The Best Laid Plans….

Sometimes, life just doesn’t go the way you want it to. I had my schedule of posts all worked out, not just in my head but on paper even – two a week, right through to the end of October. A nice neat list, absolutely essential because I’ve decided to pick up a study programme this term and in order to fit everything in I need to be organised. Then blow me, if I didn’t go and hit two books in a row that I just didn’t want to write about. The first was actually a very good book, one that we discussed in my Monday Reading Group and that we all thought was excellent. I don’t know quite why I didn’t want to blog about it, possibly because the author was coming at life from such a totally different point of view to mine that while I could appreciate the quality of the writing I would have found it hard to say anything in agreement with the perspective that he was taking. In fact, the more I think about it the more I find the novel actually to be morally offensive; which is interesting, I hadn’t realise I felt so strongly in that area.

The second was a different kettle of fish altogether. It was a book I had requested from the publisher because I’ve always enjoyed the author’s writing in the past and was expecting this one to give me the same amount of pleasure. Halfway through, however, I was, well I was going to say beginning to change my mind, but actually I had already very definitely changed it. It wasn’t simply that I didn’t like any of the characters, you can no more expect to like everyone you meet in a book than you can everyone you meet in real life, but I couldn’t engage with them. I simply didn’t believe they existed and a large part of that was because the narrative voice kept me at such a distance. It was a bit like looking at events through the wrong end of a telescope. So instead of writing a blog post for today I had to write to the publisher instead and say I’m very sorry but I can’t review this book because you wouldn’t like what I have to say about it. I am going to be fascinated to read other people’s reviews when they start to appear.

All this has come at a time when I really needed life to go like clockwork. (I know, what was I thinking?)  I have one course starting this coming Wednesday and another at the beginning of October and they are both with institutions I‘ve not worked with before and for which I have paid out real money! Finding my way round two very different sets of regulations is proving interesting! Past experience has taught me that once I’ve got the first couple of weeks behind me the level of panic that is currently coursing through my veins will subside and I’ll be able to get back onto something more of an even keel. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to be paying much heed to past experience at the moment.  So, for now I’ve gone back to my children’s literature and I’m going to satisfy myself over the weekend with a bit of re-reading. There’s no point in pushing either the reading or the blogging if it isn’t coming naturally.  The Bears and I are enjoying re-visiting Lucy M Boston’s wonderful 1954 novel, The Children of Green Knowe. Toseland Bear is particularly excited because he shares his name with one of the main characters and I have promised that if I write a post about it I will put his picture up as well.  Have a good weekend. 

Reading Retreat

DSC_0382How often in the past have I wished that I could have an extended period of time which I could treat as a reading retreat: a time when I could just step out of the world for a couple of weeks with a pile of books and a comfortable chair and nothing to come between me and my reading material.  So why is it, now that it appears that I may have not a couple of weeks but at least a couple of months with the opportunity to do just that, that I find the prospect rather daunting? Maybe it’s to do with the fact that it’s easier to consider provisioning a couple of weeks than it is a couple of months. Good food and an endless supply of tea was definitely a feature of that original vision!  I contemplated a fortnight’s isolation with complete equanimity. I’ve always been comfortable in my own company and anyway I’ve got The Bears. What more could anyone want in the way of companionship? The possibility of twelve weeks, however, is another matter entirely.

And yet, what is the option? I know from past experience that the more I worry about something the more my health suffers and from what I can gather I am going to need all the health I can get if I catch this wretched virus. So, I’m going to try being more positive about the whole thing and treat the forthcoming weeks as an opportunity to get through that endless TBR pile and, even more importantly, to get back to writing here regularly. Of course, if I want to read anything new then I’m going to have to sweet talk Jolyon Bear (he who looks after the money) into letting me buy what I need.  No more visits to the library for the moment, I’m afraid. Perhaps if I limit myself to one new book a week he will be understanding. (The other Bears are now standing at the window looking for the flying pigs they are expecting on the horizon at any moment; I have more faith in Jolyon.)

In fact, I actually do have three new books in my pile at the moment: John Fairfax’s Forced Confessions, the third of his Benson and de Vere series, Mari Hannah’s Without a Trace, a welcome return to her Kate Daniels novels and a forthcoming publication, Olivia Kiernan’s If Looks Could Kill.  This is her third Frankie Sheehan book, set in the Dublin Crime Agency, and I’m very much looking forward to it. Kiernan is one of the brightest new lights on the crime scene and if you haven’t already read her work then I very much recommend her to you. For various reasons all three of these need to be read fairly quickly (sorry Jolyon, I can’t spin them out to one a week I’m afraid) so maybe I better get on with that and hope that they will prove a considerable reinforcement to my determinedly positive state of mind.

