Animal – Sara Pascoe

Ah celebrities! They’re everywhere. On the tv, all over social media, most pages of almost every magazine and newspaper (probably not The Economist or the Financial Times mind you….) and, in many cases, on the shelves of your local bookshop. Some, to be fair, are probably only weighing down the shelves in charity shops (I’m old enough to remember how crazy the media went when Naomi Campbell ‘wrote’ Swan…) but others are really very good. Hugh Laurie, Jenny Eclair and Steve Martin have written books which, in my opinion, would still be good books even if their authors were not famous for other things too. What I find interesting is that many (although not all) of the best celebrity authors have a comedy background. Meera Syal, Dawn French, the mighty David Walliams, Mark Watson, Michael Palin – bestselling novelists every one. As for Morrissey, well, let’s just sweep that one under the carpet shall we…

Celebrity non-fiction is a much more mixed bag I feel. The autumn publishing schedules are always chock-full of biographies by footballers, actors and famous figures and they are always popular with their fans and, in the case of the best ones, those who just want to know more about the people they see on front pages and screens every day. Some famous people have interests which can result in slightly surprising books on Medieval history  or cookery but, on the whole, they generally boil down to autobiographies or humorous musings.

indexSara Pascoe’s Animal, at first, seems to fit into the musings category but before long I realised that it was more than that. While being a very funny book (pity poor Rob – he gets all the best bits read out loud to him whether he wants them or not) and also largely autobiographical it shows that Pascoe is one of the wave of comedians who want to use laughter to make us think about some very difficult and even controversial subjects. It is a testament to the quality of the book that it made me think about patriarchy, FGM and evolutionary psychology and yet I still balanced every in drawn breath of shock with a giggle. This kind of politicised comedy was something I first became aware of in the 70s and 80s (Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle spring to mind) and we have seen it develop through writers like Michael Moore and Mark Thomas. The feminist flag is waved vigorously (and brilliantly) by Caitlin Moran but she is, for me, a funny writer rather than a comedian who writes. Sara Pascoe is a very funny comedian and, in this book, she has shown herself to be a writer on a par with Moran.*

Humour is often seen as a way to appeal to the younger market – ‘da youf’ as they would probably be described by comedians old enough to know better – and this is a book which (despite a fair amount of sweariness) I would love to press into the hands of every girl and young woman I meet. One of the best bits is that Sara has reminded me that I should also be recommending it to all the young men (and all those who are still making a gender choice) as well. And then I’m going to start on the re-education of the older generation too…


*Sara Pascoe is now officially joining Moran on my ‘girl crush’ list. Once we all get together the patriarchy doesn’t stand a chance!


The Mandibles – Lionel Shriver

I think we have established by now that I do love a good apocalypse. There is something irresistible, for me, in seeing how a society breaks down and, consequently, how it attempts to rebuild itself. Of course we have been schooled to see apocalypses (apocoli? this is an issue which has concerned greater minds than mine…) as something, well, explosive. We think of radioactive fall-out, incurable and exotic diseases, zombies but what if the world ended with more of a whimper than a bang? What if the end of days is slow, gradual and rather prosaic?

9780007560769Lionel Shriver’s tale of how one family, the Mandibles, copes during such an event is fascinating. And it is mostly so because it is just so plausible being based on an economic system we can see at work today. High national levels of debt, a reliance on the transfer of money rather than the cash itself and an almost total disconnect from manufacturing or manual labour. And of course all the generations following on from the Baby Boomers who are relying on inheriting the fortune their parents have built up to cover their debts and losses. The Mandible fortune has been built up first by the manufacture of diesel engines, then in the generation of the current patriarch, Douglas, in publishing. Subsequent generations are journalists, writers, academics – the move away from the making of actual physical stuff is there. When the American economy goes into free fall – wiping out the fortune which the whole family was anticipating (yet trying not to – there is a feeling that wishing for the death of the grandfather is in poor taste and the Mandibles are, if nothing else, tasteful). It is a gripping arc to the story where we see the family, in a country which is rapidly falling apart, realising that things are going to go beyond having to give up luxuries like imported wine, meat or holidays. We even go beyond the point where essentials like a decently paid police force, basic medication like laxatives or even toilet paper are available. Don’t think that just because there are no zombies or wars this is not a very, very grim affair.

