My Valentine’s Recommendation : A romance with a dark heart

Image : Pixabay

Valentine’s Day is around the corner – well, around the corner and long the corridor a bit, but definitely within spitting distance – and that being the case, I’ll be absent from Word Shamble for a few days.

Now, I know many of you are cynical about the event, trussing a 3rd century Roman saint to selling chocolates and jewellery and overpriced flowers, pressurising lovers into expensive purchases to prove the depth of something as ephemeral as love.

You have a right to feel cynical. The heart shaped balloons and cutesy ‘wuv woo’ bears and cards, the way manufacturers package seemingly unrelated items in red just to sell them to men desperate to get themselves out of trouble … It’s capitalism run riot and it ain’t pretty.

May I suggest an alternative to this unpleasantness?

Those who’ve followed this blog a while will already know my attachment to certain books – every reader has them, those tomes that burrow into your psyche, often at a young age, and squat in your brains like benevolent worms, raising their heads and twitching their tales every now and then to make their presence felt.

For me, Precious Bane by Mary Webb is one such book.

Set in the Shropshire of the early nineteenth century, it focuses on Prue Sarn, cursed with a ‘precious bane’ (a hare lip) that seems to rule her out of marriage, out of happiness, that shapes her life, her personality and her destiny.

Yes, it’s terrifically romantic and melodramatic – there are love spinnings and sin eaters and wise men. There’s a fair amount of yearning, of chaste glances between Prue and the gentle, magnificently named weaver Kester Woodseaves.

There’s darkness too. Unfathomable lakes, moody landscapes, curses, folk magic, pain, humiliation, betrayal, death – lots of death.

But aside from the fabulous prose, here’s a wonderful thing about the book. Prue is not Disney Cinderella beautiful. She is outshone by her best friend, seen as ugly and shunned. But she is brave and loyal and decent and all of that makes her shine through as a character, means that she’s no wishy-washy heroine who gets a fit of the vapours when spoken to unkindly. She works the fields – she drives a sodding plough, for heaven’s sake – and even though she suffers greatly, she is nothing like a victim.

So, here’s my recommendation.

Leave the chocolates, leave the flowers (okay, buy the flowers – I am a florist after all!), leave the teddy bears (no, really LEAVE the bears) and buy a copy of Precious Bane instead.

It’s one of the few truly romantic novels I’ve ever read.

And if you doubt the quality of Webb’s writing because you’ve never heard of her, take a look here to see why The Guardian newspaper’s Eloise Millar thinks she’s better than Thomas Hardy.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. See you on the other side.

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Why buying bargain books is better than putting pic n mix in your pants – probably

Modern high street bookshop

Image: Pixabay

I’m a BAD shopper.

I don’t mean in the urban slang sense, of course. A white, middle aged English woman using urban slang is about as pleasant a sight as you’d expect it to be, innit, and I suspect could cause serious trauma, blu-blu-blood.

A helpline would have to be set up and one of those messages broadcast – the ones you see after TV programmes about gangs or granny rustling:

If you’ve been affected by anything you’ve seen tonight …

I also don’t go around filling my pants with pic n mix or exposing myself in sporting goods departments or putting waders on the lingerie mannequins, or going to the cosmetics counter to ask the ladies if it’s part of their job description to wear every product they sell all at the same time …

I don’t do any of these things. Sometimes I feel like doing some of them – I’ll leave you to guess which.

I’m a bad shopper because I don’t really enjoy it. I don’t browse happily through one ladies wear department to the next, joyfully throwing on every pair of foil slacks, squirrel fur onesie and sequinned jumpsuit on the rails.

The way my shopping outings usually go is as follows:

(1) Root through the plastic storage box that passes for my clothes drawer.

(2) Think ‘Ooh, I really don’t have enough cardigans / jumpers for the chilly English climate.’

(3) Think ‘Ah, yes, that’s because they had holes in them / I did the gardening in them / wore them until they resembled the pelt of something dead, buried and disinterred. Then I threw them away.’

(4) Think ‘I really must get around to buying some more.’

(5) Realise it is in fact April and therefore the shops will only be selling bikinis, flip flops and sarongs for the next three months.

(6) Shrug, go make a cup of tea, eat a Hobnob and resign myself to wearing the same ragged, mouse den knitwear until the New Year sales.*

There is one thing (apart from tea and biscuits) that I am good at buying and that’s books.

