Ten Little Astronauts has hit 10% funding. Double digits! Everyone who’s pledged so far has done their bit to get the book to the stage it’s at now, and you’ve all earned my etern…
In a recent blog post I said I was feeling anxious about the book I had started to read. Not only was it by an author I hadn’t read before, it was a work in translation and so I was in the hands of two strangers. I had loved the opening pages and was anxious that the rest of the book wouldn’t come up to my expectations. I am delighted to let you know:
I WAS WRONG!
I finished the book in the early hours of this morning and lay in bed, just hugging it to my chest, for a long time. Today I will be able to pick it up, riffle through the pages and re-read some of my favourite passages, but tomorrow it will go back to the library and I will have to read something different. I’ve been looking forward to the next book in my TBR heap for a while, but I feel a bit sorry for it now – that last book threw a long shadow.
Enough waffling. This is the book that has so occupied me for the last few days – My Grandmother Sends Her Regards & Apologises written by Fredrik Backman and translated by Henning Koch. It is the story of Elsa, who is “seven, going on eight. She knows she isn’t especially good at being seven”; her Granny, who is “seventy-seven years old, going on seventy-eight. She’s not very good at it either”, and the people who live in their block of flats. Although the time scale of the book is only a few days, the stories cover many eternities. Eternities is how time is measured in the Land-of-Almost-Awake, a land of six kingdoms that Granny started to tell Elsa about (using their secret language) when she was afraid to sleep.
Granny’s tales from the Land-of-Almost-Awake weave magically in and out of Elsa’s every day world. I’m not going to explain more here, you need to read the book and I’m not about to throw any spoilers in your way. This book made me laugh and gasp and do noisy smiles (that’s not the same as a laugh. It’s when you smile so big that a burst of joy escapes from your mouth). It also grabbed my heart and squeezed it into my throat, bringing tears to my eyes. It is not an easy book – there are lots of troubled people struggling to get through each day and some of them don’t make it to the last page – but nonetheless it is full of love and happiness which makes the darkness more bearable. The stories from the Land-of-Almost-Awake are familiar enough to be comforting, but bring their own, special magic. The people who live in Elsa’s world are painted with great skill and we care about them, even if we don’t really like some of them. And then there is Elsa; a different, difficult, bright, inquisitive, scared little girl who totally melted my heart.
I don’t want to go on at great length about My Grandmother Sends Her Regards & Apologises for fear that I will produce screeds of saccharine praise that will put you off reading this book and I would hate for you to miss out on a fabulous story. I know Christmas is months away, but I’m off to start my letter to Santa and this book will be at the top of my list. I need a copy of my own that I can go and stroke at regular intervals.
This morning I experienced one of those magical moments. I picked up a new book, opened the cover and started to read. Before I had got to the bottom of page one I was already thinking ‘I LOVE this book!’ and tuning out everything that was happening around me as I disappeared into the world of the author (sorry, family).
Now, if you are reading a book by an author you know, this can be a really comfortable and cosy place to be. You can’t help smiling as you snuggle down, ready to follow wherever the story takes you. You have gone with this author on satisfying story-journeys before and you trust them. You feel safe. You can lose yourself to the story, fall in love with the characters and feel confident that you will still be smiling (or happily sobbing) at the end of the book.
Today I don’t feel like that. Reluctantly, I had to put my new book down and get ready for work. I’d far rather have grabbed a coffee and carried on reading. Instead I packed my little lunch box and headed out to the car. All morning, while I’ve been making phone calls, answering emails and updating files, there’s been a little niggle at the back of my mind. What if the rest of the book isn’t as good as the first pages? What if the writer takes me on a joyous journey and then abandons me before I’m ready? Can I trust them? If this was a book by a writer I know and love, I would be abandoning the keyboard this afternoon and diving back into the story (and, in case you were wondering, it’s not one of the books in the pictures). Instead I’m tapping on the keys of my laptop and feeling anxious.
