Sorbets, to clear the book palate…

When I look at my list of books, my teetering ‘to be read’ pile, I have to make a number of decisions. I do try to read books within a short time of their publication date – preferably before, but possibly soon after- so I will start off by checking out upcoming titles but sometimes I will also need to decide how much time and energy I have. I love a big fat history book or something scientific but they do take quite a while to read and, sometimes a bit of an intellectual run-up. To be honest, I don’t think I’d have had the enthusiasm to read anything of that nature during the recent mayhem of the Bradford Literature Festival – I’d have managed about half a page each night before falling asleep and if I tried to read on the bus home I’d have ended up snoring in Halifax – so I have been reading a few shorter or lighter books.

Miracle on Cherry Hill – Sun-mi Hwang

45282030._SY475_I have read a couple of Korean author Sun-mi Hwuang’s novels. They are always physically slight, nothing much over 200 pages, but they are beautifully told stories which always seem to end up making me happy. They aren’t necessarily books with happy subjects – this one tells of Kang Dae-su, a successful and wealthy architect who returns to the place where he had been a poor and lonely child. He has been diagnosed with a brain tumour and is somewhat obsessed with punishing what he sees as the poor treatment he received as a child. Gradually, however, he comes to discover that he may not have seen the whole picture and, somewhat against his will, he meets more and more of the current residents of Cherry Hill: those who call the place home.

Kang is an interesting character – he plans to destroy the community which now takes him in but you don’t feel that he is a bad man. Despite his professional standing and the wealth and power he now possesses he is, at heart, the child who felt alone and abandoned to his fate. His return to his childhood home and the people he meets there show him that not only is he valued now but that his childhood was watched over by the community who welcome him back in without knowing his past. The ending is bittersweet – acknowledging that some of the ravages of time can never be repaired – but it does remind us of all the good which exists in the world, whether we are aware of it or not.

Full Steam Ahead, Felix – Kate Moore

41089034Felix the station cat is a bit of a Yorkshire celebrity – a fluffy, black and white moggy who lives on Huddersfield railway station. The station itself is a stunning piece of neo-classical Victorian architecture and is the second busiest in West Yorkshire – it gets both the usual commuters and those heading to and from Manchester airport – so the addition of a station cat (or Senior Pest Controller as she is known) can only add to its interest.

This is the second book about Felix. The first covered her early years at the station (which she moved to as a kitten) and the station staff she worked with there and, in this book we are reunited with many of those characters. Felix is a more mature cat at this point – a veteran of social media and a bit of a star – and the book looks at a lot of her interactions with both staff and passengers. Towards the end it is made clear that she is, in cat years, approaching a time in her life when she has to slow down, think of her own health and even change her diet to prevent a more sedentary lifestyle from causing her to gain an unhealthy amount of weight. Let’s face it, I could certainly relate the that! The station staff, who all seem to be genuinely fond of Felix, come up with plans to make her life easier..

This is a warm, cosy and, generally, unchallenging read. There are emotional parts – where Felix helps various people to overcome problems with health, anxiety or grief – but nothing too stressful. All in all a perfectly relaxing book to read to recover from a busy week or so of heavy festivalling.

Coming up….

I didn’t just read the short or comforting over the last month though. Next post will cover some of the crime novels I read to keep the blood pumping and my adrenaline levels up…

Jane

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Back to normal…

20190628_111146Gosh! What a busy couple of weeks that has been! The Bradford Literature Festival kicked off in the main shop for us on Friday 28th June with the, now traditional, launch event for the latest A A Dhand crime novel. And, for the whole ten-day festival, we also had a pop-up shop in City Park. This, combined with the evening events we were manning during the mid-week period, meant that our little team of booksellers was going to have to work extra hard. Sleep was something that could happen later and our nearest and dearest would have to attend events to catch sight of us! Well, maybe not quite that bad – luckily, we had great support from staff at our Leeds (including Saad, Caitlin, Joe, Jack, Lydia, Rhys and others who I am still too discombobulated to remember). I wish I’d had the time to take some photos of all that was going on but this was tricky when most events were run by just one bookseller at a time – so let’s see if I can create some word pictures to back up my few snaps instead.

