If Cats Disappeared From the World – Genki Kawamura (trans. Eric Selland)

12438978_10153127443991735_3315576425984549481_nFrom my earliest memory we have always been a dog family.  We got Chum – a mongrel, so we named him for Pedigree Chum dog food – when he followed my step-Dad to our house as a stray when I was a couple of years old. Although Chum could be snappy with strangers, chased cars if he got out and loved to pick fights with any dog which was bigger than him he was brilliant with us children. He was my confidant when I felt hard done by, my Mum’s protector when we were all away at school and was even happy to put up with me using him to practice my bandaging skills. We had other pets – hamsters, gerbils, goldfish and even a tank of woodlice – but we never had a cat. There were lots of local strays which we were allowed to feed from time to time but Mum always said no to having one: I don’t know if she just doesn’t like cats or if she realised that Chum would probably make short work of most moggies, either way it wasn’t happening. Oddly my brother, sister and I now have cats so we were not put off and, when I look back over my list of books read, I realise I read far more books about felines than any other creature. My transformation to crazy cat lady has begun.

41738495Many of these books have been written by Japanese authors – it seems that cats, like Alphaville, are big in Japan – and I really enjoy the way that these writers use these animals to explore some big issues. In this book we have a narrator whose life is turned upside-down when he is given the news that he has, at most, months to live. He returns home to try to make sense of these news in the company of his beloved pet, a cat named Cabbage, but is startled to find himself face to face with the devil. The devil, a wise cracking, Hawaiian shirt-wearing character makes him an offer – he can have one more day of life in exchange for making an item disappear from the world.  Aloha won’t allow him to choose anything too petty so we end up seeing the end of phones, clocks and films: each time our narrator is allowed to decide between these objects and a day of life. These decisions aren’t necessarily easy – like most people these days he relies heavily on his mobile and has a busy life governed by timetables – but the loss of cinema hits him very hard as he and his closest friends are real film buffs. The fourth day is offered to him in exchange for the existence of cats and this becomes the hardest decision of all to make.

This book is, in turn, amusing and thought-provoking. It leads you to consider, as the narrator does, the role your mobile phone plays in your life – both a way of communicating with the world and of separating yourself from it – and your attitude to time.  More importantly than any of this, however, is the way the narrator re-examines his relationships with people in his life: his ex-lover, his mother, who died a few years previously, and his father who he hasn’t seen since her death. The only slight oddness for me was hearing him reflect on his life – he is just 30 and keeps referring to this. Of course, he knows he is about to die so to his mind he may as well be 80 but it did jar slightly. My fault, I’m sure. All in all, an interesting addition to the list of books I have read about cats, death and Japan.

Jane

 

 

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Gone, but not forgotten…

It isn’t very often that the world of bookselling is hugely affected by all the daft films and stuff I see on social media. There are lots of humour titles out there based on online hits like Grumpy Cat or Dog Shaming (because the internet loves amusing animals, and why not?) but aside from that our usual intersection is with authors posting and tweeting about their books, their lives and, sometimes, amusing things their cats/dogs/children have done. Every once in a while, however, we get the full blast of the latest craze – so far there is no book version of Baby Shark but every bookshop up and down the country seems to be getting multiple enquiries for a book called Wonky Donkey. The book itself has been unavailable for some time but we had been informed that a publisher was hoping to organise a reprint – sadly, the last we heard is that this probably won’t go ahead due to long lead times. And this is the sad bit – sometimes something which becomes suddenly hugely popular will have fallen completely off the  public’s radar by the time a supplier can make it available. Some retailers are only just selling through the huge piles of loom bands from four years ago – nothing upsets a retailer more than stock that takes years to sell. So, maybe the publisher is right and nobody would have wanted copies of Wonky Donkey by the time we got to mid-November, but it looks as if we will never find out. And we’ll have to find suggestions for alternative picture books to keep little ones and their grannies amused.