Correction. I’m feeling doubly anxious. This isn’t just a book by an author I haven’t read before, but it’s a translated book. That means I’m in the hands of TWO unknown entities. They have worked well together at the beginning of the book, but what if they disagree later and it all goes horribly wrong? Whose voice am I hearing anyway, the writer’s or the translators? Does it matter?
I’ve heard that when someone translates the lyrics of a song they try to be true to the feeling and the meaning of the original rather than a direct translation of the words. Is the same true with novels? Writers place a huge amount of trust in the people who translate their books. Unless they are fluent in more than one language, how will they know that the story being read, for example, in Italy, is the story they wanted to tell?
If I keep thinking like this I will get myself in a total tizzy and never finish that book. Which would be a shame, because I REALLY did enjoy the first few pages. Decision made. I’m off to put the kettle on and settle down for a good read. Or maybe I should just do some ironing first…
Last week I read this newly published book by Harper Lee. My brief review is on Goodreads.
Go Set A Watchman has been a publishing phenomenon. The press and Twitter have been buzzing for months. I’d be interested to know how much the hype, pre-publication reviews and inflammatory word-bites have influenced other people’s opinions. Did it put you off reading the book? Did it create expectations of what the book was about? Did you agree with what you’d been told about the story? Has it changed how you feel about To Kill A Mockingbird? Do tell!
It’s been a while since I posted anything on this blog. I’ve been so busy having a nice time that sitting at the keyboard has drifted down my list of priorities. Now I feel I should get back into a sensible routine, but I’m finding it hard to convince my inner child that it’s time to settle down and do some work. It feels like that first week back at primary school after the long break when you have to write “What I Did On My Holidays” by Kim A Howard aged 56 and a bit. I promise, I won’t give you a blow-by-blow account of what I’ve been doing, even though it’s been very exciting. I’ll just show you a few pictures, share a couple of highlights and promise to
do better try harder from now on.
Things started with the thrilling news that I had won a Twitter give-away. When my parcel arrived, I don’t know what made me more excited – getting a book (for free) by a debut writer or getting an envelope with an honest to goodness Chicken House label on the front! The book won. Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley is now tottering on the top of my To Be Read heap in the bedroom. The envelope went into the rubbish.
Winchester Writers Festival was the first big event. I spent two days as a student host, looking after an agent, an author and a digital whizz. On the third day I was a fully fledged delegate, working on plotting stories with the wonderful Sarah Mussi, and I really didn’t feel the day was long enough. It would have been great to have another hour or so to go into everything in a little more depth, but I’m not complaining. She was extraordinarily generous with the documentation she gave us and with her offers of support afterwards. There has been a flurry of tweets and emails over the last few weeks between those of us in her group – responding to them is another thing on my ever-growing ‘to do’ list.
In a quiet moment at the Festival I was browsing the internet and found this website. I spent quite a lot of that day showing this page to anyone who would take a look. On 30th July 1952, at 21.20, in a programme entitled Community Theatre, is a performance of The Deluge by the Southampton Student players. Run your eyes down the cast list and you will find Japhet, played by Patrick Garland (actor, writer, director of Chichester Festival Theatre, etc). Now look at the line underneath. His Wife is played by Margaret Mansbridge – that’s my mum! I can’t tell you how excited and proud seeing her name in print made me. The internet is wonderful at preserving old records like this for future generations.
Next stop – New York City. Who knew you could fit so much into seven days? We saw two concerts, two Broadway shows, went on a half-day cruise, walked the Brooklyn Bridge, watched part of the Pride parade, visited the 9/11 memorial garden and museum, went to the top of One World Trade Centre, ate, drank, shopped… and, yes, I did come back to England with more books in my case than on the outward flight. We had an amazing time – it would take another post or two to tell of all the joyous happenings so I won’t say more here. Just let me know if you want details.
We flew back overnight, leaving NY on Thursday evening and arriving at Heathrow at 8.00 on Friday morning, so we were more than a little jet-lagged when the alarm went off at 7.00 on Saturday. We had a train to catch! We missed it by about 90 seconds and had to wait for the next one. It was quite pleasant just sitting on a bench on the platform for half an hour and gave us chance to build up our energy reserves for the day at Wimbledon. We had tickets for Centre Court and were nine rows from the back, up on the fifth floor – a long way from the nearest Pimms seller. We watched three brilliant matches and didn’t fall asleep once. I won’t give you a point-by-point account of the tennis – that’s what the iPlayer is for!.
