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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Falling in love for the over forties: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

 

Falling in love is the best, isn’t it?

The anticipation when the object of your desires draws near. The raised heartbeat, the sweating palms, the desire to spend all day, every day in your loved ones company, denying all others. You can’t eat, you can’t sleep, all you can think about is them and the next time you’ll be reunited. And when that moment finally comes, when the two of you are alone, slipping between the sheets, your fingers clumsy, hungry to run over those silken pages, to open that glossy cover, to let your eyes feast on what’s inside …

I’ve loved many authors over many reading years – Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, later Margaret Atwood and Sarah Waters and Neil Gaiman

Yes, I’m a fickle soul, but what can I say? The heart wants what it wants.

Recently, I’ve begun a new affair with David Mitchell’s Booker longlisted The Bone Clocks. I’d like to describe to you what it’s about, but I’m only halfway through and to be honest, I’m not entirely sure myself.

There’s a teenage runaway and a predatory, swindling Cambridge undergraduate, a conflict-addicted roving reporter covering the war in Iraq and a supernatural fight between good and evil – I think.

Social commentary, love lost, fantastical horror, life and death and a family wedding – all things that keep the reader engaged.

But it’s Mitchell’s writing that’s drawn me in. Rounded characters, genuine shocks and terrifying threat – both those otherworldly and all to familiar from the evening news – make us care and sympathise for his protagonists, even those who are in the wrong, even as they’re performing the most heinous acts.

To say I’d love to be able to write with his skill and intelligence, handle a range of settings and styles and manage to hold the lot together without it falling into a mess, is an understatement.

Have I found another author to love, another to add to the list and me so damned cynical and middle aged? Perhaps I’ll only know once the last page has turned.

Like love, I don’t know where this story will lead me in the end, but for now I’m just enjoying the ride.

 


Have you recently discovered a new author to love? Did you think you’d never love again, but found a book that sent your heart a-beating as if you were a teenager in the first throes of bookish passion?

Link : What the late Ursula K le Guin thought of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks.

 

 

 

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?

 

Which top ten films were based on books?

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Image: Pixabay

 

My son wants to go to the cinema this weekend with his pals.

He’s got to the age where he’s happy to pay to sit in a cold auditorium, his shoes sticking to the soft-drink-soaked carpet as he struggles to concentrate on a loosely-plotted, CGI laden, convoluted storyline over the sound of cola slurping, sweet-wrapper rustling and ringtones.

After years of sitting through countless animated features of widely varying quality, I’m quite happy for him to go to the cinema without me.

We did see the new Star Wars movie as a family the other week, the first few minutes of which were accompanied by periodic cussing from a drunk the staff had seen fit to allow in.

The man’s outburts were unsettling for several reasons: his language, which was bluer than the sky over the sun-soaked beaches of Malibu: the violence of execution, which was threatening and sporadic, meaning we’d have a few moments of unnerving, distracting peace waiting for the next explosion of filth (which, if it isn’t a thrash rock band name, should be): and finally, the fact that apart from the light from the screen, it was darker than a sewer in a power cut in there and the man was sitting close behind us.

So rather than wondering where Luke Skywalker had got to and why Chewbacca had aged better than Han Solo, I was left wondering if (a) the lunatic in the darkness was capable of physical violence as powerful as his verbal violence and if so (b) whether he had smuggled in a knife /machete / meat cleaver or any other such weaponry and was prone to the occasional blood-soaked rampage.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away

M***ER F***ER

is probably not the opening JJ Abrams had in mind.

Fortunately, after ten minutes or so of this, someone overcame their natural English reserve, and got up to complain that disurbingly screamed obscenities and beloved family sci-fi francises don’t mix and the gentleman in question was removed.*

Anyway.

There’s nothing as landmark-y being screened at the moment, but if the lad is off to soak up some multi-plex block buster nonsense, the other half and I were hoping to watch a film too – favourite being Leonardo DiCaprio being mauled by a bear and left for dead in The Revenant. Personally, I feel he deserves no less for Titanic – I have a long memory, people.

After seeing the book of the Leo vehicle in the supermarket today, and knowing that the boys will likely be watching Goosebumps, I wondered how many of the current top ten movie offerings at my local cinemas are based on books.

The answer was:

The Big Short : based on a non-fiction account of the econimic crisis by Michael Lewis.

The Revenant : Michael Punke’s  fictonalised account of a frontiersman’s fight for survival.

Thirteen Hours : Mitchell Zuckoff’s non-fiction account of the Battle of Benghazi.

