Book review – Paul Magrs – “666 Charing Cross Road” #magrsathon @paulmagrs

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Liz with almost all her Paul Magrs books

Me with almost all my Paul Magrs books

Excitingly, I’ve been reading this one alongside Bookish Beck (thank you for participating!) and you will find her review here.  I last read this spooky chronicle in  September 2011 after I’d been sent a proof copy by the publisher. Back then I liked what I liked now, and took issue with something that didn’t bother me so much this time around; at least I was into writing decently long reviews by then!

Paul Magrs – “666 Charing Cross Road”

(08 September 2011)

A slightly-too-scary-for-me vampire novel set excitingly mainly in New York, with naturally an excursion to the famous bookselling road in London (somewhere I went a lot myself when I lived in central London). Magrs’ inimitable style translates well, I think, to its new location, and Headline clearly supported him with good editing and proofreading. There’s a lovely underlying celebration of genre novels although with some authors who have a touch of horror themselves, and of course a love of bookshops similar to that in last month’s read of “Exchange”.

There’s lots of intertextuality, with Mr Danby making an appearance, many nods to Helene Hanff and more. I loved the strong older (one very old!) female characters who are there to try to save the day (even Consuela, who ends up in a bit of a bad way, is still a strong matriarch by the end) and the respect Liza has as a publisher’s reader, and one of them has a sister in another link to others of Magrs’ books (I’ve loved picking out this aspect of the books, reading so many of them in one year). I still think Jack should be introduced to Robert from the Brenda and Effie series – can this happen, please? (or has it already?)

Daniel the villain is truly nasty and scary and his cult of personality is all too believable, but Bessie is not as alarming as the first time I read it, as I knew (in about the only bit of the novel that I remembered from last time) that she wasn’t a force of evil. She reminded me of the Green Witch from Susan Cooper’s novel this time around. I did still have to read the book in daylight hours, however … A suitable read for Halloween Month, especially as it’s set from now through to Christmastime!

Bookish Beck’s review is up here, and she enjoyed it, too, hooray!

Next up is a guest review from a friend who read the Mars Trilogy, and then I need to decide whether it’s a re-read of “Stardust and Snow” or the new “Christmassy Tales” for December …

You can find Paul online at Life on Magrs and he also has a Patreon for exclusive new content.

 

Book review – Paul Magrs – “Exchange” #magrsathon @paulmagrs

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Liz with almost all her Paul Magrs books

Me with almost all my Paul Magrs books

Did you read my exclusive interview with Paul last month? I’m back onto reading my way through a good number of his books now, and spent a very pleasant afternoon in the garden at the weekend re-reading “Exchange”. This is the book that literally introduced me to Paul – I’d read his Phoenix Court novels and others but it was when I came across the concept of BookCrossing being mentioned in this novel that I tracked him down to the university where he was then teaching creative writing, dared to email him (I’ve only sent fan mail to him, Iris Murdoch and Erica Jong …) and now can call him a friend! Hooray!

I read this book previously in 2006 (I first read it VIA BookCrossing!) and 2012 – rather amusingly, I’d forgotten a big plot point around how the characters got to discussing BookCrossing but remembered the hero and the Book Exchange and the feel of the novel. And I’m pleased to say it was just as delightful, third time round!

Paul Magrs – “Exchange”

(28 April 2009)

Simon’s living with his grandparents after, in the grand tradition of young adult and children’s books through the ages, his parents are killed in an accident (I don’t mean to downplay that but it’s such a common way of freeing up your protagonist, isn’t it?). He spends Saturdays on days out to different towns, and bookshops, with his gran, Winnie:

It’s all tea cakes and Earl Grey and bags of sweets and lovely novels. What more could we want, eh? What more could we possibly want? (p. 25)

But Simon does want a little bit more, it turns out, so it’s exciting when they find a new Book Exchange and make some new friends (I loved fierce Kelly even more this time). This time around, this passage seemed to sum up the book for me:

Bitter and black. It sounded cool. Like a vampire or a hardbitten detective. Really, though, Simon liked his coffee with frothy milk, two sugars and a jaffa cake or two. (p. 71) (this has reminded me of my review of “The Diary of a Dr Who Addict“)

It’s funny, because last time it was this passage:

He was wooing her with gateaux and frothy mochas and the tender ministrations of his plastic hands …

although both are very “Paul Magrs” ways of putting things.

