How the Girl Guides Won the War by Janie Hampton

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I was on Brownsea Island this weekend, where Scouts and Guides were born, and I spied this book at the gift shop by the jetty. I’d been thinking about it only that morning on the way down to the ferry, defending Guides in my head against imaginary people protesting that “Guides is for goodie-goodies” on the basis that Guides was started by the rebels and the non-conformists who caused scandal in society and on the basis that they did a lot during the war. Seeing the book that very day, I had to buy it.

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Score! by Jilly Cooper

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I read this book when I was probably a bit too young. I don’t even know where it came from. It’s definitely not my dad’s sort of thing, my mum’s not a big reader and this is quite a chunky book, so I can’t see her reading it. But maybe she picked it up in a charity shop to read on holiday and then never actually read it. Continue reading

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

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I feel sort of awkward mentioning this one because everyone reads it for the one and only reason that it was actually written by JK Rowling.

So I feel like I need to clarify that 1) I’ve never read, and am not particularly interested in reading, The Casual Vacancy 2) the news that JK Rowling had secretly written a crime novel elicited little more than a shrug from me.

I was in Frankfurt in December 2014, armed with a not-brilliant kids’ fantasy series when I spied The Cuckoo’s Calling, in English, in a bookshop under the station and I was immediately filled with an urge to read it. I don’t know why, when I’d never been interested before, maybe because of the gorgeous jewel-toned cover or the unexpectedness of finding an English book in Germany or because I was tired of the books I’d brought. I resisted – English-language books abroad cost an absolute fortune. English-language books bought abroad on the Kindle app on my phone, on the other hand…

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American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This is the first real post on my shiny new book blog, the others having been imported untidily from my travel & adventure blog, I Am A Polar Bear. So yay?

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In the corner of the world I live in, people really like Neil Gaiman and it feels like such a cliche to add my voice to that. But the first book I read in 2016 was his American Gods and then, idiot that I am, I thought I’d go and read more about it. I soon learnt that there are in fact plenty of people who are not fans so I’ll write about it after all.

American Gods is a huge doorstopper of a book and I own the Author’s Preferred version, which has 12,000 extra words sprinkled throughout it. I’m not generally a huge fan of enormous books like that. By the time I’m halfway through, I’ve forgotten the beginning and I’m starting to wish the book would just finish already. But American Gods works as a big book. That might – or might not – be because no one, not even the author, really knows what it’s meant to be. It’s a bit fantasy, a bit scifi, a bit horror, a bit thriller, a bit murder mystery, a bit road trip, a bit coming-of-age story and that’s borne out by the fact that it’s won the Hugo, Nebula and Bram Stoker awards, which are literary awards for three different genres.

It’s a big book and a big twisting story that wanders across the USA, it has some horrible moments (one that I spend two-thirds of the book dreading and then hastily skip over when it finally arrives), it’s magic and mystery and belief and murder and fantasy and truth… and I love it. I don’t know what exactly appeals to me so much but I’ll go back to this book pretty regularly. I like some of Gaiman’s other books but none of them have my heart the way this one does, except Good Omens, which is quite the literary gateway drug.

My first foray into Discworld

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There are few things in the world which are universally agreed. But one of them seems to be that Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are fantastic, which is why it’s always seemed so wrong that I’ve not been able to get into them.

I read Hogfather back in around 2006 or 2007, when it was adapted for TV. I was indifferent to it; I neither loved it nor hated it. I just read it. I also have a couple more sitting on my shelves. Small Gods (which I understand is a bit of an odd-one-out in the series), which I came across when a friend played the audiobooks all the way from Canterbury to Priddy (via the M4 and Bristol, which even he had to acknowledge is not a sensible way to go) and most of the way back. I enjoyed listening to it but I failed completely to engage with the book and eventually it just drifted out of my hands. And Thief of Time which I must have tried in late 2007 when I was going through a very long application process to become an apprentice clockmaker, which starred Jeremy Clockson and of which I couldn’t get past the second page.

I felt like I was missing out on Discworld.

