Saturday, 31 December 2011

A fairy tale for today

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Once upon a time, there was a young inventor who was married to a woman he despised.

He had grown to hate her over time, but he still found her attractive even though she was incredibly hairy.  He felt desperately conflicted, because he still wanted her and he hated this power that she had over him.  The one thing more than anything else that he wanted to change about her was that he wanted her to be smooth but, because he also disliked her intensely, he wanted to cause her pain in the process.

Thus the epilator was invented.

Author's note:
This fairy tale is indicative of my feelings about epilators and should not be read as a parable on the state of my marriage, which is very happy, thank you very much.  I also believe that I am a normal amount of hairy, and not a freaky gorilla woman.

This is fiction and is not intended to be representative of the life of the real inventor of the epilator.  I would also like to point out that I am not rich so it would not be worth the time and expense of suing me.  Thank you.

Friday, 30 December 2011

"The Death Relic," by Chris Kuzneski

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Last year I read a series of books by Chris Kuzneski, all focusing on the exploits of his heroes Payne and Jones, and I wrote about them here.  I thought that the series was good, rollicking fun, so I was pleased to hear that he had written a new book in the series called "The Death Relic."

In his new novel, Kuzneski's ex special forces heroes are called by Maria Pelati - a character who also appeared in the earlier novel, "The Sign of the Cross," and Jones' now ex-girlfriend - because she is in danger.  Maria has gone to Mexico in answer to a job offer from renowned fellow archaeologist Terrence Hamilton, who then disappears and she finds that her hotel room has been ransacked.  The pair leave snowy Pittsburgh - Jones hates the cold - to answer her distress call, but unresolved feelings make the reunion a fractious and prickly one.  A parallel plot about the kidnap and ransom of the children of a powerful Mexican criminal converges on the central mystery of Hamilton's disappearance, leading them to mysterious and exotic Mexican locations.

This was a strong entry in a series that continues to entertain, and to hold my attention.  I know very little about Mayan civilisation - I haven't even seen the Mel Gibson film "Apocalypto" - so the exotic locations and historical background were relatively fresh and new to me.  Payne and Jones are sparky and funny, as usual, and Maria's obstreporousness adds an interesting dimension to the dynamic.  Some extra warmth and comic relief was added by the semi-regular figure of the ebullient Petr Ulster, who has become possibly my favourite character of the series: Petr seems to revel in the thrill of joining Payne and Jones on their adventures, despite his rotund figure and love of material comfort making him better suited for book-study than fieldwork. 

I think I favour the character of Petr Ulster because I, too, have a (slightly) portly figure that makes me better suited to reading than action: with that in mind I will probably continue to join Payne and Jones on their next adventure while remaining in the safety of my own chair (or, my favourite reading location, bed) with a cup of coffee.

Friday, 23 December 2011

"Soulless," by Gail Carriger

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I would like to thank my friend Sarah for recommending this series of books.  "Soulless" is the first of "The Parasol Protectorate" series and, having borrowed this from the library, I have now had to buy the next three for my reader because I couldn't stand to wait until after Christmas to get the others on reservation. 

Gail Carriger's series of novels is set in an alternate version of Victorian England, in which humans live slightly uneasily alongside a minority of vampires, werewolves and ghosts.  Her heroine is Alexia Tarabotti - statuesque, half-Italian, and therefore not conforming with the accepted English rose standard of beauty - who also happens to be preternatural (which means that physical contact between her and a supernatural being like a werewolf or vampire can make them human for the duration of her touch).  Vampires and werewolves might be in a minority, but preternatural beings are even rarer and are registered with the Bureau of Unnatural Registry (BUR).  When Alexia kills a vampire who, unaware of vampire etiquette, tries to bite her without her consent, she attracts the further attention of Lord Maccon of the BUR - who just happens to be uncouth, devastatingly attractive and a werewolf.  This encounter with a rogue vampire leads Alexia and Lord Maccon into a dangerous mystery.

I already did the "Twilight" comparison with "A Discovery of Witches," but - much as I have tried to avoid the bleeding obvious - it also came to mind with this novel.  If "Twilight" was thought of as having an abstinence agenda, this has a get-your-well-built-male-hero-naked-as-often-as-possible agenda (which I personally found more enjoyable).  If Stephenie Meyer tried to gloss over the idea that, when a werewolf changes back into being a man, you are essentially left with a nude bloke, Gail Carriger positively revels in that nudity.  Lord Maccon is often naked in Alexia's presence at great length, so to speak, and in one entertaining instance is nude for pretty much a whole chapter (and they are reasonably lengthy chapters).

But far be it from me to imply that this book is mainly notable for hot werewolves.  Gail Carriger is inventive, irreverent and funny in a way that reminds me, in spirit although not in content, of authors I enjoy like Jasper Fforde and Janet Evanovich.  This novel also reminded me of "The Vesuvius Club," only I enjoyed it a lot more.  Although the fact that it made me think of other authors might make it sound derivative, there are elements to this novel that I thought were unusual.  In Gail Carriger's re-imagination of Victorian England she creates a detailed world of vampire and werewolf society and etiquette, as well as detailing a pseudo-scientific study of the nature of her supernatural and preternatural creations.  The idea of a preternatural being was new to me and, in Alexia Tarabotti, Carriger has a strong, independent and entertaining heroine.

This Christmas I seem to be going a little bit steampunk, a little bit alternative history, since, as well as Carriger's subsequent novels in the series (the fifth and supposedly last is due to be published in March), I have a couple of Kim Newman's Victorian re-imaginings to read or listen to on audiobook in my holiday.  If, like me, you feel a little bit old for the jailbait world of "Twilight," Gail Carriger's novels are a full-blooded alternative for consenting adults.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

"Already Gone," by John Rector

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I confess, I'm a bit rubbish.  I received "Already Gone" in the post a couple of months ago as a review copy, courtesy of the publishers Simon and Schuster.  The release date was 8th December and I had hoped to read it and write a review in time but, as usual, work and life got in the way.

The hero of John Rector's second novel is Jake Reese.  Jake has been drinking in a bar with work colleagues, but leaves to go home to his beautiful wife, Diane, to whom he has not long been married.  While in the parking lot, before he has time to get into the car, he is attacked by two men who hold him down and sever his ring finger complete with wedding ring.  His finger is then mailed to him in the post, and he starts to think, with a feeling of mounting dread, that criminal connections from his past are catching up with him.

