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On one of the hottest days of the year I manned the book stall at our village street market. I hadn’t been for a few years, and I regret that. I won’t miss it next year. I’d forgotten how tightly woven the village fabric is, yet the stitches loosened enough to let an old resident become part of the pattern. It was a joyous occasion. Young girls ran around selling ice lollies; flags and bunting adorned the street between the little terraced cottages on Church Row; there were stalls of fresh vegetables, handmade cakes, paintings and bric-a-brac.

When I was little my great joy was book stalls and shops. The shops because of their quiet, library-like dignity; the virgin volumes with their crisp smell of new paper and ink; their stiff, glossy covers. The stalls because between creased spines and dog-earned corners a hidden gem would sparkle: a childhood story not quite forgotten, the one title outstanding from a collection you’d been building for years. (The Talking Parcel by Gerald Durrell was one of these and I’m horrified to see it out of print, and scarcely available online – I think I’m going to have to buy a very old battered copy from Amazon.) I’d forgotten that very simple pleasure. Ironically considering it’s my number one hobby, I don’t think I’ve bought enough books.

I recently pruned my Hydra of a library. As a rule, I find it very hard to part from books as they are old friends, but I’ve tried to be strict. I came home with 17 new (old) potential allies – Victorian horror stories, Caitlin Moran, Ruth Rendell – about three times the amount I’ve given away over the last year. I felt intoxicated, fat and replete, hugging my book bag to me like a pregnancy. (When I was really, really poor, about 7 years ago, I sold all my Beanie Babies on eBay. Then suffered such excruciating pangs of guilt and regret that I promptly spent double my profit buying them all back. I have become a serial seller-shopper.)

I’ve got a pile of of brand new books waiting for review in one corner; twelve library loans sitting patiently in another; a heap of well-loved tomes on my shelves demanding to be re-explored and discovered; plus God knows how many queuing quietly on my Kindle – but there’s nothing like the feel of a physical book in your hands, bending it and flipping the pages, opening it at random to see the font, taste the author’s prose. E-readers are wonderful: carry thousands of books, are feather-light and cost nothing to carry in your hand luggage; but what if they break? The battery dies? There’s a theft, a fire, a drowning? The thought of being without a book fills me with nameless dread.

I polished off Peaches for Monsieur le Cure by Joanne Harris in a couple of days. Perhaps not up to the standard of Chocolat or its sequel The Lollipop Shoes, but nonetheless richly written, full of the tastes and smells, sounds and textures that have become Harris’s trademark.

My sweet, succulent appetiser was immediately followed by a most unsavoury plat de jour, The Wasp Factory. I’ve wanted to read this for a couple of years, but not dared. Of late I’ve found it less easy to forget the dark stuff I imbibe via TV, book or internet; I find I’m fast-forwarding through sections of Hannibal and I turned off a Moors Murders documentary last night long before I was due to go to bed. I read The Wasp Factory peeking between my fingers (the rabbit and wasp scenes) but I can see why Banks became the household name he was. His unmistakeable black humour is injected into the book to lighten the darkness of the tale from the very beginning, but I much preferred The Crow Road. I intend to read all of his books in due course, as I regret not doing so when he was alive, Sorry, Ian. (Not that I can imagine it makes much difference to you.)

Wasps are gritty, and leave a bitter aftertaste. I’m washing them down with a gently sparkling Daughter of Time.

PS – I’ve now discovered The Talking Parcel was renamed The Battle for Castle Cockatrice and thank God it’s available on Amazon for less than £45. Buy it quick before everyone else finds out and the cheap copies disappear!

My Mental Wastepaper Basket

Everyone should keep a mental wastepaper basket and the older he grows the more things he will consign to it, torn up to irrecoverable tatters. (Samuel Butler)

Gentle Reader, I owe you a humble apology. I have been working on a blog post, and then forgetting about it and washing up or pretending I want to buy a van (don’t ask) or going to

ThumbHyacinth_Bucket

“She’s written RUBBISH!”

Greece or sorting out my birthday or trying to find a new house and I just pressed ‘send’ and didn’t really spend too much time on what I was putting out to the masses. I imagine you like Hyacinth Bucket (BooKAY!) smelling a delicate rose, and finding a caterpillar crawling out of the petals. Apologies for that.

