Glitch on Girl, Reading!

Just a very quick post this evening to apologise to anyone who’s tried to comment on my blog over the last few days. Apparently comments aren’t being accepted for some unknown reason, but rest assured I’m trying to find a fix! If any other WordPress users have had this problem and know how to resolve it please do get in touch via Twitter or my Facebook page – I’d really appreciate any help you can offer. With any luck everything will be running as it should very soon…

 

Advertisements

Reflections on a life in books – a personal post

If you’ve been reading my blog recently you may know I went for a job interview a couple of weeks ago.  You’ll also know I didn’t get it, but the fact I came so very close to embarking on a completely new life (in the end it came down to a choice between me and just one other person) threw me into a state of reflection and self-evaluation the like of which I haven’t experienced for an extremely long time.

My original career plan was to go into publishing after graduation; I realised pretty quickly however that either living in or commuting to London were both out of the question due to my financial circumstances at the time.  Instead I plumped for what I felt was the next best thing but what instead turned out to be the very VERY best thing: a career in bookselling.  In fact, to start with it wasn’t even meant to be a career, rather a way of earning some money in a relevant field before I moved on to what I really wanted to do.  Fifteen years and several bookshops later and I’m still here.  I’ve been a shopfloor bookseller, a store manager and more recently have done some really interesting and fulfilling work in learning and development – but everything I do is grounded in books and the joy I find in them every single day.

And this new job?  Well, it was pretty amazing.  If I’d been successful I would have had an opportunity to travel all over the UK and to work with some of the leading figures in retail L&D.  The responsibility and kudos attached to the role would have been something else.  Yet as I sat on the train on the way home from the final assessment day I felt slightly sick.  Not simply from the fear of change or nervousness about my ability to take on a new professional challenge but because – I realised later – I couldn’t imagine a life away from the world of books that had come to virtually define my existence for most of my adult life.

In the days after the interview and subsequent rejection I was struck by the fact that I’ve managed to achieve something (through chance I should add!) in my working life from the word go that many people take years to find, and some possibly never at all: I found a career that’s a perfect mirror of myself.  Bookselling is essentially me personified and what’s more, it’s also a reflection of almost everyone who works in it.  I’m going to put it out there: I’m a little weird and finally, as thirty recedes rapidly in the rear-view mirror, I’ve made my peace with that.  I’m sure my bookselling colleagues who’ve also found themselves in it for the long haul wouldn’t mind me saying that a few of them are a little weird too!  Books undoubtedly draw in a certain kind of person, and as I sat a couple of weeks ago in a plush Birmingham hotel surrounded by a completely different breed of working people – lovely, welcoming and friendly as they were – I felt my kindred spirits were suddenly very far away from me.  My non-booktrade friends would probably tell you they have some people at work they really like, some who are fine and a not insignificant number they’d be happy to see fall under a bus.  I won’t pretend I’ve adored every single person I’ve ever come into contact with at work but by and large the proportion of people whose company I’ve enjoyed and who I’ve felt I can be completely myself with has been pretty high.  My career in books has given me some of the best friends I could ever have, and it’s no exaggeration to say that at times my book-loving workmates have felt like my second family.

We spend a ridiculously high percentage of our lives at work and so to find a professional world into which you fit without effort is nothing short of a blessing.  I also feel now that not getting that new job was a blessing of its own as it made me stop and think about where my happiness really lies.  I’ve heard so many people say over the years that you don’t work in the book trade to get rich; you do it out of passion.  I see now that my passion is more consuming than I’d ever realised before, and I hope it will keep me at the forefront of this great industry for many years to come.

girl reading

Bookshop spot: seaside shopping

As I sit here in my flat, typing away with rain pouring down the window, it’s hard to believe that only a few hours ago I was in blazing sunshine a short drive away down the coast in the gorgeous seaside town of Hastings.  The British summer may have ended before it’s begun, but I’ve brought a little bit of cheer back home with me in the shape of a beautiful second-hand book I found while rummaging in the old town quarter earlier today.

20170605_140156

Many old hardbacks have quite plain fabric covers, so this one jumped out at me straight away.  I love the 1920s and 30s illustration style and to find it adorning the jacket of a classic like this was a bonus indeed!  Inside the front cover there’s a book plate that tells me a little of the book’s history (which I always love finding); it was presented to a Newcastle schoolgirl called Ada Simpson in 1932 for “attendance, progress and conduct” – amazing to think that more than 80 years ago, someone was holding this very book in their hands with probably as much delight as I do today.  And it gets even better – there are beautiful colour plates throughout the book, each with a brief caption in the form of a quote from the novel.

