Fantasy origin stories, a child’s view of music, and time-looping murders

Some odds and ends collected over the last week(s), including magical origin stories, music inspired by a child’s music box, and a time-looping game influenced by Groundhog Day.  

This week I’ve been reading…

Tempests and Slaughter, Tamora Pierce (Random House, 2018)

Tempests and Slaughter is a charming book and a thoroughly enjoyable read. It tells the early story of Arram Draper, also known as Numair Salmalín from Pierce’s Immortals series. It follows that well-worn formula of: boy goes to magic school, boy learns to do magic, boy gets into various magical scrapes. This book is not exactly full of surprise and novelty, but Pierce does this formula so well. The magical classes, the teaching masters, and the various deities who pop up in unexpected places make a book that essentially revolves around a school timetable far more exciting and interesting than it should be.

Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce

It’s been some time since I read Pierce’s Immortals series, so I wasn’t overly invested in the book as a portrayal of Numair’s early years. I was quite happy to read this as a separate fantasy adventure story rather than an origin story. Reading it as such it’s perfectly enjoyable, although an awareness of what’s to come perhaps helps explain the lack of subtlety in some areas, such as the inevitable breakdown in the relationship between Ozorne and Arram.

I did find Tempests and Slaughter a little lacking in areas. There is very little plot. There are a few areas of tension, but these are not resolved within the course of the book and are clearly meant to unfold over the course of the series. I’m particularly interested in seeing how the tension develops surrounding Carthak’s exploitation of slaves. The one, possibly climactic, moment of tension is resolved within a couple of pages. The result is an enjoyable meander through Tamora Pierce’s imagination, but look elsewhere if you like a plot-filled page-turner.

Thank you to Tamora Pierce and Random House via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This week I’ve been listening to…

Sound of Cinema: Father/Daughter (BBC Radio 3, 30 June 2018)

There’s nothing I like better than listening to Sound of Cinema on my morning commute (a 45-minute walk through Milton Keynes parklands). Matthew Sweet provides engaging and intelligent commentary, and the music allows me to drift into my imagination while I enjoy the scenery. I love the unapologetic emotion of film soundtracks, and Sound of Cinema always chooses a good mix of familiar and lesser-known scores. This particular episode revolved around the theme of fathers and daughters, and featured tracks from The Little MermaidInterstellar, and How to Steal a Million. The classic score of the week was the main titles from To Kill a Mockingbird, composed by Elmer Bernstein. Matthew Sweet told us that in the main titles, Bernstein was inspired by the child’s perspective of To Kill a Mockingbird: using piano, vibraphone, and celesta to remind of a music box. He also confined himself to an octave range – the range of a child’s voice.

This week I’ve been playing…

The Sexy Brutale (Cavalier Game Studios and Tequila Works, 2017)

I’m not much of a gamer, so it’s a big deal for me to say that I’ve finally completed my first game – all the way through to the final credits. It should come as no surprise that the game I’ve completed is compelling both in gameplay and narrative. Sexy Brutale is an adventure-puzzle game in which the player is trapped in a mansion where the guests are murdered one by one. The player, in the guise of retired preacher Lafcadio Boone, is trapped in neverending loops, Groundhog Day-style, and can only escape if they can figure out how to prevent each murder from happening.

The Sexy Brutale Artwork

This game has everything – gorgeous visuals, brilliant electro-swing soundtrack, and some very creepy henchmen. The puzzles are challenging enough to be satisfying but not so difficult that I had to cheat (that often). The narrative of each of the individual murders and the overarching mystery of the mansion is cleverly balanced, leading up to a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching finale. The developers say the story-telling style is inspired by immersive theatre, where the story is happening around the audience member, but the audience can also influence the outcome.

Screenshot The Sexy Brutale

It’s fascinating to read about how the game was developed – because the same day is repeated over and over again in different areas of the mansion, the game had to be plotted with pin-point accuracy. Design Director Charles Griffiths said, “It always felt like …‘We can’t go full Groundhog Day’. Because then every piece of music would have to be timed to the second with the actions taking place and every single character’s movement would have to be completely choreographed. That would be tricky to tell the story, that would be tricky to do puzzles, it would tricky to do everything. But it was the cleanest and most exciting form of the idea.” Despite the challenges, they’ve achieved a satisfying, entertaining, and heartfelt game that’s every bit as finely tuned as one of Reginald Sixpence’s clocks.




