reading

A Year in Books (2015 edition)

At the start of the year, I found this beautiful, huge, suede-covered notebook on sale when I was wandering through central Bath. It was too lovely to leave… and too lovely to use for just any old thing. So it became my book journal: all it contains is a list of books.

But to my surprise, looking back over the list, the names have triggered memories of my year: reading Elena Ferrante on Ischia. My heart breaking over and over as I read “H is for Hawk” in front of the fire. Reading about surfers in Cornwall on a beach full of surfers just round the bay from St Ives.

Somehow, my book journal has become my journal.

So, instead of the traditional “Here’s how my year went…” post, here are the books I read in 2015.* I’m not passing judgement on any of them; they’re presented in chronological order. But it’s fair to say that looking at the list, I’ve read some wonderful books over the past 12 months…

 

  1. The Taxidermist’s Daughter: Kate Mosse
  2. Spoiled Brats: Simon Rich
  3. We are All Completely Beside Ourselves: Karen Joy Fowler
  4. H is for Hawk: Helen Macdonald
  5. The Dolls: Kiki Sullivan
  6. The Opposite of Loneliness: Marina Keegan
  7. Phoenix Rising: Bryony Pearce
  8. Wolf Hall: Hilary Mantel
  9. Life – An Exploded Diagram: Mal Peet
  10. Possession: AS Byatt (r)
  11. The Old Ways: Robert Macfarlane
  12. The Little Stranger: Sarah Waters
  13. Etta & Otto & Russell & James: Emma Hooper
  14. Murder Most Unladylike: Robin Stevens
  15. Us: David Nicholls
  16. England, England: Julian Barnes
  17. Chop, Chop: Simon Wroe
  18. The World Beyond Your Head – How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction: Matthew Crawford
  19. The Sin Eater’s Daughter: Melinda Salisbury
  20. Fearney: James Long
  21. Poldark – Ross Poldark: Winston Graham
  22. Anna & the French Kiss: Stephanie Perkins
  23. All the Light We Cannot See: Anthony Doerr
  24. I’ll Give You the Sun: Jandy Nelson
  25. The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow: Katherine Woodfine
  26. Remix: Non Pratt
  27. Pompidou Posse: Sarah Lotz
  28. The Dead House: Dawn Kurtagich
  29. My Brilliant Friend: Elena Ferrante
  30. The Line of Beauty: Alan Hollinghurst
  31. Curtain Call: Anthony Quinn
  32. The Talented Mr Ripley: Patricia Highsmith
  33. Yes Please: Amy Poehler
  34. In the Light of What We Know: Zia Haider Rahman
  35. A Month in the Country: JL Carr
  36. A Place of Greater Safety: Hilary Mantel
  37. Blue: Lisa Glass
  38. The Year of Reading Dangerously: Andy Miller
  39. The Paradox: Charlie Fletcher
  40. The Buried Giant: Kazuo Ishiguro
  41. Ghostwritten: David Mitchell
  42. ZOM-B Fugitive: Darren Shan
  43. The Hunted: Charlie Higson
  44. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: Susanna Clarke (r)
  45. Carry On: Rainbow Rowell
  46. The Magicians: Lev Grossman
  47. Spectacles: Sue Perkins
  48. Master & Commander: Patrick O’Brian
  49. The Loney: Andrew Michael Hurley
  50. The Story of a New Name: Elena Ferrante
  51. My True Love Gave to Me: ed. Stephanie Perkins (r)
  52. Landmarks: Robert Macfarlane
  53. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Hilary Mantel
  54. A God in Ruins: Kate Atkinson

 

Happy New Year, and may your 2016 bring you all the wisdom and words you could wish for.

 

*A couple of provisos: there’s a few proofs I’ve read which I haven’t included, and I don’t include anything I read for the Bath Novel Award long & short lists. Books marked with an (r) are books I re-read.

On Hugging Books

Last night, I went to a church. Not to church, you understand, but to a church: the beautiful Christ Church perched on the side of a hill in Bath (which is, by the way, a church with a fascinating history if you’re ever in the area). It’s also where one of Bath’s amazing bookshops, Toppings, hosts some of its regular events. I’ve been to a couple now, and they’re never less than inspiring.

But last night… last night was a bit special. Special enough to brave the dark and the downpours. Last night was THE BONE CLOCKS event.

