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reading procrastination

As fellow procrastination expert The Plashing Vole wisely points out in his comment here, there are few better ways to avoid doing the reading you’re supposed to be doing (say for a certain dissertation) than by spending your time reading something else instead.

As part of my procrastinatory activities, I’ve recently been enjoying the first issue of Corridor 8 magazine, Curtis Sittenfeld’s brilliant American Wife, and two new books I’ve recently reviewed for Bookmunch: The Bride’s Farewell, the latest from Meg Rosoff; and Small Wars, Sadie Jones’s follow-up to her phenomenally successful debut The Outcast.

I’ve also been reading a selection of really excellent young adult novels: Judy Blundell’s engrossing What I Saw and How I Lied, a 1950s-set thriller with a hint of Rumer Godden’s The Greengage Summer; Jenny Valentine’s pleasingly kooky Finding Violet Park; and the completely gripping The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first part of Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking Trilogy. Ness is also currently online writer in residence at Booktrust: his blog and straight-talking tips for writers are well worth checking out. I have to admit to feeling a bit jealous of today’s teenagers: the wealth of excellent young adult writing out there at the moment makes a marked contrast with the dreary selection of Judy Blumes, Point Horrors and Sweet Valley Highs on offer in the teenage section of my local library, back in the darkest 1990s.

In addition, I’ve been browsing a couple of entertaining cookbooks: Agnes Jekyll’s Kitchen Essays, re-published by the wonderful Persephone Books – a witty 1920s guide to cooking and entertaining, with chapters entitled ‘For the Punctual and the Unpunctual’ and ‘A Motor Excursion Luncheon’ amongst others; and Joanna Weinberg’s distinctly 21st century equivalent, How to Feed Your Friends with Relish, described as “not exactly a cookbook… nor a domestic manual [but] a book about food and friendship and cooking and love.” There’s something very pleasing about reading recipes: as Weinberg herself points out in the introduction to her book “they tell stories of happy endings, perfect-length fairytales to read at bedtime.”

And finally, I’ve also been re-visiting a few old favourites to help with a contribution I’ve recently put together for Untitled Books. If you’ve never visited Untitled Books, I urge you to check it out: as well as excellent book reviews, news and features, this literary website and online magazine is currently host to an interview with Helen Oyeyemi, brand new fiction from the likes of Evie Wyld and even a literary lonely hearts column. My contribution will be coming soon…

Basically, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “you can’t get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me”… especially when there’s something else more productive I’m really supposed to be doing. Now, I’m off to put the kettle on… what shall I read next?

[These lovely bookcovers come via the book cover archive, alteration and the always-inspirational daydream lily]

weekend in edinburgh

I’ve just got back from a brief but action packed trip to Edinburgh for the Book Festival. Some quick highlights: watching wide-eyed children play drawing games with Children’s Laureate Anthony Browne; eating local Scottish scallops; spotting a little old lady dancing all by herself to funky street music; beautiful views over the city from the top floor of the Chamber Street museum; people-watching, coffee-drinking and bookshop-browsing at the festival site at Charlotte Square Gardens; checking out Greenaway prize-winner Catherine Rayner’s beautiful illustrations (including a giant moose!); Eva Hesse’s delicate cheesecloth and papier mache studio works at The Fruitmarket Gallery; and spotting a super-cool China Mieville hanging out at the Author’s Yurt.

However I have to admit that my favourite moment of the whole weekend was probably watching three Grey seals catching up on a little peaceful sunbathing in Dunbar harbour on Sunday morning.

Now back to London again…

not in manchester

I’m feeling a bit sorry for myself because I’m not in Manchester this week… During my hour-long commute back from work on the very hot, sticky and generally bad-tempered tube, I unexpectedly found myself feeling strangely nostalgic for the delights of the 142 bus up Oxford Road. At lunchtime, I sighed over my overpriced prawn and crayfish baguette, dreaming of chips and gravy from the chip shop on Liverpool Road. And right now, I’m wishing that I could go along to the launch of the lovely new Corridor 8 launch, taking place at Urbis tonight…

Corridor 8 is a brand new annual title, which aims to be “the new cultural voice of the north” and will be showcasing the very best in the region’s contemporary visual arts, writing, architecture, photography and more. The theme for issue 1 is SuperCity – the idea of an urban ‘corridor’ linking cities and towns across the north from Liverpool to Hull, and reaching overseas to Ireland in the West and Denmark in the East. There will be contributions around the theme from such luminaries such as Will Alsop and Peter Saville, as well as features about artists working across the SuperCity region including Bob Levene, Rachel Goodyear and the Freee Collective. Personally, I’m especially excited about a unique “literary documentary” about the area commissioned from the writer and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair for this first issue – here’s a little taster:

‘Wandering Deansgate was like finding yourself in the middle of some dark fantasy for which you had no instructions. Cliffs of unreason. Deansgate as a river of human traffic, the Irwell its liquid margin.’