20190628_195410As I said we started with a big book launch (while a proof party took place during the set-up!) and I do have a picture of the crowd. What you don’t see is all the work it takes to move all the tables and stock which usually sits in this area and put out over 160 chairs. I’m only glad that the festival has its own tech team to set up the stage and sound systems and that their venue managers and volunteers are there to help us with all the moves. Even so I think I’ve grown some new muscles… The event itself was great – Amit is always entertaining and his interviewer, Abir Mukherjee, was very funny. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much while discussing brutal crime plots before. We then moved all the chairs, put the tables back (for the time being) and prepared for a hectic weekend.

20190630_221601The first weekend of the festival was bathed in glorious sunshine – great to look at but hot work if you are running from venue to venue with stock. Fortunately, some venues were air-conditioned and plenty of water was available – popular events took place on neurodiversity, serial killers, religion, feminism and philosophy and, of course, there were plenty for children too. I think our highlight was probably the talk by Onjali Rauf about her book The Boy at the Back of the Class – not only the winner of the Waterstones Children’s Book of the Year but a genuinely lovely person too. For some festival-goers, however, the best part was getting to meet Luke Goss – a fabulous chap who took hours to sign books and chat individually with all his many fans. Sunday was equally busy (if, thankfully, a little cooler) with talks on a variety of political and historical themes and finishing up with philosophy in a pub, comics at Kala Sangam and an open mic poetry evening. We had also hosted four of the festival’s many children’s workshops in the store so decided instead to head for Halifax for an Elbow gig. I love book events but this was also pretty special (and I also got to sit down for at least part of it….)

Mid-week is generally a bit calmer – although I did have the added factor of having a work experience student for the week. Happily, she was a very hard-working and mature individual – hopefully, she also enjoyed seeing how a bookshop works at a very busy time – so made that part of the job relatively easy. She wasn’t, however, still working after 5.30pm when the tables and chairs had to be shifted again on Monday and Thursday: more muscle-building for me, my boss and the helpful festival staff. Both were pretty much sold out so it was great to hear Paul Mason’s thoughts on a Clear Bright Future and, for me in particular, Alison Weir’s talk on Anna of Kleve, Henry VIII’s fourth wife. External events in this period included films, plays, lunchtime talks and lots more poetry. 20190701_160240I did a bookstall for Simon Armitage’s talk on Sir Gawain on the Tuesday which brought my personal tally of Poets Laureate up to two…The biggest event which I didn’t get to, as I was soaking up Tudor history at the time, was with Michael Rosen so I missed out on adding another former Children’s Laureate too. We did get a visit from Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell (my first FCL*), author and illustrator of the Edge Chronicles series of books and were delighted when Chris left us some of his wonderful artwork. You can even just make out our glorious roof which he added in the background.

As the final weekend approached I think we were all looking forward to both another two days of books. authors and happy readers and, to a certain extent, getting back to normal. But first – more festival!

We were a little concerned when we realised that we’d had a stand-out event last year – with musician and political commentator, Akala – and, given that retail is all about beating last year’s sales, we weren’t sure we had any one author who could do the same for us. We shouldn’t have worried, however, as we had an array of solidly good talks to come – with novelists Elif Shafak and Jeanette Winterson, a history of the LP from David Hepworth and poetry from Lemn Sissay as well as goths in the Cathedral. There was, as always, a series of events over this second weekend about the Brontes. On the Sunday this included a series of walks related to the famous sisters as well as a couple exploring 20190613_145122Bradford’s rich history of textiles, religion and manufacturing. The Little Germany tour even popped into the shop to admire our fabulous architecture (which I have been attempting to convey in the form of a painting…). The store had another set of popular children’s workshop events – full of stories and crafting too – and there were talks on pressing issues of politics, faith and football. The Bradford Literature Festival really does try to have something for everyone – we’re already looking forward to next year (but only after a good long rest…..)

