“The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” by Allison Hoover Bartlett (2009)

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“At one end of my desk sits a nearly four-hundred-year-old book cloaked in a tan linen sack and a good deal of mystery.”

If you are a book lover and ever find yourself in the vicinity of King’s Cross, London (assuming non-pandemic times), I urge you to drop into the British Library. The reading rooms and the knowledge you’re sharing space with every book ever published in the UK in the last few hundred years are enough, but there’s also the Treasures Room. Here you’ll find some truly remarkable literary gems including an original copy of the First Folio, the original manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, and the only surviving copy of Beowulf. Surrounded by such magic, it’s easy to wonder what it would be like to own such rarities. For some people, however, this goes beyond a mere thought exercise.

John Gilkey is notorious among sellers of antiquarian books. A continual thief, he has used dud cheques and falsified credit card information to swindle hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of literature over several years. Allison Hoover Bartlett learns about him after finding herself in possession of a stolen four-hundred year old German book on botanical medicine, and developing an interest in the world of antiquarian book theft. Discovering that more books are stolen than any other kind of art, she gets in touch with Ken Sanders, the self-appointed “bibliodick” who has been working for years to return stolen books to their owners and get the thieves locked up. His particular obsession is Gilkey, whom Bartlett eventually meets and interviews, only to learn that he is not your usual bibliophile. Soon, she is drawn into a world of book lust and obsessive collecting that is insightful, tense, bizarre and entirely true.

While the collectors and sellers are all interesting people, it is Gilkey who really stands out as someone very unusual. He is absolutely unable to tell himself that what he’s doing is wrong, believing that it’s the sellers fault for pricing him out of the market. He acts as if it is his god-given right to own these books, and it doesn’t matter how he goes about doing it. He is working the system, and it’s all fair because he wants them. The gymnastics of logic he is performing are quite something. Allison Hoover Bartlett doesn’t portray him as a straight-up villain, and at times even seems to have some admiration for the sheer bravado of her subject, but I don’t think at any point she considers him doing the right thing. No one would, I’d wager. He’s a curiously beguiling man, though, with an obsession for collection but no apparent appreciation for anything he is collecting. I don’t recall at any point him mentioning a book he’s actually read – he just wants the status that comes with owning them. Little is made of his psychology, but I suspect there is some emotional instability here.

If anything, you realise that if you’re not somehow involved in the antiquarian book industry, you’re in a mug’s game. Although the chances of finding something truly rare are small, and you’re always at risk of people like Gilkey, the money involved here is absolutely staggering. A first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – only twenty-three years old at time of writing – can be worth around $30,000 as only five hundred were printed. Even a first edition of The Cat in the Hat is worth around $9,000, and if we go back further, an copy of the first trade edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit can be worth anywhere up to $100,000. Signed copies can swell prices even further, while the loss of a dust jacket can reduce the book’s worth to one tenth of its value. Staggering amounts in anyone’s book.

This truly is a world of people who love books, and I’m one of them, but quite sadly none of them ever seem to get read. They are collected as historical artefacts, and while I agree that books should be kept, preserved and treasured as they are links to previous eras, it is quite sad that they never get to live out their intended purpose. That’s beside the point though. This is an absolutely stunning work of non-fiction, fascinating and suspenseful, and anyone who loves books would get a kick out of it. Because haven’t we all wondered what we’d do if we found a Hemingway first edition at the flea market?

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Library Of The Unwritten” by A. J. Hackwith (2020)

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“Books ran when they grew restless, when they grew unruly, or when they grew real.”

Jorge Luis Borges once said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library”. I share in this hope. An eternal afterlife will only be tolerable if I’ve got access to everything ever written. For every book that has been written, however, there are dozens that have not. In this novel, we head down to the Library of Hell and explore the Unwritten Wing, where everything that was never written is stored.

Claire Hadley is the current Librarian of the Unwritten Wing, home to all the books that were unfinished by their authors. Her job is to protect, repair and organise them, as well as keep an eye on the restless stories who sometimes materialise in the form of one of their characters and have to be wrestled back between the covers before they get too real, or worse, escape into the real world.

