2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog. It is full of helpful hints (to help us with the inevitable New Years Resolution to blog more regularly) and, like all the best things in life, created by monkeys! You may well notice that the blogging pace picked up pace part-way through the year. Once again a big thank you to all the helpful folk on the Book Bloggers (UK) group on Facebook. And of course to the publishers and authors who have made their books available for review. We wish you all a very Happy New Year and hope it is full of your favourite sorts of booky goodness.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,900 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 32 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


Secret Chord – Geraldine Brooks

I am not someone who has a religious faith – I would usually go as far as to describe myself as an atheist, but am quite happy for those who do have a faith to believe what they wish. I was, however, like many people brought up in a nominally Christian culture – R.E. lessons at school, hymns and carols when appropriate, family church weddings – and so knew the outline of the story of King David. You know, shepherding, giant-slaying with a sling, playing the harp and misbehaving with Bathsheba, having a Royal City. That stuff.

secret chordGeraldine Brooks’ The Secret Chord takes the familiar biblical (and, like many bible tales, at least partly historical) narrative and turns it into a surprisingly modern novel. The names are archaic – it took me a while to realise that the Plishtim were the Philistines – but this doesn’t really matter because the characters and their psychologies are bang up to date. The way David indulges his sons, giving them an overwhelming sense of entitlement, to make up for his neglect as a boy seems very plausible. They way they repay him, with levels of contempt and violence which could be classed as biblical, remind us that these were very different times indeed.

The whole book is pretty earthy in its descriptions of battles, sex and general depravity. Which is obviously a little different from the stories told in Sunday School. But you are certainly gripped by the characters and by the events which unfold (even if you do know, broadly, what is going to happen). The author is following in a tradition of interpretations of the story of David which includes works by Dryden, Joseph Heller and Allan Massie and, in my view combines the poetry, history and modern sensibilities of that unlikely group.


The Trouble With Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon

One of the problems of working in retail is that we are always looking ahead (and keeping an eye on what is happening right that moment at the same time – my squint is awful….). When others are complaining that Christmas is still three months away so they don’t want to see snowmen, mince pies or Santa I’m thinking that I have already put all my calendars out, planned where the trees are going and bought most of my presents. Let’s face it, in an ideal world I will be too busy with customers to think about shopping once we get to December!

Of course planning isn’t just for Christmas. We have to think of stuff like half-term activities for kids, Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, major anniversaries (like Waterloo, Agincourt and Magna Carta – 2015 has been HUGE in historical terms!) and events such as the Olympics, the Tour de France and all the big film releases. And we have to start thinking of them early – all that stock ordering, window displays and witty chalk-boarding doesn’t do itself you know! And this is before we even start thinking about individual books. Although some books sneak up on us – we had very little warning about the Morrissey novel or the tenth anniversary edition of Twilight – most of them are promoted to bookshops, bloggers and the trade press anything up to six months in advance. Which causes its own problems. Do you read a book straight away and risk it being pushed out of your mind in the intervening 3-6 months? Do you put it to one side and risk losing it in the teetering to-be-read pile? Or do you give up and just review whatever is coming out in the next week even though everyone else is covering the self-same books? I put this problem to a group of book bloggers on Facebook and they were very helpful. Some arranged their physical bookshelves into date order of publication, some did a lot of advance scheduling so they could read in whatever order they liked and some turned to the power of spreadsheets. And which did I go for? Well, I do love a well-organised bookshelf and enjoy planning ahead but in my heart of hearts I just knew that Excel was the way to go! So now, everything I plan to write about gets added to the spreadsheet (usually when I get it but sometimes, when they sneak up on me in the staff-room at work, after I have finished them).

goats and sheepGetting to the actual point of this post – The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, by Joanna Cannon is one of those books which waylaid me at work and wouldn’t let me go until I’d finished it. Even though it isn’t published until January and wasn’t on the spreadsheet I just have to tell you about it (although I have scheduled this post for mid-December I’m writing it in early October…) because it was fabulous. In fact, I’m thinking I’ve not been as excited about recommending a book since I read The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. Or maybe even Wool or the Martian – and I think I’ve suggested them to the whole of Bradford….

It is quite hard to describe what I loved so much. The story is good – a group of neighbours, in the long hot summer of 1976, react to the mysterious disappearance of one of their number – and the format is even better since the main part of the story (barring flashback episodes) is told from the point of view of a ten year-old girl. I think the narrator, Grace, and her best friend Tilly are the first thing I fell in love with. Given that I was almost exactly their age during the summer of 1976 I think I can say with confidence that they are pretty accurately drawn – the mystery of adults and their lives, the lure of a sherbet dib-dab and the many happy hours spent picking stuff you’ll never have out of a great big mail order catalogue and trying to convince your Mum that 25p a week for 48 weeks was an absolute bargain, it is all spot on. Beyond the two girls there is a whole cast of fascinating characters and a host of secrets which emerge throughout the novel. Without wishing to give anything away I can say that we, along with Tilly and Grace, spend a lot of time trying to work out who are goats and who are sheep but, more importantly, we learn that right and wrong, sheephood and goatdom, are not fixed but change according to how much we know about each member of the flock. And every individual living in this neighbourhood, up to and including Grace and Tilly themselves, have their secrets. For such a close-knit community (most have lived in the area for decades) they all, in some way, feel like outsiders: as if they must conceal their secrets or risk being cast out of the group. There are secret drinkers, hiding from the sordid past in a bottle of sherry, there are the anxious and mentally fragile, widows with no interest in life beyond sweets and funerals and a widower who spends all his time in the garden to avoid the memories within his empty home. And above them all is a loner whose interests in childhood and photography strike the whole street as suspect.