This time round I liked Ada, the writer Winnie knew in her childhood, a lot more, and I drew from the book the messages that it’s OK not to rush into things, that friendship is sometimes so very much the best option, and that we all need time to find ourselves. That’s a pretty good set of precepts to get out of a book, isn’t it. Simon is a typical Magrs hero, shy and sensitive and buried in books (cf “Starlight and Snow”, “Dr Who Addict”, “Strange Boy”, “All the Rage” and I love having such a gentle character at the centre of this rare non-magical Magrs read.

You can find Paul online at Life on Magrs and he also has a Patreon for exclusive new content.

Bank holiday bonus! An interview with Paul Magrs #magrsathon @paulmagrs

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Paul Magrs and Liz Dexter in Manchester in 2013

Paul and Liz in Manchester

As part of my Paul Magrsathon, in which I’ve been reading, and encouraging other people to read, the novels of Paul Magrs during the year, Paul kindly agreed to do an interview with me and here it is as a bank holiday bonus!

When I read “Exchange” (which I’m reading and reviewing next month), I got all over-excited when I came across its mention of BookCrossing, tracked Paul’s work (at the time) email address down and emailed him! Over the years, we’ve become friends, and I actually got to meet Paul back in 2013 (we had afternoon tea in the cafe of Manchester’s Art Museum and a poke around a few bookshops, of course).

I hope you enjoy this little view into Paul’s writing life …

Phoenix Court and beyond

Hello, Paul! So, what was it like revisiting Phoenix Court for the Lethe Press reprint?

It was very moving to return to them. I wrote them in my early twenties – and I felt so brave then! Mixing characters of all kinds of sexualities and bringing in magical realist effects, and writing about the streets and the towns in the North East of England that I grew up in. These books had wonderful reviews and they have fans, too – but like so many books they were allowed to drop through the net and go out of print – almost straight away. I thought they were gone forever, and I had resigned myself to that. But Steve Berman and Matt Bright at Lethe Press were determined to do nice new versions of them.

It was so exciting when they brought them back out and of course I rushed to take part in the pre-order! Did you change or edit the novels at all?

I decided not to alter the text of the books at all. I toyed with the idea, but it seemed somehow the wrong thing to do.

Fair enough! Who was your favourite character when you wrote them and how did that change?

My favourite character was always Penny, I think – the teen with the telekinetic powers. I brought her back as a grown up, years later in ‘Hell’s Belles’, and she joined the cast of the Brenda and Effie Mysteries. I love all my characters, though, and it’s hard to pick one out over another.

How did you decide which short stories to include in the reprinted volumes?

That was easy to decide on, but tricky to do. I dug out all the stories that were published in magazines and anthologies during those same years. Some of them complemented the novels rather nicely – ‘Nude on the Moon’ was commissioned by Lisa Tuttle for a collection of stories with an erotic theme, and it picked up Liz and Cliff’s story, so it was natural to put that in with ‘Does it Show?’  And ‘Patient Iris’ led to the publication of my first book, and it was obvious it should go at the start of ‘Marked for Life.’ Others have a more complicated history, for example the story ‘Jep’ – about the leopard-skinned baby – belongs to the middle of ‘Could it be Magic?’ It was cut (wrongly maybe?) at the edit stage, and finds its place now as a dreamlike flashback at the end of the book.

Oh, that makes sense. I think it should have gone back in but it’s great as a story, too. Tell us how “Fancy Man” got lost and how you reclaimed it.

It was a dreadful experience, having that cancelled. I was in the middle of various house moves and I was lecturing and writing and working too hard – and files and boxes of papers were put in the wrong place. What I thought was the complete manuscript of the book turned out to be only the first half – a very messed-up copy, ruined through rewriting. And I had no idea where the complete book was. I shrugged and moved on. ‘Fancy Man’ was clearly cursed. Books often fall by the wayside, and sometimes it’s for the best…  But then, years later – I found a fat folder of loose sheets. Foxed and spotted with damp and mould. And there it was! My lost novel. Just as Lethe was gearing up to do my first novels again. I think it was the process of looking out those ‘extra short stories’ that my missing fourth novel came back into my life…!

What’s your favourite book out of all the ones you’ve written?

This changes each time I’m asked the question. As of now – July 2020 – I would say it’s ‘The Story of Fester Cat.’ It’s so personal. It was so immediate and direct and a book that I had to write, there and then, working in a blaze of energy that’s quite rare. I was very proud of that book. Penguin US brought it out, and I was hugely disappointed it never came out in this country. It seems like it’s in limbo now, which is a shame. People really love that book.

Would you change any of the books you’ve written, looking back on them now?

