Book Review: Spoon’s Carpets

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“It’s tough to write drunk, you know; this Spoons book is a testament to that.”

Spoon’s Carpets, by Kit Caless, is beautifully presented, neatly sized, and full of subversive nonsense that is somehow glorious. Having read it cover to cover, dipped into it every time someone I know mentions visiting a Wetherspoons to see if the establishment warrants a mention, and flicked through the pages of photographs in wonderment that pictures of pub flooring can be so alluring, I am still unsure whether to categorise the narrative that accompanies each carpet included as fiction or non fiction. This work is destined to become an essential reference for Spoon’s aficionados. Really, you want this book.

The author partook of a nationwide pub crawl to see for himself his favourite carpets in situ. Drinkers up and down the country had been sending him pictures after their boozy nights out. I guess some may consider this an improvement on other types of pictures sometimes sent. Several of the regular Spoon’s carpet photographers (yes, these people exist) are rewarded for their efforts by having their feet included. One such drinker is quoted as saying:

“essentially everything is fantastical if you stare at it long enough”

I ponder the level of inebriation required in order to fully appreciate the floor art depicted.

Spoon’s regulars are described as high quality storytellers, which perhaps explains the factoids and local knowledge shared from each location. Other nuggets I mulled whilst absorbing the glory that is a Spoon’s carpet were: How can a town have more than one twin? Does The Regal, Cambridge need a new vacuum cleaner? How many pairs of shoes does the author own? As is pointed out, the carpets pose more questions than they answer.

Statistics are also provided for the reader’s edification, from famous regulars (a statistic?) to improbable quantities of items consumed. For no particular reason, my favourite was: “Number of men who are an island: 0”

And I guess that there is no particular reason for buying a book about pub carpets except that it is a surprisingly satisfying little item to peruse. As well as being educated in how a Spoon’s carpet is designed and manufactured, readers may use this as a travel guide. As tourist attractions go there are tempting possibilities, including the curry and beer. The appreciation of art has always been subjective, supposed experts regarded as a bit snobby. Appreciation of Spoon’s carpets, and the varied settings in which they lie, could buck this trend.

My only complaint is that my local Spoons is not included in the selection. I need to know why it did not make the cut. I shall go buy a beverage and check out what they have to offer beneath my feet. Perhaps I will even take a picture.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Square Peg.

Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs, is the first book in a trilogy exploring the world of children born with apparently impossible gifts. These include an invisible boy, a levitating girl, twins with incredible strength and a girl who can conjure up fire with her hands. Because common people cannot comprehend these peculiars, and what is not understood is often feared, the children live apart. Their well-being is overseen by a shape shifting matriarch who can manipulate time.

Into this world stumbles Jacob, a sixteen year old American boy who has always struggled to fit in amongst his peers. When a family tragedy sends him into a spiral of anxiety and recurring nightmares his psychiatrist suggests it may be helpful if he travelled to the place he associates with the source of his fears – a remote island off the coast of Wales where his grandfather lived as a child. Jacob’s grandfather raised him on a diet of weird and wonderful stories which he claimed were true. They were populated by children who could not exist, who lived together on this island in a beautiful house. They were threatened by the monsters Jacob sees in his dreams, which his grandfather talked of but was never believed.

When Jacob sets out to uncover the facts around his grandfather’s early life he finds only a ruin where the children’s home used to be. He looks for clues amongst the debris, asking questions of the locals. He uncovers more than he bargained for, but must then make a choice, just as his grandfather did so many years before.

The writing remains light despite the horrific occurrences threatening the peculiar children’s way of life. Jacob and his new friends must battle forces intent on their demise whilst keeping their existence hidden from those common people living alongside. Their enemies are known to hide in plain sight.

The story is being adapted for a film, directed by Tim Burton, to be released on 30th September 2016. It is a perfect match for the director’s style. Although containing many of the familiar elements in a young adult fantasy, there is much offbeat humour downplaying the fear and poignancy.

Within the narrative are scattered authentic vintage photographs depicting many of the characters. These provide a wonderful addition to the surreal feel. There are also stills from the film and a taster of the next book in the series.

An enjoyable read and an interesting take on a familiar trope. I rarely seek out film adaptations of books as they too often disappoint. Given the strong visual elements and stunning imagery conjured, this may well will be an exception.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk Books.

