Down the rabbit hole: reading in 2017

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I’ve read some great books this year. In fact, I can’t remember enjoying a year’s reading so much since I was a teenager. I started out with a whole lot of comfort reading to get me through the New Year virus and the associated sleepless nights (fanfic; the Richard Hannay series), and… kept on with the comfort reading. No, not necessarily comfort reading. Some of it was distinctly uncomfortable. But this year I’ve read far more things just because I wanted to read them.

I picked things up because they were old favourites that I wanted to revisit (White Boots), or because I’d heard of them years ago and had always meant to get around to reading them (The Towers of Trebizond), or because someone gave them to me (A Good Hiding), or because someone mentioned them in passing on something totally unrelated and I liked the sound of them (The Hare with Amber Eyes). I read some new things by authors whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past (Trouble for Lucia and Meet Me at Beachcomber Bay), and I experimented with some new authors (Four Steps).

This year I read thrillers (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold) and mysteries (The China Governess). I read fanfic (Blackbird). I read memoir (The World of Cycling According to G) and biography (though I’ve yet to reach the end of the giant Rudolf Nureyev one). I read chicklit (To the Moon and Back). I read literary criticism (Literary Allusion in Harry Potter). I read children’s books (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass). I read non-fiction. I read poetry (Listen to the Green; Four Quartets; Measured Extravagance).

I read fewer things for motives of self-improvement (La Dame aux Camélias). I read a couple of things just to get them off my shelves (Mulligan and The Widow). Next year I’d like to get more things off my shelves without reading them.

I followed rabbit holes and felt less guilty about enjoying what I read (pretty much everything, but particularly the Victorian and early twentieth century British stuff). I think I’ll write more about that tomorrow. The only book that I deliberately abandoned was Snuff – to my mind it’s the point in the Discworld series where the quality takes an obvious and understandable turn for the worse, and I just couldn’t bear to keep going with it. I may also give up on Will Grayson, Will Grayson before the year’s out, because I’m finding the chapters without capitalisation rather an effort to read.

Last year I decided not to bother recording my reactions to books, and just wrote down what I actually finished. This strategy continued to work this year, and I find that the memorable ones are memorable and the rest of them aren’t, and my reactions don’t make much difference, really. And then of course there are the books that are enjoyable but not memorable, and looking back at previous years’ records I can’t actually tell the difference between those and the books that I was pretending to enjoy because I thought I should.

I’ve finished sixty-six books so far, and will probably get a couple more in before the end of 2017. (Last year I managed seventy-eight, but more of those were things that I Felt I Ought To Read, either for self-improvement reasons or because I’d got them free and felt I should get my money’s worth… yeah.) Most of my reading time was on the train, with a little bit at lunchtimes or bedtimes.

I think this year I’ve come to understand that I’m not reading for anybody else – not for friends, not for colleagues, not for my own readers or even for my future self. I’m reading for me, now.

It’s fun.

Ways to help your author friend sell a book

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Pass it on

Assuming, of course, that this is something that you want to do. Many of my friends have very little interest in my book, and this is absolutely fine. We are friends because we have a shared interest in something totally different. These tips are only for people who actually want them!

Talk about it

Not in an ‘I’m my friend’s unpaid salesperson’ way, because that’s a very good way to lose all your other friends, but just in a natural, ‘if we’re talking about books, my friend wrote a book [and it got published/won a prize/got a good review]’ kind of way. Word of mouth is a wonderful thing. Nobody can want to read a book if they haven’t heard of it. You get to brag about your author friend. Your author friend gets someone else hearing about their book. Apart from anything else, it builds credibility. The more people who talk about them as an author, the more seriously they get taken.

And by ‘talk’, of course, I also mean ‘Tweet, post about on Facebook, include in shelfie picture on Instagram, leave casually on coffee table when expecting company, etc’.

Lend it

This one divides opinions among authors. There is a school of thought that says that every book lent is a sale lost. I don’t agree with that. As a reader I can point to dozens of books that I’d never have bought at full price, but which I came across some other way (book swap shelf at work/charity shop/lent by my mother/Bookcrossing.com) and which I loved so much that I went on to seek out more by the same author.

