The Farm – Tom Rob Smith

Without making myself sound up my own bottom or like I am some connoisseur of the genre, but it does take a rather different crime to really make my deerstalking covered ears prick up and I settle down to devour a good crime novel (with my pipe and my smoking jacket) in one big gulp because I can’t get enough. This is exactly what happened when I read The Farm by Tom Rob Smith. He who wrote Child 44 which is one of my favourite crime novels of recent years. Oh, though in reality I don’t actually wear a Sherlock Holmes outfit when I read crime fiction, but it’s an idea.

Simon & Schuster, hardback, 2014, fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by Riot Communications

Imagine one day you are on your way back from Tesco/Waitrose (or any other supermarket) and you get a call from your father out of the blue telling you that your mother is unwell, it isn’t something physical or something terminal, your mother has had a mental breakdown of some sort and she believes that something, which your father won’t divulge, dreadful has happened. This is the rather intense and intriguing way that Tom Rob Smith starts The Farm, yet this is only the beginning.

‘Dad?’ ‘Your mother… She’s not well.’ ‘Mum’s sick?’ ‘It’s so sad.’ ‘Sad because she’s sick? Sick how? How’s Mum sick?’ Dad was still crying. All I could do was dumbly wait until he said: ‘She’s been imagining things – terrible, terrible things.’

Things get even stranger, very quickly so I am not spoiling anything, as no sooner has Daniel spoken to his father and packed to head for Sweden (where his parents have moved to) he receives a call from the airport from his mother, Tilde. She has been released from the psychiatric ward she had been placed in by her husband and is about to get a flight to Daniel to tell him her story, a story he might not believe and might implicate his own father in having been part of something very dark and very wrong.

To say too much more about the plot would be to spoil what is a fantastically gripping account of a woman who goes back to her homeland, taking her husband with her, to live a life close to nature on a remote farm which at first seems idyllic and soon turns into a nightmare for her.

Looking out the window I was reminded of just how lonely this landscape was. In Sweden, outside the cities, the wilderness rules supreme. People tiptoe timidly around the edge, surrounded by skyscraping fir trees and lakes larger than entire nations. Remember, this is the landscape that inspired the mythology of trolls, stories I used to read to you about giant lumbering man-eating creatures with mushroom warts on their crooked noses and bellies like boulders. Their sinewy arms can rip a person in two, snapping human bones and using splinters to scrape the gristle out of their shrapnel teeth. Only in forests as vast as this could such monsters be hiding, yellow eyes stalking you.  

There are lots of things that are marvellous about The Farm. The main thing for me was the sense of unreliability throughout. Tom Rob Smith has Tilde recount what has happened to her, from her perspective, from start to finish providing items she feels prove her story. These are interjected with questions from Daniel as he tries to understand, as we readers try and figure it all out, and also interjections from his father, Chris, calling trying to find out what is going on and trying to tell Daniel his mother has had a breakdown and isn’t to be believed.

This adds a marvellous sense of tension to the book. Which parent should we believe? Has Chris been part of something horrendous? Has Tilde misread what she has seen with so much additional time on her hands in the remote wilderness, has she escaped to a place of trolls from her childhood, has she gone mad or could she be telling the truth? You are constantly second guessing all of the characters as you read on and just when you think you have taken a side, something happens to make you change your mind. It is a web intricately spun.

What adds to this is the fact The Farm is laced with secrets. As we read on we learn there are many secrets behind the façade of this family (as in real life). Why did Tilde and Chris really leave the UK and head to the middle of nowhere? What happened in Tilde’s childhood which led her to fleeing her home country and makes everyone question her all the more? What is really going on in the neighbouring farm of Håkan Greggson (a brilliantly constructed neighbourhood bully, who I loved to loathe) behind closed doors? What secret is Daniel himself keeping from his parents? Throw in the atmosphere of Sweden with is brooding landscape, mythology and remote nature and how can a read fail to be compelled?

I thought The Farm was superb. Cliché alert, I couldn’t put it down. I read it in just two settings begrudgingly putting it down when I selfishly needed some sleep before waking up very early to get back into it. Tom Rob Smith creates a genuinely thrilling mystery where secrets brood along with the atmosphere. Whilst also being a gripping read it looks at the stories we tell our families and also, more importantly, what we leave out. It also takes an interesting look at mental health and asks some big questions surrounding that. All in all The Farm is a multi-layered compulsively readable thriller that puzzles and provokes. One of my books of the year so far.

