Writers in their own words: C. S Lewis on books

c s lewisWriting of his early years C. Lewis reflected on the importance books played in his childhood.
“I am a product of … of endless books. My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient state of my parents’ interest, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass.” (C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy 1965)
While we only had a fraction of  that number of volumes in my own home, books were a key part of my childhood too though mostly obtained by weekly visits to the local library. You could say I am a product of dusty shelves and wooden floors, of sunlit corners and dark secret recesses, of clunking radiators and tiny cardboard tickets.

Crime at the heart of the Tudor court

When you see the name of King Henry VIII, what’s the image that comes to your mind? One in which the monarch has the physique and appearance of a model (as portrayed by Jonathan Rhys in the TV series The Tudors)?


Or one of an athletic king with steely eyes as played by Damien Lewis in the BBC television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall?


Or the way that Henry himself wanted to be portrayed; A man of authority who, even when he’s not kitted out in full royal regalia exudes power. One of the most famous of contemporary portraits shows him directly facing the viewer, legs firmly planted apart and arms akimbo to emphasise his powerful physique. The message is clear: don’t even think of messing around with me. Henry 8 g

In C.J Sansom’s historical series featuring a ‘detective’ lawyer, Shardlake, the man of law has learned over the years to fear his encounters with the King and the powerful men who surround him. Lamentation,  the latest episode in the series sees Shardlake once again become embroiled in the kind of political intrigue that could easily cost him his head. This time it’s the King’s wife Katherine who needs his help when a book of spiritual reflections she has written is stolen from her bedroom. In the religious turmoil of the 1540s, this book could incite even further discord in the land if it is published.  Katherine’s own safety as risk. For the King;s own wife to write such a text without his knowledge could be considered as treason. Shardlake has a soft spot for the queen so accepts her plea to find the book before the King discovers what’s happened.

What ensues is a romp around London, from its leafy Inns of Court and the splendour of its royal palaces to the seedy streets of the poorer quarters as Shardlake tries to discover who is behind the theft and why. It brings him into personal danger with sword fights  and a spell in the dreaded dungeons of The Tower.  It’s all very entertaining if somewhat improbable on many occasions —although Shardlake suffers from his physical deformity and often refers to his aching back, the man still seems to have an extraordinary level of stamina, always dashing about on horse or foot for hours.

That’s really a minor point in a novel that otherwise exudes authenticity.  Sansom’s evocation of the period always feels authoritative and sure (he even provides extensive notes at the back of the book to substantiate his interpretation.) In Lamentation he plunges us into a time when the King’s health is a matter for concern though he and his courtiers go to great lengths to keep up a pretence in his public engagements that all is well. Shardlake however stumbles upon some scenes within the inner sanctum of the palace that show the extent to which this once powerful man has declined. In a quiet courtyard he sees the King propped up by two helpers shuffle along the path:

The man I saw now was the very wreck of a human being. His huge legs, made larger still by swathes of bandages, were splayed out like a gigantic child’s as he took each slow and painful step. Every movement sent his immense body wobbling  and juddering beneath his caftan. His face was great mess of fat, the little  mouth and tiny eyes almost hidden in its folds, the once beaky nose full and fleshy.

Later he sees Henry winched up to his stateroom, his immense body and folds of fat strapped into a wheelchair.

As shocked as Shardlake is, he knows well that to merely comment on the King’s health let alone reveal the truth, would be treasonable.

This is an age where lips must be kept shut if you fear for your life. One unguarded comment could lead to a charge of heresy. The tone is set within the first few pages of the novel where Shardlake is despatched, reluctantly to witness the burning alive of a heretic.

There was a smell of smoke around Smithfield now as well as the stink of the crowd and of something else, familiar from the kitchen: the smell of roasting meat. Against my will I looked again at the stakes. The flames had reached higher: the victims lower bodies were blackened, white bone showing through here and there. their upper parts red with blood as the flames licked at them.

Shardlake must navigate this atmosphere of fear and contend with the King’s circle of unscrupulous advisers to achieve his mission. By the end he yearns for a quieter life in which he becomes a lawyer in a provincial town far from the corruption of the capital and the machinations of the court. But Shardlake is ever a sucker for the ladies and how can he resist when he is offered a new role, as adviser to the Princess Elizabeth. And thus, very neatly, Sansom sets us up for another chapter in Shardlake’s life and – thankfully – a few more novels to look forward to reading.



