“Let us read, and let us dance;
these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

1066 and all that....

I made this: BookElf at 12:20 pm 2 comments Links to this post
OK so I might have failed in the whole opposite covers month (1920s aristocracy-1980s aristocracy-1450s, well they weren't the aristocracy but you know what I mean fail) but I have learnt a little bit more about history. Not through the fiction, but the subsequent googling reading the fiction brings on.

That's the reason I love historical novels, which I get mocked for constantly by people who read 'proper' books- they make you interested in the past, and there is no greater avenue to research than the past and once you've learnt basic research skills, you can find out anything, and once people start finding things out, revolutions happen. Yes, yes I did just say reading historical fiction may one day lead to a revolution. Thesis that, bitches.

Anyway, this is the history of England from 1066 (bit of an important year) to 1890 ish in novels. Think of it as your summer reading list, if you will. You'll be tested on it later and I'll see you on the barricades in October, yes?

(These are books that I have read. Not having read every book ever written ever I've missed thousands out. If there is something I've missed that I really should read then tell me. My TBR pile is now bigger than I am (which trust me is a feat all by itself) but I shall try).

Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower1066
The romance between William the Conqueror's brother Bishop Odo and one of the women who embroidered the Bayeux Tapestry. Its a bit overlong, to be honest, but fascinating. Beautiful cover too.

Cadfael by Ellis Peters1138

Brilliant, mostly murder-mystery series that reflects on the wars between King Stephen and Empress Matilda which split the country in half. Many in the series are set in Wales, and gives a good insight into politics there. They are also great fun.

The Gallows Curse by Karen Maitland1210
King John's ridiculous quest for power led eventually to the Magna Carta, one of the most important events in English law. Maitland's books show how the actions of Kings are reflected by the people. The Gallows Curse is her latest, and possibly darkest book.

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland1321
Set 100 years later during the reign of Edward II, who was ousted by his own wife Isabelle of France, and was murdered by having a red hot poker inserted up his bum, this book shows the struggle for power between the very male power of the manor and village, and the female beguinage and ineffective Christian representative. Wonderful stuff.

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland1348
Karen Maitland's first book set in medieval England, and in my opinion her weakest (the ending lets the rest of the book down massively) this shows the impact the Black Death had on the common people. The Black Death decimated Europe's population and altered England forever.

Owen Archer by Candace Robb1363-
Set during the reign of Edward III, which was a bit of a golden time as England was transformed into a massive military power, kick starting wars in Scotland and the 100 Years War in France (any time when England gets to thrown its tiny weight around is classed as 'golden' apparently, if there's one thing we do well, its a penis-extension), this series of murder mysteries is more than just a lay-Cadfael, England is different now, there are more classes of person and, set in the last ten years of Edward's 55 year reign shows how the successive wars has resulted in a new kind of 'man'. Owen is a one eyed ex soldier adjusting to life as spy for the Archbishop of York. As a Yorkshire lass, I find the history of our city fascinating to read and this series, especially the first 'Apothecary Rose' is recommended.

Katherine by Anya Seton1377 ish
A good old fashioned bodice ripper, this one. Married off to the man who tries to rape her, Katherine Swynford falls hopelessly in love with John of Gaunt, second son of Edward III and Plantagenet England's Golden Boy. Naturally Katherine is ridiculously beautiful and hirsute and the two swan off together, founding a rather important dynasty along the way. LOVE this book, for all its ridiculous sloppyness, it's a lovely story and Katherine is one of those Women from History that Gregory hasn't got round to yet...

Crown in Candlelight by Rosemary Hawley Jarman1401 ish
Although this book starts in *spits* France, the story of Catherine of Valois and her two marriages is vastly important to English history, plus this is a lovely lovely book. Rich in detail, intrigue and magic, less bodice rippy than Katherine, but just as readable.

The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory1443
What I'm reading at the moment, the second in Gregory's Cousin's War series looking at the Wars of the Roses from the point of view of the women who were not that behind the scenes as some histories would have. Margaret Beaufort has always been a bit of a hero of mine and this book told in typical Gregory style is a great romp.

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory1450
More mystical magical magical mystical in tone that The Red Queen, this book reminded me more of Gregory's earlier book 'The Wise Woman'-which I hated, if I'm honest. The story of Elizabeth Woodville, wife to Edward IV, who comes accross as deeply unlikeable and manipulative. A further book in this series, The Lady of the Rivers, focussing on Elizabeth's mother Jacquetta, is out in September. I'll bet you a tenner Margaret of Anjou is next.


There are several reasons I think that there are more books about the shitting Tudors than any other period in English history. Firstly, everyone studies then in school. Secondly, to be fair, a lot of stuff went down in the 1500s. Thirdly, these are the first monarchs we know a fair bit about. Printing had finally hit Europe properly, it was all kicking off on the continent because of it, and records were being kept. Oh, and who could resist such fascinating characters and times, and all in one family too?

There are THOUSANDS of books flooding the market about the Tudors at the moment. My favs though are

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel1520s/30s
Now I know a lot of people find the tense thing a little off putting but I loved this book. Thomas Cromwell, the most powerful of Henry VIII's advisers, and one of the earliest capitalists, is so well drawn you can't help but be swept into the intrigue and deception that the Tudor court is lined with.

The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory1540
Better than The Other Boleyn Girl in my opinion, this is the story of the downfall of Anne of Cleaves, surely one of the saddest moments for women in English history, and a confirmation that heteronormative misogyny really has always been there. In fact it's hard to find a historical novel in any way sympathetic to Henry VIII. I wonder why...

Sovereign by CJ Samson1542
My favourite in the Shardlake series (which I've ranted about too much to go into any sort of detail needless to say if you haven't read them by now you need to Have Words), covers the Pilgrimage of Grace (google it and be proud of my county)and it's affect on the North. Also shows the king in his later days, and the horror that was his relationship with Catherine Howard.