Sunday was a day for laundry, lunch and lounging around on the sofa and it seemed like no time at all before we were back into the working week, added to which I went to two different crit groups on Tuesday evening with my current favourite work-in-progress.
Before you ask – yes, I have been reading again this week. I’ve read picture books for the day job and have added all of them to posts on the When a Book Might Help blog (although, granted, not all of the posts have been published yet).
I’ve been reading (and listening to audiobooks) for my own pleasure. It’s been great. I love to read! But I’m starting to think I might need to go on a bit of a book diet. In food terms, my eyes are bigger than my stomach. I am in serious danger of overdosing on the books in my house… and I keep bringing in more!
In my front room I have two full shelves of books waiting to be read. These are all books I have been given as birthday and Christmas gifts, books that I really wanted. There are also some that I have picked up at shops, in library sales and at various author events. Books I am longing to read. How lucky am I?!
In my bedroom are the books that are higher up the ‘To Be Read’ list. These are the books that have a ‘best before’ date, like library books and books for work. Some are for reading groups and others are for college. You have to be a book with a purpose to make it upstairs in my house. I do try and slot in books from the front room every now and then but, as you can see, I’ve got lots of books in my three ‘priority’ stacks.
In theory, this is my idea of heaven. Books as far as the eye can see! Unfortunately, reading has to be slotted in around other things like work, sleep, walking the dogs, laundry, and a whole list of other stuff. You know how it goes.
Believe it or not, my book stacks have gone down a bit over the last couple of months. Since I handed in my last assignment for college I’ve been able to catch up on some of my reading for pleasure. Then I had a birthday and this lot arrived. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, I’m really thrilled to have every one of these books. On the other hand, I’m very pleased that I have read two of them before and four of them are for study. It makes it easier to find room for the others on the TBR shelves.
I am especially delighted with these three books. My best friend bought me The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce and I received a personalised book-plate to put inside – Twitter is a wonderful thing! My lovely partner bought me a signed copy of Four Stories by Alan Bennett. I nearly always hear his stories in his voice when I read them. She also found a shop that has close links with Jackie Morris. They arranged for a copy of East of the Sun, West of the Moon to be autographed for me. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to find a personalised message and a drawing of a polar bear on the title page. Her illustrations are stunning!
I would like to say thank you to my family and friends for all the wonderful books they buy me, to the booksellers, to the libraries who lend me more books every week, and to the magnificent writers and illustrators (and their agents and publishers) who produce them in the first place. Please forgive me if I don’t write about the books I’ve read this week. I’ve had a look at the next book on my priority reading heap and it’s about fairies – I’m off to curl up with a book.
Oops – Sunday has been and gone without me posting. That’s what happens when you’ve been out having a nice time. Sorry if you missed me.
It’s been another busy reading week. In the car I’ve listened to Flood and Fang, the first book in The Raven series by Marcus Sedgwick. It is superbly performed by Martin Jarvis and made a journey both ways around the M25 more than bearable. I’m all set to start listening to the second in the series (narrated by our hero – Edgar the Raven) and have the third in hard copy waiting to be read.
A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond is a strange, wild, beautifully written book about being young and full of life; about love and music and death. Set in the North East of England it uses the language and the landscape to illustrate a version of the Orpheus story. It’s one of those stories that makes you sit and think about it after you’ve finished.
There aren’t very many books for teenagers that cover transgender issues. The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson introduces the reader to David Piper, a boy who, for as long as he can remember, has wanted to be a girl – a girl who likes boys. His parents think he is gay. People at school think he’s a freak. Only his two best friends know the truth. It is a touching story with some unexpected twists although, at times, these feel a little too convenient. When I picked it up I was expecting to read a book set in the USA, so it was very pleasing to find it set in the UK.
