Did you get along to any of the great events to mark Independent Booksellers Week, which ended last night?
I went to lunch at Sydney’s Bistro in Hexham, where the restaurant is hidden away upstairs. Now I have found it, I will go back again. The literary guest was Louise Welsh, who is one of my favourite authors. Her first book ‘The Cutting Room’ dealt with such unsavoury sexual practices that it remains the only title on my shelves that I have felt unable to pass on to the church book stall.
She was invited by Claire Grint of Cogito Books to talk about ‘Death is a Welcome Guest’ – the second volume of her thriller trilogy about Britain in the wake of a flu pandemic. I couldn’t put the first volume down and am still haunted by her description of a rat infested modern hospital full of decaying corpses.
These stories tap into our endless speculation about how we would cope in an end of a world crisis. Since aged ten, I have wondered how I would have tackled the triffids. Welsh’s characters find unexpected strength and resolution, she suggested, when civilisation breaks down.
I was reminded of John Ironmonger’s new novel, ‘Not Forgetting the Whale’ in which our hero, a self seeking merchant banker, is washed up on a Cornish beach and saves the local people from another pandemic, which seem to abound in the literary imagination at the moment. This is a light hearted novel that still tops my list of most inspiring reads of the year.
Then on to ‘Tea and Tipple’, my favourite coffee shop in Corbridge for afternoon tea, to listen to not one but two debut novelists, hosted by Forum Books; the self proclaimed “ best bookshop, in Corbridge”.
Katarin Bivald is Swedish and her novel ‘The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend’ is about a woman setting up a book shop in Mid West America . Rebecca Dinerstein is an American whose novel ‘ The Sunlit Hours’ is a love story mainly set in the Norwegian arctic circle.
Authors like policeman look ever younger . How do they produce best selling first novels imagined in countries far from their own, and how do they do so in such numbers? Creative writing courses have a lot to answer for. Lets hope the all elusive second novel fulfils their potential.
So what is special about the 400 or so independent bookshops around the country who have provided such rich fare this past week?
Admittedly the staff at Waterstones are always friendly and well informed but when I walk into an independent bookshop I know I will find a selection of books curated by the proprietor that I will not see elsewhere displayed in their own special way. I will make friends and discover some new delights.
At Forum Books, the bookseller , Helen Stanton, will tell me that she thinks I will like a particular new title and she is usually right. It is a skill akin to a vintner suggesting a new wine to a connoisseur.
Helen has played a large part in promoting Corbridge with events like the midsummer market and Claire at Cogito is a key player in the Hexham Book Festival. Independent bookshops host soirees, support book groups and put a lot back into their communities which is more than you can say for that online outfit that doesn’t pay its tax bills.
I owe my greatest book reading surprise of the year to the Hexham Book Festival where I heard a consummate literary talk from Alexander McCall Smith, most famous for his Ladies Detective Agency series, whose hilarious and apparently ad libbed observations ranged far and wide. Claire Malcolm from New Writing North who chaired the conversation did well to hang on to him.
Young writers take note. Mc Call Smith has over 80 titles, all written in retirement. I picked up one of his 44 Scotland Street series in the Tynedale Hospice second hand book shop in Hexham, which is only surpassed in my view by the Amnesty Bookshop in Westgate Road. This could be the one place I could offload my copy of The Cutting Room.
44 Scotland Street tell the adventures of the ill assorted bourgeois tenants of a house in Edinburgh New Town with a pathos for a lonely collection of souls who come out all right at the end. Some real life characters like Ian Rankin and real places like the Valvona & Crolla delicatessen are woven into the stories until you wonder what is fact and fiction. I am now on to my third volume.
In his talk, McCall Smith compared his books to the safe and circumspect world of Jane Austen – he has just rewritten Emma in modern dress – but I would class him alongside P G Wodehouse for his humour and observation of social mores.
I laughed out loud so many times in the quiet coach on the way back from London that I earned the disapproval of my neighbours. “I m only reading a McCall Smith”, I explained. Where else can you get such enjoyment for under a tenner?