Independent Booksellers Week

It’s Independent Booksellers Week from today (30th June 2012) until 7th July 2012, so to show my support, I took a trip to visit my nearest independent book shops and came away with some lovely books:

I know I’m not supposed to be buying books until I’ve finished all the books on my “to be read” shelf, but Mariana by Monica Dickens is a Persephone book and I’m planning a new challenge next year to read all their catalogue, so this was just a future planning purchase while A Monster Calls is as much an illustrated book as a narrative, and warrants a hard copy as an ebook just wouldn’t do it justice.

But the feather in the cap is Clashes of Civilizations Over An Elevator In Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous. The best reasons I’ve found to visit indie book shops is that you find books from small publishers and translated fiction that you rarely see in the national chains or supermarkets, and not only that, but people talk to you about books and you overhear interesting conversations. It’s a win-win situation!

Go on, support your independent book shop this week, otherwise they may not be there when you want them.


“Artichoke Hearts” by Sita Brahmachari

Date finished: 31st May 2012

Artichoke Hearts has been on my radar since it won the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize last year. It takes the form of a journal following one month in twelve-year-old Mira’s life. Her beloved Nana Josie is ill and her health is deteriorating. For her birthday, Nana Josie gives Mira an artichoke charm, and explains how it symbolises the heart and how as we grow older we grow hardened layers around our hearts to prevent us from getting hurt. The books shows how Mira and her family deal with Josie’s last days, while trying to keep a balance with Mira’s everyday life of growing up.

This book is wonderful. I’m welling up just thinking about it again now, and it will stay with me for a long time. I was fortunate in that I didn’t have to deal with the grief of losing anyone until I was in my thirties, and I can only imagine how difficult it is for a teenager, as well as for a parent who has to explain death to a child. This book does that with humour, warmth, honesty and emotion, and is very, very touching. The idea of using a journal which covers the most important month of Mira’s life to date works so well, and allows enough time to develop the characters and the experience, while giving a sense of closure at the end with the promise of the next stage of Mira’s life to come as well.

A whole-hearted recommendation for teenagers and adults alike, and one I won’t forget easily.

“666 Charing Cross Road” by Paul Magrs

An author I discovered through Doctor Who is Paul Magrs. I read a couple of his Brenda and Effie books last year, and thoroughly enjoyed them, and have had him on my wishlist ever since. When choosing my recent new book purchases, I couldn’t resist trying his latest novel 666 Charing Cross Road. Shelley works in an obscure Manhattan art gallery, and for her first exhibition as a curator, Women and Madness she finds the oddly strange sculpture, The Scottish Bride, in storage in the basement of the museum and it proves a crowd attracting exhibit. Meanwhile, her aunt Liza (who reads books for a living!) loves supernatural and paranormal fantasy books, but bored with all the specialist shops only selling new authors, she is delighted when her new friend Jack stumbles upon an advert for the antiquarian bookshop at 666 Charing Cross Road. When they send her an unusual tome she never ordered, Liza finds it unsettling and repellent, and Shelley’s boyfriend Daniel takes it off her hands, and sets in motion a chain of horrifying events, which will change all their lives.

An absolutely cracking book! Magrs British humour mixed in to a pan Atlantic story of supernatural powers and creatures, with believable characters who you want to spend time with, and generally a fantastic romp of a story. By far my favourite character has to be Aunt Liza, not only because she has the perfect job – reading books! – but she’s delightfully eccentric, quick witted and with a wicked tongue, she also has an unknown past which reveals itself gradually as the story progresses.

There is a small amount of sexual content and occasional violent scenes, but none are too graphic, and are essential to the story with nothing gratuitous.

Although I think this is intended to be a stand alone novel, I wonder if we’ll see some of the characters in different stories or even appear in some of his other series of books in the future. I, for one, would definitely love to read more with Liza in the future.

“Letters To Alice” by Fay Weldon

Date finished: 29th May 2012

I wanted to read another of my Jane Austen inspired books, and decided to try Letters To Alice by Fay Weldon. Her niece Alice, the daughter of her estranged sister, is studying English at University and is struggling to enjoy the assigned Jane Austen works. Fay writes these letters to her, and by explaining the life that Jane would have lived, the role of women in society, the class system of the time and the expectations of females with regards to marriage, she gives her niece, and the reader, another dimension to Austen’s writing and shows how important a view of that period her novels are.

This was a totally absorbing read, and has genuinely given me more food for thought for when I’m re-reading the novels in my challenge, and has made me rethink the books I’ve already read. For anyone who loves Jane Austen’s work, I would recommend this book as a thought provoking work to read alongside them to give an additional insight into their genesis and genius.

