Friday, 3 October 2014

Author Visit: Jen Campbell Talks Bookshops.

If you’re a regular visitor around these parts (or follow me on Twitter) then you’ll likely be aware that I have been extraordinarily excited about Jen Campbell’s marvellous new book ‘The Bookshop Book’ – released yesterday and published by Constable (Little, Brown).
The official book for the Books Are My Bag campaign, The Bookshop Book is a love letter to books and bookshops the world over:

Every bookshop has a story.

We’re not talking about rooms that are just full of books. We’re talking about bookshops in barns, disused factories, converted churches and underground car parks. Bookshops on boats, on buses, and in old run-down train stations. Fold-out bookshops, undercover bookshops, this-is-the-best-place-I’ve-ever-been-to-bookshops.

Meet Sarah and her Book Barge sailing across the sea to France. Meet Sebastien, in Mongolia, who sells books to herders of the Altai mountains. Meet the bookshop in Canada that’s invented the world’s first antiquarian book vending machine.
And that’s just the beginning.

From the oldest bookshop in the world, to the smallest you could imagine,
The Bookshop Book examines the history of books, talks to authors about their favourite places, and looks at over three hundred weirdly wonderful bookshops across six continents (sadly, we’ve yet to build a bookshop down in the South Pole).
authors involved in the book include Brian Aldiss, David Almond, Bill Bryson, Tracy Chevalier, Cornelia Funke, Audrey Niffenegger, Ian Rankin, Jacqueline Wilson and more.

Jen, who graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in English Literature and now lives and works in London, is not only an all round ‘lovely person’ (and one of my faves) but also an award winning poet and short story writer. Her first book, Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops was a Sunday Times bestseller. She’s dropped by my little corner of the blogosphere today to chat about All Things Bookshop. So, make a coffee, grab a slice of cake and pull up a seat.

Jen! Thank-you for stopping by.  Quickly quickly, before we start – let’s get warmed up with a quick fire round!

Coffee, tea or…?

Tea. Always tea.
English breakfast. Earl Grey. Lady Grey. Or Teapig’s Winter Red Tea. Thanks.

Favourite Film?

Shakespeare in Love or Spirited Away

Favourite book?

Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll (I can’t believe you made me choose!) (Jo: sorry not sorry!)

Summer or winter?

Winter! (Though preferably autumn. Boots and cardigans and log fires, yes please.)

Favourite Colour?

Mint green.

Last thing you ate?

Marmite on toast. (Jo: this is why I like you so much – your excellent food choices.)

Favourite holiday destination?

Somewhere windswept by the sea.

Ok, and now that’s done, onto the nitty gritty!

Where did the idea for the bookshop book come from?

I think it was born out of my ‘Bookshop Spotlights’ blog posts that I started in 2012, featuring bookshops I really liked. But really it was fueled after ‘Weird Things...’ was published and I spent a lot of time doing events in wonderful bookshops and talking to inspiring booksellers. I’d written about the weird things that happen to booksellers, but I hadn’t written about the magical feeling of bookshops and how books affect people. I hadn’t spoken about the history and wonder of ‘houses for stories’ (which is what one of my youngest customers calls bookshops, and I love it.) My editor said: ‘Think about how you would write about that. How you’d capture it. Then send me something.’ So I did.

What is your earliest bookshop memory?

We didn’t have independent bookshops where I grew up, we just had a Waterstones. I think that’s why I fell for bookshops so hard when I moved to Edinburgh to do my degree. Suddenly there was so much to explore, and so many books to lose myself in. Oh and the smell. I’ll never forget the smell of Till’s bookshop in Edinburgh. The smell of vanilla and dust and stories from long ago.

Tell us about the best bookshop you've visited?

Oh, no. I can’t do that. I’ve answered the question about my favourite book, and that was painful enough! ;) (Jo: hmmmm, ok. I shall let you off. This time.)

And the one that your research has you dream-planning a visit to?

Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires. (and hundreds more!)

If time and money were no object what would your perfect bookshop be like?

It would be a bit of a labyrinth. Maybe even an actual maze. A treasure hunt for books. I’d have it in the middle of a forest, with fairy lights everywhere.

