How to be Famous – Caitlin Moran

I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If it gives me pleasure then I don’t feel guilty about it. Although, obviously, if I forced Rob to watch three solid hours of Eastenders then I would feel a twinge or two… I say this because I feel that ought to refer to my love of the works of Jilly Cooper as such a thing, but I just can’t. I adored her shorter, early books in particular – Emily, Prudence, Octavia and all the rest – although I have read some of the more substantial Rutshire chronicles titles and I was very happy to be able to meet her a year or so ago. But I’m not sure that those early novels are quite as innocent as they seemed to me when I was fourteen or so – reading them again as an adult the girls who seemed so sassy and independent were just aching to be part of a couple (even if the object of their affections was a nasty piece of work). Which puts these books, emotionally at least, in the same league for me as Wuthering Heights. Could anyone write books like these, today, but do with it with their feminist credentials intact? Step forward, the fabulous Caitlin Moran……

9780091948986How to Be Famous is, in my opinion, the book that fits the bill. Like those early Jilly Coopers it features a young woman – nineteen year old Johanna, writing as Dolly Wilde – who finds herself living the life she’s always dreamed of. Writing a column for The Face magazine at the peak of Britpop, meeting the famous and telling the world about them in her own way. She’s bright, just about solvent and watching her best friend in the world become hugely famous. Her family are still a bit flakey – her father trying to recapture his lost youth by taking up residence on her sofa and trying to smoke all the weed in Camden is cringily hilarious – and  she has been fighting against male prejudice but things are, on the whole, good. In particular she likes to think of herself as a woman in charge of her own body and her own sex-life (although she’s nowhere near as experienced as the makes out) and she is, until she meets sleazy stand-up comedian Jerry Sharp. When she rejects him she finds that she has bigger problems than making best friend John Kite realise that love is more important than all the fame in the world.

A fun, raunchy read for fans of a feisty romance story. And a lesson for anyone too young to remember the nineties that bad men had ways of making a young woman’s life miserable long before the rise of social media.

Jane

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Elefant – Martin Suter

It is a fact universally acknowledged that, in fiction terms, I am a fan of the quirky.  I’ve delved into various Scandinavian, French and Canadian authors to feed this habit (with other corners of the world covered too) and now I have ended up in Switzerland. Yes. I know. I didn’t expect quirkiness from the Swiss either – land of fondue and sensible economics – but then I remembered cuckoo clocks and yodeling and it all made sense…

38232605Schoch is a middle-aged man living on the street in Zürich and he’s getting by. He has a place to sleep, in a cave along the river banks near the allotments, he knows all the places to go to get adequate food and he could give up drinking any time he wanted to. Giving up drinking is easy – he’s done it lots of times – but when a terrier-sized, pink, glow-in-the-dark, elephant maybe it is time to quit for good. With a cast of alcoholics, circus-folk, evil scientists, vets and refugees this is a heartwarming book which looks at all kinds of issues around life, love and genetic modification. Partly because of the development of the character of Schoch as we unravel the life that led to him being on the streets, partly because of the warmth and humanity of Kuang, the Burmese oozie (or neck rider) and partly because of the elephant itself. Okay, maybe, more than just partly because of the elephant – what’s not to love about a glowing pachyderm small enough to sit on your lap? This is, in fact, the crux of the story – just because an elephant is only a foot high doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be treated like a proper elephant. And just because it is possible to create such a creature doesn’t mean we should. Add into this all that we learn about life on the streets, including how much the inhabitants care for their dogs, and elephant care and it is a very entertaining and interesting read. Although I now also know more about artificial insemination of elephants than I ever wanted to know…

Jane

Record of a Spaceborn Few – Becky Chambers

I complete very few series/trilogies – #somanybookssolittletime – but there are, of course, some I will make an exception for. I won’t be missing any of Alison Weir’s books about the wives of Henry VIII, or a new Matt Haig but in terms of science fiction I think Becky Chambers’ particular brand of intelligent, character-led space opera is one of the only ones I will guarantee a read to. I bloomin’ love Becky Chambers.

