Friday, 14 December 2012

Something for the weekend '5 books.. No 7'

This weeks '5 Books that changed my life' is brought to you by Sarah our Sales Manager. You will find our booksellers life changing books at the front of the shop.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
The best reference book ever published, and one that was consulted daily during my childhood to settle arguments about the origin of sayings, weird facts and death-bed quotes. The first book I relished coming back to again and again, it set me up for a lifetime of nerdy obsessions. I’d still rather get lost in this book than look something up on Wikipedia any day.

The Daughter of Time -
Josephine Tey

Once I’d finished reading all of the children’s books at my local library, the librarian suggested crime novels as a way to move into the fiction section for adults. I’m not convinced this was a good idea as I spent a lot of time enjoying gruesome tales of murder and evil-doing, and became rather obsessed with reading everything Agatha Christie ever wrote before ticking the titles off on a dagger-shaped bookmark. Discovering Josephine Tey made me realise crime novels could be more than just clever plots. A centuries old historical mystery, investigated while Inspector Grant is stuck in a hospital bed and has only a painting of Richard III to inspire him, was just the beginning of my love of historical and clever crime novels.

Gender Trouble - Judith Butler
Butler’s difficult but rewarding book completely blew my mind when I read it at university. At the time I was devouring feminist texts and finding a new language to talk about gender, but Butler’s analysis questions the very categories of man and woman. Revolutionary and inspiring.

Another Country - James Baldwin
I began this novel while sitting in my university library, and I still remember the feeling of breathless excitement I experienced at the incredible descriptions of New York. As Rufus says, "the weight of this city was murderous". Baldwin’s writing drags you through a bohemian world of musicians and writers, each of them attempting to create art and a liveable life out of an American dream that is racist, sexist and homophobic. Dangerous, thrilling and a brilliant exploration of different lives in a big city.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? - Jeanette Winterson

Absolutely the best book I’ve read this year. I am delighted to discover that books can still fill me with a sense of excitement and change the way I think about the world, even at the ripe old age of 34. As a teenager I loved Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and this memoir revisits many of that novel’s themes. Ultimately it is a love letter to the power of words and reading, and anyone who suspects a book has saved their life should read it.


Friday, 7 December 2012

Something for the weekend '5 books..' No 6

Hello, this week we continue to bring you '5 books that changed my life'. The promotion is now up & running at the front of the shop - you can't miss it. What would you choose? Feel free to let us know via the comments section.

This week's 5 were picked by Gwendolyn who works in the General department & here they are:

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
Set in the 1920's, Rebecca is the story of a rivalry between a young second wife and her dead predecessor, who still seems to control the stately home on England's coast. It is the ultimate Gothic novel full of English aristocrats, huge eerie houses and dark family secrets. For years it was my favourite book, and the first I read in the original English language. I obsessed about Rebecca, the strong, beautiful first wife, wrote stories about her and tried to emulate her in clothes and appearance. I still plan to live in a haunted country house one day.

Moominvalley in November
by Tove Jansson
Tove Jansson's Moomin stories - half fairy tale, half parody - are all set in the same idyllic valley in Finland. Hearing and reading them from early childhood, I feel like I grew up in Moominvalley. This book is the only one that does not feature the Moomin family itself, but the supporting cast who, for one month, live in their house without them. This book's lesson, if you insist on finding one, is about self-acceptance and individuality, but also that no matter how independent we are, we all need other people in our lives. I prefer to enjoy the story as it is, and regard the unique characters as old acquaintances and alter egos. I was Homsa. Who will you be?

by Thomas Mann
This was the first grown-up work of world literature I ever read, when I was fifteen. Mann wrote it at the ripe old age of twenty five and promptly received the Nobel prize for it. Semi-autobiographical, it tells the story of a rich merchant's family throughout the 19th century, the mother of all family sagas. In spite of its bulk, prestige and Mann's trademark incredibly long sentences, I found the book engaging, entertaining and even funny. It gave me an appetite for classic works of fiction and was possibly the book that turned me into a true reader.

Moab is my Washpot by Stephen Fry
This is the first part of Fry’s autobiography, in which he tells the story of his childhood and youth. Extremely funny and terribly wise, he explains the English public school system and answered a lot of teen-me's questions about growing up and being gay, and helped me to make sense of parts of the world, and some of the people around me that had confused me. In a north German village, no one else could have answered my questions. Out of gratitude I've read every single one of his books since.

River Cottage Veg Everyday by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall This really finally turned me into a vegetarian. Lovely but simple recipes eliminated my only worry: boredom. I lacked imagination when it came to vegetables but Fearnley-W. has more that enough of it. With his ideas, I actually started getting some of my own, and it is easy to vary some of the dishes. We are best friends now, the vegetables and I.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Something for the Weekend 5 Books No.5!

Hello, I'm Lachlan, the manager of our Humanities Dept, and this week it's my turn to reveal 5 books that changed my life. I can also confirm that the promotion is now up and running. Do pop in this weekend and have a look, and then buy the books that I've recommended so I can lord it over my colleagues.

This book completely changed how I think about politics, society and, well, just about everything. She was a phenomenal person with an extraordinarily clear and resilient mind. This exploration of what constitutes the public realm is a stunning piece of political and moral philosophy, and probably her greatest work. She gets written about a lot but I still think she's neglected. I'd really like it if she was alive so I could be her friend.

The only reason I haven't chosen the Collected is because it is intimidatingly large. Also, an earlier Selected was my introduction to Auden so I guess it changed my life first. I really don't know where to start. Just read the poems. They taught me that it is possible to have all the normal human feelings (fear, jealousy, love, sympathy) but about poems written by a dead person I'll never meet.


77 Dream Songs- John Berryman 
In this landmark book Berryman invented a form to hold what he had to say. It's a kind of broken and demented sonnet but uniquely his. It's a stunningly original exploration of a life, written in every conceivable register from esoteric philosophy to baby talk. Berryman's voice is idiosyncratic, disturbing, heartbreaking and very funny. The Dream Songs rid me of any illusions about the romance of psychological pain.