This is quite different from my usual reading.  The blurb on the book cover compares Rector to Linwood Barclay and Harlan Coben - neither of whom I have read - and also has a quote of recommendation from Simon Kernick (who I have tried reading, but couldn't get on with his prose style).  This is more a thriller than a mystery, and I did find that I rather missed the authoritarian figure of a detective who works through an intellectual puzzle. 

While this was perhaps not to my personal taste, I did find things that I liked about this book.  I found that I was drawn into the book by Rector's use of first person narrative which, in particular, made the opening attack on Jake seem visceral and traumatic.  His sparse, direct prose style - which is robust and muscular - suits his material well, and he dives quickly into the action right from the intriguing opening passages of the novel.  His characters are economically defined through their actions and dialogue, and not through swathes of description that would slow the trajectory of the plot.   If you are a thriller fan who enjoys action, pace and intrigue then you will probably find much to enjoy in this novel.

For me, though, I'm probably going to return to some Jackson Brodie.  All that action gets a bit tiring.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

"An Inspector Calls," starring Tom Mannion, at the Plymouth Theatre Royal (December 10th 2011)

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This is going to be less a review of a play, and more a review of a set.  I ended up feeling quite conflicted about this production, which was originally directed by Stephen Daldry, and the set was my main reason for feeling so.  When you read this review you might come out of it thinking that I hated the show, which is far from the case; I enjoyed it, but with some reservations.  It is a production that has engaged my thoughts and made me question my opinions, and that dialogue between the play and the audience member is surely a good thing.  I would rather have strong feelings and ideas about something than be left feeling uninvolved and ambivalent about what I have seen or read.

My misgivings are by no means the fault of the actors, all of whom were very good.  I have seen J.B. Priestley's play before, so I knew what to expect and I know that this is a play that, in my opinion, stands or falls according to the casting of the part of Inspector Goole.  When Tom Mannion first entered, I found my eye drawn to him - which is entirely as it should be.  The part needs to be played by an actor with a commanding, dominant presence and he was more than equal to that.  The rest of the cast were also extremely strong, with Karen Archer in particular excelling at the steely hauteur needed for the part of the matriarch Sybil Birling.

The opening is atmospheric, as the curtain opens onto fog and rain onstage (they really should warn people that if you sit in the front row, as we did, you might get a little damp).  The play starts with a family party being held by the Birling family to celebrate the engagement of their daughter, Sheila, to Gerald Croft.  Arthur Birling is an industrialist with pretentions to influence in society - aspiring to a seemingly imminent knighthood - and Gerald Croft is the son of a fellow businessman.  The set is difficult to describe, and it seems to me that it must be quite hard for the actors to work.  The set shows the exterior of the Birling house, raised up above stage level, and the audience watches the engagement party as an outsider looking in through the windows.  When Inspector Goole visits the house to tell them of the suicide of a young woman, the exterior walls are opened out to show the inside of the home as their lives are laid bare to scrutiny.  The Birling family speak down to the inspector at ground level, or variously descend an ironwork staircase to come down to his level but, to the best of my memory, Inspector Goole is never permitted to forget his lowly status and ascend into the inner sanctum of the house.

This is all very symbolic; the raised house is the pinnacle from which the complacent Birlings are dragged.  Inspector Goole's questioning breaks down the facade of the perfect, happy, family and, once this has been destroyed, the raised level of their house breaks, tilts, and electric lights explode.  For me, however, the most effective thing wasn't the gimmicky tilting and exploding set: it was the human stage business of the elder Birlings picking up their scattered silverware from street level and trying to clean it off as they also try to reconstruct their lives.

My problem is that I'm not sure that it isn't all too symbolic.  The entrance of Inspector Goole was accompanied by ominous, bass-laden, music that whacks you over the head with the character's significance.  The programme notes seem to be suggesting that this staging has rescued the play from its hide-bound, repertory reputation, and supplanted more traditional stagings.  I don't think that this is a good thing.  A staging that is this, well, stagey, and gimmicky seems to me to imply either a) the suspicion the Priestley's play isn't strong enough to put across its own message or b) a patronising suggestion that a modern audience might not "get it."  I would have liked to have felt this production had more faith in both the author and the audience.

Perhaps I am being too harsh and traditional in my tastes; this is a highly successful production that is well regarded, so I might be alone in my criticism of the staging.  However, when I saw Priestley's play first - probably in my early teens - in a traditional production, I was so impressed by it that I pestered my parents into buying me a copy of the script in the theatre shop after the show.  I still believe that it is a powerful, deeply moral play and this production reminded me of that - but I am not sure that the gimmicks of the production didn't, for me anyway, detract from the strength of Priestley's dialogue.  The problem with the production for me was summed up by the directorial decision to have Inspector Goole's powerful, final speech delivered direct to the audience.  I found this jarring and lacking in subtlety: I think the production should have shown more faith in its audience to understand Priestley's intent in the play without such obvious grandstanding.  Priestley's play is rather like being repeatedly prodded, but this production is more like being whacked around the back of the head with a plank of wood.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Why I got bored with "Twilight"

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I am fully prepared for a backlash.

I tried to read the "Twilight" series, but I got bored in the middle of the 3rd book.  I didn't write about them on my blog because I intended to review the series as a whole - but I never finished them.   This isn't a "Twilight" review, but it is why "Twilight" isn't for me (although I might go back and give it another go sometime).  It's a little bit vitriolic, but I came up with some great lines that I didn't want to waste.

I started off with this train of thought because I am listening again to the audiobook of Deborah Harkness' "A Discovery of Witches."  This is my second time around listening to Harkness' novel, and it has a proper, sexy, intelligent vampire in Matthew Clairmont.  The second in her trilogy is out in July, and I am looking forward to it.  When I first listened to this, I saw Matthew Clairmont as being played by Jeremy Northam (this was when I was properly obsessed - I saw pretty much everyone as being played by Jeremy).  I now see him as Paul Rhys, which is a far more comfortable fit for the part as few men can play attractive coldness with a side order of barely concealed threat like Paul Rhys.

Edward Cullen pales in comparison to Matthew Clairmont.  My issue is partly with Stephenie Meyer's take on the vampire mythology, but mainly with Edward.  And, and here is the crux of my argument, the glittery skin thing.  What the hell is that about?  A proper vampire doesn't need bling, because he has a heart as cold and as hard as a diamond.  Edward Cullen has no substance and, if I'm honest, precious little style: he is a costume jewellery vampire to introduce young girls to the idea of the real thing.   

