Books, Books, and More Books

Ever since I started this blog, I have noticed quite a few things. One of those is that lots of people blog about books. And I mean LOTS!

They review books, they blog about books they are reading, and they blog about books they have read before. They list their Goodreads selections, and how many books they have already read that year. Many mention their TBR (To be read) piles, often wondering if they can ever possibly get to the end of them. I soon realised that where books are concerned, I am a very small fish, in a crowded ocean of literary sea lions.

Well done to them all. I love that people are still reading. It doesn’t matter whether they are using an electronic device, or turning the pages of a huge hardback. It has to be better than watching TV all day, or playing video games.

Another thing I noticed was that many bloggers are also published authors. Some of them are contracted to big publishing houses, some self-published, and many more just starting out. They use their blogs to advertise and sell their books, and usually promote the books of other bloggers too. That’s great. People want to write. They want to see their name on a cover, and have something to show for all that imagination, and hard work. Well done to them too. Keep at it!

Many of my readers have kindly suggested that I should write a book. Perhaps a non-fiction account of my long service as an EMT, or a compilation of some of my most popular short stories. The extended fiction serials that I frequently post are usually long enough to qualify as a novella, so I could go down that route, possibly.

With all this in mind, I did some research.

Amazon currently lists 33,000,000 books, worldwide. And that’s just on one company’s website. I will write that number another way. 33 MILLION.

Many books now boast the words ‘Best Seller’ on their covers. I wonder how many copies have to be sold, before that claim is valid? I found out. To make one of the ‘Best-Seller’ lists in a prestigious journal such as The New York Times, a well-known or established author has to sell more than 5,000 copies. Even then, selling that number of copies doesn’t guarantee you will appear on the list at all. That is decided by an ‘Editorial Panel’. If you are a new author and it is your first book, that number has to reach 10,000 copies, before you will even be considered.

Amazon can rightly claim to dominate the market in book sales in 2019. Their version of what constitutes a best seller is very different. Established authors publishing on Amazon only have to sell in excess of 1,000 copies, before their latest book receives the ‘Best Seller’ accolade on the cover. Unknown authors have to sell more than 5,000 copies to get the same recognition.

So if you are planning to publish your book, don’t be too disappointed if it gets lost in the crowd. And don’t expect it to make the Best Seller lists.
Not yet, anyway.

Meanwhile, keep reading, and keep writing about reading. And if you want to, keep writing that book too. 🙂

Thinking Aloud On a Sunday

Books, and reading.

As I have started to read again, after a long break, and because I was reading a book in bed before I went to sleep last night, it is understandable that I woke up today thinking about that subject.

I am not getting on that well with electronic reading. On the plus side, it is great to be able to read an ‘illuminated page’, with no need for additional lighting. And I can store a lot of books on something the size of an A4 sheet of paper. The downside for me is that the page-turning feature can be over-sensitive, frequently flipping back to previously read pages without warning. It also freezes up more that I am happy with, leaving me having to restart, to return to the last page I was reading.

So many of you report no issues with this, I am beginning to wonder if I have a faulty Kindle Fire. But it may also have something to do with me, and my unfamiliarity with using Tablets.

When it comes to the books, I have now read five of them in one month. Considering I only finished one book during the whole of the previous year, then that is progress indeed, and definitely a result of having the new way of reading, as well as not having to further clutter diminishing space with large paperbacks or hardback copies. I have enjoyed the books written by other bloggers, and have been pleasantly surprised by the high quality, readability, and refreshing subjects and themes.

That has not been the case with the mainstream books though. Despite great reviews, and large sales on Amazon and elsewhere, I was disappointed to find that familiar ‘formula’ writing very much in evidence. Characters conceived so that they can be featured in sequels, or living in stylised, unrealistic situations that are hard to identify with. Many years ago, I regularly read at least one book a week. I used to follow authors, including Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and some more serious writers. When they had a new book out, I would buy it immediately, believing I would be sure to like it.

But then they started to feel ‘familiar’. The names were changed, but the plots similar. Things happened in those books as I had come to expect them to, and I became convinced that we were all reading much the same story, with just the locations and characters altered slightly. That was one of the main reasons I stopped reading novels, and switched to non-fiction instead. After almost twenty years, I have returned to fiction, in the hope that things had changed. In many respects they have, but in some cases, I can see it is just the same old story. Literally.

