Category Archives: Books About Books

Cover – Peter Mendelsund

I was very, very lucky this Christmas as Santa brought me not one but two books imported all the way from America, and to note not via a certain evil website, both of which were by book jacket designer extraordinaire Peter Mendelsund. I was told about both Cover  and What We See When We Read by many, many people (indeed the later was in the Yankee book swap but I wasn’t mean enough to swap it for Gone Girl) when I was at Booktopia Asheville, indeed Ann and Michael have sung their praises on Books on the Nightstand. Having read Cover I can completely understand why; it is such a wonderful ode to books and a book which safe to say will be riding very high on my books of the year tomorrow.

powerHouse Books, 2014, hardback, nonfiction, 256 pages, brought by Santa for Christmas

Peter Mendelsund was initially a classical pianist, or a recovering one as his bio says, who after the birth of his first child realised he needed a more stable job with a regular income. But what? Well, as it happened he liked design and then his mother knew someone who knew someone at Knopf Books and after a chat, a viewing of his portfolio (which Knopf being pretty bowled over by what Mendelsund calls “shockingly wince-inducing” self taught designs) and some interviews he then became a junior designer. Now he is Associate Art Director there and his book covers are world famous, though you might admittedly not know they were by him. He is one of those wonderful people who make us want to pick up ALL the books, from Lolita to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo literally. Well, if you live in America, though some have come here too. Cover is his story of how he came to cover books and what doing so means.

During those years at the piano, I was completely unaware that book cover design, as they say, “was a thing.” Though I’d read plenty of books over this period, it had not occurred to me that a book’s cover was consciously composed and assembled by a human agent. Not that I assumed book jackets were made by machines, or committees (it turns out they can be made by either), I had simply never given book jackets a passing thought.

What did I see then when looking at the front of the book if not the cover? The title and the author’s name. Which is to say, I saw past the cover to the book.

However Cover is not just Mendelsund’s thoughts on what makes a book cover so important. As we go through the sections Classics, Vertical (which is all about Manga), Literary Fiction, Genre Fiction and Non Fiction & Poetry we hear from the writers who Mendelsund has made covers for, well apart from in Classics then Jane Mendelsohn discusses Kafka whose reissues were one of the first works that made everyone really sit up and pay attention to Mendelsund’s work. (No I am not popping pictures of those in, you will have to go and buy the book to see them, and they are stunning.) Here is Ben Marcus discussing the importance of the cover for the author and what the power of a cover can do…

The missing jacket is the final piece to by which nearly everyone will come to know the book. The writer wants the jacket to stand up for the book, serve as the most perfect flag. The jacket should celebrate the strengths of the book and conceal the flaws. It should perhaps rouse dormant chemicals in the body of and cause a sharp kind of lust in the buyer, that might only be satisfied by actually eating the book.

Of course it is Mendelsund and his work, and the process of it, that links this book. Throughout you really get a fantastic insight into how the idea’s for covers are initially formed and then how the process carries on. I don’t want to spoil any of this for you but I thought I would give you a sneaky peak, for example here is the final design for Steig Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which Mendelsund jokes, in one of his many brilliant footnotes on some of his designs, thankfully lost the title of The Man Who Hated Women which he had to have as one of his design’s titles) the he created…

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Here are many of the ones that didn’t make the cut, these are marked throughout with red X’s…

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You therefore get the mental process and the design process which I found completely fascinating, as I am sure any book lover would. And this is a book for book lovers. Did I mention that? I have come away with an epic list of books; obviously Mendelsund reads all these books and was an avid reader and book lover before, and I have now an urge to read many he has covered and clearly loved. (He even almost convinced me about Kafka at one point!) I am particularly keen to read Lolita as Mendelsund has some interesting thoughts on it. I know, I know I should have read it already. Also added to the list are now in particular Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, which Mendlesund has a fascinating relationship with, and these two books by Imre Kertesz. I don’t care what they are about (Mendelsund has done his job as he does) I just want to read them for their covers…

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On top of these are The Woman Destroyed by Simone De Beauvoir, the aforementioned Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Something is Out There by Richard Bausch, Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam, Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu and both Never Fuck Up and Easy Money by Jens Lapidus. (You can find these again on my new To Get My Mitts On page here with some others.) Oh and the whole of the Pantheon Folktales and Fairytale Library. Though I couldn’t work out if these had been commissioned or not. I will do some digging; if they have they will be mine.

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You might have possibly had the merest hint that I bloody loved Cover. It was a book I thought I would dip in and out of over time, I sat with it and lost several sittings perusing the covers, taking in peoples thoughts on reading and books – it is rather like a book version of having a relaxed mooch through a book shop perusing the covers and eavesdropping on the other book lovers, no higher praise can be bestowed really. As I mentioned before Cover will easily be in my best books of the year and I am now very excited to read What We See When We Read, though I think I might just spend some more time revisiting and staring at Mendelsund’s collection of books and their covers, again and again and again.

Oh and if you want to hear more about book covers then do listen to this edition of Front Row, which I had the joy of whilst getting home in a snow blizzard (I exaggerate not) on Boxing Day on the way home from my mothers. Have you had the joy of reading either of Mendelsund’s books? Do you own some of his covered books in your collection? Which other wonderful books about books would you recommend? I have a new fancy for a selection of my new shelves (yes I have been shopping for more today) being dedicated to books about books of all shapes and sizes.

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Filed under Books About Books, Books of 2014, Peter Mendelsund, powerHouse Books, Review

If I Were A Book – Jose Jorge Letria & Andre Letria

I am possibly preaching to the converted however to not tell you a wonderful book all about the power of books (which of course you all know) would really to be cheating you and cheating myself and that could lead to some dark times. What will lead you to wonderful happy times is the delightful ‘picture book for adults’ (though not in an ‘adult’ adult way) If I Were A Book by Jose Jorge Letria, illustrated by Andre Letria.

