Saturday, 28 April 2012

James & Bob

            Signed copies of James Bowen's book 'A Street Cat Named Bob' now available at Blackwell Charing Cross Road bookshop. James is still busking in London with his cat Bob and it seems there is nothing better than working & living in Good Company!

Sports Books Are Books Too

Before beginning the post proper, I feel it's important the reader understands that I am not proud of some of the things that I am going to share with you. For example: the first book I ever read in one sitting was 'Ruud Gullit: Portrait of a Genius' by Harry Harris. I've just looked it up and it is out of print (some kind of admin oversight at Harpercollins I assume) but if the mood takes you, second-hand copies are available through our website.

Like I said- not proud. Nor am I proud that I can remember Michael Atherton's Test batting average (37.69) but not my Grandmother's birthday. I am a little bit proud that I used to be able to recite the result and scorers in every Southampton match during the 1995-96 season, but only because I no longer can. None of these are admirable things, I know this. And part of me knew it back in 1997 when I read 'Fever Pitch' for the first time. As good as the Gullit biography was, it did not make the impression on me that Nick Hornby did. It was one of those rare and special occasions when it feels like a book has been written for you only. I've re-read it a number of times since, most recently last summer, and its magic has faded somewhat. It's a different book now, and a sadder one; just as Hornby's boyhood passion for Arsenal fades and changes, so does my passion for the book. I can't get as excited about it now, but I can't deny the importance of the effect it once had on me either.

All that is a roundabout way of saying that I like sports and so when we decided to add a sports section to the long list of splendid things on offer in Blackwell Charing Cross Road, it fell to me to do it. Not everybody liked the idea. Bookish people often are less keen on sports. If you'll allow a gross and unsubstantiated generalisation, bookish people are funny, interesting and laid back, whereas athletic types are frequently noisy, boreish, and live lives wholly without irony. (I know this because when I am watching sport I become noisy boreish and wholly unironic in disposition: I become, clinically, a moron.) But sports books are different: they are books. I don't mean the dreadful ghosted autobiographies where a footballer recounts tales of pranks and banter at the training ground, justifies years of indulgent childishness and reveals the pain he felt on being omitted from the squad for bla bla bla.

Those were not the books I had in mind when pushing for the section. I was thinking about things like 'Full Time: The Secret Life of Tony Cascarino' by Paul Kimmage A haunting book about a haunted man. I don't want to give too much away, suffice it to say that there isn't a lot of banter; it's more a portrait of somebody struggling with the lies he has been told, and has told himself, for years. As the cliche goes, you don't have to be interested in football to read this book. You probably do have to be interested in football to read Jonathan Wilson's 'Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics' but if you are, I recommend you do. It is fascinating. Really. No, it is, I promise.

Then there are sports books that are barely about sport at all. H.G. Bissinger's 'Friday Night Lights' is ostensibly about one season following an American high school football team but really it's an account of the social consequences of Reagan's presidency, the '80s oil boom in Texas, contingency, hope, disappointment, and the madness of making teenagers compete in front of crowds numbering tens of thousands. Or Donald Mcrae's 'Dark Trade' which is about race, class, violence, and masculinity as much as it is about boxing. When Mike Brearley writes about being a cricket captain he is writing about a whole lot more than field placings. To read Gideon Haigh is to read a fine writer, there is no need to add the qualifier 'on cricket'.

What I'm trying to get at is that sports books are books too, and there are some which display the aesthetic verve, complexity, beauty... all the things that compel us to read, as well as any other form. So I'm delighted we now have a section showcasing some of this stuff. You should come and have a look.


Friday, 27 April 2012

Something for the weekend.. Department 19: The Rising

Department 19: The Rising

Will Hill

This week's 'Something for the weekend' is a bloody business.

I feel I should point out for the squeamish that The Rising is grisly, very grisly, throats are torn out, bodies explode, there's blood, gore & mayhem at every turn, what can I say - it's basically a whole lot of fun. They didn't write books for teenagers like this when I were a lad (which is why I 'have' to read them now).

We'll start with a brief history: Will Hill released the first Department 19 book last year, his debut novel is based on the genius idea that Stoker's Dracula is not a fiction but is actually a re-telling of the truth. Brilliant. Also, once they'd slain the creature, that Van Helsing, Harker et al set up the nascent 'Department 19' a top secret force run by the British Government to monitor & fight the evil Vampire forces. Oh & Frankenstein's monster is also real & helps D19 fight Vampires. Brilliant. The hero of the two books is Jamie Carpenter a young lad who is unwittingly thrust into the story due to his (unknown) heritage.

