Lately, it’s been raining a lotta lot. It’s been cold and grey and cloudy a lotta lot.
On the one hand: it’s great weather for cosy, snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug reading. It’s great weather for big, baggy, woolly jumpers – my favourite things to wear. It’s great weather for cuddles with cats. It’s great for cheeky hot chocolates and holier than thou herbal teas. It’s great for baths so hot they turn my ghost-white skin a radioactive-pink. It’s great for morning runs that leave my lungs fresh and clean, but my legs unable to cope with stairs. It’s great for irridescent road rainbows shining, bleeding, and swirling across tarmac. It’s great for lazy lie ins spent listening to the drum of raindrops against lush leaves and blooming petals.
On the other hand: it’s Juuuuune.
*folds away summer dresses and cries tears that turn to ice in the air*
I don’t know how to write about them. My brain and fingertips can’t articulate the horrible weirdness of them. Each time I try, I’m just left with sentences of gobbledygook and paragraphs I can’t find my way back out of.
*takes a deep breath*
… a book.
Always the answer to any of life’s problems.
I found a copy of The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico in a charity shop on a rainy day last week. I was meant to be out buying lunch, but secondhand retail therapy called to all the corners of my soul and I’m very glad it did, even if my empty stomach was less happy about the distraction.
It’s a beautiful short story. Haunting in a magical, heart-breaky kinda way. Weird, strange, and unusual in the same heart-breaky way.
But as much as it might break your heart a little bit, it will mend it more.
Ever since watching a BBC documentary in August last year, ever since reading but not loving Nights at the Circus in September (review here), I’ve known.
I knew, deep down in my bones, that one day I would fall in love with an Angela Carter book.
All I had to do was find the one.
And I found it, second time lucky.
The Magic Toyshop follows the story of fifteen year old Melanie and her younger siblings as they try to come to terms with their new lives under the tyrannical guardianship of their eccentric Uncle Philip. It’s strange and bizarre, eery, grotesque, macabre, and uncanny – but I loved it. Truly, madly, and deeply.
And I can’t even explain why. I get halfway through reasoned, rational arguments for why I think it’s such a good book and then my brain short circuits until the only words left inside it are I JUST LOVED IT WITH MY WHOLE HEART and little puffs of smoke appear out of my ears.
So, I think the only way forward for this 100% biased and love blind review is for me to get out some trusty old bullet points.
The writing – it’s beautiful, lush, and completely hypnotic.
The sixties – the story was set in the present day at the time of its publication, so say hello to sixties England. In a way, the story itself is kind of timeless, but subtle details that ground the book in its era – corduroy trousers, p.v.c. jackets, a fleeting Mini – are there if you keep your eyes peeled. Initially, the sixties felt like an unnatural setting for this kind of story, but by the end I wouldn’t have wanted it set in any other decade. It turns out that magical realism and corduroy trousers go surprisingly well together.
The world building – although it’s set in sixties London, the toyshop itself feels like a separate universe. It’s creepy and unsettling and you’re never really sure if real-world rules apply.
Melanie – she’s not the easiest character to understand and errs on the side of self absorption (is there any other way to err at fifteen?), but you can tell she has a good heart by the way she looks after her siblings and helps her aunt. She goes from riches to orphaned rags and learns to take it in her stride.
Finn – again, not the easiest character to understand, but he has an impish spirit and strange fieriness that not even the monstrous Uncle Philip can keep down.
The relationships – there’s attraction and intrigue, revulsion and indifference, sweet affection and twisted obsession, hatred, love, and fear. In other words, there are feelings floating about all over the place and it’s hard not to get caught up in Carter’s emotional sorcery, even if it is all a bit (a lot) weird.
I could go on and on, but I think it’s for the best if I stop before the whole short-circuiting-smoke-from-ears thing starts.
Eleven years before the scheduled Armageddon, two world-loving other-worldly creatures – one a demon, the other an angel – accidentally misplace the antichrist with a little help/hindrance from a scatter-brained satanic nun. Chaos ensues – with all the forces of heaven, hell, and a village in Oxfordshire trying to keep up as the appointed dayeth and hour draws near.
So a book written by both of them about the end of the world?
Well, it sounded pretty perfect to me.
Plus, with a TV adaptation of Good Omens set to be released later this month – trailer here – now felt like the ideal time to dip my toe into this epic co-authoring waters.
And it was pretty perfect.
