Monthly Archives: February 2012

Book Based Magazines

Reviews are coming I promise, I am just getting back in the swing of reading after a particularly bad phase of readers block. Readers block is always a bit of a nightmare and one of the things that can cure it is what my post is about today… book magazines.

I do like a good book magazine and whenever I come across one be it in the library or one of the local book shops. I love reading all the reviews, like I like reading the broadsheets and blogs, in the magazines and the author interviews, features – I just love the buzz about books that I have once I have finished reading one. It is that love of books which comes off the pages and the celebrate of old and new books within these magazine pages that makes me want to run off and read as many books as I can as soon as I can.

I should mention here that I do on occasion write for some, though I always ignore the bits I have written, however recently I have been asked if I might like to do more than just contribute one. Would I be interested in co-founding and editing a new one? Well you know how I love a new bookish project and working with other people on these (hence the joys of The Green Carnation Prize, The Readers and Bookmarked Literary Salon which I have loved working with my lovely co-founders on) so I am currently mulling the whole idea over.

My initial reaction is to say yes, because its more bookish stuff, but I also have a few reservations. In part because I am quite busy with the above mentioned projects but also because it’s going to be an online and download only magazine and I am not sure (and I have told them this so they won’t be shocked if they see it on here) we need one. You could say the more the merrier, but with the world of book blogs being so huge, and the fact a new one seems to start every other week – which I am all for, is there room for another online something? I’d like to think there is but I am not quite sure maybe one more is too many, mind you when I think about the amount of women’s monthly magazines maybe I am wrong?

So I thought I would use you all as guinea pigs and see what you thought (and help me make a decision)? Do you think in this digital world we have going on there is room for another bookish magazine be it online? If we do, what prey tell would you like to see in it? What contributors and what features would you be interested in and what authors? Would a bloggers section be good? Which book magazines do you like and why? Which book sections in general magazines do you love? Does anyone know what’s happened to Waterstones Quarterly?

Your thoughts and advice would be marvellous as always (though I don’t want you thinking I am abusing you as market research, you love books so I am interested), after all I asked you all about podcasts and you know what happened then…

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Speaking of Books…

I think this might be like buses, I don’t see books about books very often and then three come along in quick succession, but which one to read? Last week I told you about ‘Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!’ and ‘The Library Book’ and then in the library I found another gem caught my eye, appropriately titled ‘Speaking of Books’.

I haven’t heard of the editors Rob Kaplan and Harold Rabinowitz before, but apparently they have another book like this called ‘A Passion for Books’ which may need seeking out. Initially I thought it was simply going to be lots of quotes about ‘the best things ever said about books and book collecting’ from many of the greats of reading, which is the actual premise. However it has been done in a wonderful way where the quotes come in forms of categories. We have ‘in praise of books’, ‘bibliomania’, ‘the enemies of books’ etc, etc each with their own introduction and discussions on how they can be applied to the avid reader and book lover.

The section entitled ‘what to read’ is the one I have had a chance to devour so far, because I was stuck on what to read, and what could be more helpful than quotes like…

‘A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.’ Dr. Samuel Johnson

‘Choose an author as you choose a friend.’ Wentworth Dillon

‘Read the best books first, or you may not have the chance to read them at all.’ Henry David Thoreau

I have to admit I have no idea who those three people are, but what they say certainly makes sense. Winston Churchill himself seems to sum up the idea behind this very book (clearly he knew this book would be produced someday) when he says…

‘It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations… The quotations when engraved upon the memory can give you good thoughts. They also make you anxious to read the authors and look for more.’

Well who could argue with that?

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The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

I normally avoid books that are getting either a lot of hype in the book world in general or suddenly appearing in a flurry of rapturous reviews on book blogs. I am not sure quite why this is, but it is indeed the case. ‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey has been one such book, rumblings about it started at the end of last year when proofs went out, then it got chosen for the Waterstones 11 and in the last few weeks I have seen it mentioned, with rave reviews, on several book blogs I visit. I have to admit had it not been for the fact that Gavin and I are interviewing Eowyn for The Readers tonight I would have left it a while, instead I am now going to add to the glowing reviews that you may well have already come across here, there and everywhere. This is a marvellous book.