However, I'm a woman and I need my vampire to be a man.  Just try reading "Twilight" and then reading "Dracula," or even "The Historian" or "A Discovery of Witches" and you might see what I mean.  They are proper vampire novels about all the exciting and scary things like blood, sex and death - in short, everything you need from a good story.  I want an adult, scary, intelligent vampire, not a clammy teenager whose fangs have scarcely dropped.

Now that I've got that off my chest, I'm going to do the ironing - which is what I intended to do when I got home from work before getting distracted by thinking about vampires.

Friday, 2 December 2011

"The Secrets of Pain," by Phil Rickman

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I so nearly attributed this book to Alan Rickman when I typed the title.

I was very happy when I discovered recently that there was a new book out by Phil Rickman, as I have read and enjoyed the others in the series by him (this is the 11th book in a series featuring Merrily Watkins).  Phil Rickman's books are strongly plotted mysteries with an infusion of the supernatural.  His protagonist, Merrily Watkins, is a young widow and single mother of a teenage daughter who, following the death of her unfaithful husband in a car crash, discovered her faith in God and became a priest.  Her experience of events that have possible paranormal explanation lead her to become a "deliverance minister" (exorcist) for the Hereford diocese.  Phil Rickman's mysteries are also great for a book geek, as he is very aware of his predecessors: for example, previous novels have had plots that refer back to M.R James and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I am conscious that I know someone who occasionally reads this blog is just discovering the series, so I want to try and introduce this book without giving away any details about ongoing developments in Merrily's life.  So, not only am I trying to make sure that I don't have any spoilers for this novel, I'm trying not to spoil previous entries in the series - which isn't easy, as Merrily's relationships with the other characters around her are part of the strengths of the series.  In "The Secrets of Pain," the demise of a character who has appeared in a previous novel (no, not going to say who, sorry) is one of the catalysts of a mystery that takes in the SAS, Roman history and beliefs, the death of a wealthy landowner, and migrant workers.

I think that this series benefits from being read in order from the start, rather than being dipped into, as the series follows developments in Merrily's life: I look forward to the next novel to find out what is happening to her, as much as I do for the mystery element.  Another continuing strand in the series is more noticeable in this novel: the commodification of the countryside.  Phil Rickman's books follow the life of Ledwardine, the village in which Merrily lives, and this book finds a Ledwardine under siege from a rich developer who is trying to promote Herefordshire as the "New Cotswolds."  It is refreshing to read a crime novel in a more rural setting, as it seems to me that a majority of novels in the genre are set in urban, city locations, and this book is interestingly steeped in rural politics (which is nowhere near as dry as I just made it sound).

This is quite a long book with detailed scene setting and multiple threads.  However, for all its length, I found it engrossing and I never felt that it flagged.  The main strength of the series, for me, is the character of Merrily - who is warm, sympathetic and vulnerable - and I feel that it is all too rare for a man to write so successfully and convincingly with a female protagonist.  As someone who has no religious faith, but who sometimes envies the strength and comfort that others find in their beliefs, her questioning and occasionally unsure relationship to her God is believably depicted.  In her, Phil Rickman has created an appealing character for whom I have developed a genuine fondness, and I badly want her to find a happy ending.  I fully intend to continue reading this series for the mystery and intrigue, but also because I want to find out what happens next for Merrily.  I hope he writes quickly.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

A Twitter tenet: broken

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Today I did something that I swore to myself a while ago that I would not do: I made some negative comments about someone famous on Twitter.

I think most of us have done it - I certainly have, although more recently I have tried not to.  I've put up a tweet about someone famous - say someone on X-Factor (in this particular example I use the word famous wrongly) - because I thought that I was being funny, without stopping to think whether what I was saying was hurtful.  Recently I have tried to censor myself more and not tweet something if I thought it would cause offense to the person it was about, if they discovered it.

The problem is that Twitter is deceptively impersonal.  You can put something out there into the ether; make the inner monologue outer (and anyone who has worked with someone who talks to themselves will know how annoying this can be), and forget that it can be read by anyone on Twitter - including the person that the tweet is about.  I think it is a good rule that you shouldn't tweet something about a person on Twitter if you wouldn't feel comfortable to say it to their face.

Of course, the argument is that any famous person gets used to negative comments; that it goes with the job.  But I came to the conclusion that it doesn't make it right for me to add to that barrage of criticism and personal comments.  My personal opinion is fine - that I don't think someone is right for a part, for example - but a personal comment about something over which they have less control, such as weight, is something that I would try to avoid.  I have recently felt quite uncomfortable with some of the negative tweets about competitors on "Young Apprentice."  These are, after all, people who are very young and are trying to work out who they are and who they want to be.  Yes, some of them are quite annoying, but I doubt there are many of us that aren't a) rather ashamed of some things that we said or did when a teenager and b) don't still rankle with something critical that was said about us at the time when we were younger (no? just me then). 

This morning on Twitter I had a rant about Michael Ball being cast as Sweeney Todd (sorry, Alicia).  Actually I don't think my rant was too bad as it wasn't so much disrespect for his talents - Dad told me he was great in "Hairspray" - as the fact that it is one of my favourite musicals and I really felt that he wasn't good casting for that part.  Sweeney Todd should be powerful and threatening (I still haven't found a version that beats Len Cariou on the OBC), and I didn't believe that he is capable of that menace.    

Since my rant, I picked up a spirited defence from a Michael Ball and musical theatre fan on Twitter.  I had tweeted that I had a bad experience seeing him in "Passion," which she quite fairly pointed out was now over 10 years ago (which had also occurred to me now that I have calmed down after my initial indignation).  She also told me that Sondheim has seen and enjoyed the show, and I am sure he knows a lot better than I do what makes a good Sweeney.

I've realised that maybe my crime in this instance wasn't making a personal comment on Twitter: it was passing judgement on something before I have seen it.  I know that the great Mark Kermode says that he tries to go into a film with an open mind, even if it is the latest in a franchise he dislikes, or, even worse, a film by Michael Bay (or, worse again, a Michael Bay franchise).  This is a good tenet to observe, and I am not very good at this.  I sometimes enjoy the chance to have an unreasonable rant about something in the arts about which I have a preconceived bias.  In the past I have scared someone with one of my rants, as he seemed unable to make the distinction that he was on the receiving end of an abstract rant and I wasn't angry with him.  But when you put that rant on Twitter, you put your unreasoned bias in the public domain. 

