Quite a lot of the customers we see in the days running up to Christmas are ones we don’t see at any other time of year. Nothing wrong with that – not everyone has the time, inclination or money to read – but it does mean we have to make sure that we stock as wide a range of fiction in December as we can. We can’t just rely on selling people the books that we have loved through the year (although that bit is great fun) we have to make sure we have the books that they will love too. Some authors make this much easier by bringing out a new book towards the end of each year (Bernard Cornwell, Martina Cole, Giovanna Fletcher, Wilbur Smith, Danielle Steel and Clive Cussler, to name a few) and are, in fact, so regular that we all get very confused if they miss a year. Of course this is nothing new: Catherine Cookson was a very prolific writer and seemed to bring out two books every year, perfectly timed for both Christmas and Mother’s Day. Now that’s dedication…
This Christmas we also have some treats coming from authors who are slightly more restrained in their output (although just as popular). I’ve already mentioned Philip Pullman in my children’s book round-up but he is, if anything, even more popular with adults – after all, the young teens who read the His Dark Materials novels as they were published are now in their 30s. Dan Brown has produced his first new novel since 2013, Ken Follett has published his first since 2014 (and it marks a ten year gap since the previous book in this series) and Marian Keyes has returned to fiction after a three year break. On the more literary side The Sparsholt Affair ends a six year dry spell for fans of Alan Hollinghurst and, despite producing plenty of non-fiction, there are twenty years between Arundhati Roy’s first novel and this year’s offering.
This year, however, as in so many others I am looking forward to helping people choose some of 2017’s debut novels. Some of them have authors everybody has heard of – Tom Hanks’ collection of short stories reads like a series of vignettes from Tom Hanks films – and others are books which have been beloved by every bookseller I know who’ve read them. Some have sprung from Facebook pages and others from goodness know what strange dark depths of the authors heart. Every work of fiction has a customer out there waiting to discover it; every reader is just a step away from finding a new favourite book.*
*That, and lots of chocolate, is what keeps me going through the next few weeks.
I’d be the first person to agree that Christmas is a time for the kids. Of course, I also disagree that I’m too old for an advent calendar or that sitting at the front upstairs on a bus and pretending to drive is immature… That said I do get very much in touch with my inner child during December – if you call into the shop during the second half of the month I’m the one in a festive jumper, wearing reindeer antlers and jingle bells – and one of the best ways is by reading through some of the great children’s books available. Old favourites like The Snowman or How The Grinch Stole Christmas come back every year (quite rightly) but sometimes a forgotten or neglected classic reappears. This year has been the turn of The Invisible Child – a Moomin story by Tove Jansson – which has been reissued to raise money for Oxfam. This one is on my Christmas list because the Moomins is another thing I’m not too old for.
Books for the Smallest People (and no, I don’t mean elves…)
One of my favourite jobs at work is reading stories to groups of little ones. I may not be a parent but I can do all the different voices required for the Gruffalo and I’m particularly proud of my rendition of What The Ladybird Heard – however, I also know that sometimes you just need to find a new book to read (no matter how much they love their favourite…). For those who loved Oi Dog! and Oi Frog! I can certainly recommend Oi Cat! (because rhymes are always good) and for little ones who are learning to count Ten Little Elves is educational, seasonal and fun. The ‘That’s Not My’ series is always a winner – and the latest volumes are cute and zeitgeisty since they involve unicorns and otters.
Books to take to Big School…
There comes a moment when every youngster declares themselves too grown-up for picture books (even if they won’t let you throw out their copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar) and they discover the delights of books with chapters. Although most of them still have lots of pictures and many seem to be written by off duty pop stars and comedians. Children this age (5ish to 8ish) seem to love series – there seems to be a never-ending supply of Beast Quest or Daisy Meadows titles – so if you find a character they love there should be plenty to read. If you’ve not tried them yet though have a look at the Goth Girl or Ottoline stories by Chris Riddell – wonderful marriages of fun stories and quirky illustrations with strong heroines. Also this is a great age to discover the joys of Paddington. Just saying…
Booty for Bookworm Boys and Girls
As usual we have new titles from favourite authors David Walliams, Jeff Kinney and Jacqueline Wilson to keep 9 to 12 (ish) year-olds quiet on Christmas morning but if you are looking for a new direction I’ll be suggesting Matt Haig again this year – the first two books in his Christmas series are now in paperback and the new hardback looks at how hard it is to be the child of Father Christmas and his wife, Mary… Funny and heart-warming with a dash of peril – what more do you need? And remember lots of youngsters have yet to discover the joys of Harry Potter – start them on the paperbacks or go straight for the glorious illustrated editions. I’m quite jealous to think that there will be youngsters reading about Hogwarts for the first time…
Let’s not forget that some children may prefer to get a non-fiction book under the tree. From the evergreen Guinness World Records to The Lost Words (a gloriously beautiful illustrated book of ‘spell-poems’ designed to reintroduce a new generation to the wonders of nature) there is plenty to choose from. Junior palaeontologists may enjoy the Dinosaurium and both boys and girls will be fascinated by the lives described in Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Hopefully all the adult shoppers will enjoy ‘researching’ for presents too!
