Bradford Literature Festival – and so it begins…

Well, here we go! The start of 10 days of events – literary, historical, political and comedic – in the Bradford Literature Festival. We kicked off last night with a few evening events and I got to do the bookstall at the one I really really wanted to see – What The F*** is Normal with the marvellous Francesca Martinez.francesca martinez Funny and inspiring – but mostly funny – Francesca talks about her schooldays, acting career and family. Nothing unusual there you say? Try doing all that with cerebral palsy. In fact try even saying cerebral palsy with cerebral palsy….

This was a fabulous show which celebrated difference. And Francesca’s assertion that you can get through just about anything in life if you are loved as a child reminded me that, although we had very little materially when I was a child, I was loved and happy! I am grateful that I am not disabled but even more thankful that I have such a great family.

The book on which this tour is based is equally funny, angrily political and moving. It is also equally sweary – just to warn those who would be offended. Personally I was even more amused to learn some very colourful signs from the lady who was doing the signing for the deaf. Lizzie was an education in herself!

I would urge you to read this book or, even better, see Francesca when she is on tour. And maybe we could start a campaign to get her on more panel shows. I’d watch that!

Jane

The Museum of Things Left Behind – Seni Glaister

It’s Spring (no, honest, it is – don’t look at the weather, look at the calendar!) so my thoughts are drifting almost inexorably towards dreams of holidays. I’m not much of a one for sitting on beaches – I don’t tan, get too hot and the sands gets between the pages of whatever I’m reading – and I don’t do long haul flights so Europe is as exotic as I get. I love to visit a new city, see its history, try its food and drink and generally mooch around feeling all ‘continental’*. As you can imagine large parts of my hard-earned time off is spent in some kind of cafe (or on a train) with a drink and a book. In fact, this could be my definition of bliss.

Museum of Things Left BehindSeni Glaister’s Museum of Things Left Behind is the story of one such holiday – although maybe with slightly more excitement than I usually experience. Lizzie arrives (by train – my kind of heroine) in the fictional country of Vallerosa and, due to a slight miscalculation, is greeted as if she were a representative of the British Royal Family. The country is tiny, forgotten by the rest of Europe (even during periods of global warfare!) and seems to run on tradition and tea. To be honest, by this point I’m virtually booking my ticket!

Vallerosa is a country steeped in its isolation. In some ways very advanced – the education system is impressive – but in others quite old-fashioned. The political posts, in fact all rôles, seem to be hereditary and women’s rights appear to be set in the early C20th (if they are that advanced) but somehow you warm to the place. The real baddies seem to be the American ‘business consultants’ trying to control the country via the tea trade. Some of the country’s practices – medical staff at the hospital only tend to their patient’s medical needs, all washing, feeding and social care is provided by their families – seem almost backward to us but are only what we were used to in living memory. The medical care is certainly modern enough. The author’s tone is quite approving of some things which don’t sit well with our modern sensibilities but the otherworldliness is part of the book’s charm.

Charming and quirky are the two words I would use to describe this novel if you were cruel enough to limit me. Let me sneak in a couple more and I would add heart-warming and satisfying – this will be a great summer read in the cafés of Europe.

Jane

 

*Barcelona is the city I will be sipping wine and reading in this summer – maybe this will be my time to read The Shadow of the Wind?

1914 And All That

Given the historical significance of the Great War and the fact that we are currently, and for the next three and a half years, commemorating its centenary I feel ashamed to say that I had some glaringly huge gaps in my reading. Yes, I have read Goodbye To All That and the war poets when I was at school: I’ve ticked off some of the recent WW1 novels like Wake, The Lie and My Dear I Wanted to Tell You – but I was missing some of the classics. And I am still not completely up to speed – I’ve still not tackled All Quiet on the Western Front or the Regeneration trilogy – but I have filled in a couple of blanks in the last few weeks.

Both books are ones that many people have described to me as their ‘favourite read ever’ (so, no pressure…) but my own experience could be described as ‘mixed’. Firstly, Birdsong8959789 – a powerful and moving novel focussing on one man’s life both before and during the Great War. I could appreciate the beauty and power of Faulk’s writing but, overall, I was not particularly moved. Oddly, I almost found the parts written from the point of view of Wraysford’s granddaughter more interesting than the wartime sections. Maybe I could understand them better, since they occurred in my lifetime, or maybe I was just recalling how I had taken against the main character in the recent tv adaptation. Whichever it was I am sure the fault is with me rather than with Birdsong itself. There were plenty of descriptive passages highlighting the horrors of trench warfare – but nothing which crystallizes the whole thing better for me than the closing scenes of Blackadder Goes Forth – and (to my eternal shame) I just found the recurring imagery of birdsong annoying by the end.

