Why we will always need bookshops….

Picture1I was beyond excited last week when the first of three book parcels arrived on my doorstep.  Working in a bookshop, I’m lucky enough never to have any need to order my books online, but I have to admit there was an undeniable sense of anticipation knowing what longed-for items lay within.  I’ve watched a few unboxing videos now and then, and as an enthusiastic proponent of hands-on high street shopping I confess they’ve always left me a little bit underwhelmed; but having experienced the warm, fuzzy glow of seeing the big black W on my post office delivery, I feel a bit more like I get it.  Will this be anywhere near the happiness of stepping back into a bookshop again when these dreadful times are over, however?  I somehow doubt it.

Since we closed our doors my fellow booksellers and I have been struck, and quite moved, by the affection that’s come our way from the local community.  There have been posts and messages online telling us how much we are missed.  A couple of my colleagues have been stopped (at a safe distance let me reassure you) while out walking by customers who want to tell us how much they loved coming into our shop and how they long to be able to return.  I’ve even seen an amazing piece of artwork posted online that was done by someone sitting in our café prior to the lockdown and which depicts various groups of people relaxing with a coffee or browsing the shelves in the background.

All this is proof, if any were needed, of the genuine emotional connection that exists between a community and its bookshop.  It’s so much more than a convenient place in which money is handed over in exchange for goods; it’s an ark of knowledge, artistry and ideas, and a space in which any book lover can wax lyrical to like-minded individuals about a shared passion.  It’s a cornucopia of reading pleasure in which you can get a recommendation from a person, not an algorithm.  It can be a safe haven for the anxious or the lonely, or a place that inspires children to embark on a lifetime of reading.  It’s an outing to look forward to when you unwrap those book vouchers on your birthday, and a place to make and meet friends – or even, if you’re lucky, come face to face with your favourite author.

No cardboard box on the doorstep can ever compete with all that.  I very much hope that there are enough people out there in agreement with me to ensure those bookshops that survive these difficult months will be there for many years to come.

Bookshop haul – a moment of heatwave madness!

It’s quite clearly not unusual for me to indulge in a bit of book-shopping.   It is unusual for me to lose all self-control and succumb to not just one but multiple hardbacks in a single splurge.  Honestly, I don’t know what came over me.  Maybe it’s the knowledge that it’s payday tomorrow or maybe I was just slightly high on the prospect of a week off with the forecast of blazing sun every day and absolutely no commitments beyond my blog and my books; whatever the (100% valid) excuse I’m now the proud owner of a diverse and somewhat unexpected pile of reading happiness.  So what is this booky bounty?

“Silk” by Alessandro Baricco – since I’m still going with “4 3 2 1” I’m in desperate need of something short to make me feel like I’m achieving something!  I would never have picked this up off my own bat but two colleagues at work have recommended it so I have faith that it’s going to be a good ‘un.  As an added bonus the chapters are about a page each, so if that doesn’t make me feel like I’m making progress nothing will.

“These Dividing Walls” by Fran Cooper – I find Twitter such a great way of discovering new and forthcoming titles, and this is one that I’ve seen mentioned or reviewed several times with almost universally favourable comments.  The premise sparked off comparisons in my mind with “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”, which I adore, due to its Parisian apartment block setting.  The style and indeed the substance may well turn out to be completely different of course, but nevertheless I have a feeling I’m going to enjoy it.

“Swallowing Mercury” by Wioletta Greg – this is a bit of a risk in a sense since I know nothing at all about either novel or author.  Yet something about it kept nudging at me as I was browsing the shelves and eventually I decided to take a punt.  The cover art is stunning for a start, and the impression I get from the tiny sections I’ve dipped into is that it has a slightly strange, dreamlike and almost musical quality that I found magnetic, even without knowing anything about the story or setting.  Watch this space.

“Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman – I read an excerpt from this novel in a magazine a while back and immediately thought: I AM Eleanor Oliphant!  I was intrigued by the heroine and the idea that life can be, well, absolutely fine, and yet missing something very fundamental at the same time.  There’s been so much love for this all over social media and I can’t wait to read it.

So, a week off awaits and I have a stack of new books, so the reviews should be coming thick and fast before too long!  Here’s hoping your week is as sunny as mine, see you back on the blog soon.