When one of these heroes does escape and heads to Seattle to meet with his would-be author, Claire must go up to retrieve him, accompanied by the ex-muse Brevity, and the demon courier Leto. On Earth, however, things do not go according to plan. Hero has no intentions of coming quietly, Leto begins having memories of being a human and wondering how, when, as far as he knows, he has always been a demon, and the angel Ramiel is hunting down the Librarian under the impression that she possesses the Devil’s Bible, an unearthly tome that could rewrite everything that defines Heaven, Hell and Earth.

The trouble is that the book lacks something and I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s a fascinating concept, but it feels like it’s been somewhat wasted. Despite being a book about imagination, inspiration and unwritten books, the characters don’t seem all that inspired. I love the idea of a failed muse, and Brevity is a compelling, sympathetic character. (Also, does her failing explain why novels are sometimes too long?) The others, however, still lack a certain something. Claire feels like a character we’ve seen dozens of times before; an angry woman who only moves the plot on by shouting at it. The angels feel ill-defined too, and at no point do I feel entirely clear on what the goal is. The worlds explored are quite fun, though, and it seems that most – if not all – of the afterlives that humans have dreamt up exist here, including a traditional Hell and the Valhalla of Norse mythology. There’s also a brilliant duelling scene in which combatants fight with words that become physical and can only be stopped by naming the author that is being quoted. That’s a really fun idea.

Maybe it’s more about how I’ve been feeling lately, but I found myself zoning out of the text repeatedly, unable to focus. As I said, perhaps that’s a fault of mine, but perhaps it’s not a good sign that a book can’t keep me within its grip and not have me be easily pulled from the pages. I kept returning and realising I had no idea what was now going on. The resolution, while interesting, is also somewhat rushed and leaves a few things unanswered (not necessarily a bad thing) but, again, there feels like several huge missed opportunities in what could have been achieved. I’ve since seen that this is the first of a potential series, so perhaps things will be expanded on in the future, but I don’t feel eager to return and find out. The writing itself is competent and sharp, but the plot veers wildly, the characters feel inconsistent and there’s no real threat hanging over any of it, and you know where it’s going from the start.

This wasn’t intended to be such a negative review, because I still read it and enjoyed it in places, but now trying to pick out specifics seems hard. The concept remains solid, I just don’t think it was explored in the right way or with the right people.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“A Book Of Book Lists” by Alex Johnson (2017)

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“This is a book of book lists.”

I never really understood that cliche of making a habit of looking in someone’s medicine cabinet when you first visit their house. What I do believe in studying, however, is people’s bookshelves. You can tell a lot about people by what books they own, and sometimes even more by how they’re arranged, how well-thumbed they are, and what sort of topics take centre stage. And as John Waters said, “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!” Sage advice.

In this book, Alex Johnson explores the bookshelves of the rich and famous, as well as taking a look at lists of books in other unusual situations. Have you ever wondered what books line the shelves in the apartment in The Big Bang Theory? Do you know which books are allowed into Guantanamo Bay’s library? Have you ever wanted to peek at the libraries of Richard III, Marilyn Monroe or Osama bin Laden? What books are on the university reading list if you study English in Mississippi? If these sound like questions you want answers to, then this is the book for you. Combining simple lists and beautifully impressive trivia, Johnson takes us on a journey through some of the most unusual libraries in history, from the mythical Library of Babel, to the books that were burnt by the Nazis.

He also tackles more eclectic lists, delving into the world of books more generally. One list gives all the titles that Ernest Hemingway rejected before settling on A Farewell to Arms. Another tells us what the astronauts on the ISS have at their disposal. Elsewhere, we look at the books already declared “future classics” and even which titles line the shelves of countless Billy bookshelves in IKEA stores across the globe. One of the most interesting topics is that of the Future Library, a collection of never-before-published stories that are being kept in a vault to be opened in 2114. Authors are asked to contribute a new piece that won’t be seen until the next century. Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell were the first to contribute, and every year a new literary figure is picked. It makes me kind of sad that, barring some remarkable advances in science, I won’t be around to see them. (In 2114, I would be 126, so don’t think I’m suggesting an early death.)

Quite silly, but also an insight into the history of literature and the books we love, this is definitely one for any bibliophile to consume. It may even inspire you to expand your own shelves. After all, what do yours say about you right now?

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Faulks On Fiction” by Sebastian Faulks (2011)

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“It’s a while now since anyone referred to the main character of a novel as the ‘hero’.”