27-297-home_defaultOf course it isn’t just books which become internet sensations that can prove hard to find. Which can be a bit annoying when you’ve read and enjoyed a book and are sure that others would also want to read it too. This was an experience I had recently when I read a book which I first saw a reference to in a recent history of Yorkshire. Windyridge, by Willie Riley was published in 1912 and sold half a million copies before it went out of print in 1961. It is quite hard to compare that to modern sales – did people value books more then, could most people afford books, did more people use libraries? – but, considering that some sources suggest the average lifetime sales of a book are currently less than 10,000, it seems like quite a healthy amount. There was a reissue of Windyridge in 2009 but it was from a small publisher and I’m not sure if we’ll be able to source copies now. Which is a shame as it was a lovely little book – a gentle story of a young woman who moves from a dull, safe life in London to live in a small Yorkshire village (based on Hawksworth, near Guiseley). She discovers friendship, a sense of community and that even a seemingly idyllic place has its problems. Rather like Cranford or Lark Rise to Candleford but with a Yorkshire accent. I think that is what surprised me – even after all my years of bookselling – that there are still classic stories out there that most people have never heard of and that so many of them have become totally unavailable. While this is another reason to be grateful for the public libraries which are still around I hope that we will be able to track down the publisher and get some copies into the shop. I’d love to be able to share this story, written by a Bradfordian, with my customers in Bradford.

Jane

How to Speak Science – Bruce Benamran

I’m a big fan of science. I positively enjoy science programming on tv (up to and including some of the more gruesome medical ones – I’m sure I recall watching televised surgery back in the 1980s) and like to think that I am more in tune with the rationality of science than more ‘touchy-feely’ practices. This doesn’t, however, mean that I am completely up to speed with all aspects of the subject. I liked chemistry at school, I think I have a good grasp of evolutionary theory but physics is something I’ve always struggled with. So, a book with the subtitle ‘Gravity, Relativity and Other Ideas That Were Crazy Until Proven Brilliant’ seemed perfect for filling in some of my knowledge gaps (and would be kinder than asking Rob to explain it all to me). The author is best known as a YouTube science communicator and promised a maths-free jaunt through the best bits of science history: it sounded like just my sort of thing.

41721806From the very beginning it is obvious that Benamran takes a very humourous approach to science education. While I was reading this book Rob had to get used to me giggling and reading bits out for his amusement – which is great as I’m a firm believer that if a thing is worth understanding it is worth understanding via the medium of humour. I think I got to grips with magnetism, atoms and even relativity but still failed to get to grips with mechanics. Everything else I could just about visualise in some way (although I did get a little confuddled with the explanation of time dilation involving virtually every American president I’ve ever heard of…) but I’ve definitely got a blind spot where mechanics are concerned. Lets just hope I never have to explain it in a life-or-death situation…There are some running gags in the book which I laughed at the first couple of times, then got a bit bored of, and then ended up looking for in a fond way – this sounds like a quality I admire in a teacher: the moment you look forward to their jokes. (Or ge-okes as my old geography teacher Mr Bogdin used to say…)

This is a great book for anyone wanting to understand more about some of the big concepts in science but who doesn’t have a very science-heavy educational background. For those who do have a good solid science education this would be a good source of ways to explain things involving far more analogies than formulae – more pirate’s eye patches and goats in trees than hard sums.  Science teachers of the future, I’m looking at you!

Jane

Fierce Fairytales – Nikita Gill

I’ve said it before – I’m a very lucky woman. I get to read books as part of my job and, sometimes, get offered free books by publishers (in exchange for reviews, obviously). Sometimes we are given lots of information – a detailed run-down of the plot, characters or the author – and sometimes just a short description. This book was briefly outlined as ‘feminist fairytales’ and, to be fair, I didn’t need to hear much more to make we want to read it.

9781409181590Firstly I should say that I wasn’t previously aware of the author, Nikita Gill.  She is, it appears, a big name on Instagram but I don’t really do Instagram (I run out of time frittering away hours on Twitter and Facebook – if I added another social media stream I think I’d never sleep!) so I went in blind and then was almost startled to find that the book was largely poetry.  It took me a little while to get used to it, to be honest – I quite enjoy poetry but this snuck up on me – but after a little while I began to appreciate what I was reading. Fairytales generally involve beautiful princesses, ancient castles, wicked step-mothers, fire-breathing dragons and valiant princes and evoke a feeling of a distant past: these poems and short tales are about far more modern lives. The evils these princesses have to face are body image, slut-shaming, gaslighting and patriarchy. This sounds like a big ask but these girls are being exhorted to forget being polite, pretty and pliable: we are reminded that girls can be determined, strong and downright bolshie and this is not a failure on their part. Girls can be friends with their dragons – they can be dragons – and sometimes step-mothers are driven into evil by their impossible lives. The boys aren’t forgotten either – girls are warned away from men who will try to break them and the boys themselves are encouraged to acknowledge their own feelings and not be afraid to own their weaknesses. The characters from our well-loved tales – Cinderella, Rapunzel, Peter Pan and Alice – all find new ways to resolve their stories: proof, if it were needed, that there can never just be one way of living.