Now one thing I've never read is a really good historical novel about Lady Jane Grey, whose story deserves one. Any suggestions?

The Queen's Fool by Philippa Gregory1553
Have to admit I've only read the Reader's Digest abridged version of this book, but I loved the story and the protagonist Hannah, a Jewish refugee from Spain living as a fool in King Edward VI's and later Queen Mary I's household.

The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir1555
The early life of Queen Elizabeth I told in a fictional way by the queen of accessible history. I love Alison Weir and if you can read every thing she's ever done that would be great, thanks.

The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory1569
Actually, don't read this. This is tripe. Read the beyond excellent biography of Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser and the even more excellent biography of Bess of Hardwick by Mary Lovell.


After the excitement of the 1500s you'd be forgiven to think nothing else ever happened in England. There are thousands of really good historical novels about war and magic and romance and all of that, but I'll be honest, I've run out of steam. So a for veeeeery quick overview of the last four hundred years read...

The King's Daughter by Christie Dickason1605
It covers the Gunpowder Plot, what else do you need?

Forever Amber by Kathleen Windsor1665
Because it ain't a BookElf blog post unless I mention this book.

My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin1890
That I read last week. It's froth. But it's good froth. The ending nearly made me spit though.

Happy Reading!
BookElf xxx

The Winner of our Caption Contest is...

I made this: Unknown at 11:47 am 0 comments Links to this post
Dane Cross - with his hilarious entry below!!

"One more outburst like that, and so help me God I will break out the hoover."

Well done!!
That two tickets to the Hyde Park Picture House - when it suits you, to see what you fancy!!!

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Inspired by Cadfael...

I made this: BookElf at 6:05 pm 1 comments Links to this post
Back in the Mists of Time when I wanted to be a writer and smack myself on the forehead every morning I wrote the first three chapters of a book about a Charterhouse Monk living through the dissolution of the monasteries who falls in love with a farm laborer, has a breakdown, and drowns himself in a mill pond. The first chapter was entirely him describing a square of blue tile on the floor of the chapel where he spends a good 40% of his day in intricate, boring, detail. I was very young, so this terrible idea is excusable but still, my life long fascination with all things cloistered has not yet waned.

A couple of years ago I read a collection of stories about nuns called 'Unveiled: Nuns Talking' by Mary Louden. This fascination collection features nuns or various denominations from all over the UK and Ireland discussing their lives and their beliefs. It was upon reading this book that I decided to live my life according to rules dictated by what I believed in most strongly, in this way my entire life almost becomes a test. I'm not sure of the purpose behind this but it has certainly given me a lot more focus and drive and I can identify almost with women and men who have chosen to lives their lives to a rule; albeit a rule dictated by an organised religion rather than an individual (and therefore slightly more fluid) moral compass.

I think most of my love of monks and nuns comes from fiction. And yes, I'm looking at you, Cadfael. Ellis Peter's detective might not be the most historically accurate series in the world, but its lovely, and great, and easy to slip into. And the TV version stars Sir Derek Jacobi. I've just read The Summer of the Danes, which was brilliant stuff about the tribal wars in Northern Wales. A Morbid Taste for Bones I must have read about seventy times. Read them, read them now.

Other famous Books About Monks that I have loved have to include Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. The bit where they are discussing whether laughter is holy just blew me away. The fact I was in Italy at the time and visiting the Vatican the next day, well.

The dissolution of the monasteries in this country caused such huge social upheaval, arguably the biggest shift in societal norms not including war since the Black Death. Dissolution, the first in the Shardlake series, is so good, almost too good, if you haven't had me rant at you about them before bloody hurry up and get the lot and read them!

I currently dragging my way though the 10078 page epic that is Russka by Edward Rutherford (don't expect a review anytime soon, it is MAMMOTH) and have already learnt seventeen different things including that early Russian Orthodox monks would live in caves underground and mortify the flesh as a way of getting closer to God. Which is just amazing.

Basically, I'm just really into the idea of being a medieval nun. Sometimes I really do wish I'd been born seven hundred years ago, but of course, then I wouldn't be able to watch TV adaptations of Cadfael or eat canned soup. Oh well. Another dream dies.

Happy reading!
BookElf xxx

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

British Library goes Google!

I made this: Unknown at 12:44 pm 0 comments Links to this post
Google (specifically Google Books) has been joining forces with libraries around the world to digitise documents from the past, then making them available to the internet trawling public free of charge!

At the moment, approximately 40 libraries have agreed to take part. While that's exciting in and of itself - I'm particularly thrilled to hear about the most recently announced member of the team.  

The British Library - which holds a humongous collection of over 150 million items - will be digitising some 250000 documents from the 1700 - 1870 era.
It has been announced that a pamphlet about Marie Antoinette will be one of the first works to go online, alongside the 1858 plans by Spanish Inventor Narcis Monturiol for a submarine!

Apparently this will take some time, so nothing's available just yet, but I'll keep you posted. Google will be carrying the cost of the digitisation.

The Chief Executive of the library - Damy Lynne Brindley - sees this scheme as an extension of the original ambitions of the predecessor to the library in the 19th century - which was to make knowledge available to the masses. 

 The British Library collection contains books, journals, newspapers, magazines, stamps, sound & music recordings, patents, databases prints, photographs, drawings and manuscripts, amongst others. If this digitisation goes well, it could lead to other periods of history being similarly covered.

We're very fortunate here in Yorkshire to have one of the BL depot's at Boston Spa, but I for one relish the thought of being able to access these texts from my living room, with a nice cup of coffee, maybe some music on in the background...

