My bad reading habits!

I’m a terrible reader.  Seriously.  I’m a voracious reader to be sure but I constantly annoy myself with my bad reading habits!  If I could kick even some of these then my literary life would become so much easier…

I get side-tracked very easily!  No matter how great the book is that I’m reading, I can’t resist reaching for the next shiny new thing that catches my eye.  As a result, I usually have four or five books on the go… and thus it takes me an age to finish any of them.

I’m always behind on new publications.  Not a bad reading habit per se, but it can be a bit of a bad one for a blogger.  The trouble is, I’m drawn to older books that I come across by chance as much as I am by the prominent new releases; by the time I’ve got round to reading the next big thing, everyone else has stopped talking about it!

I waste good reading opportunities.  You might think that as I love my books so much I’d be filling every vacant minute of the day with reading.  Unfortunately, as well as being an avid reader I’m also a bit of a daydreamer; whereas most of the bookworms I know will fill every train journey or wait at a bus stop with reading, I’m just as likely to gaze off into the distance and lose myself in my own little world of (generally pointless) thoughts.

I’m terrible at absorbing what I’ve read.  No matter how much I’ve enjoyed a book, if you ask me a week later what the main character was called I couldn’t tell you.  Wait another few weeks and I probably couldn’t even tell you how it ended.  Honestly, I have no idea what’s wrong with me (particularly since I’m one of those people who’ll remember every word of a conversation I’ve had with you a year ago) but it makes it incredibly difficult to discuss books with my friends without sounding as if I’ve been completely underwhelmed by every single thing I’ve read!

What are your bad reading habits?  I can’t be the only one who has them!

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“Fireside Gothic” by Andrew Taylor – review

Before I’d even opened this book I’d fallen in love with the title: it’s just so evocative of dark winter evenings curled up under a blanket with a creepy book, and I couldn’t wait to grab a cup of hot chocolate and get stuck in.  I wasn’t disappointed – you’d be hard pushed to find a better January read.

It’s a collection of short stories, a literary form of which I have to confess I’m not always a fan, but these are all long enough to be immensely satisfying; in fact, they’re almost long enough to be novellas rather than short stories.  It’d be misleading as well to refer to them simply as ghost stories since they’re much more complicated than that.  There are elements that could feasibly be supernatural but there’s a psychological aspect to all of them as well.  All three feature central characters who are at an emotionally tumultuous time in their lives and who find themselves in an environment that lends itself to paranoia, fear or a sense of isolation.

The first, “Broken Voices”, takes place in the early twentieth century and has the most conventionally “gothic” setting of the three: the house of an old schoolmaster that stands in the shadow of an imposing, eerie cathedral.  The schoolmaster is tasked with looking after two lonely boys from the cathedral boarding school who have no home or family to go to during the Christmas holiday; at first, none of the three are particularly keen on the arrangement, but after an evening of ghost stories by the fire the boys’ interest in their previously uninviting surroundings is piqued.  What is the truth about the demise of the unfortunate Mr. Goldsworthy, Master of Music at the cathedral, who fell to his death from the tower nearly two hundred years before -was it really an accident or was there a more sinister explanation?  And is there a connection between his tragic end and the shadowy figure and untraceable music that can be seen and heard within the cathedral walls?

I loved the traditional feel of this first story; it fulfils every obligation of a good ghost story, and there’s an element of comfort in revisiting the familiar ground of what you would consider the epitome of the spooky story to be.  Reading it was akin to putting on a pair of fluffy slippers and I was completely delighted by it.  You get the feeling that the author really relished following in the footsteps of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and other such writers, and I would put money on the fact that Andrew Taylor has a genuine love for those writers who paved the way for this kind of story.

