Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Nine Bookish Commandments

In my previous post on Book Rage, I referred to the third rule of Reading, a guide which I have been working on to promote polite book decorum. Now, for your reading pleasure - and for the harmonious reading of books for all - I present to you... The Nine Bookish Commandments (because I couldn't think of any more). Heed these well, and you shall discover a higher plane of reading joy.

1. If thou dost borrow a book, thou shalt start reading it as soon as possible, and return it post-haste.
And, obviously, post-read. Because if someone has lent you a book, it's only polite to not hold on to it for ages and ages.

2. If thou dost lend a book, thou shalt not pester the borrower about where they are up to in it.
Because pressure is not the friend of the reader.

3. Thou shalt not start reading a book whilst someone else is reading it.
Let them finish first, dammit!

4. Thou shalt endeavour to conceal endings from those who have not quite finished yet.
Spoilers aren't cool, kids.

5. Thou shalt respect all books by reading at least 50 pages before giving up.
It's perfectly acceptable to not enjoy a book, or even want to finish it. But give it a proper try - 50 pages is a fair go.

6. Thou shalt not judge others for reading something you don't like.
So you're not into science-fiction, or romance, or whatever? That's fine - just don't make others feel bad if they are.

7. Thou shalt not interrupt a reader mid-read.
And ye shall know them by the bowed head, the vacant expression and the open book. Leave them be, for they are in a Book Trance, and to disturb could have grave consequences.

8. Thou shalt not read a book over someone's shoulder.
Lest they conk you on the nose with said book for your rudeness.

9. Thou shalt not be ashamed of thy read, if ye enjoy it.
 'Nuff said.

To disobey the Bookish Commandments will result in nothing, except perhaps a vague feeling of guilt every time you break one. But that's not the nicest feeling, so best to try and stick to 'em, just in case.

P. S. Naturally, I have disobeyed pretty much every Bookish Commandment at some point or other - but then, they didn't exist before, so technically, I was okay. Of course, from now on I'm screwed - I suffer from Catholic guilt, which means I feel guilty pretty much 99% of the time.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Book Rage - When Reading Goes Bad

Do you read? Of course you do, why would you be bothering with this old thing if you didn't at least have an appreciation for the written word? So let's assume that my question was a stupid one and agree that we're all people who like books. So I imagine that, on more than one occasion, you have found yourself nearly boiling over with rage as you encounter some book issue or other. Maybe you're annoyed at someone, or something, or even yourself, for pulling you out of whatever literary landscape you're wandering about in, forcing you back into the real world. Perhaps a book didn't end the way you wanted. Whatever gets your bookish goat, here's my (rather comprehensive) list of things that cause the red mist of Book Rage to descend on me: and I'm warning you, there's a lot here that will set me off.

1. So there I am, curled up on the sofa, or in bed, or wherever, and suddenly, someone comes in and starts a chat. I'm clearly in the Reading Position: book open, check. Eyes trained on page: check. Vacant expression on face as I'm clearly not quite 'in the room' right now: check. Yet, regardless of all this, it's apparently the perfect time for a chinwag. Don't they know that interrupting an engrossed reader is almost as dangerous as waking a sleepwalker?* Don't they understand what they might be barging into? If I want a chat, I'll come find you, but right now - I'M READING. GO AWAY.

2. Something of a subset to the above - so you're sat there, merrily reading away, not a care in the real world but plenty going on in the book world, and some bright spark asks, 'So, what're you reading?' WELL, I DON'T KNOW NOW, DO I, BECAUSE I'M NOT READING ANYMORE BECAUSE I'M HAVING TO TALK TO YOU. Oh, great, now I've lost my place and the Book Rage has got my blood up so I can't get back into it. Thanks a bunch. Doofus.

3. Public transport is, and always will be, the frenemy of the reader. Friend, because it's a great time to get stuck into a book - surely that fantasy world is a better place to be in than here, with my nose in that man's armpit, even with all the dragons and whatnot (in the book I mean, not in his armpit)? But enemy, because the better the book, the greater the possibility that you'll miss your stop, and end up in some godforsaken nowhere with only your book and that lonely figure in the shadows for company. Or, you could misjudge how long your journey is going to be, put your book away in determined anticipation that you won't miss your stop again, only to find you've put it away far too early and now you have to sit and do nothing for ages, except quietly seethe as you calculate how much you could've read if you'd timed it better. Or, even worse, you overshoot and think you can totally finish this chapter before the train arr- wait, what, we're here?! GREAT, now I have to stop in the middle of this really exciting bit because I have to negotiate getting off this damn thing. Excellent. See? Public transport - the ficklest of friends.

