“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!

“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!

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!

“The Readers Of Broken Wheel Recommend” by Katarina Bivald (2013)

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There is a book for every person and a person for every book.

“The strange woman standing on Hope’s main street was so ordinary it was almost scandalous.”

Books are great, and books about books are even better. This blog already has a stack of reviews on it based around bookshops thanks to Veronica Henry, Penelope Fitzgerald and Robin Sloan, but there’s always room for one more. There’s something wonderful about bookshops; so much promise held in those shelves. Adventures await, romances are blossoming, and characters are waiting to tell us their stories. Here’s another excellent example.

Sara Lindqvist is a Swedish bibliophile who has just arrived in the small, notably un-notable town of Broken Wheel in rural Iowa. She has come to meet her penpal, Amy Harris, an old lady with whom she has been swapping books and letters for the last two years. Tragically, she arrives to find that Amy has died. Nevertheless, the townsfolk insist that she has to stay and that Amy would have wanted them to take care of her. They put her up in Amy’s house, and assign someone to drive her wherever she needs to go, despite the small size of the town.

Sara is shy, much prefers books to people, and is starting to wonder what madness gripped her to drop her into a situation so unfamiliar. Soon, she realises that no one is willing to accept her money. The shopkeeper, John, gives her free groceries. Grace, the diner cook, rustles up free dinners for her. Andy and his “very good friend” Carl at the bar refuse to take her money for beer. She becomes determined to do something to pay back the townsfolk for their kindness and soon hits on the very idea – Broken Wheel needs a bookshop.

Despite having a huge love of reading herself, Sara finds that no one else in the town much cares for reading, but she is determined to go through with her plan in Amy’s memory and to try and convince the residents that there is a book for everyone. The shop changes the town, and soon the locals are plotting a way to keep her around permanently before her visa expires.

It took a little while to get into, but once it has its claws into you, it isn’t letting go until the last page. Some of the plot points, such as Broken Wheel’s residents plot to keep Sara in town, are a bit madcap, but somehow still rather endearing, if not entirely believable. The characters themselves, however, are wonderfully deep and you really care about them and their happiness. The central plot eventually fell by the wayside for me, and I became far more interested in some of the more minor threads and what was happening with them, none of which I want to spoil here.

The book is packed with messages though, and the whole thing seems to be about the power of literature to change people. Those who have never picked up a book in their lives suddenly find themselves being given books that Sara thinks they’ll like, and many of them soon learn that they do indeed like reading, even if some of their tastes are a little bizarre. George, the old town drunk, develops a fondness for Bridget Jones and the Shopaholic series, and elderly Gertrude becomes hooked on the thrill of Steig Larsson. Sara is frequently to be found with her nose in a book, and her tastes are wide and eclectic, wonderfully often overlapping with my own. Indeed, I’ve never seen a character anywhere else read a Douglas Coupland novel.

There are also discussions to be had regarding religion, taste and decency, aging, family and community. One particularly notable scene has the very proper and Christian Caroline complain about Sara stocking gay erotica in her shop. Sara calls her out on judging something without trying it, and Caroline begins to thaw a little, sending her into a subplot that even she didn’t see coming.

Frankly, the whole thing is a little bit beautiful, and I found myself on the verge of tears more than once. It’s a love letter to books above anything, and I firmly believe its core message: there is a book for every person, and a person for every book. If you don’t like reading, you just haven’t found the right thing yet. A charming tale.

“How To Find Love In A Bookshop” by Veronica Henry (2016)

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Where better place to look?

Where better place to look?

“He would never have believed it if you’d told him a year ago.”

There are few places quite as wonderful as a bookshop, from the enormous five-storey flagship branch of Waterstone’s in Piccadilly, to the tiniest second-hand place in the sidestreets of Edinburgh. Hatchards, Daunt and its like are enormously influential places, so it’s no surprise that plenty of books exist about bookshops. Penelope Fitzgerald had a bittersweet bash, and Robin Sloan gave the environment a funny, fantastic airing. It’s Veronica Henry’s turn now, and she’s taken the magic of bookshops to a new level.