The fourth book in this picture, Trouble by Non Pratt, was our SCBWI book group read for this month. It is well written and a very believable story, but it made me very sad. I know there are 15-year-old children who use sex to define their position in the social structure. Reading about it was uncomfortable and depressing. The story, however, was very strong and handled the two main story lines in a sensitive and realistic manner.
For work I have been reading more books to include in the When a Book Might Help (WABMH) segment of the Hampshire Libraries blog. Football Academy: Reading the Game by Tom Palmer is about a boy juggling the demands of school and football whilst struggling to read. His inability to read creates more and more problems, until eventually he realises he needs to ask for, and accept, help to improve the situation. This will go onto the Dyslexia book list.
We will be including a section in WABMH simply called Medical Conditions. This will include stories about conditions which are seldom seen in children’s books. Pea’s Book of Holidays by Susie Day will be going on this list as one of the characters has condition called Hemiplegia. The story is not about a disabled boy, however, but about a girl trying to support all her family. It is fun and funny and part of a series about Pea and her sisters.
The last book this week is an Early Reader written by Jacqueline Wilson and illustrated by Stephen Lewis. Monster Eyeballs shows how Kate deals with the class bully, Mark. The clue is in the title of the story, but I won’t spoil the fun for you.
This week I have been thinking about how much I enjoy having stories read to me. It happens more often than you might imagine, thanks to audio CDs. I nearly always have a story playing in the car when I drive. A good book makes traffic jams and the tedium of motorways fade into the background.
I have recently been fortunate to attend events where authors have read a piece of writing to the audience. Hearing someone read their own work can be a bit of a mixed blessing. Some authors get anxious standing up in public and their presentation can be stilted and uncomfortable; some are such performers that their story becomes overwhelmed by the personality of the reader; sometimes, if you are very lucky, the strength of the story pushes the reader totally out of the picture. On those occasions the only voices you hear are those of the characters and the only pictures are the settings in which the story takes place.
There is a big difference between someone who reads a story to an audience and someone who is a storyteller. Storytellers seldom have a book in front of them. They are engaged with the audience, not with a printed page. They don’t just use their voices, they use their whole body (and sometimes props, costume and musical instruments) to bring a story to life. They interact with their listeners, adapting and fine-tuning their performance in response to the reactions of the audience. They are exciting and alluring and, like so many things, at their best when observed in a live performance. Somehow an audio or video recording of their storytelling feels flat in comparison.
In Christophe’s Story we meet a Rwandan refugee struggling with a new language, a new school and a new country. He misses his grandfather, who taught him that stories should never be written down as they lose their potency. Christophe is not accepted by some of his classmates, so his teacher encourages him to share his story with them and, later, with the whole school. This book covers some very difficult themes, including bullying and murder, but it is a touching, gently told story.
The Diddakoi has some similar themes. Kizzy is new to the school and comes from a very different background to the other pupils. Her family are travellers and she lives with her great-great-grandmother. She is bullied by the girls at school and her problems increase when Gran dies. I loved this book and cried buckets when Kizzy’s horse, Joe, died in his paddock. Kizzy’s issues with the school bullies and her home situation are resolved in a thoughtful and touching way. The story ends happily – cue more sobbing from me. (Sorry for the spoilers).
I don’t remember reading Five Children and It as a child. I know they made a television programme (series?) based on it, but I don’t really remember that either. I’ve had Five Children on the Western Front in my TBR heap for a while but felt I should read the original story first. I can’t say I especially enjoyed it, but I didn’t hate it either. It was written in 1902 and some of the language was difficult – they were talking about modes of transport and ways of living that I am not familiar with. I didn’t warm towards any of the children and thought the Psammead was very tolerant of their rude and selfish behaviour. Some of the adventures were quite good fun and I did enjoy the way the wishes worked out.
After hearing Cathy Cassidy speak at the SCBWI conference I decided to read some of her writing. I enjoyed Shine on Daizy Star (a book group read) and absolutely loved Cherry Crush, the first book in The Chocolate Box Girls series, so I was excited to read the second instalment, Marshmallow Skye. I did like it, but it was not nearly as good as the first book. I felt that I was being prepared for Summer’s story more than being told Skye’s. It was an unsatisfying mix of sequel and prequel.