This fits in nicely with Google Books stated goal of digitising every unique book by the end of the decade. Don't worry, that's only 129,864,880 books (according to wikipedia), with about 15 million already scanned!
Most of these are books that were out of print, or no longer commercially available. As noted in previous posts, Google Books have been criticised previously for operating a little fast and loose with regards to copyright infringement - particularly in the United States. It would appear that they have switched their focus - for the time being anyway - to older works.
Boston Spa - ain't it pretty?
 If you want an idea of what this *might* look like, check out The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online. OK, so it's a tenuous link, but it's a great website, and a wonderful way of making these works accessible!

"The way of doing it then was to buy books from the entire world and to make them available in reading rooms.

"We... believe that we are building on this proud tradition of giving access to anyone, anywhere and at any time.
"Our aim is to provide perpetual access to this historical material, and we hope that our collections coupled with Google's know-how will enable us to achieve this aim."

* * * * *
Libraries Table of Contents
* * * * *

Better than something entirely irrelevent, or your money back

I made this: BookElf at 10:52 am 1 comments Links to this post
I read a book last week. It was a good book, about a group of women who discover a secret after their friend dies and the drama that this discovery leads to lead the plot. The front cover was in pastels with some baby shoes on it. And a sticker, saying "As Good As Jodi Picoult Or Your Money Back...”

Firstly, who actually is going to do that? Who is going to go back into WHSmith or where ever as be like 'I have collated this collection of reviews from various sources, plus monitored my brainwaves and measured how much my palms sweated and my heart raced whilst reading this book, and then compared this data with my sweat level during my previous reading of 'The [Insert Tragic Device] [Insert Tragic Device]' and, you know what, Jodi was better. Where is my seven ninety nine?

Secondly, you can't say one book is better or worse than another book based entirely on reader's perception of it because we don't all think the same. Thirdly, since when has a sticker decided what's good?

And it's not just Tragedy Porn. Have you read an alright-crime book recently? Does the writer have an even slightly "foreign" sounding name? If it isn't Steig Larsson reincarnated, I hope you've demanded to see management. Even though The Millennium Trilogy is first off an exposure of misogyny and corruption within the establishment, and the 'crime' aspect of the books is merely one of the many layers of character and theme driven onion-plots, even basic detective drama is being compared with it.

And then there's Twishite. Wuthering Shites was completely repackaged to appeal to a Twishite audience. There were stickers on the books proclaiming this, this, is Bella's favourite book, as if somehow a boring two dimensional walk over of a character approving of a literary classic the other half of my year had to study for GCSE makes it a good book. I am actually quite disappointed that they didn't do "Better Than Twilight, or your money back" stickers on the re-release, as I would have loved to see the look on the fittie from Albion Street Waterstones' (one day, one day) face as I pointed out that actually, WH is pretty fucking rubbish, comparably speaking.

We're never going to have books that aren't compared with other books but this trend for dividing us up into genre that publishing houses are fixated on recently is pissing me off. I read a very wide range of books; I like to think (check out my shelf on goodreads. It’s disappointingly classic and sci-fi free at the moment. Actually looking its not very diverse at all OK DO AS I SAY NOT WHAT I DO, RIGHT?) But I do try to mix up the genres a little; it’s good for the soul.

So this month I'm going to do Opposite Covers Month. If I read a bright pink cover, then next must have a tortured werewolf on it. For every arty swirly beautifulness the next must have some sort of inflammatory heroine standing at the end of a cobbled street in the 30s. Only this way will I be Fighting The System, Ending The Sticker Wars, and going 'ha! See! I don't need to have my reading list dictated by your marketing policy!'...

...even though it probably still will.

Happy Reading!

Happy Summer Solstice!

I made this: Unknown at 10:13 am 0 comments Links to this post
So it's the longest day of the year.

Would a teeny bit of sunshine be too much to ask for!!!

Sunday, 19 June 2011

To skim or not to skim...

I made this: Unknown at 12:35 pm 0 comments Links to this post
Skim Reading - as defined by wikipedia. It might not be the most accurate 'pedia on the web, but it's most people's first port of call.
Skimming is a process of speed reading that involves visually searching the sentences of a page for clues to meaning. For some people, this comes naturally, and usually may not be acquired by practice. Skimming is usually seen more in adults than in children. It is conducted at a higher rate (700 words per minute and above) than normal reading for comprehension (around 200-230 wpm), and results in lower comprehension rates, especially with information-rich reading material.
Another form of skimming is that commonly employed by readers on the Web. This involves skipping over text that is less interesting or relevant. This form of reading is not new but has become increasingly prevalent due to the ease with which alternative information can be accessed online. Some of the sentences have minor information that might not be required.

So, a friend of mine recently 'read' three Jane Austen books in under three days. 
I was pretty impressed. I mean, I have a bit of speed reader reputation (totally undeserved - I just love/live to read and set aside time most people use for sleeping and eating!), but there is no way I could get through Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion in one sitting each.

The longer we spoke however, the more disquieted I became. My friend had somehow missed that Marianne and Elinor had a sister in Sense and Sensibility. She read Pride and Prejudice and didn't realise that 'Aunt' Gardiner was a family member, or that Wickham had grown up with the Darcy family. Persuasion was a 'soft love story', with no acknowledgement of the anguish or journey the principle characters went through.

My friend disregarded my concerns. She saw these details as...well, just details, and not necessary to her enjoyment of the stories. Course I then had to point out that she hadn't actually enjoyed the books, she thought that they were over-rated and 'chick lit - olden day stylee'. She's totally entitled to think that. No one has to like books just because I do. However, writing off an author and their books without having actually taken the time to read them properly really irritated me.
See, there is totally a place for skim reading. In my head, it's ideal for text books - finding that vital passage, seeking out one particular note amongst many others - or for books and pieces that you've already read in detail and are looking for a quick refresher.

For fiction though - I'm not sure it's the most appropriate approach to take. To appreciate a book, to really get the most out of it - I think that you need to be willing to sacrifice a little bit of time to it. Books are usually more nuanced and subtle then a skim read will allow. 