Weird novels, magical musicals, and forbidden reading

A few selections from the last week(s), featuring an excellent mix of weirdness, magic, and banned books.

This week I’ve been reading:

Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott (Jo Fletcher Books, 2018)

The rural town of Rotherweird is quaint, mysterious, and intensely private. Outsiders cannot remain inside the town borders overnight. The town rules itself without concern for or from wider British law. Their suspicion of the unknown extends into the past – no records exist and no history can be taught about the town and wider world prior to 1800.

Rotherweird cover

A few weeks ago, my GPS incorrectly identified my location as on the River Hipper. Curious about the name, I explored the online map, only to find the River Hipper is itself a tributary of the River Rother. After being distracted by testing the names out loud a few times, pleased with their feel and sound, I carried on with my day.

When I picked up Rotherweird, judging it initially by its crowded cover by Leo Nickolls, and saw that it was set on this pleasing River Rother, I knew I had to buy it. For an impulse purchase, I could not have been more satisfied. It’s rare to find a book that blends fantastical imagination, memorable characters, engaging plot, and beautiful, literary writing so successfully. Rotherweird is quirky, funny, and intriguing. I loved the blend of Elizabethan and modern storylines. While so many of the fantasy books I read rely on the world-building and epic, adventurous story-lines for their success, I almost felt Rotherweird could be work without any magic at all, which is not to say that the magical elements aren’t essential to the setting and story-line. Perhaps it’s that the magic is so embedded in the world it doesn’t feel like a fantasy novel, just a novel about a world that happens to have magic in it.

Rotherweird also features my favourite ever (thus far) literary sex scene (names have been removed for the prevention of plot spoilers):

“Only a monk would have described the ensuing hour as a passionate encounter, more a mix of tussle, fumble (mainly [him]), warm embrace (mainly [her]), and occasional laughter. Yet both emerged the better, having discovered a mutual point of suffering in their reservoirs of unspent affection.” p.332.

This week I’ve been listening to:

John Finnemore, My Teenage Diary (BBC Radio 4, broadcast Tuesday 19th June)

My fondness for, no, let’s be honest, obsession with John Finnemore now extends to his 19-year-old self, as expressed in his teenage diary. His diary begins halfway through his gap year before university, when he suddenly panics that he isn’t doing anything with his life. He decides, based on little to no research, that he should teach English as a foreign language in Poland. A few weeks later, with no job, nowhere to stay, and no knowledge of the language, he arrives in Poland. Let the adventures begin. One of the things I love about My Teenage Diary is seeing the burgeoning teenage talent that will become the famous writer, artist or comedian. Finnemore’s diary is no exception: his writing hints at a voice with which we are all familiar. It is very very funny, and endearingly self-deprecating.

Joanne Harris, Q&A, Waterstones Milton Keynes

What a privilege to see the brilliant Joanne Harris live: an opportunity to learn about her inspirations, processes, and love of Norse myths. I love hearing her stories about reading growing up – her mother forbade her from reading fantasy, science fiction, and horror. She was, however, allowed to read myths – these were deemed educational. Surrounded by the dry French books of her academic parents, she took refuge in her local library, only to find that the local librarian was nearly as strict as her mother. Having read every book on the lonely shelf of children’s library books (including reading the book of Norse myths repeatedly – the librarian used to reach for it whenever she saw Joanne Harris coming), she was allowed to progress early, at the age of 10, to adult books. But she was only allowed to borrow one adult library book a month, and she had to choose wisely. If the librarian thought it wasn’t appropriate for her, she would have to return the book to the shelves, and wait for next month. Thus she spent as much time in the library as she could skimming though the pages of forbidden books, before choosing one she knew would be acceptable when the time came to leave. Joanne Harris gleefully explained that as a result, her first book, a horror, she wrote primarily to annoy her mother.

Runemarks  by Joanne Harris.jpg

This week I’ve been watching…

Matilda the Musical, Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin (RSC on tour: Milton Keynes theatre)

Matilda the Musical school

While I go to the theatre as much as I can, it’s rare that I’ll see the same show twice. It was therefore such a treat to see Matilda for the second time, having already seen it once a few years ago at the Cambridge Theatre. It says a lot about the quality of the production already that I would want to see it multiple times. The joy and magic of the production and its music are infectious. The music and lyrics are exceptional, full of Tim Minchin’s unique humour and understanding of the world:
Like silence, but not really silent.
Just that still sort of quiet.
Like the sound of a page being turned in a book.

