Brace yourselves. Never mind Winter, October is coming…

Well, another Christmas peak season is approaching in bookshopland and, once again, we don’t have a date for a new Game of Thrones book. But, before we get too downhearted, let’s have a look at what  we do have coming up in October. This is, traditionally, the month when publishers start to bring out their really key Christmas titles – it looks as if Super Thursday is 5th October this year, although maybe we’ll also have one on 12th and 26th as well – even if this year’s Jamie Oliver is already out. This, I will always maintain, is why we put out our calendars and Christmas cards early – we need to get them in place early before the first tidal wave of lovely, lovely book stock arrives. And Christmas 2017 looks like it has some very exciting titles to tempt us all.

Let’s start with the real biggies. Pullman and Brown. In any other year we’d be delighted to have a new Dan Brown book, and, don’t get me wrong, we’re still quite chuffed. He only produces a book every four years or so (the last, Inferno, came out in 2013) but they always selldanbrown well. It’s easy to look down on authors like Dan Brown but, by golly, I think most of us would be happy to live off his book royalties. The announcement, however, that Pullman was to write an entirely new trilogy of books set in the same world as his acclaimed His Dark Materials made our day back in 9780385604413February and we’ve been giddy kippers about it ever since. Personally, I’ve spent most of the last 20 years selling books for children which have been marketed as ‘the next Pullman’. Some of them have been excellent but, it seems, that to really get the ‘next Pullman’ we had to wait for the man himself to write it. La Belle Sauvage is one I’ll be making time for in October (having just reread Northern Lights and, I suddenly realised, reading Subtle Knife and Amber Spyglass for the first time).

Of course there is more to October than just these two authors. As a store we are also excited about a new collection of poetry by Rupi Kaur, the chance to Ask an Astronaut with Tim Peake and the illustrated edition of Prisoner of Azkaban. There are some old favourites, authors, titles and series that come back year after year, so expect to be able to put John Grisham, Bernard Cornwell, Liz Pichon, Matt Haig, Tom Fletcher and Nigel Slater on your list for Santa. For stocking-filling I’ll be heading for the next wave of adult Ladybird books (because we all have brothers or sisters or know a wannabe Rock Star or, say it proud, a Nerd) or for all the gorgeous gift lines we have arriving every day. Although, to be fair, it is a relief to know we have something for just about everyone under one roof – if this Christmas is as good as it’s looking at the moment I won’t have the time or the energy to go shopping anywhere else!

Jane

P.S. If none of that lot appeals to you my own personal reading list for October includes new books by Joanne Harris, Hugh Howey, Alisons Weir and Littlewood and Sarah Millican. Watch out for reviews – lets hope I can find the time for all that!

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The Fourteenth Letter – Claire Evans

It seems that, for some people, a good education is nothing without a thorough grounding in the classics. By which they mean Latin and Greek. Now, I consider myself to have a decent amount of schooling (and I have a hard time convincing any of my friends to play Trivial Pursuit with me…) but I am distinctly lacking in these areas. I know a little bit of botanical latin (in an effort not to be planting things in totally the wrong spot) and have been told that my surname is very similar sounding to a modern greek word meaning, well, poo-poo but that’s about it. Which means I started reading Claire Evans’ book assuming that there would be a reference, at some point, to the letter N. Silly me. Apparently it is all to do with Plato (and nothing to do with the Monty Python Philosopher’s Song either…).

9780751566406The Fourteenth Letter is a novel set in 1881. It starts gently, with a young girl being stabbed to death at her engagement party by a naked madman, moves on to an asthmatic young lawyer’s frantic efforts to keep one step ahead of murderous thugs in the pay of a beautiful red-headed aristocrat (helped by an aging policeman and an American girl who is like a cross between Annie Oakley, Lisbeth Salander and a version of Michelle Obama who found herself on the wrong side of the law) and ends up with a fiendish plot to take over the world. If this sounds too frantic then don’t worry – there is also plenty of character development, enough hints about back story to make those characters realistic and a happy(ish) ending. On a more serious side the book also takes a number of historical facts – the rise of eugenics, the criminal gangs in parts of London, the early days of the Met’s C.I.D, scientific advances and attitudes to women – and weaves them into a plausible and, as I said, fiendish plot. This is a confident debut novel – if you enjoy really well-written historical crime fiction you could do worse than give this book a try.

