The Books That Made Me, Part 2

Part I can be found here. Images in this post are of the covers that I’m familiar with, or the closest approximation.

Early Teenage Years (13 to 16)

 

In my early teens, SF and fantasy still dominated my reading, with a little more realism creeping in. I read Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom as a child, along with many of her other novels, but in my early teens, my absolute favourite was Back Home, about a twelve-year-old girl, Rusty, who returns to England at the end of the Second World War after being evacuated to the States. As someone who spent a significant part of her childhood in Washington DC before moving ‘back home’ to England, where I was born, I strongly identified with Rusty. As I got older, I appreciated Magorian’s subtle characterisation more and more; Back Home is less idealised than Goodnight Mister Tom, and the adult characters don’t split so neatly into good and bad.

Berlie Doherty’s The Sailing Ship Tree really shaped my own writing as a teenager; set in the Edwardian period, it describes the emerging friendship between ‘Master George’, the privileged son of a landed family, and twins Dorothy and Walter, who live on his estate. Told in multiple viewpoints, The Sailing Ship Tree has virtually no plot but is emotionally complex and very moving.

I devoured Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights when it first came out and waited eagerly for the next two books in the series. Sadly, I’ve found that I don’t enjoy re-reading Pullman as an adult, but I absolutely loved all the His Dark Materials books as a teenager. Going to a comprehensive school in Bath where evangelical Christianity was surprisingly dominant among my fellow pupils, I ate up Pullman’s opposition to organised religion, even though I now find his world-view simplistic and aggressive. I also loved reading Pullman’s writing advice, much of which is quite sound, and his suggestion [paraphrased] that ‘writers should study anything but English Literature’ had a big hand in me choosing a History degree.

John Christopher’s The Lotus Caves is about two teenagers living on the moon who fall through its surface into a strange underground world. Eerie and compelling, I still enjoy reading this. Another SF favourite was Lois Lowry’s much more famous The Giver, which still has me pondering ethical questions about the distribution of resources in a fair society, the problems with sexual attraction, and how we handle feelings.

Finally, Susan Cooper’s time-slip story King of Shadows had a much bigger impact on me than her more famous Dark Is Rising series, which I read as a child. Nathan, mourning the loss of his parents, is flung back in time and becomes an actor in Shakespeare’s company. This rather whimsical premise is rooted in clever historical detail and a beautiful exploration of the filial bond that develops between Nathan and Shakespeare.

Late Teenage Years (16 to 19)

 

While the fourth and fifth Harry Potter books were not as structurally perfect as the first three, they fuelled my Harry Potter obsession further; this article gives a pretty good account of how it felt to be a teenage fan in the years before book six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, came out. While I never ‘shipped’ Sirius and Lupin, I was just as devoted to seeking out clues in the text of the first five books as were the romance-orientated fans described in the article linked above. I was convinced that the moral complexity that seemed to be emerging in book five, when Sirius tells Harry that ‘the world isn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters‘, would pay off, and spent hours on the internet discussing theories with fellow fans – both other teenagers, and adults. Therefore, it’s hard to convey just how disappointed I was by book six without sounding silly. I’d invested so much time and effort into this series, and I felt like JKR had thrown it all in my face – the terrible romance, the awful plotting, the evil-from-birth baby Tom Riddle who ‘never cried’. I’m not going to write extensively about Harry Potter here because I have a Monster Rant post coming up, but suffice it to say that my anger with books six and seven was incredibly formative. As an adult, I can see that many of the structural problems that afflicted the last two books in the series were present in books four and five as well, but the material in those books was so much more generous and interesting, that I still like them even though I know I shouldn’t.

Luckily, George R.R. Martin stepped in to fill the fantasy gap. I first read A Game of Thrones in 2004, when seemingly no-one else in the UK had heard of it, and became totally addicted to A Song of Ice and Fire, blazing through the next three books over the next year. Please always remember: these books are nothing like the TV series. Rather than a nihilistic world portrayed through a series of misogynistic tropes, Martin presents a universe that is brutal and misogynistic, but where hope and honour can win out, and with a large and diverse female cast who deal with Westerosi society in their own way. What Martin is best at is handling the readers’ sympathies; making us rethink our own allegiances; exploring shades of grey. It’s a literary skill that I still think is massively underrated, and it’s been hugely influential on my own writing. One day I’m going to write a longer post about A Song of Ice and Fire, but suffice it to say that it ENRAGES me that the Harry Potter series has a wholly undeserved ‘feminist’ reputation, whereas Song is written off as sexist, largely because of the awful TV series.

