Article · Books

January Reading: New Year, New Process

My January book pile.
 
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This year I have set myself a routine. Instead of meandering about picking books willy-nilly, based on system-less and entirely arbitrary decisions, books shall be chosen this way:
  •  monthly Old Baggage’s Book Club book, chosen by a club member;
  •  one off my ‘unread but I’ve owned it more than a year non-fiction’ pile;
 
Persuasion
 
As it happens ‘Persuasion‘ ticks a box on two of the challenges, so hopefully that will ease me in, and probab-, possibl-, hopefully help me stop buying books I know I’m not going to read just yet, but which I’m worried I’ll forget about if I go away and leave them on the shelf.
 
Now if I can just get the sound of their papery little sobs out of my head, as I walk away and abandon them…
 
 
 
As well as reading, this year I’ve decided to give my brain a workout and included a puzzle book. Though I’m not going to worry about trying to get through one a month.
 
OS puzzle tour
I’ve been eyeballing these in Waterstones for about three years now, and over the Xmas break finally took the plunge with Sinclair McKay’s Scotland Yard Puzzle Book. I had assumed that they would be far too complex for me, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that they also cater to those of us with an IQ level that more often resembles the lower end wattage of old-school filament light bulbs.They do get progressively more difficult, though, so there is a challenge there for everyone. Having mostly completed McKay’s puzzles in about a fortnight, I picked up the OS Puzzle Tour of Britain. There’s a secret cartographer hiding in a small ,quiet corner of my soul so this was an obvious choice, and it was half-price to boot. So far, so good, I’m three puzzles in and the lightbulb hasn’t blown a fuse. Yet.
 
Styles
This is a surprisingly ‘historical’ collection for me. I usually veer more towards crime and sci-fi. ‘Styles’* is an easy one, then, but I’m Christie-lover anyway, and anything by her can be classed amongst my comfort-reads. My copy is one of the facsimile editions released a few years ago. There is something particularly special for me about reading a book in the form the author understood it would be published in. I have also found, having now read a few, that this small hardback format, is actually very pleasant to read. They are not particularly heavy, but they have that feel of solidity, and substance that paperbacks lack, but without the bulk and stiffness of modern hardcovers.
 
The Austen is a different proposition. I’ve never been a fan of this genre (in my head its classed as ’19th Century middle-class soap opera’) But I’ve enjoyed, if not loved, the odd BBC production, and they are classics, so maybe it’s time to get my head down and give it a shot. Especially as this one book fulfils both Penguin’s monthly challenge, and one of MMD’s slots. 
 
West Winging
West Winging It, by Pat Cunnane has been on my shelf for a while. I’ve been mildly obsessed with the goings-on of the White House since the turn of the century, and (yeah, you got it) The West Wing TV series. (Thanks, for that Mr Sorkin). I’m not high brow enough to read the really in depth political books though, so I settle for the stuff that’ll fill the void left by the end of the show. The gossipy light-weight fluff that throws out an occasional detail of process whilst spilling hundreds of secrets about the people, their cock-up’s, and scandals and (hopefully) eschewing any kind of regard for the Official Secrets Act, or whatever they have over there. I’m hoping Cunnane is going to live up to all my lowest expectations.
 
Gentleman Jack
The last book on the pile is ‘Gentleman Jack’. This is our January book over at The Old Baggage’s Book Club.
Chosen by one of our members, I’m having a little wobble about this, too. I love non-fiction, but the flat-out truth is I’m a junk reader, and whilst non-fiction subjects fascinate me…it takes me a lot longer to read them. They have complicated stuff like, y’know…𝑓𝑎𝑐𝑡𝑠, in them. It takes more time to absorb the information they contain. Not to mention my compulsive Googling of every tiny detail that I suddenly need to know more about. So whilst I’m thrilled at the idea of learning more about Annie, I’m vaguely worried I might have to exert some effort.
 
So, with slightly mixed feelings about how this month is going to go (how am I going to survive with no sci-fi, no urban fantasy, no….Bryant & May?!)  it’s time to see if I can make it through the first month of my new reading routine. Or if I end up back in Waterstone’s gathering up my weeping new children from the shelves, and carrying them home to a life of comfort, genre-sectioning, and very little prospect of ever being read.
 

*If your first thought upon reading this was “Harry?”, then you should definitely be reading a different blog…

 
Book · Graphic Novel · Review

Delightful French Children’s Tale About A Family of Gourmet Mice

The Mice of Bistrot des Sept Frères
by Marie Letourneau

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The Mice of Bistrot des Sept Freres

A family of French mice own a little Bistro famous for it’s soup. One day when the Papa Mouse is out buying ingredients, including the secret ingredient that makes his soup so famous, an important critic arrives and demands the soup!

What will the seven brothers do? The don’t have the secret ingredient! Will the day be saved or will their reputation go down the drain, along with a second-rate soup? Read on, and find out!

Only the French can mix rodents and food and make it seem like a good thing 🙂

 

Book · Graphic Novel · Review

Other People’s Kids, Other People’s Humour…

Pico Bogue
Pico Bogue: Striking the Balance

I picked this up through NetGalley. Short version: I struggled with it.

