Monthly Archives: September 2012

Bookshops I Love; Linghams Booksellers, Heswall

As its Sunday which I think is the most leisurely day of the week, I thought that I would take you on a leisurely stroll around my almost but not quite local independent bookshop. This is the lovely Linghams in Heswall which might not be just down the end of the road, but is (pretty much) directly opposite The Beard’s new lovely food shop. Handy, right?

I always find with bookshops, particularly independent ones, which while browsing and mooching is welcomed to a point there comes a time when you might have browsed too much. Let me just add here that this isn’t the case in any of the bookshops that I feature in this series of posts. In the case of Linghams I think you would be perfectly happy, well I would be, to spend the day inside the shop – and I don’t think the staff would mind if you did either – and these are the sort of bookshops that are real gems. Firstly obviously there is the selection of books…

As well as an extensive fiction selection, more of in a moment, they also have a wonderful children’s section (sorry about the blurring)…

And a delightful cafe which myself, The Beard and his friend Abby all enjoyed some absolutely delicious Thai fishcakes and chips in for lunch. Absolutely scrummy.

We couldn’t quite decide if we thought that the live piano playing was a great thing or slightly annoying, but we went with it and it does add a certain ambience to the place which for the (good) hour we were there was constantly buzzing. Lovely. It’s the sort of shop that makes you want to, well, shop.

I don’t know about you but I always have a little list of criteria when I go into an independent and also an ‘allowance’ when I am in a store, this of course has a limit (because I could frankly go crazy) yet I only spend if I love the store. That’s natural isn’t it? Well the books that I had on my ‘allowance’ list on this visit were ‘Swimming Home’ by Deborah Levy, pre Man Booker longlisting, and ‘The Shadows in the Streets’ by Susan Hill as it was somehow a book in the series I had missed. Alas they didn’t have Levy, but before Booker long and short listing it was tough to get hold of anywhere (libraries, high street chain bookshops and even a certain online place) but I did find the Hill which I snapped up.

I also desperately wanted a book bag, I seem to collect them unsurprisingly, but alas they didn’t have any colours I fancied. (Ok, I admit it I have been hankering after a purple one.) Yet the other day The Beard came home with a rather special gift…

A one off purple Linghams book bag, which no one else has and that the lovely people at the shop had made especially. I was really chuffed and will be wearing it with pride when I next go to Heswall to fill it up.

Linghams Booksellers can be found at 248 Telegraph Road, Heswall, Merseyside, CH60 7SG and you can visit their website here.

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Books By The Bedside #5

This week’s posts have all been scheduled in advance, hence why I have been even worse than normal at replying, as with imminent Green Carnation longlisting this week, deadlines galore and visiting Granny Savidge Reads this weekend (who has had some bad health news but I want to talk to her before sharing it, if I do)  it is all a little bit bonkers. So I thought a post on what will be on my reading horizons after having had it somewhat guided in the last few months might make a nice post. Plus it means you get to tell me what you think of the books and authors on the list and then share what you are reading and want to read which I always love hearing about…

I had imagined that once the Green Carnation submissions were done I might be able to be a little freer in whim terms. Yet interestingly it’s not going to be immediately (in part as I will have to read the longlist again) because next weekend is the start of Manchester Literature Festival and I have two events in the first week which means rather a lot of re-reading but also some new gems.

First up is an event with Catherine Hall and Patrick Gale, so I have re-read ‘The Proof of Love’ and have now lined up her debut novel ‘Days of Grace’ which I have been wanting to read for ages. I am also re-reading Patrick Gales ‘A Perfectly Good Man’ (which I have read already once this summer) and pondering if I should get ‘Notes from an Exhibition’ as apparently this is a companion, not a sequel, to that one.

