How To Be Champion – Sarah Millican

Before I moved to Yorkshire (and after my early years in darkest Essex) I lived for a dozen or so years in the North-East of England. I lived in a small pit village just outside Durham and worked in both Durham itself and Newcastle. They were very happy years and I still have many friends living around the area. I don’t get to visit very often so I miss them, I miss the charm of Durham, the bustle of Newcastle and the glorious countryside of the whole region. I’d say I miss the accents (Geordie, Mackem and Wearside, among others) but I’ve been hearing them a lot on tv recently – I got quite nostalgic watching Neighbourhood Blues from Sunderland the other week. And, of course, some of my favourite comedians from the North-East are on heavy rotation on both the BBC and Dave. I’ll never pine for the sounds of Tyne and Wear while I’m sure of finding either Ross Noble, Chris Ramsey or Vic and Bob as I channel surf. My favourite though is Sarah Millican: although I can’t tell if this is mostly for her potty-mouthed humour or because of how much she looks like my sister.

34514547How to be Champion is Millican’s first book and is described as ‘part autobiography, part self-help, part confession, part celebration of being a common-or-garden woman, part collection of synonyms for nunny‘. For me this perfectly sums up what I love so much about this woman – she is refreshingly normal (complete with anxiety, weight issues and love-life traumas), a warm and nurturing human-being (she wants to help other women with their own anxiety, weight issues etc) and is hugely funny in a way that makes you wince at her honesty (as you also guffaw at her utterly filthy turn of phrase). She isn’t perfect (and the Geordie word ‘champion’ doesn’t mean being the best but rather it means being good enough…), and has never claimed to be, but she is learning to be happy in her own skin – this book is offering help to others in working out how to be happy in theirs.

Jane

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The Diary of a Bookseller – Shaun Bythell

I like to read all sorts of things. In fact, I’d almost go as far as to say I have a bit of a morbid fear of not having anything to read. Never mind worrying about crashes, delays or even *gasp* running out of tea, my worst fear is a long journey without a book. I’ve been known to read, in great detail, the ingredients list on a pack of buffet-car crisps or every word of the inflight magazine and the safety instruction but, of course, I prefer a book. I’m not, as you may be able to tell from this blog, fixated on one type of book – I’ll read lots of fiction genres, history, biographies, science-writing as well as books written for children and young people – but I do have my favourites. I love history (both in fictional and non-fiction forms), to wallow in a good post-apocalypse or books that make me cry a bit: but the one things that will almost guarantee my interest is a book about books themselves. Like most people I enjoy reading about someone I can identify with – I like stories about booksellers. That sorts out my fiction needs but, generally speaking, booksellers aren’t really famous enough to feature in the biography or history sections. Although, of course, most booksellers aren’t Shaun Bythell, who runs The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland’s Book Town. We visited the town (and most of its bookshops) a few years ago on a short holiday in the Galloway area. We stayed at the Galloway Astronomy Centre so that Rob could play with big telescopes at night and during the day he ferried me round various art galleries and bookshops. A blissful few days marred only by the total elusiveness of the local red squirrels. The visit to Wigtown to see the bookshops (and pick up a book or two, obviously) was a highlight – if I’d read this book first we may have had to visit every day instead of just once.

35512560This book is, as it says on the cover, a diary of a year in a secondhand bookseller’s life. On the factual side we are told how much the till took each day and how many online orders the shop received (and was able to supply) – this gives quite an insight into how financial vulnerable small independent retailers are. But the bits that I, and many others by the look of the reviews, really enjoyed was the no-holds-barred account of each day’s interactions with staff, neighbours and customers (both the paying kind and the looky-loos). I’m sure anyone who has ever worked in retail has had ‘moments’ where they have been confused, amused or shocked by the comments and reactions of customers – although I don’t think many could describe these interactions as amusingly as Bythell does.  Not always in the most polite way (especially when talking about some of his staff) but with honesty, wit and a fair amount of dark humour. Think Black Books and you won’t go far wrong. What does shine through though is the love of the job itself – buying in stock, working with authors and helping people to find the books they want (even if they didn’t know what that book was) – and of reading. I’m a little bit jealous of Bythell’s life – the job, the beautiful part of the country he lives in and the community he is a part of –  but his sales figures make me worried that it’s a life that is under threat. The best thing I can think of to do is to plan a return trip to Galloway – taking lots of book-buying cash with me. It’s a tough job, but I think I could manage it…

