Tuesday 29 October 2013

What seems like an awful long time ago I did an interview with Nic Bottomley of the fantastic Mr B's for the Bristol Review of Books. BRB seems to be on an indefinite hiatus so I'm posting it here in full.

An interview with Nic Bottomley of Mr. B’s Emporium of reading delights



Pete - Tell me a little about Mr. B's


Nic - Mr B's opened in June 2006. I was a derivatives lawyer before that but,
after 8 years as a lawyer in London and Prague, didn't have the appetite or
strength of interest to do it for the rest of my working life. I wanted (a)
to run my own business and (b) to do something that didn't lead to a blank
or vaguely scared expression on people's faces when you told them in the pub
what you did for a living.

When Juliette (my wife and another ex-lawyer) and I were on honeymoon in
Seattle and then Alaska in late 2004 (in the days we could afford to go to
places like Seattle and Alaska - i.e. Before becoming booksellers!) we went
to a couple of amazing bookshops. Most notably we spent time at Elliot Bay
Book Company in Seattle, once of the world's finest and largest independent
bookshops. It inspired us to look into whether an indie bookshop run with
high service standards (the thing we admire most in American independent
businesses) could prosper in the UK.

In October 2005 I finished at my law firm and we left our home in Prague and
moved back to the UK and, specifically, to the Bath area. I then embarked on
a month long tour visiting UK bookshops to get ideas and inspirations and to talk
to other booksellers. We had by then come to the view that whilst lots of
bookshops had failed in the previous decade and that whilst Amazon and
big-chain competition was fierce, that there was the possibility of making
an independent bookshop work if it had a strong identity, rooted itself in
its community and was driven by a passion for books and a love of customer

Of course that's all very nice but we had no idea when we opened the door in
2006 whether anyone would ever walk through it. We barely knew how to
operate the till (we plugged it in at 9am..always the last thing to get
done...and still had the instruction booklet open when the first customer
walked in shortly after we opened the door at noon). People spent the last
six months of my legal career and the first two years of our bookselling
careers telling us how "brave" it was to do what we were doing but I don't
really buy that. It wasn't brave (as we always had the fallback of returning
tail between our legs to our previous careers if it hadn't worked) it just
had a dollop of blind faith about it.

We've been fortunate enough to grow in terms of shop size, staff numbers and
financially every year since we opened, which given the state of the economy
we're very proud of. We've also been lucky enough to pick up a few awards
along the way, most notably twice being named the UK's Independent Bookshop
of the Year in 2008 and 2011.

When asked to say what makes us different and what, touch wood, has enabled
us to continue thriving to date I usually point to five things:

A) Atmosphere - the shop has a very distinctive vibe I now realise. It's to
do with the fact that we all enjoy what we do and love books and are keen to
engage about books rather than stand back. That's not to say we don't
recognise the place for a long private browse, it's just that we always want
to be available to talk books with our customers. This is, hopefully, backed
up by the physical feel and layout of the place - it's full of distinctive
features like book-review papered toilets, a Tintin wall on the stairs, a
bath converted into a book display in the kids room, a lot of cheap chic
antique furnishings and our bibliotherapy room with its comfy chairs and

B) Books - we handpicked our opening stock painstakingly ignoring all
supplier offers of pre-made lists. (e.g. Fiction began with me reading the
Oxford Companion to English Lit cover to cover and listing every author we
clearly couldn't omit) and we continue to have complete control over our
stockholding with all the team being involved. Of course the focus areas
have changed over the years as we adapt to what our customers enjoy (and get
recommendations from them!) but equally our bestsellers and the kind of
books we do particularly well with are often thanks to our own passion for
them. We have books across all sections and of course there's lots of
overlap with other shops, but the books you might see on prominent display
at Mr B's will not always be those that you see given breathing space


C) Service - we have tried to maintain a consistently high-level of customer
service ever since opening. It was service that first got us a fantastic
word-of-mouth reputation when we first opened in Bath - which is key because
although we're central and downtown we're on a side street - and it's still
the single most important thing you can do right as an independent business.
The importance of a stable team of intelligent articulate passionate
full-time staff to creating that service culture cannot be stated enough. We
are now a team of 7 (with the 8th being Juliette who is currently mainly
involved from afar on account of having the far trickier task of managing
our 6 month old twins and 3 year old daughter).

