Friday, 28 June 2013

Celebrating all that's independent

 Letters to Klaus and The Bookshop Strikes Back

Tomorrow, Saturday 29th June 2013, is Old Town Party day in Banbury AND the start of Independent Booksellers Week 2013 (IBW) and our big Where's Wally hunt around Banbury. Ain't the summertime brilliant?

IBW is great. It celebrates the best of everything independent - and let's face it, isn't being independent so much better than being reliant, or cloned, or unadventurous? Every year publishers bring out a special array of IBW collectibles - specially published books only available from independent bookshops around the country. No really, it's true. Go online (oh, hello, you're online already if you're reading my blog, durr) and check it out - you can only buy these treasures from indies.

I've picked two appealing titles to hone in on this year. I reckon booklovers amongst you are going to love them both.

Letters to Klaus - front cover

The first is utterly irresistible. One day 30-odd years ago Klaus Flugge, founder of Andersen Press, had a letter from his friend David McKee which arrived in an envelope illustrated with McKee's distinctive artwork. A trend had begun. As Flugge proudly displayed these illustrated envelopes in his office, more and more came in and were just as proudly added to the display. Letters to Klaus - no, it's not another Christmassy book I promise - is a compilation of 100 of these wonderful envelopes. Feast your eyes on previously unseen art by David McKee, Tony Ross, Ralph Steadman - gosh it sounds like I'm name-dropping here - Susan Varley, Fulvio Testa, Axel Scheffler, Chris Riddell - shall I tempt you with some more?... - Philippe Dupasquier, Satoshi Kitamura, Posy Simmonds, Max Velthuijs...

Axel Scheffler - Letter to Klaus

I haven't seen a proper hand-written letter for years so this book delights me on many levels: the art of letter writing isn't dead, yay!, that's one; the art of producing beautiful illustrated books isn't dead either, huzzah!; indie booksellers get the sole opportunity of spreading the word about this wonderful book; and, and, and all the proceeds from the sale of this book go to Save the Children. It's got to be a winner! Klaus agrees that the printed book is under challenge from other media at the moment but goes on to say that he hopes and believes, '...that picture books will continue to be enjoyed and shared for many generations to come.' Well, if they're all as lovely as this one, that shouldn't prove to be too challenging.

The second IBW collectible I've chosen, well it had to be done; it's Ann Patchett's little essay The Bookshop Strikes Back

Ann Patchett - The Bookshop Strikes Back

Who better to champion the indie bookshop and the future of the printed book than author AND independent bookshop owner Ann Patchett:
'If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore. If you feel that the experience of reading a book is valuable, then read the book. This is how we change the world: we grab hold of it. We change ourselves.' (p.20)
 It's a little essay so I'm not going to tell you all about it! Needless to say it's a heartwarming and optimistic read. In 2011 Ann Patchett bucked the trend and opened an independent bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee. Disappointed to wake up one morning and find that her city no longer had a bookshop - not a chain, nothing - Ann slowly came around to the idea of doing something about it. Parnassus books is now a roaring success and it's on my 'must see if I ever take a world tour of fabulous bookshops' list.

It's just a little essay, it's really good, it's only going to cost you £1.99 - and by buying it you're supporting an independent bookshop and helping them to stay open. Go on. I think you'll enjoy it.

They are both lovely little books. Since it's Independent Booksellers Week it's time to give my bookshop a plug and to let you know that I have limited stocks available of both of these titles. They're only available in the shop, or you can email if you'd like us to reserve copies for you. Letters to Klaus is £6.99 and all proceeds go to Save the Children.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

My Top Children's Books Tour - begins with...

by Johanna Spyri

There are countless different websites and blogs with Top 20 books for children, Top 10, Top 100... there is something timeless and appealing about books we read as children and about books we read to our children, so there are no shortage of results if you type 'top children's books' into an internet search. I would like to share with you some of the books that have most inspired me - children's books I loved, adored even, when I was a child and children's books that I have come to love since them; all of which have touched me in some way. My choices may not necessarily be considered the best of their genre but they are, however, my best.