Not a Million Dollar Blog

This post was written to share my experiences of blogging as part of the blog tour for Natasha Courtenay-Smith’s latest book, ‘The Million Dollar Blog’. I review the book here.

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The photo I attached to my first ever blog post.

When I started blogging I was writing posts for myself. This is probably just as well as few other people read them. As I learned to navigate my way around the blogosphere I came across others who produced similar content – thoughts on their lives, their children, their everyday experiences interacting with the world face to face. Some of these bloggers hoped to make money from their writing. Perhaps they harboured dreams of creating a million dollar blog. I had no such ambitions. That said, I did watch my stats with interest. Each new follower, each like or comment left beneath a post, gave me a warm, fuzzy glow. My words were being well received even if my readership remained small.

I started to post book reviews and realised that this was the niche I felt most comfortable in. With that realisation, my priorities changed. Now the numbers mattered more. If I was to ask publishers to send me books to review then I needed to attain a certain reach. I became more active on social media, mainly Twitter, and developed daily habits that enabled me to promote my work. I contacted a wide range of people within the book industry and noted those who were willing to offer support.

I am now at a stage where I could ask for more books than it would be possible to read. I can be choosey about the titles I accept which offers two main advantages:

  • I only ask for books I expect to enjoy, so reading remains a pleasure;
  • the reviews I write are likely to be positive which is ever so much better for me, author and publisher.

I refuse to accept ebooks, most self published works and certain genres. This is not due to snobbery. I firmly believe that every reader should be reading whatever type of book they enjoy. As my personal experience of reading these books has not been positive I avoid them. There is no pleasure in writing a negative review, even if it may be useful to other readers. I review every book I read and will always be honest in sharing my thoughts.

Much of my time on social media is now spent promoting books, although I retain a personal edge. Feeds that are little more than advertising are not interesting. I only follow those who appear real and are willing to interact.

I will share my views, and those of others, on books I have read. I am grateful to everyone who shares my posts and aim to reciprocate when they review books I have been sent. I value my place in the friendly, welcoming and generous community of book bloggers, but feel I can only offer backing for books I know personally.

As in any group of people, there is a hierarchy among book bloggers. The cool kids will be woo’d, especially by the big publishers. The mystical definition of cool is hard to define, but everyone knows who they are. Several of these people have gone on to find paid work as a result of the exposure provided by their blogs. Their trajectory is a pleasure to follow.

And I too have stepped outside the blogosphere. I have started attending more book events – readings, launches and, this year, my first literary festival. As well as being enjoyable in themselves, they give me additional material to write about, thereby keeping the content on my blog more varied and interesting.

I do need to remember though that just because an author has been lovely to me on Twitter it doesn’t mean they know who I am. That said, when I introduce myself to them at a book event and they recognise my name, I feel that I have arrived.

The Million Dollar Blog is a guide for those who wish to monetise their blog. I have no such aspirations. I write because I love books and have learned, through creating my own fiction – a useful exercise but not one I plan to pursue – how skilled the authors whose words enrich my life are. I want to support them, and those who publish their work. Blogging is how I choose to do this. By not asking for payment, other than a copy of their book, I feel able to retain my impartiality. My readers know that what I write is how I feel.

Of course, I still want my words to be read. There are many people publishing advice on line about how to attract readers; I wonder what their readership is.

New followers, days when my stats spike, these continue to give me those warm fuzzy feels. Perhaps if the slow but steady growth I enjoy stalled I would wonder why but I have no higher expectations. I suspect that book blogging is not the ideal route for those who aspire to create a million dollar blog. How lovely it would be if I were mistaken.

Do check out the other stops on this tour, detailed below.

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‘The Million Dollar Blog’ will be published by Piatkus on 29th September 2016

 

Guest Post: The Importance of Reading Indie

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As regular readers will know, I am a big fan of the independent presses. When I spotted this latest venture being set up by Bex of NinjaBookSwap fame I was eager to help spread the word. Please welcome to my blog a lovely lady who works tirelessly to introduce readers to each other and to quality books. I know she would welcome your support for her latest project, and to add you to her list of recipients of the Ninja Book Box when it launches in November.   

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Hello I’m Bex, I blog over at An Armchair By The Sea and run the Ninja Book Swap, the Parcels of Joy Project and organise the annual London Bookshop Crawl. I’m here today talking about my love of independent publishers and how it led to the creation of my newest project.