I know that many of you will not have the “luxury“ of being able to stay at home during the coming weeks and I do recognise that while being confined will have its difficulties, my position is, in many respects, really rather privileged. We are simply all going to have to support each other and as a community we are lucky that we know the value of books, bookish friends and the comfort that they can bring.

Brief Notes ~ Sunday March 1st

EB851C85-08A9-4ACA-A41D-4FCB0C0015E7I can’t believe that it’s more than five months since I last wrote here.  Believe me, it isn’t that I haven’t been thinking about you all during that time, however, health issues have got in the way, as they have a nasty habit of doing, and initially, therefore, my return may be a bit sporadic in nature.  It isn’t going to be helped by the fact that I am now having to use the voice system on my iPad to write here and it’s very haphazard in respect of which apps it likes using and which it doesn’t.  WordPress doesn’t seem to be a favourite! Small but beautifully formed may have to be the watchword to begin with 😉.

Fortunately, I’ve still been able to do a good deal of reading over the past few months. One friend was extremely amused to get a text from me declaring that all was now okay because I was ensconced on a comfortable trolley (albeit in a hospital corridor) with a fully charged Kindle and plenty of unread books on it. The paramedics thought it was hilarious that I refused to get into the ambulance until someone had found the charger for me! (I also refused to go until I’d had my breakfast, being fairly certain I wasn’t going to get any in A&E! As I pointed out, everyone was going to have a better day if I’d had my porridge first.) Unfortunately, my brain isn’t in gear enough to attempt any full blown reviews. So, what you’re likely to get given are a series of, probably jumbled, reflections on what ever I happened to be reading at the moment. I’ve just finished Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, her novel about the BBC during World War II, based to large extent on her experience working for the Corporation  during that period.  Why is it that I haven’t read absolutely every word Fitzgerald ever wrote? Each time circumstance causes me to pick up one of her novels that is new to me I promised myself that I will read all the remaining volumes as soon as I possibly can, only to get caught up with some other writer and forget all about it! This isn’t a book with any great pretence to a wonderful plot, but her observations about human frailties are absolutely spot-on, as is her understanding of the ambiguity of the relationship  which still pertains between Auntie and the British public. I particularly love the comment about the man who objected to being posted to one of the northern radio stations:

He doesn’t understand life in Manchester. He’s never lived north of Regent’s Park before.

a prescient reflection of the problems the BBC faced from some of their staff when they moved various parts of the Corporation to Salford.  And, although some question their neutrality, I still find a lot of truth in the notion that:

Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is, telling the truth. Without prompting, the BBC had decided that truth was more important than consolation, and, in the long run, would be more effective…an idea so unfamiliar was bound to upset many of the other authorities.

I think that principle still holds today, to the discomfort of many powerful people who get called to account.



Tell Me A Story

Yesterday I picked up a book which has been long listed for at least two of this year’s major awards.  For once I had a whole afternoon free and I was looking forward to really getting into this new novel.  Two hours later, having crawled my way through the first fifty or so pages, I put it onto the pile to go back to the library wondering just what had gone wrong.  I could see that it was a very well written work.  Here was a writer who loved language and knew how to use it.  The author also had a keen eye for detail and created believable and precise characters and locations. However, what there didn’t seem to be was any attempt at telling a story.  Breaking off to seek out reviews, what I discovered was a series of comments about the way in which the lives and characteristics of the central figures were portrayed and the extent to which the writer had used them to comment on a certain strata of society.  Nobody tried to tell me about the plot – probably because there isn’t one.

Let me say straight away that I am not condemning the book on this account.  I’m sure that for some readers it will be a delight.  What I am more interested in is what it says about me as a reader. I want a story.  I want a plot with the ubiquitous beginning, middle and end, even if those elements don’t come in the right order.  Oh, I’m interested in character as well, but I need them to do something other than just walk through their daily lives.  I want to be able to describe at least one of them as a protagonist, which was a word I almost used in the previous paragraph before deciding that something as proactive as that could never be associated with any of the characters I had been reading about.  Maybe this makes me an unsophisticated reader, but do you know what, at this point in my life I don’t care.  Story is what has always been important to me.  I think it is important to most of us.  As Barbara Hardy so famously once said narrative is a primary act of mind, we all automatically tell stories about what we’ve been up to, even if what we are describing is the most mundane day of our lives.   Not for nothing did I spend my working life researching and teaching the way in which, from our earliest days, we learn how to shape and communicate the stories that define who we are.

Perhaps I should make a bigger effort to engage with novels that don’t work with plot, but when there are so many books out there that I want to read which do have a story to tell to be honest I’m not sure I really want to try.  Maybe I’m just in a grumpy mood this morning.

