My kinda spa day

So last week I wrote a post that mentioned my Reading Spa experience. What is that, you ask? Well, it was back when I was living in Bath, it was utterly divine and it completely deserves a blog post of its own.

Bath is a particularly lucky town, for many reasons, but the one that struck me the most is that it has more than one beautiful independent bookshop. Alongside Waterstones and WHSmith, there’s also Toppings (which I waxed lyrical about a couple of years ago in a blog post of its own) and Mr B’s Emporium. While Toppings is airy and bright, Mr B’s is a rabbit-warren of a place, with tiny rooms over three floors, all packed to the gunnels with books, cosy armchairs and even private reading rooms. Seriously, they’re about the size of a phone booth, with a chair and a lamp so you can have a read before you buy in peace – genius! They also have a bath in the window that’s filled with books. I’m assuming this is a play on words with the town’s name, but I have no idea.

I first found out about Reading Spas when a colleague was gifted one. She told us all about it and I was smitten with the idea instantly. I dropped not-so-subtle hints around my next birthday, et voila! Mum and Dad prevailed with the most wonderful gift.

And it really was the most wonderful gift. I cannot thank Mum and Dad enough for it!

I took half a day off work and spent it in my dream world. Nestled by a fire (I know, a fireplace inside a bookshop!) in what they call their Bibliotherapy room (genius) with a slice of cake and cup of tea, Danielle and I chatted books. When I’d booked, they asked about my reading preferences and paired me with the most appropriate member of staff. They chose so well, about five minutes in I wanted Danielle to be my friend, IRL. We were so like-minded and got on so well, we’d read a lot of the same books and she was expertly equipped to suggest new-to-me titles and authors.

After an hour or so of book chat, Danielle left me to peruse Letters of Note by Shaun Usher while she gathered suggestions and piled books around me. Letters of Note is a lovely coffee table book, full of interesting letters of all kinds – ranging from a cute note from the Queen to President Reagan in which she gives him a recipe for scones, all the way to a really eye-opening missive from an ex-slave to his previous master, explaining why he won’t go back to work for him – it’s a fascinating book and great for flicking through with a cuppa.

Eventually, Danielle came up with 40+ possibilities, ranging from popular fiction to memoirs and historical non-fiction. She did such a good job that I wanted to buy every last one of them. When she’d talked me through them all, she left me to leaf the pages and make my selection. As part of the Spa voucher you get £45-worth of books so I (somehow) had to whittle it down. I would have bought them all, but, you know, rent and whatnot.

In the end I went away with The Miniaturist (Jessie Burton), Burial Rites (Hannah Kent – which I’ve already raved about), Alone in Berlin (Hans Fallada) and The Portable Dorthy Parker (so not portable, it’s brick-sized, but beautiful). I also got a free mug and a book mark because Mr B’s know how to do things right. I’ve read The Miniaturist and Burial Rites in full, dipped in and out of Dorothy Parker’s poems and short stories and have yet to finish Alone in Berlin. Obviously, I’ve enjoyed them to varying degrees (as with any book purchase) but more importantly, I’ve been pushed outside of my usual reading zone, been introduced to new authors and got to spend an afternoon indulging in my favourite pastime.

It really was such an incredible afternoon. The staff at Mr B’s are all so knowledgeable and friendly, they make this experience what it is. Without them, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as genuine and warm. I honestly felt like I could stay there forever. As it was, I was there for around five hours so I definitely made the most of it.

If you know any bibliophiles, or are one yourself, I can definitely recommend a Reading Spa. Plus, a jaunt to Bath is never a bad thing, right? They also do book subscriptions, for a year’s worth of books sent direct to your door, which you don’t have to be in Bath for and I now really want. Damn you pesky blog research! You’re teasing me!

What are you guys reading at the moment? Any gems you can’t stop recommending? Do you have a favourite independent book shop I should check out?

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#savetheculture

A few months ago a friend of mine shared a Facebook status that read as follows (don’t worry, this isn’t a massive invasion of her privacy, it was an international campaign and its entire purpose is to be shared):

We need at least 6 people to participate in a book exchange.
You can be anywhere in the world, the further we get, the better!
All you have to do is buy a book and send it to one person. You will receive approximately 36 books back.📚
If you are interested click “Like” and I’ll send you the details
‪#‎savetheculture‬

Seems pretty simple, right? I liked her post and she told me who to send a book to. Then I shared the same status and told anyone who “Liked” it to send a book to her and share the status as well. Anyone that liked their post sent a book to me and so on and so forth. Make sense? (I know it’s complicated but sit and think about it for a mo and it should make sense. If not hit me up and I’ll draw a diagram or something.)

At first glance I had a naive giggle to myself. As a notorious book nerd, I didn’t think of books as a culture that needed saving. Surely everyone has bookshelves bursting with novels? Doesn’t everyone adore getting books for Christmas and birthdays? Do books actually need saving? Surely not!

But it sounded pretty fun nonetheless. If there’s anything I love more than a good book, it’s a good book that’s completely new to me. A few years ago I had a wonderful book spa (which I’ve just realised, I never blogged about, check back for that!) and, among others, I was recommended Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. I had never heard of the book or the author but my god what a fantastic novel. It’s so unexpected and so fascinatingly written. But before I wax lyrical about that fabulous piece of literature (perhaps I need to review it in full) I will come back to my point: excellent book + I’ve never heard of it = winning.

Burial Rites is actually the book I decided to send to my book partner, precisely because it is relatively unknown but bloody brilliant. I will admit, a few months passed before I eventually got round to sending the book, but it is now in the hands of its new owner and hopefully being gratefully devoured.

But I haven’t received a single book.

Not one.