Of course the idea that the British Government could run a top secret Vampire slaying squad is hilarious, (or run a top secret anything, or run anything...  anyway) as is the idea that Dracula was real etc. But that really isn't the point. The point is that Hill goes about it all with a very straight face which is essential to making it so enjoyable. He flits very nicely along the time lines which breaks up the furious pace of the present day plot & gives you a chance to catch your breath with a nice bit of back story. The teenage leads are believable & not too annoying (to older readers), & I love his Vampires - they're so louche - as all good Vampires should be.

Two books in & I can't wait for the next! If you like these I'd also recommend the trilogy by Del Toro & Hogan Strain, Fall & Night Eternal not dissimilar (though the hero is the father not the son) if you can get past some of the 'it's quiet.. too quiet' b-movie dialogue they are worth a look. But start with D19 as they are much superior.

buy it here


The Olympics – a Tale of Pros, Cons, Hacks, Heroes & Heartaches

It would take an unusually inattentive Londoner not to realise that in three months’ time the Olympic juggernaut will be rolling into town. Not yet are the streets festooned in flags, bunting and the Olympic rings (officially merchandised of course…) but the posters are getting ever more ubiquitous, the ‘buzz’ is more audible, and some of us are discussing heading for the hills, if we haven’t taken up the offer to rent our flats out for £8,000 a week as per the ad splashed on the tube last week.

For the phlegmatic rest of us life will go on, albeit one a little more crowded, busy, exasperating and exciting. London is both a ‘world city’, home to expats from almost every corner of the globe, and an old hand, having hosted the summer Olympic Games twice before in 1908 and 1948. Times of course were different then: in 1908 sport was still wholly amateur (and largely male) and amateur meant gentlemen of leisure; in 1948 the world was still recovering from the traumas of six years of war, and the Wembley Olympics were very much a make-do affair as can be seen in Janie Hampton's 'Austerity Olympics'.
Today the talk is of ‘legacy’, for the sportier elements of the nation as a whole and for the inhabitants of East London. Too many past Olympics have left debts and white elephants but now accountability is all the rage. Taxpayers’ money is handed over to the organising committee who answer to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Exclusive merchandising rights are sold to the usual subjects; expect a summer of burgers, fizzy drinks and trainers. And money. Not everyone is convinced, check out Iain Sinclair’s trenchant arguments in ‘Ghost Milk’ and perhaps be afraid.

It is perhaps at this point I should declare an interest in these games: I’m a slightly abashed Olympic stat nerd: ‘Bermuda? Yep, one bronze medal in boxing. Montreal 1976.’ ‘Monaco? ’65 year old Paul Cerutti disqualified for taking amphetamines in ’76 despite coming 43rd out of a field of 44.’ All human life is here and I want to watch it although I don’t particularly wish to pay for it (or have to walk to work). What will the opening ceremony be like? How will Danny Boyle and Underworld tackle the thousand year history of empire and fighting the French without offending anyone, and let’s face it we’ve fought the Dutch, the Germans, the Irish, the Americans, the Japanese, Russians and Chinese at some point or other? Will they jump from 1066 to the swinging Sixties? Will there be Morris dancing??

It’s easy to be turned off, angered, protest camped by the spectacle, the hype, the money, the spoilt millionaires, the toffs and the bureaucrats but many individual medallists’ stories show people struggling against immense odds: poverty, crippling disease, discrimination, bullying, and wartime incarceration, before they bow their heads to receive their medals.
1960 100m sprint champion Wilma Rudolph was born prematurely, suffered polio, double pneumonia and scarlet fever, and wore a brace until the age of 11. She was also one of 22 children of a poor Tennessee Afro-American family. Her Olympic triumph came at a time when the profile of black women in the world was practically negligible. Since the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 the profile of the competitors has mirrored the changes in society and the world. What was a white, male, aristocratic elite playground now encompasses women from all corners of the world with China dominating table tennis and diving, Indonesians winning at badminton, Ethiopian girls from poor, remote villages dominating the long distance running events, and Arab women from the Middle East and the Maghreb shaking off societal disapproval to compete and win. The rise of working class athletes, of black and African athletes, of women athletes from the developing world, the appearance of openly gay/lesbian athletes, and paralympians, racial politics, Cold War politics, gender politics and gender bending Nazis …it’s all there in the Olympics, mirroring the changes in society:

Lis Hartel of Denmark, dressage champion in 1952, not only the first civilian and woman to win the gold in an event that had unbelievably been open only to commissioned officers (male of course) until 1948, she had polio and had to be helped on and off her horse.

Duncan Goodhew, British breaststroke swimmer and gold medallist 1980, bullied at school for being bald and dyslexic.