As an extreme example, I know someone who shoplifted his first Discworld book – then bought all the rest of them full price. I don’t actually recommend this course of action, but it does go to show… something.

Anyway, if you buy my book and then lend it to someone else, I won’t mind at all.

Order it

Ask your library to get it in for you – then it might reach other people when you’ve finished it and taken it back. Authors do receive a small amount of money when their books are borrowed from libraries.

Or you can order it from a bookshop, and if bookshops get the idea that this is something that people want to buy, they might start stocking more copies, and other people might then see it and buy it. Well, we can dream.

Give it

Only to people you think might like it, obviously. Books can be surprisingly tricky presents, but, depending on the book and the occasion and the recipient, they can work well.

I’d recommend mine for: the person who’s about to go to university; the person who is simultaneously LGBT and Christian; the person who would benefit from knowing that LGBT Christian people exist; the person who likes Catherine Fox’s books. Extrapolate for the book that you have in mind. (You might have to read it first. You might not.)

If you’re fed up with having your own copy knocking around the house, then by all means give it to a friend or a jumble sale or charity shop. See ‘Lend it’, above, for my rationale on this – and if you want my opinion on which particular charity shop to give it to, see this post and extrapolate for your own home town.

Review it

The more (honest, balanced) reviews a book gets, the more credible it becomes. And for those of us who don’t get into the Times Literary Supplement, reviews by real people are particularly valuable. Review it on your blog, review it on Goodreads or LibraryThing or Amazon.

Nobody quite knows how Amazon works, but I have seen a hypothesis that if an author reaches a certain number of reviews, they start popping up in the ‘Customers also bought items by’ recommendations. (Authors currently popping up in this manner on my Amazon page are Kate Charles, Winifred Peck, Simon Park, and Kate Charles. I don’t know how many Kate Charles has sold to be there twice, or, indeed, if that’s got anything to do with it at all.)

In this case you really should read it first. Although with some reviews, one does wonder.

Nominate it

This is only really recommended if you have a thick skin, as it is a well-known fact that book clubs can get vicious. Favourite books, and books by favourite authors, can come out shredded. Having said that, selling a dozen copies all at the same time is really exciting for us small-time authors. Maybe nominate it and then stay in bed with a heavy cold when the time comes to actually discuss it? Or perhaps show up at the meeting the far side of several gins?

If you’d rather not be present when it gets shredded, then there are quite a few literary awards that accept nominations from the general public. If you think it merits an award, obviously, but your opinion is as good as anyone else’s. A nomination can make an author’s day. Actually winning something can make their year.

Any more ideas?

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something! Tell me in comments.

No, it *is* about enjoying it

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A very grainy photo of some books I’ve enjoyed. You might not enjoy these. That’s fine!

On Thursday I took part in a workshop for union learning reps, exploring ways of promoting reading and writing for pleasure in the workplace. One of the initiatives that they work with is the Reading Ahead challenge – members are encouraged to choose six reads (which could be anything from a haiku to War and Peace) and write a brief review of each of them. The idea is to make reading less off-putting, to demonstrate that it’s for everybody.

One of the ULRs told a story about someone who had managed to put one of her recruits right off joining in the challenge.

‘And what are you reading at the moment?’ he’d asked. She’d told him, had said, a little apologetically, that maybe it wasn’t the most intellectual thing in the world, but she was enjoying it.

‘But it’s not about enjoying it, is it?’ he said. ‘It’s about challenging yourself, learning something new.’

That person was wrong. WRONG.

It is about enjoying it.

I’m going to write that bigger:

It *is* about enjoying it

And if the person who said that it isn’t was the person I think it was, I’m going to tell him so when I next see him.

This person is also wrong, or, at least, missing the point spectacularly. If we try to make people read because it is good for them, they will never enjoy reading. It’s like eating enough vegetables, or getting enough exercise: if you do it because you think you should, you’re constantly fighting with yourself and sooner or later you give up because you just hate yourself so much for making yourself do it.

The world is full of things that we read because we have to. Bills. Textbooks. Contracts. Procedures. They are not fun. Why should we extend that misery to the rest of our reading life?