I am late to the David Mitchell party. I have friends who have read every one of his books the week they’ve come out. I have friends who’ve read and reread them and can track characters from one to another. I have friends who have written essays on his form and style. And I… hadn’t read a single one of his books.

And then I read THE BONE CLOCKS, mostly because I was interested.

And then I finished it, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I won’t talk about the book itself here, because there are already enough places on the internet – and, even better, in the real world – where you can find people far more qualified than I am talking about it.

What I want to talk about is the hugging of books.

Christ Church is a working church, filled with pews rather than chairs, which means there’s a fair amount of good-natured shuffling and clambering past strangers to find a seat, trying not to knock over their glasses of wine (because this is Bath and we believe in doing books properly) and apologising profusely for having feet (because, again, this is Bath). By the time I got there, it was already fairly busy: lots of the audience had Toppings bags with their new books in; some were flipping through new books or reading old books… and some were hugging them. Holding them closely to them, cradling them. These books were important in some way. Talismanic. Precious.

I found a seat and settled down, flipping through my slightly less-than pristine copy I’d brought along… and it was only once things got underway that I realised I was doing the same. I was hugging this book to me. I have no idea why, but there I was – book pressed to me like I was afraid someone was going to snatch it and run away.

Later, in the signing queue, people were doing the same. They spoke in hushed tones of “my first David Mitchell”; they remembered how old they were when they read that first book, what was happening in their lives. They talked about how those early books had changed with them, every time they returned to them (and many had, more than once). These books were more than just books. They were maps, well-thumbed. Maps back to who these readers used to be. Maps to who they thought or hoped they would become. Maps of themselves.

I’m an old cynic, and I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it before. But then, I’ve never read anything quite like that book before.

At the start of the event, Toppings announced that they have made David Mitchell their author of the year. By the end of the event, I could see why: not just from the reading (which, coming as it did from my favourite part of the book, I was already primed to enjoy) or from the searingly honest Q&A afterwards; not even from the time getting my copy signed (which was, in itself, a joy)… but from the number of people hugging their books.

Bath Literature Festival

The last thing I need is more books. I already have a strict regular culling policy and have developed the ability to cross the road any time I happen to be passing a bookshop – just in case. You see, I have a problem. My name is Lou, and I love books.

Last week was Bath’s annual Literature Festival, sponsored by the Independent. I live in Bath. You can see where this is going, can’t you?

I have basically spent the last couple of days rolling around in books. It’s been marvellous.

I didn’t even go to that many events: the list of things I wanted to go to was as long as my arm, but many of them sold out long before I got a look in. Being new to Bath (and not terribly organised) I hadn’t realised just how much of a Thing the festival was.

Hint: it’s a Thing.

After a fair amount of dithering, I got myself sorted with some tickets to a couple of talks (sadly, one I had to miss at the last minute because of a deadline. Boo) and off I toddled.

(more…)

Splinters of Souls

bookshelves

I was having a conversation about books (no surprise there) on Twitter over the weekend, and it veered into the amount of money it’s possible to spend on them when you really get going – and how that compares to, say, a designer handbag. I said, rather glibly, that I’d much rather go book shopping than handbag shopping… and then I started to wonder why.

Let’s start with the obvious. I’m not that fussed about expensive bags or shoes as trophies. They just don’t do much for me. I have one decent handbag, which was a gift (and which I do love. So much so that when it got damaged in the Apple Juice Incident of 2012 – details of which I’m not at liberty to divulge – I might have got a little bit sniffly and uttered the immortal cry of: “This is why I can’t have nice things…”. But moving swiftly on.) and which I use a lot. But I only really need the one good one, don’t I? After all, any others would just sit in a cupboard when they’re not being used. Alone. And, knowing my luck, slowly sinking into a puddle of juice. Christ.

But books don’t do that. I looked around my house, and I saw books. Not as many as I used to have, admittedly: I gave away boxes and boxes of them before we moved. But still, books. And because I straight-out alphabetise them (alas, I haven’t the patience for Dewey), there are books rubbing spines that you wouldn’t necessarily think of as natural companions. John Connolly and Jilly Cooper, for instance… whereas Joe and Will Hill seem like easy shelf-mates. (Me? Oh, I’m next to Erin Morgenstern… and within striking distance of the Michael Marshall/Smiths…)

The thing is, I can see them. And more than that, I remember them. Every time I look at those shelves, I’m not just seeing books. I’m seeing memories.