The world of literary criticism can be a fun one to spend a little time in. Although it is not always wise to project realistic values, morals and behaviours onto fictional characters (the current fad for declaring every sitcom character from Basil Fawlty to Alan Partridge to having some kind of mental illness is a little tiresome), it can be interesting to think of them as they are beyond the page. We get to spend so little time with some of these people, it’s nice to dig a little deeper for a while. British literature is a great place to start, with some of the most famous fictional characters in the world nestled in its pages. Is there anyone on the planet who doesn’t know the names Sherlock Holmes or James Bond? In his book, written to accompany a 2011 TV series of the same name, author Sebastian Faulks analyses twenty-eight of the most famous characters in British literature via four archetypes: heroes, villains, lovers and snobs.

First up, he dives into the heroes, exploring the first hero of British literature, Robinson Crusoe, along with minx Becky Sharp, anti-hero John Self, and the hero who fails, Winston Smith. When he discusses lovers, the takes on – of course – Mr Darcy and Heathcliff, but also studies Constance Chatterley and Nick Guest. The snobs archetype is perhaps the most interesting, including such luminaries as the etiquette snob Jeeves, intellectual snob Chanu Ahmed, and brand snob James Bond. Finally, he ties things up with the villains, including Fagin, Steerpike and Barbara Covett.

I vaguely remember the show from the first time around, and it was nice to revisit the characters again – I’ve read a few more of these stories since then, too – with some interesting insights. There are indications, however, that time has moved on, and I wonder if we would see some of these characters in the same light now. One point that shows how we changed the culture we consume is when Faulks seems to believe it’s impossible to imagine a television series getting a budget for 14 episodes of an hour long. The Golden Age of Television has apparently yet to start.

The quality is variable, with some chapters going into intense and interesting detail on the character as a whole, with others focusing more on the whole plot, and in the James Bond section, most of the chapter is taken up with Faulks talking about how he came to write a Bond book of his own. Granted, it does tie up nicely and explains the character a little more, but it feels a touch self-indulgent. I suppose in 2020 people would complain about the lack of diversity (only seven of the characters discussed are women, and just one is explicitly a person of colour) but I don’t think you can actually hold that against him here. He has picked several of the most interesting and well-known characters in these four archetypes, and it so happens that most of them are men. Could he have selected Elizabeth Bennett instead of Mr Darcy? Perhaps, but truthfully it is Darcy that has permeated the culture more so than Elizabeth. Similarly, the central character picked from Oliver is Fagin, rather than the title character. The selection through the ages and genres is pretty good, although as ever there is a focus on the “canon” and more literary fiction, with a slightly begrudging dip into fantasy (Gormenghast) and dystopia (1984). If you wanted a better selection, I suppose you could have undone the fact that Dickens and Austen both get two characters selected, but then again they are perhaps the most influential novelists in English. The Jeeves chapter stands out above the rest for me, as Faulks adopts Wodehouse’s style to talk about him.

An interesting look at some of fiction’s finest. Of course it’s a little subjective, but then again all fiction is, so you can’t fault it for that.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Rules For Perfect Murders” by Peter Swanson (2020)

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“The front door opened, and I heard the stamp of the FBI agent’s feet on the doormat.”

Some books fit you better than others, but once in a blue moon a book comes along that makes you think it must have been written for you and you alone. As soon as I saw the premise of Rules for Perfect Murders a few months ago, I knew that this was one of those times. I had to have it. Expectations were high as I made my way into the novel and settled in for the fun.

Malcolm Kershaw, owner of Boston’s famous Old Devils mystery bookstore, has had a call from the FBI, and soon meets Agent Gwen Mulvey who wants to ask him a few questions. In 2004, Malcolm wrote a list for the shop’s website about what he declared fiction’s eight most perfect murders. Now it seems that someone is using the list to perform the murders for real. The evidence is at first slim, and the deaths seem unrelated, but when it turns out that Malcolm knew at least one of the victims, it seems that maybe Mulvey is on to something.

As Malcolm gets more involved in the case, we find out more about his past, why he still sells crime fiction despite having long given up reading it, and which murder the killer will use as inspiration next. It becomes increasingly clear that he is being taunted, but he has no idea who would want to do this. The killer must be stopped before they managed to reenact all eight murders, but how can one predict such a thing?

