Browse a bookshop: Halcyon Books, south-east London

A weekly look at what’s selling around the country

Halcyon Books began as a stall in Greenwich market before expanding into two family-run bookshops in Greenwich and Lewisham. “Our family always had a passion for books,” says the owner Matt Hubbard who recalls selling books on the market stall with his parents. “The Lewisham shop specialises in secondhand art, architecture and design books, and stocks modern literary fiction and classics at £2 each, and children’s and teen books at £1 each. We also have an enclosed garden, seating to read or work at, and delicious homemade cakes.”

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Browse a bookshop: Libreria Poetry Bookshop, London

Top sellers and recommended reads from a new player on the London poetry scene

“The new poetry outpost of Libreria bookshop is small but perfectly formed. We’ve set it up with Faber & Faber and have titles from many independent publishers. So much that’s exciting about poetry is happening with the independents,” says co-founder Rohan Silva. “The electronic age isn’t always great for creativity – poetry helps you slow down, and think a bit more deeply. We launched with the Second Home poetry festival. Poetry can seem very intimidating and old school and we really want to smash that up. We’re always trying to get new audiences into our spaces. I hope our bookshop reflects the diversity of literary talent.”

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Browse a bookshop: Far from the Madding Crowd

Top sellers and recommended reads from Linlithgow

“We’re located in the heart of Linlithgow, a historic market town in central Scotland,” says Sally Pattle, who was shortlisted as bookseller of the year in this year’s British book awards. “Our name reflects our ethos of providing an escape from the hustle and bustle. It’s a family business,” she says. “My mum bought the shop when it was tiny. Now we also run two festivals, including a free schools festival – last year, over 1,500 kids attended. It was hugely rewarding. Every independent bookshop is a bit different, that’s what makes us such interesting places. Our storytelling rabbit, BB, is the most loved member of staff!”

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Browse a bookshop: The Tree House Bookshop, Kenilworth

Top sellers and recommended reads from Warwickshire

“The Tree House was opened on the back of a crowdfunding campaign and we are a non-profit secondhand bookshop and arts venue. The aim is to keep books accessible, and to bring people together,” says owner Victoria Mier. “We have tables where people can sit and read, a piano and lots of events including gigs. We are the coolest bookshop in the world because we have the coolest patron: musician Warren Ellis of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and the Dirty Three. It’s called Tree House, as I loved the idea of the bookshop being like a den, retreat or social hub and nature is important to me. We have a crowdfunding campaign to put a copy of The Lost Words into every primary school in Coventry and Warwickshire.”

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Browse a bookshop: The Gutter Bookshop, Dublin

Top sellers and recommendations from the Irish capital

The Gutter Bookshop takes its name and ethos from Oscar Wilde: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” As owner Bob Johnston explains: “It opened in 2009 in Dublin’s popular Temple Bar district, in the middle of a recession. A second shop followed in Dalkey, a small seaside town in south Dublin.” It won independent bookshop of the year (UK and Ireland) at the British Book awards 2017 and its busy events programme includes six different book clubs.

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Browse a bookshop: Five Leaves, Nottingham

Top sellers and recommended reads from the East Midlands

“Five Leaves has always seen diversity (class, gender, age, sexuality and race) as important – in its staff, stocking policy, events,” says bookseller Jane Anger. “It reflects the world, and community, that we live in. Our most popular sections are politics, feminism and our very large poetry section.” And with a reputation for innovative book-related events, it has set up a national feminist book fortnight (16-30 June).

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In brief: Sal, The Little Book of Feminist Saints, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – reviews

Mick Kitson has a moving tale of sisterhood and survival, Julia Pierpont runs the rule over 100 female trailblazers, and Reni Eddo-Lodge reflects on race relations in modern Britain

Sal
Mick Kitson
Canongate, 12.99, pp240

Survival is all for two half-sisters, 13-year-old Sal and 10-year-old Peppa, who escape from a violent home in a small town near Glasgow and move to the wilderness of Scotland. The atmospheric story opens just before dawn and, in Sal’s distinctive voice, details their day-to-day efforts to find food, shelter and warmth using information gleaned from YouTube videos, the SAS handbook and an Ordnance Survey map. There are traumatic memories, too – of beatings and bruises, threats of the sisters being separated by social services, and how Sal killed her abusive stepfather before the two girls fled. A vivid, moving tale about the strength of sisterhood and the struggle to survive.

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In brief: Swell, The Hoarder, Daphne – reviews

Jenny Landreth’s swimming memoir plunges into issues of equality, Jess Kidd delves into a world of hidden secrets, and Will Boast gives Greek myth a 21st-century twist

Swell: A Waterbiography
Jenny Landreth
Bloomsbury, £9.99 (paperback)

Swimming, believes Jenny Landreth, “can be a barometer for women’s equality”. Here she tells the fascinating story of the inspirational “swimming suffragettes” who went the extra mile, splashing and smashing through convention. Last week marked the centenary of some women gaining the right to vote, and Swell shows how other rights were denied, too – it wasn’t until the 1930s that women had equal access to swimming pools. Social history is interspersed with memoir of the author’s life in water, from being unable to swim (“the gush of panic at being out of my depth”), to adventures in night swimming. It’s a pleasure to be immersed in this educative, entertaining “waterbiography”, capturing how the ...

