A few changes to Girl, Reading…

I’ve been doing a bit of thinking over the past week and have decided to make a few little tweaks to my blog, which I hope will make it easier to navigate and also add some new interest for all you lovely people who keep coming back week after week to read my scribblings (thank you btw!)

Firstly, I’ve had some really positive feedback about my “bookshop find” posts so I’ve decided to make those a regular feature, one a week is the plan – this shouldn’t be too hard as I do spend quite a bit of time in bookshops, both my own and other people’s!  These will now be collected in the “Bibliophily Corner” section of my website so if you ever miss one and want to look back they’ll all be in one place.  The eagle-eyed among you will see I’ve also added a new section called “My Bookish Travels”.  I’ve been wanting to write about some of the reading-related places I’ve visited or events I’ve been to but haven’t been entirely sure where they’d sit with the rest of my blog – now they will have a home!  Any events, signings, exhibitions or places of literary heritage I go to, this is where you can read about my experiences, and I’m really excited about the new slant this will add to the blog.  Fear not though, if you just want the reviews, top 5 lists and so on, they’ll still all be there as before.

If you pop over to my new and improved “About” page, you’ll now find a quick navigation guide to the blog letting you know what kind of posts you’ll find where.  Once again, a huge thank you to all my followers – I love you all – and I hope you’ll continue to join me on my future reading adventures.

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Happy Birthday Will!

It’d be wrong to let the birthday of our nation’s greatest playwright pass by without comment, so here’s my little nod to the great man.  My edition of Shakespeare’s complete works is the oldest book I own, and by far the most precious, and I wanted to share it with you today.

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It looks, feels and smells exactly how you’d wish an old book to look, feel and smell; every physical book evokes some kind of emotional response but to hold this is to feel as if you’re in contact with another era.  I’ve scoured the pages and can find no publication date printed anywhere, which is a bit of a shame as I’d love to know, but it goes back without a doubt to at least the first half of last century as it was given to my maternal grandmother by my great-grandmother on her 21st birthday.  It’s that family connection that gives it a value unlike any other book I own.  The idea of a precious book being passed down through generations of women in my family makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside – I hope one day I’ll be able to pass it on again in turn.

And if you were to envisage the quintessential complete Shakespeare in your head, I’m pretty sure it would look something like this.  From the leather cover to the gilt-edged pages, to the wonderful, magical photographs of bygone actors and actresses in their Shakespearean garb, it’s absolute book-perfection.

Happy birthday Mr. Shakespeare!

Bookish disappointments

“Disappointment” has got to be one of the saddest words in the English language.  If you want to upset me, just tell me you’re disappointed by something; it goes beyond mere sadness as there’s the implication of the delighted anticipation that preceded the blow, which renders the ensuing despondency so much worse.  To feel let down by a book is a particularly hideous experience since more often than not you will have had a pretty long wait for it.  The absolute worst scenario of all though is when an author you’ve previously loved comes up with a book that, well, you just don’t.

I’m currently reading “4321” by Paul Auster and although I’d deliberately avoided any reviews before I started it I’d already heard a number of people say they weren’t particularly keen on it.  As it happens, I’m completely hooked and think it’s the best novel he’s written in ages, but prior to this, he was one of the authors who’d started to disappoint me.  I devoured his early books with the fervour of someone who’s discovered a new religion, but as the years went by and I caught up with his writing so I was reading in tandem with his new releases I found I was increasingly disenchanted, feeling that somehow he was producing Auster-by-numbers, novels lacking the spark and sharpness of their predecessors.  I’m terrible, however, for giving even the least deserving people in my life second (and third and fourth) chances, and I couldn’t bring myself to give up on him entirely, a decision that I’m relieved to say is so far proving to be justified.