Firstly, if you intend to read this book, I would suggest you go in blind and don’t read any further. I will try and avoid spoilers, but some are inevitable to discuss it. Secondly. Well. What a phenomenon. Swanson throws us right into the story, with a number of the murders having already happened, and the sense of dread – helped along by the chilling and bitterly cold Boston winter that the story is set in – immediately ratcheted up high. Malcolm is a fascinating narrator, somewhat unreliable at times, but he knows full well what he’s doing. Quite early on you think you know exactly where it’s going, especially if you’ve read a lot of murder mysteries, but the rug is pulled out from under you as soon as you think you’ve got it, leaving you fumbling for clues once more.

The choice of using real life murder mysteries as the basis is inspired, and it’s not a new concept. On a few occasions, murderers have be caught and later discovered to have Agatha Christie novels on their shelves with passages underlined. The eight books selected intrigued me too, and I think had I not read any of them, I would have been less inclined to read the book. Of the eight, I’d read four, and it’s just as well because the book does not go easy on spoilers, and outright ruins the twists of several of the greatest murder mysteries of the last hundred years. The four I had read are The ABC Murders (Agatha Christie), The Red House Mystery (A. A. Milne), The Secret History (Donna Tartt) and Strangers on a Train (Patricia Highsmith). The four I hadn’t were Malice Aforethought (Anthony Berkeley Cox), Double Indemnity (James M. Cain), The Drowner (John D. MacDonald) and Deathtrap (Ira Levin). It’s a good list, but for me, I think you’d have to include the likes of Quick Curtain (Alan Melville), And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie, again) and The Poisoned Chocolates Case (Anthony Berkeley Cox, again). I appreciate the mix, though, and it’s great to see a wide variety, as well as a good selection of murder methods and the disparate motives that seem to be set up. Like all the best murder mysteries, it plays out like a macabre game of Cluedo. This is a perfect example of how to play with the genre, explore it in depth, and do the whole thing knowingly. Swanson is a master.

Absolutely incredible stuff from someone who completely understands the genre.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Binding” by Bridget Collins (2019)

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“When the letter came I was out in the fields, binding up my last sheaf of wheat with hands that were shaking so much I could hardly tie the knot.”

If it wasn’t obvious, I love books. They hold such power and mystery, each one containing a new world that we’re free to explore if only we open the covers. Sometimes they are magical, other times dangerous. Sometimes they’re to entertain, or to teach. They have all sorts of purposes. Perhaps their most powerful ability is that they can store our thoughts, but what if that could be abused?

Emmett Farmer is a country boy, recovering from a long unexplained illness that rendered him weak, but he refuses to let it change him and he continues to work on the family’s farm. That is, until a letter comes that summons him to the position of apprentice to a bookbinder. Neither he nor his family can afford to pass up this opportunity, and so he is sent off to meet Seredith, the binder. Under her tuition, he learns that books are not what they seem. Each one contains a memory.

This is a world where binders are employed to take memories from people, things they would rather forget, and store them into beautiful, unique books for safekeeping. But binders are not always trusted and some people disagree with what they do. Seredith is no exception, and when an angry group arrives on her doorstep, she and Emmett manage to chase them away but to the detriment of her health. But Emmett has another problem. Beneath Seredith’s house sits all the books she has ever bound, stored away so that the people can forget. Down here, however, Emmett makes a shocking discovery: one of the books has his name on it.

Frankly, this is just a beautiful book. I mean the prose, but the book itself as a physical object is simply stunning. It would have to be, given the content. The writing is beautiful and easy, almost melodic at times, and it creates a world not unlike ours, but just subtly different enough to be captivating. Emmett Farmer is a great every man, but not as passive as he first seems. The boy has a core of steel and is willing to go to great lengths to protect those he loves. Lucian Darnay, his rival, is basically his antithesis. He is born of privilege and never had to work a day in his life, but lives in the shadow of his abusive father. Seredith is a wonderful creation, something like Minerva McGonagall, and I enjoyed her. How the magic works is never fully explained, but that works. It isn’t about how it’s done, but instead about why and how it is handled. Collins does this with great beauty and wisdom.

The concept of binding is, of course, at the heart of the novel. One can see how it would be tempting to be bound. You could forget failed love affairs and embarrassing moments in society, but surely the point is that we are all better people because we can remember our flaws? At first, the characters we see who are being bound are doing it for important reasons, just once a lifetime, to banish something they cannot live with from their brain. It’s an act of self-care, in some ways. As it progresses, however, we see how people use and abuse this ability, such as the vile Piers Darnay who rapes his maids and then periodically has them bound again so he can read their thoughts and take advantage again without them knowing it’s not the first time. There is also a horrible trade in books, with people prepared to sell others memories. A lighter note is made that some people are now making up fake memories, called “novels”, but the characters can’t comprehend of someone who would willingly make up a tragedy and spend so much time in that head space.

