From time to time books come along which, it seems, everyone is talking about. Think Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Fifty Shades of Grey or Wool – books which spread by word of mouth and have continued to sell long after the media stopped featuring them. These books come up in every genre but, it seems, more turn up in the crime/thriller section than elsewhere. Recently we’ve had Kolymsky Heights, Girl on the Train and Gone Girl and it is this last one which, so far, has had the most success (both as a book and film). My relationship towards these word-of-mouth bestsellers is a bit mixed – I loved Wool, quite enjoyed Captain Corelli but hated the ending and still haven’t read any E. L. James – but I did thoroughly enjoy Gone Girl.
The Grownup is the latest from Gillian Flynn – it is only a short story but it certainly packs a punch which many a 600 page blockbuster would give their best review for. The main character is a young woman working as a psychic after having to give up her career as a sex worker due to repetitive strain injury – she is a grifter and a charlatan but, on the positive side, she loves to read. It turns out being a fake psychic isn’t much different from being a successful beggar: you earn money by telling people what they want to hear. And the story really gets going when she meets a client who wants her to, effectively, exorcise an evil spirit from her elegant town house which also appears to be influencing her 15-year-old stepson.
Like Gone Girl The Grownup has a tendency to start by leading you down one narrative pathway and then, abruptly, switching tracks on you. And even if you are fairly sure that it is going to happen you just don’t see it coming. Flynn also seems to specialise in unsympathetic female characters (although, to be honest, in this story nobody comes out looking good) which I quite enjoy. Lets face it, if we want equality with men it should be in all things – wages, opportunities and the chance to be twisted and evil. This book comes out a little after Hallowe’en but that’s okay – it is more about human psychology than the supernatural – but would be a perfect read for a dark and stormy night.
So. From time to time publishers like to tease us a little bit and recently the people at Jacqui Small offered booksellers the chance to receive a rather splendid looking book about the history (and continuing rise) of gin. The first ten responses would get a copy of the book to review and the first three would also get a free gin tasting set. Well, let’s say I’m quick off the mark….but not that quick. I’m going to have to review this book purely on its own merits (and my own personal gin stash) as I was, at best, responder number 4 😦
Back in the 90s I was sure I didn’t like gin and then I moved to Stockport for a year, living in a shared house in Edgeley. Let’s just say by the time I left my housemates had converted me and a long and happy relationship with gin had begun – at the moment I have four different gins in the house (more if you count the sloe gins which a couple of my friends make each year and give me samples of…) and some of my favourite pubs have a gin list as well as a wine list. Liking gin is probably the coolest thing I do because, it seems, gin is in! And I know this because this book not only tells us all about the ‘global artisan gin revolution’ but has pictures of a lot of young men with fashionable beards enjoying gin – and a drawing of Pliny the Elder to boot.
This isn’t to mock young men with fashionable beards (or Pliny the Elder) but I think the photos are part of the campaign to rescue gin from the image it had of being a rather old-fashioned drink, favoured by ladies of a certain age and refined accents. And this is, pretty much, what this book does. Starting with the history of the drink – which is a long one, there is evidence that juniper has been used by man since the days of the Lascaux cave paintings in approximately 10,000 BC – and its medicinal uses (the Egyptians used juniper to cure headaches and tapeworms so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that when monks were experimenting with distillation in the 11th century they added juniper to the wine they distilled) we move on to the development of modern gins and then, hurrah, to all the lovely varieties available.
This is a substantial book with lots of information – the history, the botanicals used in distillation, tasting notes for 300 different gins, suggestions for the best gin joints in the world and cocktail ideas – but it is an entertaining read. The perfect gift for the gin-lover in your life this Christmas, perhaps? And for the non gin-drinker? Well, lets just say with this number of different tastes if you give gin a chance you may well find one that suits you!
It has been a while since I was a ten year old girl but I think I can remember enough to see that Emma Carroll’s stories are ideal for that age group. You are still a child so there is an awful lot going on which you are aware of but can’t quite understand – in In Darkling Wood the heroine Alice, possibly like any child with a very sick sibling, knows far more about heart transplants than a girl her age ought to but she can’t quite understand why she can’t stay home alone when her little brother is rushed into hospital. And you just know, like Alice, that you are too old for silly fairy stories.
Luckily this is not that kind of fairy story. These fairies are not cute and sparkly – Daisy Meadows would not recognise them at all – and they will do anything to save their home. The book alternates between plans to save Darkling Wood, which Alice’s grandmother wants to cut down, and a series of letters written at the end of the First World War. There are some nice parallels too as the letters are from a young girl to her soldier brother which contrasts nicely with Alice’s concerns for her own brother, Theo. The fairies, if you want to be all grown up about it, could probably be seen as a metaphor for something but to me they just seem to be something which helps a young girl make good decisions during a very stressful time.
That said this book is not preachy. Everybody makes mistakes and bad choices at some point, tempers are lost and harsh words are spoken. Alice resists the idea of fairies – she is, after all, a sensible and modern girl – but she does fall under the spell of the wood and joins in local plans to save it from destruction at the hands of her grandmother. At the end of the book family tensions are largely resolved (but the characters don’t suddenly become perfect, which is a relief) and throughout there is humour. There is, obviously, a certain amount of tension over Theo’s health – at some points you really doubt if he will make it – but nothing to make it unsuitable for readers over about nine years old looking for a story with mystery and real-life perils.
I also read a novella which is being published this week called The Snow Sister (think Giovanna Fletcher’s Christmas with Billy and Me for pre-teens) which would fit nicely into any Christmas holiday reading plans. This time we are in a Victorian setting but again the main character Pearl is a sensible girl who worries about her family, their sadness at losing her little sister Agnes and their worries about money. In the long tradition of Christmas stories there is snow, ghosts and a will but, unlike Dickens, I really enjoyed it. It was, for me, a very quick read but that could make it ideal for 9-12s looking for a quick read in between family visits, present-opening and the post-dinner blockbuster family film. The ending is slightly schmaltzy but if you can’t do that at Christmas when can you?