A Chill in the Air by Iris Origo review – trauma and survival in war-torn Italy

One of 20th century’s great diarists provides an unflinching chronicle of life in Mussolini’s Italy

Loss haunted the life of one of the 20th century’s great diarists, Iris Origo, who, in her vivid, pared-down prose style learned to turn that loss into memorable lines of literature. “There is no greater grief than that of parting,” she wrote about her father’s death when she was just seven years old. Origo’s own child, Gianni, died of meningitis when he was also seven.

Origo is known here for her bestselling War in Val d’Orcia. In its precursor, A Chill in the Air, published here for the first time, Origo’s urgent prose captures Italy in turmoil in the years 1939-40, and her complex feelings about her adopted country being at war with her native one. Born in England in 1902, as a child she lived peripatetically between England, Ireland, Italy and America, settling ...

A Chill in the Air by Iris Origo review – trauma and survival in war-torn Italy

One of 20th century’s great diarists provides an unflinching chronicle of life in Mussolini’s Italy

Loss haunted the life of one of the 20th century’s great diarists, Iris Origo, who, in her vivid, pared-down prose style learned to turn that loss into memorable lines of literature. “There is no greater grief than that of parting,” she wrote about her father’s death when she was just seven years old. Origo’s own child, Gianni, died of meningitis when he was also seven.

Origo is known here for her bestselling War in Val d’Orcia. In its precursor, A Chill in the Air, published here for the first time, Origo’s urgent prose captures Italy in turmoil in the years 1939-40, and her complex feelings about her adopted country being at war with her native one. Born in England in 1902, as a child she lived peripatetically between England, Ireland, Italy and America, settling ...

21st-Century Yokel by Tom Cox review – entertaining ramble through English folklore

Cox ponders the relationship between people and place in this amusing hybrid of nature writing, memoir and history

Unbound’s fastest-ever crowdfunded title, reaching its target in just seven hours, Tom Cox’s ninth book favours an altogether slower tempo. A hybrid of nature writing, memoir and social history, it rambles, leisurely, through the English countryside, often pausing to ponder the relationship between people and place. The author, who runs several comic social media accounts, is an astute observer of character, and there are several funny and poignant scenes with his family. His writing is at its best, though, when he turns his gaze on the animal kingdom: bats, bees and owls appear throughout, and there is a memorable search for an escaped lynx. And while Cox’s entertaining walk through English folklore is digressive, he keeps us with him for the whole journey.

21st-Century Yokel by Tom Cox is published ...

Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd – review

The Scottish writer’s social concerns and love of nature are at the heart of Charlotte Peacock’s intriguing biography

It was through reading The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane that Charlotte Peacock first discovered the Scottish writer Nan Shepherd and her masterpiece of nature writing The Living Mountain. An account of her journeys into the harsh, beautiful Cairngorm mountains written in the 1940s, it remained unpublished until 1977. Intrigued by the enigmatic Shepherd, Peacock began researching her, resulting in this engrossing first biography.

“It’s a grand thing to get leave to live,” wrote Shepherd, words that now appear on the Royal Bank of Scotland’s £5 note. Throughout, the author traces how Shepherd’s life flowed into her literature, tackling topics of class and gender in her three novels. She also elucidates how Shepherd so compellingly conveyed “what it means to be” and grappled with the question: how does it feel to be fully alive? Best of ...

Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World by Lyndall Gordon – review

This fascinating book takes us deep into the minds, and works, of Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf

“Like many as a child, I made friends with characters in books,” writes Lyndall Gordon, and the characters she was most drawn to were outsiders. This fascinating work explores the lives of five female novelists who were outsiders: Mary Shelley (the “prodigy”), Emily Brontë (the “visionary”), George Eliot (the “outlaw”), Olive Schreiner (the “orator”), and Virginia Woolf (“the explorer”). “I knew about pity for those set apart,” writes Gordon of her own childhood, growing up with an ill mother, but she succeeds in showing not only the pain but “the possibilities of the outsider” who uses their apartness to see the world afresh. While distinctive in their voices, these writers also converge “in their hatred of our violent world”, exposing both domestic and systemic violence. The strength ...

The Zoo by Christopher Wilson review – secrets and lies in 50s Moscow

A compelling young narrator recounts a powerful, moving adventure set during Stalin’s final daysA gift for creating compelling outsiders resonates throughout Christopher Wilson’s , such as Mischief, The Ballad of Lee Cotton and Blueglass. His latest, The Zoo, is narrated by 12-year-old Yuri, who is left brain-damaged after a road accident. In a first-person voice reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, we learn of Yuri’s life in 1950s Moscow, where his father (mother is absent) is a veterinarian at the city zoo. When the latter is bizarrely ordered to attend a very human (and very important patient), things take a perilous turn for the guileless boy, who finds himself central to the tumultuous power struggles of Stalin’s last days. Engrossing and very moving. • The Zoo by Christopher Wilson is published by Faber (£12.99). To order a copy for £11....