Teens/Young Adults/ Those of us who don’t want to be grown up…
Most of the youngsters I buy Christmas presents for are now in the ‘young adult’ category and, as I’m sure you know, they can be tricky to buy for. Mine (nieces and nephews) would rather have cash than most gifts but that doesn’t feel right to me but luckily they are mostly keen readers. Books by Vloggers and Youtubers seem to go down well in this age group and there is still lots of love for old favourites like Wreck This Journal but there also plenty of more traditional fiction options. A new John Green will be welcome in many quarters and older teens should enjoy One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus but, I hope, many of them will be settling down to our book of the year. La Belle Sauvage is a brilliant return to the world of His Dark Materials but, because its storyline runs parallel to that of the original trilogy, it can also be read as an introduction to Pullman’s world of dust and daemons. The only problem will be getting it out of the hands of the adults…
There are now less than four weeks until Christmas and I’m starting to feel a bit festive. Because I get so busy in the run-up to the big day I’ve got just about all my presents already and I’ve even started wrapping. Don’t judge me – if I left it until the last day or so no-one would get anything but socks and I’d be too exhausted to do anything more than throw them in a gift-bag. No-one would get the right size either…Anyway, the shop is filling up with lots of potential presents – books, quirky gifts, chocolates and lots of games and toys – so I thought I’d highlight some of the ones I’m most looking forward to selling/hope to get in my stocking.
For sports fans…
We’ve lots of books for the sports fan in your life – Jonny Bairstow and Kieren Fallon‘s autobiographies are selling well and we still have a few signed copies left of Blower’s Over and Out. If you are (or know) a Bradford City fan we’ve got John Dewhirst’s range of books on the team and, if you are looking for stocking-fillers or are working on a more limited budget, we’ve paperbacks on a wide range of sports and well as fun gifts like Desktop Rugby (or even Quidditch...)
Scientists, Engineers, Geeks and Rockers…. we love ’em
I don’t know why men* are meant to be so hard to buy for – we’ve got Tim Peake telling us how to be an astronaut, a look at the wonders of our oceans and explanations for all kinds of scientific question. Don’t tell Rob but I’m fairly certain he’ll be getting a book which combines his love of classic rock and vintage Ladybird illustrations. Again there are lots of paperbacks from the likes of Brian Cox and Carlo Rovelli and for anyone with an interest in either railway or local history we’ve got both volumes of Willowherb Publishing‘s Great Northern Outpost series.
*Although, let’s face it, I know lots of women who’d also love to be reading these books.
History, Politics and other important stuff
It’s been a tough year to be a woman – and not much easier for the guys – so I think people might be appreciative of books by Mary Beard or Robert Webb. And if you think the only way to cope with 2017’s political happenings is by laughing at it all then maybe you’d be interested in a world leader’s poetry or an annual about a new political hero. If you like a more serious approach to history then we’ve plenty of ideas from a wide-ranging look at the story of the Jewish people to a very specific look at British railway stations. The continuing interest in the centenary of the Great War shows in a great range of paperbacks on many aspects of the conflict – from specific battles to the natural history of the battlefields.
