The Long Road from Jarrow – Stuart Maconie

We seem to be living in an era of anniversaries. As well as the whole period from 2014 to 2018 being a commemoration of the Great War (with honour given to major individual battles like Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele) 2017 has also seen the Centenary of the Russian Revolution, the Balfour Declaration and the birth of Arthur C. Clarke, the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the film The Graduate and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Closer to home it is the 150th birthday of the beautiful building my workplace is housed in (an excuse for a party of some sort? I do hope so…) I’m not sure I remember quite so many major anniversaries in my childhood and youth (the only ones that stand out are the Queen’s various Jubilees – mostly because of time off school/my own wedding….) but perhaps I just didn’t care enough to remember them. One event which has recently (October 2016) marked what I tend to refer to as a ‘tombola’ anniversary – one ending in a 5 or a 0 – is the Jarrow March. You know, the Jarrow March? The march from Jarrow to, um, London? Because of jobs? Or something? The one which so many people have forgotten about, never heard of or have dismissed as some kind of bolshie nonsense? Well, that’s the one which Stuart Maconie has made the subject of his latest piece of travel writing.

9781785030536Maconie’s travel writing is always worth a read. He is a keen observer of the places he visits and is never afraid to give you his own views. In this book he decides to follow in the footsteps of the Jarrow Marchers, to find out why they marched, how they were received and whether they are remembered: also, he fancies a nice long walk. Along the way he compares 1936 – with its rise in right-wing politics, wide-spread unemployment and reliance on food handouts and other benefits, and frequent protest marches – with the present day. Some of the comparisons are quite chilling, if I’m honest – at some points the only improvement we seem to have is the NHS – but he is also happy to point out that his nightly accommodation, at least, was a great improvement on the drill halls, schools and churches the marchers were offered. He never downplays the physical effort the march represented but, in order to keep appointments with certain people he meets via social media, he does occasionally jump on a bus. These meetings are often with people who are able to fill in background information on the marchers but he also takes in choral music, a classical piano recital, a pub covers band and a wake. He speaks fondly of many of the marchers themselves (and their dog) and of the Jarrow MP, Ellen Wilkinson, but is scathing of most of the Labour party of the time (who made every effort to distance themselves from the marchers). He’s not fond of Corbyn either but does end his march by meeting Tracy Brabin, the MP for Batley & Spen (elected after the murder of Jo Cox) in the House of Commons.

This book is a fascinating history of the Jarrow March of 1936 but also of the country as it was at the end of last year. In many ways it feels as if very little has changed but maybe books like this can help us – through gentle humour and a little anger – to make sure that the history of the late 1930s is not allowed to repeat itself.

Jane

 

The Bedlam Stacks – Natasha Pulley

Some people like books to sit quietly in their genre. If it is a spy thriller it should be thrillery, but not contain elements of fantasy; historical novels shouldn’t be set in space; hard-boiled crime should not contain chapters with descriptions of cute kittens (unless, of course, they are the ones being hard-boiled….). I don’t mind a bit of a mash-up – post-apocalyptic love stories? historical thrillers? Bring it on….As Tom Stoppard assures us, all stories have a little bit of romance, death and eloquence. I’m particularly fond of a bit of quirkiness drifting into my reading – although strictly speaking I should call it by its Sunday name, Magical Realism…

bedlamIn The Bedlam Stacks Natasha Pulley brings us to a world which is undoubtedly real – the East India Company has become the India Office, malaria is still hampering Britain’s ambitions in the East and Peru has banned the export of the seeds or saplings of the trees whose bark supplies life-saving quinine. The main character, Merrick Tremayne, is a gardener/botanist who has worked as an opium smuggler for the East India Company during the Opium Wars with China is the perfect person to send in to try and succeed where others have failed. Tremayne, however, was seriously injured during his last mission and is living on his family’s dilapidated Cornish estate. He is on the point of taking a job as a curate when he is called to travel to Peru, accompanied by his good friend Clem and his wife Minna. There they find themselves in a world which is ruled by cartels controlling the sale of cinchona (the tree from which quinine is derived) but also superstition, religion and the mysterious geography of the region. This, of course, is where the magical part of the story happens. Living statues, exploding trees, a mysterious community built up from children with disabilities left there by the inhabitants of other villages deep in the forbidden forests, not to mention a key character, Raphael, the village priest who seems to suffer from a strange condition.

