1996 (and all that)

1996 is remembered for many things. Pokémon feature in their first role-playing video game, mad cow disease and Dolly the sheep hit the headlines and Charles and Diana divorced. Matthew Pinsent and Steve Redgrave won our only gold at the summer Olympics, England lost to Germany on penalties in the semi-finals of Euro 96 and Cliff Richard entertained the crowds when rain stopped play at Wimbledon. The Spice Girls burst into our lives with Wannabee, Britpop peaked with Wonderwall and huge Oasis gigs at Knebworth and the Macarena started its long career as an almost indestructible earworm.

For me, obviously, books played a big part in the year. I’d like to say I read all the big books – Angela’s Ashes, The Beach and The Green Mile for example – but I think I mostly reread Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. Oh, and I read Terry Pratchett (Feet of Clay and The Hogfather…), Bridget Jones Diary and Philip Pullman’s Subtle Knife as well as some history and science stuff (newly dating Rob and trying to impress….). George R R Martin published the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire (and still hasn’t finished the series twenty years on). Films based on books included The English Patient, Matilda, 101 Dalmatians and Romeo + Juliet (although, let’s be honest, I also saw Independence Day, Mission: Impossible and Muppet Treasure Island because I’m a rounded person who doesn’t spend all my time reading. Its more like 75% I reckon…)

In 1996 I started working for Waterstones, in a beautiful store in Newcastle. emerson_chambers_waterstones There was even a Victorian loo in the staff area and, frankly, I didn’t think I’d ever get to work in a lovelier shop. Little did I know that just over a hundred miles further south something really, really special was happening in the world of bookselling. In October 1996 Waterstones in the Wool Exchange opened its doors and the books have lived in Venetian Gothic splendour ever since!

Waterstones in Bradford may not be the best thing to come out of 1996 (did I mention Muppet Treasure Island?) but I think it could be the best looking bookshop turning twenty this year.

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Jane

How To Find Love in a Bookshop – Veronica Henry

The idea of using books as a therapeutic tool is not new. Bibliotherapy was first heard of in 1916 but I’m sure people have been turning to favourite stories, poems and songs for help in times of emotional stress for much longer than that. Whenever a customer asks me to recommend something I will tend to try to ask what they enjoy in a book (romance, adventure, terror, humour) in an effort to help match up reader and title – which is bibliotherapy of a very basic sort – and, of course, we are all aware of the calming effects of a colouring book. Because of this I have frequently been attracted by novels about booksellers and the way in which they interact with the lives of their customers – Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, The Storied Life of A.J.Fikry and The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend have all been favourites – and I think I always will be. And, of course, I find it quite hard to resist a story set in a world I feel I know so well.

love-in-a-bookshopVeronica Henry’s bookshop is based in the Cotswolds, in an idyllic little town filled with people living perfect lives. Or so it seems on the surface. Emilia returns to run Nightingale Books after the death of her beloved father but struggles financially. She has the option to sell the shop building to a local developer (who is obviously not a good man) but decides to battle on when she realises how much the shop means to the community. Along the way she finds out what her father himself meant to the people he met and what her own role is in the town. She learns a few lessons about how not to run a business and the value of listening to the best ideas of your employees. The love promised in the title is found in many forms – romantic love for people of various ages, parental affection, love for people, for places and for books. The story is just complicated enough without being too taxing and the ending satisfying. I must admit I already feel pretty much loved (by family, friends and Rob – who is contractually obliged) but it is always good to read a book which feels like a warm hug.

Jane

The Book of Hygge – Louisa Thomsen Brits

If you haven’t come across hygge yet then brace yourselves – it looks like being the Next Big Thing™. Frankly I shall be very surprised if the Danish concept of hygge isn’t being used to sell everything from breakfast cereals to loo rolls by Christmas – mindfulness had better watch out! I have to admit I’m not usually all that interested in ‘lifestyle’ titles but the selling points which publishers have used to promote their books on hygge (mostly involving curling up with a good book, a big mug of tea and a cheeky slice of cake) intrigued me. Hygge is one of those untranslatable words – like joie de vivre or schadenfreude – which can only be described in longer explanations. The one-word attempts I’ve seen include ‘cosiness’ (which doesn’t really include the ‘doing nice things for others’ aspect) or ‘conviviality’ (which totally misses the idea that you can hygge on your own) but I am starting to think that a concept this simple might need a much wordier explanation.

hyggeBrits’ Book of Hygge is an attempt to explain the way that Danes feel about hygge, about the philosophy behind it. Other titles on the subject give recipes ( for the essential cake part of the whole experience) but this book focusses on the actions, feelings and even the sociopolitical background to hygge. It does still talk a lot about candles and cake (of whatever variety takes your fancy I guess) but also about how Danes feel about social equality, fairness and family. It is not a strict guide to how to make your life full of hygge but it gives lots of examples of what is and isn’t hyggelig (and also, to my great joy, a sort of a grammar of the word hygge – I’m a simple soul really). One of the main concepts which I will take away from reading this book is that it is worth taking time in each day to just think, to relax and to take care of your own comfort and happiness. I’ve never been much good at the whole mindfulness thing  – focussing on my inner state and almost stepping out of reality seems really hard – so I like the idea that, with hygge, you can take a moment for yourself while being fully aware that, in time, you will need to return to real life. This is a lifestyle which suits actual life. And, of course, involves cake.