The second event is all about my favourite period of history, the Victorian period, and I will be joined by Jane Harris and Essie Fox. Jane, well a firm favourite book of all time ‘Gillespie and I’, is currently on my iPod getting a re-listen (well a first listen as I read the book last time) and if I have time I am planning on revisiting ‘The Observations’ next weekend. In fact I will make time. I have just re-read ‘The Somnambulist’ by Essie and am getting very excited about ‘Elijah’s Mermaid’ which looks to be a little bit magical and rather dark and twisty – perfect!!

Away from Manchester Literature Festival though, I am also re-reading the wonderful tales in Lucy Wood’s debut collection of short magical and delightful stories ‘Diving Belles’ as Gavin is returning from his podcast presenting holiday this week to record the second episode of the all new Readers Book Group and this is the book in question. None of all this re-reading is a chore at all, just a joy which is lovely.

Reading purely for me and less for events and the like is all quite seasonal and autumnal. Philip Pullman’s ‘Grimm Tales’ was a naughty purchase because I simply could not not, is that a double negative now? I think I might demand ask The Beard to read me one or two of these every night maybe? Susan Hill’s ‘The Shadows in the Streets’ I have had on my bedside table since last time and will definitely get round to (she is on The Readers in November, thrilled) as I will soon be three behind. Finally, yes your eyes are telling you the truth, I have the debut novel by Judy Finnigan (yes of THE Richard and Judy) called ‘Eloise’ which looks like it might be rather Du Maurier-esque. This could be a good thing or a bad thing, but I am excited to see which.

Phew, that’s my new few weeks/months of reading sorted. Have you read any of these and if so what were your thoughts on them? What are you reading and looking forward to reading next?

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

There are some books that you go on a journey with aren’t there? Now here I don’t mean the clichéd, if true, emotional journey that some books take you on (though this book had that), I mean the fact that you go on a journey where you like the book, love it, dislike it a bit, feel ambivalent about it, then like it before deciding you really, really liked and admired it. This is exactly what happened when I read, a first recommendation from a new friend (always potentially tricky), Stephen Chbosky’s debut novel ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ which is soon to be the first film where Emma Watson, of Hermione Granger fame, makes her first big movie break from the Harry Potter franchise. But let’s get back to the book which is what this post is all about.

****, Simon and Schuster, 2009, paperback, fiction, 232 pages, borrowed from the library

‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is the experiences of Charlie as he goes through his first, rather turbulent, year at high school making friends, mainly step-siblings Patrick and Sam, that will help form the person he might become. Charlie is a little bit different and distant from everyone else at school and as I type that out I can almost instantly feel a familiarity to it, and the whole ‘coming-of-age’ novel, that would have led me to zone out on finding out or reading any more had I not been so highly recommended the book. As Chbosky does take what could be a story we have heard all too often before (can you tell I don’t tend to like coming of age novels on the whole) and make it seem new and quite different – rather like I felt Deborah Levy did with ‘Swimming Home’ and the ‘arrival of a stranger on a families holiday’ tale.

The way the novel is told is quite interesting as ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is written in the forms of letters from Charlie to a ‘Dear Friend’. We never really know who this dear friend is, though I tried and failed to be clever and work it out, and whilst the form of letter writing (rather like diary entries) is nothing amazingly new there is something confessional about it. Emotionally of course, and ever increasingly importantly as the letters progress, you do feel that to all intents and purposes Charlie is writing to you and, especially at the end without giving anything away, this is very moving. The fact you are being confided in and so very much in a characters head makes for rewarding, and sometimes uncomfortable, reading.

This is made all the more extreme in a way because Charlie is really a very insular young man. He is also somewhat detached which I have to admit started to irritate me a little bit along the way, he comes across very childlike one minute and then incredibly intelligent, philosophical and almost ‘gifted’ the next. I then pondered if it might be that he had some form of autism this may possibly be the case but by the end of the novel it makes complete sense, honest, and without giving too much away you do find yourself going ‘oh, that explains it all’. It’s a clever device though risky as it could put many readers off when it jars a little.