Treasures of second hand shops

Who doesn’t enjoy that moment  in a second hand book shop when your eye alights on something special? Of course we’d all love it if we discovered a rare edition or even a first edition signed by the author. But there is also a thrill when you find the book that will complete your collection of a series or works by a particular author or you find an out of print book that has remained elusive for years.

Imagine if you had walked into a charity shop in Wales in the last couple of weeks and made the same discovery the volunteers did when they opened a bag from a donor. Inside was a 178-year-old Bible passed down through generations of the same family and inscribed with their names. Now the shop is trying to trace living relatives of the family so the heirloom can be restored to them.

I had a sUnknownpecial moment of my own last week when I found an original of the very first book published by Virago in their modern classics series. Frost in May  by Antonia White came out in 1978, signalling the start of a list dedicated to the rediscovery and celebration of women writers. Spotting this in a charity bookshop took me back to that year when I read the book as some light relief after the trauma of end of term exams. I loved the book, told everyone in my hall of residence they should read it but stupidly loaned it to someone who took it on holiday and lost it.  Thirty seven years later and my book and I have now been re-united (ok I know the chances that this is MY lost copy are extremely thin but indulge me in this conceit please).

Have you found any special treats or made any discoveries while browsing in second hand shops?

Time for a little sheep talk

Unknown-3Today (Feb 17) marks the first day of the Chinese new year and the start of the year of the sheep. According to the Chinese zodiac system people born in the year of sheep are polite, filial, clever, and kind-hearted. They prefer the quiet life and are apparently especially sensitive to art and beauty.

You’d think then that these artistic creatures would feature prominently in fiction.  But these poor creatures have definitely been short-changed by authors. There are plenty of novels featuring dogs and horses, but our woolly friends barely get a look in. The first two options here are the only ones I could think of personally, for the remainder I had to rely on Goodreads and LibraryThing.

1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick

A  science fiction novel published in 1968, this doesn’t even feature real sheep apart from a brief mention at the beginning. In it’s post-apocalyptic setting, most types of animals are endangered or extinct due to extreme radiation poisoning from the war. Keeping and owning live animals is therefore a status symbol so many people turn towards cheaper synthetic, or electric, animals to keep up the pretense.

2. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

A bit of a stretch I know since the lambs are symbolic rather than actual. They feature in a brief episode when FBI trainee Clarice Starling is forced into revealing her troubled childhood on a sheep farm where she tries to prevent the lambs from slaughter.

Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann, 
 A murder mystery  in which a flock of sheep take on the role of detectives when their much-loved shepherd is killed, pinned to the ground with a spade. Among their number are Othello, a “bad-boy” black ram; Mopple the Whale, a Merino who eats a lot and remembers everything; and Zora, a pensive black-faced ewe with a weakness for abysses. The Goodreads blurb calls it a ‘witty philosophical murder mystery” where the sheep’s discussions about the possible culprits turn into metaphysical speculations.  This could either be excruciatingly twee or deliciously funny. It seems to have built quite a following – the novel has been translated from the original German into 30 languages.
4. Sheep by Simon Maginn 
By contrast comes this  horror story set in a tumble down farmhouse in Wales where James and Adele son hope to find peace after the drowning of their daughter. When James unearths an odd collection of bones while working on the house, they begin to learn the nightmarish story of the tragic history of their home.
5. A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
Murakami’s  third novel novel is apparently a blend of styles — part detective , part metaphysical speculation, part magical realism. Where do the sheep fit in you might wonder? They’re the subject of a photograph which catches the eye of a Japanese copywriter. He uses the picture to illustrate a newspaper, unknowingly becoming the subject of a hunt orchestrated by a Mr Big who wants to track down the source of the image before he dies.
So that’s it. Not exactly three bags full but there might just be something that suits the little maid who lives down your road.

Mantel plans to keep us waiting

Anyone who was left begging for more when they reached the end of Bring up the Bodies, is in for a lengthy wait before they’ll be able to feast on the final part of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. In an interview for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) she revealed that she won’t finish writing the book until late in 2016 or even middle of 2017.