“Tamara Drewe” by Posy Simmonds

Date finished: 23rd May 2012

This book is a graphic novel that I’d heard a lot about, and I’d even seen the recent film adaptation, but had never read the book. I’ve always had the impression that graphic novels were sci-fi, fantasy or thriller/noir style books, and they’ve never interested me, but I’d read an article about this book and was intrigued.

I have to say, it was a fantastic reading experience, although I can’t deny, it did feel like I was ten years old again, reading the comic strips in my teenage magazines and albums. The difference was that this was a grown up reading experience. Sprinkled through the pictures (are they called comic strips in this format?) are bits of text telling a bit more of the story from a particular characters point of view. I’m not sure if my experience wasn’t actually better having seen the film, as I knew where the story was going, and it made it easier to follow the pictures and text in the right order, something I’d been concerned about, as sometimes the layouts aren’t in a strict linear fashion, depending on where the text it placed. The film version is actually incredibly close to the book, but one of the characters storylines ends in a completely different way, something I’m sure was done to help sell it to its demographic and please the studio, but gives a much grittier, realistic plot in the book.

As an alternative to the traditional novel, I thought it was very entertaining and a very satisfying reading experience.

“Fragrant Harbour” by John Lanchester

Date finished: 17th May 2012

Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester tells the story of four different people whose lives have taken them to Hong Kong, but through their lives, Lanchester gives us the history of this city over the last seventy years of the twentieth century.

At first, I wasn’t sure about the book. The first persons story was interesting, but seemingly innocuous, especially when you start to read the second characters, Tom Stewart, story. Tom’s story is the meat on the bones of this book. Escaping from what he predicts would be a stilted, safe life in England, he sails to Hong Kong in the mid-1930s. His adventure starts with a bet on board the ship, which along with the contacts he makes on the journey, springboards him into a successful career in the hotel industry. By the end of the book, the four characters have played a significant part in one or all of the other peoples lives, resulting in an absorbing and fascinating book.

I knew very little about Hong Kong before reading this book, and it was a bit like a crash course in fiction form, but I got completely caught up, particularly in Tom’s life. I loved the style of writing which was very straight forward, and simply told the story, while it felt that the author felt affection for his characters, and I thought it gave heart to the book.

A very enjoyable book, so I’ll be looking out for more books from this author.

“There But For The” by Ali Smith

Date finished: 10th June 2012

It’s no secret that Ali Smith is probably my favourite author, but she’s not that prolific, so I was delighted last year when she published a new novel. In fact, my copy is a beautiful hardback edition but I didn’t want to ruin it, so I decided to download the ebook version to actually read, but it was quite expensive (on top of the full price hardback edition), so I waited for the price to come down a bit before I decided to buy it a few weeks back.

The book is called There But For The and tells the story of what happens when a guest at a dinner party leaves the table partway through the meal, goes upstairs and decides to lock himself in the guest bedroom then refuses to leave. The narrative comes from various people both directly and indirectly involved in the drama.

I loved this book. I love the way Smith is inventive with language and style, I love the picture she paints with her words, and I love her engaging characters. One of the narrators remembers when she first met Miles and how their acquaintance was formed, while another is the dinner party guest who brought Miles along as his guest, and then there’s the incredibly precocious daughter of two of the guests whose mixture of intelligence, insightfulness and naivety is a joy to read. And as the story enfolds, we also get snippets of how the dinner party hosts deal with their unexpected guest and glimpses of the reaction from the wider society to this story.

The standout element of the story for me, was the way the conversation at the dinner table is recounted within one of the characters narrative. It’s told in the higgledy piggledy way conversations take place with people talking over each other, mixing stories and the revelations of those who may have had a bit too much to drink. It’s funny, and beautifully observed, and although not conventional dialogue that you would expect in a novel, it just flows of the page as if you were there listening to this funny and at times ridiculous, overlapping conversation.

It’s odd, but I like my novels to have a plot to move you through the story, and I normally complain when books don’t have them, but I’m going to have to eat my words on this book. There is very little plot, but I guess it’s a testament to how much I love Ali Smith as an author that I just don’t care. The writing is unique and unusual, and there is enough to love in that and the characters she has created on the page, but I know it won’t be to everyone’s taste, and I would imagine it might end up being a love it or hate it type of book, but I know that I loved it. Having said that, I would still say that Girl Meets Boy is better, and I would also say that in general I prefer her short stories to most of her novels, but I would still choose any of them over most other books I’ve read in the last ten years.