What Would Mary Berry Do? – Claire Sandy

9781447253495One of the great joys of working in a bookshop is that you are exposed to all kinds of books – you see your old favourites every day, get sneaky peaks at new authors’ work and, as you shelve, you see a lot of titles that you mentally categorise as ‘not my sort of thing’…..But moving out of your comfort zone can be a good thing. If I hadn’t tried new genres I would never have read David Barnett’s Gideon Smith novels, the fabulous Birdbox or How to be a Productivity Ninja. There are one or two experiments which were less successful (I shall name no names) but on the whole I have really enjoyed discovering new things.

Stories which veer towards the ‘chick-lit’ have usually been low on my list of priorities. When I was in my teens and twenties they didn’t really exist (although I did have a rather bad Mills & Boon habit at one point) and later I told myself that I didn’t have much in common with the typical chick-lit heroine. Claire Sandy’s What Would Mary Berry Do?, however, did catch my eye – as ever, I am easily tempted by even the thought of cake – and I am glad I gave it a chance. The heroine is a slightly older woman, happily married and comfortable with her own and her family’s imperfections; the plot is pretty straightforward but not entirely predictable or overly kooky and there is an enjoyable cast of supporting characters.

The plot follows a year in which Marie Dunwoody, a dentist with three kids and a husband who are simultaneously the best and most frustrating family imaginable, learns to bake. And along the way she finds friendship, never quite discovers how devious nine-year old twins can be and develops a working theory of personality types based on which tv chef various people have most in common with. Personally I’d like to be a Nigella but think I’m probably a bit of a Delia….I found all the characters interesting and engaging (but certainly not perfect) and the ending very satisfying. If this book were a cake it would be one of those wonderful ones which are full of fresh flavours but not so full of sugar that they set your teeth on edge (maybe our Café W Blueberry Crumble traybake fits the bill). And it has no calories at all


Cat Sense – John Bradshaw

Cat SenseLet’s get one thing clear from the start. I have a cat, Rosie. Before that I shared my home with Moth (for 18 years ) and before that the rather marvellously named Rodney (and the less imaginatively named Lucky). As a child we always had a dog but, left to my own devices, I opted for the less labour-intensive pet. I began by wanting to avoid having to go for long walks in all weathers and ended up a confirmed cat person.* (Bex has two cats, Lily and Dora, and would have more if her other half would let her – ’nuff said….)

Obviously my ‘cat person’ tendencies led me to want to read John Bradshaw’s Cat Sense – the idea that someone (and, more importantly to me, someone who has made a proper scientific study of cat behaviour for decades) could help me to understand the animals who have been living in my house for the last 25 years was appealing. I wanted all those litter-tray emptyings to have meant something! I guess what I really wanted to know was were my cats as fond of me as I was of them. Or was I just the hand that fed them….

Cats are now the most popular pet in the world – apparently outnumbering dogs by three to one – so we should have a better understanding of what makes them tick but, on reading this book, I find we have barely scratched the surface of their psychology. It seems our main error, forgivable maybe in regards to an animal with such a rounded, big-eyed, babylike face, is to treat cats as if they were small people. I don’t mean by talking to them (it’s normal to have a conversation with your cat when everyone else is out, right?) but by assuming that they have similar emotional responses to us – that they also enjoy the companionship of others for example. Bradshaw shows us, by taking us through the evolution of the domestic cat and the history of its relationship with man, that our feline companions are not yet fully domesticated – even more than dogs they are only a generation away from becoming feral – but are smart enough to live alongside mankind.

This book will not necessarily reveal every little foible which your individual cat may have but it does make sense of so many things. I personally have learned, the hard way, what a cat will do if it feels the stress of having its space invaded by a large crowd of people (including kids and dogs). If you want to avoid this kind of mess (and the rather smelly cleaning up afterwards) and to have a happier life with your cat then I can heartily recommend this book. In fact even if you don’t like cats it is worth reading – it is a fascinating and plainly written account of how two species have learned to live alongside one another.






*I do still love dogs though and enjoy walking. It is still the ‘in all weathers’ that puts me off…

Gideon Smith & The Brass Dragon – David Barnett

image2You may remember my review of Gideon Smith’s first adventure and maybe even recall that I finished it by looking forward hopefully to future books – well, here is the next one at last.  And it is as rollicking a ride as the first (thank goodness)!

