I’m a total sucker for books about books and I seem to have read a fair few of them. Books set in bookshops and book-pulping facilities; romances and mystical thrillers and biographies. Some of my favourites, of course, are Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series where our heroine’s job is to police the world of literature by jumping from her real(ish) life into that of fiction. What these titles all have in common, aside from their bookish nature, is that they are books for adults. Us grown-ups see delving into the world of reading as an escape – children, on the other hand, see that world as being as accessible as any other magical land. Which means that, so far, I hadn’t found* any great children’s stories set in bookshops – until I read Anna James’ Pages & Co…
Tilly lives with her grandparents over the bookshop they own in North London. Her father, she has always been told, died before she was born and her mother disappeared in extremely mysterious circumstances when she was only months old. Although this makes her sad sometimes she loves her grandparents (who seem to be the perfect blend of reassuringly stable, slightly eccentric and very loving), and a source of cake and hot chocolate in the form of Jack, who runs the bookshop cafe. She is having some issues at school, her closest friend from primary school is now hanging out with ‘cooler’ girls, but it is half term and she has the best homework ever – she must read a book she has never read before. (Why was my homework never that much fun?) But who are the strange girls she meets in the shop, red-headed Anne (with an ‘e’) and Alice in the blue dress, and why can’t her new friend Oskar see them? This is the point where Tilly discovers the world of Bookwanderers, people who can jump (like Thursday Next) into stories. And although this ability seems, at first, to be a source of endless fun she soon discovers that this is a world with a lot of rules and even more dangers. Even more importantly she, and Oskar, realise that it could also hold the secret to what happened to her parents.
I loved this book – I was just such a bookish child, although I was lucky enough to be fully aware of the location of all my close family members – and I can see it being a very popular read with children of 9 to 10 and upwards. And, although the stories Tilly jumps to are classics (Anne of Green Gables, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a Little Princess), the children are living in a modern world which young readers will recognise. Maybe most importantly it is the first book in a series so Tilly and Oskar have more adventures to share with us in the future.
* Which doesn’t mean they don’t exist – I just haven’t found them yet…
I like to read all sorts of things. In fact, I’d almost go as far as to say I have a bit of a morbid fear of not having anything to read. Never mind worrying about crashes, delays or even *gasp* running out of tea, my worst fear is a long journey without a book. I’ve been known to read, in great detail, the ingredients list on a pack of buffet-car crisps or every word of the inflight magazine and the safety instruction but, of course, I prefer a book. I’m not, as you may be able to tell from this blog, fixated on one type of book – I’ll read lots of fiction genres, history, biographies, science-writing as well as books written for children and young people – but I do have my favourites. I love history (both in fictional and non-fiction forms), to wallow in a good post-apocalypse or books that make me cry a bit: but the one things that will almost guarantee my interest is a book about books themselves. Like most people I enjoy reading about someone I can identify with – I like stories about booksellers. That sorts out my fiction needs but, generally speaking, booksellers aren’t really famous enough to feature in the biography or history sections. Although, of course, most booksellers aren’t Shaun Bythell, who runs The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland’s Book Town. We visited the town (and most of its bookshops) a few years ago on a short holiday in the Galloway area. We stayed at the Galloway Astronomy Centre so that Rob could play with big telescopes at night and during the day he ferried me round various art galleries and bookshops. A blissful few days marred only by the total elusiveness of the local red squirrels. The visit to Wigtown to see the bookshops (and pick up a book or two, obviously) was a highlight – if I’d read this book first we may have had to visit every day instead of just once.