I expect to be selling a lot of books on hygge in the run-up to Christmas. And  I’m really, really hoping that 2017 will be the year I get to Denmark to try it all out for myself.

Jane

Crosstalk – Connie Willis

We all have favourite authors: writers whose books we eagerly await and then devour as if we were never going to see another book ever again. Sometimes we are part of a huge group of fans – this is pretty much the reaction of every admirer of George R R Martin or Sylvia Day – sometimes we feel like lone voices in a wilderness. I spent many years sad that I couldn’t recommend one of favourite authors because there were no UK editions of her books in print – but luckily publishers saw the light and Connie Willis (winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula awards among many other honours) is now on my ‘push books into customer’s hands’ list again. Be warned, I will suggest you read Domesday Book and/or To Say Nothing of the Dog if you hang around the sci-fi section…

9781473200937_crosstalk_tpbWillis’ latest book is full of the stuff that makes me love her work so much. Fast-paced, almost slapstick, action with lots of confusion and a dollop of romance. Her books have been compared to the kind of comedic films that used to star Rock Hudson and Doris Day and, considering how much I enjoy those kind of films, I’m inclined to agree. They also have their sad moments and can make you spend time thinking about the ideas they raise. In Crosstalk these ideas are about privacy, connectivity and whether our smartphones are a wholly good thing.

Briddey is a young woman with a great job in a smallish telecoms company, with an attentive boyfriend and a large, interfering Irish-American family. The story opens with her engagement to the eminently eligible Trent and their decision to undergo a procedure which will enable them to bond to the extent that they will ‘feel’ each others emotions. Although Trent seems rather more concerned about beating Apple to new developments in mobile phone technology and her family would rather she settled down with a good Irish lad. Into this throw C.B., a reclusive geek who would rather develop technology to limit our connectivity than increase it, and Briddey’s sudden and unexpected ability to hear what everybody is thinking (and not just Trent) and the way is prepared for the comedy to begin. The darker side is not neglected as we also explore how hearing voices has been seen as a symptom of mental ill-health for centuries.

Sci-fi always seems a hard thing to make funny – as if the future were no laughing matter*. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen (I laughed like a drain at parts of The Martian and Douglas Adams is a genius) but it rarely turns out as well as it does in the hands of Connie Willis.

Jane

*Fantasy on the other hand is full of giggles. See the entire works of Sir Terry for a start…

Mount – Jilly Cooper

If you ask my Mum she will tell what a pony mad child I was in Primary School. I never ran. I galloped. In fact I had a gloriously happy walk the other day with young Sophie where we galloped (with the occasional trot) down to feed the horses in the field at the end of my road so it seems this is something I have not yet grown out of. My reading habits are another place where, sometimes, my development seems to be somewhat arrested. I’m still a fan of children’s books, Alice is still my all-time favourite and I still have a weakness for the kind of books I read in my teens and early twenties. I still enjoy the odd romance novel, will regularly re-read my Georgette Heyer and Dorothy L Sayers and I was stupidly excited to see that an old favourite, Jilly Cooper, had a new book out this week. I started with Jilly reading Octavia, Imogen et al – short novels about girls falling in love with unsuitable men and, eventually, marrying them – and then moved on to what the 80s liked to call ‘bonk-busters’ – Riders, Rivals, Polo and so on…And this new novel is a continuation of the Rutshire Chronicles so I was looking forward to lots of rumpy-pumpy, lovely countryside, dogs and horses and, of course, lashings of Rupert Campbell-Black.

1664Mount is set, like Jump, in the world of horse-racing and breeding (so the horses, as well as the humans, get plenty of romantic action). It has everything you would expect from Jilly Cooper – animals, bed-hopping, intrigue, champagne, wonderful food and oodles of sex – with lots of added glamour from the world of international flat racing. It is all wonderfully unreal as well since these races can earn their winners up to $10,000,000 as well as the punters betting tens of thousands of pound on a race. Reality, of a sort, comes from the relationships which are never simple – unless, of course, you count animals. The dogs are all wonderful, loyal in a way that the humans rarely are, the horses all have their own personalities and there is a supporting cast of cats, goats and sheep too.

The basic plot is that Rupert Campbell-Black, in trying to gain the title of Leading Sire (the term for the stallion whose offspring earn the most money) is even more neglectful than usual of his lovely wife, Taggie, and the rest of his tempestuous family. He focusses far more on Love Rat’s progeny and his ongoing rivalry with the dastardly Cosmo Rannaldini than on Taggie, his own children and grandchildren or his increasingly senile father – interestingly, and a little drop of reality in this glorious fantasy life, it seems that this new obsession comes about after the death of Rupert’s closest friend Billy Lloyd-Foxe (who we first met way back in Riders). As always the general tone of the book is as frothy as vintage Bollinger, full of awful puns and the odd orgy but Jilly is never afraid to make us aware of the tougher things in life – with Old Eddie’s developing Alzheimer’s, Taggie’s dyslexia, Gav’s erectile dysfunction as well as Rupert’s grief adding their own sadness. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the little political comments through the book – I don’t think Jilly and I would ever see eye-to-eye on hunting, for example – I am totally with her on the horrors of the live transport of horses for meat…

All in all this is an enjoyable romp. I’d expect no less from an author who has been delighting us with enjoyable romps since the 1970s (and who had part of her schooling in Ilkley despite being, like me, an Essex girl.)

