Archive | October 2012

Second-hand book haul & a euphemism

It’s such wicked, funny weather in Brighton today. It was sunny when I left the house about an hour and twenty minutes ago, leaving my umbrella

Photo lovingly pilfered from

hanging up in the hall with a decisive “I definitely won’t need that!” Obviously, it started to rain. But it’s a soft, light rain, with the sun mostly managing to come through. It is the perfect weather for a British romance comedy couple’s emotional reunion to take place in (she’s got a plum coat and black suede boots on and he’s got chinos, a blue shirt and a tatty cardigan). Now I’ve parked up in the bay window with my favourite anti-cold-and-scurvy beverage: hot water with five drops of lime juice and a spoonful of sugar.

Living without a wage at the moment, I am always careful to avoid idiotic purchases. I build up a list of things I need to buy and then mentally justify them. If it turns out I genuinely require them, the items stay on the list. If not, they’re crossed out.

Happily, I don’t count books as “idiotic purchases” (and I hope you don’t, either). Today was one of those days when I managed to get everything I needed, and then some. My favourite Dutchman Jorik came back to the house yesterday with a bagful of second-hand books. Immediately my eye went to Atwood’s The Robber Bride, which  I pathologically need, and so I was both jealous and amazed. Inspired, I incorporated into my errands a trip to a couple of Brighton’s well-known second-hand bookshops: Brighton Books and Colin Page.

Brighton Books is a light, simple bookshop in Kensington Gardens. I fail to give a thorough report as I didn’t go down to the lower ground floor: charmingly, you’re required to leave your bags at the till, but I was all wrapped up with my satchel and a Boots bag in their proper places and was reluctant to dismantle myself. But browsing around through all the sections on the ground floor yielded something I’ve had at the back of my mind for a fair while. First, look at the brown paper bag packaging – all it needed was some string! Just lovely –  it’s all crumpled from being pressed to my chest to avoid an excessive rain soaking!

What lies within is brilliant both in terms of book-content and the cover (also check out my luridly pink nails):

This is the 1991 Quality Paperbacks Direct edition; I was a whole one year old when this was published.

Somehow, I always find that more incredible than seeing the date on much older books. Perhaps it’s because I can place it within a much more focused, personal frame of reference. It’s kind of like how, in Alien, the single alien has much more of an impact than the swathes of aliens in, er Aliens, because you’re completely fixed on a smaller dot on your radar instead of being overwhelmed and shutting down a bit.

On to Colin Page, and down the tight spiral staircase (be careful as you go down there, and hold on tight!), and I found myself in the Fiction A-Z and Poetry & Plays sections.

Almost straight away, I found something that’s been on my wishlist for a long time.

I’d been in a bit of a dilemma with regards to Amazon purchases after reading Martin Bekkelund’s now-viral blog entry.  Happily, Colin Page fairly held up Atwood’s book to me, saving me from having to reuse the ebook retailer just yet. Is this the first concrete evidence of a second-hand bookshop generating moral benefits?

The dustjacket on this has an excellent design. Quite frankly (and this may be my Hallowe’en senses all a-tingle) the back of this 2005 Canongate edition reminds me of The Exorcist DVD cover. Take a Google if you’re curious! Can’t wait to get stuck in to this.

As I was about to ascend the staircase, I gave the Poetry & Plays a quick scan. If you know me in real life, or follow me on Twitter, you’ll have a rough idea of how much I enjoy plays and theatre. I feel almost obliged to look at the plays on offer wherever I go.

That quick scan revealed a tiny little book sandwiched between the edge of a shelf and a much thicker hardback volume. This little book has been something I’ve hunted for for a while:

I’ve wanted my own copy of this for at least a year. If you think you have no idea what this play is, and you’ve visited the V&A and sat down to watch the video playing in the theatre section, you may have seen David Tennant in jammie bottoms, berating a woman doing the ironing. That’s Look Back in Anger. (That video also contains Juliet Stevenson with the most beautiful facial expressions in The Caucasian Chalk Circle.)

The play balances domestic cruelty with some absolutely choice dialogue. Here are two of my favourite bits:

“You’re like a sexual maniac – only with you it’s food.”

“You’re very beautiful. A beautiful, great-eyed squirrel.”

So I’m a very happy book-buyer today!

In case you wondered at the start what my other essential, non-idiotic purchases were, I bought nail varnish remover (to remove my very unprofessional pink!) and a couple of bottles of shower gel, which Boots had on offer for 97p each. There were a lot of options; in the end, I went for a creamy moisturising one, and then one with a distinctly cheeky name:


Review – The Tea-Planter’s Daughter by Sara Banerji

A book that you pick up on the strength of its Amazon preview is a fairly common thing; a truly good book – one with charm that lasts beyond the first few pages – is less so. I got to The Tea Planter’s Daughter by reading a guest post by author Sara Banerji on the BloomsburyReader blog – like so many things in publishing, you get to interesting stuff through contact and interaction. So it was that I came to own the ebook version.

