It’s so hard to choose…

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the last twenty years and, naturally, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about the books I’ve read in that time. I can’t remember them all – I do spend a lot of time reading – but I did start to wonder if I could try to pick a favourite out of the books I’ve read which were published since 1996. When it comes down to it it’s a lot harder than it looks so I decided to ask around and see if I could get some inspiration.

I started at home. Yes, pity poor Rob as I demanded he review his past two decades of reading…Luckily, after a quick trawl through the bookshelves he came up with a few suggestions. They range over the genres – travel writing, fiction, environmentalism, science writing and science fiction – but the one that stood out for me from his list (like I said, it’s hard to choose one) was one we both loved. Nick Harkaway’s Gone-Away World is a remarkable book with a crazy plot which has more to it with every re-reading and some memorable characters. To be honest I don’t think either Rob or I will ever forget Ronnie Cheung.

Next I asked around my colleagues at work. Starting with Bex herself. Impressively she found it rather easy to choose the book that meant most to her (and I quote) ‘Harry Potter – I’m a first generation reader…I was the same age as Harry when Philosopher’s Stone was published’ . Although is it cheating to pick an entire series? Who cares! It is such a great series to choose… And I even got a bonus choice from Bex’s daughter who, at 18 months old, just can’t get enough of Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler’s Tales from Acorn Wood which she described as essential pre-Gruffalo reading. (That’s Bex, not her daughter, obviously…). Ian the manager (who has recently moved to our Leeds store) also found it simple to narrow down his favourite – I reckon he had to move to Leeds since he has already recommended Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend to the whole of Bradford. I also cornered Jamie (our new manager) who named Kill Your Friends by John Niven as his favourite. Up in the coffee shop Luke (lead barista and store hipster-in-chief) was quick to name Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and Megan (our newest staff member – she makes a mean bacon buttie…), when pushed, plumped for Khalid Hosseini’s  A Thousand Splendid Suns. Although she did say this was subject to change – there are so many great books out there!

I decided not to stop there and have been bothering lots of other people – some who have worked in the store in the past 20 years and, of course, some of our customers. Sarah, who supports us in choosing and ordering stock for the shop, chose a graphic novel, Blankets by Craig Thompson. She described it as her favourite graphic novel of all time and one that redefined the genre. Charlotte, a customer, author and occasional contributor to this blog showed her penchant for horror and fantasy by being undecided between Dan Simmons’ The Terror and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. And we both agreed that her daughter Sophie was still a huge fan of You Choose (we’ve both read it with her for entire afternoons…). And Kay, one of regular customers and member of our monthly book group, tells me that the book she regularly recommends or gifts to family and friends (always a sign of a true fave)  is Bella Bathurst’s The Lighthouse Stevensons.

So, has all this made it any easier for me to choose my own favourite? Of course not…The best I can hope for is a short list of books which have left a lasting impression on me (and which I would happily reread – always a sign of a great book for me). Hugh Howey’s Wool makes the cut, as do all Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books and Justin Cronin’s The Passage (or Connie Willis’ book of the same name…). And then, of course, there’s always the fabulous Rosie Project or a dozen other books which I’ve been pressing into people’s hands for the last two decades. I don’t think I can pick just one (and the way things are going my own personal shortlist is just going to keep on getting longer).

Jane

 

 

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2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog. It is full of helpful hints (to help us with the inevitable New Years Resolution to blog more regularly) and, like all the best things in life, created by monkeys! You may well notice that the blogging pace picked up pace part-way through the year. Once again a big thank you to all the helpful folk on the Book Bloggers (UK) group on Facebook. And of course to the publishers and authors who have made their books available for review. We wish you all a very Happy New Year and hope it is full of your favourite sorts of booky goodness.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,900 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 32 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

ImageBullying, poverty, race issues, body image issues, parental abandonment and an abusive stepfather means that this YA love story isn’t an easy read.  Having already read ‘Fangirl’ by Rowell,  I knew to expect some John Greenesque type teen issues but it didn’t prepare me for just how grim this novel seemed at times.

Most of the issues belong to Eleanor, a slightly larger than average teen whose bright red hair and freckles alongside a unique style make her an easy target for bullies at her new school.  We meet Eleanor just after her stepfather has allowed her to return home after being sent to live with her mother’s friend for a year. Her new home set up is completely dysfunctional with Eleanor forced to share a room with her four other siblings, money’s really tight and her mother is absolutely terrified of her abusive husband but too afraid of being alone to leave him.

