Strange things to be asked...

After ten years as a bookseller, having worked in the same location for three different owners, I can still be surprised by the things people think we might sell.

Down at the bottom of the list are the least surprising things. We are asked almost every other day if we sell newspapers & magazines. We don't but some of our really big branches do, so it's not too much of an eyebrow raise there. It's the specific titles asked for, like The Racing Post? The New York Times? The Sunday Post?

Also bottom of the list are things like stamps, writing paper, pens (we sell them now). We used to sell picture postcards but not for some years, and we've always sold birthday and greetings cards. At different times we have also sold pencil cases, ceramic mugs, and other such paraphernalia that ties in with a character or film who's books we're promoting. So, it's not too much of a stretch to think we might have some of these.

Less likely though, are luggage tags and labels, wall planners, fountain pen ink and ink cartridges, ball-pen refills, compass and protractors, and printer cartridges. People confuse us with that High St stationer who also sells books. I know this because customers also try to use vouchers and get points on cards from this chain, although the cards seem to have disappeared some time ago.

Do we sell phone cards? Well, no we don't. Why not? Umm, we're a book shop? Maybe it's just me, but with the plethora of 'phone shops up and down the street, I'm perplexed as to why people come in and ask us this. It's not just an after-thought question when they're paying for books at the Till.

And before you ask, it's not just the foreign tourists.

Though we do sell book-lights, we do not sell torches. Yes we have birthday cards but not balloons, streamers, badges or other such celebratory accoutrements.

We definitely do not sell films for your camera, batteries for anything, cellotape, staplers or staples, photocopying or printing services. We have no drinks machines, never mind an Internet Cafe.

And my favourites... So far....

We don't sell hairbrushes, shoe-laces, or toiletries of any sort.

You see, it's because...



Something In The Air

It's been a weird week. People have been quite unpleasant on the whole. Thats not to say there haven't been lovely customers, because of course there have, but generally speaking, customers have varied through the spectrum of unpleasantness between off-hand and downright rude and insulting.

My pick of the week was the smiling assassin. A lady who told a colleague that book he recommended was like reading Janet & John. It was written for idiots. She repeated each of these comments at least twice more as he tried to engage her in a meaningful conversation and after he told her it was one of his favourite books. She smiled the whole way through.

Two thoughts struck me as I stood by, surprisingly dumbstruck:
First, she doesn't know what she's saying & how rude she's being
Second, she's not actually listening to what he's saying.

Afterwards, considering her demeanour throughput the exchange, my third thought & final conclusion was that she thought she was being terribly clever & smart, and she didn't care how rude & insulting she was being.

Let me make it clear - the book in question is neither 'Janet & John' nor is it written for idiots. It's a weighty tome of historical fiction. (Names & titles are purposely excluded.)


My absolute favourite customer this week was a four year live wire of a boy who, when I asked was he wanted to be when he grew up, pondered the question, looked me in the eye with all seriousness and said:


Love it!

Back Again

Dear Blog,
I know I've been criminally neglectful. I've been busy though. Three Thursdays a month I have a book related evening; Folios(our reading group), Bookswap, & Bookspies (kids book group). Then there are all the author visits & events I get to do.
Not forgetting my Primary Directive, sell books.
I'm also working on reviews & articles & of course, trying to write a book.
Not all of these things get their full quota of time.
So, I shall try to be more diligent in future, but really, I can't make any promises.
Joanne Harris's Top 10 Kids' Books with Kickass Heroines

Joanne Harris is the famed author of Chocolat , but she also wrote the fantastic children's novel Runemarks

Back in 2007 she wrote the top ten list (given below) for the Guardian's book pages. The ten books are still great stories and I add my humble nod of approval.

1. The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman

2. The Black Tattoo by Sam Enthoven

3. Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr

4. The Angel Experiment by James Patterson

5. The Diamond Of Drury Lane by Julia Golding

6. Coraline by Neil Gaiman

7. Fearless by Tim Lott

8. The Wish List by Eoin Colfer

9. The Dare Game by Jacqueline Wilson

10. Spilled Water by Sally Grindley

Read more about Joanne's chosen books.

Review: Savannah Grey by Cliff McNish

Author Cliff McNish is my Featured Author for April.

With its fabulous autumnal fantasy cover, what did I expect when Savannah Grey landed in my hands?

Well, to be honest, something of the standard fantasy fare of teen girl uses ‘powers’ to battle evil monster, with boy thrown in for that touch of romance teens girls seemingly always need, and no doubt including a rival, though being a McNish novel, there may be a plot twist or two.

What did I get?

A highly original, very different, urban horror fantasy.

Savannah is fifteen and an orphan. She is settled with her foster parents and has her best friend Nina life is fine except for a nagging sore throat and the feeling that things are changing. Persuaded to go to a party by Nina, she meets Reece, a boy with a scar on his neck, and there is an instant attraction. When she reacts badly at a hospital appointment, and a look at her throat shows something very wrong, Savannah is scared and worried. Whatever it is its not natural, she producing strange noises and energy and yet she is very protective of whatever it is. As other strange things happen, like birds and the winds behaving oddly, Savannah turns to Reece and we discover that he has the same affliction but the injury that left him scarred appears to have damaged whatever it is in his throat.

