The Toymakers – Robert Dinsdale

When I was little we would, once a year, go to London and visit Hamley’s toy shop. I don’t think Mum ever bought our presents there, it was a pricey place even then, but we were allowed to choose one little treat. I still have happy memories of getting mexican jumping beans or some strange kind of unpoppable bubble stuff. And we were regular visitors to the toy shop in Basildon – before Toys R Us opened, I think it was called Godfrey’s? – to stock our toy farm. Mum still tells the story of having to go in and buy toy piglets and having to ask for ones that were ‘looking up’ – the assistant (without really registering what Mum meant) asked ‘looking up what?’ Anyway, what I’m getting at is that, like most people who had a childhood, I have quite a few good memories of toyshops. I think if any of the stores I visited had been quite as extraordinary as Papa Jack’s Emporium it would, quite possibly, have blown my tiny child-mind…

34846987The Emporium is a toy shop in London, on a mews off Regents Street. It opens each year with the first frost and closes when the snowdrops bloom. If that makes it sound like a place of poetry and magic, of mystery and joy then, yes, it is. It is run by Jekabs Godman, known as Papa Jack, an émigré from Eastern Europe and his sons Kaspar and Emil and creates the kind of toys which every child would dream of having. Things that glitter and fly, that grow and love you back: toys which are as full of magic and imagination as a child’s mind. Into this world comes Cathy Wray, just 16 years old and pregnant, who takes a job for the season in her efforts to escape her family’s plans to brush the shame of an illegitimate child in Edwardian Leigh-on-Sea*

The story sees Cathy become a part of the Godman family, as does her child Martha who was born in a sort of enchanted wendy house in the store. She is beloved by Papa Jack, who shares with her the harrowing story of his early life as a political prisoner, and by both brothers but she falls for the older sibling, Kaspar. The real world does impinge on the Emporium – Kaspar suffers horribly in the trenches of the Great War and Emil is shamed by the fact that he is unable to serve – and life is not always happy or easy. But the power of toys and a child’s imagination is always there to help people to survive. The book is probably best described as a sort of magical realism but the sort of magic, and reality, which lives in the heart of the very young.



*I grew up only a few miles from Leigh-on-Sea. As soon as saw this I knew I’d love this book…




Girl in the Tower – Katherine Arden (and The Bear & the Nightingale…)

As you can imagine my house contains an awful lot of books. There are bookcases in almost every room and even the rooms without actual shelves contain a small stack of reading material – it is hard to get bored here! However, this does result in the fact that I can lose track of what I’ve read and what is still waiting – especially if I’ve got a pile of goodies all at once and I have to squeeze them in to whatever shelf space is free. This also means that, sometimes, I forget to add books on to the right line of my spreadsheet (or even to add them at all). This is what I found had happened when I started reading Katherine Arden’s Girl in the Tower – about 20 pages in and I realised that I had the previous volume in the series (the first in fact) sitting in my living room, looking very lonely. Luckily it was good enough to be a very swift read so this will be a review of both…

33797941In the Bear and the Nightingale we meet Vasilisa, a young girl, and her family. They live on an estate at some distance from Moscow back in the early days of Rus’ (the forerunner of Russia), in the 14th Century. This is not so much a historical novel, although the settings are obviously very well researched and the rise of Christianity plays a very important role, but one of the battle between the old ways and the new. Vasilisa (or Vasya, as she is known in the traditional way of Russian naming) is a headstrong girl who resists the role she is expected to take up as a dutiful daughter. She has no interest in marriage or love, unlike her older sister Olga, but prefers to run wild with her brothers and to listen to the stories told by Dunya, the children’s nurse. These stories all revolve around various spirits and magical creatures – personifications of Frost, Death and the like and small household spirits who are connected to the hearth, home and stables – but Vasya, unlike her siblings, knows that these beings are real because she can see them. When their father remarries, their devout step-mother tries to quash the old ways (although she can also see the house spirits she believes them to be demons) and the consequences are felt by all. Vasya must fight to retain the old ways and to avoid her stepmother’s plan to either marry her off or incarcerate her in a nunnery. To make things worse dark powers, who were previously kept at bay by the household spirits, are stirring in the forest…

