One of the best things about working in a bookshop is the sheer range of books. In fact there are loads of them which come in under my radar (since I spend a lot of my day playing with and stroking the non-fiction) and one of my favourite things is perfecting the art of scanning the blurb on the back of a book while I put it through the till. Although I have a bit of an aversion to following the pack I do love hearing from customers about their favourite titles and authors. Recommendations are very definitely a two-way street in my opinion (although no-one is going to turn me into a Dickens fan any time soon…) and I am often drawn towards titles which sell regularly and continuously. If that many people are buying a book I hadn’t previously been aware of it must have something going for it.
One of the books that I have seen pretty regularly since it came out last September is Dinah Jefferies’ The Tea Planter’s Wife – a historical novel set in Ceylon between the world wars, rich in detail of time and place. I guess I could have read and reviewed that but, since I am trying to cover new and forthcoming titles on this blog, I pounced instead on the author’s newest book. It seems to have many similarities with the earlier novel- there is a very strong sense of the sounds, sights and smells of the era and the main character is a very young woman struggling to find her place in the world – and this time the setting is Vietnam in the early 1950s.
Nicole is the daughter of a French politician and his (now dead) Vietnamese wife. She and her sister live a life of privilege and yet also one of sadness. Although her sister, Sylvie, is the model of French beauty Nicole looks like her mother: even as the younger of the two she is treated as a mere child by her family despite the novel opening with her 18th birthday. There are tensions within the family, largely surrounding the death of the girls’ mother, and, obviously, huge ones in Vietnam itself between the Viet Minh and the colonial French. There is also a love story and the tale of Nicole’s gradual acceptance of her Vietnamese heritage – quite a lot packed into a modestly sized book.
I found the story very interesting – I knew very little about the background to the conflict in Indochina and I learnt a lot (but quite painlessly) – and would certainly consider reading other books by this author. I have always enjoyed historical fiction but I have rarely ventured into anything later than the Victorian era. Maybe I need to remind myself that everything which happened before today is history…
Like many people I’ve got a bit of the Irish in me. My Great Grandad Jack was from County Cork and the family legend always used to be that he came over in 1916 and changed his surname from Moriarty to Collins. We’ve since worked out that this may not be strictly true but, in honour of my partly Irish heritage, I claim it is. It is my own personal bit of blarney and I’m sticking to it.
Talking of blarney allow me to introduce you, if you didn’t know her already, to Marian Keyes: one of the original chick-lit authors, an award winner and all-round lovely person. I’m going to confess that, despite selling loads of them, I’ve never read any of her novels but I think that will change pretty soon based on how much I have fallen in love with this woman after reading this collection of articles, blog posts and general chit-chat. I just hope she’ll forgive me for being so tardy in getting round to it – my excuse being that, working in a book shop I have access to all the books, and that is an awful lot of choice… Anyway, I’m going to say that I’m including her on my girl-crush list (along with Claudia Winkleman, Victoria Coren-Mitchell and Caitlin Moran) and hope that does the trick.
There are musings on all kinds of stuff in here – from the trivial (but important) nail varnish museum to the rather more poignant, like her father’s Alzheimers. She is able to discuss the minutiae of cruise-ship snack foods in great detail and yet skips quite delicately (yet honestly) over her problems with addiction and mental health. Her family and friends all sound wonderful – especially Himself, her adored husband, and her Mammy. In fact the only reason I can see not to love her is jealousy at the number of amazing holidays she goes on. Oh, and getting to meet Robert Plant.
This book is going to be a brilliant present to give so many women (for Mother’s Day, a birthday or just because you love them). If they enjoy issue-led chick-lit, Mrs Brown’s Boys, shoes, make-up or big, warm, messy families then this could be the answer to your gifting needs.
When I was a kid I seem to remember the one thing I really disliked was when you read a story and just knew, all the way through, that there was a moral to it. You know, the kind of story where the message (usually something that you thought was a bit soppy or daft) was more important than a good plot? I can recall stories I read at my aunt and uncle’s house, probably in some church magazines, where awful things happened to children who cycled in bare feet – I only liked them because something awful happened to the rather daft shoeless kid and I was a bloodthirsty little thing. I certainly wouldn’t want to read them again, talk about them with my friends or even tell my teachers about them – none of the things that make children love books.