In the midst of this we meet the Ocrassa. Arriving on earth millions of years ago, the Ocrassa has survived using its unique abilities to adapt and assimilate; evolving over many millennia. The Ocrassa’s savage desire is to take and assimilate everything around it and use Savannah to achieve its aim; the teenager’s realisation that nature has chosen them for a purpose; and Savannah’s realisation that her throat is a weapon that she must control and master without knowing why. At the pint where you believe the story is heading towards the inevitable show-down between the two, McNish gives a monstrous twist to the tale.

In the best traditions of the horror genre, McNish takes the much used theme of good versus evil but he asked himself the question:

To kill a monster, do you have to become one?

There’s no make-up or clothes or drop dead gorgeous boys and bitchy girls to stress and angst over. Fascinating and intense, Savannah Grey mixes horror with elements of fantasy and science fiction to create a novel that is as darkly appealing as it is intelligent and sharply written. Brilliant!

Anonymous Chelsea Pensioner on War

I was privileged to talk with several Chelsea Pensioners at different times over three years. All were really interesting, their military service covering different periods including WW2, Korea, Palestine, and others, but the last time was the most memorable.
The old soldier had been a regular who had seen service in several campaigns as well as serving throughout the whole of World War 2. As I sat in the Mess chatting to him, several friends all male who were senior NCOs, asked to join us. After a few drinks everyone was relaxed and the stories started to flow. I let the guys ask the questions, happily sitting back and quietly taking my notes.
There were things he just wouldn't discuss, and very deftly changed the subject. Clearly an old hand at avoiding what was too painful, too horrific, or too private. 
One of the Seniors was waiting to be sent to the Gulf, and was quite keyed up about it. I don't need my notes to remember what our guest said before he finished his drink and left us for a nap.

'Don't be so eager to go and fight. There is nothing glorious waiting for you. Its bloody. scary and filthy. Anyone who says he's not scared is a liar or an idiot. War's all blood and piss. When the bullets start flying and men die, you'll see, all blood and piss.'

Col Tim Collins

Sarah Oliver of the Mail on Sunday:

"He delivered the speech completely off the cuff...He said to me, 'I'll have to say a few words to the men to explain to them why they should take their anthrax drugs and malaria pills, or they just won't bother'. It just grew and grew into something magnificent - it made you realise the true meaning of the term 'rallying cry' ...It was just after a standstorm and all the men were standing around him in a U-shape in the middle of a very dusty courtyard. A lot of the Irish Rangers are very young and he wanted to explain something of the history and culture of Iraq to them. They knew that the public at home had doubts about the rightness of the war, and he wanted to reassure them and tell them why they were there. He delivered the speech without a note and went on at length. By the end, everyone felt they were ready for whatever lay ahead."

We go to liberate, not to conquer.We will not fly our flags in their country. We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own. Show respect for them.

There are some who are alive at this moment who will not be alive shortly. Those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send. As for the others, I expect you to rock their world. Wipe them out if that is what they choose. But if you are ferocious in battle remember to be magnanimous in victory. Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly there.

You will see things that no man could pay to see and you will have to go a long way to find a more decent, generous and upright people than the Iraqis. You will be embarrassed by their hospitality even though they have nothing. Don't treat them as refugees for they are in their own country. Their children will be poor, in years to come they will know that the light of liberation in their lives was brought by you.

If there are casualties of war then remember that when they woke up and got dressed in the morning they did not plan to die this day. Allow them dignity in death. Bury them properly and mark their graves. It is my foremost intention to bring every single one of you out alive. But there may be people among us who will not see the end of this campaign. We will put them in their sleeping bags and send them back. There will be no time for sorrow.

The enemy should be in no doubt that we are his nemesis and that we are bringing about his rightful destruction. There are many regional commanders who have stains on their souls and they are stoking the fires of hell for Saddam. He and his forces will be destroyed by this coalition for what they have done. As they die they will know their deeds have brought them to this place. Show them no pity.

It is a big step to take another human life. It is not to be done lightly. I know of men who have taken life needlessly in other conflicts. I can assure you they live with the mark of Cain upon them. If someone surrenders to you then remember they have that right in international law and ensure that one day they go home to their family. The ones who wish to fight, well, we aim to please.

If you harm the regiment or its history by over-enthusiasm in killing or in cowardice, know it is your family who will suffer. You will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest -- for your deeds will follow you down through history. We will bring shame on neither our uniform or our nation.
(On Saddam's chemical and biological weapons.)
It is not a question of if, it's a question of when. We know he has already devolved the decision to lower commanders, and that means he has already taken the decision himself. If we survive the first strike we will survive the attack. As for ourselves, let's bring everyone home and leave Iraq a better place for us having been there.
Our business now is north.