1950s Puffin edition of Heidi
I’ve loved Heidi for almost as long as I can remember. I was a quiet, introspective child and learned to read long before I went to school. Although I loved to be read to I could just as happily read to myself and loved poring over the young children’s books on weekly trips to the library. I adored my own small library of (mostly second-hand) books and treated them reverently, even when I was very young. By my 10th birthday when asked what I wanted for my birthday the most important thing in the world was a bookcase for my books. Not just any bookcase. Even by this age, more than anything else, I wanted a bookcase with glass doors to keep the paper and pages nice and dust-free and to stop the paper going brown and brittle. Quite how I had worked this out I have no idea but I was very determined and the trip to the Weedon antiques centre and my resulting find of a small mismatched stripped pine and ash bookcase, with its very own lock and key, remains one of my most treasured possessions. 

Ladybird edition of Heidi, read it yourself series
The first Heidi I fell in love with was in the rather bossily-named ‘read it yourself’ ladybird books series. This Heidi had ash blond pigtails and is pictured hugging an adorable white goat and clutching a bunch of daisies on the front cover. I re-read this particular version over and over and over again and would say it was an equal ladybird favourite (together with about 5 others, including Thumbelina, The Princess and the Frog and Cinderella). 

Dean & Son Abridged Heidi, 1975

My next Heidi was a 1975 Dean picture book version which came from Daventry’s one and only toy shop of the day, Merretts. It had a lot more text than my ladybird version but an abbreviated story which ended when Heidi returned to the mountains, therefore missing out one of my favourite parts of the story – Clara’s visit to Heidi’s mountain home. I still managed to re-read it many, many times.

Every year for my birthday my mum would give me a lovely new book, or if I was very lucky more than one, and for my 9th birthday I was presented with a matching 3 volume Collins set of the Heidi stories in hardbacks, with lovely colourful dust jackets. I was enchanted. Even now, after all these years and much re-reading, they still look almost as good as new, except for the lovely birthday inscriptions just inside the front covers.  I adored all three books, but the original Heidi – the only one penned by Johanna Spyri – has always been my favourite.
1980s Collins Children's Classics edition of Heidi
The very best and most enduring children’s stories are essentially timeless. First published in Switzerland in 1880, Heidi is certainly one of these. The English translation in my 1980s edition was first published in the mid-1950s and it reads just as well to me now as it did when I was a child. It’s simple but not simplified, with descriptions that leap off the page and straight into your imagination as you’re reading.

Orphaned as a baby, Heidi is brought up by her Aunt Dete until Dete wishes to go off to a job she has secured in Frankfurt and takes the then five-year-old Heidi up the mountains to live with her gruff grandfather in a simple mountain cottage where he has isolated himself from the rest of society for some years. Heidi finds delight and freedom in the mountain landscape, the goats, her goatherd friend Peter and her kindly grandfather, so is distraught when her Aunt Dete returns for her a few years later and takes her off to Frankfurt to be a companion to a frail invalid girl a few years older than herself, called Clara. Heidi is a buoyant and resilient little girl so tries to make the best of this new situation, becoming firm friends with Clara and her grandmother and enjoying a few escapades in her new home in Frankfurt. However, as time goes on, Heidi pines away with longing for her mountain home, her beloved grandfather and her other friends. Heidi's new family send her back to the mountains but this time with some added accomplishments which make her even more of a delightful child to her grandfather and those around her. She has learned to be more of a help at home, she has learned to read beautifully so she can read psalms to Peter’s grandmother and she has learned to have faith and say her prayers. She brings delight to everyone on her return home and as she regains her health and strength she looks forward with excitement to her friend Clara’s visit to stay with her the following year. The mountain air is sure to improve Clara’s health and perhaps it will help her bereaved friend, the Frankfurt doctor, to overcome his grief as well.