‘I walk around the school hallways and look at the people. I look at the teachers and wonder why they’re here. If they like their jobs. Or us. And I wonder how smart they were when they were fifteen. Not in a mean way. In a curious way. It’s like looking at all the students and wondering who’s had their heart broken that day, and how they were able to cope with having three quizzes and a book report on top of that. Or wondering who did the heart breaking. And wondering why. Especially since I know that if they went to another school, the person who had their heart broken would have had their heart broken by somebody else, so why does it have to be so personal?’

Apart from the slight irritation at the distance and narration of Charlie now and again I did get a little nonchalant, almost bored, in the middle section of the book. It is here that Patrick and Sam open Charlie’s eyes to the teenage/young adult world around them of sex, drugs and all that shebang. I did like the storyline of Patrick’s sexuality, obvious from the start but dealt with brilliantly, which adds another dimension to the book, his sister Sam is the obsession of Charlie’s thoughts however verged on cliché. So do some of the family set pieces, however there is a wonderful story of siblinghood between him and his only slightly older sister despite their rollercoaster of ups and downs.

I should mention too this is a very bookish book. Charlie has a rather special, not in a weird way, relationship with his English Literature teacher who helps Charlie a little through books (from To Kill A Mockingbird to The Fountainhead) he gives him along the way. I was quite envious I didn’t have a teacher like Bill, and it has made me want to try the books he recommends that I have not yet read. I always like that in a book don’t you?

‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is by no means a perfect book; it is a read that really pays off if you stick with it. There is a slightly stodgy middle phase yet it is one that having finished the book I can see why Chbosky did what he did, plus the end of the book with all its twists, turns and shocking revelations makes it utterly worthwhile reading.  I am very glad that I was recommended this book so highly as I would probably not have given it a whirl, or stopped reading halfway through, and I would have been missing out on a book that I will be thinking about for quite some time.

Who else has read this? I believe it has quite a cult following so it will be interesting to see what everyone makes of the film. Which books have you read that you have liked, not liked much in the middle, and then enjoyed very much by the end?

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The Vanishing Act – Mette Jakobsen

There is little more disappointing for a reader, I think, than getting really excited about a book and then being rather let down by it. This is made all the more annoying when the reason that the book lets you down is you and your high expectations of it. This sadly was the case with Mette Jakobsen’s debut novel ‘The Vanishing Act’, which whilst I didn’t love I can imagine a lot of you might and so I am still sharing my thoughts on it. Though after Peter Stothard’s recent thoughts on blogging I have been a bit nervous about popping this post up after being vocal on why I think blogging and bloggers book thoughts are important. But anyway here goes…

**, Vintage Originals, 2012, paperback, fiction, 224 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

‘The Vanishing Act’ opens in a slightly macabre way, when a young twelve year old girl called Minou finds the body of a dead boy on the beach of the snow covered and isolated island which she lives on. As Minou helps her father to look after the body until the next time sailors arrive, we learn that Minou and her father are both recovering from, and coming to terms with, Minou’s mothers own disappearance. This all happened sometime prior when a circus came to the island at the suggestion of one of the other inhabitants, a magician named simply ‘Boxman’. The appearance of the dead boy and disappearance of a very much living mother supply Minou with two mysteries and also make her look at life, and with her father’s obsession with philosophy she is asking some big questions.

The heart of ‘The Vanishing Act’ seemed to me to be the subject of all that is philosophical in life. A big ask for any reader and one that interestingly Mette Jakobsen does do rather well, if occasionally you feel like you are being bashed over the head with all the philosophy she knows and has researched. Because the characters are simply known by ‘Mama’, ‘Papa’, ‘Boxman’ or ‘Priest’ (even the dog is called ‘No Name’) the author is giving you blank canvases to put your thoughts and feelings upon. It felt like one of those ‘self discovery through fiction’ books which were all the rage in the 1990’s. But in a way, because of that, it means the narrator is never really drawn fully either, and in this case with Minou’s situation it needed that for me.