So which other authors have disappointed me?  Well, one of the big ones recently was Donna Tartt; “The Secret History” is one of my favourite books of all time and “The Little Friend” was a more than worthy successor, but “The Goldfinch”?  Fragmented, verging on tedious in places and WAY too long, it was for me one of the most crushing literary let-downs ever.  It wouldn’t have been such a soul-destroying experience of course had she not been so outstanding before, but I can only imagine the pressure such a lauded novelist like that must be under, especially when their books have close to a decade between them.  Iain Pears’ “The Dream of Scipio” was another case of the curse of having to follow a masterpiece (in this case “An Instance of the Fingerpost”) although, like the back in favour Mr Auster, he redeemed himself in my eyes with the mind-bending “Stone’s Fall”.  Then there’s Muriel Barbery, whose remarkable novel “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” made an impression on me intellectually and emotionally that I never expected, but whose later novel “The Lives of Elves” proved to be a bemusing and ultimately for me unfinishable quasi-fairytale that bore almost no resemblance to its predecessor.  Hats off to her for doing something totally different, but it wasn’t for me.

The more I look at my bookshelves the more I see little disappointments, most of them not on the level of Goldfinch-gate, but let-downs nonetheless.  So I’m going to call time on this blog post before it descends into a simmering cauldron of negativity – and let’s not forget that, as experience shows, one less than enjoyable book doesn’t condemn an author for ever! – but I’d love to hear what your biggest bookish disappointments were.  Are there any that still sting years later?  Or do you disagree with me and think “The Goldfinch” is Donna Tarrt’s most enjoyable novel?  Either way I’d love to hear your thoughts so do share!

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Maps – a little love story

I refuse to buy a satnav.  Despite the wrong turns, dead ends and panic-stricken moments down narrow country lanes I’m not giving in.  Firstly I resent the idea of turning on a machine and simultaneously turning off my brain (you could say this about numerous types of technology I know but there’s something undeniable triumphal about getting yourself from lost to found through a bit of map-reading and navigational know-how), and secondly, maps are beautiful things and I worry that with our ever increasing ability to use technology to find our way around we’re going to lose both the objects themselves and the skills to read them.  It was one of my favourite things I ever learned in school: assessing the gradient of a hill from contour lines, deciphering the myriad of symbols used to signify churches, bridges and windmills…. maps are the world around us depicted in the most elegant and fascinating visual code, and they enthral me still.

I remember in my early bookselling days many years ago we’d be asked for world atlases on a pretty regular basis, and we’d always have a varied supply showcasing a range of sizes and designs.  People would spend a long time comparing them and considering which scale, colour scheme and layout they preferred, but over the years sales dwindled; after all, why would you want an enormous atlas taking up valuable space when a few taps on an ipad will tell you everything you need to know?  Just as I’m stubborn over the satnav, however, I’m also stubborn in hanging on to my enormous and very much loved atlas.  It’s a hefty bit of book and weighs a ton, but how amazing is it to have the entire world laid out in glorious large scale detail on your living room floor?  No image on a computer screen or tablet can replicate that.

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I have an inkling though that, like vinyl and Phil Collins, maps are starting to make something of a comeback.  I may not sell many atlases any more but I have come across a number of gorgeous books on the subject of maps themselves.  “The Phantom Atlas” by Edward Brooke-Hitching is one of my personal favourites, a compendium of myths, mistakes and sometimes downright lies that have made their way onto various maps over the centuries.  Who’d have thought a non-existent island could have appeared on official maritime navigational charts for 136 years until someone realised (as recently as 2012!) it wasn’t actually there?  Then of course there are the partly imagined maps of the Middle Ages and earlier, which fill their spaces with all kinds of weird and wonderful creatures drawn from legend or awestruck eyewitness accounts.  These are not merely guides to the world but to the minds of the people who were attempting to reach beyond their own borders for the first time, and could in many ways be considered works of art.  I’d also recommend “On the Map”, a fun and very readable homage to the map in all its forms written by Simon Garfield who, I strongly suspect, loves all things cartographic as much as I do.