Jane

 

Crime novels from a different angle

There are a lot of ‘set-pieces’ in crime fiction – detectives with a troubled past, cosy crime fiction where murders happen in lovely rural locations, maverick cops and corruption in positions of power – and it sometimes feels as if there isn’t really anything new to say. Apart from making the murders and other crimes more and more convoluted and disgustingly blood-soaked of course. There’s nothing wrong with that, sometimes that is exactly what you want to read, but I do quit like a book which messes with my expectations. These expectations are often personal – mine is that cosy, rural crime novels always have some historical angle (Frances Brody’s Kate Shackleton stories, Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple books etc) – and sometimes more general. Until recently there were very few writers with a South Asian heritage writing crime novels and those that did were, again, often either using historical or specifically Indian settings. What I have been enjoying recently, however, are a private detective in a contemporary Yorkshire Dales setting and a British Asian authored crime thriller with a British Asian lead character: not the usual offerings, and all the better for it.

A Date With Poison – Julia Chapman

9781529006797There is something about the British countryside which suits it to fiction set in the past – for all the mobile phones and internet references even tv’s Midsomer Murders looks like a relic of the 1950s (it may be the attitudes?) – but I feel that Julia Chapman has managed to capture the modern day Dales. Her two main characters are certainly bang up to date – a divorcee with self-esteem issues (not helped by the attitude of her family) who uses her cyber-skills to run a dating agency and the black sheep of the village who is a police officer under investigation for corruption – and one of the plot threads involves a schoolboy mixed up with drugs. The main story, however, follows a mysterious poisoner who is targeting dogs – who, in a rural setting, are part of the workforce as well as part of the family.

This is a very contemporary story in a timeless setting. The plot is pleasingly complex and the characters are likable – lots of unrequited passion bubbling beneath the surface too. The pressures of modern rural life are not ignored either – and, as this book is part of a series, we will be able to explore both the developing romance and the life of the village of Bruncliffe as it progresses.

One Way Out – A A Dhand

9781787631755From the rural we move to something much more urban and, more importantly for me, the setting isn’t just any old city – it’s the city I live and work in. Dhand’s detective, Harry Virdee, is, it’s true, a maverick cop with a messy family life but even in this he breaks the mould. Because Dhand wants to write great crime novels with a totally authentic British Asian feel the family troubles are centred on a tense relationship between Harry and his parents (over his marriage to a Muslim woman). Because, ethnicity and religion aside, he wants to write great crime novels, full stop, this is a virtually non-stop steamroller of a book!

A bomb explodes in City Park (a real place, an iconic piazza-like space with a mirror pool and fountains – usually full of delighted children) and Harry, after escaping the blast with his young son and the mother he has so recently reunited with, is thrown into the search for those responsible. A far-right group known as the Patriots claim responsibility and state that they will detonate a second device, placed in one of the city’s mosques, unless they are handed the four leaders of a radical Islamist group known as Almukhtaroon. The mosques are full for Friday prayers and the Patriots will also set off the bomb if anyone leaves any mosque – this would be bad enough but Harry’s wife, Saima, is one of those trapped. Always unconventional, Harry is led to do brutal things in an effort to save his wife and the 1000 other worshippers in the stricken mosque.

I love the way that Dhand writes about my city – I can walk virtually every street that Harry walks – and I am always gripped by his convoluted plotlines but, for me, the best part is the characters of Harry and his family. Saima plays a major part in this book – she is certainly no meek and submissive Muslim woman – and both she and Harry are torn between working to save the larger group and concern for both each other and their young son, Aaron. The relationship with Harry’s parents also develops and the awful history which often leads to conflicts between the various religious groups (what Dhand has referred to as ‘brown-on-brown violence’) is considered. What is doubly admirable is that none of this detracts from the pace of the story – I needed a sit down after I’d finished!

