I've come down with a disease. I've been harbouring the symptoms for years, but it's only recently that side-effects of the problem have become properly noticeable. I've caught tsundoku. And the thing is, you've probably got it too. 

Tsundoku is a Japanese slang term for buying books and having them pile up around you. Those shelves of unread paperbacks? Thrillers on your Kindle happily displaying 0% read? The teetering stack of novels on the bedside table? All known signs of the contagion. 

I blame society, of course. Not my own poor impulse control, the cheapness of books in general (they've never been more inexpensive, and never represented better value against other forms of entertainment), one-click online buying systems, next day delivery options, the eminent browsability of charity shops and new booksellers alike. And that's before we get the inestimable bounty of libraries simply brimming with books, all of them free at the point of use, like an NHS of the imagination.

None of that's to blame.

Nor is my wholesale abandonment of portion control. At present I read in full a book or so a week; maybe two if I'm lucky. Push that to three if I've a longish train journey or two coming up. So, by the laws of one-in, one-out, you'd have thought that this would regulate my purchasing and borrowing.

Behind me, in a corner of the kitchen.

Behind me, in a corner of the kitchen.

Yeah, right.

I think I'm on about a book a day at the minute. The postie has long since given up on sardonic commentary about the parade of slightly-battered padded envelopes from online secondhand purveyors of lexical drugs. My collection of red "While You Were Out" cards would provide sending-off artillery for the entire Football League if so appropriated.  

 But I can handle it. So what if I can barely sit down for Jenga-like constructions of reference material, or see out of the kitchen window (the window-ledge long since been overtaken as a source of ad-hoc shelving)? 

I can handle it. And besides, like Burgess Meredith in that Twilight Zone story, I'll never want for reading. 

If only I could find my glasses. They were here a minute ago. I swear it. Hmm...


My novels Torc and The Prospect of This City are available via Amazon (in ebook and paperback), Kobo (ebook), and Smashwords (ebook).  

On reviewing/opinionating about books

In a former blogging life I used to a bit of the old book-blogging; that is, reviewing novels (and non-fiction). This grew out of doing a PhD. I needed to record what I was doing research-wise, and as I was working in the fields of creative writing and historical fiction, making notes on the reading seemed only a sensible thing to be doing. That blog's gone now, faded into the suspended animation of deactivated Blogger accounts. Somewhere along that way, I'd lost the utility and also the pleasure in making short-ish notes on what I'd read. Plus, to some extent, there was a feeling of being leaned on a little.  

I'd got onto the lists of a few book publicists, who were understandably keen to get notices for their wares. The old free-copy-for-an-unbiased-review trade-off didn't seem overly burdensome, especially as I was largely being offered work that I'd have got round to reading anyway. And besides, who doesn't like a free book? I'm not genetically predisposed towards hardbacks, so I didn't even mind if the ARC (advance reading copy) was a shop-ready tome, a proof edition with provisional artwork and as-yet-unfinalised interior matter, or else access to an e-book through NetGalley.

But, over time, I lost the urge. Partly because the course was coming to an end and I didn't need the raw material, and in some degree because there were instances of pushiness. And, like, most folks, I don't care to be jostled.

Reading a novel takes a few hours. Let's call it eight. Add an hour or two for writing something up and posting it; a book review is a day and a half of someone's time. And that's time that I could have been spending doing other stuff. Writing, for example. Or reading things other than those I was being offered. So I backed away from the whole cottage industry of book blogging.

Cut to the present. I'm writing reviews again. Short ones, because of time, and because all I'm doing is recording an opinion; essentially putting a few scraps of meat on the bones of the five-star systems used by the likes of Amazon and Goodreads.

So why go back to posting reviews? This comes out of self-publishing a couple of novels myself. I can see the usefulness in reviews to authors in a fresh light, being in my own little working-off-the-kitchen-table way one myself. A review is a little note in a bottle washing up on the writer's shore that says "Hey, I read your book. And you know, it wasn't totally sucky." That can mean a lot. 

