#ReadersResources: Read across the UK part II

A little while ago, Debs wrote a cracking post on Reading across the UK. We still need to agree a date for this, but I thought I might follow up with some further suggestions. Being naturally contrary, I’ve decided to present mine by genre…

Science Fiction

As might be expected, I’ve chosen to kick off with science fiction. Whether or not you enjoyed the film version with Tom Cruise (2005) or a repeat of Orson Welles’ (1938) panic inducing radio adaptation, you might not know, or may have forgotten that H.G. Wells’ classic War of the Worlds is set in the Home Counties around London. The description of the terrain – and the subsequent destruction of most of it – is beautifully evocative. I’m tempted to start running tours of some of the locations mentioned.

Similarly, the Day of the Triffids is worth your time. John Wyndham’s depiction of a world brought low by hubris and dubious experiments takes in a swathe of ground between London and the South Coast, not to mention the bastion of the Isle of Wight.

J.G. Ballard’s Drowned World sees London semi-submerged in a future where climate change has reeked havoc. Any day that is to hot for my liking makes me think of this book.

Detective Fiction

In the comments to Debs’ original post I mentioned Ian Sansom’s County Guides series. He’s going to have to pick up the pace if he’s going to manage to get round the whole of the UK, but so far the five published books give an interesting perspective on 1930s England, particularly bits that are not often looked at. The conceit here is that a prolific author is off collecting research material with his daughter and assistant for a series of books cataloguing the best bits of Britain, especially the things that are likely to fade in the face of technology and social change. Of course, they court disaster wherever they go. The assistant is, of course, plagued by demons: in this instance they arise from his time in Spain as part of the International Brigade.

The British Library has recently (over the last decade perhaps?) been republishing classic detective fiction, much of which has a locale element to it. So for example there is The Hogsback Mystery by Freeman Wills Croft and starring Inspector French. There are several others with this detective, and whilst he occasionally makes a foray abroad he is a Scotland Yard man at a time when local constabularies would call upon the Yard if they felt a case was a bit too much for them for whatever reason. So whilst a lot of French’s cases are set in and around London, he also travels extensively around the UK.

I’m also going to put in a shout for The Thirty-Nine Steps, even if it is not properly Detective Fiction. Whichever film version you’ve seen, the book is sufficiently different and exciting that it is worth your trouble to look it out and give it a read. Some lovely descriptions of Scotland in there, as well as the South Coast.


I thought it might also be helpful to put in some non-fiction suggestions too. In this regard one cannot really go wrong with Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson. I’m less enamored of the follow up, The Road to Little Dribbling: to my mind, the Bryson who wrote the second book has become a grumpy old man and has lost some of the shine and verve of the younger Bryson – but that is just my opinion. There are still some splendid observations.

Footnotes: A Journey Round Britain in the Company of Great Writers by Peter Fiennes is, on the face of it, a bit niche. A description of walks around stomping grounds associated with particular writers. It is so much more though. Twelve mini-biographies which focus on a particular period of time or a particular piece of work by some of the greatest British authors of the last two hundred years or so, and how the landscape had an impact on their work. Beautiful.

Finally, this one really is niche, and is all about London, but is so joyous that you need to read it. Tim Moore’s Do Not Pass Go is, primarily, about Monopoly. Or is it? Sure that’s the framing narrative, in particular his carrying a board and some dice around so that he can work out where he’s going next, but this is, in a way, more of a socio-geographic history of London, and the changes that have occurred leading up to the London version of Monopoly, and those that have occurred since. Moore takes us around London, set by set, and explains the hidden meanings behind some of the collections – for example, Orange is the colour of justice… He even goes in search of Free Parking.

Do add your suggestions of potential reading material for future editions of Read Across the UK.

©David Jesson, 2021

#Readers Resources: Read Across the UK

I recently came across Read Across America Day and thought, wouldn’t it be a great idea to have the same over here in the United Kingdom? I did check – and we don’t. So, I thought I’d get the ball rolling by suggesting a few candidates for you to read on that day, whenever you choose to celebrate it.

One huge problem is I can’t get away with only suggesting books to cover England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, when there’s all the regions and conurbations within those individual countries with riches to offer. No matter what, as it’s impossible to cover every option in one post, I’m just going to start – with the aim of re-visiting this subject on a regular basis.