 

And now we get to the really formative books, the books that have had the most profound impact on the way I read and write. The most significant of these has to be Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. As an eighteen-year-old, I was entranced by how Ishiguro approached speculative fiction; throwing scientific accuracy out the window in favour of emotional truth. Kathy H’s voice is absolutely convincing, and I still think about Tommy’s tantrums: ‘Maybe I knew something all along. Something the rest of you didn’t’. If you haven’t read this uncanny story of three teenagers growing up in a peculiar school, what on earth are you waiting for?

Two classic novels also shaped my mindset during this period. My school had been given a free set of Everyman’s Classics at some point, so around the age of sixteen, I started methodically reading through them. I had studied Jane Eyre in Year Nine and liked it, but Charlotte Bronte’s lesser-known and yet greater novel, Villette, totally blew me away. Lucy Snowe, its protagonist, is a strikingly modern heroine who only slowly infiltrates her way into the narrative. She’s an unreliable and not totally likeable narrator, but Bronte’s exploration of her emotional isolation is utterly heartbreaking. I’ve written more about Villette here. Similarly, Middlemarch was an education; the ways in which Eliot extends sympathy to each and every character are still too little replicated in modern novels. (Though it’s clearly an inferior text, I also loved Adam Bede).

Finally, I returned to a childhood favourite, Robin McKinley, for two novels that I’ve re-read countless times. Rose Daughter, a second retelling of Beauty and the Beast, shaped how I write about place and landscape, with its beautiful evocation of the Beast’s castle and the roses that Beauty cultivates there. (Poor McKinley has been lumbered with some terrible covers in her time – please ignore the fact that this looks like a bad romance novel!) Sunshine, which featured vampires before they became fashionable, is a totally different kind of story, with its rambling, captivating narrator and brilliantly imagined futuristic world. I’m only allowed to re-read this very occasionally for fear of wearing the magic out; I love it so much.

What were your favourite teenage reads, and do you still enjoy them now?

[NB. I have put the promised Parts 2 and 3 into one post as there wasn’t really a sensible way to separate them – hence why this is so long!]

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Three Things: February 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter, and apologies for playing with the format a bit!

Reading

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The Binding, Bridget Collins’s first adult novel, is set in an alternative past where bookbinders bind people’s memories into individual volumes, allowing the choice to get rid of painful recollections – or, if you’re struggling to survive, the option of selling your happy or interesting memories for money. When Emmett is sent to train as a bookbinder under the elderly Seredith, he can’t work out why he seems to be in disgrace with his family, or why he reacts so violently to Lucian, an elite young gentleman he encounters, until he realises that he himself has been bound in the past. Collins’s world-building has something of the simple solidity of the wonderful YA writing I loved in my childhood – Monica Furlong and Robin McKinley came to mind. But there’s also a touch of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith in the clever three-part structure, and in the way a private collection of books functions as both horror and revelation. Spoilers for The Binding follow.

As it turns out, Emmett and Lucian fell for each other before the opening of the novel, but when their respective families discovered their love affair, both were bound to hide the ‘shame’ of their sexuality. At the end of Part One, Emmett manages to burn the book that contains his memories, and so reclaims them. The much longer Part Two flashes back to let the reader see how Emmett and Lucian’s relationship developed, but when we’re back in the present in Part Three, we realise that only Emmett now knows the truth; Lucian’s book is still untouched. The climax of the novel sees Lucian torn between whether he should seek out his book – what if it contains evidence that he’s a murderer or a rapist? – or whether he should leave it be. Although Lucian doesn’t know why he was bound, this works pretty neatly as a metaphor for coming to terms with your own sexuality. How long can you lie to yourself about something you already know?

