Category Archives: Books

Burning witches

I have been taking Dust medicinally. By which I – naturally – mean that I am reading The Secret Commonwealth in order to feel better. Most reading for pleasure is good for you, and there aren’t many better things than having hundreds of pages by Philip Pullman standing by to entertain. Especially after the long wait we endured for the Books of Dust.

But then I thought of my Bookwitch timetable and what I had planned for today. So a couple of days ago I told myself that I could very quickly read that book, while Dust waited for me to return. I immediately felt a lot worse. Not because of the other book, which I am certain will be good. No, it was the idea that I’d pause my ‘drug taking’ of one book to hurriedly read another.

It didn’t feel like a great idea. I decided I wasn’t going to interrupt my time with Philip Pullman at all. After all, medicine is medicine. And The Secret Common-wealth definitely counts as medicine.

All this made me think back to the email that arrived in the midst of the Edinburgh book festival, linking to the Notes From the Slushpile blog post by Nick Cross about burnout. The topic line was ‘Are you burning out?’ and I thought, ‘yes, I am. Actually.’

It was very timely. I wasn’t in a position to do much just then, but I made plans. I’ve not done terribly well with those plans, and until my medicinal issues this week, it seemed as though it’d be another fail. Well intentioned and all that, but not going anywhere.

Anyway, not sure what will happen now either, but Philip and I will plod on. I will get to the other book soon. Probably. And to the other ones I happen to have lying around, that I really do want to read. But I shall do my utmost not to hurry.

This could mean fewer posts here, but then so be it.

Besides, I have a kitchen to build in Berlin.

Philip Pullman, The Secret Commonwealth

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Spirit

A friend thought I’d like Spirit, by Sally Christie. She was quite right.

When football-mad new boy Matt tells his class that he’s seen a fairy in the woods, things don’t go well. Being crazy is not the best way of finding friends, although Matt does start a friendship of sorts with the girl next door, Jazzy, who is very much not his type of person.

While studiously avoiding football, Matt returns to the woods with Jazzy, to see if there are more fairies. Jazzy is especially keen, as she’s playing Ariel in The Tempest at school, even if Matt gets pretty tired of hearing about Shakespeare all the time.

Sally Christie, Spirit

However, in the company of Jazzy’s little sister and Matt’s dog, they do see stuff in the woods [Burnham Wood..!], but the question is what, and if it means anything.

As with many situations within friendship groups at school, there is much that can go wrong, and this is no exception. Expect more bad stuff than you might think, but also some magical developments.

Sara Danius, and two new Nobel laureates

I was saddened to learn Sara Danius has died. The news, coming as it did just after we’d heard who the two new winners of the Nobel Prize for literature were (Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke), seemed almost unreal.

It had been good to have a woman at the helm of the Swedish Academy, and it would have been better still if Sara could have remained at her post when the waters got choppy last year. It seemed as if the men were all right, in the way men often are, while the – seemingly – fault-free woman did the honourable thing and resigned.

With hindsight, maybe Sara knew she was ill. I hope it wasn’t the trouble with the academy that caused her illness.

I wrote about Sara – and had the temerity to compare her with me – a couple of years ago. It was good to discover someone who was so [almost] normal, doing a job like that of permanent secretary. And then I railed against her departure. Maybe it was a blessing Sara didn’t have to die on her chair, though, as you’re supposed to.

But let’s be happy for the two new winners of the prize, Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke. Both are names I know, and I recognise their faces, too. Haven’t read their books, but at least they don’t seem as strange as some earlier choices.

The Bookshop on the Shore

Jane Eyre meets the Sound of Music, with a little You’ve Got Mail, and some almost library porn (by which I mean getting excited over a fancy library; not that other thing you first thought I meant).

Jenny Colgan, The Bookshop on the Shore

Yeah, I’m not used to adult romantic fiction. I used to read a lot of it, decades ago, and now that I had worked out that Jenny Colgan writes this stuff and not just children’s books or Doctor Who, I felt the time had come to investigate.

I gather this latest story about a [mobile] bookshop on the shores of Loch Ness builds on at least one former book by Jenny. Her Nina, now pregnant and in need of a temporary replacement, somehow arranges for Zoe to move out of London, where she and her mute four-year-old son Hari have lived in impoverished circumstances.

So it’s that perennial dream romantic book lovers have of moving to a new life somewhere completely different and meeting more books. And love. At first I thought she’d got the wrong love interest there, but he grew on me a little. And I dare say the other chap could come back in some other book.

There are children. They have problems. The local village is another problem, along with its residents who want what they have always had. Nina herself, is another problem to some extent. She wants things done her way.

But Zoe is, well, she knows what is right and stands up for her own ideas, and she loves little Hari, and overcomes most of the other issues. Because it is that kind of story.

How to Write a Great Story

I frequently wonder why authors write ‘how to write’ books. Are they mad? I know that they know how to, or at least what worked for them, but the competition! Keep it secret, I say.

In this latest one, How to Write a Great Story, Caroline Lawrence shares her tips. In fact, she shares how she wrote her books. And if you know her books, I’d say the advice is even better, because you’ll be able to see exactly what she means, and know what the references are about. She also mentions other famous pieces of writing, likely to be known to the reader.

Caroline Lawrence, How to Write a Great Story

(I brought her book to the hairdresser’s, and he said he’d never want to read a book like this. Could be because it’s not aimed at forty-something hairdressers, but more likely at Caroline’s fans, young and old. He wouldn’t object if I wrote a book about him, though.)

There are some sample workshops, and I envy students who’ve been able to work with Caroline on this. It looks interesting. You might start with a line from The Hobbit, and then you actually change everything, completely losing the Hobbit.

A long section explains writerly words, in case you wanted to know but were afraid to ask. Even the Vomit Draft sounds reasonably ‘appealing.’ Or do I mean appalling? And don’t you just hate those elevator pitches? Because you forgot to come up with one, or you forgot what it was. And there is Mr Spielberg, ready to listen for at least ten seconds…

I’d say Caroline doesn’t sleep enough. Some of us need more time. And preserve me from her lunches of broccoli and mayonnaise!

Strangers at the Gate

Wow! If you want an intelligently plotted and well-written crime novel, that will only partially keep you awake at night, then Strangers at the Gate by Catriona McPherson is the answer.

Catriona McPherson, Strangers at the Gate

The murder is pretty gruesome and after a while you realise that there are only so many possible suspects, and that makes your life a little difficult. Yes, some of the characters are a bit odd, but you don’t necessarily want them to be the one who did it.

The question is, ‘did what?’ Finnie and Paddy are newly married, and suddenly find themselves moving from Edinburgh to a small – and strange – town, in a deal that could be described as too good to be true. And you know what they say about such things. Although the weather is awful – Scotland in winter – and the dead bodies not exactly fun.

But Paddy is dead keen to be made partner of the law firm, and Finnie gets a post as deacon in the local church.

If dead children and disappearing corpses are your thing, look no further. In fact, even if they are not, and I really don’t like dead children, this book is it.

I’m so clever I noticed one clue before even Finnie did, and then I saw another, which was actually never part of what happened. I’m really glad I read this novel. I suspect I could be a fan for life, now.

German book words

For all you readers, especially if you have a fondness for impossibly long German words.

Long words about books in German

The best thing about the German language is that you really can put together all the necessary bits and it becomes a new, real word.

As for Buchendschmerz, well it’s just a horrible feeling, isn’t it?

(A big thanks to Tom Gauld in the Guardian earlier this year.)