This book is, as it says on the cover, a diary of a year in a secondhand bookseller’s life. On the factual side we are told how much the till took each day and how many online orders the shop received (and was able to supply) – this gives quite an insight into how financial vulnerable small independent retailers are. But the bits that I, and many others by the look of the reviews, really enjoyed was the no-holds-barred account of each day’s interactions with staff, neighbours and customers (both the paying kind and the looky-loos). I’m sure anyone who has ever worked in retail has had ‘moments’ where they have been confused, amused or shocked by the comments and reactions of customers – although I don’t think many could describe these interactions as amusingly as Bythell does. Not always in the most polite way (especially when talking about some of his staff) but with honesty, wit and a fair amount of dark humour. Think Black Books and you won’t go far wrong. What does shine through though is the love of the job itself – buying in stock, working with authors and helping people to find the books they want (even if they didn’t know what that book was) – and of reading. I’m a little bit jealous of Bythell’s life – the job, the beautiful part of the country he lives in and the community he is a part of – but his sales figures make me worried that it’s a life that is under threat. The best thing I can think of to do is to plan a return trip to Galloway – taking lots of book-buying cash with me. It’s a tough job, but I think I could manage it…
The best books (and films, tv, songs, whatever) are often the ones you can connect with. The ones where you understand what the characters are going through because you’ve been there. I mean, maybe not quite in the same way – I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice but I don’t live in Regency England and I’ve never been proposed to by Mr Darcy: but I have experienced the cut and thrust of family life and none of us are immune to judging people based on first impressions. I do enjoy books which seem to be totally beyond my own world but, in the middle of the dystopias and post-apocalypses I love, the part of the story I really want to read is human experience – the reaction of people like me to situations totally unlike anything I’ve ever been through.
The main character in Lost for Words, Loveday Cardew, is nothing like me. She’s tattooed, uncomfortable in social situations, writes poetry and spent most of her childhood in care but she is very much like me because she is a bookseller. A real bookseller. Not just someone who works in a bookshop – she’s the real thing. It is a bit self-indulgent but I absolutely loved the parts of this book where the bookshop, its customers and Loveday’s feeling for books are described. I may even have done the odd little fist-pump and shouted out ‘yesssss!’ with a sense of total understanding. However, I would imagine that you don’t need to be a bookseller to sympathise with Loveday’s position. She is trying her hardest to live a quiet life: she works in a second-hand bookshop in York (where I lived for 3 years in my student days), has a reasonably good relationship with her eccentric boss and tries to avoid much contact with almost everyone else. She feels she is not worth other people’s effort, unless they are looking for an obscure or hard to find book, and she certainly is not looking for love.
This was an unusual bit of chick-lit. Yes, it was about a young woman and her relationships but it was about quite a lot more. It looks at Loveday’s difficult past and her gradual acceptance of her future: she is a central character in a chick-lit novel that we could all find something in common with if we are honest – awkward, often grumpy and unreasonable. I really liked her. If you like something more than just romance in your chick-lit then maybe Loveday’s story is one for you.
The idea of using books as a therapeutic tool is not new. Bibliotherapy was first heard of in 1916 but I’m sure people have been turning to favourite stories, poems and songs for help in times of emotional stress for much longer than that. Whenever a customer asks me to recommend something I will tend to try to ask what they enjoy in a book (romance, adventure, terror, humour) in an effort to help match up reader and title – which is bibliotherapy of a very basic sort – and, of course, we are all aware of the calming effects of a colouring book. Because of this I have frequently been attracted by novels about booksellers and the way in which they interact with the lives of their customers – Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, The Storied Life of A.J.Fikry and The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend have all been favourites – and I think I always will be. And, of course, I find it quite hard to resist a story set in a world I feel I know so well.
Veronica Henry’s bookshop is based in the Cotswolds, in an idyllic little town filled with people living perfect lives. Or so it seems on the surface. Emilia returns to run Nightingale Books after the death of her beloved father but struggles financially. She has the option to sell the shop building to a local developer (who is obviously not a good man) but decides to battle on when she realises how much the shop means to the community. Along the way she finds out what her father himself meant to the people he met and what her own role is in the town. She learns a few lessons about how not to run a business and the value of listening to the best ideas of your employees. The love promised in the title is found in many forms – romantic love for people of various ages, parental affection, love for people, for places and for books. The story is just complicated enough without being too taxing and the ending satisfying. I must admit I already feel pretty much loved (by family, friends and Rob – who is contractually obliged) but it is always good to read a book which feels like a warm hug.