A surprisingly beautiful and moving novel about what we are willing to sacrifice for our happy endings.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

Six of the Best … London bookshops

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London has an enormous literary history. From the days when Chaucer was pounding the streets, all the greats seem to have found their way here. Shakespeare had his theatre on the south bank. Dickens lived there and turned the city into a character of its own. Agatha Christie called it her home for much of her life, and along with many of the other detective writers of the era, founded a club for them to meet and socialise. To this day, it is an absolute haven for book lovers. I do apologise for the London-centric focus of this post, but I just felt I had to discuss the best bookshops in this great city.

The British Library is the beating heart of London’s literary body. By law, the library receives a copy of every book published in Britain and Ireland, meaning mine are in there too, which is probably my proudest achievement. It also contains a very charming bookshop, but really this is just a bonus. All bibliophiles should stop in here, because their collection is remarkable. Where else can you see the Magna Carta, some of Leonardo da Vinci’s notes and Jane Austen’s writing desk?

Daunt Books gets an honourable mention, just for being so damn beautiful. There are a number of branches across London, but the first and most impressive is the Marylebone branch. Notable for its long oak galleries, large skylights and William Morris prints, it takes the breath away. It specialises in travel books, but caters to many other needs, too, and has in the last decade also begun publishing its own books. If it’s travel-based books you’re really after, however, I suggest Stanfords in Covent Garden, which will cater to your every whim.

I also can’t not mention Foyles, which to many people is the London bookshop, and the first place to stock my novel on its shelves. The company was founded in 1903, and gained a reputation for “anachronistic, eccentric and sometimes infuriating” methods of bookselling, but these have simply served to make it famous. The flagship store in on Charing Cross Road, but there are several smaller ones around the city. The most famous owner was Christina Foyle who had control of the company from 1945-99, implementing many of the wacky business practices that made it so notable, including the fact that customers had to queue three times to purchase anything because sales staff were not allowed to handle cash, not allowing orders to be taken over the phone, and the truly bizarre decision to shelve books by publisher rather than author or even title. Famously, in the 1980s, rival bookshop Dillons ran an advertising campaign with the slogan, “Foyled again? Try Dillons.”

Where is the heaviest concentration of bookshops in London, however? There are so many streets in the city dedicated to specific things – Denmark Street for music, Saville Row for high-end fashion, Hatton Garden for jewellery – there just has to be one for books. And there is. It’s called Cecil Court (informally dubbed “Booksellers’ Row”) and can be found near Leicester Square, linking St Martin’s Lane and Charing Cross. A small street with Victorian fronted shops, it has existed since the seventeenth century, and now houses around twenty second-hand and antiquarian bookshops, . It holds another singularly cool claim to fame: Mozart lived there for four years.

The city has also seen the loss of some of its finest bookshops over the years. Murder One (1988-2009) was a shop specialising in “hard-to-find and collectable crime, mystery, romance and science fiction literature.” It was the first UK bookshop to specialise in crime and mystery, and was at its opening in 1988, the largest “genre” bookshop in Europe. It closed in 2009 when the owner retired, but still exists online as a mail order service. Elsewhere, we have lost Silver Moon Bookshop (a feminist bookshop that was later folded into Foyle’s), the Poetry Bookshop (1913-1926) which did exactly what it says on the tin and sold hand-coloured rhyme sheets for children, and Henderson’s, founded in 1909 and otherwise known as The Bomb Shop, that was known for selling and publishing radical left and anarchist writing. It’s sad to have lost so many specialists, but we’ve still got plenty to explore.

And so here are six of the best bookshops to visit London:

Skoob

If you like browsing the shelves of a second-hand bookshop, then Skoob is for you. A basement shop near Russell Square, this paradise of the printed word houses over 55,000 uncatalogued books, meaning you never know what you’re going to stumble up against. Primarily it is a place for academic textbooks, but there is all manner of fiction here too, and I’ve spent a good deal of time browsing the shelves, especially those (pictured) dedicated to the famous orange paperbacks from Penguin. There’s also a section of their green paperbacks, all of which are crime novels. The Bloomsbury institution even offers its own gift vouchers, and promises that all books are priced at half (or less) of what they would be new. It’s a genuinely thrilling place to explore, right in the heart of that most literary corner of literary London.