D) Events and Community - we work closely with schools, theatres, the Bath
Lit Fest (for whom we are official booksellers) and many other local groups
and that helps embed us in the community despite our relative youth to some
businesses. We always strive to do things a bit differently so we changed
our author events a couple of years ago to add in food and music. The music
comes from our own band of 3 local very talented musicians called The
Bookshop Band who, in just 2 years, have written over 60 songs inspired by
our guest authors' books and played them at the events of those authors.
They have been featured on Front Row, 6 Music, BBC 6 o'clock news, they've
toured the UK's other independent bookshops and played to 240 people at the
Wiltshire Music Centre. We're incredibly proud of this project and 2013 is
shaping up to be huge for them. [We have Christmas concerts by The Bookshop
Band at Mr B's on 6th and 11th December]

Profile picture for The Bookshop Band


E) Innovation - the thing we believe in most is being different to other
shops and how vital it is to come up with new ways to sell books. The two
most obvious examples are with our reading gifts - the ideas for both of
which came to us in the pub of course. The Mr B's Reading Spa is a gift that
involves the recipient booking in a time to come into Mr B's to talk books
with one of the team over tea and cake and to be introduced by that
team-member to lots of new books based on what we learn about their reading
tastes. The £55 gift voucher for the standard version of the spa includes
£40 to spend on the books as well as a goody bag. These have been huge fun
and a big success for us and in December we're set to sell our 1000th spa
for sure.

The follow-on gift that resulted from a couple of years of talking books
during Reading Spas was the "Mr B's Reading Year" subscription which can be
for customers further afield and involves the recipient completing a
questionnaire as to their reading tastes and then receiving from their
dedicated Mr B's bibliotherapist, a hand-selected book each month (all
wrapped in brown paper, string and our wax seal) for a year. The
subscriptions are growing at a speedy rate especially as The Guardian picked
it as their last-minute Christmas gift recommendation in 2011. They're also
incredibly enjoyable and useful as they give us the chance to constantly
hone our recommendation skills.


Pete - Tell me a little about the Howling Miller

Nic - So The Howling Miller is a book we came across upon UK publication back in
2007. It immediately appealed to me, to Juliette and to my brother-in-law
Harvey who was also instrumental in the shop's planning, launch and early
success. It was therefore one of the first books that we sold in
proportionately higher volumes than other shops were probably doing, as
whilst it has a small cult following I think it's fair to say it wasn't a
mainstream success.

More recently two more of the team, Kate and Libby, have read it and also
loved it, so with that consistency of recommendation within the team and
lots of good customer feedback it made it an obvious choice when we started
thinking about books to have a hand in publishing.

For my part, the reason I love it is the endearing anti-hero and the
atmosphere created. The novel feels like a fable in many respects as it
tells the story of this slightly awkward man returning from the war to
resurrect an old mill who faces prejudice from small-minded villagers nearby. The miller (Gunnar) is far from perfect but he's closer to the mark than
most of the people who harangue him and seeing how that tension between the
community and the miller plays out, against a crisply described Finnish
backdrop of racing streams and woodland, is a joy.

I believe The Howling Miller has been published in over 40 countries.
Paasilinna is relatively popular in France and so the English version
emerges from the French translation rather than the Finnish original. This
isn't so unusual where very complex European languages are involved - the
author that springs to mind is Albanian Ismail Kadare, some of whose novels
have been translated into English via their French incarnation.


Pete – how did the with Canongate come about? and how has the industry reacted?


Nic - SO Jamie Byng, the very creative and talented head of Canongate Books, and I
sat down at their offices on the last day of the torch relay (I mention it
as we began the meeting by running out onto the streets of Notting Hill with
most of Team Canongate to watch the torch go by) and brainstormed whether
there were ways we could collaborate more closely - and that bookshops and
publishers generally could work together more cooperatively.

I mentioned an interest in championing books by actually having our own
edition and Jamie immediately threw The Howling Miller into the ring as he
knew how much we raved about it. We explored the idea for half an hour and
came up with a plan which eventually took the following form. We would
provide new artwork and jacket wording for a limited edition hardback of the
book that Mr B's would have exclusive rights to. Canongate would arrange
printing based on that artwork and the full print-run of just 300 copies
would be delivered to us and paid for by us.