20170605_212820

I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read any of Elizabeth Gaskell’s work; how this has happened I’m not quite sure!  Both my mum and sister are huge fans, yet somehow, when I was embarking on my literary educating by raiding the family bookshelves in my adolescence she was an author I must have passed over for some reason.  I haven’t read any classics in a while as I’ve been going through more of a contemporary fiction phase, but now I’m the proud owner of this lovely edition this surely has to be next on my reading list.

I’d love to hear about any gems you’ve uncovered while book-shopping, so do share your finds and pics!

“The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue – review

I had a job interview and assessment day last week, which meant a very long train journey to Birmingham during which I was somehow going to have to distract myself from the horrors to come.  The book I shoved into my handbag on a whim was “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue; by the time I’d reached my destination I was almost halfway through, and even the hideous claustrophobia of a Virgin train carriage and the prospect of the next day’s Powerpoint presentation couldn’t draw my mind away from this most mesmerising story.

Anna O’Donnell is an eleven year old girl living in nineteenth century rural Ireland who’s become something of a celebrity.  Her family claim she hasn’t eaten a single bite of food for months and yet is thriving, a fact attributed to a religious miracle.  Lib Wright, an English nurse who worked in military hospitals under Florence Nightingale, is sent on a mission along with a Catholic nun, Sister Michael, to watch the girl round the clock and find out whether she is indeed blessed by God or whether it is in fact a clever hoax.  Lib arrives in Ireland a confirmed sceptic and is convinced she’ll uncover foul play within days.  Things, however, prove to be much more mysterious than she’d anticipated.  She’s been given fourteen days to observe before reporting her findings to a local committee, and as the clock ticks down she finds herself much more emotionally involved with the case than she could have imagined.

The novel’s simplicity is striking.  There aren’t huge numbers of characters vying for your attention.  The setting is pretty much limited to Anna’s cottage, the inn in which Lib is staying and her walk in between the two.  Even the events are repetitive (although I must stress that, very cleverly, they never read as such) in the sense that Lib’s routine is to sit or stroll with Anna, watch her sleep, read or pray and then get some brief rest herself before doing it all again.  There’s a metronomic quality to the march of the days, yet they are always punctuated with just enough disquieting moments to give us an uneasy feeling about the way events may unfold.  Even the most mundane of incidents take on an air of foreboding inside this strange bubble: the accidental breaking of a Virgin Mary figurine or the incomprehensible prayer that Anna mumbles over and over again.  In fact, as the novel goes on, more and more references to superstition, if not quite the overtly supernatural, creep in, to the point where I started to wonder if what I had in front of me was developing into a horror story.  The touches are always subtle – the locals’ fear of the “little ones”, the mischievous sprites who would cause untold havoc if not placated; the mysterious tree outside the village hung with decomposing rags; the disturbing photograph in Anna’s room that isn’t quite what it seems – but the sense of fear, and of something otherworldly potentially being involved here, is palpable.  Even religion, which features very heavily in the story, is not the comforting presence you would hope, since Lib strongly suspects that the Church and some of its loyal, blinkered followers are actually conspiring to put little Anna at risk for the sake of publicising a supposed “miracle”.  Whether or not there is any supernatural activity at work or whether there is in fact a very human, worldly explanation for everything is not something I’m going to give away here.  What I will say is that by hinting at multiple possibilities, the author evokes in her readers the same sense of doubt and disorientation felt by Lib as she grapples with the confounding mystery laid before her.

The fact that I, with my notoriously poor attention span and butterfly-like approach to reading, managed to finish the entire book in just two sittings is a ringing endorsement of its compelling readability.  I honestly can’t remember the last time a novel sucked me in so completely.  Maybe it’s because the setting is the same chapter after chapter that you feel you’re actually there in the hovel, watching the girl who has now become so familiar to you it’s as if you know her for real.  The fact that Lib and Sister Michael have been given a time limit of two weeks to verify or disprove the miracle also drives the book forward as we know that, for good or ill, a conclusion is coming.  I must confess that, when I read the final chapter, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about the ending; on reflection though, I’m pleased the author chose the outcome she did.

This has got to be up there with my top reads of 2017 so far.  Five stars, full marks and any other accolade you can think of, this book gets it.  Oh, and I didn’t get the job – but since it would have meant leaving my beloved book trade behind, I think I’m okay with it.

