Friday, 25 June 2010

Blog Friday

I wrote a song for the Hop:

If you walk like a frog
You're doing the Hop
If your socks come in ones
You're doing the Hop
If you stepped on a stone
That cut right to the bone
And you're bleeding profusely all over your clothes --

You're doing the Hop.

You can't say I never do anything for you.I hope you are all very grateful indeed.

This week at Learning To Read has mainly been about SOS -- Summer Of Strangers. That's the name for my resolution to spend my summer in the company of authors I've never read before, and it has so far has been something of a success. We've had Peter Stafford at the New English Library, and the glorious Christopher Brookmyre.

There has also been a piece of trivia.

Coming up soon are some more SOS reads (anybody heard of Sean Dixon?), maybe some more trivia, and a week without blogging because I'm away at the Treehouse Festival.

See you around!

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Did You Know?

Before he wrote thrillers, Len Deighton was the Observer food writer, and he also designed the first ever cover for the UK version of Jack Kerouac's On The Road.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Attack Of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks

by Christopher Brookmyre

If I was in any doubt about my resolution to only read new authors this summer (I wasn't) I wouldn't be now (I'm still not.)

If you think that sentence is convoluted, then you've never come across the plot of Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks (particularly with that word 'doubt' floating about.)

First off, this book is brilliant. Once this SOS business is over and I can raed books by familiar authors, reading another Brookmyre is going to be a high priority. It's funny, clever, and peopled with more than a few excellent characters, and more than one compelling narrator.

The plot is built around the (ridiculous) ongoing debate between rationality and mysticism. Such is its intelligent switches of perspective, deliberately (and apologetically) misleading narration, and sheer twisty intricacy, that you're never quite sure which side of the debate the book is going to finally land on. The raging, sweary skeptic telling us most of the story is speaking from beyond the grave.

It's that narrator, who occasionally hands the tale over to a very able supporting cast of slap-deserving journalists and Firefly-watching geeks, who really shines. It's his self-aware, ranting-Scot angle on events that had me laughing out loud, and it's his feats of reader-deception that would have had me gasping in wonder, if I was the gasping-in-wonder type. I'm not.

I would love to be able to plot a book like this. Honestly, I've no idea how Brookmyre goes about it. I'd love to ask him how he gets from an initial thought to this plot. Working backwards, there doesn't seem a viable path... it's a miracle! That's not the dreaded 'where do your ideas come from?' question, remember, but 'how do you develop and construct the idea once you've got it?'

What really turns the complexity up to the level that would have Creationists shouting about (Very) Intelligent Design is the central role of charlatry in the story. (Okay, that's not a real word, but it should be.) Everyone is at some level a con-artist or a cynic or a gullible fool, and mostly a hard-to-guess mixture of the both. ANd that includes the reader. Or at least that's what you're meant to think, so you're constantly second-guessing yourself. Or I was. Or was I? Argh.

And that's pretty much how I ended up thinking by the end of this book, alongside one other thought. The other thought was: this is so good.

I'm pretty sure I've not actually, actively recommended a book on this blog yet. I've talked them up, but never made that extra step and told you to go out and read them. Even though I've talked about Chabon and Lodge and Pratchett and VONNEGUT.

So it should be with that in mind that you, awestruck reader, take this recommendation very very seriously:


Sunday, 20 June 2010

The Man Who Loved To Blow Up Trains

by Peter Stafford

This is the first book in my SOS -- Summer Of Strangers. The point of the idea (to only read books by authors I've not read before) is to mix up my reading habits a bit, make new discoveries, et cetera et cetera, to infinitely-ridiculous-sickness (bad Latin joke?)
Not every new author will be a new favourite -- some may well be terrible -- but it's that spirit of taking a risk that SOS all about.

This book is perfect for that intent. I found it in a small campsite shop in Roskilde, Denmark. I'd only brought one book with me on my trip (see okay) and finished it sooner than I'd expected. I needed something else to read, but most of the second-hand books were in Danish, and there weren't even that many of those. So when I saw the Trains cover -- and the title -- I knew I had no choice.

It was a... fun book. The amazing blurb promised parody levels of pulpiness, but it stubbornly remained a proper book. Not literary, and with caricatures in place of characters, and exciting things happening in place of a plot, but still a proper book.

It might be too far away from what I am trying to do as a writer for me to learn much from it, but it does hammer home a point I tend to gloss over.

That point regards intention. It's always awkward when intention outstrips execution. When you see what the author was trying to do, rather than them actually doing it, you are drawn out of the world of the novel, into the world of the writer. And as David Lodge always shows, forgetting about the author is really important to a reader.

is singularly unambitious in terms of character development and telling details, and by doing so never falls into that trap of showing us the author at work. I don't think that means I shouldn't try clever things, but it's a good argument for making sure I only try them when I can pull them off.

And how about SOS? How was spending a few hours in the company of a stranger?

Well it might not be the best book for disciovering new authors. Peter Stafford is most probably a pseudonym, and I can't find anything about him -- or anything else by him -- online. But it's a new discovery in another way.

The Man Who Loved To Blow Up Trains
is a New English Library publication. It didn't take much Googling to learn that the NEL imprint was prolific in the 70s for a certain class of pulp novels, and it still has a cult following today.