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“The Mower” by Philip Larkin

I have a very quick little post for you today.  I’d like to share one of my favourite poems with you all; not to analyse it or pull it to pieces in an attempt to fathom what poetic techniques are employed to make it so good, but just to share the words because they are so powerful and pertinent.  We never know how much time we have, and Larkin’s closing phrase is a plea to which we should all listen.  I have nothing else to say today – this eloquent poem speaks for itself.  Happy reading.

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Why I love… Magnus Mills

Not long ago I was browsing in a local bookshop and came across a book by Magnus Mills that I hadn’t realised existed.  Excited (and also a little ashamed that I’d allowed a book by an author I really enjoy to slip under my radar), I decided there and then I needed to write something about him on Girl, Reading since in two years on the blog he’s never featured.

I’ve accumulated many bookseller friends during my years of working in and around bookshops and a pretty high proportion of them have read and admired Magnus Mills.  Outside of that group, though, I’ve not met a single person who’s tried him or, in most cases, even heard of him, and I wonder why that is.  There are definitely some books and authors that have a disproportionately large fan base within the book trade, but the reason is often, to me at least, a mystery.  While I wouldn’t say that Mills could be classified as having mass appeal, I do think he is deserving of a wider readership for his clever plotting, social satire and for the unique tone he brings to his writing; start reading a Mills novel blind and I think you’d soon know exactly who the author was.

So, what kind of novels does he write and just why are they so good?  They’re quirky, offbeat, darkly comic and often slightly sinister, but they’re not easy to categorise – if I had to pin down their overriding theme it would be that they’re strange without the reader being able to fathom quite why.  I’ve read most of them now, and they all feature fairly ordinary characters, but those characters are operating against backdrops that seem slightly out of kilter.  The author possesses an incredible skill: he can make you feel incredibly tense and uneasy but if asked, you’d have a hard time explaining the reason.  There is no hint of anything fantastical or supernatural; these are worlds – often very mundane worlds – that we know… and yet don’t.  To me, the settings often feel somewhat akin to a dream; all the elements of the world with which we’re presented are recognisable, and yet they feel as if they’ve been put together in a way that just isn’t quite right.  Many of the novels also evoke a real feeling of frustration which can on occasion evolve into a sense of mounting panic, since a recurring motif is that of a character who’s trapped in some way by a situation, to the point where you’re willing them to find a way out and for events to conspire in their favour.  And “Explorers of the New Century” (my least favourite as it happens) contains a twist so unexpected that I still remember the effect it had on me as I read it even though it was years ago.

Which one should you start with if you’ve never tried him before?  The two most well-known and also the most acclaimed of his books are “All Quiet on the Orient Express” and “The Restraint of Beasts” but I particularly enjoyed “The Scheme for Full Employment” – if you’ve ever had the feeling you were wasting your life in a dead-end job then just wait until you read this!  I know this little article hasn’t come anywhere near to selling his writing to the extent he deserves, but I think it’s a testament to his ingenuity as an author that he is so difficult to write about.  The only way to really appreciate and understand the books is to read them for yourself, so add him to your list of reading resolutions for 2017!

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Bizarre Books

A bit of bibliophilic fun on the blog for you today!  I found this book in a second-hand bookshop years ago; it’s a glorious collection of weird and wonderful publications from across the centuries, featuring authors with unfortunate names, unwitting double entendres and titles so ridiculously niche you can’t help but wonder how they came to be published at all.  So to bring you some Friday cheer, here are a few of my favourite entries in this entertaining compendium, “Bizarre Books” – all completely genuine!

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Books by authors who, well, couldn’t have written anything else…

“Death in Early America” by Margaret Coffin

“Motorcycling for Beginners” by Geoff Carless

“Round the Bend in the Stream” by Wilmot Hudson Fysh

“Metabolic Changes Induced by Alcohol” by G.A. Martini

Books whose sphere of interest is limited to say the least…

“Wall Paintings by Snake-charmers in Tanganyika” by Hans Cory

“Canadian National Egg-Laying Contests” by F.C. Elford and A.G. Taylor

“Manhole Covers of Los Angeles” by Robert and Mimi Melnick

“The Effect of Relative Humidity on an Oak-tanned Leather Belt” by W.W. Bird

If you’re at a loose end this weekend here are a few suggestions as to how you could spend your time…

“Collect Fungi on Stamps” by D.J. Aggersberg

“Master Pieces: making furniture from paintings” by Richard Ball and Peter Campbell

“Macramé Gnomes” by Dona Z. Meilach

“Build your own Hindenburg” by Alan Rose

Or, if none of the above appeal, you could always settle down with one of these riveting titles…