35004343In the second book, the Girl in the Tower, we move to Moscow – not yet the city it is today but still the home of the rulers of Rus’ and also of Vasya’s married sister, Olga. This is a vastly different world – women are confined to their luxurious homes, apart from visits to church, and politics and intrigue are at the front of everyone’s mind. Religion is of great importance – Olga is waiting for the return of her favourite brother, now a sort of warrior priest – and the old ways are nowhere to be seen. Into this world bursts Vasya who has run from her home, dressed as a boy, after tragic events have left her without most of her family and accused of witchcraft. Her actions against a group of bandits who are roaming the countryside, burning villages, stealing young girls and then vanishing, bring her to the attention of Dmitri – the Grand Prince of Moscow and, coincidently, her cousin. He assumes she is a boy, as does everyone else aside from Sasha (the warrior monk brother), and brings her back to Moscow as a reward. Sadly, dark forces once again follow Vasya and worse, she falls foul of Moscow’s strict gender rules when her true identity is discovered.

Both of these books are an almost seamless blend of Russian history and folklore set in a world where both the magical and the grimly political are very real. The characters are all beautifully well-drawn (and you have to pay attention to them all – even the seemingly minor can reappear as major sources of danger and romance), and the plot is richly detailed. The love story, which began tentatively in Vasya’s childhood, grows with her and she faces both passion and peril with intelligence and fortitude. I’ve not been so gripped by a series for years – I really hope the final volume comes out as promised in August: I can’t wait to see how this story ends.



Uncommon Type – Tom Hanks

There are many ways to tell stories ranging from the purely visual – painting, photography or even, perhaps, fireworks – to the verbal – novels and poetry. There are ways which blend combinations of images, words and other sounds – film, dance, theatre, songs and graphic novels – but the storytelling is the important thing. A novel, Wuthering Heights, for example, can be adapted into a comic book, a film or a song but we still feel Catherine’s passion and the bleakness of the moorland setting. We do tend, however, to assume that those who help to portray the stories which others have written – actors, singers, dancers – are just interpreters of the creativity of others rather than creators themselves. Skilled interpreters, who can wring realistic emotions from the written word which we, as readers, can only feel echoes of but they need the words of others. Or that is how we think of them. But Hedy Lamarr was an inventor who helped to develop a radio guidance system for torpedoes and Jimmy Stewart trained as an architect, so we shouldn’t be surprised by actors who are able to produce good fiction. Maybe it is the amount of books written by celebrities which make us forget that actors, really good actors, are something very different from celebs…

tomhanksTom Hanks, as an actor, is agreed to be very good. Double Oscar winner, with lots of other awards to his name, and the star of some of the biggest, and best-loved, films of the past three decades he is a household name. He’s a real celebrity but one with talent and, it appears, principles and plenty of human warmth. All this is apparent in this collection of short stories – in fact I could hear Hanks’ voice in my head as I read them (usually a good sign for me and, it seems, Hanks himself as he reads the audio book version…). Some stories connect to the world of Hollywood actors, which Hanks obviously knows well, but also that of immigrant workers, teen surfers and recently divorced mums. Hanks’ strength as an actor has, for me, always been his ability to be an everyman figure – someone we can all easily identify with – so it is interesting that this extends to his more purely verbal storytelling.

I liked these stories because, as well as being well-written, they are very reminiscent of the kind of films Hanks is involved with. Some romance, some laughs, some heartbreak: no explosions. If you prefer something full of high-speed car chases, special effects and blood then this may not be for you: if you spent the whole of Apollo 13 on the edge of your seat (even though you know how it ends) then give it a try.


Queens of the Conquest – Alison Weir

As a small child I was often told that I had eyes bigger than my belly. You know, I’d see a great big slice of cake or an adult-sized portion of fish and chips and would think I could eat it all. Which would end up with a poorly looking Jane and a plate still half full of whatever it was I had been sure I could eat all of? Well, to be honest, I don’t have that problem any more. Not much is bigger than my belly any more! Although I have sort of transferred that over-enthusiastic optimism to books so maybe now my eyes are bigger than my, um, (frantically tries to think of a body part I read with which isn’t my eyes – fails) free time. At the start of the year I set my Goodreads Reading Challenge target and, since I was expecting to blog about twice a week, I decided that I’d set it for two books a week. That’s 126 books in the year. Not a problem when I do include quite a lot of children’s’ titles (picture books are brilliant for keeping your target in sight) but I have had a couple of blips. At the end of August I was way ahead of schedule and had even had a chance to finish a history of the Spanish Flu (although that took a month of slotting a few chapters here and there amongst the fiction) so I settled down to read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for our book group meeting in mid-September. I read in the introduction that Pullman considers it to be one book, in three parts, so listed it on Goodreads as one. By the time I finished it, two weeks later, I realised my mistake. I had lost my lead over my target (even after I changed the listing to show that I had read three books rather than one…) and was concerned that I’d not be able to allow myself to read any of the things I enjoy but which take more time – usually non-fiction like popular science or history. Boo.*