Scotland: Glasgow
Shuggie Bain, 2020’s Booker prize-winner from Douglas Stuart has been described variously as dark and funny, beautiful and brutal. It is the tale of a gay boy and his alcoholic mother growing up in Glasgow, living a life of poverty on benefits. Despite being the “queer son of a single mother who lost her battle to addiction” himself, Stuart is quick to point out that he is not Shuggie. A long-time Booker fan, this is on my TBR list, although I’m waiting for a time when the world feels brighter than it does at present.

Scotland: Edinburgh
A quick jump from literary prize winner to bestseller – with Ian Rankin’s Rebus detective novels, which generally take place in Edinburgh or its environs. John Rebus, a detective with a thirst for whiskey, displays a level of commitment to the job which means he’s not the best husband or father. We shouldn’t blame Rankin for this, for stereotypes are often accurate reflections of the status quo. Featuring in 25 novels, the latest of them being A Song for the Dark Times, this one has Rebus – who now suffers from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) – travelling to the northern towns of Aberdeenshire. On screen Rebus has been portrayed by John Hannah and Ken Stott – both portrayals I’ve much enjoyed. I’ll admit I’ve chosen the screen over the books in this case, but imagine the state of my TBR if I’d not made that choice 🙂

Scotland: Highlands
Graeme Macrae Burnett’s His Bloody Project: Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae was shorlisted for a Booker prize in 2016. This being the first on this list I have read, I can tell you that it is well-written, with a real sense of time and place. The tale of a crofter, it depicts the dirt, the constant grinding hard work and, most important of all, the vulnerability to those in positions of power. I was in no doubt that Roddy was guilty, but book is presented as a piece of historical research, so left me with a frustratingly incomplete ending. Don’t let this fact put you off though…

I’ve read a fair number of books based in the Republic of Ireland, but the North is entirely unrepresented, except in my TBR list, which includes the following.

Northern Ireland: Belfast
As a sucker for a Booker winner, Milkman from Anna Burns heads them. This satirical tale of the troubles, never naming either the place or the people, is generally taken to be Belfast during the Troubles. Seen through the eyes of a literature loving teenager who has to deal with the unwanted attentions of a paramilitary many years her senior (who she names milkman), in this place of secrecy, gossip and hearsay, contemporary history is re-written as dystopia. Again, I may be waiting for a brighter world in which to pick this up.

Northern Ireland: Border Country
Michael Hughes’ Country being compared to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was enough to ensure it appeared on my decidedly overloaded TBR. One review pointed out that as the author is also an actor, we would find this a work filled with the sound of a rhythmic speaking voice – yet another big tick for me. Set in the border country post-ceasefire in 1996, there are parallels drawn between the characters of Hughes’ IRA gang and those in Homer’s Iliad.

For this section, I’ve selected a couple on my TBR from contemporary Welsh authors rather than the classics.

Wales: Rhondda Valley
A collection of short stories whose title has links to Kurt Cobain jumped out, and it turns out there are elements of rock ‘n roll in the tales of dirty and druggy Welsh youth, alcoholic mothers and wayward daughters to be found within the pages of Rachel Trezise’s Fresh Apples. Described as gritty and thought provoking, raw and uncomfortable, with stories sometimes so touching, then leaving you cold and indifferent – it sounds like more than press hype that these stories may well be a must-read for a glimpse of Wales today.

Wales (and beyond)
My next choice is really a rather modern day memoir, as it weaves personal history with a meditation on what it means to belong. The author, Professor Charlotte Williams, has been appointed by the Welsh Government to ensure their school curriculum gives pupils the opportunity to understand difference and diversity – something her background as the child of a white Welsh speaking mother and a black Guyanese father makes her uniquely well-placed to do. Displaying an ear for dialogue, Williams uses both prose and poetry in Sugar and Slate to describe her travels in Africa, Guyana and Wales, as she examines her complex cultural loyalties and mixed-race identity. This one sounds especially up my street and has just leapt up my TBR list 🙂

England: Stratford-upon-Avon
Hamnet from Maggie O’Farrell was a favourite read of mine from last year and is a marvellous re-imagining of Shakespeare’s family. Taking place almost entirely in Stratford-upon-Avon, we’re told a tale of a couple of bullies – one male, one female – with both the bard and his wife having to adjust, before finding a way to remove themselves. Although it’s the bard who’s famous, this is a tale of family life, so it’s his wife who’s the central character. Older than Will, with strange and unusual powers, she remains at home to care for their 3 children when their youngest daughter develops breathing difficulties, making life in a city impossible – even then. Yet, it’s their son who dies. The differing manner in which Will and his wife respond to that loss is movingly beautiful to read.