But the design, oh the design! It’s everything I think a design should be. Practically, we have a backdrop with set pieces brought in, but each set piece matches the overall aesthetic. While each location is in some way clearly marked, it is still theatrical rather than naturalistic. The designs are reliant on the audience’s imaginations to fill in the gaps, but because of the uniting aesthetic, we never once leave the world of the play. And the aesthetic itself is perfectly tuned to appeal to me and people like me (and other people who wish they were Matilda), based on words and blocks of letters, spelling out each location. The library clock has the letters ‘t’, ‘i’, ‘m’ and ‘e’ instead of numbers, Miss Honey’s floor is decorated with ‘home sweet home’. And the set just looks so much fun – swings, slides, pommel horses, and scooters. (We’ll forget about the chokey for now.) Matilda is one of the few shows I’ve seen that I’ve forgotten I was watching a show, and was just completely absorbed in the experience of it. The stagecraft (such as Matilda’s powers) is so well done that even having seen it twice I’m convinced that some of it could only have been achieved with magic.

Matilda the Musical swings

Special mention goes to Pete Brassett’s murder mystery series, the latest installment of which has just been released. Perdition balances dark twists and turns with illuminating rays of wit and humour. A thoroughly enjoyable read all round.

Mock mascots, indistinguishable twins, and a portrait of questionable identity

Since I’m constantly wading through an overwhelming queue of books and thoughts and discoveries to write about, I’ve decided to share some snapshots of my reading week. Enforced deadlines and brevity — the two friends of the over-worked (and over-ambitious).

This week, I’ve been reading…

Jaclyn Moriarty, Becoming Bindy Mackenzie (also known as The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie and The Betrayal of Bindy Mackenzie, depending on where you read it) (Young Picador, 2006)

bindy mackenzie.jpg

I’m probably a little older than this book’s intended audience, but I still found it completely relevant to my own current dreams and dilemmas. I like to think that’s because Moriarty’s writing is universal, rather than because I haven’t yet developed beyond typical teenage woes. A book full of joy and anxiety, with a dose of adventure and mystery that’s not present in Moriarty’s other Brookfield/Ashbury novels. I read it in a day, and it was the perfect few hours of escapism. I particularly love Moriarty’s scrapbook style, which draws together Bindy’s journal entries, philosophical musings, memos to and from her fellow students, and correspondence to and from the School Board. Easy to read but not at all lacking in depth or inventiveness.

Georgette Heyer, False Colours (Cornerstone, 2011)
Needless to say, not the cover of the 2011 edition.

I read this looking for a romantic escape, which I find Heyer can normally be relied upon to provide. Whether it was my own levels of distraction or the book’s lack of substance, I find I wasn’t engaged as I normally was. Brilliant cast of eccentric characters, and some great mistaken identity escapades. As usual, wonderful Regency detail in both setting and vocabulary. Fun in a predictable way, but less heartwarming than some of her other novels.

This week, I’ve been watching…

Mascots (2016, dir. Christopher Guest)

A mockumentary examining the world of competitive mascotting. Mascottery? Mostly light-hearted but not without the odd dose of painful reality, particularly in the desperately, irrevocably broken marriage of Ollie the Octopus and Tammy the Turtle (Zack Woods and Sarah Baker). The word “off-beat” could have been invented for this film, with its mascot routines of slapstick hedgehogs climbing aspirational ladders, oversized plumbers and break-dancing turd, and armadillos doing interpretative dance. I laughed a lot, sometimes in spite of myself.

This week, I’ve learnt…

The “Chandos” portrait of Shakespeare was the first portrait to be acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, in 1856. It feels somewhat appropriate that a portrait of our national poet forms the basis of our national portrait collection.

NPG Chandos
© The National Portrait Gallery

The NPG website entry claims that the sitter is associated with 96 portraits, which is surprising, given that we only have two representations of Shakespeare we can be really confident are of him (one an engraving printed in the First Folio, the other the memorial bust in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon). The Chandos portrait forms the most likely third portrait of him, and it’s certainly the most compelling image, with a hint of a smile, rakish earring, and the knowing eyes gazing at us out of the darkness. What Shakespeare looked like has produced endless consternation and many hundreds of pages. The prevalence of interpretations of Shakespeare’s portraits combined with doubt the authenticity of the original images creates something of a paradox. As Bill Bryson writes in his book on the playwright: “we recognize a likeness of Shakespeare the instant we see one, and yet we don’t really know what he looked like” (HarperPress, 2007, p.7.).