20170604_213953

“Western Fringes” by Amer Anwar – review

I’ve got something a bit different for you on the blog today!  If you’re a regular visitor to Girl, Reading you’ll know I don’t read an awful lot of crime thrillers but I was lucky enough to be sent a free reading copy by the author and hey, I’m never one to turn down an opportunity to try something a bit different!  It sounds pathetic in the extreme, but one of the main reasons I’m wary of the crime genre is that I have a real aversion, almost hypersensitivity if you will, to any kind of violence or psychological cruelty whether it’s in books or TV and movies.  This novel does undoubtedly have its occasional brutal moments (and one particularly grim one) but in spite of this I was pleased to discover I quite enjoyed it, racing through at breakneck speed, anxious to find out if the characters I was rooting for would emerge from the action unscathed.

Zaq, the novel’s hero, isn’t exactly squeaky clean – he’s recently been released from prison after serving a sentence for manslaughter – but you can’t help feeling from the off that he’s less of a thug and more a man who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Anyway, as it turns out someone who was squeaky clean wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the situation in which the unfortunate Zaq finds himself.  The owner of the builders’ yard where he works, Mr. Brar, calls him into the office out of the blue and demands that Zaq track down his daughter Rita, who’s gone missing.  If he fails, or even lets slip to anyone else that’s she’s disappeared, Mr. Brar will make sure Zaq’s back in prison before he knows it.  The Brars are a Sikh family, and Zaq assumes this is a case of wanting to protect the family honour, and in all likelihood the end result of the daughter’s liaison with someone of whom her father and brothers don’t approve.  His first instinct is to try and do the bare minimum to get Rita found, pass on her whereabouts to the family and wash his hands of the whole business as soon as possible, but the deeper he’s drawn into the case the more unexpected he finds its complexities and the realisation soon dawns that stepping away with a clear conscience isn’t going to be the option he assumed it would be.

In terms of the plot, I’m stopping right there as I have no intention of spoiling the mystery or suspense for anyone who hasn’t yet read it.  There is a genuine sense of tension throughout as the author isn’t afraid to ramp up the stakes for his characters; suffice to say not everyone will make it through to the final page.  If you like your bad guys unequivocally bad then you won’t be disappointed – there are no mitigating circumstances or tortured psychological explanations for the brutality, just out and out bare-knuckle thuggery.  It makes sense too that the protagonist, although essentially good-hearted, is no stranger to the world of street violence, shady dealing and macho intimidation, as his ability to navigate his way through the various perils becomes infinitely more credible that way.  It’s a world with which I am (very clearly) not familiar, having spent most of my formative years in a picture-postcard village a million miles away from Southall, where the novel is set, so I’m working on the assumption that the author knows his stuff and that this is indeed an accurate reflection of the capital’s criminal underbelly – but even if it isn’t it felt authentic enough that I totally believed it.  It was also interesting from a cultural perspective to read a story set in a section of society where honour violence, while not universally condoned by any means, is a familiar and predictable occurrence.  As a female reader I have to say I found it immensely satisfying to see female characters who took on the predominantly masculine world around them with barely a second thought.  Huge credit has to go to the author too for refusing to fall into the trap of thinking that Strong Female Characters have to be signposted to the reader by having men comment on their fortitude and gutsiness every five minutes.  For that reason alone I’d recommend it!

As I say, it was something quite different for me, and while I confess I do miss the corsets and bustles if I’m away from them for too long, it was interesting to undertake an excursion into unfamiliar territory and try something I wouldn’t normally read.  Am I going to develop a new obsession with dark, gritty thrillers?  Honestly no, but what “Western Fringes” goes to show is how much books can keep on surprising you even when you thought you had yourself pegged!

See you back on the blog soon…

Bookshop spot – May bank holiday!

This week’s bookshop spot is a pretty stupendous one if I do say so myself!  You probably wouldn’t associate chain bookshops with antiquarian titles, but this bookcase of joy has just appeared in one such store in my nearby city of Canterbury.

20170527_172714

I sometimes wonder why, in this age where vintage pretty much everything has become fashionable and desirable, old things are so often considered to be inherently superior to new.  I have a perfectly serviceable edition of “Pride and Prejudice” on my shelf at home, so why should I feel the need to purchase another copy to go alongside it simply by virtue of the fact that it’s seventy years older?  Maybe it’s as straightforward as nostalgia; anything that leads us to reflect on a vanished era – even if it predates our own memories – can bring about a sense of wistful peace.  Having a book in your hands provides an instant escape route into the world of imagination, a mental space that widens exponentially when you’re holding something a multitude of hands have held before you over the decades.  I often think about who might have owned the book originally and how it’s come to be where it is now; there’s something particularly poignant about finding dedications written in archaic hand on the frontspiece.