Jane

 

10 Minutes 39 Seconds in This Strange World – Elif Shafak

Just a few days to go now before the Bradford Literature Festival begins. We’ve had industrial sized deliveries of books arrive, planned out our staffing and given up any idea of any rest before 7th July. I’ve got two days off now – when I go back in it will be on the day of one our biggest events: the now annual launch event for the latest A A Dhand book. I’ve had a proof copy, read it and will be fitting in a review for it very soon, but for now, I’m looking at a book by another festival favourite Elif Shafak. The last time we did a stall for an event with her we sold all but one copy of one book – believe it or not, this is not how a bookstall usually goes….Shafak is a Turkish novelist who has lived all around the world but is currently based in the UK. This seems to mean that she is able to write about her Turkishness in a way which is faithful to her roots but which is brought alive for a Western audience. I first became aware of her through The Forty Rules of Love, her novel exploring the Sufi mysticism of the poet Rumi (another Festival favourite), which seems to be a regular feature of book groups in the Bradford area and this is now the second novel of hers which I’ve read.

43706466._SY475_Like the previous book this is a story based largely around the experience of women and in particular that of Leila, known as Tequila Leila, who ran away from her family after an unhappy and confusing childhood and became a prostitute in Istanbul. The novel is told, in part, as a series of flashbacks – Leila telling of her life as her dead body lies abandoned in a bin. This is a fascinating approach mixing the traditional ‘life flashing before ones eyes’ trope with recent scientific research which suggests that our brains may continue to be aware for up to ten minutes after the heart has stopped beating and it allows us to see the life which created the wonderful Tequila Leila. And wonderful she is – bold, loving, fearless and loyal. We also hear about her five friends – Jameelah, Zaynab122, Hollywood Humeyra, Sabotage Sinan and Nostalgia Nalan – her fellow outsiders: set apart by who they are, immigrants, runaway brides, transgender, disabled or seemingly loving family men. As the novel tells all their stories, their tragedies and joys, we also hear how and why Leila is killed and how her friends cope with her death.

This is a wonderful book, full of life and energy. As well as the joy, love and laughter it deals with the pain and prejudices faced by those who don’t conform to the dictates of what is deemed to be normal. Shafak is a tireless campaigner for women’s rights as well as for other minorities – her event at the Festival is going to be a highlight, I’m sure.

Jane

All Kinds of Love Stories

I like a love story. When I was at university – reading Dante, Shakespeare, Chaucer and Joyce – I liked to relax by reading Mills & Boon: pure, traditional romance novels. This was in the 80s – Mills & Boon were relatively restrained at that point, things throbbed (if you get my drift) but the gory details were generally glossed over with euphemisms. Since then I’ve read quite a lot of love stories – historical ones (Regency for preference, obviously), philosophical French ones and others from all age groups – so here are a few I’ve read recently.

Other Half of Augusta Hope – Joanna Glen

9780008314156Even more than romantic love this book looks at familial love – and most particularly at the relationship between siblings where unconditional love is mixed in with feelings of jealousy, resentment and the kind of intimate, long-term knowledge which enables someone to deeply hurt with just a word. Augusta Hope is not just a sister, she is a twin who is very close to her sister, Julia, even though they are very different from each other. Julia is outgoing, pretty and charming: Augusta is clever, spiky and awkward, the kind of child who decides that Burundi is her favourite country and then learns everything about it. Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, we learn about Parfait who is growing up in Burundi itself surrounded by a loving family and a terrible civil war. After the loss of both parents and many of his siblings Parfait begins to plan a journey across Africa and, eventually to Spain. The two stories meet in Spain itself where these two characters’ lives become entwined after both suffer great losses. Each has been torn almost in two by the tragic loss of a beloved sibling and, although they are both trying to heal themselves, their final return to wholeness is brought about by the support of the other.

A gentle romance for those who like a little sorrow mixed in with the joy. For fans of Elinor Oliphant or Ruth Hogan.

