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…


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!



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.


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 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.