Post-Post-Truth?

Do we live in a "post-truth" society? One where facts and knowledge aren't valued, where "experts" are dismissed for being killjoys? I hope not, but there has been a marked increase in this anti-intellectual, anti-fact rhetoric from certain (highly successful) political circles recently. Alongside this post-truth menace come deceit and lies, which have recently been rebranded as "fake news". Fibbing is certainly not a new phenomenon in politics (anyone remember being economical with the truth?) but, fortunately for us, it is not too difficult for us to defend ourselves against these bringers of falsehoods.

We are completely surrounded by a seemingly infinite influx of information. TV, newspapers and, of course, the internet. The tidbits we get from this deluge of data can be confusing, misleading, inaccurate, or just plain wrong. So how can we know what to believe, who to trust? The truth(!) is that you can never be 100% sure, but a little critical thinking can help you decide how probable a story is. The infographic below has been put together by the International Federation of Library Associations and institutions (IFLA) and features 8 ways to check the reliability of what you are reading.

How_to_Spot_Fake_News

In the run up to this week's general election, CILIP have been running a Facts Matter campaign, and have put together there own infographic on how to find the needles of truth in the haystack of misinformation

this_election_facts_matter_infographic.png

Check Your Facts

A number of organisations, media outlets and charities have responded to this proliferation of fake news by setting up independent, researched and referenced fact checking websites. I've listed a few below. I hope you find them useful, or at least interesting. Comment below if you know of any other good fact checking sources I've missed.

Some useful fact-checking websites:

  • InFact from The Independent newspaper
  • Snopes - an American-based fact checking service that has been around since 1994
  • Full Fact - An independent UK charity dedicated to checking facts
  • Channel 4's FactCheck page.
  • Peer-reviewed fact-checking articles from The Conversation.

And finally...

Did Stewart Lee's cab driver inspire post-truth Britain?

World Book Day 2017

A few days late, but Happy World Book Day! I hope you had fun! This year's events at school were similar to last year's: student picnic and staff readings in the library (Wodehouse, Dahl, Walliams and me); prizes (Bookbuzz design-a-cover competition); and what is fast becoming the highlight of our celebrations, the Book Jacket Potato competition!

Potato - portrait
Potato Poster, created with Canva

Here are this year's spuds:

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What's taters, precious?

Happy reading!

Book Review: Faith Vol 1 - Hollywood and Vine

Faith Herbert, also known as Zephyr (sometimes also known as Summer Smith) is a superhero in the Valiant universe. She's not a new character - she's been around since the early 1990s - but has just (well, about a year ago) gone solo in her own series, written by Jody Hauser and drawn by Francis Portela. Here's the blurb from the first issue of Faith:

When a car accident left her orphaned, Faith Herbert was raised by her loving grandmother and found comfort in comic books, science fiction movies, and other fantastic tales of superheroes. In her teens she would discover her fantasies were reality when it was revealed she was a psiot – a human being born with incredible abilities. Imbued with a telekinetic ability to fly and a companion field that allows her to physically move objects, Faith joined a group of fellow psiots called the Renegades to stand against the forces of evil. She’s since left her Renegade family behind to take on the world’s challenges on her own. She may have a lot to learn about the superhero game, but if there’s one thing she’s always had, it’s... Faith.

So Faith has moved to Los Angeles to start anew. She creates an alter-ego for herself (Summer Smith) and gets a job creating listicles and quizzes for Zipline (the Valiant Universe's version of Buzzfeed). Some evil force is kidnapping potential psiots, and it's up to Faith and her sidekicks (Archer - an archer, and @x - a hacker) to find out who and stop them. That's pretty much it, as far as the plot goes - enjoyable enough, but nothing to stretch the imagination too much.

However, where this title really shines is with Faith herself. She is a great character - a likeable, engaging, capable, optimistic, nerdy badass fangirl (her Summer Smith pseudonym comes from her love for Buffy and Dr Who). And did I mention that Faith is a fat person? Neither does the book. It is really refreshing to see a fat female superhero not apologising or worrying over her weight. There are no rude jokes, no teasing. Faith is fat, but is not defined by this.

Weight and body type are not Faith’s story.

  • Being young and dealing with the unexpected
  • Dealing with loss
  • Finding a guy who seems like the perfect dream, but then isn’t willing to compromise for fame
  • Loving comics and science fiction
  • Wanting to help others and save the people who can be saved, as the hero Zephyr

These are the elements that make-up Faith’s story.