Even if you spend a morning with a stick trying to lever that scrap of paper out of the neck of the bottle before smashing it apart on a rock to get to the feedback only to read "Hey, asshat. I torrented your piece of crap and it wasn't worth the bandwidth. Screw you and your offspring for seven generations!" then at least you've got an emotional reaction. Even if the reviewer's taste is obviously in their mouths; someone noticed what you were doing. That's worth something in itself. Not much, but something.

So., as I've come to acknowledge the usefulness of reviews for my own output, it's only right that I look to myself again and do the same for others.

If a book sucks, though, I'll reserve the right not to comment, or else note only that it wasn;t for me. Folk commenting on the net are, after all, invariably not offering a review, but presenting an opinion. There's a difference between the two that needs to be understood and respected. 

Reviews will be posted on the site where I got the book from (or the online equivalent of the bricks-and-mortar store) as well as Amazon UK and on Goodreads. Though the latter are the same company they don't cross-reference reviews; largely, it seems, because of nuances in the ratings system between Amazon and Goodreads. Three stars on Amazon is a tad less positive than the same score on Goodreads. Who knew? I'll probably stick at least some up on this blog too (or links to them). 

The upshot of all this is that I'm learning again the value of an opinion, so it's only right that I pass along those that are mine, in the hope that they'll be of use in some tiny way to others, both other readers, and to writers. Sounds fair, right? 


My novels Torc and The Prospect of This City are available via Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords


The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying

I got a book in the post yesterday. Heck, I get a book in the post most days. The postie hands the package over with a grunt and usually something along the lines of “Here’s another one for the collection.” Or otherwise, there’ll be one of those missed-you-while-you-were-out cards and a scribble on the back asking my either to pick up the parcel from the sorting office, or else, and more usually, a reminder to check the secret stashing place where the book will have been hidden.

Another day, another book, then. Yesterday’s was a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, by Marie Kondo. I’d ordered it in a fit of doubtless New Year-related good intentions, plus I actually have a whole-house sort-out job that needs doing. As someone who’s genetically predisposed towards untidiness, and who tends to pass this off as a vaguely zen externalisation of ridding myself of potential internal chaos (clean mind, scruffy exterior – that kind of thing), I could use the help anyway. 

So I ripped the zippy deal on the cardboard and slid the book out. I did what I usually do and checked the first couple of paragraphs. There’s no shame in admitting I got hooked and finished the book in one go more or less straightaway.

Kondo’s is a brief book; don’t let the novel-sized outer dimensions fool you. Large print and generous spacing bulk matters out, but this is a couple of hours’ worth of reading, tops. And that’s plenty. The book’s efficient in getting across its simple-enough message; that less will set you free.

I found myself taking notes as I was going. And though this isn’t a book review blog, I suppose this is kinda a book review post, as well as my summary of Kondo’s ideas. I can see some relationships in what she says that go back to writing as well, which is always useful.

In her native Japan, Marie Kondo is a professional consultant on tidying up. She’ll come round to your home and tell you how to sort yourself out. She calls her method KonMari; it’s simple, it draws on some Shinto principles as well as the vaguest whiff of Feng Shui. It sounds like it’s worth a go.

KonMari makes some assumptions; the book’s a translation from the Japanese and not all of the ideas contained inside make the jump from that culture. There’s a focus on city living in shared living spaces and on adults living with parents or other extended family. That said, the basic principles are universal; we’re got too much stuff, we hang onto it for all the wrong reasons, we should declutter, and in doing so we’ll value the things we have all the more. This, in turn, will have positive life-benefits.          

KonMari is a two-stage process. First, you discard everything that doesn’t bring you joy, then you decide where to keep what’s left. You do this not in a piecemeal way, tidying up every day, but in one concerted “special event” over a six-month period. In this time, everything you own gets scrutinised, assessed, and either stored or discarded. It’s best not to bother to tidy up anything until you’ve completed the discarding process. Also, have a specific goal in mind; decide what kind of home you want to have, for example, and work towards that.