“Practical Candle Burning” by Raymond Buckland

“Fishes I have known” by Arthur A. Henry Beavan

“The History and Social Influence of the Potato” by Radcliffe Nathan Salaman

“The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Metal Lunch Boxes” by Allen Woodall and Sean Brickell

Authors Russell Ash and Brian Lake have garnered these gems and hundreds more from years of working in the book trade – as an industry employee myself I can attest to some of the weird and wonderful things that get requested every now and again!  If there are any bizarre books you’ve come across, I’d love to hear about them…

“Milk and Honey” by Rupi Kaur – review

Every once in a while fate has an uncanny way of delivering the right book into your hands at exactly the right moment.  I recently spent an hour reading “Milk and Honey” precisely at a point in my life when I needed to hear its words, absorb its sentiments and have someone tell me I wasn’t alone.  Honestly, it’s as if it had been written just for me.

It’s a collection of poems, but not, I think, one designed to be dipped in and out of; it lends itself to being read in one wrenching go.  It begins by chronicling the sexual and emotional abuse the author endured in her younger years, before moving on to love, loss and finally ruminations on femininity and how the poet’s relationships with men have influenced the way she views herself.  The poems are for the most part stark and sparse, and the vocabulary she chooses is often relatively simple; the cleverness lies in the way she arranges these somewhat unremarkable words into such striking, searing combinations.  Many poems are only a few words long, but these were actually some of my favourites.  There are just so many I’d like to share on here, but these are just a couple of the shorter ones that stood out for me:

the idea that we are

so capable of love

but still choose

to be toxic

and this:

we are all born

so beautiful

the greatest tragedy is

being convinced we are not

Many of the poems are written in this way, without capitalisation or punctuation, and as such they come across as spontaneous bursts of thought; authentic, heartfelt and without artifice.

I was having a conversation with someone the other day about poetry and how hard it is to get up the courage to share what you’ve written; I remarked that I feel it’s the most personal form of writing there is, hence the hesitation over making it public.  The impression I was left with at the end of “Milk and Honey” was of a poet who has been incredibly brave in committing her most personal, in many cases traumatic, experiences to paper.  I for one am so glad she did so.  Although the abusive aspect of her life is, mercifully, not something I have suffered myself, her candid meditations on love, desire and the issues that cloud loving relationships are exactly the thoughts I would have expressed if I’d had the talent to put them into words in this way.  To know that the feelings which constantly batter and torment your mind are shared by someone else is like a burden being lifted.   I only hope I can emerge into the state of positivity that seeps into some of the later poems; this courageous and insightful young woman has inspired me to try and do so.

If you’re at all interested in poetry, read this.  If you are a woman then definitely read this.  Rupi Kaur is truly the mouthpiece of millions.

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My favourite books of 2016

As the year draws to a close it’s time for a round-up of my best books of 2016.  In the interests of making sure my favourites get into the list (!) I’m taking the liberty of including books that were new in paperback this year rather than just hardback – I’m sure you’ll forgive me!  Choosing my favourites was one thing; putting them into an order of preference was quite another, but after immense internal struggle I’ve arrived at this, the final countdown.

  1. The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

I’m not sure I could describe this as an enjoyable read given the traumatic nature of the subject matter in places, but it’s certainly the book that’s stuck most resolutely in my mind over the past few months.  There are a few passages so grim that once read they can never be erased, but ultimately this is a tale of finding hope after horror.  Not everyone I know was a fan, but the author’s skill is undeniable.

  1. This must be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell

I’ve never yet read a Maggie O’Farrell novel that I didn’t like so this was pretty much a shoe-in for my top 5.  Her characters are so authentic that they almost aren’t even characters; they could be any one of us.  Love, loss, grief, jealousy….she nails every single feeling on the emotional spectrum with this novel, as she does every time.

  1. His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

This is hands down the cleverest book I’ve read this year.  It plays around with the concept of the unreliable narrator and takes it to another level, until we start to question not only who is “reliable” and who is not, but whether there is any such thing as absolute truth at all, or only our own perception and experience.  It’s unexpectedly moving too.

  1. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

What I loved most about this book was the way it took me back to my childhood almost as if the author had been there!  The setting of a community where neighbours know each other intimately and children wander around the streets from house to house without anyone batting an eyelid evoked a real feeling of nostalgia for me.  Yet there’s a darker side to this utopia, where people band together to victimise outsiders without bothering – or wanting – to learn their story.  Utterly brilliant.