The Bookshop Book is more than just your love letter to bookshops everywhere; it's that of booksellers and writers too. When gathering your research which book selling story made your heart sing? Feel free to give us a snippet

I love the history of Shakespeare and Co in Paris, and how its original owner Sylvia Beach stood up to the Nazis, refusing to serve them so that they threatened to burn her shop to the ground. I love Sarah Henshaw, who runs a bookshop on a narrowboat in the UK and is planning to bravely/crazily cross the Channel in it. I love that there’s a bookshop in Kenya that also sells cows. I love Fjaerland in Norway, which is a Book Town near the largest glacier in mainland Europe. It has bookshops in old buildings and sheds, and in the winter the booksellers use kick-sleds to transport books across the snow. I love... oh, I really could go on forever. You’re just going to have to read it.

I'm going to be reading every word, naturally, but the minute I open it, which author interview should I skip to first: which sticks on your mind, and how did it feel to sit down and talk books with people whose work  you love?

It was overwhelming, and I was so amazed that so many wonderful authors were willing to speak to me. Every author I spoke to was so passionate about books and reading (but then, I would hope they would be!). I can’t pick out one interview over another, but one moment I remember vividly is this. I met up with Audrey Niffenegger when she was in London and we had tea and cake and talked about our favourite places. She was describing Roger, a bookseller who she cares about deeply, who ran a bookshop in Chicago called Bookman’s Alley. She was talking about the souls of bookshops, and how she’s written about it in her graphic novel Library series: about these wonderful characters who come to a bookshop that’s closing down and collect its soul so that it can live on forever. And as she was speaking about that, and about Roger closing down his bookshop due to ill-health and how she wants to capture him in the stories she writes... I realised that she was crying. And it hit me full on, this realisation - which I did already know but had perhaps forgotten slightly - of the ties that bind us not only to the people we care about, but also to literature and the people who protect it with us. Of our need to tell stories, and share them so that they become part of our history - in the hope that the people and places we write about can live on and on, and never disappear.

I am in LOVE with the cover art. Tell us about how that came to be?

My editor and I had a discussion about how we’d like the cover to look (bright colours, text-based) and it was designed by a delightful chap called Leo Nickolls who has produced so many beautiful things (go look and see!). I’m so happy with it.

The Bookshop Book was a mammoth task and one that you should be proud of, how different was it to Weird Things?

Oh, so very different! ‘Weird Things...’ were books recording things I’ve heard and things I’ve said... it was a case of going through notes and sorting through memories. The Bookshop Book required massive amounts of research (though all of it rewarding) and it’s eight times the size of ‘Weird Things...’, word-count-wise, too. It’s a whole new beast.

What has been the best and worst thing about the whole experience?

The worst thing was the deadline (isn’t it always)? That’s both stressful and exhilarating - but obviously necessary! The best thing? All the wonderful people I’ve met. Also, after I handed in the manuscript, I posted a picture of the dedication page on the ‘Weird Things...’ Facebook page, and I got a message from The Book Nook in Texas with a photograph of their shop front. They’d loved the dedication so much that they’d written it across the shop’s window. That made me a bit happy-teary, I must say. (

Tell us about how you write? Is the room quiet or do you play music? Do you like your dog at your feet? What works best?

Oh the room is quiet. So quiet. Unless I’m writing poetry, then I listen to Dustin O’Hallaran. Loki (Jack Russell)’s sleeping in a corner. Penny-slow (tortoise) is normally trying to eat my feet.

What’s the oddest thing on your desk?

Nothing odd on my desk, I’m afraid. Just my computer and my phone. (And a half-eaten Crunchie bar, yum.) (Jo: I have Sebastian from The Little Mermaid on my desk. & a triangular highlighter that is almost impossible to use….)

What's next for you?

The novel. It’s eating my soul. I like it. (Jo: *happy dance*)

What authors have caught your interest lately, and why?

Donna Tartt (I’m so late to The Secret History party), Ruth Ozeki (such beautiful writing, and I’m all over novels featuring Japan) and have you seen the blurb for Kirsty Logan’s debut novel. Have you? Oh my.

