Barely a fortnight after Liverpool’s tenure as Capital of Culture came to an end, a council in Merseyside has announced the closure of ten of Wirral’s twenty four libraries along with a number of leisure centres. The plan had initially been to close thirteen, but after a surge of public protest that saw nearly 400 people attend the strategic asset review hearing in Wallasey Town Hall, Upton, Pensby and Birkenhead Central Libraries have been saved. I grew up there, and although my local library wasn’t one of the many affected, this is a hugely personal issue for me. I spent the best part of a day last week contacting everyone I know who still lives there, trying to convince them to go on one of the many protests that took place. Sadly, they made little difference.

The Wirral is seen as being predominantly middle-class, and whilst this is true of many parts of the peninsula, it isn’t true of all of them. One woman told a BBC reporter, “We’re in a poor area. We’ve only got two things. One is the baths and one is the library and both of them are being taken away. I don’t think that’s fair.”

In a recession, we need more libraries not fewer. Not all schools possess well-stocked libraries, although they should. Not every child and adult has access to the wealth of information stored on the internet, although they should. For many, community libraries are the only places people can go, not just for books but to use the internet, look for jobs and get information about local groups and facilities, they posses photocopying and fax facilities. They offer services for the visually impaired and they loan out DVDs and CDs for a fraction of the price of your average Blockbuster. In this economic climate, why are councils reducing the facilities for affordable entertainment?

To say that they should be closed is tantamount to saying that it doesn’t matter that there are people who can’t afford to purchase books from Waterstones or Amazon, it doesn’t matter that a community has no free access to newspapers or reference books or the internet. But it does matter. Free access to books, no matter what your age or background, is one of the fundamental principles of a civilised, educated society,

Libraries shouldn’t be one of our most neglected resources, they should be among our most cherished.

If this was true, I’d be the nicest person in the world. But as I’m not, I can only presume that it isn’t.

I’ve got an article about Rachel Maddow up here. They give bonuses for getting 1000 page views, so you should pimp it like crazy bitches. Also, I think it’s a pretty good article and I’m proud of it. And Rachel Maddow rocks. You should also leave lots of comments telling me how awesome I am.

 

….then maybe I’ll finally get around to updating this thing again. I suck as a blogger.

The last leg of the Christmas rush is well and truly upon us, and with the credit crunch looming, everyone is on the hunt for a bargain. At any time of year, high street booksellers are crammed with signs offering two for one offers, Amazon emails its customers with the promise of discounts, and supermarkets routinely offer cut-price bestsellers next to the stationary and birthday cards. Christmas, especially this Christmas, is even better. Or worse, if you’re an independent bookshop already struggling to survive. They can’t afford to lower their prices to meet or beat those of their competitors, they can’t give you a free Toblerone with every purchase – the most you’re likely to get is a free bookmark advertising a book you’ll probably never buy and wouldn’t read if you did.
So why, when their better-known competitors are chomping at the bit to offer you a half-price copy of Lord of the Rings with a free copy of The Silmarillion thrown in for good measure, should you wander off the beaten track and pay full price?