I love "Sweeney Todd," and I have nothing to gain if I am right in believing that this is a bad piece of casting.  Apparently it has already tried out in Chichester and got great reviews, and he does look completely different and more threatening in the promotional material.  My parents have asked me if I would like to see it with them (Mark is allergic to musicals, so isn't keen), and I am thinking about it.  I like Imelda Staunton a lot, and I think she will be a great Mrs Lovett.  If I do go to see it, and he turns out to be the best Sweeney I have ever seen, I will be very happy.  And hopefully, if that happens, my Twitter rant will have been forgotten by then so I don't end up looking like an idiot.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

"Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders," by Gyles Brandreth

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I have joined Goodreads (and, as I know a paltry amount of people on there, friend requests are welcomed), but I admit that I have not yet got addicted to it to the same extent as I have with Twitter.  There is, however, one thing in particular for which I am grateful - their new releases email.  If I had not received emails about them which list new releases which might interest me, I would not have realised so quickly that there was a new Oscar Wilde mystery or a new Phil Rickman (next on my reading list).

In "Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders," Dr Arthur Conan Doyle goes to Bad Homburg to spend some time sorting through the correspondence that has been sent to his creation, Sherlock Holmes, at 221B Baker Street. By coincidence, he finds that his friend, Oscar Wilde, has been convinced by his wife to take the cure in Bad Homburg for his health.  Wilde is bored and seizes on the company, offering to help Conan Doyle work through his post.  A mysterious parcel addressed to Sherlock Holmes contains a gruesome discovery that leads them to Rome in search of answers and adventure.

In this novel, Gyles Brandreth has pared down his normal dramatis personae.  A couple of his regular sometime narrators - Robert Sherard and Bram Stoker - are absent from this novel, as is Oscar's wife and family.  In previous novels Brandreth has used an epistolary style, constructing the narrative through a collage of letters and diary entries by Sherard, Conan Doyle and Stoker.  In this, the narrative is entirely in the voice of Dr Arthur Conan Doyle, ostensibly from his unpublished memoirs.  This device effectively means that Conan Doyle is functioning as the Dr Watson to Wilde's Sherlock Holmes.

In my post on the previous novel, "Oscar Wilde and the Nest of Vipers," I wrote a little about Gyles Brandreth reverse engineering elements from the Sherlock Holmes canon.  This is very entertaining for the literary nerd in me, and this novel - supposedly taking place in Oscar's life before he has written "The Importance of Being Earnest" - contains a couple of incidental echoes of lines from the play.  This is at the heart of his reverse engineering: for us, as readers, Brandreth throws in references that recall elements of the earlier text and we can feel entertained and a little smug at getting the in-joke but, to the characters in the novel, they function as inspiration for future writing.  However, for the first time with this novel, I became aware that this is problematic because it allows a reader with a reasonable knowledge of the Holmes canon to second-guess where Brandreth is going with an idea.  I won't say what triggered this realisation - it is a curious oddity that my mentioning something written over one hundred years ago is a spoiler for something recently written - although I do have to admit as a mitigating circumstance that it was not a significant point in the solution of the mystery.  This might be less of a problem in another genre but, in a mystery which relies on twists and sleight of mind, it is a dangerous trick to play because the dividing line between homage to past writing and spoiler for writing in progress is potentially slight.

Despite that caveat, I am still enjoying the series and I will read the next one also (assuming that Gyles Brandreth continues the series).  Brandreth's books also continue to shame me into thinking that I should know more about Wilde, and should go back to read more of his writing.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

"Covenant," by Dean Crawford

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This is a book that I was lucky enough to receive from Simon and Schuster as a review copy, and it is one that I was looking forward to reading.  The novelists that Dean Crawford has been compared to in the novel's book blurb and press - James Rollins and Chris Kuzneski  -  are ones that I find entertaining and enjoyable.

Dean Crawford's hero is Ethan Warner, an ex-marine turned investigative journalist who lost his reason for living when his fiancee, Joanna, was abducted while in Gaza.  Since that time, and following failed attempts to locate her, he has been reduced to a purposeless, alcohol-fuelled life.  Ethan is brought in by the Defense Intelligence Agency due to his skill at finding missing people - excepting the one he really wants to find - to help Rachel Morgan locate her scientist daughter, Lucy, who has disappeared from the site of a remote and highly secretive dig in Israel.  He is convinced to help Rachel by the promise of further investigation into his fiancee's disappearance.

The adventure that follows is part Indiana Jones, part Michael Crichton - complete with "Jurassic Park" incomprehensible (to me, anyway) science bits.  The Michael Crichton comparison is made on the book cover, and this is an apt one.  However, it also made me think of "The X-Files."  The character of Ethan Warner is comparable to Dana Scully - initially a sceptic, becoming enlightened during the course of the narrative - while Rachel Morgan takes the Fox Mulder role.  The discovery from Lucy's dig is - and I don't think this is a spoiler, as we learn this fairly early on - the skeletal remains of an alien humanoid, which also brings to mind the"X-Files" comparison.  Dean Crawford obviously intends Ethan Warner to be a recurring character (my copy of the book also contains the first few chapters of his next book, "Elixir"), and some unresolved elements of the story make me suspect that the alien discovery will be an arc that will span books, much in the same way that the alien conspiracy extended across seasons of "The X-Files."

I've written before about what I call "breakfast books."  A breakfast book is a book that you can read early in the morning, for entertainment value with a rollicking story, without your brain cells being unduly taxed.  This is a good example of a breakfast book, with a couple of caveats: the science bits did tax my brain (and I don't have the scientific knowledge to know how theoretically plausible they are); and there are some slightly gruesome bits that you don't want to be reading while eating breakfast.  This book had some interesting ideas about archeology and the foundations of civilisation - interesting in a von Daniken, "Fortean Times," to be taken with a kilo of salt kind of way - and I look forward to finding out where he takes these ideas in subsequent novels.

A digression about Sherlock Holmes

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I'm in the limbo stage now where I have just finished a book and I am formulating my post about it - hopefully to follow later today or tomorrow - and, because I am chronically impatient, I have already begun reading my next book.  The only problem is that my train of thought has been sideswiped by the opening of the book I have just started.