Headline Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 432 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

I have always been a fan of fairytales for adults. Books which spell bind you as an older, wiser reader and yet in some way bring back the comfort, endless magical possibility and thrills of your early reading years. Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel ‘The Snow Child’ is a prime example of a writer getting the mix of these two elements just right. Ivey takes the reader on a rather magical journey in Alaska in 1920, cleverly though she actually gives the book a timeless feel, as apart from a few famous authors of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s which feature in the book this could actually have been set at any period in the remote snowy wilderness, more on that later, lets discuss the story first.

 Jack and Mabel are a married couple who since the still birth of their first and only child have been drifting apart in their own separate insular isolated worlds within the very real world of isolation that is the Alaskan wilderness. This was meant to be the place that made them, a place where they started a whole new life together. Now in their 50’s what was once paradise has become a snowy frozen wasteland and not just in terms of their surroundings but also their emotions. Neither feels that they have a bond with the other, all the unspoken things becoming chasms rather than cracks in their relationship. Mabel in particular, who wanted this so much, if not the most, seems to be dealing with all of this the worst.

‘They were going to be partners, she and Jack. This was going to be their new life together. Now he sat laughing with strangers when he hadn’t smiled at her in years.’

One night however things change, thanks to a random snowball fight which proved to be one of the most moving scenes I have read in years (you need to read it to believe it – I admit I welled up), and the couple decide to build a snowman, only soon they have created a snow girl, yet the next morning it has vanished, replaced by a trail of a child’s footsteps from where it stood leading into the forest. It is not long after this that Jack and Mabel start to see, initially always in the peripheral, glimpses of a young girl and a fox dashing through the fields and woods near their house, they even separately start to talk to her. Could they have magically somehow created a child of their own from snow?

I will leave the plot at that point for fear of spoilers. I will say that Eowyn Ivey plays a very clever game of making the reader wonder if this girl could be real or not early on as when she does start to speak back it is never in quotation marks it is just inserted in the narrative. Could this therefore be a figment of this couples imagination or their way of dealing with grief, after all the other locals (including the wonderful Esther) have never seen this young girl and they have lived there longer and therefore must know everything. Also, because we get the internal dialogues of Jack and Mabel as the reader while they themselves barely communicate with one another, we wonder all the more.

Another clever device in Eowyn Ivey’s tale was including the Russian fairytale ‘Snegurochka’ (which inspired Arthur Ransom’s ‘The Little Daughter of the Snow’, which inspired Eowyn to write this novel itself) in the book as a favourite tale of Mabel’s as a child. She couldn’t read the language, but she could certainly understand the illustrations of this tragic children’s bedtime story. That tale too is of a man and woman, unable to have children, creating a girl out of snow, but could this mean that Mabel already knows the fate her snow child’s before her life has truly begun? If of course she exists.

If I have made that sound complicated I apologise as it’s not at all, it is all woven together wonderfully and this leads me to Eowyn Ivey’s writing which is second to none, and what a storyteller too. When I started the book I was thinking ‘how on earth is this going to last over 400 pages’ but it whizzed by, no saggy dragged out middle and most importantly no endless descriptions of snow. Without ever over egging the snowy pudding and mentioning snow every other word the cold atmosphere is always present but never mentioned too much. In fact I have probably mentioned snow much more in every sentence of this review than Eowyn does in the book herself. That said when she does its beautiful, especially in the dreams that haunt Mabel. A possible sign of cabin fever closing in?

‘Snowflakes and naked babies tumbled through her nights. She dreamed she was in the midst of a snowstorm. Snow fell and gusted around her. She held out her hands and snowflakes landed on her open palms. As they touched her skin, they melted into tiny, naked newborns, each wet baby no bigger than a fingernail. Then wind swept them away, once again just snowflakes among a flurry of thousands.’

