The Music Shop – Rachel Joyce

Rachel Joyce writes wonderful books. Not necessarily with the most beautiful, flowery language (although they are good words, honest and accessible) but with characters, plots and emotional sucker-punches which make me very, very happy. I’ve never met a Rachel Joyce novel (so far) that I didn’t love but, boy, do they bring a tear to the eye. In an oddly satisfying way. It feels quite hard to describe why I love these books so much beyond the fact that they get me right in the feels (as the kids no longer say…) – lets hope I can convince you to read them and find out for yourselves…

51yytgdLxSL._AC_US218_This book opens in 1988. In a music shop which is resisting the rise of CDs (although not modern music) and the march of progress generally. It is on a street with a small parade of the kind of shops which are closing down all the time – the book opens in a sort of dead-end. But it is the kind of glorious dead end that I, for one, would love to have on my doorstep. The owner of the shop, Frank, is a bit of a lost soul who is still mourning his beloved (but rather difficult) mother, who shies away from relationships and who, despite all this lives to help others through music. The man with the unfaithful wife who listens only to Chopin is reminded that he is not alone via the work of Aretha Franklin; a bank manager’s baby is lulled to sleep by The Troggs Wild Thing. He is, in the early days, pretty astute about music – he’s the only shop locally to stock the Sex Pistols and stocks all the big indy labels – but the rise of CDs is a problem. Frank won’t stock them and he becomes persona non grata with all the reps from record companies.

Of course, if this were just the story of a shop it wouldn’t be quite as satisfying (apart, possibly, to those of us who work in shops and have a vested interest) so there are also some fascinating characters to meet. Frank himself is a gentle, rather shabby, giant of a man who, despite trying to avoid relationships, is essential to the lives of all those around him. Then there are the other residents of Unity Street – a Polish baker, an ex-priest running a religious gift shop, a pair of elderly undertakers, a combative tattooist, little old Mrs Roussos – who are all given life and character and who all become part of Frank’s ‘family’ (for want of a better word). Add into this his hapless (but big-hearted) assistant Kit and a mysterious German woman, Ilse Brauchmann, and it seems that Frank hasn’t been able to avoid all relationships after all.

I loved this book because of those wonderful, warm and complicated human relationships. I loved it because it made me cry as much as it made me smile and I loved it for the music. Frank’s approach to music is unusual, to say the least, since he is possibly the total opposite of High Fidelity’s obsessive alphabetiser but his tastes are broad. I loved the fact that its four parts are presented as being the four side of a double album (a concept album, obviously). And, for my money, any novel which opens with a quote* from Nick Drake deserves all the praise I can give it…

Jane

*Time has told me
You’re a rare, rare find
A troubled cure
For a troubled mind

Nick Drake – Time Has Told Me

 

When Dimple Met Rishi – Sandhya Menon

When I’m as busy as I was during the Bradford Literature Festival I like to read something fairly light. I rather reluctantly left the history book I started at the end of June (Pale Rider by Laura Spinney, a history of the Spanish Flu of 1918 – I’ll have to wait to review it when I finish it…) and decided to go for a bit of romance. But, because I was working through one of the most diverse literature festivals in the country, this was a romance with a South Asian twist. Now I will start out by saying that I always have the same problem with books that look interesting because of their South Asian connections. It just seems to end up that over 90% of them are about people of Indian heritage rather than from anywhere else in the region. I’m not saying that these books are not going to be of interest to my customers in Bradford but far more of them are Pakistani or Bangladeshi than Indian. Far more of them are Muslim than Hindu (although there is still a strong Hindu and Sikh community here) – when I used to see publisher’s reps on a regular basis I did get a bit fed up of being told that novel x was ideal for my largely Muslim customers of Pakistani heritage living in West Yorkshire because it was about a group of Indian Hindus living in New York. Close but no cigar because, surprise, not all brown people are the same….

28458598This is not to say I didn’t enjoy this book, which was a rather sweet love story about a young couple who meet while studying at a summer school. Dimple is a girl who is trying to rebel against her parents sense of tradition. She want to make her mark in the world, be independent and, above all, she doesn’t want to think about finding the IIH (ideal Indian husband). Rishi is rather more traditional – he feels a great respect for his heritage and is happy for his parents to arrange a marriage for him – but he is torn between the need to make his family happy and the desire to follow his heart. Needless to say Dimple is not impressed when she realises that she is expected to marry Rishi and the sparks that fly between them are rather less romantic than he hoped. I rather liked both main characters – Dimple is bright and ambitious and totally aware that she is fighting against years of tradition; Rishi is sweet and a bit serious and far more romantic than Dimple. Their relationship progresses, in fits and starts, and they become good friends as well as team-mates on the key summer school project. Of course it doesn’t go smoothly (well, there’s no book in that, is there?) and they both have to make compromises in their own actions as well as in their interaction with their families.