For us, the appeal is (a) having a piece of unique content to sell about
which we are massively passionate (b) having a very gentle dabble in the
creative publishing side of the industry and (c) doing something else that
hasn't been done before which is always fun and usually leads to interesting
things and useful publicity. For Canongate the appeal is the latter and also
an interesting experiment to see whether sales of their original paperback
edition of the book increase at all as a knock-on effect (particularly of
trade publicity for the project).

Jamie and I are both very big believers in the robust future of high-street
bookselling and independent publishing not just as curios but as profitable
businesses with a loyal customer base. Bookshops are crying out for help
from publishers in small elements of uniqueness that they can point to as
against chains/internet suppliers, so with this project we also hoped to
prove more generally that publishers and booksellers that communicate
closely with one another might come up with a few appealing and different
projects together to help boost the sales of great books.

Pete -  How did you choose the cover art?

Nic - We really wanted to fill the jacket with our own thoughts on the book so we
rewrote the blurb on the back and covered the jacket flaps with an
explanation of what the book means to us and with some details of the
project and those involved with it.

The artwork was done by Sarah-Jane Griffey. We approached her (a) because
she's a young recently graduated designer who should be getting loads of
great commissions and job offers and so we wanted to highlight her talents;
and (b) because we found out how good an artist she is when she drew an
awesome batman image on my colleague Ed's coffee cup a few months ago!
Sarah-Jane read the book and then we sat down to talk about some of the key
images and about how we all wanted to highlight the setting of the book as
well as the exasperated main character. The result is a much less angry
cover than the Canongate paperback version which, personally, I feel is more
appropriate since the "howling" that the miller does at a few key points in
the book is borne equally out of joy and frustration.

By the by, howling woodsmen may be proliferating in literature. I just read
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson which follows one man's life on America's
railways and wooded hills and eventually the main character there resorts to
a bit of stress-relieving conversation with the neighbourhood wolfs.

Pete - Has it been a success?

Nic - Well it's already been a success in terms of getting a positive reaction
within the trade and contributing to the continued dialogue about how the
two sides of the trade can communicate better and work together more closely
to boost high-street bookselling. Jamie and I "launched" the book, for the
want of a better word, at the Booksellers Association Conference and it
certainly seemed to get people thinking and talking

We have 300 copies to sell which will inevitably take us a little while, but
it's looking like we'll have sold more than half by Christmas and from
around then it will become a profitable project as well as a very enjoyable
one. To be honest though, cliched though it sounds, this first testing out
of a very unusual publishing collaboration was genuinely first and foremost
not about making money but about enjoying it, getting a lovely edition of a
book we love to be able to sell and demonstrating that something can be done
swiftly (there were 3 months from first conversation to printing) if you all
work together.


Pete – have you been inspired by this success and the example of  Shakespeare &
Co/Ulysses story? To create a Mr B's publishing imprint?

Nic - A Mr B's publishing imprint would be an altogether different proposition -
the beauty of what we've done here is that we've worked together with a
publisher and borrowed their expertise on the printing side and used an
existing title but just created our own special edition to get a bit of
artwork experience. I'm not sure we're ready to dedicate the time to
producing a book from scratch (and all the other complications that go with

We are however looking at repeating this model with other publishers and in
fact we've released a second book in its Mr B's Special Edition hardback form in 2013 collaborating with a celebrated local artist, a larger publisher and an
author who shares our love of this title. This is Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights is a fantastic independent book shop in Bath UK


01225 331155


Twitter - @Mrbsemporium


Monday 28 October 2013

So that was the week that was...

On Friday 18th things were in place at the festival hub and ready for a week of literary delights. On Saturday 19th the festival kicked off with The Kraken Rises! - after a slight panic getting stuff ready whilst the general public arrived the participants first made a book, received their brief and were let loose to tell tales about Bristol. Everyone who took part, that has offered comment, loved it. The kids that took part had a great time - it was a worry for me as it wasn't so tailored for kids and the programming did encourage families.

Straight after Carolyn Lewis should have been kick-starting people's imagination but had broken her foot so our director stepped in and led the session instead.