This book showed me what novels can do. It's enormous but still it seems barely credible that he manages to fit in all that he does: family, class, God, justice, all the history, politics and sociology of 19th century Russia you're ever likely to need, there's theology, love stories, lust, murder. It would be easier to list things that aren't in it. And somehow it still reads like a thriller. It's ridiculous.

I keep this on my desk because I want it so frequently. Everything about these stories and their author fascinates me. He wasn't a prophet or anything like that; just a strange and singular storyteller. He understood the modern age better than anyone else, which is what allowed him to be funny as often as he is desperate. These stories taught me what black humour is.


Monday, 26 November 2012

Women's History Event

On Friday evening we were thrilled to invite Louise Raw and Emelyne Godfrey to our shop for a discussion of women in Victorian society.

Louise had been to the shop before, last Christmas, to talk about her book, Striking A Light and was pleased to see our new capacity to hold in store events – between the 2 events, the audience grew from around 8 people to almost 50!

Louise made an impassioned speech for the women who, in 1888, led the first strike of unskilled female workers which actually achieved something, and influenced other, more famous strikes such as the Dock Strike of the following year. Louise talked about the dangers of them working in the factory (such as losing fingers and then being sacked because without 10 fingers, you couldn’t make matches) and the horrific phossy jaw, caused by the white phosphorus they were forced to work with (even though safer alternatives existed). The accepted story was always that the higher class Annie Besant had led the strike, but Raw argues that although the article Besant wrote for ‘The Link’ magazine entitled ‘White Slavery in London’, was possibly a catalyst for what followed, it would have been odd for an upper class woman to convince hundreds of working women, of Irish descent to strike without pay. Striking A Light gives the power and credit of one of the earliest moves for unionisation back to the women who benefited.

Emelyne Godfrey, speaking at her first bookshop event, talked about the challenges women faced in London to keep themselves safe, as she writes about in her new book, Femininity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian literature and Society. Much like the match workers who fought for safer working conditions, the Suffragettes and other women’s groups fought for their safety. With the introduction of the Cat and Mouse Act, it was necessary for the Suffragettes to be able to protect themselves from being arrested, so they learnt ju-jitsu to physically fight off the policemen sent to bring them in. She also talked about H.G. Wells’s controversial novel, Ann Veronica. Emelyne examined this book as a testament to the growth in women’s sports and read an extract where Ann manages to fight off unwanted advances from a man.

The event finished with some really insightful questions from the audience, who were obviously very interested in the topics being discussed. We also got lots of positive feedback from the audience, so I'm sure this won't be the only event of its kind we put on in Blackwell's.

There was quite a queue of people waiting to get books signed and talk to the authors!

Friday, 23 November 2012

Something for the weekend '5 books.. No4'

Something for the weekend '5 books that changed your life' No 4.

In this weeks '5 Books that changed your life' Robyn, who works in our Humanities department, tells us why she loves these books & why you should give them a try.. You can find all our Booksellers '5 books..' recommendations in our new display next week!*

The Handmaids Tale - Margaret Atwood
This novel was my first encounter with Atwood, and the gradual slippage of a society into a paranoid theocracy is brilliantly and terrifyingly portrayed. It leaves you questioning the systems of control that exist in your own life.

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak
Narrated by Death, and a very different Death to the character found in Pratchett, The Book Thief is a beautifully constructed story about the flaws within human beings and how we can overcome them.

Lizzie Dripping - Helen Cresswell
Although technically a children’s book, I used to read these to my Grandma when I was little and I’m sure she enjoyed them just as much as I did. Brilliant tales involving a little girl and a witch who sits on gravestones.

I wrote my dissertation on Hobbes, so I may be a little biased, but this text deals with everything from kings, to the innate nature of men, to the proper length a sentence should be. Quite dark in places, it’s a seventeenth century philosophy text that remains relevant today.

I have a suspicion that this may be the best book ever written. Completely beautiful and devastating throughout, Roy reveals the lives of one family and their community across thirty years in Kerala, India.


*all being well.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Something for the weekend '5 books..' No3

Something for the weekend '5 books..' No3

In the third of our '5 Books that changed your life' series (in-store promotion coming soon) Amelia, our events manager, tells us about her picks.

Brideshead Revisited: I read this when I first became a bookseller, over 6 years ago. It was one of the first (modern) classics I managed to finish - I always picked up classics I thought I should read and not ones I wanted to read - and it's brilliant. I have gone on to read more modern classics and more Waugh as he's brilliant. I have read Brideshead Revisited twice so far and I'm sure it will be a book I go back to throughout my life and I'm sure I will enjoy it equally with each read.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe: My best friend recommended me this book and I was a little sceptical about whether I would enjoy it as it wasn't a book I would have picked up without her. I'm glad I listened as it has become one of my favourite books (and I have now read all of Fannie Flagg's books). I now love having books recommended to me by people as you can discover something new and read a great book while you're at it!

A Midsummer Night's Dream: This was the first play I ever saw at the theatre. It's also one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and I love Shakespeare. This play showed me that Shakespeare can be funny, moving, clever and modern, and not just be something that is studied boringly at school. Obviously seeing Shakespeare acted out is the best, but I also enjoy reading the plays as you can see all the nuance in his amazing language. A Midsummer Night's Dream was the start of a great love for me.

Jerusalem: It took me a while to discover that modern drama can be every bit as great as Shakespeare. The play that exemplifies this for me is Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem. It is an amazing play with an incomparable main character and tells the story of a typical rural village in England and at the same time the death of this very way of life. Butterworth's language is just amazing and remembering Mark Rylance speaking it makes the play worth reading over and over again.

The Song of Achilles: I started reading Song of Achilles because we had an event with Madeline Miller in the shop - and it has become one of my favourite books. I have so far bought it for two of my friends and I plan to buy more copies of it. It has made me want to read The Iliad and The Odyssey and about the Greek myths, as well as seeking out other adaptations of the classic works. I can't think of any other books which have inspired me to read so many other works related to it.


