My Favourite Five Reads – 2016

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Some people evaluate the passing year in wins; others in sales, gigs, or publications. I have a tradition of summing up a year in titles. Out of the (nearly) fifty books I read in 2016, here is my annual list of best reads.

My Favourite Five

David Copperfield by Charles Dickensdavidcopperfield

I blogged about this one shortly after reading it. (Read it here).

I  confess that I loved  this book so much I was compelled me to buy a special (used) Folio Society edition as a keepsake. (Hey, don’t judge me. I write Victorian fiction. It’s an investment in a resource, right?)

 

JonathanStrangeMrNorrellbySusannaClarkeJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell  by Susanna Clarke

Gosh, I loved this book, but it isn’t one I readily thrust into friends’ hands. I’m not entirely sure others will love it as much as I did. It is weird and dark and really long. I put off reading it for years, because its oozing footnotes seemed like they’d be a dreary chore to read. (They weren’t!)

Ultimately, its brilliant premise won me over: What if once upon a time English Magic existed, but it faded into obscurity and is all but forgotten? And what if one man seeks to revive it for the good of the realm?

Mr Norrell is a magician and a pernickety, reclusive man who, after years of rigorous solo study, performs powerful magic that makes him an instant celebrity. Soon the English government is calling on his services to rectify civil disasters and gain military advantage over enemies. English Magic is making a comeback so big he has to take on a student. Enter the charismatic Jonathan Strange, quite a different character altogether. Together, they do great good for England, and all is well until the teacher and the pupil clash.

Susanna Clarke’s world building is extraordinary thanks in part to the footnotes I mentioned. She references a fictitious canon of books of magical scholarship. It’s fascinating how much plausibility and texture this quirky little device added. I listened to the audio version (which was exquisite), and surprisingly the footnotes weren’t a bother at all. (Reviews of the digital version indicated that the footnotes were a nuisance.) In an interview with the New York Magazine, she explains how she achieved such realism in a book about magic. “One way of grounding the magic is by putting in lots of stuff about street lamps, carriages and how difficult it is to get good servants.”

So who is Susanna Clarke? Here are some fascinating facts:

  • JS&MN is her debut novel (but she works in publishing).
  • She put ten years into the manuscript, sometimes fearing she’d never finish it.
  • After two rejections by publishers, Bloomsbury offered her a £1 million advance on an unfinished manuscript! (2003)
  • She (apparently) hasn’t written another novel.

Clarke didn’t have a name for the book’s genre, though there are plenty of possibilities offered, from pastiche to fantasy to alternative history. I believe it is gaslamp fantasy, which means it is an alternative history with a magical twist. (Read about gaslamp fantasy here.) The subplots were intriguing; the characters unforgettable; and the settings vividly eerie in their coldness. Set at the dawn of the Nineteenth Century with the Napoleonic Wars brewing and raging, Lord Byron and Lord Wellington play important parts in the book.

If you’re not up for  a 36-hour audio book or an 800-page book, check out the BBC’s TV mini series. If I haven’t convinced you, consider this article that says Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is “just as magical as Harry Potter.” I’d love to know if you’re as smitten as I am. [For grown-ups (and precocious younger readers who love footnotes)]

The Lie Tree by Frances HardingeTheLieTreebyFrancisHardinge

Winner of the 2016 Costa Book of the Year, this was another title in my  gaslamp fantasy binge. I’d seen a flurry of articles about Frances Hardinge online, and was intrigued by the woman who wears a fedora for its sense of adventure.  She’s a master storyteller: her writing in The Lie Tree is utterly captivating, the plot is surprising, and the themes are big and important—everything we bookworms hope a book could be.

The protagonist Faith, 14 and stuck in a ‘training corset’, grapples with heady topics: societal conventions and  limitations on women, the discovery of the flaws in her father’s character, the clash of science and religion in Victorian England, and the mob mentality of people. Big ideas, fresh characters, and lovely writing made this one deliciously memorable. [MG]

TimWintoCloudstreetCloudstreet by Tim Winton

I mistook Cloudstreet as an ordinary tragicomical family drama, which didn’t overly excite me even if it’s considered a modern Aussie classic and one of Australia’s favourite books. But when I saw it classified as magical realism, I was instantly intrigued. I knew I had to read it as research for my  WIP Finding Graceland.