Chronicle Books, hardback, 2014, non-fiction, 64 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

There is no way, and no need, to jazz If I Were A Book up. Very simply it is a book which in a mere 64 pages puts into words, and indeed images, all the power that books can have – whilst of course doing all those things itself by proxy, very clever! Each page opens using an illustration of a book, or sometimes two or ten, which itself illustrates just what a book can do. You need an example don’t you…

If I Were A Book 2

Or maybe another one…

If I Were A Book 1

Or another…

If I Were A Book 3

I don’t know how the magic happens with this book, it must be the mixture of the words along with the imagery, but it somehow creates a wonderous sense of nostalgia about what the best books you have read have done or where they have taken you be you a youngster or a reluctant grown up. As I was reading along I was thinking of all the books that have done just what the narrator says they would do ‘If I were a book…’ It is such a simple idea and yet one which really makes you think and, if my experience was anything to go by, makes you go and strong your books spines just to say a small thank you.

It has also really made me think about how much I take my books for granted. In reading it for the tenth or twelfth time, to remind myself of its powers before I wrote this review, I had been almost griping how a big massive book I was reading, and completely loving, was stopping me from reading all the other books out there. Then with one simple image it made me rethink and tell myself off…

If I Were A Book 4

Books shouldn’t be rushed, they should be treasured – yes even the ones you don’t really love that much. It takes books like If I Were A Book (which also reminded me of the same lesson Ali Smith’s Artful teaches you) to remind even the most devoted of readers just how lucky they are. I also think a book like If I Were A Book might just be the ideal gift for anyone who… no I will just leave it as the ideal gift for anyone. It is the perfect book about books, joyous!

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Filed under Andre Letria, Books About Books, Books of 2014, Chronicle Books, Jose Jorge Letria, Review

Books – Charlie Hill

I feel like this post today should be a public service announcement to anyone who loves books, the book industry and/or books about books. If you fit into any of those camps then, the aptly titled, Books by Charlie Hill is definitely a book for you as it satires the industry and the mediocrity which is rife in the amount of books that get published. Yet do not mistake that for it being a book for literary snobs, that is not what it is about at all, it is a look at what the role of a book is and why people started reading them in the first place.

Tindal Street Press, 2013, paperback, fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Richard Anger is a struggling writer, possibly as his short stories are rather dour and so experimental nobody can really read them, who as he loves book so much bought and now runs Back Street Books single handed. It is on his annual break from the shop on holiday, packing David Foster Wallace, that firstly he meets Lauren , a neurologist he instantly falls for, and then witnesses the first in a series of deaths caused by SNAPS (Spontaneous Neural Atrophy Syndrome) commenting on what a rubbish book the person who died was reading. When Lauren gets back to Birmingham she learns of more deaths from SNAPS and is intrigued and so looks Richard up again. Richard then puts two and two together realising that mediocre books are making people literally brain dead, and in all these cases the books that were being read were written by Gary Sayles – an author set to have the biggest hit of the year, an author who must be stopped.

Three days later review copies of The Grass is Greener began to arrive at newspaper offices, bookshops and the homes of bloggers. Within twelve hours the reviewers began to die.
A pointlessly detailed passage in Chapter 3, in which the hero of the piece argues with his wife during a Bank Holiday trip to IKEA, accounted for a part-time-critic-about-town on the Bristol Evening Star; Chapter 4’s barely credible description of a drunken seduction and one-night-stand did for a contributor to Beach Reads R Us!; and the Books Editor of the Glasgow Chronicle passed away after becoming cognitively becalmed during the course of a particularly laborious pun in Chapter 5.

Through Richard we see many aspects of the book industry roughly as it is now, though of course through a satirical gaze. As he struggles with rejections from publishers and literary magazines etc, we see how times are tough for the author and how the anti-snobs have almost created snobbery themselves in a different way. (Hill cleverly shows the other side of this with Gary Sayles who is the most up himself author, with minimal talent too, and one who clearly believes his own hype and promotion – I think we all know of those types don’t we?) Through Richard’s shop Back Street Books we get to see how the Independent’s are struggling against the internet and supermarkets and even indeed, dare we say it, the publishing industry itself. Oh and the broadsheets, reviewers and bloggers also get a look in as Richard has his own blog The Bilious Bibliophile – my hackles were ready to raise at this but like the rest of the book it made me laugh at the truth of it and indeed myself.

I should say here whilst Richard is clearly a snob and only wants high literature in his life, you can tell that Hill as the author is not. Hill clearly just loves books with a bit of a punch and it is with a love of books that is where Books comes from, indeed Lauren showing Richard that the best books can meet in the middle is a big part of the book. It’s main redemptive feature if you will – publishers take note! It is also this love of books that makes Hill create a satire here and not a farce.

Interestingly there is another strand to the book, which leads to its fantastical dénouement, which I haven’t mentioned. Pippa and Zeke are two artists hired by Gary to help promote The People’s Literature Tour (a brilliant send up) who are so ‘modern’ they are probably ‘retro post-modern’, yes those types. I didn’t warm to them, but I don’t think you are meant to, and I have to say I could see what Hill was doing but, apart from at the very end, I didn’t really see the need for them as I was more interested in everything else going on. In fact I would have liked more of characters like Muzz instead, who appeared a few times to much comical effect like when he swindles supermarkets bookshelves; another part of the industry nicely highlighted there to for what it does, or doesn’t, seem to stock.

‘It’s like this. The security guard in Waterstones in the city centre, he clocks me every time I go in. I can’t hardly move without him following me. But they’ve got this thing where they don’t mind exchanges. You know, providing the books in good nick they’ll swap it, even without a receipt. So I go to Sainsbury’s, help myself, get it to Waterstones and upgrade. So far I’ve managed to swap Jeffery Archer for Glenn Duncan, a Louise Bagshaw for a Beryl Bainbridge and Breaking Dawn for The Blind Assassin.’

Books is going to easily find itself in my books of the year. It is a brave book, even with its comic tones and edge, for an author to write. In part because it is almost an author speaking out against the industry to a certain point, which might not get you invited to all the big bookish parties (though as Hill is based outside London he won’t get invited anyway as I can vouch – ouch) and might make some people in some circles of the industry a little uncomfortable with the mirror it might hold up. Also being a book that is anti-mediocrity, the author needs to write a bloody good book to stand up to what it is highlighting itself. I can safely say that Hill exceeds that with this book, and indeed it’s his love of books that shines through and makes it such a successful and brilliant satire. If you love books then, erm, read Books – it is that simple.