Friday, 2 November 2012

Something For The Weekend - 'Five Books That...' No. 2

Continuing the 'Five Books That Changed Your Life' theme (and in preparation of the forthcoming promotion), Den Patrick, the Science Fiction and Fantasy specialist at Blackwell writes about his picks:

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville was an absolute departure from anything else I'd read at the time. This book was heaving with ideas, baroque prose, and sprawling narrative. New Crobuzon, a city terrorized by nocturnal predators, is bewildering, harsh and fantastic. Not unlike London. This book made me think and setting finger to keyboard and trying my hand at the black art of writing Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Imajica didn't inspire me to start writing, but it did get me thinking about fiction in new ways. This book, by Clive Barker, is epic in all senses of the word; meshing a contemporary setting with magic and unsettling strangeness (and often outright horror). This is the work of a master craftsman, one who's read the rules but cheerfully disregards them. The characters are superb too, and even the supporting cast are absolutely spellbinding (pun intended).
I'd let my reading habits dwindle in my twenties. Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, was a shot of pure Science Fiction adrenaline that reinvigorated me. This is a novel that sweats machismo from every pore, part Crime Noir, part Cyberpunk, all violent. And what could be more baffing than a client who hires you to investigate his own suicide? Warning: contains pace, heart, swagger, and more guns than a Matrix sequel. And there are two sequels with the same truculent protagonist. Heaven.
The Lies Locke Lamora is a high point of modern Fantasy, and one that impresses on account of its lyricism and the wonderful characters who inhabit the city. This is a Fantasy novel free of all the tired tropes: no all-powerful aged wizard, no boy who would be King, no thieves with hearts of gold or namelss Evil. If there is a novel to aspire to (and is completely beyond my reach), then it is this one. Scott Lynch has created something really special, and I frequently suggest this book to anyone looking for a new read.

Strunk & White's Elements of Style is a book that anyone even half serious abut writing should own. Aspiring novelists, bloggers, journalists, copy editors -- there's no one that couldn't use a little help wrangling the English language into a more beautiful shape. It's a great little book for bus journeys, where you can dip in and learn something new each time.

Den is a contributor to the forthcoming anthology, A Town Called Pandemonium (Nov 29th) and has three Fantasy books released by Gollancz in Autumn of 2013.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Something for the weekend - 'Five books that..' No1

'Five Books that changed your life'

This weeks 'something for the weekend' is a little different. Soon on the shelves of our beloved book shop you'll see a new promotion: 'Five books that changed your life' or 'our lives', I'm not sure the details have been hammered out yet. So I thought I'd go first & run you thorough my chosen five, what they are, why they're great & what affect they've had on me. Let me take you back in time..

Number one, these are in vaguely chronological order not in order of merit (come on picking five was hard enough!), is The secret diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 & 3/4 by Sue Townsend, I was roughly the same age as Mr Mole when this came out & I liked that fact & I liked the cover so I bought it. I'd been a fairly avid reader from a young age, I was obsessed with Dr Who so had read a lot of the adaptations, & various other school favourites (Famous five, Asterix, Jennings etc) but nothing had even been as relevant to me as this. I realised that books could speak to me about my life. So for better or worse (& judging by my own diary of the time - for worse) I sort of became Adrian Mole, bad poetry & first crushes included. It's actually a very funny & acutely observed look at early adolescent, unfortunately I saw it as a guide book. But I forgive it! & I still love it to this day.
Number two is The Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy I wasn't much older (possibly even younger) when I first read Douglas Adam's masterpiece & it's the book I re-read the most. The first of a 'trilogy in five parts'  to me it's just about perfect (the other four are also very good especially two & three). The adventures of Arthur Dent in space & time shaped not only a nascent love of Sci-fi but also,I believe, my whole sense of humour. The book is thick with Adam's very own, peculiar,dry, but most importantly hilarious wit & I adored it. If ever I need a hug from a book I return to Arthur, Ford & Zaphod et al. This is the kind of book that sparks the imagination & keeps you entertained  - absolutely perfect for young readers.

Number three is a different kettle of fish Requiem for a dream by Hubert Selby Jr. A few years later (A level time) in the long summers that used to exist I would walk up  & down the shelves of my local Library (keep the libraries open!) & choose interesting looking titles, this was how I discovered many excellent writers: Vonnegut, Irving, Kundera, Mishima to name just a few. I could have chosen one of  a number from this time. But the reason I chose 'Requiem' is that it's stayed with me, without looking at it I can feel it's choking, desperate atmosphere. I remember being genuinely shocked as the plot darkened & at the bleak & unusual but pulsating prose style. It was this type of novel that opened my eyes to that fact that there were no limits in literature & that books could take you anywhere you wanted to go.

Number four is  Batman The killing joke. I'm not actually a huge graphic novels fan but this is unbelievably good. The art by Brian Bolland, who I knew from 2000ad & the story & script by Alan Moore, who I was unaware of the time (though he had written for 2000ad I only noticed artists for some reason) are of the utmost quality. I would, & still do, take an age over each page devouring the stunning visuals & enthralled by Moore's plotting. There is a very cinematic feel to it, more than most graphic novels I've read. For example the way they segue past into present never fails to delight. The Joker here is as abhorrent as you will see him & yet you will feel some sympathy as Moore reveals his desperate origin story. Even if you're not a big Graphic novels fan you should have a look at this.

& Finally at number five it's The Damned Utd  by David Peace. I've already done a review of this which you can find elsewhere in the blog. Suffice to say it's my favourite book & David Peace is the best writer of his generation. Friends & colleagues - if you've ever had a drink with me & I've ended up going on & on about this book I apologise, but if you've then picked it up & read it, I'm not.. & nor are you.

It's difficult to pick five books that changed or shaped you, as in it's difficult to hone it back to five. What would you pick? Over the next few weeks our bookseller will be telling you there favourites & why they mean so much to them. Because as I said in the very first post, we love books & we want to tell you why.


Friday, 12 October 2012

Something for the Weekend - The Weight of a Human Heart

Though I own many, many, many books, it has never before occurred to me that among my own personal library I only possess one collection of short stories. I bought Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love when I was still in Sixth Form and I found most of his stories inaccessible and alarming. Though I have since come to see the error of my youthful ways, I haven't felt the need to buy any more short stories in the same way that I felt the need to buy everything Ali Smith has ever published. This may be why when I picked up Ryan O'Neill's The Weight of a Human Heart, I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed it.

