Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The joy of browsing and discovery.

Last weekend I did a run to Brisbane in order to drop off a recently repaired laptop to student daughter, which gave me an excuse to drop into a particular bookshop, this bookshop  is part of a major franchise chain but it consistently stocks a quality, varied range of books across all genres, it is not a particularly big store but it is a good one and it is staffed by people who actually read books.  I feel I can comment with some authority since I read everything from literary fiction to genre fiction like steampunk or crime, to assorted young adult and varied non fiction; everything from history, travel, gardening and cooking and even the occasional pop science. It is not often these days that I make discoveries in book shops, these days I most likely become aware of a title via traditional print reviews or reviews and chatter on blogs, I will then after frustrating trips  to local book shops end up ordering a book from somewhere like the Book depository (and yes I do feel guilty for doing that), but on Saturday after visiting this particular store both myself and my partner found books we were both after and each made a discovery, a title we were not aware of until we found it on the shelves of this  treasure trove, which reminded me again of why I make a point of dropping in to this store.
G (big si-fi reader), found a Harry Harrison Stainless Steel Rat novel he did not know about, The Stainless Steel Rat Returns, and I found a couple of titles I have been looking for but have not found on the shelves of local stores, The Ship Breaker for one.

What I really want to write about is finding a title that caught my eye with a blurb that intrigued and yet was completely new to me.  On the contemporary literature shelves I pulled out a book called In Search of the Blue Tiger, from the publisher's web  site:
Hugely positive and an imaginative tour de force In Search of the Blue Tiger is at once a celebration of books and reading, an affecting love story between a widowed town librarian and a lonely troubled child and a gripping testament to the way that any of us can move beyond the mistakes of our past to a new beginning.Shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards
A few years ago I would have bought this title then and there but over recent years I have developed different buying habits which this encounter has bought into sharp relief.  With some hesitation I put the book back on the shelf  wondering why I had heard nothing about this intriguing  title, when I went home I googled it looking for reviews and discovered that it is officially launched later this week.  I could have kicked myself for not buying it then and there.  I have not yet had a chance to drop into local book shops so I don't know if they have it or not, but going by past experience I know the odds are it would be a frustrating excursion.  I have since sourced a copy directly from the publisher, but what this minor event highlights for me is both the importance of good bookshops and independent publishers.

I used to make serendipitous discoveries all the time via bookshops, I now rarely do that and quite frankly I miss that treasure hunting pleasure.  I realise that to an extent I have become conditioned into relying on the internet to lead me to new titles and I can't help but wonder if this may not be just as restrictive as the homogeneous offerings that large retailers and for that matter many mainstream bookshops are now offering.  Large retailers when they stock books at all seem to have a preference for heavily marketed,safe titles from large mainstream publishers, they are effectively telling me what to read and by extension what to think.  Perhaps if I lived in a larger city my frustration would be less, but living where I do and with book shops in seeming freefall to extinction I am a very frustrated reader and buyer of books.  I can offer numours ancedotes on book buying frustration, working in libraries I also hear numours stories of frustration and have been guilty of introducing others to large online retailers.  I will  just give this example: I was working in a secondary college where a student approached me with a request for Rilke's Letters to a  Young  Poet, the library did not hold the title. The student  informed me he had approached local book shops who told him the book was out of print, after they fisnished with the usual 'you want what' and 'what is that?'  I told him to come back at next break and I would see what I could find, I printed out numourous references to the hard editon available for sale and located a digital edition, when the student returned we discussed his options to acquire the book and I suggested he take the printed out proof that the book was in print and available for sale into the book shop but he decided he had simply had enough of being made to feel stupid by book shop staff because he had asked for something they were not familiar with.  This particular student went on to use online suppliers despite my urging him to give the book shop another chance.  He particularly wanted  a hard copy so was not interested in a free download but went on to buy a quality and not inexpensive edition.  I am afraid that that experience introduced a serious reader and therefore purchaser of books to the discount world on online book retail.

This brings me to the importance of service in book shops and the very real need for the people who work there to actually read books and preferably something other than the latest Dan Brown or Jackie Collins, (not that those books don't have a place, they do), and possess a broad general knowledge of books, combined with plain old fashioned respect for customers and their needs.  Service and knowledge are two of the reasons I keep going back to particular stores.