The audio version is performed to perfection by Peter Hosking, who brought Tim Winton’s lush writing into full Technicolor splendour. Read it—you’ll never forget the characters or how the book gripped your  heart. [For grown ups]

EchoPamMunozRyanEcho by Pam Muñoz Ryan

I mentioned above I was seeking magical realism books to read, and this was one of them. I loved its light touch, but most of all I was impressed with the book’s beautiful structure.

Echo tells the stories of three young people in the WWII era, who are connected by, well … an enchanted harmonica. Now, as weird as that sounds, it is an amazing tale, full of music and heartbreak, pathos and redemption.The whole thing is bracketed in an original fairy tale. The ending is one of the most satisfying I can remember. Don’t let the harmonica-fairy tale thing throw you. This book is swoon-worthy.  [MG/YA]

Over to You

Have you read any of the titles above? Leave your thoughts in the comments. Happy reading in the coming months!

Image Credit: Ian Schneider, CC0, via Unsplash

Three Things Dickens Taught Me

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It took over a month, but I finished listening to the audio version of Dickens’s David Copperfield. It now sits at the top of my list of all-time favourite books. As much as I enjoyed the reading experience, I also got a lot out of it as a writer. Yes, it’s long and dense and would probably be rejected by today’s publishing professionals. But there’s still lots to learn from this master of the English literature canon.

Here are three things I gleaned from Charles Dickens.

1) Readers will forgive almost anything if you tell a good story.

David Copperfield opens with this sentence:

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Sentence two:

“To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.”

In most cases, when a book starts at the moment of the protagonist’s birth, it’s a bad sign. A very bad sign. When I read the above sentences, I laughed. Aren’t writers supposed to start in media res?

When I stopped chuckling, I checked the length of my audio recording. Thirty-six and a half hours. Flip! Turns out the physical book has 800+ pages!

Lucky for me, I listened to Audible’s wonderful audio version performed by Richard Armitage of Thorin Oakenshield fame (The Hobbit, the films). Highly recommended. I can’t gush fast enough to convey how much I enjoyed his performance!

I loved every minute. So what if Dickens is long-winded? Who cares if he starts where no one (today) would dare start a story? He’s Dickens, and he did it well. Besides, there were legitimate plot reasons for starting at day dot.

The plotting in David Copperfield is heaps of fun. There were a few times when I yelled, “Get.Out!” and “NO! Not her again!” and “Yes!!” with an air punch. Admittedly, by the end I began to see the pattern of Dickens’s braided threads, but the payoffs were so rewarding that I didn’t mind that I could guess what happened next.

2. Tell the truth about the lies people tell themselves.

I can relate his 19th Century characters to my 21st Century friends. Seriously, those Micawbers—ever waiting for “something to turn up.” The pair of them reminded me of a couple I know. How did Dickens manage such timelessness? By slicing the human psyche into parts–the portrayed self and the true self. He observed that we all tell ourselves lies, and that sometimes we have no idea we’ve dabbled in falsehood and hoodwinked no one but ourselves.

He nailed the fact that everyone, even beloved David, is flawed and many-faceted. As a child, David was too trusting. As a young man, he was too enchanted by superficial beauty, yet he (eventually) grew into a principled, loyal man. Watching David come of age was a wonder, the nuances of every stage captured in tiny brushstrokes. I especially loved David’s late adolescence, when he felt awkward in his inexperience and youth. David burned with the shame at having no whiskers to shave off and with humiliation for paying for top-shelf brandy but being served the dregs.

Even the quintessential villain, Uriah Heep, is not pure evil. As villains go, he’s pretty darn bad, but he wuvs his mummy and looks after her as a good son should.

Dickens revelled in reminding his readers that there’s always more than meets the eye with humans. We behave in ways that belie our good intentions. We say one thing and do another. Or we think we have pegged someone’s character, only to find we’ve misjudged them most unfairly.

Take Betsy Trotwood, David’s kooky aunt, who is cantankerous to the point of rudeness, but she brims over with genuine compassion, quiet wisdom, and snarky wit. She surprised me right through the book.