As the first book closed we saw Gideon launched as the new hero of the Empire, Mr Aloysius Bent allergic to his favourite swearwords, Rowena Fanshawe (Belle of the Airways) in possession of the Yellow Rose (renamed the Skylady III) and Maria the titular Mechanical Girl stolen away by the dastardly Louis Cockayne (along with the newly titular Brass Dragon). Phew….How do you follow on from that? Well, David Barnett decided that the very next scene would be of Charles Darwin, with his trousers round his ankles, being attacked by a Pteranodon.  Like you do…

The previous book was jam-packed with characters, both real and the author’s own creation, and adventure and this one continues at the same pace. We swiftly move to the other side of the Atlantic where the story takes on the feel of a steampunk spaghetti western with a side-order of Fu Manchu – as before there are a lot of familiar elements but they are once again blended with both the weird and the wonderful. As far as the Western angle goes I get the feeling that David Barnett has been watching an awful lot of Deadwood, interspersed with Robocop and a touch of Back to the Future III.

I’m not going to give away too much of the plot (there is so much it would take ages!) but it suffices to say that it all ended up making perfect sense. A warped kind of sense, but sense all the same. And obviously we end up with hints of Godzilla vs. Falco the Luck Dragon because, well, what else could you do?


Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal – Jeanette Winterson

Why be Happy When You Could be Normal?When the tv adaptation of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was screened in 1990 it was compulsive viewing.  The story of a girl raised by strict Pentecostalists in a Lancashire town who struggles with her adoptive parents reaction to her sexuality had me gripped each week. It was both bleak and beautiful – it seemed, somehow, important.

I’m not sure if I realised at the time that Oranges was semi-autobiographical – I think I was too busy being thrilled by the wonderful Charlotte Coleman – but I know the heroine Jess’s life was vastly different from my own.  Oddly, when I started reading this book, Jeanette Winterson’s first volume of autobiography, one of the first things that struck me was a similarity between us – a love of books and stories. I wasn’t reading as a means of escaping a woman who makes all the wicked step-mothers of fairy tales seem like pussycats – I just liked the freedom of losing myself in a book – but I felt I could understand her joys even if her troubles were totally alien to me.

This book is a brutally honest but almost poetic account of a life. It has all the ingredients of a misery memoir – an overly strict and apparently uncaring mother, isolation from other children and nights spent in the coal bunker* – but they are stirred into a totally different dish. Mrs Winterson is a huge character both literally and figuratively but I think I see in her part of the source of her daughter’s career as a teller of stories. In fact she says ‘My Mother was in charge of language’ and, even if much of her language was from a rather hide-bound view of religion, there is a certain amount of vigour in all her pronouncements. I also finished this book feeling that, at the bottom of it all, Jeanette Winterson and her adopted mother did love each other. I guess the difficult relationship was part of making her the author she became – I wonder if she feels it was worth it in the end?




*I did spend some time in the coal bunker as a child – but we considered it a huge treat to be allowed to crawl in and get the coal from the very back when we were low on fuel between deliveries. We loved getting quite that filthy!

Ramble On – Sinclair McKay

Ramble On

I’m a rambler, I’m a rambler, from Manchester way.
I get all my pleasures the hard moorland way.
I may be a wage-slave on Mondays, but I am a free man on Sundays
. – Ewan McColl

I was brought up as a walker. My parents were not churchgoers on Sunday and so my childhood memories are of being placed on the trig-point of Penyghent aged around nine, by my dad, of summitting Ingleborough for the first time the following year – of reaching the top of Kinder Scout and gazing across at the wild moorland. It’s never left me. Hiking was and is my worship.

Ramble On is part history of the rambling movement, from its early beginnings in the romantic era, through the anti-establishment mass trespasses that formed the stamp of the Rambler’s Association and the gradual opening up of what was private land to everyone with boots and a love of nature. It’s also part travelogue, with Sinclair McKay as an engaging and warm-hearted guide as he ranges over the classic routes like the Ridgeway, the Lake District, Bronte Country and many many others, telling us the tales as he goes.