9781473647602This book is set on the Exodan Fleet – the ships which humankind set out on when they left Earth generations ago. But we are not, on the whole, looking at the kind of big, life-changing events which lead to evacuating a planet. There is an episode early on where one ship in the fleet is seen to fail – which was fatal for those involved, traumatising for those who witnessed it from other ships of the fleet and, then, the source of scrap material for the surviving vessels – but generally we are seeing day to day life. It is a well thought out society where family, work and the community all work hand in hand and we meet a wide range of inhabitants: children, young adults looking for their role and older people. We meet those responsible for keeping mankind’s memory of their past safe and those who oversee what happens to people when they die. There is incident and human emotions but I was also fascinated to hear about all those little details which most sci-fi doesn’t mention.

Chambers’ books aren’t, strictly speaking, a series. There are connections between characters and they all take place in the same world, during the same timeline, but each could be read as a standalone novel. What they do all share is a great sense of humanity (even when referring to non-human characters but it seems a bit too Douglas Adams-y to go into Vogonity/Harmagianity…) – you care about the characters whether they are on a spaceship punching wormholes through the fabric of the universe, an A.I. learning if they want to be human or a Harmagian anthropologist reporting on the humans who live on the Exodan Fleet. And you care whether you are male or female, gay or straight, a rebel or a conformist – everyone is represented in this world (and yet it never feels like anyone is just included to be politically correct). I am fascinated by the stories which Becky Chambers tells – I hope there will be many more forays into the world of the Galactic Commons and mankind’s place within it.

Jane

From two sides…

I think it is fair to say that life can be a challenge – work-life balance, financial worries, mental health, family pressures and the general political situation are all looming over us. Maybe it should come as no surprise that many people turn to all sorts of things to take their minds off of their troubles: some will throw themselves into work, some will indulge in drink and/or other stimulants and some (like me) will resort to a combination of exercise, books and cake. Sometimes the books take the form of sheer escapism and, at others, they will be of practical use. All I would ask of them is that they be at least readable (and, preferably, compulsively so). A couple of my recent reads definitely had this in common even if, on the face of it, they didn’t have much else.

Notes on a Nervous Planet – Matt Haig

I don’t recall, when I was a child, there being much said in public about anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. People were said to be ‘nervy’ or ‘sensitive’ and sometimes they, sadly, didn’t make through life unscathed. It could be hoped that the modern world’s new openness about mental health would mean that we faced up to these issues and helped people to cope better but, as Matt Haig points out in this timely book, it is often the modern world itself which adds to the problem. The constant availability of the whole of the internet, and social media in particular, means that we have no respite from insidious suggestions that we are, somehow, lacking.  We need the lotions and potions because our skin is dull, or spotty, or (heaven forbid) looking old. We need to be thinner, fitter, better dressed, eat clean, cleverer, richer: we need to be more everything. And not for the sake of being healthier or happier but because we will then need to buy our way to perfection. This assault on our sense of satisfaction with ourselves is, sometimes, overwhelming. I am reminded of a song by a Dewsbury band which Rob introduced me to about an over-excitable boy on a trip to Blackpool but in a lot of ways it is much worse than that. We are being encouraged to become perfect but, of course, that process is all about the becoming – perfection is always unattainable.

9781786892676Haig gives lots of suggestions on how we can help ourselves escape from the endless cycle of ‘improvement’ for improvement’s sake. Of how we can learn to accept ourselves as improved and yet still imperfect. A lot of it boils down to escaping from the relentless demands of social media (although, to be fair, if any actual person I knew demanded that much attention I’d consider them downright anti-social) and is, on the face of it, very easy. Use the off switch. Leave the phone downstairs when you go to bed. Don’t engage with online trolls. Easy to say. Hard to actually do with any consistency. But, given that our health, mental and physical, could be at stake, it seems worth trying.  The idea isn’t to avoid the internet and social media entirely but to try to send more time on the parts of it which help and less focussing on the parts which want us to hate ourselves.