33638252Well, of course, there’s history and there’s history. And for me any history written by Alison Weir is pretty much irresistible. Like me she has an abiding interest in medieval history (although we’ll both dabble in Tudors if pressed…) and wants to think about how women shaped that world. In Queens of the Conquest Weir is looking at the very earliest queens of England – the wives of the Norman kings, William the Conqueror, Henry I and Stephen – and the Empress Maud, daughter of Henry I and rival to her cousin Stephen during a bitter civil war known as the Anarchy. Which took me back to reading my Mum’s Jean Plaidy books as a child and my realisation that the best way to be a Norman queen was to be called Matilda…

The problem with books written about this period is that primary evidence is fairly thin on the ground and that which does exist is not necessarily easy to work with. Charters issued by queens on both their own and their husband’s behalf, a few letters and, in the case of Maud, some fairly scathing comments from the Gesta Stephani (a contemporary history written very much on Stephen’s side of things). The book works with this material well – it can seem a little dry at points but it certainly made me realise that the phenomenon of women being judged on their looks, compliant personalities and ability to bear children is not the invention of modern celebrity magazines. All of the queens in this book seem to be strong women, acting as regent for their husbands and making decisions both political and financial on their behalf. Maud was the queen best known to me – the daughter of a king, wife of a king and mother to a king but, sadly for her, never crowned as queen in her own right.  I was intrigued to read about the possibilities of her relationship with her daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and I’m quite excited to read that this is the first book in a projected series of four books. I have really been enjoying Weir’s fiction about the wives of Henry VIII but reading about the unvarnished facts (or as many as are available to historians) of the wives of earlier kings is a different kind of pleasure. More like a medieval ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ than a 12th Century Hello magazine – both popular generally but the former is far more my cup of tea.




*Yes. I know the Goodreads target is just a bit of fun. I can read whatever I like and take as long as I like but, heck, I just enjoy setting a goal and going for it. Whether it’s a two book a week reading schedule or eating every single slice of the pizza I ordered – I should be able to put this on my cv…

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…


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

Nick Drake – Time Has Told Me


The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain – Ian Mortimer

Sometimes I’m a total fool to myself. Case in point: I love reading history books but I have painted myself into a metaphorical corner which means I hardly ever read any actual history any more. Here is my problem – see what you think.  I like to post reviews of as many books as I can – I’ve often been given access to books for free by publishers and authors, the least I can do is feedback what I think. I aim to post reviews here once or twice a week and if I don’t post here I do review on Netgalley, or Goodreads. I didn’t used to interact with Goodreads much but, at the beginning of this year my eye was caught by their ‘reading challenge’ where contributors were saying how many books they planned to read in a year. Many were pledging to read 30 or 40 books and, if you work, have children or other responsibilities, this is an impressive target: but I don’t have any kids and I work 4 days a week in a bookshop so I thought I’d go a bit higher. And because I’m daft I decided that one book a week wasn’t enough – my target is 126 books in 2017. Two books a week. And, because a really good history book can take me a week or so to fully appreciate, I thought I’d have to miss out on all the fabulous publishing on the subject coming out this year. Sad face. However, I managed to get myself two or three books ahead of schedule, so I decided to treat myself to an author whose history books I have previously enjoyed (and found very easily readable). My 2017 history duck has been broken!