Living the Lifestyle…
Food and drink are always important at Christmas and this is always reflected in the books available. As always we have a new Jamie Oliver (he’s as much a part of Christmas as the Queen’s Speech, surely) but this year vegan cooking is everywhere. The Hairy Bikers (my personal favourites) are heading for the Med and Rick Stein is off to Mexico so whatever your taste there’s a cookbook for you. In the rest of the home Monty Don is in the garden (with Penelope Lively) and Mary Berry is cleaning and organising. The Danes are still in charge – after last year’s hygge offerings we now have Lykke and Lagom – although the Japanese have Ikigai to offer too. Although I don’t think all our books take health and exercise too seriously…
If you’re looking for a gift for me then Mary Beard and the Kilted Yoga would make me happy – if you’re looking for someone else I hope this has given you some ideas. Christmas shopping can be tough but at least bookshops have something for everyone (and many of them also have cake: treat yourself, because shopping is hard work…)
I’m really rubbish at quite a lot of modern entertainment. I hardly ever go to the cinema and we don’t use any streaming services. The only box-sets we have are in actual boxes (and mostly involve David Attenborough – because nothing improves the appetite like watching nature being red in tooth and claw while you eat your tea) and I think I’m the very last person in the world who watches tv in real time. And then only if it’s on Freeview. I know I’m missing out on loads of great series but, with all the books in the world to read, I just can’t commit. Give me a choice between a new book from a favourite (or potential new favourite) author and even the most critically acclaimed drama and I’ll plump for fiction every time. This isn’t to say that I sit and read in silence – I drive Rob distracted because I can read a book and watch Eastenders at the same time – but there are limits to my multitasking. I haven’t yet worked out how to read and listen to podcasts simultaneously and this means I’m missing out on some great stuff. There’s so many out there – covering history, politics, social issues and science among other things – I hardly know where I would start. Luckily, one of the funnier podcasts – No Such Thing As A Fish – has released a book so Luddites like me can find out what all the fuss is about!
My usual source for weird and wonderful facts is QI – in fact I’ve reviewed one or two of their recent books – so I was pleased to see that the people behind both podcast and book are QI Elves (researchers). This book is a collection of facts connected to events of 2017 arranged in an a-z format (which confused me at first – I somehow expected a book about a year to be in some kind of chronological order. After a few pages I realised that their way was right – what do I know!). They range from the amusing (with some great anagrams of political figures) to the mind-boggling and slightly scary (again, mostly to do with this year’s major political figures). I mean, I try not to think too seriously about Trump and Kim Jong Un – this book helped me to find them even more risible.
Christmas is the time of year when we sell a lot of humour books. Many of them are hilarious on the first reading but don’t really stand up to repeated perusal. This book, however, seems to be one which I could return to frequently. Even if only just to remember 2017 for more than just the scary parts of the news…
Some things try their best to defy explanation. Realistically it is quite hard to define why you fall in love with one person and not another; I can’t tell you why I have an irrational fear of buttons (that’s why it’s irrational, obviously); you can’t quite describe why you choose the 18th property you see when house-hunting (barring the phrase ‘it felt like home’…). Which can be a problem when part of your job is recommending books to customers. There are times when saying nothing more coherent than ‘it gave me the warm fuzzies’ is enough but it isn’t the best way to review dystopian fiction. So, obviously, I try to explain what it is that I’ve enjoyed about a book – how it made me feel, what I made of the characters, if the plot or language reminded me of another book, film or even a song. If I go quiet for a long time after finishing a novel it is probably because I’m trying to work out what those connections are. With Gnomon, the new book from Nick Harkaway, I think I’m going to have to start describing before I know what hit me…
Gnomon is set, it seems, in an alternate reality where Britain operates under a benign but all-encompassing system of surveillance. Instead of politicians, fallible and corruptible human beings, the country is controlled by the System, watched (at all times and in every way) by the Witness and, if things do go wrong, there are Inspectors (like Mielikki Neith, one of the book’s central characters) to work out what happened. When Diana Hunter dies while being interrogated (by having her brain thoroughly and electronically read) Neith has to, effectively, inhabit her thoughts to find out what happened. But instead of one woman’s thoughts, feelings and life she finds at least four other stories unfolding in there – and what stories they are! A greek banker, doing well enough but nothing spectacular, encounters a shark while swimming, escapes and becomes some kind of financial guru. Saint Augustine’s discarded lover becomes some kind of miracle-worker, utilising the power of a temple of Isis which somehow exists even though it should only be a figment of her imagination. The owner of a security firm returns to his former life as a famous artist when his grand-daughter needs him to visualise the computer game she is developing (where Britain is governed by an all-seeing surveillance system…). A mad, godlike figure plans to build a new reality by swallowing the current one – just like it happened before. And through it all is the image of the shark – terrifying and destructive and sometimes more than just an image.