Jane

Closed Casket – Sophie Hannah

Every time I think I can describe myself as ‘widely read’ I remember another author who I have yet to dip into. To be fair I don’t think I’m that bothered about E.L. James or Jeffrey Archer (just not my cup of tea, no criticism implied) but my list of ‘authors I must get around to at some point’ includes some biggies – Kurt Vonnegut, Arthur C Clarke, Jojo Moyes and even George R R Martin. I have, however, ticked a few off in the last year or so: I finally got round to reading To Kill a Mockingbird just before Go Set a Watchman was published and I also broke my Agatha Christie duck in 2015. We had selected The Monogram Murders, a new Poirot mystery written by Sophie Hannah at the request of the Christie estate, for our shop book group and I realised that I really needed to read the original in order to be able to make a comparison. I read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and The Third Girl (1966) and was very impressed that Christie has sustained the character of Poirot over more than forty years. Reading the Monogram Murders I felt that Christie’s work was being carried on famously – intricate plotting, Hercule Poirot’s idiosyncracies and an ending full of twists and revelations. When I went along to the recent Harper Collins Big Book Bonanza I had a copy of Sophie Hannah’s second Poirot outing thrust into my hand (although not the one with the wine glass or the one with the pizza – an excess of hands is the reason for my bookselling prowess) so I have, rather obediently, read it. And (phew) enjoyed it as much as the first.

closed casketThe plot is typically Christiesque with the murder victim dropping dead in a country house setting after being named the main beneficiary in a very rich writer’s will, the characters are varied. I particularly liked the writer’s deeply unsympathetic daughter and her equally unpleasant fiance and I absolutely loved how totally incompetent the local police are (who yet, somehow, felt the need to start the enquiry by telling Poirot to basically ‘butt out’). I was starting to suspect who the murderer was towards the end but I really couldn’t work out how it happened. The language and mannerisms seem to fit in well with the era of the novel and Hercule Poirot is the same character that we know and love (and are irritated by) in the original books. It looks as if Hannah has really got into the skin of Poirot – so hopefully we will have many more outings to come for the most famous Belgian and his little grey cells.

Jane

 

The Widow – Fiona Barton

I try to avoid reading the books that everyone says I should be reading (not our books of the month, if anyone from Head Office is reading this, obvs, I read them if I can) or, if I do read them, I’m late to the party. I only read To Kill a Mockingbird after the publication of Go Set a Watchman was announced and I’ve still got to attempt any of the Game of Thrones books. I’m always saying ‘so many books, so little time’ but, if the truth is told, I’m just stubborn. I will read something if I want to read it not because everyone else is. And when I do get round to reading something like, say, Gone Girl everybody else has moved on. I mention this because there have been a lot of books recently marketed as ‘the new Gone Girl’ (or the new Game of Thrones, etc) and, it seems, a lot of reviewers are not happy about this. I mean, they are perfectly entitled to be unhappy, but I’m not sure why apart from the fact that they are a bit fed up of seeing the claim made quite so often…This is nothing new, of course, we’ve been using this kind of shorthand for years. The easiest way to describe something is to say what it resembles. The items most people best remember are the first ones that hit big (Gone Girl, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings) – the ur-novels if you like.

9780552172363The Widow is a debut novel which has been widely compared to Gone Girl and I can understand this comparison since it is a psychological novel largely written from the point of view of the women (mostly) involved in a criminal case.  A young child goes missing and Glen Taylor is a suspect. His wife Jean supports him, the child’s mother will not rest until her child is found and the police officer and journalist who are most closely involved with the case are similarly dogged. We know a lot of what Jean knows – that her husband is interested in online pornography involving youngsters for example – but we can also see a lot of things she doesn’t. It was obvious to me that Jean is abused by her husband – not physically but psychologically. She is detached from her friends and family at a young age, her self-esteem is picked at constantly and she is made to feel that Glen’s online habits are her fault because she wants a child too much.

Other interesting points for me were the mother of the missing child and the journalist. Fiona Barton is a journalist herself so the press are given a better write-up than is usual – to be honest, from the few journalists I have ever met, I think this kinder view is fairly realistic of reporters on local papers at least – and the mother develops into quite a media-savvy woman, but with a persistent and ongoing belief that her child, against all the evidence, is still alive. The policeman is a little more formulaic but it seems to me that Barton’s real skill is in her female characters.

This is an enjoyable thriller in a genre that was hugely invigorated by Gone Girl. It doesn’t try to copy that book’s methods but seems to be developing one of its own – worth a read if you enjoy a complex plot and well-defined characters.

Jane