Reading in Public 2

Another miscellany of books I have observed being read in public since 30th October. Well, I enjoyed writing it……

Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown A lady was very absorbed in this in Waitrose; for a mad moment, I thought it was the new autobiography by recent British Prime Minister (briefly) Gordon Brown. How bold of him, I thought, to use such a title. Then reason re-asserted itself; at this time his memoir had not yet been released in hardback, let alone paperback. Also the photo on the back cover appeared to be of a lady, and I was not aware of Mr Brown having had any spectacular reassignment of his preferred gender. I fell to speculating what the reader was thinking as she read; was she absorbed in a fiction? Then she looked to see how many pages she had left, rather shattering the illusion. The book apparently addresses “the quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone”. (Did Gordon Brown need this, I wonder?) The author is apparently a TedTalk phenomenon- a good recommendation- and a New York Times bestselling author. Nevertheless, it doesn’t appeal.

Next: in Brasserie Blanc, of all places, was a lady dining alone and reading. How wonderful that somebody combines those two great pleasures, solo, with no apparent self-consciousness. The light was a bit dim, but I worked out that the book was by Colm Toíbín. It was one of those covers where the author’s name is bigger than the title. Hmm. Possibly the book was his latest, House of Names, a “brilliant retelling of a Greek tragedy”. Hmm. Possibly another one I shall pass by. His work sounds dry, but as usual, who am I to judge? (Did you notice I was able to put the accent on the í?)

Following this, I spot a gentleman in the Waitrose café reading Tom Clancy’s True Faith and Allegiance: a Jack Ryan novel by Mark Greaney. Now there’s a title that needs a bit of unpacking. It appears that Tom Clancy did not write his later novels alone and that after his death further novels under his name were written by others. They are thrillers, for those like me who have not read them. Apparently they have a rather conservative world view; that’s an American conservative world view, with Reagan as a hero. Apparently. Correct me if I’m wrong. Again it’s a comforting thought, whatever your politics, that people enjoy reading when they’re on their own in public.  The next day, however, I saw the same gentleman reading on a Kindle. How I wish I had the nerve to ask what titles are being read on Kindles and the like. Plato, Porn, Proust, Pamuk, Patterson…. ? On another occasion, a reader had their Kindle propped up on a stand. Obviously in for the long haul.

Equally I wish I’d asked the title of the slim tome  being read by a (student?) girl at a bus stop. Is it inappropriate to ask a stranger of the opposite sex such a question in this day and age, even with Mrs O. chaperoning? Strange times.

I had another difficulty at the swimming pool the other day, where I saw somebody reading; but I didn’t have my glasses on, so had no chance of finding the title. (Note: if I don’t acknowledge you when swimming, I’m not ignoring you; if I stare fixedly at you, it’s not that I find you attractive or unattractive in your costume; it’s just that beyond a distance of about 3m you all look like pink or brown blobs if I haven’t got my specs on.)

There was also a child reading at the pool, but I don’t think it counts; she had so obviously been told to “do some reading” while a sibling was having a lesson. Back at my usual haunt, a boy (the same young gentleman who partly inspired Reading in Public) is reading Third Year at Mallory Towers by Enid Blyton. Maybe a strange choice for this day and age? I had my Enid Blyton stage, but that was a long time ago.

Another reader, with a laptop, who is obviously going to be in the café for a long time, has a bag (with Minions on it) from which she pulls a procession of academic texts. I identify The Handbook of Person-Centred Therapy and Mental Health: Theory, Research and Practice by Stephen Joseph and a title of which I can only read one word: “Authentic”. When I look up the first title on Amazon I find that “Customers who viewed The Handbook of Person-Centred Therapy.…” also viewed Authentic by the same author. It’s all too deep for me; and doesn’t really count as getting involved in a book. Nor does the lady who is looking at her diary; despite Oscar Wilde’s thoughts on the matter, she was probably just checking on birthdays. Ooh, the academic lady has just got a book called ‘Learning and Being’ from her Minions bag. I think this must be Learning and Being in Person-Centred Counselling by Tony Merry. You see where she’s going with this? I hope it’s a good journey, and has a real relevance to her career or life, or both.

There you are then. No deep conclusions, just the abiding thought of how lovely it is to see somebody lost in a good book.

(Of course, having finished this post and not published it, the list slowly goes on lengthening. Part of this interest- all of it, really- is just an abiding curiosity as to what people are reading. The above-mentioned young gentleman is now onto The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl. I’ve just noticed a lady reading The Girls. Investigation tells me it is a coming-of-age story centred on Charles Manson, written by Emma Cline. Hmm. Think I’ll stick to the Ms Oblique library for the near future.)


‘Running Girl’ and ‘Kid Got Shot’ by Simon Mason

These novels were two of the batch I recently received from the Ms O. #1 Lending Library. (See  The Ms Oblique Library )

Running Girl‘Running Girl’ was, to use a hackneyed phrase, a breath of fresh air. I suppose it’s a Young Adult detective story. The main protagonist (why do people seem to frequently say “chief protagonist”?) is Garvie Smith, a disaffected teenage genius. A former girlfriend of his has been murdered and he is, naturally, drawn to find the killer. Detective Inspector Singh has been assigned to the case; he is described as “stiff and uncompromising”. Their two paths intertwine; the story is told from both viewpoints, although Garvie’s predominates.