The first time Harkaway thoroughly confused (but also delighted) me was when I read his first novel, The Gone-Away World, about nine years ago. I’ve reread it a couple of times since, I still love it (especially Ronnie Cheung – I bloomin’ love Ronnie Cheung), but I find new angles each time. Harkaway is the son of John Le Carré and, although he writes in a completely different genre, he seems to share his father’s love of a convoluted (but totally joined-up) plot. I’m fairly certain I’m going to have to read Gnomon a few times before I even begin to realise what was going on. If you like a book which is very big, very dense and very clever then this could be for you – the fact it is also very funny is a bonus – just don’t blame me if you have major problems trying to describe what just happened to you when you’ve finished.
A lot of the books I review are ones I think that Rob, my other half and an occasional guest reviewer on this blog, would probably enjoy so I try to press them on him when I’ve read them. He, however, doesn’t read at quite my breakneck speed so often doesn’t get round to them. Sometimes I get books which I know he will enjoy even more than I would so, because I am a good wife (well, not a terrible one), I let him read them first. One of the books I did this with was Andy Weir’s first book, The Martian and, as you can see from his review, Rob loved it. I did too so, when I got sent a copy of Weir’s new book I decided that I would get to read it first. A little bit selfish? Maybe, but I did pass it straight on after…
Obviously I was pleased to see that Weir has stuck with the extra-terrestrial setting he established with the Martian – this time the novel is set on the moon. The difference, however, is that we are in an established colony with shops, offices, workshops, tourists (lots of tourists, mostly the super-rich) and, of course, a little bit of crime. Our main character, Jazz Bashara, is one of those criminals: a porter who makes cash (or rather credits – like all futuristic societies everything is credit based) on the side by smuggling in items considered as contraband by those in charge of Artemis. She is getting by, although her personal relationships (particularly the one with her dad) are a bit of a disaster area, and it looks like she’ll take years to raise the amount she needs. But then she is offered a life-changing amount to do one big job and her troubles really begin.
I quite liked Jazz – although she is a very abrasive character – because I could see that she wanted to be better than she is. She’s very intelligent but rebellious, immature but with a strict sense of her own personal morality. If Jazz Bashara makes you a promise she will keep it – even if it costs her. There’s plenty of action scenes, a lot of dark humour and some interesting secondary characters, including a Ukrainian nerd and a former best friend, and also, as you would expect from the author who taught us how to grow potatoes on Mars using our own waste products, there is a lot of science. Which I loved even though I’m not that hot on science myself. I trust Andy Weir to do it right. This my favourite sort of sci-fi – clever, funny and as much about how people learn to live with each other as the technical details of how to live on the moon.
A picture, we are told, is worth a thousand words. And Alice, of course, reminds us that books need both pictures and conversation. I do enjoy books with illustrations – I’m a particular fan of any book with a nice meaty family tree in the front – but, somehow, I’ve never quite got the hang of graphic novels. I mean, I own some because there are a number of versions of the Alice story in graphic novel form but they are never a genre I look at when choosing what to read next. I don’t think they are less worthy of my attention – working in a bookshop I see excellent graphic novels almost daily – but it seems that, at heart, I just love the words themselves. But, with Thornhill, I think I may have found my portal into the world of the comic book.
Okay, so this is not purely ‘graphic’ novel as it alternates visual chapters with diary entries but it is a totally gripping book. The illustrated and written sections follow the lives of two young girls – the latter, Mary, lives at Thornhill, a children’s home for girls on the brink of closure in 1982; Ella, the former, lives in the present day and has recently moved to a house overlooking the deserted grounds of Thornhill – and the stories begin to entwine as we find out more about them. Mary is bullied and, as the girls in the home are moved on to other establishments or to families, the cruel treatment intensifies until she is alone with her tormentor. Ella lives with her father – we don’t know what happened to her mum but she isn’t around – but he is often away for work so she spends a lot of time staring out at the rather spooky old building next door. Ella spots a girl lurking in the grounds and decides to investigate, finding relics of Mary’s life, including the puppets she made and, eventually, her diary.
This book is published as a children’s’ title – aimed, presumably, at the youngsters of 9+ who have read all Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracy Beaker stories. It would certainly be a great book for older children too (and adults) as the issues it raises are not ones which go away with adulthood. In fact I enjoyed it so much I may be trying to find ways to recommend it to almost anyone with an age in double figures (and if anyone over 99 comes in they are probably fair game too…)