Camilla Andersen of Norway and Mia Hundvin of Denmark, the first married couple to compete against each other, in the women’s handball tournament in Sydney 2000.

Poland’s Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz’s rather rude gesture to the partisan Soviet crowd in Moscow 1980 after winning the pole vault gold (Google it…)
Dora Ratjen, German high jumper in Berlin 1936 who was actually Herman Ratjen and had been ordered by the Hitler Youth Movement to compete as Dora… teammates were alerted by his/her five o’clock shadow. 

Bruce Kennedy, a javelin thrower picked for the Rhodesian team to Munich 1972 and Montreal 1976, games from which the Rhodesians were barred due to the regime’s racial policies, made it onto the American team for Moscow 1980. The American team were made to boycott...

And finally China’s 1992 silver-medal winning shot putter Huang Zhihong who loathed her event: "If I knew the shot would make me so fat, I wouldn’t have taken it up."

Meanwhile the British seem to be expert at anything that involves sitting: cycling, rowing, sailing & equestrianism. If there was a competition for TV viewing we’d doubtless romp home first too…

I’m indebted to the Olympic bible: David Wallechinsky & Jaime Loucky’s 'Complete Book of the Olympics 2012 edition' for the nerd facts and stats quoted.


Friday, 20 April 2012

Something for the Weekend.. Wildwood


by Colin Meloy
with illustrations by Carson Ellis

I have to admit there's really only one reason why i sought 'Wildwood' out to read, & that is Colin Meloy's 'day job'. He is the Lead Singer/guitarist/song writer in American folk rock legends 'The Decemberists'. Much more popular in their home country than here (catch up England!), they are a great band. I won't go on about them as this is a book review (but go and buy my favourite 'Picaresque' right now & then the collect the rest - they haven't done a bad album). One of Meloy's gifts is that in his songs he can, & often does, tell a great story ('The Mariners revenge song' is a particular highlight). So when i heard he was writing a book it seemed like a very natural thing for him to do.

Aimed at the early teens Wildwood is a pretty epic tale, weighing in at over 500 pages. Along the way it includes some beautiful illustrations by Meloy's wife Carson Ellis. Some of these sit alongside the text & some are single colour sheets -you may be tempted to snip some of these out & put them up on the wall - they're delightful.

The plot centres around Pru a young girl from Portland, Oregon (where the Meloys live) whose baby brother Mac is suddenly & inexplicably stolen by a murder of Crows who fly away with him into the nearby 'Impasabble Wilderness' -as the locals call it as it's.. well you can guess... Obviously distressed by this Pru sets off to rescue him & is joined by a shy local lad called 'Curtis'.  Making their way into this enchanted forest they encounter a group of bickering Coyotes in soldiers uniforms, and so begins a quest that will take them a great distance with much heartbreak & involve them both growing up a bit faster than they may have cared to.

Wildwood has a lot going for it, Meloy has a good ear for dialogue & there are some nice modern cultural references. There's plenty of action to keep all ages entertained, good guys to cheer for & villains to hiss &  who doesn't like talking animals? In the Wildwoods he's created an intriguing mini-kingdom, a society with different factions not quite in harmony with itself. The book is sub-titled 'The Wildwood Chronicles Book 1' & i can see there's a lot of scope for future stories (but don't worry it does have an ending!). If I had one, very minor, quibble it's that anyone who loves Terry Gilliam's 'Time Bandits' will be shocked at a pretty obvious erm.. 'homage' around the half-way mark, you'll see what I mean.