So far, so standard, and the plot is just that: a standard detection story, with characteristic twists and turns. Why then do I think it’s so fresh? To start with, it’s told well. There’s no gimmicky or attempt at unnecessary  novelty. It can be followed with no difficulty apart from the puzzle itself. Perhaps this is a function of reading a YA detective story after more convoluted adult versions.

Then the characters are involving; I think we always have to have a concern for what happens to characters and to feel some sort of empathy for them. Garvie and Singh are well drawn, rounded people, with their virtues and faults.

The language used, especially in descriptions, is nice and clear. (Yes, I do mean nice.) I like “black holly and pale beech trees darkening with rain” and “his short black hair stood up from his head in a layer of fine bristles”. The author avoids overdoing similes and metaphors or straining for them. The dialogue sounds accurate.

Kid Got ShotIn ‘Kid Got Shot’ we encounter the same principal characters in changed circumstances. The storyline again involves a teenager who is murdered. There is an interesting mix of racial backgrounds; the victim is Polish, and I forgot to mention above that Garvie is mixed Scottish and Barbadian, the detective Singh a Sikh. New characters include a comic but menacing gangster.

Once again the descriptive passages, which normally I skim through in my lust for a plot, are evocative and involving, making me read them more than once. Some noteworthy examples are the description of wire fences chattering in the wind, while “clouds tore  themselves to pieces and tossed the bits against the dark sky”; shredded cherry tree blossoms “like party-coloured fish flakes in the gutters”; and tower blocks like “vast grey Stickle bricks…. sequinned with satellite dishes, standing in a concrete pool”.

There is only veiled mention of sex and some limited violence. This may or may not please you.

There is more emphasis on Garvie and his peculiar, reckless personality than before, perhaps less attention to Singh and Garvie’s friends, less attention to school. There is more plot; is again rather involved and I’m not sure even now that I am completely clear about what led to the murder and the motives for it. There are some loose ends which could be tied up nicely in a third book: How does Garvie get on in his exams? What is the outcome for Singh? I recommend both books.

Did you notice I split an infinitive? Apparently that’s O.K. now. But there are some grammatical rules up with which I will not put. And that’s my last word.

‘A Darker Shade of Magic’ by V.E. Schwab

Briefly. Another book from the Ms Oblique library. It’s fantasy, and I suspect Young Adult. Oh no, I just looked it up: apparently it’s not, as Ms. Schwab publishes YA books as V.E. Swab and adult books as Victoria Schwab. Come to think of it, I think it would be rather dark to be YA; but who knows nowadays. It does have a freshness that has the feel of a youngish readership.

Kell is a magician who has the rare ability to travel between three different versions of London: Grey, Red and White. In the past, Black London was uncontrollably magical and has been walled off from the other dimensions. Now it is a threat again.

There’s good consistency of invention in the book, with no implausible solutions. The contrasting Londons are nicely described and delineated. There’s a good action plot, with not too much introspection. Kell is a well-portrayed central character, a hero who is not infallible. Of course, there is a sidekick, Lila, a good action heroine, but the romance is very understated.

I started it with an impatience to be back to science fiction, but found it was one of those compelling reads which have you snatching a few pages whenever you can. Recommended.

(It’s the first of a series.)


Photo of Victoria Schwab: Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

‘The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet’ by Becky Chambers

What a great title, I thought, as I passed this by in the book shop. Months later, having been lent it by Ms O, I can tell you it’s a great read.

It’s SF. It’s won awards. It didn’t seem to be my sort of science fiction, because it is a stream of constant invention rather than an exploration of one basic premise- like huge carnivorous plants (Day of the Triffids), or an alien artefact on the moon (2001- A Space Odyssey). After the first 20 pages, I nearly gave up, but I’m very glad I didn’t. Eventually the invention was thrilling. I’ll try to explain.

The basic premise is that a spaceship has been hired to make a long journey to a potential war zone (the small angry planet) to create a hyperspace tunnel. The ship is a motley collection of technology and is crewed by a motley collection of humans and other species, including an artificial intelligence. A lot of fun is in the description of the aliens (how can you not like a book which uses the phrase “chitinous blue exoskeletons”?), their interactions and relationships, even including inter-species sex. (No it’s not pornographic. But don’t let that put you off.) There is no real chief protagonist, though some of the crew get more attention than others.

Then there’s the technology and “science”- which eventually captivated me. Tunnelling through hyperspace- lockjaw clips- ambi- scribs- sib transmitters- voxes- modders- catastrophic cascade failures- fixbots; the list goes on and on. I don’t pretend to understand what all of it does, and especially how a spaceship can run on algae, but the creativity is addictive, without there ever being a cheap “magic wand” solution to problems.