I'm now reading Gyles Brandreth's "Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders."  It commences when Arthur Conan Doyle retreats to Bad Homburg to work through the correspondence with which he has been swamped: letters which have been addressed to Sherlock Holmes.

This has fascinated me on and off for a while now: the fact the Sherlock Holmes is a character which has so permeated our culture that people write to him as if he were a real person.  The Sherlock Holmes Museum has on display some of these letters; the Abbey National which used to have an office in the building that now encompasses what would be 221 Baker Street employed someone to deal with his correspondence.

I can understand this impulse.  Of course, I don't mean that I believe that Sherlock Holmes is real.  But, of all fictional characters I can think of, he is probably the one that I most wish was real.  I feel that the world would be a better place with a genius, violin-playing, slightly sexually ambiguous detective in it.  I would feel safer knowing that Sherlock Holmes was real and was unerringly working on the side of good.  And, if I'm honest, there is a side of me that is attracted to the intellectual and sexual challenge of seducing a man who is so often disdainful of women.  I doubt that I am the only female reader of Sherlock Holmes who wonders what it would be like to be "the woman."  

If anyone wants to leave a comment, I'd love to know which fictional character you most wish existed?

Sunday, 23 October 2011

"The Good Thief's Guide to (insert foreign and interesting city location here)" series, by Chris Ewan

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I discovered this series of novels purely by chance, having noticed "The Good Thief's Guide to Venice" in my local library while on my continuing search for novels set in this beautiful city.  I borrowed it, only to then discover that it was the fourth in a series.  As I am as obsessive with my reading as I am with many other things in my life, I had to read the others in the series before I could read Venice.

Chris Ewan's novels feature a character called Charlie Howard who is an author of mystery fiction and a sometime burglar, whose fictional hero is a burglar.  In the first in the series, Charlie gets into an adventure in Amsterdam and has to move on to a different city when this is concluded; in the second in the series Charlie gets into a scrape in Paris which results in him being declared persona non grata and having to leave, then he goes to Las Vegas, and so on.  He is joined in his misadventures by Victoria, his agent, who graduates from being a voice on the phone in the first novel to being a companion in subsequent novels.

One thing that can be annoying about some "gentleman thief" tales is the apparent invulnerability of the protagonist. One of the strengths of this series is that Charlie is fallible: he often makes bad choices - occasionally for good, noble reasons, or through flawed reasons like personal gain, vanity, stubborness or curiosity - and he has to try to muddle through the consequences of his actions.  Chris Ewan has added to this by giving his anti-hero early onset arthritis in his hands. This gives Charlie an additional obstacle to overcome, making the picking of locks difficult for him, and this human frailty makes him a more vulnerable and sympathetic character.  Charlie has flaws, and this makes him an interesting (anti)hero.

This is a series that I felt got stronger and more interesting with each novel.  The growing friendship - or maybe something more - with Victoria is one of the pleasures of the series, as we gradually learn about her character and background.  I also felt that the sense of place gets stronger through the series - although admittedly I am not the best person to comment on this as I haven't been to Paris and Las Vegas to judge how well Chris Ewan evokes the atmosphere of these settings.  I have been to Amsterdam and Venice, though, and I enjoyed being reminded of them by reading the novels that he sets there.  I gather from visiting his blog, which can be found here, that he visits each setting for his novels a few times and his blog has some segments of video that he recorded while on research trips to his locations.  When we visited Venice it was autumn and we were lucky with the weather, so I have not experienced the bleak, atmospheric "Don't Look Now" Venice that is Charlie's wintery experience.

Chris Ewan is on Twitter, where he is a friendly presence who appears to have a convivial relationship with his fans.  I mentioned him before on this blog in my post "How I have been contributing to authors' cavities" and, when I decided as an experiment to tweet my post to the authors that I mentioned to see what response I would get, he was kind enough to add a comment as "Partners in Crime" (Michael Jecks and David Hewson were also supportive enough to respond, for which I am equally grateful).  In the "Good Thief" series he has postmodern, playful fun with the blurring of boundaries between himself as author and his (anti)hero as author (to the best of my knowledge, he does not have a sideline career in robbery).  I enjoyed this series so far because I felt that it was postmodern in an entertaining way - having fun with the conventions of mystery novels, as opposed to more arch and knowing examples of postmodern fiction - and Charlie and Victoria are engaging characters.  I understand from his tweets that Chris Ewan has been working on another in the series set in Berlin, as well as working on a standalone novel, and I wish him luck and good fortune with these.  I look forward to reading them...

An insight into the (dis)order of my mind, courtesy of Kate Atkinson

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

"Right up until the end Victor's mind had been as methodical as an efficient library, whereas Amelia felt that hers was more like the cupboard under the stair where ancient hockey sticks were shoved in beside broken hoovers and boxes of old Christmas decorations, and the one thing you knew was in there - a 5-amp fuse, a tin of shoe polish, a Philips screwdriver - would almost certainly be the one thing you couldn't lay your hands on."  - Kate Atkinson, "Case Histories"
Yep, I recognise that feeling.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Reading and Readability

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

This week I watched the Man Booker Prize.  I am ashamed to say that I haven't followed the debates this year or read any of the books - I have been a bit busy working - so I have come to this topic rather late.  This year's controversy apparently arose from Dame Stella Rimmington's use of the word "readability" as one of the criteria for which the judges were looking.  I think that the moment for this debate has probably passed now that winner Julian Barnes sagely concluded that quality and readability should be indistinguishable - but that isn't going to stop me blithely and belatedly weighing in on this debate.

My Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines something that is readable as being "interesting or pleasant to read."  To think that "readability" is not an essential criteria for a book is incomprehensible to me.  When did calling a book "readable" become a perjorative term, and when was it decided that the Man Booker Prize should go to a book that is boring and unpleasant?

The implications of thinking that the Man Booker judges should not be looking for readability as one of their criteria seem to me to be twofold.  This implies that a book that is deemed to have literary merit should not be pleasurable; it should be a chore to read.  This is the cough mixture side to the argument: if something is good for you, then it will probably be horrible.  The converse assumption is that if something is "readable," then it lacks quality and intellectual worth.  This is the chocolate side to the argument: if something is pleasurable then it is probably bad for you.