At his best, O'Neill presents wonderfully colourful and interesting stories that, though short, leave you feeling entirely satisfied with their strong wit, structure and completeness. The first story, that gives the collection its name, was my favourite due to its focus on what was internally important to people's lives. The ins and outs and economics of their lives are left at the wayside as habits, memories and relationships take presidency in the tales told with an exceptionally interesting style. There is a literary theme to almost every story, each either being about story telling or language in its own way, and this links them wonderfully together, whilst simultaneously showing how important books are in all their forms to different people. I concede I may be a little biased in my enjoyment of that element.

O'Neill is most successful when he is portraying parents and children, since his lovers can be so cruel it makes you wince. The difficulty of dealing with your parents as you become an adult is beautifully portrayed and several stories had me in tears more than once. The only fault I could find was that sometimes O'Neill is a little too clever for his own good, and in attempting to make a linguistic point about form strays a little too far away from good storytelling. However, these episodes are interesting in themselves and, due to the nature of the book, mercifully short. On the whole, each story leaves you with something to think about, and the vast variety of characters and tone within this collection makes it consistantly interesting to read.

Even if, like me, you wouldn't normally choose short stories, I would say that O'Neill presents a very strong argument for making a change.


Friday, 5 October 2012

Something For The Weekend - Cloud Atlas

I started reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell for terribly obvious reasons. My entire family had read it years before, but it took the release of a trailer for the new film to make me finally pick the book up myself. I would be careful about watching the trailer before you have a go at the book itself since the characters in it are so wonderfully diverse and interesting that it is better to be able to enjoy them without flashes of Tom Hanks and Halle Berry's faces obscuring your imaginative vision. No one wants flashbacks of Cat Woman at the best of times, let alone when you're trying to unravel a challenging novel such as Cloud Atlas.

If you have already seen the trailer, then do not despair, as Mitchell is a wonderful craftsman and the characters become so real throughout the narrative that it's easy to forget the film, the actors, indeed even the fact that you have a cup of tea quickly going cold next to you. I am in awe of Mitchell in the same way I am in awe of Joseph Heller, because their books are written in such a manner that it is almost impossible to see where they could have started. I have no idea how Cloud Atlas was written, just as the seams and stitches that hold Catch-22 together are completely invisible to me. It is impressive to read. The strength of the novel lies in its characters who, though not all instantly likeable, are able to draw the reader successfully into their consciousness and into their world view. As one example, when you are first introduced to the character of Timothy Cavendish most readers will find him unpleasant at best. However, after his incarceration in a ghastly nursing home, he managed to change my mind and I could not help but urge him forward in his struggle. I rooted for him despite his alarming misogyny and pig-headedness, and ultimately loved him in spite of himself. Characters such as this make a challenging structure like the one Mitchell uses worth overcoming.

The structure is essentially of six narratives that are set hundreds of years apart on different continents with numerous characters that have tenuous literary-based links. It sounds confusing, but the beauty of it is that it really isn't. Mitchell guides you through the first half of every story, breaking off at a tantalising junction in each and launching you head first into a completely new environment and a brand new set of characters. Then, as you continue, you discover the conclusions of each story one after the other only to find that the stories were in fact about the same things all along. I will leave you to discover exactly what those are.


Friday, 21 September 2012

Something for the weekend - Song of Achilles

I started reading Song of Achilles in anticipation of the event we had with Madeline Miller at the beginning of the month. It's been a while since I read a book that stayed with me after I'd finished it; the kind of  book you want to finish, to find out what happens, but that you also want to go on forever.

I have not read the Iliad, but this book has made me want to. Miller has taken Achilles's story from the Iliad and his glory at the siege of Troy as her starting point for the novel and worked back to his childhood to see how he might have become the great hero of Troy he is destined to become. She has made Achilles's companion, Patroclus the main focus for the book; if Patroclus doesn't see something, we don't see it. Patroclus was born a prince but exiled from his kingdom after accidentally killing another boy and it is after his exile, when he is sent to live with Achilles's father, Peleus, that their relationship starts to bloom.

There have been many debates about the nature of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. In the Iliad, it appears to be the model of a deep and loyal friendship; in 5th Century BC Athens the relationship was seen as an example of the socially accepted relationship between an older man and a younger man; Plato's characters in The Symposium assume they were a couple. It is this last view that Miller has taken and in so doing, created a really touching love story about 2 people who are completely devoted to each other. They are together all through their teens (at first platonically and then sexually) and throughout the 10 years they are at Troy, fighting to get Helen back from Paris.

I enjoyed the tragic elements of the story - there's something very romantic about a doomed love story. It is prophesied quite early in the book that Achilles will die at Troy, despite being the best warrior in all of Greece (helped by being half-God). Therefore they know that the longer they are at Troy, the longer they have together. I liked seeing the changes in their relationship as Achilles starts to realise his destiny. Patroclus has seen him practice fighting before, but this is the first time they both realise how good Achilles is at killing. Patroclus, on the other hand, turns his hand to healing and it seems like they begin to drift apart because of their opposite roles. They do both try to do the right thing, though, in a difficult situation, like saving various girls who have been taken from the local villages from the other warriors who would rape them, instead allowing them the freedom to be independent to choose a lover should they wish to. I found the relationship between Patroclus and the first of these women, Briseis, especially lovely. She falls in love with him but he cannot reciprocate as he is so devoted to Achilles (it would have been totally normal for him to marry a woman but continue to have a male lover). In The Iliad Briesis says Patroclus was 'always gentle' and Miller said this was a big part of her reason for wanting to write about him.

As I'm writing this review, I realise I'm finding it hard to articulate why I loved the book so much. Maybe that's my failure as a reviewer, or maybe that's part of a great book - you can't quite put your finger in why it's so great; it just is. You'll just have to read it for yourself!

Friday, 14 September 2012

Something for the weekend.. Telegraph Avenue

This weeks Something for the weekend is..

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon.

