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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A pile of steaming dung: when a $ 2 million advance becomes worthless

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Image: Pixabay

I’ve burbled on a few times on this blog about my dream of having a publishing contract, being given an advance of six figures, a movie deal … A poster of my face as large as the side of a fifty story building pasted across the moon so people could recognise me from earth …

Well, maybe not the last one.

I suppose I’d translated a large advance and being the subject of a bidding war into literary success, a sure fire winning combo for a solid writing career. A story I read today has made me rethink.

The New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli gave City on Fire by the interestingly named Garth Risk Hallberg a scathing review. Vincentelli called the book an

Overhyped … steaming pile of literary dung.

The 900 page novel was at the centre of a bidding war some while back, which garnered the debut author $2 million – ten publishers bidding over $1 million. The book has already got a movie deal.

Now, not being familiar with the NYP, I don’t know if it makes a habit of flying in the face of accepted wisdom – I don’t know if their writers tend to be perverse for the sake of argument. I’m guessing from the shock tactics of the piece’s title, it’s not seen as a serious literary journal. Maybe one of our American cousins reading this could enligthen me.

But the book certainly hasn’t captured the readers’ imagination as the publishers will have hoped – the book was languising at number 825 in the Amazon chart as Vincentelli wrote her piece.

And although the Guardian was less scathing, admitting Hallberg was a promising talent, it did say the book was no masterpiece.

Now, first off, I’m feeling sorry for Hallberg.

Yes, he’s already earned a pile of dosh from the book. But he didn’t ask to be caught in a bidding war and the ‘genius’ of his novel was something bandied about by publishers, not him, I’m sure.

Maybe it would have been better for him if his career had a quieter start, with less fanfair, allowing his talent to gradually grow with each new book he released. 

Instead, it may have stalled before it’s properly begun. I do hope not.

And second off? Well, we all know publishers have missed signing great books because they’re hard to categorise or just plain weird – but that so many could misjudge the reading zeitgeist, leaving themselves so seriously out of pocket … That’s surprised me.

It’s made me rethink my own parameters for success. Maybe I won’t be so desperate for that six figure contract after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/City-Fire-Garth-Risk-Hallberg/dp/0385353774

http://www.amazon.co.uk/City-Fire-Garth-Risk-Hallberg/dp/0385353774

How reading can unite mankind – one book at a time

Can I have a look at your paper when you've finished, mate? Image:Pixabay

Can I have a look at your paper when you’ve finished, mate? Image:Pixabay

I’ve talked before about judging someone’s personality by the contents of their bookshelves. But I’m not finished judging there. I’ve got a whole ocean of judging welling up inside me, ready to slosh over into a fresh blog post. Want me to prove it? Okay, here goes.

I like people a little more if they read books … And I like them a little less if they don’t.

I suppose it’s not much of a surprise I love fellow readers as I’m someone whose life can be measured in the books they’ve read and especially – if you were feeling cynical, and hey, it’s a Monday, we’re all entitled to feel a twinge of grumbly old git on a Monday – you might say it’s especially because I’m an aspiring writer that I love to see people read.

I mean, every sad, tragic, hollow human being who would rather watch YouTube vids of other people playing computer games than read a great book, is one less potential reader for my as yet unpublished canon of classic literature.

And as a side note, I can’t quite believe that people spend hourse doing this – watching footage of other people gaming. Surely, if we look hard enough, we’ll find this in Revelation, besides the many headed beasties and men riding Pale Horses … ‘And lo, the land will o’erflow with Peeping Toms on a landscape that exists not in our world. And their will be a great wailing and gnashing of teeth …’

Any-hoo, it’s not my own revenue I see sailing down the proverbial Swannie. It’s just, each time I see the girl who lives near me who risks tripping over raised pavements slabs and stepping in slithering Everests of dog mess so she can walk and still read her book – it makes me smile.

Each time I sit on the bus and see a fellow traveller with their nose tucked in one of those old fashioned, leafy, papery things – what did we call them? Oh, yeah, books – instead of dashing through fb posts or thier Twitter feed or abusing the bus driver, it makes me feel just a tiny bit happier.

Because I know what it is to be them.

I know that even if they’re young enough to be my kid, old enough to have edited the original Revelation, if they loathe chocolate (weirdos) or own a cabal of cats that hunt down every native songbird within a ten mile radius and gives them no more rebuke than a ‘Naughty kitty’ for their sins (evil) – we have a deep and meanful shared experience.