Gay’s the Word

Speaking of Bloomsbury, we come to the most specialist shop on the list. Gay’s the Word is the only specialist LGBT bookshop in the whole of England. Founded in Marchmont Street in 1979 by gay socialist group, the Gay Icebreakers, the bookshop has since become a cultural cornerstone for London’s queer community. In 1984, Customs and Excise took it to be a porn store instead of a bookshop, and seized thousands of pounds worth of stock, including titles like The Joy of Gay Sex and works by Christopher Isherwood, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. It was the meeting place for the group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners in 1984-5, who’s story is told in the amazing film Pride. The bookshop continues to go from strength to strength and is a vital stopping off point for anyone who wants to branch out from reading the same old straight, white men. Sitting on the shelves of this shop are many authors who have been sidelined, but are worth checking out.

Waterloo Bridge Book Market

You would imagine that a bookshop that is permanently outside would be a bad idea in Britain, given this country’s tendency to be somewhat wet, but an ingenious solution has been found that means this bookshop can open every day, whatever the weather: put it under a bridge. Open every day until seven (sometimes earlier in the winter) whatever the weather, despite being on the main thoroughfare of the Southbank, it has somehow remained one of London’s best open secrets. It has a wide range of paperbacks and hardbacks, including some collectables. There is something for everyone here, from children to crime nuts, romantics to fantasy lovers. as well as extras like beautiful book-based art prints. Like all good bookshops, the emphasis is on the shop’s browsability, a term I’ve just devised. It doesn’t matter how inclement the weather, if I’m in the area, I have to have a quick browse of the tables, and have picked up several rare and unusual books here.

Word on the Water

I only stumbled across Word on the Water last year and couldn’t believe I’d never heard of it before. It is one of the most unique bookshops in London as it is found on a barge. Before it acquired permanent mooring, it used to move to a different spot in the canals every two weeks, but it now has dropped anchor just behind Granary Square at King’s Cross for the foreseeable future. Founded in 2011, it is certainly one of London’s quirkiest bookshops and sells both new and used books. The roof of the barge has also become the perfect place for any number of events including interesting talks, live music, readings and poetry slams. It’s very quickly become one of my favourite places in London to spend time.

Hatchards

In Britain, you know somewhere is going to excel in quality when it’s used by the Royal Family. Founded in 1797, and trading from the same location since 1801, it claims to be the UK’s oldest bookshop. It holds three Royal Warrants, a sure sign of its quality. There is something about the shop and its decor that sends you back in time, despite the modern books on the shelves. It is a haven of peace in Piccadilly, and hosts regular signings and events with authors. It is the kind of place where you get the sense the booksellers really have read everything on sale. If you head a few paces down the road, you come to the final entry on our list.

Waterstones Piccadilly

Given the sheer number of bookshops in London, it might seem odd to then pick the market leader for this list instead of a small independent, but I’m afraid I simply can’t go without mentioning it. This is the bookshop in London I have spent the most time in, and is an absolute haven for any bookworm. It is reputedly the largest bookshop in Europe, and it has the statistics to back it up. 200,000 titles are sold across six floors and eight miles of shelving. Along with the books, it also contains two cafes, a bar, and a Russian Bookshop. Housed inside a 1930s art deco building that is Grade I listed, it’s the kind of building, like the Natural History Museum, that would look great whatever you put in it.

There are, of course, numerous other branches of Waterstones in the city, each with their own quirks. The Tottenham Court Road branch is the “hipster” cousin, with exposed walls and pipes, as well as one of the funniest business-based Twitter accounts ever. The Gower Street branch is another one that stretches over five floors, and has reading nooks, skeletons manning one of the tills, and an art gallery. In the Bromley store, you’ll find a lot of events catering for children, and the Islington branch has its own fish tank. Tim Waterstone, the company’s founder, said he wanted to create a company that was big but felt small, with very knowledgeable staff, comfortable surroundings, and masses of choice. I think we all agree that he’s done that. Of course we must support the independent shops, but there is something  magical about Waterstones that has ensured its survival and success.