I think the best thing which Eowyn Ivey did for me on top of all the above (this sounds like a gushing review because it is, I can find no real fault with the book at all) was that I really cared about all her characters, especially Jack and Mabel. With so much time to think and so little distraction they often reflect on their lives leading to this point. We, as the reader, are then given their background through these reflections and can see how much they loved each other, how it has all changed since and of course how it changes after the snow child appears. I really cared about them and hoped beyond all hope that this fairytale might have a happy ending for all concerned. Does it? Well, you would have to read the book to find out.

I was enjoying ‘The Snow Child’ so much from the start that I did something I hardly ever do. Rather than read it in chunks when I could, I simply devoted almost a whole day to it. I could have saved it and made it last, but sometimes you have to think ‘stuff that’ and just get lost in it all. So I did and read the book in pretty much one go just gorging on it. Now that is the sign of a truly magical book, I was completely spellbound… apart from having to pop the heater on and making the occasional hot drink as the snow really does feel like it’s coming off the page. This is a highly, highly recommended read.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Eowyn Ivey, Headline Review, Review

World Book Night Returns with ‘Rebecca’

Many apologies if the jubilations yesterday evening woke you up, or disturbed you, wherever you may be. I think most of the people in the local vicinity of where I reside will no doubt already be aware that I got picked to give out Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’, my favourite book of all time so far, for World Book Night on the 23rd of April. To say I was beyond thrilled would be something of an understatement.

I really enjoyed the experience last year when I gave away many a copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, one of my favourite contemporary novels, at Christies Hospital (which specialises in cancer) last year. Without dumbing down that experience I have to say I even more excited that I can now share my very favourite read with 25 unsuspecting people, and know that they will have several hundred pages of utter reading delight ahead of them. The only questions now are where to give them out and how?

 

As ‘Rebecca’ is such a special read to me, as you may know, I really want to do something rather different. My initial idea was to dress as Mrs Danvers, but I decided that might actually freak people out (and while I have lost a good three stone in the last few months, Polly of Novel Insights didn’t recognise me initially when we last met up, I don’t think I have the austere willowy figure Danvers requires) and that might have them running away without the book rather than running off to read it. Second thought was to give the book out at a suitably Manderley old house, yet I am not sure a stately home’s clientele are going to be hard up for money to buy a copy of it, and I do want to spread the Daphers and bookish love to those who might not have the opportunity to have read it for whatever reason. Hmmm, there’s something to puzzle over a while. I do have a good few weeks though.

For now I will just revel in the warm happiness of knowing I am giving the book away, and keep brainstorming. If you have any ideas for a way of me appropriately giving ‘Rebecca’ away then do let me know. Have any of you been chosen, and if so what are you planning to do? Any stories, or ideas, if you gave books away last year are also welcome.

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Daphne Du Maurier, World Book Night

The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters Between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill 1952-73 edited by John Saumarez Smith

There is nothing worse than a book funk, those dreaded times where no matter what you might have on your bookshelves/at the library/in the local charity shop nothing, but nothing, seems to tempt you. Thank goodness then for friends’ bookshelves, as spotting ‘The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street’ the other day I begged and pleaded to borrow a copy, now they might be begging and pleading for it back. I mean seriously, how could a book combining Nancy Mitford, books and bookshops go wrong?

Francis Lincoln Publishers, paperback, 2005, non fiction, 192 pages, kindly lent by a friend

I have to say initially ‘The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street’ made me feel like a bit of a Mitford ignoramus. How did I have no idea that Nancy Mitford had owned part of a bookshop when I am such a fan? I had a good think about it and a vague memory came to me from ‘Letters Between Six Sisters’ that she does actually mention working in one. 10 Curzon Street was that bookshop and though she owned it in some part for some time and it became known as ‘Nancy Mitford’s Bookshop’ the owner was actually Heywood Hill (which sounds like a place but is in fact a man). This book is a collection of edited snippets of their correspondence through two decades, an utter joy for a Mitford fan like me.