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Filed under Books of 2014, Review, Riot Communications, Simon & Schuster, Tom Rob Smith

I’m at London Book Fair…

This week I am having a jaunt down to London as I have been asked to speak at London Book Fair (which was frankly too exciting) which is on for three days. I have to say it is soooooo much bigger than I was expecting and I have been slightly daunted by it, who knew so many books could be so thrilling and scary all at once?

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I will do a proper post after the madness is all over, I was going to do some regular updates but thought lots of posts like that might get on your wicks. Though if you follow me on Twitter and Instagram (SavidgeReads) then you will get some titbits now and again. If you are at London Book Fair, or just in London as I am here till Saturday, do let me know and we can say ‘hey’ and have a chat about books, or you can be a friendly face whilst I am pooing my pants talking to lots of people about reviewing ‘The Book Journalist’s Perspective’ at Author HQ. Eek! Maybe I will see some of you around?

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A Month of ‘Being Very British’; Guest Editing Fiction Uncovered…

Many of you will know that for the last few years I have often mentioned and supported one of my favourite initiatives Fiction Uncovered, now the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, which celebrates slightly lesser known British authors who might not have been featured as much as they should have been by reviewers but most importantly might have been missed by book lovers all over the place. Each year eight titles are chosen and from the ones I have read so far they are marvellous. What is not to love about that?

Now this year the titles haven’t been named yet, what is quite exciting though is that in the lead up to the announcement (and I assume during) they are having some guest editors on their website to talk about the wonders of British literature, in a non xenophobic way I hasten to add, and the first one is ME. Yes, me, I know. I am beyond excited and you can see it is true here. So I thought for the rest of the month as I discuss British books and authors there, I should really do the same here shouldn’t I? So that is the plan for the rest of April.

I don’t really like rules so there are none. I will say that I would rather read some lesser known novelists, new and old, or new-to-me authors.

So bearing that in mind I have lined up some books which fit that ever so slightly vague brief, though they are actually all modern, I will hunt down some classics, and which I plan to read over the next month and they are…

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The Canal – Lee Rourke
Landfall – Helen Gordon
Pig Iron – Benjamin Myers
A Modern Family – Socrates Adams
Everything I Found on the Beach – Cynan Jones
Rook – Jane Rusbridge

If you asked me why I have picked those specifically I couldn’t actually tell you. They are all authors I have been recommended to read at some point and have stayed in my mind since. I am really looking forward to giving them a try though, which is the most important thing.

I am sure some of you will have read some of the above authors and these books, do let me know if you have. I would also really love to know your favourite British authors both the famous/well known ones but also the ones who have maybe gone unfairly under the radar.

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Does Anyone Else Think…

That this portrait that my Granddad (Bongy) painted of his mother, my Nana Doris which I have inherited and finally picked up from my mothers this weekend, would look rather wonderful on a Persephone Classics or Virago Modern Classic (especially the old green ones) book cover?

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Or is it just me?

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Other People’s Bookshelves #36; Eric Karl Anderson

Hello and welcome to the latest in Other People’s Bookshelves, a regular series of posts where you get to have a nosey at other book lovers bookshelves. This week we are heading to London to join a great blogger, you so need to be following Lonesome Reader if you aren’t already (his reviews are so good I almost want to hate him frankly, Joyce Carol Oates reads it), and great acquaintance of mine Mr Eric Karl Anderson. Myself and Eric have just started a new cultural project for all the pogonophiles and beardy book lovers out there called Beardy Bibliophiles, which launches officially next week both online and in Central London. You have been warned, ha!  So let us find out more about Eric and have a nosey through his books…

My name is Eric. I grew up in Stephen King country (Maine) in the USA, but I moved to London in 2000 and have settled quite snugly into the city having created my own personal library/study. I’ve always been a keen reader. When I was little I loved being read to. I don’t remember this myself but my father tells me that after my first day of school I came home crying. When he asked what was wrong I complained “They didn’t teach me how to read yet.” I can spend ages just staring at my bookshelf. It’s like my own alter/church. I did a Master’s degree in Studies in Fiction, but I’ve always been more about reading for pleasure than academic purposes. I’ve published several things myself including a novel and a scattering of short stories in literary magazines and anthologies. I’m also keen on disaster movies and baking muffins.