Very interesting question! I’ve developed and changed in so many ways. I’d write all of them completely differently now. I’d be stricter with plotting, probably. I’d take fewer crazy detours and be less experimental. But I’m not sure that would improve them!  I think I’d make many of my books *longer.* I think, being slightly older, I find I want to stay in the story longer than I did. I don’t want to leave those stories.

Is there a book by someone else you wish you’d written?

Many! But then they wouldn’t be mine, or theirs, any more. I read to escape my own writing, and I write to escape other people’s.

I love that! What’s the best bit of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

‘Keep it on camera.’ From the tutor of my MA Writing Course, David Craig, in 1991.

That’s brilliant! And you do. You teach and write about writing: what do you think the best bit of writing advice is that you’ve given someone?

Write every day.

Good advice. Who are your top five favourite authors and why?

I love writers who feel as if they’re sitting down and telling me *stuff.* Who are saying to me: ‘Oh, it’s you again – hello! Here, listen to this…’  And I’d say – Anne Tyler, Armistead Maupin, Truman Capote, Natalie Goldberg, Alan Bennett.  Many, many others, too. I read a lot. And I’m always listening for that chatty, confiding, trusting voice.

Ah, I’m re-reading all of Anne Tyler next year! Is there anyone else who writes like you, who “goes with” you? Someone who “If you like Paul Magrs novels, you will like this”?

I really, really don’t know. Aspects of what I do you might get elsewhere, in other people’s books. But I’m not really like anyone. That’s what people in publishing often say – like it’s a terrible and difficult thing. But I think it’s a good thing. It’s a Tigger kind of thing.

And you know what? I think you’re right!

Thanks so much to Paul for taking the time to think about and write down the answers to these questions – very illuminating and interesting!

You can find Paul online at Life on Magrs and he also has a Patreon for exclusive new content.

Book review – Willa Cather – “My Antonia” #readalong #amreading

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I planned to read this novel (or re-read it) this week after popping it on my Readalong schedule for this month, Elle and Bill having both suggested they’d choose it to read from my massive TBR. I then undermined myself completely by grabbing “Queenie” from my new purchases and then having the peculiar combination of not that much time to read and not being able to put it down. So “My Antonia” was started a bit late, and finished today, and apologies to Bill, whose review was all ready to go two days ago (AND he read two other Cathers first!).

I received this book in my LibraryThing Virago Group Not So Secret Santa last Christmas (I have a horrible feeling that I haven’t got up to the ones from 2018 in my TBR yet, so maybe I’d better go back to chronological reading next month!), from the lovely Cornishgirl. It was one of my Honorable Mentions in my Best Reads for 2005 post, however I started blogging part way through 2005 and must have read it earlier. I will admit now that I had it mixed up with “A Lost Lady”, which, to be fair, I read in 2006.

Willa Cather – “My Antonia”

(25 December 2019)

A small but beautifully crafted portrait of the hard life of settlers in the Midwest of America, both those from other parts of America and those from Europe and Russia. It’s also apparently a thinly veiled portrait of Cather’s own life, with her gender switched to the narrator’s, but I read it without thinking too much of that, for the social history and description. Being an Oxford Classic, there are copious notes which add all the detail if you want it (and also lots of detail about plants, history and terms which make it peppered with asterisks on some pages – I like to feel a bit smug when I know what something is, I have to admit).

Jim Burden meets his new neighbours, the Shimerdas, on his first day in Nebraska after travelling there from Virginia to live with his grandparents. Their stories run in parallel, with a strong theme of neighbours helping each other out which chimes with these lockdown days. Other Bohemian inmmigrants fill in more of the different paths lives could take, and there’s triumph and tragedy as there always will be when living so close to the edge of survival. I love the detail and the nature, and it reminded me of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books with their move from the hardships of the country to softer living in the town. The nature and descriptive writing is beautiful and evocative, even if this is the Midwest and not the South-West, which I know better personally and have enjoyed reading about in her other books.

Some reviewers have mentioned how Antonia is not really described that much, but the title is “MY Antonia” and she is seen from all these different perspectives – Jim’s, her father’s, her mother’s, her friends’, her eventual husband’s and childrens’. It’s unbearably poignant in places – her carefully left message with the new tenant of the farm when she moves away, knowing it will reach Jim and his grandmother eventually, the story of Otto the hired man who is so integral to the farm and then is gone in an instant …

I loved the theme, too, of women working as hard as or in the place of men, both Antonia and Frances Harling, and other of the hired women making their own way in life and living strong, muscular and successful lives. The description of Samson the musician’s awakening to the piano is powerful but a weird interlude in this odd but indeed powerful novel that I was glad to revisit.