My mate is unlikely to read these Austen books again. They aren't her thing, and it's up to her whether or not she decides to give them another go. A few days after our chat though she did call me up and say that she was about to tackle Jane Eyre. She promised NOT to discuss it with me if she skims through it though, laughing that I take the whole reading thing waaaaay too seriously. 

Maybe she's right.

Though I can't say I see anything wrong with that!

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Hyde Park Picture House - they're book lovers too! Also - COMPETITION!!

I made this: Unknown at 12:51 pm 5 comments Links to this post
There is nothing better than finding like minded people from all around the world on twitter. Except, of course, finding like minded people based LOCALLY on twitter. And if they happen to be people or groups that I already admire and like - all the better!!!

The ever inviting Hyde Park Picture House
Discovering that the Hyde Park Picture House is a fellow book lover definitely hits that mark!

The Hyde Park Picture House - a small independent cinema, right in the heart of the student occupied Hyde Park - first opened during the Great War (that'd be WW1 to non-history lovers). Since then, it has provided a haven in Leeds - taking wars; talkies; economic downturns; television and home media in its stride.

Obviously, HPPH show movies - but they don't restrict themselves to the most recent blockbusters of the day - rather they try to highlight the best of the rest - be it indie, student or foreign films. Films rarely have a long run at the HPPH, rather they opt for a diverse range, providing actual options to cinema lovers, rather than the same thing 8 times a day for 6 weeks. Sorry...backing away from the rant now...

Anyhoo, last week, while plotting an upcoming post on book to film adaptations, it was pointed out to me that the HPPH have a bit of a literary tendency themselves - often showing adaptations that don't always get wide reaching UK releases!

And as they are such lovely friendly people, they've given us two tickets to give away!!

The Deets!!

Date: 27th of June 2011 at 6.30pm
Date: 28th of June 2011 at 8.30pm
Running Time: 82 minutes
Where: Hyde Park Picture House, LS6 1JD
Featuring the Vocal Talents of:
Lynn Redgrave (in her final role), Christopher Plummer and Isabella Rossellini

Based on the acclaimed memoir from 1956 by the late J.R. Ackerley, this is, at its essence, the story of a man and his dog.

An animated film written for adults, the 15 year relationship between pet and owner and the extraordinary friendship that exists between the species is explored in a touching and often humorous way.

Unusually, the film was shot utilising a number of different animation styles - including simple drawings, black and white sketches and illustrations and fully rendered scenes - taking two and a half years to complete.

It seems fitting that this film has been put together in a different way as J.R. Ackerley was a different sort of man. The son of a fruit merchant and actress, he early embraced his creativity.
His first visits to Europe were during his service in the first world war, where he sustained injuries at the Somme, before returning to duty whereupon he was taken as a prisoner of war in Switzerland! It was at this time that he began to seriously develop his play writing skills. During the same conflict, his brother died - an event which hugely impacted on the budding young author.
Later, under the guidance of E.M. Forster, he worked in India, developing views that coloured his expressive writing for the remainder of his life.
While working at the BBC, he is credited with discovering and promoting many young writers - including such notables as W.H. Auden, Philip Larkin and Francis King.
Openly homosexual, he delighted in confounding expectations -refusing to hide his true feelings on or off the page. Despite a wealth of friends, he was often lonely, relying on his pet dog for the comfort and love he seemed unable to find in one person. Indeed, he seemed to recognise himself that he drove most of his friends away to spend time with Queenie - renamed Tulip for the book and film.
He passed away in 1967 at the age of 70.

To be in with a chance to win two tickets to the HPPH - time and date to suit you - simply caption the following picture in the comments section below!

The winner will be announced next wednesday.

Best of luck to everyone!

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Endless Life of Pi

I made this: BookElf at 11:20 am 4 comments Links to this post

So last weekend I took the Travelling Suitcase Library to the LS6 Beer Festival, which was amazing. On the Saturday the lovely hosts Left Bank (you guys rock!) donated the rest of their World Book Night copies of Life of Pi and The Reluctant Fundamentalist to the Suitcase. Life of Pi is the gazillion copy best seller, Booker Prize Winner and general save-the-publishing-industry-er of 2001/02 which everyone was going on and on about for years when I was at Uni but to my shame I have never read.

So despite my TBR mountain being now over a thousand books high I nabbed myself a copy, thinking, hell, it's 300 pages and everyon loves it, I'll get this done in a couple of days! No worries!

A week later...

It's not that this is a bad book. Far from it. It's witty and laugh out loud funny in places. Imaginative and entertaining, the concept is genious and structurally it is sound.

It's just so endless. Here come the spoilers people....

....the first part set in the zoo was great, really enjoyed. Felt I learnt a lot about animals (though not as much as My Family and Other Animals which is about a billion times better) and the boy-with-a-thousand-religions thing was quite good. The writing style is extremly accessible, but makes you think you're being really clever at the same time (probably accounts for it's massive success, in that it's not that taxing, but looks like it is. Ooo did I just say that? What a cow bag).

Then the bit on the boat with the tiger. First thing that pissed me off. The Richard Parker gag. Oh ha ha ha how hilariously witty, to have a tiger with a human name. How inciteful and yet down to Earth this book actually is. I shall proudly display my reading of it on the tube, therefore indicating to others how marvellous and cultured I actually am.

Sorry but that's bollocks. Even if you did have a tiger called Richard Parker, you wouldn't constantly refer to him as Richard Parker unless you were one of those meeee intellectual types that reads a lot of William Burroughs and somehow makes them think they're better than me when in the real world they couldn't hold a conversation. And that is what pissed me off about this book. Pi. He's a dick. And being stranded for seven months somehow managed to turn him into even more of a dick.

AND the ending massively pissed me off. Is this the real story or just the preferred one you'd like to hear because YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH. Oh fuck off with your pop pyschology and give me a PLOT!!!!!