We both know what it’s like to lose hours in a book, to never really want to return, to have a writer transport them away from the bus and the old lady sitting next to them who smells vaguely of wee.

We’ve both been on that same journey.

And in a busy, crazy world, where we seem to notice the differences more than we feel the similarities, anything that unifies is a grand and beautiful thing. 


Are you like me – do you distrust people who don’t read? Or are you less of a judgemental old woman and love them anyway? Let me know what you think.

Books in the Blood #15: When fiction kills your childhood

Should've gone to Specsavers Image: Pixabay

Should’ve gone to Specsavers
Image: Pixabay

Imagine…

You reach the end of the book you’re reading, you close the cover. For the last few chapters, you were racing to the end, wanting, needing to know what happened to the characters you’ve come to care for. Yet, a still small voice niggling in a dark corner of your brain told you to hold back, slow down, that this was a truly great book and you might not read anything as good for years in the future – perhaps ever.

But all things end and so does the book. And you’re devastated. Because it was so good, so powerful, you know it’s changed you a little, and the world doesn’t look quite the same anymore. The book haunts you for days, weeks, the characters returning time and again, demanding to be remembered and it takes a while until you’re able to read another book again with the same enthusiasm, because nothing – nothing – can compare. Everything is a pale shell, a hollow, fruitless waste of paper compared to that book.

Ever felt this way? Oh, please tell me you have, because this is what reading and literature are all about.

Now, we know not all books can be like this. If they were, none of us would ever go to work or cook dinner, or eat because we’d all be huddled under our duvets, curled up on the sofa or tucked up in the airing cupboard (look, you gotta get your peace and quiet where you can),  devouring yarn after yarn until we starved, became bankrupt and had our houses repossessed, until mankind wasted away into its own imagination and left the earth for the next dominant race – probably telepathic ants. Riding cockroaches. Who keep aphids as pets.

Anyhow, be grateful there aren’t too many brilliant books out there, that shops contain their fair share of mediocrity or humanity would come to an end much sooner than its current expiry date, whenever that is. Yes, a rare reason to thank Jeffrey Archer.

So in your life you’ll read your fair share of stinkers. After a few years of independent reading, and learning from early mistakes, we all become a little more cautious, a bit selective in our habits. Hopefully when you’re a few decades into your lifetime of readership, you’ll have narrowed down what you like, what you don’t and you’ll get better at filtering out most of the thoroughly dreadful. Many books you read will be ‘good’ – many more will be ‘okay’.

But you won’t read too many that fulfil the criteria at the start of this post. How many do you reckon? Maybe five? A handful more? Tell me you’ve had that feeling more than ten times, and I know you’re pulling my leg. Or deluded. Or really easily pleased, and if you fall into the latter category, do stay in touch for when I publish my own books.*

One of the few novels that hit me in this way was this week’s Book in the Blood,

1984 by George Orwell.

Now, it may be that I read it just at the right age. I was about twenty I think, not long hooked up with my old man – still very smitten. We were living in one of the many unsavoury flats we rented as a young couple, though I’m not sure if it was ‘the one some numpty tried to burn down’, or ‘the one with the bipolar neighbour upstairs who was convinced gates had electric currents flowing through them and accused my dear father-in-law of murdering his best friend’.**  

I was young, in love and despite our neighbour’s best efforts, hopeful for the future. I think I still thought ‘everything will be alright in the end’ and shook my head at the news wondering why all the people of the Middle East and Ireland just couldn’t just share a pot of tea, have a jolly good chat and put their differences behind them.

Then I read this book and finished it feeling totally devastated.

According to Orwell, I’d been misled all my life – love could not conquer all. In fact, love could bring you nothing but pain and horror and Room 101. Governments could warp and crush the individual at a whim, could destroy the strongest love as easily as putting a rat in a cage.

I don’t blame the book for disabusing me of my romantic ideals – I think life does a pretty good job of doing that to us all in the end anyway. But it shook me for a while and in its way was more of a rite of passage for me than my first drink in a pub or my first kiss.

Orwell set me on my real journey from being a child to becoming an adult, with the heavy weight of knowledge that entails.


Which book made you feel this way? Did 1984 leave you cold or shake your world?


*Clearly a huge joke. I’m “marvellous – a must read every time” Lynn’s Mum.

** These, of course, being the episodes of Friends written by an overworked script writer suffering from a very nasty caffeine overdose.