Okay now something about publishers.  That particular book I picked up, In search of the Blue Tiger, is published by an independent publisher called Transit Lounge, a publisher that specialises in emergent multicultural approaches to story telling with an emphasis on exploring the relationship  'between East and West'.  This is not a mainstream press but it is one that appears to publish a number of great texts both fiction and non fiction and I can't help but think that presses like this are essential in bringing new authors to print, even in this age of do-it-yourself publication and promotion.  Readers still want a quality text, not a text that is riddled with typos and basic grammatical errors, not to mention the importance of refined and disciplined prose, quality editors make valuable conributions to the process of publication and not just in the correction of typos.  Editors and independent publishers can be insrumental in uncovering priceless gems some of which need to hewn from some very rough rock indeed.  Independent publishers like independent book shops need support so I thought I would use this oportunity to highlight that particular publisher.  Having visited their site I have discovered a couple of other titles I will be seeking out.

Well that was a bit of a rant and a bit hypocritical since I do buy online but I also try and support good bookshops, I go out of my way to return to shops where I do find not only the things I am actively looking for but also those unexpected finds. 

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Missing in Action!

This is just a quick post, I have been caught up in something that has been deeply distressing but now that it is over, ultimately rather liberating.  In the last few weeks I have gone from a state of some stress and despair, to a couple of days ago,  a sense of incredible freedom, liberation, peace and happiness!  This is just by way of a brief explanation for the overall slackness of the last two weeks, apologies to those for whom I was supposed to post links, I will be catching up in the next week or so and I am finally returning to normal reading and will eventually post on the way that reading helped with recent decisions.  Life is back to normal and I will now be catching up on blogs, my own blogging and reading.
Freedom and happiness!!!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Oh My Stars

Oh My Stars
by Lorna Landvik

This book was lent to me by a friend and sometimes it is good to read something someone else feels strongly about.  It is nice to read something you would possibly not otherwise have read, plus the need to read and return a book is good for me, because it keeps me reading when I am in danger of sinking into a kind of depressed apathy.

Oh My Stars is set in 1930sAmerica and  tells the story of Violet a somewhat unfortunate, southern, small town girl who is abandoned by her mother at the age of six, left in the care of a dissolute and emotionally abusive father. Violet is not blest with good looks or opportunity, but she does have a remarkable ability when it comes to dress making and as luck would have it the owner of a local factory manufacturing thread offers her a job.  Disaster strikes however and Violet is horribly injured in a machine accident.  Thinking life holds nothing but further suffering Violet gets on a bus with the intention of being the second person to jump off  the Golden Gate Bridge.  Predictably fate again steps in and Violet meets some remarkable young men, musicians, one white and the other black, the novel then becomes the story of this unusual group of friends.  Violet becomes manager to a newly formed group and the history of American music culture is evoked in what is a story about the way music helped change attitudes to race and culture in America.  Essentially a feel good. chick lit, novel, an easy and entertaining read.

Violet's life seems to be filled with suffering and difficulty and yet out of this adversity Landvik  spins the kind of tale that screams life is good.   I think I am too much of a cynic for feel good fiction and platitudes about life's miracles to be to carried away by Landvik's tale.  Oh my Stars does have interesting characters and an incident filled plot, the setting of rural America in the 1930s is completely foreign to me and therefore novel and while the story is filled with cliche it also remains surprising.   Race relations determine much of the plot, with the group consisting of two black brothers, one of whom is dangerously damaged and a talented, charismatic white lead signer. To this you add Violet's struggle to resume a normal life and her re-discovery of her design and dress making talent.  Romance forms another string of tension within the story, with Violet's belief that no man could ever love her and yet the men she travels with exude machismo and sexual tension is everywhere in the story.  Added to that the novel is full of homespun observation and commentary:

Of course, everyone was older back then; in those days you saw ten-year-old boys driving combines or breaking up the earth behind a team of mules; nine-year-old girls toting baby sisters on their hips as they comparison shopped at the grocery store.  "Acting your age" as an eighteen-year-old meant acting like an adult; we weren't coddled and didn't have the luxury of stretching our adolescence into our thirties, as seems to be the trend now. (p.229)