The final book this week is Tempest Rising which I read for my Sci-Fi and Fantasy book group. I found it difficult to get to grips with this story at first and I think that is because I was mislead by the cover. At first glance it looks like a book for children and I started to read, thinking it might be intended as a young YA book. In the first few chapters the protagonist was revealed to be a 26-year-old woman who worked in a bookshop and took care of her ailing father. She likes to swim in the sea, in the nude and one of her employers buys her sexy lingerie, sex toys and rude books as birthday and Christmas gifts. Once I’d got my head around that, the fact that her mother was a Selkie and that she started to have an affair with a vampire seemed quite reasonable. At times the story did seem to be more YA than adult fiction, but there are some very steamy pages in amongst murder, intrigue and a whole court of mythological beings. I still don’t quite know how I feel about this book, so I have requested the second in the series to help me find out. I think the adventures of Jane True could turn into a guilty pleasure.
If you just look at the pictures, it doesn’t seem that I have done much reading this week, but that’s not the case. I have finished two cracking YA novels, a beautiful version of a traditional tale, an early reader and a magazine about writing. The latter always takes me off onto researches and explorations inspired by the articles and news features. That takes up a lot of time! I’ve also been reading profiles of people who were speaking at Wonderlands, a symposium organised by the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy that I attended this weekend. I shall post more about that later in the week.
This week I have done something I thought I would never do. I have given myself permission NOT to finish every book I start. It has always been a matter of pride that, no matter how dull, annoying or frustrating, I always plough through to the very end. There have only been one or two exceptions over the last fifty years. At the moment, the books in my TBR heap would reach the bedroom ceiling twice over if they were gathered into one place. The books I’m reading for work still get the full treatment, as do most of the books I’m reading for college. However, if it’s a book that I’ve picked up just because it might be useful, or I liked the sound of the blurb, or it’s had a lot of attention on social media – the rules have changed. Those books get thirty pages or so to grab my attention. If by that stage I’m not looking forward to my next opportunity to read a chapter or two, I can choose whether or not to persevere. As someone pointed out, the early pages of most books have received a disproportionate amount of attention from writers, agents and editors. That being the case, how likely is it that my reading experience will improve as the book progresses?
Over the last seven days I have started and abandoned two books and returned a third to the library as it was a sequel to one of those two. I won’t name the books or the authors – it is, after all, just my opinion and it would be unfair of me to cast aspersions on something I didn’t finish. After all, it could be that my head was just not in the right place to read those stories on that day. I have to say – seeing my TBR heap shrink as a result is strangely liberating. Every time I put an unread book in the library returns bag it makes me giggle like a naughty little girl.
Not reading books I didn’t enjoy gave me space to read books that I really did. East of the Sun, West of the Moon is Jackie Morris’s beautifully illustrated adaptation of a traditional story. I was going to say it had been a long time since I read the original, but I’m sure you know what I mean. I haven’t read any other versions of this story for a while so I can’t remember how they end. I think Ms Morris got it just right. The girl grew up and changed during her travels and accepted that she was not the same person who had fallen in love with the bear/prince. Each of the illustrations is a little jewel and I was very sad to give it back to Hampshire libraries.
Vortex by S J Kincaid is the sequel to Insignia. This series has children with processors implanted in their brains competing in games in preparation to defend the world against enemies from beyond. In reality they are engaged in a constant battle between the mega-rich corporations who control the wealth of the world. It is full of technology, intrigue, action, politics and teenage friendships and I think I might buy them for my nephew for his 14th birthday – if he doesn’t have them already.