England: The Fens
The Nine Tailors from Dorothy L Sayers was my second Lord Peter Wimsey book. Stranded in a small town in the fens, Wimsey spends New Year with the local rector & his wife. The rather splendid local church has a famed collection of bells, and Wimsey steps in to save the day for an epic record-breaking ring. While there, he hears how the local gentry became impoverished following the theft of an emerald necklace. This is a tale of twists and turns, of thinking you’d worked out the murderer, only to discover that you hadn’t. When you do find out whodunnit, it’ll be a surprise – for if you work this one out ahead of Wimsey, you’re quite the sleuth. With lovely descriptive passages of the fenland and sympathetic rendering of local village folk – the kindly but rather scatty rector with a passion for bell ringing, being but one.

England: London
I’m cheating slightly here by suggesting two series – Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London books & the Cormoran Strike books from Robert Galbraith. What both series have in common is their central characters are both detectives – one a policeman investigating the “unusual”, the other a private detective and ex-military policeman firmly rooted in reality. Both are also based in central London (with odd forays further afield). Aaronovitch displays an encyclopaedic knowledge of his beloved city and, so vivid and detailed are his descriptions, that London itself feels like a key member of the cast of characters. In contrast, the West End of London is simply where Galbraith’s detective lives and works, but Galbraith does nicely juxtapose the grime and the glitter of the area in the tales. I’ve read both series and found them most enjoyable.

While researching the massive array of options, I’ve uncovered some absolute beauties to topple my TBR pile, but still please add your suggestions of potential reading material for future editions of Read Across the UK.

© Debra Carey, 2021

#ReadersResources: The Story Graph (or, is Goodreads dead?)

Back at the beginning of the year when Debs and I had our pow-wow about our plans for the blog, there’s one vital group of people that we overlooked: readers. We tend to assume that we’ve got them covered with at least 50% of our output, but given that we talk about writing quite a lot, and have a whole page devoted to helping writers with resources, our focus is perhaps not on the important people who complete the circle of life, as it pertains to writing. (And if you’re a reader whose just found us a result of this post, please take the time to have a look around and check out some of the stories; probably the easiest thing to do is take a look at the Index via the tab at the top of the page). This is clearly a massive oversight, as my writing, and I think Debs’ too, is shaped, to some extent, by our experience as readers. What we have read, the way we have read it, and our interaction with what other people think of what we have read, affect what we write. And whilst we both have TBR piles that are in danger of affecting local gravity, our choices of what to read next and what to add to the tottering Everests are are undoubtedly influenced by the recommendations of others.

Last year I commented on my fears that I was struggling to get through reading material, and that I might be doomed: how many books might I still be able to get through? Earlier this year, I followed that up with some thoughts on audiobooks. In 2019, I scraped through a 50-book target for the Goodreads challenge, thanks in no small part to audiobooks. This year, I’ve already reached my target and then some. It would be nice to think that there were some silver linings to Covid, but I think that it’s a coincidence and more to do with innate competitiveness, even if I’m just competing with myself. Still, more time spent gardening, listening to audiobooks, can’t have hurt. But that earlier post commented on a star-based review system and it’s limitations, and that’s probably relevant to what we’re thinking about here.

Recently I read an article from the New Statesman (I’m not sure how I came across it – it might have been one of those that pops up when you open a new tab in your browser), but it suggested that Goodreads might be bad for books. I certainly hadn’t realised that there was that much…background, shall we say, to Goodreads, and as a result there’s a certain temptation to just delete my account. Maybe I’ll just stop writing reviews – Goodreads may yet be a force for good from a writers perspective, but that’s a post for another day! From a reader’s perspective, is Goodreads still serving its core constituency? It’s tempting to use the ‘tail-wagging-the-dog’ analogy, but given that Goodreads is no longing curated by people who love reading, but is linked to a shop that wants us to buy what it sells (rather than what we want to buy), is it healthy to still engage with Goodreads? There appears to be little in the way of moderation, and I’ve heard some horror stories of various bullying tactics being deployed by aggressive reviewers. I’ve been luck not to see much of that myself, but it is something to think about.

