It’s hot and this is what we are reading….

The Literature staff would like to share their reccomendations for the week.

Dan is currently reading A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard, a modern day Scandinavian Proust, only with shorter sentences.

His pick of the week is Matt Haig’s The Humans. A local author and set in Cambridge, the book features Professor Andrew Martin, who solves the world’s greatest mathematical riddle and then disappears.

Sarah has just started the latest from Carl Hiaasen, king of the quirky crime novel. Bad Monkey is set in Florida, like all of Hiaasen’s books and so far we have a severed arm and dodgy cops. Hiaasen is always a bit different, but very funny and always with an underlying ecological message.

ISBN: 9781782112099 - The Humans      ISBN: 9781846554674 - A Death in the Family (Vol. 1)     ISBN: 9780297867296 - Where'd You Go, Bernadette?    ISBN: 9781847443366 - Bad Monkey

Sarah’s pick of the week, even of the month, is Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? A fabulous, fast read, at times surreal, yet sad and fantastical.  A really witty read, perfect for a hot Summer afternoon.

Maureen recommends more monkey business with Robert Rankin’s The Educated Ape.  A riotous tale of wicked women, a dangerous detective and an ape called Darwin. Rankin is totally eccentric and his work is known for being funny and well, just strange. Often likened to Pratchett and Douglas Adams, but more far fetched!

ISBN: 9780755322800 - Neverwhere          ISBN: 9780575086432 - The Educated Ape and Other Wonders of the Worlds

Maureen’s pick of the week is Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. A brilliant tale of an unknown subterranean London, where you’ll find angels, monsters and murderers. Some of you may remember the BBC dramatisation many moons ago.

Sarah also got extremely excited about two hugely anticipated titles coming this autumn.

Firstly a new novel from Donna Tartt, she of The Secret History fame. The Goldfinch features a 13 year old boy, Theo and how he survives a life changing accident and is drawn into the criminal underworld. It is described as a haunting odyssey through present-day America. I can’t wait to read it.

ISBN: 9781408704943 - The Goldfinch                ISBN: 9780575077010 - The Republic of Thieves

Also coming in October is Scott Lynch’s 3rd book in the Gentleman Bastard sequence, The Republic of Thieves. We’ve only had to wait for nearly seven years since Red Seas Under Red Skies and I can’t believe it’s been that long! The Lies of Locke Lamora marked a real turning point in the Fantasy genre and gave us a real cult hero with Locke. It remains one of my favourite books, a story that really got you involved, full of twists and the amazing bond between Locke and Jean. I cannot recommend it enough, especially if you don’t think you really like Fantasy novels.


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10 of the Best: Books to Read at the Park

Book in the Grass Spring is finally here and we are all longing to be sitting in the sunshine with a good book. Here are our suggestions for the perfect books to read on a warm, blustery day at the park (or to transport you there if you’re stuck in an office or on a train!)


The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Enchanted April

A notice in The Times addressed to ‘Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine’ advertises a ‘small mediaeval Italian

Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April’. Four very different women take up the offer, escaping dreary London for the sunshine of Italy. Lulled

by the Mediterranean spirit, they gradually shed their skins and discover a harmony each of them has longed for but never known. The perfect read for a lazy afternoon.

Notes from Walnut Tree Farm by Rodger Deakin

An inspiring collection of the best writing from the notebooks in which Rodger Deakin gathered his reflections, impressions and observations of the natural world around his home in the Suffolk countryside.



The Language of Flowers: A Miscellany by Mandy Kirkby

Language of Flowers

This beautiful book on the symbolic meaning of flowers takes its inspiration from the bestselling novel of the same name. Perfect for dipping into in a spare moment.

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Cancel the Apocalypse!