Before July last year I knew nothing about Rainbow Rowell. Then I went to YALC and saw the rapturous attention she received from her many fans. I’d been seeing a lot of chatter about her book Eleanor & Park on social media so I decided to read it. I fell instantly in love with the characters, the story and her writing. It’s taken me nine months to move another of her books up my reading heap – and it was worth the wait. Fangirl could, at first glance, be just another story about twin sisters going to University, leaving their bipolar father home alone. The mother who abandoned them tries to build bridges, there are new friendships, parties, boys and worries over studies. But this story was written by a master (sorry, mistress) of her craft and has the added bonus of a sub-story; a piece of fanfiction written by the protagonist, Cath. It was one of those stories that made me sad when the book was over, but happy because I was certain the characters were still carrying on their lives without my watching them. The library catalogue has two more of her titles listed, but I am being very brave and not placing a reservation at the moment. Anyone want to take bets on how long I can hold out?
After all the excitement and intense work of the last few weeks, I’ve had a chance to make a tiny dent in my ‘To Be Read’ heaps. My heaps contain books in four categories:
- To be read for college
- To be read for work
- Books I’ve borrowed from the library for fun
- Books I asked people to buy me for birthday and Christmas that are still waiting their turn.
This week, for the first time in a long time, I ditched the first category. The majority of this week’s reading comes from section two, but I did manage to sneak in some stories from section three. Those books in the fourth category are, as usual, the Cinderellas. It’s worse than that, they weren’t even invited to the party.
To make up for it, I read a picture book about Cinderella – Give Us a Smile, Cinderella by Steve Smallman & Marcin Piwowarski. In this version of the well-known tale the step-sisters are ugly because they are too lazy to brush their teeth. The Prince is not attracted to their smelly, gappy smiles but Cinderella, who brushes her teeth night and morning, wins his heart.
The other picture books this week are 15 things NOT to do with a baby by Margaret McAllister & Holly Sterling – a comical set of rules for things you really shouldn’t do when your new baby arrives – and Families, Families, Families! by Suzanne & Max Lang. This simple book is full of families of every shape and size. It has one simple message: If you love each other, then you’re a family. Both these books are great for families to share together and will be going on the When a Book Might Help book lists.
The other WABMH books this week were Blabber Mouth by Morris Gleitzman and Not As We Know It by Tom Avery & Kate Grove. In Blabber Mouth we meet Rowena Batts. She can’t speak due to having ‘some bits missing from my throat’. This, her tendency to stuff frogs in people’s mouths and her outlandish father, can make it difficult to make friends. This is a fun, funny, positive story and makes me want to read more about Rowena. Not As We Know It is much darker. It is the story of Ned and Jamie, Star Trek obsessed twins. They do everything together, but Ned has Cystic Fibrosis and the prognosis is not good. One day they find something strange on the beach after a storm. They take the creature, who Ned names Leonard, home with them and hide him in the garage. Jamie hopes that Leonard will somehow cure Ned’s illness, but Ned has listened to the stories about merfolk and has a different interpretation of how things will end. A moving and beautifully illustrated story which some adults may find disturbing.
From my ‘fun’ heap I read the eighth book in Alex Scarrow’s Time Riders series, The Mayan Prophecy. I have enjoyed following the adventures of Liam, Maddy, Sal, Bob & Becks as they try to unravel the mystery of who they are and what they are doing. Book nine has already been requested from the library and I think that will be the end of their journey. At the same time I’ve been listening to The City and the Stars by Arthur C Clarke. Written in 1956 this story felt quite old-fashioned in the way it was written – lots of exposition, both in the text and dialogue. The ideas, however, were interesting and the ideas about man destroying their environment and isolating themselves from the natural world seemed very relevant.
I’ve kept the best to last. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz is a beautifully written, lyrical coming of age story. Dante and Ari have different skills and abilities, different temperaments and different family backgrounds so it seems unlikely that they will become best friends – but they do. I loved this story. Despite the occasional violence, it is a very gentle story about a friendship that gradually develops into love. We so often read about gay people knowing about their sexual preferences from an early age but this was much closer to my own experience. Looking back, the clues were there and some of my friends were quicker on the uptake than others. I wished they’d told me! When I finished this book it took me a while to come back to the real world. I felt sad that I could never again share Ari and Dante’s story for the first time, but really happy that I had got to know them. I would recommend this book to anyone who is questioning their sexuality, who has friends who may be going through the experience, or who revels in a good love story.