So I'm going to keep an eye out in charity shops and second-hand bookshops for any book with the little NEL gate logo on the spine. And if the cover is amazing enough, and the title preposterous enough, I know I'll be in for a fun read.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Blog Friday

Greetings Hoppers!

It's not been a busy time here at Learning To Read, mostly because I've been away. There's been reviews of new favourite Toby Litt and old favourite David Lodge, but that's it.

Expect posts on my super-fun trip to Denmark, some talk about the New English Library, and lots of new-to-me authors in my SOS (Summer Of Strangers) reading challenge, over the next few weeks.

Other than that I have one thing to say: GOOGLE READER. Why have I only just discovered this? If I follow your blog, expect to see me actually keeping up with it from now on. Fingers crossed.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

I play the drums in a band called okay

by Toby Litt

okay. Just like that, lower case, italics.

You know you have that friend who tells really great anecdotes? And you always think they could write a great book just by putting the anecdotes together in some kind of order? That's where the anecdotal novel comes from.

You get funny anecdotes, and you get weirdly esoteric anecdotes, but you also get general life anecdotes. Your friend who's in a band mostly tells stories about being in a band -- especially if he's the drummer -- and they can still be the basis of a novel.

This book is that book. It's also the book I hoped Bono talking about himself might have been. But he's not a drummer, he's a lead singer; so he has what I will (kindly) call thoughtful anecdotes.

How good are band anecdotes? typically pretty shit. But how good is Litt's writing? exceptional. This is the second of his I have read, and it is vastly different from the first. Different, but it does share two things in common with it:

1. It is brilliant.

2. It is flawed.

The flaw in this case is the flaw you always flirt with in an anecdotal novel. It's a bit too anecdote, not enough novel. To put it another way, the stories don't quite come together to form a single narrative.

The attraction of the anecdotal style is that you can wander off from the novel arc, and you don't need to serve the overall novel too religiously/unrealistically. But it's easy to go too far, and have no overall experience given by the book.

Because Litt is funny and clever and moving and imaginative and absolutely kills on voice, he gets away with it, but because of those same things, it's also a bit frustrating.

Twice Litt has impressed me, and twice I've been left wishing he'd done things differently. The nearly-great is a more frustrating problem than the actually-mediocre, but it's also a more pleasurable problem. And a more successful career model: I won't think twice about buying the next Litt book I see around.

Either way, I'll be picking up another of his as soon as possible.


I haven't blogged for a week or two, due to being in Denmark (AWESOME) and other summer stuff. Summer stuff will be continuing for a while, so I might be blogging erratically.


Despite the possible erraticism (real word), I will be kicking off another L2R Challenge in the vein of May's Photo Month. For the next 6 books at least, I will be reading authors I've never read before.

It's a chance to check out new authors, discover new favourites (like I did with Litt), etc. It's easy to buy a book by an untried author, but even easier to leave them on your shelf when there's tried and tested authors on there as well.

I will be spending my summer in the company of authors, old and young, who I have never spent time with before. I shall call it... The Summer Of Strangers. SOS.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Deaf Sentence

by David Lodge

Rediscovering an old favourite -- particularly one who is also an old master -- is a big slice of happy. And since reading Author, Author, after its years sitting on my shelf with pages unturned, I've been hankering (to hanker: an act of hankering: he is a hankerist) after a bit more of David Lodge.

Deaf Sentence is his latest, and I saw it for a brief time on the 3for2 tables in Waterstones. I'm glad I didn't talk myself into buying it, because I found it not much later in a charity shop. And the good thing about the charity shop is they didn't try to trick me into buying another two books I was only half-interested in, that would sit unread on my shelves until the next book clearout, like Waterstones always (successfully) do.

He is a master. Immensely readable, smart, subtle, moving, and effortlessly unfalse. I don't think there's any other author I can read and be less reminded that what I'm doing is reading something an author has contrived. Which doesn't really make sense, because the narrator in Deaf Sentence switches periodically between 1st and 3rd person, talks about how he is writing the book, and is clearly drawing very heavily from the author's own life for anecdotage. There's no other author who is so obviously authoring, either. Hmmm.

There's no central plot arch that continues throughout. Or if there is, it's not the one you'd expect. There are three or four different strands, some that impact on each other and some that don't, and none that is given quite enough priority over the others to be considered 'the plot.'

Instead there are sections presented as short stories, there are comic set-pieces, and similar essentially standalone parts that make up an incoherent whole. Incoherent in a good way, though. It's a book about deafness, after all.

The book stops, rather than ends. Not in an Infinite Jest way, but in a train-slowing-down-and-stopping-in-a-station way. The loose ends are tied up, but not necessarily to each other. It's just that the things that were happening aren't any more. And the narrator has a hand in them, but is not totally responsible. I'm not sure why that doesn't feel like an ending, but it doesn't.

And because it stops, and because there is no singularity to the plot, I will probably forget this book in the future. I will remember the 'males beware' character of Alex Loom, the unique crappiness of being deaf, and some of the funny scenes, but not the book.

I kind of like that about it. Things don't have to be important, or memorable, or even evidently significant within the world of the book. If they're well written, I'm probably going to enjoy it.