The main message I took from these poems and stories is that girls (and boys) need to be given permission to be themselves. The ‘themselves’ they want to be – not one that society tries to force on them. I’m not sure I would suggest this book for younger children to read on their own – there is a fair amount of darkness here – but I would love to see it in the hands of mothers, giving them the incentive they need to let their girls and boys be as fierce and strong as they can. It would also be a good read for slightly older children (9+?) who have enjoyed books like Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.

Jane

Relax Rewind…

I’ve always loved to read but it has only been in the past few years that it seems to have become quite so overwhelming. I don’t mean that in a bad way at all – I still enjoy the reading itself – but since moving from an academic to a general bookshop, and starting this blog, I’ve found I am reading more than ever.  I try to blog twice a week which means reading two books a week on average – obviously I can read more if I’m off work or read some books for younger readers and guest reviewers can take the pressure off from time to time (thanks to Rob and Charlotte in particular!) – and, on the whole I keep up the pace. Occasionally I can go a week or so with no post and, more rarely, even post three times in a week but I do okay. The only problem I have is that I am now reading, almost exclusively, new books. I often get these new books long before publication and, sometimes, in lovely, exclusive editions so I’m not complaining about this but sometimes I miss re-reading.

Re-reading is something I have enjoyed for most of my life. Most children have their favourite books and any parent who has had to read The Gruffalo, Peppa Pig or The Worst Witch for the eleventy-millionth time will know this. I liked to return to Alice (obviously), What Katy Did, and the Famous Five books and this habit of re-reading stuck with me. One of the reasons we have so many books at home is because I used to go back and read certain series or authors on a regular basis – Jane Austen, the Pern novels, Lord of the Rings. As time went by I got new favourites – I think I was reading Enchanted April at least once a year – but I still had time for my ‘regulars’ but now, with so many new books (and new favourites) I’ve had to give up re-reading. I’m starting to worry that I won’t get to read Emma again until I retire (unless we decide to do it for our book group, hmmm…..) so recently, after a long walk in rather miserable weather, when I decided that a bath would be better for my aging muscles than a shower I decided to just grab an old favourite and relax properly…This has started a brief spell of returning to old favourites – so here are a few I’ve managed to squeeze into my busy reading schedule.

The Grand Sophy – Georgette Heyer

md22585116621When I was at university, and had to read lots of Very Important Books, I would relax by reading Mills and Boon. They were almost perfect: light, inconsequential and no-one expected me to write an essay on them. The only way it could have been any more perfect is if the library in York had stocked the complete works of Georgette Heyer. Or even just one or two. And The Grand Sophy would be pretty much top of my list of candidates for inclusion. Sophy is the only daughter of Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy and is sent to stay with her aunt when her father is sent on a diplomatic mission to South America. Her aunt and her family are expecting a meek young lady but they end up with a 5’9″ force of nature. Heyer is always spot on with her Regency detailing but Sophy is a heroine who would fit in to a modern romance novel: forthright, good-humoured and strong-willed. The only slight issue is a chapter where she rescues one of her young cousins from the clutches of a money-lender – the descriptions of the money-lender are a tad anti-semitic for modern tastes (although probably fairly standard for the 1950s when it was written).The book is jam-packed with balls, flirtations, misunderstandings, wit and romance and finishes with a happy ending – all in all a pretty perfect book to relax in the bath with after a soggy walk…

Rain – Melissa Harrison

The soggy walk I took was one I organised for Sunday Assembly Leeds – a combination of a Bank Holiday weekend, injuries and a drastic downturn in the weather meant that only Rob and I went but we very much enjoyed our six-mile stroll along the canal from Saltaire to Bingley and back. Our usual assemblies involve songs (we sang a few rainy day songs as we went), cake (cream tea at the Five Rise Locks cafe) and a talk. In lieu of a guest speaker I told Rob about Melissa Harrison’s book about walking in the rain. Like the best of assembly talks this book is both fascinating, uplifting and gives lots of ideas for the reader/listener to put into practise.