For more on Books and a discussion about it and indeed books and the book industry, you can hear myself and Charlie Hill in conversation on the latest episode of You Wrote The Book.

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Filed under Books About Books, Books of 2013, Charlie Hill, Review, Tindal Street Press

The Library of Unrequited Love – Sophie Divry

If ever a recently published book was going to be read by me on the title alone then it would be ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’ throw in the gorgeous cover and it seemed that its fate was sealed. I love a book about books or about libraries and so from the title alone I was hoping this was what it would be about, though of course you shouldn’t always judge a book by its title should you? Fortunately not only was this very much a book about books and libraries it was also an unusual and quirky book that gave me much more than I was initially expecting.

*** MacLehose Press, hardback, 2013, fiction, 92 pages, translated Sian Reynolds, kindly sent by the publisher

If you were a librarian, working in the basement section, you might be a little disconcerted upon finding a random stranger sleeping in your section after having been locked in overnight. This is not the case in ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’ as our unnamed protagonist sees this as a chance to get much off her chest, it seems she has been waiting for this moment for quite some time and has no plans on letting this opportunity go to waste. So starts a monologue which covers her thoughts on libraries and books, some of the history of France, the state of society today and indeed an unrequited love that she has for a young man who comes to the history section every day.

I think it might be the ‘mono’ in monologue that always makes me think they are going to be rather dull, or just a rant about the state of things. I shouldn’t think this as I have read and listened to many of Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’ and interestingly Sophie Divry’s debut novel reminded me of them a little, especially the lonely woman who rambles on being at the heart of it. ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’ is, in a way, rather a rant and it does have a lot to say about the state of the modern world, mainly libraries as a resource and what on earth is happening to the book in society, yet it does so with as much a sense of humour as it can whilst also being incredibly impassioned about books and their importance.

“Love, for me, is something I find in books. I read a lot, it’s comforting. You’re never alone if you live surrounded by books. They lift my spirit. The main thing is to be uplifted.”

Our unnamed protagonist is one of the reasons that the book becomes so much more than just a tirade on the importance of literature, as is the way that she talks to the person she finds asleep in section 900 – 910, who of course becomes us. She lives a very solitary life, surrounded by books she might be yet she is clearly very lonely with it. She looks at everything with an arched eye and occasionally I thought there was a much darker undertone to her character. Divry wonderfully takes us on a journey of a character as in some moments we feel sorry for her, sometimes concerned for her (and her mental state) and then we laugh with her and even sometimes as her, just as the person who has been captive all night in the library does.

My only slight quibble with the book was not the fact that you never understood why the listener kept listening, as I felt they were like me and simply couldn’t tear themselves away watching this woman unravelling, yet the character and the idea behind the book slightly contradicted themselves. On the one hand this is a book about the importance of libraries and books, yet the protagonist has clearly been driven mad surrounding herself with them day in day out through her job. Maybe I am over thinking it though?

I would definitely recommend every book lover give ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’ a whirl, at a mere 92 pages you can devour it in a single sitting. I also think, aside from all the book love which makes it a joy to read for the booklover in anyone, it is an intense and grimly fascinating portrayal and explanation of character. I was left wondering what might be on the horizon for this woman, thank goodness no one mentioned the K***** word to her that is for sure – the results could be horrific. With a short quirky debut like this I am very much looking forward to seeing what Sophie Divry comes up with next, be it a darkly epic masterpiece or another short tale I will definitely be reading it.

Who else has read ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’ and what did you make of it? Does anyone else get drawn to any book with ‘book’ or ‘library’ in the title like I do?

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Filed under Books About Books, Maclehose Publishing, Quercus Publishing, Review, Sophie Divry

Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!

A few weeks ago I got very excited about the arrival of some books about books. The one I decided to read on and off first was ‘Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!’ The idea behind the initiative of this book from Vintage is to remind people about the joy of books and to have them running out to read more. I had hoped to pop thoughts on this up on World Book Day yesterday however I was so conflicted by it I needed to mull it further.

Vintage Books, paperback, 2012, non fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!’ is a collection composed of ten essays by authors (such as Blake Morrison, Zadie Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Mark Haddon etc) as well as people in the industry such as Virago founder and Man Booker judge Carmen Callil and Jane Davis, who is the founder and director of The Reader Organisation which this book is supporting, discussing the importance of reading and the joy that books can bring in their many forms.

The collection starts with Zadie Smith’s ‘Library Life’ which shows the importance of books and libraries in particular to her shaping as a writer and finding books and also as spaces for her to do her writing. It is an impassioned and political essay which looks at how the people making the decisions about libraries are probably the ones with enough income to have their own personal libraries and so may not be the best people to leave in charge of such issues. Blake Morrison, who I have never read before but now most definitely will be, follows with the superb ‘Twelve Thoughts About Reading’ which had me going ‘yes, that’s me, yes, that’s me again’.

I liked Carmen Callil’s essay ‘True Daemons’ but considering she set up Virago books I didn’t feel this was really discussed, it is mentioned but in a paragraph and actually an essay on why she had been so desperate to get the unknown/forgotten/overlooked books published and so set up her own publishing house would have been a phenomenal and far more apt inclusion, it felt a little like a missed opportunity as instead it became something of a piece on class and the books people feel they ought to read rather than ones they want to. The class thing interestingly leads me into my main issue with the book…

A book like ‘Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!’ could have one slight flaw to it and become worthy or preachy. Fortunately there was only one essay in the collection that, to me, jarred and that was Tim Parks, unfortunately it jarred and lingered. I don’t know Tim Parks, I have not read any of his books, but for me his ‘Mindful Reading’ came across as a little bit pompous and clever, in fact it read rather like a high brow person (who knows it and loves it) feeling like he was writing for low brow about how clever we readers are and therefore, not so cleverly, excluding the reader completely. I didn’t like it, and this broke the spell and made me suddenly ask the question ‘if I wasn’t a lover of books would this book make me rush out and read more?’ and I kept asking this as I read on and it left me in a real quandary. I am a book lover as it is, so naturally I would enjoy this book as would any book lover the world over, but is this going to be taken on board by the people it’s aimed at, which technically isn’t me because I am an avid reader, I was not convinced.