This was a pleasant romance story and also one which I will feel happy to recommend to my customers. Many of them require that the books they read are compatible with their lifestyle – romantic but chaste, where modesty is maintained even when tradition is questioned. This one should fit the bill quite nicely – there is (slight spoiler alert), eventually, a physical relationship but there is no detailed description of much beyond kissing (really good kissing by the sound of it) and embraces. Both main characters do end up going against their parent’s wishes but they do this by discussing their issues rather than just through defiance. There is also a lot of humour in the book – Dimple in particular I found very amusing – and a fair bit about prejudice, fairness and bullying. I’d happily recommend this book for younger teens and anyone who enjoys good old-fashioned romance.

Jane

More Time Please!

I am currently spending my day off  (the only full one I’m taking during the 10 days of the Bradford Literature Festival but don’t feel sorry for me – I can sleep when it’s all over!) watching Wimbledon and putting off going for a run*. So I’m going to procrastinate in the best way I know – talking about books. More specifically, given that I seem to spend the whole Literature Festival wishing I had more hours in the day (and a cloning machine), I’m going to talk about a group of books I read recently which all, coincidently, involve travel through time.

Outcasts of Time – Ian Mortimer

outcastsI’ve read and enjoyed Mortimer’s popular history books looking at the lives of a range of people during the medieval, Elizabethan and Restoration eras so I was interested in this novel. In it two brothers are given a choice (by some mysterious entity – we never find out for certain if it is angelic, demonic or just likes to interfere, like Q in Star Trek) between dying of the plague which is ravaging the area or living for a further 6 days. The catch is that those 6 days will be a further 99 years into the future each day.

Mortimer brings a true historian’s eye to this story. Each time period is portrayed in the kind of detail (and accuracy) that most historical fiction writers can only dream of – the smells, sights, diseases, moralities, foods and technology are all there. What stays with the two men is the mentality of their own time – governed by the politics of the day and the power of the church – but they have to question their beliefs as they visit 1447, 1546 (getting caught up in Henry VIII’s religious problems), 1645 (the English Civil War), 1744 (the workhouse – never a fun place), 1843 and, finally, 1942.

The history in this book is very sound and the issues raised are interesting – do we fail to learn from our history because we can only look backwards in time? I didn’t entirely engage with the hero, John, possibly because he, quite correctly, remained a product of his original age. He learns a lot in 6 days but that isn’t long enough to become a different person – he is still a medieval craftsman. If you like really well-researched historical fiction then give this a try…

The Summer of Impossible Things – Rowan Coleman

impossibleThe main character in this novel, Luna,  also travels in time but only to and fro between the present and a very specific time in the life of her recently deceased mother, Marissa. Something terrible happened to her mother at that time (the summer of 1977, in an area of New York where the filming of Saturday Night Fever is taking place) but also something wonderful. She met her future husband Henry and fell in love but, it appears, she was also raped by a man who should have been a pillar of the society she lived in. Luna, armed with this information, befriends her mother (known as Riss in 1977 and a bit of a live-wire, far from the depressed shell of a woman Luna remembers) and tries to discover the identity of the rapist. When she realises that her actions in 1977 are causing changes in the modern-day she decides to try to prevent the attack taking place altogether. Because she was the result of that rape she has to come to terms with the fact that, by preventing it, she will cease to exist (in a Back to the Future stylee…)

A really interesting story and well told. I didn’t work out who the attacker was until shortly before the reveal and I loved the descriptions of 1977 New York. If you are a fan of slightly quirky women’s fiction then this could be your beach read (or, even better, Central Park read) this summer.