Kondo says to start with the easy stuff; with categories of belongings with which you’re less likely to have strong emotional attachments. Her sequence is clothes / books (I’d include CDs, DVD and BluRays, and video games here too) / papers / komono (miscellaneous items) / sentimental items and keepsakes.  

Here’s what you do; gather together everything in that category into one placed, and sort through. Keep only that which brings you joy. Stuff you’ve never worn? Discard. Clothes you put aside for wearing around the house? Discard. Clothes you’ve not worn for, oh, ages? Discard.

Kondo advocates a tactile method. Touch everything; you’ll be able to tell better if the item’s to be kept or not that way. Also, she reckons it’s only right to talk to objects. Thank them for their use. That sort of thing. This may not appeal, but there’s something to be said about individual consideration of all the stuff you’ve got. Consider the object’s true purpose to you. If it’s done its work, then it’s time to move the object on to the bin, the recycling, or the charity shop.

This should be a private thing. Don’t let the family see (they’ll affect your judgment, start cherry-picking your discards, chunter when you lose that scarf they gave you for Christmas three years ago but which you’ve affected to ignore ever since). However, they’ll notice the change in you, Kondo reckons, and they’ll start to fall in line with your new tidy ways.     

Different people will have different amounts to discard, but don’t be surprised if you lose up to three-quarters of the unused items that you’ve been hanging onto. If you’re living in a shared house, then Kondo reckons that “We need to show consideration for others by helping them to avoid the burden of owning more than they can need or enjoy.”

With clothes, store them properly. Only hang what should be hung. Don’t ball socks; fold them instead. Where possible, store items vertically. They take up less space, they’re easier to get to, and they keep better.

Only buy books you’re going to read right now. If you’re not going to read the book again, move it on. If you’ve owned a book for six months but haven’t read it yet, discard it. If you’re keeping a book (or a movie, record, game etc.) for any reason other than it brings you joy, then you should discard it. Be ruthless, and don’t delude yourself.

As for documents: “My basic principle for sorting papers is to throw them all away.”

The Japanese word for miscellaneous items is komono; the junk drawer most of us have in the kitchen? – that’s the komono drawer, that is.

Every item, for Kondo, must have a designated place. The existence of an item without a home multiplies the chances your space will become cluttered again – homes become untidy because we don’t put things away. So make the putting away place for everything suitable and easy. Decide where your things belong and when you’ve finished using them, put them there.

Kondo has a few rules for storage: store all items of the same type in the same place / don’t scatter storage space around your home / reduce the effort that’s needed to put items away / never pile stuff on top of other things – including clothes – vertical storage is the key / use your cupboard space / don’t waste time and money on complicated storage systems / always de-tag and unwrap new clothes immediately.

Elsewhere, these principles are extended to your bag, which should be emptied every day.

Do what you can to reduce visual noise. This can mean keeping books in cupboards rather than on display, and removing labels from jars or bottles on show. Again, the refrain is to reduce the environment to only that which is joyful.

We hoard stuff, Kondo reckons, because we’re either attached to the past or fearful about the future. However, for her, we should focus on the present; the past is what’s brought us to now – and so we should look on or old things as artefacts that have brought us here. It may be that their purpose for you is completed; if that’s so, then it's right and proper to discard these items.       

Some of Kondo’s approaches won’t be for everyone (we should greet our homes on return from being out, for example, and it’s only right to thank items for the use they’ve given us), but there’s nevertheless some useful advice here as well as a sneaking regard for someone who’s not only dedicated their life to the arcana of decluttering, but who can write a book about it that’s eminently readable.

As I’ve taken on board some of the KonMari ideas, I’ve naturally done the appropriate thing. I’ve only had the book a day, but it’s fulfilled its purpose for me. It’s now on the charity shop pile and will be on its way soon, along with many, many others.

I hope Marie Kondo would approve...    