I’ve often enjoyed books which feature magic realism (or quirkiness, as I insist on calling it – it sounds so much less daunting and lit-crit-like) and I enjoy good historical fiction. This, I think, is one of the first times I’ve been able to enjoy them together – I have to say it is a combination I will try again in future. In fact, I think I may have to go back to Pulley’s previous book, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, which seems to involve at least one character from Bedlam Stacks…(my to-read pile is never going to get any smaller, is it?)

Jane

The Music Shop – Rachel Joyce

Rachel Joyce writes wonderful books. Not necessarily with the most beautiful, flowery language (although they are good words, honest and accessible) but with characters, plots and emotional sucker-punches which make me very, very happy. I’ve never met a Rachel Joyce novel (so far) that I didn’t love but, boy, do they bring a tear to the eye. In an oddly satisfying way. It feels quite hard to describe why I love these books so much beyond the fact that they get me right in the feels (as the kids no longer say…) – lets hope I can convince you to read them and find out for yourselves…

51yytgdLxSL._AC_US218_This book opens in 1988. In a music shop which is resisting the rise of CDs (although not modern music) and the march of progress generally. It is on a street with a small parade of the kind of shops which are closing down all the time – the book opens in a sort of dead-end. But it is the kind of glorious dead end that I, for one, would love to have on my doorstep. The owner of the shop, Frank, is a bit of a lost soul who is still mourning his beloved (but rather difficult) mother, who shies away from relationships and who, despite all this lives to help others through music. The man with the unfaithful wife who listens only to Chopin is reminded that he is not alone via the work of Aretha Franklin; a bank manager’s baby is lulled to sleep by The Troggs Wild Thing. He is, in the early days, pretty astute about music – he’s the only shop locally to stock the Sex Pistols and stocks all the big indy labels – but the rise of CDs is a problem. Frank won’t stock them and he becomes persona non grata with all the reps from record companies.

Of course, if this were just the story of a shop it wouldn’t be quite as satisfying (apart, possibly, to those of us who work in shops and have a vested interest) so there are also some fascinating characters to meet. Frank himself is a gentle, rather shabby, giant of a man who, despite trying to avoid relationships, is essential to the lives of all those around him. Then there are the other residents of Unity Street – a Polish baker, an ex-priest running a religious gift shop, a pair of elderly undertakers, a combative tattooist, little old Mrs Roussos – who are all given life and character and who all become part of Frank’s ‘family’ (for want of a better word). Add into this his hapless (but big-hearted) assistant Kit and a mysterious German woman, Ilse Brauchmann, and it seems that Frank hasn’t been able to avoid all relationships after all.

I loved this book because of those wonderful, warm and complicated human relationships. I loved it because it made me cry as much as it made me smile and I loved it for the music. Frank’s approach to music is unusual, to say the least, since he is possibly the total opposite of High Fidelity’s obsessive alphabetiser but his tastes are broad. I loved the fact that its four parts are presented as being the four side of a double album (a concept album, obviously). And, for my money, any novel which opens with a quote* from Nick Drake deserves all the praise I can give it…

Jane

*Time has told me
You’re a rare, rare find
A troubled cure
For a troubled mind

Nick Drake – Time Has Told Me

 

When Dimple Met Rishi – Sandhya Menon

When I’m as busy as I was during the Bradford Literature Festival I like to read something fairly light. I rather reluctantly left the history book I started at the end of June (Pale Rider by Laura Spinney, a history of the Spanish Flu of 1918 – I’ll have to wait to review it when I finish it…) and decided to go for a bit of romance. But, because I was working through one of the most diverse literature festivals in the country, this was a romance with a South Asian twist. Now I will start out by saying that I always have the same problem with books that look interesting because of their South Asian connections. It just seems to end up that over 90% of them are about people of Indian heritage rather than from anywhere else in the region. I’m not saying that these books are not going to be of interest to my customers in Bradford but far more of them are Pakistani or Bangladeshi than Indian. Far more of them are Muslim than Hindu (although there is still a strong Hindu and Sikh community here) – when I used to see publisher’s reps on a regular basis I did get a bit fed up of being told that novel x was ideal for my largely Muslim customers of Pakistani heritage living in West Yorkshire because it was about a group of Indian Hindus living in New York. Close but no cigar because, surprise, not all brown people are the same….