I was brought up around independent bookshops. My family are readers and my parents taught me to treasure and support local businesses. Our visits to our local bookshops (two fantastic ones both now sadly no more, although one has been reincarnated) were regular traditions – something to be celebrated. I have as much of a soft spot for Waterstone’s as anyone else, but I’ve never had the same browsing experience there that I do in indies, where you can see that the booksellers have often had free reign with their recommendations and imagination for the creation of events and displays. It was this love of independent bookshops which nurtured the thrill of discovery of new books and authors that initially led to the creation of my blog and ultimately of Ninja Book Box.

Since the beginning of the year I’ve been challenging myself to buy only books published by independent publishers and I’ve found it hard. With a few exceptions I’m becoming increasingly aware that the books that I’m most aware of due to blogger hype, Waterstone’s windows and other advertising, and which subsequently end up on my wishlist are almost always published by big publishers, with the exception of books that get listed for or win big prizes. It can be really difficult to find indies by accident, and even looking I struggled, but the struggle was worth it because I’ve read so many excellent books this year.

One of my favourite things about small presses is that they often have a very specific aim or ethos, for example to publish translated fiction, excellent non-fiction or to engage readers with the process of publishing, and focusing on these niches can be a really good way to find things you wouldn’t normally consider.

I get the same thrill now when I discover a new publisher as I get when I visit an independent bookshop. Of course there’s the excellent anticipation of new things regardless of whether the place is indie or not, but in independents (publishers or bookshops) I always feel like I’ll find more unusual stuff. Chain bookshops can often feel a bit formulaic, with the same books on the tables and similar displays in every branch. I love independent bookshops because they’re free to do their own thing, create their own atmosphere and go the extra mile, and I love independent publishers for many of the same reasons.

The struggle to find books published by indies in mainstream bookshops whilst actively searching for them led me to wonder just how many people not actively searching were missing out, so I did what I do and asked twitter what it thought of a UK based book box featuring only titles published by independents. The answer was overwhelmingly positive, and here we are!

Ninja Book Box fills a gap, particularly for those of us here in the UK. Although there are lots of one book a month type subscriptions here, Ninja Book box will offer a simple way to discover lots of different independent publishers, new or backlist books in many genres and lots of extras as well as gift items, to enhance the reading experience. I will be working closely with publishers to get recommendations of excellent, underrated titles and with small businesses to create and provide gifts linked to the book. We are going for useful gifts as well as just cool or beautiful stuff so expect things to be a little out of the ordinary!

I have so many plans for the future of the box and have been working really hard to bring the November box together. I launched a Kickstarter to help fund the startup costs and its success has given me so much more confidence that this idea is as good as I think it is! The Kickstarter runs until October 2nd so if you’d like more information on the box please do go and check it out. Due to popularity it’s also the only way you can get hold of the first box, other than the giveaway below!

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If you would like to support Bex, details of her Kickstarter may be found here:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/241420299/the-ninja-book-box

You may wish to follow on Twitter: Ninja Book Box (@NinjaBookBox)

If you would like to enter the giveaway to receive the first box you may do so here: 

a Rafflecopter giveaway  

The giveaway is open internationally and people who’ve backed the Kickstarter can also enter – if they win and are already receiving a box as a reward for backing then they can either get a second box for someone else or redeem the February box for free.

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This post is a stop on the Ninja Book Box blog tour. Do check out the other stops, listed below.

 

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Q&A with Tangerine Press

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Today I am delighted to welcome Michael from Tangerine Press to my blog. Tangerine is a London based independent publisher and bookbinder. They publish innovative, often maverick, titles in both trade paperback and hand bound limited edition formats. Please read on to find out more about a press that produces books as objects of beauty, as well as being excellent reads.

1. Why did you decide to set up Tangerine?

For the full story, we could go way back to 1996 when I ran a book mail order company called Tangerine Books, out of a little office in Battersea, south London. It was on an industrial estate, very cheap and I ended up living there too. I had a second job all that time in Elephant & Castle, spinning financial plates in other words. TB didn’t work out so in the summer of ’98 I threw the pc and hundreds of unread catalogues into a skip and entered the construction industry. But the literary itch was still there. Tangerine Press was founded in 2006. The initial impetus was a desire to publish new, neglected and innovative writing by authors I was interested in and felt weren’t getting the exposure they deserved. But I didn’t want Tangerine to be just another independent press, in the sense that it would churn out paperbacks or ebooks. I was a self-employed carpenter for 16 years immediately prior to going full-time with the press in 2013, so I was used to making things from scratch. Likewise, I was an avid reader, a consumer of books. One day I thought: why not combine these two passions, actually bind the books myself and present the work in the best way possible?