The Zoo by Christopher Wilson review – secrets and lies in 50s Moscow

A compelling young narrator recounts a powerful, moving adventure set during Stalin’s final daysA gift for creating compelling outsiders resonates throughout Christopher Wilson’s , such as Mischief, The Ballad of Lee Cotton and Blueglass. His latest, The Zoo, is narrated by 12-year-old Yuri, who is left brain-damaged after a road accident. In a first-person voice reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, we learn of Yuri’s life in 1950s Moscow, where his father (mother is absent) is a veterinarian at the city zoo. When the latter is bizarrely ordered to attend a very human (and very important patient), things take a perilous turn for the guileless boy, who finds himself central to the tumultuous power struggles of Stalin’s last days. Engrossing and very moving. • The Zoo by Christopher Wilson is published by Faber (£12.99). To order a copy for £11....

Greatest Hits review – ought to be a smash

Laura Barnett’s clever book about a reclusive singer-songwriter telling the story of her life is engaging and emotionally chargedThe boundaries between literature and music have always been fascinatingly porous. Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel prize sparked a lively dialogue about where one form ends and the other begins, and this ambitious novel continues that debate. Laura Barnett tests the boundaries both in theme – the book is the fictional biography of British singer-songwriter Cass Wheeler – and in form, through her collaboration with Mercury-nominated singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams, who has set the book’s lyrics to music for a separately released studio album.  Barnett is clearly drawn to the “concept novel”: her bestselling debut, The Versions of Us, tracked a romance through three parallel worlds, drawing comparisons with Sliding Doors. Here, she starts each chapter with one of 16 songs chosen by Cass, now in her mid-60s ...

Dig If You Will The Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince – review

Ben Greenman’s account of the late musician’s life and legacy, and his own fandom, will prompt readers to listen anewThe author was 11 years old when he developed a passion for Prince but his parents threw away his records, which did not deter him: he remained a lifelong Prince obsessive. His engrossing new book is a portrait of the artist as a young man and a fully fledged star, as well as a portrait of how it feels to be a fan. Beginning at the end, with hearing the news of Prince’s death, Greenman explores Prince’s musical journey from childhood (“Early on, he took solace in music”) to fame, tackling topics such as racial, cultural and sexual identity. It’s not the whole picture but vivid parts of it. Continue reading...

Reni Eddo-Lodge: ‘Racism is structural: its purpose is to consolidate power’

The London-based author on her racial awakening – and the books that made her an activist and writer Why are you no longer talking to white people about race?
I was exhausted – it’s difficult to have a conversation about the nuances of a problem with people who don’t believe there is a problem any more. Racism is a huge part of our history and continues to shape our lives in so many ways, subtle and unsubtle. But in talking to white people about race, I found them believing everything was fine and interpreting me as if I were saying they were racist. I wrote a blog about this communication gap. The reaction was massive – many were saying “I feel like this too”, which speaks of a messed-up situation in society. This book grew out of that blog. The book is about the conversations people have, but also the ...

The Walworth Beauty by Michèle Roberts review – London past and present meet

Victorian vice and contemporary life entwine in Roberts’s lyrical latest workTwo time frames are skilfully linked in Michèle Roberts’s latest novel. In London in 1851, Joseph has been employed by the social reformer Henry Mayhew to help research his articles, which entails interviewing prostitutes in Southwark. Meanwhile in 2011, Madeleine loses her job as a lecturer and moves into the same neighbourhood, where she is haunted by echoes of history. In a book filled with streetwalkers wandering through London (the city “alive as a strange creature”), the author peels away the layers of place to reveal the past pulsing within. The river snakes through this story, but as well as London’s pathways and waterways, Roberts explores the human heart and, in lyrical language, locates beauty in unexpected places. Continue reading...

My Name Is Leon by Kit de Waal review – moving story of racial injustice

Skilfully drawn characters and emotions lend great power to this story of institutional racism in 80s Britain“Careful” is the first word spoken in this moving debut novel, as a nurse places a newborn baby into the arms of eight-year-old Leon. The nurse and Leon’s mother then leave the boy alone with the baby and he starts to tell him the story of his life. The brothers share a mother but have different fathers (“I look like my dad. Mum says he’s coloured but Dad says he’s black but they’re both wrong because he’s dark brown and I’m light brown”). The new baby has “dusty blue” eyes, blonde hair and white skin. The difference in their skin colour will come to define the course of their futures in a searing story cutting to the quick of race relations in 1980s Britain. The theme of carefulness – and carelessness – permeates ...