Basically, this is going straight back in the suitcase. I wish they would stop giving Bookers to books that flatter our minds into thinking they're cleverer than they actually are and instead award books that are actually good. "If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things" by Jon McGregor, one of the affecting books I've ever read, was on the Booker longlist in 2002. I'd recommend that over Life of Pi any day of the week.

If you want your brain to be questioned and turned in a billion ways, read some Umberto Eco, some Ayn Rand, even Roald Dahl has made me question my beliefs more than this book.

Sorry for pissing on something that has brought millions into reading for pleasure for often the first time-which is of course a Very Good Thing, but I thought it was bollocks.

Happy reading!
BookElf xxx

Man Booker

Book 3 - Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel - 2009 - Part 1

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Harry Potter - The End Is Nigh...

I made this: Unknown at 1:25 am 0 comments Links to this post

Well. I don't know about you, but I am just giddy with excitement about the final film in the Harry Potter series, to be released in Leeds on the 15th of July. Admittedly I was late getting into the books (primarily as my younger brother had acquired the first three as they came out and raved about them - it was a teenage sibling thing. Trust me. If you have one, you know exactly what I'm talking about. A classic 'slice your own nose off' situation!), the moment I opened Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone I was an addict. 

I did not read those books - I devoured them. And as soon as I had finished the (at this point) 4 books that had been released, I re-read them. Just because I had enjoyed them so much. 

Though it is probably only fair to point out that I actually do this quite a lot. Only with the very best of books though...obviously. 
His Dark Materials - that's a great one. 
The Eldarn Sequence - so very very detailed, a re-read was essential. 
The Princess Bride...hmm, that might be an example too far...

Meandering slowly back to the point; these stories provided me with a school series - set in a contemporary time frame - that could match the stories I had grown up reading and become entranced by. I don't mean those books that you like, but only read once. I mean those sets that you pore over again and again, till the pages become soft and shiny, until the characters are as familiar to you as family members.
As far as I am concerned the time line highlights for children's books looks a little something like this;

Oral Tradition

For a slightly more detailed timeline, check out this - History of Children's Literature or the ever un/reliable wikipedia

More articulate people than I have tried to analyse the source of Rowling's success. I can't tell you why these books - out of all on offer - have captured the imaginations of millions of children and adults around the world. All I can do is share with you some of my own reasons for loving these books. Now, there are so many characters, so integral to the plot, I'd be here till Thursday if I even attempted to list them all, or my thoughts on them. Instead, I'm going to cover my highlights!

The Set Up
It is by no means a new concept - that there are worlds within worlds, hidden by magical means (Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere just LEAPT into mind). Nevertheless, within three chapters of the first book, the world of Harry Potter vividly came to life for me. As Harry was also a stranger to the world meant that I was able to walk alongside him as he discovered his magical roots, Diagon Alley and Hogswarts. As he cast his first spell, I held my breath, and as Harry, Ron and Hermione began to explore, I allowed my imagination to run riot. 
There is a beautiful sense of balance and internal consistency within the series, but particularly in the initial four books. Each book expands upon the one before. The magic becomes more sophisticated, and the wizarding world is built up - layer on layer, in a way that ensures it never becomes twee. That Ron is there to explain magical structures, laws and culture as though it should be obvious to a child of three also manages to dilute any sense of the magic providing too easy an route. There ARE rules. Magic has it's own logic.

The Issues
Wrapped up in all the magic, and the wonderful wacky world of wizards, these books tackle some fairly weighty issues. Some - like the racism experienced by muggle-borns and the non-wizarding races - are fairly obvious in conception, but developed slowly and are brought to life over time. I saw HP2 in the cinema and saw teeny tiny little people react with shock when Ron explains why 'mudblood' is a bad word to an unaware Harry and Hermione. It was actually a pretty powerful moment, and certainly not something I was expecting to be generated from a children's book, without any obvious political agenda.

Others - such as the long term efforts of bad parenting - were employed far more subtly - with almost all of the primary players impacted upon greatly by their parents - Snape, Voldemort, Harry and Dumbledore. 
In the case of Dudley, it was explicitly stated by more than one character that his parents were ruining him. We, the reader, feel no sympathy for him. Dudley is one of the least appealing characters in the series. Until the final book, we have no inkling that Dudley is actually a person in his own right, developing ideas outside of those his parents approve of. 
Malfoy is another boy, moulded - some could say victimised even - by his home environment. This spiteful, vindictive and foul mouthed little boy is actually the closest to Harry's in terms of character, ability and determination. In a way, Malfoy is to Harry as Iago is to Othello. Unlike Iago, Malfoy is provided with many opportunities to redeem himself and grow. And, I can only speak for myself here, I really wanted him to do so. I wanted for it to explicitly possible within this world for a person to change their path, break with their family patterns. I wanted Malfoy to be Sirius.

Oh yeah, other little things like reincarnation, violence against children (becoming more sexualised after the introduction of the vile Greyback), poverty, class distinctions, good versus evil, truth vs lies, trust, hope and most of all LOVE also feature. The little things in life, you know?

The Baddies
I think it goes back to watching all those shockingly bad daytime war and alien flicks as a kid, but I always feel a bit sorry for the bad guys. My favourite bad guys are the ones juuust past the point of redemption. The ones that you half hope will end up on the winning side - even if they are not the victors. 

Interestingly, the baddies are not always the ones on the opposite side of a wand. Sure Quirrel tries to kill Harry, but he's never considered the 'big bad', just a means to an end. Similarly, Tom Riddle is the one doing the possessing, but it's more satisfying when Harry realises that it was Lucius that provided the tools for him to do so. Sirius Black, the Darth Vader of Death Eaters couldn't have been more of a baddie when he first appeared. And sure, we all know how that turned out! Next up was Barty Crouch - who barely qualifies as a baddie as no one but Winky knows who he really is. Fudge, the ministry, the adults. They aren't baddies as much as obstacles to be overcome. 