Despite my self-imposed Amazon ban (Thou shalt not purchase papery beloveds from the jaws of the sulphur-scented online Behemoth – on pain of being very disappointed and giving yourself a good telling off) I still can’t resist a bargain.

You must’ve seen the offers when you go into book shops or supermarkets. Those naughty, tempting stickers on the paperbacks, the ones that say

Buy one get one half price.

To a bookish type, these stickers are as tempting as a Costa Chai Latte to a sugar addict and I can find myself prowling a table for fifteen minutes or more, one book in hand, desperately trying to find a second so I can only spend half the cover price on it.

It has meant I’ve bought books I was only half interested in, so it’s a good thing I only paid half of what they’re worth. Of course the sensible thing would be to stick with the book I really want and save myself a small amount of money and from having a book on my To Be Read list that I’m not bothered about reading.

Over the weekend, I found myself in this position. The morning had been a bit dispiriting, so to cheer myself, I headed not for the nearest stiletto shop but into WHSmith in the hope of papery nirvana.

What did I find, but a whole shelf of Buy one get on half price paperbacks – joy.

And better than that, I spotted two books I really want to read – Kate Atkinson’s A God In Ruins and Costa Book of the Year winner, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge. Excited as a puppy with two tails, I bounded to the counter and handed the cashier my one and a half paperbacks’ worth of cash.

Once home, I had the pleasure of adding my purchases to the TBR Everest next to my bed, only to spot a familiar looking spine already in the stack …

A flickering memory assaulted my brain …

Standing in the supermarket, holding a lovely, crisp paperback, desperately looking for another to buy to fulfill the Buy one get one half price offer … Spotting A God in Ruins and skipping happily to the checkout with it!

Yes, I have in fact, bought Kate Atkinson’s book twice, both times on a half price deal. This means several things.

(1) Kate Atkinson’s publisher has done big deals with several major book retailers.

(2) I have now reached the age where I really am not to be trusted to buy books without supervision.

(3) I have a spanking new copy of A God in Ruins in dire need of a good home. 

Any takers?

***

Do you find yourself drawn to these naughty offers, or do you resist and always pay full price for your literary fix? Do let me know.

*At which time, I will forget I need knitwear again until the sales are over. Then, in April, I’ll root through the plastic storage box that passes for my clothes drawer …

 

 

How to make sure you always buy the perfect Christmas presents

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Image: Pixabay

 

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat.

Well, actually, these days the goose is probably already dead and nestling companionably with pigs in blankets and Yorskshire puddings, solid as a boulder in a freezer at the local supermarket.

Have you done your Christmas shopping yet? That’s what we all ask each other at this time of year, isn’t it.

It’s like some kind of competition where no one’s actually laid down any rules …

‘Have you finished your shopping yet?’

‘Well, no, I …’

‘Oh, I finished mine in October. Well, actually, I’ve been buying presents all year, whenever I’ve seen the absolutely perfect gift – a real pet unicorn with magic powers for my neice, Saoirse: dominion over the World Wide Web for my nephew, Augustus: global peace for Great Aunt Philomena – she’s always been such a softy …’

These preternatural organisational skills leaves the ordinary, shambolic mortal feeling inferior, an amateur in the shopping stakes, knowing that they’ll still be scrabbling around on Christmas Eve for the last perfume hamper / marmalades of the world gift box / port and Game of Thrones slipper set (the left foot being Tyrion Lannister, the right his sister Cersei which means your feet will constantly bicker and plot to have each other killed). 

All of this means you’ll wake up on Christmas Day, exhausted, loathing mankind and all of its works, plough through a kilo of Whisky Liquer chocolates before you’ve peeled a sprout and be nauseous and semi – comatose before you get to open your first present.

May I give you some friendly advice? Don’t do it to yourself. Don’t put yourself under all that pressure, competiting with other shoppers, family, the world in an attempt to make that one day of the year the most magical, sparkly-special perfect it can be. No day can live up to that.

Take it easy on yourself. Instead of buying people tat they don’t want and don’t need (does anyone really need a plastic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer that poops caramel coloured jelly beans? I think not) buy everyone you love – everyone you really love –

A BOOK TOKEN. 

This is beneficial to mankind on several levels.

*You don’t have to stress yourself into an early, tinsel-and-cranberry-filled grave trying think about a million different presents, leaving you calmer and more able to enjoy the season.