For one thing, they’re often a lynchpin of the local community, and in an increasingly cyber-driven age, who can afford to turn down the chance of a flesh and blood connection? When LGBT store Gay’s the Word was threatened with closure, countless regulars spoke to the press with stories about how the shop had changed – or in some cases, even saved – their lives. In smaller towns and cities, small bookshops are often the main provider of books about local history, creating a community of writers and readers as well as supporting small presses. If they go, then the community that has been built around them vanishes as well.
And whilst they may not be able to compete on price or boast an in-store Starbucks, even the smallest bookshop can rival the signings advertised in the window of Borders or Waterstones. WordPower, the Edinburgh-based, left-wing leaning bookshop, hosts readings at the Festival every year where new writers and old favourites showcase their work side by side. London’s Crockett and Powell and Bath’s Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights all run popular events improved by the quality of intimacy they offer.
If that’s not enough, it may also make you a better person. Many booksellers say that shoppers at independent bookstores can be more accepting of the retail industry’s flaws – having to wait for an overseas Amazon order, say, or not having a magically replenishable supply of popular books.  At larger stores, “all the usual sense of customer entitlement is magnified, and staff just have to keep on smiling,” one bookseller at a chain bookstore sighs. At small bookshops, you’re already sticking it to the man – you don’t need to abuse retail staff into the bargain.
And the benefit doesn’t just belong to the shopper. “Independent bookstores and presses take more risks and often put out more interesting books than the big houses,” author Catherine Lundoff says. “Without them the reading and writing landscape would be a poorer place.” She’s right – I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve stumbled across hidden treasures, books that I would never have heard of, on the shelves of Murder One or Foyles – or even courtesy of those ubiquitous bookmarks. Independents are willing to go out on a limb to promote new authors, and their instincts are usually right – they were the ones who, for better or for worse, originally made Harry Potter a success.
Many of them, especially in London, are specialist – Murder One, on Charing Cross Road, offers only horror, romance and (of course) crime novels. Covent Garden’s Coffee, Cake and Kink has an impressive array of erotica that you can peruse whilst nibbling on a slice of passion cake. Whilst you can buy thrillers and porn anywhere – including Waterstones – it’s the difference between shopping for vegetables at ASDA and a farmer’s market. The produce may be the same, but it’s the atmosphere that keeps you coming back for more.
Don’t forget, the chains can only negotiate good deals by using their selling power to lower buying prices, so those lower down the food chain have to get by on less and watch, while those above them get richer. And, although the range of books on offer may appear to be more diverse, in larger stores our choice is actually compromised – what’s on the shelves is all too often dictated by head office and won’t vary from store to store, whereas independent shops have the luxury of individual input into the book-buying process. A smaller store can offer a more personalized shopping experience, not just a checklist of Books to Promote, which can be great when you want to grab something to read on the train, but less helpful when it comes to picking a present for Auntie Margot who only likes Restoration drama, socialism and hydrangeas.
The time of new year’s resolutions approaches and if, like me, one of your goals for 2009 is to support more local businesses, you first have to ensure that they’ll still be around. This Christmas, give two gifts for the price of one – buy a loved one the novel they’ve been hinting at for weeks, and help a small business stick around until next year’s Christmas rush. Oh, and don’t forget the free bookmarks.

The Sunday Salon.com

OK, this is me officially getting back on track with my reviewing. I read this about a month and a half ago, and I blame it entirely for getting me hooked on French Revolution novels. Well, that and the OBCR of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

The back cover says that Fair Exchange is “inspired by the lives and affairs of two of the most famous figures of the late 18th century – Mary Wollstonecraft and William Wordsworth.” Wordsworth and Wollstonecraft themselves actually make the occasional cameo in the novel, but two of the protagonists, Jemima Boote and William Saygood, are based fairly obviously on them. Jemima is an orphaned charity case whose involvement with the Skynner family draws her into the political word of 18th C England, and William is the charming but rather feckless (aren’t they always?) poet who crosses her path.

The story is told from multiple points of view, the framing device being Louise Daudry’s deathbed confession of the secret she has been carrying for most of her adult life.

In the days before the Terror takes hold of France, Jemima is living as an unpaid governess to the Skynner’s children, whilst nursing an unrequited passion for Fanny Skynner, her old schoolfriend. Tired of her indentured servitude, she follows her mentor Mary Wollstonecraft to Paris to observe the burgeoning Revolution. Before leaving, she meets William Saygood who is also headed to Paris and they banter, flirt a little and jokingly agree to meet at the barricades. Annette, a young French girl, falls in love with Williamwhilst they are both in Paris and Jemima in turn takes an American poet by the name Paul Gilbert as a lover. The two women do not meet until, seeking privacy to write her novel and give birth to her illegitimate child, Jemima rents a former convent in Blois and takes on Louise as a maid and Annette – also pregnant out of wedlock – as a companion. Their lives converge until the birth of their daughters Maria and Caroline when Louise agrees to make the bargain with Paul that will irrevocably change the lives of everyone on the house.

Roberts’ see-sawing perspective and occasionally non-linear narrative isn’t for everyone. I suspect she’s one of those authors that you love or hate. I first read Impossible Saints when I was about fifteen, and then The Wild Girl as an undergraduate. I’ve got a feeling I’ve read more, but no other titles are coming to mind. If you like religion, feminism, sex and death, you’ll probably like her. Her conflicted relationship towards Catholicism is fascinating, although it doesn’t come out so strongly in Fair Exchange, and her favourite trope seems to be communities of women and the effect of the eventual, inevitable penetration of men into a sisterhood. This isn’t a sugar-coated version of sororal bliss, but neither are her love stories simple and painless. Roberts gives us human nature at it’s complicated best, and Fair Exchange is one I’d recommend, although it isn’t my favourite.