From "Comic Love: Having FAITH" by Jessica Boyd, Feb 2016. comicosity.com

4916086-faith_002_cover-c_portela

There have been several interesting articles in the mainstream media about Faith's fatness, including at  NPRThe Guardian, and The Atlantic. And while I'm dishing out links, here's an interview with Faith author Jody Houser.

I really like Faith, and I look forward to reading more of her adventures - a new series of Faith comics is currently underway (issue 9 will be coming in March).

I got a copy of Faith as an ARC (advanced reader copy). I mentioned ARCs last week too, so I thought it might be useful to talk about what they are and how you can get your hands on some of these pre-published pearls yourself.

ARCs

Publishers send ARCs to reviewers and librarians before a book is released to help publicise them. In times gone by these would be physical books, usually with a not-finalised cover design and bigger spaces between lines of text (for reviewers to write notes). While you can still get hold of physical ARCs (see below), digital is much more prevalent these days. Here are a few places you can go to apply for some eARCs:

  • NetGalley - offers ARCs in exchange for reviews. They have loads of publishers signed up with them. You can browse by category, publisher or recently added, or you can search for specific titles or authors. Not all books are available in all regions (publishers might restrict access to the USA, for example), and you are not guaranteed to get every title to request. But this is usually my first port of call when I'm looking for a book. This is where I got my review copy of Faith.
  • Edelweiss+ - offers ARCs in exchange for reviews. I've only recently come across this website. It seems to be much more than just a place to get ARCs, but I haven't used it for anything else yet so I can't really elaborate on what else does. I recommend signing up and taking the tour to get an idea of what's on offer, but if you're only in it for the ARCs, it's easy enough to dive in.
  • LibraryThing - primarily a site for cataloguing your books, they also offer review copies of books. A lot of the titles on offer appear to be self-published, but it could be worth having a look through to find the diamonds in the rough. They also sometimes offer physical books and audiobooks.

A couple of things to note about eARCs:

  • they are often time sensitive - like library ebooks, they can expire after a specified time.
  • occasionally, the eARCs you get are not complete. For example, the copy of Faith I got from NetGalley only had the first two parts of a four part story. Luckily for me, I was able to find the rest of the book at Comicsplus Library Edition. If your public library subscribes to Comicplus, you too have free access to a whole world of digital comics! They don't have the two biggest comics publishers (Marvel and DC), but there is still some great content. But I digress...

Here are a few places you can go to apply for physical ARCs:

  • SLA - if you are a member of the School Library Association make sure that you are signed up for their e-mail newletter. They always have opportunities for librarians to win copies of new children's and YA books from a range of publishers.
  • ReadingZone - offers review copies in exchange for reviews, usually in December. Go to the "New Titles" section of the website and look for the "Read & Review" link. They've sent me books to review over the winter holidays for the last two years.
  • Goodreads - the social network for readers (now owned by Amazon) has a Giveaways section of it's website. Scroll through and click "Enter Giveaway" on any title that catches your eye. It will tell you which countries the offer is available in, when the giveaway ends, how many copies are available and how many people have entered. I've only ever won one book from this, but that's better than nothing, right?! Also, if you put loads of reviews on your Goodreads profile, you are more likely to be approached by publishers and authors with freebies!
  • Blog - create a book blog and review books! As above, you are more likely to get stuff sent your way if you have a track record of reviewing.
  • Social Media - get on Twitter and follow authors and publishers that you're interested in. Keep your eyes peeled for giveaways and offers.
  • Publishers - ask the publishers directly! The worst that can happen is that they say no.

Let me know in the comments if you know of any other good sources of free books!

 

 

Book Review: The Keeper of Portals - VS Nelson

I've been sent advanced reading copies (ARCs) of books by publishers before, but this is the first time an author has contacted me directly to ask me to review their book! Exciting! So yes, the author sent me an advanced eARC in exchange for an honest review.

I am going to start with a bit of a rant about ebook formats, so if you want to jump straight to the review, click here.