This year, like most years, I received a book token for Christmas. This is supposed to be a boring, unimaginative present that you give when you either have no ideas or don’t know the recipient very well. I love book tokens. I love going into a bookshop with a piece of plastic and exchanging it for whatever book catches my eye. I feel like I can buy a book I wouldn’t normally choose with a book token. This time – as you’ve already guessed – I decided I was going to give Discworld another go so I found The Colour of Magic and took it to pay for it. But I sort of know the girl behind the counter, one of our local NaNoWriMo group, and she suggested that although you can read them in order, you don’t have to and she thought I’d prefer the witches – go and see if we’ve got Witches Abroad. That’s the kind of service I like in a bookshop, personalised recommendations which prove correct.

I devoured Witches Abroad in 48 hours, some of which I spent at work or asleep or watching a film. I wanted to pick it up and go back to it. I was interested in it and I enjoyed it. Finally, fourth time lucky, I understood what it is people see in Discworld. It was clever, it was fun, it was readable – it was more or less everything I like in a book. If the other Witches books are anything like it, then I’ve found a new favourite series. And if I like the other Witches, then maybe I’ll give the City Guards a go and see if I like Angua as much as I hope I do.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

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First things first, it’s impossible to read Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the first time in 2014 and have anything like the same experience as when it was first published in 1897. This book is nearly 120 years old and in that time, it has permeated our collective consciousness to the point that almost everything about it has become cliched. People who write about vampires these days deliberately avoid the old Dracula mythology or they subvert it or they hang a lamp on it.

Which isn’t to say that the book has become in any way farcical, only things that seemed bewildering then, like the wreath of garlic flowers around Lucy’s neck, seem perfectly logical now. Nor is it to say that Stoker invented vampires or the myths surrounding them, only that this book popularised them.

Onwards, with spoilers. I thought you couldn’t spoil a 120-year-old book that has become more myth than literature but it turns out that although everyone knows Dracula, Transylvania, garlic, mirrors, bats, Mina Harker and Van Helsing, I for one had no idea how the actual story went.

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A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin

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I’ve had my eye on the Song of Ice and Fire series for quite a while. I bought A Game of Thrones at least a year ago but it’s been sitting on my shelves* since then because it just looked too big and heavy and intimidating to pick up. I’ve been reading a lot of Icelandic sagas and while I think they’re worth the effort, they are a lot of effort. They’re like the Icelandic equivalent of Shakespeare –  a good couple of hundred years older but stories that form part of the culture and history of the country, written in an old and tough language that has just enough similarity to the modern language to be able to read with a little difficulty, full of murder and romance and humour, stories that have clung on and remained relevant despite their age. The Icelandic sagas, I stubbornly maintain, are a huge influence on modern fantasy. I refuse to believe that the Lord of the Rings would be anything like it is if Tolkien hadn’t been so keen on the Nordic stories and there’s a very obvious blueprint for the Middle Earth stories in the Volsung Saga – a cursed ring, a dragon guarding treasure and a broken sword re-forged just to start with. Do read Volsung Saga. It’s amazing – truly one of my favourite books that I’ve read in the last five years. And Tolkien has had a huge influence on modern fantasy, whether it’s people emulating his style and his world or deliberately going in the opposite direction.

My point is that I was expecting A Game of Thrones to feel a bit like the Icelandic sagas, Njal’s Saga in particular. Njal’s Saga is one I found particularly hard work. It’s one of Iceland’s Big Three, it’s possibly the most popular and it’s the one I enjoyed least. It’s about two best friends, Njal and Gunnar, and the first chunk is about the terrible wives they take, who promptly start a war, murdering members of the other’s household while Njal and Gunnar grit their teeth and swear their wives’ feud is not going to affect their friendship. But then it descends into endless murdering and even worse, a huge long legal battle. That’s pretty much what I expected of A Game of Thrones. But everyone was talking about it, whether because they’d read the books or because they were watching the TV series and I was feeling increasingly left out. What finally broke me was finishing the massive book I’d spent the best part of two months on and picking up a new one (The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan, if you must know) because the moment I did, I wished I’d started A Game of Thrones instead. I don’t know why that broke me, I only knew that suddenly I didn’t have a vague hope of reading it at some point but instead a desperate desire to read it now.