Jane

Things Can Only Get Worse – John O’Farrell

I tend not to discuss my political beliefs (such as they are). If you were to ask me, outside the polling station, how I’d voted I’d probably say ‘in a secret ballot’. Aside from anything else I reckon it frustrates the trolls. Although I suppose anyone looking at my Facebook feed, the kind of posts I like and the comments I make would be fairly sure that I am unlikely to vote for Messrs Farage, Gove or Trump (were I entitled to). I’m not suggesting my way is better – I love the fact that so many of my friends are so politically engaged, particularly the younger ones – but it is the one I feel comfortable with. Of course, some people’s entire raison d’être is political and they still manage to be funny in almost everything they do – those are some serious skills, in my opinion…

OFarrellJohn O’Farrell is one of those who are funny and also serious about their politics. Reading him means that you can laugh along with political figures (rather than just at them, which is the more usual but meaner way) but also get insights into how government actually works. This book is a follow on to an earlier book in which O’Farrell pondered on the fact that his first 20 years as a Labour supporter seemed to coincide with their two decades outside the corridors of power. He never actually claimed that the Thatcher years were all his fault but, well, surely it could be more than just a coincidence? In this book he discovers that being in opposition is often easier than being the people in charge and not just for politicians. As well as national and local politics we also get the story of O’Farrell’s involvement with local schools as he campaigns for a much-needed new secondary school and then finds himself a key member of the board of governors. The book covers Labour’s years in power, the Gulf War, Blair’s fall from popularity, Brown’s brief time as PM and then the resurgence of the Tories in 2010. And then, of course, the series of elections which have enlivened our lives in the past few years. Or at least given satirists plenty of material.

Reading this book I was impressed by O’Farrell’s commitment to his political party and to his community (partly in a self-interested way – his kids needed a school to go to which didn’t involve crossing half of London) and his ability to make me laugh. The biggest lesson I’m going to take away though is, probably, the one that he learned himself: the difference between his teen/twenties and his more mature years is his acceptance of the need for compromise. Compromise, in politics as in life in general, is not a sign of weakness but of maturity. It may be the best way forward for us all.

Jane

Smile – Roddy Doyle

Like most people my first introduction to Roddy Doyle was via watching the film of The Commitments. I loved the characters, the songs and, above all, the accents. The quote about being black and proud is a classic and I’m never going to forget the fully accented chorus to Mustang Sally in the early stages of the film (Roide, Sally, Roide….). It is quite easy, however, to forget the gritty social commentary which goes with the music and the humour. Like the Blues Brothers you remember the jokes and the classic blues tracks and have to be reminded of the tumbledown housing estates and the orphans. But this seems to be Doyle’s speciality:  making a painful and miserable situation darkly funny.

SmileSmile tells us the story of Victor Fforde, recently split up from his glamorous (and well-known) partner, as he adjusts to single life by contemplating his childhood, career and relationships over a pint or two in his new local. His new local is, in many ways, an old local as he has moved back to the poorer side of Dublin. He is aided and abetted in this by Eddie Fitzpatrick, an old classmate from his days being taught by the Christian Brothers: he can’t quite place Fitzpatrick in his memories and is, frankly, repulsed by the man but he can’t seem to avoid him. The book itself is short, a mere couple of hundred pages, but it packs quite a punch in terms of its description of brutal religious schooldays, passionate relationships and, in passing, attitudes to reproductive rights in Ireland. The ending is unusual for the author – a bit odder than you might expect – but the story itself is pure Doyle.

Jane

The Break – Marian Keyes

It can be quite easy to be a bit ‘sniffy’ about certain genres of books (or films, foods, music, whatever) and to assume that your chosen favourite is the best. In fact one of my pet peeves is people who, when talking about a film, book or song which is in a genre they don’t enjoy, call that particular film, book or song terrible. Let’s be honest, with very few exceptions, these things are not terrible – they are just not to your taste. Personally, I don’t really enjoy spy thrillers or hard sci-fi space operas but I’m not going to tell you John Le Carré and Alastair Reynolds are awful. And yes, I have been known to correct friends and colleagues if they start to rubbish other people’s choices (especially if they have just made me listen to five Neil Young albums back to back – there’s an artist who is definitely not to my taste…). Annoyingly, the genres most often derided are those favoured by women and young people – I guess it is too easy to deride chick-lit and YA fiction and especially if you don’t actually read any. I’m not saying that all chick-lit and YA is wonderful but some of it is very good (even if you are a man or over 20). Some of the best I have read is by Marian Keyes…