So I am not sure about reading again. I feel a little cheated by some writers, but refreshed and inspired by others. Maybe that has always been the case? Not sure.

I am still thinking about it.

Thinking about Shakespeare.

When I started secondary school at the age of eleven, I was concerned to discover that we would eventually be learning some Shakespeare plays. They were compulsory as part of the syllabus, if we wanted to go on to take English exams at sixteen. By the time I was handed copies of the books we would be studying, I had never read a word of Shakespeare, nor seen a play of his on the stage. But I had seen the films of Richard III and Henry V, both starring Lawrence Olivier. Other than that, I only knew that he was from Stratford-Upon-Avon, had been married to Ann Hathaway, and his plays had been performed in circular theatres on the South Bank of The Thames, close to where I lived.

For us working-class kids in a run-down area, Shakespeare was considered to be very ‘highbrow’. His plays were something that posh people paid a lot of money to go and see in smart theatres, with famous thespians spouting even more famous lines and quotes. I had read a lot of Dickens, but his world was one I could identify with readily, as it had hardly changed in the hundred or so years since he had described it. I had also studied History, so knew something of the wars with France, and the Wars of The Roses in England. But I couldn’t bring myself to consider how the style of William Shakespeare might improve my appreciation of British History.

The plays in question were ‘Macbeth’, and Henry IV Parts One and Two. At first, I struggled with the prose, and the frequent use of words and sayings unfamiliar to me. But I was soon fascinated by the characters, who were described so well, and spoke in ways that admirably suited their roles. Within a few months, I found myself reading them avidly at home. And not because I had to, but because I wanted to. Prince Hal is the young man who would soon become Henry V, hero of Agincourt, and a popular king. But in the play, he is a reckless young man, spending his time in the company of drunkards like Sir John Falstaff, and boasters like Pistol. I wondered how his apparently dissolute lifestyle could ever prepare him for his future, when I came across this famous passage, a speech by Prince Hal, out of the hearing of his companions.

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work,
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promisèd,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

I read it twice, realising that I had got it completely. The Prince was deliberately carousing with these people, in the hope that others would think badly of him. But he was pretending to enjoy himself, and not allowing himself to get drunk, despite appearing to be so. When the time was right, he would cast off these false friends, and become the brave Prince that England expected him to be. Because of these adolescent bad habits, his change of heart would be revered all the more, and his subjects would love him.

In this way, Shakespeare combines gossip with history, presenting his own version of what might have happened. He was writing about events that occurred over two hundred years before he wrote the play, virtually inventing the concept of ‘Faction’, a mix seen so often in today’s historical novels. In the same play, Falstaff fears he may be left behind, possibly even banished by the Prince. When he is described as ‘That villanous abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan’, he responds by describing himself, in his own defence. (Sack is the old name for Sherry, a fortified wine that Falstaff drinks in copious amounts)

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
were to say more than I know. That he is old, the
more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if
to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine
are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

Long before I watched any actor say these lines in the stage play or film versions, I got that desperation; the fear of his exclusion, perhaps because of his drinking, his obesity, or his advancing years. In that short speech he summed up so many of the worries of a man past his prime, one who had attached himself to a Prince he thought might honour him, despite his misdeeds. A man who sees his dreams fading before his eyes, and resorts to little more than begging to retain his valued position.

In this play, Shakespeare does what the great writers do best. He shows us the faults of mankind, set in a time and place that seems pertinent, but could actually be in any time, past or present. The lust for power, the need to be admired and recognised, and the lamentations of those left behind when they expected to profit from their associations.

What I feared would be impenetrable prose, spoken by characters who were meaningless, in settings that were otherwise mundane, all turned out to be a treasure trove of perception, character description, and simply marvellous insight into human nature. If you have never read a Shakespeare play, I suggest you should. Any of them will do, as they are equally wonderful. But the ones I studied at school will have a place in my heart forever.