With the second tale, however, he changes tack completely.  We’re now back in the modern day and in the company of a man whose car has broken down as he drives home from his sister’s funeral.  He’s lost, alone and with no means of calling for help – but as luck would have it, he stumbles across an old cottage.  The enigmatic woman who answers the door directs him to a large, comfortable and welcoming house just a few minutes away, but try as he might he can’t get the woman out of his mind.  When he returns in the morning, however, he gets the shock of his life, and what follows throws everything we thought we knew completely out of the window.  It’s almost impossible to talk any more about the story itself without giving away a whole load of spoilers, so I’m not going to.  What I can say, though, is that I loved the way this tale suddenly spun off into head-messing territory.  Are we in the presence of some serious supernatural shenanigans or are we witnessing a grief-stricken man in the grip of psychological distress?  I got to the end and my mind was still reeling, but that’s exactly the way it should be.  If the first story was cosily creepy, this one was the total opposite: complex and quite unsettling.

The third and final story, “The Scratch”, was a very different one again.  Gerald and Clare live in the idyllic Forest of Dean, a comfortable life in a beautiful house.  Then Gerald’s nephew Jack comes into their life and everything begins to change.  Jack is ex-military and is suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result of a horrifying experience he endured while on active service in the Middle East.  He has a curiously intense fear of the couple’s cat but also and unhealthy obsession with the idea that a giant, wild, cat-like creature is on the prowl in the forest.  And he has something else too: a bizarre scratch that never heals.  As it turns out, Jack isn’t the only one with an obsession.  Clare finds, to her horror, that she’s becoming increasingly attracted to the young man, and from this moment on things go from bad to worse for the family.  It seems that post-traumatic stress isn’t all that Jack has brought back with him; as events unfold it starts to look suspiciously like some kind of curse.

But, the author challenges us, do we really believe in things like that?  Is it possible that something otherworldly can exact revenge upon us for our transgressions or is it the burden of our own feelings of guilt that make us believe that the past is somehow haunting us?  I thought this story was very clever as it manages to create an unsettling mood without any of the usual ghost story tropes.  There are no gothic cathedrals and no dark, stormy nights, just warm spring days in the Forest of Dean, but it’s incredibly effective storytelling nonetheless.

The whole book was pitched just the right side of spooky for me.  It won’t give you sleepless nights (thank goodness!) but it will give you something much more rewarding: cleverly crafted, stylishly written tales that create a gently spine-tingling atmosphere and much to think about.

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Why I love… Magnus Mills

Not long ago I was browsing in a local bookshop and came across a book by Magnus Mills that I hadn’t realised existed.  Excited (and also a little ashamed that I’d allowed a book by an author I really enjoy to slip under my radar), I decided there and then I needed to write something about him on Girl, Reading since in two years on the blog he’s never featured.

I’ve accumulated many bookseller friends during my years of working in and around bookshops and a pretty high proportion of them have read and admired Magnus Mills.  Outside of that group, though, I’ve not met a single person who’s tried him or, in most cases, even heard of him, and I wonder why that is.  There are definitely some books and authors that have a disproportionately large fan base within the book trade, but the reason is often, to me at least, a mystery.  While I wouldn’t say that Mills could be classified as having mass appeal, I do think he is deserving of a wider readership for his clever plotting, social satire and for the unique tone he brings to his writing; start reading a Mills novel blind and I think you’d soon know exactly who the author was.

So, what kind of novels does he write and just why are they so good?  They’re quirky, offbeat, darkly comic and often slightly sinister, but they’re not easy to categorise – if I had to pin down their overriding theme it would be that they’re strange without the reader being able to fathom quite why.  I’ve read most of them now, and they all feature fairly ordinary characters, but those characters are operating against backdrops that seem slightly out of kilter.  The author possesses an incredible skill: he can make you feel incredibly tense and uneasy but if asked, you’d have a hard time explaining the reason.  There is no hint of anything fantastical or supernatural; these are worlds – often very mundane worlds – that we know… and yet don’t.  To me, the settings often feel somewhat akin to a dream; all the elements of the world with which we’re presented are recognisable, and yet they feel as if they’ve been put together in a way that just isn’t quite right.  Many of the novels also evoke a real feeling of frustration which can on occasion evolve into a sense of mounting panic, since a recurring motif is that of a character who’s trapped in some way by a situation, to the point where you’re willing them to find a way out and for events to conspire in their favour.  And “Explorers of the New Century” (my least favourite as it happens) contains a twist so unexpected that I still remember the effect it had on me as I read it even though it was years ago.