There, right at the start, is my mother’s collection of Judy Astley books, and her copy of Sam Shepard’s short stories which I know she only bought because she had a thing for him (and rightly so) but which are astonishingly good.

There’s the battered old copy of Joanne Harris’s Chocolat, which I’ve read and re-read every Easter since it was published. On the shelf in the bedroom, there’s the copy of How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe which I was reading when my mother died and which made me cry when I reached the last page. There’s the Lud In The Mist I nicked from my parents’ bookshelves when I was little because I liked the cover. The 3 volumes of The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship‘s by far the most battered, and actually falls open at the first appearance of Strider (what?).

There’s my beloved copy of Only Forward, signed at the very first convention I ever went to, in Brighton. There’s Chris Fowler’s Disturbia: a book I’ve had since I don’t even remember when, and which I used as a sort of unofficial guide book to London when I moved there for university.

Books by my friends, books by people I’ve never met and most likely never will. Well. Be difficult with Dickens, wouldn’t it?

Books that have made me laugh, books that have made me cry and books that break my heart.

And when I look at those books, I realise why I’d rather have them than a bunch of handbags.

They are memories; pieces not just of their authors’ souls, snapshots of them as they wrote, but pieces of mine.

I remember the first time I read some of them. I remember the times I’ve re-read some of them – and left between their pages like a pressed flower or a leaf or grains of sand from a holiday, there are slivers of my own soul. Versions of me, be they from one, ten or twenty years ago. Who I was when I picked up that book for the first time; who I’ve been since.

There’s a famous Jean Cocteau quote, beloved of cat owners – myself included – that cats are the visible soul of a house.

Perhaps books, whether tidily stacked or jostling for space and piled one on top of each other, are the visible soul of their owner.

World Book Day

As you’ll doubtless be aware, today is World Book Day.

A whole day, all about books. (You can probably imagine just how happy this concept makes me.) 

To celebrate, here’s a list of a few books I’ve either read & enjoyed recently, or have on my “Readmereadmereadme!” pile, all of which come heartily recommended.

Gillian Flynn: Gone Girl

Will Hill: the Department 19 series (as a bonus, there’s a D19 story available as part of the World Book Day YA app…)

Warren Ellis: Gun Machine

James Smythe: The Explorer

Laura Lam: Pantomime

Kim Curran: Shift

Cressida Cowell: the How to Train Your Dragon series.

 

And on the “Read me very soon” pile…

Tanya Byrne: Heart Shaped Bruise

Gaie Sebold: Dangerous Gifts

Emma Newman: Between Two Thorns

 

Any and all of these books will repay your love with their stories, their characters and their worlds.

Happy reading!

(By the way, if you want to keep track of what I’m reading this year, I’m trying to keep a record of every book over on my Pinterest board. It’s a really good idea – which needless to say I’ve nicked from someone else, because it’s far too clever for me…)

FantasyCon 2012

 This weekend sees the annual convention of the British Fantasy Society, FantasyCon, which is heading back to Brighton for the second year in a row. It’s a hugely friendly event with authors, editors, agents, readers and publishers all getting together to spend time together. And there’s a disco. And bars which never seem to close…

I’ve been involved in the background of this one for the first time, helping to organise the reading slots which will be running from the Friday afternoon through to the Sunday lunchtime. We were incredibly fortunate that – thanks largely to the overwhelming success of last year’s event – we had a fantastic pool of potential readers to pick from, and we’ve put together a reading programme which should have something for everyone, including Kate Griffin, Will Hill, Joe Abercrombie, Adam Christopher, Gary McMahon, Mike Carey, Stacia Kane… and more, mixing familiar names with debut authors and up-and-comers.

And that’s just the readings. There are all sorts of book launches, parties, panels, signings and events spread throughout the weekend.

I may have been running around working on this one, but they aren’t letting me off yet. I’ll be popping up a few times across the weekend – so if you want me, I’ll definitely be at these events (and will probably be running around or lurking in the background at a few others. I’ll be the one with a vaguely panicked expression…)

FRIDAY 28TH SEPTEMBER:

4 – 5pm, PANEL: YOUR FIRST CONVENTION. (Fitzherbert Room)

I’ll be discussing conventions with Guy Adams, Tim Lebbon, Joanne Hall and super-con-organiser Mandy Slater: how they work, what to do (or not to do!) and how to get the most out of them. Whether you’re an FCon newbie, a convention virgin or an old hand at both, come along.