28458598This is not to say I didn’t enjoy this book, which was a rather sweet love story about a young couple who meet while studying at a summer school. Dimple is a girl who is trying to rebel against her parents sense of tradition. She want to make her mark in the world, be independent and, above all, she doesn’t want to think about finding the IIH (ideal Indian husband). Rishi is rather more traditional – he feels a great respect for his heritage and is happy for his parents to arrange a marriage for him – but he is torn between the need to make his family happy and the desire to follow his heart. Needless to say Dimple is not impressed when she realises that she is expected to marry Rishi and the sparks that fly between them are rather less romantic than he hoped. I rather liked both main characters – Dimple is bright and ambitious and totally aware that she is fighting against years of tradition; Rishi is sweet and a bit serious and far more romantic than Dimple. Their relationship progresses, in fits and starts, and they become good friends as well as team-mates on the key summer school project. Of course it doesn’t go smoothly (well, there’s no book in that, is there?) and they both have to make compromises in their own actions as well as in their interaction with their families.

This was a pleasant romance story and also one which I will feel happy to recommend to my customers. Many of them require that the books they read are compatible with their lifestyle – romantic but chaste, where modesty is maintained even when tradition is questioned. This one should fit the bill quite nicely – there is (slight spoiler alert), eventually, a physical relationship but there is no detailed description of much beyond kissing (really good kissing by the sound of it) and embraces. Both main characters do end up going against their parent’s wishes but they do this by discussing their issues rather than just through defiance. There is also a lot of humour in the book – Dimple in particular I found very amusing – and a fair bit about prejudice, fairness and bullying. I’d happily recommend this book for younger teens and anyone who enjoys good old-fashioned romance.

Jane

More Time Please!

I am currently spending my day off  (the only full one I’m taking during the 10 days of the Bradford Literature Festival but don’t feel sorry for me – I can sleep when it’s all over!) watching Wimbledon and putting off going for a run*. So I’m going to procrastinate in the best way I know – talking about books. More specifically, given that I seem to spend the whole Literature Festival wishing I had more hours in the day (and a cloning machine), I’m going to talk about a group of books I read recently which all, coincidently, involve travel through time.

Outcasts of Time – Ian Mortimer

outcastsI’ve read and enjoyed Mortimer’s popular history books looking at the lives of a range of people during the medieval, Elizabethan and Restoration eras so I was interested in this novel. In it two brothers are given a choice (by some mysterious entity – we never find out for certain if it is angelic, demonic or just likes to interfere, like Q in Star Trek) between dying of the plague which is ravaging the area or living for a further 6 days. The catch is that those 6 days will be a further 99 years into the future each day.

Mortimer brings a true historian’s eye to this story. Each time period is portrayed in the kind of detail (and accuracy) that most historical fiction writers can only dream of – the smells, sights, diseases, moralities, foods and technology are all there. What stays with the two men is the mentality of their own time – governed by the politics of the day and the power of the church – but they have to question their beliefs as they visit 1447, 1546 (getting caught up in Henry VIII’s religious problems), 1645 (the English Civil War), 1744 (the workhouse – never a fun place), 1843 and, finally, 1942.

The history in this book is very sound and the issues raised are interesting – do we fail to learn from our history because we can only look backwards in time? I didn’t entirely engage with the hero, John, possibly because he, quite correctly, remained a product of his original age. He learns a lot in 6 days but that isn’t long enough to become a different person – he is still a medieval craftsman. If you like really well-researched historical fiction then give this a try…

The Summer of Impossible Things – Rowan Coleman

impossibleThe main character in this novel, Luna,  also travels in time but only to and fro between the present and a very specific time in the life of her recently deceased mother, Marissa. Something terrible happened to her mother at that time (the summer of 1977, in an area of New York where the filming of Saturday Night Fever is taking place) but also something wonderful. She met her future husband Henry and fell in love but, it appears, she was also raped by a man who should have been a pillar of the society she lived in. Luna, armed with this information, befriends her mother (known as Riss in 1977 and a bit of a live-wire, far from the depressed shell of a woman Luna remembers) and tries to discover the identity of the rapist. When she realises that her actions in 1977 are causing changes in the modern-day she decides to try to prevent the attack taking place altogether. Because she was the result of that rape she has to come to terms with the fact that, by preventing it, she will cease to exist (in a Back to the Future stylee…)

A really interesting story and well told. I didn’t work out who the attacker was until shortly before the reveal and I loved the descriptions of 1977 New York. If you are a fan of slightly quirky women’s fiction then this could be your beach read (or, even better, Central Park read) this summer.