What do you wish you got asked in these interviews, but never do?

What is your latest bookish discovery? (Today’s answer is The Book Ferret)

And because I always want to know the answer to this: what are you reading right now?

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun and Black Country by Liz Berry. 

If you’d like a signed copy of The Bookshop Book then you can order one directly from Jen, over here.  You can also find her hanging out at various places on the internet:

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Patrick Ness: More Than This

“A book… it’s a world all on its own too. A world made of words, where you live for a while.”

Anyone remember when I discovered John Green and feel hard into an author!crush that I am yet to recover from?

It’s happened again.

I have discovered – once again late to the party – Patrick Ness.

Last week I read More Than This, which, well I kind of want to tell you that there’s no other book like it, because I think that might be true. Read it then, for no other reason than that.

I read it because the front cover of my copy says that John Green is telling me to read it, and I love John Green. You should read it because it really is excellent.

A boy named Seth drowns, desperate and alone in his final moments, losing his life as the pounding sea claims him. But then he wakes. He is naked, thirsty, starving. But alive. How is that possible? He remembers dying, his bones breaking, his skull dashed upon the rocks. So how is he here? And where is this place? It looks like the suburban English town where he lived as a child, before an unthinkable tragedy happened and his family moved to America. But the neighborhood around his old house is overgrown, covered in dust, and completely abandoned. What’s going on? And why is it that whenever he closes his eyes, he falls prey to vivid, agonizing memories that seem more real than the world around him? Seth begins a search for answers, hoping that he might not be alone, that this might not be the hell he fears it to be, that there might be more than just this. . . .

It’s so good. So good. The kind of good that grabs hold of you from the word go and refuses to let go and had me sat there again, at 31 years old and marvelling at the quality of fiction out there for young adults right now. Seriously though. Were there books this good when I was stealing Danielle Steel off my Mum’s shelf and reading under the covers? (Not that I will ever admit to that if anyone asks.)
There’s a romance that breaks your heart (and kind of made me want to jump for joy because God, don’t we need more books out there where the sexuality of the character isn’t a thing that defines him, or drives the story; where it’s just a thing that is) and a story that breaks your brain. I want to use the word mindfuckery: every time you think you know where Ness is going, he changes direction and leaves you reeling.  You know what, I’m saying it: this book is a mindfuck. & I loved it. It’s hard to review, actually, because if I tell you too much then I’ll spoil it yet somehow saying ‘the beauty lies in the not having a damn clue what is even happening, just read it,’ feels like a cop out.
What I will tell you is that this is a book that will make you feel all the things. It will make you think and it will make you question and it will make you forget to eat and also sleep and it will make you feel all the things.

It’s a book that is equal parts plot and heart. It works for me I think, because I am always so much more compelled by tales that explore grief more than those that explore joy and you never get to relax into this story, it’s never easy, or happy.  You’re always on the edge because you just don’t know what’s coming next and throughout all the twists and turns, there’s this constant sense of an emotional connection: a weight in your chest, a knot in your tummy. A tear, in fact, in your eye.

“Real life is only ever just real life. Messy. What it means depends on how you look at it. The only thing you’ve got to do is find a way to live there.”

Also, the meta. THE META. Seth is so aware of how stories are told and how stories work and the way he interprets what he sees and how he feels; the questions he asks, even of himself, it’s just so damn clever, and it makes you question things in the same way: Seth’s journey of confusion and despair and fear and acceptance is a journey you find yourself going on with him and the question he’s asking are the questions you’re asking, about this book and every book and your life and it really is all very cleverly done. Things happen and Seth questions them, which makes you question them and this constant questioning makes the story less about the plot and more about the characters. 

It’s a book whose success lies in its excellent structure, its stunning narrative and its emotional core. It’s….I don’t know. I am just doing the typing of the words without even really knowing what point I’m even trying to make.  This review is a bad review. This book is a hard book to review.