When Park first sees Eleanor on the school bus, his assessment of her is brutally honest as he decides to avoid the weird new kid on the bus as much as possible.   Very slowly and over many awkward  journeys, Park and Eleanor begin to realise that they share a passion for music and comics with Park being the first to acknowledge that he has feelings for Eleanor.  Eleanor is more hesitant – not just because of her chaotic background but because in comparison Park has an easy life with a stable family and is popular enough at school (though that’s not to say Park doesn’t have issues of his own).  Eleanor is used to never having any privacy but Park and his family are able to offer her a secret place where she can be a normal teenager in a normal family and still ever so slowly, Eleanor is able to begin to open up to Park.  There are times in the book where Eleanor is so infuriating because you just want her to speak up sooner and be a bit braver with Park but then you remember the risks she is taking and the guilt she is feeling leaving her family life behind.

Once it’s in full flow, the relationship between Eleanor and Park sweetens the entire feel of an otherwise heavy book but the clandestine nature of the relationship means that, as Eleanor keeps predicting, it can’t last as it is forever.  The ending was bittersweet and still raw but as this novel is set in the 80s,  I can’t help but wonder what became of Eleanor and Park and where they would be today.  I would love it if Rainbow Rowell announced a sequel since she writes general fiction as well as YA but in the meantime,  I’ll imagine my own happy ending as both Park and Eleanor deserve it.

Cupcakes – Peggy Porschen

Baking Success! Image

This Lemon and Raspberry cupcake is  the first recipe I’ve attempted from ‘Cupcakes’ and I think I’ve done alright.  The flavours make for a really refreshing cake that would probably be better suited to a summer party rather than as I made for giving out over Christmas.  I wouldn’t change anything about the recipe itself – however  smaller, maybe more decorative cases and a better piping kit are now on my shopping list.  As you can see from the picture, the cupcake itself is fairly plain looking and the same goes for a lot of the cupcakes in this book, so it’s really hard to hide dodgy icing but (maybe it’s my sweet tooth talking here), the simplicity is stunning and every single cupcake in this book looks so tempting.

A word of warning though,  having seen other Porschen cake books,  I was expecting a big book so was slightly disappointed when ‘Cupcakes’ arrived and was miniscule by comparison.  I’m used to big chunky cook books and flicking through them for hours looking for inspiration or one single recipe but in Porschen’s favour, she’s packed in a lot of great ideas and with not a single recipe I wouldn’t try, I can’t see any filler.  This book isn’t going to teach you how to bake but it provides so much inspiration for those fairly competent at baking.  The usual recipes such as Chocolate and Red Velvet which will appeal to all are included however, there’s plenty of really grown-up feeling ideas. I love the recipes that are basically miniaturised classic desserts made into cupcakes like Lemon Meringue, Black Forest and Eton Mess as well as the seasonal ones such as the Mulled Wine and Gingerbread cupcakes that would be perfect to give as gifts. The final thing that I really liked about this book is the frosting and syrup lists on the last couple of pages, great for jazzing up some boring buns and I’m a total convert to syrup brushing now,  it adds so much extra flavour.

Overall for £6.99, this book is brilliant value for money and it is a perfect little gift book for anybody into baking with its brilliant ideas and tips.

The Book Diet

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Happy New Year!

I hadn’t really planned on making any resolutions this year until I was trying to organise the books I’d been given for Christmas and realised just how many unread ones I had.  It’s not that my reading has pace has slowed at all, it’s just that I have a complete lack of self control when it comes to obtaining  books.  The books in the picture make up the pile currently residing under the bed made up of recent and old purchases,  books lent, books given, books picked up in charity shops and freebies from publishers.  Some of these books have been plucked from my bookcases after browsing, some have come straight home and joined the pile, some have been there months, some added in recent weeks.  What’s special about these books is that I plan on ALL of them being my very next read (see my problem yet!?!).

So my plan for January is to tackle the pile under the bed (or at least make it go down a bit) and to do this, I’m on a strict book diet for the month – no new purchases for a month! This probably seems a really strange thing for person who make a living from selling books to be advocating however it’s only temporary and of course on the plus side, it means I will have plenty more room for shiny new books next month (although I have been thinking that all of this could be avoided if I could take a paid reading holiday from work, I really think that should exist…maybe some kind of sabbatical?)

So on to the first book in the pile,  Diane Setterfield’s ‘ The Thirteenth Tale’.  I’ve had this book for about six years (yes really….) and had totally forgotten about it until I was given a proof copy of her second book, the wonderful  “Bellman & Black” and dug out my copy and put it on the pile hoping to read it before the mini-series aired on BBC1.  Well I’ve obviously missed that deadline but I’m determined to move it to the ‘read’ pile before the end of this month.