How to Stop Time – Matt Haig

stop timeIn his book, Reasons to Stay Alive, a wonderful book that grew from Haig’s own depression to become a sort of manual for young men struggling with their mental health, Matt Haig gives us this poem:

How to stop time: kiss.
How to travel in time: read.
How to escape time: music.
How to feel time: write.
How to release time: breathe

Now he has developed some of the themes and ideas in that book into a novel about an apparently youngish man, Tom Hazard, who is not what he appears. Although he appears to be in his early 40s he was, in fact, born in 1581. He has a condition which means he ages fifteen times slower than normal and he has been alive for over 400 years. And, unlike the characters in Outcasts of Time, he has lived every single one of those years day by day…

This book, as well as highlighting the differences in attitudes over four centuries, is an exploration of a life stretched out almost beyond bearing. Tom meets others of his kind and joins their group – the Albatross Society – but finds that his life is controlled by the Society, the Albas. He is helped to move on and find a new life every eight years or so, when others start to notice that he is not showing signs of the passing years but he almost needs to leave behind his identity each time. And of course one of the first rules of the Albatross Society is ‘never fall in love’ so these 400 years have been largely led alone. This is a rule which Tom had always been happy to live by – his one great love having died in one of the many outbreaks of plague over the years – but which we see him come to doubt. Eventually, in the best Matt Haig fashion, this book becomes an exploration of identity and the difference between being alive and really living. This, like every other Haig book I’ve read, will become one I recommend to just about everyone…

Jane

*Went for the run – 3.4 miles – glad to be sat down again now…Timey-wimey stuff is not the only wibbly-wobbly thing around here!

 

Bradford Literature Festival – the beginning

This year’s literature festival is well underway now – I think we have all been working flat-out since Monday when the first 80 totes of stock arrived in the shop. Since then we have booked in huge amounts of stock, built a whole pop-up bookshop in an inflatable tent, hosted a sold-out event in store and done two full days of bookstalls to support author events at up to three different sites a day. Phew. I’ve not been able to see many of the talks – having to man the bookstall – but so far the festival has discussed Jane Austen (her life and times, influences on contemporary literature around the world and the delightfully titled ‘Disrobing Mr Darcy. I did sneak in and listen to a few minutes of that last one…), monogamy, djinns in fiction and psychology, geo-engineering, politics, mythologies and fairy tales and cricket. When they say this festival has something for everyone they really mean it….

20170630_190826As I say I haven’t been able to see many events but I was working for the sold-out event with David Crystal on Friday night – there was certainly a lot of love for a man described as the foremost writer and lecturer on the English Language – and he was a very lovely chap with an impressive beard. There were a lot of younger audience members and I suspect that Crystal’s own eloquence (the subject of his talk) and ability to make grammar, punctuation and the english language generally clear mean that he has helped a lot of young people make it through GCSE and A Level exams…

What makes the Bradford Literature Festival special to me is a combination of the audiences – who are as diverse and engaging as the speakers – the authors and the volunteers. Yesterday I met one of the helpers, a young Italian girl called Ciara, who has come to the UK just to volunteer for this festival. She is staying with a host family and enjoying using her excellent english language skills. I was in awe – I don’t think I could have done that at 18! It has also been amazing to watch some of the local authors move on from small panel events last year (four panelists and about a dozen attendees) to filling the biggest venues this year. Just watch out for A. A. Dhand’s Harry Virdee novels is all I’m saying…

20170702_180217.jpgFinally I did get into a bit of a discussion with some of the authors appearing at events in Bradford college yesterday. What is the correct collective noun for a group of authors? 20170702_180228.jpgAnd is it different from the one for a group of authors doing their best dinosaur impressions (it had been a long day by then…)? Any ideas? Or maybe we should ask David Crystal? – I bet he’s cool enough to know…

Jane

Is Monogamy Dead? – Rosie Wilby

35329332Let’s try something a bit different. Instead of just posting my review of this book – comedian Rosie Wilby’s account of her thoughts on love, life and whether monogamy is still valid in modern society – I’ve been having a chat with the author herself.  We’ve done a bit of a question and answer session covering things which occurred to me while I was reading the book. They may not be the questions you’d ask but, if you are in the vicinity of Bradford on Saturday 1st you can go along to an event with Rosie and Mona Eltahawy and ask your own!

Jane – If I were doing the classic bookseller ‘if you liked x try y’ I would compare you to the likes of Sara Pascoe and Caitlin Moran? Educated, well-researched feminist humour with a serious edge. Does this sound fair? 