There’s something odd going on in the world of politics right now. At the recent Eastleigh by-election the three biggest British parties met with open hostlity from many voters. The LiberISBN: 9781408702369 - Cancel the Apocalypseal Democrats held onto their seat, but a party previously regarded as ‘fringe’ beat the other two into third and fourth place. At about the same time, Italians were busy voting for a stand-up comedian whose main platform was that he wasn’t a politician, and who clearly had no ambition to rule. On political debate programmes the loudest cheers are generally reserved for the ‘outsider’ on the panel – the most popular option seems to be ‘none of the above’ when the ‘above’ are mainstream politicians.

This shouldn’t be entirely surprising; we are in the middle of the biggest financial downturn since the 1930s, and our children face the prospect of being less prosperous and shorter-lived than their parents. Scientists warn of catastrophe from not only global warming, but also from fuel, food and water shortage. It’s easy to get the feeling that things are falling apart.

Still, those politicians would have you believe there is no alternative. The mantra may have been Mrs Thatcher’s originally, but it has been enthusiastically endorsed by politicians everywhere in the West. Free-market capitalism with a commitment to continuing economic growth is the only game in town.

Andrew Simms disagrees, and Cancel the Apocalypse is the result of his search for an alternative to the relentless pursuit of growth at all costs. The book is neither a bone-dry academic treatise nor a utopian dream. Instead Simms uses a mixture of anecdote, evidence, history and myth to make his point. So, for example, we learn a lesson from the history of merchant shipping in the nineteenth century. Then it was commonplace for ship-owners to send out ships that were unseaworthy (coffin-ships, the sailors called them) or which were over-loaded with cargo. Or they simply loaded a decrepit ship with junk, over-insured it, and cleaned up when it sank. The problem , of course, was that the sailors drowned..

Samuel Plimsoll campaigned passionately against this injustice for years, until his famous ‘Plimsoll Line ‘ was adopted – a mark on the side of a ship which indicates that the ship’s maximum load had been reached. This simple action saved thousands of lives, and contrary to the protests of the industry, the ship-owners didn’t go out of business, they simply adapted. But at the time, Plimsoll was reviled as ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’ by industrialists, politicians and their media outlets.

The resonances of this story to our times are clear: the pursuit of profit without proper regard to safety, the resistance of business to regulation, the vilification of whistle-blowers. Samuel Plimsoll is one man in a long and noble series of reformers who have been condemned by their contemporaries, but vindicated by history. It’s something to bear in mind when you hear today’s campaigners written off as extremists or dreamers by mainstream politicians and journalists.

But more than anything else, the story of the Plimsoll Line provides us with a metaphor for our bio-shpere or planetary system. Push its carrying capacity too far, and it becomes ‘unstable, more vulnerable to outside shocks. Ignore the warning signals and sinking or collapse become likely’.

Simms’ search, then is for a Plimsoll Line for the planet. Sometimes this might make for uncomfortable reading, especially if you are partial to cheap flights. But if you’ve ever muttered ‘they’re all as bad as each other’ when watching the news, or decided not to vote because you don’t think any of them will make a difference, or you simply fear for the future of your children, then you owe it to yourself to read this book. Discover the alternative!

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Natural History month April

Layout 1We have some wonderful evenings in April celebrating the fabulous world we live in. More details from

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The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: Caspar Henderson comes to Heffers

Book of Barely Imagined Beings7th FEBRUARY 2013: CASPAR WILL BE AT HEFFERS TO SIGN COPIES FROM 4.45pm – 5.30pm.


Caspar Henderson’s The Book of Barely Imagined Beings was has been described as “spell-binding, brilliantly executed, extraordinary” (The Guardian), “magnificent, bravura, astoundingly interesting, beautiful” (The Sunday Times), “unquestionably one of the best books of the year” (The Scotsman), “a top title of the year” (The Irish Times), “clear and lucid, synoptic, nuanced, engrossing, fact-filled yet poetic, excellent” (The Literary Review) and “captivating, fabulous, a lovely book with many charms” (The Sunday Telegraph)

Caspar has previously blogged for our sister bookshop, Blackwell in Oxford about the themes of Barely Imagined Beings. You can read his post  and listen to a podcast  about the book. Below we reproduce a short extract from his book:

The drug-addict, drunk, wife-shooter and writer William Burroughs used to tell a story about a man who teaches his anus to talk. The orifice eventually takes over his life and kills him. Wildlife can be as least as weird as the imagination of Burroughs. Consider the Crown of Thorns starfish, Acanthaster planci. Instead of a head it has an anus on the top of its body, while its mouth – a round hole equipped with inward-pointing teeth at the centre of the radiating arms – is in the middle of its underside.