Wish me luck and no distractions!

12 Books of Christmas – #12 Stoner – John Williams

ImageTwelves days and twelve reviews and I’ve got to admit, it was much tougher than I expected!  It wasn’t just writing the reviews, I’d forgotten how tiring (but enjoyable!) it is working in a bookshop in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  One more shift to go before  Jane and I get a well deserved day off and for anybody looking for a last minute recommendation on Christmas Eve, ‘Stoner’ will definitely be in there.

I’d like to be smug and say that I read this ages ago but I didn’t, I totally jumped on the bandwagon with this one.  I was a bit slow to get round to reading it though,  I remember hearing the Ian McEwan quote about it being his perfect summer read and made a mental note to read it but it wasn’t until we were selling huge amounts of ‘Stoner’ and it then being shortlisted and winner of the ‘Waterstones Book of the Year 2013’ that I finally got round to reading it.

One of the very few complaints I have heard about ‘Stoner’ is that nothing really happens but that is the point, the fact that it has such a subtle narrative and is still for want of a better phrase, a real page turner, is what makes it all the more clever.  The book opens by telling us that years after the death of titular character William Stoner, he will only be remembered as a name in an old academic book.  Stoner’s entire life is a constant battle but at the same time completely unremarkable. To begin with Stoner carries a life-long guilt after leaving the family farming business whilst pursuing his beloved academic career.  He regretfully marries hastily and is a disappointment to his wife (and she to him), she pushes him mentally and uses their daughter against him.  It is in his career that Stoner seeks to succeed but even there he is beaten down by bullying colleagues and work life is as bad as home life.  In a desperate and hopeless love triangle, reminiscent of Edith Wharton’s ‘Ethan Frome’,  Stoner begins a doomed affair with a younger student.  For the first time in the book since his daughter was small, Stoner is happy and somebody is happy with him and you really want him to step up and do something and change his life.  It’s at this point you realise that it is neither in Stoner’s character and although this book is new to me, it isn’t a new book and throws up further issues.  With the majority of the story taking place in the interwar years, things were much different, it would be unseemly for Stoner to leave his needy and vulnerable wife and child and I can not force my modern day mentality upon Stoner.

It probably sounds like ‘Stoner’ is an utterly depressing read, but it’s not.  Whilst by the end you will probably feel a little choked up, you will be glad to have spent time with Stoner and taken time to listen to his story and in the same way you’ll be glad that you’ve taken time to read John Williams’ book and give the author the attention he really deserves.

12 Books of Christmas – #11 Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

ImageIt’s a case of always the Bridesmaid with this book after being shortlisted for ‘The Women’s Prize’, The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ Prize, and Waterstones Book of The Year in 2013 but somehow missing out on all not to mention not even being shortlisted for The Booker.  It’s not that ‘Life After Life’ wouldn’t have been a worthy winner (it certainly would!) but it’s just been unlucky to go up against books equally as good.

I am a big fan of the ‘Jackson Brody’ books but it’s nice to have a new standalone novel from Atkinson featuring some really well-written feisty females reminiscent of the characters in ‘Behind the Scenes At The Museum’.  It’s quite a hard one to describe without giving the entire story away but it examines the space between choice, fate and chance. The plot revolves around Ursula Todd, a baby born on 11th February 1910 who after being born with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, unfortunately dies soon after.  In the second chapter, we relive the scene again, this time Ursula lives as her mother intuitively knows how to revive her baby.  Several years later, with her mothers back turned, she drowns at the seaside.  After briefly reliving the day of her birth again, we go back to Ursula’s present day and find out in this life, she only nearly drowned.  Throughout her childhood, the same pattern repeats,  Ursula dies,  we return to the day of her birth, Ursula lives, but each time there’s a change and a sense of deja vu that she is unable to explain.  The First World War plays out in the background during Ursula’s childhood but it is during the Second World War, with Ursula now grown up, that the main story actually takes place.  Some really bad things happen to Ursula and she endures her most violent and saddest deaths during this time but there’s always a hope each time she dies that her next life will be better.  Ursula is fundamentally a decent person and you want her to keep resurrecting until she gets to fulfil her potential and for there to be a life line where she gets it all right and lives a happy, even an uneventful life. I’m not going to spoil the ending but I will say that I found the entire novel very clever and with the Costa Awards to be announced in January, I really hope ‘Life After Life’ finally gets the recognition it deserves.