See also: Tarnya Cooper, Searching for Shakespeare, 2006 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 2 March – 29 May 2006), p.53.

I’ve also had the privilege to be working on the third installment in the Perry Webster murder mystery series, soon to be released by The Book Folks. Stan Jackson is a brilliant and engaging writer, and his creation of a philosophy professor turned private investigator is inspired. His third book is a slice of classic murder mystery with all the style, intrigue and intelligence of an Agatha Christie.


Unapologetically creative: in search of Mary Shelley in Fiona Sampson’s new biography

To mark the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, Fiona Sampson sets out to understand the experiences that shaped the mind behind the first science-fiction novel.

The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein

I was so excited to read a biography of Mary Shelley. I first read Frankenstein and The Last Man while at university, and fell completely in love with Shelley’s exquisite writing, complex ideas, and boundless imagination. And yet I knew next to nothing about the woman herself, beyond how she seemed to be defined by her relationship to those around her: daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, friend to Lord Byron, wife to Percy Bysshe Shelley. So my expectations soared when I read in Sampson’s introduction that she hoped to “hugely enlarge” Mary, and bring her into the foreground, so that she might be understood on her own terms.

I enjoyed the biography immensely, it’s beautifully written, well researched, and tangibly evokes the lives of those it considers. But I’m not quite sure that Sampson achieves what she claims she will in her introduction.

Sampson structures the biography around a series of imaginatively detailed vignettes, such as Mary’s birth, or sitting around the fire telling the ghost story that would become Frankenstein. Sampson is open about this structure, calling her work “a freeze-frame biography” (loc 110). She’s also explicit about its potential drawbacks, acknowledging that the vitality of a person cannot truly be understood through a series of stills. Each of these scenes is atmospheric, often intensely visceral, the details almost tangible. Of the elopement of Mary and Percy, Sampson writes: “In the next scene she lies exhausted by seasickness and fear on board a small wooden sailing vessel. The boat is being dwarfed by storm waves that swell under and around it in the moonlight. The time is just before midnight…” (loc 1132-35). But the evocation almost undermines the reality — we have to consciously remind ourselves that we’re not reading a novel, we’re reading a biography.

This freeze-frame structure also means that Sampson picks and chooses the scenes from Mary’s life that most interest her, or that have been deemed most significant by posterity. Of course, biographies are inevitably an exercise in gap-filling; as Hermione Lee writes, “Biographers try to make a coherent narrative out of missing documents as well as existing ones; a whole figure out of body parts.” (Body Parts, p.8). But as a result of all this picking and choosing, I felt Mary Shelley’s voice was marginalised in favour of Sampson’s.

Sampson chooses to focus predominantly on the beginning of Mary’s life. She is aware, again, of the pitfalls of her approach, talking of the potential of “foreshortening”: “the later years of a life — of anyone’s life — do not build a personality, and they don’t go on to affect a future. They are that future. Frankenstein is not unconnected to what comes after it in Mary’s life. On the contrary, it changed her life just as it has changed our cultural imagination. But that’s the thing: Mary’s first novel informs her future; her last does not inform her past” (loc 118). As such, Sampson’s biography spends one single chapter on Mary’s later life (essentially after the death of Percy Shelley). But if we’re “in search” of “the girl who wrote Frankenstein“, isn’t it also valuable to be in search of the woman whose life was informed by the creation of Frankenstein?

The freeze-frame structure also means that time is telescoped. In the first “scene”, before Mary is even born, we have flashed back to examine her parents’ relationship, and flashed forward through the first 10 years of Mary’s life. Perhaps this lack of chronological integrity helps to explain Sampson’s proleptic tendencies: “In the next fourteen months, shockingly, Mary is going to lose both her surviving children…But that’s in the future. For now the party are making fairly rapid progress through France…” (loc 2592-2598). It is unclear to me if such moments were for dramatic effect. They certainly result in jolting the reader out of their immersion in the story. Perhaps Sampson is acknowledging that the form of biography is inherently proleptic. Even if we do not know the details, we know that in the coming pages, Mary will write Frankenstein, she will be widowed, and will eventually die.

