast – the ones you see after TV programmes about gangs or granny rustling:

If you’ve been affected by anything you’ve seen tonight …

I also don’t go around filling my pants with pic n mix or exposing myself in sporting goods departments or putting waders on the lingerie mannequins, or going to the cosmetics counter to ask the ladies if it’s part of their job description to wear every product they sell all at the same time …

I don’t do any of these things. Sometimes I feel like doing some of them – I’ll leave you to guess which.

I’m a bad shopper because I don’t really enjoy it. I don’t browse happily through one ladies wear department to the next, joyfully throwing on every pair of foil slacks, squirrel fur onesie and sequinned jumpsuit on the rails.

The way my shopping outings usually go is as follows:

(1) Root through the plastic storage box that passes for my clothes drawer.

(2) Think ‘Ooh, I really don’t have enough cardigans / jumpers for the chilly English climate.’

(3) Think ‘Ah, yes, that’s because they had holes in them / I did the gardening in them / wore them until they resembled the pelt of something dead, buried and disinterred. Then I threw them away.’

(4) Think ‘I really must get around to buying some more.’

(5) Realise it is in fact April and therefore the shops will only be selling bikinis, flip flops and sarongs for the next three months.

(6) Shrug, go make a cup of tea, eat a Hobnob and resign myself to wearing the same ragged, mouse den knitwear until the New Year sales.*

There is one thing (apart from tea and biscuits) that I am good at buying and that’s books.

Despite my self-imposed Amazon ban (Thou shalt not purchase papery beloveds from the jaws of the sulphur-scented online Behemoth – on pain of being very disappointed and giving yourself a good telling off) I still can’t resist a bargain.

You must’ve seen the offers when you go into book shops or supermarkets. Those naughty, tempting stickers on the paperbacks, the ones that say

Buy one get one half price.

To a bookish type, these stickers are as tempting as a Costa Chai Latte to a sugar addict and I can find myself prowling a table for fifteen minutes or more, one book in hand, desperately trying to find a second so I can only spend half the cover price on it.

It has meant I’ve bought books I was only half interested in, so it’s a good thing I only paid half of what they’re worth. Of course the sensible thing would be to stick with the book I really want and save myself a small amount of money and from having a book on my To Be Read list that I’m not bothered about reading.

Over the weekend, I found myself in this position. The morning had been a bit dispiriting, so to cheer myself, I headed not for the nearest stiletto shop but into WHSmith in the hope of papery nirvana.

What did I find, but a whole shelf of Buy one get on half price paperbacks – joy.

And better than that, I spotted two books I really want to read – Kate Atkinson’s A God In Ruins and Costa Book of the Year winner, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge. Excited as a puppy with two tails, I bounded to the counter and handed the cashier my one and a half paperbacks’ worth of cash.

Once home, I had the pleasure of adding my purchases to the TBR Everest next to my bed, only to spot a familiar looking spine already in the stack …

A flickering memory assaulted my brain …

Standing in the supermarket, holding a lovely, crisp paperback, desperately looking for another to buy to fulfill the Buy one get one half price offer … Spotting A God in Ruins and skipping happily to the checkout with it!

Yes, I have in fact, bought Kate Atkinson’s book twice, both times on a half price deal. This means several things.

(1) Kate Atkinson’s publisher has done big deals with several major book retailers.

(2) I have now reached the age where I really am not to be trusted to buy books without supervision.

(3) I have a spanking new copy of A God in Ruins in dire need of a good home. 

Any takers?

***

Do you find yourself drawn to these naughty offers, or do you resist and always pay full price for your literary fix? Do let me know.

*At which time, I will forget I need knitwear again until the sales are over. Then, in April, I’ll root through the plastic storage box that passes for my clothes drawer …

 

 

Thursday: Send a skeleton to school day

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Image: Pixabay

I sent a skeleton off to school on Thursday.

A skeleton dressed in a rather dapper broad brimmed hat and a sharp black jacket. He was no slouch when it came to all things sartorial, let me tell you.

What, you may ask, was I doing with a skelton in my house? Furthermore, what was I doing making this wrathe a chicken sandwich, ensuring he had two quid for the bus, his French homework and his P.E. kit? Was I becoming just a little too familiar with the dead for comfort? Had I finally given myself over to the arts of the necromancer?

