Sunday, 31 July 2011

Bookworm News: July 2011

Caine Prize for African Writing
In a celebration of global literature, the £10,000 Caine Prize for African Writing was awarded at the beginning of July to NoViolet Bulawayo's short story "Hitting Budapest". Currently a Truman Capote Fellow at Cornell University, the author normally operates under the name of Elizabeth Tshele; the chair of judges dubbed her story "reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange".

Forward Prize for Poetry shortlist
Another £10,000 prize (it really seems to be a magic number) announced its shortlist in mid-July - the Forward Prize for Poetry. As well as including well-known names such as Michael Longley, it also includes poetry by Rachael Boast and John Whale. Winners will be announced in October on the eve of National Poetry Day.
Movie: Sarah's Key
Ahead of its European and UK release on DVD this year, Sarah's Key has just been released on the silver screen in the US. Based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, it stars Kristin Scott Thomas as the American journalist who makes an awful and historic discovery about the apartment where she is staying with her daughter. Having enjoyed the book, but not yet seen the movie, I can only hope that the latter does the former justice.

Free audiobook
The Guardian, in conjunction with, is offering a free ebook with a 30-day free trial of Audible. You can choose any book from their 50,000-strong catalogue, and even if you don't choose to continue the £8-a-month subscription, you get to keep the book. Books can be downloaded in minutes and enjoyed on a range of MP3 players, phones, and Amazon Kindles. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy. Happy listening!

Closure of Borders
Mega book chain Borders is the latest firm to bite the dust mid-recession, unable to compete with supermarkets, budget book stores, and online retailers. Normally I wouldn't be so concerned - it's bound to happen in pressing economic times. However, this leaves the US with only one major book chain - Barnes and Noble. Don't readers deserve a little more choice than that? I'm hoping that American readers will choose to vote with their feet, allowing independent bookshops to flourish.

Free ebooks for A Level students
Supported by over 90% of teachers, a new scheme will be implemented as of September to provide free resources to A Level students. Exam board OCR has teamed up with the Oxford University Press to provide free e-copies of resources, available to all schools teaching A Level curricula. The free eBooks will be available in a wide range of subjects including Maths, English, Languages, History, RE, Physics, Law, PE, Business Studies, ICT, Psychology and many more. Commenting on the scheme, David Igoe, Sixth Form Colleges Forum Chief Executive said: “By working together, OCR and the publishers have shown their understanding of the needs of teachers and students, particularly in challenging economic times.”  Further details of the scheme and demos of the eBooks are available at

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Bookish Bits & Bobs: Do Nothing But Read Day

I'm aware that this is my second Bookish Bits and Bobs column of the month, but please bear with me. I'm on volume 5 of In Search Of Lost Time and everything.

Last year, as you are probably well aware if you've been reading this blog for a while, I discovered NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Although it was tough, it was creatively and personally liberating to be able to magic up a workable draft from nothing in 30 days. All-consuming? Yes. But worth it? Undoubtedly. 

This year, it appears I've stumbled across another equally tantalising concept: Do Nothing But Read Day, which was inaugurated in 2009 and whose 2011 event is taking place on August 6th.

At this point, I can imagine quite a few people who, unlike myself, aren't also addicted to the internet, television, cooking etc., looking down their noses at me and saying "But isn't every day Do Nothing But Read Day?"

Well, yes, maybe...if you are like certain colleagues of mine (who shall remain nameless) who deem checking their work email 'too stressful', live off yoghurt and have a country house to bog off to for the two-month summer holiday with no internet, TV or phones.

But for the rest of us, this can be taken as a positive opportunity, whether you're currently struggling through Proust (me) or...actually, I was looking for a suitable counterexample, but then I remembered I generally don't associate with people who don't read much. Not out of choice anyway. But you get my drift: this is open to ALL, and as the link above states, there are only two rules - 1) Read and 2) Have fun! It doesn't matter what you read - we all have to start somewhere, and if it gets you onto better things, so much the better.

My first reaction was "Wow! That sounds so cool! I'd love to do that." Then I started thinking about all of the reasons why I couldn't do it. It's a Saturday. I like to spend time with my husband on a Saturday. We like to go for walks in the park or visit museums on a Saturday. It will also be our last Saturday before my sister comes to stay for a week.

But then I remembered that it's this kind of attitude that has got in my way throughout my life. Walls are there to stop those who can't really be arsed. We all (myself especially) need to stop thinking of reasons why we can't and start thinking of reasons to say yes. There will always be more Saturdays (and besides, I don't expect the founder of Do Nothing But Read Day begrudges a person a break in the form of a walk in the park.)