Why Mummy Swears by Gill Sims

This book is, on the face of it, a very different kettle of fish – although it does have a social media connection as the author has a blog and a very popular (if not always, or indeed ever,  suitable for work) Facebook page. This is the follow-up to Why Mummy Drinks and continues the story of Ellen, her family and her dog and her attempts to keep her head above the waters of all of life’s demands. And boy, are there a lot of demands!

9780008284213Like many women before her Ellen needs to go back to work – although her husband has a good job she feels the need to both have money she has earned to spend as she jolly well pleases* and to be something more than ‘just a Mummy’ – and this is where the trouble starts. The agency puts her forward for her dream job – which she gets despite an ‘eventful’ interview – but the job is full-time, add to this the fact that daughter Jane is rapidly approaching her teens (but not close enough to get the Instagram account she craves), Daddy is being particularly awkward and Ellen, somehow, manages to find herself in charge of the PTA. We may be living in the 2010s but it still seems to be women who are having to struggle with trying to do it all (be it all, have it all or just all…).

This book is, as I hoped, hilarious and incredibly sweary. At a basic level this is perfect, light reading but coming to it straight after the Matt Haig I also got more than a hint of the sheer panic parents – and particularly Mums – feel day in and day out. So, my personal ‘note to self’ is to be more sympathetic to the parents out there – it is a job which has to be done, and done with love, but I don’t think I could do it…

Jane

*obviously she uses rather stronger language than this….

Time to catch my breath…

Well it is now 11th July and the Bradford Literature Festival has been and gone. The Festival Hub (aka the ‘tent’ or the ‘bouncy book castle’) has been deflated, we’ve waved goodbye to our coffee cart (leaky drip-tray and all) and the tactical paddling pool outside the back in the shade and moved all the blue crates of books back to the store. Where they are now being made into a big, blue fort as is traditional…There will be a lot more work to do before everything is back to normal but, in the meantime, here are a few of the events I managed to get pictures of.

First up was A A Dhand’s book launch for City of Sinners. I’ve already reviewed the book so here is a shot of the crowd (I didn’t get one of the moment where Amit’s young son crawled onto his lap during a description of a body hanging from our lovely roof ) and one of the chocolates he left us to give away with signed copies over the rest of the weekend. We’ve done launch events for all three books now and each one just gets better.

On the first Saturday I did a bookstall at the University for an event with David Starkey – a very interesting and well-attended talk on Henry VIII as the first Brexiteer. Sunday was spent in the store where we had a variety of children’s events. They featured dinosaurs and astronauts but our favourite, as you can see, was The Wilbies go to the Moon because we got to meet Minnie Winnie – the heroine of the story. She may be a wonder of science, being Britain’s first cloned dog, but she also loved cuddles and was wonderful with the children as well as with booksellers…

Sadly our main event on Monday was cancelled since the author had been unable to board a flight from Canada. I had planned to do a bookstall on Tuesday too – for the splendid Suzi Quatro – but she had her own merchandiser with her (after all, she’s been touring for years…) so I was able to get home and watch the football. From between my fingers but I still watched it! I had a couple of days off so missed a great CND event in the shop on Wednesday – jazz band and all!

20180707_113431The second Saturday was a combination of ‘Under the Sea’ day in City Park (which probably explains the giant lobster) and Brontës in the Midland Hotel. I was at the Midland but didn’t get inside the events until the evening when I totally failed to get any photos of Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay, Jeanette Winterson and Michael Stewart talking about the Brontë Stones Project. Far too busy trying to keep up with demand for book sales – what did I expect with that line-up!

 

Finally, on the last day we had another round of children’s authors in the shop – featuring a monster who was afraid of a scary story, some puffins called Steve, a Fairytale Hairdresser and a spider called Sarah. But we finished off with the excellent Matty Long in the Super Happy Magic Forest. Or, in my case, a Super Happy Magic Literature Festival!

