Spotted…

They stock some decent books in the gift shop at Whitby Abbey. And one of mine, too, apparently.

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Test

Ok, so this is kind of by way of a test, to see how things post from Hootsuite. Since I do most of my online updating via Hootsuite these days, it would make sense to blog from there a bit too. It might make me do it more regularly.

Hm.

Sunny with a Chance of Zombies

For the last week I’ve been hopping about with excitement, desperate to celebrate and start shouting about something, but not quite sure whether it was allowed. I hung on, biting my lip, hugging myself with glee and squeaking quietly every so often, waiting for permission – until now, when, with great joy and a nod from the editor, I can announce that I’ve had a short story accepted into an anthology! Sunny With a Chance of Zombies, published by Knightwatch and edited by my online chum Dion Winton-Polak, comes out in July (announced here), and my story Run, Rabbit made it into the final choice of twelve.

Utterly delighted by this – Dion and I have known each other for a while (he used to run the Scrolls podcast at the awesome Geek Syndicate, and I contributed from time to time), and I’m so chuffed to be a part of his latest literary venture, I can’t even tell you. Run, Rabbit is the first properly creative thing I’ve written for ages, and I very nearly didn’t send it off – but so glad I did.

And the best thing of all is that the antho is being launched on 11th July at Edge-Lit 4, Derby’s annual sci-fi, fantasy and horror literature event – which is taking place at Derby Quad, a whole 25 minutes away from my house! I’ve been invited, and I’ll be there with knobs on and a massive stupid grin on my face. In fact, the massive stupid grin is already in place, and will probably stay until July.

Book review: The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth

I’m learning Danish. There, I’ve said it. I have no excuse, other than an obsession with Nordic Noir literature and television, stemming largely from The Killing but encompassing Steig Larsson, Jo Nesbø, The Bridge, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Henning Mankell, Håkan Nesser and Borgen along the way – along with quite a large proportion of the rest of the UK, my last three or four years have been punctuated by immersions in Scandinavian culture, although to be fair this has mainly been the rather grubby underbelly of said culture (Kurt Wallander, Sarah Lund and Lisbeth Salander don’t exactly hang out with the Women’s Institute).

So in an idle moment just before Christmas I thought, I know, it’d be great to be able to watch a bit more Scandinavian TV – Arne Dahl, say, or The Legacy – and understand at least a little of the language. Probably Swedish would be a good place to start. I signed up to Duolingo years ago in an abortive attempt to revise my rusty school-level French before a continental holiday, so I fired up the app on my iPad. Lo – no Swedish course*, but there was Danish. And before you could say “Hej hej!” I was off, learning how to say “The man eats the sandwich” and “A boy drinks the bird’s water”**.

Inspired by this, I started casting around for other ways to learn about Scandinavian culture – because, you know, I didn’t really have that much of a clue about it, beyond some vague ideas about snow, blond people and Vikings. So I poked about vaguely on NetGalley and found The Almost Nearly Perfect People.

And … I learned a lot. The author, Michael Booth, is an English journalist who has lived in Denmark for a number of years, and who set out to provide a foreigner’s account of the Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland) to set against the almost entirely positive but largely content-free depiction of these nations in the British and American media. He took as a starting point the universally high happiness and quality of life ratings achieved by Scandinavian countries (even bankrupt Iceland), and set out to investigate what makes the Scandinavian countries such apparently great places to live.

He devotes a section of the book to each country, travelling there and interviewing public figures as well as casting an outsider’s eye over customs, traditions and stereotypes. Denmark is characterised by its high taxes and hyggelig, Iceland by its buccaneering banking practices and belief in elves, and Norway by its oil wealth and attachment to its national costume. Finland, Booth’s favourite of the five nations, is nevertheless characterised as alcoholic and obsessively macho, while Sweden is conformist and bound by social etiquette.

The tone throughout is humorous and light, but there is a wealth of information tucked away – some trivial facts, some historical, and some downright bizarre (did you know that in the 1970s the Swedish army bought hairnets for its long-haired soldiers? No, neither did I). Booth is clearly very fond of his new Scandinavian countrymen (he should be; he’s married to a Dane), and he uses journalistic licence to poke gentle fun but also raise some significant issues (failures of justice systems, opposition to immigration, poor ecological footprints). The exemplary Nordic education, social welfare and health systems are set against the crippling taxes needed to pay for them, and Sweden’s vaunted neutrality is contrasted with its collaboration with Nazi Germany and its ever-increasing arms export trade.

Overall this was an enjoyable read, although the schoolboy jokes occasionally grated. As an English person I find Bill Bryson’s ‘amusing’ accounts of funny little England rather embarrassing to read, and I suspect Booth’s book might have a similar effect on Scandinavians of all stripes – but there’s nothing wrong with occasionally holding a mirror up to national foibles, and overall the book left me with no less of a desire to watch the second season of Wallander or learn how to conjugate the definite article in Danish, and with rather more of an idea of some of the realities underlying our rose-tinted view of our Nordic neighbours.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth was published by Jonathan Cape in the UK in 2014, and will be published in the US by MacMillan-Picador on 27 January 2015 (UK Amazon link here, other booksellers are available). My review copy came from NetGalley.