Michael Chabon's new one (out this week) is a lovely thing and I don't just mean to look at - that is a handsome cover though! (eyes left).
Telegraph Avenue is a terrific novel encompassing a dozen or so characters in & around the Berkeley/Oakland area in 2004. We are primarily concerned with Archy Stallings & Nat Jaffe, they run 'Brokeland Records' a 2nd hand vinyl shop specialising in Jazz, Soul & Funk. The existence of their beloved shop (& their friendship) is endangered by the possibility of a 'Dogpile' megastore opening up just round the corner. Alongside this central theme Chabon weaves the tales of the people affected by these two central characters, their Wives, their children, local politicians & Archy's wayward Father. The Father 'Luther Stallings' is a particular treat, a faded but still proud 70's Blaxploitation star now hawking round his idea for one final film staring his character 'Strutter' (a loving tribute to 'Shaft').
Though centred on a small community the book is broad in scope & ambition. The many plot strands involve class, race, murder, sexuality, first love & mortality. Never dull, Chabon is a master of mixing the deadly serious with the frivolous. There's barely a wasted word - he really is a superb writer. I found myself re-reading paragraphs & pages just to enjoy them again immediately. He's the kind of writer (similar to Jonathan Lethem) whose creations are so lifelike you forget they are fictional; I'm thinking of Strutter from this book & Barrett Rude JR from Lethem's 'Fortress of Solitude'.
Finally if you love your music (& not necessarily Jazz, Soul & Funk) you're going to devour this, Chabon's own passion for music seeps through every page.

Now I must read Kavalier & Clay as I'm often informed that is Chabon's best; better than this? I can't wait.


Friday, 7 September 2012

Something for the Weekend: A Handful of Dust

Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, though published in 1934, reminded me strangely of Robert Rodriguez's 1996 film From Dusk Till Dawn. Although there is significantly less violence in the former, the sudden change in the plot was as shocking as the moment in Rodriguez's masterpiece when Salma Hayek transforms into a vampire. In both cases there is little warning of the coming plot twist that is so dramatic it is closer to a leap across genres.

However, just as I love From Dusk Till Dawn, and not just because of George Clooney, I loved A Handful of Dust despite its bewildering narrative arch. The story of a marriage on the brink of dissolution is beautifully, though heart-breakingly, portrayed as each character gradually loses faith in their relationships. The sense of loss that runs through the book only deepens the affection you feel for the character of Tony, a man who seems completely unable to control his own destiny, just as he is unable to control his own wife. The coldness and cruelty of the high society in which Tony and his wife Brenda mingle is not unlike that of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, both presenting environments where everyone knows everyone elses business. Waugh's style presents this brilliantly as dialogue transports you between social circles effortlessly, as if you were travelling through the very dinner parties that Tony is forced to endure. From the very start, Waugh allows you to feel as if all the characters are old friends whom you know well and slightly disapprove of.

Though shocking and bewildering in places, Waugh is an author whom I would return to again and again.


Thursday, 6 September 2012

Madeline Miller event

We were extremely pleased when Bloomsbury approached us and said that Madeline Miller was going to be in the UK for a few days and wanted to do some events while she was here. Quite a few of us in the shop have read her Orange Prize-winning debut novel, Song of Achilles, so there was a real buzz amongst the staff.

We attracted a really engaged, passionate audience to the event on Tuesday 4th, which was perfect, because the part of events Madeline especially enjoys is the Q & A part. It was clear from the questions that people had read and really enjoyed the novel. There were a couple of people who had read the book as part of their book groups and it seems to have prompted some excellent debates.

It was really great to be able to listen to a new author talk about her process of writing. She is a teacher and gets so involved with her students during the working week/ term, that she only writes on weekends and in holidays. She is clearly really passionate about Classics and it is brilliant that she has made The Iliad accessible to a new audience. She was inspired to write the story from a minor character’s point of view after reading of Achilles’s reaction to Patroclus’s death in Homer – why was Achilles so distraught to lose a friend? The result is a moving, funny, easy to read novel about love as well as war.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Something for the Weekend.. Ibn Fadlan & the lands of Darkness

Arabs and Vikings

Written records of historical encounters invariably run north to south or west to east: we discover 'them'; they remain 'the other'; so Penguin Classic's new collection 'Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North' Ibn Fadlan & the lands of Darkness is a welcome corrective to the westocentric tomes of exploration we're used to. Actually the sub-title is a little misleading as most of the journeys described take the 9th and 10th century Arab scribes to what we now call Central Asia, the lands of the stans: Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Bashkortostan: lands we imagine to be hot and dry but which to the Arab voyagers from Baghdad were the farthest extremities, terrifying lands full of fabulous beasts and races of heathen giants called Gog and Magog, who occasionally break through a wall raised by Alexander the Great to raid the lands to the south.

It is on one of these voyages that Ibn Fadlan, perhaps the most famous of these travellers, encounters Vikings: the Rus, Swedish Vikings who head east to trade with the Byzantine empire and Muslim realms using the Volga River to navigate. This encounter forms the centrepiece of the first part of the book offering us the only eyewitness encounter of that old cinematic standby, the Viking ship burial, an account far more bloodthirsty than Hollywood has ever let on. While leaving us in no doubt who is civilised and who are 'the filthiest of God's creatures', Ibn Fadlan finds much to admire in the violent and physically striking Scandinavians.
Other titles of a similar vein here in Charing Cross Road's history department feature the more renowned Ibn Battuta, a later 14th century traveller:  the adventures of Ibn Battuta and The Odyssey of Ibn Battuta


Friday, 24 August 2012

Something for the weekend - Small Island

I had owned a copy of Small Island for quite a while before I got round to reading it and I wish I'd read it sooner.

The book is about Jamiacan immigrants to Britain after World War II, being mainly set in 1948. As the 'mother country', England holds great promise for Gilbert and Hortense. Gilbert had fought for England in the RAF during the war and had a much better experience than the black members of the US army and he expects to have the same warm welcome when he returns to make a life with his new wife, Hortense. She imagines that having gained her teaching qualification in Jamaica, she will find it easy to get well-paid employment, but it is not easy and the two of them have to live in one room in a boarding house run by Queenie.