8.30 – 9pm: READING. (Room 134)

Solaris are launching their new MAGIC anthology at FantasyCon, so I’ll be reading my short story from that, “Bottom Line” for the very first time. If there’s time, I’ll also try and squeeze in a very short excerpt from BLOOD AND FEATHERS. That’ll be a section I’ve not read before (basically, come to enough events I’m reading at, and you may well hear the whole book by the end of it….)

11:30pm – midnight: JUST A MINUTE (Regency Lounge)

This is the scary one. I’m playing the legendary game against James Barclay, Rob Shearman and FCon Guest of Honour Muriel Gray, all under the watchful eye of Gollancz’s Gillian Redfearn. Swing by the lounge to watch us all fail to talk for a minute without hesitation, repetition or deviation on any given subject. Heckle, cheer, laugh… whatever. But bring your moral support. And gin.

SATURDAY 29th SEPTEMBER

2 – 3pm: MAGIC LAUNCH (Bar Rogue)

Along with other contributors (including Rob Shearman, Alison Littlewood, Thana Niveau and Will Hill) I’ll be signing at the launch of the fantastic Solaris anthology. I’ve read a couple of the stories in this now, and I can promise you it’s worth it…

5 – 6pm: launch of A CARNIVALE OF HORROR: DARK TALES FROM THE FAIRGROUND (Regency Lounge)

Another anthology launch: this time, a collection of dark circus stories, edited by the Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan and featuring my story “Face of the Circus”. I’ll be signing, as will Rio Youers, James Lovegrove, Muriel Gray and the cover artist Ben Baldwin.

I’m incredibly excited about both these anthologies, as I’m very proud of those stories and I’m thrilled to be in such amazing line-ups.

###

Someone asked me whether I’ll be at the Big Solaris Give-Away & Signing on the Saturday afternoon: the answer to that is “sort of”. I’m not actually involved (I think the lovely Solaris crew will all need a bit of a break from me, to be honest…) but I may well be hovering somewhere in the background and I *will* be around most of Saturday afternoon – most likely either hanging out in the bar or running interference on launches and other events. So if you have a copy of BLOOD AND FEATHERS that you’d like me to sign, just keep an eye out for me and I’d be delighted to oblige!

As an aside, we’re also running a CHARITY CUPCAKE SALE on the FRIDAY AFTERNOON from 2 – 3pm (I think it’s in Bar Rogue, but please check the programme). All cakes are being made specifically by a group of crack volunteer bakers and have a fantasy theme. I’m told there *will* be some GF / vegan choices too, and all proceeds will go to the National Literacy Trust.

My contributions will have a Once Upon A Time theme, and (barring bakery disasters, which are entirely possible, given this is me…) be:

Rumpelstiltskin’s Revenge: chocolate & rum cupcakes with chocolate fudge icing… and plenty of gold.

Snow White: rose-flavoured cupcakes with vanilla icing

The Dark Curse: blackberry and lemon marbled cakes with chocolate icing

So there you go. FantasyCon’s shaping up to be a fantastic (gettit?) weekend all round. Weekend memberships are now sold out, but there may still be some day tickets available for the Saturday.

If you’re coming, I’ll see you in Brighton in a few days. The full programme is online here, with details of launches here. I’m looking forward to it….

BLOOD AND FEATHERS launch

So, Thursday happened. And when I say “Thursday”, I mean, obviously, “the launch of BLOOD AND FEATHERS and the slightly excitingterrifying reading and signing at Forbidden Planet, no I wasn’t nervous I always twitch like this when I’m relaxed. Totally.”

I won’t lie. I was nervous. A lot nervous.

You see, I went to my first ever “proper” book-signing at Forbidden Planet, to see Neil Gaiman. That was where this whole thing started – so when Thursday came and it was my turn, it was just a little… odd.

Beforehand, I met up with my agent, Juliet, who gave me the most ridiculously cool present (It involves a hip flask, whisky and – to my undying joy – Jeremy Renner. You can all just ponder that for a while.) and attempted to soothe her gibbering, twitching, hyperventilating client before we hopped in a cab to Forbidden Planet.

There, the amazing Danie, who organised all this (and whose very own book is coming out soon…), whisked me off through a magic “Staff only” door (I’ve always been a sucker for one of those) to sign a few pre-orders… and then it was time to go and Do Stuff.

I read a couple of pages from the book and answered some great questions – and then signed copies. Even saying that brings a stupid grin to my face. Seriously.