breakThe Break is the story of a big, messy, complicated, Irish family (and yes, I also enjoy Mrs Brown’s Boys – bite me…) and in particular it is the story of Amy.  She is a mother, sister, daughter, aunt, PR professional, friend, and, at the end of the list, a wife. She has to find time to support friends who are newly single (again), to provide emergency care for her father when her Mum needs a rest from dealing with Alzheimer’s, to care for her fragile niece when her brother and his ex-wife seem to be harming rather than helping her and to try not to strangle her annoyingly independent older daughter – so it is no surprise that her relationship with Hugh, her husband, is low down on the list of things she has time for. Hugh, struggling to cope with the death of his father, shocks the whole family by declaring that he is leaving them – not forever, but for six months; not a break-up but a complete break.

Keyes is, as ever, great at telling a warm, funny family story.  Amy and her family are all well-rounded characters, yet all individuals and you become fond of them. I particularly liked the double act of Neeve, Amy’s older daughter from an ill-fated marriage in her youth, and Amy’s mum Lillian who take the beauty vlogging world by storm. She is also, as ever, unafraid to touch on more difficult subjects. Not the fact that Hugh deserts his family (and can’t rule out the fact that, as part of his ‘break’ he may meet and sleep with other women) but the fact that he does so because he is depressed and can’t see any other way to get his life back on track. You want to hate him – to wish all kinds of nasty things to happen to him (and his sexual organs) like Amy’s man-hating friends and sisters – but, in many ways you can’t. We get flashbacks to the earlier years of their relationship and we can see that this is a marriage which is really worth saving, a man who has given his all to his family. We also touch on the sorrows of living with Alzheimer’s, the falling away of friends (when you fail to react to adversity in the way they think you should) and the horrors of reproductive politics in Ireland. But, you know, chick-lit is just froth…

As always a reminder that Marian Keyes writes brilliant novels – full of laughter and tears – which deserve a wider audience. Remember people, good chick-lit is for anyone, not just for giggly girls…

Jane

 

The History of Bees – Maja Lunde

For about five years Rob and I were heavily involved with Friends of the Earth – running our local group, going to conference and doing lots of campaigning. While we are still very well disposed to the planet we found that we had less and less time for active campaigning so now we do our supporting a little more remotely. Many of the campaigns themselves, however, have stuck in my mind and, like many people, the fate of bees has been a constant worry. Because without bees we would have a much more difficult future (and we’d probably have to survive that future without easy access to some of the amazing things which are pollinated by bees – fruits, vegetables, coffee and even *gulp* wine) we owe it to ourselves to consider how our actions, and those of our governments, affect the wider environment. Which means that, as well as apocalypses I am drawn to books which consider ‘green’ issues (and love those which carry both off with style).

beesIn The History of Bees Maja Lunde achieves both of these things. There are three linked stories set in England in 1852, America in 2007 and  China in 2098 – in the first William Savage is a seed merchant and failed academic who is trying to develop an improved bee-hive while struggling with depression; in 2007 we meet George who faces the problems of keeping his hives going in the face of Colony Collapse Disorder and finally, in 2098, Tao is one of thousands of Chinese workers who have to pollinate fruit trees by hand. Because the bees have all died.  This covers the history of hive development, the fight against the inexplicable death of millions of bees in the present day and gives us an in-depth look at a world without the unseen work all those bees do for us. For me the 2098 section is the most interesting because of this – the lack of various food crops is the obvious change but there are other things which were more surprising; cotton fabric, for example… Each portion of the story also has a human angle – specifically one exploring relationships between parents and children. In the 1850s William is investing all his hopes in his son, to the extent of missing how much one of his daughters, in particular, is supporting him: in 2007 George is, again, wanting to mould his son into his own idea of the perfect child (and again struggling with his own mental health) and feeling that he is failing. Tao’s story is the saddest – her son is very young and she loses him. He becomes ill and is whisked away by the state; her mission is, initially, to find hm and then, as she looks deeper, to discover what happened to the bees…

These are fascinating linked stories which explore both our relationship with bees and with our own families. The balance which must be made between individuality and society – the bee and the hive – applies both to insects and to humans.

Jane