The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae – Stephanie Butland

Being a teenager is tough. It always has been – it was almost certainly tough being somewhere between 12 and 20 even before teenage-ness was invented (as Lucy Worsley’s book from my previous review shows). Whatever society thought young people of that age should be doing (working in mines and factories, marrying and starting to provide heirs or getting a good education) the hormones have, surely, always been there. In the 1500s they, presumably, expressed their angst by sobbing into their virginals or writing rather pointed poetry and in the Victorian era fainting and consumption were popular responses: teens in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have the option of YA novels centred around death. Some focus on murders, and some on suicide, sudden death is also a common theme but some of the best known centre on a young person with a terminal illness or condition. It might seem an odd sort of trend to an adult reader (even though we may all have felt a frisson of something when we read about Helen Burns’ death in Jane Eyre…) but it is a genuine phenomena which helps many younger readers to learn about life and death. But, sometimes, I wonder where the fictional youngsters who survive their traumas, their cancers and illnesses are? What happens to the ones who, against all the odds, do get to grow up?

37435951Stephanie Butland gives us the story of one such person – Ailsa Rae. She has spent her entire life, all 28 years of it, coping with a congenital heart defect. She has had to make allowances for it, missed out on things other people do without thinking and, in recent years, she has blogged about it under the name Blue Heart. While waiting for her transplant she comforts and supports Lennox – her former boyfriend and close friend – who never gets the liver transplant he needs. Now that Ailsa has her new heart she has a lot to learn: how to live with the loss of Lennox, how to gain her independence from her mother without irreparably damaging their relationship, how, in short, to live now that she isn’t going to die. She starts by learning how to tango…

I really enjoyed this book – it is a light romance novel but also had me thinking quite seriously about how it must feel to both be waiting on an organ transplant list and to recover from such a major operation*. I liked Ailsa’s blogging persona – again she was very informative but without blinding us with medical language – and the way that she used blog polls to help her make decisions. We see Ailsa grow up – her condition meant that she had to be looked after for 28 years, she couldn’t get a job, couldn’t live alone – and lose the air of perpetual adolescence. Finally we also see her learning the lesson which many adults never do – working out both who is worthy of love and how to be loved herself.


*And yes, I am on the organ donor register. Are you?



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.


Nick and Abe – Lex Jones

I saw this title and read the blurb: the Devil and God assume human form for a year as a wager, but it doesn’t go to plan. I admit my reaction was: “Great! The cosmic battle played out on the playing field of Earth!”That wasn’t what I got, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Instead of focussing on supernatural beings and an age-old war, this book is subtle, thoughtful, and filled with interesting ideas.

41cevbn9bal-_sx322_bo1204203200_For fans of Kevin Smith, this may sound along similar lines to “Dogma”. But in the book there is no overarching threat, no rebellion and no race against time. It’s a book about two men trying to find their way in an unfamiliar world and discovering themselves along the way. There’s also an element of romance to this which is, I have to say, one of the sweetest romances I’ve read in a while. There were various ways this could have ended. Jones went with the “safe” ending rather than one of the darker versions I had envisaged. But that’s fine: it would have undermined the whole sweetness of this book if there had been a cruel twist at the end of it which would have been surprising, but ultimately disappointing. Both of the characters at various points during the novel are required to talk about the Bible and Christian mythology. There was a risk that this could have resulted in a plot dump, but Jones adeptly turns them into interesting and thoughtful monologues that will leave you wondering if this might truly be what a benevolent god and his chief angel think of the world.

This book wasn’t for me as a fan of supernatural thrillers, but it really could be for you if you like emotional and philosophical works. At time of writing, it’s got four and five star reviews on various online sites, all of which are thoroughly deserved. It’s an interesting and unusual book that puts a whole new spin on just how good and evil might be viewed in our modern world. If personal development and sweet romance are your thing, if you like empathetic characters with whom you can enjoy a spiritual journey, then this book is the one you’ve been waiting for.


How To Find Love in a Bookshop – Veronica Henry

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.

love-in-a-bookshopVeronica 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.


Vinegar Girl – Anne Tyler

English was always my favourite subject at school – permission to read as many books as I could, even if that reading was guided, was bliss to me. It still is to be honest (and with rather less in the way of set texts these days) and my voracious book habit continues. I was also lucky enough that my English teachers at school encouraged us to read a wide range of books – some great plays when I was 15 or 16 and, in sixth form, the course was based around world literature so Dostoevsky and Achebe rubbed shoulders with Jane Austen. Oddly, I didn’t seem to have to read the authors you’d usually associate with ‘English Literature’ – there was no Dickens, no Hardy, no Brontes and, astonishingly, no Shakespeare. Although these were the years of the BBC Television Shakespeare series (1978-85) and I watched most of these I didn’t actually ‘study’ Shakespeare until University. Even then I only did one module on ‘Shakespeare the Dramatist’ which was as much about acting and staging a play as studying it for meaning and a brief shot at Hamlet as part of a course on Revenge Tragedy. For me reading Shakespeare has almost always been about acting and about reading for pleasure. And I’ve never found it difficult to understand the language (footnotes are my friend) since so much of our modern usage was coined by Shakespeare himself. I’ve also been making up for my childhood omissions by doing lots of Shakespeare with our reading group at work (Bill Bryson biography in May and Romeo & Juliet in June) – I’m now ready to tackle a volume in the Hogarth Shakespeare series: Vinegar Girl, which is Anne Tyler’s updated retelling of Taming of the Shrew.