  1. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

If you know me this number one will come as absolutely no surprise to you!  This is quite simply the book I’ve been banging on about to anyone who’ll listen (and even to people who aren’t particularly listening!) since the moment I read it.  It’s got everything – period setting, touches of gothic horror, love and romance, mystery and real emotional heft.  I loved every sentence and it’s not just in my top five for this year, but quite possible of all time.  That’s saying something.  If you haven’t read it yet there’s still time to rush out and buy yourself a copy so you’ve got something amazing to curl up with this Christmas.

I’d love to know if any of these would be in your top five too, and if not, what have I missed?!

This will be my last post on Girl, Reading until after Christmas now, so enjoy whatever festivities you have in store and I hope to see you back here very soon.

Merry Christmas!

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A Bookworm’s A-Z

Just for a bit of fun on the blog tonight, I present my bookworm’s A-Z…

A is for Author – of course it is!  Without these talented individuals there would be no books, no book blog, and no bookworm’s A-Z…

B is for Bookshop – forget your soulless online outlets: if you want to experience the true thrill of hard-core book buying, a bricks-and-mortar bookshop is the only place to be.

C is for Curating – how do you curate your bookshelves?  It’s an important question for any bona fide bookworm; by colour, author, genre?  The possibilities are endless.

D is for Dog ears – are these a travesty or a practicality?  I know which side I come down on, and it’s not the latter…

E is for Expectation – there is very little as joyfully tantalising as the wait for a new book by a favourite author.  The flip side is of course that, just occasionally, the eagerly anticipated novel turns out not to live up to expectations: heart-breaking.

F is for Festival – really decent literary festivals aren’t something you find on your doorstep every day, but if you can get to one it’s a fantastic opportunity to get up close and personal with writers and their work.

G is for Goodreads – when it comes to sharing thoughts and opinions on books, this website is one of the best there is: a real community of booklovers.

H is for Hardback – for me, as for many people I think, hardbacks are a real treat, an indulgence to be saved for a book or author you REALLY love.

I is for Imagination – I feel I should insert one of those twee quotes that you find online at this point, but there’s no disputing that readers have some of the best imaginations out there, and books give us the opportunity to escape into a new imaginary world every day.

J is for Judging (a book by its cover!) – no, we all know we shouldn’t do it… and yes, we all do.

K is for Kindles – personally, I can think of nothing more dreadful than reading on a cold, impersonal electronic device, but there’s no denying that, for good or ill, they’ve completely changed the way we consume our books.

L is for Library – one of my earliest memories is going to the local library and I firmly believe we need to fight for their existence until the last breath.

M is for Man Booker – for some, literary prizes are a great way of getting book recommendations and for others they’re elitist and off-putting.  All I can say, as someone who’s worked in the book trade for a pretty long time, is that the grandfather of all awards, the Man Booker prize, still sparks some really lively debate among colleagues and customers alike.

N is for New book smell – you can only call yourself a true book lover if you are in some small way addicted to the smell of new books.  Fact.

O is for Obsession – following on nicely from N, the genuine booklover is obsessed with everything about books: smell, cover design, typefaces….there should probably be a helpline for this…

P is for Proof copies – one of the privileges of being either an industry insider or a book blogger, this: the proof copy, the as yet unpublished book in all its raw, unvarnished glory – and all before anyone else has got their hands on it, yay!

Q is for Quiet – we’re not all antisocial weirdos who seal ourselves inside our bookcaves at every opportunity…but we do like a bit of peace and quiet to get on with our latest read.

R is for Recommendations – whether it’s reading reviews online or getting books pressed into our hands by friends and family, one of the joys of reading is recommending and being recommended to.  I’ve discovered so many amazing novels this way.

S is for Saga – from “Game of Thrones” to the seemingly endless works of Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, we all love a good saga.  Except when something really irritating happens, like the author decides they want to concentrate on spin-off novellas instead…

T is for TBR pile – it lurks accusingly on the bedside table, it peers out from down the side of the sofa….and it NEVER GETS SMALLER.

U is for Underrated – we can all think of an author who we feel is criminally underappreciated by the world at large.  Mine is Jude Morgan; I’m sure you’ll have your own that you champion at every opportunity.

V is for Vlogging – I’ve not yet ventured into vlogging territory, and something tells me I probably never will, but I have nothing but admiration for the people who are un-selfconscious enough to get in front of camera to share their love of books.