The more people read for fun – read because they genuinely enjoy it, because they would rather be reading than doing something else – the easier they will find it when they come to reading what’s dull, or difficult, but essential.

Can we enjoy reading challenging material? Of course we can. Personally, I have just downloaded Le Tour du Monde en Quatre-Vingt Jours – yes, in French – which is going to be a challenge, and also something that I will enjoy. As one of my friends says, ’embrace the power of AND’. We can also keep reading things that we’re not currently enjoying in the hopes that we will enjoy them eventually.

But to deliberately seek out things to read that we don’t expect to enjoy… no. No, thank you.

In much the same way as one gets tired of doughnuts very quickly if one eats nothing but doughnuts, it’s unlikely that people will read nothing but [that book you’re thinking of] and [that other book you’re thinking of]. And really, if they did, would that be such a problem?

The more we read – the more we read for pure pleasure – the more we will find our horizons expanding and our tastes diversifying. If we just let people read what they want to read, and keep reading what they want to read, they’ll probably end up reading something that comes up to the exacting standards of the person who terrorised that poor potential Reading Ahead challenge participant.

But that’s not the point. Enjoyment comes first. Life is too short to drag ourselves through things we’re not enjoying just because somebody thinks they’re good for us.

It is about enjoying it. In fact, enjoying it is the most important thing.

Our Witness: the unheard story of LGBT+ Christians

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I’m looking forward to the release of Our Witness: the unheard stories of LGBT+ Christians later this month. As a contributor, I’ve had the chance to glance through the proofs of this collection of personal essays, and I’ve been impressed by the sheer breadth and depth, as well as the honesty, of the content.

Too often, the debate in the Church around gender and sexuality assumes that the question begins and ends with gay men. Lesbians are ignored. The rest of us might as well not exist. Even among allies, there’s a depressing tendency to write ‘LGBT’ in the first line and then revert to ‘gay’ for the remainder of the article/sermon/book, as if that covered everyone’s experience. Terms like ‘gay marriage’ are thrown around with, er, gay abandon. One gets the impression that the middle-aged cis white gay men are the only ones in the Church with any problems.

This book goes a long way to redress that balance. There are stories from gay Christians, yes – but there are stories from lesbian Christians, bisexual Christians, and trans Christians too. I’m in there as The Amazing Invisible Bisexual Christian – the woman who’s been married to a man for getting on for a decade and still stubbornly refuses to forget that she’s queer. There are stories from ordained ministers and from laypeople; from many denominations; there are stories of hurt, and stories of hope.

Some stories are not found in there: how could they be, when there are as many stories as there are LGBT+ Christians? Some will appear in the US version, which is coming next year. Others, of course, won’t. But there are more stories in here than I have ever seen before.

Our Witness: the unheard stories of LGBT+ Christians is published on 29 October by Darton Longman and Todd.

Too many books

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There are far more books in the world than anyone could possibly read in their lifetime. There are far more films than anyone could possibly watch, far more songs than anyone could possibly listen to.

I don’t know how old I was when I understood that. I feel that it might have been university, when all my horizons expanded in all directions at once, and I realised that:

  1. I didn’t know everything
  2. I was never going to know everything
  3. I didn’t have to know everything

Before that, the books I knew about were at home, or in the school library, or in the local library. And yes, that was a lot of books, but I always felt that if I really applied myself I could work my way through the whole lot in a logical fashion.

Maybe it was seeing the university library that did it. Who knows? I wish I had one neat moment of epiphany to trot out, but I don’t.

Anyway, once you’ve had that epiphany, what do you do with it?

There are a variety of approaches.

You can read/watch/listen to as many of the books/films/songs as you humanly can. Read every book that your hand touches. My godmother told me once that John Cage said that one should only ever listen to each piece of music once, because there simply isn’t time to do more.

But I know that if I only listen to a piece of music once, I can do little more than nod and smile. In order to really appreciate it, I need to listen to it over and over again, to get right into it. If possible, to perform it, even.

(Probably if I were a better musician, this would be a quicker process for me. A degree in English Literature and a decade plus of creative writing trial and error have enabled me to see how a text is put together without having to think much about it.)