How to Stop Time – Matt Haig

stop timeIn his book, Reasons to Stay Alive, a wonderful book that grew from Haig’s own depression to become a sort of manual for young men struggling with their mental health, Matt Haig gives us this poem:

How to stop time: kiss.
How to travel in time: read.
How to escape time: music.
How to feel time: write.
How to release time: breathe

Now he has developed some of the themes and ideas in that book into a novel about an apparently youngish man, Tom Hazard, who is not what he appears. Although he appears to be in his early 40s he was, in fact, born in 1581. He has a condition which means he ages fifteen times slower than normal and he has been alive for over 400 years. And, unlike the characters in Outcasts of Time, he has lived every single one of those years day by day…

This book, as well as highlighting the differences in attitudes over four centuries, is an exploration of a life stretched out almost beyond bearing. Tom meets others of his kind and joins their group – the Albatross Society – but finds that his life is controlled by the Society, the Albas. He is helped to move on and find a new life every eight years or so, when others start to notice that he is not showing signs of the passing years but he almost needs to leave behind his identity each time. And of course one of the first rules of the Albatross Society is ‘never fall in love’ so these 400 years have been largely led alone. This is a rule which Tom had always been happy to live by – his one great love having died in one of the many outbreaks of plague over the years – but which we see him come to doubt. Eventually, in the best Matt Haig fashion, this book becomes an exploration of identity and the difference between being alive and really living. This, like every other Haig book I’ve read, will become one I recommend to just about everyone…

Jane

*Went for the run – 3.4 miles – glad to be sat down again now…Timey-wimey stuff is not the only wibbly-wobbly thing around here!

 

Bradford Literature Festival – the beginning

This year’s literature festival is well underway now – I think we have all been working flat-out since Monday when the first 80 totes of stock arrived in the shop. Since then we have booked in huge amounts of stock, built a whole pop-up bookshop in an inflatable tent, hosted a sold-out event in store and done two full days of bookstalls to support author events at up to three different sites a day. Phew. I’ve not been able to see many of the talks – having to man the bookstall – but so far the festival has discussed Jane Austen (her life and times, influences on contemporary literature around the world and the delightfully titled ‘Disrobing Mr Darcy. I did sneak in and listen to a few minutes of that last one…), monogamy, djinns in fiction and psychology, geo-engineering, politics, mythologies and fairy tales and cricket. When they say this festival has something for everyone they really mean it….

20170630_190826As I say I haven’t been able to see many events but I was working for the sold-out event with David Crystal on Friday night – there was certainly a lot of love for a man described as the foremost writer and lecturer on the English Language – and he was a very lovely chap with an impressive beard. There were a lot of younger audience members and I suspect that Crystal’s own eloquence (the subject of his talk) and ability to make grammar, punctuation and the english language generally clear mean that he has helped a lot of young people make it through GCSE and A Level exams…

What makes the Bradford Literature Festival special to me is a combination of the audiences – who are as diverse and engaging as the speakers – the authors and the volunteers. Yesterday I met one of the helpers, a young Italian girl called Ciara, who has come to the UK just to volunteer for this festival. She is staying with a host family and enjoying using her excellent english language skills. I was in awe – I don’t think I could have done that at 18! It has also been amazing to watch some of the local authors move on from small panel events last year (four panelists and about a dozen attendees) to filling the biggest venues this year. Just watch out for A. A. Dhand’s Harry Virdee novels is all I’m saying…

20170702_180217.jpgFinally I did get into a bit of a discussion with some of the authors appearing at events in Bradford college yesterday. What is the correct collective noun for a group of authors? 20170702_180228.jpgAnd is it different from the one for a group of authors doing their best dinosaur impressions (it had been a long day by then…)? Any ideas? Or maybe we should ask David Crystal? – I bet he’s cool enough to know…

Jane