3. Make your characters suffer—really suffer.

It’s easy to fall in love with Dickens’s books because he forces us to care about his characters. Then he toys with his readers’ emotions by tormenting the characters he’s made us love. He no sooner gives one a lollipop than he rips it away, throws it in the dust, and stomps it to smithereens. Except it isn’t a lollipop; it’s a deepest desire, an object of dire necessity. All good writers do this, but Dickens is the Maestro of pathos and comeuppance. He makes the reading experience like a radical roller coaster ride.

Dickensian Caveats

My biggest concern about reading Dickens is that the flowery style might be communicable. I know that I have a tendency to  absorb the rhythm and style of what I read. I remember years ago after studying the King James version of the New Testament, the letters I wrote to my parents came out with a biblical cadence. It was scary. While I want to acquire the ^above^ lessons, I don’t want my writing to break out in a hideous purple rash.

So I’m thinking it might be a good idea to follow up David Copperfield with some sparse literature. Hemingway, maybe. Got any recommendations? Leave a prescription in the comments!

 

 

Five Super Book Podcasts for Readers

book love

Finding the next book–It’s a never-ending hunt for avid readers. Stored in the super-charged brains of librarians and independent bookshop owners is loads of up-to-date information, ripe and ready for the picking. Sadly, most of us don’t have 24-7 access to one of those lovely people. (Half your luck if you do!)

Book podcasts fit the bill if you’re looking for a steady stream of book recommendations.  I listen to (free) book podcasts between my (not free) audio books. With the audio files loaded on my smartphone via the Downcast app, I can follow along while I’m out for my walk or driving around on errands. iTunes offers a huge variety of podcasts as well.

Not all book podcasts are created equally. 

Some focus on high-brow literary commentary, while others fall into the category of fandom. (Into fandom? I can recommend the adorable vlog, Bella and Books.)

Below are five super book podcasts for readers. I listen to all five regularly but I never miss an episode of the the first two.

Books on the Nightstand

I’ve listened to Ann Kingsman and Michael Kindness talk about books and publishing for years. There’s a lot to love about this podcast

  • They focus on recommendations rather than reviews. No snarky book slamming here. It’s all upbeat and insightful.
  • They work in the world of publishing and reveal interesting behind-the-scenes titbits.
  • They comment on an impressive variety of books—including new releases, best-sellers, and even the books that normally don’t get a mention on these shows—graphic novels, audio books, and kidlit.
  • They’re on GoodReads so you can enjoy the fun on more than one platform.
  • Best of all, the program’s recording quality is top-notch, and the show is family-friendly (no dodgy topics or gratuitous swearing).

This American Life

While not technically about books, this podcast appeals to lovers of good narrative. Produced by the loveable and acclaimed radio producer Ira Glass, This American Life offers a weekly show created to a theme and chock-a-block full of ripping tales and thought-provoking content. How they manage to create such high quality shows week after week on a public radio budget is beyond me.

Book Lust with Nancy Pearl

Nancy may well be the only librarian with an action figure created in her honour. She once started a program called “If All Seattle Read the Same Book” that was taken up in cities across the US. Her rock-star status gives her connections with A-list authors, so check out the archives of Book Lust to see if your favourite author is there. (I can recommend the interview with John Irving).

BBC World Book Club

Here’s a great way to learn about foreign books you might want to read. The usual format is Q & A in front of a live audience. This one falls at the erudite end of the spectrum without being too stuffy.

Book Riot

These guys are young and hip, so they cover books in a fresh way with an emphasis on technology and innovation. Their slick accompanying website gives you a good idea of the flavour and scope.

Creative Commons Image Credit: lovely book! by Tim Geer

Book Review: Mothers Grimm

Mothers Grimm by Danielle Wood

Allen & Unwin, 2014

ISBN: 9781741756746

 

I love fairy tale retellings. It’s my “thing.” So, when I saw Mothers Grimm, I was instantly hooked–especially with the fabulous cover design and its promising blurbs. Tell me–who can resist “wickedly dark, astonishingly funny?”

