Stocking Fillers: Shelf Life and The Pocket Detective

Shelf Life edited by Alex Johnson

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A collection of essays and thoughts on all things bookish from writers of the past, this is the kind of book that I always feel is perfect as that little extra Christmas gift for the bibliomaniac in your circle. It’s attractive and well-produced – one of those soft hardbacks, if you know what I mean – and the contents range from thoughtful to opinionated to fun. There are eleven entries in total. Obviously everyone will find different things to appeal to them, so here’s a little taste of some of them to give you a feeling for what’s in there.

It starts with a bit of fun as William Blades comments on the dangers pesky children present to the safety of books, in which he includes a story about some children taking their father’s precious volumes to build a fort and using valuable tomes to chuck at each other as they re-fought one of the battles of the Crimea. I kinda was on the kids’ side…

Stephen Leacock humorously advises on how to write a melodramatic novel, ensuring that the standard format is met in every respect, and shows that identikit fiction was around long before the woman in the red coat appeared on every second book jacket.

Theodore Roosevelt encourages a wide variety of reading for pleasure and gain, and talks of how books tend to lead one to another in a never-ending chain. Rudyard Kipling advises a class of schoolboys – those who were destined by birth to rule the empire – to use books to learn from history and other people’s experiences, as this will be a help to them when they find themselves having to make life and death decisions of their own. On the other hand Arthur Schopenhauer gets really quite grumpy about people reading, and writing, the vast output of “bad” books when they should be devoting their time to thinking for themselves. Frighteningly, he sometimes reminded me of me…

Hence the number, which no man can count, of bad books, those rank weeds of literature, which draw nourishment from the corn and choke it. . . Nine-tenths of the whole of our present literature has no other aim than to get a few shillings out of the pockets of the public; and to this end author, publisher and reviewer are in league.

Walter Benjamin talks of the joy of book-collecting, and William Gladstone gives practical advice on how to create a library to store your 20,000 volumes, including how to screw the shelves together. First you will require a room of “quite ordinary size”, some forty feet by twenty feet with four windows on either side. Charles Lamb, among other things, discusses the thorny question of which books one can read in public without embarrassment.

So lots of variety and amusement to be had, and also some more thought-provoking stuff along the way. I’ll give the last word to Francis Bacon…

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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The Pocket Detective by Kate Jackson

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Another little stocking filler from the British Library, this is a companion piece to their series of Crime Classics. It’s full of puzzles, ranging from the fun to the fiendish, and will be appreciated by anyone with a decent knowledge of vintage crime fiction. Truthfully I found a lot of it quite difficult so I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who’s only read a few Christies and Sayers in their life. It ranges well beyond the books the BL has published, though, so that adds fun for those with a wider familiarity with the genre.

It has question and answer puzzles (they’re the ones I found hardest, since they’re entirely dependant on you knowing the books quite well), word grids, crosswords and word searches, matching puzzles, such as characters to books, anagrams and word wheels. It also has some distorted covers of the BL series to identify – I found most of those entirely too distorted, hence impossible, and would be intrigued to know if anyone can get them. But there are some fun spot-the-difference puzzles based on the gorgeous BL covers – I loved those. Happily, all the answers are in the back.

So all-in-all, an entertaining little gift for the vintage crime enthusiast in your life.

NB Both books were provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 178…

Episode 178…

Another drop this week – the TBR is down 2 to 226! Unless the postman has arrived since I posted this, in which case it’s gone up 1 to 229…

Here’s a few more that should make my head spin…


Courtesy of the British Library. From the look of this book, it’s the kind of thing that would be great as a stocking filler or little extra gift for a book lover. Sounds like fun – part 1!

The Blurb says: Books: reading, collecting, and the physical housing of them has brought the book-lover joy and stress for centuries. Fascinated writers have tried to capture the particular relationships we form with our library, and the desperate troubles we will undergo to preserve it. With Alex Johnson as your guide, immerse yourself in this eclectic anthology and hear from an iconic Prime Minister musing over the best way to store your books and an illustrious US President explaining the best works to read outdoors. Enjoy serious speculations on the psychological implications of reading from a 19th century philosopher, and less serious ones concerning the predicament of dispensing with unwanted volumes or the danger of letting children (the enemies of books) near your collection. The many facets of book-mania are pondered and celebrated with both sincerity and irreverence in this lively selection of essays, poems, lectures, and commentaries ranging from the 16th to the 20th century.