Child narrators are tricky at the best of times, they divide people, they can either be too naive or they can come across as too precocious. Minou herself oddly never really came fully formed for me and whilst she was neither too naive nor too worldly-wise she just seemed a little non-existent even though I was meant to be in her head. I found I started to drift off mentally on occasion and so had to re-read but even when I did I found it hard to care.

So with those apparent issues what was it that kept me reading? Well, two things. Firstly I was really intrigued by what had happened to Minou’s mother and how the boy had ended up on the island, I won’t spoil this book but expect more questions raised that necessarily answered. Yet even in this fairly slim novel the philosophy would come barging down suddenly and the mystery and magic I think Mette could have created so well was broken up by it. I ended up feeling like a stranger remote on the island when I should have been living and breathing Minou’s life and questions about it. The icy remote distance of the island seemed to reflect my feelings to the book and I wanted more warmth. Which leads to the second reason I kept reading on, sometimes Jakobsen’s writing is utterly stunning.

“Papa always said that the war was still inside him. Sometimes I thought I could feel it when I held his hand. He had spent the entire war hiding amongst onions and carrots in a small root cellar the size of a cupboard. But when I wanted to hear more about the cellar Papa would say, ‘You are far too young, my girl. Later.’
I asked Mama if she had felt the war in Papa’s hand when he had reached out and helped her safely to the shore.
‘Yes, little one,’ she answered and looked out towards the sea. ‘It runs in me as well.’

This of course begs the question can you read a book simply because its beautifully written (see Alan Hollinghurst’s ‘The Strangers Child’) and while I did with this book because it felt like some really strong set pieces adrift in a quest to make me look at philosophy I didn’t get the reward I was hoping for or the story because it never was just a story. It is this very aspect of the book that makes me think lots of people will really love it. Maybe I simply read it at the wrong time, in the wrong frame of mind or with the wrong expectations? That is my philosophy on why I didn’t like it as much as I believed I really would. A bit of a shame for me, but hopefully an interesting read for others. Dan of DogEarDiscs certainly loved it, as did the judges for the 2012 Commonwealth Prize; I am slightly envious they did as I should have really.

Has anyone else read this and if so what did you think? Have any of you read other books like this where its fiction but clearly trying to point out who you are and why? I am thinking of ‘The Alchemist’ and ‘The Clandestine Prophecy’ etc.

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Defending Book Blogging…

Why is it that so many people like to lay into book bloggers and basically say how rubbish they are and how bad for literature’s future blogging is? Peter Stothard, who is chairing this year’s Man Booker Prize, is the latest to have a go at bloggers in the Independent. He basically says that blogging is killing of good literary criticism which I actually disagree with, especially as you look at the article in more depth.

I was asked to contribute to the Guardian’s piece on this yesterday defending book bloggers, which of course I did and you can see here. I also threw in the fact that with bloggers we have more space to discuss literature, no deadlines for print so we can think on books longer and we don’t get paid for the work we do. It is, for me and the blogs I follow anyway, about a passion for books and literature and spreading the word about great books and discussing them and the ones we don’t like as much. How is that a bad thing?

What has been lovely to see is that most of the comments, well the ones I have seen so far, feel similarly and on the whole think, as I do, that bloggers and literary critics can live together quite happily as we all simply love the book and literature. End of.

What do you think?

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Classically Challenged… Part I

Over the last few weeks and months you may have noticed I have really been thinking about my reading and blogging and just sussing where I am at. I have pondered if I am literary enough, what kind of reader I am and also last week discussing if I read enough worldwide literature. All big questions. Well, if you listen to this week’s episode of The Readers you will hear me talking to my friend, and now blogger, AJ who came on as a guest co-host and who like me has been pondering the same things. Like me he too has been slightly bothered that he hasn’t read many of the ‘canon’ authors like Dickens, Austen, and Hardy etc and so we have decided to rectify this together with ‘Classically Challenged’ and we need your help.