But I have to admit, this book wasn’t what I was expecting. If you’re after Once-upon-a-times, “love’s first kiss,” and beleaguered  princesses, this isn’t the book for you. For the record, that’s not what I look for in fairy tale retellings. I like intriguing archetypes and dark, magical stories that zap the slumbering collective-unconscious, neither of which I found in this book. My preference leans towards the retellings that resemble the original fairy tale in tone and shape (a la Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth). In Mothers Grimm, the most we get of the original is a faint fingerprint, the slightest whiff.

Though the fairytale link is tenuous, what this book offers is beautiful writing and crystalline insights. Danielle Wood’s stories of motherhood, love and female friendships thrum with truth. On page after page I encountered creepily familiar thoughts, insecurities, and reflections–things I’d previously diagnosed as my own brand of weird. Who knew other women were plagued with such things? Maybe I’m okay after all…(That or Danielle is my long-lost twin).

Raw and real?–Yes, absolutely. “Astonishingly funny?”–Not for this reader. Sorry. It’s probably just me and my hormone-benumbed funny bone. I have no doubt other women will cackle over the author’s wicked observations.

I heartily recommend this one to lovers of realistic women’s fiction. There is a lot to admire and enjoy in Mothers Grimm–even if there is no big bad wolf, wicked witch, or happily-ever-after.

 

*Disclosure: I received an uncorrected proof from Allen & Unwin for an honest review.

Want to know more? The Sydney Morning Herald interviewed Danielle Wood here.

Four Good Reasons to Love Black Cat Books

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It’s National Bookshop Day, and I can’t let the occasion pass without tipping my hat to Brisbane’s loveliest book people–the crew at Black Cat Books in Paddington (Brisbane, Australia).

There are lots of reasons to love the place, but today I’d like to share my top four:

1. It smells like new books.

The big book stores in busy shopping centres can’t achieve this, and the online stores don’t stand a chance. If you’re in need of an olfactory fix, step inside Black Cat and sniff away. Not only does it smell like new books, it has that soothing, old-world bookshop charm. Branches tick against the tin roof, wooden floors creak, pages sigh. I think there’s even a tinkling bell on the door.

The bookish vibe matches that of City Lights Book Store in San Francisco without the elitism. Black Cat Books have built a welcoming literary culture in Paddington with the regular hosting of book launches, book clubs, and kids’ writing workshops.

2. The staff know their stuff.

Stephanie, one of the owners, gave a fascinating talk to my writing group about the book trade. We writers so absorb ourselves in the creative task that it’s easy to neglect the business considerations of writing. Stephanie’s talk, replete with tips and ah-has, gave us fantastic insight into a rapidly changing industry.

The staff are enthusiastic readers, and they hand-sell their favourites. In my experience, they are totally trustworthy in the recommendation department.

3. Black Cat supports local writers.

Big chain book stores will set up a table for writers, but Black Cat’s author support goes way beyond this. They go all out! I attended a children’s book launch earlier this year where staff member Hadley took a part in a skit–costume and all–for the kiddies. Now that’s heart and soul dedication to local writers!

4. Their kids’ section is hard to beat.

It’s well-stocked and family friendly. Grandparents, teachers, parents and kids need to make this place a regular stop.

So, on this National Bookshop Day 2014, I want to put it out there that I am grateful for people like the Hogans and their employees, who do what they do so well, and for magical places like Black Cat Books.

 

CC Image by Brenda Clarke

Don’t forget about the chance to win a handmade SmashBook! Click the link to see how.

The Legacy of Anne Frank Lives On

 

Anne Frank Street Art by  TIA, CC

Anne Frank!  Street art photo by TIA, CC

Today marks Anne Frank’s 85th birthday. I don’t know about you, but that fact blows my mind. Anne Frank, had she survived the Holocaust, would have been a couple years older than my dad. If she’d had children, they would be my generation.

I read the book when I was in ninth grade at the recommendation of my friend Lisa, my favourite book pimp. Of course, at the tender age of 14, I didn’t have a deep understanding of what Anne’s tragically short life and indescribably horrible death meant.  I remember the impact of the book more than the actual content.

Anne’s Legacy to Me

Shortly after reading Anne Frank’s  The Diary of a Young Girl, I became a life-long journaller, and it was a life-saving decision. Seriously–my diaries were my lifeline in those angst ridden adolescent years. I chronicled every insecurity and indiscretion, analysed every crush and heartache…  I cringe to think what dreadful content I’d find…if I still had them.