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Maybe the hypnotic voice telling us gently but firmly to turn right in 483 yards has its place; after all, if I wasn’t so resolute in my shunning of technological help it would never have taken me over three hours to get from Lewes to Folkestone (if you live anywhere in the South East of England you’ll know just how ridiculous that is), but I hope – and believe – there are enough of us out there to keep the magic of the map alive for generations to come.

My April reading pile

I got a bit optimistic the other day and decided that since the sun was out and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky then it must be warm enough to sit and read outside.  Not quite unfortunately; more a case of April doing that sneaky thing it does where it lures you into believing it’s summer a few weeks prematurely.  Whether I end up indoors or out though, there are some interesting books on the reading pile this month.  I realised (again) how much I love my job a week or so ago when I got given a proof copy of “Into the Water”, which I’m sure I don’t need to tell you is the next novel by “The Girl on the Train” author Paula Hawkins.  By rights it shouldn’t be featuring in a blog post about April TBRs as I’ve actually finished it already – but I couldn’t not mention it as it will surely be one of the biggest novels of this year.  I’ll save my thoughts for the review, which I’ll probably post nearer to publication time, but if you manage to get anywhere near a copy then grab it and don’t let go.  I’m super-excited about “In the Name of the Family” by Sarah Dunant, the next in her series of novels about the Borgias (I say series but I have no idea whether there will at some point be a third!) as I thought the first, Blood and Beauty, was pretty much everything you could want from a work of historical fiction.  I’ve also just started “4 3 2 1”, the Paul Auster doorstop, and I have to confess, although I very much enjoyed the opening chapters I haven’t as yet got much further.  This isn’t a reflection on the book I don’t think, more the fact that it’s quite a hefty thing that I suspect is going to require a reasonable amount of concentration and I haven’t really been in the headspace for something like that for a while.  Last up, because I always like to have some non-fiction on the go as well, is an intriguing book I came across completely by chance in a local bookshop.  “Selfish, Shallow and Self-absorbed: Sixteen writers on the decision not to have kids” is a collection of essays on, well, exactly what the title says.  I’ve always found it interesting that conversations around childlessness are still something of a taboo, even in our increasingly open society.  Well, that’s not quite true: potentially hurtful comments directed towards a woman without children about her lack of mother-status don’t seem to be taboo at all, but for a woman to respond and discuss the reasons for it is still, in my experience, looked upon with surprise, lack of comprehension and often, sadly, unfair judgement.  I was interested to see that this book existed at all, and am very much looking forward to reading a variety of opinions on the issue.

As ever there will be more reviews up on Girl, Reading soon, but in the meantime enjoy the sunshine and enjoy whatever you’re reading!

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Wooden Books – a bookshop discovery

Not long ago I was in a lovely little bookshop on the south coast and I stumbled across one of these gorgeous books.

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Looking inside I saw a list of other intriguing titles in the same series: weird and wonderful little studies of some of the more obscure and enigmatic elements of art, folklore, history and more.  From crop circles to Celtic patterns, mazes to mind tricks – these minute editions instantly seemed to me to be a spark of mystery in a sometimes pedestrian world.  I immediately ordered four that particularly caught my interest, but I suspect I will be adding more to the collection before too long.  “Symmetry” is about the remarkably ordered patterns we find in nature and how those patterns have subconsciously passed into human art and culture.  “Sacred Geometry” explores the concept that certain shapes and proportions have a symbolic value and meaning that influences music, architecture and many other aspects of human design.  “Mazes and Labyrinths” I just couldn’t resist (do you know the difference between the two?  I didn’t) – it may not sound like the most riveting subject but I was fascinated to read about the different types of design and why they work.  Lastly “Islamic Design”, which I picked quite simply because it’s a thing of beauty, explains how the earliest Islamic artists founded the tradition of incorporating Arabic script with ornamental patterns that is so recognisable the world over.

I love an unexpected bookshop find and I’m so chuffed with these.  From the diminutive size to the striking cover design, everything about them is appealing.  The publisher is Wooden Books; I’d thoroughly recommend looking them up and discovering these miniature gems for yourself.