After this experience it was with some trepidation that I started reading Testament of Youth for our in-store reading group.20140504222301!Testament_of_Youth_Book_Cover In this case, however, I shouldn’t have worried as I ended up really enjoying the whole book immensely. Again the book is, basically, one person’s experience of the period but, somehow, it was one I warmed to. Maybe Vera Brittain’s experience spoke to me more as a woman – I would never have been fighting in the trenches myself – or maybe it is her political stance I found myself in agreement with but I was far more absorbed by her story  than that of any soldier.

This is not to say that Testament of Youth is an easy read. It starts very slowly, outlining Brittain’s privileged and sheltered upbringing in the Peak District and goes into a fair amount of detail of her struggle to be allowed to attend University. For me, despite the fact that it needed a fair amount of concentration to read, this was hugely interesting – it is, in effect, the development of an early C20th feminist. In fact it is, for me, primarily a story of how an Edwardian girl becomes a very modern woman.

The war, her awful experiences as a voluntary nurse and her terrific losses are, of course, a huge part of the book. These, however, are all things she looks back on. The most positive aspects of the whole book, for me, is the future she is moving towards by the end. One where the awful experiences the world had been through help those who survived to try to make sure things are better in the future. Obviously, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that more horrors were still to come but at least the book is able to end positively.

Jane

 

The Fire Sermon – Francesca Haig

I’ve mentioned before about having the best job in the world haven’t I? You know, getting to read lots of books and talk to customers about them? Access to cake? Not to mention all my lovely customers? Well, some weeks it is even better than that – and last week was one such. For I had not one but two evenings out courtesy of those wonderful folk at Harpercollins. On the Wednesday I made my way over to Manchester (or the dark side as I have learned to call it since moving to Yorkshire) with a colleague to hear from three children’s authors – Sophie Cleverley (who was wearing the most amazing dress), Shane Hegarty (who was exactly the charming Irish chap he sounds like) and Holly Smale (who apologised for having to rush off after the talk – she had a book to finish in four weeks and had snuck out to attend the event: shades of Douglas Adams, I feel). Their books are now on my ever huge to-read pile and will be reviewed as soon as I get to them!

The main reason I didn’t dive straight into my stack of children’s books was because of last week’s other publisher event – held in Leeds on Tuesday by Harper Voyager, Harpercollins’ imprint for Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror. I’d started flicking through a proof by one of the authors that lunchtime, was a quarter of the way through by the time I got to the event and wasn’t going to be stopping until I’d reached the end.

fire sermon

This book (and the Joe Abercrombie titles I blagged at the same event) are sci-fi/fantasy titles which, while not specifically young adult books, are certainly suitable for that audience. But not so much so that they feel too ‘young’ for more mature readers. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy quite a lot of YA books (the Dancing Jax series, Half Bad by Sally Green and many more) but I am, allegedly, a grown-up and like to have a good range of ages represented in my reading. Anyway, I digress…

In the world created here every person born is a twin – always a boy and a girl. One perfectly healthy and robust: one deformed in some way. And when one twin dies so does the other. From this fairly simple but intriguing premise a plot develops. Our heroine, Cass, is not split from her twin until they are 13 – her ‘deformity’ is mental rather than physical and she is able to hide her status as a seer for many years – so she develops a closer relationship to her brother than is usual. However, when her brother rises to a position of power we find that he doesn’t seem to feel the same closeness with her. It is explained that the twins, and particularly the deformed siblings (known and branded as Omegas), are the result of some kind of a nuclear holocaust. For most of the perfect twins (Alphas) their other halves are something to be feared and even blamed for the evil in the world. Omegas are shunned and hated by Alphas – yet it is necessary that they exist in order for the Alphas to continue to live.  And the easiest way to kill a powerful Alpha is through their twin…

There is an adventure story here, a smattering of love interest and lots of the world’s internal politics. But there is also a lot to think about – I found myself wondering about how we feel about our own Omegas (the disabled, the poor, the other) – and some rather beautifully turned phrases. Francesca Haig is an academic and poet as well as a novelist which I think really shows in this well thought out and well written tale. I’m looking forward to the next installment already.