Mary Shelley
Richard Rothwell’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1840 (National Portrait Gallery)

Playing with time is just one of the creative liberties Sampson takes with the past. The Mary Shelley of In Search of Mary Shelley feels very much like a construction by someone other than Mary herself. In this narrative, Mary is cast as heroine, her father, husband, and step-sister as unsympathetic villains. Sampson asserts that “Claire…will never once express a whisper of guilt or regret” (loc 2678-80). Talking of Mary’s letters to Percy, Sampson writes of Mary’s self-conscious manipulation of her letters, which are designed to “win” “masculine approval” by “not being intelligent” (loc 1555). One can’t help wondering how we can know for sure. How can we know Claire never spoke an apology to Mary? How can we know for sure that Mary’s letters were manipulative rather than genuine? While Sampson’s position as biographer is one of supreme (if unfounded) authority, she does also occasionally invite readers in to hypothesise with her. Of Godwin’s response to Mary’s birth she writes, “Time stretches out. One imagines a clock ticking. It is the wolf hour. Does he feel tired? Or is he wired by adrenalin? Does he long for a coffee?” (loc 274-279). However, these moments of acknowledged uncertainty are anomalous.

I struggle, too, with the difficulty of liberating Mary from being defined by other people. Sampson fails to pay great attention to Mary outside of her relationship with Percy. Life after his death is at once judged and defended by Sampson as a “slip” into “domestic comfort” and “an end to intellectual and creative stamina” (loc 3800). The BBC Radio Four Book of the Week adaptation of In Search of Mary Shelley is perhaps an illustration of this (although it is worth remembering that Sampson was not responsible for the abridgement). Three out of the five episodes are about Mary’s life while she was in a relationship with Percy. The first episode is about her childhood, and the last episode is about life after Percy’s death. This is despite the fact that 45 years out of Mary’s 53 were spent not in a relationship with Percy. Even that final episode is about Mary’s work editing and publishing Percy’s writing. And this is the problem: it’s difficult to “liberate” Mary from Percy because she defined herself by him, perpetually “chained”, as it were, to him, as Percy wrote of monogamy in his poem ‘Epipsychidion’ (which is, of course, addressed to a woman other than Mary). I agree with Sampson when she writes of the portrait we have of Mary, “The black velvet Mary wears to sit for her Rothwell portrait, seventeen years after Percy’s death, is a statement not only of her grief but also of her continuing identity as Percy’s widow” (loc 3424-3425). And let’s not forget after he died she kept his heart for the rest of her life. It seems Mary would rather actively define herself by her relationship to someone else, than passively be subject to our desires to isolate and examine her.

I think the problem is that the portrait feels so curated, with such imaginative painting of scenes, sections of life removed and glossed over, that it does not feel authentic. That’s not to say this is not a valuable exercise, but the result is more evocative than it is informative, and may offer as much insight into Sampson as it does to Mary Shelley. Sampson’s tendency to assert certainty where there is none means that no matter how well researched, In Search of Mary Shelley feels more of a creative exercise than an academic one. This saddens me, because I agreed so whole-heartedly with Sampson’s assessment in her introduction that “Mary does not need fictionalising. She deserves better than imaginative reconstruction: she deserves to be listened to” (loc 86). Perhaps Sampson has listened to Mary Shelley. It’s simply that each of us in listening to the same person will interpret the facts in their own individual way.

Sometimes the expectations you bring to a text define it far more rigidly than the text deserves. Remember James Thurber’s story about the woman who reads Macbeth as a murder mystery? I came to this, quite simply, hoping to learn more about Mary Shelley. I find myself unable to be sure of whether that expectation has been fulfilled. I know a few more facts of her life, and those of the people she encountered. I know a little more about life in the 19th century. But I am reluctant to trust in the character Sampson has created. My ideal biography would probably be extracts from letters and novels with heavily footnoted commentary. It might be quite dry. But I’d at least know what I was reading was attempting authenticity. This isn’t that type of biography, but Sampson doesn’t apologise for that, and while I was frustrated by In Search of Mary Shelley, I can’t help but admire its brilliance.

Favourite quotation:
“If we can think of Mary’s life as a series of portraits, this one is nothing like a painting fixed in oils. It reminds me of the flicker of a video installation: the grainy black-and-white bleached by wilful exposure into near-invisibility, its jerkiness reproducing the apprentice technologies of the very earliest films. We can barely distinguish between the figures themselves and the markings of the wall on to which they’re projected. Nothing is certain; everything keeps changing.” (loc 1509-1515)

Fiona Sampson, In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl who wrote Frankenstein (Profile Books, 2018)

Thank you to Fiona Sampson and Profile Books via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Magic ordinary and extraordinary: The Toy Makers by Robert Dinsdale

Cathy Wray, 15 years old and newly pregnant. Fearful of losing her baby, she runs away from her family, responding to a job advert in the newspaper: “Are you lost? Are you afraid? Are you a child at heart?” This is Cathy’s introduction to Papa Jack’s Emporium, a place where lost souls gather to experience the spectacular magic of Papa Jack’s toys. She meets the intimidating Papa Jack, the charismatic Kaspar, and his long-suffering brother, Emil. We follow their fortunes over the course of 50 years: births, marriages, war, bankruptcy, and magic.