I missed Tales from the bin and From Roman Fact to Roman fiction but apparently they went well.

I did make the first 15 minutes of the Bristol Short Story prize awards & congratulations to all the winners for that! However I had to rush back to the festival hub to introduce the readers for High Performance - Jonathan L Howard, Gaie Sebold, David Gullen, Chelsea Walton and Nick Rawlinson - that went very well and segued nicely into Toby Litt and Nikesh Shukla in conversation about How to survive the end of the world.

Sunday I spent a relaxing day in the Parlour, our festival hub, bookshop & cafe and then made my way to the Redcliffe caves to a mesmerising performance from Owen Sheers and an enjoyable evening in the company of the Bristol Writers' group.

Monday we kicked off the citywide story in Henleaze library with Edson Burton which was great fun - not enough time though!

Tuesday I was in J3 library Easton to create the middle of the Citywide Story and managed to just about get to the end of the rum readings (and taste some rum).

Wednesday was just in the Parlour and in the evening in Bath. I did get the chance to play Tripods though

If you'd like to support the game go here: indiegogo.com/projects/tripods-the-board-game campaign ends October 31st!

Thursday was the rather marvellous Bristol, Writers' conference with Richard Beard, Sanjida O'Connell, Patricia Ferguson and Alison Moore - that was such a great set of events, 3 hours that seemed to pass far too fast. Thanks to the brave writers who submitted themselves to a live edit - "It was excoriating" was the quote from the first writer - however I think Richard did really well being objective and didn't stray into "I like this" or "I don't like this" - fascinating.

Friday saw Art & Power in the Parlour which was a really nice event & a hugely friendly crowd followed by a visit from 20+ students from Swansea uni to talk to Mike Manson, which was a bit of a surprise but seemed to go very well. In the evening was the final part of the Citywide story with Rebecca Tantony who brought the story to a satisfying conclusion. Afterwards was Word Karaoke with Nick Rawlinson doing a masterful masterclass and Gav Watkins compering an open Mic. I performed my story Le Sacre du Printemps Which seemed to go down well - I've had a lot of nice feedback about it anyway :-)

On Saturday it was all rush as I had to edit and send off the Citywide Story ready for Nick to perform it at the Speakeasy. Then off to BristolCon for the day. (Where for some reason I took no photos!)

BristolCon is one of the friendliest, most inclusive and best run cons I've been to. I was invited onto two panels and enjoyed them both immensely. First up was World Building, I made copious noted beforehand but the chat soon strayed into realms I hadn't prepared for (especially discussing books I'd not read) but the panel seemed to be quite lively and we got some good questions from the audience and, on the whole, I think it was (for me) a success.

I managed another couple of panels before appearing on my other one but in between times spent some time in the dealers room trying not to buy too much stuff and I had to rush off and do some logistics for the festival. Of course much time was spent chatting in the bar with a whole bunch of fine folk, some I see regularly on the convention circuit, others I met for the first time.

Dave Gullen, Juliet E McKenna, Rob Haines, Amanda Kear & moderator Catherine Butler discussed "My world is not your sandpit" which was a topic close to my heart at the moment as I've been invited onto a project as an editor that may stray into this territory. Some of the questions seemed to have an agenda (maybe of the "I really want to write fanfic" variety) and the panel expressed a wide range of opinion. It was entertaining and I think that mostly I got the idea that "it depends" - so perhaps the project I'll edit will need to tread a fine line. (More about that project in later blogs, once things firm up a bit)

I also got to see "How to poo in a fantasy universe and other grubby goings on" With Dev Agarwal (M), Ben Galley, Myfanwy Rodman, Lor Graham, Max Edwards and that went in all sorts of directions and another very entertaining hour flew past.