And what the hell is a skeleton doing playing rugby?
Surely they don’t have the guts (I thank you.)

The truth is, the delightfully excited, dessicated bag of bones that shovelled a bowl of cereal before he sprinted for the door, was my son. And before you begin to worry he’s met with some dreadful accident or he’s a figment of my dark imaginings, don’t worry, he’s alive and well.

But Thursday, you see, dear friends, was World Book Day, a fun excuse (if one were needed) for kids across the UK to leave their school uniform on their bedroom floor (the only place to keep a uniform, of course) and dress as their favourite fictional character. 

Over the years, I have witnessed a lot of animals – bears of the Pooh variety, cats in hats, gold loving dragons – a ton of boy wizards with wonky, eyeliner scars on their foreheads and an awful lots of superheroes and fairy princesses.

Call me old fashioned, by I prefer the purer book characters, those less associated with high budget block buster movies and more with their papery origins – the more obscure the better. One of my son’s friends dresses as Death from the Discworld books, which I rather love.

The lazier kids can dress as Greg Heffley from Diary of a Wimpy Kid – and therefore go in their own clothes.

If World Book Day had been a ‘thing’ when I was at school, I would’ve gone as Laura Chant from the Changeover by Margaret Mahy – or Will Stanton from Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising books.

And who was my son, you may ask?

Skulduggery Pleasant, of course.

***

How is World Book Day celebrated where you live?

And most importantly –

If you were to dress as a fictional character, who would you be?

 

How I fell in love at first sight

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Image: Pixabay

Do you believe in Love at First Sight?

Personally, I never believed. You see, I think to claim to be in love – really in love – you need to get to know the object of your desire a little first.

You have to discover that yes, he too went to a street party for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee where he ate sausage rolls and took part in a three-legged race. That he too watched Tiswas on Saturday mornings. That he bought Space Dust from the corner shop on his way home from school and instead of making it last, tipped the whole sachet onto his tongue and pressed his mouth up to his best mate’s ear so they could share its slightly painful, explosive joy.

You have to know that he loved Blackadder and The Young Ones, loathed Bernard Manning and Terry and June. You have to find that you both love guitar music and curry.

And that, even if you disagree on a few of the details, you bascially see the world the same way.

I’ve always thought that this Love at First Sight thing was pretty superficial. That all anyone is saying when they use this tired old cliche is that their primal instincts have kicked in and told them this largely symmetrical, fit, healthy person has strong genes. And maybe that person’s genes would look pretty good all mixed up with their own  …

So, Lust-At-First-Sight-As-A-Way-To-Make-Your-Genes-Live-On-Into-The-Next-Generation? Yes, I believe in that.

At least, that’s what I thought. Now, my whole life view might just have been turned upside down.

The object of my affection is small, medium build, brown with a healthy shine and a spotless, perfect exterior. 

But this isn’t a superficial, base craving. I looked past this beautiful ‘packaging’, to what was within, and from the very first word I was hooked, smitten, obssessed – yearning for the times when I can slip beneath the covers and spend time with my new love, enjoying every thrilling moment …

Shall I tell you the name of my obssession? It’s Neverwhere.

What do you mean, that’s a weird name for a man? What’s that got to do with it? Oh, I see. No, no my dears, my new obssession is entirely of the paperback variety. And shame on you for thinking otherwise …

You see, I so often find with books that it takes me a while to buy into the premise, or to begin to care about the characters, or to get caught up in their plight. I can spend chapters reading slowly, with little enthusiasm or drive, feeling more than a little Meh about what’s happening to whom, where, when and why.

Maybe I read too many of the wrong books too often*. But not this time.

From the beginning of Neverwhere** by Neil Gaiman, I knew I was going to love it …

 Eldritch old Scots women predicting dark futures involving doors, a young woman on the run, two sinister strangers with a penchant for knives and rat dinners all overlaid with humour as black as a midnight walk in a sewer

What’s not to love?

So, here’s a question for you chaps. How quickly have you fallen in love with a book? After the first chapter? The first page? Paragraph? Sentence? Or do you need to get to know a book before you fall?