So that's why next Saturday you'll find me holed up inside, or basking in sunshine outside (we can all hope...) as I continue my voyage through the world of Proust. That's why I just filled out the sign-up form. And that's why I reminded myself of my first reaction upon hearing about this event; we are not put on this earth, presumably, to loaf around watching episode after episode of Deal or No Deal (damn, I love that show). Will Do Nothing But Read Day be all-consuming? Yes. But worth it? Undoubtedly.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Bookish Bits & Bobs: Going Digital (2)

To begin with, I am just a little bit appalled that I have not written any Bookish Bits & Bobs columns since my post about NaNoWriMo at the end of 2010. Does 'oops' adequately cover the situation?
Anyways, it's back, and reflecting on my 2009 post on 'going digital', I feel that the fast-moving nature of technology means that here in 2011 there is already a great deal more to add. In 2009, of course, we were in pre-iPad territory. Despite my slightly derisory comments about ebook readers in my original post, I probably already wanted one just a little bit then, and it's definitely growing on me now (for reasons that I will return to shortly). However, I have a second problem: I really really really also want an iPad. Or a Galaxy Tab. Or anything that will do what I want it to do (again, see below).

The reason I would like an ebook reader is because I frankly have silly amounts of physical books, and am beginning to realise the limitations of realising my 400-strong Amazon wishlist. Having an ebook reader would enable me to solve this problem, as I could purchase books to my heart's content (staying within the limits of my bank balance, natch) and not worry about where to put them or have the heart-wrenching feeling of selling them. The question is which one: do I get a Kindle, and potentially only be restricted to books from Amazon, or do I go for another brand, such as the Bookeen or an ebook reader by Sony, which may provide greater flexibility?

This is all in spite of the fact that I am well aware of the flaws in epublishing; I am somewhat consoled by the fact that the ebook market is unlikely to completely supersede the real book market until these kinks have been ironed out. In my review of An Odd Boy, by Doc Togden, I point out some of these issues.

My reasons for wanting an iPad are arguably more superficial: let's face it, they are just so damn cool. However, they are also expensive, so I would be equally willing to consider a Galaxy Tab or another type of tablet (even if it would be a bit of a wrench). My main motivation would be to get newspaper and magazine subscriptions on them - again, to combat the question of space. Ebook readers seem more portable, but it only seems natural to want to read newspapers and magazines on a bigger screen, even if it seems absurd to have two separate gadgets for two quite similar purposes. 

In either case, before making such a purchase there are concerns. How long before such a gadget becomes dated? How long will it last before breaking? And, indeed, particularly in the case of something like an iPad where an ongoing subscription fee is required, are there not better ways to spend money? (I was doing quite nicely saving up for a holiday in America, Australia or Japan for myself and my husband until the tax man took it all away again.)

Sensible me is saying that it may be best to hang on for a year or two more so that I can do the travelling I want to do, perhaps purchasing these gadgets in future when I am tied to the home with children. But then impulsive me says that these gadgets aren't getting any cheaper, and that frankly, the space situation is pretty desperate now (we literally wedge books and magazines into any available nook and cranny). 

In all likelihood, I will end up purchasing an ebook reader in the near future and allowing the iPad to remain a distant dream for now. All of this may seem shallow, but given the increasing digitisation of our world, it may soon move from being a somewhat superficial and unreachable desire to being an integral and affordable part of life - ideally, happily coexisting with the written word on paper.

Monday, 11 July 2011

A Spot of Bother (Mark Haddon)

--The blurb--
"At fifty-seven, George is settling down to a comfortable retirement, building a shed in his garden, reading historical novels, listening to a bit of light jazz. Then Katie, his unpredictable daughter, announces that she is getting remarried, to Ray. Her family is not pleased - as her brother Jamie observes, Ray has 'strangler's hands'. Katie can't decide if she loves Ray, or loves the way he cares for her son Jacob, and her mother Jean is a bit put out by the way the wedding planning gets in the way of her affair with one of her husband's former colleagues. And the tidy and pleasant life Jamie has created crumbles when he fails to invite his lover, Tony, to the dreaded nuptials. Unnoticed in the uproar, George discovers a sinister lesion on his hip, and quietly begins to lose his mind."

--The review--
In trying to write about mental illness, authors arguably set themselves up for an insurmountable task. If they have experienced mental illness themselves they can risk seeming mawkish and narcissistic; if they have not, they risk their portrayal seeming trite or unrealistic. Happily, Haddon seems to have struck a good balance: the speed at which George descends into madness, and the reason for it, appears, you could say to be superficial, silly, or unbelievable. However, the descriptions of George's madness once he is there, and the actions borne of this madness, are so apparently realistic and at times even so gruesome that we are compelled to read on, completely taken in, while at the same time, almost wanting to shut our eyes and skip a few pages and be told when the scary part's over.