This notion is, of course, largely correct for food and totally spurious for literature.  Many of the books that we now think of as being "classics" were populist works of their time - Dickens as an obvious example - and are eminently readable.  When I mentioned this debate on Twitter, a couple of friends and wise tweeters (twits?), Gill and Joanne, joined in the discussion to praise George Orwell's readability.  Anyone who wants to write would do well to read his brilliant article "Politics and the English Language."  That I haven't re-read it for years is probably painfully obvious to anyone who reads this blog, as I am sure that I commit many of the stylistic sins that he decries.  Gill put it well in a tweet when she said that "literature must be accessible to communicate its ideas," and Orwell's writing is a perfect example of writing that is both "readable" and has literary merit.

I don't believe that anyone benefits from the belief that the Man Booker Prize should not be looking for readability: not the reputation of the prize itself; not its winners and nominees, and not the publishing industry as a whole.  A book is by definition intended to be read, otherwise surely it is a failure in its own terms.  The Man Booker Prize would likely become defunct if it were to gain the reputation of being awarded to books that no-one wants to read, and would be the death of sales to an author who wins it.  No author wants not to be read when they set out to write a novel.

I think that it is an act of intellectual snobbery to argue that "readability" should not be an aim of quality fiction.  This is a declaration that has very little to do with the book itself, and everything to do with the person putting forward that argument and their need to assert intellectual superiority.  A person who attempts to downplay the value of readability in a novel is essentially declaring themselves to be pure intellect and above such frivolities as reading pleasure.  When asked, they would probably say that their favourite piece of writing is "Finnegan's Wake," which I am sure is a work of genius, but is effectively unreadable (and I write those words as someone who likes "Ulysses").

I am more inclined to feel that all great books are "readable."  Only bad books are unreadable.  With the possible exception of "Finnegan's Wake."

Thursday, 13 October 2011

A quote from Howard Jacobson

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I've been listening to an audiobook of Howard Jacobson's collection of journalism, "Whatever It Is, I Don't Like It."  Except I like it very much.  So much so that I have also just bought the hardback today - as well as the new Terry Pratchett (I like variety in my reading) - and I was arrested by the following passage from Howard:

"How do you explain to somebody who doesn't understand that you don't build a library to read.  A library is a resource.  Something you go to, for reference, as and when.  But also something you simply look at, because it gives you succour, answers to some idea of who you are or, more to the point, who you would like to be, who you will be once you own every book you need to own."

I'm sorry, Howard - I hope you will forgive me first name terms, since I have sought out and read everything you have written - but I don't agree, or maybe I don't understand.  I do build a library to read.  I am an acquisitive reader - I like to own the new book by a writer I love, even if I know I won't be able to read it for a while - and my library does give give me succour.  But it also fills me with dread that I might already own more books than can be read in the limited lifetime of one human being.  Ultimately, it isn't about who I will be once I own every book I need to own: it is about who I would like to be, who I might be once I have read every book I own.

If a library is only something to look at, then I might as well have bought a bunch of flowers today, and not a new book.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

"An Autumn Crush," by Milly Johnson

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I received a review copy of this book courtesy of the publishers, Simon and Schuster.  This book is due for release tomorrow (Thursday 29th September 2011), so - even though girly romances are not my usual taste - I was excited to get a preview copy.  "An Autumn Crush" is Milly Johnson's sixth book, but is the first by her that I have read.

Juliet Miller is interviewing for possible flatmates with her flamboyant gay friend, Coco.  Following a series of humorous but disastrous possible flatmates (said of a plump vegan, "How can anyone get an arse that big just from eating celery?"), Juliet isn't optimistic when her final interviewee is late because she stopped to rescue a limping hedgehog.  However, she bonds with fellow divorcee Florence (Floz) over chocolate biscuits and the two become flatmates and friends.  The two are contrasting characters: Juliet is ebullient and confident, while Floz is more reserved and introverted.  The romantic intrigue is introduced with the characters of Juliet's brother, Guy, and his friend Steve, who moonlight as wrestlers.

One thing that I liked about this book is that it is as much about female (and male) friendship, as it is a romance.  Milly Johnson's creations are warm and likeable, and I enjoyed spending time with them. The Floz plot - henceforth known to me as the flot - is darker and tinged with a sadness that added an extra dimension to the book.  As my own temperament is more quiet Floz than extrovert Juliet, I found the flot very affecting and I was rooting for Floz to finally find her happy ending.  I don't want to make this sound depressing though, as Milly Johnson also has a strong vein of observational humour in her writing (I was particularly fond of the OAP wrestling audiences).

I'm not sure that I would read another book by Milly Johnson - but that is because my own personal preference is for the mysterious or creepy.  I do have to admit to a deep-seated prejudice against "chick-lit," but almost despite myself I quite enjoyed this book as a respite from my usual reading list of blood and mayhem.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

"Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic's Search for Health and Healing," by Tim Parks

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I decided to seek this book out after seeing an advertising poster when we went on holiday to London.  I was - and I still am - feeling stressed, tired and rather run down.  It was the same feeling that compelled me to read "A Time to Keep Silence," about the Patrick Leigh Fermor's monastic retreats.   It is probably the height of vanity to quote yourself, but I don't think that I can describe how I have been feeling any better than I did then when I wrote that I felt as if I was "losing the war of attrition with modern life."

This state of mind meant that I was attracted to a book that might show me the path to silence and stillness.  This is not that book, but it was a very interesting read.  Tim Parks is also a writer of fiction - he was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1997 - but this work of non-fiction is the first that I have read by him.  As the book starts, Tim Parks has been struggling for years with mounting physical pain that is becoming unbearable.  His symptoms are thought to be prostate related and an operation is suggested, although medical tests prove to be inconclusive.  However, a book that he discovers on the internet - "A Headache in the Pelvis" - sets him on a path where he finds physical respite from his symptoms through meditation.

This is not a self-help book; it is far more interesting than that.  Tim Parks comes to the realisation that his writing and his relationship with language are closely intertwined with the health problems that he has been experiencing.  The book evolves into being an insight into the mind and body of a compulsive writer and linguist; someone whose focus has been on his mental life to the extent that he has neglected his body.  Through "A Headache in the Pelvis" he comes to realise that "the strange pains that [he] had been feeling had in some way to do with all those years sitting tensely, racking [his] brains over sheets of empty paper, building up hopes, rejoicing over some small achievement, over-reacting to setbacks and disappointments."  His mental activity is accompanied by physical tension; in the same way that a light-bulb gives off heat as a by-product, his over-active brain spills out into nervous kinetic energy such as jerking his knee up and down.  His mind and body are rarely still, and he is in conflict with himself.