Now that I’ve read it though, I want to get my hands on every word Patrick Ness has ever written and I want to devour each and every one of them. & I want to go out for coffee with him, if coffee is a thing he drinks, and I want to ask him just exactly how his brain works, because this book? It’s something special.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Bookshop Book


‘The Bookshop Book’ - blimey, I feel like I have been waiting for this book my whole life, but patience it seems is a virtue that really reaps its rewards because my copy, my beautiful, beautiful copy is here. I’ve held it in my hand and run my fingers over the lettering and smelled it (it smells marvellous FYI) and IT’S HERE.

This book you guys, seriously. This book.

It’s Jen’s love letter to books and bookshops everywhere, a tour of the best independent bookshops in the world (from the oldest to the smallest) coupled with contributions from literary greats including Ali Smith, Audrey Niffenegger, Ian Rankin, Jacqueline Wilson and so very many more (it’s even got a tiny snippet in by yours truly,) and the whole thing is marvellous. I’m very very excited to have my copy, and I’m very very excited for everybody else in the world to read it (release date is October 2nd, but you can preorder right now) not because Jen is A Very Nice Person, but because this book is something special.

I’m am beyond thrilled to have been involved, and I’ll be back, to talk about it properly once I’ve stopped flailing around and have sat down to read it from cover to cover but until then, you heard it here first: this book is, quite simply a little piece of magic.

(You might also want to spend a little time around these parts round and about release date, because of reasons...)

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Of Sheep and Cold Coffee

‘I seem,’ said our MD, in lieu of the more common greeting as he walked into the office at 8.30 this morning, (I used to call him my boss, but ‘don’t call me that,’ he’d say ‘we’re partners.’) ‘to have acquired five sheep.’

Nobody knows where the five sheep came from - although my bet’s on the not-usually-open gate. Either that or they jumped over the wall late last night whilst he was trying to sleep - or who they belong to.

‘The gate was open,’ he said with a shrug as he wandered through to his office, ‘I’ve closed it.’

Looks like the sheep are staying, then.

And so began another day at the office.

The thing about life in a small office is that it could easily lean towards the mundane. Day in, day out,  forever the same: the same handful of people; the same piles of paperwork; the same conversations. You’ve got to look for variety where you can find it. We find it, more often than not in little things like this - five sheep appearing from nowhere; the factory alarm being set off by a cat causing the aforementioned MD to wander around with a ten foot bamboo pole and a menacing expression calling ‘here, puss, puss, puss’; a Jack Russell chasing someone up a ladder; the time (horrifyingly) a mouse ran up the inside of my trouser leg. That was A Bad Day, but it goes with the territory I guess, of offices on a river bank, surrounded on two sides by fields and it was certainly something to talk about - we still joke about it now. Or rather, everybody else jokes about it. It still kind of makes me want to cry a little bit.

These breaks from the norm, these are the things that get us through the day. It’s probably also the reason I get my packages delivered to the office most times. When you have a pile of mail to open, most of which is invoices and remittance advices and bank statements and notifications from the telephone provider that your direct debit is increasing again, despite countless hours on debating just that, it kind of slows the slide to dullsville, when one of those packages contains (like it did today) a bangle quoting if nobody speaks of remarkable things. I slid it onto my wrist, smiled to myself and suddenly the afternoon’s task of chasing monies owed doesn’t seem quite so dismal.

It’s the little things (and it’s an exceptionally pretty bangle...)

Especially when the day is like today: dark and dismal and freezing cold. It’s dark outside, more like dusk than lunchtime and even in thick socks and a jumper I’m still shivering. The sustenance of a crisp butty (or sandwich, if you’re posh) is still not enough to send the goosebumps packing and the light from the fluorescent tubes that line the ceiling when coupled with the grey sky and rain, makes it feel decidedly wintry.  Artificial light, a sure sign that summer is decidedly over.

It’s the kind of day that calls for woolly socks and blankets, apple crumble and a good book but sadly (oh, how very sadly) none of those things pay the bills. Spending the day with Patrick Ness (his work, not his actual self), as much as I am loving him right now, will not ensure my mortgage is paid. What will is processing that order, and dealing with that client and completing the figures for that report all whilst trying not to throw a hissy fit because my nail polish has chipped (I got a french manicure for the wedding and it was so pretty, dammit) and wondering if September is too early to put on the heating. It’s the random appearance of 5 sheep that make it worth it sometimes, because unless you are one of the lucky few that are doing a job that makes you sing with joy, there is always always somewhere to be and something to do that is preferable to work. I’m just lucky I guess, that my boss - sorry, partner - is so adept at providing that much needed light relief.