Me and Star Wars

Star Wars, as the film was humbly titled when it was first released, was released into UK cinemas in the last week of 1977. I was nine years old. I’d been aware of the movie for some time – it had been released in the States over six months earlier after all – presumably, through mentions in the arts pages of The Guardian (the only paper my parents got), and from children’s TV shows like Clapperboard on ITV. Then again, BBC1 was the preferred setting for teatime telly; ITV children’s programmes weren’t quite banned in our house, but there was a definite sniffiness from Mum towards the commercial offering, and, being no fools, we tended to abide – even agree with – the idea that Auntie Beeb knew best.  

The point is that by the time that Christmas 1977 came around, I was more than ready for Star Wars. I wasn’t fussed about the toys; Matchbox cars, Lego, Meccano and the long-hoped-for chemistry set were my thing back then. But I really wanted to see the movie.

I was a regular attendee down at Louth Playhouse, the sole cinema in the town then and now. It’s been a three-screen for a couple of decades after reopening following a short period going dark in the mid-1990s, but in the seventies, there was a single screen in operation. The downstairs stalls area had been converted to bingo some time before I was born; the cinema screen was up four flights of stairs to what would have been the circle seating for the original auditorium.

I was there most Saturday afternoons for the 1 pm matinee; a diet of Disney re-releases, Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad movies, Laurel and Hardy, plus American TV shows that got theatrical releases in the UK (The Amazing Captain Nemo, the pair of Nicholas Hammond-starring Spider-Man flicks, both Battlestar Galactica and Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack).

Doubtless sometimes they just showed whatever was cheap to rent from the distributor. Remember; it was all good. Often as not these were double-features; two movies for the price of one. Sometimes a Children’s Film Foundation effort would be bundled together with the main American attraction. Only occasionally was the week’s big movie included; the programming was usually separate, so the Saturday afternoon show was often the only showing of that movie that week. Sometimes it wasn’t, though, and that meant heartache. In the late 70s, films were released into cinemas on a Sunday; that meant a whole week’s wait until Saturday.

Yes, it was an ache to wait, but no-one minded. That whole delayed gratification thing applied; we seem to have lost this in an age of dumping entire series onto Netflix, of 12-week windows between theatrical and home sell-through release, and of simultaneous pirate-dodging global release patterns, and of films living and/or dying by the first weekend’s grosses.

This was a time before VHS and before movie rentals, when there was a gap of at least three years between a first cinema release and a TV outing. A time when films got massive terrestrial television ratings because they were something of an event.

So, yeah. When Star Wars loomed I wanted to see it. And I knew I’d have to wait. And it was a problem, but it wasn’t an issue. Besides, I had a workaround all planned out.

Parents up and down our street had organized a Christmas party for the kids; the kind of community thing I’d kinda hope still goes on. They’d hired a room (Ayscough Hall on Lee Street, detail fans). There’d be party food, games, a festive-themed disco and, most importantly, Santa would be there.

I was nine, remember. Even though I’d worked it out for myself a year or so earlier, there’d never been an actual conversation with adults about the non-existence of the Man in Red. It was a bone of contention among some of our year at school; the cool kids swaggered with claims that they’d got grown-up proof that it was all a tale for tiny tots.                  

So when Mum came to me a few days before the party, and she asked me what I wanted to get from the Santa who’d be there, it was a bit of a revelation.

I knew straight away what I wanted, though. A book token. A one-pound book token, please. A pound was more than enough to buy a new paperback in those days, when the Net Book Agreement set the price, and the price was 99p.

The other kids got their dolls and cars and whatever. I got an envelope. I can’t remember if Santa was apologetic about it, or if he was in on the scheme.

It was, after all, clear as spring water in a crystal glass what I was going to do with the voucher.

At that time, Louth had a book shop. A proper book shop that sold new books. Not a charity shop full of mouldering early James Pattersons and spine-broken Maeve Binchys. Not a WH Smith. A book shop. Louth’s not supported a dedicated new-book shop for some decades; The Paperback People – as the shop was called – was the last. It’s not there any more. Heck, the building’s not even commercial premises these days, having been converted into a ground-floor flat years ago. It’s at the corner of Aswell Street and Kidgate; the white building next to Mark Merrifield’s excellent record shop Off The Beaten Tracks.