Thanks for joining in and reading this new entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This will (hopefully) be a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction and books more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

“The Diary Of A Bookseller” by Shaun Bythell (2017)

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“Orwell’s reluctance to commit to bookselling is understandable.”

Wigtown in the Galloway region of Scotland is a town of just one thousand or so residents that would be another one of the many fairly remarkable, but historic, towns that make up the United Kingdom. As it is, it has been dedicated as Scotland’s Book Town, like Hay-on-Wye in Wales. This means it has an enormous number of bookshops. One of these is simply called The Book Shop and is said to be the largest in Scotland. It’s run by a man called Shaun Bythell who isn’t quite on par with Bernard Black in terms of grumpiness, but he’s not far off. You may know him as the man who shot a Kindle and hung the remains like a hunting trophy. This is his story.

Detailing a year in the life of a Scottish bookseller, these memoirs focus on the day to day running of a bookshop housed in a centuries old building and all the problems inherent in this. There are leaky windows, disrespectful staff, misplaced novels, book purchases to be made, and that’s all before you get to the customers. Bythell is rarely judgemental towards his customers, merely observational (his words) but he does record a great number of incidents where customers are shown to probably be somewhat insane. There are those that ask him for books without knowing the author or sometimes the title, those that haggle (or even adjust the prices themselves), those who ask for things he has and then leave without them, or those who simply come in to tell him that they don’t read.

If you’ve never worked in customer service, you won’t believe a word of it. If you have, you will.

Most of all though, the book does shine through with Bythell’s passion for books. Frequently he has to visit other towns in Scotland to look through collections of books that people are selling. Sometimes all he finds is dross, or forgotten tomes covered in dust and cat hair that he could never make a profit on. Other times, he discovers rare antiquities and visibly becomes excited at meeting them. He is, naturally, a keen reader himself and has a love of not only books but the whole second-hand bookselling industry. He laments the changing ways and how modern technology – particularly Amazon – is rendering bookshops obsolete. As someone who still supports brick-and-mortar bookshops – especially independents when I can – I hope that his fears are unfounded, although truthfully I can see how much harder it is becoming to run a bookshop when everything is available online with the click of a button. Still, I find that Amazon tells you what it thinks you’ll want, whereas any true book lover knows that you can’t beat browsing physical shelves where you stumble onto something you didn’t even know you needed to know about.

A charming and hilarious book that has shoved Wigtown still higher up my list of places to visit, and also made me reconsider the available option of running one of the town’s bookshops for a holiday. I fear I’d never get any work done in a place like that … it sounds ideal.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Matilda” by Roald Dahl (1988)

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“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers.”

Given that this is something like my 500th book review, it can come as no shock to anyone that I quite like reading. Matilda Wormwood, therefore, has long been one of my literary heroines. Like her, I come from a family where I am the only reader (although let’s make clear immediately that that’s about the only thing my parents have in common with hers) and so even from a young age I related strongly to her and, as I’m sure we all did, wished for our own magical powers. I haven’t reviewed every one of Dahl’s books I’ve re-read this year, but this one I felt needed to have a little said about it.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story and have somehow avoided the book, film and stage show – all of which are brilliant in their own ways – this is the tale of Matilda Wormwood, an incredibly intelligent five year old who has taught herself how to read and do complex mathematics with absolutely no help from her parents. Her mother is far more interested in bingo and her appearance than learning anything, and her father is a con man who sells used cars and believes television is all you need in life. When Matilda begins at school, she meets two new women: her kind and nurturing teacher Miss Honey, and the psychotic and violent headmistress Miss Trunchbull. As Matilda tries to find her place in the world that doesn’t appreciate her talents, she soon discovers she has another talent she’d not yet known about, and with it, she begins to do the most amazing things…

Matilda is a rare example in the Dahl canon of a female protagonist, with only The BFG and The Magic Finger being female driven, although Matilda still comes out of this as being the only one with a full name. The rest are headed up by boys – Charlie Bucket, George Kranky, James Trotter, etc – who are wonderful characters for sure, but perhaps skew the opinion of Dahl being that he’s a writer “for boys”. In Matilda, he conjures up a character that teachers children – and especially young girls – that reading and intelligence are to be valued, and that there is nothing wrong with loving reading. This was an important lesson for me, and I know I’m not alone in admiring Matilda.