Collins’s background as a YA writer is put to effective use here. What I really liked about The Binding is the way in which it deconstructs what makes YA fiction work so well, but pairs it with stronger writing and a slower, more reflective pace. Readers of YA, especially queer YA, will know that it often pivots on that moment of realisation, that ‘and then he kissed him’, or ‘she kissed her’, though the latter is still unfortunately much harder to find than the former. The Binding lets this happen three times, when Lucian and Emmett first meet, and when they each respectively regain their memories. Moreover, like Fingersmith, it enjoys playing with power dynamics. The novel starts off with the traditional tale, with farm labourer Emmett seduced by the more sexually experienced Lucian, but once Emmett regains his memories and Lucian does not, the tables are amusingly turned. After their ‘first’ encounter, Lucian reflects ‘what he showed me wasn’t tenderness; it was experience. When he first kissed me I thought – in spite of everything – he was innocent. As if he’d never touched anyone else. But that’s absurd. No one fucks like that unless they’ve done it a lot.’ When both Lucian and Emmett learn the truth, their relationship is the more balanced for it. Totally absorbing, and great fun.

Watching Listening

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I don’t seem to have watched anything recently, but I’ve finally found a way to make some time for podcasts – I listen to them while doing repetitive Spanish exercises on Duolingo! Obviously, this requires podcasts that don’t need absolute concentration, but I find BookTube and other podcasts on reading and writing work well for this for me. I’ve been dipping into Savidge Reads and Insert Literary Pun Here‘s channels, as well as some of Tim Clare’s Death of 1000 Cuts podcasts.

I’ve also been enjoying Double Love, a podcast that dissects the ridiculousness of the Sweet Valley High series, one book at a time. I was reading SVH in the late 90s and early 2000s, so I’m much more familiar with the books after #100 (Evil Twin!!!) or so, but it’s fun getting a glimpse at the very different world of the 80s titles.

Thinking

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Yes, yet another book-related one, but I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to see on the Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2019, which will be announced on March 4th. THIS IS NOT A PREDICTION, which is why some of the most obvious picks are missing, but rather the sixteen books I’d most like to see on the list. Links to my reviews, where they exist; I haven’t read Rooney, Toews, Griffiths, Serpell, Miller, Kwon, Hustvedt, Li or Forna, but I’m adding them because I’d like to read them.

Normal People: Sally Rooney

Milkman: Anna Burns

Old Baggage: Lissa Evans

Motherhood: Sheila Heti

Women Talking: Miriam Toews

So Lucky: Nicola Griffiths

The Old Drift: Namwali Serpell

Circe: Madeline Miller

Melmoth: Sarah Perry

The Western WindSamantha Harvey

The Incendaries: RO Kwon

Memories of the Future: Siri Hustvedt

Where Reasons End: Yiyun Li

The Night Tiger: Yangsze Choo

Ghost Wall: Sarah Moss [may be too short to qualify]

Happiness: Aminatta Forna

What would you like to see longlisted for the Women’s Prize?

 

The Last 10 Books Tag

I’ve seen this popping up everywhere, but most recently at Annabel’s blog.

The last book I gave up on

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis. I wanted to read about people climbing Everest, but when I realised that a substantial amount of this doorstopper was about the First World War, I stopped reading it. I’ve read a lot of historiography on the experience of the war, and its myth and memory, for work, and so revising this just isn’t that fun for me.

The last book I re-read

Abhorsen by Garth Nix. If you haven’t read this creepy, atmospheric YA quartet, which starts with Sabriel, you really ought to. Nix brings his fantasy universe, peopled by necromancers, seers and animate corpses, vividly to life, and he wrote about a kingdom divided by a Wall behind which the dead walk before George R. R. Martin did.

The last book I bought

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley. I thought it was fabulous and will be reviewing it here soon.

The last book I said I read but actually didn’t

I can’t remember ever doing this. Unless I’ve done it by accident? I perhaps have claimed to have read Bleak House when I’ve only read half of it, but that was enough for a lifetime.

The last book I wrote in the margins of

Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform by Diane Ravitch. A popular, conservative-ish history of education in twentieth-century America. I write in all the academic books I own.

The last book I had signed

Solar by Ian McEwan. I never have books signed for myself, so got this signed as a present for my mum several years back. My impression of McEwan was not favourable.

The last book I lost

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. This childhood favourite was sadly left on a train, and I must get round to buying a new copy. Tamora Pierce’s Alanna for grown-ups.

The last book I had to replace

Freeze Tag by Caroline B. Cooney. This Point Horror classic really isn’t very good, but I wanted it for inspiration for my current work-in-progress. It turns out the best thing about it is the cover and the title, and my teenage self was quite right to get rid of my previous copy.

The last book I argued over

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I really couldn’t get on with this at all, finding it shallow and a bit ridiculous, but many fellow members of my creative writing group loved it.