I’m so glad I gave into what was effectively peer pressure. I realised within the first two pages that this was far more readable than I’d ever expected, welcoming and easy, rich but rarely uncomfortably dense. I think I’d expected it to be never-ending war but the war and the fighting didn’t begin until surprisingly late and it took its time to introduce characters that you could actually get to know. The character-per-chapter format worked absolutely fine for me – it’s a huge story and it made perfect sense to go around the world, seeing what was going on with each person as it progressed.

When I first bought it, I looked at the character lists and was instantly put off but it was much easier than I expected, partly because I’d seen someone offer the advice of something along the lines of “don’t worry about remembering all the minor characters”, partly because the characters’ names were far easier than the endless lists you get in sagas and partly because I’ve seen so many pictures from the TV series that I already had an idea of who some of them were. Not that you can get much more than a face and a name from that – the nature of the various Lannisters in particular took me by surprise and Maester Aemon had me squeaking at my desk after lunch on Friday. I’m not quite ready to pledge allegience to House Targaryen quite yet but given that I’ve worn a little silver dragon around my neck since I was about sixteen, I’m inclined to. But I’ve heard George RR Martin does the “shades of grey” thing and therefore, on the basis of one book in a series of eventually seven (I think), it’s not time just yet to decide who’s good and evil because I bet it all looks very different later on.

In the meantime, this book tickles the same part of me that fell in love with TH White’s Once and Future King when I was ten or so – I reread the whole thing in my tiny tent in Iceland last summer and dreamed incessantly about knights and battles and while the characters are obviously completely different in A Game of Thrones, it feels like it has a similar soul. It’s certainly similar enough to have also had me dreaming about it twice – once something about snow that I couldn’t really remember the next day and once about the Stark children in my house murdering people. Bear in mind there are only two other books in my entire life that I’ve dreamed about and those were both nightmares (Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets when I was about fourteen and far too old to be scared by kids’ books, don’t laugh at me for that, and Christopher Brookmyre’s Pandaemonium in 2011 when I was definitely too old to be scared by a book. It was the skull-and-spine mace that did it for me).

Finally, I think I can’t not mention how vividly I can see some of this. I didn’t even know Robb Stark existed but I can see him so clearly in my mind. Jon Snow too, and he doesn’t look anything like Kit Harington. I felt like I was actually at the Eyrie and I could see straight out of the sky cells. Arya is wonderful – I can identify quite strongly with Arya, and you know what? I actually really love that despite doing the very non-traditional, non-feminine thing – wearing fighting leathers, learning to use a sword, refusing to wear a dress and brush her hair and so on, she’s still adamant that she’s a girl. That delights me because, particularly when you live in a world where girls are expected to look and be and act traditionally feminine, it would be very easy to start trying to identify as a boy and she doesn’t, she recognises that there’s no reason why a girl can’t do these things as well. Oh, and Dany, I love you so much but you were so stupid to not realise what else would be involved in the price. I generally don’t see things coming but I saw that and you were a fool not to.

I have just one major problem with this series. Because I bought the first book quite a while ago, it’s been living separately from the rest of the series, which I only bought last week in a panicked moment of “I do like this series after all, I do want to read the rest of them and I want the whole series to match so I need to buy them all right now before the traditional covers disappear!”. Now that it’s rejoined the rest of them, I’ve discovered A Game of Thrones is shorter and narrower but fatter than its siblings. So that’s my complaint, that despite my best efforts, my set of books doesn’t match perfectly. Still, it matches a lot better than my Gentleman Bastard books, of which one is a fairly standard size paperback, one is a giant heavyweight paperback and one is a hardback (it’s a Scott Lynch series, read it, it’s awesome – The Lies of Locke Lamora is my absolute favourite book of the last ten years beyond any doubt).

And now I’ve told you everything I feel about A Game of Thrones (except – dragons! There were dragons! I wasn’t entirely expecting actual dragons!) and everything I’ve felt about all the other books I’ve ever read, I shall away.

*in one of the several piles at the bottom of my shelves, having run out of space on the shelves themselves about a decade ago