Parks, who values highly his acuity with language, comes to realise that what he prizes is the very thing that his sabotaging him.  In filtering all his experiences through language - already mentally writing a review of a film while watching it, trying to describe a painting - he loses a sense of pleasure or fulfillment in the present moment.  The key to this realisation is thinking of the weeks he lost in mentally rehearsing and revising his Booker acceptance speech, only to lose out to Arundhati Roy.  This insight leads him to acknowledge that "words seem to take [him] away from the present moment."  Through the relaxation techniques he learns by reading "A Headache in the Pelvis" and attending meditation retreats, he finds freedom from the compulsion to verbalise every experience and comes to inhabit his own body with equanimity.

Tim Parks lives in Italy and works as a translator, and I came to realise that there is an element of translation in this book - but translation of physical sensation, body language, into words.  The relation between body and language is explored in this book: even as Tim Parks' mind rejects and rebels against the new age flummery spouted by some of the practitioners that he sees, his body responds to their treatments and therapies.  This is a book of paradoxes that somehow unify where they should clash.  This book charts Tim Parks' progression of escaping from language into his own body - but then has to render it back into language to communicate with the reader.  This shouldn't work, and the fact that it does is testament to his powers of description and mental agility.

One element of the experience he undergoes is visual, and the book is peppered with small images of things that engrossed him at the time.  One of these is a painting by Velazquez "Waterseller of Seville."  He is fascinated by the painting, and by the stillness of the hands meeting in the exchange of the glass of water.  This painting leads to a beautiful image of the exchange between author and reader "sharing words [...] like a glass of clear water on a hot summer afternoon."  It is a curious dichotomy that a book in which words are problematic also has passages of meditations on language that are quite beautiful and it seems, as the book closes, that Tim Parks has managed to reconcile his mind and body, language and physical sensation, in order to find respite from his pains.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

"20th Century Ghosts," by Joe Hill

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I know Joe Hill as a writer of horror fiction.  One of my early reviews when I started this blog was on his novel, "Horns."  The first book of his that I read, "Heart-shaped Box," is probably still my favourite of his books.  You won't find a review of this on my blog, as I read it before I started writing here, but I do intend to re-read it and write about it at some point.  I'm not a big reader of short stories - with the exception of masters of the form such as Conan Doyle or M.R. James - so it is quite unusual for me to pick up a short story collection.  However, as I enjoyed what I had read by Joe Hill so far, I thought that I would give his collection of short stories, "20th Century Ghosts," a whirl.

Like any collection of short stories, there are some that appeal more than others.  I was a bit too squeamish for the bodily excretions of "You Will Hear the Locust Sing," which owes a debt to Kafka's "Metamorphosis."  My favourite stories in the collection were ones that I didn't find out-and-out horrific or scary - Hill's stories are often more subtle than that - but rather are unsettling in a way that is not easy to define.  One of the stories which has stuck with me most, "In the Rundown," has no supernatural element.  It is unresolved and ambiguous - although there is a strong suggestion of where it is heading, and it isn't good for the protagonist - and I found this story very unsettling.  This ominous ambiguity is a trait shared by some of the other, more supernaturally inflected, stories such as "My Father's Mask" and "Voluntary Committal."  I get deeply frustrated and annoyed with open-ended films, but, oddly, this lack of resolution and resistance of concrete explanation is one thing that I liked most about these stories.

There is an allusiveness in some of Hill's stories which appealed to the nerd in me.  Although it would not exactly be a spoiler to reveal the setting for "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead," or to mention the back story for "Abraham's Boys," as Hill himself makes these details explicit early in the story, I am refraining from doing so because I think other readers should be able to experience the moment of recognition that I felt.  Part of the pleasure of "Abraham's Boys" was the surprise of the early revelation, whereas part of the pleasure of "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead" is for the cinema or horror fan to recognise the setting ahead of Joe Hill's reveal.  As another example, "Last Breath," a story that I enjoyed a lot, has a "Tales of the Unexpected" leaning - made more noticeable by a Roald Dahl name check - and, on a tangent, made me think back to a British horror film I once saw called "The Asphyx" about trying to capture the spirit of death.  I am by no means implying that Joe Hill's writing is derivative, but more that it shows his awareness of his predecessors, the traditions of horror/supernatural writing and cinema, and his willingness to play with and use this knowledge. 

The majority of these stories do have elements of horror writing and the supernatural.  However, one of the strengths of Hill's writing is that his stories are grounded in reality and the imperatives of human emotion.  The title story, as an example, is ultimately more poignant than frightening.  To draw a reference from screen horror, Hill's stories are less the blatant gore of something like "Saw," and more the atmospheric chills of Hammer, or the suggestive strangeness of "The Twilight Zone."  Hill can manage both the 100 metre brevity needed for the short story, as well as the marathon feat of stamina of a novel, and I am looking forward to his next piece of writing.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Have you voted for your top ten books for World Book Night 2012?

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Today I had an email from World Book Night, thanking me for voting for my top ten books.  It also suggests to forward the email on to anyone who might still wish to vote ... so instead I've copied the text of the email into this post below.  But be quick - there are only 2 days left to vote ...

Thousands of people have nominated almost 7000 different titles so far but we want as many people as possible to tell us their favourite books, so if there's anyone you know who you think might like to share their favourite books and be a small part of World Book Night then please forward them this email.

Submitting books is easy (though we know how hard it is to actually pick your favourites - sorry!)

1. Go to
2. Register or sign in (and you can also sign in with your Facebook profile if you'd rather)
3. Search for your favourite books and add them to your list (you don't have to choose 10, you can just choose a few)

We'll be releasing the top 100 at the beginning of September and they'll be informing the choice of our editorial selection committee, chaired by bestselling novelist Tracy Chevalier, who will be picking the books next week. We'll be announcing the WBN 2012 titles in mid October and opening the giver application process.

Spriteby asked me what books I chose, so I am listing these below.  If you have read any of my posts on choosing my forty books, you probably won't find any surprises.  These are in no particular order.