The same New Statesman article pointed out how hard it is for alternatives to Goodreads to gain traction, and that in itself is a fascinating read, but it also gives a steer to an alternative that appears to be on track to becoming a viable alternative to Goodreads: plus points include a sensible way of reviewing books (where the star system is present but down-played) and more in the way of reading challenges than just ‘bosh through as many books as you can’. Another incredibly helpful feature when you are just getting started is that you can import your Goodreads records; there is an excellent guide on how to do this, and the whole process only took a few minutes.

The Story Graph is currently in beta, but already feels like it is doing a lot of things well and is building a vibrant and active community. In an ideal world (from my perspective) I would have been able to spend another few months having a play with the features and bedding in. Timeliness being of the essence, as they are launching a premium version, I thought I should just go ahead and give you my thoughts now – whilst I can’t recommend the Story Graph as strongly as I would like, due to my own lack of experience with the site, I can definitely suggest that you should get over there straight away and make your own decision. I’m unlikely to pay for the premium version – an ad free service is great, but I’m just not sure that I need the extra functionality right now, and whilst I would like to support an alternative to certain ubiquitous firms, that’s just not on the (bank)cards at the moment.

So, a question (or a few), to you with your Reader hat on: Are you happy with Goodreads? Why? Why not? What do you like about Goodreads? Have you had problems? Would you like an alternative?

If you do go and have a look at The Story Graph, do come back and tell us how you got on!

Happy reading!

(C) David Jesson, 2020

#Secondthoughts: Remakes

So we might get a remake in order to get great actors to play the roles – this needs to be done with care, because it’s easy to think that a particular cast will be dynamite – but then for it to turn out that the excitement is in the wrong place…

Do you ever read that a film is about to be remade and say to yourself “WHYYYYYY???” When there are so many great original films coming out every year, it can seem like a remake is a bit of a cop out, even if it’s some time since the original came out.  Sometimes remakes or alternative versions come along quite quickly as with the recent versions of the Jungle Book.  And then there’s Game of Thrones: season 8 hadn’t even finished before people were calling for a remake because they didn’t like how it was treated.

Bear with me.  I know this a site about writing rather than films.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Swallows and Amazons recently, in part because I’d really like to see the new version.  It wasn’t possible to go and see the film at the cinema when it came out, and I’ve not had an opportunity to watch it at home yet.  I’ve read some mixed reviews about the new version, but I’m still interested in watching the film.  It sounds like it is quite different to the 1975 version, with some additional elements added to the scripts.  I rewatched the the 1975 one recently and in some ways it is as good as I remember and in some ways it is very bad.  One of things that I really like about it is that it is one of the most faithful book adaptations that I’ve ever seen, although it is a little rushed towards the end.  (There is an abriged audiobook version read by Bernard Cribbens who does an excellent job of reading an eviscerated plot).  The child actors, as with the adaptations of Coot Club and the Big Six, are not experienced – for many this was their first experience of acting, and there is a lack of preciousness: this makes for a lack of smoothness in some respects but makes it all a little more natural in others.

Let’s ignore the whole book first or film first question, and indeed the whole issue of adapting a book in the first place.  Why make a remake?  Do you revisit the source material or just look at the first go?  I’ve been mulling this over recently, and I think that there is a good reason to revisit a story, even if the first go is considered to be a classic.  For example “The Front Page” (yes, I know, never actually a book), was remade as “His Girl Friday”, in part to get the Dream Team of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell to play the main roles.  There have also been pairings of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and Kathleen Turner and Burt Reynolds, not to mention some less famous versions that were made for TV.  (None of these versions stink, as far as I can remember, but Grant and Russell are probably my favourites).

So we might get a remake in order to get great actors to play the roles – this needs to be done with care, because it’s easy to think that a particular cast will be dynamite – but then for it to turn out that the excitement is in the wrong place… Another reason for a remake is to try and get a version that is more faithful to the original, or perhaps the adaptor thinks they can do a better job than the original author – that they can get to the fundamental truth that the author intended better than the author.

And then of course there is new equipment, new techniques, newly accessible sites, and new insight.  In terms of the quality of the special effects if nothing else, the Colin Farrell version of Total Recall has the edge on Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s.  On the other hand, it can be easy to spend too much money on a new adaptation to really try and make it sing, when actually the older effects are part of the charm – Ray Harryhausen’s films for example, especially Jason and the Argonauts.

It’s tricky.  There are are some stories that really are difficult to adapt for a variety of reasons, and there are some which end up being better than the source material, although that can be a matter of opinion too.   So whenever a new version comes out, it’s probably a good excuse to go back and read the original first.

I’m off to re-read some books – Swallows and Amazons Forever!