We have decided we are going to read six novels by six authors who are deemed some of the best British novelists (*subject to perceptions) but as yet we have both never read. This will take place on our blogs over the next six months on the last Sunday from October 2012 to March 2013. These authors will be Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton, Thomas Hardy, and George Eliot. We have both decided that we have to read Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’, aptly in March, as it is deemed as one of the greatest British novels of all time. However we have not chosen a novel by each of the other four yet…

So, we would love you to suggest, in the comments below, one novel by each author which you loved/think would be the best way into their work. AJ will be collecting votes on his blog too, and we are asking on Goodreads. The novels which receive the most votes from all of you over the next week will be the ones we will read.

I can’t wait to hear your suggestions, and of course if you are planning on joining in. We will announce the schedule and six novels next week. So get voting; an Austen, a Dickens, a Hardy, a Trollope and a Wharton…

Note: I have learnt Wharton is American this was my bad research due to over excitement! We might have to swap her… or maybe not!

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Autumns Here… And I Don’t Mind A Bit

In the UK we are infamous for talking about the weather. If a conversation goes astray, too quiet or rather awkward then (apparently) we always pull out that old favourite “well, what do you think to the weather we have been having?” It always makes me laugh that when it is raining you hear, as I do every time I go to the local post office, that we have simply not had enough of a summer and when the sun is beaming it is simply too hot. We can’t be pleased. This year we have had odd weather, well we have in the last few, with a decent spring, a cloudy summer (with some showers) than a random few weeks of glorious late Indian summer weather. This morning I opened the curtains and it appeared that autumn had definitely arrived, and I was thrilled…

Autumn arrived at my window this morning…

I simply can’t deny it, I absolutely adore autumn! Why not the other seasons so much… well, I am not someone who loves heat, so really I was born in the perfect country – and indeed the perfect part of it (the north), in fact if it gets too sunny in the summer you will find me indoors more often than not, or sat looking grumpy and flustered/flushed under the shadiest spot. If I go away on holiday and it is ‘hot, hot, hot’ I tend to just stop. I can’t read, I can’t concentrate and I get restless. I was a nightmare on a day by the pool in a thirty-eight degree Florence earlier in the year. Winter is fine, though a little bleak and barren with the ‘naked trees’ and haphazard ice. Spring I like because it is fresh and feels new, there are flower buds and baby lambs here there and everywhere but autumn is the season where my heart lies.

It isn’t just the misty mornings, the gorgeous autumnal leaves and the nights where rain batters at the windows, though I love all of that. It is the fact that the mornings and the evenings are a little darker (and as one who works in my own house but used to commute I know that it is truly dreadful when you leave home in the dark and arrive back… in the dark) which not only has a lovely sense of ‘otherness’, Halloween is around the corner of course, but also most importantly it is my favourite reading time of year.

I don’t read totally seasonally, though I will never read a Christmas book when it’s not Christmas, madness lies therein I think. But autumn is when the books I love to read most come alive. I like books with a dark atmosphere, so what is better than reading them curled up on a sofa/reading chair surrounded by warmth while the world outside is dark and brooding? It is the time of the year when all my favourite crime series come to hand, Victorian fiction is pulled from the shelves and bigger thicker books match my bigger thicker jumpers (by Christmas I am reading doorstop sized tomes) and the TBR finds itself in a more sensational mood. You could call it the sensational season for me I guess; I have one at the ready which looks set to be a corker.

So if autumn arrived this morning and left you feeling gloomy don’t fret, think of all the wonderful reading time ahead, even if you don’t read the darker books. Embrace it I say, well apart from if you are just about to go and walk your cat in a downpour as I am – I don’t think Oscar is going to be a fan.

Are you a fan of autumn too, do you find it your favourite reading season? What autumnal books would you recommend? Are you a seasonal reader at all? Do you think I am bonkers? All thoughts welcome as always!

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