From the first book, Rowling provides some of the best, and most three dimensional baddies in children's literature. And they are *evil*. The first time we hear of Voldemort, we learn that he orphaned Harry. Accidentally. He wasn't even trying to kill Lily and James, the one year old was his actual target. Nothing fuzzy wuzzy about a baddie who tries to kill infants. That's just cold. 

 Malfoy is Harry's on the spot arch-nemesis and in a weird way, the Death Eaters barometer. His responses are all reflections of his father. Harry never really recognises Malfoy as a threat to him, despite his obsession with Draco. I have read that the author has been concerned that young teens fancy Malfoy, one of the villains of the piece. That the actors attractiveness has taken from his characters true darkness. Hmmm, I'm not so sure about that. I'm fairly certain that those teenagers are more than capable of recognising that he's a nasty piece of work, and still liking him. Like I said above, it's the redemptive possibilities that attract certain people. And, not to disparage my gender, sometimes you have to like the not-just-wrong-but-actually-awful guy to realise that you'll never do that again!

One of my pet hates is Dolores Umbridge. Cruella de Vil and no mistake. Her worst crimes are not the obvious - she lies, cheats, steals, tortures, and delights in her blood 'superiority'. Oh but she does worse than that. She becomes a teacher and betrays her charges over and over again. Her vicious behaviour has the same impact on Harry as real life bad teachers have on students daily. He never quite trusts 'grown ups' again. She forces the real world - which can be magical but also monstrous at times - onto a young person, with no thought as to how he would react. In later books, Harry holds up the scar that she gives him as reason enough for him to distrust the Ministry and is either treated with derision or the brusque awareness that the damage Umbridge caused can never be apologised for. I still haven't decided to my own satisfaction which.

Course, there are actually only two really baddies throughout the series -Voldemort and Severus Snape. For the first four books, Voldemort is trapped between planes of existence, while Snape seems to be obnoxious, yet on the side of the light. For the final books Snape has been exposed as the conniving, backstabbing liar that Harry had always been convinced of. I was FURIOUS. Snape was everyones favourite character. He had such layers to him that we had all been convinced that he would save the day. His betrayal, and true revelation to Harry happen so quickly first in book 6, then again in 7, that they don't seem to impact for a moment. When it hit me, I was so impressed. I wasn't shocked, though by that late point in the book I couldn't see how Rowling was going to manage it, but I'd no idea how well planted her plan had been. As soon as you process his story, all his actions make perfect sense. And it's awful. And it's perfect. And while the books may be called Harry Potter, it's Snape's story that compelled me.
Snape - ever the protector

 The Goodies
So how do the good guys compare? The primary protagonists are not heroes. Not really. Not because they are merely children but because most of the time, they are terrified, ignorant of the true situation or over-confident. Sometimes all three at once. They fall out with each other, keep secrets, fail time and time again to see what it really happening around them and let each other down repeatedly. At no point do they ever really feel like anything will work out for them. 
Whew! It's the believability that makes it work. From the Weasley's - the friendliest family that you could hope to meet, to Hagrid the half breed, Lupin the werewolf, Sirius the reckless criminal and Dumbledore the keeper of the secrets - all Harry's allies are flawed in one way or another.  Nevertheless, this is still a tricky section to write. While the baddies are all very descriptive, the goodies are more reactive. Unfortunately, I think that the books do the goodies far more justice than the films. In the films, all the details of the past are crammed into quick flashbacks. In the books half the time it feels like good deeds are performed out of a sense of obligation to the past, rather than to actually defeat Voldemort, or assist Harry. 

Dumbledore plays such a large role throughout the series - it's surprising how little he is actually seen in the books. Certainly, he features in a far more honest way after his death than he did while actually trying to prepare Harry for his destiny. He's a great character. All knowing, all powerful, and still human, down to Earth and humble. Despite it being signposted from the very start that Harry - the main character - was destined to fight Voldemort, I still felt a little cheated that Dumbledore had played the man behind the curtain rather than the defender of the people. Even the duel that is mentioned is never detailed. One good fight scene. Clearly too much to ask. Then again, I should be careful. Seeing Yoda fight after wishing for it for so long was a disappointment I can't really put into words. 

Lupin was always going to die. His character - so noble and honourable - was the most stereotypical to me. Don't get me wrong. I love they way he is truly on Harry's side. I love how he is never afraid to be honest with him, and that he insists on the three learning how to think for themselves. He trusts them. 
So doomed. In OOTP, I had been sure that he was going to bite the bullet. That I had it so badly wrong made the actual character death that bit harder to bare. His relationship with Dora, mirroring that of Bill and Fleur, plays out in the background, but none the less has impact. As awful as the war with the Death Eaters on, it was important for Rowling not to lose the bigger picture; these touches are so effective at demonstrating how the world continues turning, no matter the danger. In the final book, reading about the love stories and Ginny, Neville and Luna at Hogworts was vital for providing the reader with perspective. As a device, that it is obvious rendered it no less effective. 

My favourtie goodie has to be Neville. Who'd'a thunk he'd turn out to be so important? Seriously, he was part of the gang by book 4, but I didn't really expect him to turn out to be so pivotal in so many way. In retrospect, it's so obvious. He was johnny-on-the-spot in every book. It's a sign of the fluidity of the writing that at no point did he feel jack hammered into the story. Well, maybe a little bit in Chamber of Secrets, but the moment he tries to stop them, the impression fades. 
Neville is also my favourite because I think that he grows so much throughout the books. His general uselessness is so embedded from the outset, that I gave a little whoop for joy when he finally managed to disarm Hermione (even by accident) during the DA training. As his confidence grew, so slowly, so little at a time, I became very fond of him. Reading about him facing Bellatrix was awesome, especially having seen what she had done to his parents. 