Me, with most books.
4. Book hangovers occur when you've been reading a book so mind-blowingly good that, when you finish, you spend up to several days after mooning around wishing you were still reading that book and regretting finishing it at all. This puts the kibosh on finding another book to read, because no other book measures up to it, meaning you spend several days bookless. Actually, the more I think about it, it's less of a book hangover and more a book break-up, but I don't like that way of describing it because then it sounds like you've had a bad experience with books, and it's actually quite the opposite. Anyway, I did touch on this subject a little while ago, but more in relation to the post-read world, and not the cause. The main gist though: you're sad when the book finishes and you can't settle on anything else to read, which sucks, because a reader without a book is like, I dunno, a hipster without a silly moustache/thick-framed glasses - something just seems off.

5. Everyone has a book they love that, inexplicably, no one else has heard of. For me, it's Company of Liars by Karen Maitland, which I talk about frequently, have mentioned several times on here, and has even made it very comfortably into my all-time favourite reads. And yet I've only ever met one other person who has read it. ONE. And that was the person who told me to read it in the first place! Okay, I get that maybe what I love, perhaps not everyone else loves - and I've made my peace with that. But it's so infuriating to find that a book you cannot stop raving about, somehow slipped under everyone else's radars - it's unfair that the author is not getting credit, and it's unfair that you haven't got anyone to talk to about it. (Incidentally, if you've got any books that you feel are underrated, head on over to, one of my favourite sites, where they are currently conducting a poll on the most underrated books - get in there quick though, it closes on 21st October).

6. Multiple Plot Syndrome, or MPS, is a condition resulting from having too many books on the go - or, as normal people might call it, being greedy. So you've come home with a great stash of new books and you can't choose which one to read first - so you compromise, and basically start them all around the same time. The result? You keep expecting the old-timey gent from Book #1 to reappear, only to realise you're on Book #4, which is about turn-of-the-century Japan, and categorically does not feature old-timey gents. And why has Book #2 stopped mentioning what happened to the wizard? Oh right, that's because the wizard is in Book #3, and of course Book #2 isn't going to mention wizards, it's set in 1930's Germany. Nice one, brains - you've just contracted MPS**.

7. Book envy. So you're reading a book, and someone else is reading a book. All is well in the world. Then, when you both reach a natural, uninterrupted break in your reads, you discuss what you're reading and oh, dear god, THEIRS SOUNDS BETTER AND I WANT IT. Suddenly, your poor book isn't good enough because whatever's going on in that one over there is where you want to be. Except you can't go there, because someone else is reading that and the third rule of book reading is "Thou shalt not start reading a book whilst someone else is reading it". So instead, you have to wait for them to finish, and in the meantime struggle through your now-inferior tome (which is doubly unfair because it was a good book before you found out about that other one).

Got your own bookish issues? Is there anything that someone can do whilst you're reading that might cause you to Hulk-out on them? Tell me - I want to know, then we can Hulk-out together.

*It's not, really. Well, maybe for the person doing the interrupting, but not the reader.
** Not a real condition, I made it up. Should be, though.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Irresistible Titles

So ever since I got a Kindle, I've been finding myself increasingly reliant on a good title; previously, I would've made some kind of judgement based on the cover (because let's face it, who doesn't?), but the issue with that and my Kindle is that it's all in black-and-white - usual tell-tale signs of books that I won't normally like (candy-colours, skinny women in heels, etc) are less obvious, and the description of the book is less accessible than on a print title. Of course, when shopping on the laptop or phone, it's far easier to see what the cover looks like, but it's still in miniature - subtle details are easily missed. A good example of this is Honeymoon for One, a book I read on holiday which features in the corner a bloody steak-knife stuck in the sand. Now, when I downloaded that book, I completely missed that little sign in the corner, so when I read it, the murder came as a bit of a surprise. Had I seen the full-size cover - say, in a shop - I might have spotted it. That's not to say it was an unwelcome surprise; on the contrary, it turned a run-of-the-mill chicklit into something a bit darker, and subsequently more interesting, but I think I would have been a little less dismissive of the book had I been aware of that plot point to begin with.

The point I'm slowly rambling towards is that, now I am purchasing more ebooks than print books, titles have greater importance to me. A good title will give you an inkling of the kind of story you're going to get - Murder in Deathsville, for example, would clearly be a crime novel, whilst Love In A Cake Shop is bound to be a chick lit (and an awful one at that). So on that note, here are some books that I think are wonderfully titled; some I have already read, and the rest are on the to-read list.

