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Planning For (Pandemic) Christmas

A photograph of fairy light in the shape of a star

Amy, you have no idea…

It’ll be quieter here, and whilst not nearly as busy and fun, I’ve realised that a quieter Christmas does mean more time for reading and some solo games I’ve got on a perpetual ‘do that later’ list. I’ve clocked up plenty of unfinished reads this year so I’m hoping to make a dent in that pile, and I might spend more time watching Outlander than I have the previous two Christmases, during which I unintentionally started a new festive routine of watching a decidedly un-festive programme over wine, cheese, and fairy lights. I enjoyed it so much – the fewer sex scenes really helped – that I’ve actually relegated watching the show to Christmas time and am therefore only on season two and reliant on Amazon continuing to make it available.

Books: Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant; Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar Of Wakefield; Diana Evans’ Ordinary People; and, hopefully, Deborah Swift’s The Gilded Lily, which is a very recent addition. No Christmas books as yet; I’m still having a think about that one.

Games: Trine – another few-Christmas’ worth tradition; Overcooked; and possibly The Sims 3 and Kingdom Come Deliverance. If any of you readers are gamers and haven’t tried Trine, I very, very much recommend it.

Films: various cheesy Hallmark Channel ones I’ve not yet seen that our British Channel 5 make available, and Happiest Season (2020) as long as it’s on Amazon.

What are you doing this festive season?

 
October 2020 Reading Round Up + Podcasts

October was quite busy as reading and podcasting goes. I was a little under the weather for a few weeks of it – torn muscles (there’s definitely a limit to how much housework can be done at once!) – so I was pleasantly surprised by how many books I finished, and more so when I noted the ones I had on the go that were almost finished. There were days to read outside which was lovely. And during my mandatory no-more-housework days I got through the BBC’s Ghosts which I highly recommend, and Love Life which seems to be BBC/American, a well structured romance/drama sort of series by and starring Anna Kendrick. I can also highly recommend the Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn Bringing Up Baby if you’ve not seen it – it’s on iPlayer for several months and is pretty hilarious. Don’t read the film summary; not knowing what it’s about made it even better.

The Books

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Eric Beck Rubin: School Of Velocity – Jan’s lined up to play in front of an audience, one of many occasions he’s done so, but this time the random music in his head is too much to bear; he takes us back to his childhood, his extremely popular and extroverted friend, and a relationship that he’s still to get his head around. This was a re-read: a super book about the lasting affects of a friendship and a whole lot about music in all its technicality.

Intisar Khanani: Sunbolt – On the run from the puppeteers behind the government. A diverse quasi-Asian/Eastern fantasy that’s brilliantly written and thrilling, but is short in terms of plot – this was a re-read: there is now a second book out (this was a re-read) and knowing that means that the issue of length is not a problem. The second book is also a lot longer. In essence, it’s best to go into the novella with a plan to continue the full story. The series as a whole is utterly fab.

Intisar Khanani: Memories Of Ash – Hitomi, now somewhat better and with more magical knowledge, looks to find her mentor who has had to leave to be questioned by the Arch Mages. This is the book mentioned above: it’s full of diversity, very well planned and written and just an absolute riot – a brilliant book full of hope and reader fun against a backdrop of evil.

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Marianne Holmes: All Your Little Lies – Local teenager Chloe is missing, and Annie realises she’s probably the last one who saw Chloe that night… except that she was drunk and so didn’t see anything, had driven home drunk, and before that had entered her boss’s home without permission after he told her to leave the pub the team was socialising in; difficult to explain. An incredibly well-planned novel exploring PTSD and the effects of trauma and alienation from society.

Orlando Ortega-Medina: The Savior Of 6th Street – Virgilio’s artwork is bought by a wealthy woman; Beatrice wants to make him a star but this means leaving behind a lot and being among people very different to those he values, people with connections to the underground. Hopefully that brief premise is enough – this is a very good tale about art and an effective clash of a couple of different worlds that uses as its literary base the religion of Santería, weaving religious concepts into its chapters.

Tammye Huf: A More Perfect Union – The potato famine in Ireland has left Henry’s family destitute; he travels to America in the hope of a better life and whilst looking for work meets Sarah, a house slave walking back to her plantation from an errand; the two become close and the ultimate goal is to escape, which will prove more difficult than Henry could ever expect. A fantastic story, based on the author’s great-great-grandparents, that in its use of romance amongst an appalling situation manages to highlight all the more the horrors of the slavery era whilst maintaining that feeling of hope for those who escaped.

This was a very strong set of books, all very different and so difficult to compare in any way. I loved the Holmes for the author’s careful handling of her character’s situation; I loved the Huf for that excellent balancing of romance and the history; the Ortega-Medina was compelling for its use of Santería, the way it was used as a crucial aspect yet carefully placed as to sometimes appear abstract; Khanani’s Chronicles were a lot of fun (despite the bad guys) and refreshing; and re-reading the Beck Rubin was a delight.