From this point on I doubly assessed each following essay and ones that proceeded it, well apart from Mark Haddon’s incredible essay ‘The Right Words in the Right Order’ but more on that shortly. I looked back at Carmen Callil’s essay and found myself thinking ‘I know who she is because I love books, would anyone who didn’t love literature know who she was and would her essay therefore work as well?’ As someone who isn’t a fan of poetry I thought Jane Davis’ essay on the power of it (and indeed reading aloud and why she started The Reader Organisation) was incredible and very moving. There were a couple of lines that almost went into a rather worthy and preachy mode; I put this down to simply her passion, would anyone else who happened upon this book feel the same or would they think ‘who does she think she is?’ With Michael Rosen’s ‘Memories and Expectations’ I found the book lover in me thinking ‘wow, this has made me want to run out and grab Great Expectations right now’ because of Rosen’s poignant memories of storytelling, but also thinking ‘this is a wonderful piece of writing but is it only going to appeal to readers of The Guardian, myself included, rather than the layman who doesn’t read?’ I feel bad writing that, because I enjoyed the book so much personally, but once that one essay made me question the whole collection that question wouldn’t leave.

Three essays in the second half (along with the wonder of Blake Morrison’s essay earlier on) almost erased it however. Nicholas Carr’s ‘The Dreams of Readers’ is a wonderful essay on how no matter what technology comes next nothing will ever beat the novel, he won extra brownie points from me when I found out he writes about technology, it almost doubled the power of the point he was trying to get across. Jeanette Winterson’s ‘A Bed. A Book. A Mountain.’ is a wonderful piece on where a story can take you and the thrills and experience it can bring from wherever you are. The essay that steals the show though has to be Mark Haddon’s ‘The Right Words in the Right Order’ I don’t care if you love books or loathe them, read this and you’ll be converted or simply love books even more than you thought naturally possible. It is brimming with wonderful ideas about reading and books and I loved it. I was going to quote lots from it but frankly you should buy the book for yourself and everyone you know simply for this one essay.

A rather rambling and conflicted set of thoughts on ‘Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!’ overall. As a book lover and on a personal level this was a sublime read in many ways, but I am left with that questions of ‘am I the audience this book should be hitting’ and ‘if I was to give this book to a non-reader would they become converted’ and I am left unsure. If you read this blog I know you love books and so will, if you haven’t already, be off to get this book swiftly (and quite right too as it supports a great cause). Yet what about all those people who don’t read the broadsheets or blogs or who might not see this on a shelf in Waterstones though? It is something I can’t really answer.

Who else has read this and what did you think both as a book lover yourself and then coming from the perspective of someone who doesn’t normally read books? Am I being too critical, is the question of audience with a book like this really relevant? I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this. I am also wondering how I can get involved in The Reader Organisation too; mind you after this review they might not want me – oops. I am coming from a good place with my thoughts though I hope.

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Filed under Blake Morrison, Books About Books, Jeanette Winterson, Mark Haddon, Review, Zadie Smith

Speaking of Books…

I think this might be like buses, I don’t see books about books very often and then three come along in quick succession, but which one to read? Last week I told you about ‘Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!’ and ‘The Library Book’ and then in the library I found another gem caught my eye, appropriately titled ‘Speaking of Books’.

I haven’t heard of the editors Rob Kaplan and Harold Rabinowitz before, but apparently they have another book like this called ‘A Passion for Books’ which may need seeking out. Initially I thought it was simply going to be lots of quotes about ‘the best things ever said about books and book collecting’ from many of the greats of reading, which is the actual premise. However it has been done in a wonderful way where the quotes come in forms of categories. We have ‘in praise of books’, ‘bibliomania’, ‘the enemies of books’ etc, etc each with their own introduction and discussions on how they can be applied to the avid reader and book lover.

The section entitled ‘what to read’ is the one I have had a chance to devour so far, because I was stuck on what to read, and what could be more helpful than quotes like…

‘A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.’ Dr. Samuel Johnson

‘Choose an author as you choose a friend.’ Wentworth Dillon

‘Read the best books first, or you may not have the chance to read them at all.’ Henry David Thoreau

I have to admit I have no idea who those three people are, but what they say certainly makes sense. Winston Churchill himself seems to sum up the idea behind this very book (clearly he knew this book would be produced someday) when he says…

‘It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations… The quotations when engraved upon the memory can give you good thoughts. They also make you anxious to read the authors and look for more.’

Well who could argue with that?

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Filed under Books About Books

The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters Between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill 1952-73 edited by John Saumarez Smith

There is nothing worse than a book funk, those dreaded times where no matter what you might have on your bookshelves/at the library/in the local charity shop nothing, but nothing, seems to tempt you. Thank goodness then for friends’ bookshelves, as spotting ‘The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street’ the other day I begged and pleaded to borrow a copy, now they might be begging and pleading for it back. I mean seriously, how could a book combining Nancy Mitford, books and bookshops go wrong?

Francis Lincoln Publishers, paperback, 2005, non fiction, 192 pages, kindly lent by a friend

I have to say initially ‘The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street’ made me feel like a bit of a Mitford ignoramus. How did I have no idea that Nancy Mitford had owned part of a bookshop when I am such a fan? I had a good think about it and a vague memory came to me from ‘Letters Between Six Sisters’ that she does actually mention working in one. 10 Curzon Street was that bookshop and though she owned it in some part for some time and it became known as ‘Nancy Mitford’s Bookshop’ the owner was actually Heywood Hill (which sounds like a place but is in fact a man). This book is a collection of edited snippets of their correspondence through two decades, an utter joy for a Mitford fan like me.

Being a writer, a lover of literature and having worked in a bookshop Nancy Mitford makes an interesting correspondent to start with. Throw in her wit and the fact that she mingled in some of the most interesting society in London and Paris as a Mitford sister and you have insight into so many worlds, written in such a way that you cannot help be fascinated whilst smiling wryly. Who else read and yet knew Evelyn Waugh, and many other authors of the times, so well? Apparently Heywood Hill as it goes, close friend of Nancy and the likes of Ivy Compton Burnett, and so the sparing of these two literary lovers, who also happen to be at the heart of the literary world at the time, is any book lovers dream.