When it comes to the great clash of private land ownership and ‘No Trespassing’ signs with the dreams of the Victorian and Edwardian walking groups, it’s clear where McKay’s sympathies lie and the book covers all of these developments in a very accessible way, starting with the time of Jane Austen’s characters strolling over Box Hill.  McKay devotes chapters to the great walking evangelists Tom Stephenson and Alf Wainwright, and overall is a lovely, poetically written and windswept love letter to our open spaces, and to the struggles of the past that means we can all now enjoy them. This is a super book for anyone who loves walking and rambling, to read round our peculiar hobby from an author who truly understands how much it means to us.

Ramble On – The Story of our love for Walking Britain, Fourth Estate 292pp.

Turning Forty – Mike Gayle

Turning Forty

You probably didn’t expect me to be reviewing a chick-lit (or more properly, lad-lit) book, but there you have it. Mike Gayle is my guilty pleasure. Mike writes a class of books that are generally relationship-based, from the man’s point of view. His first book, My Legendary Girlfriend, was a hit with me as I knew someone in almost exactly the same torch-carrying situation (no, it wasn’t me).

Turning Forty is the sequel to Gayle’s 2000 novel Turning Thirty, and features Matt Beckford, a Birmingham-born chap who starts the book as a high-flier in the IT world, married and generally doing well in life. Of course, the book starts when this all goes wrong and Matt’s life undergoes a whirly revolution involving briefly moving back with his parents, hooking back up with old flames, hooking up with new flames, meeting and falling out with old mates, charity shops and beers with his schoolday pop idol.

Mike Gayle books are the literary equivalent of bubblegum pop crossed with Chinese take out – you can read it in a day, they slip very easily into the brain and you feel like another one straight after. But you know what? They’re great fun and you can’t help liking Matt Beckford, even though he is clearly nothing like me, falls head-over heels at the drop of a hat, has a self-centred streak and seems to act entirely on impulse without thinking anything through for five minutes first. These are the kind of things that happen to Matt Beckford :

I go to a party! A gorgeous girl talks to me! Whoo – I’m in love! We move in together on a whim – why not! Let’s give up our jobs and travel the world! We fall out – I hate her! Never speaking to her again! I go for a beer to drown my sorrows. At the pub I meet a gorgeous girl! Whoo – I’m in love! We move… (cont. p94)

Maybe I’m just unlucky and a bit jealous that none of these things ever seemed to happen to Rob Glover. In the meantime, this is a really fun summer read and I look forward to the day Mike Gayle decides to write Turning Fifty.


Moranthology – Caitlin Moran

I’ll say it now – I am prone to the odd girl-crush. In my eyes Victoria Coren-Mitchell and Claudia Winkleman can do no wrong and I am now adding Caitlin Moran to my list. (This is all fine with my other half, by the way. He is a big Brian Cox fan-boy…).

9780091940898I read How to be a Woman some time ago, on the recommendation of a number of colleagues, and loved its combination of humour, outrage and, let’s be honest, very bad language. I have reviewed her children’s novel – based on her own early life – elsewhere on this blog and I am still looking forward to her forthcoming adult novel (now tantalisingly close) so I am not quite sure why it has taken me so long to get around to reading this collection of her newspaper columns. I’m just going to a) blame it on having so many other things to read and b) admit that I was saving it for a week off when I could read it without too many distractions…

I think the first thing to say is that pretty much all of human life is in here. Again there is the funny (particularly the late night conversations with her husband, who I feel I should be renaming the ‘almost saintly’ Pete Paphides), the political (poverty, protest movements and Prime Ministers who look like ham are all covered) and the downright odd (I’m never going to be able to look a squirrel in the eye again).  Also there is an awful lot about some of my favourite things on tv (Sherlock, Doctor Who, how amazing Benedict Cumberbatch is – all the important stuff) and just the best ever interview with Keith Richards.  There is, once again, rather a lot of swearing but I, personally, have no problem with that.

Caitlin Moran may not have all the answers to the problems of modern life but I think she is getting there. The powers that be may not agree with her solutions but I reckon she is often right. She is also funny, honest and sharper than a drawer full of knives – if we were friends in real life (rather than just in my head) I’m sure we would spend many a happy evening drooling tipsily over the delectable Mr Cumberbatch.