Which one should you start with if you’ve never tried him before?  The two most well-known and also the most acclaimed of his books are “All Quiet on the Orient Express” and “The Restraint of Beasts” but I particularly enjoyed “The Scheme for Full Employment” – if you’ve ever had the feeling you were wasting your life in a dead-end job then just wait until you read this!  I know this little article hasn’t come anywhere near to selling his writing to the extent he deserves, but I think it’s a testament to his ingenuity as an author that he is so difficult to write about.  The only way to really appreciate and understand the books is to read them for yourself, so add him to your list of reading resolutions for 2017!

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Bizarre Books

A bit of bibliophilic fun on the blog for you today!  I found this book in a second-hand bookshop years ago; it’s a glorious collection of weird and wonderful publications from across the centuries, featuring authors with unfortunate names, unwitting double entendres and titles so ridiculously niche you can’t help but wonder how they came to be published at all.  So to bring you some Friday cheer, here are a few of my favourite entries in this entertaining compendium, “Bizarre Books” – all completely genuine!

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Books by authors who, well, couldn’t have written anything else…

“Death in Early America” by Margaret Coffin

“Motorcycling for Beginners” by Geoff Carless

“Round the Bend in the Stream” by Wilmot Hudson Fysh

“Metabolic Changes Induced by Alcohol” by G.A. Martini

Books whose sphere of interest is limited to say the least…

“Wall Paintings by Snake-charmers in Tanganyika” by Hans Cory

“Canadian National Egg-Laying Contests” by F.C. Elford and A.G. Taylor

“Manhole Covers of Los Angeles” by Robert and Mimi Melnick

“The Effect of Relative Humidity on an Oak-tanned Leather Belt” by W.W. Bird

If you’re at a loose end this weekend here are a few suggestions as to how you could spend your time…

“Collect Fungi on Stamps” by D.J. Aggersberg

“Master Pieces: making furniture from paintings” by Richard Ball and Peter Campbell

“Macramé Gnomes” by Dona Z. Meilach

“Build your own Hindenburg” by Alan Rose

Or, if none of the above appeal, you could always settle down with one of these riveting titles…

“Practical Candle Burning” by Raymond Buckland

“Fishes I have known” by Arthur A. Henry Beavan

“The History and Social Influence of the Potato” by Radcliffe Nathan Salaman

“The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Metal Lunch Boxes” by Allen Woodall and Sean Brickell

Authors Russell Ash and Brian Lake have garnered these gems and hundreds more from years of working in the book trade – as an industry employee myself I can attest to some of the weird and wonderful things that get requested every now and again!  If there are any bizarre books you’ve come across, I’d love to hear about them…

New book excitement

Over the next few weeks we’re going to be treated to new novels by two giants of American literature: Michael Chabon, whose book “Moonglow” is released in a matter of days, and Paul Auster, whose new work “4 3 2 1” is scheduled for early 2017.  I have a somewhat turbulent relationship with these two writers; both have penned novels that I would unhesitatingly include in my all-time favourite book list and both have, on occasion, produced novels that have left me quite disappointed.  I first read Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” when I started working as a bookseller back in the early noughties; it’s one of those novels that almost everyone in the book trade loves, and it was pressed upon me by my new colleagues as if reading it was some kind of bookselling rite of passage.  Fortunately I loved it, thus saving myself from becoming a social pariah within the workplace, and although my job has moved on I genuinely love it still.  I also really enjoyed his other novels (even if “Kavalier and Clay” remained my firm favourite) up until his most recent offering, “Telegraph Avenue”.  It’s a terrible feeling when an author you adore produces a book you don’t, and I was heartbroken to find I couldn’t even finish “Telegraph Avenue”, completely unengaged as I was with the characters or the setting.  Still, a new Michael Chabon book is a source of anticipation for me and only slightly tinged with trepidation, as that one book has been the only miss among a succession of hits, and I do love the sound of “Moonglow”.