Perhaps it’s because none of the people who were involved (that I could see, at least) got the full six “Likes”, maybe it’s because life gets away from us and people forget, maybe those who did “Like” couldn’t really afford to buy a book and then pay for P&P to send it to someone. Or maybe the reading culture really does need saving? Perhaps it was innocent of me to think that people would send a book to a random stranger out of the goodness of their literary hearts.

I will never know. But no matter what, the way I see it, I’ve introduced a fellow book worm to a fantastic read. And even if they never actually crack open that book, at least I gave Hannah Kent a few more quid in royalties. That’s something, right?

So even if we aren’t sending books to one another, I live on in hope that people still settle in for a good read every now and then. Don’t you?

A Slice of Heaven

I’d like to take a moment to get geeky, if I may. There are a few things I get geeky about. Books, knitting, language, books. Mostly books. I love books. But if there’s anything I love anywhere near as much as books, it’s bookshops.

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(Toppings and Company, Bath, my favourite bookshop in the sunshine. Photo by me.)

Quiet, peaceful and musty, a good bookshop is an oasis to me. There are hundreds of stories held in those shelves, so many voices that have something to say – the possibilities are endless and the atmosphere zings. But still you can hear every foot shuffle, every throat clear and every page flip. Each tale is held quiet, like a child waiting to surprise you, in a silence so close to speaking. It’s soothing.

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(All on my own in Toppings. Photo by me.)

After the quiet, the smell is my favourite thing. Book pages all generally smell the same, that rich scent of time and paper mulch. But each one has its own quirks, a kind of signature. Older books smell stronger, while newer ones have a slight vinegar tang from modern inks and printing technology. Put them all together in a bookshop and the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. You can flick through the pages of as many tomes as you like and in between breathe deep this great, rich aroma.

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(Books, beautiful books, in Toppings. Photo by me.)

No matter how many people are in a bookshop, it’s still a personal experience. Whether you are looking for advice on your next holiday destination or to get lost in a ripping adventure you can make that decision all by yourself even with a stranger standing by your side. I can have the most stressful day at work, but five minutes in a book shop can make it all melt away, just by standing in the place. For some people solitude can be found in museums, for others it’s galleries. But for me, nothing is better than a bookshop.

Extra, extra, read all about it!

As part of our honeymoon, Steven and I visited Portland, Maine. We were only there for a few days, we stayed in a beautiful B&B, and we did some of my favourite things; ate incredible cakes, mooched in a very fine stationery shop and spent hours in a wonderful bookstore.

I don’t know about you guys, but I love a proper bricks-and-mortar book shop. Back in MK I used to love Ottakars, and then it became Waterstones. There’s nothing wrong with Waterstones, of course, but it wasn’t really the same (except that it kind of was, in every way, they just changed the name over the door). Here in Bath we have plenty of book shops. Topping and Company is my favourite, with it’s uneven wooden floors, swooshy ceiling fans and booky smell – they even give you free tea and coffee!

But I digress. In Portland I bought three new books, Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake and Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons.

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(A fan of books, be still my beating heart! Photo by me.)

Maine was a piece of pure chick lit. The story of one family told by three generations of women, all totally diverse, but all the same on the most important levels (can you hear my faux-psychologist voice?) You know, schmaltzy but immersive and fun. I bought it because so much of the action takes place in towns and locations we visited on our honeymoon. For me it’s the literary version of postcards, and really what could be better than that? I’d give it a 3 out of 5 – light reading, especially good for by the pool on holiday, and wonderful for the memories it evokes for me personally.

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(Don’t you just want to be lying on a beach right now? Photo by me.)

As you may have guessed, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake is a collection of short stories. (Before we continue, yes, the author is called Breece D’J Pancake, no, D’J is not a name – it was a misprint of D.J. (for Dexter John) in a magazine that printed one of his stories and he stuck with it, and yes, his last name really is Pancake – I’m jealous too.) I’ve read half of the stories, pretty much all based in West Virginia during the 1960s and I really enjoyed them. Pancake has been compare to Hemingway many times and I can absolutely see the resemblance. Pancake’s stories have the same brutal honesty and simplicity, the same intensity of feeling and focus on physical manly work, and in they are also very depressing. That’s why I’ve only read half of them I will go back to the rest, but I had to take a break from all the pain. It was putting a real downer on my morning reading! Perhaps one at a time is the way to go. 4 out of 5 – beautiful and thought provoking, but hard going.

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(Little foxy face! Photo by me.)

Ellen Foster is a revelation. I’d never heard of Kaye Gibbons, but I’m going to have to look out for more of her work. This, her first novel, is short, possibly more of a novella, and I read it in just a week. I like it all the more for that. I was so sucked in by the narrative, the voice of an 11-year-old girl who is trying to find a family, that I didn’t want to stop reading.

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(Fancy font for a fantastic book. Photo by me.)

There’s nothing sentimental about this story. It’s blunt in a lot of ways and it doesn’t shy away from racism, narrow-mindedness, suicide, murder and really awful relatives. But it’s all told with a refreshingly simple point of view. Yes, the things she goes through are horrible, but she’s happy as long as she gets her frozen meals and her microscope. The innocence counters the darkness beautifully, and when you reach the end, you see so much more in it all.

There are quite a lot of characters, for such a short book, and you don’t get the kind of depth into most of them that I usually like, but it works with the narrator – a young child isn’t going to give you a deep analytical response to the people around them, they’re just going to tell you what they think, simply and honestly.

I thoroughly recommend Ellen Foster, to everyone. At just 126 pages, it’s not a mammoth undertaking, and it’s worth however long you take to read it. I promise.

What are you guys reading at the moment? Check back soon for more knitting news!