The main three are a delight to read. At one point or another, I became so vexed with each of them, I was sure that I'd never warm to them again. Hermione is such a little swot, and so self righteous at times. Even though she's almost never wrong, there are times that you just wish for her to make a total fool of herself. Harry becomes quite the little introspective snappy whinger in his fifth year, and his inability to trust really grates in place. Ron can be insensitive and occasionally cruel. He is quite selfish, and set in his ways. He's quick to judge, a tad resentful and has a chip on his shoulder. 
Course they also learn. Hermione has that whole thing with the polyjuice potion and cat hair, and it becomes funny that she can remember every time that Harry received a higher grade than her. Harry cares so much. It can be irritating, but weren't we all a bit like that as teenagers? Convinced that every decision was the END OF THE WORLD. And of course, it always was. Ron struggles with loyalty time and again in the books. His stubbornness prevents him from backing down, even when it's obvious he knows he's in the wrong. He can't seem to speak to Hermione in the later stages without seeming like a bit of a misogynist git. And he knows it. It's brilliant. They might be magical, but they go through the same melodramatic nonsense as the rest of us!

The Fans or The Millions Who Now Know Reading Can Be Fun 
Finally - the fandom. Like those that centre around my personal TV Deity Joss Whedon - HP fans are friendly, open-minded (for the most part - for both fandoms here!) and inclusive. Whether you are a 5 year old school child, a 50 year old academic or a 150 year old wizard in hiding, you are welcome to join in the fun. 

Sure, the Krusty the Clown -style merchandising is now light years beyond over the top - from bedsheets, to toys, to wallpaper and everything in between. It's annoying and must be horrific for parents with excitable and demanding children, but I would argue that this is hardly new. 
I grant you, the scale of this commercialism is grotesque. Fair to say, most blockbuster books don't offer quite as fertile fodder for cheap plastic reproduction as this one does. However, on the film front - I'm not even going to go into it - two words - star and wars. People are still collecting original editions of merch. And then there was Jar-Jar - an attempt to appeal to 'those young people' so obvious it was painful for most viewers whether young or old.

Moving on...

You can't even think about Harry Potter - if you are me - and not immediately think of the many fantabulistic rip off's, homages and fan vids on youtube. There are far too many great ones to list, but a few of my personal favourite include:
A Very Potter Musical - feat Blaine from GLEE
Potter Puppet Pals - The Mysterious Ticking Noise - beware the addictive nature of the song!
Potter Puppet Pals - The Deathly Hallows - can't...type...laughing...toooo...much... Ahem, also very and detailed  spoilerific, so viewer beware!
Shipper Vid - Ron and Hermione - not the best syncing in the world, but so sweet.

My Scores for the Books:
HP and the Philosopher's Stone    - 7/10
HP and the Chamber of Secrets - 6/10
HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban - 10/10
HP and the Goblet of Fire         - 8/10
HP and the Order of the Phoenix - 5/10 EDITOR! Where was an editor?!?!
HP and the Half Blood Prince    - 10/10
HP and the Deathly Hallows      - 10/10
Harry Potter Books

And for the films:
HP and the Philosopher's Stone - 6/10
HP and the Chamber of Secrets - 6/10
HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban - 10/10
HP and the Goblet of Fire - 8/10
HP and the Order of the Phoenix - 6/10
HP and the Half Blood Prince - 9/10
HP and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 - 6.5/10
HP and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 -  ?????

Harry Potter DVD

The end of an era - Trailer for the final film:

And for no reason at all.

Friday, 3 June 2011


I made this: Unknown at 10:06 am 0 comments Links to this post
Yup - what can I say...I'm a sucker for a colourful social networking site!

As of last night, t'club is now also to be found on Tumblr - a sort of mini-blog-maxi-twitter site place. Tis fun. Also very silly a great deal of the time!

Looking forward to seeing what's catching your eye/ear/various other senses there soon!

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Music To Read Books By

I made this: Unknown at 6:43 pm 2 comments Links to this post
On those rare occasions when I have an evening set aside to just immerse myself in a good book, I find myself choosing particular music to accompany me. Often the album du jour just won't do. Certain albums do more than just 'set the mood', they sort of blend with the book involved, often with the two becoming indelibly linked.

Music - when reading is involved - shouldn't be distracting. It shouldn't be overpowering. No matter how good the artist or song, the music must be a secondary consideration. Good music has the capacity to enthrall or enhance, depending on the situation. There's nothing worse than being dragged back to the real world because the musical mood has shifted from perfect to awful in under three seconds.

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to listening to read-along music. How could there be, when listening to music is so personal an experience? A mate I know will only read to classical music. Another won't listen to music at all, to avoid any external associations or influences. I had one teacher who couldn't understand how anyone could read while listening to music with lyrics. 'The stories clash. The. Stories. Clash' was her increasingly loud and occasionally shrill assessment, though non-lyrical pieces were fine.

Me? While I am interested by the debate, I don't really have a stance on it. I don't care if it's classical, pop, rock, folk, punk, rap, country, bluegrass, folky-rock, gothy-pop, folky punk as long as it suits my mood and the world I'm occupying at that moment in time. I was shocked to discover that Green Day provided good Austen soundtrack (seriously, listen to Basket case while Marianne is having her whole 'woe is me, I'm the only person in the world who feels anything in the whole wide world' whinge or Good Riddance during Persuasion when the Captain leaves Anne at the beginning) or that American Gods could be best read while listening to Emmy Lou Harris! Or that country and scifi go hand in hand for me...since Firefly...
Taste is a weird and wonderful mystery!
It's just as funny how some music doesn't work along side the written word. Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan are amazing song writer story tellers. Perhaps it is this very descriptive narrative structure that puts me off reading alongside them. Even on the bus, if I shuffle to a track by either of these gents, I end up staring out the window rather then reading for the duration. Kimya Dawson too now I think of it (which is additionally odd, as I CAN read throughout the Juno soundtrack!). Radiohead, despite being a terrific band, don't take on other emotional characteristics in my experience than the music offers. I'm more likely to view the book through Radiohead "headphones", than I am to alter my initial perceptions and responses to the music.
And moods do change, so what was appropriate yesterday, might not be tomorrow.
Below I've included some general music that I think enhances a reading trance  session. On ones with an especial emotional connection, I provide a little more detail.