The Toy Makers Robert Dinsdale
Cover by the hugely talented Laura Barrett

Despite the fact the story covers such a long period of time, the plot never stumbles. Hours passed as I was reading without me realising, and even when it reached the small hours of the morning, I could not stop. I wish I could put my finger on what makes this book so brilliant. The writing is gorgeous, vivid, and visual. The narrator often acts as a guide, inviting us in to explore the labyrinth of the emporium, the minds of the characters. It seems redundant to say the characters are well developed. They weren’t characters to me. They were real people, with all the hopes and dreams, fears and foibles of real people. I shared in their pain, their uncertainties, their unexpected joys.

Robert Dinsdale’s story-telling has a peculiar magic. Reading his writing it is as though the words fade away to reveal the scenes he describes, played out in front of you. Inanimate toys are wound up, and they stand to attention. But what is this peculiar magic that makes toys act beyond the expectations of their mechanisms? The magic that makes Dinsdale’s words reach out, take your hand, and drag you along with the story? It feels like his writing, just like his toy soldiers, is alive.

The book succeeds because its foundation is a study of human life, and watching four generations of a family succeed and fail. It’s also a book about nostalgia, sentimental but never mawkish. It’s about how toys can make us feel like children again, and the trials of one family trying to bring some joy into a troubled world. But it’s also about magic. The ordinary magic of love and hope, and the extraordinary magic of what might happen if, just if, a toy were to one day come to life.

Favourite quotation, the wisdom of Papa Jack:
“But can a toy come to life? My dear…it isn’t foolish at all. All of the magic, all of the love we pour into them. I should think the only foolish thing is to wonder why it doesn’t happen all of the time.”

Robert Dinsdale, The Toy Makers (Penguin Random House, 2018)

Thank you to Robert Dinsdale and Penguin Random House via NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Gamification of the library experience: Escape from Mr Lemoncello’s Library

“Knowledge not shared remains unknown.” – Luigi L. Lemoncello

Mr Luigi Lemoncello, the world’s most famous gamemaker, has completely redesigned Kyle Keeley’s local library. When Kyle and his friends are invited to an exclusive sleepover before the library opens, they find they have to solve Mr Lemoncello’s ultimate puzzle: how can they escape the library, using only the resources inside it?

Escape from Mr Lemoncello's Library

I was fairly sure I’d like this book just on learning the title. After reading the first few chapters, I was certain I would love it. I am the kind of person who will read a book just because it has “library”, or “bookshop”, or “museum” in the title. So I hadn’t initially realised it was written for children (ages 8-12) until I went hunting for it at my local library (appropriately enough). But it being a children’s book wasn’t going to put me off—I’d just discovered the Artemis Fowl books for the first time, and had read them obsessively. I get rather cross when people talk about being “too old” to read a certain book.

And how glad I am I found it, nestling among the low-hanging books of the children’s bookshelves. This book has everything. A tightly plotted adventure, literary references galore, outrageous puns, and a healthy does of parable-type moralising. It even has a few irresistible puzzles for the reader. Above all it’s a love letter to libraries and the power of stories and knowledge.

For adults, it’s a fun afternoon read to make us fall in love with reading again. For children, it’s a must for encouraging them to read books and visit their library. Although they might be disappointed if it doesn’t contain a holographic tiger—I’m certainly hoping my local library will be installing a Book Nook Café soon.

Favourite quotation: “A library doesn’t need windows, Andrew. We have books, which are windows into worlds we never even dreamed possible.”

Chris Grabenstein, Escape from Mr Lemoncello’s Library (Yearling, 2014)

Quotation of the month – Walter Moers takes us to Bookholm

I cannot recommend Walter Moers highly enough. His books combine fantasy, adventure, mystery, and stupendous writing. Reading his books you feel he has conjured a wild dream just for your enjoyment. Underlying it all is a huge sense of heart. Of love. Of passion for the wonder found in those small joys in life: from the taste of a perfectly ripe apricot to the alluring scent of old books.