***

*To be fair, I felt the same about the last book I read – The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. Victorian London, brothels, prostitutes, dark filth-filled alleyways and prose you could melt into. Yum.

**Yes, I know. For a woman who claims to love all things dark, I’m coming very late to this Gaiman-shaped party. What can I say? I’m an idiot.

 

 

 

Is being an author written in your DNA like brown eyes and freckles?

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Clackety-clack Image: Pixabay

After Wednesday’s groan-athon, where I attempted to turn whiny introspection into an art form, and realising that I probably focus on rejection way too much in these posts, I thought I’d write something rather more positive.

A couple of days ago, my other half was reading my first blog post for Mslexia. After the odd wry smile*, he finally said,

Bloody hell, it’s tough, isn’t it?

By this I don’t think he meant writing blog pieces was tough – cos that’s as easy as falling off a stack of the complete Encyclopaedia Britannica – but that the road to being a paid author is tough.

The comment made me look at the whole endeavour with fresh eyes.

Yes, it’s tough. Few people who love to write can do so professionally, fewer still full time. And it’s only the top tiny percent who become so rich they make Croesus look like the Clampetts pre oil strike.

But that doesn’t phase most of us, because that’s not why we do it.

 

We write because words are part of our DNA, woven into our genetic make up as much as brown eyes and a tendency to freckle. 

We write because at some point, we have fallen into the whirlpool of a book, drowned in its world, felt the emotional tug of its characters – we’ve inhaled the magic of the best stories. And we’ve thought, even subconsciously,

“Dammit, I’d love to do that for someone else”

We write for the fleeting joy when a scene, a phrase – even a mere word – feels right.

We write because we grow to love our characters, they live in our minds and whisper at our shoulders, telling us what they wish to do next – what they WILL do next – and we want to be along for the ride.

We write because we want to prise open the door on the worlds we created and say to others, ‘Come on, take a look. Share this with me.’

We write for Joy and Love and even for the Pain we feel as our best created friends slip from us.

We write because we have to.

***

At least, that’s why I write.

So all my writer pals out there, tell me why you write.

Fame? Fortune? The possibility of appearing on Radio 2’s book club with Simon Mayo (oh, yes please)? Or is it just because if you don’t, the stories will build up until your head bursts a la Scanners?

 

***

*My husband has been with me for twenty five years, so he’s heard all my gags now – it’s tough to make him really laugh. Carry on reading this blog until the year 2040 and you will no doubt feel the same.

Gifts for book lovers – tat or tremendous?

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Imagine this is your home. Maybe it is your home, in which case, I do apologise for intruding and I’ll let myself out.

But on the off-chance it isn’t your home – imagine it is.

You love books, but maybe you’ve taken your love too far. Maybe a delightful hobby is tipping over into looming divorce, supervised visits with your kids and knocks on the door from the local mental health nurse and a TV crew from one of this programmes about hoarders.

Someone bought you a Kindle (other e-readers are availabel) but you didn’t take to it. There’s something about the damp, fusty scent that makes your soul sing, the rough tingle of the paper under your fingers, the weight, the heft, the history of a real book that connects with you in a way a screen and its faux type can’t.

So, your home is filled with books you can’t part with and if you bring one more into the house you’ll be sleeping in a Youth Hostel with nothing but a spare pair of pants and your tooth brush for company. What do you do? What do you do to keep feeling that thrill?

Do you buy literary gifts instead?

A quick stroll through the back alleys and ginnels of the net and you’ll find whole sites dedicated to gifts for book addicts – that aren’t books. You can buy jewellery made from print, mugs with famous book covers and quotes on, bags, scarves, ties, cushions and cufflinks all with some reference to your favourite book or author.

The hippest site is Red Molotov, who I knew sold tee-shirts with oblique references to TV and films, but also have a book-themed range. In-jokes and cliqueness abound. For instance, there’s a tee-shirt listing the surnames of the characters from Room with a View which reads as nonsense to anyone unfamiliar with the novel.

Clever or smug?  I can’t decide.

What do you think of gifts for book lovers that aren’t books? Do they make your heart soar or sink?