 

I still can’t quite believe that quite so many people turned up! It was wonderful to see some familiar faces from Twitter and to finally get the chance to say hi, albeit briefly. I’m just extraordinarily grateful to everyone who came; to Solaris and to Forbidden Planet for inviting me. It was genuinely one of the best evenings I’ve ever had, and it was so lovely to see so much support for the book.

Huge kudos to Jenni Hill – who turned up wearing this:

I heart this very, very much. And yes, that badge does say: “CEO of the official Mallory fan club” And she’s TM’d it, too, so don’t get any ideas!

So there we go. The book’s out. The angels are loose. Thank you so much to everyone who came to the signing, and to everyone who’s sent me messages saying they’re reading it and enjoying it. You have no idea how much it means to me, because I just can’t quite seem to find the right words. Being a writer and that.

 

Before I go: congratulations to Bridgette Roundtree from LA, who won a signed copy of BLOOD AND FEATHERS through our Goodreads giveaway: the book will be on its way to you today. Thanks to everyone who entered: we had an insane number of entries so hopefully we’ll do another one soon!

 

Lizards & baseball & witches. Oh my.

I said I’d do a catch-up kind of post, didn’t I? Best laid plans and all that.

Have a picture of a lizard, by way of apology.

That’s admittedly not the one which fell on my head while I was on holiday – but I can assure you that one did. It made a sort of rubbery, splatty noise, and I’m not sure which one of us was more startled. We both went on to make a full recovery.

And yes. I went on holiday. To what I can only describe as a version of the Lost island without the Others or the Smoke Monster.

Sadly, no Sawyer either. Boo. I know. I was as disappointed as you are.

What it did have, though, was a lot of sunshine – and a proper beach and a ridiculously clear sea: the kind you always imagine is made up. (Put it this way: the sea around Brighton Pier doesn’t look quite like that, more’s the pity…)

We were staying on the wrong side of the island to see the sunset (this place is a nature reserve, with only a small village of about 130 people all of whom are involved in protecting the biodiversity of the the island, and a hotel – the rooms spread along the beach in individual villas) but the skies were still pretty impressive.

You can see the next island to the north in that photo.

I basically had to be removed from the porch of the hotel kicking, screaming and shouting “I don’t want to leeeeeave!” at the end of the holiday. Because I didn’t. I could’ve stayed there forever, especially given my joy at discovering there’s nothing about Creole food I don’t like.

Also, my poor husband had to put up with me merrily singing the Red Dwarf theme most mornings at breakfast, from behind a glass of mango juice. Because I am an enormous geek.

Anyway. The important bit is what I read while I was there – which boiled down to the second and third books of The Dark Tower (yes, I still love Roland. Hush now), The Art of Fielding, Hollow Pike and The Testimony.

The Dark Tower books need no introduction – and nor does my response to them – so I’ll leave it at saying my devotion to the series and the characters is still going strong… and I’m onto book 4.

I’d been looking forward to “The Art of Fielding” for a while. It’s a little-known fact that I’m actually a fan of baseball. I don’t follow it much these days, so I haven’t the faintest idea what’s going on or who’s who, but I used to be crazy about it when I was in my early teens, and your first loves leave a lasting impression. (Chicago White Sox, thanks for asking. I know, I know.) So imagine my joy: a baseball novel which requires me to bring nothing in terms of knowledge to the table other than the slightly iffy, second-hand snippets I managed to glean half a lifetime ago, and have largely forgotten… and my affection. Because the book’s not about baseball at all. Well – that’s an overstatement. It is about baseball, but it’s also about hope and despair and family and relationships and friendships and ambition and… things.

I think we rather take this kind of novel for granted in the genre world: we tend to expect that yes, Book A says it’s about dragons, but technically, it’s about the War on Terror. Or something. We expect books to be metaphorical, to a degree. But that’s another story – literally.

Another of my holiday reads was “Hollow Pike” by James Dawson, which I absolutely flew through. It’s a pacy YA book involving witches and the creepy local woods, and it’s really quite unsettling at times. It’s also tremendous fun, and has some great characters and a lot of atmosphere. Also, I want to live in the house that Lis, the protagonist, moves to. Preferably without all the nightmares and the murder and stuff, though. Just saying.