 

“Morality Play” by Barry Unsworth – review

This was one of those unobtrusive little novels that sat quietly on the bottom shelf of the bookcase for some years, its diminutive size and understated spine neither demanding nor receiving any attention.  There was only one reason I finally picked it up a few days ago: I wanted to put another review up on my blog and I needed something short that I could get through quickly.  Having now finished it, I’m struck by a slightly bizarre sense of guilt that I wasn’t drawn to it by any potential merit other than its length, as it turned out to be the very epitome of the hidden gem.  As recompense for passing over it for so long, my aim now is to give it a moment in the sun.

I know there are millions of people out there who love historical fiction.  I’ll put money on the fact though that there aren’t quite as many medieval drama nerds; but if you are one (as I’m afraid I am!) then this is one of a tiny number of novels that scratch that particularly niche itch.  The story follows a fourteenth century cleric, Nicholas Barber, who tires of a life transcribing interminably dull texts and runs away from his order.  We join him as he comes across a troupe of travelling players gathered around one of their number who has just that moment died; a stroke of luck for Nicholas as a dead actor means a vacancy in the company that needs to be filled.  Despite some initial suspicions the players take him in and continue their journey until they reach a small town, where they decide to stop and earn some money with a few performances.  As per tradition, the play they first present to their audience is a morality play, a type of drama familiar to all watching, with its instantly recognisable characters and orthodox religious message.  However, word soon reaches the new arrivals of a brutal murder recently committed in the town and that gives Martin, the troupe’s unofficial but tacitly accepted leader, a dangerous idea: to write and perform a play telling the story of the crime.  At first the events leading up to the murder seem straightforward enough; a local woman was arrested within hours of the body being discovered and the motive of robbery an obvious explanation for the attack.  As far as the majority of the townspeople are concerned, a guilty sentence for the accused is a foregone conclusion.  Anxious to make the play as authentic and accurate as possible, Martin sends the players out into the community to listen to the gossip and do a bit of surreptitious investigating – but what comes back starts to cast some serious doubt on the official story.  All of a sudden, the play is no longer looking like a representation of events as already believed by the local people, but a shocking exposé of a potential miscarriage of justice.

The mystery of the murder, and the danger in which the players find themselves, drive the plot, but in many ways the book isn’t really about those things.  “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” a certain playwright once wrote, and that I think is the crux of this novel.  Time and again assumptions are made about people’s character – and their guilt or innocence – based on the clothes they wear, the office they hold, their position in the social hierarchy.  But in reality the robe of the cleric or the livery of a knight is merely a costume that helps him play out the role his audience expects, and it tells us absolutely nothing about the substance of the man underneath.  When the travelling players perform their morality dramas they use stock characters and universally recognised masks and mimed gestures; the figures presented are ones with which everyone in the audience will be familiar since they always behave in the same way.  That is why, when Martin suggests that for the first time in their lives the actors take on the roles of real people there is an outcry from his troupe.  The stage is for representing the two-dimensional figures of good and evil, wisdom and folly – people want to remain in the safety and comfort provided by the mask and costume, just as they want to admire the colourful shields and shining armour of the jousting knight without questioning the chivalry of the man beneath.  It’s not insignificant that towards the end of the book it begins to look as if acting in their well-worn roles might turn out to be the very thing that saves the players.  Perhaps if we didn’t stick to our pre-determined roles then society would crumble and anarchy would ensue.

I think that the author leaves it very much up to us to decide whether or not this would be a bad thing.  Although he revels in the medieval setting – the language and style of the narrator leave us in no doubt that this is the voice of a fourteenth-century man – it could just as easily be a novel for our time, or indeed any time.  I enjoyed the setting as a passionate medievalist; I enjoyed its concepts and philosophies as a twenty-first century human.  My summary?  A lot more than meets the eye and a hidden gem indeed.

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