Walter Moers The City of Dreaming Books

To Bookholm:
“You can smell the place from a long way off. It reeks of old books. It’s as if you’ve opened the door of a gigantic second-hand bookshop—as if you’ve stirred up a cloud of unadulterated book dust and blown the detritus from millions of mouldering volumes straight into your face. There are folk who dislike that smell and turn on their heel as soon as it assails their nostrils. It isn’t an agreeable odour, granted. Hopelessly antiquated, it is eloquent of decay and dissolution, mildew and mortality. But it also has other associations: a hint of acidity reminiscent of lemon trees in flower; the stimulating scent of old leather; the acrid, intelligent tang of printer’s ink; and overlying all else, a reassuring aroma of wood.
I’m not talking about living wood or resinous forests and fresh pine needles; I mean felled, stripped, pulped, bleached, rolled and guillotined wood—in short, paper. Ah yes, my intellectually inquisitive friends, you too can smell it now, the odour of forgotten knowledge and age-old traditions of craftsmanship. Very well, let us quicken our pace!” – Walter Moers, The City of Dreaming Books (Vintage Books, 2007) p.10.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry

Julius runs an independent bookshop in rural Oxfordshire and, listening to his customers’ woes and desires, acts as an informal therapist. When he dies he leaves a hole in the community and in the heart of his daughter, Emilia. She must decide whether to keep the bookshop open or let her father’s dreams die with him.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop Veronica Henry.jpeg

Reading How to Find Love in a Bookshop was much like eating a slice of homemade chocolate cake. It’s sweet and self-indulgent; a slice of comfort-reading that might not be very nutritious but leaves you feeling warm and satisfied.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop consists of multiple romantic storylines which all link in some way to the bookshop. And when I say multiple, I mean multiple: there are at least seven different relationships. Told in the third person from the perspective of several distinct voices, it’s a short book at only 367 pages. Given how many different stories those few pages cover, it’s not surprising that it’s a fairly surface-level read. It’s also relatively sedate – there is little drama or tension other than the question of whether Emilia will keep the bookshop open. Even this is only one of several storylines, so the tension is lost in a sea of other stories. But each character even without much page-time is well-rounded, relatable, and the dialogue is great. It’s impressive we get to know the characters and care about them as much as we do.

It’s also wonderful to read a book that just oozes passion about books.  One character asks another, “Have you got a book about a man who takes ages to realise the person he loves has been right under his nose all along?” “There’s loads of those…” she responds (p.359). It’s a wonderfully self-reflexive moment. “Fine,” Henry seems to be saying, “I may not be doing anything new. But that doesn’t mean I’m not doing it well and I just know how much you’re enjoying it.” Henry herself notes in the suggestions at the back of the book, “For me, the title is more thematic than specific – the idea you will always find something to love in a book shop. It’s about a love of books and reading as much as romance. Books will never let you down: they are there to provide escape, comfort, inspiration…What’s not to love?” (p.373)

Favourite quotation: “So that was why people read. Because books explained things: how you thought, how you behaved, and made you realise you were not alone in doing what you did or feeling what you felt.” (p.297)

How to Find Love in a Book Shop, Veronica Henry (Orion Books, 2016)

The Pursuit of Happiness by Ruth Whippman

A cynical Brit moves to America and finds that everyone seems to be obsessed with the pursuit of happiness. She examines what happiness means, how various people are trying to attain it, and whether the pursuit of happiness is making everyone feel worse than they would otherwise.

The Pursuit of Happiness, Ruth Whippman

Each chapter addresses a different way in which people search for happiness, including religion, family, work, and social media. Whippman’s main goal seems to be dismantle the various ways in which Americans choose to pursue happiness. Each chapter seems to follow a rough trajectory of: Whippman suspicious of latest happiness fad, Whippman tests out fad, Whippman finds potentially interesting grain of truth buried deep within fad, Whippman successfully debunks pseudo-science of fad. It’s more an amusing travelogue than a ‘how to’ guide. The book perhaps didn’t uncover the profound truths I was hoping would revolutionise my own search for happiness, but it was still an engaging and interesting read.