The last book I couldn’t find

My treasured chick lit collection, c. 2005-c.2010, including many titles by Lindsey Kelk, Harriet Evans and Miranda Dickinson. My dad found these books for me hiding in a box after I explained the concept of I Heart…  to him. (‘You mean it’s called ‘I Love New York?’ ‘No, I Heart New York.’ ‘A book can’t be called that.’)

Three Things… November 2018

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

 

I’ve been reading a lot of books that deal with ice, snow, and travelling in the cold – very appropriate for Newcastle in November. I finally finished Ursula Le Guin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness, which I’ve been reading very slowly – the first half, in particular, is dense and difficult, and I needed time to take it in. As is well known, the novel deals with a foreign visitor to the planet Gethen, or ‘Winter’, whose otherwise-human inhabitants have no specific biological sex until they enter a monthly state called kemmer, when they can become either male or female depending on circumstance (Le Guin calls this ‘a bisexual society’, which makes the modern reader trip up a bit, and demonstrates how marginal bisexual sexualities were in the 1970s). This not only makes gender irrelevant but renders everybody asexual most of the time. The phrase that the title comes from – a Gethenian saying that ‘the left hand of darkness is the right hand of light’ indicates the novel’s concern with challenging binaries, not solely those of man/woman but of friend/enemy and sexual partner/platonic companion.

The second half of the novel is where it really picks up pace, having established its theoretical framework, as our original narrator travels with an exiled Gethenian across a frozen sea – a journey reminiscent of the accounts of Antarctic travellers such as Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the WorldI kept tracing the influence of this novel forward to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justicewhich also corrects one of the most significant flaws of The Left Hand of Darkness by using ‘she’ rather than ‘he’ to refer to its genderless beings, a thought experiment that, for me, works much better. I’m certain I’ve missed half of what this novel has to say, so I hope I’ll return to it again.

Other recent reads that deal with the cold, and travelling away from, through it, and towards it: Garth Nix’s follow-up to his brilliant Abhorsen trilogy, Goldenhand, which I enjoyed as much as Abhorsen, if not as much as Sabriel or Lirael; and Sally Magnusson’s The Sealwoman’s Gift, a thoroughly engrossing historical novel set between seventeenth-century Iceland and Algiers, which is both genuinely funny and genuinely sad. I especially admired how Magnusson described the meeting of two oral storytelling traditions, as captured Icelandic slaves come into contact with local Muslim women.

Watching

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Passengers (2016) attracted fierce criticism for its misogynistic and antiquated story line when it was initially released. Nevertheless, I can’t resist (a) set-pieces/’locked rooms’ (b) films set in space (c) living spaces full of futuristic breakfast-making technology etc. (d) things going wrong with lots of beeping screens and electronic read-outs, so I was pretty sure I was going to hate the gender politics but enjoy the film anyway. Spoilers for Passengers follow. 

And yes, as the film stands, it’s as sexist as everybody says. If you didn’t follow the original controversy, the film focuses on a ship making its way towards a new home world for humanity. The passengers and crew on board are in suspended animation over the 120-year journey, but when the ship suffers a meteorite strike, one of the pods is damaged, and its passenger, Jim, wakes up ninety years too early. Realising that he’s doomed to live out his life alone on the ship, he becomes fixated on fellow passenger, Aurora, tampers with her pod and wakes her up as well. Aurora and Jim fall in love, but when she finds out what he did, she’s rightly furious. When the ship starts going even more wrong, Jim’s heroic willingness to risk his own life to save others encourages Aurora to forgive him, and they grow old and die together in space.

As a number of people pointed out at the time, this is fundamentally disturbing. Jim essentially murders Aurora, and deliberately places her in a situation where she will become emotionally and socially dependent on him. His behaviour is abusive, and although Aurora is offered the choice of returning to suspended animation near the end of the film through a plot contrivance, Jim could not have known this would happen when he decided to wake her up. Moreover, the way the film is framed reduces Aurora to a passive object that Jim first takes and then has to win back. A recorded message from one of her friends telling her that she needs to learn to give more of herself and not always be so distant and independent underlines the unpleasant message that her enforced ‘love’ for Jim is natural and right.

