Book review – Shaun Bythell – “The Diary of a Bookseller” #NetGalley #amreading #books

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Shaun Bythell diary of a booksellerA year in the life of a bookshop owner in Wigtown in the Scottish borders, which is a book town like Hay-on-Wye. I’m a bit nervous abut reviewing this, as the author is obviously quite a character, and has a somewhat alarming Facebook page in which he discusses various terrible bookshop customers, so I’m not sure what he’s going to think of his reviewers. On the other hand, he runs the Random Book Club, which sends you a random book a month for a year, and you’ve got to love that idea! (I might join. Shall I? Should I??).

Shaun Bythell – “The Diary of a Bookseller”

(E-book [see below] 12 July 2017)

Oddly enough, a few of my book review buddies and actual friends have read and talked about this one already – can’t think how that’s happened! And at least one has found it really funny – I actually found it quite a sad read (but a good one, I hasten to add, not just in case the author might be watching).

It IS funny, from the beginning, where Bythell talks about the Dylan Moran stereotype of an “impatient, intolerant, antisocial proprietor” and admits that he has become worn down into one of these now. He spends a lot of time shoring up the crumbling shop and buying dead or ageing people’s book collections, plus dealing with eccentric staff and unpleasant customers. Fortunately, there’s a large cast of attractive supporting characters, although dealt with very wryly on the whole, and you get the impression of a community that’s been revitalised by the whole book town thing.

There are unhappy coincidences, for example someone coming in and asking for “To Kill a Mockingbird”, which they don’t have, only for someone to appear minutes later with one to sell. The most heartbreaking story is when Tracy comes in having finished her job at the RSPB osprey centre, after having spent a summer explaining to people that the ospreys aren’t nesting this year … There are also sad tales of customers, and with the slightly gritty edge, the cataloguing of amounts made each day and unrepentent criticism of everyone, from book droppers to people coming in claiming they love books (then not buying any), plus the clear statements of just how Amazon has messed up the whole book trade, leading to a loss of the old book runners and book fairs and necessitating the purchase and shooting with an actual gun of Kindles, and this throws the funny bits into sharp contrast.

Bythell does note that the shop appears in the Guardian’s “Weird and wonderful bookshops worldwide” list at number three, and mulls over whether this shows a return to a reverence for the printed book. There are great quotes from George Orwell’s “Bookshop Memories” which in a way show that nothing ever changes, and I do wonder what effect the book will have on the shop (it’s already featured in one romantic story for which I won’t provide spoilers). I’d certainly like to visit – but I’d be a bit scared to, in case I got Going To A Bookshop wrong in their eyes. We’ll see. Road trip, anyone?

Thank you to Serpent’s Tail / Profile Books for making this book available via NetGalley and choosing me to read it in return for an honest review. Of course, I read the e-book, which is likely to enrage the author …

Book review – Christine Pullein-Thompson – “More Adventures from Black Pony Inn” #amreading #books #ponybooks

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Book not actually pictured as it was in one of the Terrible Piles

I’ve had a bit of a lull on the work front recently – which is FINE, as I’ve been able to catch up with myself  a bit, have some mid-marathon-training rest, etc., and I’ve been busy and have plenty booked in, but it’s left me with loads of lovely reading time. I picked this one up having read the first volume at the beginning of the month (“Adventure Stories from Black Pony Inn“), as I’ve had it for five years. In fact, checking back, I bought it on what appears to have been my first proper weekend off after I went full-time self-employed in January 2012! I blogged about the LibraryThing Virago Group meetup here, with pics, and can’t believe that was that long ago!

Oh, and do pop over to the lovely Shiny New Books, where you can read my review of Daniel Tammet’s “Every Word is a Bird we Teach to Sing” which has Icelandic AND transcription in it (the book, not my review).

Christine Pullein-Thompson – “More Adventures from Black Pony Inn”

(16 June 2012, Oxford)

The second trilogy (giving me six books read this month just for starters!) and I’m afraid to say it was slightly patchy, although still good reading.

In “Prince at Black Pony Inn”, the children are given a difficult horse with an unknown back story to train. Just as Harriet is gaining his trust, via one of the weird people they have staying at the guest house, a film company (that stalwart of 1930s-70s children’s books – do they still pop up so regularly now?) comes sniffing around, and all appears to be lost – in all senses of the word. Will it all come out OK?

In “Catastrophe at Black Pony Inn”, a family that’s quite superior and no one really likes comes to stay at Black Pony Inn. Everything starts going wrong, showing up the Pembertons as being hopelessly disorganised. Then the great 1987 hurricane strikes (I was wondering why I didn’t remember these books from my childhood, but this was published in 1989, when I was 17; it was odd reading about the hurricane) and they are all in real trouble, with all sorts of horrors and unlikely alliances. I think this is the only time Roy The Lovely Vet appears in this volume.