Goosebumps : based on the kids’ horror fiction series by R.L.Stine

Room : based on the prize winning novel by Emme Donoghue.

The 5th Wave : based on the YA sci-fi novel by Rick Yancey.

6/10 – that’s a big chunk.

Now, this is the first time I’ve done this, so it could be that in a fortnight, they’ll be no book-inspired offerings. But I doubt it, for I’m sure we’ve all noticed the feed-through.

The Hunger Games, the Harry Potters, the Lord of the Rings movies – innumerable D.C and Marvel offerings – all have started out as paper and ended up celluloid, or code, or whatever format it is filmmakers use these days.

What can we aspiring authors learn from this?

Well, that filmmakers and movie studios don’t like to risk their bucks and reputations on untried ideas and would rather writers and publishers did it first. And that if you write a book that’s at least semi-successful you’re quite likely to get a film deal out of it.

I also wonder to what extent authors now write with cinema in mind.

Maybe they don’t do it consciously. But now we’ve had several generations who have grown up with TV and cinema filling some of the imaginative voids in their heads, is it possible NOT to imagine the framing of a scene, the score, the special effects?

Come on, writers. What do you think? 

***

*The person who got up and complained wasn’t me, of course. It’s possible I would have sat there for 2 hours 15 minutes, tutting loudly as the man’s screaming grew more frenzied, only grumbling to a staff member after said loony had laid about me with his blade of choice.

How fundamentalism has helped a children’s classic to the screen

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Image:Pixabay

Why is children’s and YA fiction so underrated?

It still seems to me that the general populace are under the delusion that writing for young people is somehow easier than writing for adults.

I guess I can see why to some extent.

Often in the past, the word counts have been shorter than adult books, which translates to many as less effort from the author (though this has changed over time – Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking books are chunky enough to hammer plasterboard into place). And some of the subject matter hasn’t helped as much is genre – fantasy, sci-fi, horror etc. And as we all know, ‘genre’ – whether in books or on the screen – often translates with reviewers as populist-not-really-serious-just-aiming-for-the-big-bucks rather than writing something-worthy-where-nothing-happens-apart-from-the-protagonists-growing-slightly-older-literary-fiction.

This preconception is not altogether true, of course.

Yes, there’s a fair bit of sparkly vampire nonsense out there and who could fail to notice the number of black-covered, fang-themed knock-offs cramming the bookshop shelves after the huge success of Twilight? As you also must have seen the grey simulacrums that stuffed the same shelves when E. L James was at her mucky masochistic height.

(On a side note, how quickly must publishers churn this stuff out when they spot a mega hit? It takes big publishers up to two years to get a book out in normal circumstances, yet Ninety Shades of Grey, Seventy Shades of Off-White and 101 Unhygienic Things To Do With a Handwhisk were chugging through the tills before most of us had agreed on a ‘safe word’.)*

Anyway, I digress.

A lot of serious subjects are tackled in the world of kids’ fiction. Apart from approaching heavyweight subjects such as mental illness, sexuality, suicide, the individual’s fight against totalitarianism, many are at least as well written as most ‘adult’ fiction.

Take the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. Yep, they’re classed as kids books, but if you haven’t read them, please don’t let this put you off. They are well written, layered, dealing with more complex issues than 90% of the ‘2 for 1’ paperbacks in your local Tesco.

The Amber Spyglass was the first children’s book nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize – that’s how well written this stuff is.

Problem is, movie makers in their wisdom, thought it would be a good idea to take this knotty, beautiful trilogy and turn it into popcorn-multiplex fodder, as you may have witnessed in 2007’s The Golden Compass, reducing the subtle etchings of the first book into a one-note plot-driven piece (complete with new-Bond Daniel Craig) and skewing the public’s perception of the works in the process.

After lobbying from Christian fundamentalists in the States, the film had a disappointing box office and the sequels went unmade.

However, thanks to our beloved BBC, all is not lost – at least for those of us living in good old Blighty. For Auntie Beeb has commissioned a series based on the trilogy. So over several hours, we can hope to see something closer to Pullman’s original idea realised.

So, hurray for Pullman! Hurray for the Beeb! And hurray for intolerance!

For if there had been no anti-Golden Compass lobby, all three books may have been made into less than adequate films, thus making another adaptation redundant.

Do watch the BBC adaptation if you can – but read the books first, as a reminder of how great some children’s literature can be. 

***

 

*Don’t search Goodporn for these titles – I made them up. As I made up Goodporn. Or, at least, I hope I did.

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.