‘It’s like with Mr Maugham who calls me Nancy and I always feel I can’t get out Willie… Oh for an amusing novel – no not Henry Green, not yet at least. How I wish I could get on with Miss Compton Burnett but it’s my blind spot. So I plod on with St. Simon, such a nice readable edition, Racine, which, on account of the notes, is as good as Punch.’

My one slight issue with the book is that whilst it is called ‘letters between’ it’s actually very much ‘edits of letters between – with notes’. None of the full letters actually appear in the book, it’s very much just tasters of the best bits. The positive of this of course is that we get the highlights, yet unlike having read so many of her full letters Nancy Mitford could describe walking to the shop or some other every day event in an immensely readable and funny way, it seemed a shame these day to day comments were cut. It also annoyed me and yet intrigued me to read John Saumarez Smith’s notes and the regular mention of a collection of Mitford’s letters called ‘Love from Nancy’ when he didn’t include them, I wanted to read them there and then but alas don’t own them, which of course needs to be rectified. I liked the highlights as I said, yet I wanted more and not just simply the snippets we get. You read a bit and want the rest.

‘…I would like a book plate, simply Nancy Mitford like the Baskerville Bible title pages, lots of squiggles. Could you ponder…?’
‘…Oh isn’t it lovely [the bookplate]… Can we start with 500 or do I have to stoke up for life? Goodness what a sticking and licking there’ll be – yes please, gum…’

That aside I think John Saumarez Smith does a good job with editing this collection of letters. He explains the background behind Nancy and Heywood’s interesting relationship as business partners (‘do let’s divorce’ Nancy wrote at one time) and thanks to a great introduction, best read after you have finished the book as always I think, plus footnotes and commentary between some of the letters to explain what was going on in Nancy or Heywood’s life, we get more insight into the underlying tones of the words and where some of the in jokes, which are never too exclusive, are directed.

I came away feeling I knew Nancy Mitford all the more, well as much as anyone can ever know one of their sadly deceased icons, through these letters of a friendship that lasted decades. Best of all there were times when certain things she wrote particularly struck a chord with me and that can be a rarity and feels all the more special in the instances where it happens.

‘You know my flat and now there’s not room for another bookcase. Every month I give at least 20 books to “the students” who come for them with a sack – many French writers now send me their books, with fulsome dedicaces all of which go in the sack! Unread of course…’

I really, really, really enjoyed ‘The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street’, being a fan of all things Mitford it bowled me over far more than Helene Hanff’s ’84 Charing Cross Road’ which I enjoyed but actually now think is slightly inferior to this collection of letters (though that is more personal taste and love of Nancy) and deserves to be as well read frankly. If you are a lover of the Mitford’s, and Nancy in particular, then you simply must read this book. I would also strongly suggest any lover of books to give this one a whirl; though maybe try a Mitford novel first for a flavour of the style of wit you are getting, as she might not be for everyone. I really must order ‘The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh’ back out from the library pronto.

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Filed under Books About Books, Books of 2012, Francis Lincoln Publishers, Heywood Hill, John Saumarez Smith, Nancy Mitford

Two Bookish Books I Think We Should All Be Reading…

I try not to bark ‘read this now’ as an order too often on Savidge Reads. If I really love a book then I hope the enthusiasm comes of the screen and you might want to go and have a look at it in a book shop or read about it more online. It’s very unusual then that I am pretty much going to bark the orders ‘read these now’ about two books that I actually haven’t read myself the whole way through…

 

‘Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!’ and ‘The Library Book’ are two books from separate British publishers which are all about books, reading and libraries. Really that should be enough to have you rushing to your nearest bookshop or book selling website shouldn’t it, in fact it might already have done just that, however I thought I would tell you a little more about both – just to really push you over the edge.

‘Stop What You Are Doing And Read This!’ is an anthology which asks the question ‘why should you stop what you are doing and read a book?’ The ten essay responses collected here are from the likes of authors such as Jeanette Winterson, Blake Morrison, Mark Haddon and Zadie Smith, along with Jane Davis founder of ‘The Reader Organisation’ and Carmen Callil who founded Virago and rather famously quit the International Man Booker judging panel. These ten essays simply tell you, in varying ways, the power of the book and the joys of reading. I have only dipped in and out of a few so far but from what I have seen it’s only going to make my love of reading and desire to read all the stronger. I know that Simon T of Stuck in a Book loves this book.

There is a different twist on the joys of reading with ‘The Library Book’ as this book is of course celebrating the library itself. Some of my favourite authors like Susan Hill, Val McDermid and Alan Bennett (there are lots more Kate Mosse, Julian Barnes, China Mieville, Stephen Fry – I could go on, there are 23 pieces in this collection) have all contributed works to this book, not all of them are essays though as of course we go to libraries for fiction, and so some of the authors have made fictional shorts along with the other essays throughout – all about the library, of course. Again, I have only had a glimpse at this book (as it only arrived this morning) but I am very, very excited about what’s inside. In fact what am I doing here writing this? I should be reading them already!

What I think is another thing that’s special about these books, if I haven’t sold these two you by now you may be a lost cause, is that they are working with the charity The Reading Agency (all the proceeds of ‘The Library Book’ are definitely going to this charity, it doesn’t say with ‘Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!’) which encourages people to read in all sorts of ways and is developing exciting library programmes. What could be better?

I am hoping some of you have stopped reading the blog by now and run off to find out more, or even gone and got the book. I am off to sit with my copies for a while. I will report back, I hope you will too!

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Books About Books

The Book Boy – Joanna Trollope

I wonder if I can explain why I have not read any Joanna Trollope before without implying that I am some kind of book snob. I suppose it’s simply fair enough, and true enough, to say that I have never really fancied them. In my head, with a mixture of the covers and things I have heard along the way, I have imagined she is rather twee and upper class and I just wouldn’t like them. Sometimes though the title of a book will make you give an author a try and when I saw ‘The Book Boy’ at the library, and saw it was one of the ‘quick reads’ initiative title I thought ‘oh why not?’