2. What sort of books do you want to publish?

I want to publish books that have a boldness and originality of style. By that I mean the quite often heavily autobiographical, maverick element to much of the writing. That ranges from Tangerine’s most recent release The Glue Ponys by author/painter Chris Wilson, a short story collection about homelessness, addiction and prison, through to reissues of modern ‘lost classics’ like A Cage of Shadows by Archie Hill, to be published next year. I have been very fortunate in that sense. Just look at the press’s list: William Wantling, James Kelman, Billy Childish, Akiko Yosano, Iain Sinclair, many others and more to come.

3. How do you go about finding and signing authors? 

It’s all down to constant research. Hardly any signings come from unsolicited manuscripts or through agents. In other words, it entails reading, reading, reading. Listening, too: specifically to people who’s opinions I value. See what stirs them up. They are not necessarily other publishers or writers; a lot of the time they are friends from my days in the building game. On occasion, a regular collector of Tangerine publications will suggest something and I will investigate. Then it’s a case of approaching the author (or the estate if they are no longer with us), explaining how Tangerine works and, if they are happy with that, we formalise everything.

4. Is your experience of marketing what you expected when you started out?

Marketing is a lumbering, cruel giant which all publishers are trying to tame. Some days you can throw down a rotting carcass and it will embarrass you by gobbling it up. Other times you saunter along with a silver salver, present a prime cut with all the trimmings and it will turn up its nose.

5. There are a good number of small, independent publishers out there publishing some great works. Do you consider yourself different and, if so, how?

I agree: the indie publishing scene is extremely vibrant at the present time and doing wonderful things with gifted writers, catering to most tastes as far as I can see. Tangerine is a little different to the others in that I am a bookbinder too and therefore put out hardcover, signed limited editions in tandem with more readily available trade paperbacks. Along with all the other unusual chapbooks, prints, artwork, broadsides, random gifts that the press produces, Tangerine has found a corner it can fight for.

6. Latest trend or totally original – what sells?

This is a hard one to answer. The bottom line is a book has got to be something people want, something they feel they will be missing out on if they don’t buy it. That is especially true for an indie press, who has to determine its target audience – its identity in other words. With Tangerine I focus on what could be described as maverick or counterculture writing. No major poetry publisher would even consider putting out a collection by William Wantling, for example, despite his work being on a par and often superior to that of Charles Bukowski, the most widely read poet in the world (so we’re told). My initial thought, therefore, is to say ‘totally original’ but there can be a slight blurring of the lines. Latest trends can become original with time, is what I mean. As long as the work has integrity and written with passion and conviction, and backed up by a publisher who believes in what they are presenting to the reading public, you can sell a book to your target audience no question.

7. Ebook or hard copy – what do your buyers want?

It’s always hard copies with Tangerine. But I do want to say something else here. There is an assumption that because I am a bookbinder as well as a publisher that I am anti ebooks. Absolutely not true. It’s all about co-existence. What is best for the individual. You can read a great poem on a piece of toilet paper or from a handbound book and the words will have the same impact. But I believe a physical book makes for a much more rewarding experience. The idea that not just the writer but also the binder/publisher has put thought and care into the production of the book is a powerful feeling and deep rooted in our psyche. The truth is, I find ebooks incredibly dull and uninteresting as a format. They are paper oriented, you still have to ‘turn’ the page. The device itself is book shaped, weighs the same as most books and you still have to carry it about in a bag. And the battery will run out and need to be charged, you cannot share it with your friends when you have finished and, the final insult, it’s not even yours to own in the first place. An inferior book in other words. When an innovative platform comes along and takes things to a new level, then I will become interested. But only as a supplement to physical books.

8. Do you consider Tangerine to be niche or mainstream?

I would prefer to say Tangerine is underground but occasionally goes overground.