Jane

Playing to the Gallery – Grayson Perry

The old cliché goes ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like’ and, like many clichés it is largely true. I enjoy looking round galleries, I paint (although that may not, strictly speaking always be terribly ‘artistic’) and I have read my Gombrich. I have, however, always had a problem with a lot of contemporary art. I’m a big fan of Magritte and Matisse and I’ve spent many a happy hour wandering around the Yorkshire Sculpture Park admiring the Gormleys and Goldsworthys but the rest I don’t quite ‘get’. And I’ve often thought this could be a fault in me…

graysonperry_playingtothegallery_00

Grayson Perry is someone whose opinion I can really value in this area – he is a successful practicing artist and a fellow Essex ‘girl’ – and, after reading Playing to the Gallery, I feel that I have gained a huge amount of artistic confidence.

What I have learned is that the ‘best’ art isn’t necessarily the most popular, the most expensive or the one which is reviewed in every broadsheet. That art is scary because you can’t explain why you like a particular work, that appreciation is as much about what you feel as what you see and that it is okay to disagree with the great and the good….(especially when they write about art in ways that just make you feel you aren’t clever enough to understand what they are saying). Oh, and that I’m probably never going to be a fan of ‘performance art’.

The best part of this book is Grayson Perry’s voice. He just seems to be such a down-to-earth person – one who not going to let being a transvestite from a county which sometimes seems to be a national joke hold him back. And why should he? He knows his material here but doesn’t talk down to the reader – he certainly makes me feel like I should go and visit some art on my next day off. In this book he has made contemporary art seem far more approachable (and has reminded us we have permission to dislike it if we want). He has also made it (along with Caitlin Moran, Claudia Winkleman and Victoria Coren Mitchell) onto my fantasy dinner party list – I reckon it would be a great night!

Jane

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel & Girl With All The Gifts – M. R. Carey

Apocalypses are everywhere these days, hadn’t you noticed? It seems that every other book, film or must-see tv series features the aftermath of a zombie plague, an alien invasion or some other disaster and I, for one, love it! Well, mostly the books – I’ve still never seen an episode of The Walking Dead. What I’ve come to really appreciate is a post-apocalyptic novel which doesn’t quite follow the usual pattern. I enjoyed the fact that Warm Bodies was a love story, a Romeo and Juliet crossing the dead/undead family lines and The Passage blew me away with its sheer scope and entwined storylines. Until the last few months, however, I’d not found anything quite so off beat so imagine my delight when I came across not one but two ( featured in the most recent and the forthcoming Waterstones Book Club selections respectively) – The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey and Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel.

station-eleven-978144726897001Station Eleven is slightly unusual in the fact that it gives a great deal of attention to the immediate aftermath of its world-ending event (in this case a flu-like epidemic which decimates the population). It is especially chilling in the fact that such a disease is not a matter of science-fiction but something which has happened, in 1918 for example, with just the severity increased. The story moves around from this time of loss and change to about 20 years on and centres, unusually, on the art and culture which lives on in human hearts. A child who witnessed the original epidemic has survived to form part of a travelling group presenting classical music and theatre to the remaining isolated pockets of population. The fact that, in this brave new world, Shakespeare still speaks to men, women and children is quite heartening. And this makes the book, at heart, hugely optimistic. Although we do see a darker side – after all, not only the virtuous and cultured survive, and isolation can twist the sanest mind – you do feel, at the end, that there is still hope for the human race.

17235026In The Girl With All The Gifts we are once again in the middle of the end of the world – the novel begins at a research facility where scientists are working on a cure for or protections against the zombie hordes outside their gates while teachers work with a group of children who are, oddly, restrained at almost all times. The children seem to be innocent orphans, being given what education is still going to be useful to them, but you quickly realise that things are not what they seem.

The book is described as a thriller. Not horror. Not science-fiction. And, on the whole I think this is an accurate description. My in store book group have told me on a number of occasions that they don’t particularly enjoy speculative fiction. They have, however, read and enjoyed The Passage, Wool and Handmaid’s Tale – I think I may be suggesting this to them as it is another is the same mould: post-apocalyptic fiction in a literary thriller’s clothing.

Jane

A whole parcel of bookish goodness

It’s been a long hard month since I last posted a review on here. An error on the broadband front meant that I have been without the internet at home for four weeks – it was rather like living in 1994 – which meant I had limited access to WordPress (as my smartphone is somewhat smarter than I am……). The downside is that I haven’t been keeping up with my reviews: the upside is I did have plenty of time to catch up on my reading. So, on with the backlog….