A sentiment it is hard to disagree with.  Life does hold surprises for Violet and that is one of the elements that keeps the reader turning the pages.   This novel is perhaps best summed up in lines from the closing page:
  Who'd have ever thought a shunned, husky-voiced, one-armed, big-chinned girl with a hive of bees in her head could live a life so full of miracles?
  But we all have, when you think of it. I'd love to hear about yours; the big ones,  the little ones, and those miracles you haven't even recognized yet...(p.476)

This was not my usual kind of read and I must admit I am finding it a bit hard to review.  It is reasonably well executed but saccharin, a good book group read perhaps, with broad appeal.  If you are looking for a feel good entertaining novel this may well be a good choice.  If your interested in the history of American popular music this novel will certainly hold some interest.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

A parting and The Signalman by Charles Dickens

A quick post, busy week, my resident book buddy has in the last week packed up to go back to uni. I really miss her when ever she goes back to school and I must admit that it does feel really sad. I miss the conversation, the easy assumption of shared knowledge, the love of all things literary and cultural and her amazing, cheering enthusiasm for everything, especially the seemingly most ordinary and mundane. A rainbow can produce raptures of enthusiasm for the magic of the everyday. While I can drift through barely noticing things, she has to stop and experience and admire, I will miss that. I will miss also her comic vision of the serious and self important, including my own, she has a magical ability to see the ridiculous in everything and laugh at everything, that I will miss. She is not far away, only a couple of hours drive but I will still miss her. Now on to books.

I have been dipping into a couple of books recently and since it is the month to celebrate everything Dickensian I decided to finally get around to reading one of Dickens' most famous short stories. I have been meaning to read The Signalman for sometime, I have read a number Dickens' novels, and I was introduced to Bleak House at university. Bleak House remains a favourite novel. The Signalman has intrigued me for a long time and yet I did not get to it until the last week.

It is a short, ghost story that in many ways captures the essence of Dickens work.  It displays a social awareness and concern, combined with a fascination with the changing nature of the world, with technological development counterpoised with a mythic way of viewing the world.  What in face of modern development could be more old world that a ghost story.  The story tells the tale of a signalman stationed at an isolated and somewhat bleak signal box.  To a man wandering by he re-counts a tale of haunting premonition, which is then recorded by the traveller along with his observations about the signalman's responsibility and dedication to the responsibility.  The traveller fears the stress of such a position may be playing tricks with the man's mind and urges him share the information of his latest premonition.  The story reaches a crescendo when the traveller returns to find that the signalman may well have been the subject of his third and final premonition.  The signalman is a clever, tense little tale, that displays Dickens skill as a writer of sensation.  The frightening power of the railway is captured and while reading it I couldn't help but think of the Staplehurst rail accident in which Dickens was himself famously involved, ( click on link for more infor: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Staplehurst_rail_crash)  The steam railway must have seemed an object of modernity and power, a story of hauntings and premonition brings that power into stark relief. 

Ghosts and supernatural tension are a bit of a Dickensian staple, permeating much of his work, so a story like The Signalman seems a be a suitably iconic tale and a good place to begin a relationship with Dickens.  It is a very brief read, that grabs and holds the readers attention.  It would take no more that half an hour to read and I am pretty sure it is readily available as a free download, both the written story and an audio version.  I read it in a very old volume of ghost stories that I picked up at a charity book sale some time ago, I bought it mainly because it contained The Signalman, and I can't believe it has taken me this long to get around to reading it.  Given that this month sees the 200th anniversary of the great man's birth I would urge everyone to read a little Dickens, The Signalman is just the right size to provide a brief sample of  what Dickens has to offer.


I read this in part for the Victorian reading challenge.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Murder and taxes in Roman Britain

Ruso and the River of Darkness
by R.S. Downie (UK/AU edition)

I do really like well done historical fiction and that is what R.S. Downie delivers every time.  Essentially crime/mystery novels, her Ruso series brilliantly evokes Roman Britain.  Her novels are characterised by solid  plots and memorable, likable characters.  A sense of humour adds appeal and texture to her fiction making these books great relaxing reads.