For me this book contains my apocalypse – the death of books. Not just of publishing or print books – bad as that would be – but of authorship itself. A generation raised to expect that, once they have paid for a device (like an e-reader or a smart phone), they can get unlimited content for free leads gradually to the end of paid writing. I have a number of writer friends who self-publish and who, occasionally, produce work which is low-cost or even free but they do need to make money from their work. Although this whole book was, frankly, terrifying at times I think I’m most afraid that this is the part which will come true first…


Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen – Alison Weir

I’ve read a fair amount of Alison Weir’s history books – she tends to write about women, mostly in the medieval, Tudor and Elizabethan period and these are all things which interest me, history-wise. I read a couple of her first forays into fiction, Innocent Traitor which was about Lady Jane Grey, and a novel covering the early years of a future queen, The Lady Elizabeth and I enjoyed them both (even though, let’s be honest, I knew how they would end…). I particularly liked the fact that I can read Weir’s non-fiction works on the same period and/or characters. That seems to be like a window on to what has inspired her as an author – always a fascinating prospect.

alison weirOf course with the story of Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife and the one who, arguably, caused many of the future problems for the Tudors, is well-known so it is interesting to see what can be done with it. And, to be fair, I think Alison Weir has crafted a fairly compelling story around the accepted facts. Probably because, as a historian she can explore more than just the obvious parts of the tale – I was especially struck by the way that she used extracts from actual letters written by Katherine and others. In fact it took me a little while to realise that real correspondence was being quoted as it was slotted into the action so well.

Because the events of this story are a matter of historical record – and I’d assume that, like me, those who read historical fiction are also interested in the history itself – I’m not really going to talk about them. But what I was really struck by was how difficult life was for women. They are property, to be married off for political reasons and, if their husband dies, they will be passed on to the next candidate or sent back to parents who will probably be looking to the nearest nunnery. The need for kings to father the next generation, to continue the line, is so paramount that they will marry young girls to old men and even consider marrying relations so near that they have to get Papal permission to break biblical law. This, of course, is a well-worn trope but in this book we also get to consider the importance of Queenship – Katherine is an anointed queen and is the daughter of both a king and, more importantly, a queen regnant: she feels, I think, that to be a queen is (to quote the Blues Brothers rather incongruously) a mission from God. The tragedy is that she cannot accept that a King, even the husband she loves so much, has the right to deflect her from that mission. This is, essentially, the story of two rights. It seems to me that both sides probably sincerely believed in their own position and feared that they would probably suffer eternally if they gave way to the other.




Holiday reading round-up

Just got back from a wonderful holiday – four days in the fabulous city of Florence and now brimming with pasta and good red wine – and, of course, I took some holiday reading with me. We travelled by train all the way, with overnight stops in Zurich and Turin, and I made good on my promise to get lots of reading done. To be fair we did spend about 24 hours on trains but since we also got meals on some those journeys (you have got to love getting good deals on advance tickets that mean you can do the odd leg in First Class) and the views through the Alps were stunning I’m going to be satisfied with the four books I did read.

Reviews to follow but I am really looking forward to telling you about books by Alison Weir, Emma Cline, Lionel Shriver and Francis Spufford. And hoping that I can get it done before we start the Bradford Literature Festival on Friday…


The Vanishing Futurist – Charlotte Hobson

I’m not very good at air travel and tend to use trains for most of my holidays (I’ve just come back from a trip to Florence via Zürich and Turin all done by train). Obviously some of this is down to not being a very good passenger on planes but some is also down to environmental concerns – and of course the longer, slightly slower journey is (usually) much more relaxing and gives me lots of time to read. I think you know me well enough by now to know which of these things is most important to me? Of course, this does mean that I am slightly limited to the nearer bits of Europe, unless I take much longer holidays, but again I don’t have a problem with that. France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Spain and Italy have all done me proud on food, drink and art and I don’t ask for much more than that in life. There are other places I would like to visit – including Russia (but I suspect more for art and history than for the food and drink: I don’t like vodka…) and more of Scandinavia (to see if they are all as quirky as their novels suggest!).

12628000_476612229206050_332870725_nOne of the appeals of Russia would be the art – from the architecture of the cathedrals, through the glittering icons and the contents of the Hermitage and, particularly, the art produced after the 1917 revolution. And it is this avant-garde art which features so strongly in Charlotte Hobson’s novel. The story centres around Gerty Freely, a young Englishwoman who travels to Moscow to escape her family and to work as a governess in the months just before the outbreak of the Great War. She is welcomed into the Kobelev family, who seem warm, modern and intellectual – you soon see that they are the family Gerty wants rather than her own dictatorial father and dismissive mother. Of course war soon makes itself felt, but not so much for the relatively wealthy and well-connected Kobelevs, and then the revolution. This is a far more sweeping event and the horrors of those early years, the hunger, fear and panic, are well described. The other key character is the vanishing futurist of the title – Nikita Slavkin – who combines the avant-garde with new discoveries in physics.