Nevertheless, I can’t stop thinking about Passengers, basically because it’s one of those films that could so easily have been really good and instead is terrible. As this video (‘Passengers, Rearranged’) outlines, if the structure of the film was flipped and we started in Aurora’s head as she wakes up, the reveal that Jim deliberately did this to her would come as a surprise to the viewers as well. Jim would become a dark grey character, rather than a romantic hero, and the film’s tone would shift more towards horror than sci-fi. Even better, the video suggests that Jim could be killed off in the course of the movie, leaving Aurora alone on the ship – and faced with the same dark choice that he originally struggled with. Framed like this, Passengers could have been less Titanic and more Black Mirror, much more thought-provoking, and far less objectionable.

Thinking

I’m absolutely loving Tim Clare’s Couch to 80k Writing Bootcamp, a free eight-week novel-writing course with a 20-minute podcast including a ten-minute writing exercise every day (with one day off a week). The name, while catchy, is a bit misleading – Clare explicitly advises writers against the kind of NaNoWriMo mentality where you try to get as many words down each day no matter how bad they are, believing it makes you burn out and get put off. Instead, he suggests, you should make writing something you look forward to and stop while you still want to do more – a practice that these podcasts certainly encourage. So you won’t have 80k words by the end, but you’ll hopefully be feeling much more creative and productive.

What’s especially brilliant about it is how flexible it is – it’s really a way of getting you to establish a daily writing habit, so it’s a useful boost whether you’re just starting your very first novel or are bogged down in the third draft of your tenth. For me, it’s helping me do some proper thinking and planning for my new project, which is set in Antarctica (more cold!) and has the working title Old Ice. I love this bootcamp so much that I’m listening to two episodes a day and making it into a four-week writing course, so I’m hoping to be done by Christmas and ready to properly launch into a first draft. Given how many novel-writing courses, offline or online, are prohibitively expensive for those on low incomes (which is not my position at the moment, but used to be for a number of years and may be again in the future) I’m really impressed by Clare’s generosity in providing this gem for free, and I’ll definitely be contributing to his coffee fund.

Holiday Reading in the USA, Part Two

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One of the key goals of my trip to the US was to buy a copy of Tana French’s latest novel, The Witch Elm, and get it back to the UK (not easy with a very big hardback book and a very limited baggage allowance). As readers of this blog will know, I am a huge fan of Tana French’s literary crime writing, and am always trying to recruit people to my cult (my success rate is high). Her first six novels were all focused on detectives working in the Dublin Murder Squad, making The Witch Elm her first stand-alone, although it retains the Dublin setting. Our narrator, Toby, has lived a life that he describes as ‘lucky’ and we might describe as ‘privileged’; as a white, middle-class, straight man, he has no structural barriers to overcome until the moment two burglars break into his flat and beat him brutally, leaving him dealing with neurological disabilities. While still trying to get back on his feet, he goes to stay with his dying uncle Hugo, and reunites with his two cousins, Susanna and Leon. But when a skeleton is discovered in the wych elm in Hugo’s garden, Toby realises that his gilded past might not have been as fortunate as he thought.

While the quality of French’s writing shows no sign of diminishing, I felt that The Witch Elm ranked alongside my least favourite of the Dublin Murder Squad novels, rather than with the best; in theme and accomplishment, it’s most similar to French’s debut, In the Woods. One thing that was lacking for me was the interplay of genre and literary conventions that marks out the most brilliant of French’s novels; by discarding the police procedural elements, French ends up writing a much more straightforward literary novel that is more reminiscent of The Secret History and its many imitators  than crime fiction. I missed this tension, which French handles so well – although after reading her first six novels multiple times, I felt that I could almost read the minds of the policemen who interrogate Toby and his family, and found myself wondering which strategies and masks they were using, which was fun 🙂

Moreover, although The Witch Elm’s message about privilege is powerful, I felt it was a bit too clearly spelt out, especially near the end of the novel, when Toby is carefully lectured by Susanna and Leon. Earlier scenes, such as Toby’s attitude to the ‘urban youth’ whose art he is meant to be promoting as part of his job – he sees the whole endeavour as a politically correct racket – make the point about his character much more subtly. Nevertheless, the dissolution of Toby’s very self as he realises he can no longer rely on being seen as a ‘blank slate’ – that he is now being judged by his stammer, his twitches and his pauses – is very well done. Toby can’t understand who he is now he is seen by society as a ‘disabled man’ rather than simply as a person; he’s lost his ability to imagine himself as anything he wants to be, and now can’t imagine himself as anything at all.

Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before The Start Of Time combines the artificial wombs of Helen Sedgwick’s The Growing Season with the single-parent babies of Angela Chadwick’s XX to present a series of vignettes across three generations that consider how both new technologies and changing social norms transform child-bearing and child-rearing. This short book is deceptively easy to read, but I felt like little of it was sticking with me; books that jump forward in time like this often end up making the characters’ children and grandchildren into no more than a list of names, a problem that was also obvious in Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us. I liked the fact that Charnock mixed together a series of advances rather than focusing on a single ‘what-if’ scenario, but she didn’t really give herself the space to consider these alternative realities in enough depth.

I came across Robin Oliveira’s My Name Is Mary Suttera historical novel about a midwife wanting to train as a surgeon who ends up nursing wounded soldiers in DC in the midst of the American Civil War, on Claire’s blog. The novel is not only hard-hitting but almost tragic, in the Greek sense; Oliveira seems determined to force Mary to a point where she literally has only herself to rely on, where she must completely re-examine the initial determination to receive medical training that drove her to this point. As with Lissa Evans’s Old Baggage, I enjoyed reading about a female protagonist who is primarily motivated by ambition and idealism rather than by love, friendship and family, although Oliveira also emphasises Mary’s emotional ties. There are a few annoying tropes -[highlight for spoiler] why does Mary’s unambitious and feminine sister, Jenny, have to compete with her over a man, get married, do nothing, and then die horribly in childbirth[end spoiler] – but the vitality of Mary’s character pulls the novel through.

What next, now I’m sadly back in the UK? I’m enthralled by Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, which I have to call a Calvinist ghost story (thanks to Rebecca for handing on her proof copy!) and am slowly enjoying Ursula Le Guin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness, while I found Elisa Lodato’s An Unremarkable Body to be an unsatisfactory mix of literary experimentation and chick lit. For peaceful, contemplative bedtime reading, I’m rediscovering some Michael Morpurgo favourites from childhood – Kensuke’s Kingdom and King of the Cloud Forests – and for more unsettling dreams, I re-read a book that haunted my teenage years, John Marsden’s Letters from the Inside.

Tag: How I Choose My Books

Borrowed from Hannah at I Have Thoughts on Books.

Find a book on your shelves with a pink cover. What made you pick up the  book in the first place?

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When I was seventeen, my youth theatre group took part in the initial stages of the National Theatre Connections project, which commissions ten new plays from well-known playwrights for young people to perform. We got together with the National Theatre’s youth theatre group, all the potential directors and the playwrights to workshop the plays. I was picked to workshop Ali Smith’s Just (which is an amazing play that I still think about today) and, like the committed young person I was, decided that I also had to read one of her novels in preparation. My school library had Hotel World. Alas, Ali wasn’t able to make it to the workshop after all, but I loved Hotel World – I’d never read anything like it at that age – and we had a fab two days with Jeremy Stockwell instead, who was mad and brilliant.

Think of a book you didn’t expect to enjoy but did. Why did you read it in the first place?

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As I said in my review of The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht, ‘I almost didn’t read this book because I thought it was going to be a story about a boy meeting a magical tiger.’ I found out that it was nothing of the kind – and it ended up being possibly my favourite Orange Prize winner ever. (I read it in the first place because it was on the Orange Prize shortlist.) I have also now read and enjoyed Yann Martel’s Life of Pi – which was the first book I ever read on a Kindle – which could arguably be said to be about a boy meeting a magical tiger, so I’m not sure what my problem with boys and magical tigers was in the first place.

Stand in front of your bookshelf with your eyes closed and pick up a book at random. How did you discover this book?

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I read Suzanna Clarke’s collection of short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, in 2007, after reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I can’t remember much about it now, other than, like all Clarke’s work, it’s long on charming detail and a little short on satisfying storytelling (Jonathan Strange is so long for such a simple plot – and I was annoyed that Clarke went for such black-and-white characterisation – Mr Norrell will always be my favourite). The question here is really how I discovered Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in the first place, but I can’t remember. I must have read it before I went to university, because footnotes still seemed very novel.