Paul Auster is a slightly different kettle of fish.  I read a large number of his novels some years back, starting with his earliest works, and found in them some of the most remarkable writing I’ve ever come across.  I’d pick out “Leviathan” and “Moon Palace” as favourites if I had to, but it seemed this man could produce one work of genius after another.  Then at a certain point I felt the magic start to dim.  Was it simply because I had read so many?  I’m not sure, but I couldn’t shake the sensation that the flair and wonder was missing from his most recent novels.  So I took a break, and to be honest I haven’t revisited any of his books for a very long time.  Maybe it was as a result of this hiatus that I found I was incredibly excited when I saw “4 3 2 1” mentioned on Twitter a few days ago.  Let’s face it, my least favourite Auster novels are still a class act compared with many others I’ve read, and I can’t wait to see if this time round I feel the magic again.

Hopefully I’ll be getting my hands on both books as soon as I can, and you can be sure I’ll share my thoughts with you.  See you back on Girl, Reading soon!

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Christmas Shopping

I’m actually doing pretty well with my Christmas shopping this year: I’m over half way through and, with one irritating exception, I know exactly what I’m going to get for the remaining half.  In fact I’m so pleased with myself that even as I write this I’ve just had to break off to pour myself a congratulatory glass of wine.  Go me.  To be fair though, my life is made a little bit easier owing to the fact that there’s one item on the shopping list that appears every year – and since this is a book blog there are no prizes for guessing what that item is.  I love buying books for people; although it can be challenging it’s also immensely rewarding when you get it right, and often as I’m reading books throughout the year I’m also considering whether there’s anyone I know who’ll appreciate it too.  There have been a few flops among the successes, but luckily my friends and family are honest enough to tell me if they didn’t enjoy one of my choices.  As it happens, my biggest book-giving faux pas wasn’t so much a misjudged choice, but rather the time I actually presented a friend with the same novel two Christmases running; incredibly sweet soul that she is, she graciously said that I obviously knew he reading taste very well as she’d enjoyed it so much the first time round.  In a way I don’t mind if someone doesn’t get on with something I’ve picked out for them (unless it’s a personal favourite of mine, in which case I feel as aggrieved as if someone had insulted a member of my family), because I genuinely think that almost everyone gets that I put a lot of thought into my literary matchmaking, even if the romance doesn’t blossom.

And let’s not forget, I love receiving books as presents too!  The reality is that most people daren’t risk it simply because they know how many I buy for myself anyway – but I’m always willing to be surprised by a curveball I never would have chosen.  Top of my Christmas wish-list this year (just saying…) is “Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts” (because I really, honestly, truly cannot justify spending my money on this), so if anyone I know is reading this, you have been officially notified…

The wine is gone, which suggests it’s time to stop writing, so see you all back on the blog soon!

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“His Bloody Project” by Graeme Macrae Burnet – review

On a summer’s day in 1869, Lachlan Mackenzie is found brutally murdered at his home in the tiny Highland community of Culduie.  The perpetrator, 17 year old Roderick Macrae, confesses to the crime within minutes, but although there is never any question or who, there is still the all-important question of why.  This clever novel takes the form of a compilation of documents – medical reports, journalists’ articles and so on – that are brought together with the aim of finding an answer.  And the answer matters, because if he is found to be insane, Roderick will be spared the death penalty; if it can be proved that he was in full possession of his mental faculties he will hang.

Right from the start, the author gives us a very clear indication that this will not be a straightforward case with a selection of witness statements that variously describe Roddy as a wicked boy, an amenable and polite young man and a strange loner.  Then comes what we would imagine to be the most valuable testimony: that of the murderer himself.  Roddy’s story, as he tells it, is quite a sorrowful one.  Following the death of his mother his already morose father becomes even more emotionally inaccessible, alternating between brooding gloom and flashes of violent rage, ruling over his children in their tiny crofter’s cottage with an iron fist.  Life in the hamlet of Culduie is pretty insular and the prospect of pursuing a life elsewhere is practically non-existent, with the crofters’ lifestyle being passed down through the generations.  The local schoolmaster spots a sharp intellect in Roddy that is missing from his provincial classmates, but the boy is unable to imagine any future other than taking on his father’s trade.   Life goes on and the monotonous days blend into one another without major incident, until something happens that turns life in Culduie upside down for everyone: Lachlan Mackenzie becomes constable of the community.  The constable is responsible for enforcing order and maintaining standards on behalf of the laird on whose land the crofters live and work, and it’s a system that has always been regarded by the inhabitants as reasonable and fair.  Lachlan, however, is power-hungry; a combination of intimidating physical strength and a calculating mind, and the Macrae family – for various reasons that have accumulated during a lifetime of living side by side in Culduie – become the target of a vicious campaign of oppression.  When Roddy develops an attraction to Lachlan’s daughter it proves to be the final step on a steady climb towards the inevitable: the confrontation between the two men that results in the constable’s death.