“The Testimony” took me longer, partly because the narrative structure’s more challenging. As the title implies, it’s a testimony – different people all telling their version of the same event – the burst of static and a voice which is heard by (almost) all of humanity one day – and what comes after. I’ve always been a sucker for a big-scale disaster movie (things like The Towering Inferno) and in a lot of ways, that’s what “The Testimony” reminded me of as it wove different characters and plot threads together. It’s fantastic. And terrifying, in the best possible way.

Any of those books, if you’re looking for some holiday reading, will see you right. Although if you’re reading book 2 of The Dark Tower, I advise you give the seafood a miss (I’ll be regarding lobster with a slightly cautious eye for a while, I think), and if you give “The Testimony” a whirl, you may well find yourself freaking out when someone accidentally switches on the PA in the airport and transmits a load of white noise. Hypothetically speaking. Because I totally didn’t freak out. Not a bit. Uh-uh. Nope.

God help me if I have to go through a forest any time soon…

Sir…

There’s no getting around the fact that e-mail (and the internet in general) has revolutionised the way we communicate. This being a blog is kind of a case in point.

But there is one thing about old-timey letters that we’re missing. The paper.

I’m a notepaper fiend: it stretches far beyond the typical notebook fare, and into the realms of stupidity. Take, for instance, the gorgeous decorated & die-cut writing paper I was given one Christmas when I was around 7 or 8. There were two sets: one was illustrated with a swashbuckling swordsman, complete with domino mask and lightning-struck castle perched over a stormy sea. The other had a circus, and was mostly pink.

There were two of each, plus plainer lined paper to act as continuation pages. I think the idea was that I used them to write my thank-you notes (ever practical, my mother) but I couldn’t bear to. The first time I opened the cellophane on the swashbuckler was when my eldest cousin was little (which would have meant I was in my mid-teens) to write her a letter. I opened the circus one two weeks ago, to write an RSVP to a birthday party my son had been invited to.

It struck me that I’ve been hanging on to this paper for my entire adult life (and then some) without knowing quite why. Saving it for something “special”, I suppose – but what qualifies as special enough?

Perhaps if we wrote more letters on lovely paper – and in proper ink (I went to a school where writing in biro was right up there with spitting in your great-grandma’s dinner in terms of Things We Don’t Do: from the age of 6, it was fountain pens all the way…) – then all letters would feel special.

I’m not actually sure I remember the last time I received an actual letter – not a card, not an email, although I’m always delighted to get any of those –  but a letter, through the post. I know I’m not alone in this: I can’t remember the last time I wrote one, either. We’re all so pushed for time, busy rushing around and barely running off a quick e-mail or text message that the idea of sitting down to read (let alone write) a letter has become an alien impossibility.

Perhaps if we had paper like this, though, that might change: Famous Letterheads, 1900 – 1997. (There’s also a whole Tumblr site devoted to them: Letterheady, a sister site of the brilliant Letters of Note)

Naturally, Tesla has the coolest paper ever… and while I can’t see myself having something quite that extraordinary, I’m rather taken with the idea of writing letters again.

Our e-mails can’t be bundled up & tied up with ribbons, packed in a trunk in an attic for our grandchildren to find, and wonder that there was more to us than the self they knew.

The texts we send our friends, our lovers; the messages of congratulation or condolence – the confirmation of affection – can’t be revisited.

And while for most of our daily drudge of correspondence: the spam, the receipts, the work mails… it’s a relief not to have to sort and file – what about the special ones? The ones to and from the people with whom we choose to surround ourselves: the ones who actually matter?

I rather like the idea of finding myself some beautiful paper and a new pen..

Anyone with me?

The Muddle Ground

I was having a conversation with somebody very bookish last week. I don’t mean that in a bad way–not that I’ve ever seen “bookish” as being particularly negative–but in the sense that she knows an awful lot about books. About books, about the people who write them and about the people who read them.

She told me that she’d recently heard of a teacher telling a class of secondary-school students that if they were having trouble with a book, they should read the first page, the last page and the middle page – and that this would give them a framework for the story. The middle page, in particular, would be the one that told them what the story was about.

At this point, we had to pause our conversation so my eyebrows could be retrieved from the ceiling. But once the stepladder was safely back in its cupboard, it occurred to me that this is a marvellous theory. Think of the time it’ll save reviewers, for starters. In fact, think of the time it’ll save all of us! We’ll never have to read a book from end to end again!

Now. You know me. I’m an old cynic. So I thought it might be fun to try a little experiment. It’s Monday, after all, and we may as well have a bit of fun. It’s not terribly scientific, but since when have I ever let that stop me?