Ah, yes. Hard to believe, but I let those babies slip out of my hand. One of the costs of living the ex-pat life is being out of the country when your childhood bedroom is transformed into a guest room. My library of children’s classics (including a gazillion Nancy Drews), my artwork, scrapbooks and journals all went to the town dump. Gulp! Thank goodness one volume of my diary was written mostly in Italian!

I still remember the some of the covers. The first one was a Hallmark diary with a key. The next was a gift from my Aunt Joy. It had an olive-green corduroy cover. My Aunt Mim gave me a beautiful gold  one. (That’s the one I used in Italy). Nowadays I use Moleskine cahiers and I keep a digital diary (on an app called Maxjournal).

Anne’s diary had a red and white checked fabric cover with a brass lock. It was really an autograph book but she wanted it for a journal. Here’s a picture of her diary from the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam. My diaries have lots of glued in bits too!

Dairy by Heather Cowper

Dairy by Heather Cowper, CC

 

Reading The Diary of a Young Girl also ignited a passion for Jewish literature (or books about Jewish people). Here are a few I highly recommend:

I read that Anne decided she wanted to be journalist so she could “live on.” Here are the words she entered in her diary on 5 April, 1944, just over seventy years ago:

“I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that’s inside me!”

 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Frank

Five Essential Apps for Readers: Webtools and Apps to Manage Your Reading

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Image by Raphaël Labbé, CC

I’m changing it up a bit this week. The focus of my series on 5 Essential Apps is shifting from writers’ apps to readers’ apps. Here are five apps and webtools that sweeten my reading life.

goodreadsGoodReads 

This is probably one of the most used apps on my iPad. It serves a multitude of purposes, including:

 

  • Cataloguing my books (I have 61 shelves cataloguing more than 1000 titles!)
  • Finding my next read
  • Storing my swelling To-Read list (which currently sits at an embarrassing 532 titles)
  • Connecting with friends about books
  • Following authors
  • Supporting my writer friends, and more

The app includes a bar code scanner, which makes listing books a breeze. The Recommendation Tab is fun too! GoodReads offers suggestions for books you might like based on your recent uploads.

Of course, every writer know that GoodReads is a fabulous marketing tool and essential for building an author platform.

Digg Readerdigg2-logo-square-webtreatsetc

 

Digg is primarily a social news aggregator site, but it is also a feed reader. That means it will gather articles of interest for you and that you can compile your own “playlist” of favourite blogs. I use it for the second function, having hand-loaded my feed with cool writing sites and writer-friends’ blogs. I set aside time every so often just to peruse my Digg feed with a pot of tea.

 

What Should I Read Next?download

Ever had a friend or loved one who was stumped for what to read next? Rack your brain no more!  This webtool will help you source just the right book. Type in the title of something you read and liked and this the website will spit out a list of possible titles to peruse. It’s fun to try even if you’re not stuck for reading matter. (And really, what book lover is? Refer above to my GR To-Read list of 532 much anticipated titles…)

 

Booko Buddy App

Booko Buddy App

Booko Buddy

*Author’s Note: If you can’t be trusted with a credit card in a book store, your partner will thank you for trying this app out.

This iPhone app lets you track down the cheapest offering of a title. Plug in the book you’re looking for, and it will generate a list of prices, cheapest to most expensive, for your shopping ease. It even factors in international postage.

It’s a handy tool for hard to find titles and books you’re giving away as prizes on your blog (when economy is the primary factor)—but do make sure you continue to support my heroes and yours, your local book store owners!

And finally….One for Children’s Authors to Keep an Eye On…Introducing…

 

Biblionasium

download (2)Biblionasium is a kid-friendly GoodReads with the fun-factor ratcheted up to max. It’s all about fostering a love of books and reading. Young readers are invited to review books, play games to “flex their reading muscles” and enter competitions. The user interface is as colourful and inviting as a theme park! It’s strictly monitored and complies with COPPA (Child Online Privacy Protection Act) so parents and teachers can feel confident allowing children to use it.

 

There you go! Five Essential Apps for Readers (and writers, ’cause we’re all readers, right?)

Over to You!

Are there fascinating apps or wicked webtools for readers (and writers) you think I should know about? Please leave a comment!