“Good Deeds at Black Pony Inn” finishes up the series with a bit of a whimper. Characters have come and gone, almost casually (it took me a while to remember who one of them was, just re-introduced with no explanation or reminder) and it starts off with planning a sudden fete to raise money for a sick neighbour. The fete itself and the preparations are nicely done, but it’s all tied up a  bit quickly and handily.

I liked Harriet’s slow and unwilling move towards womanhood, still the messy girl with hay in her hair at school but starting to blossom outside school, and the equality in the gender of the characters, with boys being caring and supportive and girls resourceful and brave.


“Catastrophe at Black Pony Inn” fills in 1989 in my Century of Reading (hooray! I must get on with that properly). Have you been disappointed by any series recently. I’m not having a good time with them, am I!

Book review – Arnaldur Indriðason – “The Shadow District” #NetGalley #books #amreading

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indridason shadow districtThis is the first in a new series by the author of the wonderful Reykjavik Murder Mysteries, all reviewed on this blog over the past few years. This series is called the Reykjavik Wartime Mysteries, so I’m going to assume that they’re all going to follow a similar format – a lot of the original mysteries had a dual timeline, but this is made more explicit. As you’ll have seen, I’m working my way through a bit of a glut of NetGalley books at the moment – I felt bad that a few had lingered, and I’d also like to make my way up to the coveted 80% reviewed badge – I’m almost there!

Arnaldur Indridason – “The Shadow District”

(E-book 26 June 2017)

In this new series, we meet shabby and shambling Marta (who doesn’t actually play a very large role), who is still in the police force, and Konrad, her recently retired colleague, who seems to want to keep his hand in by helping out with investigations (this seems more than a little implausible but is a theme in mysteries, I know).

An elderly man is found dead, and where it at first seems it was natural, foul play is suspected. Konrad’s father ran fake seances back in the day, and is now mysteriously dead himself, though this doesn’t really come into the story (is it going to be like Erlundur’s lost brother in the first series, I wonder). The story itself, which ends up weaving many strands together, reaches right back to the 1918 flu epidemic but mainly concentrates on a crime committed during World War II at a time when the “Situation” between local Icelandic girls, getting their first taste of a life outside the home or indeed the island, and American servicemen was causing shock, anger and resentment.

I liked the details of birdwatching on the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula (because we’ve done that) and driving round Hvalfjorður rather than going through the new tunnel, but the book didn’t really catch fire for me, I’m afraid. It was competently done with a good plot, but Marta and Konrad, even though the latter had a back story and a sister, didn’t have such rounded lives as the characters in the earlier series. Maybe readers wanted more police procedural and less character development around the plot, but the latter is what I like, and I’m not sure I’d pick up the rest of the series, unfortunately.

Thank you to Random House UK / Vintage for making this available via NetGalley and choosing me to receive it in return for a fair review.

Book review – Chrissie Wellington – “To the Finish Line” #netgalley #amreading #books

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Chrissie wellington to the finish lineI’ve been reading up a storm over the weekend so have got a backlog of reviews to publish now. Because I’m in the end days of my own marathon training, and because, to be honest, I haven’t had quite enough time after my period of (non-running-related) ill-health earlier in the year to build my strength and resilience to go alongside my running stamina, I’m having to be very careful with myself at the moment: lots of early nights, and on a long run weekend, a very quiet Saturday and a restful Sunday after the run. All good for reading, of course!

I downloaded this on 22 September and decided to get on with reading it as soon as I can, as the last NetGalley book I had as a protected file readable only through Adobe Digital Editions expired before I could finish reading it (and only 3 days after its publication date!). This one publishes on 03 October and is very well worth picking up if you’re a budding or practised triathlete.

This is very decidedly (and states in the introduction) NOT her autobiography, which she published a few years ago (and which I’m even more keen to read now). It’s an excellent resource for anyone training for or even considering the sport of triathlon. Although I’m not a triathlete myself (can’t ride a bike, will only swim in hotel pools or warm waters, badly), I can vouch for the running sections being accurate and telling it how it is, so it will be very useful for tri folk.