Queenie Bligh is married to Bernard, who went to war and never came back so she rents out the spare rooms in her large house to immigrants, much to the chargrin of her neighbours. She is one of the most open-minded characters in the book and Levy gradually fills in details of her past, especially her touching relationship with her father-in-law, Arthur.

I felt like all of the characters in the novel were beautifully drawn. Through them Levy explores a time of flux in Britain's history which few people are probably aware of. She explores the themes of empire, prejudice, war and love and it is a truly moving book which I think everyone should read. You get just enough of each character's story at each stage to make you keep turning the pages to find out what happens to them all. They are a group of people trying their best to get by in difficult circumstances, which I found really touching. 

I agree with the Guardian, that this is a defining book of its decade.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Something for the Weekend.. Le Freak

This weeks Something for the Weekend is 'Le Freak' by Niles Rogers.

Legendary producer and co-founder of Chic, Nile Rodgers wrote 'We Are Family' for Sister Sledge and 'I'm Coming Out' for Diana Ross before producing Let's Dance for David Bowie and Like a Virgin for Madonna. But before he reinvented pop music, Nile Rodgers invented himself. Le Freak is the personal, moving story of a creative genius. It is also a stunning recreation of an age - told by the man who wrote its soundtrack.

''This has to be one of the best autobiographies I've read this year. From his upbringing,with his drug fuelled relatives,and how he managed to strive & work hard to get himself out of it - to becoming one of the most sort after producers/musicians of our time. Once you read a few pages,you will not be able to put it down''.


Buy it here or find it on our Staff choice display in store.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Something For The Weekend: The Smoking Diaries

Something For The Weekend: The Smoking Diaries by Simon Gray

As the Olympics draw to a close this weekend it seems fitting to recommend something thoroughly un-Olympian. Not that the Olympics haven't been great, you'll get no complaints here, it's just that you can have too much of a good thing and I'm beginning to feel a little sported-out. So, The Smoking Diaries by Simon Gray.

Olympian is not a word you would immediately associate with Gray (though he was a cricket lover all his life and talented athlete in his youth) and it would be fair to say that The Smoking Diaries is a sedantary book. For the most part Gray is sitting at his desk late into the night thinking about his life. Sometimes he is on holiday sitting at a table overlooking the sea late into the night thinking about his life. At all times he is smoking or about to light another cigarette.

It is not, however, the smoking that makes this book anti-Olympian. For the record neither I, nor Blackwell's recommend smoking. Simon Gray doesn't recommend smoking. The book isn't about smoking, it just happens to be what Simon Gray is doing while he writes his diary each night. What makes the book anti-Olympian is that it's about the whole of a life not just a crowning moment, and it's success is no less spectacular than Usain Bolt's.

Gray looks clearly and unsentimentally at the things he has done. There are the long years of alcoholism, the affairs, the hurt he has brought upon others and himself. Then there are the good things: the plays, the successful second marriage, the friendships. How all of it fits together now that he is on his way out is what concerns him. The ways in which his increasing, and increasingly terrifying sense of mortality colours everything that has happened in his life obsesses Gray. He sits up late into the night thinking about it all, trying to puzzle it out, distracting himself with memories of family, lost friends, personal and professional successes and catastrophes.

It calls itself a diary, but while we never doubt that Gray keeps a diary, we know we are not reading it. There is a rough chronology of events taking place in his life on which the book depends for momentum, but the glory of it comes in the places he drifts off to from these events. What we are reading are the things that go through Gray's mind while he is writing his diary. They are the things that he couldn't put in a normal diary because the diary would end up as a book: The Smoking Diaries.

In tone and pace it reads like a mind talking to itself about death. It is admittedly an unusually wise, hyper-articulate, funny and honest mind, but it is recognisably human, unlike, say, running 10 metres in less than a second, then doing it again another 19 times in a row.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Something for the Weekend.. The Art of Jaime Hernandez.

The Art of Jaime Hernandez.

First published in 1981 "Love and Rockets" is one of the most influential comics ever published, redefining what it is possible for graphic fiction to achieve. Jaime Hernandez's Locas stories have been the backbone of the comic since its inception. Starting as the story of a group of teenagers in the early years of the California punk scene, over the past 30 years the characters have aged in real time leading to a depth of character unheard of most fiction.

For the first time in "The Art of Jaime Hernandez" the author has opened his archive, revealing never before seen sketch's and artwork. Accompanying the art are in depth interviews with Hernandez, where he discusses the inspiration behind the characters who have populated "Love and Rockets" for the past 30 years.

A fascinating insight into the work of one of the greats of modern literature. Alan Moore has said "Jaime's art balances big white and black spaces to create a world of nuance in between, just as his writing balances our big human feelings and our small human trivias to generate its incredible emotional power. Quite simply, this is one of the twentieth century's most significant comic creators at the peak of his form, with every line a wedding of classicism and cool." and as Pop Will Eat Itself told us many years ago Alan Moore knows the score.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Something For The Weekend... Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It

Whatever one feels about the Olympics (for the record I'm quite excited) I think we all know that travelling around is going to be a bit of a nightmare. I would recommend you stay at home but then you won't come to the shop so I won't do that. Instead I will give you something to distract you from all the delays and discomforts. I read it standing in the vestibule of a train travelling from Birmingham to Edinburgh. Actually I read most of it standing in the vestibule of a train not travelling from Birmingham to Edinburgh- I remember one particularly lengthy stop in a field not far from Preston, followed by a couple of hours at Preston Station. It was storms rather than sport which did for that journey but Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It got me through with nothing worse than some odd looks when I dribbled a bit from laughing. It will make your journey better.

So the first thing to say is that it is very very funny. I'm not exactly sure why it's so funny, there are some excellent set pieces but it's not these that mark it out particularly, it's more to do with the tone in which Dyer tells his tales of travel, love, and disaster. I think of it as a book which can't quite make up it's mind about what it is, and the tone reflects this. It resembles a travel memoir- and it is this- but it is also something else: it's a sort of attempt to find coherence from a motley selection of memories. As the pieces progress it becomes clear that for Dyer this motley collection of memories already possess an uncanny coherence, he's just trying to figure out why.