“Interesting stuff” is not an adequate phrase to cover the book’s content. It’s much more than that. Central character Julia Clockhouse is a little bit like what Mary of The Secret Garden may have grown up to be, should cholera have passed the Lennox family by. Julia’s father Edward Buxton is the titular tea-planter, rich and pompous and, we learn, with an apparently inexplicable hatred of his daughter. Or at least, that’s how she sees it.

The Julia of the first few pages appears to be an intolerable brat: unable to get what she wants, she deliberately spills tea on a white pillowcase in an attempt to rile sensible family servant Kali. It seems straightforward enough: she’s a  spoiled young woman angry that her husband Ben hasn’t returned for her birthday. The rest of the day will be spent in a furious sulk; the servants fear her temper. But nothing is that simple in Banerji’s book. Julia Clockhouse is a girl whose soul comes out at night.

The book does not unfold so much as uncrumple, like a bunched newspaper being ironed out. Julia’s background, her current life and, importantly, her confusing powers inch out by degrees. She becomes at once a figure of great tragedy and real unease. The story itself is extraordinary. A pet goose, an inattentive artist mother and a zealously Christian ayah are a few of the trying puzzle pieces Julia has had to slot together. Indian culture ensconces and simmers under the whole thing; the setting is the “Elephant Valley,” Arnivarlai, shaped like a great spoon (“at the lips of the gods”), and the setting, food and traditions are wonderful additions to the main tale.

Kali, by the way, may be the best character in the whole book. At his introduction I was worried Banerji was going to fall into the trap of writing the calm spiritual stereotype, but the fears were soon laid to rest. He is calm and certainly very religious, but believably so. He’s also knowing, warm, and probably has a twinkle in his eye. He is the tamer to Julia’s tantrums – and he knows exactly what to do with her. I suppose most of his charm comes from being able to bounce off his charge and Babuchi the cook in the way that he does. Then again, these entertaining exchanges are testament to how well Banerji creates and interlocks her characters.

I think some readers would be forgiven for finding the last quarter of the book hard going. There is suddenly a lot going on – all spiritual, very much rooted in Hindu culture, with some intense magic realism. What you have to do is trust Banerji to guide you to the end. She does this with a steady hand – any time you feel like the book might drop off a cliff like Julia’s pet goose, be assured that Banerji knows exactly what she is doing. By the end, I felt like my emotions and responses manipulated in a skilled way – the mark, I think, of a very good storyteller indeed.

I’d recommend the book to fans of magic realism, of course, but any fiction reader is likely to find many things to enjoy: its tone is something unique and the story, very captivating. For me, it was a perspective-changer, in terms of what I thought magic realism could do. All in all, it’s a beautifully-written story, filled with poetic phrases and highly creative uses of language. A ideal antidote to Aimee Bender’s clumsy The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

You can get the ebook from Amazon UK, priced at £6.99.

Sunday Roast – your delicious weekly recap…

Back again with a filing system, the Fictavian way…!

  • I went on a Hot Book Date at the beginning of the week – Heathcliff’s Tale proved quite the entertaining raconteur…
  • This week was a great one for various writing and work opportunities – some of the deadlines have passed but the rest are still wide open and welcoming for new applicants!
  • On Friday the Litlist came back all a-glimmer with some pretty and quirky booky jewellery!


That’s all for this week – have a wonderful evening!

Friday Litlist! Glorious Lit Jewellery!

The Litlist is back! This time around, it’s a haul of lit-themed jewellery. Book nerd birthday coming up? Getting the Friday feeling and want to treat yourself? Do you wish to declare your love to me in a highly generous way? From Folksy genius through to one-of-a-kind creations, look no further than this post…




QUOTES RINGS, £22 by Tatty Devine ||  “SHE IS TOO FOND OF BOOKS…” NECKLACE, £26 by Jezebel Charms || PEGASUS NECKLACE, £14 by EllyMental || AGATHA CHRISTIE TYPEWRITER PIN, £4 by The Literary Gift Company || TYPEWRITER NECKLACE, £8.95 by superCUSTOM (one left at time of posting!!) || SHERLOCK HOLMES PIPE PIN, £8 by HouseOfIsmay

Literary Largesse – 3 fabulous opportunities

Opportunities for young writers, publishers and graduates in the UK – scooped from the web and scattered here

Ink Sweat and Tears is a gorgeous little webzine open to submissions. Poetry, prose, reviews and other things in between. Read their submission guidelines carefully, though – they’re there for a reason (and it’s good practice to do so!). Tweet them @InkSweatTears

Hot new theatre company Oryx are looking for scripts from new writers. Get a script to them by Monday 22nd October – more details here. Tweet them @WeAreOryx

Earlier this afternoon Atwood Tate Tweeted: Any graduates interested in interactive media design? Skilled in Adobe InDesign and Digital Publishing Suite? E: on it, my lovely young grads! Tweet them @AtwoodTate

Get published! Writing competition round-up post!