The book has a good mix of personal stories from Chrissie, tales of the woman she mentored for a year, handily giving more of an amateur’s view, questions and answers from her magazine column which cover all sorts of aspects, training schedules, tips and diagrams and lists of terms (slightly silly and realistic, in two lists) at the back. It covers choosing a race, training for the three disciplines and how to combine the training, how exactly to manage the transitions, in huge detail (I bet this is super-useful, and reading through this part made me VERY glad that all I do is start, run along and stop!), psychology, nutrition, race day and a section on the ante- and post-natal triathlete (I liked how she included notes from her husband in the latter, making it clear it’s not just the birth mother who is affected by this period).

The tone is relatively informal yet informative, and there’s a fair bit on giving back, using your role as a positive and volunteering – including her work for parkrun, particularly junior parkrun (hooray!). A hugely useful resource for triathletes and a good insight into the discipline for those of us who choose not to.

Thank you to publisher Center Street for choosing me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review.


I’m currently reading Lynsey Hanley’s “Respectable” which is a tough but interesting read about class in Britain, and will be starting one of my NetGalley novels soon. Reviews to come: “More Adventures from Black Pony Inn” and Arnaldur Indriðason’s “The Shadow District”, first in a new series of Reykjavik mysteries. What are you reading?

Book review – Paul Flynn “Good as You” #netgalley #amreading #books

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Good as you paul flynnDownloaded 23 June 2017 and published on 27 April. Charting the 30 years from Smalltown Boy and Relax hitting the charts and HIV hitting the population to the advent of gay marriage in the UK through the lens of popular culture, this book has a warmth brought by the interweaving of the author’s life into the narrative; as he’s an exact contemporary of mine, it was really interesting to read his story alongside the wider cultural sweep. As he says, he’s in an ideal position to tell “that strange transition that happens in a gay man of my age’s life, from feeling like an enemy of the state to being its friend”.

As a journalist, he’s been able to access all sorts of figures, from those behind the scenes or running events and hospitals to people like Kylie, Will Young and Lord Chris Smith, covering, among other things, gay icons, coming out in politics, the soap operas helmed by Tonies Holland and Warren and the rise of gay Manchester. At one point he asserts that there’s a gay man behind every cultural happening in Manchester; he finds this strand throughout popular culture as a whole, too. He also celebrates the variety of role models and visible gay people, charting Holly Johnson, Jimmy Somerville and later Brian Dowling as giving a sort of normality to gay lives in the media.

The book is not afraid to cover the darker, more difficult topics of HIV / AIDS and the work of the Terence Higgins Trust and the Lighthouse, or of homophobia in football, still going on now, and he tells both celebratory and harrowing stories, as he should do. This gives the book light and shade and makes it a serious resource, pulling together all these cultural threads.

A generally positive and forward-looking book that goes right to the source where it can – I would have liked to see a list of sources in the back, but maybe this is to come as these are effectively proof copies; I’m left assuming that all the interviews were his own, so perhaps they were. There’s also a slight habit of dropping in a name or concept, wandering away and leaving it hanging, then coming back to it, which because slightly jarring or confusing at times, but it was a pattern so became more comprehensible over the book.

Another good read from NetGalley, kindly provided by Ebury Publishing, Penguin Random House UK.

Book review – Oliver Sacks – “On the Move” #amreading #books

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I had unconsciously been skipping over this book with a cry of “Oh, I should read the Alexei Sayle books together,” etc., because I was nervous about reading it. Sacks has been one of my heroes since my 20s, when I first read “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat”, and I’ve read his books as they’ve been published. I was devastated when he died, even though he’d obviously reached a good old age, and I didn’t want to face reading this for a while, even though I knew that, as an autobiography, it wouldn’t have the terribly sad chapter that a biography would have had. I also became aware that there was a fair bit of the excesses of youth in there, and was a bit worried about how I’d feel about that (hopefully it goes without saying that it wasn’t his expression of his sexuality that I was worried about, but anyone’s expression of whatever sexuality in somewhat graphic detail when I’ve admired them for their mind for so long). Anyway, it’s been read, and I coped.

Oliver Sacks – “On the Move”

(25 December 2016, from Virago Secret Santa giver, Belva)

Finally facing reading this; seeing your heroes’ feet of clay is always a bit unsettling and I did indeed like the sex and bikes and drugs and lifting bits less than the parts where he had started meeting his famous patients and writing his wonderful books. And, we find, there are at least three lost books, mislaid during moves and in luggage – shocking!

The way in which Sacks was always going to be different from other scientists and physicians comes out early in his career: in his first term at Oxford, he decided, “I wanted to write my own ‘Essays in Biography’, though with a clinical twist”. Later in the book, where it loses its sequence a bit to describe themes in his life, he describes the satisfying intellectual relationships he has with other mavericks of neuroscience and medicine, and the pleasure they all get from working outside the usual but crossing paths and ideas with each other. I have to say here that I think this rejigging of the order might have been done at some later stage, as the organisational impetus of the book gets a bit lost and he re-mentions things we already know. This could also be an outcome of the chaos and lack of organised thought he claims to be characterised by.