I had hoped it would be an enjoyable, easy, and amusing read. I love the art-work but the text just fell flat. I can see where the jokes are supposed to be, where the humour should be but it just wasn’t coming across.

I suspect that this is a collection of work based on the things actual kids have said, and had I witnessed any of them in real life I probably would have found them hilarious.

I find my own kids hysterical, and I am clearly the funniest person on the planet, but other people’s kids and their parents’ funny stories rarely do it for me.

What can I say? Humour is subjective and water is wet. Other people may love this, or it may all have got lost in translation.

Books · Review · YA

Thornhill

A beautifully rendered YA ghost story

I’m not a big YA reader, but you can definitely sell me a book with a cover, and Pam Sym’s Thornhill is a good example. Although I didn’t actually buy it (it arrived in the staff room as part of the appraisal batch we received in advance of the Waterstone’s Childrens’ Book Award) it was the cover that pulled me in. Charmingly dark and Gothic with a moleskin-feel, and black-edged pages, I wanted to read it just so that I could touch it.*

Thornhill
Thornhill by Pam Sym

This is not a complex book, it’s not an original story but it is beautifully and originally delivered. I read it in a matter of hours, helped by the form of the binary narratives.

The story revolves around the lives of two lonely girls, Mary and Ella. Mary is an orphan, and Ella the only child of a mostly-absent, widowed father. Mary’s somewhat more complex narrative is delivered in a series of diary entries, whilst the simpler tale of Ella is depicted in Sym’s cleverly constructed, and beautiful black and white illustrations.

Their stories converge when Ella and her father move into a house over-looking the old orphanage (Thornhill), and Ella starts seeing a strange girl in the over-run, and fenced off grounds of the building.

There is definite homage paid to Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden which not only provides clear inspiration but is actually cited as a favourite book for both girls. Mary, isolated from her peers by selective mutism, finds expression in the making of puppets which she models on characters from her favourite books. As we intersect with her story she has just begun to fashion the characters from Burnett’s book.  The two girls’ interest in each other grows to nascent friendship when Ella finds and repairs one of the puppets that had been left broken and lost in an enclosed garden in the grounds of Thornhill.

I really enjoyed this book. I felt for both girls, and felt the frustration of any parent at the poor choices made by the attendant adults in the tale, but ultimately it is a story about friendship, and how somewhere there is a friend for everyone. Though – again as a parent – I have some reservations about the conclusion as a cure for loneliness. I’m also left with the impression that there may have been another direction this book was originally taking. There are details in the story that suggested to me a different conclusion, or even another character emerging, and when that didn’t happen the attribution for certain events didn’t really ring true. That said I doubt if it is obvious enough for most of the target audience to either notice or worry about.

Overall, definitely worth the read. 

*I’m a bookseller, fondling books is one of the perks. If you think that’s weird you should be in a bookshop when two or more of us are stood around together sniffing copies of a new book and comparing it to other fragrances we have known.

Books · Review

Fire & Fury

You can’t make this shit up!

 

By  now you will have read a number of (probably contradictory) reviews for this book, which will probably have given you quite a lot of detailed (and probably contradictory) information about the book.

imageSo here’s a very brief answer and overview to help you if you are still wrestling with the question “Should I buy this book, should I read this book, will I be left wishing for those hours of my life back ?”

Well, it’s a doddle to read. It’s actually quite interesting to read. It’s not going to tell you any more outrageous stories about Trump than you have already heard. But it will confirm them, and it will add texture to some. He really didn’t expect to win, he really was just on another self-promo binge.

All of that doesn’t mean the book doesn’t hold surprises. I had no idea Ivanka and Jared are DEMOCRATS (!!??). Oops! I guess I just gave that surprise away…but it’s worth reading about the chaos that’s causing in a White House voted in to place by hard core Republicans. Steve Bannon really is the sad little, alt-right man-child you always thought he was, and not the towering power-house of a political tactician that he accidentally appeared as for a moment or two.

imageAnd childishness. So much childishness from so many purportedly adult people. Most of my sticky-notes mark points where the degree of infantile behaviour was so bad that it actually stood out from the day-to-day sulking and tantrums. It quite simply has to be the most insane government a western democracy has ever hosted. Then there’s Trump’s clear belief that the role of POTUS is actually that of an El Presidente-style, junta-leading, banana republic tyrant whose sole purpose is his own aggrandisement and pocket-lining.  Like I said at the start – you actually couldn’t make this shit up.

 

But none of this is revelatory or extraordinary enough to warrant the hardback price, so my ultimate advice – wait until it’s in paperback.

Books · Review

Bats in The Belfry

A Cosy Crime sleeper worthy of resurrection

I’m a huge fan of Cosy Crime, I cut my grown-up reading teeth on Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, so it should be no surprise that I’m a big fan of the British Library’s inspired decision to republish lost Golden Age novels.