A note on ebooks and PDFs

It has taken me longer than planned to read and review this book, partly because I've had a huge backlog of books to read, but also partly due to the format in which the book was sent. I am not anti-ebooks - they are super convenient and...well, that's the main selling point to be honest (this website lists 20 advantages, most of which can be condensed to "convenient"). I have been reading ebooks on my iPhone for a few years, and recently got my first dedicated eReader (as a leaving present when I left my public library job). They are great - you can read in the dark and can carry thousands of books around with you. You can also change the font and text size to make them easier to read - unless, that is, you're reading a PDF file. PDFs take longer to load than standard ebook files and they are harder to read on small devices (the print was tiny on my eReader and while I could zoom in, this was imperfect, slow and inconsistent). All this is to say that reading this book as a PDF file on my eReader was a frustrating experience - not ideal for getting lost in a story. Reading The Keeper of Portals as a PDF on my eReader probably added at least a couple of weeks to my reading time. Anyway, enough of my whining.

On to the review.

The Review

This is a difficult book to summarise, but I'll give it a go while trying to avoid being a spoilery spoiler who spoils.

Overview

15-year-old Martin and his mother have just moved into a once-grand house, which is now teetering dangerously on the edge of a crumbling cliff. As he's settling in to his new home, Martin meets a bizarre figure who can make doors lead to any other doorways in the world. He introduces himself as The Keeper of Portals ('Portals' for short), one of a series of Keepers tasked with making sure the world works as it should. There is a door in Martin's bedroom that has been there for 400 years - the only door that Portals has never been able to open. Martin wakes one morning to find the door open and Portals missing. With Portals gone, doorways start misbehaving themselves and leading to places they shouldn't. So, naturally, Martin goes through the door in his room in order to find the missing Keeper (it would have been a very short book if he hadn't). The door, it turns out, leads to the same room 400 years in the past, where Martin meets Isabel, the past-house's maid. Portal hopping and time dilating adventures ensue, featuring friendship, betrayal, romance, cliffs, caves, a sports car in post-Tudor London, a rogue Keeper, blue feathers and an army of mind-controlled villagers.

There are two main science-fiction/fantasy elements that drive the plot of The Keeper of Portals: portals and time travel.

Portals

The portals were one of my favourite things in this book - it's such a great device! If you're familiar with the Portal computer games, you'll get the basic premise. In the games, you have a gun that creates two portal holes, and you can jump into one and out the other. It works very similarly in the book1 except that instead of a gun, The Keeper of Portals does it with doorways. You know that feeling when you're reading a book or watching a show and you think "I wish I could do that"? Let's just say I had portal envy.

Time Travel

I'm quite picky about time-travel narratives. My personal preference is for a "closed loop" story, rather than one where the past gets changed by time travellers (Prisoner of Azkaban as opposed to The Cursed Child, for example). I find them really satisfying when they are done well2The Keeper of Portals does a pretty good job with its time travel - it even has a Keeper whose job it is to prevent paradoxes. There were maybe a couple of moments where I felt the explanations for what was happening in the plot were a bit hand-wavy3, but on the whole I really enjoyed the time-travel elements of this book.

The Characters

The stories two main protagonists are Martin and Isabel, both about 15 years old. Isabel, a 17th Century maid, is a fantastic character (although I'm not sure how authentic her 17th Century lingo was) - I really liked how unflappable she was when confronted with both the magic of the Keepers (time travel, portals) and the magic of the 21st Century (laptops, women in trousers). Martin, a 21st Century school boy whose dad had recently died, is... OK. I didn't dislike him, I liked him well enough - but I didn't love him. And considering that we experience the story from his point of view, this is probably the book's biggest flaw for me. To be fair, he is written as a character that makes mistakes, gets pulled up and learns from them - you don't want your characters to be perfect, one-dimensional bores. But I guess that some people you just connect with, others you don't. I was much more interested in Isabel - her situation, world view, character development - and whenever the narrative left her behind, I became impatient to get back to her (I guess this could also be because we are seeing her from Martin's perspective, and he pretty much feels the same way).

The other characters don't really have enough page-time for us to get to know them in any depth, but the population of Keepers - from Minor Keepers like Buttons to Fundamental ones like Time - is a many, varied and colourful cast.

The End

I think I have enjoyed this book more in retrospect than I did while I was reading it. Part of this is to do with my issues with the formatting (see above), and part of it is my ambivalence towards Martin. But overall, this is a fun read which zips along after a bit of a slow start. It has some great ideas, some enjoyable set pieces and a satisfying end with some real poignancy.