9. Collaborative or dictatorial?

Collaborative every time, but with firm opinions given. There’s a flexing of muscles at the start of a project, when writer and publisher jostle for position, stake out their territory, their limits, their character. Once that is over, we get to the part I particularly enjoy, when you begin to shape the book into a publishable form. Incredibly rewarding. Editing and going through the manuscript for James Kelman’s A Lean Third story collection was especially satisfying. He is my favourite living writer and a man I have admired greatly for many years. His passion and commitment to his art. He doesn’t take any crap either, you know exactly where you stand with him. I guess I could be seen to be dictatorial when it comes to design and materials for the book itself, but I always check with writers with this side of things, and am always listening. A good example of this is a recent discussion about artwork for Iain Sinclair’s new book My Favourite London Devils. Dave McKean has been commissioned to produce original illustrations for this, which is all very exciting. But ultimately Tangerine has a certain aesthetic, a continuity of style so anyone who gets involved with the press should be well aware of that. I occasionally collaborate with other like-minded folks, for example with the remarkable ‘Poems-for-All’ series and L-13 Light Industrial Workshop.

10. Plans for the future?

To keep putting out great writing in the best way I can. I would like to be in a position where I can publish at least six main titles a year. By that I mean, books I can bind limited edition of and release them in tandem with readily available paperbacks. At the moment I put out many unusual chapbooks, prints, new year greetings, etc. I really want to be able to continue that too, it helps make Tangerine even more unique.

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Thank you Michael for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find out more about this small press, including details of their books, on their website by clicking here: Tangerine Press: bookbinding, limited edition

Keep up to date with all of their news via Twitter:Tangerine Press (@TangerinePress)

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If you are an independent publisher and would like to be included in this series please check out my introductory post: Shout Out to Independent Publishers

Book Review: The Glue Ponys

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“one way or another, they all been robbed of something precious, and the crazy thing is, most of them don’t even know”

The Glue Ponys, by Chris Wilson, is a collection of short stories featuring characters that most know exist but whose well-being is rarely considered, even by themselves. They are the drug users, the pimps and prostitutes, the convicts and degenerates who live within the cracks of modern society. These people are also human beings, even if they do eschew the lifestyle to which most others aspire. Not for them low paid work and a struggle to rent a decent place in which to live. They have discovered heroin, and do whatever it takes to chemically get by.

The author lived on the streets, used drugs and has done time in prison in the USA. Knowing this adds an authenticity to the tales he weaves. The narrative is crude and direct; the tone matter of fact, almost unsympathetic; yet the pictures conjured by his words are darkly poetic. There is little of beauty in these lives. The rawness evoked is viscerally felt.

The characters in each story have chosen to live their lives this way, although perhaps because they can foresee no acceptable alternative. They watch as their peers die young, of overdose or user related illness. Death is a fact of life to which they appear numbed.

Yet each of them once had a childhood. These backgrounds are too often filled with years of abuse from which they escaped. They have achieved a kind of self destructive control. They risk jail, but know what it takes to get by. They live each day from one hit to the next.

There are thirty-one stories in the collection, most only a few pages long. The vignettes are set around freeways, in shelters, broken cars, cheap motels and on the downtown streets of San Francisco. Sex is a commodity, drugs a way of life. They form bonds and help each other out, then walk away with whatever they can take for themselves.

The first tale, ‘The Lieutenant’, tells of two thirty year old children, the last survivors of a band of misfits drawn from the four corners of the globe to care for a Vietnam veteran in order to share the drugs bought with his VA checks and social security payments. When the veteran dies these two put the body in a cupboard, wrapping it up in plastic bags and duct tape. They then continue to cash his cheques and inject.

The final tale, ‘The Mummy’, tells of a heroin user who breaks into a house to pilfer goods to sell. He comes across a body, muses over the man’s life and why nobody has noticed his death:

“you’ve probably been here about a week and not a soul has seemed to miss you. In fact, you could be me, I realised. Yes, we have something in common, but I earned my fate. I wonder what you did to be of no consequence or meaning to anybody else in the world.”

In between are stories of those who make money from supposedly respectable, tax paying citizens who cruise the streets looking to buy their own drugs and sex. When the providers have learned young that their bodies can be taken by others, it is more understandable why they choose to use them to profit themselves.

These tales provide thought provoking, challenging reading. Few wish to tackle the causes of the problem lives explored, much easier to berate those who end up this way. The Glue Ponys offers the opportunity to better understand. The writing is succinct, vivid, with an articulacy that demands consideration. It is a powerful reminder: we too are here.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tangerine Press.