W is for Waterstones  – that bastion of high street bookselling never disappoints me; whichever town or city I’m in, you can guarantee I’ll sniff one out and drag my unfortunate companions in for hours.

X is for Xenopus – well, we’re now down at the anticlimactic, barrel-scraping bottom of the alphabet.  I scoured the Oxford English Dictionary and couldn’t find a single word beginning with X that related even vaguely to books, so I went for this.  Apparently it’s a kind of African toad; totally irrelevant, but it’s a great word.  Remember it for Scrabble.

Y is for York – I was living in this gorgeous city when I got my first job in a bookshop – and that was the start of a career in books that I’ve loved from the minute I first stepped through that door.

Z is for Zinfandel – this seems the perfect way to round off my bookworm’s alphabet: with a glass of white zinfandel, undoubtedly the ideal accompaniment to an evening’s reading!

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Christmas Shopping

I’m actually doing pretty well with my Christmas shopping this year: I’m over half way through and, with one irritating exception, I know exactly what I’m going to get for the remaining half.  In fact I’m so pleased with myself that even as I write this I’ve just had to break off to pour myself a congratulatory glass of wine.  Go me.  To be fair though, my life is made a little bit easier owing to the fact that there’s one item on the shopping list that appears every year – and since this is a book blog there are no prizes for guessing what that item is.  I love buying books for people; although it can be challenging it’s also immensely rewarding when you get it right, and often as I’m reading books throughout the year I’m also considering whether there’s anyone I know who’ll appreciate it too.  There have been a few flops among the successes, but luckily my friends and family are honest enough to tell me if they didn’t enjoy one of my choices.  As it happens, my biggest book-giving faux pas wasn’t so much a misjudged choice, but rather the time I actually presented a friend with the same novel two Christmases running; incredibly sweet soul that she is, she graciously said that I obviously knew he reading taste very well as she’d enjoyed it so much the first time round.  In a way I don’t mind if someone doesn’t get on with something I’ve picked out for them (unless it’s a personal favourite of mine, in which case I feel as aggrieved as if someone had insulted a member of my family), because I genuinely think that almost everyone gets that I put a lot of thought into my literary matchmaking, even if the romance doesn’t blossom.

And let’s not forget, I love receiving books as presents too!  The reality is that most people daren’t risk it simply because they know how many I buy for myself anyway – but I’m always willing to be surprised by a curveball I never would have chosen.  Top of my Christmas wish-list this year (just saying…) is “Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts” (because I really, honestly, truly cannot justify spending my money on this), so if anyone I know is reading this, you have been officially notified…

The wine is gone, which suggests it’s time to stop writing, so see you all back on the blog soon!

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Why Bookworms love Summer!

Let’s face it, there’s no such thing as a bad time to be a bookworm, but as I lay out in the garden yesterday with a book – in shorts, SHORTS! for the first time this year – I mused that yes, there’s lots for the book fanatic to love about this season…

  • Reading outside – probably the most obvious one, but reading in the warm sunshine is a blissful feeling like no other. Plus you can top up your tan at the same time (or more likely, get so absorbed in your book that before you know it the hoped-for golden glow vanishes in favour of more lobster-like hues.  This happens to me every year.)
  • It’s new paperback season – this is the time of year when all those tempting new hardbacks that came out in the previous autumn are finally released in paperback. If like me you’re not a huge hardback buyer, then summer paperback season is the perfect time to go on a book shopping spree.  As if we needed an excuse…
  • Light evenings – as soon as the clocks go back in October it’s as if someone has flicked a switch that drains all my energy away. It’s with immense eagerness, therefore, that I look forward to British Summer Time; now I will finally be able to stay awake in the evening long enough to finish that chapter!
  • Time off work – I’m lucky enough to have a job where activity peaks in the run up to Christmas, so in the summer I usually manage to get fairly frequent weeks off work, hooray! Sometimes I don’t let on anyone but a select few that I have time off coming up, as I’d often rather have a week to myself to read than a full social calendar…
  • Holidays – reading in the English sunshine is one thing; reading on a poolside sun-lounger in a glorious island paradise is quite another. Sadly for me this is a very occasional treat rather than an annual occurrence, but as long as I have a book in my hand I’m usually pretty happy no matter where I am!

It’s fair to say that the blazing sunshine of the last few days has put me in an incredibly buoyant mood and sent me off into one of those obsessive reading frenzies that happen every now and then.  Hopefully this will result in some more reviews up on the blog soon, but until then, I hope summer has arrived wherever you are!

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