Buy it here

Sunday, 15 April 2012

In the Media

       Titanic 100th anniversary

     On the 10th April, 1912, R.H.S. Titanic, a passenger and mail service liner, launched from Southampton, outward-bound to New York. On her maiden voyage, the largest ship of her time, ventured offshore, with 2,200 passengers and crew on board. Five days later, their undetermined fates transpired, as the ship collided into an iceberg and sank into the North Atlantic ocean. 
     The news of R.H.S Titanic stunned the world and no wonder with the estimation of 1,500 death toll. This iconic vessel, grand in design, is deeply embedded in our social history. The dramatic event still evokes, especially with families affected by the aftermath. The centenary of Titanic bridges an extensive scope of books, released to commemorate those involved and affected by ship's allure.
    Rod Green's pictorial hardback Building the Titanic comprises of photographs, blueprints and illustrated cross-sections. This book embarks on the beginning. Conceived in 1907, the decision to build it; the two years spent with designing up plans and contracting, the 37 months toil of in the shipyard builders. Advanced safety features, such as watertight compartments and doors, more then 4,000 tradesmen pridefully crafting this monumental ship. First class suites costing up to £870 (£63,837 today). Comfortable and luxurious, with a swimming pool, on-board gymnasium, libraries, fine-dinning and opulent cabins. It is a comprehensive edition for anyone who is interested in this subject.
          Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived the disaster are written by Andrew Wilson in his book Shadow of the Titanic. Due to outdated maritime safety regulations, Titanic only carried enough lifeboats for third of her total passenger and crew capacity. The surviving 705 people were rescued by another ship Carpathia.
      Julian Fellowes, Walter Lord and Brian Lavery investigated all details of the descent of 'unsinkable' Titanic in their work titled A Night To Remember. This carefully prepared book has a new approach and it will be a perfect read for Titanic fans. 
           There are other specialist authors that explore history of the Titanic, mostly recommended Allen Gibson with his book Unsinkable Titanic, Hannah's Holman Titanic Voices, Robert J Strange Who sank the Titanic? also Anton Gill,  Lawrence BeesleyW B Bartlett and Stephanie Barczewski, whose books are available now in our Charing Cross branch.


Friday, 13 April 2012

Something for the weekend

The Easter Parade – Richard Yates

This is the first Richard Yates novel I’ve read and I’ve already started another one. The Easter Parade is Yates’s fourth novel and is set, like most of his work, in and around New York and its suburbs. It concerns The Grimes sisters, Sarah and Emily, and starts by saying neither of them "would have a happy life". Despite this opening, you still find yourself routing for the characters to make something of their lives.
The book mainly follows Emily, the younger sister, from the 30s through to her death in the 70s. Like Yates himself, the Grimes sisters’ parents get divorced, leaving their mother, Pookie, to try to support her daughters financially (with help from the father) and to raise them to have good lives. Pookie, like many of the mothers Yates writes, has delusions of being special – delusions which is transfers onto her daughters. The central theme of the book is the relationship between the 3 women and they all grow older, look for love and try to tolerate each other.

Sarah falls into the typical life of marriage and babies and seems to Emily to be living an ideal, if small life. She has 3 sons and a husband who earns a small but steady income. But as the book progresses and the sisters age, we gradually find out that Sarah’s husband is abusive and violent towards Sarah and always has been. Sarah, like her mother before her, turns to drink and becomes prematurely middle aged and even old. There is a beautiful scene when Sarah visits Emily in New York and Emily is shocked to see how he sister has aged, put on weight and put on her best clothes which seem old fashioned and frumpy in the city.

Emily is the main focus of the book, and takes a less conventional path in her life. She has several shorter affairs, including a very short marriage and works to support herself. She has dreams of being a journalist, like her father but ends up in slightly underwhelming copy-writing jobs. Pookie apparently admired Emily for being a ‘free spirit’ but this is the romanticised outside view of a lonely unfulfilled woman who still dreams that she will meet the right man one day. Emily’s romanticism and innocence as a child never quite leaves her. When confronted by a new experience as a very young girl, her answer is always "I see" even though she doesn’t see. She continues to say this as an adult, though she does become self-aware enough to realise she never understands.

Yates’s novel is full of beautifully drawn, real characters, with tiny details about them making them all the more representative of American society in the mid-twentieth century. There is a scene where Pookie is sitting on a sofa and as she gets more and more drunk, her skirt rides up more and more; and Emily tracks the drunkenness by how much of her mother’s thighs she can see. All of the characters drink to excess, though this has to be taken in view of what was done generally at the time. Through Pookie and Sarah, though, we do see the destructive nature of alcoholism.

I loved The Easter Parade but found myself wondering at the end whether any of the characters are likeable. I can’t decide if this matters. You do find yourself hoping that they will achieve something with their lives, though we know they are doomed to depressing unfulfilled lives from the opening line of the book. They are all human, with human flaws (such as selfishness overriding the desire to help a family member) but they never feel sorry for themselves. I think this is the key to making it such a brilliant portrait of real people which everyone should read.


Thursday, 5 April 2012

Brent Weeks Competition

Blackwell are currently running an excellent promotion in the Science Fiction department. Many titles are offered at 3 for the price of  2, including:

The Way of Shadows, Beyond the Shadows & Shadow's Edge by Brent Weeks
Player of Games, Consider Phlebas & Surface Detail by Iain M Banks
Grave Peril, Storm Front & Fool Moon by Jim Butcher
The Sweet Scent of Blood & The Bitter Seed of Magic by Suzanne McLeod
The Lies of Locke Lamorra by Scott Lynch
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
And a few more besides.

For full details on how to enter and full terms and conditions visit:

where you can win the chance to meet the King of action-packed epic fantasy.