Jane

 

Queens of the Conquest – Alison Weir

As a small child I was often told that I had eyes bigger than my belly. You know, I’d see a great big slice of cake or an adult-sized portion of fish and chips and would think I could eat it all. Which would end up with a poorly looking Jane and a plate still half full of whatever it was I had been sure I could eat all of? Well, to be honest, I don’t have that problem any more. Not much is bigger than my belly any more! Although I have sort of transferred that over-enthusiastic optimism to books so maybe now my eyes are bigger than my, um, (frantically tries to think of a body part I read with which isn’t my eyes – fails) free time. At the start of the year I set my Goodreads Reading Challenge target and, since I was expecting to blog about twice a week, I decided that I’d set it for two books a week. That’s 126 books in the year. Not a problem when I do include quite a lot of children’s’ titles (picture books are brilliant for keeping your target in sight) but I have had a couple of blips. At the end of August I was way ahead of schedule and had even had a chance to finish a history of the Spanish Flu (although that took a month of slotting a few chapters here and there amongst the fiction) so I settled down to read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for our book group meeting in mid-September. I read in the introduction that Pullman considers it to be one book, in three parts, so listed it on Goodreads as one. By the time I finished it, two weeks later, I realised my mistake. I had lost my lead over my target (even after I changed the listing to show that I had read three books rather than one…) and was concerned that I’d not be able to allow myself to read any of the things I enjoy but which take more time – usually non-fiction like popular science or history. Boo.*

33638252Well, of course, there’s history and there’s history. And for me any history written by Alison Weir is pretty much irresistible. Like me she has an abiding interest in medieval history (although we’ll both dabble in Tudors if pressed…) and wants to think about how women shaped that world. In Queens of the Conquest Weir is looking at the very earliest queens of England – the wives of the Norman kings, William the Conqueror, Henry I and Stephen – and the Empress Maud, daughter of Henry I and rival to her cousin Stephen during a bitter civil war known as the Anarchy. Which took me back to reading my Mum’s Jean Plaidy books as a child and my realisation that the best way to be a Norman queen was to be called Matilda…

The problem with books written about this period is that primary evidence is fairly thin on the ground and that which does exist is not necessarily easy to work with. Charters issued by queens on both their own and their husband’s behalf, a few letters and, in the case of Maud, some fairly scathing comments from the Gesta Stephani (a contemporary history written very much on Stephen’s side of things). The book works with this material well – it can seem a little dry at points but it certainly made me realise that the phenomenon of women being judged on their looks, compliant personalities and ability to bear children is not the invention of modern celebrity magazines. All of the queens in this book seem to be strong women, acting as regent for their husbands and making decisions both political and financial on their behalf. Maud was the queen best known to me – the daughter of a king, wife of a king and mother to a king but, sadly for her, never crowned as queen in her own right.  I was intrigued to read about the possibilities of her relationship with her daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and I’m quite excited to read that this is the first book in a projected series of four books. I have really been enjoying Weir’s fiction about the wives of Henry VIII but reading about the unvarnished facts (or as many as are available to historians) of the wives of earlier kings is a different kind of pleasure. More like a medieval ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ than a 12th Century Hello magazine – both popular generally but the former is far more my cup of tea.