And this is what I loved the most about Phil Earle’s Superhero Street – the fact that the most important thing is that it is a cracking good story. Young Michael (known as Mouse) lives with his parents and five younger brothers (twins and triplets) and wants to be a superhero. When his father disappears and two desperate jewel thieves cross his path he gets his chance. There is an awful lot of just the right kind of sillyness (fart jokes, daft nicknames and the like), some wonderfully disgusting descriptions of nappies and an exceedingly wicked baddie.
As an adult I can also appreciate the fact that there is an underlying message – about who can be a hero and what heroism looks like – but for a child this would just be part of the overall package. The fact that a large part of this message is that kids who act as unseen carers, and overworked (and suddenly single) parents, are often the true heroes will, hopefully, mean a lot to children who are in that position. As Mouse points out all any youngster wants is ‘to be seen, and seen as special’.
I am an admirer of cleverness. My top tv celebrities are David Attenborough, Stephen Fry and Professor Brian Cox rather than anyone from reality shows – I even have a lot of time for Russell Brand (he doesn’t quite know what to do with his cleverness but it seems to be genuinely there and he has sound footballing credentials). I’m just not sure how much fun some really smart people would be to live with. I mean, I bet Dawkins is a beggar for not replacing the toilet roll and Victoria Coren Mitchell hogs the tv remote. Possibly.
In Ian Sansom’s County Guides (of which Death in Devon is the second) we meet the undoubtedly intelligent Swanton Morley. He is a complete polymath who can speak knowledgeably, if not understandably, on any subject and who seems to be on a mission to write all the necessary reference books ever – imagine, if you will, a 1930s Stephen Fry. He is also a complete nightmare. Not somebody you’d want to get stuck in a lift with (or even share a tea-room with since he seems to be one to hold forth with no regard for anyone else’s conversations) let alone work for. In this series he travels around Britain with his rather forceful daughter, Miriam, and his secretary Stephen Sefton. Poor Stephen seems to come off worst on almost every occasion – it is probably not just his memories of the Spanish Civil War which are driving him to drink.
The plot of this book is, well, eventful. Morley, and his sidekicks, travel to Devon to give a speech at a school run by an old friend and, in the best tradition of 1930s Golden Age crime fiction (and Midsomer Murders) things go very, very wrong. In fact the death of one of the school’s pupils is probably the least of it compared to the hints of occult practices (and Miriam’s robust appetites…). I found the book very amusing and cleverly put together although I understand that Morley is too irritating for some readers. I’m just interested to see how far Ian Sansom gets in the series – with nearly 40 counties to cover it is going to take a while to complete. I hope he gets around to Essex (where he and I are both from) and I wonder what it will be called. Extermination in Essex maybe?
It has been a while since I read any children’s fiction. Looking back at my magic spreadsheet it looks like it was towards the end of last year that I last reviewed anything younger than a teen/YA novel – don’t judge me: I like spreadsheets and I need to keep track of a lot of books and reviews. Its not that there aren’t lots of interesting children’s books out there but I don’t seem to find the time to squeeze them in. Which is odd as they can, in the case of picture books and fiction for primary age children, be read in a lunch break. I think it is just working out what to say about them is a lot harder – after all, it is a few years since I was at school. And when I was there I mostly read Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis (which I think may have been covered already by one or two people over the years). I’ve read the popular current authors like J. K. Rowling and Julia Donaldson but again these are pretty well represented…
So, I dipped my hand into the lucky dip of children’s fiction and came up with a few things to review – starting with Genesis, the first volume in a series called River of Ink and suitable (in my view) for children 10 and older. I did struggle a little at the beginning of the book as one of the characters irritated me but it turned out he was a fairly minor player so I was able to get over that. (Hearing Supper’s Ready in my head every time I saw the title is an ongoing issue and one that’s not likely to go away anytime soon…). By the end I was almost hooked enough to find the previously annoying character endearing.
The story is a little like Will Hill’s Department 19 series, or maybe a junior version of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, since it features mysterious orphans, a shadowy (and probably evil) corporation and peril in various European cities. The main characters are a boy who emerges from the River Thames with no knowledge of who he is and Kassia, who is home-schooled by her rather neurotic mother. The mother is an interesting personality and it will be fascinating to see how she develops in future books in the series – the same goes for Dante, Kassia’s deaf brother. On the side of the ‘baddies’ I’m looking forward to learning more about Victor, a young boy in care who can’t believe his luck when he is suddenly given a home by a man who claims to have been his dead father’s employer.