So that suggests an opposite approach: consume very few pieces of art, but really get into them. Re-read, listen over and over, watch again and see what you didn’t pick up the first time, or the second time, or the third time.

The temptation then is to ensure that the art that one does examine is somehow worthy of all these hours that one’s putting into it – but, without putting the hours in, how does one know what’s worthy? One ends up deferring to others’ judgement. Let us watch the films that won the Oscars, or read the books that are on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, or whatever it might be.

(Personally, I find that any attempt to tell me that I must read anything results in instant resentment and a resolution not to read the thing if humanly possible. As it happens, I’ve read a decent number of those books, but not because they’re on that list, and I feel no compunction to read all of them.)

There are two main dangers that I can see to concentrating on the good stuff.

Firstly, you might miss things. But that’s inevitable, however you go about this. That’s the whole point of this post. You will miss things.

Secondly, you might never read anything because you actually want to read it. You might end up trapped in a book you hate, never finishing it, and never starting anything else, either.

In fact, that’s the main drawback to both of those approaches, and I’ve tried them both. ‘Read everything, no matter what it is’ – and you’ll end up slogging through a whole load of ill-written drivel, pompous litfic, formulaic genre and spectacularly biased unclassifiable screeds, and hating all of it. ‘Concentrate on what is known to be good’ – and it’ll be like having to get  through plateful after plateful of worthy vegetables before you’re allowed pudding. Pudding might never come. You might never get round to reading anything fun.

And if reading isn’t fun, then why on earth are you doing it? (Well, actually… to be discussed in a subsequent post.) These days, you know, I mostly read what I feel like reading, and I stop if I’m not enjoying it. And that’s good enough for me.

E-books versus tree books: a false dichotomy

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Tree books are dead. No, wait, e-books are dead. E-books are e-books and tree books are tree books and never the twain shall meet. Loyal paper book readers will never read an e-book. Converts to e-readers will never pick up a physical book again. People fight to the death over this. TO THE DEATH!

Really, if you believe the press, it all sounds like an even pettier version of the Montagues and Capulets biting their thumbs at each other. But, while I know several diehards who wouldn’t know how to turn the page on a Kindle, and I’m sure there are a few e-book zealots who have pulped all the paper books they’ve ever owned, most of the serious readers of my acquaintance flick between paper books and e-books without a second thought. Why argue about formats when you could be, you know, reading?

As a reader

For me, it comes down to practicalities. On the most obvious level, if a book was printed in 1995 and nobody’s thought of releasing it in e-book format, then of course I’m going to read the hard copy. Or if it only exists in electronic format, then it goes on the e-reader.

In fact, the format in which I choose to read a book often depends on where I am when I decide I want to read it. At work? I’ll probably pick up a paperback in one of the station bookshops on my way home. At home? I’ll download it to my Kobo. If I’m standing in a charity shop, slightly bored and wondering what to read next? I’ll get the most interesting looking thing on the shelf.

Still on the theme of convenience: these days, most of my reading time is on the train, so the question of size becomes important. If I can’t fit it in my handbag, it’s probably not going to get read. And yet… I read War and Peace this year. I’d attempted it a couple of times before, but the physical copy is so big and so bulky, and it’s so easy to lose track one’s track among the various plot themes, that I never managed it. Having it on the Kobo (free from Project Gutenberg, I might add) I was able to just keep plugging away, a couple of chapters every day, until I got to the end.

On the other hand, if I’m going somewhere damp (the bath, for example, or northern Spain), I have no desire to risk an expensive piece of electronic equipment. As it happened, all the books I took to Spain with me came back in the state in which they left, and I’ve never dropped a book in the bath, but there’s always a first time.

In short, I tend to read books in whatever format I have them, and to obtain them in whatever format suits me at the time. Whatever makes it easiest for me to read, in fact.

When you dig into the debate, it often comes down to nebulous feelings about what the experience of reading should be like, and an aesthetic appreciation of the book as an object. Which affects my choices some of the time, but not always.