17thThe first Ian Mortimer book I read was his Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England and I loved the way that it covered all the aspects of history which are often overlooked. I used to enjoy a bit of light Live Role Playing – which mostly involved being a medieval-style peasant for a weekend – so it was great to be able to read about the food, clothes and toilet facilities I was role-playing. I have never dressed up and pretended to be a Restoration lady (apart from the odd bit of corsetry, but that’s another story) but I think this book would give me some excellent pointers on how to do it. This is a history of all the people – the Kings (and their many hangers-on, wives, and mistresses), the rich and the poor – and it is the history of their whole lives – what they eat, wear, do for fun and where they…well…poo. Mortimer is convincing about why the late 17th century is a period of revolution: not just in terms of Royal succession or religious tolerance but also in the realms of science, literature, the belief in reason as a higher priority than religion in many areas, and also just in attitudes to life. Women are still very much second-class citizens, the property of some man or other, but some of them become the earliest female actors, authors, painters, and travel writers.

The world Mortimer describes is often ( as 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes said) ‘nasty, brutish and short’. It is full of things we find unfair, ridiculous or even barbaric; it is very smelly, unhealthy and downright dangerous but it is also exciting, full of change and development and contains some brilliant writing (note to self: read some Pepys). It is also starting to become more and more like the world we know today.


More Booker bookish goodness

I posted recently about my fairly appalling record with Booker Prize winning/shortlisted titles so I decided that this would be the year when I broke my apparent one book rule. I prowled around the shortlist table at work – shamelessly trying to work out which were the shortest/quickest to read – and then plumped for a couple of titles which the helpful folk at Random House had made available on Netgalley. One, Satin Island by Tom McCarthy, was on my personal wish list of ‘short books’ and the other was the slightly more substantial A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler.

satinLet’s start with Satin Island. Being rather shallow I decided that 176 pages wouldn’t take me long (the Anne Tyler is 480…)* so I threw myself into the world of U., an anthropologist working for a large modern company – only ever referred to as ‘The Company’ – and tried to ignore all the reviews that referred to the book as being avant-garde. Because I’m not sure I like avant-garde…

Maybe I’m better at the modernist/post-modernist/other sorts of -ist stuff than I thought, however, as I found the book to be quite absorbing. I have friends who studied anthropology to degree level and worked in a University bookshop where textbooks on the subject featured quite heavily so I felt fairly familiar with the basics. I think I even got to the fact that the study of material culture has given way to that of social and cultural anthropology before the plot did so I did feel like a bit of a genius. Briefly. Until I was bludgeoned down by all the references to Leibniz, Nietzsche and Levi-Strauss. Oh well, it was good while it lasted…I was particularly amused by the fact that the study (and associated ‘Smart Thinking’ type book) which made U.’s name in the 90s was on the tribes of club culture – I reckon if I searched hard enough I could find the real life version.

What I got from the book as a whole – since it didn’t really do plot – was mostly the fact that modern businesses, and much of modern life, seem to need people with backgrounds in a number of subjects if they are to understand how they operate (especially in the wider world). Although I have a feeling that Sir Alan Sugar would not agree. He certainly wouldn’t employ someone who basically did so little at work that even Dirk Gently would have trouble justifying his salary. In fact, in the end, the book seemed to me to be a critique of the way that the world of business and money and modernity can suck all the goodness out of any academic discipline and make it, well, undisciplined. The modern world is not about what you know but about how you present your findings.

SpoolA Spool of Blue Thread, on the other hand, is a novel about, on the face of it, very normal people to whom not very much happens. The Whitshanks are a family who are not brilliant, beautiful or rich – they are average and familiar. While you may not know the whole family you know aspects of them – the bossy older sister, the mother who, by trying to draw her children to her, can make them resent her interference or the one child who doesn’t quite fit in (or, indeed, want to). It is not that you dislike them or that they are bad people – they are just people.

I have seen some listings which describe this as ‘women’s fiction’ but that would seem to deny the place that men take in building a family. And the menfolk in the Whitshank family are easily as interesting as the women – the relationship between brothers Denny and Stem is dealt with in far more detail than any of their two sisters’ connections – and have most of the secrets as far as I can see. And secrets seem to be at the heart of the story. The family seems so ordinary and there is very little that actually happens but we do gradually dig deeper into those secrets. They are, on the whole, not major revelations but they do mean a lot to those involved and they shape how the family is formed.

I think I have picked a good year to expand my Booker repertoire as I have enjoyed all three of the shortlisted titles I have read. I still feel that A Little Life will win (it has that special something and it does tick so many of the boxes which win prizes) but the judges this year, hopefully, will have enjoyed their work…


*I read the 480 pages in a day less than the 176. Go figure, Anne Tyler is just very, very readable.