I don’t think I’m liable to swap all my reading to the children’s sections but it is reassuring to know that there are still good stories being written for youngsters. A blend of mystery, danger and riddles to be solved and a diverse cast means this should appeal to boys and girls from 10 upwards.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I really like quirky stories. I mean I like all kinds of books but if it features an animal (talking or not), or strange inventions (maybe steam-powered) then I’m always happy to give it a go. My bookcases are full of odd Scandinavian stories – I’m going to blame the fact that my favourite book ever is Alice in Wonderland and I have spent most of my life believing six impossible things before breakfast. So when Harpercollins mentioned they had a new book coming out which featured an immoral pharmaceuticals company, a variety of dysfunctional families and an enigmatic squirrel I knew I had to give it a try.
The story is about Veblen, a warm and quirky young woman who values a peaceful and useful life. Somehow she seems to have been damaged by her relationship with her mother but has fallen in love with Paul. He also seems to be hiding away from some family trauma – maybe they are meant for each other. However, he is a very different sort of personality: ambitious, easily seduced by priviledge and power. He seems to see Veblen as his saviour one moment and the next as some sort of project for improvement. The plot centres around Paul’s involvement with a big pharmaceutical company and the wedge this drives between him and gentle, animal-loving Veblen. Along the way we discover what the family secrets are (like most, not so terrible in the end unless you are the one who has to live with them), whether big Pharma really is evil and that there is a secret squirrel society (called the Nutkinistas. Obviously).
This is a clever book and also quite a charming one. The writing is engaging and very well thought out. In keeping with the fairly medically-based plot the language reflects that bias – at one point a character feels a ‘broad-spectrum uneasiness’ – but it isn’t heavy-handed. I shall look out for future books by Elizabeth McKenzie (and for the Nutkinistas…)
When I was in my teens I remember going to my local library and feeling very mature because I had progressed to the ‘teen reading’ section. I was also very annoyed because the section was never – never – kept in any kind of order. According to the librarian most teens found the idea of order oppressive (although I don’t think she used those words) which we can add to the list of ‘not quite truths’ that adults persist in telling themselves about teens. You know the stuff, teens don’t speak apart from grunts, teens are self-centred, teens are rude, lazy, and ignorant. In my experience most of this is untrue (most of the time) – teens are as mixed a range of personalities as adults and some of them put adults to shame as carers, volunteers and workers.
These days libraries may be changing the name of their ‘teen’ sections to ‘young adult’ and therein lies a new problem. What’s the difference between teen and YA fiction? I don’t think I know the answer but after reading various opinions I think I’m going to plump for an emphasis on ‘adult‘. We are even thinking of splitting the teen section at work into two – one for younger teens, up to about 14 or so, and the rest for older or more mature young people who can deal emotionally with more content of a sexual or violent nature. It isn’t even purely about age: I know some who can cope, quite maturely, with stories featuring graphic scenes of rape or bullying, at 13 and others who don’t want to deal with that kind of thing even as proper adults. Anyway, I suspect this is a discussion which will go on for a long time – especially now that issues of gender identity, mental health and racism feature so much more obviously and are not so much hidden away.
This is all relevant to the most recent book I have read to review, 13 Minutes by Sarah Pinborough, as it seems to me to fall quite clearly into the YA category rather than being suitable for younger teens. The story centres on Tasha, beautiful, clever, popular and fighting to remember how she came to fall into a freezing river. She was dead for 13 minutes and can’t work out who would want to kill her, but her best friends (and fellow ‘Barbies’ in the eyes of embittered childhood bff, Becca) are acting suspiciously.
This is a great thriller with lots of plot twists. Think of a high school Gone Girl. Or Cluedo where the correct answer is ‘in the 6th Form Common Room with a set of GHDs’. Pinborough is absolutely spot on with the life of teenaged girls (and boys), what is important (status within friendship groups) and what isn’t (parental approval). It is quite chilling and makes me glad I’m not a teenager in today’s world. Part of the plot involves a school production of The Crucible and it is easy to see the parallels to the play’s atmosphere of passion, the protection of reputations and the way a community can turn against a member who is different.
I can’t say much more about the plot without major spoilers so I won’t. Suffice it to say that my final thought were that it was fitting to refer to the girls in this story as ‘Barbies’ – after all they are toys, made to be played with. To be manipulated…