Book Review: Rebel of the Sands - Alwyn Hamilton

I have recently started a book club at work for students in years 9 and 10 (13-15). Thanks to a generous donation from Reading Hack, out club's first read was Rebel of the Sands - the first in a planned trilogy by Alwyn Hamilton (book 2 coincidentally came out on the day of our group meeting).

Here's the blurb from the book's official website:

Dustwalk is an unforgiving, dead-end town.
It’s not the place to be poor or orphaned or female.
And yet Amani Al’Hiza must call it ‘home’.

Amani wants to escape and see the world she’s heard about in campfire stories. Then a foreigner with no name turns up, and with him she has the chance to run.

But the desert plains are full of dangerous magic.
The Sultan’s army is on the rise and Amani is soon caught at the heart of a fearless rebellion . . .

An epic story of swirling desert sands, love, magic and revolution.

In Rebel of the Sands, Amani (our poor, orphaned and female teenage protagonist) disguises herself as a boy to enter a shooting contest, hoping to win enough money to allow her to escape her oppressive uncle and aunt, and the whole stagnating desert town she grew up in. Needless to say, things do not go according to plan as Amani finds herself mixed up in events and places far bigger than she imagined - great expanses of desert, armies, Djinni, bandits, wild sand-horses, desert trains, sharp-shooting, political rebellions...

Books are such personal, subjective things - this book's Goodreads page has a stream of alternating 1 and 5 star reviews. I found the book as a whole a little uneven - this Middle-Eastern-mythology-meets-American-Wild-West fantasy story starts with a (almost literal) bang, there is a bit of a lull in the middle, but the pace really picks up again at the end. It was really interesting to see that opinions in our group were markedly split between the Year 9s (none of whom managed to finish the book, none of whom liked it) and the Year 10s (all of whom managed to finish the book, all of whom liked it). I think we all agreed that the book's main strength was its setting - the magic, the frontier towns and desert world - while the plot felt a bit standard YA-fantasy-adventure-romance (not bad, but nothing that you haven't read before, with maybe one or two exceptions). One of the Year 10 students is re-reading it and said that the book was overflowing with foreshadowing that she'd missed the first time which helped it stand up to a second reading.

There are two members of staff in the book group too (myself and an English teacher) who were split along the same lines as the students - the English teacher sided with the Year 9s (didn't finish, didn't like), while I was with the Year 10s (finished, liked). The book had elements that I loved, bits that I eyerolled at, page-turning action and plodding trudgery. I'd be interested to read the other books in the series, but they are not at the top of my to-read list.

Here's the book's official trailer:

Up next, we'll be reading the Amazing Book Awards shortlist!

Oh, and after we'd finished our discussion we voted on what to call our book group. We are Fully Booked (if the 2nd placed name had won, we'd be Cucumbers).

The Booklender and the Teetering TBR Pile of Doom

My last two blog posts have been book reviews. This one was meant to be as well, but I haven't finished reading the book for review yet. The problem I have, and I'm sure I'm not alone in experiencing this issue, is that there are just too many books. I'm currently reading three things at once and have an ever-expanding Teetering TBR1 Pile of Doom.

Books I currently have on the go (see also the Goodreads widget on this page):

Up next, I have

  • one book out from the public library which I need to read and return
  • three graphic novelstwo novels and a short story collection out from my school library,
  • my birthday presents
  • a massive backlog of Net Galley ARCs3 that I requested with the best of intentions
  • a book written by a friend
  • a school library full of bookish temptation (that I get to buy the books for!)
  • a bookshelf at home overflowing with books that I'll get around to "eventually"
  • a storage unit in Melbourne with literally hundreds of books waiting for us to move back to Australia
  • all the books.
  • Did I mention books?

I'm not a hugely fast reader and I'm often too tired to read a lot when I get home after work - although I am making a concerted effort to read a bit every day (practicing what I preach!). And it is obviously a myth that librarians get to sit around all day reading books (organising books, yes). I don't get through nearly as many books as I would like - or feel that I should. This is not helped by the fact that all three of the books I'm reading at the moment are digital copies - I think I read physical books faster. I'm sure one day I will be crushed by a collapsing TBR pile - either literally or metaphorically (hopefully it will be a radioactive TBR pile and I will become imbued with the power of thousands of unread books!). Anyway, I've got some actual proper dealines to finish two of my current reads, so hopefully there will be a review here next week.

In the mean time, this is a blog post about why I didn't write a blog post this week.