I should perhaps explain that this is a series that can cause some confusion as the novels are published under different titles in the UK and the US.  In the US this title appears under the title; Caveat Emptor and the authors name is given as Ruth Downie rather than the more ambiguous R.S. Downie.   I discovered this series sometime ago when I picked up a title on the new book shelf at the library.  I new nothing of the book or the author, the title I picked up was the first in the series; Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, a book also published under another title, which may add some confusion if your trying to track down these books.  That chance discovery was indeed the discovery of a little treasure as this series has proven itself to be an ongoing delight.  I have now read all four books currently available and have enjoyed them all. 

The series revolves around Gaius Petreius Ruso a medicus from Gaul attached to the Roman legions in Britain, divorced, plagued by family and financial problems, Ruso is cynical and sardonic but likable, with a knack for adding to his own difficulties.  In the first novel circumstances led him to buy/rescue a slave he couldn't afford and who could, it seemed do nothing but add to his problems.  The slave was a local girl called Tilla.  Tilla is a wonderful invention, a character that leaps off the page with vivid life, she acts as a nice foil to the conventional Ruso.  She consistently refuses a submissive, subordinate role, much to the annoyance of Ruso.  Their relationship forms the basis in the earlier novels for considerable sexual tension and comic effect.  As the series has progressed Tilla has progressed from slave to free servant and in this the latest novel, wife.  Much of the appeal of these novels lies in the characterisations of Ruso and Tilla, the Imperialist invader and the defiant, insubordinate local, both characters have depth and are simply very likable.  In this the latest novel Tilla and Ruso have returned from Gaul to Britain as a married couple and now a new tension is emerging between them.  Domestic tensions have always played out in these novels which gives them a homely depth, while mysteries play out in the foreground of the stories.

In Ruso and the River of Darkness the couple have arrived back in Londinium  and Ruso is desperately seeking work.  It is with reluctance he accepts a job investigating missing tax funds, before long a body turns up and a theft enquiry turns into a murder investigation.  Ruso finds himself mired in local politics and walking a a very fine line, his own life and the life of his wife is at risk.  Downie makes much of the tribal conflicts that define Britain at the time.  Tribalism is an obstacle for both Ruso and Tilla and it is the history of some of the tribes that is evoked in this novel.  The principal suspects are the occupants of Verulamium, the Catuvellauni and into their community an Iceni woman, Camma has been brought as something of a trophy wife.  When Camma is left pregnant, abandoned and alone, Tilla  goes to her aid and involves her self in a dispute Ruso would prefer she stayed out of.  Camma a strong beautiful Iceni woman inspires memories of the feared Boudica.  Downie brilliantly evokes the history and culture of the time, bringing it vividly alive in the day to day experiences and dramas of her characters.  For me the way she has made Roman Britain vividly live on the page has been one of great virtues of her novels. 

This novel is quite complex in terms of the politics involved and in terms of the plot, although the ending was perhaps a little predictable.  It is also a little darker perhaps than the previous novel, Ruso and The Root of all Evils which saw Tilla and Ruso travel to Gaul, it seemed a bit humourless compared to earlier novels but that could be just be a result of my pre-occupation with other things, (a fault in the reader not the book).  I would say that the second novel Ruso and the Demented Doctor and the third novel Ruso and the Root of all Evils are perhaps my favourites in the series.  I did enjoy this novel and I will continue to buy and read R.S. Downie's great historical mysteries, I believe another novel is due out this year and I eagerly look forward to that.  I have also included the link to R.S Downie's blog in the list of author sites worth checking out, she does amongst other things provide interesting information on the time period itself and it is worth checking out for those extras as well as information about the books, the link: http://rsdownie.co.uk/

Now I am moving onto something quite different for me, a book a friend lent me and it is not my usual kind of read.