First chance I got I was down there; I assume it was in those aching days between school breaking up and Christmas rolling around. And with that book token I bought what I wanted; the novelisation of Star Wars.

Novelisations were a big thing, and for all kinds of reasons. For one, in those pre-video days, they were your best bet for either creating or recreating the experience of the movie. And all movies had them, it seemed. There was a stall in the town’s indoor market that sold secondhand books; they took a chunk of my pocket money for years. A section of their stock was novelisations.

I was able to experience movies I’d never be allowed to see, and somehow, because there were tie-in editions as well available with movie-related covers, I was able to get away with reading matter that was formative and instructive in all kinds of ways. I learned a lot from the novelisation of The Sting, from the tie-in editions of Jaws and The Exorcist. Through movie associations, I was able to read all of Ian Fleming’s output, plus battle with the weirdness of the Christopher Wood novelisations of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker; book versions of films that were based on books already. I scared myself regularly with the binding of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House because the cover artist had made the house on the front of the book look like a properly scary face.

I was reading the kinds of children’s writing you might expect as well – Tolkien, Roald Dahl, CS Lewis, Richmal Crompton, my sisters’ Enid Blytons, Richard Adams, Alan Garner – but novelisations were as important to me, as were the sneaked-in pleasures of the tie-in edition, as these expected influences.

This stayed with me well into my teens; I’ve got very fond memories of the various Omen novelisations, and the two Gordon McGill spin-off books that extended the franchise through a couple more sets of satanic adventures after the films stopped. McGill's a bit of cult hero, his Amityville 3D novelisation is great fun, and it started me off on a long-term fascination with director Richard Fleischer's films. 

So it’s Christmas 1977, and I’ve got Star Wars in my hand. Later on, I’d find out that it was Alan Dean Foster’s work (probably about the time I read his Alien novelisation, I’d have thought). But the cover said "George Lucas". This was his world, his universe.

I don’t know how many times I read it. Or how many hours I stared at the pages of colour pictures in the middle of the book - stills from the movie – and used them to help guide my knowledge of the movie.

I knew the book by heart. So much that when I eventually saw the movie, which didn’t get to Louth until ten whole months after the UK release - the following October - I missed the parts that weren’t there or which differed from the book version. Stuff like Luke hanging with his friends at the Tosche station; like Biggs Darklighter’s character being almost wholly absent from the movie. I didn’t come away quite disappointed, but there’s a version of Star Wars still playing in my head that was fuelled by the book, and that was never quite achieved by the film.

Nowadays, I’ve got nephews; the two oldest are a little younger at six and five than I was when I had my first theatrical Star Wars experience, but I get their excitement. That anticipation in the days between that 1977 Christmas party and reading the novelization; I feel their pain as they count down the hours until they can get to see whatever it is that JJ Abrams and company have got cooked up.  The ways it’s skewing Christmas by giving two sets of longed-for things with different timescales; both of them impossibly important.

I’ll see the new film, of course. I hope I enjoy it. I’ll see it in the same cinema I saw the first one in, almost forty years ago. Louth’s kinda an old-fashioned place; they still stop the movie to manufacture an intermission to sell ice-creams halfway through; I like that, and I’ll probably get myself a Feast or a Calippo from the self-conscious teen with the tray of goodies who'll appear when the film snaps off the screen. Back in the 70s, the treat of choice was two-fold; a carton of Kia-Ora and a box of Rowntree's Fruit Pastilles. Remember when they sold them - and Fruit Gums as well, though only a tooth-hating fool would buy them - in little boxes?

I hope the filmmakers get The Force Awakens right in ways that Lucas’s universe deserves. It might only be, at its heart, a simple story of goodies and baddies, but for whatever reason, it resonates. I hope my nephews spill out of the cinema barely able to gabble out their recollection of the best bits, that they’ll draw things and recreate in Lego, and that they’ll want to go back and see The Force Awakens again and again. I hope also that they’ll read the books some more and that they’ll add in their own ways to the adventures of Skywalker / Solo / Organa and all of the others. That they’ll feel sorry for the bad guy, and that their baddie will eventually see the error of their ways.