Book Review: AniMalcolm - David Baddiel

Malcolm’s family are quite fond of animals - you could say they are obsessed. They have two cats, a dog, a hamster and an iguana. They go to the zoo every week. It’s the primary topic of conversation.

Malcolm, however, is not a big fan (especially since the infamous “Monkey Incident”). So when Malcolm is given a chinchilla as an 11th birthday present (instead of the “fastest and coolest and baddest laptop on the planet” like he wanted) he’s had about enough of his family. So he is relieved to be allowed to go on the three day Year 6 school trip, until he discovers that this year the destination is an organic farm where they get to help look after the animals. Just when he thinks that things can’t get any worse, Malcolm gets hypnotised by a cranky old goat and wakes up to find himself in a very troubling situation indeed.

This was a light, silly, funny, enjoyable book with lively illustrations, likeable characters and imaginative world building - the inter-species communication was particularly fun (do you speak Goat?). The plot was not exactly original or groundbreaking, but it was ridiculous, incorporating elements of A Christmas Carol (Malcolm’s anti-animal agenda challenged by supernatural intervention) and The Sword in The Stone (valuable life lessons learnt while spending time as a variety of animals).

AniMalcolm is sure to appeal to fans of David Walliams, Roald Dahl, Rachel Renee Russell and Jeff Kinney. David Baddiel was a comedy superstar in the early 90s (“that’s your mum, that is” - he and Rob Newman pretty much invented Stadium Comedy in the UK), and with this, his third book for children*, he’ll be cementing his reputation as a comedy legend for a whole new generation.

*Not counting his World Book Day title last year.

Book cover for The Jamie Drake Equation, by Christopher Edge

Book Review: The Jamie Drake Equation

Jamie Drake’s dad is famous. He’s an astronaut, and he’s currently orbiting the earth on the International Space Station, about 400kms above the planet’s surface. Soon he will launch a series of tiny interstellar probes, which will search the galaxy for signs of alien life. What could possibly go wrong?

Back on earth, Jamie misses his dad. Not only is he not around to help Jamie prepare for his algebra test, but he’ll also be missing Jamie’s 11th birthday. While his dad is in space, Jamie, his younger sister and his artist mother are living with his ex-rocker grandfather. To get away from the noise and chaos of his home life, Jamie goes for a walk and finds himself at a seemingly abandoned observatory. That’s when things start to get weird.

Despite having a very contemporary setting (smartphones, laptops and Skype are all key plot elements) I had a strong sense of nostalgia while reading The Jamie Drake Equation. This family drama/sci-fi-from-a-child’s-eye-view story reminded me of classics from my own childhood - especially Chocky by John Wyndham and the film E.T. There is some real science and maths in here, too (Fibonacci sequence, golden ratio, how astronauts go to the toilet) as well as some big sci-fi ideas. It also addresses themes of responsibility, parental fallibility, family cohesion and growing up.

The Jamie Drake Equation could be enjoyed by readers who like tales of science fiction, space travel, aliens, maths, defunct heavy metal bands called Death Panda, science and family drama, probably in the 9-12 age range.

The Jamie Drake Equation will be published in March 2017. An uncorrected proof copy of the book was given to me by the publisher for review purposes. 

To school librarians, public libraries, librarian knights, custodians of our culture, you taught me well. I'll never forget you.

Chris Riddell and the Campaign for School Libraries

Libraries are having a hard time of it at the moment. The plight of public libraries is well documented, and it breaks my heart. As much as they may want to, however, the government cannot just close public libraries willy nilly. Thanks to the Public Libraries and Museums act of 1964, Public Libraries are protected by law (for all the good it’s doing them):

It shall be the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof.

School libraries are also under threat, but they have no such protection in law. It is down to individual schools how well their libraries are funded, staffed or stocked - or even whether they have a library at all. The Guardian (14th November 2016) reported that SLA director Tricia Adams

estimates that over the last decade it has lost around 1,000 members, as “more and more schools are taking the economic route and saying they haven’t got the money and they’ve got to get rid of their librarian”.

Furthermore, school libraries are not currently required to be included in Ofsted inspections. School librarian and former CILIP president Barbara Band bemoaned this lack of statutory protection and regulation, especially given the importance that Ofsted and the govenment places on literacy.

This inconsistent library provision has led to a situation that current Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell called a “disadvantageous school library lottery" in an open letter he wrote to secretary of state for education Justine Greening (see below).