Recovering Nicely

This is just to say thank you to everyone who sent good wishes for my speedy recovery from what can only be described as the dreaded lurgy. The Bears have tended me solicitously for well over a week now and they finally seem to be winning the battle against whatever bug it was that laid me low.  Normal service will be resumed in a couple of days.

Reading Miscellany

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersWhen I first conceived of the Summer School the Book Group to which many of those who attend also belong didn’t have an August meeting.  In fact, this was one of the reasons that the Summer School was established.  However, for the past two or three years this hasn’t been the case and so when the week chosen is early in the month, as it is this year, it can cause quite a build up of what I think of as ‘necessary’ reading.  As a result these past few days I have been alternating between Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, (prep for leading the discussion on The Bookshop), Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (for the Book Group), Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookshop and, as an easy to pick up and put down read for the evenings, The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell.

Bythell’s book proved to be one of a small number of works that I have encountered over my reading life where the narrative voice is so emphatic I find myself embracing its characteristics in my own speaking and writing.  The first time that this happened (and perhaps the strongest) was with Jane Eyre.  For days I didn’t dare set pen to paper for fear it would appear as if I was attempting a pastiche or, even worse, that I was setting myself up as the next Charlotte Brontë.  Of course, where Bythell is concerned this just meant that I became grumpier and grumpier as the week went on.  I suppose if the majority of your custom comes from passing trade you can afford occasionally to be rude to those who are particularly annoying. If they are unlikely ever again to cross your threshold perhaps it doesn’t matter. However, as someone who was brought up in a small corner shop where every customer was a cherished regular, I cringed at some of his comments.  He complains about how little money he takes, but at times I wasn’t surprised.  Not that this stopped me enjoying the book.  Like most avid readers, I am a sucker for books about books.  Inevitably there is the comfortable feeling that you are in the company of someone of like mind and there is always the possibility that you will come away with a list of titles to add to the one that you already tout around with you wherever you go in the hope that you will stumble across a precious new volume.

In respect of looking for new books, while I may not have a nearby independent bookshop, I have discovered that there is a large used bookstore, Sedgeberrow Books, about twenty miles away in Pershore. Does anyone know it?  And if so, can you recommend a decent nearby tearoom?  As far as I’m concerned I can’t do one without the other but the reviews of local establishments are not encouraging, reasonable food but very poor customer service.  Perhaps they have all been reading Bythell?

Sunday Catch-Up

tumblr_m28hunkihb1rqmm3jo1_1280In the months running up to my recent move I had dreams of what it would mean for the time I would have for reading and for study: far less travelling, no more garden to worry about, a much smaller property to take care of, and even my cleaning done for me.  In my fantasy world (note the choice of words, please) I saw myself studying every morning, taking a leisurely stroll before lunch, followed by an afternoon spent reading and writing here before enjoying the evening either listening to music, reading some more, or out with friends at the local arts centre.

Well, dream on is all I can say.

Most of the last two months has been spent waiting in for delivery men to arrive (never at the time they said they would and often not even on the promised day), trying desperately to persuade the powers that be that I am who I say I am and that I now live where I say I do, frantically attempting to sort out the terrible mess the previous owner left the gas and electricity services in (still not resolved despite three hours on the phone the other day) and perhaps most worryingly of all having to insist to my new doctor that I know more about the way my body works after having lived with it all my life than she does after a ten minute conversation on the phone.

However, (and I may live to regret saying this) apart from the electricity, which Ofgem are now sorting out, and finding myself a new dentist, I think everything is pretty much settled and next week has nothing more exciting in the diary than a hair appointment, a pilates class and a visit to the theatre.  Perhaps I might finally be able to get down to some studying and read something a little more demanding than the detective novels I have been relying on to distract myself over the past nine weeks.

In fact, I have to get down to some reading, and quickly too, as Summer School is only a fortnight away.  We have more participants than ever this year and I did at one point think about running it twice.  Like any book group, if it gets too big, discussion becomes impossible.  The group have chosen to read the three books linked by the fact that they are all set in bookshops so I have a fortnight to re-read and prepare Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, Robin Sloan’s  Mr Penumbria’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sheridan Hay’s The Secret of Lost Things.  I have to say that I was surprised by the group’s choice and it wouldn’t have been my own, but democracy rules and after all I was the one who offered it in the first place.