Once I got into its absurdly wonderful flow it was hard not to fall head over heels in love with how ridiculous it all was.
Clearly, Gaiman and Pratchett had a lot of fun writing the book. Ninety-nine percent of the time that translated as fun to read. One percent of the time, though, and I feel like killjoy R.P. Tyler* for saying this, it translated as slightly irritating because the storyline seemed to lose out to a two/three/four paragraphs long (plus a detailed footnote) gag. Hence** the pretty before the perfect.
Good Omens is definitely a Marmite kind of book – you’ll love it or you’ll hate it depending on your sense of humour. It’s very British, very Monty Pythonesque, very weird and wacky, very over the top, and very unapologetic for it.
I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
*my favourite secondary (maybe thirdondary, possibly even fourthondary) character. There are loads of these brilliant minor characters throughout the book.
**yes, I used the word hence. Yes, I am a hundred years old.
And finally, can we all just take a moment to appreciate Poppy, my wonderful photography assistant…
Ok, so maybe scared isn’t exactly the right word – intimidated by is probably a more accurate description for how I feel about these books.
Maybe I shouldn’t admit to being scared by the thought of reading certain books on a bookish blog – words are just words, stories are just stories, a book is a book is a book – but here I am, book-heart on sleeve, confessing that I do actually get nervous of reading sometimes.
Don’t judge me.
These are my top three intimidated-by reads:
It by Stephen King – one word: clowns. I am petrified of clowns – to the point where it actually makes me uncomfortable simply having a copy of the book in my house. Just those eyes peeping through the drain on the front cover scare me. *shudders* And I also worry, in the middle of the night when my brain has nothing better to do but try and freak me out, that the clowns might get out of the pages and cause evil clown mayhem (although I do accept that this is very unlikely to happen). There’s part of me that thinks reading It could be like exposure therapy and cure me of the fear, but there’s a bigger part of me that thinks it might scar me for life. Why oh why oh why did I buy a copy?
A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin – I read A Game of Thrones a few years ago and really enjoyed it. But there’s something about A Clash of Kings that means no matter how many times I take it off the shelf I always end up putting it back again. I just don’t think my attention span is long enough at the moment to keep track of all the deaths, all the scheming, all the characters (new and old), figuring out who’s on whose side and whether that’s even the side they’re really on, and figuring out whose side I’m even on. Basically, whenever it comes to picking what book to read next, there’s always something shorter and less complicated waiting in the wings.
Jonathon Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – one thousand and six pages. One. Thousand. And six. Pages. It’s abso-bloody-lutely humongous and the font is the teeniest tiniest font ever used in the history of the whole entire universe. I don’t really think I need to say any more as to why I’m scared to read this. I’m not a quick reader at the best of times, so this is going to take me ages when I’m finally brave enough to delve in.
I haven’t given up on my hopes of reading these three one day – it’s just that, so far, they’ve failed to win me over when the “what to read next?” monster comes to town.
One day, though, I’m sure they’ll conquer my scared book heart.
Do you have any books that sit on your TBR shelf like this? Or have you read any of these three? What were they like if you have? Will I die of a clown related panic attack if I read It?
I put off reading Room by Emma Donoghue for a long, long time because, in all honesty, I was a scaredy cat. Good review after good review, recommendation after recommendation, newspaper articles, magazine features, literary awards, a film adaptation, more awards, an oscar – and still my brain said no. nope. absolutely not.
One teeny tiny room.
Why escape to confinement when there are whole wide worlds to explore instead?
But eventually I was convinced to give it a go by my friend laurenabbeybooks and I’m so glad she persuaded me (it took a good few months of whispered book chat between questions at the pub quiz). Room isn’t an easy book about a happy subject and it’s certainly claustrophobic at points, but the way you get to watch the world unfold in front of Jack’s unbelieving 5-year-old eyes is pretty special. He’s such an endearing character – infuriating and wonderful all at the same time – you can’t help but root for him and his Ma all the way, right from the bottom of your heart.
‘I see a big stack of suitcases all colours like pink and green and blue, then an escalator. I just step on for a second but I can’t step back up, it zooms me down down down and it’s the coolest thing and scary as well, coolary, that’s a word sandwich, Ma would like it.’
I thought Room would be a confinement. Instead, it made the real world seem even wider, even bigger, and even better. It made it coolary.
And a book that makes the real world feel more coolary is always the best sort of book.
The last few weeks have rushed passed in a blur and they’ve involved a lot less reading than I would have liked, but I’ve been making my way through a few slowly, slowly.