Further Reading

I re-read Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman after this, and it makes a good follow-up. By coincidence, I picked up Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo in the same second-hand bookshop haul, which deals with Wordsworth’s poetry.

I don’t appear to have updated since the summer, and now the leaves are falling and I have to wear a jacket when I leave the house. I still take it off when I enter that godforsaken circle of hell known as the London Underground, but it’s the principle of the thing.

Anyway. The reason I haven’t ben updating is that I’ve been reading a lot. And I mean, a lot. The past few months have ben a serious book-binge on my part, and taking time to blog about one book would mean having to wait before starting the next. Ain’t gonna happen.

A sample* of the delights I have been…well, sampling: (links go to the reviews and will be updated as and when I write them)

There was also some random self-help books that I found in the library, but this blog is dull enough without my wittering about my issues, don’t you think? I’m currently reading The Elusive Pimpernel, and I’m about two thirds of the way through. For the record, Orczy’s Marguerite is an IDIOT. A principled, passionate idiot, but still an idiot. We’re expected to believe that this is “the cleverest woman in Europe”? SERIOUSLY? Anyway, Marguerite Blakeney gets several posts to herself when I get round to doing a proper update.

Books on my TBR pile include more historical fiction, some historical non-fiction and a couple of classics that I keep picking up and discarding – Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical being one. I’m also planning on getting stuck in to my annual re-read of The Woman in White - September is usually my preferred month, for some reason – and I’m hoping this will tide me over until next payday.

That said, I’m off to Berlin with my inamorata in a few weeks, and although I’ve been to Germany before I know next to nothing about the city itself. Can anyone recommend me anything – fiction, non-fiction, travel guides?

 

*AKA, ‘what I can remember of a really large pile of books’

[contains much squeeing and some Breaking Dawn theories]

Yesterday I commented to a friend that in a way, so little has changed since adolescence – swap school for work and you have the same hierarchies, the rules that occasionally seem arbitrary but you follow anyway, and how much have our friendships really changed? We’re all still trying to navigate the world, with only music and tv and literature to warn and advise us about what’s coming and how we’re supposed to feel about it, there’s still the same parental advice that we still don’t follow. Perhaps this explains my continued love of Y.A lit – my circumstances may have changed, but my way of relating to them hasn’t really. I still identify with Polly O’Keefe, with Nanda Grey and Alanna of Trebond, with countless other heroines who are ten years younger than me but still have my thoughts written in their pages.

All the same, I still feel slightly ashamed for being quite so excited about the release of Breaking Dawn, the fourth and apparently final installment in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. I’ve blogged about my issues with Meyer’s writing in the past, but that doesn’t stop me concocting theories(see below) like the fifteen-year-old fangirl that I secretly still am. And of course, I have just discovered that it comes out two days earlier in the US than anywhere else. If I’d known, I’d have pre-ordered it, but it was probably too late. Thanks a lot, universe.

Twilight Ravings of a Madwoman (a.k.a ‘what Kaite thinks will happen in Breaking Dawn’)

Disclaimer: I’m a Bella/Jacob shipper rather than Bella/Edward, but I really think that girl needs to be single for a good long while.

  • To bloodsuck or not to bloodsuck? Bella will oh dear god please change her mind about getting vamped, realise Edward isn’t right for her, and hook up with Jacob only to have him decided that he needs to go and realise his werewolf destiny alone.
  • Mortal peril: Victoria will play a major role, hence the red queen on the cover, and Bella will realise that she could very well end up like that if she carries on with her REALLY REALLY stupid plan of becoming a vampire. I guess she might end up working with the Italian vampire posse in order to bring Bella down for not keeping her part of their arrangement. 
  • Body count: Edward MIGHT die, sacrificing himself for Bella, but if he does then I think Bella will have accepted it beforehand and hopefully not be as much of a mess as she was in <i>New Moon</i>.  Jasper and/or Rosalie will die, possibly Carlisle, as well as Seth Clearwater and one of Jacob’s closer friends.
  • Friends, enemies and others: Angela may play a bigger role – but if she does, I’m not sure I see her surviving – and I can see Mike and Jess stumbling around, getting in the middle of things without having any idea what’s going on. Lauren will possibly (inadvertantly?) lead Victoria to Bella and the Cullens. 
  • Family stuff: Bella’s mother will probably reappear in person instead of the odd email and phone call. I kind of really want her parents to get back together as well.
  • Heading off into the sunset: I’d put money on the novel ending with her going off to some Ivy League college, but I’m not sure she’d leave all the supernatural stuff behind her. Maybe she’ll end up sort of following her in father’s footsteps and becoming either a cop with the inside track on the supernatural, or joining some kind of Torchwood/Angel Investigations-type team, occasionally running into Jacob.
  • Please, Stephenie Meyer: I want an awesome ending for Alice, but who knows? She’s on my ‘might well die’ list as well.