Steaming through the African Skies with Beyond the Rails

I just want to highlight a great new online story, a blog with an unfolding steampunk adventure.  Jack sent me the link to this and I am very glad he did.  Beyond the Rails will be an unfolding collection of stories set in a steampunk colonial Africa, where a number of conflicts seem to be emerging; a conflict between competing European Empires, the British and the Prussian, the local people and the ever present challenge of the environment itself.  This is a story that is off to a great start with an interesting cast of characters from  diverse backgrounds thrown together initially on an airship called the Kestrel.  This is classic adventure stuff taking place in a colourful setting.  I have to admit that it is the sense of discovery of other worlds and cultures, the sheer sense of adventure, of the Victorian age that does appeal,  now I am not defending colonialism and the exploitation that inevitably characterised it but I do love the sense of excitement about the world, this was after all the time when diversity was emerging, so for me steampunk stories set in places other than Europe have great appeal, they provide a vibrant and exciting setting.  Settings which foster both dramatic plot and technological innovation, so I am quite excited by this unfolding story and look forward to reading the ongoing instalments.

The first story is entitled The Botanist and introduces the cast of characters, the English intellectual adventurer of the story title, a  young woman to be reckoned with who happens to be the navigator on the Kestrel and assorted crew from an assortment of countries and backgrounds.  It also introduces what promises to be unfolding conflicts driven by the politics of Empire.  Reading Beyond the Rails will now form part of my ongoing steampunked reading challenge.  Because it can be read in instalments this might be a good way to experience steampunk if your curious about the genre so I recommend checking out Beyond the Rails.  If your into steampunk or adventure driven speculative fiction I also recommend checking out this interesting and entertaining writing venture.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Victorian Law, feeling blah and not reading enough.

I am feeling blah and unable to really concentrate at the moment.  I have started re-reading Dicken's Bleak House partly because February is The month for Dickens at the Victorian Challenge and partly because when I was reading about Charles Jamrach and his account of the tiger incident I was struck by his comments on the legal implications of the incident and the legal profession of the age.  It made me think about Bleak House and it's critique of Victorian courts and the legal profession and I guess that and some unfortunate personal involvement with a disputed inheritance, that made me want to pick up that great tome, not sure if I am  looking for some greater understanding of my present position or what.  It may well be that I have chosen to re-read Bleak House in order to find some sanity in what is an insane situation, a situation which can only serve to increase the wealth of the lawyers involved.  Don't get me wrong I am not out to bag lawyers, I have a daughter who up until recently was studying to become one,  she has had a recent change of heart, but the law does seem to be a particularly exploitative process, where no one really wins except the lawyers.  Mind you what is the alternative? It's a bit like democracy: inadequate but the alternative is even worse.

So this is just a brief post, just about keeping the blog up and not completely sinking into the mire.  I am indeed still reading but only slowly working my way through Bleak House, which is a book I had not really intended to re-read at this time but circumstance kind of led me to it.  I had intended to read  another novel by Dickens plus the short story The Signalman which hopefully I will get to early in the month.  I am also almost through the historical crime novel Ruso and The River of Darkness, post on that soon.  In the meantime  I have to say I did really enjoy Jamrach's Menagerie, it was my favourite read for January and it has left me hungry for good historical fiction preferably Victorian so any suggestions would be welcome. I have copied in the significant paragraph from the Jamrach article and if you click on it, it will take you to the original in it's entirety:

I lost no time in making inquiry about him, and finding where his father was, I offered him £50 as some compensation for the alarm he had sustained. Nevertheless, the father, a tailor, brought an action against me for damages, and I had to pay £300, of which he had £60, and the lawyers the remaining £240. Of two counsel I employed, only one appeared ; the other, however, stuck to his fee right enough. At the trial the judge sympathised very much with me, saying that, instead of being made to pay, I ought to have been rewarded for saving the life of the boy, and perhaps that of a lot of other people. He, however, had to administer the law as he found it, and I was responsible for any dangerous consequences brought about in my business. He suggested, however, as there was not much hurt done to the boy, to put down the damages as low as possible. The jury named £50, the sum I had originally offered to the boy's father of my own good will. The costs were four times that amount. I was fortunate, however, to find a purchaser for my tiger a few days after the accident ; for Mr. Edmonds, proprietor of Wombwell's Menagerie, having read the report in the papers, came up to town post haste, and paid me £300 for the tiger. He exhibited him as the tiger that swallowed the child, and by all accounts made a small fortune with him.