That Was The Year That Was – part 2…

After a brief pause (for an evening of wine, cheese and Deathly Hallows part 2…) here’s the rest of my highlights of 2017.

July

51yytgdLxSL._AC_US218_Lots of excitement in Bradford during July as the Literature Festival takes over most of the city’s major venues. I always love working at this festival – the talks cover themes from feminism to cricket and Jane Austen to the Partition of India. There were so many interesting events and books  that I’m still playing catch-up – I still have to read Adelle Stripe’s Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile – and, because I’m working on bookstalls I hardly get to see any of the talks. I did find time, however, to read a few books during the month including one which definitely makes my top 5 for the year. I began the month with a new Matt Haig (always a joy) and then a new Rachel Joyce. Given the fact that my new favourite place in Halifax is a record shop it should come as no surprise to find that The Music Shop was a 2017 favourite.

August

51dtYojn65L._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Another bit of holiday time for me – a regular trip to a folk festival means plenty of time to spend sat in a field with friends, a glass of wine, a good book and great music as a backdrop. I enjoyed some Irish romance, a new twist on psychological thrillers and some good old-fashioned historical fiction but I think my top read for the month was a post-apocalypse narrated in part by a foul-mouthed dog.

September

35512560September means lots of ‘back to school’ books in the shop and the start of all the big books coming out in time for Christmas. I took the chance to read John O’Farrell’s follow-up to Things Can Only Get Better (after deciding the only way I could react to the politics of 2017 is to laugh at it) and a new history of medieval queens by Alison Weir. Highlight of the month’s reading for me, however, was a warts and all look at the world of secondhand bookselling. I’m not sure if anyone who has never worked in retail would laugh quite so hard at Shaun Bythell’s adventures but I loved it. Personal highlight of the month though was a visit from my Mum – always a joy!

October

34728079I read a couple more really enjoyable potential Christmas bestsellers in October. I’m a big fan of Sarah Millican as a comedian – I’m even more of a fan now after reading her warm and humane (but slightly filthy) biography/self-help title. During a period when so many famous figures turned out to have feet of clay (that reached their necks in some cases) it was also heartening to hear that Tom Hanks is as nice a guy as he seems – his book of short stories showed that he is also intelligent, thoughtful and a pretty good writer. My favourite book for October, however, was a Japanese novel about a man trying to rehome a cat. It doesn’t sounds much when I describe it like that but it was a beautiful book – another top 5 contender.

November

9780091956943Christmas is starting to loom. Yes, we put the decorations up and get the cards and gift-wrap out early – but by the end of the month it is all about selling lots of lovely books so we take our chances when we can. There is still time to read a bit too – my highlights for this month were a densely plotted (and occasionally mind-boggling) novel from Nick Harkaway featuring high-finance, sharks and alchemy and an eagerly awaited new book from Andy Weir. For sheer readability and fun though it is Weir’s Moon-based crime caper which makes it onto my 2017 top 5.

December

Not a big month for new books – more a culmination of the previous eleven really. There are some fun humour titles but not much else. So I have spent much of the last four and a half weeks getting ahead on the new titles coming out in early 2018. Lots of reviews to come there – watch this space I guess. Like many others, however, I would describe my personal December highlights as time spent with my family and friends (with some running achievements – like my 100th parkrun – and an awful lot of chocolate to take into account too.

Here’s hoping you enjoyed some of the books I have reviewed in 2017. I look forward to carrying on in 2018 (but I may try to keep better track of my favourites….)

Jane

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Christmas – it’s all about the kids

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…)

9781908745743One 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…

9781447277910There 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

9780141986005As 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…

9780241253588Let’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…

9780857561091Most 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…

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!

 

Echo Boy – Matt Haig

Matt Haig is, currently, going the right way about adding himself to my list of authors who are yet to write a book I dislike.  I haven’t read everything he has written but I enjoyed both The Radleys (an everyday story of a very English vampire family) and The Humans (an alien sent to destroy all evidence of a mathematician’s work is infected with humanity) and now I can add Echo Boy to the list.

9781782300069This is classified as a young adult/teen novel and the main characters are aged appropriately but don’t let this put you off. I know some adult readers are reluctant to try YA fiction but personally I think they are missing out – it isn’t all hormone-fuelled romance and sparkly vampires in the teen section of the shop! This book fits in with one of the more interesting (to me) themes – dystopic fiction, especially where the problems stem from environmental disaster – as well as exploring what it means to be human and how power corrupts. And all this without sounding ‘preachy’ or ‘worthy’…

The book opens with the heroine, Audrey, living with her parents and a kind of robotic housekeeper (known as an Echo) in the North of England. The landscape is almost unrecognisable – rising sea levels mean that homes are built on stilts 50 metres high – but some things are very familiar (it has been raining for 4 months…..). I liked Audrey’s relationship with her parents – she obviously loves them, is embarrassed by them, proud of them and rebels mildly against them – although it doesn’t last long: they are killed in the opening pages. Audrey then travels to London to live under the protection of her Uncle – an immensely rich and powerful industrialist whose company makes, among other things, Echoes. Echoes are more than robots – they appear to be almost human, only their perfection makes them different – but they are less than human because they are emotionless. They are also meant to be unable to harm their human masters but this is certainly not Audrey’s experience.

I won’t go too deeply into the plot – too hard not to give spoilers – but I will say that the story rattles along at a very fast pace. There is tragedy, danger, love and suspense. Audrey is a feisty heroine and Daniel, the Echo Boy of the title, is an interesting hero. He learns how to be human and Audrey, like so many teenagers before her, learns that things are never as black and white as they seem.

Jane