Bloomsbury Books, paperback, 2006, fiction, 95 pages, borrowed from the library

Alice is a thirty-eight year old woman stuck in a rut. She is her entire families doormat. Her husband Ed domineers over her with a certain edge of the dark and fearful in anything he does, her son Craig seems to be following his example (and has started hanging out with an unsavoury new friend) and Becky, her daughter and possible ally, thinks she is stupid. All this seems to emanate from the fact that Alice cannot read, something she has always wanted to do, and its something that no one speaks of and yet everyone knows. It also seems to be what people, including Alice herself, us to hold her back.

I feel forgotten, Alice though. Forgotten.
 ‘Mum!’ Craig yelled.
Like, Alice thought, something that fell down the back of the sofa. And got lost. That’s what I feel like.

Of course from the premise of the book we know that this is about to change, what we don’t know is how. I will say that help comes in the least expected guise; I will leave it at that. Through the relationships she has outside the house, mainly with her friend Liz (who has a very funny moment when she becomes a spy) and the Chandra family whose corner shops she cleans, we learn just how closed a life she leads and one which is clearly making her deeply unhappy. This is not a melancholy novella however, in fact it is very much one of hope.

This is a piece of fiction of less than 100 pages which gives a very clear insight into the life of its main character. Alice and her situation are fully fleshed out and though the other characters, including her family, aren’t fleshed out so well they are really there in order to act awfully and show us just how dreary Alice’s life is. Its how she got there and the fact that she initially seems to simply accept that this is her lot in life which proves deeply affecting and through provoking.

How much of the world do we miss if we are unable to read? How do people judge those who can’t? How would our lives be hindered by it and in what ways? These are all the questions that Joanna Trollope looks at, and I was impressed by how much I felt in so little pages. It reminded me just how lucky I am to be able to read and how much it benefits my life, not only in the fact I can read little gems like this, but in the everyday things which we completely forget about and take for granted.

It’s interesting that whilst I enjoyed this example of Joanna Trollope’s work I am not sure if I would read any more. I liked this book because of the story it was telling rather than who was telling it if that makes sense? It was a book you could read for an hour and pop away, would I fare so well with something longer? Is there some underlying subconscious snobbery in me? Maybe I am wrong, maybe another Joanna Trollope would be right up my street, or maybe it was nice to read her once and that’s enough? We all have an encounter with an author like this now and again don’t we? Anyone got any thoughts?

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books About Books, Joanna Trollope, Review

Americus – MK Reed & Jonathan Hill

I like books about books and books about reading. It was this that drew me to a copy of the graphic novel ‘Americus’ written by MK Reed and illustrated by Jonathan Hill. It was a book I hadn’t heard of and it was only by chance that I spotted it in the library and swiftly borrowed it and took it home. I seem to be having a little graphic novel phase at the moment, if you don’t tend to like graphic novels then still bear this one in mind as it does have a very bookish twist.

First Second Books, paperback, 2011, graphic novel, 2151 pages, from the library

‘Americus’ is a small town in America, where we find Neil and his friend  Danny getting very excited about the latest in the series of “The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde” which has caused a storm in the reading world, and not just with the adults as the local librarian is also desperate for the kids to read the book so she can talk to them all about it.

Neil and Danny are bookworms and as we follow their daily routine at school we realise this is a deeply ‘uncool’ thing to be known for, especially as they are also about to embark on going to High School. Only after Danny’s mother catches him reading the latest ‘Apathea’ book, which she believes is promoting witchcraft and Satanism in children she wants is banned leading to a show down, an announcement from Danny which shatters her life further and his being sent to a Military School and his bitter mother on a crusade to ban all ‘Apathea’ books in the library.

 

If you think I have given too much away I haven’t, I promise. This book has so much more than the initial stories that greet us. It reminded me of some of the controversy that has followed the publications of Harry Potter and Twilight which have both had parents trying to ban them for just the reason’s Danny’s mother does. It also looks at the struggles we all have had, and that some of our children might have, as you go through those teenage years and the transition to the big scary school. It is also a tale of friendship but most importantly it is a tale about books and why they are so important.

I should have fallen in love with it just for that, and I did like it a lot, yet there were a couple of small quibbles I had with it. The first was the ending, it just seemed to fizzle out and after the story had been building so much there was a lot of drama and then suddenly ‘oh, it’s the end’. My second quibble was the interception of an illustrated version of “The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde”, which while I thought showed how it fired these two young readers imaginations I didn’t really need quite so much of it in the book, especially as we never got the full story or idea of what the concept of “The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde” was. 

 

I did enjoy ‘Americus’ though and I’m glad I pulled it off the library shelves on a whim. In fact borrowing this book from the library seems most apt given the story. It reminded me of a graphic novel version of ‘The Borrower’ by Rebecca Makkai (though the latter has etched itself on my brain and resonated with me a lot more) and is worth a read if you fancy a book about books or should you fancy dipping your toes into graphic novels.

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Filed under Books About Books, First Second Books, Graphic Novels, Jonathan Hill, MK Reed, Review

The Night Bookmobile – Audrey Niffenegger

If anyone is ever going through a reading funk, which I had been of late if I am honest, then the first book that I would recommend for them as a prescription and possible cure would have to be ‘The Night Bookmobile’ a graphic novel by Audrey Niffenegger. I am not sure that I would recommend it to someone who was thoroughly depressed though if I am honest, more on that later though.

Jonathan Cape, hardback, 2010, graphic novel, 40 pages, from the library

Normally I don’t include the blurb of a book, however Neil Gaiman has written this one so without further ado here is his: “The Night Bookmobile is a love letter, both elegiac and heartbreaking, to the things we have read, and to the readers that we are. It says that what we read makes us who we are. It’s a graphic short story, beautifully drawn and perfectly told, a cautionary fantasia for anyone who has ever loved books, and I hope the story of the library, of Alexandra, finds its place on the night bookmobiles of all of who’d care. It’s a treasure.” Now doesn’t that just sound the perfect book for any book lover?