Apparently her involvement as consultant for the stage production of the Man Booker-prize winning Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies have distracted her a little though she was able to use cast members as sounding boards for some of her plot ideas. When her work on the Broadway version comes to an end this summer she’ll be taking a holiday and then planning to get back to writing in earnest. it will take her between 18 months and a year to finish the book.

Until then we’ll have to be satisfied with the few crumbs of information she’s divulged. We now know the following about Part 3:

  • It’s called The Mirror and the Light
  • It features the short reign of Jane Seymour and the long awaited birth of a male heir.
  • We will experience King Henry’s  increasingly erratic behaviour.
  • The book marks the demise of Thomas Cromwell and his disgrace

Those titbits are all we’re going to get for some time it seems but they have whetted my appetite even more. I know what’s going on my Christmas wish list for 2016.

Read the full interview here http://blogs.abc.net.au/wa/2015/02/hilary-mantel-reveals-timing-of-her-next-book-and-whats-next-after-thomas-cromwell.html

Wolf Hall and

Book blogs minus the reviews?

During the clean up of my email in box (now down to a more manageable 250 unread emails) I came across an old post on the 101 books blog where Robert had commented that he doesn’t like reading book reviews on blog sites. “Book reviews are boring,” he declared, a simple statement which provoked a lively debate.  To be fair, he also said that he finds the act of writing them on his own site rather tedious and he would rather just write about other book related topics, facts about authors that you didn’t know for example.

People who left comments seemed to agree on a few things: writing a good review takes time and effort and you need to do more than just explain the plot if you want to engage people. A few people said they were not at all interested in other people’s reviews or that they only read those where the featured author was one in whom they were already interested. One big area of agreement seemed to be that blog sites which featured only reviews were a turn off.

I can certainly relate to the comment about how much effort it takes to write a review that might be worth other people reading. Hence why I am about 10 reviews behind right now – I keep procrastinating because I want to say something more than just whether I enjoyed the book.  There is an art to this reviewing business, especially if you want to do more than simply regurgitate the plot or repeat the publisher’s blurb. I look at pieces written by professional reviewers in some of the leading newspapers and sigh because they are light years ahead of my attempts. Despite sniffy comments from some quarters (Andy Miller, author of The Year of Reading Dangerously was one of the guilty ones here) some bloggers are equally as skilled in reviewing and even though I don’t particularly have an interest in the author or the genre, I enjoy seeing what they think or feel.

But just as a diet of ice-cream and cakes would get tedious after a day or so, I’m not enthused by reading review after review after review. I find that I can get through only so many straight review items in my feed reader before I’m longing for something different. I’ve tried mixing up my own posts to try and avoid equally boring my own readers – actually I find these non review posts much more fun to write. And I’ve been experimenting too with how I write the reviews – giving them a (hopefully) more interesting title than just the name of the book and the author. So far I’ve just done two reviews using that new approach – my ‘5 reasons to read The Miniaturist’ and ‘A question of identity: Marani’s New Finnish Grammar’. A small start but at least it’s a start.

What are your thoughts on reviews – do you try to mix them up on your own site with non-review posts? What do you think of sites that have very few reviews?

Here’s the original post on Robert’s blog if you are interested: http://101books.net/2014/06/27/5-things-your-mom-didnt-tell-you-about-book-blogging/

Getting the hang of making jewellery

stringingI’ve been dabbling with making my own jewellery for a few years with varying degrees of success. The first attempts at making earrings resulted in some very wonky looking danglers because I could not get the hang of making a loop that was the same size and in the same position on each side.

I had much better success with creating necklaces and in fact sold quite a few. the design wasn’t difficult and threading the beads onto the wire was easy though many times I lost hold of the one end and the whole lot ended up on the floor. We were forever coming across them nestling in the carpet fibres.

The really tricky part is finishing the threads neatly so the beads lie flat and there are no gaps between beads and clasp. I used many reference books to try and learn the right techniques – some seemed to skimp this part so they could quickly get on the creative element. But if you don’t know the basics, you could end up getting ultra frustrated when the end result looks nothing like your design.