Hodder are a venerable publishing house – they’ve been around since the 1840s – and have published titles from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five to the Teach Yourself series. They have given us authors like Stephen King, David Niven and Chris Cleave and, I am happy to say, they also seem to be all round good guys. Recently, as part of a regular feature on our intranet at work, they offered reading copies of a number of new books for booksellers to review. I emailed back and, rather cheekily, told them I was having trouble choosing between four titles and asked them to surprise me. They certainly did – they sent all four!

Michael Rosen – Good Ideas

Michael Rosen is a former Children’s Laureate and poet – his best-loved book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, has sold over 8 million copies worldwide. This is a man who clearly understands children (and the adults they become) so this title, which is subtitled How to Be Your Child’s (and Your Own) Best Teacher, really does make learning fun. In it he explains that adults know a lot of stuff, that children would love to know more about the stuff that adults know but that, unfortunately, adults often end up explaining things in ways which can make even dinosaurs sound dull. I’m not sure how this happens – dinosaurs have to be one of the most interesting things ever – but Rosen has some great ideas about how we can prevent this. It is not full of facts to learn (which could end up making it as boring for the adults as for the kids) but full of suggestions for ways to find answers to children’s questions with them rather than for them. An essential skill for any parent, educator or, indeed, bookseller!

Miranda Hart – The Best of Miranda

Miranda Hart is not everyone’s cup of tea. But she is mine. Sometimes I like sophisticated humour or the surreal wordplay of an Eddie Izzard but, after a long day at work, I am often in the mood for Miranda’s lighter and more slapstick brand of comedy. Hey, it takes all sorts….

This book is a selection of scripts from the three series of ‘Miranda’. I am pleased to say that they feature the relationship between Miranda and Gary quite heavily and include many of my favourite scenes. I’m always ready for the episode where Miranda and her ‘what I call Mother’ spend the whole episode with a therapist….There is plenty of the usual slightly arch asides and general silliness but also quite a lot of insight into the process of creating a sitcom. So it is ‘such fun’ but also a reminder of what a clever and hardworking woman Miranda Hart is.

Randall Munroe – what if?

Randall Munroe may not be a name you are familiar with but you may well have heard of the webcomic he created at xkcd.com. This book has come out of the many odd things his fans have asked him – the questions are amusingly absurd but the answers are proper science. With research and everything. Although he may have had some explaining to do about some of the research…..If you know xkcd you will love this book. If not you may end up being very startled by the sheer oddness of some of the questions asked! From my point of view this is a step up from most humour titles – which are funny but often don’t bear re-reading – and has earned a long-term place on the bookshelf in the bathroom.

Nick Drake Remembered For A While

For me this book was the best of the lot but, in an odd way, the one I was most worried about reading. I have been listening to and loving the music of Nick Drake for the past 25 years and I may, possibly, have an even earlier connection to him. When I was quite young – maybe 9 or 10 – I visited my Dad in London and I think I recall him telling me that a friend of his had a brother who had recently killed himself. In my mind I’m convinced the name Gabrielle was mentioned…..Dad isn’t around to ask anymore but I do like to think that I knew Nick Drake at third hand (even if I can’t quite make it to Kevin Bacon).

This book is described as being ‘not a biography’. Instead it is a collection of recollections of the life and music of Nick Drake, a folk inclined singer/songwriter in the very late 60s/early 70s. Nowadays every pop star worth their salt has at least one (auto)biography out before they are old enough to vote it seems. Drake died at 26 (never one to join in he bowed out before he was eligible for the 27 club) and his first biography was published, in Danish, twelve years later. It seems oddly fitting to me that he was part of a more old-fashioned and polite age.

It certainly seems, from the memories shared here, that he was a product of his age in very many ways. He was a post-war baby, brought up in a nice, middle-class, but fairly bohemian family and music was always a part of his life. He was fairly sporty, clever and popular according to his childhood friends and family – aside from his musical talent he seems to have been a perfectly normal boy. His late teens, however, fell in the late 60s and, as a true product of that era, Drake began using drugs – mainly marijuana and LSD. I don’t believe that drugs killed Nick Drake: but I do think that they were instrumental in leading to his depression, his reticence and his difficulties with live performance.

Despite not being a biography this book did what the best of that genre should do in my opinion. I was reminded of all that I already knew of the subject – his talent, the outline of his life-story, how much he is loved by musicians and fans alike – and I was given new insights which will enhance my continued enjoyment of his work. In fact, I may just pop Five Leaves Left on now – I’m in the mood to listen to a voice like a cello….

 

So, in all, a big thank you to the lovely folk at Hodder. A couple of these books may end up being passed on to family members (one niece is training to be a teacher – her brother and sister are Miranda fans) but at least two are keepers which I will be treasuring for years to come.

Jane