The heat got to me… but hasn’t it been glorious! It’s so easy to be happy in warm sunny weather. Walking around town at the weekend was like a scene from A Muppet Christmas Carol – people nodding and smiling at strangers; chewing gum on the pavement glowing gold in the sunlight; shoppers not quite bursting into spontaneous dance but not far off. Thunderstorms might have slightly dampened our spirits yesterday, but the country needed it, and much as I grumbled at my summer shoes getting ruined by puddles I couldn’t ignore the fresh green-brown smell of heavy rain on parched earth. It zipped up my nostrils into my blood and circulated like quicksilver.

My head has been anything but quicksilver, but I have managed to polish off several books which I shall share with you in the hopes that I entice you into reading some of them.

I wasn’t sure whether I was going to enjoy Petit Mort, a story of death, romance and murder set in 1913 Paris after the first few pages. It felt patchy, as if the author herself (Beatrice Hitchman) didn’t know what was going on with it; but about 1/3 of the way through I found myself reading faster and faster to find out what happened next. The novel paints a vivid and enticing picture of the Paris film circuit, although the characters never really develop and all just seem to fall in love with each other for no real good reason. I finished the book not really ‘knowing’ any of them, which leaves the story feeling a little flimsy, but the plot is original and intriguing. If you like stories which leave you a little frustrated, then pick this one up.

Andrew Pyper isn’t one of the literary greats when it comes to crime, but he’s not bad either. I enjoyed his first effort The Killing Circle, and approached The Demonologist hoping for something similar. This time Pyper’s gone for something more supernatural than the bog-standard serial killer. A mysterious visitor leads to a trip to Venice for lecturer David Ullman and his daughter with horrific consequences, and David finds himself plunged into the world of Milton’s Paradise Lost upon which he is an expert.

The story holds the reader’s interest while in Venice, but as Ullman returns to the USA in a desperate race against time I found my attention wandering.The ending was a bit like dropping a sparkler into a can of flat coke. I wouldn’t push aside another of Pyper’s books, but I won’t be reading this again.

I didn’t think I would like Be Awesome: Modern Life for Modern Ladies, and in fact I battled against liking it because I thought Hadley Freeman was trying and failing to be Caitlin Moran. But actually she has an acerbic, interesting voice in her own right, and I shouldn’t have written her off. I started reading with one eyebrow haughtily raised and wound up making notes in the margins (a la Robbie in Dirty Dancing).

Shadow of Night is the sequel to A Discovery of Witches, which was very enjoyable hokum. This one is still hokum, and rather less enjoyable, unfortunately. Although Deborah Harkness speckles her text with glittering characters like Shakespeare and Marlowe, vampires and witches become rather tedious and I stopped caring as there was one supernatural-creature-fight after another. I might approach the book again in a few months or a year to see if I like it afresh, but on first read it didn’t work for me. On the plus side it’s very interesting historically, and you can tell Harkness has done her homework with regards to costume, living and so on.

John Gordon has been one of my favourite ghost story writers since I discovered him at primary school – “She Bends, She Breaks” and “Oh My Bairn” being two specific favourites of mine. It is thus very painful to admit that for me Fen Runners wasn’t quite sure how long it was supposed to be, or who its characters were, or what it really was about. It was chilling enough but I felt that the novella lost its way and I lost interest as a result.

Charles Dickens & The Great Theatre of the World is a fascinating, lavish look at the theatrical side of Dickens which I knew very little about, beyond that he really liked performing his books. Reading the novels out loud is a joy, and perhaps something we all ought to do more of – similar to Shakespeare, Dickens has even more depth when intonation and character is added to his lines. Simon Callow is obviously a huge fan (without being blinkered by idol-worship) and does a very good job of conjuring up a world that I didn’t know existed.

The Glovemaker is a rather poetic novel about Cromwell’s England and a woman who faces execution for keeping the birth of her stillborn child a secret. The prose is delicate and dreamy, and the book would be enjoyable if it wasn’t let down by the poor historical accuracy (cranberry biscuits in 17th century England?) and howling Americanisms (trash, creeks, etc.). I feel the author (Stacia M Brown – what’s the significance of the M?) has talent and has certainly researched her subject (martyrs) but nothing outside the immediate topic, and that’s her failing.
I think I’ve waxed lyrical about Liz Rigbey, author of Total Eclipse, already in some of my ramblings but I’ll do so again and no more apologies. She is one of the best criminal writers I’ve read, and it makes me very sad that I can only find 3 novels she’s written (the other two being The Hunted and Summertime). I do hope she writes more because she builds characters well, her plots are rich and vibrant, and her writing the most sickening, delicious twists, like being on a rollercoaster and just when you think you’ve finished it takes you around an extra loop. If you only ever read one author because of this blog please make it Liz Rigbey!