Dear Justine Greening, I am writing to you as the UK Children’s Laureate and passionate advocate of the role that school libraries and school librarians play in the lives of our children. I have seen personally, in my school visits up and down the country, how they promote reading for pleasure and in doing so, turn pupils into avid readers. I am deeply concerned that this role is not fully appreciated and, worse, is being undermined through lack of economic and intellectual investment. In recent months two major school library services closed in Dorset and Berkshire and year after year the School Library Association loses members as school library provision shrinks through lack of funding. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Libraries has asked your Department to gather statistics on school library provision so that the extent of this problem can be understood - so far, without success. I am asking you to act on their request and then, with the support of OFSTED, to set out clear standards for library provision that will end this disadvantageous school library lottery that limits many children’s life chances. I am asking you to ring-fence funds for this from the education Budget so that every school has a library service it can be proud of: books to borrow and wherever possible a school librarian to help children choose. By taking the lead in England I hope the devolved education authorities throughout the rest of the UK will follow suit. By promoting reading for pleasure, introducing our children to life-changing books and turning them into life-long readers, school libraries are a vital resource that must be nurtured. My fellow Laureates have championed libraries in many different ways and they have generously lent me their support. When every parent knows the name of their child’s favourite book, author and, yes, school librarian and can share and read together with their child the books they bring home, we know literacy standards will soar and we’ll all be richer. Yours sincerely, Chris Riddell
Children's Laureate Chris Riddell's open letter to Justine Greening. There is a transcript available at the fantastic Books For Keeps

Chris has been using his laureateship (2015-2017) to campaign for school libraries, and he has been supported by all eight former Children’s Laureates (see last page of the open letter above). He has been talking to newspapers, radio and TV stations, politicians and anyone who will listen about this situation.

. . . as I visit schools across the UK I find that library provision is wildly inconsistent. While there are great examples of well-funded and staffed libraries, it is obvious many schools are unable to provide what their pupils need: books they can read for pleasure, and ideally a librarian to help them grow as readers.

Chris Riddell, quoted in The Guardian, 14th November, 2016

I am very lucky in my current position. I’m a librarian in school that seems to value its library. There is a semi-decent budget for buying books, there’s a qualified librarian, I have the support of staff at all levels and across departments, and I have a beautiful library, designed by the people behind Brighton's Jubilee Library.

I am also lucky that Chris Riddell is a local. His children attended my school and he is aware of the emphasis the school puts on its library (in fact, he and Paul Stewart opened our library in 2008). Which may be why he brought the BBC around for a visit last month, just before the Christmas break. They interviewed Chris, me and a few students in our library, and you can view the piece here:

BBC South East Today, December 2016

I did also talk (exceptionally eloquently and incisively, of course) about the multi-faceted aspects of being a school librarian, but time constraints and TV editing left most of that on the cutting room’s digital floor.

Chris has been touring schools across the UK to highlight these issues, but it remains to be seen whether anything will change. The government has yet to act on the recommendations of a 2014 report from CILIP and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Libraries, which is why Chris’ campaign is so important.

Contrary to the shushing stereotype, it is vital that we keep making noise about school libraries.

Further reading:

Skull on a book

Halloween Special: The Unread

The days are getting colder, the nights are getting longer, the leaves are turning and the shops are full of pumpkins. Which can only mean that Halloween is here!

To celebrate, here's a short, creepy library-set story I wrote a couple of years ago while taking part in the FutureLearn/Open University MOOC, Start Writing Fiction. The idea started - as many of the best do - with a bad pun.


The Unread

It was a cold but dry night, which was fortunate. Autumn rain has been known to turn us into hermits on book group evenings. There were no parking spaces nearby, so we walked the twenty minutes to the library, hands deep in pockets, stopping only to kick at piles of freshly raked leaves at the end of driveways - I can never resist - and to stick my tongue out at the disapproving snarls of the watching jack-o'-lanterns.

‘You do realise that Helen will give us the evil eye all evening,’ said Chris. ‘She hates it when people come without reading the books.’

‘Oh, you know her. She's never happy unless she's unhappy. And I think she secretly enjoys making us feel like naughty children!’ I laughed, and sent more leaves into the air. ‘Why do we put up with her?’

‘Come on, Shai, she's not that bad,’ said Chris. ‘And besides, I doubt the rest of us would be organised enough to run it without her,’ which was true.