ANDY WEIR COMES CLEAN ON HOW AND WHY HE WRITES “ARTEMIS” – WEIR’S NEW BOOK PUBLISHED ON NOVEMBER 14

Felicity has interviewed Andy Weir, author of ‘The Martian’. She talks to him about his exiting new novel, ‘Artemis’.

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Andy Weir author photo credit Aubrie Pick

I’ve just finished reading Andy Weir’s new book “Artemis”. This time Weir’s characters inhabit a colony on the moon in the late twenty-first century. Because there’s been so much talk recently about the colonization of Mars, I was interested to learn what Weir had to say on the moon becoming a colony vs. Mars.

“I think we will colonize the moon before we colonize Mars. While Mars has more raw materials, the moon is just so much closer it’s considerably easier to colonize. Also, unlike Mars, the moon could be a tourist destination due to the comparatively short travel time to get there.”

I always enjoy the detail of Weir’s settings and his scientific solutions to complicated scientific problems. This time however, besides being a human vs. nature struggle, his book presents a crime story with mysteries involved. In Weir’s own words “a plot that was harder to write but…

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A Literary A-Z: X, Y, and Z

This is going to be the last post in this literary alphabet challenge, and has to take in the last three letters. There are good reasons for having to do this. Despite finding out that there are over 80 titles beginning with ‘X’, I haven’t read any of them, so have nothing to contribute. There are three authors listed too, but I have never read anything they have written.

‘Y’ offers me something, but not much. W. B. Yeats, the famous Irish poet, Nobel Prize winner, and literary giant in the field of Poetry. But I can only really remember one of his poems that I studied at school. It is this one, and is one of my all-time favourites.

‘When You Are Old’
BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

The only other book I can offer in ‘Y’ is the well-known and previously mentioned ‘A Year In Provence’, by Peter Mayle. This 1989 best seller chronicles the life of an ex-pat in the south of France, and became a successful TV series too.

When it comes to ‘Z’, the situation is similar. Some titles, but none I have read. Despite the presence of the estimable Emile Zola as an author, I confess I have read none of his books, though I have seen a couple of film adaptations.

So, my A-Z comes to a conclusion, “Not with a bang, but with a whimper”.( T.S. Eliot) I always knew that these last three letters would be hard, so I hope that some of you have read a lot more titles than I have.

Thanks are due to everyone who contributed, whether they stayed the course, or popped in now and again. It wouldn’t be the same without you, and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

Best wishes to you all. Pete.

A Literary A-Z: W

Oh no! ‘X’ is next…
Please continue to add your own choices and suggestions. Any book title, or the surname of an author, as long as it begins with ‘W’.

I am starting with a look at the work of the English writer H.G. Wells. Another author who displayed a great talent for prescience, his writing predicted the advent of bombing from the air, genetic manipulation, and even space travel. Most English speakers will have read at least one of his books in their lifetime, or seen one of the numerous film adaptations. Even if they have not, they will surely have heard of this famous writer, and his influence on the genre of Science Fiction. He also wrote tales of everyday life, and the adventures of ordinary people, as in ‘The History of Mr Polly’. But he will be best known for his vision of an alien invasion, in ‘War of The Worlds’, space travel in ‘The First Men on The Moon’, or the bleak dystopian future of ‘The Shape of Things To Come’. If you have never read any of his books, I urge you to do so. And if you do, keep reminding yourself how long ago they were published.

As I have covered a novel by Oscar Wilde previously, I will only mention him here in passing. I couldn’t let ‘W’ pass, without saying once again what a wonderful writer he was.

‘The Wind In The Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame was published in 1908. This delightful children’s book is still as popular today as it was at the time, and will no doubt endure for centuries to come. Later editions benefited from the wonderful illustrations by Arthur Rackham, and it was such a volume I owned as a child. (I wish I still had that.) The unforgettable characters in this book include Mr Toad, a wealthy amphibian who lives in the grand Toad Hall and drives his own car, as well as Rat, Mole, and Badger. They get up to all sorts of adventures in the somewhat idyllic countryside of Edwardian England, and they even have baddies to deal with, in the shape of The Weasels. These stories never age, and remain a joy to read.