‘One day,’ I tell him often, usually whilst trying my hardest not to double over with laughter, ‘I’m going to write a book about you.’ One day, perhaps I will. Til’ then, I’ll sit here with my crisp butty and cold coffee and wonder if anybody has noticed yet that they’re missing five sheep.

Friday, 19 September 2014

My Best Friend's Wedding

I'm writing this in bed, where I am laid in plaid PJ pants and a t-shirt which proudly declares me to be 'chief bridesmaid and which I own because my best friend got married last Friday. 

That's right boys and girls, my best friend is a wife.

Although the wedding was last Friday, it was entirely possible when I woke for work on Monday morning that I was still, in fact, hungover - on Saturday following the wedding, I opened my eyes and wondered briefly if I had died, making my way down to breakfast where the Father of the Bride grinned at me and said 'I hope you feel as awful as you look' (I love that man) - if not still hungover by Monday then I was definitely still the kind of tired that you only ever are after a truly excellent night and too much alcohol. Even now I still feel like I could sleep for a week. We started on the fizzy stuff at around half past 10 on Friday morning, my glass wasn't empty until gone 1am Saturday and I may not be 100% sure where my dignity is. Probably on the dancefloor. There was a lot of dancing.

What I am 100% sure of is that Helen was the most beautiful bride I've ever seen and I was beyond honoured to stand by her side on her big day. 

It was one of the best days of my life. 

When you have a friend that's as excellent as Helen then you find yourself wanting, more than anything, for them to find true happiness. When they do, and you get to stand by their side and watch as they promise to try to be that happy for the rest of ever and always, well, it's a pretty fabulous feeling. 
Helen and Dan just sort, and the look in his eyes when he married her on Friday kind of made me want to cry.

In fact, sack 'kind of made me want to' - I cried. I'm not ashamed to say it.

Helen was a remarkably chilled out bride, I feel you should know that. Not a hint of Bridezilla in sight, even for a second. Not all brides can claim that. If I ever get married I can only hope to be as chill as her. 
One of the things she asked of me was to give a reading at the wedding. One I had written myself. She asked me after I'd had wine and I cried. My mum whispered in my ear 'you can do this' and I figured that yes, I could.  I don't think I had quite grasped at that point that effectively I was writing a speech that I had to give in front of close to 100 people. Not that I regret it. Not a chance. I was petrified, to the point that I felt sick and my hands hurt but it never crossed my mind for a minute to say no, or to back out. Out of those 100 people she had asked me: I felt honoured. & I always have a lot to say - even if I do generally say it in writing rather than out loud. Writing it was easy, and reading it, once I was up there doing it was much less hard than I thought it would be. I almost cried, very nearly lost it twice, but I made it through. I think it was a success. I don't have a lot of money and was never going to be able to afford an expensive wedding gift; I kind of hope then, that my words last Friday let Helen know how much she matters to me, how much I love her,  how truly happy I am that she has found Dan, and that I wish them the very happiest of lives together. 

Helen was a beautiful bride; Dan a handsome groom. The venue was lovely, the whole place felt full of love and laughter and as I danced the night away in my bridesmaid dress, my shoes abandoned somewhere and wine glass in hand, I felt certain I was a part of something special. It was a day I know that I will always look back on with a smile and above all it was a day that marked the start of a brand new chapter for Helen and Dan. 

It's where the fairytale always ends, the wedding, but I can't help think that ending,  really, is just the beginning. 

And they all lived happily ever after. 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The Ice Bucket Challenge (and why I’m not doing it)

I wonder, sometimes (lots of times) if I’m maybe getting a little crotchety now I’ve hit that 30 mark, if perhaps somewhere along the line I’ve lost my sense of ‘fun.’ My Facebook feed, just like most I imagine, has been over-run lately with videos of the ALS ice bucket challenge and the whole thing is just making me think things.

Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely nothing against raising both awareness and money (I conceded and took part in the ‘no make-up selfie’ earlier this year) and I think anything which at its heart is about those two things can only be A Good Thing.
ALS (or MND as we know it in the UK) is a horrible horrible condition, and it’s close to my heart: my Auntie lost her Mum to MND, and my cousins their grandmother. I know how awful it is, and there is no doubt at all that the £48 million donated to the cause worldwide since the ice bucket challenge started is excellent. If you want to take part, if you want to pour a bucket of ice cold water over your head in the name of charity then be my guest. I applaud you. I offer to you the highest of fives.

I shan’t be joining in, though.

Call me a spoilsport, or a killjoy, or a wimp. Call me what you will, but here’s the thing, I just think it’s gone a little crazy. I give to charity; I have a direct debit set up to the charity of my choice. I make a donation every single month and have done for ten years. I just don’t like being made to feel like I have to do something, that if I don’t do it then I will be judged or called out.  I’ve seen a couple of other people refuse the challenge - refuse the challenge but still make a generous donation - which surely is the point, right?
‘Not good enough’ the comments declare, ‘the forfeit for not taking part is £100.’

The forfeit? I do not like this, not one little bit (said the fish in the bowl to the cat in the hat etcetera)  Then, 24 hours the videos tell me. 24 hours, or what exactly? The whole thing feels too much like peer pressure and I don’t like that.

Charity isn’t about giving (and dousing yourself in cold water) because you feel like you have to. It’s about those who have a little more than they need, giving whatever they can to a cause that needs it. Raising money and awareness is admirable, but feeling obliged to do something just because a bucketload (pun intended) of people on the internet are doing the same and making me feel like I have to? It just doesn’t feel right.
It’s not a challenge; it’s a dare. I don’t like to be dared.

If I’m going to give to charity – like I already do – then I want it to be my choice. If I want to do a run, or even dump a bucket of iced water over my head and raise money by doing so then I will. But don’t make me feel like I have no choice, don’t make me feel like I will be ridiculed for not taking part, don’t make me feel bad.
& before you start, this has nothing to do with the discomfort of the icy cold water of the challenge, and everything to do with the discomfort of the situation.

Something else? There is something inherently wrong I think, in giving to one group of people in needs whilst laughing in the face of another. California at the moment is in the middle of one of the worst droughts ever recorded – taps have dried up and water wastage is being fined – but even that is nothing in comparison to the millions of people who are dying all the time because they don’t have access to clean water and here we are, millions of us who have an endless supply of water at our fingertips, literally pouring it away. For….charity. The figures I read claimed approx. 5 people per day die from MND in the UK alone, which is terrible. The number of deaths from having no access to clean water though? Closer to 3.5million a year. It kind of makes you think a little, doesn’t it?

I’ve made my donation to MND (text ICED55 and your amount to 70070 if you want to do the same. It really is a very worthy cause) and I’ve made a small donation to wateraid too, but that bucket of water? It’s staying full.

in which I have a wifi free weekend.

Hello folks!

I write today feeling much more relaxed than I may have been had I posted last week. Ian and I spent the bank holiday weekend in the Cotswolds with some friends and two of their three children. It was, as they say, just what the Doctor ordered. There’s just something about time spent with good friends. You know how there are some people who you just kind of click with, who it doesn't matter how long it is between visits, when you do get together it's like no time has passed? That's what it's like with these guys and the whole weekend was just full of laughter, so much that I gave myself a stitch, and finishing each others sentences and so much food.
The kids are the greatest too. Millie (she's 12) borrowed her Mum’s phone to text while we were stuck in traffic (hours and hours on theM6. Awful.)
'I'm at your service' she said 'if you want me then start your text pineapple; if you want mum then start it grapes.'  How utterly fabulous. She painted my nails, and Ian and Flynn played Top Trumps for hours and it was just, it was the best of times.

Mark is working in the Cotswolds at the moment filming the third series of Father Brown for the BBC (which you should totally watch, because it, and Mark, are excellent. The Radio Times described him as ‘a joy’ on a review of series two, which is always nice,) and we headed down for his birthday on Friday. We spent the weekend in a property owned by the Landmark Trust. The Castle, as we affectionately called it, was immense. It was actually the old banqueting suite of an old Jacobean house in Chipping Campden: the only part of the house left standing after a fire in 1645. Amazing.  When we arrived, Flynn (10) put a hand consolingly on my arm and sighed heavily. 'Theres no wifi. It's like the olden days.'