Another ‘twisted’ author is Mark Billingham; Rush of Blood is a departure from his normal fare but it worked really well. I found myself staying up later and later to read it like, feeling as thirsty as the parched earth outside. Three couples meet on holiday, during which a young girl goes missing. Back in the UK they attempt to maintain their holiday friendship (like so many of us vow to, farewell hugs with rictus grins and false promises of staying in touch)  but as they get to know each other better, cracks appear on their glossy surfaces. The book is left, in some ways, hanging – little threads which needed biting – but perhaps it’s better that they weren’t. As in real life, there aren’t always endings, happy or otherwise.

Anyway. This is my ending. Funny how writing is a lot easier when you feel like it, innit. I’m going back out into the sun. To quote the Lady of the House, today could be the day I’m mistaken for somebody important.

Funny how things change…

How you know when you’ve grown up? At one time you rip apart a spider’s web to rescue a struggling fly. Now, you actively coax flies towards the sticky strands.

Drinking tea in the garden reminds me of an almost unbearably hot week in Malta, with three friends as close to me as sisters. The white marble of the stairs, the geckos darting like tiny arrows between cracks in the paving, swinging on a chair slightly peeling paint. No matter how hot it is, one always needs a cup of tea. Malta was where the main blog picture was taken. All we did is lie around in very little clothing reading. That’s what I did again today, an it’s something I ought to do more often because I am very, very good at it.

I’ve had a difficult time with my neighbour. Apart from him being raided by the drug squad (“for cannabis wot was smoked by people next door” he claims) he has taken to coming in at approx 0330 every morning and banging something, just once, but something so heavy and tonal that it inevitably wakes me up. The weather today is so sticky and close that it took me ages to get back to sleep and moreover it interrupted a dream in which I was snogging someone – the first time since SEPTEMBER, dream or real. To get my own back, I hoovered deliberately and repeatedly over his head this morning. Oh to not have neighbours! Or, preferably, to have neighbours, but nice normal ones. Has Ramsey Street written cheques real-life can’t cash?

At least I don’t live in Providence Estate, the tenants of whom I’ve been reading about. (Yes don’t worry I haven’t drifted off on a sea of my own drivel and forgotten what the whole point of this blog is about). The People of Providence is  a collection of interviews the author undertook over a 5 year period in the early-mid 1980s, from a wide variety of tenants. It’s fascinating, and I’d love to read something similar which has been done more recently; if anyone knows of anything let me know. I’m still waiting for someone to respond to one of these things…

In Search of William Shakespeare was FASCINATING. I wanted to devour it all at once like a roast dinner and found myself staying up late to read it. Fact fans: if you want to sleep better, go to bed a bit earlier, and read before you go to sleep, rather than dashing around doing the ironing at half past eleven in front of the TV, jumping into bed, reading 2 sentences and then letting your heavy eyes close before you wake up in the wee sma’s and can’t sleep for ages (noisy neighbour or none). Anyway. It’s about Shakespeare’s life and politics and where his plays fitted in, the myths and conspiracy theories about him, and what was going on around him at the time of his writing. Brilliant stuff, in one of those lovely glossy books with proper illustrations that we don’t see so much anymore.

June has come and gone and with it a very happy wedding in Greece, which was a real treat. It allowed me to dip my toes into the pool of utter relaxation without getting my ankles wet. The island of H – I’m not going to say where it is as there were far too many British tourists there last year! – is the place where I feel most happiest and most at peace. I’ve gone out there for several years thanks to my friend who has a house there, and it’s witnessed several stages in my growing up (sadly not much more growing up has happened of late, more simple deterioration). In fact it’s where I had the idea for this blog last year.

I also read Family Secrets: Living With Shame From the Victorians to the Present Day. It is perhaps fair enough to say we don’t have such a thing as ‘shame’ anymore, when our private bodily functions, dysfunctional families and everything we’ve ever done wrong are trotted out for public consumption on TV and in endless autobiographies of people who really haven’t done enough to fill a book. But how our ancestors dealt with private problems and disasters makes an interesting read, though three quarters of the way through the book I found myself thinking “Enough… move on.” Like one of those all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets; sounds nice at the time, but you can eat a lot less than you think you can.