Shakespeare: Henry V

If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

We few.....we band of brothers

I've just watched episodes one and two of Band of Brothers, back to back. I happened upon the start of episode one while searching for something else, I cannot remember what now. 

When the fighting started, I was struck by the lack of that 'hoo-rah' extreme aggressive attitude that seems prevalent in modern American films about war, where, in order to 'win the day', the men (boys) are wound up into a state of  screaming, violent agitation. Band of Brothers  trying to keep a cool head under fire style of fighting was a startling contrast to the arrogant, macho-aggressive-gung-ho attitude depicted as modern warfare.

So many things jumped into my mind. Shakespeare's Henry V speech, where the series title comes from. Col. Tim Collins' 2003 eve-of-battle speeech to his men. The words of a Chelsea pensioner talking about war, forgetting I was there; the only woman and civilian at a table of half a dozen serving male soldiers.

None of them are about arrogance, superiority, or the glory of war. They are all about the ferocity of battle, the magnaminity of victory, the brotherhood of soldiering. As the body bags return from Iraq and Afghanistan, I feel these words are worth reading. So I'll post each of them.

David Almond Wins!

Twice winner of the Whitbread Children’s Book Award, author David Almond has been announced as the winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Award.

Describing Almond as “a creator of magical realism for children", the jury of children's literature experts praised his "unique voice" and said "his use of language is sophisticated and reaches across the ages." In a statement, the ten international members said that Almond "captures his young readers' imagination and motivates them to read, think and be critical".
When told, the author responded with astonishment at his win. "Good god, that's absolutely brilliant…It's amazing. I didn't think I'd win but you never know

The prize for illustrators was awarded to Jutta Bauer from Germany. The jury highlighted her "philosophical approach, originality, creativity as well as her ability to communicate with young readers", and described her as "a powerful narrator who blends real life with legend through her pictures".

Some of David Almond's books:

When a move to a new house coincides with his baby sister's illness, Michael's world seems suddenly lonely and uncertain. Then, one Sunday afternoon, he stumbles into the old, ramshackle garage of his new home, and finds something magical. A strange creature - part owl, part angel, a being who needs Michael's help if he is to survive. With his new friend Mina, Michael nourishes Skellig back to health, while his baby sister languishes in the hospital. But Skellig is far more than he at first appears, and as he helps Michael breathe life into his tiny sister, Michael's world changes forever . . .

Erin, January and Mouse live in a children's home, Whitegates. They often dream of escape, and frequently journey into the outside world. Running away is something they know all about. But this time January builds a raft, and the three of them head precariously down river. Towards the Black Middens. This time they might never come back. When they stumble across a disused factory and its strange inhabitants - Grampa and Heaven Eyes - they wonder if they'll even have the choice. Heaven Eyes is the girl who should have drowned at sea. The mysterious girl desperately searching for her family, hoping that these three might be the family she has lost. She has a secret history only Grampa knows. And does he trust these three invaders enough to tell them? Erin feels a sisterly responsibility for Heaven Eyes, Mouse longs to belong anywhere and anyhow, but January thinks Grampa's a murderer. Whatever happens, all three have a part to play. .

A long hot summer; a wild boy; an abandoned baby; an act of violence
Every summer Liam and Max roam the wild countryside of Northumberland – but this year things are different. One hot summer’s day a jackdaw leads the two boys into an ancient farm house where they find a baby, wrapped in a blanket, with a scribbled note pinned to it: PLESE LOOK AFTER HER RITE. THIS IS A CHILDE OF GOD, and so begins Jackdaw Summer. A summer when friendships are tested, a summer when lines between good and bad are blurred, and a summer that Liam will never forget ...

Kit has just moved to Stoneygate with his family, to live with his ageing grandfather who is gradually succumbing to Alzheimer's Disease. Stoneygate is an insular place, scarred by its mining history - by the danger and death it has brought them. Where the coal mine used to be there is now a wilderness.
Here Kit meets Askew, a surly and threatening figure who masterminds the game called Death, a frightening ritual of hypnotism; and Kit makes friends with Allie, the clever school troublemaker. As Kit struggles to adjust to his new life and the gradual failing of his beloved grandfather, these two friendships pull him towards a terrifying resolution. Haunted by ghosts of the past, Kit must confront death and - ultimately - life.

Some of Jutta Bauer's work:

This little boy's grandpa tells him stories whenever he visits. He tells how nothing ever seemed to hurt him. Every morning as a boy, he would run past the big statue of an angel on his way to school, and bullies, buses, high trees, deep lakes - none could touch him. Even through war, hunger and unemployment, and all the strange things life threw at him, Grandpa's angel - though never specifically mentioned - is always at his shoulder, looking out for him.

There is always a story in moving house and this family has several to tell. From Uncle's hat to Aunty's violin, follow our family as they embark on an incredible adventure to find that elusive place called home.