Whatever the reason, our love affair with the past will probably exist as long as humans continue to live and breathe.  My own love affair with this particular second hand book section will no doubt be fuelled by a series of more-frequent-than-is-sensible breathless encounters, as I struggle between the desire for book-buying gratification and the need to eat.  I was incredibly restrained today and limited myself to one book: a relatively plain but undeniably elegant slipcase edition of Hardy’s “Wessex Tales”.  Having got home with it and started wondering how it fitted in with my bookcase aesthetic I’m now sorely tempted to begin building my own antiquarian collection.  Watch this space.

“A Conspiracy of Violence” by Susanna Gregory – review

When you read a book you love AND it’s the first of a long series, it’s a double-whammy of reading joy.  I’m very late to the party with the Thomas Chaloner series (of which this novel marks the beginning) but better late than never.  Of course, being a latecomer to a literary saga brings with it the benefit of having a number of books already written, so you can instantly feed your new obsession by reading several instalments in a row – which I might just be doing in this case.  I can’t take any credit for this discovery myself, however, as it was recommended to me by author and fellow blogger Bernadette Keeling, who’s read some of my reviews and therefore knows my taste pretty well!

It’s set in one of my favourite periods of history, the seventeenth century, not long after the monarchy has been restored to power with the accession of Charles II.  Forget the Tudors – this has got to be one of the most fascinating tines in our nation’s past.  Many who had supported Cromwell and his puritan leanings were dismayed to see a return to licentious behaviour as demonstrated by the new king and his flamboyant court; others were delighted to see the back of the Parliamentarian zealots who had manufactured Charles I’s death.  And some, like a number of characters in this story, were people who were just trying to survive, and who were prepared to bury old allegiances for the sake of staying on the right side of the victors.  The novel’s hero, Thomas Chaloner, is used to leading a double, or at times even a triple, life; when the story begins he has just returned from the Netherlands where he’s been working as a spy.  Political changes mean his role is no longer needed, but coming from a family that included a regicide (in the shape of his uncle) is rather a large stumbling block to employment in Restoration England.  Luckily for him there’s more than one ex-spymaster kicking his heels in 1660s London, and before too long Thomas’ caseload is mounting up, including an intriguing mission on behalf of the Earl of Clarendon to find a cache of gold supposedly hidden inside the Tower of London but never yet found.

When I start reading any new historical crime series my first instinct is to compare it to C J Sansom’s magnificent Shardlake books.  If you’re going to write a series of stories featuring a recurring central character then they need to be something special, and the characterisation in those novels is extraordinary.  If similar books in that genre fall down, it’s often I think because the protagonist, although perfectly likeable, just isn’t captivating enough.  At first I feared that might be the case with Thomas Chaloner, as it took me quite a while to really feel I knew him.  My relationship with him undoubtedly deepened as the book went on however, and by the end I was interested in his personal story as well as the outcomes of the various mysteries, and that’s a definite big tick in the book’s favour.  In fact, considering just how many key characters there are in this story I was really impressed by how well Susanna Gregory managed to flesh them out and create genuine interest in their often complex backstories.  I particularly loved Metje, Thomas’ fiery yet vulnerable Dutch mistress, who finds life increasingly difficult in a city where paranoid xenophobia is on the rise every day.  John Thurloe too is intriguing from first introduction, being Cromwell’s former Spymaster General who is now working for… underground Parliamentarians? The resurgent Royalists?  Or maybe both?  In this novel as in life, very few people wear their heart unequivocally on their sleeve, and most keep us in the dark about their true loyalties and motivations until the final pages.

The main difficulty for me came in the first two or three chapters; the political situation is so complex, the characters so numerous and their allegiances so complicated that to start with there’s quite a lot of exposition that results in some clunky and contrived dialogue.  I also struggled to remember who was working for whom in this world of subterfuge and had to do a fair bit of flicking back to read certain paragraphs again as a reminder.  After this slightly ropey early section though the plot started to take care of itself without constant explanation and the book really took off.  More than anything else, what stayed with me was what an incredibly lonely place England could be at that time.  Families and individuals whose political beliefs meant they were in the ascendancy only a few years earlier suddenly found themselves at best shunned and at worst in danger following the abrupt switch in regime.  As I said earlier in the review, I find this one of the most absorbing periods in history, and it’s to her great credit that the author really digs deep into not only political but social history, enabling us to appreciate the infinite nuances of this time of great upheaval as it would have played out in the lives of ordinary people.

I’m really looking forward to reading more of this series (at the time of writing I believe there are eight instalments, hooray!) and adding another historical fiction writer to my bookshelves.  And now that I’ve clambered back onto the reading treadmill after a bit of a hiatus, I hope to have more reviews for you very soon.

20170526_195724