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams
"Rebecca" by Daphne du Maurier
"The Secret History" by Donna Tartt
"The Eyre Affair" by Jasper Fforde
"The Things they Carried" by Tim O'Brien
"Ulysses" by James Joyce
"Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte
"The English Patient" by Michael Ondaatje
"The Historian" by Elizabeth Kostova
"Our Man in Havana" by Graham Greene

If I could convince you all just to read one of these books, it would be Tim O'Brien's "The Things they Carried" - it's a collection of short stories focusing on the Vietnam War.  I don't normally like war novels or films, but this is an incredible book.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

"Young Sherlock Holmes: Death Cloud," by Andrew Lane

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I was loaned this book by a friend (Hi Bill!), who we were meeting for lunch today, because he knows that I enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories.  I thought that I would write a quick post about it, as meeting Bill today has had me thinking about my response to the book.

Andrew Lane's hero is the teenage Sherlock Holmes.  In true Enid Blyton style, the young Holmes is at boarding school but stumbles into a mystery during school holidays.  He has been unable to go home, as his mother is unwell and his father has been stationed in India, so his brother, Mycroft, picks him up from school and takes the unwilling Sherlock to stay with his uncle and aunt.  A loner at school, he makes a rare friend of a street ruffian, Matty Arnatt.  Matty has seen a mysterious cloud leaving the scene where a dead body is found and, shortly after, Sherlock himself discovers a disfigured dead body.  Amyus Crowe, who has been hired by Mycroft as Sherlock's tutor for the holiday, aids in solving the mystery surrounding the dead bodies while also teaching Sherlock how to think.

In my post on "Oscar Wilde and the Nest of Vipers," I wrote that the author, Gyles Brandreth, was reverse engineering elements from the Sherlock Holmes canon.  Andrew Lane is doing something very similar in taking the eccentricities of Conan Doyle's character and giving Holmes a teenage back-story that could create the emotionally distant, rational adult (dysfunctional family, oppressive boarding school).  This novel is written for a teenage audience, and the straightforward language reflects this, but there are elements here that the adult Holmes fan will also enjoy (for example, Holmes uncle is called Sherrinford, which I believe was one of the names that Conan Doyle considered for his creation).  The mystery is well-paced and, in a nice touch, the bad guy is called Baron Maupertuis (the Conan Doyle canon is littered with mysteries mentioned but not explained and, in "The Reigate Squires," Watson refers to the "colossal schemes of Baron Maupertuis").  I also enjoyed this novel because, in Baron Maupertuis, Andrew Lane has created a memorable, grotesque villain with an entertaining line in barking mad vendettas.

I'm not sure that I feel a pressing urge to seek out Andrew Lane's further Young Sherlock Holmes mysteries - I already have a huge pile of books waiting to be read - but this was a fun way to spend a few hours.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

And thank you, Annalisa, for my Liebster Award!

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

In my recent post accepting my Stylish Blogger Award from Gill, I passed the award on to Annalisa Crawford, who has a great blog about her writing called "Wake up, eat, write, sleep." By an odd coincidence, Annalisa visited my blog on the same day to give me a Liebster Award.  I think prior to this weekend the only award that I had was for having the shortest legs in 6th form (I think I still have the certificate somewhere), and now I get two awards in one weekend.

Annalisa quoted the following rules for the acceptance of the Liebster Award:

The Liebster Award (meaning “friend” in German) is meant to connect us even more and spotlight new bloggers who have less than 200 followers – but hopefully not for long. The rules are:

1. Show your thanks to the blogger who gave you the award by linking back to them.
2. Reveal your top 5 picks and let them know by leaving a comment on their blog.
3. Post the award on your blog.
4. Bask in the love from the most supportive people on the Internet – other writers.
5. And best of all – have fun and spread the karma!

I do have 5 people in mind

For my first Liebster Award, I'd like to be a bit nepotistic and suggest my husband, Mark Cockram, who writes a blog,"Nerdology." His specialist subjects are Doctor Who, films (he writes often about Laurel and Hardy, and has a project to watch and write on all of the American Film Institute top 100 movies), gadgets and games.  I'm not sure what to write to big him up, as he is so great that no words would do him justice.

For my second nomination, I'd like to suggest Gill Fraser-Lee.  Gill and I found each other through Twitter due to our mutual admiration of the peerless Jeremy Northam.  Gill has an excellent and recently revamped blog about Jeremy, as well as other blogs with different emphases at "Queen of Lukewarm" and "These Foolish Things." Gill is an intelligent, engaging and funny writer who has been very supportive of my blog, and her blogs are well worth checking.  Especially if you like Jeremy Northam.  But many of you probably knew that already....

For my third and fourth nominations I am going to suggest a couple of blogs by people I don't know well personally, but whose blogs I enjoy.  One of my favourite genres to read is crime fiction, and both of these blogs are well written and by people far more knowledgeable than me in this area.

My third nomination is Spriteby, who writes a book blog called "Spriteby's Bokhylle."  I considered nominating Spriteby for the Stylish Blogger Award but, as he/she writes anonymously, I did not think that he/she would welcome being asked to provide the autobiographical information required by the challenge.  I regularly check Spriteby's blog for reviews and for recommendation to advance my own reading in the area, and Spriteby is particularly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Scandinavian crime fiction.

My fourth choice is Margot Kinberg, who writes a blog at "Confessions of a Mystery Novelist." Like Spriteby, her blog is well-written and shows a wealth of knowledge of her subject.  Margot writes regular "In the spotlight" posts about specific authors and novels, modern and classic, as well as writing posts on themes across crime fiction writing and writers.

My final choice is a friend of mine, Mina Searle, who has written a couple of posts on a blog that she has started called "I would rather be cross stitching."  Mina is a blogging novice who has only written a couple of posts so far, so I would like to offer Mina a Liebster Award as recognition of how much I have enjoyed her couple of posts so far and encouragement to keep on writing.  I enjoy cross stitching to relax also, but I have nowhere near the number of kits to do that Mina has. This is just as well, as I have been doing the same large kit for years (but part of my new relaxation regime is to do 10-15 minutes a day of stitching as "me time").

These awards are with the qualification that, as some bloggers do not include their follower statistics on their blog, I am not sure if Gill, Margot or Spriteby have over 200 followers.  Quite possibly they do - if they don't, they should have - in which case I apologise for unknowingly contravening one of the tenets of the Liebster Awards.  But that doesn't change the fact that I think they are all entertaining writers and worth looking up.