I’ve been trying to keep track of little snippets from each one – too often I read books without stopping to make a note of the pearls of wisdom in them, pearls that I know I’ll want to refer back to but always, inexplicably, think I’ll be able to remember. (The only reason I think I’ll be able to remember them is because I forget that I have a terrible, terrible memory.)
But I actually managed to take notes this month. And I didn’t even lose the notes.
Miracles can happen.
I narrowed the quotes down to these fabulous, and kind of random, four. They just spoke to my messy old soul for some reason. I hope you like them too.
‘I remain a curious cosmonaut through my own tiny mind.’ – page 229, Pure by Rose Cartwright. I loved this book and can’t recommend it highly enough. It made me cry, made me laugh proper belly laughs, and made me marvel at just how much unnecessary pain our brains are able to put us through. We should all stay curious cosmonauts – through our minds and through every day of our lives.
‘Never leave a void where something may be written.’ – page 289, The Maker of Swans by Paraic O’Donnell. This sentence stopped me in my tracks. It sparked something in my brain and felt like a call to arms. A call to create.
‘More than half the skill of writing lies in tricking the book out of your own head.’ – page 42, A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett. Ah, Sir Terry. He just knew how to sum things up perfectly, because that is exactly what writing feels like – whether it’s writing a book or, although maybe this is just me, a blog post. There is some super weird magic/curse stuff going on and I’m not sure I will ever understand it. I just wish I could trick words out of my head more often.
And randomly, on the subject of stretch marks, from How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran – ‘Puberty is like a lion that has raked me with its claws as I try to outrun it.’ I’m pretty sure most women will remember the moment they noticed their first stretch marks as a teenager. Personally, I was horrified. It absolutely felt like being attacked by the claws of a horrible life/time lion, and I was totally, 100%, definitely not okay with it. Random jaggedy red lines appearing all of a sudden across my hips and the tops of my thighs? No thank you, life. But apparently – and annoyingly – the lion of life doesn’t take into consideration what you want or don’t want. Which I still don’t really think is fair, but oh well. *sighs*
Hopefully I’ll keep on keeping track of quotes and keep on keeping track of where the notebook for them is, so I have some wisdom-pearls to share for April too.
It’s only a few more days until winter is officially over here, and I am so, so ready to say goodbye to it. Readier than I have ever been. I’ve tried to embrace the last few months, tried to get on board with the constant tingle of cold gnawing at my bones. I’ve tried to appreciate sludgy snow, biting winds, silver grey skies, short sharp days, and spattering rain; tried to embrace my inner ice queen. I have so, so tried. Really and truly.
But my heart wants spring now, right this very minute, more than it has ever wanted spring before.
I want blooming flowers and zesty bright greens. I want long, long days and I want evenings spent laughing in slowly, gently, softly dying light. I want to lounge in warm, golden sunshine with a book, blossom tumbling from the trees, bees humming through the air. I want strawberries that are fresh and juicy and sweet. I want floaty dresses and flip flops. I even want SPF 50 sunscreen.
There’s just the matter of those tricksy few more days to get through.
I’ll be spending them how I’ve tried to spend the rest of winter: walking off the cold, walking off the grey, walking off the cabin fever.
And, of course, there’ll be the odd bit of reading thrown in too.
I love spoilers. With an embarrassingly large amount of my heart.
Maybe (probably) I’m some sort of deranged control freak who can’t handle surprises. Maybe I’m sabotaging a good, much needed workout for my little grey cells. Maybe I don’t have any little grey cells.
All I know is that spoilers – for books, films, tv dramas (and can somebody give me a few for real life, pretty please, I beg of you) – make me happy but seem to make other people sad, annoyed, and/or makes them stick their fingers in their ears whilst singing desperate lalala songs.
I can only marvel at the self control spoiler-haters have.
Because I have none.
Or, at least, that’s what I’d always thought.
Rewind to last Saturday.
4am saw me attempting to pack a backpack, drink a cup of tea, eat toast, and put on makeup all at the same time. The first three activities went relatively well, but the fourth really, really did not – as became apparent when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the afternoon (to be fair, there was never going to be much hope for my face with a 4am start to the day). 4.45am saw me driving painfully slowly through thick, soupy fog to Bournemouth station, praying not only for x-ray vision but that I’d actually make it to the station before the coach left. 5.15am saw me out of breath but tucked up successfully on a seat. 8am saw me blinking up, dazed and confused, into the bright blue sky outside Victoria coach station in London.