Following on from this thought, Sacks is honest about his defects: apparently he lived on cereal and sardines, the latter eaten straight from the tin, until learning to cook in his 70s; he was terrible at learning languages, so wasn’t able to learn American Sign Language when he was interested in the world of the Deaf; and he claims in the book to be chaotic and slapdash in his work, evidenced by his failure to become a decent research scientist early in his career.

I actually found more endearing – as surely we always do when reading biography and memoir – by those things that chimed directly with me. His faceblindness is often mentioned as a matter of fact facet of life; he and his last, beloved partner Billy apparently had a passion for Iceland, although this was only mentioned in the book; and I liked the photo of him standing in front of a poster at a conference, as I’m still struck by my realisation of the poster as an important academic tool when I myself got mixed up with the neuroscientists (humanities people like me don’t do the poster thing).

I loved the notes of his interactions with Robin Williams, such an amazing mimic that they freaked each other out, acting exactly the same, and Robert de Niro, who spent hours perfecting his portrayal of a patient, when working on the film of “Awakenings”. And in the end, the final chapter, a return to chronology, was not as sad as I’d expected; yes, there was the inevitable decline, but also his late-blooming love and move to a hitherto unexperienced domesticity and his continued love of writing.


I’m currently reading “Good as You” by Paul Flynn, which charts the remarkable U-turn from terror and fear at HIV to the putting into law of gay marriage through a cultural and media studies lens and is as warm as it’s interesting. I’m not sure what’s up next, but possibly a light novel or a pony book … What are you all reading? Are you hatching any plots for book challenges for next year or finishing off this year’s?

Book review – Balli Kaur Jaswal – “Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows” #netgalley #amreading

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erotic stories for punjabi widowsThank you to the publisher HarperCollins UK for making this book available via NetGalley and choosing me as one of its reviewers. Isn’t that a charming cover, by the way, guaranteed to draw the reader in.

An East-West culture clash novel where the West is represented by Nikki, law school dropout and smoker, who lives alone and works in a pub, having escaped from her traditional mum and her sister who’s now claiming she wants an arranged marriage. I love how Nikki is shown speaking to other Punjabi people in broken English reflecting her lack of skills in what other people consider should be her native language – just one of the funny but also perceptive details in the novel.

Nikki goes on a trip to Southall to post her sister’s details on a marriage board in the Gurdwara. While she’s there, she notices an advert for someone to teach a writing class for Punjabi widows. Soon she’s taken on by the rather formidable Kulwinder, who is responsible for women’s issues at the temple. Southall is a part of London I’ve never been to and I loved the details seen from a slight distance, as Nikki revisits places they used to go a lot in the past (the author is based in Singapore and I think this slight distance helps to round out the characters and places in the book, as she’s obviously used a lot of observation rather than tired stereotypes). She soon discovers the women – most of whom want to get into telling their stories – giggling in corners and sharing a wealth of erotic stories, either remembering the lives they had with their husbands – or whomever – or indulging in wish-fulfilling fantasies if their husbands weren’t up to scratch.

Soon, the stories start spreading, first photocopied, then emailed, just as stories are, and half the Punjabi population of not just London are reading them – and having their lives and marriages influenced by them. This must be kept from Kulwinder, though, who has her won mysterious grief and fears, and certainly isn’t keen on people like Nikki: “British-born Indian girls who hollered publicly about women’s rights were such a self-indulgent lot” and are asking for trouble.

And trouble does indeed come, in the form of a battle with Kulwinder, a search for a new location for the class, and the self-proclaimed defenders of morals in the community, a group of young men who have taken to threatening schoolgirls and the widows. The mystery deepens as the women grow to trust Nikki and talk to this outsider a bit more about the issues they face in the community.

There are multiple layers and it’s not a book with simple answers or relationships. I love how the women find empowerment in roundabout ways and pull together when they need to: it’s very clear that they are all different, with different experiences of life and marriage. I loved the descriptions of Southall, where you don’t even need to learn English to get by, or even learn to read, if you keep the oral tradition of storytelling going.

The stories written by the women (or told by them) scattered through the text are extremely graphic and explicit. They are tied into the stories of the women’s lives, but some people might find them a bit much (some of them made me blush). But they’re earthy and not exactly gratuitous – we all know how groups of people who look like nice quiet older ladies from the outside could make a sailor blush (let alone me) and it’s fair enough, although it might put some people off.

A charming read and I would read other books by this author.

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