It was all brilliant and, once we’ve all had a rest, we’ll start looking forward to next year…

Jane

 

F*** You Very Much – Danny Wallace

I first became aware of Danny Wallace as the flatmate who challenged Dave Gorman to find fifty-four namesakes. Of course at that point I was reading Dave Gorman and just knew him as ‘flatmate called Danny’ but later on I read both his novels and some of his non-fiction. He is someone I would categorise (if you made me do categorising) as ‘funny, good-mannered, slightly confused about the modern world’. A bit like my brother-in-law but with more swearing*. And this is a very good thing as my b-i-l is great (and should really write a book about his experiences as an Essex postman…)

39978517This book is an investigation of rudeness: is there more of it these days? (spoiler alert – yes), how it can affect us mentally and physically and what we can try to do to counteract it. The tone is generally light but Wallace does talk to lots of experts (psychologists, neuroscientists and politicians) so this is not just one man’s opinion. Although it is largely concerned with the views of one man (Wallace) on a rather surly member of staff who failed, spectacularly, to serve him with a hot dog – the incident which led to these ruminations on rudeness. As always I was amused by Wallace but felt that I was left with a strong urge to do something: in this case to look carefully at whether I am sometimes a bit rude (spoiler alert – yes, a bit…) and if I could react differently to perceived impoliteness in others. Don’t be put off by the asterisked out cursing of the title – this a very British call for a return to courtesy, good humour and good manners (even if some of the examples given are from China, Russia and Colombia – if only the latter had been applied to the national football team…)

Jane

 

*No, honestly, my brother-in-law doesn’t swear. He was on Facebook during the England game last Tuesday and said nothing stronger than ‘cheating Colombian so-and-sos’….

The Quanderhorn Xperimentation – Rob Grant & Andrew Marshall

Modern life isn’t easy. The economy, climate change, bad news everywhere – sometimes I just need something to take my mind off the real world. Of course, for me that something is almost always a book and, at the moment, what I really need is something deeply, deeply silly. Luckily a new book by Rob Grant and Andrew Marshall arrived for me and my silliness quota was filled…Rob Grant is half of the writers of Red Dwarf and Andrew Marshall is a sitcom writer who was, apparently, the inspiration for Marvin the Paranoid Android – my hopes were very high!  I was not disappointed.

39801235The year is 1952. So was last year. And the year before. In fact, it has been 1952 for over sixty years and this isn’t the strangest thing that has happened. There have been a number of Martian invasions, attacks by Mole People and Troglodytes from under the sea and much of this unusual activity revolves around one man: Professor Quanderhorn. Even the government (led by Churchill, of course, it is 1952) is scared of him – and who wouldn’t be afraid of a man with a fleet of lorries driven by monkeys, a Dangerous Giant Space Laser and a dark secret in his cellar? We follow Quanderhorn’s team of top operatives – the beautiful scientist Dr Gemini Janusson, Martian captive Guuurk, Troy Quanderhorn (the Professor’s ‘son’ – or possibly a very dim but physically perfect human-insect hybrid) and Brian Nylon (a test pilot and spy for, well, everyone if only his amnesia would clear up…). The plot begins with a giant broccoli-woman trying to climb Big Ben, moves behind the Post Office (where a giant asteroid is glowing) and out to space. It all makes the same kind of sense that Red Dwarf and Hitch-Hiker’s Guide do (i.e. not much until all the strands get brought together at the end) but is a gloriously silly ride. In a spaceship. Driven by a Martian in tennis whites and impersonating Leslie Phillips and containing a man stupid enough to try and open external doors mid-flight. Completely daft and as British as drinking a cup of tea and saying ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

If you need a bit of a humorous pick-me-up or are just a fan of Douglas Adams or Toby Frost give this a try. And check out the Radio 4 show too – it’s where all the cool comedy sci-fi series start out…

Jane