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Also from the British Library, this delicious little companion to their Crime Classics series looks fiendishly entertaining! Sounds like fun – part 2!

The Blurb says: Polish off your magnifying glass and step into the shoes of your favourite detectives as you unlock tantalising clues and solve intricate puzzles. There are over 100 criminally teasing challenges to be scrutinised, including word searches, anagrams, snapshot covers, and crosswords a favourite puzzle of crime fictions golden age. Suitable for all ages and levels, this is the ultimate test for fans of the British Library Crime Classics series. For six years, the British Library have brought neglected crime fiction writers into the spotlight in a series of republished novels and anthologies. There are now more than 50 British Library Crime Classics titles to collect.


For my largely neglected 5 x 5 Challenge. I was blown away by Beloved when I read it nearly three years ago, and yet I still haven’t read any of Toni Morrison’s other books. Time to change that…

The Blurb says: Song of Solomon is a work of outstanding beauty and power, whose story covers the years from the 1930’s to the 1960’s in America. At its centre is Macon Dead Jr, the son of a wealthy black property owner, who has been brought up to revere the white world. Macon learns about the tyranny of white society from his friend Guitar, though he is more concerned to escape the tyranny of his father. So while Guitar joins a terrorist group of poor blacks, Macon goes home to the South, lured by tales of buried family treasure. His journey leads to the discovery of something more valuable than gold, his past. Yet the truth about his origins and his true self is not fully revealed to Macon until he and Guitar meet once again in powerful, and deadly confrontation.

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Dickens for Christmas

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Every year, I revisit A Christmas Carol over the Christmas season, trying new audiobooks or TV/film adaptations. But it’s actually been a few years now since I read the paper copy. This hardback is a new edition for this year and, as with this entire series of hardbacks, is much more gorgeous in real life than the cover picture makes it look. My plan is to read one of the five Christmas stories each week in December…

The Blurb says: ‘What was merry Christmas to Scrooge? Out upon merry Christmas! What good had it ever done to him?’

Ebenezer Scrooge is a bad-tempered skinflint who hates Christmas and all it stands for, but a ghostly visitor foretells three apparitions who will thaw Scrooge’s frozen heart. A Christmas Carol has gripped the public imagination since it was first published in 1843, and it is now as much a part of Christmas as mistletoe or plum pudding. This edition reprints the story alongside Dickens’s four other Christmas Books: The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, and The Haunted Man. All five stories show Dickens at his unpredictable best, jumbling together comedy and melodrama, genial romance and urgent social satire, in pursuit of his aim ‘to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land’.

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Courtesy of Collins Chillers. Last week I mentioned HarperCollins had sent me a selection of three new horror collections – this is the second. I’ve read some EF Benson before, but had no idea his brothers wrote ghost stories too…

The Blurb says: One of the most extraordinary, and prolific writing families of the last one hundred years must be the Bensons. All three brothers wrote ghost stories, and Fred Benson is acknowledged as one of the finest writers of supernatural fiction of this century, whose name is mentioned in the same breath as such other greats as M.R. James and H.R. Wakefield. However, for many years his success in the genre has overshadowed the work that Arthur and Hugh did in the field of the supernatural story; and their weird tales, long out of print and difficult to find, were known to only a few enthusiasts.

Now, for the first time, the best supernatural tales of A.C. and R.H. Benson have been gathered together into one volume. Hugh Lamb, whose ground-breaking anthologies of the 1970s were largely responsible for their re-discovery, has collected nineteen of the best stories by both writers, including A.C. Benson’s masterful tales ‘Basil Netherby’ and ‘The Uttermost Farthing’. Also included is a rare 1913 article, ‘Haunted Houses’, by R.H. Benson, reprinted here for the first time, and an Introduction which examines the lives and writings of these two complex and fascinating men.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?