I’ve finished 45 books so far this year. 11 were e-books. 7 were hardbacks. Of those hardbacks, two were the family copies of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and three were John Buchan thrillers in the Nelson edition, which I’ve been collecting. I had no particular connection to any of the other hardbacks, or to any of the paperbacks, as objects. Indeed, some of them I read specifically to see if I really wanted them taking up space on my shelves, and now they aren’t on my shelves any more.

People talk about the smell of books. I’ve never quite got this. In my experience, old books smell of dust and possibly damp, and new books smell of solvent or nothing. But then I don’t have a very good sense of smell, so this argument doesn’t do much for me.

Books can be lovely things. They can also be hideous. (My photo above doesn’t do justice to quite how hideous the cover of Mulligan is.) To be honest, so long as the loveliness or the hideousness doesn’t get in the way of my reading the story, I don’t care.

As a writer

Similarly, I really don’t mind which format somebody chooses to read my book.

In pure financial terms, e-books make me more money. I can charge half the price for an e-book and still make twice as much as I would from the sale of a paperback. (Which is why the high price of a lot of mainstream publishers’ e-books is annoying, because I know what the mark-up is. I’m unlikely to spend more than about a fiver on an e-book, unless I’m really desperate.)

On the other hand, I miss out on the phenomenon where one of my readers says to one of their friends, ‘You might like this one,’ and lends them their copy. And the one where the friend of one of my readers, having a sneaky nose along their bookshelves, sees my book, thinks, ‘oh, that looks interesting,’ picks it up and starts reading.

Why should I care about that? you might well ask. Or, indeed, why am I not up in arms about it? I don’t make any money off that.

No, not immediately – but it means that another person has heard of me, has had the opportunity to see if they like my writing. My book doesn’t get into libraries or bookshops, so I’m reliant on this sort of interaction to spread the word. And anyway, since that’s the main way that I’ve discovered authors whose work I love, it feels a bit off to whinge about it. I very rarely buy a book by an unknown author at full price, and I don’t believe that many other readers do.

Anyway, maybe they then buy their own copy. Or maybe they nick the copy from their original owner, who buys a replacement.

You never know.

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LGBTQ Christian fiction book recs

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Yesterday, I got chatting on Twitter with the user of the Diverse Church account about books with LGBTQ Christian characters, and how few of these there actually are.

Now, at least part of the reason I wrote one of my own was that I was frustrated with the lack of representation. However, I’ve found a few over the years, and it only seems fair to share the intel. In this post, I’m only listing books I’ve actually read, but in some cases it was a while ago, so I’m not going to warn for anything in these, for fear that I’ll not have remembered something horrible. Proceed at your own risk!

While not all of these end with hugs and puppies, they do start from, or at least eventually arrive at, the assumption that being Christian and being LGBTQ are not incompatible states, and call, in one way or another, for affirmation. Although, reading down my list, I fear that it’s mostly about the G, with a very little about the L. (How like the debate on sexual and gender identity in our own dear Church of England, she says bitchily.)

As for things I haven’t read (yet)… I’ve found Jesus in Love to be a very interesting source of recommendations. There’s also the reliqueer tag on LGBTQ Reads. Do add your own – either for individual books or authors, or for rec sites or round-ups – in comments!

On to the books…

 

Michael Arditti, Easter. Set in a London parish over the course of one Holy Week, with multiple storylines playing out, seen from multiple perspectives.

Paula Boock: Dare, Truth or Promise. New Zealand teen fiction of the ‘challenges of high school’ type. One of the main characters is Roman Catholic, and there’s a lovely scene with her priest, which meant a lot to me back in the day.

Catherine Fox: Lindchester chronicles (Acts and Omissions, Unseen Things Above, Realms of Glory, the last still under construction). Barchester for the modern day, with outright representation of gay and lesbian characters and engagement with the politics.

Radclyffe Hall: The Well of Loneliness. Definitely short in the hugs and puppies department, but I couldn’t leave it off the list, for much the same reasons as those that Kittredge Cherry explains over at Jesus in Love.

Alex Sanchez: The God Box. American teen fiction, also of the ‘challenges of high school’ type; engages the question head on throughout the book.