28169568Harrison basically describes four walks in Britain, in varying sorts of rain and in each of the four seasons. As we found ourselves a walk in the rain isn’t necessarily a bad thing – particularly if it is a walk taken for pleasure rather a necessary one – raindrops on leaves are a soothing sound and rainy paths are usually rather less crowded. In fact we, like Harrison, discovered that there is a special sort of peacefulness to a wet walk – birds quieten, everything has its edges softened, stuff glistens. There is a lot else in the book which I didn’t recall when telling Rob about it – I re-read it a day or so later – so he missed hearing about the leech-powered storm alarm and the British Rainfall Organisation (now part of the Met Office and one of the most British things ever). As the glorious summer we have just enjoyed fades into memory you could do a lot worse than read this book and learn to appreciate our most common weather conditions!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling and Jim Kay

9781526602381I don’t suppose I need to say too much about the story element of this book. Most people who care to have read the books and many more have seen the films: and here is where this glorious illustrated edition comes in. The story is still there, word for word as you first experienced it, but it is enhanced so much by the illustrations. I’ve nothing against the films, if I’m not going for a walk they are a great way to while away a rainy Sunday, but it is great to see a different visual interpretation of Rowling’s actual words. I’m sure I’m not alone in mentally casting the film version of any book I read but when the film has already been made then it can be hard to get those images out of your head – for now I have both the film and Jim Kay characters visualised.

Interestingly it has been quite a while since I reread the Potter books – it could have been as far back as 2007 since I was in the habit of making sure I refreshed my memory of the whole story arc before the publication of each new book in the series – and I found I had forgotten a lot of the details. The early scenes with Uncle Vernon getting more and more frantic trying to avoid the letters arriving for Harry, all the Mirror of Erised episodes, how involved Neville Longbottom is from the start, so much… Serves me right for relying on the film versions for eleven years – I shouldn’t need telling that the book is nearly always better. And it really is with these stunning illustrations.

Jane

 

Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

I used to live and work in Durham, in the University bookshop. It’s a beautiful city and I loved working there (although I lived in a pit village outside the city – the centre was way beyond my budget as a bookseller living on my own). I really enjoyed working with academics and students (no, honestly, I loved it), we coped with the waves of tourists who replaced students in the summer and, best of all, we had our own literature festival. It was, as they say, small but perfectly formed – all the bookstalls were done by me and one other bookseller (with Rob providing the motorised transport of books to venues) – and attracted some pretty big names. As I recall there were probably about a dozen or so events over a week and the biggest name we got was Richard Dawkins. Which is pretty big. I also recall wearing a Mog costume for one event (I think I wore it, but seem to recall a photo of me with Mog so maybe it was Michael in the suit) and dressing up in medieval kit for another (I vaguely recall it may have been a kids event based on a Robin Hood theme…). Happy days. Anyway, one person who was a bit of a shoo-in for the festival was Pat Barker, because she was a local author. This was, I think, after the publication of Regeneration but before Barker won the Booker with Ghost Road so she was a biggish name but not huge. I’m happy to say she is also a lovely person (the festival used to invite us booksellers along to the post-event meals, all the authors were polite to us but Pat Barker was especially friendly).

38470228In The Silence of the Girls Barker returns to the wartime setting she worked with so well in the Regeneration trilogy but with a few key differences: this time she is focussing on the events of the Trojan War and she writes largely from the point of view of the women whose lives are so brutally changed by the conflict. Life for women in this period is a bit of a mixed bag. The women of the upper classes have all the material benefits – palaces, jewels, beautiful clothes, the best food and wine – but they don’t have the freedoms we take for granted. They can’t walk around freely, they have to be heavily veiled, and they are not free. Even the women who are not slaves are the property of their fathers or husbands – the only women who are not property are the prostitutes and they are, effectively, treated as common property. Of course the main character, Briseis, Queen of a city near Troy, doesn’t realise that her life is as good as it will get. She is very young and feels dominated by her mother in law but this is nothing compared to her life once the Greeks have defeated her city. The men and boys are killed – even pregnant women are slain in case the child they carry is male – and the women are now become the property of the Greeks. Briseis is awarded to Achilles as a trophy – property once again, but now she has no power or status and, in fact, becomes a pawn in the struggles between Achilles and the Greek king Agamemnon.

The history here is told well – I don’t know the Iliad that well but I’m pretty certain Barker sticks to the events within it – but the real meat of the book is Briseis and the way she survives what life (and the Trojan War) has thrown at her. Her inner strength as she submits, in body at least, to the change from Queen to bed-slave; her determination to stay alive, even as some of the women who share her fate chose suicide; her certainty that, even though she must share the bed of a Greek hero, and may even grow to love or respect them, she is still a Trojan woman. And, thanks to Pat Barker, the voices of those Trojan women are silent no longer.

Jane