I’m still working my way through “Hidden Figures”, which is excellent but long and deep. I am breaking off from that to read a book for Kaggsy and Simon’s 1920 Club this weekend, so anyone reading that, I’ll be finishing it over the next week and reviewing it then. Happy reading, everyone! If you’ve read this one, please comment or link to your review! And watch out for some Book Confessions on Tuesday …

Book review (and readalong) – Diana Wynne Jones – “Howl’s Moving Castle”

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This is one of the books I decided to read along with others after I published photos of the whole of my TBR and some people picked out books to read with me. There’s still time to join in, of course – I love hearing what other people thought of books I’ve read and reviewed, even years after I posted my review! I received it for Christmas in 2018 and looking at this pile, I’m a bit horrified to see I’ve still got most of these books on my TBR (and the Thirkells will have to stay there until I’ve got the three reprints in August which fill in the wartime gaps between ones I have on there).

Anyway, hopefully Elle from Elle Thinks has been reading this one, too: Lory was thinking of it but not sure she committed. Anyone else reading or read it recently? Well I liked it so much, I ordered the two sequels (oops).

Diana Wynne Jones – “Howl’s Moving Castle”

(25 December 2018, from Laura)

A lovely story, set in a world where all those magical things like seven-league boots are real but people are prosaically and nicely basically the same. Sophie’s the oldest of three daughters and therefore feels doomed to be the boring one who fails in her tasks. However, her hat-making skills have amazing effects and she ends up with powers of her own, living as the housekeeper to a wizard who MIGHT be evil and steal girls’ actual hearts, in a castle that moves around thanks to a demon in the fireplace (got that?). It’s just such a fun read, which you can see Wynne Jones had great fun writing!

There are some small leaps into what’s almost our world, and knowing comments “I’m surely due to have a third encounter, magical or not. In fact, I insist on one,” says Sophie (p. 36). I also love the computer game given to a boy which is set effectively in the world of the book. We’re set firmly beside the author and our heroine in these asides. And looking back at the book, I’m also cheered that although Sophie is magicked into being an old lady, she’s still full of energy and vim and vigour.

There are great interviews with the author about writing the book and the film adaptation in this newer edition of a 1980s book (how did I not read it at the time; maybe I thought there were only the Chrestomanci books).

This also fills in a year on my Century of Books. I’ve been doing well with that recently. Any recs for missing years gladly received!

April readalong – care to join me?

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On my state of the TBR April post, I shared a picture of the whole of my TBR and asked if anyone fancied reading along with me. Alongside plans hatched with a few friends outside blogging, I now have A Plan.

The books

Helen Lewis – “Difficult Women” – A history of feminism in 11 fights, my friends Linda and Emma have copies and are going to read along with me. I’ll be reviewing it both here and for Shiny New Books.

Diana Wynne Jones – “Howl’s Moving Castle” – Elle from Elle Thinks fancied a re-read of this one and it’s up next on the fiction front, after I’ve finished my Ada Leverson. ETA Lory was also considering reading this one.

Margot Lee Shetterly – “Hidden Figures” – Louise from my photo-a-day group felt like going for this one (I think on audio book) so I’ve pulled it off the shelf. The non-fiction story of the black women mathematicians of NASA on whom they based the film. ETA Wandering Cranes is looking at reading this one.

Willa Cather – “My Antonia” – Elle requested this one and Bill from The Australian Legend is also planning to join in (he’s reading the first two in her Pioneer series first so I hope I’m leaving him enough time to get those done!)

Simon Barnes – “Rewild Yourself” – about how you can get nature coming back into your garden and life. Emma has this one (I bought it for her!) so we’ll do that at some time nearer the end of the month. ETA Wandering Cranes and Claire are thinking about reading this one. Hope they get to join in!

The schedule

6-12 April – “Difficult Women” and “Howl’s Moving Castle”

13-19 April – “Hidden Figures” and “My Antonia”

27 April – 3 May – “Rewild Yourself”

How it will work

I don’t have the bandwith for anything fancy. So I’m proposing that I read and review on here, and people add their comments and links to their blogs, if they’re bloggers, and I will link to their reviews, too. That worked well for my Iris Murdoch readalong so fingers crossed it will work here, too.

If you’d like to join in with any of these, please say so in the comments – but there are no rules and no expectations, just a desire to draw people closer together, somehow. Happy reading!