9.50am saw me on sunwashed steps outside the Faber Academy, legs a little shaky, heart a little fast.
I was there for their ‘Start To Write’ course and although I’ve been chipping away at writing a novel for years and years and yet more (painful) years, I had never written in a very structured way, in an educational setting, or with other people before. Hence the shaky legs and achy heart.
I felt very scruffy and under prepared – just my default setting for all of life really.
For the course, everyone in the group had brought along a copy of their favourite novel (I’d taken The Hobbit). The lady next to me had brought a copy of The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey and from the moment she started describing the story I was fascinated.
‘Marion Sharpe and her mother seem an unlikely duo to be found on the wrong side of the law. Quiet and ordinary, they have led a peaceful and unremarkable life at their country home, The Franchise. Unremarkable, that is, until the police turn up on their doorstep with a demure young woman. Not only does Betty Kane accuse them of kidnap and abuse, she can back up her claim with a detailed description of the attic room in which she was kept, right down to the crack in its round window. But there’s something about Betty Kane’s story that doesn’t quite add up.’
Cue a round of oohs and aahs from my brain.
After the course, I strolled in golden sunshine to Covent Garden for a mooch around the shops. Of course, I ended up in a bookshop. Of course, I found and bought a copy of The Franchise Affair.
And then I broke a habit of a life time.
I didn’t research the book. I didn’t go on a plot synopsis search like some sort of spoiler possessed hunter tracking its story prey. I didn’t skip to the last few pages. I just opened the book and went in blind.
And it was fine.
Infuriating – oh so infuriating; three days of pain, of little angry roars from the bottom of my lungs, of opened then closed Google tabs – but totally fine. Totally. (I could have cried.)
Although the conclusion of the story was 99% certain from the outset, the hows and whys and nitty gritty details were enjoyable to see unfold throughout the book rather than in the paragraphs of its wikipedia page. Who even knew?
I’m not a born again spoiler-free convert, but I think I might just be able to restrain myself for one or two more books in the weeks ahead. Just one or two.
So if anybody needs me over the next few days, I’ll be the one in the corner practising my lalala song.
It tells the story of Tiziano Terzani – an Italian journalist based in Asia for Der Spiegel throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s – and how he spent 1993 travelling Asia and Europe without stepping foot on a plane, having been warned against air travel in that year by a fortune-teller in Hong Kong sixteen years before.
‘It was an excellent decision, and 1993 turned out to be one of the most extraordinary years I have ever spent: I was marked for death, and instead I was reborn.’
This is such a wonderful and surprising book. Terzani’s understanding of the political (and cultural) histories, systems, and workings of countries in the far east of Asia were unrivalled – and if stories of the political/cultural workings in 1990s Asia don’t sound particularly interesting (it’s what I would have thought, too), then think again. They’re fascinating. The information and technologies he describes might be outdated, but the stories behind them are compelling and important, and they still shape the geo-politics of today.
Terzani himself is a compelling character throughout the book. He had plenty of frank opinions which he wasn’t afraid to share, especially regarding the thoughtless consumption and reckless materialism he saw engulfing every corner of the world. At times, I rolled my eyes; at others, I found myself never wanting to step inside a shop again (which is slightly inconvenient, seeing as I work in one). And his ability to spot and tell a story were incredible – pretty enviable, too. The book comes to life in all the tiny details he could so easily have ignored but didn’t. One of my favourite stories is barely two lines long, from page twenty-seven: ‘…during the war every time the Pathet Lao crossed a river, the last man in the patrol had to turn back and call to a non-existent comrade. The Spirit of the River habitually carries off the last in the line, and in that way the guerillas hoped to deceive it.’ The whole book is teeming with anecdotes like these, and I loved them all. My copy is full of dog-eared pages and pencil scribbles in the margins.
‘Every place is a goldmine. You have only to give yourself time, sit in a teahouse watching passers-by, stand in a corner of the market, go for a haircut. You pick up a thread – a word, a meeting, a friend of a friend of someone you have just met – and soon the most insipid, most insignificant place becomes a mirror of the world, a window on life, a theatre of humanity.’
A Fortune-Teller Told Me is an extraordinary blend of the magical, the momentous, and the mundane. On every page, the world is changing. On every page, the world is weird and wide and wonderful. It might be from 1993, but this is a book that still has a lot in common with the world of today.