Jane

 

 

*Yes. I know the Goodreads target is just a bit of fun. I can read whatever I like and take as long as I like but, heck, I just enjoy setting a goal and going for it. Whether it’s a two book a week reading schedule or eating every single slice of the pizza I ordered – I should be able to put this on my cv…

Brace yourselves. Never mind Winter, October is coming…

Well, another Christmas peak season is approaching in bookshopland and, once again, we don’t have a date for a new Game of Thrones book. But, before we get too downhearted, let’s have a look at what  we do have coming up in October. This is, traditionally, the month when publishers start to bring out their really key Christmas titles – it looks as if Super Thursday is 5th October this year, although maybe we’ll also have one on 12th and 26th as well – even if this year’s Jamie Oliver is already out. This, I will always maintain, is why we put out our calendars and Christmas cards early – we need to get them in place early before the first tidal wave of lovely, lovely book stock arrives. And Christmas 2017 looks like it has some very exciting titles to tempt us all.

Let’s start with the real biggies. Pullman and Brown. In any other year we’d be delighted to have a new Dan Brown book, and, don’t get me wrong, we’re still quite chuffed. He only produces a book every four years or so (the last, Inferno, came out in 2013) but they always selldanbrown well. It’s easy to look down on authors like Dan Brown but, by golly, I think most of us would be happy to live off his book royalties. The announcement, however, that Pullman was to write an entirely new trilogy of books set in the same world as his acclaimed His Dark Materials made our day back in 9780385604413February and we’ve been giddy kippers about it ever since. Personally, I’ve spent most of the last 20 years selling books for children which have been marketed as ‘the next Pullman’. Some of them have been excellent but, it seems, that to really get the ‘next Pullman’ we had to wait for the man himself to write it. La Belle Sauvage is one I’ll be making time for in October (having just reread Northern Lights and, I suddenly realised, reading Subtle Knife and Amber Spyglass for the first time).

Of course there is more to October than just these two authors. As a store we are also excited about a new collection of poetry by Rupi Kaur, the chance to Ask an Astronaut with Tim Peake and the illustrated edition of Prisoner of Azkaban. There are some old favourites, authors, titles and series that come back year after year, so expect to be able to put John Grisham, Bernard Cornwell, Liz Pichon, Matt Haig, Tom Fletcher and Nigel Slater on your list for Santa. For stocking-filling I’ll be heading for the next wave of adult Ladybird books (because we all have brothers or sisters or know a wannabe Rock Star or, say it proud, a Nerd) or for all the gorgeous gift lines we have arriving every day. Although, to be fair, it is a relief to know we have something for just about everyone under one roof – if this Christmas is as good as it’s looking at the moment I won’t have the time or the energy to go shopping anywhere else!

Jane

P.S. If none of that lot appeals to you my own personal reading list for October includes new books by Joanne Harris, Hugh Howey, Alisons Weir and Littlewood and Sarah Millican. Watch out for reviews – lets hope I can find the time for all that!

The Fourteenth Letter – Claire Evans

It seems that, for some people, a good education is nothing without a thorough grounding in the classics. By which they mean Latin and Greek. Now, I consider myself to have a decent amount of schooling (and I have a hard time convincing any of my friends to play Trivial Pursuit with me…) but I am distinctly lacking in these areas. I know a little bit of botanical latin (in an effort not to be planting things in totally the wrong spot) and have been told that my surname is very similar sounding to a modern greek word meaning, well, poo-poo but that’s about it. Which means I started reading Claire Evans’ book assuming that there would be a reference, at some point, to the letter N. Silly me. Apparently it is all to do with Plato (and nothing to do with the Monty Python Philosopher’s Song either…).

9780751566406The Fourteenth Letter is a novel set in 1881. It starts gently, with a young girl being stabbed to death at her engagement party by a naked madman, moves on to an asthmatic young lawyer’s frantic efforts to keep one step ahead of murderous thugs in the pay of a beautiful red-headed aristocrat (helped by an aging policeman and an American girl who is like a cross between Annie Oakley, Lisbeth Salander and a version of Michelle Obama who found herself on the wrong side of the law) and ends up with a fiendish plot to take over the world. If this sounds too frantic then don’t worry – there is also plenty of character development, enough hints about back story to make those characters realistic and a happy(ish) ending. On a more serious side the book also takes a number of historical facts – the rise of eugenics, the criminal gangs in parts of London, the early days of the Met’s C.I.D, scientific advances and attitudes to women – and weaves them into a plausible and, as I said, fiendish plot. This is a confident debut novel – if you enjoy really well-written historical crime fiction you could do worse than give this book a try.