To go off on a tangent, I heard Clarke talk about Jonathan Strange in 2005 and she told a story that I still use when I want to argue that striving for perfect historical accuracy in historical novels is a losing game. The novel begins in 1806 in York Minster, which the book refers to as York Cathedral. Clarke received many letters telling her that York Cathedral is always known as York Minster. She explained that this is the case, except at the precise time Jonathan Strange is set, when it was not. However, this still sounds ‘wrong’ to modern readers. On the other hand, Clarke did admit that she used Jane Austen’s spelling in the book because she thought it was authentically Regency, then realised that Austen’s spelling is quite specific to Austen…

Pick a book that someone personally recommended to you. What did you think of it?

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My dad recommended Restless, William Boyd’s novel about espionage during the Second World War, and it has become one of the elite number of books that my dad and I both really like (I think all these books are by either William Boyd, Bernard Cornwell or George R.R. Martin). It’s also the only spy novel I’ve ever read that I’ve liked.

Pick a book you discovered through book blogs. Did it live up to the hype?

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I discover most books through book blogs these days, but back in the day, I was impressed by George Mackay Brown’s Vinland, a modern Viking saga, after reading Victoria’s review on Eve’s Alexandria – one of many Eve’s Alexandria-inspired reads. My review is here on my old blog.

Find a book on your shelves with a one word title. What drew you to this book?

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I was drawn to Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley because it was by Robin McKinley, with whom I am obsessed. This book, about a boy living in a dragon sanctuary, is not one of her best, but luckily she’s also written lots of other excellent books with one-word titles, including Deerskin, Chalice, Beauty and Sunshine, as well as some other excellent books with slightly longer titles, such as The Hero and the Crown, Spindle’s End and Rose Daughter.

What book did you discover through a film/TV adaptation?

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A really tricky category, as I don’t watch very many films or much TV, so it normally goes the other way. The only example I can think of is Lynn Barber’s memoir An Education, which I came to through the Carey Mulligan film. I was amused to find out that some of the dodgy dealings in this memoir took place on a street I used to live on in Cambridge!

Is anyone else keen to do this tag? Would love to hear other people’s answers!

Tempests and Slaughter: Numair Returns!

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I’m a long-time fan of Tamora Pierce, having read her first Alanna novel when I was only seven years old. In the following years, I ploughed through the rest of the Alanna quartet, her other Tortall-set books – including my absolute favourite, the Protector of the Small novels – and her Emelan novels, Circle of Magic, The Circle Opens and Will of the Empress. This is the first of her very recent novels that I’ve tried, and overall, I felt disappointed. Tempests and Slaughter has an exciting premise for any Pierce junkie, especially those who’ve read her Immortals quartet. It focuses on the ‘early years’ of the great mage Numair Salmalin as he trains at the Imperial University of Carthak and befriends fellow student Ozorne, who is very distantly in line for the Carthak throne, and the pretty, talented Varice.

In many ways, Tempests and Slaughter shares close similarities with other Pierce books – most obviously, Alanna: The First Adventure, First Test, and the whole of the Circle of Magic series. Some of Pierce’s novels have always had the tendency to focus on the quiet beginnings of an education, rather than significant events, and this is usually a theme I really enjoy. Pierce writes very well about learning new skills, about dedication and friendship, and I was hoping to find all these things in Tempests and Slaughter. To an extent, I did – but the book is simply too long. At 432 pages, it’s at least twice the length of any of the novels I’ve just mentioned, and it just drags and drags. There’s no central plot-line, and no sense of progress by the end of the book. If you have a clear recollection of the events of Emperor Mage – and I have to admit that I had to look these up, having never particularly got on with the Immortals quartet – there’s some interest here in re-encountering familiar characters, but even that’s surely not enough to carry the entire story.

There are some promising threads in Tempests and Slaughter. I really liked young Numair’s – Arram Draper as he’s known here – encounter with the brutality of the gladiatorial arena, and his growing friendship with one of the fighters, who turns out to have a link to his future. I also enjoyed the sequence when Arram is flung into the middle of a plague and has to use his Gift to provide medical care – it reminded me somewhat of a similar sequence in The Healing in the Vine. If the book had focused more on these plot-lines and less on the back-and-forth between Arram, Ozorne and Varice, it would have felt less repetitive. It would also have helped to differentiate it more from the now huge number of books about wizards going to wizard school (although I appreciate that this is a book Pierce has been planning for a very long time.)

I would read another book in this series, but I hope that the next is more tightly-plotted and/or shorter.

I received a free copy of this novel for review from the publisher via NetGalley. It’s out in the UK on 20th September.