Initially introduced to this French duo via the 10 Things I Hate About You soundtrack. Providing perfectly etherial and magical mood music, Air manage to be both haunting in places, and artificially cheerful in others. 

I enjoy listening to this when I'm reading deep and serious books - in fact, I've pulled this album out for two #BookerChallenge reads recently.

For the Birds Anything by - The Frames
Glen Hansard is one of those guys who was pretty great on a guitar as a kid, but some 20 years of solid writing, preforming and rocking later - is a LEGEND now! 

You might know him as Outspan from the Commitments (but for the love of God don't tell him! Apparently he has decided that role was a mistake - distracting him from music), or as the incredible lead singer for the Frames, as half of The Swell Sessions, or as that busker from Once - which won an Oscar for the song he wrote and sang! 
He was also featured on The Simpsons!

Any album for any book. No, seriously. That's how amazing I think the Frames are.

Though I had heard bits and pieces before, I really became addicted to this band during my Leaving Certificate examinations (A Level equivalents). We had a perfect routine for those most exhausting and stressful of weeks while exams were being sat. After each one, my mum would pick me up from the school, pop the cassette in (though Hole wouldn't exactly be my Leonard Cohen loving parent's first choice), and give me a few moments to relax before asking how the day had been. By the 4th song, we'd both be singing along, and heaps more relaxed.

Hole are such a divisive group. So many times, I've had a song on in the background which someone likes, till they realise who it is. Courtney Love's larger than life personality and her apparent inability to avoid both drama and tragedy overpowers her music. The controversies that roll off her like water off a duck leave people with strong opinions one way or another, with Hole - the group - often baring the brunt.
Live Through This is the better grunge album (heck, I'm a fan, and I'm convinced that's as it was mostly written by Kurt Cobain), and demonstrates a group growing confident as to their place in their world, unafraid to tackle the big and the awful. Celebrity Skin - Hole's final* album -  is more slickly produced, definitely angled to a more mainstream audience, and possibly over polished (cough...Nevermind

With the exams behind me, I started reading practically anything I could lay my hands on. After months of complete and total fixation on tests, I NEEDED some fiction. Returning to an old favourite, I re-read the Pegasus series by Anne McCaffrey (To Ride Pegasus, Pegasus in Flight and Pegasus in Space - precursors to her better known Rowan series). These three books chart the rise and rise of Talents - people who evolve powers and abilities none can explain. First read when I was about 14years of age, the themes of alienation, difference and hope still inspire reflection in me. Besides, her works were among the first SF that I found for myself as a youngling, so I will always have a soft spot in my heart, and space on my bookshelf for these.
As the first book consists of short stories, the fast pace of the songs fits with the tone. And as each story and subsequent book packs as much exploration of humanity and expectations for those with differing abilities as it can, the songs provide a pulsating soundtrack that just works for me! Where possible, I play Doll Parts as I start each book, and Miss World as I finish. There is a story in the first of the books 'A Bridle for Pegasus' that just fits Asking for it to a t!

*Nobody's Daughter was released in 2010 and features none of the original band members but Courtney Love. So, technically a Hole album...but not really... if you know what I mean...

I was actually in two minds about including this album, as it has become linked in my mind with the passing of my grandmother. Around that time, I had been reading The Diary of Anne Frank for the 27500th time. The tragedy I was experiencing; coupled with the book and the premature death of such a talented musician; somehow brought me a sense of perspective and not a little peace. And although I can never interact with either without the association of these past events, the passage of time has only heightened my appreciation. 

Jeff Buckley had an astounding range vocally, and was in total control of his instrument. A perfectionist, he hated to release anything without feeling that it was as close to the best as it could be. I think that this intensity shines through in every track. Although I think his (to my mind definitive) version of Hallelujah is hailed near universally, it is Last Goodbye that I time with certain books. That song has the depth and capacity to leave me howling in despair, or ready to face the world anew, depending on what else is happening around me.

I can't possibly do justice to The Diary of Anne Frank and the three versions released during my lifetime alone in this piece. Suffice to say, I have loved this book for two thirds of my life. It will never be irrelevant to me. 

Anne and her family are real, living, breathing people between these pages, and a moment in time - albeit one of the worst humanity has ever inflicted upon itself - is captured and described in evocative and universal terms. Anne was an extraordinary writer, living in extraordinary times. I - like everyone else who has read this diary - can't help but wonder what she might have achieved had she lived. 

The only downside to mentioning it here, is that I now really want to read it again. I have to stop doing this to myself!

Right, this post ended up being longer than expected, so I shall draw to a close now. Please let me know what you're thinking by sharing your thoughts with us in the comments section, or on twitter.

The Twitteratti speak
On twitter, the following albums/artists have been recommended to read along to:
Regina Spektor - in the bath with a glass of wine (clearly, @Carrie_l_hall is a soul sister of mine)

Zero 7 - The Garden was the offering of @Zoe28, who must be both cool and mellow, if music tastes are any indication!

Belle & Sebastian - Put the book back on the shelf (don't agree with the sentiment but the music is lovely, as suggested by @SimonRowbotham!)

Sugar - Copper Blue - used by @NickRowan27 as a revision tool. After all, an album can't distract when you know it inside and out!!

Moby - Play - provided @SaraTeresaPhoto with her studying soundtrack at university, and she still experiences french conjugation flashbacks when she hears any of the tracks! This actually makes her lucky. Everytime I hear Moby, an advert appears in my head :(

On the other hand, book clubbers @MonkeySon and @Meulop prefer lyric-less music, or nowt at all, to avoid distracting them from their books!


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