The book is also home to one of the very few adults in a Dahl novel who isn’t horrific. We are used to the nasty grandmother in George’s Marvellous Medicine, the questionably moral Willy Wonka, the cruel Aunts Spiker and Sponge, and of course the odious Twits, While Miss Trunchbull serves that role here (and what a brilliant name Dahl conjured up for her), we also meet the kind, sweet and very lovely Miss Honey, a woman struggling with her own problems but never letting them interfere with her teaching. I’ve seen the joke made that because of this, she is the polar opposite of Severus Snape, who made his students’ lives hell because he let his personal life mix with his professional life too easily. All in all, it’s a very female-driven novel, with only Mr Wormwood and Bruce Bogtrotter serving as central male figures. Miss Honey is the perfect role model, and there are fewer fictional characters that young people could love more.

I last read the book in 2012, just before seeing the stage show, and like that time, I had forgotten both how young Miss Honey is (she is only twenty-three) and how little Matilda’s magical powers feature into the story. I think because the film is very familiar to me – and a lot of us of a certain generation – we tend to focus on that. I can see why the film did, because it’s a visual medium, but here the touches are smaller but all the better for it. The ending is also slightly different to the film, but this isn’t a bad thing. Again, I can see the reasons for each.

Laced with charm, wit and joy, and jammed with the usual darkness that we expect from Roald Dahl, Matilda may have been one of his last, but it’s also one of his best.

“The Invisible Library” by Genevieve Cogman (2015)

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“Irene passed the mop across the stone floor in smooth, careful strokes, idly admiring the gleam of wet flagstones in the lantern-light.”

With a name like Genevieve Cogman, it feels almost inevitable that she penned a novel with a steampunk flavour. Someone, I forget who, had suggested this series to me a long time ago under the logic that my love of books would mean I would adore a story set in an enormous magical library. Indeed, I thought I would adore it too. Here’s the premise.

Irene works for the Library, an enormous book repository held in the space between worlds. She and her fellow Librarians are tasked with entering different universes to seek out works of fiction that are unique, dangerous or interesting. Freshly back from a school of magic, she is immediately assigned a visit to a steampunk universe where there’s a book of Grimm’s fairy tales unlike any other. Her boss also asks her to take along Kai, a new recruit with a needling attitude and more secrets that you can shake a brolly at.

In this alternate world, Irene and Kai soon find that the mission is not going to be an easy one. Chaos has infected this universe in a big way, and there seem to be a lot of people after the book. Its owner, a vampire called Lord Wyndham, has just been murdered and the killer is still at large. Irene and Kai are thrown into a mess of danger and secret societies, with magical creatures, cyborg alligators and Britain’s finest detective after them. Things go from bad to worse when Irene is locked out of the Library, her contact is found dead, and something far more dangerous than she could ever have envisioned is stalking the streets of London.

I do adore the concept – alternate universes with varying levels of technology and magic being visited by beings from beyond space and time to recover priceless works of fiction? What’s not to love? I’m working on something curiously similar myself. However, it all seemed to become far too complicated. In just over three hundred pages we are introduced to this magical Library, the Language while allows magic to occur, Kai’s backstory, the interlocking universes, vampires, werewolves, steampunk technology (including the obligatory dose of zeppelins), the on-going battle between the dragons and the Fae, and a knotty alternate history where Liechtenstein is considered a world power. There are so many aspects here that they begin to trip over themselves. Little is ever fully explained, characters never quite manage to develop three dimensions – often not even two – and there feels a desperation to throw as many things as possible at it.

Cogman also seems terrified that a reader might miss any any of the subtext in her story, and thus we are frequently treated to explanations as to what the true meanings are behind certain lines and gestures. While I get that sometimes subtext can be missed, here it feels almost insulting in its regularity, as if the readers would be too stupid to be able to understand. I did begin to wonder if the books are aimed at a young adult audience, but I can find nothing suggesting that to be the case. Perhaps it’s in the subtext, and it was the one time she didn’t bother telling us?

Since it’s the first in a series, I give it the benefit of the doubt. A lot has to be established in a first novel – the first Harry Potter book is, of course, tonally very different to the others because we’re being introduced to the world for the first time – but it all feels a little too rushed, with a desperation to throw in the Big Bad and explain away the big secrets before we’ve even really had a chance to begin to care about them. There are some interesting scenes, and one or two genuinely interesting characters, but they get lost among the ephemera.

It’s a shame, really, and it falls down where many books have fallen down before – a great premise, with poor execution.

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