So i was more than happy to see a book published that really focused on the basics like choosing the right beads and threading material,  explaining the different tools available and when to use what kind of  clasp and fastening. This is a good guide for beginners and would be especially helpful to refer to just before heading to the bead supply shop.

If only the authors had included photographs instead of line drawings for some of the instructions and then gone on to show some images of finished items it would have been even more helpful. Still it’s good value for money.

Thanks to the publishers Storey Publishing, LLC for providing me with a copy via NetGalley.

Winning times

The Booker Talk household has been in a state of suspended excitement for the last week. I hardly ever win things in competitions or prize drawers (I suppose the fact that I don’t actually enter many of them might have something to do with that). But on the same day just over a week ago I learned that I had won, not one but two prizes.

whitehunger_web_0_220_330First to arrive was a copy of White Hunger which is a debut novel by a Finnish author called Aki Ollikainen. It’s set in 19th century Finland and follows a young woman’s journey from Finland to St Petersburg in an attempt to save her young children from starvation.  This was a give away from theoxfordculturereview.com (a wonderful source of info if you have any plans to visit the city) and published by Peirene Press.  The book won the title of Best Finnish Debut Novel 2012 and Finnish Book Bloggers’ Best Book 2012 and is now available in English.  Have any of you read this?

Just a few days later came a mystery gift from the London Review of Books as a result of a reader survey I completed.  I’m now the owner of a canvas tote bag (much nicer than plastic carrier bags and cheaper too since we have to pay for those in Wales); a few items from their cafe and a nicely bound compendium of articles published in the LRB.

Two successes. Do you think I could make it a third??

A question of identity: Marani’s New Finnish Grammar

A few years ago I got into a rather intense discussion along the lines of whether there is any association between the currency used by a country and their population’s feeling of national pride and identity. It was prompted by comments from someone in the British government  who was arguing vehemently in favour of Britain keeping the pound sterling as its national currency.  Part of the politician’s argument seemed to be that if Britain adopted the Euro, like other members of the European Community, it would lose a critical element of what makes Britain special. It was an argument that held no merit for my three dinner companions, all of whom came from countries which had already ‘lost’ the peseta and the franc in favour of the Euro.

NewFinnishGrammarIf currency doesn’t define a person’s identity and affiliation to a country, what about language? New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani suggests that without our language, we have no roots and no memory. Don’t be misled by the title, this isn’t a turgid academic study about a fringe language, but an intelligently written novel by a linguist working for the European Community.

The story is quite a simple one. It begins with the discovery of a badly-beaten man on a quayside in Trieste during World War 2.   Though he recovers consciousness he has no memory and no language and nothing to identify himself except for the name tag of “SAMPO KARJALAINEN” sewn inside the seaman’s jacket which suggests he is of Finnish origin. A passing military doctor Petri Friari, resolves to re-aquaint the mystery man with the language of his homeland as a way of restoring his memory and rebuilding his life. Petri tells his patient:

The merest breath is enough if there is still any fire at all beneath the ashes…. You will have to work hard. Finnish is the language in which you were brought up, the language of the lullaby that sent you to sleep each night. Apart from studying it you must learn to love it. think of each word as though it was a magic charm which might open a door to memory. Say each word aloud as though it were a prayer…

Sampo recovers sufficiently to be repatriated to a hospital in his supposed home in Helsinki. There with the aid of another doctor, a pastor who believes in the restorative power of Finnish myths and legends and a Red Cross nurse, he tries to find himself once again. It’s not an easy task. Finnish apparently is a fiendishly difficult language “thorny but delicate.”

…the Finnish sentence is like a cocoon, impenetrable, closed in on itself; here meaning ripens slowly and when, when ripe flies off, bright and elusive … whin foreigners listen to a Finn speaking they always have the sense that something is flying out of his moth, the words fan out and lightly close in again; they hover in the air and then dissolve. It is pointless to try and capture them, because their meaning is in their flight…

Sampo meets the challenge head on, diligently applying himself to his lessons everyday but though his vocabulary and understanding improves, his knowledge  of his identity remains elusive.

I had a distinct suspicion that I was running headlong down the wrong road. In the innermost recesses of my unconscious I was plagued by the feeling that, within my brain, another brain was beating, buried alive.