I remember – and I don’t know where I remember it from, but the memory is as firm and distinct as any of them - that George Lucas always had nine films, nine stories, in mind; Star Wars being the fourth. Looks like we'll get the full nine after all. 

Yeah, you got me in a nostalgic frame of mind, but if there’s something of that magic for my nephews that I felt back in ’77 from Alan Dean Foster’s novelisation in the new movie, then Hollywood will have done its job. I still prefer books (the old adage that the pictures are better on paper holds true), but love for the movies, and for the experience of going to the movies, is real, and real love never dies.

Eventually, the book fell apart. This was encouraged by my swapping the torn-out colour pictures for a big eraser in class the following year. Maybe I'll come across another copy and I'll take better care of this time.

After all, as the series has it, there's nothing wrong with a new hope.             

How I buy books

I'm having a bit of a clearout at home. Stuff has got to go. And "stuff" includes books. And that means making some hard decisions. Now, I've probably got an active hoarder gene. I'm not in TV documentary league; I haven't gone full Trebus or anything like that, but things tend to accumulate around me. Most of this is good; stuff brings with it comforts, after all. But too much is too much, and when the shelves buckle and when the window ledges that you've co-opted into bookcase usage fill up and with that block out the light, then it's time to get some volumes shifted.

So why am I still buying books? If you're bailing out your lifeboat you don't pour water into the vessel, do ya?

Take this weekend for instance. I was away for a couple of days and, as usual, I took a book (just the one) with me for writing/research use as well as my Kindle onto which I'd loaded a couple more novels in the series of New York detective books that I'm reading at present (the Matt Scudder books by Lawrence Block, just so you know).

However, I knew that I was going to buy another paperback while I was away. The new David Mark - Taking Pity - which was fresh out in paperback last week. Mind you, I couldn't track a copy down. Three Manchester branches of WH Smith, no joy.  

Not to worry, though. I was going from Manchester to Nottingham. Nottingham wouldn't let me down. And indeed it didn't. First port of call - the city's multi-floored Waterstones - gave up the goods. And that should have been it. You've got your book. Get out of here.

Oh, no. That would be too easy. I'm in the crime section on the ground floor, anyway, so I get to browsing. I walk over to the B section and find a Lawrence Block novel in the lovely Hard Case Crime imprint that specialises in noir-ish fiction with beautifully pulpy covers. That one falls straight into my hand.

But I'm not done. Upstairs I go.  Nottingham Waterstones is one of those stores that seduces you upstairs with the promise of escalators and the smell of coffee, then lets you shuffle, spent, back down via the stairs.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. A pocket paperback copy. A book that Block's series anti-hero Scudder turns to from time to time. I haven't got one at home; I'm sure of it. That joins the purchases.  

Get out of here before you do yourself more harm. I make it to and through the tills. Back out into the low autumn sun. It's Saturday, late afternoon. I start heading back. Then I remember. That other bookshop, the independent one round the corner. A shop I've never been in before.

I'm there in five minutes, and back out within fifteen. The shop - Five Leaves Bookshop - is eclectic, left-leaning, artfully shambolic. Apparently it's only been there a couple of years, but feels like its roots go deep. I buy another couple of books - a slim volume of John Ruskin, an interesting-looking kinda psychogeographic book that I know nothing about - but they're almost token purchases; buys made as nods of affiliation. I could have spent a lot more time (and money) in there. Except I'm not supposed to be buying more books, am I? I'm having a clear-out, remember?       

A brief chat with the friendly proprietor; I'm given a heads-up on the local arty cinema and the events listings / arts newspaper. I'm already wondering if they do mail-order.

Eventually, I'm home after the weekend, my bag somewhat heavier than it had been when I set out, and my weeding-out-the-books task made that little bit more complicated. Of course, there's a note waiting for me; one of the red-and-white postcards from Royal Mail telling me that there's a parcel for me for pickup. I know what it is. Inevitably, another book.