An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray
Status: Read
I love this title because it sounds so poignant. It trips off the tongue quite nicely and hints at a melancholy, bittersweet story, possibly involving some kind of sad ending for a pair of lovers, or the inevitable demise of a family member. As a matter of fact, the name is shared with a greyhound in the story who does particularly badly at an ill-fated night at the dogs for the main characters, which include an uncouth van man, a flamboyant and woefully inept heir, and his desperately miserable sister. It's a one of those books which is funny to begin with, but evolves into something far deeper, as so many of these kind-of-funny-with-a-serious-edge books do; it's a good story, but I have to admit it was certainly not the one I was expecting when I picked it up. Nevertheless, it's grown on me over time, and whilst I'll always be wondering about the novel I thought it was going to be, it'll be a long time before I part with it.

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
Status: Unread
I don't know an awful lot about this book, beyond the rather funny-in-a-sad-way first chapter (which I read in the back of Green's other novel, An Abundance of Katherines), and that it's caused something of a twitterstorm. This is a title that sounds both hopeful and warning; to me, it seems to be a reminder of the danger in having dreams, whilst acknowledging that one must have them. I can't tell you why it gives me that impression - I suppose it's more than something to do with the fact that stars seem to be irrevocably linked with dreams, and whilst it's a beautiful title, it's a bit cynical and cautionary. I certainly picked up from that first chapter that the protagonist is a cynical person - but then, she's a teenager with incurable cancer and an oxygen tank, so I suppose she has every right to be. Either way, the title caught my attention every time I saw it on a billboard or in a paper, and that first chapter has cemented my desire to read it.

And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
Status: Read
Khaled Hosseini is the master of poetical language; I've read two of his three books now (the other being the just as well-titled A Thousand Splendid Suns) and throughout both I found myself marvelling at his command of language. This, his latest offering, follows the lives of two siblings from an early age, right through to late-middle age, across three continents and with a host of supporting characters that either hinder or help them on their way through life. The title reflects this: the idea of an echo reaching across the world and down through time is a beautiful one, and there has always been something romantic about mountains (to me, anyway). It is title that conveys both the timescale and the geography of the novel, but also hints at a desperation and sadness that maybe can't be overcome. It's a great book that lives up to it's epic-sounding title, and one of the best novels I've read this year, with an added mini-story at the beginning that wouldn't be out of place in a fairytale compendium.

You know, when I first started writing this post, I had no idea it was going to be full of such melancholy-sounding titles. I'm writing this now, having finished the bulk of the post, but I just had to come back to this point and say that I genuinely wasn't expecting such sad titles. I mean, I knew which titles I would write about, but having only really been thinking about them properly now, it's only just occurring to me that they all sound quite sad! But please don't stop reading - there's some cheery ones coming up, I swear.

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
Status: Unread
Easily my favourite title at the moment, and I know nothing about the book. Well, I know it's a collection of stories, all linked together in some way, but that is it. Yet the title itself is o desperate, cautionary and vaguely menacing that I can't help but be drawn to it. I'm not a miserable person by nature; I mean, I am prone to get hangry (angry if hungry), and I've thrown some monster tantrums in my time, but mostly I love nothing more than laughing; it may sound stupidly obvious but I am genuinely happiest when sharing a joke or laughing at something. So despite what is clearly a recurring theme in this list, I don't feel a lot of love for sad books, and this, if anything, sounds like a sad book, with it's hint at not just loves lost, but relationships breaking down, couples falling apart. I've always been intrigued by the notion of what happens after the couple get together - basically, do they actually stay together, or does it all turn out to be a big mess? These are themes occasionally explored - Helen Fielding recently broke hearts of half the female population by revealing Mark Darcy is dead in the new Bridget Jones book - but I don't think they're looked at enough; romance is all very lovely, but what about fallout? That's what I think this book looks at, and that's exactly why I want to read it.