Finally I got to moderate a panel for the first time which was so much fun. I had great panelists though, even the late replacement which offered a whole new perspective. We got to the end and thought that there was another couple of hours worth of discussion we could have had, which is the best sort of panel really Many thanks to my panelists - Cavan Scott, Rosie Oliver, Dave Bradley & sadly I didn't write down the name of the last minute stand in and my memory for names being what it is I have forgotten! I'm so sorry (if you're reading this - please do prompt me if you know) she was good as well. EDIT - thanks to Jo Hall for pointing out that the mystery panelist was Kari Sperring

After a quick visit to the cash point & the announcement of the winners of the Kraken Rises! (well done Karolina Woznicka & Kevlin Henney as runners up and Scott Lewis for winning) I taxied Emma Newman across the city for her appearance at the final event of the Lit fest, the Speakeasy. Emma read out a bit of Scott's winning story and some of her own stuff and then rushed back to BristolCon. Nick Rawlinson read out the Citywide story brilliantly. Jari Moate and Edson Burton performed a bit of Edson's retelling of the Odyssey. Martine McDonagh read a little of her work too. Throughout the evening the Bookshop Band provided brilliant music.

Sunday - although a day of rest, did see me out and about again, this time as a punter. We went to see the awfully brilliant and brilliantly awful Troll 2


and Best Worst Movie

A great night out & really looking forward to the next one http://bristolbadfilmclub.co.uk/

Thursday 24 October 2013

Woosh! That’s the sound of the week flying past, the high velocity preventing me from sitting down for 5 minutes and writing a blog post about what’s going on. The Kraken Rises! stories have been judged, the winner and runners up chosen, the cover art printed out, the foreword written & the book is in the process of being put together by the legion of robots under the command of Sr Editor Lee Harris at Angry Robot. The Citywide tentacle is 2/3 complete and the final touches will be put together on Friday and then the whole story will be read out for the first time by Nick Rawlinson at our Unputdownable Speakeasy.


I nipped out to Bath last night to ask Gareth Powell lots of questions about his book Ack-Ack Macaque at the brilliant Mr B’s Emporium Strikes Back book group. The general consensus was that it was a real fun book. It was my turn to choose the 3 books to be voted on – Vurt by Jeff Noon, Drowned world by J.G. Ballard and The Fictional Man by Al Ewing. Vurt was a clear winner.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Monday I helped kick off the Citywide tentacle in Henleaze library with author Edson Burton. The apocalypse has come to Bristol and it starts in Henleaze with looting in Waitrose. Great fun event and a great set up for the second part which happened in the fabulous new J3 library in Easton with author Mike Manson. There was a bit of a Bourne style twist and the story is primed and ready for its explosive end on Friday at the Central Library with Author Rebecca Tantony….


The festival continues tonight with “Survive & thrive in self-publishing”, the Bristol Women Writers group in the Central library and “Thriller time” with Chris Ewan & Jari Moate

Monday 21 October 2013

Blimey it’s day three of the festival already and I haven’t had time to write on the blog.

The festival kicked off with the Kraken event which it looks like everyone has thoroughly enjoyed. Phew! The making a book part was great fun and people have said it has been very satisfying to end up with a handmade journal. The 3 venues were great –Stanfords, the Central Library and Watershed.

After a well deserved drink for the authors involved and a bit to eat I rushed to the Bristol Short Story Prize award ceremony, which was on the 5th floor of the Arnolfini, somewhere I’d not been before and a fabulous venue. Sadly I had to run away back to the hub to prepare for High Performance which saw me compere 5 different readers – Jonathan L Howard, Gaie Sebold, Dave Gullen, Chelsea Walton & Nick Rawlinson.

Straight after that we were lucky to have Toby Litt who was interviewed by Nikesh Shukla about apocalyptic literature. A really nice event with a great atmosphere.

On Sunday we managed to have a bit of a slow start and a full cooked to get us going. Pink Mist by Owen Shears in the caves was a really special event that saw a sell out crowd. Closely followed by a set of great readings by the Bristol Writers Group.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Getting the tentacles into Bristol Festival of literature

BFL is just round the corner (starts on the 19th – go here for details: http://unputdownable.org/events ) as a member of the core team, I've put together the Kraken Rises! and Citywide Tentacle parts. I’ll be at a bunch of other events, I may even be hosting some other events but my blood sweat and tears have gone into the tentacular events.

The Kraken Rises! & Citywide Tentacle are similar events, both being variations on Exquisite Corpse really but started out separate. Citywide story ran in the first year of the festival and was a lot of fun and people seemed to miss it last year so we decided to run it again.