Sometimes it’s easy to miss things in the busy Twitter and blog rushes every day. This is a simple link round-up of all the competitions (that I know of) going on right now. These are all really great opportunities, and I decided to do this both to try and get new writers going and to send traffic to the competition holders, all of whom are lovely and do good work for the world of literature. The competitions are listed in date order, with the closest deadline being listed first. Without further ado…


Hallowe’en Stand Up For Books – short story, 800 – 1,5000 words, chance to perform at lit evening for winners

The Ether Blog Hallowe’en Contest – short story, 3,000 words, publication on the Ether App, iPad and cash prizes for winners.

For Books’ Sake Roller Derby Fiction – story, unspecified length, publication in roller derby anthology

The Attys Poetry Competition – have your poem or 10 poems judged by Margaret Attwood, $1000 for winner

National Poetry Competition – chance for cash prizes, publication in Poetry Review for top 3 poems, and reading for overall winner


If you know of any contests – or indeed if you are running one and want to advertise it – feel free to comment below! Good luck if you’re an entrant!

HOT BOOK DATE! Out on the wiley, windy moors with Heathcliff’s Tale

HOT BOOK DATE ™ is the literary equivalent of going to a public place, spying someone who has a pleasing face and can hold an interesting first conversation, then asking them out for a coffee based on just those factors. Except, you know, I’m a social recluse who only likes instant, and thus was born HOT BOOK DATE – I browse the shelves and sites of book purveyors, I see a book I like, and I take it for a whirl.

This time, my Saturday night date was Heathcliff’s Tale by Emma Tennant, published by Bloomsbury Reader – you can get it for your Kindle here (only £2.99 too!).

Emma Tennant has done what all Heathcliff fans secretly wanted to happen, and written the anti-hero-centered story of Heathcliff’s Tale. The tale in question is told from the perspective of Heathcliff and those around him, filling us in on some of the missing bits in Wuthering Heights.

Spending an extended period time in Heathcliff’s company was always going to be a treat. He’s one of the biggest enigmas in literature, and indeed in popular culture; take Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, for example, and you don’t get a picture of Cathy so much as an idea of the echoing space left by the absence of Heathcliff’s response in the song. He’s passed into our literary consciousness a terrible cad – so I thought Tennant’s book was going to be good fun. And it was – but not in the way I’d expected.

Discovered as an ailing bed-dweller, Heathcliff soon slips back into his sly, tortured, blackly-humorous old self when the magic word of ‘Cathy’ gets thrown into the mix (like you didn’t think it was going to!). From there, the book rapidly evolves into an eclectic yarn spinning in and out of reality and fiction. Letters purporting to be from the original book’s characters, like Isabella and Mrs. Dean, offer the truth of Heathcliff’s life and origin – or do they?

Henry Newby, nephew of a publisher, is the main framing narrator. He soon becomes obsessed with rooting out Heathcliff’s tale and all its intricacies. We are confronted with editor’s notes insisting that Newby is less than sane, before being thrown back into his feverish digging. Unreliable narrators always amp up the tension – here is no different. Heathcliff himself looms over the book (naturally), and it’s not long before Newby and the readers are unsure of what or who he is. One minute he’s a swaggerer posing as a rich captain; the next, he’s a snarling gypsy.

The book itself is an excitable tapestry. Murder mysteries and intrigue vie with old magic and the uncanny. There’s a stand-out section in which the luckless Isabella reveals how Heathcliff medicates her with potions that cause her to have vivid nightmares and visions.

It’s a strange book in some respects: to place it within a genre would be a challenge. Heathcliff’s Tale is certainly very different from its parent book. The modern overlay is palpable (more explicit sexual passion, for example). But I didn’t find that it detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

Die-hard Brontëfans might find their noses out of joint at the alternate authorship suggestions Tennant ties into her narrative. There are also some errors – things that fans will almost definitely spot, but not serious enough to ruin the flow. Occasionally, there are slip-ups in the writing, leading to uneven phrases like “only my companion collie for company”. On the whole, though, the bumps are masked by a largely entertaining, well-paced narrative.