Emilia Nightingale has rushed back to England to be at the bedside of her father, Julius, who is dying. Her final promise to him is that she will return to the bookshop, Nightingale Books, that he has run for the last thirty years and keep it going in his memory. Unfortunately, she discovers that her father hasn’t had his eye on the ball, and the shop is losing money hand over fist. It might always have been full of people, but half the time they came in to chat with the charming and kind Julius, rather than buy anything. Emilia must decide whether to keep the shop open or sell off the property to the money-grabbing Ian Mendip who wants the land to expand his empire.

The small town, however, is full of residents who want the shop to stay, but few of them are quite what they seem. Sarah is the lady of the manor, looking forward to her daughter’s upcoming wedding and hiding a painful secret that she can’t tell anyone. Bea has moved to the countryside from London for a better life, but the monotony and boredom is driving her mad. Jackson has never read a book in his life, but now is determined to start so he can bond with his young son and prove to his ex that he’s capable of being a good father. June nurses heartbreak that is decades old. Thomasina is a chef crippled by shyness and desperate to talk to the cute guy at the cheese shop. And Dillon is contractually obliged to keep his place.

The fact that this book has so many characters does wonders for it. We learn enough about each of them to really feel for them and want them to find the happiness that they each seem to deserve. They’re not perfect, which makes them even more so. You learn to love these people despite their flaws. The stories weave together neatly and while Emilia is the central figure, she’s not the most interesting one, and the book soon spirals out from being her story to being the story of many. I love a book that reminds you that we’re all part of one another’s stories, and no one is going through this madness alone.

I only have issues with a couple of moments of characterisation. Thomasina is apparently shy, but this for the most part is an entirely informed quality, as every time we see her, she seems confident. Talking to a stranger in the bookshop and setting up a two-person restaurant in her own home are not the actions of a shy person. Indeed, the first major part she has in the book is reading at Julius’s memorial, a task that seems to immediately do away with the trait she’s most linked to. I’m also not totally sure how to feel about Jackson and his ex, Mia. Jackson supposedly was kicked out after becoming feckless and not helping out with their son, but later he’s shown to be paying maintenance without having been asked, and is desperate to take Mia back despite saying how much she’s changed. For such a nice guy, he can be a bit of a dick. He redeems himself by the end, though.

While it might just be because I’m a bit emotionally unstable at the moment anyway, I did shed a tear or two in the final chapter. As is only right in a book of this kind, there are happy endings all round, and they feel deserved. It’s a book that feels like a nap in front of the fire – warm, comfortable and familiar. As much as there is a lot of human love in the book, of all different kinds, it’s really a love letter to books and to bookshops. Books are so important, and anyone who doesn’t read them just hasn’t found the right one yet. Henry’s passion for the medium is highly pronounced.

A nice little addition is that every few chapters there’s a list of books recommended by one of the characters. Thomasina, for example, lists books about food, and Dillon gives us books with particularly notable servants. This is the kind of book that will only cause you to add further to your reading lists. Devour this book and give yourself some cheer.

“Books” by Charlie Hill (2013)

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Some books are fatally bad.

Some books are fatally bad.

“It was three o’clock on Saturday afternoon, the end of a typically long week, and Richard Anger – the owner of the last little bookshop in town – was waiting for a cab to take him to the airport.”

I like books. And I like books about books, as I’ve shown several times over on this blog. So a book called Books was surely going to be a winner, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it? Well, it’s just a reminder that sometimes that stuff on the sale table in Waterstone’s is there for a reason. I’m being a trifle unfair, because this isn’t a terrible book. It’s just another example of a brilliant idea poorly executed.

Gary Sayles is a pompous, self-aggrandising author who has produced three bestsellers. After a break from writing, he’s coming back with his fourth “male confessional”, this time apparently bigger, better and more truthful than ever before. While the masses seem to like his work, those who claim to be in the know are less keen, particularly Richard Anger, a bookshop owner from Birmingham. He despises Sayles’s work, disparaging it whenever he can as being lowest common denominator fiction, and poorly written to boot.

On a holiday to Corfu, he witnesses a woman drop dead, while in the middle of reading a Gary Sayles novel. This piques the interest of a neurologist, Lauren Furrows, who discovers that this woman isn’t the first to die in these circumstances. A new name for the disease is coined – Spontaneous Neural Atrophy Syndrome (SNAPS) – and while scientists start to wonder what causes it, Richard is sure he has the answer. Gary Sayles’s books are so mediocre that they’re capable of killing.

In a few weeks, the newest book will be out on the shelves, and the whole country will find itself in a SNAPS epidemic, as reader after reader pitches over dead while trawling through the mess of wordplay, punnery and purple prose. Richard and Lauren must convince the world of this threat, all the while dealing with the feelings they appear to be developing for one another. And as if the challenge wasn’t hard enough already, two London hipster artists are also on Sayles’s trail, as the man himself sets about launching the book with the biggest bang he can think of.

It’s a great concept, a book that kills people, especially because it’s so terrible. It reminds me of Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, which similarly is about a lullaby that kills anyone who hears it, but while that was genuinely terrifying and smart, this just feels a bit farcical. None of the characters are particularly pleasant. Sayles is so enamoured with himself that he can’t see how trivial his work really is; Richard is an alcoholic with a similar sense of his own importance; Lauren is emotionally stunted; and Pippa and Zeke, the artists, are everything about the Shoreditch way of life that I can’t bear. Whether it’s intentionally Charlie Hill’s method to have the story mimic his actual work is beyond me, and it feels layered, but I just can’t get myself to care about any of these characters. They’re nasty to the point of caricatures. A couple of plot threads go nowhere, and the insistent use of brand names and pop culture references, which are actually a nice touch and firmly give the novel a sense of time and place, are inconsistently used. At the start there are a lot, and then they slowly dribble away.

I get that it’s a book satirising the publishing industry, about how real life sucks more than we ever care to mention, and also about how society has evolved levels of literature, declaring what is acceptable and what isn’t (the snobby division of “readers” and “people who read”, something I unfortunately buy into a little), but the only thing I’ve taken away from it is the following quote attributed to Michael Kruger by Richard Anger:

“Someone who reads too much without wetting his whistle regularly will become stupid; someone who drinks too much without diluting his drink with literature will end up in the gutter. Only the two together preserve culture; only the two together are culture.”

Mine’s a large white wine.

“The Bookshop” by Penelope Fitzgerald (1978)

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bookshop“In 1959 Florence Green occasionally passed a night when she was not absolutely sure whether she had slept or not.”

I’ve covered elsewhere my love of bookshops, but if you haven’t read that post (and you should, because it’s bloody marvellous) it’s probably a given that I have a fondness for them. There’s nothing more enjoyable than browsing the shelves of a bookshop, hundreds and thousands of new worlds sealed up in paper and ink, ready for adoption by a hungry reader.

In Penelope Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Bookshop, we get the tale of middle-aged widow Florence Green who has decided that her small seaside town of Hardborough could really do with a bookshop. She purchases the building – a house that has been empty for seven years due to damp and a resident poltergeist – and despite various objections, begins running the only bookshop and lending library in the area.

As her success grows, so does her animosity with some of the other residents, not least the social climbing Mrs Gamart, who believes that the building should have instead been used to house an Arts Centre. However, others are far more willing to give their blessing, including young Christine Gipping and reclusive Mr Brundish. With their encouragement, Florence sets out against the struggles to make the best of the situation and inject a little bit of culture to the sleepy town.

This is a book about that peculiarly British issue of class. Florence is not a member of the high society, and perhaps that is why she is looked down upon by those who are. In fact, those who oppose the bookshop are the same ones who claim to be cultured, fighting tooth and nail to show that they are more cultured than everyone else by knowing what is best for the town in the fields of art and literature. The lower orders, who care little for social standing but rarely read, are much more supportive.

Florence is a magnificent character. I imagine that the late fifties were not the easiest time for a woman to make it on her own – the following decade would do much for equality – and perhaps this adds to the views of her detractors. However, through correspondance with her solicitors and bank manager, it is made clear that Florence can hold her own and has a core of steely determination. She will not be beaten back, not by inspectors, lawyers or ghosts, and she will fight against the vile people around her to do what she thinks is right.

It’s a charming, if emotionally poignant and gut-wrenching, story that shows a nasty side of human nature, and what happens when a force for good comes up against them. One for the ages.