Below you’ll find the approximate middle of several books I’ve picked from my shelves at random. None of them are obscure limited editions or anything like that. These are all mass-market editions of well-known books. True, they’re books I own, so they’re going to reflect my taste to a degree, but in the Great Venn Diagram of the Internet, that means they may well reflect yours too.

Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to identify each book and to consider how true the “middle of the middle” theory is in each case.

Just to make things a little trickier, I’ve changed character (and place) names where appropriate. Your main characters are now Bill, Bob, Betty and Bernadette, who will be ably assisted by their friends from all over the alphabet. They live in Billingsgate, just so we’re clear, although they’ve been to Belgium and… um, other places beginning with other letters. So don’t think I’m losing my mind when these names keep popping up.

These are all “straight-narrative” books–just in case you’re wondering. No complicated formats, no epistolary novels, no time-travel gimmicks. Just the beginning-middle-end straight-shot books.

So. With no further ado….

BOOK 1.

Bill had died in prison, when what the infirmary had told him was just a malingering, feeling-lousy kind of day turned out to be a ruptured appendix. Now, here in the Billingsgate library, Bob found himself thinking about a garage in Belgium with box after box of rare, strange and beautiful books in it rotting away, all of them browning and wilting and being eaten by mold and insects in the darkness, waiting for someone who would never come to set them free.

Native American Beliefs and Traditions were on a single shelf in one castle-like turret. Bob pulled down some books and sat in the window seat. In several minutes he had learned that thunderbirds were mythical gigantic birds who lived on mountaintops, who brought the lightning and who flapped their wings to make the thunder. There were some tribes, he read, who believed that the thunderbirds had made the world. Another half hour’s reading did not turn up anything more, and he could find no mention of eagle stones anywhere in the books’ indexes.

BOOK 2.

The difficulty is Betty, as always. After dinner she goes to their bedroom, from where she could conceivably hear me as I sneak along the hall, although I take care to be very quiet. Or she stays in the sitting room, knitting away at her endless Angel scarves, turning out more and more yards of intricate and useless wool people: her form of procreation, it must be. The sitting-room door is usually left ajar when she’s in there, and I don’t dare to go past it. When I’ve had the signal but can’t make it, down the stairs or along the hall past the sitting room, Bob understands. He knows my situation, none better. He knows all the rules.

BOOK 3.

The silence and the loneliness were dreadful. In fact, I think he might have given up the whole plan and gone back and owned up and made friends with the others, if he hadn’t happened to say to himself, “When I’m King of Belgium the first thing I shall do will be to make some decent roads.” And of course that set him off thinking about being a King and all the other things he would do and this cheered him up a good deal.

BOOK 4.

He dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and, lifting up his eyes, howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast getting goaded to death with knives and spears.

I observed several splashes of blood about the bark of the tree, and his hand and forehead were both stained; probably the scene I witnessed was a repetition of others acted during the night. It hardly moved my compassion–it appalled me; still I felt reluctant to quit him so. But the moment he recollected himself enough to notice me watching, he thundered a command for me to go, and I obeyed. He was quite beyond my skill to quiet or console!

BOOK 5.

Bob looked at Bill. “When I think back to that day–”

“You were there?” interrupted Bill. “You went on the mission?”

“Of course,” replied Bob. “Me, your father, Brian Babesson and seventeen other Belgian men. We flew in on the 18th of March 1993, and we reached the factory in the late morning of the following day.”

“What happened?”

“They were waiting for us. More than seventy vampires, all well fed and rested, wide awake and waiting when we went through the door. I noticed that the black paint covering the windows was still wet, and I told your father, who ordered everyone to retreat. But it was too late. They came down from the rafters. We never stood a chance.”

SPECIAL BONUS BOOK!

(because I know you’ll get it straight away, but I think we should have it regardless…)

“I know it sounds stupid, Bob, but we think it might have caught something off Bill.”

“Daftness, you mean?”

“That’s ridiculous, boy!’ said Brian. “Idiocy is not a communicable disease.”

Baxter puffed his pipe.

“I used to think that too,” he said. “Now, I’m not so sure. Anyway, you can catch wisdom, can’t you?”

“No, you can’t,” snapped Brian. “It’s not like ‘flu. Wisdom is… well, instilled.”

There you go. Have it it, boys and girls. I’m going to go and make Bob, Bill and all their friends a cup of tea. I think they’ve earned it.