The beauty of Haddon's second novel, though, does not just stem from his descriptions of George's mental state - he is only part of his family's unravelling and hapless mess. What all of the conflicts in the book come down to is a total lack of communication between all concerned; predictably, it all erupts in comic style. Even though we know it will all end badly, we carry on reading for the pleasure of Haddon's brilliantly-constructed dénouement. It is a complex narrative that the author does well to bring together, and its gripping nature and deftly-sketched characters mean that you can easily read the whole thing straight through in two or three hours. It also all ends in a very modest and British fashion, with the hero and heroine eating sandwiches and sipping tea in front of the telly and with an "all's well that end's well" kind of feel, like soap opera characters coming to the end of yet another crazy adventure.

While 'A Spot of Bother' is not laugh-out-loud funny, this is recognised by critics and, in any case, is never something the book claims to be - although in televisual format it could have the potential to be so due to comic timing and delivery. However, it is darkly and drily humorous, with Haddon's similes in particular being master strokes that yes, even cause genuine laughter out loud on occasion.

The author's debut, the highly feted Curious Incident, set the bar almost unbearably high. Thankfully, in 'A Spot of Bother' Haddon has possibly not only met but also exceeded expectations, but in an equally different and original way. It appears that Haddon chooses to concentrate mainly on children's literature, and while this is a blessing for our young inheritors, it is rather a shame for us. I do rather hope that the five years that have elapsed since the publication of 'A Spot of Bother' could soon herald a new and much-anticipated volume for adults.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Holes (Louis Sachar)

--The blurb--
"Stanley Yelnats is sentenced to dig holes at Camp Green Lake detention centre for stealing a pair of trainers. Stanley's quest to discover what he is digging for leads to danger and adventure and to a confrontation with his family's past."

--The review--
The absurd premise of the theft of a pair of trainers - not to mention the mysterious holes that Stanley and his fellow "campers" are forced to dig at what must be the worst camp ever - serve as an intriguing narrative hook before you've even turned back the cover. Expectations are therefore high, and yet Sachar manages to fulfil them through the story of the possibly the unluckiest literary hero in history. 

The story's modern anti-hero, Stanley Yelnats, and his various co-campers, paint a slightly 'emo' and sardonic picture that still remains humorous, and which in conjunction with the wacky events that follow, help to turn teenage readers onto the quirkier side of literature while still keeping real aspects of the characters that readers can relate to, in much the same way as Paula Danziger's books do. As well as the zany "what-ifs" that Stanley's situation generates, the narrative is cut through by tales of his family's past, as well as those of notorious outlaws and of the old lake's infamous and mysterious past. Initially these seem disconnected and we wonder where the author is going with this, but it is not long before he ties them up in superb and deft style. All of these narrative threads have the common aim, too, of Stanley eventually being able to better himself, meaning that the novella is not only a journey of justice and family history but Stanley's personal journey of self-esteem and self-confidence. 

And by putting it like that, I've just made it sound a lot more American and schmaltzy than it actually is. In fact, it is gutsy and daring, with the characters proving imperfect but nonetheless likeable, rendered even more so by the classic young-adult-fiction trick of pitting the put-upon children against evil and malevolent adults (a turn employed by Roald Dahl, among other eminent children's authors). In triumphing against them, particularly when set against the earlier grim backdrop of the story's setting, we too feel Stanley's new-found sense of self-belief and ambition. We are convinced of his spirit and tenacity to a far greater degree than at the start of the book, when he seems to really be at the bottom of the pile. 

As a result, it seems very appropriate for the author to tell us at the end of the book that 'we have to fill in the holes ourselves' and that perhaps not all of what Stanley is digging for is fully related in Holes. It is from this that we also learn about ourselves as we read, and it is perhaps because of this that we feel so heartened to discover that Holes is followed up by two further volumes.

Other works by Louis Sachar
Sideways Stories from Wayside School series (5 titles; 1978-1995)
Marvin Redpost series (8 titles; 1992-2000)
Stanley Yelnats' Survival Guide to Camp Green Lake (2003; second in the Holes series)
Small Steps (2006; third in the Holes series)
Johnny's in the Basement (1981)
Someday Angeline (1983)
Sixth Grade Secrets (1987)
There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom (1988)
The Boy Who Lost His Face (1989)
Dogs Don't Tell Jokes (1991)
Monkey Soup (1992)
The Cardturner (2010)