Fifty-one re-issues in and I’m still stunned at the number of authors who had stellar careers as crime writers, were fully inducted members of the Detection Club, and had publication lists to rival Christie’s but who, within a few years of their deaths, had just vanished from the pantheon classic crime novelists.

Bats In The BelfrySuch a writer was E.C.R.Lorac, author of Bats In The Belfry. In his introduction Martin Edwards describes  the pseudonymous Lorac (real name Edith Caroline Rivett)  as enjoying a “low-key career spanning more than a quarter of a century.” It also produced a catalogue of over seventy novels, yet, cosy crime fan that I am I had  never heard of her until her book turned up on my work intranet.

Bats, British Library’s inaugural Crime Classic for 2018, is also the first of Lorac’s novels to be given the British Library treatment.  It couldn’t have happened to a better book! One of the dangers of republishing books that have disappeared in the mists of time, at least if you are republishing them for the mass market, is that some of them will prove to have  been ‘lost’ with good cause. Not that the writing need be poor or the plotting weak, but there are social aspects that can be critical to the development or fundamental premise of the story that change over the course of  half a century. When that happens there is a danger that the reader will at best be disgruntled with a puzzle they were unlikely to be able to solve because they didn’t understand the clues they were being given,  or, at worst, that the whole premise will seem beyond ludicrous to modern readers. Of the twenty or so BLCC’s I have read only one has fallen into the latter category, and whilst there have been one or two which were a bit plodding thanks to such issues they have largely been a pleasure to read, and I have been able to joyfully pit my wits against the authors’ intrinsic challenge to solve the mystery before the denouement.

Bats in the Belfry most definitely falls into this class of Crime Classic, so much so that it’s a surprise to find from Edwards that it was a bit of a non-starter when it was first  published in 1937.

A failing writer, his actress wife, his ward and a selection of friends are collected one evening following the funeral of the writer’s cousin. Shortly thereafter the writer himself has vanished, his suitcase and passport left in a darkly sinister studio known variously as The Belfry, and The Morgue.  The story is as dark and twisty as any you could hope for from a member of the Detection Club, and it plays nicely on themes of the time. Broken marriages, financially emasculated men, and the requisite ‘strange foreign man’ all appear, and even aarchaeology gets a look in.  As the main characters sit and incautiously discuss ways to bump off someone and hide the body there is brief verbal tussle over the usefulness – and even existence of – dene holes, ancient subterranean storage areas that provided writers of the time with endless possibilities, most notably in Sayers’ The Nine Tailors.  Lorac’s plotting is flawless and deceptively simplistic, and she leads you back and forth from suspect to suspect. She is brutally unsympathetic to her characters, and her writing bundles you along until you finally reach the conclusion, to discover how good you are at detecting. Or not.

 

 

Books · Review

100 Years of voting

One hundred years ago today women finally won the right to vote in the UK. Here is some of the reading I shall be doing over the next few weeks to remind myself of the struggle that brought about that most important of changes, and how there is still progress to be made.

Books · Review

Force of Nature

Jane  Harper builds on the promise of her debut novel 

Harper’s debut novel ,’The Dry‘,  was one of my personal books of the year last year, and in fact I still sell it quite regularly to customers seeking recommendations. I was absolutely delighted ,then, to receive a proof copy of her new novel,Force of Nature‘, from LittleBrown.

The plot is fairly straightforward , five female colleagues take part in a team-building weekend in the forests north of Melbourne. Three days later and several hours behind schedule four of them finally struggle back to the base camp, dehydrated, panicked and battered. The fifth one – Alice Russell, unpopular with the others – walked out of the camp one night and hasn’t been seen since.

force of nature cover
Force of Nature by Jane Harper will be published in hardback on 08/02/2018 by LittleBrown

Is her disappearance linked to the serial killer who had made the area his hunting ground twenty years earlier, or is it the result of the bullying,  anger and resentment that permeates the group? Or is it less than a coincidence that the woman who is missing is an informant for Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk, the officer investigating her employers for money laundering?

In ‘The DryHarper used binary narratives – one historical, one contemporary – to artfully unravel a single story. She repeats this formula in ‘Force of Nature’ with equal success,  the only difference being that in this instance the ‘historical’ events preceded the contemporary events by a few days, rather than decades.

One of the outstanding qualities of Harper’s writing is her character development. She delivers convincing and well-realised personalities who manage to be separate and distinct from each other without falling into charicature-like stereotypes. The  new book makes the most of this particular skill, building one of the narrative lines from the alternating perspectives of the remaining four women of the group, and using it to steer the story in different ways unique to each character.

This is a beautiful example of Harper’s defining quality as a writer: the ability to  carry a simple, uncomplicated storyline with masterful writing and composition. The way she utilises the voices of her characters: the careful, almost throw-away manner she drops in suggestions that could as easily be red-herrings as critical plot devices. With perfect pacing that builds exponentially to a dramatic,  whirling climax Harper unravels a gripping tale.

Two books in an she has already made it onto my ‘favourite authors’ list. I shall be reserving space on my bookshelves for all her future books.