Jane

Things Can Only Get Worse – John O’Farrell

I tend not to discuss my political beliefs (such as they are). If you were to ask me, outside the polling station, how I’d voted I’d probably say ‘in a secret ballot’. Aside from anything else I reckon it frustrates the trolls. Although I suppose anyone looking at my Facebook feed, the kind of posts I like and the comments I make would be fairly sure that I am unlikely to vote for Messrs Farage, Gove or Trump (were I entitled to). I’m not suggesting my way is better – I love the fact that so many of my friends are so politically engaged, particularly the younger ones – but it is the one I feel comfortable with. Of course, some people’s entire raison d’être is political and they still manage to be funny in almost everything they do – those are some serious skills, in my opinion…

OFarrellJohn O’Farrell is one of those who are funny and also serious about their politics. Reading him means that you can laugh along with political figures (rather than just at them, which is the more usual but meaner way) but also get insights into how government actually works. This book is a follow on to an earlier book in which O’Farrell pondered on the fact that his first 20 years as a Labour supporter seemed to coincide with their two decades outside the corridors of power. He never actually claimed that the Thatcher years were all his fault but, well, surely it could be more than just a coincidence? In this book he discovers that being in opposition is often easier than being the people in charge and not just for politicians. As well as national and local politics we also get the story of O’Farrell’s involvement with local schools as he campaigns for a much-needed new secondary school and then finds himself a key member of the board of governors. The book covers Labour’s years in power, the Gulf War, Blair’s fall from popularity, Brown’s brief time as PM and then the resurgence of the Tories in 2010. And then, of course, the series of elections which have enlivened our lives in the past few years. Or at least given satirists plenty of material.

Reading this book I was impressed by O’Farrell’s commitment to his political party and to his community (partly in a self-interested way – his kids needed a school to go to which didn’t involve crossing half of London) and his ability to make me laugh. The biggest lesson I’m going to take away though is, probably, the one that he learned himself: the difference between his teen/twenties and his more mature years is his acceptance of the need for compromise. Compromise, in politics as in life in general, is not a sign of weakness but of maturity. It may be the best way forward for us all.

Jane

Smile – Roddy Doyle

Like most people my first introduction to Roddy Doyle was via watching the film of The Commitments. I loved the characters, the songs and, above all, the accents. The quote about being black and proud is a classic and I’m never going to forget the fully accented chorus to Mustang Sally in the early stages of the film (Roide, Sally, Roide….). It is quite easy, however, to forget the gritty social commentary which goes with the music and the humour. Like the Blues Brothers you remember the jokes and the classic blues tracks and have to be reminded of the tumbledown housing estates and the orphans. But this seems to be Doyle’s speciality:  making a painful and miserable situation darkly funny.

SmileSmile tells us the story of Victor Fforde, recently split up from his glamorous (and well-known) partner, as he adjusts to single life by contemplating his childhood, career and relationships over a pint or two in his new local. His new local is, in many ways, an old local as he has moved back to the poorer side of Dublin. He is aided and abetted in this by Eddie Fitzpatrick, an old classmate from his days being taught by the Christian Brothers: he can’t quite place Fitzpatrick in his memories and is, frankly, repulsed by the man but he can’t seem to avoid him. The book itself is short, a mere couple of hundred pages, but it packs quite a punch in terms of its description of brutal religious schooldays, passionate relationships and, in passing, attitudes to reproductive rights in Ireland. The ending is unusual for the author – a bit odder than you might expect – but the story itself is pure Doyle.

Jane