One detective novel that I have been pleased to read over the past couple of days is James Oswald’s new offering No Time To Cry.  I have a feeling that this has only been published as an ebook at the moment with a hard copy coming later in the year.  It isn’t a new Tony McLean story, but features an undercover Met DC, Constance Fairchild, who is falsely accused of selling out the investigation of which she is a part and of killing her boss, DI Pete Copperthwaite.  On the run from the corrupt cops who were in fact responsible for the disaster, she finds herself caught up in a search for a teenager from her home village, escaping from a home life that ought to provide all she could possibly want (billionaire father) but which, as Con soon discovers, is actually far from ideal.

At first I wasn’t certain how I would fair with a new set of characters; I am more than fond of Oswald’s Edinburgh set-up.  But I warmed to Con very quickly and as the novel progressed I realised (far later than I should) that it shared at least one character with the McLean series. (Probably only one, it is perhaps a little far fetched to think that Mrs McCutcheon’s cat made her way down to London just to offer the same rather stand-offish support to Con as she does to Tony McLean, although I wouldn’t mind betting that there was some sort of feline grapevine in operation there).  I don’t know whether this is intended to be a one-off or the start of a new series. Given the way in which it ends I rather think the latter.  If that is the case then I will certainly look forward to any future episodes.

Moving On

sks41aOne of the advantages of moving to a small market town is that suddenly everything is within reach. I no longer have a twenty minute drive to the nearest shops to buy a week’s supply of groceries, accompanied by the constant worry that when I get there they may be no parking. Instead I simply take the ten minute stroll into town each morning and pick up whatever I need for the day.  If it happens to be a Tuesday, Friday or Saturday even better, the fruit and vegetables will come courtesy of the local farmers’ market.

If I don’t feel like going straight home then there are four or five local cafés where I can stop off for refreshments and wile away a spare half hour with a good book. Importantly, given the (for me) too hot weather we are having at the moment, most of them have shady outside nooks where it is possible to catch whatever breeze is available.

The arts centre, where I have access to music, cinema and occasional theatre, including the live streaming from the National Theatre and the RSC, is even closer – less than five minutes from door to door.  I’ve already been to see An American in Paris and An Ideal Husband and have tickets booked for half a dozen more event over the next few months. When the new chamber concert season starts in the Autumn I shall be signing up for that as well.

What I don’t have is a bookshop – independent or otherwise.

There used to be an independent bookshop in the town many years ago.  It was taken over by Waterstones, but that closed when they cut back the number of stores they felt they could sustain in the face of on-line competition.  This left just an excellent Oxfam bookshop.  My experience of these is that they are either rather tatty places or seriously good. This was one of the latter.  However, last December the local rates went up to such an extent that it was forced to close as well, so now we struggle on with just a W H Smith as a source of reading material.

The existence of a local bookshop says something about a place, I think.  Or am I being too nostalgic?  I suspect that in even the best read communities bookshops would struggle to maintain a steady customer flow in the face of so much competition for readers’ attention.  But a good independent bookshop supports so much more than the buying needs of their clientele. I know of several who are the centre of half a dozen  local reading groups and the one here was responsible for starting a regular programme of visiting speakers long before the literary festival scene took off. It was the hub of literary life.  There are a couple of empty properties along the High Street and each time I pass them I think, ‘if only’, but I suspect I am hoping for too much.

Reading Again

sks41aSo, here we are, The Bears and I ensconced in a spacious if, at the moment, over warm flat in the small Worcestershire market town of Bromsgrove.  However, on sunny days like today, we have a beautiful garden to sit in plus the indescribable comfort of knowing that it is someone else’s job to look after it!  I may come from a long line of market gardeners but the green-finger gene most definitely missed me.  The uncertainty associated with any house move combined with my Aspergers has played havoc with my concentration really since the end of January when I first put an offer in for this place and so I took an executive decision not to attempt to read anything new other than those books that I would need for my two book groups; instead I have been spending time with old literary friends, people/characters that I knew I could depend upon when I just needed to get away from all the pressures that were mounting up. Of course, this has meant that all the projects I set up for myself at the beginning of the year have gone completely by the wayside.  In fact, I am going to have to go back to my earlier posts just to remind myself of what they were! But I am back now and hope to be writing at least twice a week and, just as important, visiting all my blogging friends again.  I have missed you.



IMG_0001Just to let you all know that with luck and a fair wind we will be moving on Tuesday. ‘With Luck’?  Oh yes, it is still all in the balance, and if my Aspergers has had me hanging from the light fittings over the last few months as problem after problem has arisen you can imagine how I am feeling with the last forty-eight hours heaving up on the horizon. If the sale does go through, I don’t know how long I will be without broadband (did you know that if BT promise to deliver something on Monday they will then confirm it for Tuesday and actually deliver it on Saturday?) but this is just to reassure you that The Bears and I will be back probably sometime in June. Our love to you all.