vinegar girlThis version sees Kate, pushing 30 and in a job she thinks she hates, looking after her widowed father and younger sister. In an updating of this story you might expect Kate to be a very combative character and, in some ways she is. But in many other ways – particularly in the way that she has to organise the household, and her life it seems, to keep her rather eccentric scientist father happy – she is actually quite self-effacing. She is bitter and unhappy in many ways and it is only through her relationship with her father’s research assistant that she is able to develop into the woman she should be. This is, is many ways, quite a large deviation from the original – her new husband Pyotr is frustratingly clueless about how to woo a woman or, indeed, most other social niceties but he is not the bully that Petruchio is in the original. Which is a relief – I don’t think that would have made for as appealing a story as this light and almost frothy romance. We get enough back story to make sense of Kate and her sister Bunny and there is enough development (in both sisters) to make a satisfying ending.


The Reader on the 6.27 -Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

We have established that I have the best job in the world. The combination of books, cakes and, frankly, permission to talk to customers about books and cakes is pretty irresistible I think. I’ve had other jobs over the years but, to be honest, doing price changes on shelves full of shower-gel, unpacking deliveries of cds and taking the staples out of boxes and boxes of old invoices were not as interesting. Life-modelling was fun, but mostly because I could read while I worked and if I ate too much cake no-one complained. I think you see the pattern here. I am a very, very lucky person to have a job that I love so much. Of course most people are not so fortunate…

00081651-620x387Guylain Vignolles is one of the unluckiest of the unlucky ones. He, like me, loves reading but his job is to destroy books in a huge machine at a pulping factory. Now I know that books get pulped but I also know that some publishers used to send books to be punched full of holes in prisons. Destroying books seems more appropriate as a punishment than as a job in my opinion. Guylain, however, knows this is an awful job and to achieve some kind of karmic balance he spends his journey into work each morning reading out loud, on the 6.27 train, random pages which he rescues from the depths of The Beast (as he has named the pulping machine). There are other characters – a security guard who declaims in Alexandrines, work colleagues who see the books just as so much tonnage to get through and one who was invalided out of the job after a horrific accident – but the story really starts to develop when Guylain finds a memory-stick containing the diary of a young woman. He starts to read these diary entries on his daily commute and then realises he needs to find the author of the words he is reading.

We Brits associate Paris and the French with love but often we want nice, safe English love stories set in the city of romance. This is a wonderfully gallic novel, where romance and intellectualism reign supreme. Without resorting to saccharine sweetness, but with style and wit, this book left me with a serious case of the warm fuzzies which, I hope, will see me through an entire English spring….



Dream a Little Dream of Me – Giovanna Fletcher

dream a little dreamDream a Little Dream is the latest by author/actress/wife of TomfromMcFly and it is a bit of froth. And I have decided that I quite like froth…

The plot is reminiscent of One Day – featuring a group of friends who met at Uni and are still part of a tight-knit group years later – and is largely built around Sarah. Her ex is part of the friendship group but, since they mean more to her than he does, she has to see him frequently. Him and the perfect girlfriend he left her for. And it seems her own brain is conspiring to help her forget him by filling her dreams with visions of the delectable Brett ( a bit player in the group’s student days but now no longer in touch). And who gets to meet their dream boyfriend in real life?

I liked this book because I could identify with Sarah – the weekly pub quizzes, the problems with frizzy hair and the close group of friends. Okay, I’ve not stayed in touch with my Uni mates in quite the same way and we were nowhere near as incestuous a group, but the dynamics of the friends makes perfect sense to me. I also enjoyed the parts that were different from my own experiences – Sarah’s career problems, her seemingly unsupportive mother – because they were convincingly written. I am considerably older than Sarah and her friends but I really felt I could see them growing up as the book progressed. Sarah in particular seems to have accepted that her job and her relationship with her mother are her responsibility – therefore both improve – and she ends up gaining enough self-confidence to accept that the real Brett (who shows up part way through the book) could be as much a part of her life as the dream version was.

So, froth. But froth with humour, good characters (who develop and grow) and just enough tension to keep the pages turning. Perfect summer reading…And considering that TomfromMcFly is one half of the team that brings us the marvellous ‘Dinosaur That Pooped…’ series theirs must be a fun-filled household!