Gig Review: Reopening of Toppings Bookshop in Bath

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“After 14 happy years on the Paragon, this weekend is our final one in our familiar spot before we set up shop in York Street next to the Abbey. Tuesday 26th is officially the last day we will be open on the Paragon, and our new York Street bookshop will open at 10.30am on Saturday 30th October.”

Toppings Bookshop on the Paragon is no more. The warm and welcoming warren where I have attended many cosy literary events closed its doors before I could revisit after lockdown. However, the bookshop has not gone! Rather, it has moved down the hill and reopened by the Abbey, in a former Friends Meeting House – how appropriate. It is now rather grand.

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Last Saturday, Robyn and I took the train to Bath on what was described as ‘soft launch’ day to see what Toppings has become. Behind the familiar blue doors, it is impressive. Rather than the welcoming cups of tea in the usual dotty mugs, we were handed glasses of fizz. There were a pleasing number of customers browsing the stacks.

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Moving an entire bookshop in just a few days is no mean feat so kudos to the hard working staff for making the new premises look so well stocked and appealing. There were still a few spaces to fill high up, and boxes left in some of the nooks and crannies we peeked into. On the shelves, though, were many temptations.

Robyn was particularly impressed with the room given over entirely to fantasy and sci-fi. I overheard one customer cooing over the crime fiction room. I was pleased to find treasures from many of my beloved independent publishers. I was also happy to note that the ladders were still being employed.

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The back room at the Paragon housed many fine books relating to art, and these are now shelved on the mezzanine level. Here, as elsewhere, are tables and chairs. When staff are less busy answering customer queries, and tea in dotty cups is reinstated, there will be somewhere pleasant to sit and contemplate potential purchases. Or maybe the seating is provided for students and writers to work while surrounded by such an inspiring environment. 

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I enjoyed browsing the tables on the ground floor, seeing what books the staff had selected for these. I also noted they could easily be moved for events, offering a large space for seating attendees. No more peering around stacks when an author proves popular as at the old premises. I suspect the bookshop will not have to hire larger venues as often as previously.

I posted a selection of these photographs on Twitter and was asked about access for those with mobility issues. This was such a valid question I emailed the shop for details. They replied promptly to confirm the existence of a lift system – an outdoors lift that can be used to reach the shop entry level; a lift can also take customers up to the mezzanine. Customer bathrooms are available on the lower level that are accessible via lift and ramp. I hope this helps inform those who would find the many steps I have shown a barrier.

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Obviously we chose to support this new venture with purchases. So, what was in the bag? I hear you ask.

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Having so much enjoyed Dead Relatives by Lucie McKnight Hardy, I had to have her debut. And having read so many glowing reviews from fellow readers of the Mathias Énard, it somehow jumped into my bag too. Never let it be said that book bloggers don’t encourage sales, including to themselves.

Toppings in Bath is open 8.30am to 9pm, 7 days a week and hosts many fine events. It is well worth checking out: online  and now in York Street by the Abbey.

Gig Review: Launch Party for The Life of Almost by Anna Vaught

Last Thursday evening I travelled to Bath Spa for a book launch at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. Author Anna Vaught was celebrating the publication of her second novel, The Life of Almost, and her supporters packed the bookshop out. It was a friendly and fun event involving books, chat, readings, wine and delicious snacks. This is my sort of party.

    

Anna talked about her two published books (her first was the autobiographical Killing Hapless Ally) and her writing inspirations. For The Life of Almost these were: her family; her love of Pembrokeshire; Welsh myths; Dickens’s Great Expectations.

She and two of her friends then gave readings from the book before Anna’s husband, Ned, spoke of his wife’s prolific writing and his pride in her achievements. Anna does not have a dedicated space for her craft. She writes at her kitchen table surrounded by family life. The time for this must be squeezed in around her many other commitments.

    

Questions were invited from the floor and Anna spoke of her next books. Saving Lucia will be published by Bluemoose Books in 2020. A fourth novel is currently out to submission and she has started writing a fifth.

In talking of her characters Anna explained that many are based on wider family members and the stories they have shared with her. She wished to capture these before they were lost. Her family do not read her books so she has few concerns about their reaction to her representations.

Anna then offered to sign books and there were a flurry of purchases before a queue formed. As it was getting late I had to slip away.

    

The Life of Almost is published by Patrician Press. Signed copies are currently available to buy at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath.

Anna’s launch party was just one of the many enticing events in Mr B’s Autumn schedule.

Looking forward to #BookshopDay

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Saturday 8th October is 2016’s Bookshop Day in the British Isles. I plan on visiting my local Waterstones and hope to pick up the specially designed Books Are My Bag Winnie-the-Pooh tote, and to fill it with some new books of course.

In previous years I have travelled to Bath, the closest city to where I live. I wrote this piece for the blog on their official online tourist information site, Visit Bath back in 2015.

Bath is for Bibliophiles!

Book lovers love Bath, and with good reason. Want to buy books? Find them in the impressive range of bookshops. Want to meet the authors? Order a ticket for one of the many events which happen throughout the year.

The Bath Literature Festival runs for ten days in early spring and offers audiences a chance to listen to and interact with many of the big names in books, as well as lesser known and local talent.

The Bath Kids Literature Festival, also a ten day event, runs in early autumn and offers a wide and eclectic range of lively book themed events to keep all ages entertained.

These annual extravaganzas generate a buzz which is fun to be a part of, but literary events are happening in Bath all year round. Thanks to the efforts of two of the city’s fabulous independent bookshops there are a variety of both small gatherings and larger fixtures to appeal to all interests.

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Topping and Company Booksellers (pictured above) offer the quintessential bookshop experience, with shelves and tables overflowing with tempting choices, and friendly, knowledgeable staff always available to help guide customers to their next great read.

Regular events offer access to a range of authors, with the cost of tickets refundable against the cost of the book being discussed. Some of these are intimate affairs are held within the shop, while others are staged in larger venues nearby.

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Mr Bs Emporium of Reading Delights (pictured below) offers not just a range of carefully chosen books in their three floored warren of a shop, but also the option to buy someone you love the gift of a Reading Spa or a Year of Books. These include a consultation with a bibliotherapist to ensure that each recommendation will delight the recipient.

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Where better to find a bath full of books than in a Bath bookshop? Meander through their various rooms and look out for the quirky displays: a customer toilet that has been decorated by the Children’s Laureate, Chris Riddell; a stairway papered with Tintin comics; a ceiling decorated with book themed tote bags. The shop is a relaxing haven for booklovers. Take a comfy chair by the fire, pour yourself a complimentary cup of coffee, and check out that book you know you want to buy.

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Mr B’s events are often intimate gatherings, enabling the audience to enter into discussions and interact with the author; some of them are even free to attend. They are held in various locations, including the shop’s own bibliotherapy room, with larger gatherings scheduled at alternative venues.

All of these events may be booked online. If you are planning a trip to the city then check out what is going on while you are here. You may just be tempted to make this the primary reason for your visit.

Jackie Law is a wife, mother, hen keeper and writer who lives in a small village east of Bath. She is an avid reader and publishes book reviews and other related posts on her blog. She is easily distracted, especially by Twitter, where you can follow her: @followthehens.    

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When I wrote this piece I had yet to discover the delights of Waterstones which I now know is another beautifully laid out bookshop that hosts excellent author events. It has friendly, welcoming staff and a coffee shop with free wifi.

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The central shopping area in Bath is compact for a city, giving visitors the chance to easily explore all three of these booklover’s oases.

Which bookshops will you be visiting this weekend?

Gig Review: Kit de Waal in Bath

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Since reading Kit de Waal’s captivating debut, My Name Is Leon (which I review here), I have been looking forward to meeting the author and hearing her talk about how she came to write such an authentic, perceptive book. Thanks to Toppings, one of Bath’s beautiful independent bookshops, I had this opportunity last night.

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Toppings had a wonderful window display for the book and event. Apologies that my camera struggled to capture it in all its glory due to the reflected sunshine.

Having spent the afternoon exploring the city and enjoying the warm weather I was relieved to enter this sanctuary and rest my weary legs whilst imbibing my glass of complimentary wine. As I watched the place fill up I was able to listen to readers discussing the book and how it had touched them.

Kit started her talk with a little personal background. Like the eponymous protagonist of her novel she is mixed race, although she gave no indication if this caused her any difficulties growing up. She did say that her home was always filled with children, cared for by her mother at a time when child minding was not so tightly regulated. Parents could fail to collect their children for days at a time and her mother would cope.

Kit’s career spanned periods working in law courts and at social services before her own adopted children needed her to stay at home to provide care. Driven to distraction by being in her house all day after many years spent in demanding jobs she decided to try her hand at writing a book. She wrote an astounding thriller that, for some reason, nobody wished to publish. An MA course in creative writing offered some explanation as to why, and it was around this time that Leon came to life.

Kit now sits on an adoption advisory panel so has first hand experience of the difficult decisions that must sometimes be made by adults regarding vulnerable children’s welfare. All of this background and experience has been channelled into her candid, poignant tale of a young boy who is separated from everything he loves and cares for through no fault of his own.

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Kit gave two readings from her book. These brought to life the challenges the characters faced, especially Leon’s mother, Carol, who it would be rather too easy to condemn for the way she neglected to provide adequate care for her young boys. Kit pointed out that many of the parents she deals with through social services have had difficult childhoods of their own. Carol was a teenager when she gave birth to Leon and suffered from depression and reliance on drugs. Most parents love their children even if they cannot provide for their needs without support, perhaps through lack of knowledge, ability or circumstance. Like Leon, however badly they are treated, children most often continue to love their parents.

Questions were invited from the audience. These were mainly about Kit’s writing and her own experince of dealing with young people put in care. She pointed out that, whilst early intervention may enable more families to stay together, this is expensive. In the current climate, funding is made available for crisis management but less so for long term support. More adopters are needed, but relatively few are willing to take on large family groups of children, meaning that decisions to split up beloved siblings must be made.

Kit told us that some of the characters in her book will be revisited in a collection of short stories that she is currently working on. I am always on the look out for well written, innovative short story collections so am excited to hear that one is being prepared by such a talented writer.

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As we queued to have copies of our books signed I discovered that a twitter friend was also in the audience. It was lovely to meet fellow book lover and blogger Claire Thinking (pictured above with Kit). You should all go and follow her on twitter now: Claire Thinking.

Thank you to Kit and Toppings for an interesting and enjoyable evening. It was lovely to listen to an author who seemed so at home with her audience. You should also of course, read her book.

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‘My Name Is Leon’ is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and is available to buy now.

 

 

Gig Review: Sarah Winman in Bath

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Yesterday evening I returned to the wonderful Topping and Company, an independent bookshop in Bath, to listen to the author, Sarah Winman, read from and talk about her most recent publication, ‘A Year of Marvellous Ways’ (you may read my review here). Toppings is everything a bookshop should be and I am happiest when their regular events are held in the shop itself as the atmosphere and intimacy are hard to beat.

After an enthusiastic introduction from Matt, a member of the Toppings staff, Sarah delighted us with a reading. She gave each of her characters appropriate accents, a skill perhaps learned from her years as an actress. I wasn’t the only member of the audience intrigued by the copy she used which she later explained is an original proof. How I now desire one of those for my collection!

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There followed a question and answer session led by Matt. Sarah was the most relaxed author I have seen at one of these evenings. She seemed to be not just at home in from of her attentive audience but to be enjoying herself.

Sarah explained that she does not plot but rather comes up with ideas which she then slots into the book she is writing. With ‘Marvellous Ways’ she first thought of the ending and then had to work out the build up. She told us that the first eighty pages were the most challenging to write.

Sarah’s prose is exquisite, sometimes magical, but her themes can be dark. She told us that she wishes to use real life situations but to write about them in the way a person remembers, thus they can at times appear surreal. This is how we cope with difficult memories, by remembering fragments of our past as stories we tell ourselves. We may embellish or choose to suppress certain details.

I was particularly interested in her knowledge of the London deep-level shelters, built during the Second World War but only opened to the public in 1944. Before this they were used by the government who did not consider it necessary to protect the working classes. The latter found shelter elsewhere, opening up places which then became known as venues for frowned upon behaviours. Freed from moral strictures people indulged illicit desires.

When bombs did find targets there would be theft from the bodies, looting from property. With the heightened awareness of how life can be suddenly cut short the war years saw a rise in pregnancy and marriage. The years following the war saw a spike in domestic violence as freedoms were curtailed and virtual strangers were forced to live together with little understanding of the stresses the other had endured. These real life situations are not how most look back on the war years. It is easier to remember how films portray bravery and stoicism, to mould reality around stories.

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When questions were opened up to the audience Sarah dealt skillfully with a variety of subjects – from what secret ingredient she would offer Mary Berry (love) to whether she has aspirations to be remembered as a literary great (no). Her answer to the latter was particularly inspiring. She told us that if she attempted to write with a view to achieving literary fame she believes her wings would be clipped. She writes what she wants and relishes this freedom. I was amused when she commented that her publisher is not always given what they expect.

The evening was wrapped up with thanks and appreciation before the signing commenced. Books were proffered and Sarah took the time to chat to each eager fan. Having observed her confidence and relaxed demeanor I asked if she thought her time as an actress might have helped prepare her for such appearances. This earned me a quizzical look. She explained that she feels fortunate to have only encountered warm welcomes from her audiences which makes such meetings enjoyable. I do hope that she did not think I was suggesting she was not being herself. She came across as friendly, passionate and genuine.

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When she has time, Sarah is writing what she described as a short work which she hopes to submit by the summer. From audience reaction and comments on my Twitter feed this morning I am not alone in my eagerness to read whatever story she creates next.

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‘A Year of Marvellous Ways’ is published by Tinder Press and is available to buy now.

Forthcoming events at Toppings bookshop may be viewed by clicking here.

Gig Review: An Evening of Readings

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Having spent yesterday afternoon attending a captivating author talk by Sarah Jasmon at Swindon Central Library, I then spent my evening meeting three more authors in the City of Bath. Organised by the Bath Short Story Award, An Evening of Readings was held in the Gallery Room of the St James Wine Vaults, a friendly pub situated in the streets behind the famous Royal Crescent. The size of the room dictated that this was going to be an intimate event, and great fun it was too.

Opening proceedings was Rachel Heath, who had stepped in at the last minute to replace an unwell Tania Hershman. Rachel read to us from two of her books, and I have now added ‘The Finest Type of Englishwomen’ to my wish list. I loved the pictures painted by the prose which came to life when given the author’s voice. This is what makes these author readings so special.

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Next up was Sarah Hilary, a crime fiction author I have been happy to cheer on from the sidelines for some time. I have watched her well deserved, increasing success with pleasure, but had not yet managed to meet her in person. She read from both her books, ‘Someone Else’s Skin’ and ‘No Other Darkness’, giving life to the dark themes at which she excels. I noted details in the passages chosen which I had missed in my eagerness to turn the page and find out what happened next. Writers work so hard to craft beautiful sentences. It is a shame that some can be overlooked when a story is as compelling as these.

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Last to read was Paul McVeigh whose debut novel, ‘The Good Son’, I recently enjoyed so much. Paul entertained us to great effect, becoming for a time his eleven year old protagonist, Mickey Donnelly. Unfortunately my camera failed to capture a decent image of him reading as he is quite the showman.

Between authors the organisers ensured that the audience were well supplied with a selection of nibbles, while the bar was never far away to quench our thirst.

With readings complete the three authors took seats at the front to answer questions. What ensued was a good deal of amusing banter, feeling more like a friendly conversation amongst friends than a formal Q&A.

At the end of the evening there were books to buy, and a chance for me to introduce myself. Paul is to be commended for working out who I was, despite the chicken avatar I hide behind on Twitter. I was amazed to discover that he is old enough to remember our shared hometown during the period in which his book is set. He claims he uses good moisturiser and I now want to know the brand.

Did I mention that Sarah Jasmon was also in the audience? I couldn’t resist getting all four authors together for a picture.

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My thanks to the Bath Short Story Award for organising such an enjoyable evening. Any writers wishing to submit a story for their consideration should check out these details:

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Gig Review: Chris Hadfield in Bath

Thanks to the wonderful Topping and Company, an independent bookshop in Bath, I had the opportunity yesterday to attend a very special literary event. Colonel Chris Hadfield, retired astronaut, is currently in the UK promoting his second book, You Are Here: Around The World In 92 Minutes. As part of this tour he stopped off in the city to give a lunchtime talk. It turned out to be inspirational.

Like a great many of his fans I first became aware of Chris when he started to tweet from the ISS in early 2013. His tweets contained links to pictures of earth unlike any I had seen before. The videos of how seemingly ordinary tasks become extraordinary in zero gravity were fascinating. His voice was that of a person in awe of their surroundings, tweeting from a slightly geeky and very accessible perspective. I was excited at the prospect of meeting my favourite Starman.

The event was held in The Forum, a converted cinema with impressive art deco fixtures and fittings. The large auditorium allowed the maximum number of people to attend and I was pleased to have been allocated a good seat in the stalls. As I waited for the talk to start I noted that there was a guitar on stage.

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Well, I assume you too have seen the video? Not the same guitar of course. Apparently the instrument on the ISS was put there at the behest of a psychiatrist and is well used by all on board.

Chris took to the stage and immediately engaged with his rapt audience. He talked of the challenges of spaceflight, the need for years of intense and meticulous preparation, the science behind space travel and the excitement of being at the cutting edge of man’s continuing exploration into the unknown.

I cannot do justice to his words; Chris is a skilled orator. He also came across as down to earth, an ironic use of that expression given his background. He made vaguely understood concepts come alive and complicated science understandable. STEM and the space industry could not ask for a better ambassador.

Having talked through his experiences with the aid of a series of pictures and a video of a launch (he has been in three), Chris then invited questions from the audience. Rather than simply answering each question he talked around the issues raised, thereby offering fresh insights into the reality of living in zero gravity with just five other people who must each be able to survive day to day in cramped quarters, do their research jobs, and react to any emergency with the limited resources available.

While much of his talk was eye opening as the work required, challenges to overcome and dangers involved came to life, Chris also managed to keep things light. He mentioned several times how uncomfortable a space suit is to wear, how difficult it is to work in, and how, after a six hour space walk, astronauts come out bloody from the chafing. Unlike Sandra Bullock in Gravity they do not step out looking amazing.

The event was scheduled to last for two hours and the time flew by. However, Chris did not forget the presence of that guitar and finished with a live rendition of his version of Space Oddity. I found this surprisingly moving and hope that the lucky child who was presented with the plectrum he used will treasure it.

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This was so much more than a book promotion, but I didn’t see many in the audience who were not clutching at least one copy of Chris’s new book as they left. The queue to have them signed snaked right around the hall, out the doors into the foyer and then doubled back on itself. That is a lot of books. I shall treasure mine.


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I came away from the event feeling uplifted and with one message clearly learned. We live on the surface of a small planet, all of us. We breath the same air that exists only on a tiny layer between our earth and the vastness that is space. Let’s look after it, and each other.

Chris’s wife tells everyone she meets that his book would make a great Christmas present. I cannot help but agree.

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Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights

Bath Spa is a city that has so much going for it: fabulous architecture, preserved history, natural hot springs in which it is possible to bathe, beautiful arts venues, and a vast array of shops. These shops include two of my favourite independent bookshops, one of which I finally managed to visit in person this afternoon. It proved to be even better than my impressive internet association had suggested.

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Tucked away in one of the pretty side streets that make up the city centre, Mr Bs Emporium of Reading Delights is aptly named. The wondrous collection of books is laid out for the casual browser’s delectation over a warren of three floors with numerous nooks in which to settle down and enjoy the cosy atmosphere. Upstairs they even provide complimentary coffee which may be enjoyed whilst reclining on a comfy armchair by the fire.

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To reach this upper floor one must climb some stairs at the far end of the shop. I was not the only person who stopped mid ascent to admire the Tintin comic strip wall.

 

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If the cornucopia of books demands that you stay longer than anticipated then never fear, customer toilets are provided and both give users plenty to look at. No time need be wasted.

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I have highlighted only a few of the many quirky characteristics and interesting displays in this oasis of literature. If you get the chance then give yourself a treat and check it out.

The book selection is extensive and tantalising; the staff are friendly and knowledgeable; the atmosphere is second to none.