Ellie and the Harpmaker – Hazel Prior

9781787630918Ellie and the Harpmaker has a rather less exotic setting given that the action all takes place in and around Exmoor. The Harpmaker is Dan who lives and works in a remote barn making beautiful harps (think smallish lap harps rather than great big ones). He is another socially awkward character – his dislike of crowds, unknown people and change – who seems a little too innocent for the real world. When Ellie, a local housewife, finds her way to his barn he is taken by her air of sadness, her bright red socks and her descriptions of her ‘before forty list’ so he gifts her one of his beautiful hand-made harps. When Ellie’s controlling husband, Clive, convinces her that she must return it she and Dan decide that she will keep it at Dan’s barn. This leads to a rather sweet friendship developing between them – Ellie is aware that Dan is an exceptionally handsome man but she respects both his niavety and her own rather grim marriage too much to act on any attraction – which continues until Clive finds out about it. This, finally, leads to a dramatic ending where Ellie, Clive and Dan all discover where their true happiness lies.

A quirky romance with the added interest of one character who is almost certainly autistic and two others in an unhealthy relationship which had me muttering ‘gaslighting’ under my breath quite a lot. A good book for those who enjoyed the novels of Graeme Simsion and Stephanie Butland.

Why Mummy Doesn’t Give a **** – Gill Sims

Finally, we have a book about a love falling apart, the possibility of new love and a reassessment of a variety of existing relationships. Which sounds very serious until it falls into the hands of Gill Sims – who I swear is Jilly Cooper for the modern woman!

43163592This is the third book featuring Ellen, her husband Simon and their offspring Peter (13) and Jane (15). While the first book looked at the children’s primary school years and the second explored PTA and playground politics this one now features both the breakdown of Ellen and Simon’s marriage (after one of his business trips ended up with an affair in Madrid) and the dreaded teenage years. So, in many ways, rather more serious stuff but still delivered with Sims’ usual humour, energy and weapons-grade swearing. Ellen moves to a more villagey setting (hoping for a perfect cottage, chatty chickens and, possibly, a hunky farmer) but discovers that she now has to deal with last buses home from town, unexplained damp patches and mutinous teenagers. All without Simon’s, admittedly rather rubbish, help. Ellen also seems to move beyond just what can appear quite shallow – Instagrammable moments, having the perfect countryside outfit or making Simon jealous – to real problems and the loss of a very close family member does lead her to look again at her priorities. Through most of the book she refers to herself as ‘Mummy’ but, by the end of the book, she allows herself to be Ellen as well as just ‘Mummy’.

This is a light-hearted, big-hearted read for fans of Jilly Cooper and Marian Keyes who want to see characters explore love for their friends and families as well as for themselves.

More books for the young at heart

The two most recent children’s books I have read are, respectively, our current children’s Book of the Month and the most recent winner of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. But I didn’t read them out of duty but because I enjoy keeping on touch with the best books for young people. I’m fairly sure that, despite the appearance of my outside, I’m still pretty young on the inside…

Umbrella Mouse – Anna Fargher

44015213Publishing isn’t just about bringing out great books but also about timing the publication of each title to best advantage. This book, a story about animals working alongside humans during the Second World War, could have been published in any month. In fact, it was officially released in early May but chosen for our June Book of the Month because it then fits so beautifully into current events. The Umbrella Mouse of the title is Pip Hanway who is orphaned when a German bombing raid destroys the umbrella shop she and her parents lived in alongside its human owners, Mr and Mrs Smith. Quite literally shell-shocked she is rescued by the appropriately named Dickin, a search and rescue dog, and then, with his help joins a community of displaced creatures living underground. She then becomes part of Noah’s Ark, an animal version of the Resistance, following – or even slightly ahead of – the Allies movement across Europe after the D-Day Landings.

This is an exciting story which will help children (and adults) learn about certain aspects of World War II as well as about more universal themes of loss, friendship, loyalty and courage. As always, peril seems a little more approachable when the characters are animals (I remember reading the Narnia books as a child and I always worried about what happened to the children in them, not the animals – even the talking ones…) but I don’t think the book pulls any punches. The treachery is real and Pip’s fear and peril isn’t taken lightly. Children from seven or eight upwards would enjoy this book but it may be one to tread carefully with if youngsters are anxious or very sensitive.