In Ms O’s always highly intelligent opinion, a chief quality of this book is the personal interaction- the human or sapient element rather than the space opera element. There is however also a powerful plot. I have to admit that some of the personal moments actually made me cry. I feel some of the writing is a bit “young adult”, although I can’t find examples, but it’s a lovely book. Pleasingly there is a sequel, ‘A Close and Common Orbit’ which seems to pick up some of the unresolved elements. I look forward to reading it.

small angry planet

The Ms Oblique Library

LoansFurther to my last blog on “Print Junkies” I was fortunate enough to visit Miss (or Ms) Oblique #1 at the weekend. She and her partner, the erudite Red Rob, have an extensive and growing library, reflecting their varying interests of politics, military history, art, fantasy, SF, young adult fiction and much, much more. As is often the case on these sadly infrequent visits, I returned a stack of books that I had borrowed and came away with an even bigger stack, all recommended by the aforementioned Ms Oblique. This is of very little interest to anybody else, but I wanted to thank her with this brief post and to show the world what a 27 year old doing an MA in publishing thinks her 62 year old father with an MA in Education will enjoy. (She is very rarely wrong.) Thanks, Ms Oblique.

Print Junkies

Many years ago I was privileged to hear Harold Rosen give a talk at Southampton University. (A few years later I was privileged to hear his son, Michel Rosen, give a talk to teachers and read his poetry, in a classroom in a primary school in Winchester. For free. But I digress.)

I don’t remember the title of Harold Rosen’s talk and I remember virtually nothing of its content. It must have been something to do with reading, or literacy before that became a term hijacked by the as yet unborn National Curriculum. (Yes, children, there was a time before the National Curriculum and I was there. I am that old.) I probably took some notes, but these must be long gone, maybe even in the final clearout I made of all but a few sentimental items from my teaching career.

All I remember of the talk is Mr Rosen calling his audience of teachers and academics ‘print-oriented junkies’. He was right about me then and right about me now.

The Bookworm by Carl SpitzwegWhen I was younger I was that mythical person, a reader of cornflakes packets. If we still ate cornflakes, I would still be that person now. I am addicted to print. If cleaning my shoes (which is rare since I stopped working) I have to read articles in the discarded newspapers I am using. Mrs Oblique still gets annoyed, quite rightly, at my habit of reading signs aloud as we drive or walk down the street. I am addicted to print, especially books.

Like any addict, I do my best to avoid being without my fix. The Kindle has helped. I make sure I have books ready on it whenever we go away, but also take a print/ real book “just in case” the Kindle fails. Another digression: I recently recklessly loaded up on Amazon recommendations for my Kindle when we went away for a fortnight, only to find that at least three of them were dross. But anything will do when you’re craving a hit.

If I go into somebody else’s house, I make a beeline straight for their bookshelves. (Why is it a beeline? Do they always fly straight to their target?) Since I decluttered my own library, as documented earlier on this blog, I am sometimes saddened by the losses from mine. I always expected to have a huge, rambling library in my third age, but living with other people involves compromise.

It’s always a pleasure to meet another print junkie. My eldest daughter is one. She says her gateway drug was ‘The Hobbit’. I am delighted that she is now recommending books to me. I don’t look down on people who don’t read, but I wonder what they get our of life.

Addictions or obsessions have their problems. I have on occasion, probably fairly, been accused of ignoring people because I have had my head in a book. Maybe more seriously, I think that being a fluent reader might have handicapped me in my approach to young readers, both as a parent and as a reader. It’s always been hard to empathise with somebody who just doesn’t get reading, no matter what I might claim.

Now to continue with Miss O’s latest recommendation. ‘Ancillary Justice’, by Ann Leckie, as you are so kind to ask.

The illustration is ‘The Bookworm’ by Karl Spitzweg, in public domain. Mrs O. was unavailable for illustrating duties, being occupied making Dockers’ Chutney.



‘The Day of the Triffids’ by John Wyndham

One of my top three SF novels. But has it stood the test of time?

I have no idea how many time I have read ‘Day of the Triffids’ (1951), or when I first encountered it. I can quote chunks of it. John Wyndham has written other novels with a disaster theme, for example ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’, but this is the best known. It has been filmed and dramatised for TV and radio.

20170908_151603Most of humanity has been blinded by a spectacular meteor display, which may be due to human intervention. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the threat of the Triffids soon emerges. They are tall, walking, poisonous plants, grown for their high quality oil. Escaping from cultivation, they take advantage of the blind.

What makes this book such a good read is the logical, reasoned way in which it develops from these speculative elements. It doesn’t invent anything else; it just explores what could happen. Variations in individual morals, from altruism to pure self-interest, cause variations in the way individuals cope. Different communities struggle to survive in very different ways. A great interest is in the human interaction and the effects the disaster has on the country.

Of course, this book has aged; but I would say enjoyably. In many ways, the science is remarkably prescient; nowadays, 66 years on, we would say that the Triffids were genetically engineered. Developments in IT are really not relevant, because of the lack of electricity that would soon develop. Other than the science, there is pleasure in what is now a period setting.

I am not sure how somebody new to this book, especially somebody much younger, would react. It may be that its time has gone, at least until it becomes truly historic. I re-read it with great enjoyment, along with some mild amusement at how it is beginning to date.