Looking at November, I’m happy to say I’ve a couple of Deborah Swift books to read – the subtextual answer there is ‘yes’ and I’m looking forward to it! Earlier this month I finished Roselle Lim’s Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop which I hope to review soon – it’s going to be quite a different review for good reason, and the basics are ‘loved it’. And I’ve got a couple of Young Writer of the Year shortlisters waiting for me. I’m also starting to look at books I started earlier in the year and didn’t manage to finish – Christmas is going to be very quiet this year and unless my nephew commandeers all my time for gaming over the Internet (which I wouldn’t mind), there’s going to a lot of reading involved.

Has the pandemic changed your reading, and if so, in what way?


Owing to my lesser ability to use a computer recently, I’ve two podcast episodes to include here. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media players below.

Episode 25: Intisar Khanani

Charlie and Intisar Khanani (Thorn; Sunbolt; Memories Of Ash; the forthcoming The Theft Of Sunlight) discuss working to better the health of people in Cincinnati, rewriting and exploring the Goose Girl fairy tale to stunning effect, bonkers jail-breaking heroines, and men who take a far more subtle approach than riding in on horses to save the day.

To see all the details including links to other apps, go to the dedicated blog page.

Episode 26: Eric Beck Rubin

Charlie and Eric Beck Rubin (School Of Velocity) discuss the representation of the Holocaust in literature, using classical music as a literary device, having a main character whose person limits the opportunity for dialogue through his obsession with another, and the reader being a writer.

Please note that the first reading contains sexual content.

To see all the details including links to other apps, go to the dedicated blog page.

 
The 2020 Young Writer Of The Year Shortlist

The book covers of the 2020 shortlist

The time of what I consider a big highlight of the literary year has begun, albeit quite different this time as is everything else. The shortlist for the 2020 Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award was announced on Sunday, and it looks pretty stellar. Here is the announcement by Andrew Holgate, Literary Editor of The Sunday Times (email subscribers, you’ll likely have to open this post in your browser using the link at the bottom of this email in order to view the video):

Most years there are 4 shortlisted authors; like the judges in 2017, the judges this year have chosen 5 authors they believe to be the best contenders, spanning the realms of poetry, non-fiction, and novel. Of the five, two are poetry collections, which is unusual (and pretty awesome). So, the writers are:

Jay Bernard for the poetry collection Surge (Chatto & Windus)
Catherine Cho for the memoir Inferno (Bloomsbury)
Naoise Dolan for the novel Exciting Times (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Seán Hewitt for the poetry collection Tongues Of Fire (Jonathan Cape)
Marina Kemp for the novel Nightingale (4th Estate)

This year’s judges are Sebastian Faulks, Tessa Hadley, Kit de Waal, and Houman Barekat. Tessa Hadley said that “The books stand out because they’re so well written, with important things to say – and the wonderful thing is that they have nothing in common apart from that.” Kit de Waal points to the authors “demonstrating a range of technical ability, outlook and style”, and Sebastian Faulks notes that “They have absorbed the lessons of those who have gone before them; but their own books all seem urgent and modern”.

The winner will receive £5,000 and offered a ten week residency by the University of Warwick. The London Library, in normal times the host of the winner’s ceremony, has added a year’s membership to these offerings.

As mentioned by Andrew Holgate in the video, extracts from the books will be in Granta magazine over this week. The first, comprised of two poems from Surge, is now online.

A digital winners ceremony will be held on Thursday 10th December.

 
September 2020 Reading Round Up + Podcast

September has been an all systems go month. During the latter half in particular, I was reading a lot, enough that I’m taking a break from it for a few days. As well as the list below I read all but a few percent of two more so there was officially more reading done but those books will be on October’s list.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Christina Courtney: Echoes Of The Runes – Mia would never have expected to see an exact copy of her own ring in the display cabinet of a Viking museum exhibit, but it happens and sets off a chain of events that see her co-leading an archaeology team with a handsome expert, digging up her grandmother’s lands… and being called to echoes of a story of early medieval romance in Viking Sweden. A fun time slip with a good back story and an interesting use of the concept of coincidence.

Intisar Khanani: Thorn – When Princess Alyrra is betrothed to Prince Kestrin, she’s not comfortable with the idea of travelling to his kingdom with Valka, who dislikes her, and the sudden appearance of a mage followed by a fae-like lady the night before has her more so; as Valka betrays her and the two womens’ bodies are switched Alyrra starts a different journey, one that will involve learning all manner of things about herself in order to turn back the changes, and all manner of things about her new kingdom that royalty are never privvy to. A superb fairytale retelling and adaptation, Khanani expanding on the ideas in the original Goose Girl to incredible effect.