The Boy at the Back of the Class – Onjali Q Rauf

39884333Stories are often a good way to approach difficult subjects with children – and some of the subject are big enough that they are a good start even with adults. With this in mind we chose to read Rauf’s book about a young refugee boy for our most recent book group meeting – none of us (or any of the world’s politicians) have solved the complex problems of refugees or the situations they are escaping from so any help we could get would be useful.

Rauf’s tale centres on a fairly normal child (nearly 10, doesn’t like maths, has some good friends at school and avoids the class bully) and their reaction to a new boy who appears in the classroom one day. The new boy, Ahmet, is very quiet and, although not unfriendly, doesn’t respond to the usual ‘making friends’ overtures in the expected way. What youngster’s curiosity wouldn’t be piqued by an apparent dislike of sweets? It turns out that Ahmet is a refugee, a Kurd who fled the war in Syria with his family, but who now finds himself alone in London. His new friends, once initial language difficulties are overcome, learn all about his predicament and decide to help. Obviously, because they are nine and have their own way of viewing issues like war, asylum and fairness, things don’t always go to plan: but they overcome the bullies (both children and adults) with some help from a rather unexpected source.

I think this book would be a great way to start a discussion with children about some rather grown-up subjects – the characters all hear adults talking about refugees, race and politics but process what they hear through a child’s filter of fairness. As a fully grown-up person I realise that life isn’t always fair but I think we can learn, from the reaction of youngsters, that we shouldn’t give up on striving for some measure of equity. In this book we also get a good story of friendship, with a dash of adventure, too.

Jane

 

Common People, an Anthology of Working-Class Writers -Kit de Waal (editor)

I am one of life’s planners. I love planning holidays, what meals we’ll cook in the week and what shopping we’ll need and I even have a spreadsheet to work out when books on my TBR* pile are being published. Sometimes, however, this means that I’m looking ahead to stuff while I’m in the middle of doing other things I’ve planned for. Of course, I can always put things in place (scheduled tweets, Facebook posts and blog posts are a wonderful thing) but sometimes I just have to leave a ‘note to self’ to get straight onto a new task as soon as the current one ends. Tiring but less so than running around in a panic, I hope. At the moment all my mental bandwidth is being taken up by the upcoming Bradford Literature Festival (15 days and counting to the first event) so I’ll admit my blogging is a bit sporadic. I should, however, be able to talk about the books I’ve read which are festival relevant and this collection of essays, memoirs and poems, edited by Kit de Waal, while not actually being featured at the festival does cover the themes of some of the events. Also, this review will serve as a reminder to me that I have agreed to be involved at an event in September based on the book’s theme of working-class writers – rather excitingly, as a speaker rather than just selling books!

Class is always a contentious issue. We are becoming increasingly open to recognising self-identification when it comes to gender, we are able to realise that sexuality is a personal choice and ethnicity is often more of a blend than a fixed thing: we are, however, still very prone to telling people what class we think they are. I’m working class, in my own opinion, but I think that would come as a surprise to those who hear my (non-estuary) southern accent in Bradford, especially if I’m talking about my University education or even my job as a bookseller. Reading the essays in Common People, however, has convinced me that I am right to self-identify as working class – whatever anyone else’s view might be.

43799759This collection seems to cover all the angles (of a subject which is usually only looked at in a limited number of ways). Some authors are well known – Louise Doughty, Jill Dawson, Lisa McInerney – and others are newly published. They are from the North (good old Stuart Maconie…) but also from London and the South and, although most of the pieces are looking at the experience of town and city dwellers, the lives of the rural working-class are not ignored. The writers are from a wide range of ethnicities and I can hear many different accents in their voices. Some are University educated: all are wonderfully articulate. It is hard to pick out favourites – although the opening poem, from Tony Walsh (better known as Longfella) set the whole tone of the book for me. Clever, witty, supportive and just a little bit angry – this poem, and many of the contributions, made me feel that I need to be proud of my working-class background and of those I share it with. We are too diverse to fit into any pigeonhole and have no need to ‘rise above’ our heritage: it should be a source of pride and strength rather than one of shame or inferiority.

Jane (I’m not posh: I’m Southern….)

 

* To Be Read. But you knew that?