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.

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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…

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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

 

Good old-fashioned historical fiction

I have been indulging myself in the last couple of weeks. Rob and I had a few days away in Amsterdam and Brussels – which has meant an awful lot of cheese and chocolate, a fair amount of art and lots of walking – and, since we were travelling by train, I was able to pack a book I’ve been looking forward to for ages. The new Shardlake is something I know a lot of our customers have also been eagerly anticipating – but at 650 pages of historical goodness I do hope they have been doing their weight-training before picking up their copy!

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Shardlake is a great character. We have seen him grow and develop since his first outing – in Dissolution – and particularly in his attitude to religion. This is no surprise since the books cover the same time period, largely, as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies and the complex political and religious changes of the age feature heavily. Shardlake’s life and career are tied up with those of the King, his Queens and various court figures: some, like Catherine Parr, are friends, others, like Sir Richard Rich, are openly antagonistic towards him. It certainly shows that C.J.Sansom studied history before he went into the legal profession – he obviously does lots of research on both the history and the law covered in the books – and yet the stories are real page-turners. My favourite sort of history is the type which is as easy as this to read!

It seems odd to worry about spoilers in well-researched historical fiction of this nature. We know what happened to Henry VIII, to Catherine Parr and to lesser figures like Anne Askew and Thomas Wriothesley. In the previous book in this series Shardlake spent some time on board the Mary Rose as it was being prepared for war – I spent a lot my time when reading it willing him to get off the ship (I knew it wouldn’t end well for the poor old Mary Rose). And I guess this is where the real beauty of historical fiction lies – the way our unknown heroes and heroines fit in to the actual history. Anyway, without giving too much away, Shardlake and his assistant Barak are both in great danger at various points in this novel – but it seems that, should Edward VI need any grisly murders solving, Shardlake will be around to investigate.

15728386Murder and pathology have featured heavily in the previous books I have read by Ariana Franklin – about a woman doctor who mainly practices as an anatomist since custom means she cannot treat living patients – but they have also been set in a well-researched historical period. The latest volume, Winter Siege, is set slightly earlier during the anarchy surrounding Stephen and Matilda’s battle for the crown and, although the characters are all new, the initial fenland setting and the unflinching descriptions of brutal crimes are just the same. At first I was slightly disappointed – I really liked Adelia Aquilar, the female doctor – but in the end I was glad. Ariana Franklin died before this book was completed and it was finished by her daughter Samantha Norman. The style seems unchanged but I’m not sure I would have wanted a heroine I loved in the hands of any other writer. That said Norman has done a really good job here with great historical detail of both the nobility and lower classes and a terrific plot heavy on blood and sexual predation.

If you, like me, enjoy historical fiction then you will probably already know C.J. Sansom and be looking forward to Lamentation. I would also strongly recommend Ariana Franklin – who may not be as well-known but is well worth looking out for.

Jane

 

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy – Rachel Joyce

cb0cb52e50aaf103a2d4b49bc41b6d9dI don’t know if it is my age but I am not ashamed to say that I was shedding the odd tear at certain points while I was reading this book. I read Harold Fry and enjoyed it very much but it didn’t move me nearly as much as the story of the woman Harold walked so far to see – although both books share the same uplifting feeling (despite the waterworks….)

This is not a sequel or even a prequel to Harold Fry. I would describe it more as a companion piece, sitting quietly alongside the earlier story, offering support and clarification where needed, but not imposing. Which is pretty much the role Queenie took in the part of her life which directly involved Harold so I am quite pleased with that analogy! We see so much more of Queenie, however, than just her relationship with Harold. We get glimpses of her childhood, her education (a first in classics) and her life before moving to Kingsbridge (surprisingly racy – hanging out with artists and taking lovers) as well as after (a lonely beach house in Northumberland with a strangely beautiful garden). Queenie is a beautifully drawn character – so complex and so real. I think you can understand, by the end, why Harold walks over 600 miles to see her again. I think some of the tears I shed were in sorrow that I never got to meet such a remarkable, yet unobtrusive, woman.

Most of them, however, were for the situation Queenie finds herself in towards the end of her life. The situation which led her to send that first, life-changing letter to Harold and to her taking up residence in St Bernadine’s Hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Her illness is touched upon but not in detail – in her original letter she says ‘Last year I had an operation on a tumour, but the cancer has spread and there is nothing to be done’ and I feel that sums up her stoicism. The real beauty of the book, for me, is the description of her days in the hospice and the people she meets there. We don’t get happy endings – this is a hospice after all – but we get to SEE the men and women who have gone there to die. The old are too often invisible in today’s youth-obssessed society – the old and the terminally ill can seem like an embarrassment – so it is just wonderful to have the honour of meeting not only Queenie but Mr Henderson, the Pearly King, Barbara and Finty. It is quite humbling to remember that every person in every hospice up and down the country has a story to tell if only we could hear them.

In the end I think that this book is very life-affirming. Although we witness so much illness, death and grief it is the lives which shine through – and any story which contains so much energy, character and warmth cannot help but make you smile through the occasional tear or two.

Jane

The Rosie Effect – Graeme Simsion

rosie-effect-215x330One of the highlights of my reading year (so far) has been Graeme Simsion’s Rosie Project. It was funny, heart-warming and gave so many interesting insights into the mind of its hero, Don Tillman, an academic apparently somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum, in his search for the perfect partner. The path of love doesn’t run smoothly (when does it ever in good fiction?) and most of the humour comes from the seeming mismatch between Don and the Rosie of the title.

However, since this book opens with Don and Rosie, married and living in New York, then it should come as no surprise to find that they did get together. And once again the laughs (and the sadness) come from the difficulties of the relationship – and particularly from how Don deals with the prospect of becoming a father. I would imagine that most fathers-to-be feel at least some trepidation when they first hear that tiny feet will soon be pattering – for someone like Don it is going to be even more of a life changing experience. Throw into the mix Gene (with the globe-trotting libido), a social worker with an axe to grind and an aging English rock star with a real-ale bar in his Manhattan penthouse and you can see where the comedy is coming from.

What raises both this book and the Rosie Project above being just another funny love story is Don. Because he is the narrator in both books we see the world through his eyes – this gives us a chance to begin to understand just how different life can be for those on the spectrum. This gives an undercurrent of slight sadness – not that Don is sad, but that you feel sympathy for his efforts to be understood. At one point he has just delivered a baby (not his own) in the presence of the social worker who, for slightly complicated plot reasons, thinks the child is his. The social worker accuses Don of being unfeeling and we get a sudden flash of insight into the real strain he is under constantly. He says ‘I was suddenly angry. I wanted to shake not just Lydia but the whole world of people who do not understand the difference between control of emotion and lack of it, and who make a totally illogical connection between inability to read others’ emotions and inability to experience their own’. And it just seems so important that people understand that…

When The Rosie Project was released in paperback I was lucky enough to hear the author talking about his work in Leeds. In the audience were also staff from a local group which works with autistic and asperger’s adults in West Yorkshire – the book has been a big hit with their service-users which suggests to me that the message being given is not only entertaining but informative. And I think it is one that everyone should be reading.

Jane