Iain Sinclair will be giving a talk at the launch event tonight, but if like me, you can’t make it, you can still share Sinclair’s walk through Manchester – “a meandering poetic journey designed to shed new light on a city once ancient and contemporary” – by listening to a special podcast Listening for the Corncrake on the Urbis website.The podcast has been designed so that you can listen as you go, so you can even perform your own psychogeographic wanderings through the city! Next time I’m in Manchester I’ll definitely be having a go: in the meantime, I’ll be following tonight’s event via the liveblog on twitter, and of course, I’m looking forward to reading the magazine itself very soon! (For more on Iain Sinclair at the Corridor 8 launch check out Richard‘s post about the event here)

Staying with the literary theme, I’m also missing out on the Manchester Book Market this weekend. This excellent event, organised by Literature NorthWest, will take place in St Ann’s Square from Friday to Sunday as part of the Manchester International Festival. The market will bring together the very best of the UK’s leading independent publishers, as well as back-to-back performances from some of the North West’s most exciting spoken word talent. Readers will include Joe Stretch, Elizabeth Baines, Eleanor Rees, Annie Clarkson and Segun Lee French amongst many more.

Other weekend highlights will include Manchester International Festival’s Festival Feast (yum!), a special tour of Procession: An Exhibition on Sunday, and of course De La Soul at The Ritz. Meanwhile I’ll be off for another day of packing myself sardine-style into the tube, and risking my sanity trying to get across Waterloo station at rush hour. Not fair!

Anyway, for now I’m off to console myself with Vietnamese food, and planning some exciting art adventures here in London for the weekend. Manchester peoples, let me know how you enjoy this weekend’s hi-jinks…

forgotten children’s favourites

To mark the 10th anniversary of the children’s laureateship, the current holder of the post, Michael Rosen, and his four predecessors – Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson, Quentin Blake and Anne Fine – this week selected their favourite children’s books. They were allowed seven choices each (you can read their lists here) and each chose some of my own favourite children’s reads, ranging from The Box of Delights (Quentin Blake) to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (Anne Fine) to The Railway Children (Jacqueline Wilson). I was particularly pleased to see that Michael Morpurgo even opted for a deeply unfashionable Blyton amongst his selection – the particularly fine Five Go to Smuggler’s Top.

However, what I did notice about the laureates’ choices is that with a few notable exceptions, they mainly opted for the “classics” of children’s literature: well-known books that are already established as general favourites. To continue my recent “children’s books” theme, I thought it might be interesting to create my own list of favourites with a difference – a list of “forgotten” children’s books rapidly disappearing into the lands of obscurity, that are maybe not quite so universally well-known. Here are my seven “forgotten favourites:”

1. Mystery at Witchend by Malcolm Saville

Written in the 1940s, this is a good old fashioned adventure in which a group of children (plus loyal dog) thwart a wartime sabotage plot by dastardly German spies. It’s the first in the Lone Pine series, a more sophisticated take on the Famous Five in which the members of the Lone Pine Club, armed with little more than their bicycles, sandwiches and hand-drawn maps, solve mysteries taking in everything from counterfeiting to sheep-rustling in a variety of real locations. Writing into the 1970s, Saville attempted to “sex up” the later books adding criminals with (shock!) guns, and even a touch of romance for his teenage characters who by now had traded in their cotton frocks and shorts for jeans, but the books still manage to retain their carefree innocent feel.

2. The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown

First published in 1941,The Swish of the Curtain is a sort of original Fame! – the story of a group of children who, bored during a long summer holiday, discover an abandoned chapel in their home town and decide to transform it into a theatre. As the Blue Door Theatre company, they quickly develop serious theatrical ambitions, in spite of the opposition of their parents. Written by Brown when she herself was just fourteen, the novel is peculiarly timeless: in spite of the archaic picture it presents of a genteel suburbia complete with a kindly Bishop (the children’s ally) and a cringe-inducing Women’s Institute headed up by the dreaded Mrs Potter-Smith (their arch-nemesis) it feels very contemporary in tone, perhaps simply because of its robust sense of humour.