The Kraken Rises! started as a conversation with Jared Shurin (http://www.pornokitsch.com/) at a Kitschies event and from that initial seed has grown into a vast tentacled beast of an event. With 4 venues, 6 authors, 2 publishers, the Pervasive media studio, a bookshop and more all working together. It’s a little bit mad to be honest. Participants will arrive at 10:45 at the Festival Hub (The Parlour on Park Street just opposite College Green) to be briefed and receive their goody bags (with books kindly donated by Wordsworth Editions and Solaris and other goodies provided by Hodderscape and some of the participating authors). After the briefing they’ll make a book, yes they’ll physically make a blank journal, with local publishing co-op Vala. They’ll then be let loose to start creating their stories (based on the brief given to them). It is optional but potentially of use for them to attend the next event in the Parlour called “Kickstart your imagination” and there are 6 authors to consult for writing tips until 4pm. (Dave Gullen http://davidgullen.com/, Jonathan L Howard http://www.jonathanlhoward.com/, Tim Maughan http://timmaughanbooks.com/, Emma Newman http://www.enewman.co.uk/, , Gareth L Powell http://www.garethlpowell.com/ and Gaie Sebold http://gaiesebold.com/ )

Participants can spend as long or as little time as they want in the 3 participating venues, which will be open between 12 and 4, getting tips from the participating authors. There are also a few fun activities at the venues including a digital workshop, a short film, practising cut up technique and a digital audio demonstration.

At 4pm we’ll release the authors back into the community and await the results of the day. Everyone gets the opportunity to send us their stories by the next day. We’ll choose 10 of the best and those lucky few will be published by Angry Robot in an anthology that will raise money for the festival. We’ve already run a competition to design the cover and our judges are currently debating who should win the art prize.

The winners will be informed at Bristolcon and the Unputdownable Speakeasy (as they may be at either event). There will be a first, second and third prize in addition to being published with prizes kindly donated by Penguin and Stanfords and maybe some others. I think that £3 per person (£2.50 concessions) is really good value for a very fun day. It has been a lot of hard work behind the scenes to organise it & I’m really hoping that it is going to be well attended and that those that do attend will have fun.

The citywide tentacle will run at 3 separate libraries in the city. One will write the beginning of a story about the apocalypse, the next will write the middle of the story and the last will write the end. The whole story will then be read out at the Unputdownable Speakeasy.

I am also very happy that Toby Litt agreed to appear at the festival and hope that lots of people will come and see him . Also glad to say that the Bookshop band (http://www.thebookshopband.co.uk/) will be appearing at the Speakeasy. I may have had a small hand in those two things.

The rest of the festival looks really good this year and I am sad to not be able to go to everything. As well as Toby Litt and the Speakeasy I will be at High Performance, the short story prize, Fear in the caves, Word Karaoke and the Writers Conference so drop by & say hi.

On the Saturday I’ll be appearing at Bristolcon on a couple of panels (Creating a culture & how science got it’s groove back) details here: http://www.bristolcon.org/wp-content/uploads/BristolCon13-Programme.pdf before piling a bunch of people in a taxi an hotfooting it to the Speakeasy. The program for Bristolcon looks great this year & I’m really looking forward to it. However there are some extra special things happening in BFL land too including Football, Street art and Andy McNab!
I’ll hopefully be online every day of the festival blogging about the highs and lows. I hope to see you there!       

Friday 11 October 2013

Lighter than my shadow by Katie Green
Lighter Than My Shadow cover mockup



Katie is a friend so this may not be a totally unbiased review! However I am glad to say that I did love the book. Katie has struggled with an eating disorder and this is her autobiography showing her descent into anorexia and her recovery as well as the fact she was abused by a counsellor. As such it is a deeply personal journey and a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. It’s also a bit of a door stop of a book at 500ish pages but I was able to finish it in one sitting and it doesn’t feel long at all. Katie was a picky and slow eater as a child and had that struggle such children have with their parents, being made to eat cold food etc. From these beginnings we see her struggle with school, become anorexic and her long slow recovery. Her eating disorder is brilliantly portrayed as a black cloud of squiggles which grows or shrinks as the story progresses and what is clear is that the big black cloud doesn’t only affect Katie but also her whole family.