There are brief but significant flashes of disquieting behaviour during Roddy’s narrative that set momentary alarm bells ringing in our minds – his eerie detachment during the mercy killing of an injured sheep, the unsettling coolness with which he listens to his sister’s suicidal thoughts – but by and large, the overwhelming feeling I was left with as this section of the book drew to a close was one of pity.  Lachlan’s bullying campaign was, I felt, an incredibly astute piece of writing in that it succeeded in stirring up genuine physical feelings of anger on my part towards the character such as I haven’t felt for a very long time.  The author pinned down with uncanny accuracy the way in which so many bullies go about their business; when Roddy and his father try to describe to a superior official the things that have been said and done to them, out of context they sound feeble and no cause for complaint at all.  Lachlan is smart enough to operate in a way that ensures his victims know precisely what is being done to them while those looking on would never see the malicious intent behind his actions.  To be brutally honest, I couldn’t wait for Roddy to kill his tormentor – until the murder itself, which I won’t spoil but which didn’t unfold in quite the way I’d imagined.  At the moment of the killing, an unanticipated shockwave of doubt explodes out of the book, and in the space of a couple of pages you’re suddenly left wondering whether your judgement has been skewed all along.

Fittingly, Roddy’s account ends as he is still standing over the body of his nemesis, and the (deliberately) jarring insertion of a glossary of Scottish dialect creates a much-needed pause as we come down from the fraught heights of intense emotion back to the detached practicality of deciphering the linguistic quirks of his testimony.  This marks the start of the second part of the novel, and a brisk change in tone as we move from a first person narrative to series of professional documents pertaining to the case.  We will hear from the doctors who examined the bodies of the murder victims, the surgeon who was called in to psychoanalyse Roddy following his arrest and finally the witnesses who took part in the trial, their words recorded in various newspapers at the time.  Not everyone I’ve spoken to has appreciated the changes in style throughout the book, with some finding the format off-putting, but I actually felt a sense of relief as I embarked on the latter half, which is more impersonal and less emotive, after the more visceral nature of Roddy’s story.

If I thought that these new points of view were going to lead to certainty and closure, however, I was wrong.  If there’s a message to be taken away from this book it’s that it is almost impossible to claim there is any such thing as absolute truth where the actions of human beings are concerned.  There are revelations in the second section that come as a shock, and cause you to start re-evaluating everything you thought you knew from Roddy’s confessional account – but is that the same as saying he was lying?  Could those making statements about him be lying too, or at least fabricating a version of events that fits in with their preconceived ideas about the people involved?  It’s quite a philosophical novel in many ways; once the author starts playing with our sense of right and wrong, truth and untruth, the questions spiral.  The conclusion I came to is that humans are not for the most part calculating liars: we genuinely believe that our interpretation of events is accurate.  We create our own life story in our head, and that’s the one to which we hold fast.  And that being the case, is it ever possible for anyone else to tell us unequivocally that we are wrong?  If a madman believes that his motives, even for the most vicious crimes, were pure, is that not true in the sense that it’s his truth?  Given all this, the idea of one man presiding as judge over another becomes ever more uncomfortable.

I think it’s fair to say I was disturbed, gripped and given an intellectual workout by this novel in equal measure.  Every now and then a book comes along that messes with your head a bit, and “His Bloody Project” is definitely one of those.  And just when you think you may have made up your mind about what has occurred, the last few lines will plant a seed of doubt in your head once more.  Hats off to the author – this novel is very special indeed, and a striking achievement.

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