3. Greenwitch by Susan Cooper

In spite of the recent movie version, Susan Cooper’s Arthurian-inspired fantasy series, the Dark is Rising sequence seems to be distinctly out of fashion at the moment, perhaps because of its slightly 1970s homespun Woodcraft Folk-ish feel. The best known of the series is the second – the brilliant, and extremely scary The Dark is Rising – but my personal favourite is the third book, which focuses more on Cooper’s main female character, Jane. Set in Cornwall, it’s a classic seaside children’s adventure story but given a darker fantasy twist, haunted by the powerful mythical figure of the Greenwitch herself. The final section inevitably leads to what Nancy Mitford refers to as “Brimming”.

4. We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea by Arthur Ransome

Surprisingly, Ransome’s famous Swallows and Amazons didn’t make it into any of the laureate’s selections, even though it’s an undoubted children’s classic. For my money though, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea is even better: the story of what happens when the Walker children’s holiday plans go wrong, and they find themselves unexpectedly fighting a storm in the treacherous waters of the North Sea, drifting away from the safety of the English coast into the shipping lanes – and into a real adventure. Marking a definite change of pace from the rather annoying whimsy of Peter Duck or the slightly too try-hard comedy “hi-jinks” of The Picts and the Martyrs, this a compelling heart-in-your-mouth story of adventure on the high seas.

5. Fifteen by Beverley Cleary

Beverley Cleary is now best known as the creator of naughty Ramona and her long-suffering older sister Beezus, but she also wrote Fifteen, a 1950s take on the “young adult novel.” It evokes an innocent, All-American world of high school dating, which already seems distinctly archaic: a lost realm of milkshakes, pin-curls and good manners. Gossip Girl it certainly isn’t, yet naive small-town heroine Jane faces all the familiar dilemmas of adolescence (how to decide what to wear to the dance; how to work out if Stan really likes her; how to deal with sophisticated, cashmere sweater- wearing Marcy), even managing to take in the unfamiliar exoticism of yes, a Chinese restaurant with characteristically gutsy good humour.

6. Clover by Susan Coolidge

I have to make a confession now: I still find all those old-fashioned “girls’ books” – Little Women, Anne of Green Gables and the like – weirdly compelling reading. However my real favourites are the little-known “wild cards” of this genre: L.M. Montgomery’s Emily books, Louisa M. Alcott’s hilariously moralistic An Old Fashioned Girl, and especially one of the lesser-known sequels to What Katy Did, Susan Coolidge’s Clover. Leaving behind rather tiresome Katy (who, let’s be honest, since that whole thing with the swing has really become a bit of an annoying goody-two-shoes) this story focuses on younger sister Clover as she embarks on some much more exciting adventures Out West.

7. The Circus is Coming by Noel Streatfeild

Noel Streatfeild is perhaps most famous for the children’s classic Ballet Shoes, which won a place on Jacqueline Wilson’s shortlist. However, she also wrote many other novels, many of which are based around the theatre. The Circus is Coming marks a bit of a departure from the theme, being set in the world of (you guessed it) the circus. A bit less overtly girly than many of Streatfeild’s books, it tells of the adventures of prim and proper brother and sister Peter and Santa, who unexpectedly find themselves living with their estranged Uncle Gus, a circus acrobat, and become increasingly drawn into the world of the circus itself. (For any other serious Streatfeild fans out there, can I also alert you to her little-known autobiographial novel A Vicarage Family? Read it with a box of tissues close by, however. You too will be “Brimming”: I guarantee it.)

the arrival

I was recently given a copy of The Arrival by Shaun Tan. I’ve never come across Tan’s work before, but after reading this thoughtful, beautifully-illustrated book – which is poised somewhere between a graphic novel and a children’s picture book – I’m an instant fan.

The Arrival is a universal story of migration and displacement, told through a series of wordless images. A man leaves his wife and child behind in an impoverished town, seeking better prospects in an unknown country of unknown customs and behaviours, mysterious objects, peculiar animals and indecipherable languages. Luckily many of the strangers he meets in this new metropolis have shared his experience, and transcending barriers of language and difference, are keen to help him on his way.

Tan’s exquisitely detailed illustrations in sepia tones evoke old family photographs and histories, creating a powerful nostalgic quality: this could easily be a story from some forgotten lost time gone before. However this hopeful, wistful tale is also peculiarly contemporary on its take on the universality of migrant experience, and the importance of communities and belonging. As Tan himself suggests in this interesting commentary on how the book came to be written, ‘we might do well to think of ourselves as possible strangers in our own strange land.’