*The recipient gets the opportunity to buy some wonderful fiction or some glorious non-fiction.

*A bookshop in your locality will receive a trickle of cash which may contribute to its survival – and who of us wish to see another bookshop close?

And if none of your friends and family are readers? If they wallow in the delusion that all there is to life is seeeing what’s trending on social media and collecting their own bodily fluids in jars around the house?

Then buy the token anyway. The bookshop still gets the cash and you’ve still given the ignoramous in your life a present.

Happy shopping.

***

This post was inspired by a conversation with fellow blogger, the bookish John Guillen at Write me a Book John

 

 

Nothing says Christmas like rubber eyeballs

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Image: Pixabay

 

It’s a bit late in the day to be writing a blog post. Late for me, anyway.

You see, I’ve been out this morning, trawling the high street, eschweing the decadent comforts of online shopping to rub shoulders with the Great Unwashed, the Great Impolite – the Great ‘Getting in my sodding way when I want a look at that vegan, gluten-free, flavour-free cookbook / rubber eyeballs on that shelf’*. 

Yes, I was Christmas shopping.

It can be a painful experience, can’t it? Especially when you have a couple of really important people to buy for and no idea exactly what they want.

It feels a little like a marathon, or a trek through the wilderness, where, overcome by the weight of novelty slippers in the shape of Darth Vader, chocolates resembling reindeer droppings and boas of tinsel as thick as your arm, you begin to over heat.

The blowers are pumping hot air into every store and you’ve worn your winter coat even though it’s an unseasonably warm December day, and you can’t take it off because you’ve nowhere to stow it. And you become so hot and weary and hassled and distracted by all the lights and tinny carols, you are in serious danger of making some rather poor decisions …

Wonder if Auntie Doreen would like a Russian Roulette game with chilli chocolates. How about a knitted willy warmer for Uncle Fred – just his colours …

Needing sanctuary, I ran for the safe haven of Waterstones, probably the UK’s largest surviving book chain.

I wanted the soft lighting, the dark bookshelves, the low music and hushed voices …

I found a pimped-up bookstore with a sofa-strewn cafe where ‘Science’ and the ‘Arts’ used to be, an entire section selling readers’ accessories (magnifying glasses, bookmarks, tiny lamps you clip to your book or your nose or wherever) and what can only be described as a toy shop attached to ‘childrens’  literature’.

It was bright, lively – humming with people. There was a school trip camped out in the cafe trashing their new carpet with destroyed Lemon Drizzle.

I so longed for the dreary gloom of the old shop.

***

What do you think of modern bookshops? Is it a shame they have to diversify to survive or do you think there’s no shop that can’t be improved by tea and cake? Do let me know.

*Yes, that’s right – there’s nothing that says Christmas to an eleven year old boy more than a rubber eyeball.

Gifts for book lovers – tat or tremendous?

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Imagine this is your home. Maybe it is your home, in which case, I do apologise for intruding and I’ll let myself out.

But on the off-chance it isn’t your home – imagine it is.

You love books, but maybe you’ve taken your love too far. Maybe a delightful hobby is tipping over into looming divorce, supervised visits with your kids and knocks on the door from the local mental health nurse and a TV crew from one of this programmes about hoarders.

Someone bought you a Kindle (other e-readers are availabel) but you didn’t take to it. There’s something about the damp, fusty scent that makes your soul sing, the rough tingle of the paper under your fingers, the weight, the heft, the history of a real book that connects with you in a way a screen and its faux type can’t.

So, your home is filled with books you can’t part with and if you bring one more into the house you’ll be sleeping in a Youth Hostel with nothing but a spare pair of pants and your tooth brush for company. What do you do? What do you do to keep feeling that thrill?

Do you buy literary gifts instead?

A quick stroll through the back alleys and ginnels of the net and you’ll find whole sites dedicated to gifts for book addicts – that aren’t books. You can buy jewellery made from print, mugs with famous book covers and quotes on, bags, scarves, ties, cushions and cufflinks all with some reference to your favourite book or author.

The hippest site is Red Molotov, who I knew sold tee-shirts with oblique references to TV and films, but also have a book-themed range. In-jokes and cliqueness abound. For instance, there’s a tee-shirt listing the surnames of the characters from Room with a View which reads as nonsense to anyone unfamiliar with the novel.

Clever or smug?  I can’t decide.

What do you think of gifts for book lovers that aren’t books? Do they make your heart soar or sink?