Miraculously, the fact that Dyer doesn't seem entirely sure what is going on does not make it difficult to read. By all rights it should be awful. Essentially what we have is a guy we don't know telling us about the time he took lots of drugs, had lots of sex and visited lots of beautiful and amazing places with beautiful and amazing people. It should be like sitting through the endless holiday snaps of some smug friend-of-a-friend just back from Interailing, but it isn't. A lot of the time the drugs have turned on him, the girl has left him and he's lost. Even when he's blissfully happy and content he know's he's not really; or the older Dyer, the one writing the book, knows he's not really, or that he won't be for much longer. But here again the book eludes us because this sounds sad, is sad, and is also funny. When I wrote that much of the humour lies in the tone I meant that it lies in the gap between the man who had the fun and the man writing about the fun. Sometimes this gap is huge and ironic, then at other times you can almost feel Dyer willing himself back to this beach party or that cafe: it's moving, pathetic, honest and very funny.

By the end of the book Dyer has been from New Orleans to Libya to Cambodia, he's met lots of people, lost contact with just as many, and he's still not certain what is going on, but he does have a better sense of his life and his relationship to his memories. And your nightmarish journey will be over without you noticing it had started.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Latitude Festival 2012

Last weekend, a few of us from Charing Cross Road travelled all the way to Suffolk to sell books in the middle of a field for Latitude Festival. We have sold books there for 3 years now, with the weather getting wetter with each successive year. 2 years ago it briefly rained on one afternoon; this year it rained all night for the first 2 nights and most of the 3rd day. This led to a lot of mud!

The Poetry Arena was more of a destination than it perhaps has been in previous years, with Blake Morrison, Tony Harrison, Simon Armitage (who has a new non-fiction book, Walking Home) and Benjamin Zephaniah drawing healthy crowds, with the last 3 selling out of books. Benjamin Zephaniah drew the biggest crowd the festival has seen for a literature event since Brett Easton Ellis was there 2 years ago.

The highlights of the weekend for me were the comedians who have written books. Dave Gorman's talk on his new book, Dave Gorman Vs the Rest of the World, was particularly funny, with stories of being locked in a dark attic in Wales waiting to play subbuteo and playing the world champions of various small British games. Russell Kane talked about his book, The Humorist; Simon Day talked about his experiences as a member of the Fast Show team and his struggle to overcome various addictions in his new book, Comedy and Error; Robin Ince, a regular at Latitude built on his success from the Infinite Monkey Cage to talk about science and sell copies of his Bad Book Club; and Miles Jupp talked about all things cricket and his book, Fibber in the Heat.

The non-fiction talks also did really well, with subjects ranging from beekeeping to Bruce Springsteen; from migraines to politics with John Pilger; and from last year's riots to brains. All in all the weekend was a success and we hope to do the book sales for Latitude for many years to come.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Something for the weekend.. Soccernomics

Something a little different this week - it's Soccernomics by Simon Kuper & Stefan Stymanzki.

After claiming a few weeks back that you didn't have to like Football to enjoy 'The Damned Utd' I can safely say the opposite about this title. Having said that, if you do love your footy you will absolutely love this book (& it's a perfect present for the scarf waver in the family).
There are a lot of statistics in this book - this can't be denied, but somehow it's far from a 'dry' read. One reason for this is Kuper's writing style, he's a wry, amusing man who keeps the information interesting by peppering it with witty remarks & sometimes amusingly (almost) bitchy comments. The other is that the statistics themselves are so very interesting. We discover why England are in fact over achieving each time we get knocked out in the quarter finals, yes over achieving. You may scoff but by the time Kuper has run through the reasons you'll be stifling a sob for our plucky heroes!
Another cracking chapter involves the 'science' of penalties, for example the reason Anelka missed that champions league effort was that he was the only one who ignored the advice of the statisticians (Terry was trying to follow instructions when he slipped - he's never to blame ay?).
You'll also discover why it doesn't really matter who your manager is (most of the time), and is Football racist? (nothing to do with high court cases but looking at transfers). It's fascinating, entertaining stuff.

I would also recommend you take a look at 'The Football Men' a collection of Kuper's articles on some of the legends & lesser (but no less interesting) lights of the beautiful game.

But it here


Friday, 13 July 2012

Something for the weekend.. Smut

This weeks Something for the weekend is 'Smut' by Alan Bennett.

There's a lot of talk of sex in literature at the moment isn't there? '50 shades..' is everywhere, but I didn't have that, or that in mind when I picked up 'Smut'.
I've always like Alan Bennett's work, whether it be his autobiographical books, his plays & scripts,or his fiction. A particular favourite is his hilarious yet touching script for 'Prick up your ears' his adaptation for film of John Lahr's Joe Orton biography & indeed, reading Smut, I felt that had Orton been allowed to grow old disgracefully then 'Smut' would have been the sort of work he himself may have produced. It's that delightful, snappy, 'outrageous' dialogue - the oft-repeated question answered with a question that reminds me of prime Orton.
Here Bennett goes behind the twitching curtains in two novellas that both, in their own way, deal with sex, repression & to some degree class. The first story deals with Mrs Donaldson, she finds herself widowed & in need of a little extra money so takes in lodgers. When the student pair are short one month they offer Mrs Donaldson a 'private show' in lieu of payment, opening up new possibilities to the previously homely Mrs Donaldson. I love Bennett's characters, he can produce well rounded believable characters with just a few sharp lines.
The second story involves the preening, self absorbed, secretly homosexual Graham. He takes a wife as he thinks he should but his extra marital affairs lead him into danger, meanwhile all is not as it seems with his new 'plain' wife or his seemingly hen-pecked Father. This story is really all about secrets & lies. Every character's secret inner life being shielded from the other leading to complications that could have easily been avoided. Graham's Mother is a particuarly grand Bennett creation.
Beautifully written, with his trademark wit & biting dialogue this is genuinely a weekend read - I read it in a matter of hours. If you enjoyed the BBC talking heads shows then do have a look at this. It's very easy to imagine (for example) Patricia Routledge or Prunella Scales sat in a cosy armchair telling the first tale with a secret smile & darting eyes. I'd also recommend The Uncommon Reader , Bennett's tale of the Queens literary awakening as another quick but satisfying read.


Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Fifty Shades of Fiction for Book Fiends

In the wake of its success, Fifty Shades of Grey has inspired an awakening of interest in erotic literature since its release and subsequent success worldwide. For those seeking an extra thrill, there are some classic works from the world of erotica to whet the appetite. Justine, The Gothic Tales of The Marquis de Sade and Philosophy in the Boudoir are all excellent novels; appealing for their lavish descriptions and the rich language. 

Philosophy in the Boudoir tells the tale of young, virginal EugĂ©nie who is invited to the house of Madame de Saint-Ange for a lesson in libertinism at the hands of two older men, one of them an atheist and homosexual. The ‘action’ takes place in a bedroom in Madame de Saint-Ange’s house over the course of two days. Although it was initially considered as nothing more than pornographic, Philosophy in the Boudoir has come to be viewed as more of a dramatic socio-political commentary whereby the characters argue that libertinism is the way forward as it reinforces the political revolution of the time in France (de Sade wrote this in 1795, amidst the cacophony of the French Revolution). Should people fail to adopt to the ways and philosophy of the libertine, France will reinstate the monarchy and be reduced to its previous stagnant state. The thing about de Sade’s writing is, it isn’t just sex and violence against women, it’s bursting with metaphors about identity, freedom of speech, freedom of thought and  individuality plus, he writes about sex really well. Of course, as with pretty much all of the Marquis’ writing, he does focus on the idea that the sole goal of human existence is pleasure and feels that morality, compassion and religion are ridiculous ideas that obstruct human pursuit of pleasure. As in most of his work, sodomy is the preferred activity for all concerned, all the characters prove to be bisexual and the female being ‘educated’ is somewhat of a fast learner for someone who’s having her virginity taken by several people all at once in some cases. Unlike most of his work, Philosophy in the Boudoir features no murder but does include torture and plenty of sex. Plenty.

My favourite piece of de Sade’s work is Justine or The Misfortunes of Virtue, mainly because I think it’s very well written, the story is entertaining and the characters seem to have been thought out much more clearly than those in his other works. The story concerns a young woman who finds herself caught in situations involving perverse individuals, who subject her to their whims and become her masters. In one way, Justine is quite pitiable as de Sade writes her character as though none of her misfortunes are her fault. On the other hand, her tormentors continually warn her that her worship of virtue will only afford her more suffering at their hands, thus she proves to be an interesting if somewhat thick character, to put it mildly. From the outset, Justine is identified as a lone figure, born with a “melancholy turn of mind." In spirit, she is already doomed to be unhappy regardless of any good fortune that comes her way. Unlike her sister Juliette, Justine will never learn to value survival over providence and this proves to be her biggest misfortune. It makes for a very good read though!

E.L James' Fifty Shades trilogy has proved controversial with critics, just as Sade was controversial in his own time for writing about violent sexual escapades that usually ended in murder. Or at the very least, psychological trauma for the female characters; always the victims and never the masters/mistresses of their own sexuality, a theme that is mirrored in Fifty Shades of Grey. In reality, Sade demonstrated that there were few ways for a woman to earn a living in eighteenth century France, other than through prostitution or perverse forms of servitude. Along the way, he indulged in provocative ideas of role play, sexual mastery and dominance, all notions that probably would have made him quite popular nowadays in the age of pornography and BDSM. The difference between this age of lads mags and de Sade is, he knew how to wield a pen (and probably a few other things if rumours are to be believed) and he did write beautifully about horrible events and vile deaths. He was ahead of his time, in short. I still love his work, not that it’s a pragmatic approach to life or that his views on women are esteemed, they’re not and shouldn’t be. I just love the words, I love the way the words work. It says something when someone can convey an upsetting vision in a beautiful way and in the process, makes a provocative facet of life seem just a little less scary.


Charing Cross Road Fest 2012

After months of planning, the Charing Cross Road Festival 2012 finally arrived on Saturday. It was a brilliant day and we hope to repeat the success with lots of future festivals and one-off events.

The day in Blackwell's kicked off with Simon Callow and Michael Pennington talking about Shakespeare and why he is still so relevant to people 400 years after he died. It was a tough ask in one hour, but it was a treat to hear such experienced and eloquent actors discussing the bard. The conclusion seemed to be 'he's still performed because he's so great' - Shakespeare sums up all aspects of the human condition and everything you can experience in life.

The second event of the day was with Ben Aaronovitch who was speaking to Paul Cornell about his new book, the 3rd in his Rivers of London series, Whispers Under Ground. This was a fascinating talk to which a lot of people came. The queue of people waiting to meet Ben and get a signature on their books was really heartening to see - it's what we booksellers live for!

After Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell came Clive Bloom talking to Alex Preston about his new book, Revelations. Clive had been in the shop chatting to people about the history of unrest and rioting in London with his amazing map which people could add their stories to. He then stepped up to interview Alex about his new book.

The events were brought to a close by the lovely people of Influx Press who were reading from their anthology of stories about Hackney, Acquired for Development By..... This was the event most of our staff were looking forward to and it didn't disappoint: there were stories about living on a boat in the Hackney marshes; a story about falling in love with an electricy pylon; and one about the take-over of an individual area of London by big, bad, chain stores.
In the evening we had an epic pub quiz, run by our wonderful Ops manager, Gary (he kept all the questions a secret from the rest of us so we could still join in). One of the Blackwell's teams won - but, really, there was no cheating! There were lots of books which our lovely friends at all of our publishers had given us to give away as prizes but it ended up being a swap shop, with people giving books away and exchanging them for ones they wanted more.

Throughout the day we had the book doctors offering prescriptions of recommends for all ailments and a treasure hunt with Penguin Book and lots and lots of freebies and balloons. The day created a real buzz in the shop and we hope to repeat and build on this success in the future as it was great to see so many people, customer and staff, having such a fun day.
We hope that the festival did what we wanted it to - remind people book shops are an important part of our culture and an integral part of Charing Cross Road.