It’s a beautiful warm story and one I can re-read over and over again. I have since read some interesting snippets about Johanna Spyri – that her marriage may not have been an entirely happy one, that she suffered from depression, that her mother’s religiosity may have been overbearing when she was growing up, that she was friends with Wagner, and that she wrote a lot of stories (maybe 50-70 stories altogether). I would very much like to discover more about this wonderful author and am seeking a biography of her in English translation, so if you’re reading this and know of one please do let me know. In the meantime I’m off to track down some more of her children’s stories. Perhaps I’ll start with Vinzi, A Story of the Swiss Alps; or will it be Mazli, A Story of the Swiss Valleys

I’ll never be too old for a good children’s book...

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Raymond Peynet and his Famous Lovers

It's been a while but I'm back and I've returned with an article about Raymond Peynet; a timely piece all about 'Les Amoureux de Peynet', possibly the most romantic cartoon characters ever created.

You may recognise them, or your parents or grandparents may recognise them... 1950s / 1960s France knew all about Peynet. Kaye Webb of Perpetua (publishers) and wife of the cartoon artist Ronald Searle, first published Peynet's Lovers in the UK in the 1950s.

By the 1970s interest had spread further afield and an Italian film was released with a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, 'Il giro del mondo degli innamorati di Peynet' (1974). Peynet memorabilia became a common sight by the 70s with the lovers appearing on all sorts of items from scarves, to jewellery, china and more. Collections of his drawings were published in 13 countries. The Japanese kept this love of Peynet's drawing alive into the 1990s and in 1995 commemorated the lovers with a bronze statue and Peynet-style bandstand in Hiroshima, and the 90s also saw major exhibitions of Peynet's work in both Paris and London. The Japanese have a Peynet museum in Karuizawa, Nagano; with further Peynet museums are to be found in France - in Antibes and Auvergne.

Here are a few of my Peynet favourites:

"Oh, how this music transports me!" (The Lovers' Bedside Book, Perpetua 1956)

"3D glasses, explanatory booklets, aspirin..." (The Lovers' Bedside Book, Perpetua 1956)

"Please, don't stop playing" (The Lovers' Travelogue, Perpetua 1955)

Peynet's lovers proved the inspiration for George Brassens's song, 'Les amoureux des bancs publics' and Charles Aznavour wrote a song for Marcel Amont inspired by the Lovers, 'Les Amoureux de papier'.

I'm convinced that Peynet's lovers must have inspired another favourite cartoonist of mine, New Zealand cartoonist Kim Casali (née Grove) and her wonderful 'Love is...' cartoons, at the peak of their popularity in the 1970s (I sense another blog post coming on...).

But where did it all begin?

Born in Paris on the 16th November 1908, Raymond must have showed early promise and was admitted to the École des Arts Appliqués in Paris at the age of 15. From there he went on to work at a Parisian advertising agency, Tolmer, known for their Deco-style adverts and their appealing modern designs of the 1920s and 30s. His first cartoon was published in a magazine for English Parisians, 'The Boulvardier' and in 1930 he married Denise Damour (what a wonderfully appropriate surname, especially as she must have been Raymond's muse).

In 1942 the famous lovers were conceived. Raymond sketched a beautiful bandstand on a visit to the town of Valence in the Rhône and added in the characters of a violinist playing to a young lady. These were later altered into the charming little poet and his lady love and thus 'Les Amoureux de Peynet' were born.

Raymond Peynet continued to work well into his eighties and died in 1999, three years after his wife Denise.

If any readers know where to find the 1974 film 'Il giro del mondo degli innamorati di Peynet' then please do let me know as I would love to track it down. In the meantime I'll leave you with a few more romantic cartoons:

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons by Gerald Durrell

Like many readers I'm sure, my first encounter with Gerald Durrell was with My Family and Other Animals which I read many years ago. Just recently I stumbled across this copy of Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons and was drawn by the eye-catching cover (illustrated by Edward Mortelmans) and the curious title - pink pigeons, really?

So. Yes. To answer the most important question; there is indeed such a thing as a pink pigeon - and you'll have to take a trip to Mauritius if you'd like to see one... oh, okay - or Jersey zoo (wildlife park).

Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons is Gerald Durrell's account of his first sustained overseas conservation efforts for his animal sanctuary in Jersey; his expeditions to Mauritius to help prevent the extinction of several threatened species. His companions for the trips were his assistant John and secretary Ann and the secondary aim of the trip was to discuss a new captive breeding programme with the Mauritian Government whereby the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust offered a scholarship scheme for students to train with them over in Jersey and then return to their native countries to set up their own captive breeding programmes; thus ensuring the survival of a number of endangered species. Reading Golden Bats has reminded me what a ground-breaking conservationist Gerald Durrell really was. I had no idea quite how much work and dedication went into finding and capturing these birds and animals, so that they could learn from them and breed from them in captivity. Just read Durrell's descriptions of the team's visits to the extremely inhospitable Round Island for a true taste of commitment to one's work. Steep rocky screes, scorching unremitting sun, a boat landing to make even an intrepid explorer nervous; not to mention his side-splitting account of camping in the middle of a colony of Shearwaters.

Durrell writes superbly; succintly and with enough wit and humour to make conservation accessible and interesting to everyone. His descriptions make the habitat and the animals leap off the page, lifelike. I love this description of his first encounter with a Jak fruit, an essential weapon in the arsenal for bat-catching:
"What was revealed when the swaddling clothes were stripped away, was an obscene green fruit covered with knobs and looking rather like the corpse of a Martian baby. To help the illusion, there arose from it a thick, sweetish, very pungent smell, vaguely reminiscent of a putrefying body."
Although Durrell described himself as a naturalist first, writer second, his writing is accessible, fun and entertaining and I'm going to enjoy exploring some of his other books. There are loads to choose from. Here's my shortlist of titles that take my fancy:  The Drunken Forest, Menagerie Manor, The Aye-Aye and I, Fillets of Plaice, Catch me a Colobus, A Zoo in my Luggage... those should get me started. Mauritius may be a little beyond my means, but I am inspired to take another little trip to Jersey and this time visit the wildlife park. Camping there looks fun (and luxurious) too.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Gods and Warriors by Michelle Paver

(Puffin, 2012)

A Greek Bronze Age edge-of-your-seat adventure for older children (and adults). 

I love Michelle Paver's books. Having first discovered her children's books years ago with Wolf Brother, the first title in the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, I've since devoured them all and, yes, you've guessed it; I'm not a child. I can't even pretend I was child when Wolf Brother was published. Ahem. No, not even remotely. Much like other good children's books, her books are for children of all ages (approx. age 9 and up). Gods and Warriors is the first of a new series, so I approached it with more than a little trepidation: "how on earth could it match up to the thrilling Neolithic stories of Torak et al.?" BUT, cast your fears aside because this book is every bit as good.

Do you ever pick up a new book at night and say to yourself, 'I'll just read a few pages before I go to bed?'. Well, there I was a few hours later still reading - I literally couldn't put this book down until I'd finished it and I'm still trying to recover those lost hours of sleep. The story doesn't stop for breath; it's so fast paced it almost turns the pages for you.

Without giving away any key moments, here's an outline. This is the story of Hylas, a boy aged 12 who we meet at the beginning of the novel, fleeing from a frightening group of black-clad warriors. His little sister has gone missing, he's lost his dog and he has no idea why these soldiers are after him but it's fairly clear they would like to see him dead. Hylas must escape and find his sister. After being turned away by the nearby villagers Hylas seeks refuge in a cave. Here his destiny meets him head on and the story takes on a sense of mystery. The young boy sets out on a path to the sea, along the way befriending the runaway rebellious daughter of a High Priestess, Pirra. A lone dolphin, Spirit, tries to help Hylas but can anything save him from the fearsome black warriors? Will he reach his sister...?