Being a writer, a lover of literature and having worked in a bookshop Nancy Mitford makes an interesting correspondent to start with. Throw in her wit and the fact that she mingled in some of the most interesting society in London and Paris as a Mitford sister and you have insight into so many worlds, written in such a way that you cannot help be fascinated whilst smiling wryly. Who else read and yet knew Evelyn Waugh, and many other authors of the times, so well? Apparently Heywood Hill as it goes, close friend of Nancy and the likes of Ivy Compton Burnett, and so the sparing of these two literary lovers, who also happen to be at the heart of the literary world at the time, is any book lovers dream.

‘It’s like with Mr Maugham who calls me Nancy and I always feel I can’t get out Willie… Oh for an amusing novel – no not Henry Green, not yet at least. How I wish I could get on with Miss Compton Burnett but it’s my blind spot. So I plod on with St. Simon, such a nice readable edition, Racine, which, on account of the notes, is as good as Punch.’

My one slight issue with the book is that whilst it is called ‘letters between’ it’s actually very much ‘edits of letters between – with notes’. None of the full letters actually appear in the book, it’s very much just tasters of the best bits. The positive of this of course is that we get the highlights, yet unlike having read so many of her full letters Nancy Mitford could describe walking to the shop or some other every day event in an immensely readable and funny way, it seemed a shame these day to day comments were cut. It also annoyed me and yet intrigued me to read John Saumarez Smith’s notes and the regular mention of a collection of Mitford’s letters called ‘Love from Nancy’ when he didn’t include them, I wanted to read them there and then but alas don’t own them, which of course needs to be rectified. I liked the highlights as I said, yet I wanted more and not just simply the snippets we get. You read a bit and want the rest.

‘…I would like a book plate, simply Nancy Mitford like the Baskerville Bible title pages, lots of squiggles. Could you ponder…?’
‘…Oh isn’t it lovely [the bookplate]… Can we start with 500 or do I have to stoke up for life? Goodness what a sticking and licking there’ll be – yes please, gum…’

That aside I think John Saumarez Smith does a good job with editing this collection of letters. He explains the background behind Nancy and Heywood’s interesting relationship as business partners (‘do let’s divorce’ Nancy wrote at one time) and thanks to a great introduction, best read after you have finished the book as always I think, plus footnotes and commentary between some of the letters to explain what was going on in Nancy or Heywood’s life, we get more insight into the underlying tones of the words and where some of the in jokes, which are never too exclusive, are directed.

I came away feeling I knew Nancy Mitford all the more, well as much as anyone can ever know one of their sadly deceased icons, through these letters of a friendship that lasted decades. Best of all there were times when certain things she wrote particularly struck a chord with me and that can be a rarity and feels all the more special in the instances where it happens.

‘You know my flat and now there’s not room for another bookcase. Every month I give at least 20 books to “the students” who come for them with a sack – many French writers now send me their books, with fulsome dedicaces all of which go in the sack! Unread of course…’

I really, really, really enjoyed ‘The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street’, being a fan of all things Mitford it bowled me over far more than Helene Hanff’s ’84 Charing Cross Road’ which I enjoyed but actually now think is slightly inferior to this collection of letters (though that is more personal taste and love of Nancy) and deserves to be as well read frankly. If you are a lover of the Mitford’s, and Nancy in particular, then you simply must read this book. I would also strongly suggest any lover of books to give this one a whirl; though maybe try a Mitford novel first for a flavour of the style of wit you are getting, as she might not be for everyone. I really must order ‘The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh’ back out from the library pronto.

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Filed under Books About Books, Books of 2012, Francis Lincoln Publishers, Heywood Hill, John Saumarez Smith, Nancy Mitford

Was This You?

I know you all love books but I had no idea that you would all rush out to where my hundreds of culled books went and raid it…

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I mean the least you could have done is pop for a coffee!

On a serious note the story is a sad one, I mean who would actually raid a charity shop, disgraceful. I did though have visions of all of you rushing into my local book charity shop (which isn’t the one that got raided) with empty bags going bonkers. Of course I know you would pay for your wares! It just made me think of you all.