* * *

‘Last again, darlings!’ It was Eve who opened the door - our excuses could wait a little longer. After the regulation hugs, kisses and how’ve-you-beens, we went into our corner of the library and repeated the process with the rest of the group. Not a bad turn out this evening - twelve or so, including a couple of new faces. When we got to Helen, I took the tiniest of steps backwards while Chris gave our excuses. Helen's mouth became a thin, straight line.

‘This is the third time you've come to a meeting to talk about a book you have not read,’ she said.

‘It's not just a book club, though, is it?’ I said. ‘It's a social thing. You are all our friends. We enjoy spending time with you.’

‘If you want a social evening, organise one yourself, Shai. This is a book group. We are here to talk about books. That we have all read.’ Helen's eyes made the same thin, straight lines as her mouth. Chris gestured apologetically as we retreated to our seats.
I find it disconcerting being in the library after hours. I feel like I'm in an after-image, a shadow of a library. While it's empty, the books on the shelves sometimes feel like they are still being read. It's a difficult sensation to explain, but it's like when you can just tell when someone is looking at you.

‘Has anyone heard from Mike or Kerry recently?’ asked Anita. ‘We haven't seen them for months.’

‘They shan't be coming back,’ Helen said sharply. ‘Now, to begin.’

‘But I haven't heard from either of them for ages,’ Anita continued. ‘Has anyone?’

There was a lot of murmuring and shaking of heads. I tried to think of the last time I'd spoken to Kerry, but I couldn't remember. In fact, trying to conjure her up in my memory felt like trying to remember a minor character in a forgotten book, long since read.

‘What about Michelle?’ asked Nitesh. I'd forgotten all about her. And it had only been . . . How long had it been? I felt like I was grasping at shadows.

‘If we can please begin,’ Helen said, loudly and sternly. The hubbub of the room dropped away sharply. ‘Thank you. So, Saran, what are your initial thoughts on the character of Flora?’

* * *

‘I’m glad I didn't read it,’ Chris said to me after the discussion. ‘It sounded a bit silly.’

‘I'm intrigued, actually,’ I replied. ‘I might read it tonight when we get home.’

‘Shouldn't we get started on next month's book to keep Helen off our . . .’

‘Helen!’ I interrupted, as she approached. ‘What an interesting discussion. I think . . .’

‘Never mind that,’ she said with a cutting primness. ‘I need to speak to you both after you've said your goodbyes to the group.’ She picked up her bag and disappeared into the fiction aisle while we exchanged hugs, kisses and all-the-bests with the others, until the library descended into its traditional silence once more.

‘Helen?’ Chris called. She didn't respond, but we found her on her knees, facing a shelf of books, eyes closed.

‘Is she meditating?’ I whispered to Chris.

‘Helen? You wanted to speak to us?’ Chris said softly. She didn't respond. The silence enveloped us, and I felt claustrophobic. Chris and I exchanged glances. ‘Come on, Shai. Let's go.’

‘You will stay here,’ Helen muttered.

‘OK,’ I said slowly. We waited. Helen was quiet and still once more. ‘Look, Helen, it's getting late. We're sorry we didn't read the book. We won't come along in the future if we haven't . . .’

‘You will stay here,’ Helen repeated. ‘You shall not leave.’

‘No offence Helen, but this is getting a little creepy,’ Chris said. I elbowed Chris and shook my head. I didn't think that was a wise tactical move. Helen began muttering something - no, she was chanting now - and started rocking on her knees. We tried to back away, but our feet were rooted. I looked down and saw our unread books open on the ground in front of us, their pages flapping with increasing violence. Chris grasped my hand. Helen chanted louder and rocked faster. Her hair flew wildly around her face.

* * *

There is nothing to do but read, now. I occasionally sense the others, but their forms are vague, like shadows. I don't know how many others are here. I don't know them like I know Chris, who’s presence brushed past mine recently. I think it was recent, time is hard to gauge. The only marker I have is the monthly book group. Autumn rain doesn't keep me away, but I am a hermit, lost in a book.

* * *

‘Has anyone seen Shai and Chris recently?’ asked Eve.

‘Which ones were they?’ Nitesh furrowed his brows and tried to summon us from the edges of his consciousness.

‘They shan't be coming back,’ Helen said sharply. ‘Now, to begin.’


© Dan Katz 2016

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