Joanna Hickson: First Of The Tudors – A fictionised story of Jasper Tudor, son of Catherine de Valois and her second husband Owen Tudor, as well as Jane, mother of his illegitimate children, taking us from Jasper’s early years to the initial first campaigns to bring Jasper’s nephew, the future Henry VII, to the throne. A fantastic story, immersive, detailed, and just simply a very good book in general.

Joanna Hickson: The Tudor Crown – Centering this time on Henry and his mother Margaret Beaufort, the story takes us to the early days of Henry VII’s reign. As good as the previous book.

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Joanna Hickson: The Lady Of The Ravens – A fictionalised story of Joan Vaux, lady in waiting to Elizabeth of York, taking us from Elizabeth’s early days as queen (before her coronation) to beyond Joan’s marriage. With a change in over all focus to court life in the context of the experience of women, this book is both a sequel to the previous and its own story entirely; it’s also very good.

Nicholas Royle: An English Guide To Birdwatching – Silas and Ethel have handed their undertaking business to their son in exchange for a relaxing retirement by the sea, and meanwhile an unrelated Stephen Osmer is hammering out diatribes on his computer keyboard, but both stories are woven together in the form of their unfortunate connection to a literary critic called Nicholas Royle who has unwittingly upset them all. A brilliant piece of meta fiction by one of the two writers called Nicholas Royle.

Nicholas Royle: Quilt – His parents both having passed away, his father’s death very new, our main character moves into the house and starts to wonder about rays, the marine kind, eventually deciding to build a massive tank in the dining room and importing a few for his own. Difficult to say more than that, and it’s already giving a fair amount away – this book is a highly literary, meta, story about particular struggles and, in particular, death.

This has been an absolutely stellar month; I have a favourite, Thorn, but everything else was up there. There was a lot of immersive fiction too, with Hickson and Khanani being particularly excellent in this regard.

So moving (further) into October, I have some more podcast reads lined up as well as a couple of review copies I’m looking forward to.

What are you reading at the moment?


This week’s podcast episode is with Nicholas Royle (Quilt; An English Guide To Birdwatching; Mother: A Memoir). Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Nicholas Royle (Quilt; An English Guide To Birdwatching; Mother: A Memoir) discuss killing yourself – your avatar – off in your fiction, using ‘it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’, and sharing a name with another British writer who also writes fiction… that is also about birds…

Please note that the first reading is set in a public toilet and discusses explicitly concepts around discomfort in this regard, ‘size’, and so forth.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here.

 
On Chipped Mugs

A photograph of a mug, one of the 'literary transport' mugs that has a list of locations used in The Great Gatsby. Admittedly, this mug has no chips in it

I reckon eighty to ninety percent of the times in the last several years of my reading, I’ve found a contemporary book’s reference to a (any) mug to be ‘chipped’. It’s a bit like the present obsession with the verb ‘to reveal’ where so many of the things being revealed are, in fact, not actually being revealed. (Soapbox moment. To paraphrase, ‘She arrived at the coffee shop and took off her coat to reveal a nice green t-shirt with some branding on it’ – do we not take our coats off because we’re now inside rather than to reveal what we’re wearing underneath? And isn’t the usage of the term – not always male – too focused on attractiveness and a deliberation to entice that simply isn’t there? If it were ‘revealing’ that was used it would work much better.)

I digress. Chipped mug – doubtless it is to infer some amount of wear, age, or issue. A reference to the state of a place, or life, or someone’s thoughts. The mug has most likely been around a long time. It could be that it’s too loved, holds too much nostalgia, to be thrown away, but the use of the adjective and noun together is never (in my experience) surrounded by context. It’s merely an over-used convention.

I always see these mugs as a cup with a massive chip on (in?) the lip, rather like Chip from the cartoon version of Beauty and the Beast. This is probably wrong – it’s likely imagined by the authors as more like the slight chip on the thick handle (thus effectively superficial) of a mug from a number my dad gave me when he was having a chuck out. I took them because I’d loved using them. One did get broken – Dad didn’t have any bubble wrap so they were brought home in a plastic bag and one got smashed against the front door as the door was opened. But I wouldn’t throw the one with the superficial chip away. I even kept the smashed one – not smashed enough to be in pieces. It’s on the top shelf with the rest of my broken keepsake mugs.

I expect lots of characters have similar tales of keepsakes. This is surely more what the authors of fictional chipped mugs are thinking. Surely.

And I say ‘surely’ twice because to cycle back to the beginning, it’s just so prevalent, like ‘to reveal’, and wrought iron gates and gun-metal gray. There are few simple ‘mugs’ in contemporary literature; I get excited when there is one. And other mugs that aren’t ‘just’ mugs tend to have context – tin mugs in a scene set outdoors, designs and colours.

Oft-used sentence: as often happens, I’ve no conclusion. These are just musings. But there are enough chips that I felt the need to fill them in somehow.

 

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