As for me? I think Heathcliff’s Tale is a decent enough gap-filler – give it a chance and don’t take it too seriously.


Worth a second date?

Definitely – you should try it on a stormy evening paired with brandy.


A (short and informal) response to Waterstones’s new branding

Earlier this week The Bookseller reported on Waterstones’s new branding. The chosen slogans are:

“Books you can’t put down are much easier to find when you can actually pick them up”; “Even the most ardent reader will never reach the end of a good bookshop”; “Words cannot do justice to the pleasures of a good bookshop. Ironically”; and “A good book will keep you fascinated for days, a bookshop for your whole life”.

In my humble and largely novice opinion, I think these selections hit their mark quite nicely. They appeal to the vanity and pleasure of readers everywhere; at the same time, they use the power of words to reinforce the Waterstones content and business. Mostly, they work.

Except one.

“Words cannot do justice to the pleasures of a good bookshop” – minus the last word – sounds pleasingly like an old adage. It’s like a bookworm’s quiet truism, paying testament to bookshops in the least aggressive way possible. However, the addition of “Ironically” robs the phrase of its effect. Instead, it comes across as a bitter snipe – or worse, a failed attempt to be cool and reach out to the younger generation.

In short, that particular slogan is neither clever nor appealing. It just barely covers the animosity towards ebooks and online stores – childish, yes, but also a big turn-off for those of us who buy both types of book.

Sunday Roast: your servings for this week

Because I’m terribly organised and care about ease of navigation, here’s your customary Sunday Roast – a little short this week due to business my end, but here nonetheless!

Coming up this week –

  • Another HOT BOOK DATE ™ with Heathcliff’s Tale by Emma Tennant;
  • A short story (I know! Exciting!)
  • A round-up of competition links from across the literary Twittersphere

Have a lovely Sunday everyone! x

Review – Unexpected Weather by Abi Curtis

Image from Salt site.

Abi Curtis’s first anthology, published by Salt in 2009, has a cannily-chosen title. Certainly, there are all sorts of unexpected weathers in the collection – notably the titles of the two halves, Fata Morgana and Ignis Fatuus. But beyond the physical representation, I’d argue that the poems themselves are so unexpectedly fresh and cunning in composition that they’re a shock to a usually tepid British poetry scene. They could well bring in new poetry fans, and reinspire old ones.

Curtis prefaces each of the halves with descriptions of her chosen phenomena. Fata Morgana is the appearance of “inverted or distorted” images in the sky; Ignis Fatuus is a “hovering or flitting” glow that inspires fear in those that do not understand it. On reading the poems in each section, it becomes clear that Curtis is laying down a clever guide rope for her readers.

The Fata Morgana set deal with the merging of myth and present-time minutiae. A wonderful skill that Curtis puts into play is the way she fits her own poetry into the wider world of art. Sometimes, it’s as though she’s playing cat’s cradle with the very choicest skeins of the past and present.  Reading her work is like shuttling back and forth across a loom of British history. Yet there is always a narrowing in her focus – she’ll swoop onto a relationship of her own and slot that into place flawlessly.

The opening poem, Lady Jane Grey (After Paul Delaroche), is a prime example. Curtis translates Delaroche’s painting onto the page in unpredictably creative ways (Jane’s collar is “a lick of foam clinging for a moment to a swan”). That done, she hints at the personal connection she and an unknown partner have to the painting. It is difficult to write about personal relationships and make the reader care, but Curtis coaxes us in. Reading her work feels as though you are being told secrets.

Later, the Ignis Fatuus poems offer a darker twist on ordinary things. Of note is The Cupboard, which evolves into an unsettling death scene between a crane fly (“startled he’s alive”) and a spider. Mandibles is a black comedy of a poem, starting “The archaeologists have been in the office again”. A combined dentistry/history theme wends its way through, beginning with over-zealous organisation (“This one’s labelled MANDIBLES”) and ending at the reimagined picture of life created by the teeth of animals.

Curtis’s subject choices are wild, creative, and often touched by magic realism. The way in which she pieces language together is admirable. One of the greatest talents a poet can have is the ability to view objects in a fresh way. Curtis does this in countless ways, from a Kenneth Grahame-esque perception of a mole as “Earth’s secretary” to a whimsically practical view of clouds as a “haberdashery of vapours”.

With seminal favourite Carol Ann Duffy writing tamer material as Poet Laureate, could Curtis become our new horror-women-and-love poet? It’s a big statement to put forward, but then Unexpected Weather comes with a big range, great heart, and a magnificent eye for detail.


Unexpected Weather can be bought from the Salt site, in paperback and ebook form.

Hel Gurney

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