This positioning is less unusual than you might think. Having a mouth underneath and an anus on top is ideal if youCrown of Thorns Starfish want to eat crud on the seafloor, and this is how the ancestors of the Crown of Thorns started out. Many of its distant cousins, among them various other starfish and sea cucumbers, still pursue that lifestyle. (On the abyssal plains, the so-called desert of the deep sea floor, large herds of sea cucumbers are constantly grazing on the detritus that has fallen from above. They are the night-soil men of the deep in a holothurian heaven.) Unlike these animals, however, the Crown of Thorns is no longer a scavenger, having acquired a taste for living flesh. Dressed in brilliant shades of purple, blue, orange red, white and grey and with anything from seven to twenty-three (but usually about fifteen) rays around a central dome, it bristles with poisonous spikes – a submarine version of Pinhead, the extra-dimensional being from Hellraiser…

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary is published by Granta

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Natural History: Author Recommendations

Audubon-014659_jpg_4Jeremy Mynott has been watching, listening to, and thinking about birds–and birders–for much of his life. He is the former chief executive of Cambridge University Press and is a fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. 

Jeremy is the author of Birdscapes,a unique meditation on the variety of human responses to birds, from antiquity to today.  Below he recommends a selection of his favourite books.

Don’t miss our Natural History event on 21st February with Jeremy Mynott, Tim Dee and Helen Macdonald.

These are all books that have influenced, entertained, informed and in some cases moved me and I had each of them in mind at times when I was writing Birdscapes.

The Peregrine by J. A. Baker

Peregrine(This edition also contains Baker’s wonderful Hill of Summer and some interesting extracts from his diaries). Baker draws on both close observation and literary imagination to fashion his startling metaphors and extraordinary prose and has an almost shamanistic identification with the wildlife he responds to so sensitively.

The Wisdom of Birds by Tim Birkhead

Wisdom of BirdsA superb piece of scientific popularization. As a leading ornithologist the author is committed to the importance of disciplined and testable scientific research on bird behaviour and ecology, but is also (and much more unusually) a real expert at conveying its significance and excitement to a large lay audience. The book is a very engaging and well-written blend of science, history and personal experience. His new book, Bird Sense (2012) has all the same virtues.

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1963: 50 Years on from the Decade that Changed Everything

1963 2

The Wikipedia entry for the 60s begins with crashing pedantry:

‘The 1960s was a decade that began on January 1, 1960 and ended on December 31, 1969.’

It quickly goes on to explain that, as we all know, the 60’s really began in 1963 with, as Philip Larkin memorably wrote, ‘ the Beatles first LP’. The decade has acquired a stronger identity in the popular imagination than possibly any other, with revolutionary developments in politics, art, science and of course, popular culture.

To this day, people love to argue the significance of those years with opinion tending to divide between those who recognize a time of liberation in society, and those who see an end to civilization as we know it. On the one side we became more sexually liberated, more questioning of authority, more tolerant of minorities, and on the other side…, we became more sexually liberated, more questioning of authority…. Well, you get the point.

What’s not in doubt though is the Sixties produced a whole host of great songs, films, art and literature, and some political movements of lasting significance.

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Fifty years on seemed like a good time to celebrate with a selection of books with a sixties theme. I don’t make any claims to have chosen a definitive list, but more to give a flavour of the decade to those who weren’t around then, and a chance to reminisce for those who were – and to give the occasional nod to Cambridge’s part in it.

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