‘The Night Bookmobile’, which started life as an illustrated column in The Guardian,  is in many ways a complete celebration of the books we have loved and remembers, not finished but meant to and those we read and forgot about.  One night after a row with her boyfriend Alexandra is walking the streets of her neighbourhood when she comes across the Night Bookmobile and is drawn inside. Here she discovers a Tardis-like space of shelves with endless books, as she browses she soon realises that this is her very own library with all the books she has read, or started and left unfinished, throughout her lifetime. This reawakens her love of reading and soon sees her changing her life with a much more bookish bent. I simply loved this premise and it started making me think about all the books and authors I have loved the most, onces who I have said I would keep on reading and haven’t, etc, etc. I soon had a list of lots of reading I was desperate to turn to again.

I do however have a few little qualms about ‘The Night Bookmobile’. The first would have to be its length as it is just 64 pages long, which is fine bevause it is a stuningly beautiful read yet means there is a slight lack of depth. We never quite know what is going on with Alexandra when she remeets the Night Bookmobile at random points in her life and I would have liked to know more. I do also think on a slight tangent but still based on its length – and this is nothing to do with the author – that maybe the price should reflect its length too, though I picked mine up at the library I think it is worth a mention.

The second one is difficult to discuss without spoilers, but I will try, and that is the ending. It is rather tragic, seems to come from nowhere and rather disturbed me with the message it was passing on. I wondered if I had missed something somewhere, so happily read the book again, and I hadn’t. This ending came out of nowhere, didn’t really make sense and left me feeling uneasy and wishing the last few pages hadn’t been included, it was up until then almost perfect.

That said for its celebration of books, and I loved the fact its designed like a child’s picture book too, I did really like this book for the passion about books it has behind it. It is the sort of book that makes you think ‘this author knows why I read’ and I was thrilled to learn that this is in fact part of something called ‘The Library’ which Niffenegger is working on and off all the time. Could she hurry up please and a longer more in depth book by her about loving books would simply be perfect.

Has anyone else read ‘The Night Bookmobile’ and if so what did you think, without spoilers if possible, was the point of the ending or the message? I thought it was tragic yet trying to be hopeful in a tone of some desperation. Does that make sense?

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Filed under Audrey Niffenegger, Books About Books, Graphic Novels, Jonathan Cape Publishers, Review

Growing Pains; The Shaping of a Writer – Daphne Du Maurier

One of my favourite feelings is when you discover a book by one of your favourite authors that is no longer in print in the most unlikely of places. Once such incident happened sometime last year when I visited the local hospital and discovered a discarded ex-library copy of ‘Growing Pains – the Shaping of a Writer’ by none other than Daphne Du Maurier. It was made slightly the more joyous a find because I had no idea that this book even existed.

Gollancz, hardback, 1977, memoir, 173 pages, an ex-library gem I bought

It is probably best to let Daphne Du Maurier explain herself what ‘Growing Pains’ is about, which fortunately she does in the author’s note at the start of the book. ‘The following pages will, I hope, give me the answer. They cover my thoughts, impressions and actions from the age of three until I was twenty five, after my first novel had been published. I was uncertain of myself, naive and immature, and readers looking for deep thoughts and words of wisdom will be disappointed.’ The last part of which I couldn’t disagree with more as this is an incredibly insightful account of her life through retrospection, and also a very honest one.

Daphne tells us of her childhood and how important stories were too her, though oddly not a fan of fairy tales (which I would have given anything to ask her more bout) she grew up with a highly over active imagination. Before she could write properly she announced to a new governess that she had written ‘an entire novel’ when in truth, and soon discovered, she couldn’t write a sentence. She always wanted more from stories and would ask when a book was finished ‘why is that the end’ or ‘why did that person live in a wood’, she wanted to inhabit and create a stories entire world. This in turn lead to worrying developments after her imagination went into overdrive as she started to believe her mother actually was the Snow Queen in the book she was reading to Daphne and her sisters. In fact Daphne never quite shook this feeling. Which made me think about the interesting relationship rumoured between Daphne and her father. It was an almost obsessive hero worship.

‘I still believed in Father Christmas and yet… How did he mange to get down everybody’s chimneys all in one night? It just couldn’t be done. And supposing he didn’t… supposing it wasn’t true… ? I remember finding a net stocking full of toys hidden under a cushion in M’s morning-room at Cumberland Terrace. Why was it there? If something was not true, why make it up in the first place? But then, here was the puzzle. Stories in books were not true. The person who wrote the book made them up. Somehow, that did not matter. Pilgrim’s Progress was a story. It did not really happen. That was all right. But if fairies were just invented to deceive children, and Father Christmas too, what about the picture in my prayer-book that my godmother Billy had given me…’

As the book goes on Daphne never stops questioning in fact she questions all the more. The way this subtle decision to write builds over the years is utterly fascinating to read. In fact I am shocked this is no longer in print as it would be the perfect text for all aspiring writers, dare I say even a few published ones. I also loved the book for the snippets and insights into the young life of one of my favourite authors directly from her. There are some great biographies and some wonderful fictional accounts but nothing is quite the same as reading the words written by the person themselves. I also loved it for the pictures, such as this…

I didn’t want ‘Growing Pains’ to end! I know some of it is written from the benefit of hindsight, some of it will shroud the darker elements or highlight the brighter memories but I just loved spending time with Daphne reminiscing. Of course, she could have written it to make herself sound a certain way, but with a girl and woman like Daphne I don’t think that’s the case. Someone please reprint this book!

UPDATE: Thank you for letting me know that this is in print but under the name ‘Myself When Young: The Shaping Of A Writer’ – oops!

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Filed under Books About Books, Daphne Du Maurier, Discovering Daphne, Gollancz Publishing, Review

Hallucinating Foucault – Patricia Duncker

I seem to have had rather a run of good luck with my reads over the last week or so as it seems that everything I have picked up has been brilliant and ‘Hallucinating Foucault’ by Patricia Duncker is no exception. I have to admit that had it not been for the fact that over the Christmas and New Year period I was recommended this book by three separate people as ‘a great novel about books, writing and reading’ I am not sure I would have looked it up or even picked it up. Thank goodness for recommendations hey?