I really don’t want to say any more about what happens in the book – I want people to have the joy of reading it for themselves – but please be aware if I see you after Christmas this year I will be encouraging you to give it a try.


Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper – David Barnett

We all need heros. And we are all allowed to have whatever hero we choose. You can have Superman, Malala Yousafzai, Gandhi or Jane Eyre. Anyone. I’d have a hard time working out why anyone would make a hero out of Ian Beale but I respect their right to do it. Of course, with all that choice out there, is it fair of authors to add another candidate to the mix?

David Barnett doesn’t mess around with us – Gideon Smith is the Hero of the Empire, young, handsome and intrepid. He exudes derring-do, shining virtue andavid barnettd other essential heroic qualities. Unfortunately, for most of this book, he can’t quite remember who he is. This means that a fair amount of the story falls to his colleague, journalist Aloysius Bent, who, lets be honest, probably exudes rather earthier qualities (and almost certainly a general aroma of sweat, strong liquor and flatulence). This could have been a problem but, luckily, Bent is a bit of an expert on both Jack the Ripper and the murky world of the brothel-keepers who need to keep their girls out of his clutches.

Strands of the plot of the two previous Gideon Smith novels are woven into this story and we do come to some conclusions at the end. Loose ends are tied up (but space is left for more novels to come – David Barnett isn’t stupid!) and unanswered questions are answered. It is rather grittier than the previous two in my view but the subject matter – prostitution, the murder of women, abuse of the powerless by those in power – does lend itself to a more robust sort of book. Basically if you are offended by swearing this may not be the book for you – but you could be missing out on a really good read.


1,234 QI Facts To Leave You Speechless

My problem with most ‘humour’ books is probably more to do with my inability to get rid of books after I have read them than any problem with the books themselves. These titles are great on a first read but don’t really, like most jokes, bear constant repeating. But then they end up stuck on the shelf because I can’t make myself get rid of them. Definately a #firstworldproblem… I do have a couple of exceptions to this rule though (which, technically, makes it more of a ‘guideline’ I feel): Dilbert books (which take it in turns in our bathroom…) and the QI Facts series.

qiIn both cases they are more than just funny. Dilbert is, I am assured, actually a documentary series about life as an IT professional, and the QI Facts are just plain fascinating. You have occasional bits cropping up which you remember from the tv programme, a few items which you (rather smugly) knew already and then loads of things which have you torn between laughing and reaching for the internet. And that, as I’m sure I’ve said before, is the greatest glory of this series of books. They have a website (for this book it is qi.com/1234) where they will, for want of a better term, show you their workings. Brilliant! And, even better, if you have any major corrections or quibbles you can get in touch and let them know. And that, in the end, is the best part for me about both tv show and books is that they treat you as if you are an intelligent person with views worth hearing.

Many people buy humour titles as gifts at Christmas – the section expands in November more than my belly after Christmas dinner – and it is a great section for finding niche gifts. But if you are looking for a gift for a thinking type of person I’d always recommend a QI book. Because what could be more seasonal than a book written and researched by elves? Nope, I couldn’t think of anything either…


Game of Scones – Jammy Lannister

Ah, December! Season of wind, freezing rain, Slade booming out of every shop and tinsel hanging off everything. And bookshops full of celebrity autobiographies, advent calendars and humorous offerings. Well, I’m a few days into my set of advent stockings (so far chocolate coins mostly…) and I’m planning to start reading my first celebrity autobiography as soon as I’m done with this month’s book group title so let’s take a look at one of this year’s novelty books.

sconesI may be the only person (or at least the last remaining bookseller) not to have read or watched any Game of Thrones at all but my eye was caught by Game of Scones because a) I do love a good pun and b) cake. I have absorbed enough information about George R R Martin’s series of blood and smut soaked high fantasy to be able to appreciate the premise of the humour – recipes entitled Nedible Stark & Traitor’s Walk Treats, Red (Velvet) Wedding Cake and Daenerys’ Dragon Egg & Unsullied Soldiers (without nuts) for example – but the really important question is ‘would I eat these cakes?’ The answer is yes – and not because I’ll eat any old cake you offer me (although that may be true) but because they look like fun versions of regular bakes. Also, who wouldn’t want a reliable recipe for lots and lots of fake, edible blood?