You can see a 24 page preview here: http://lighterthanmyshadow.com/book-excerpt/ and an interview with Katie in the Guardian here: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/sep/28/anorexia-affects-everyone-family-katie-green This is the best sort of graphic novel where the words and pictures combine to make a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. I was gripped and left wanting more at the end which is the sign of a good book I feel.


Overall – Highly recommended autobiography

Wednesday 9 October 2013

Others of my kind by James Sallis




Jenny Rowan is an editor at a TV station in a very near future or alternative history USA. We see her at the beginning of the book meeting with a policeman who asks her to speak to an abductee survivor given the fact that she is also such a survivor. There is a understated horror in the book, very little detail is given as to either abductee’s ordeal but what little we do learn is very dark indeed. Jenny was kept in a box under her abductee’s bed for a considerable amount of time, and taken out to “lay” with every so often. This means the book is not for the faint hearted. Sallis’s style is minimal and sparse and yet he creates a small book with a lot of emotional depth. Rowan’s relationships don’t really go anywhere and she seems to sleepwalk through her job (although she is good at it she tends to do it whilst zoned out) and is emotionally an enigma. As the book is 1st person this style may not work for some people but I found it worked for me. The last act gets a bit unbelievable as the terrorist sub-plot plays out but it never lost my attention.


Overall – recommended


King Death Toby Litt




As usual Litt has taken a new turn with a new book as he continues to write a book for each letter of the alphabet. This is a tightly plotted mystery that starts with a Japanese artist, Kumiko, and her boyfriend, Skelton, seeing a human heart hit the roof of Borough Market in London, obviously thrown from the train. Kumiko and Skelton then investigate, mostly separately in their own ways, this mystery. In alternative chapters we get alternative POV from Kumiko and Skelton and sometimes see the same episodes from the different POVs and Litt plays with this technique a lot. This book is a little less gripping that the previous ones I’ve read by him but let’s face it a bad Litt is still head and shoulders above most other authors and even though it wasn’t my favourite of his I still devoured it and it kept me glued to the end.


Overall – Intriguing little mystery


The man who laughs David Hine, Mark Stafford & Victor Hugo




This is one of Hugo’s less well known works that Hine has substantially revised for this graphic novel version. The story follows a boy who has been mutilated so that he can only grin like a loon (the book insired the character of the Joker in Batman apparently) who comes across a baby in a dead mother’s arms in a storm. He takes shelter with a travelling doctor and they have to make their living entertaining crowds. There is a lot here that is familiar – orphans, hidden identities, travelling entertainers etc but it is told with aplomb and the art is very good.


Overall – Classic with new life breathed into it.

Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer & Jeremy Zerfoss


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Jeff Vandermeer knows a few things about writing fiction, especially fantasy fiction and has decided to share it via this stunning book with artwork by Jeremy Zerfoss. First of all this is a gorgeous book, lovingly illustrated and great for those who learn in a visual way (some pics from the book can be seen here http://www.fastcocreate.com/3019333/8-tips-for-creating-great-stories-from-george-rr-martin-junot-diaz-and-more-of-the-worlds-to#4) in addition its stuffed full of great writing advice. In addition to that addition it is has some really cool writing exercises and as if that wasn’t enough it has a whole gaggle of essays by other authors who each drop in bombs of inspiration and wisdom. There’s a website to go with the book too. I read this from cover to cover without meaning to, it really should be used throughout a writing project constantly referred to, re-read and revised. I will be doing that for sure. I think I’ll be referencing this book a lot. The deconstruction of the first page of Finch was worth buying this book for by itself!


Overall – stunning & useful, what a great book!

Friday 4 October 2013

Cooking with bones by Jess Richards




I wanted to like this book but had several issues with it that detracted from my enjoyment. The book is told from 3 different POV characters, Amber – a difficult and rebellious child, Maya  - her sister who is a “formwanderer”  (she subconsciously determines the desires of everyone she meets and then fulfils them as best she can) and Kip a child whose job it is to collect the “Fair”, a tithe given to “Old Kelp” the witch of the village. The same Old Kelp alternatively blesses and curses the small seaside village with cake based spells which Kip collects when dropping off the Fair.