Apart from the great story, there's one other thing I love about this book: it's nicely made. I love well-produced physical books. It's a pet subject of mine. Sadly 9 times out of 10 the Americans do it better than our British publishers ever do. I've even been known to order US hardback editions of my favourite books because they are so much better made. But this time Puffin have done a good job. Good paper, striking colours, vibrant red endpapers contrasting with black page edges and a well-thought out appealing dust jacket design. All these factors make it a book I want to keep (and so I shall!). Well done Puffin. Keep up the good work with attractive physical books that we want to keep for ever and ever.


Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Stories about Banburyshire Churches

The Saxon Princess and Her Infant Saint: Stories from the treasury of Four Shires churches by Graham Wilton

I wonder how many local residents there are out there who (like me) have little idea of the wonderful treasures sitting right on our doorstep, waiting to be discovered. This little book has opened my eyes.

The author has visited a number of churches in the villages surrounding Banbury, all shown on my map below, and also Dorchester Abbey (not included on the map as it's south of Oxford). You can tell how much I enjoyed the book - it took me ages to put the map together; that's dedication for you!

View The Saxon Princess Map in a larger map

These small parish churches have a wealth of history, architecture, beautiful stained glass windows, medieval wall paintings, Civil War history, grotesque gargoyles, 18th-century graffiti, a font dating from 1100AD, and so much more. The book is lavishly illustrated with lots of colour photos; taken on different cameras, some photos are superb, whereas others just do a good job of illustrating the text. The author has sounded out some really interesting bits of local history about each parish church.

Amongst my favourites from the book is St. Peter's at South Newington - now firmly on my list of churches to explore to see the gory Thomas a Becket wall paintings:

Another one on my must see list is St. Mary Magdalene Church at Helmdon to admire the medieval stained glass windows:

Copies of the book are just £5 (plus £2.00 P&P if required) and are available from Books & Ink Bookshop - 01295 709769

Monday, 8 October 2012

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

The Booker judges have done a great job of selecting The Lighthouse for this year's shortlist nominations. Although first appearances suggest otherwise, there's nothing simple about this short first novel from Alison Moore.

Meet Futh; standing on a wet and blustery ferry deck on a summer's day, on his way to Germany for a solo walking holiday. Forty-something Futh, recently separated from his wife and removed from a marriage seemingly lacking in mutual love and affection, is re-visiting the country of his grandfather and the only place he holidayed with his father, at the age of twelve.

As the novel unfolds it becomes evident that adult Futh is stuck in the past of his childhood; never recovered from his mother's abrupt abandonment of he and his father more than 30 years previously. Futh carries around with him, obsessively, an antique silver perfume case in the shape of a lighthouse. It is the only memento he has of his mother. Little wonder his marriage has now gone awry as what wife can live up to the memories of a long-gone mother and a husband who is constantly making comparisons with an idolised woman?

Futh collects stick insects, he cannot stay in a room without first planning an escape route, he doesn't think to wear-in a pair of boots he expects to wear for over 100 miles of walks, his job is making synthetic perfumes, trying to re-capture his mother's scent. Socially-awkward Futh paints a disconsolate picture of a man who has never found the tools and support to face the past and move on with life.

In alternate chapters we encounter Ester's story, landlady of the small hotel in provincial small-town fictitious "Hellhaus", where Futh is to spend the first and last nights of his walking holiday. Trapped in an abusive marriage, lacking in any real affection from an obsessive, controlling husband, Ester seeks solace in sexual encounters with hotel guests. Where Futh and Ester's stories converge, leads to the catastrophic denouement of misunderstanding at the novel's close.

The novel is tightly written in symbolic and evocative prose. Effects are often hinted at rather than explicitly disclosed, adding to the novel's poignancy. As you are reading, many layers unravel and the author's understanding of the psychological make-up of her characters becomes increasingly apparent. Sad and melancholy, it's a brutal exposé of loveless dysfunctional relationships between men and women and the consequences that can arise.

I devoured this book in one sitting. It's an excellent choice for the Booker shortlist and it's refreshing to see a new author receiving the recognition she deserves. Read The Observer's recent interview with Alison Moore here. Published by independent publisher, Salt Publishing.