*Before anyone starts, I know that Duolingo does actually have a Swedish course, but it wasn’t available on my iPad app at that time, so there.

**Manden spiser sandwichen. En dreng drikker fuglens vand. In case you were wondering.

Review – Lionheart by Stewart Binns

About a month ago on Twitter I picked up a call for guest reviewers, put out by the splendid Sharon from Shaz’s Book Blog. She was looking for folk to take some of her teetering TBR pile off her hands, and I thought – hell, I could do that.

So I stuck my hand up, Shaz posted me a book, I read it, and then I wrote about it. Here’s what I wrote (also posted here at Sharon’s place).

Lionheart, by Stewart Binns

Published by Penguin, November 2013

https://lmaskill.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/92e9e-lionheart.jpg

The blurb:

1176, England. King Henry II reigns over a vast empire that stretches the length of Britain and reaches the foothills of the Pyrenees. But he is aging, and his powerful and ambitious sons are restless. Henry’s third son, Richard of Aquitaine, is developing a fearsome reputation for being a ruthless warrior. Arrogant and conceited, he earns the name Richard the Lionheart for his bravery and brutality on the battlefield.

After the death of his brothers Richard’s impatience to take the throne, and gain the immense power that being King over a vast empire would bring him, leads him to form an alliance with France.

And so Richard begins his bloody quest to return the Holy Land to Christian rule.

The review:

I started this book with a great deal of anticipation – I love a good historical novel, and the twelfth century is a time about which I know very little. The book is the fourth in Binns’ Making of England quartet, dealing with the period from 1176 to 1199 and recounting the reign of Richard the Lionheart and the Third Crusade to the Holy Land, Christendom’s abortive attempt to recapture Jerusalem after its capture by Saladin.

The story is told from the point of view of the fictional Sir Ranulf, a relatively lowly English knight who becomes a military advisor to the King and travels with him across Europe and the Holy Land. The narrative is rich with detail, the story lurches from fights and betrothals to betrayal and captivity, and the historical events and battles were clearly meticulously researched.

So far so good. However, for me a historical novel needs more than an in-depth understanding of the period. It needs good characterisation, believable dialogue and emotion, and I felt all these aspects were lacking. Sir Ranulf was a wooden and one-dimensional mouthpiece for the historical events, with little emotional rise and fall in his narrative.

In order for him to be present at all the major events in Richard’s life the author needed poor Ranulf to make some very foolish decisions – I felt a bit sorry for him, to be honest, since at various points he lost almost everything (friends, lands, titles, two women he loved – oh, and a hand) pursuing Richard across the known world. The King himself, who by all accounts was a charismatic, forceful and brilliant man, came across as flat and rather nice-but-dim, an impression exacerbated by the frankly appalling dialogue. It was rigid and stilted, mixing modern idioms with older formulations in a rather slapdash fashion.

Overall, in its wealth of historical detail this book was informative and interesting; if it had been written and presented simply as an account of the Third Crusade I would have enjoyed it much more. However, as a novel I felt it didn’t really work. It lacked depth and emotion, and I ended up annoyed with it because the novelisation elements felt so clumsy. All in all, the effect was to turn the Third Crusade into something like Five Go Mad in Palestine, with lashings of historical detail but not much soul.

Edited to add:

The book is (or soon will be) available from the usual online outlets – here and here for starters – but if you want to read it, I have a copy you can have. No, really, I insist. You can have it. First person to send me their address via the contact form below gets it…

Review: The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

This book is a long way from one that I would choose for myself. I read it for a book club, but I don’t think I’ll be picking up anything else by Kate Morton.

The central character is Laurel, a famous actress who witnessed a terrible event during an otherwise perfect bucolic childhood, and the author uses parallel timelines to reveal the characters involved and the reasons behind what happened. Laurel searches for answers as her mother lies dying, while we (the readers) are given a privileged view into long-past events through the eyes and thoughts of the people who lived them.

As such, the plot structure was frustrating, since there was very little revelation in Laurel’s story because we already knew more than she did. The plot took a long time to get going and only really accelerated in the final section, which was for me the most interesting and the best-written. I didn’t really like any of the characters – this is not necessarily a bad thing, because I have read many books in which I disliked characters, but I need to be interested in them, and I really wasn’t interested in any of the people in the book apart from two – Vivien, Laurel’s mother’s friend from the 1940s, and Gerry, Laurel’s brother who plays a bit-part role. The last section of the novel, which I liked the most, was told from Vivien’s point of view.

The end, when it came, felt rushed because of the need to spring all the final surprises in the last few pages, and while I did get a genuine “oh, riiight!” moment, it felt like a sudden slap in the face and I still felt that there was a lot more that could have been done throughout the rest of the novel to drip-feed hints and follow up details.

So – this is a decent story told in a workmanlike way, but for me it did not sparkle. The characters were mostly rather flat and did little that was unexpected, and any interesting things they did do were largely unexplained or sidelined. No more Kate Morton for me, but thanks anyway.