Rosie – Thank you! I’m pleased you say that. How To Be A Woman was very much a stylistic reference point in terms of tackling a societal issue through a combination of peering through a personal lens and then breaking into a broader passionate polemic. What Caitlin Moran does well is to seamlessly flow from one to the other within a chapter. I modelled my formatting, particularly for the first half, a bit more on a book I read last year: Trans by Juliet Jacques. Juliet introduces separate chapters for the factual and science-y sections that occasionally interrupt (and I mean that in good way!) the compelling memoir. When you read one, they illustrate some of the historical, political and sociological personal elements that have come up in the chapters you’ve just been reading. When I was on the LAMBDA queer writers’ retreat last Summer, Sarah Schulman, the non-fiction tutor said an amazing thing: ‘Nonfiction is the story of an idea’. It was the moment that influenced my decision to embed my own thinking and research in a memoir that illuminated why I had come to a point in my life to be questioning monogamy.

Jane – You say that when you first met Sarah you may, in hindsight, have met the wrong person to love but you did meet her at the right time. You were ready to fall in love. How many people do you think end up in bad relationships because they are ripe to fall in love at 16, 17, 18…..?

Rosie – I’m sure it’s an incredibly common phenomenon. We fall in love with the idea of being in love and who we pick as our object is really just random. 

Jane – Jane Austen is often criticised for making love and marriage all about money. Nowadays we are completely focussed on the ‘sex and passion’ side of the equation. Do we need to rebalance the passion and the practicalities of actually being with another person?

Rosie – Yes, that’s very much my argument. The science shows that sex and passion wane. So to just expect them to stay at the same high intensity level is to immediately open yourself up to disappointment and probably impose a shorter life span on your partnership. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try and keep those things going. My friends, Jac and Angie, who are interviewed towards the very end of the book are, to some extent, my own saviours of monogamy. Angie said to me the other day, ‘we’ve always agreed that it’s never okay to not have sex.’ So they have pretty strict rules about keeping things sexual and not letting intimacy go for more than two weeks. 

Jane – The book is about finding the right woman but also about finding the woman you want to be. Do you think you’ve ‘found yourself’ yet? 

Rosie – I think humans are in constant state of evolving and rewiring. I’m very defined by what I do professionally: performance and creativity. That’s the one part that feels invincible. Nobody could ever tell me to give up my career.

Whereas shaping myself as a human in terms of compassion, listening, interacting in the world etc is something I’m happy to take constant advice from a partner on. We can never have all the answers to that.

Jane – The relationship escalator you describe is a scary thing – and very real – I had to have a menopause before people stopped asking me if I was sure we didn’t want to have kids. Do we need to find the big red emergency stop button (and hang on so we don’t get thrown off)? If so, what do you think it is?

Rosie – It is indeed a scary thing, particularly for women perhaps. I’m watching the terrifying Handmaid’s Tale on TV at the moment. It’s interesting how even such an extreme story has such a ring of truth. Maybe a woman’s destiny really is still viewed globally as giving birth. And that’s it. 

Jane – Comedy seems like a very isolated way of performing. Is it harder than being in a band or easier (because you only have yourself to rely on)?

Rosie – Exactly as you say, it’s both. I am a fiercely independent person. It’s typical for only children. I think comedy starts off incredibly social when you make friendships with other acts and you’re all in the same boat as new acts who nobody has heard of. Nobody knows who’s going to do well. I’ve done gigs a decade ago with Sara Pascoe, Bridget Christie, Susan Calman, Sarah Millican and more where we were all doing five minutes in some terrible pub to ten people and a dog. There’s a camaraderie to it. But when people start to become mega famous, you don’t really meet them much on the circuit any more. All the above are very friendly whenever I do.

However, I would say that writing is probably even lonelier than either thing. I’ve been quite struck by that. Even if you have a publisher and a nice agent and editor, it’s really all down to you. In comedy, you have the opportunity to constantly test your writing out on a real, live audience. And you can shape it accordingly by gauging their response and chatting to fellow acts afterwards. There’s no real equivalent in writing.

Jane – Loving the amount of scientific research you’ve done on monogamy. Anthropologically speaking do you think we are hard-wired for monogamy? Or are we still trying to fit into what we think society demands?

Jane – Our human lifespan is getting so much longer. Marriage for life used to mean for 30 or 40 years but soon it could mean 70 or 80 or more – is this exposing us to the ultimate limits of how long a monogamous relationship can last? 

Rosie – These two questions very much fit together and your second question here identifies why it has become so much harder to stay exclusive for life. It’s so long now. 

There are lots of interesting books like Sex at Dawn that argue that we are very much built for non-monogamy and that that has evolutionary benefits. In that book, there’s a diagram showing relative penis size of males in various species. Because the human male has such a relatively large penis, the authors argue that he’s showing off and trying to attract multiple mates.

Jane – You obviously do loads of research for your shows, including crowd-sourcing opinion via social media. How long does it take for a show to take shape? And do you tweak it during a tour?

Rosie – Again, thank you. I sometimes think if I actually costed all the hours I spend researching shows, I’d be in a huge financial deficit on every one of them, even the ones that have won awards, been programmed internationally, sold out venues and got five-star reviews. So it’s really rewarding when someone recognises the effort that has gone in. As I often use my own life, body, brain and heart as a science lab and experiment, I’m often living out the question in order to illustrate what is going on through my own experience. If you work in that way of deliberately provoking a life and art mirroring, then there can be an emotionally exhausting toll too. Fortunately, I find it all really fascinating. This book, in particular, has had a wider significance than just providing an interesting topic to write about. It’s crystallised ideas and thoughts about how I would like to exist in the world and what sort of people I want to keep close.

Jane – And finally, chocolate salad? Dark, milk, white or a bit of each?*

Rosie – Ha! Milk is my favourite. I know dark is healthier but if we also have the salad… 

Hope you enjoyed this discussion. Don’t forget if you are keen to hear more you can catch Rosie at the Bradford Literature Festival on Saturday 1st July ( with a second event on Thursday 6th July).

Jane

*I could explain the chocolate salad but you’ll need to read the book to find out…

 

Bradford Literature Festival 2017

I’m currently having a day off and gathering my strength in preparation for this year’s Bradford Literature Festival. The tagline is 400 Writers, 300 Events, 10 Days, 1 City. Since there is also only one bookshop with a limited number of booksellers this will be a flat-out and exhausting 10 days for me but, if it is even half as good as previous years, it will be well worth it. (And, let’s face it, it could well be even better – there’s a Harry Potter potions event at a local cocktail bar for goodness sake….).

I’ve already read books by some of the authors attending, (Amit Dhand, Ayisha Malik, David Barnett, Jeanette Winterson, Jo Baker, Sophia Tobin, Ross Raisin, Wray Delaney among others),  and have loads of other on my to-read pile. I’ve got a review and Q&A coming up in a day or two with comedian and author Rosie Wilby who is also doing a couple of events at the festival. I may, or may not, find the time and energy to blog over the next couple of weeks but I promise to try and get some photos and impressions of the events I’m able to see. And, of course, if you are in the area check out the festival programme. There are events to suit just about everyone, loads for children (many free too) and even some on cricket and motor-sports for those who don’t think they’re ‘book-festival people’. Come along. Say hi. Experience one of the most exciting, welcoming and vibrant literary festivals going.

Jane

That’s Not My Unicorn – Fiona Watt & Rachel Wells

Okay, let’s be honest here – I’m not the target audience for this book. I’m not a toddler. I don’t have a toddler. I don’t have any toddler relatives within a few hundred miles. But…

These books are perfect. They are simple and tactile enough to fascinate the under 5s and also older children (usually on the autism spectrum) who respond well to sensory factors in books. Any small person you know will probably read their favourite ‘That’s Not My…’ book with you repeatedly. You’ll give up long before they do (but please do not say ‘that’s not my bunny, he hasn’t been put into a delicious pie with prunes and suet pastry’ out loud) and be begging to read Peppa Pig instead. They are my go-to gift for pre-schoolers because in the 49 volumes so far there is something for everyone – puppies, dragons, tractors, witches, pandas, dinosaurs – reasonably priced and, like all books, easy to wrap. The big question was what would Usborne Publishing choose for the 50th book in the series…?

9781474935975I think Usborne chose well with the Unicorn. Always popular with the smalls this will also appeal to adults (who still love them, in my case especially one particular specimen drawn by a friend who is known as Terence the Badass Unicorn. That’s the drawing not the friend…He draws under the name Monkey Ghost Presents – great drawings for grown-ups, not toddlers). And the book is just gorgeous. It sparkles. It has silver, rainbow-effect blocked board pages. This book has pizzazz. And we all deserve a bit of that in our lives – even if we are only 2.

Jane

P.S. I will be passing this book on to Bex’s little one. She’s 2. She already has pizzazz. I think she’ll love it….