A Quick Pre-Pullman Catch-Up

I got a little bit behind on my reading and blogging recently – I decided to take a couple of weeks out to read the whole of the His Dark Materials before the publication of the new book today – so here’s a quick catch up on some of my recent reading. Not themed because, as you may have noticed, I’ll read just about anything that catches my eye…

Malala’s Magic Pencil – Malala Yousafzai

31932921Malala Yousafzai continues to be an inspirational young lady.  The determination which led to her being targeted by Taliban enforcers has sustained her through writing her life story, continued activism for the education of girls and her own education. I can’t be the only one who felt oddly proud to see that she has just taken her place at Oxford – she has become a sort of symbol for what girls and young women can achieve. Although her autobiography was issued in an edition for younger readers in 2014 she has not previously written directly to the very young. This book changes that – it is, through the simply told story of a girl who decides that, if she had a magic pencil, she would draw a world where life was fairer. Malala’s story is one that children understand – life really should be fair – but the reality of her experiences are the sort of thing that we would hope to shelter primary-aged children from. This book allows her to encourage youngsters towards the sort of activism they can appreciate – kindness and fairness to all and not keeping silent about inequalities. Nobody is too young, or too old, for that.

Everything You Do Is Wrong – Amanda Coe

9780349005058Set in a North Yorkshire coastal town where nothing ever seems to happen this is the story of Melody, a teenage girl who really wishes that something would happen to her. Her mother is absent – sometimes away, sometimes just too ill to get out of her bed – and her step-dad always seems to be working. Home-schooled (or rather mostly left to her own devices) she is working towards her GCSEs and what she really wants to happen is that her maths tutor will fall in love with her before her final exam. We also have Melody’s aunt Mel, trying to be in charge of everyone and everything, who finds a mysterious girl washed up on the local beach in the middle of a storm.

This book looks like it is the story of Storm, the name given to the mystery girl, who doesn’t speak or communicate in any way – she is certainly the focus of most of the town – but really it is about Melody.  She is adrift – her short experience of mainstream schooling mainly involved being bullied – and has very little contact with other young people (apart from her cousins).  Melody lives in a bit of a fantasy world – one where her tutor will fall in love with her and take her away from her boring, yet messy, life – but by the end of the book she is starting to grow a little. The story involving Storm ended a bit disappointingly (just a hint of the Bobby Ewings, if you know what I mean) but, once I reminded myself that, for me, this was just an also-ran of a plot that seemed to matter a lot less.

Pocketful of Crows – Joanne Harris

9781473222182Finally on this round-up is the latest from Yorkshire author, Joanne Harris. (Interestingly, well, to me anyway, she is another in my list of authors who add an initial M to their name to differentiate between the two genres she writes in)  This is one of her many books based on myths and folklore and a perfect short read for the dark nights around Hallowe’en. The main character is one of the ‘travelling folk’ (who we would probably refer to as witches, faeries or the like), a girl who lives wild in the woods. She is nameless and free, experiencing life through the eyes and bodies of various animals, until she steals a love token and then falls for its intended target. This is a book about a rather female folklore – maidens, mothers and crones – and our nameless heroine is bought low by the young man she falls for (especially when he gives her a name – naming confers power over the named). But revenge at hand and the wheels of both the seasons and life turns full circle. This book feels like a new version of every classic folk tale – as old as Old Age but fresh as springtime.

Jane

 

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The Crow Garden – Alison Littlewood

I do love a bit of period drama. On tv, or film, I enjoy almost anything with a good costume department (although I do prefer it if they get the costumes mostly right – I don’t know how old I was when I first saw the 1940 version of Pride & Prejudice but I just knew the costumes were far too Victorian for a proper Jane Austen adaptation…) and in book terms I’m happy with fiction set in almost any period ( yes, starting with the ice age novels of Jean Auel and working through most of history since – I’m particularly fond of a Regency romance). Some historical settings work well with particular genres (Regency romance, as I already mentioned, or Medieval murder mystery – they don’t have to be alliterative but that’s all that springs to mind…) but nothing seems to suit stories of spookiness and the macabre like the Victorian era. And nobody seems to do the spooky and macabre like Alison Littlewood…

crow gardenNewly qualified Nathaniel Kerner leaves his widowed mother behind in London to work in windswept Yorkshire. His father’s suicide seems to have made it hard for him to find work but the director of Crakethorne Asylum is willing to take a chance on him. All seems positive until he meets Vita, Mrs Victoria Harleston, a beautiful young woman whose husband wants her cured. Her insanity appears to Kerner to be that she doesn’t wish to perform her ‘wifely duties’ and he plans to cure her with new-fangled talking therapies. Against a backdrop of superstition and dubious mental health care (all, sadly, ones used up until scarily recently…) he falls in love with his patient and, it seems, under her spell. They find themselves back in London, living with Kerner’s mother, and caught up in the world of psychics,  mesmerists and other fraudsters. Or, in the case of Vita Harleston, could these mysterious powers be true?

This is a superbly researched historical novel which brings to life the Victorian era but also a wonderfully creepy tale of the uncanny. A perfect read for Halloween – unless you live on a moor. In Yorkshire. Surrounded by crows…

Jane

 

 

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

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