This is a novel about alienation, about isolation, how we relate to our pasts, to our cultural traditions and to our mother tongue. It has an overwhelming sense of sadness, the feeling that no matter how much we try, it’s impossible to find the way back. It’s a book that makes you think and to appreciate the value of the language we heard from our first moments on earth and that we use every day without giving it a second thought.

A wonderful novel, that was considered a masterpiece when it was published in Marani’s native Italian. It’s taken more than 10 years to become available in English but well worth the wait.


New Finnish Grammar, by Diego Marani. Translator: Judith Landry. Published by Dedalus Books

Marani worked as a linguist for the European Commission. In addition to his writing he created Europanto, a mock international language.


Forgotten Books

One of the comments made frequently by reviewers is how a particular book lingered with them long after they reached the final page. I’ve certainly had that experience with a few novels (Germinal, Petals of Blood, Crime and Punishment, The Heart of the Matter come to mind as prime examples).

Most novels for me however are more transitory experiences. I enjoy them at the time and since the general sensation of pleasure does remain, I am glad to have read them. Some I might even re-read at some point. But I don’t continue to think deeply about them in terms of their message or theme for much longer than that immediate experience.

And then there are those that I cannot honestly recall ever having read. I only realise the fact when I open it again or find it at the back of the shelves. They’re not awful otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered keeping them. They’re just things I allowed to pass before my eyes in a sense, something that whiled away the time but never really engaged my brain beyond the superficial level.

The ObservationsI came across one of these yesterday while doing a bit of a clean up of the bookshelf and desperately hoping to find some gaps so I could fit in my new purchases. It was The Observations by Jane Harris.   Instantly I recalled that I had planned to read this last year but never got around to it. I was just putting back on the shelf when a moment of doubt began creeping in. I read the synopsis on the back. It definitely sounded familiar. But then that might just have been because I’ve looked at it many many times in the year or so since it first came into the house (deciding each time that I wasn’t in the mood). I started flicking through the pages, skim reading a paragraph here and there. It didn’t take long before reality sunk in. I have indeed already read this.

But when and where was another puzzle.  Until I started this blog I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question. A quick search revealed that I was reading it on November 1 last year, finding it “a very readable historical mystery novel set in a remote manor house in Scotland. I must have finished it otherwise I wouldn’t still have in my possession but I can’t have rated it highly because I never wrote a full review. Clearly it didn’t make of an impact on me. In fact if someone asked me what it’s about I would struggle to say more than it’s about a maid, a mistress who makes very odd requests and the suspicious death of a previous servant. The rest is blank shall we say.

I know this isn’t an isolated example of a book that I’ve forgotten I ever read. I used to read lots of crime fiction and frequently took books home from the library only to realise half way through that the plot sounded rather familiar.

If my memory is this bad, I have no hope of emulating the reader who has used her Goodreads account to record every book she can remember reading, including those from her childhood. It’s taken her four years to get to 1,000 books. She clearly has a much better memory than I do – I think I would struggle to get even half way to that number. I certainly don’t remember everything I read as a child.

The article she wrote for The Guardian doesn’t say how she managed this extraordinary feat. The quickest route would be to look up the various category lists or author lists, scan them and add titles to your ‘read’ shelf. But she clearly went beyond that since she also says in her article that of the 1,000 she enjoyed only about 700. Which means that it wasn’t a case of recognising a cover and thinking ‘oh i read that one’ but actually recalling what her reaction was.

Just to put this into perspective. I have 200 books on my “Read” shelf at Goodreads  which is only a small fraction of what I’ve read throughout my life.  But knowing which books I’ve left off my list is tough. I know for example that I’ve read a lot of Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine but looking at the titles although they are familiar I can’t be sure thats because I read them or have just seen them in book shops so often. Even when I know for sure I read a particular title, trying to recall my level of enjoyment is a further challenge particularly given Goodreads’ five point scoring system.  I enjoyed Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and A Town Like Alice but would they both score a five or was one better than the other?. I have no idea. It’s enough of a problem trying to deal with the last 40 years of reading, going back into childhood would for me be nigh on impossible.

Am I a lone voice here with my memory deficiency? How much do you recall of what you read? Do you have the same issues with forgotten books??