Vampires In The Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Status: Unread
In acknowledgement of the slightly emo feel to this post, I thought I'd quickly try to turn it around with this quirky-sounding book that features vampires who own a lemon grove... yeah, pretty much all the details are there in the title, so there's no mistakes to be made here in that this is meant to be a humorous title. It does have to be said that this is a collection of short stories, not a full-length novel, of which the vampire story is only one. Nevertheless, it hints at humour, a touch of horror and fantasy, maybe a bit of a whodunnit - lots of themes to get stuck into. Personally, I just like the title because it's immediately jarring - how on earth would one find night-dwelling bloodsuckers in a sunny fruit farm? Then, of course, there's the absurdity of it - phrases such as 'spiders in the bath' and 'next doors' dog in the garden' are the kind of thing everyone has said at some point, so this title is taking that banal turn of phrase and turning it on its head. Whether it's a good or bad book, this title has been stuck in my head for about six months now, and I doubt it'll be getting out any time soon - even when I read it.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Status: Read
Another saddish one I'm afraid; this tale of an alternate world in which children are reared away from parents for some initially unknown purpose is full of bittersweet nostalgia and the weary knowledge of adult life. It's another brilliantly-written novel, but my love of the title stems from the romance in it. Whilst the story itself is not fully centred on love, the feel of the title is that of a couple who desperately want to stay together - it's a heady, first-love, I-love-you-I-always-will-do-you-love-me etc thing to say, which echoes the childish nature of the first half of the novel, and the inevitable ending of the second half. I won't say any more, lest I give it away, but it's a desperately romantic title and one that has a sentiment to it that is often missing in most full books, let alone their titles.

1000 Years of Annoying The French by Stephen Clarke
Status: Read
Finishing on a cheerier note here - this is a non-fiction book, charting the often tumultuous relationship between France and England over the past millennium, and the contributing factors to each altercation we've had with our neighbours across the Channel. What I love about this title is how deliberately inflammatory it is - I actually bought it for a flight to France, and then barely read it on the plane because I was worried I might rile a French passenger. It also covers the bias in the book - obviously, the English come out on top in pretty much every historical point covered, whether it's a moral victory, or an actual one. I've read this book several times now and each time it's made me smile when I glance at the cover and think of the sheer pettiness of it - like the entire time, all we've been trying to do is wind up our Gallic chums, and succeeding at it to boot.

Well, that's it for now - if there's any titles you've always had a soft spot for, do let me know. I now love a good title almost as much as a good book these days.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Autumn Review

You may or may not have noticed, but I haven't blogged anything for a while - about 6 weeks, in fact. The whole of September I went AWOL, and the reason is that, quite simply, I'd run out of things to say. "WHAT?!" I hear friends and acquaintances cry, "YOU ran out of things to say?!" Well yes, yes I did actually - in terms of book stuff, anyway. I felt I covered everything I'd want to cover, and hadn't read anything recently that made me want to go reviewing. But recently I've been on a massive roll with some excellent reads, so I thought I'd share with you those books that I have enjoyed immensely over the summer and first weeks of autumn. So sit back, relax, and take your pick from these sumptuous books - guaranteed to help while away the impending stormy afternoons...

1. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
One for the ladies, this - it's something of a romance, charting the budding relationship between retired Major Pettigrew and Mrs Ali, the Pakistani lady who runs the local village shop. The pair have always crossed paths over the years - he as a patron to her shop - but the relationship takes a decidedly intimate turn when Mrs. Ali pops round to collect the paper-round money, just as Major Pettigrew discovers his younger brother has died. After dispensing the obligatory cup of tea for comfort, Mrs Ali quietly makes her excuses and leaves, but this is only the first in several encounters that will bind them closer together. Set against the backdrop of a quintessential English village - complete with lord-of-the-manor and infuriatingly bigoted neighbours - it's a story that is comfortingly predictable, but all the more charming for it. With a subplot involving a family squabble over a pair of matching shooting guns, it is at times almost irritatingly pastoral, but the blustery persona of the Major, paired with Mrs Ali's quiet dignity, will win you over as you wonder if they'll ever get together.

2. Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty
You've probably already heard of this one, because it's done pretty well in the charts and suchlike, and no wonder; it's a gripping tale of intrigue, deceit and mystery. The cold-open is one of the best I've read; within the first few pages, you know the narrator is in court, is being prosecuted, and has an accomplice of a sort. You join the proceedings just as the prosecution start to question the narrator - as yet an unnamed woman - about the enigmatic Apple Tree Yard, and it's immediately evident that this place, wherever it is, is about to be the undoing of our narrator. What you don't know is who she is, or whether to be sympathetic or not; you don't know who her accomplice in the dock is, or why they're there, and the whole book is the lead-up to this point, to this damning line of questioning. It's not exactly fast-paced, but the way in which information is leaked to you - a little fact here, a little story-filling there - is so well done that you never feel like you've got the whole story yet, and that contributes to a feeling of increased tension as you read. The whole time you're reading it, you're thinking, "yes, but...", and that crucial little word, "but", sums up the whole novel. I won't give away any more, but I will say this: just as you think you've got it sussed out, you'll get hit with a curveball that takes the breath out of you. Don't say I didn't warn you...

3. Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch
If you haven't discovered the PC Peter Grant novels yet, then allow me to claim the honour of being the one to do so (although I had to be introduced to them myself). This is the follow-up to Rivers of London, about a trainee wizard apprentice in a little-known department of the Metropolitan Police, is (as a friend described it), 'like Harry Potter for grown-ups'. The aforementioned Peter Grant was, in the first novel, a lowly PC on the beat, trying to work his way up the ranks. When he discovers he can see and converse with ghosts, he attracts the attention of the mysterious Inspector Nightingale, who investigates crimes with a touch of the magical about them. I liked Rivers of London well enough, but Moon Over Soho is what caught my attention; Peter is an immensely likeable, if fallible, protagonist, and his calm acceptance of the unusual world he finds himself in is contrasted nicely with the chaos that he stumbles into. Moon Over Soho features jazz vampires, human embodiments of rivers, a fair bit of black magic and a bizarre cast of characters. From time to time it feels like you're reading your bog-standard detective novel, and then it hits you with the magic element, and that's what makes this book special; it makes the impossible world of magic seem like it might just actually be true. For anyone who still hasn't quite got over not getting their Hogwarts letter, this will you a bit of hope that you might actually be a wizard, and it's just that no one has noticed yet.

4. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
This is probably a familar name, as John Green has recently published his critically-acclaimed teenage-cancer-love story, the beautifully-titled The Fault In Our Stars. Well, I heard of The Fault In Our Stars first, and so promptly bought his earlier offering, An Abundance of Katherines (because that's the kind of thing I do). This particular story is about Colin, a child genius with a penchant for dating girls named Katherine (not Catherines, Katharines, Katies or Kates - Katherines). Having just been dumped by the nineteenth Katherine, and at the same time coming to terms with the fact that he is no longer worthy of the title 'genius', Colin is suffering an identity crisis. So what do you do when your esteem is at an all-time low? Go on a road trip with your semi-religious, overweight best friend, of course. It's not so much a coming-of-age story as it is a coming-to-terms-with-yourself tale; learning to realise that your path is not set out for you from day one. For Colin, this means realising his genius status and obsessions about Katherines are not the only things that define him, but its the way he learns it that makes the novel. There's an excellent cast of characters here - no stereotypes, just a lot of people trying to work themselves out - and it's funny in a very understated way. You may not laugh, but you'll definitely smile.

5. Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman 
This is one of those odd books where you're not quite sure who it's aimed at - I suppose this would now be termed 'New Adult', a kind of sub-genre that refers to books that can be comfortably read by pretty much anyone aged 16 and up, such as The Curious Incident Of The Dog In the Nighttime. In fact, Pigeon English is very similar to Curious Incident, in that it is told from the point of view of a younger child, Harrison, and so the language is that of his age group, which can be hard to follow initially. The story begins with a community mourning the death of a murdered boy and evolves as Harrison attempts to investigate the death in his own clumsy way, only vaguely aware of the dangerous line he is treading with the menacing older boys of the estate he lives on. The story manages to capture the feeling of freedom, immortality and curiosity that all children have, whilst also cloaking the novel in a feeling of dread; you find yourself genuinely worrying for Harrison as he blindly runs around, treating everything as if it is part of a game or a TV show. It's a beautiful book, amazingly well-written and thoroughly deserving of it's Man Booker Shortlist nomination in 2011, because whilst the adult in you will worry themselves sick about Harrison's escapades, the child in you will be running around with him.

6. Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
When I first finished this book, I decided I didn't like it, although I wouldn't have been able to tell you why. But it's grown on me since then, even though I've only read it once, and I've now changed my mind and decided it's actually pretty damn good. Bernadette is a reclusive mother in a community full of people who expect involvement - pushy playground mothers, interfering neighbours and husbands with corporations that refer to themselves as 'families'. Naturally, she struggles, finding solace only in her 15-year old daughter, Bee. The really interesting aspect of this novel is that it is mostly told in a series of letters, articles and emails between various characters, which at first seem to be completely at odds with each other, but slowly intertwine to create a much bigger story. The title of the novel alludes to - as you might expect - the sudden disappearance of Bernadette, but there is more than one way for a person to disappear. It's funny in a cynical way, full of people you despise and judge for their small-minded ways, people you laugh at for their pettiness. Bernadette herself may well come under this banner, but as with everyone else, the more you learn, the more you understand. Admittedly, the clever concept of telling the story through correspondence does make it a bit hard to stick with at first - it's so bitty - but eventually you'll get into the swing of it and you'll be rewarded.

So there you go - a bit of something there for everyone, I think. Let me know if you do give any of these a read - I'd love to know your thoughts!