No wifi; little telephone signal; overstuffed armchairs that begged to be occupied by a girl (being me) and her book; a massive dining table fit for a King (or if not a King then more than fit for us); grounds big enough that when the boys took off to try out a new boomerang they became little more than specks in the distance; and a pub within walking distance. You see why we loved it?

Access could only be gained through a padlocked gate and a walk through the fields that had once been the grounds, and as you walked, the East Banqueting House –our weekend home – loomed, both imposing and inviting in the distance.

The house, built by Sir Baptist Hicks (financier in his day of the lavish court of James I) was one of the grandest houses of it’s era and today, despite being destroyed by fire so that the gateway and the two banqueting houses are all that remain, is classed as one of the most important Jacobean sites in the country. Fancy, huh? It felt a little bit like going back in time.

The banqueting houses would originally have been used as places of retreat after a main meal, used solely for drinking wine and eating cake. This, I thought, is the life. A whole wing of a house just for drinking wine and eating cake? Clearly I was born in the wrong era.

We all ooh-ed and ahh-ed as we climbed the spiral staircase from the small kitchen to the banqueting hall.  ‘This place’ Mark said, flinging open the huge wooden doors onto what would have been the terrace and taking a seat at the dining table, ‘is crying out for a Sunday roast.’

& so we silenced its cry. Granted, it wasn’t quite as it would have been, back in the day (although it definitely felt like we had retreated, from life if not from just another wing of our super fancy home, and there was wine. & cake,) and I wonder if that old table had ever seen so much food. We ate and ate and ate, all weekend: large breakfasts and plates piled high with pasta and then Sunday lunch and SO MUCH DESSERT.  Ian has a lifelong hatred of bananas. He had three helpings of banoffee pie. This was the banqueting house after all and blimey, Emma can cook.

As there was no TV Ian commandeered my book – I was re-reading Oryx and Crake – so I decided to acquaint myself with Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower. I say ‘decided’ but what I actually mean is Mark said ‘have you read it yet’ and I said ‘no I’ll start it right away.’

Anyway, that’s what I read. 

I liked it.

Set in 18th century Germany, it’s the true story of (slightly crackers) philosophy student Fritz (later to become the poet Novalis) as he meets and decides he must marry ‘his philosophy,’ 12 year old Sophie – plain, simple and not at all a match for his brilliance. It’s well written and subtle. There’s no…demand for enjoyment I guess? None of the characters are written especially favourably, and there’s very little in the way of sentimentality but still, you’re drawn to the people – the Von Hardenburgs and Karoline especially – and sucked into the story. Fitzgerald’s style of storytelling is rather different, here at least; the book is short at around 225 pages and you feel as though every word has been carefully considered and placed, so at times it feels sparse and a little lacking in atmosphere and yet, and yet, at the same time it has a certain quality to it that keeps you turning the pages, you have to sort of just sit back and read it - don’t try too hard or look too deeply.
It begins, rather excellently, with the Von Hardenburg biyearly wash-day and it continues with these little insights, descriptions, snippets of dialogue that make you see just why this book is so highly thought of (nominated more than any other as Book of the Year 1995 by all accounts)

Apparently, when asked how she might celebrate the novel winning the National Book Critics Circle award, Fitzgerald replied, ‘well I certainly shan’t do any ironing today.’ I think that’s rather excellent.

It’s not my book of the year, it won’t even make the top five, but it’s a good read, and an interesting one. I’m glad Mark pushed me to read it. Cheers, mate.

[Fitzgerald didn’t publish anything til she was 60 as a by the by – perhaps there’s hope for me yet!]

In other news, before I go, I hope you’re all getting excited for The Bookshop Book! Just over a month til publication day! *happy dance*  I am very excited about this book, if you weren’t aware!
There’s all sorts of fun stuff going on over at Jen’s Facebook page of late actually, including a rather fabulous book club. You ought to check it out: