Wednesday 30 January 2019

Dear Mrs Bird, A J Pearce

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When Emmeline (Emmy) Lake bags herself an exciting new job she thinks she’s taken her first steps to accomplishing her dream of becoming a Lady War Correspondent. Unfortunately, she soon discovers that she’s actually been hired as a typist at Woman’s Friend, a failing magazine with an Editress decidedly behind the times. She has a lengthy list of unacceptable topics for the advice column, and even those she does respond to probably wish she hadn’t. Emmy is affected by the desperate letters that come through, knowing how easy it is to get yourself in an unfortunate situation, especially with the war on. She feels moved to act.

Outside of Woman’s Friend she has plenty to keep her occupied. She lives with her lifelong best friend Bunty who is fiercely loyal and not so subtly tries to set Emmy up. When not entangled in budding romance, Emmy volunteers overnight at the fire station, contributing to the war effort in the best way she knows how yet always wishing she could do more. Although generally an upbeat, fairly na├»ve narrator, you do get a sense of the struggles of living in London during the Blitz and having to maintain the famous British stiff upper lip. In placing women in the leading roles Pearce brings into focus the toll the war took at home and the pressure to remain jolly however bad it got.

An easy read that was predictable throughout. The premise of the agony aunt letters is largely overshadowed by Emmy’s life outside of the office. At its most gripping in the build up to inevitable tragedy, this is a book with a big heart. Emmy’s final letter in Dear Mrs Bird is her most mature and will strike a chord and humanise a traumatic period of history, the human story of which is often obscured by positive propaganda.

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Wednesday 23 January 2019

The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell

Bythell is the owner of The Book Shop in Wigtown, Scotland’s largest secondhand bookshop, and takes us through a year in the life of a bookseller in this drily humourous memoir. Each month opens with an extract from George Orwell’s Bookshop Memories and a discussion of how things have changed or not as the case may be. Nothing drastic happens in this book but the way he presents the day-to-day workings of a secondhand bookshop and the eccentric characters he encounters is entertaining. He is derogatory towards staff and customers alike but does have the odd moment of reflection where he sees something of interest in a customer or seller.

His disdain is never more forceful than when it comes to amazon (the broken kindle that he shot is displayed proudly on the wall, leaving no doubt as to where he stands on the issue of e-readers and the behemoth that is devouring so many retailers). He describes how the rise of amazon has made bookselling a far less profitable pursuit and refuses to share his knowledge with customers who he suspects will use it to make their purchase online. The book gives an insight into the changing landscape of bookselling over the decade and a half that he’s been running the shop.

Not only do we learn about books but also snippets of local history, behind the scenes glimpses of the Wigtown Book Festival, and a whole array of facts that arise from buying trips and obscure titles. For all his grumbles, and the painfully low takings listed at the end of each day, Bythell’s sheer love of books shines through. A treat of a read and one in which booksellers past and present will find a lot to relate to.

Wednesday 16 January 2019

Three Things About Elsie, Joanna Cannon

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As Florence Claybourne lies on her living room floor waiting to be found, she has plenty of time to go over recent happenings at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. She has recently been put on probation – the threat of being sent to Greenbanks, a home for those who need more support, hangs over her. Life at Cherry Tree had been mundane, passing the days with her lifelong best friend Elsie and fellow resident Jack. That is until Gabriel Price moves in, a man that looks suspiciously like cruel Ronnie Butler who died as a young adult. Florence is convinced he is setting her up to look like she’s losing her marbles, and is determined to reveal his true identity.

As readers we are encouraged to think of Florence as an unreliable narrator – she is forgetful and frequently relies on Elsie to help piece her memories back together. It creates a dilemma – is Gabriel Price trying to sabotage her peaceful retirement (and why) or is she creating the bizarre situations herself? We see her frustration clearly with her repeated mantra of ‘I’m not allowed to do very much any more, but I’m still allowed to make a point.’ The loss of control and the challenges that come with being labeled ‘old’ are well drawn and heartfelt.

Supporting characters are also realistic – Miss Ambrose whose bright clothes don’t match her personality, and Handy Simon who’s just trying to get by without being noticed too much. They both question the path their lives are taking and are very relatable. It is also interesting in the later chapters to gain their perspective when the narrative focus shifts.

This book was so much more than I’d imagined and will tug at your heartstrings. As the truth of Florence, Elsie, and Ronnie Butler’s history is slowly revealed you feel the pain that Florence has been holding on to for so long and how painful it must be to have to re-remember it all. A novel full of genuine, tender moments, with an intriguing mystery to keep you wanting more. A very human, well observed piece that will raise questions of how we treat the more vulnerable members of our society.

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Wednesday 9 January 2019

George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker, Robert Gottlieb

Having served on the Board of Directors at New York City Ballet, Gottlieb knew Balanchine and his dancers and so brings a personal perspective to the biography. From the loneliness of his childhood to his deathbed, this is an informal biography of one of ballet’s greats, and in which the author does not hide his admiration. In it we see a man who shakes up the ballet world while remaining largely liked.

It is no secret that his muses were normally young female dancers, he did not respond to male movement with such adoration. Even when Baryshnikov joined NYCB he was not treated in any special way and no new works were created on him. Balanchine rewarded those who were loyal to him highly and there is only one dancer included who does not speak kindly of him, a rare feat for a creative genius. He was married multiple times and seems to have taken it in his stride that they would not last forever, although he loyally cared for Tanaquil le Clerque when she was struck down with Polio, despite the fact they had agreed to go their separate ways before tragedy struck. His attitude to money was similarly easy-going, giving it away as freely as he earned it.

What emerges is a portrait of a man whose creative output was vast and who changed the landscape of ballet, and yet always had a loneliness lingering. For one remembered as a choreographer it is also remarked upon that he was a beautiful dancer and that those performing his works often felt they’d never be able to dance them as beautifully. A warm, chatty biography that is a joy to read, though by no means comprehensive.

Wednesday 2 January 2019

The Price of Belonging, Naomi Landy

When nature-loving Sylvie moves to LA to be with her film star boyfriend she finds herself isolated. Jackson’s friends thinly veil their contempt of her and she realises what a shallow world it is that Jackson inhabits. The one person who shows her any kindness is Rory, but the comfort found in him comes with a sting. As she attempts to help him through a crisis she puts her own wellbeing and relationship at risk. It is uncomfortable watching their friendship unfold, fearing he will reject her when life starts picking up for him. It is a sign of the deep-rooted kindness in Sylvie that she loyally weathers the storm with him. The emotions, the need to help, are visceral and the reader becomes completely absorbed in this intense friendship.

Landy expertly dissects the challenges of romantic relationships as Sylvie struggles to carve out a life for herself in a city that is so devoid of the things that matter to her. Although her situation is not one many of us will experience, the fundamentals of a relationship are relatable regardless of who it’s with. The challenges and triumphs are realistically drawn and the characters feel very real from the start, making for an absorbing read.

An impressive debut that you won’t want to put down.