This is a love story but also, it seems, a fairly accurate historical description of what it could have been like to live in those dangerous days. I was certainly left contemplating the differences between Communism (which seems to me to make absolute equality its key factor) and more modern Socialism (which for me is mainly concerned with fairness rather than mere equality) – but it is a very interesting book which draws you in with the story but leaves you with a head buzzing with art, philosophy and political thought. Even if I don’t make it Russia I am going to be investigating the art produced there in the early years of the 20th century.



Last of Us – Rob Ewing

A part of my job which I really, really enjoy (aside from the reading and the cake) is recommending books to customers. You get kind of a warm glow when customers come back in and tell you how much they enjoyed the book you suggested to them – although sometimes they do return to tell me off for getting them hooked on a new author/series. I tell them I’m not just a bookseller, I’m an enabler for book addicts.  But, of course, someone has to put books in my hand too – I read fast but I can’t get to everything which is published/reissued/promoted because of a film or tv adaptation each month. Not and actually go to work anyway. So, who do I turn to when I want a book recommendation?

The very clever people at our Head Office – the buyers and all-round geniuses who select things like our Books of the Month and Book Club titles – are a great source. Obviously I can’t love absolutely everything but they have set up some wonderful titles recently: the Reader on the 6.27, for example, as fiction book of the month, or Enchanted April as our monthly Forgotten Classic. Customers are also a great source of inspiration, whether they are regulars, tourists or a class of seven-year-olds, and publishers too. Of course, when publishers send out advance information they try to make everything sound amazing but often they are right (and a lot of the reps know just what sort of thing I like). But recently I’ve been getting an awful lot of heads-up on forthcoming books from friends and colleagues on social media. It helps that on both Facebook and Twitter I’m in contact with some inspirational booksellers (like @Leilah_Makes and @ShinraAlpha) and authors (who, contrary to popular belief, always seem to be hugely generous in their praise for other author’s work). And of course most of my friends in real life are big readers too…

9780008149581.jpg.pagespeed.ce.8oqvpiIdnEAll this is leading up to the fact that most of the people I admire in the world of books and reading have been suggesting (sometimes in the strongest possible terms) that I read Rob Ewing’s The Last of Us – and, dagnabbit, they were right. The plot centres around a small group of children, aged from 5 to early teens, who survive an outbreak of a virulent (and fatal) illness and particularly features eight year old Rona. They are the last survivors on a remote Hebridean island and the story explores the dynamics of the group as they come to terms with the fact that the adults are, probably, never coming back. There have been some comparisons to Lord of the Flies but I think it is probably more realistic than that (while, obviously, being about a very unreal if plausible situation). These are real children – some angry, some confused, some trying their hardest to be sensible and grown-up – and they are upset, brave, spiteful and loving in the way that real children are. The plot moves backwards and forwards from the time before, when parents were around but the panic of the epidemic itself made everything very confusing for Rona and the others, to a couple of weeks when things come to a head.

The story was absolutely gripping (thanks for the late nights there, Rob…) and the characters were so realistic. It was heartbreaking to see these children, these incredibly real children, suffer so – but it was also uplifting to realise that each of them, in their own way, could be brave and funny and selfless. This is Ewing’s first novel – I really hope it won’t be his last.


Lubetkin Legacy – Marina Lewycka (Bradford Literature Festival pt2)

9780241249215xlContinuing with my attempts to make sure I’ve read the books covered in events at the Bradford Literature Festival (or at least some of those of authors I may well get to meet – could be embarrassing otherwise) I next turned to the Lubetkin Legacy, the fifth novel by Marina Lewycka, and a setting which was much more familiar to me. It also contains many of the elements which made A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (and Lewycka’s other books) so successful – a cast of characters from around the world but with an emphasis of Eastern Europe, bittersweet humour and a firm basis in the difficulties faced in modern life.

The story revolves around actor Berthold Sidebottom (stage name Bert Side, obviously…), the slightly demented Inna who moves in with him to impersonate his mother for the benefit of the housing department, the beautiful Violet who has to decide between a career in ‘wealth management’ or something which allows her to sleep at night, a parrot called Flossie and a middle-aged Council housing officer called Mrs Penny. And the star of the show is the modernist block of flats where much of the action takes place – designed by architect Berthold Lubetkin in that post war period when anything seemed possible in terms of building communities worth living in. In the middle of the rather complex plot – featuring the tenancy of the Lubetkin-built flat, Berthold’s quest for love, coffee and a paying acting job and the fate of a cherry grove – you are invited to contemplate some aspects of modern life which are, currently, hard to ignore: zero-hours contracts, corporate greed, the bedroom tax and planning policy. Although there is a lot of wit and humour in this story there is also some anger at the way that modern life has betrayed the principles of the post war politicians.

I’m looking forward to Lewycka’s event at the Literature Festival. There will be plenty to raise a laugh and maybe also something to think more seriously about.