My favourite moments included her assessment of social media, where the emphasis is not on how happy you are, but how happy you look: “we live in the era of the curated life” (p.197). I also enjoyed her investigation of the Landmark Forum, a personal development program in which you pay to have your understanding of yourself torn apart in front of an audience. You’re told that essentially, if you’re not happy, it’s all your fault. Whippman notes, “Buried deep within this unpleasant showpiece is an interesting idea. It is true that all of us are constantly constructing interpretations of the events in our lives, and failing to recognise that these are not facts…But I can’t help thinking that the stories we tell ourselves are built up over years, crafted for complex psychological reasons” (pp.50-1). Having a stranger tear apart those stories in front of an audience then, Whippman concludes, is perhaps not the best way to achieve happiness.

I was also morbidly fascinated by her account of Tony Hsieh, a CEO who attempts to eliminate the boundaries between work and play. After selling his company, Zappos, to Google, he turned his hand to city planning. He purchased the 60-acre site of Downtown Las Vegas, aiming to turn it into a start-up city; a manufactured, utopian community where work and life were not considered separate. He pitched the idea as “playing SimCity in real life” (pp.93-4). People were allowed to join the Downtown Project if they were the kind of person Hsieh would like to have a beer with, not if they had a flawless business plan. Key to the plan was the way people interacted. Hsieh developed a system of measuring “collisions” (i.e. interactions between people). The more collisions, Hsieh and his team thought, the happier and more productive the community. They came up with ways of manufacturing more collisions, by making places hard to get to so people would have to bump into each other, including moving around key shops so that people would constantly have to take new routes (this idea, at least, turned out to be too impractical). They even measured the results by tracking people’s mobile phones, mapping their residents’ movements without their knowledge. The project doesn’t seem to have had the impact Hsieh was hoping for – Whippman writes that Dowtown is now mostly deserted.

There’s so much to like, even love, about this book. The pursuit of happiness, in its myriad forms, is a fascinating topic, and Whippman’s approach to it is rigorous, uncompromising, and wryly funny. I did have a few minor quibbles. Whippman’s book occupies that uneasy boundary between the academic and the popular. Her work is clearly well researched and thoughtful, though perhaps a little biased. It’s also very accessible and easy to read. Sometimes, though, I felt it leaned rather unnecessarily towards the accessible end of things. An example of this was the ends of chapters. Each chapter ends on a little cliffhanger, introducing the topic of the next chapter, for example: “But the deeper I get into middle-class Californian parenting articles, the more I start to notice some rather strange behaviour going on.” (p.118). It’s a little, well, dramatic. It felt like a Dan Brown-style hook to keep the reader turning the pages. It had the reverse effect on me.

My other minor quibble was with the final chapter. Having spent the entire book debunking the search for happiness, and the previous chapter obliterating the positive psychology movement, the book ends on an anti-climax. Whippman almost does an about-turn, essentially saying, ‘but I’m settling into America and it’s all good really and yay, happiness’. It’s an uplifting note to end on, sure, but it doesn’t fit with the cynical tone of the rest of the book. It felt a little jarring.

Whippman’s conclusions, though, were optimistic, if not groundbreaking. Happiness, she finds, “depends on other people” (p.32). The importance of community is a thread which is woven through each chapter. One of her most comforting insights emerges as she debunks the aims of the positive psychology movement: “Happiness is so individualised and complex, so dependent on a myriad of factors – circumstances and life events, upbringing, culture, relationships, preferences and personality quirks – that anything averaged out over a group is unlikely to do much to describe the lived experience of any one person.” (p.221). No one, not the positive psychologists, not the Landmark Forum, our Facebook friends, or Tony Hsieh, can tell us what our own individual brand of happiness should look like. So maybe we should stop worrying about it so much.

The Pursuit of Happiness, Ruth Whippman (Hutchinson, 2016)


Quotation of the Week – Caitlin Moran, again, On Books, again

Yes, Caitlin Moran was the source of my last quotation of the week. And yes, I’m aware that my “quotation of the week” feature happens about once a month, at most. But since my ambition/optimism dwarfs my sense of reality, “quotation of the week” it shall remain. And look, I actually read something by Caitlin Moran this time, instead of just listening to her talk. Ok, I didn’t read the whole book, but sometimes you just need to read a chapter to know that it’s great. And a quotation this brilliant, on such an important topic, had to be added to the collection. Enjoy.

“A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft, and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. One a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen, instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate ‘need’ for ‘stuff’. A mall — the shops — are places where your money makes the wealthy wealthier. But a library is where the wealthy’s taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary, instead. A satisfying reversal. A balancing of the power.”

Caitlin Moran, Moranthology (Ebury Press, 2012), p.211.