Amber & Maya start the book living in the future utopian(?) society of Paradon and when they are assigned jobs which will split them up they decide to run away. They come to live in a cottage that seems to be waiting for them and Amber settles into the role of baking cakes using bone implements, that is how she becomes Old Kelp. This was a bit of head scratcher for me, and is never satisfactorily explained. Old Kelp existed before the sisters arrive, the sisters arrive and Amber becomes Old Kelp. The villagers notice  no break in continuity. There is a scene where Amber finds graves, of previous Old Kelps,  going back hundreds of years but the villagers stories of Old Kelp only go back to the grandparents of Kip’s parents. Time here is uncertain.


I never got a grip on the setting either, some sort of post collapse society? Kip’s village is within walking distance of a modern utopia (which has genetic engineering, nanotechnology and climate control), a utopia that some people leave for reasons that aren’t really explored (as well as the sisters there are a few other characters from Paradon in the village). The small village where the action takes place in has holiday homes to let, Kip’s mother looks after but are never let during the events of the story. There are telephones and cars, doctors and police and Paradon has its own climate control (causing Maya to spend a whole chapter trying to work out what weather is for) but there doesn’t seem to be any computer network and the society of the village seems more rural medieval.


I didn’t really get the whole concept of formwanderer either, Amber’s desire is for a twin so to her Maya is a twin, one of the villagers has always wanted a pet Grizzly bear so to him she’s a pet grizzly bear. OK so far so Red Dwarf Polymorph but Maya is a person, grown in a vat perhaps, but a living person created from Amber’s parents donated sperm & egg. It’s explained at the beginning, in a clumsy piece of exposition – Amber is watching a TV report on Formwanderers and seems to find the information a surprise, although she’s been living with one for an unknown period of time (but long enough for them to go to school together for some years it seems).  The presentation says  Our initial intention in genetically engineering these humans, using nanotechnology, was to enhance the development of their mirror neuron pathways and make them deeply empathic. With nanotechnology also causing their skin cells to be reflective, technically speaking they are astounding creations, able to mirror desired behaviours and appearances


Maya’s voice is unique also, often “jumbling” when anxious, her character and language are not fixed - Mysister grabbed my hand and said stop it, satellites send the sun in. They’re too strongThe sun shone into my eyes. I was dazzle blind. Our shrinking silhouettes danced with my laughing sound; clang clang! I brimmed yellow-joy. Every reflection that lives in infinityland was blanked out HAHAHAHA!  and considering she is one of only 3 narrators it’s a little off putting.


When the book starts the sisters seem child-like and then they are removed from school and given jobs, causing them to run away. Later Amber remembers a distant past where she was treated badly by former lovers in Paradon, this didn’t really fit my perception of the character at the beginning of the book where I’d thought they were early teens. Nothing to say that early teens can’t be sexually precocious but it seemed like an inconsistency in character. I can only think the inconsistencies are deliberate, jumbling like Maya, the book formwandering itself. However the effect is such that the shifting sands are subliminal and make the story untrustworthy.


Throughout there are recipes to make different cakes which are also spells and whilst this is a potentially cool idea the outcome of any of these spells is never explicit, nor who they work upon (although sometimes hinted it is the  villagers). However every day Amber leaves out the same old honey cakes for the villagers, who gladly take them, regardless of what the recipe says in her chapters.


Is Richards deliberately obfuscating or is she just poor at getting her meaning across? I really can’t tell. Is it SF? Fantasy? Magic realism? Modern fairy tale? Well yes it wanders back and forth from one to another of these creating an unhealthy chimera of all of them.


Overall – Very interesting but problematical, I never really got it YMMV

Wednesday 2 October 2013

Busy busy busy. Getting lots of work done to the house. I was at the Bath Comic & SF weekender which was compact and bijou. We managed to catch one talk - by Jim Burns http://www.alisoneldred.com/artistJimBurns.html which was very interesting. Burns is THE illustrator of al the SF books you read in the 80's - lots of detail in his pictures & some iconic images. Shame that there was only a few people in the audience, still he was up against the cosplay competion whihc was bound to draw a crowd.

Tonight is Word of Mouth at the Thunderbolt but house related issues are going to prevent me from attending sadly.

Thursday night will see the launch of Lighter than my Shadow by Katie Green at Foyles, which promises to be a great evening.

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