I have only read one novel in ‘The Wimbledon Trilogy’ by Nigel Williams. As I once lived in that district, I was attracted by the title, ‘The Wimbledon Poisoner’ (1990). I discovered an entertaining and amusing book, telling the story of the unfortunate Henry Farr, a man unhappy with his life, and especially with his wife, who he decides to poison. His effort misfires, and sets in motion a chain of events he was totally unprepared for. In case anyone wants to read it, I will not add any more details of the plot, but can recommend this as a worthwhile read.

Around the same time, I was aware of an award-winning book, about the story of a Chinese woman, her mother, and her grandmother. As I had rarely read so many positive reviews of a book, I decided to get a copy, and see what all the fuss was about. I wasn’t disappointed. ‘Wild Swans’ by Jung Chang looks at the life of one family over the span of one hundred years from a female perspective, and is both biographical, and autobiographical. It is also unforgettable. From the life in China at the time of the Warlords and concubines, through the war and civil war that led to the rise of Mao and the communists, this story weaves the fate of one family alongside the events that formed a modern nation. It comes up to date with the writer’s own experiences; The Cultural Revolution, The Red Guards, banishment to the countryside, and her eventual move to England. Moving, fascinating, and a personal view of turbulent times in modern history.

My top pick today is an uncomfortable but unforgettable novel by Iain Banks, ‘The Wasp factory’, published in 1984. This was his first published book, and what a way to start. It is the disturbing tale of the psychopathic teenager, Frank, who lives on a remote Scottish island. He tells his own story as events unfold, and this perspective makes it all the more chilling to read. As a young child, Frank spends his time making weapons. Catapults, flame-throwers, even rudimentary bombs. He also begins to live by a set of compulsive rituals and habits, and uses his weapons to kill a variety of small animals. But Frank also tells the reader that he has killed small children when still very young himself, and exposes the even darker side of the story to come.
Make no mistake, this is a difficult book to read. There are depictions of violence to animals, unpleasant experiments, and some gruesome details on the pages. But it is never less than fascinating, and alongside Frank, there are other memorable characters to explore as the story progresses.

A Literary A-Z: V

For me, ‘V’ is going to once again prove difficult. I hope that those of you who play along have read enough books starting with that letter, or the work of authors whose surnames begin with it. Because I haven’t.

Knowing about books or writers isn’t enough, when it comes to challenges like these. Of course I have heard of Kurt Vonnegut, but never got around to reading any of his books. I could readily add the name of Voltaire, the famous French writer, but I know that I have never read anything he wrote. So this will be another short post, with no top choice for ‘V’.

On the recommendation of my cousin, I read the graphic novel ‘V for Vendetta’, sometime after 2001. This is a well-illustrated dystopian novel, predicting a bleak future for a Britain dominated by an oppressive government, and telling the story of the Anarchist revolutionary determined to bring down the state. It began life as a comic strip in the 1980s, and was later published in full as a book. There was a 2006 film adaptation that was hugely successful too, starring Natalie Portman.

I loved the novel set in the Cro-Magnon era, ‘Clan of The Cave Bear’. Reading this in 1980, I was transported back to the time of the Neanderthals, a different landscape, and mankind’s earliest attempts at society and civilisation. So when the sequel was published, I bought it immediately. ‘The Valley of The Horses’ by Jean M. Auel continues where the first book left off, and is the second in the ‘Earth’s Children’ series. Characters from the first novel are developed, and it is left with room for the next title to follow. Unless you have read ‘Clan of The Cave Bear’ first, I don’t suggest reading this one until you have.

For my last offering, I turn to the French writer, Jules Verne. Although he wrote a great many books, I have only ever read two of them. ‘Around The World in Eighty Days’ tells the story of the attempt to travel the globe in a given time period, using any form of transport available. The hero, Phileas Fogg, makes a bet of £20,000 that he and his servant can circumnavigate the world in eighty days. As a child, I loved this exciting tale of world travel, and all the adventures and misfortunes that befall the pair as they arrive in exotic countries that I had never been to. This book was published in 1872, and despite the fact that we can now travel across continents in a matter of hours, it has never lost its appeal. Like the other Verne novel I have read, ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’, it has been made into popular films too.