‘Hallucinating Foucault’ is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who is researching the work and lives of the mysterious author Paul Michel. A project that starts whilst he is studying in Cambridge soon becomes an obsession and a quest that takes him to Paris and the south of France. Really that’s the best way that you can sum up the plot, however ‘Hallucinating Foucault’ is so much more than that, yet of course trying to place all its themes and idea’s in a review is quite a challenge, as it soon becomes a page turning (I know, I know it’s a cliché to say that, sorry) piece of literature.

As our narrator meets his lover, ‘the Germanist’, as he calls her (who is a rather interesting and deceptive character who keeps you on your toes) in Cambridge and afterwards his initial admiration for Paul Michel takes an obsessive turn when he hears the mysterious tale of Michel’s incarceration into a mental home. The Germanist and her gay father, Michel the fictional author in the novel also happens to be homosexual, then push him to go and uncover just what happened and why a man who meant so much to many has ended up in such a situation. What could it have been that drew this man to madness? Could it be to do with the great, and real, Michel Foucault (the French philosopher who I now want to learn much more about) himself?

What follows, without giving too much away, is a thrilling tale (though not in the way you might think ‘thrillers’ stereotypically are) and journey of self discovery. Duncker uses this tale not only to discuss sexuality, which becomes a key part of the novel, but also to look at the relationship between the people who write the book and those who read them. In fact it’s a wonderful discussion of how reading and writing work yet rather than being a long boring ‘lit-crit’ non fiction tome we have a slim novel that really packs a punch and if you love books and reading you will become totally lost in it.

 “The writing then becomes the wager of a gambling man, the words flung down in one colour, win or lose, for the reader to take up. We are all gamblers. We write for our lives. If, in my life or in my writing, there was anyone who could be described as my Muse, ironically enough, it would be you. But I suspect you would rather be acknowledged as my master than my Muse. You are my reader, my beloved reader. I know of no other person who has more absolute a power to constrain me, or to set me free.”

‘Hallucinating Foucault’ is a deceptively slim looking book. I don’t mean that when you start reading it its so heavy and full of things that it bogs you down from the start, in fact quite the reverse. From the opening pages Duncker pulls you into a tale that at first seems like it could be one sort of book and then becomes several books rolled into one whilst remaining incredibly readable. She also shows how many tools a writer has, the book is written in first ‘unnamed’ narrative for the main but also features dream sequences, letters from Michel to Foucault and newspaper clippings and reports. It’s like she is celebrating language and its uses.

I was quite shocked to discover this was her debut novel from 1996 as it reads like a book written by an author well into their writing life. This is an incredible fictional book about books and the relationship between reader and writer. It’s also a book I can’t recommend highly enough. 10/10

I want to thank everyone who recommended me this book, you know who you are – and I know you read this, and can only hope that all several of you take on the recommendation from me to give this seemingly undiscovered book a whirl. I am now naturally desperate to read more by Patricia Duncker and was thrilled to discover she has another four novels and two collections of short stories for me to get through. Have any of you read them? Any thoughts?

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books About Books, Books of 2011, Patricia Duncker, Review

84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

I have heard so much praise for ’84 Charing Cross Road’ by Helene Hanff it’s a book that I have been meaning to read for ages. It is also one of those books where because I had heard so much praise for it I hadn’t picked it up because I was worried it wouldn’t have the effect on me that it did on everyone else. We all have books like that don’t we, it’s not just me? Anyway I was lucky enough to receive as a Christmas present from the lovely Paul Magrs who thought it would be a perfect read for me, and he was spot on.

’84 Charing Cross Road’ is a series of very real letters, for some reason until I actually had the book in my hand I thought that it was a work of fiction, between writer Helene Hanff and Frank Doel a bookseller of Messrs Marks & Co a second-hand book shop in the heart of London. What initially starts as very much a business correspondence, between the rather outspoken Hanff and the more reserved Doel, from October 1949 becomes a friendship through letters and a love of books that lasts over twenty years.

“I just happen to have a peculiar taste in books, thanks to a Cambridge professor named Quiller-Couch, known as Q whom I fell over in a library when I was 17. And I’m about as smart-looking as a Broadway pan-handler.”

If that hasn’t already had you running to a book shop to buy it, as it is a most perfect book about books and reading really, there is so much more. As Hanff and Doel’s friendship blossoms she starts to send packages of food to him and the other workers in the store during the war, getting friends to visit with nylons etc, thus she creates further friendships all by the power of the pen. Initially (and I wondered if Frank himself might have felt this) Hanff’s lust for life, over familiarity and demanding directness almost pushed me to annoyance until her humour and her passion for books becomes more and more apparent along with her thoughtfulness during the war years as mentioned. I was soon wishing I had become Hanff’s correspondent myself.

“You’ll be fascinated to learn (from me that hates novels) that I finally got round to Jane Austen and went out of my mind for Pride and Prejudice which I can’t bring myself to take back to the library till you find me a copy of my own.”

There is a bittersweet twist in the tale, and I don’t think it spoils anything to give this away but skip this paragraph if you don’t want any spoilers, is that sadly Frank died before Helene could ever go and finally visit the shop. There are several times that she endeavours to get herself to London but due to finances, teeth and other circumstances it never happens. That all changes after the publication of ’84 Charing Cross Road’ which being a huge success means she flies to London to visit the shop, some of the people and the city she has always dreamed of visiting. She keeps a diary during this trip which is now included in every edition of this novel/la named ‘The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street’ which makes for additional fascinating reading.

“I got out of bed, had hysterics, a martini and two cigarettes, got back into bed, and whiled away the rest of the night composing cables saying I wasn’t coming.”

It’s hard to say anything further about these two novels, or are they technically novellas, because they simply need to be read. I can’t say anything other than go out and get a copy if you haven’t already. It was certainly a book that was right up my street! 9.5/10

This book was bought for me for Christmas by a very kind friend.

Who else has had the pleasure of reading ’84 Charing Cross Road’? Has anyone seen the movie, and if so what did you make of it? Which books about books and book lovers should I look out for next? Has anyone read any of Hanff’s other novels? Which books have been sat on your TBR and have you been putting off as everyone else loved them so much you fear you might not?

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Filed under Books About Books, Books of 2011, Helene Hanff, Review, Virago Books