The Sunday Salon.com

It seems to have taken me several days to finish this one – strange, given that it’s a fairly short novel and a re-read. I’d managed to forget the event that the whole novel leads up to and then reveals, but then discovered that…well, it was pretty forgettable. As well as out-of-character, gratuitous and rather anticlimactic. Had the scene been longer and more detailed, perhaps I’d have gotten more out of it than a faint sense of dissatisfaction.

WARNING: SPOILERS LURK BENEATH!

Polyhymnia O’Keefe, a brilliant seventeen year old staying alone in Athens and being romanced by a wealthy boy a few years her senior, reflects back on the previous year and her intense friendship with the enigmatic, intelligent Maximiliana, and Max’s lover Ursula. Something happened to shatter Polly’s trust in Max and, though L’Engle throws a few red herrings about, it’s not hard to guess what it was. In addition, I couldn’t help feeling that Polly overreacted hideously and that she needed to gain some perspective and stop being such a brat. Which doesn’t excuse Max’s actions, just that her motivations are glossed over so much that she seems like a caricature in that scene and it’s hard to identify the out-of-control creature who raves drunkenly and tries ineptly to make a pass at her friend and daughter-figure, with the wise, benevolent women carrying around more than her fair share of dark secrets but refusing to be weighed down by them.

END OF SPOILERS! HURRAH!

Apparently this is part of a series, and I’ve been told by friends that it’s the weakest book in the O’Keefe saga. I’d certainly like to read more – the family intrigues me and, despite the flaws she shows in this book, I like Polly as a central character. I’ve currently got a long list of books to get thorough, however, including Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant which is apparently so good that my girlfriend refused to part with it until she had bought another copy. Please bear in mind that we live in the same house. Then I want to finish Winifred Holtby’s The Crowded Streets, read Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and re-read Calvino’s On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, which I first read in Japan four years ago and has stayed with me ever since as a utterly brilliant novel.

But today it is a hot, sunny day, and I have gardening to do.

We’ve expanded to an online reading/discussion group-type thing. You should go and join, tell us about what you’re reading and we can all be one big happy family.

Or you could just join because you think I’m awesome. It works either way, really.

Danielle Steele is on her 75th novel, and she writes them all on a 1964 Olympia manual typewriter. Honestly, I don’t know what scares me more….(and to think that I was surprised to find people who still aren’t Mac users).

Radar lists the top ten superheroes who don’t have movies - but probably should.

Stuart Jeffries has reader’s block, and the Director of the National Literacy Trust has a solution.

The New York Times book blog  predicts that the song of the summer  will be ‘Librarian’ by My Morning Jacket.

Paul Gent reviews the Kindle and doesn’t like it.

Catherynne M Valente won the Rhysling Award for her poem The Seven Devils of Southern California. It appears in her newly-published poetry collection A Guide To Folktaleas in Fragile Dialects - a review of the collection and an interview with Valente are forthcoming and will be up once I’ve, y’know, read it.

A disillusioned blogger called Jessica Roy decries the New York literary scene and moves to Paris in protest. NY Mag readers go….’eh?’ in the comments until the unbearable pretension of the Gen Y literati is revealed.

Dustin ‘Screech’ Diamond, of Saved by the Bell fame gets a book deal. Thousands of Gen Y-ers prepare to be traumatised by his debauched showbiz lifestyle.

Galleycat want you to judge a book trailer.

J.K. Rowling tops the Forbes list of billionaires. Countless Y.A and fantasy authors cry themselves to sleep.

Lee Isreal forged letters from Noel Coward (and was mean about Julie Andrews!) but now has a memoir out that is totally the truth, honest.

Covent Garden’s Poetry Society Cafe  (one of my regular haunts) is hosting its monthly Fourth Friday event tonight. Be there, or be…like me, having a picnic in Green Park because the weather is far too nice to be indoors, bookworms.

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