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The Pleasures of Men – Kate Williams

I have dragged my heels about sharing my thoughts about Katie Williams’ debut novel ‘The Pleasures of Men’ and have kept putting it off. I first became aware of the book when it caught my eye in a book shop window. The cover alone suggested this would be a very ‘me’ book; it looked Victorian, gothic and murderous – lovely. The more I found out about it the more I thought I would like it, a neo-Victorian novel written by a historian on the field and with a serial killer. Should have been my perfect read shouldn’t it? Sadly, not so.

Michael Joseph, trade paperback, 2012, fiction, 400 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Catherine Sorgeuil has moved from the delights of Richmond to London’s East End to live with her uncle under some mysterious circumstances. As she does a series of murders by ‘The Man of Crows’ starts occurring in the East End. As the story goes on the murders become more frequent and more bloody thirsty and Catherine starts to believe, while starting to write her own crime novel, that she has some connection to the murderer and may be able to catch him. We also start to learn bit by bit why Catherine is living with her uncle and her own dark past starts to come to light.

Before I go any further I should stipulate that I wanted to absolutely love this book. It had all the elements that would make a ‘cracking read’ for me. Whilst it did have some moments of brilliance I found myself left very cold by it. I pondered initially if it was the fact that because Catherine as a narrator was so mysterious, and Williams slowly showing and telling all Catherine’s secrets, I didn’t really connect with her, and that I do think was part of it. I also couldn’t initially, and was still left a little non plussed at the end, as to why she became so obsessed with ‘The Man of Crows’ apart from it being Williams way of linking the story of a serial killer with a woman in the Victorian times and discussing the society and women’s place in it at the time.

This leads to Kate Williams main strengths. As a historian she knows the Victorian period and so London during that period does live and breathe. She has chosen the darker seedier side of it which is always fascinating and titillating to read, though it’s also rather disturbing as some of the book is incredibly graphic – a small warning should you avoid books like this. There are some brilliant set pieces with theatres and magicians that are wonderfully realised. Yet there are some pieces, such as a visit to a home for foundlings which seem to simply be there for the sake of showing more society issues, it’s all well and good but haven’t we read this before?

Kate Williams has been compared to Sarah Waters, possibly for the aspect of the story which involves lesbianism in the Victorian period. That to me is where the similarities end. Kate Williams can clearly write, and she is an extremely successful biographer, but ‘The Pleasures of Men’ can fall into over writing. I saw the intent was to make the book have a claustrophobic feel and yet the fact chapters started with ‘my hands were cold, as if they had been buried in damp soil’ or ‘that night my mind burnt with plans and I could not sleep’ and ‘I slammed the door of Princess Street as if I had been chased there by demons’ became overkill. Maybe Williams felt that as Catherine starts to write her own book in the book, or notes of deduction, she felt that Catherine must be a wordy narrator, or maybe as a debut novel she was trying to prove something.

Interestingly though, and to make sure this is a fair assessment of my thoughts on the novel, when Kate writes about the victims of ‘The Man of Crows’ the book excels. These are intermittent chapters in each victim’s life before she meets her untimely end and yet in that single chapter Williams wonderfully evokes their circumstances, thoughts and their back story. I wanted more of this.

Whilst I didn’t love ‘The Pleasures of Men’ I liked some of it and I will be interested to see what Kate Williams does next. With her knowledge of the era I wonder if I should read some of her non-fiction and see how I get along with that. In many ways this book has elements of a very unusual neo-Victorian novel, sadly it didn’t quite grip me but that could be because I had over hyped the book in my head and was so excited about it maybe? If you like novels of this genre, or in that era I would say give it a try, lots of people (like Fleur Fisher, whose review tantalised me all the more) have really enjoyed this. I am still in two minds about it, but I did finish it which says something. I still think the cover is utterly stunning.

Phew, there that’s out there, hopefully if a little negative I have backed my feelings up. Who else has read this and what did you think? Which books have you been really excited about and then have fallen flat, and why? Do you think, as readers, we can over hype a book we are excited about in our heads and therefore almost ruin the experience for ourselves a little? As ever I am interested in your thoughts on all the above questions.

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Filed under Kate Williams, Michael Joseph Publishing, Penguin Books, Review