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

It would be sensible to adopt a one in one out system, but instead I keep trying to cram more in until I’m pressured into making a book cull. Generally only books that I think are particularly brilliant get to stay on my shelves or ones which have been signed or have sentimental value. Most of the books I read are given away to friends or charity shops. A large portion of books on my shelves are waiting to be read, but will probably go once I get to them. These days a lot of the ones which get to stay are more obscure books which I think would be difficult to track down again.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

There’s not much order. By my bedside, I mostly keep books of short stories or poems because I’ll sometimes read aloud from these to my boyfriend before we go to sleep. In my front room I keep hardback books together and most of these are signed by the authors. My boyfriend once tried to get me to alphabetize the books in our study. I got as far a D and gave up. I try to keep books by the same author together. I like the general disorder and unusual pairing even if it makes it hard to find something. Book culling is painful, but unfortunately necessary since I live in London and space is precious.

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

This is really difficult to remember. In the 6th grade my English class had a sort of book club we could join and order books from. That was the first place I started purchasing books from using my allowance money. They were a series of Choose Your Own Adventure books and I particularly liked that they were numbered so appealed to my geeky collector’s personality. All these books have sadly gone with yard sales. There is a new book coming out soon called “The Boy in the Book” by Nathan Penlington which I’m keen to read since it’s about his passion for Choose Your Own Adventure books.

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Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

Probably “Delta Style” by Delta Burke. It was a sort of joke gift and I’ve never read it. But I loved watching Designing Women. I didn’t read them as a child, but I have the entire Mr Men series. I think they are brilliant. At my college graduation I announced to the crowd that it was story time and read “Mr Clever” aloud to them. Otherwise, I have published some naughty stories and my author copies of those books are hidden away rather than being displayed.

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

It’s so hard to choose! My number one would probably be a holograph edition of Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves.” This contains a rough draft of the novel when it was still titled “The Moths” and has her corrections in the margins. It also contains a more recognizable draft of the novel with more of her corrections in the margins. Since “The Waves” is my all-time favourite novel it’s incredibly fascinating seeing the actual process she went through to get to the finished thing. It’s an incredibly rare book.

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But I also really prize a proof copy of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel “Do With Me What You Will” which has included at the back a typed alternative ending to the book. Both the ending printed in the proof and the typed-up alternative ending differ to the ending which appeared in the final version of the book.

What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

I think the first ‘grown up’ book on my parents’ shelves that I noticed and really fancied reading was James Clavell’s “Shōgun.” I think I was about 12 when I read it which is fairly young considering the length and subject matter – loosely based on historic battles in 1600s feudal Japan. I absolutely loved and devoured it.

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Although you didn’t mean it that way I’m going to tell you anyway. The first ‘grown up’ scene I remember reading in a book was Stephen King’s “The Eyes of the Dragon.” It’s the wedding night where a king married a girl who is somewhat baffled when he undresses. She asks him what that thing is and he replies “It’s my purple-headed warrior.” This made me giggle endlessly and was my first introduction to a bad sex scene.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

Even if I love a borrowed book I’ve read I’m usually happy to give it back because of limited space. But if I’m really wild about it I’m more likely to sneak it on my shelf and keep “forgetting” to give it back. That’s wrong, isn’t it?

What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

The last book which has gone on the shelves and will be staying there is Jim Crace’s novel “Harvest.” It’s an absolutely beautiful book and I had him sign it when I went to the Booker Prize readings last year. I’m somewhat glad I read what turned out to be the winner “The Luminaries” as an e-book as I would have wanted to keep this on my shelves as well. I’ve bought and received plenty of books since acquiring “Harvest” but I don’t think they’ll be staying on the shelves forever.

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

There are lots of “classic” books I’d love to house on my shelves, but there just isn’t room for them and I know they are easy to acquire should I feel inspired to read them. I’ve read several novels electronically which I’d love to have on my shelves, but the truth is that there just isn’t room. Of course, if I ever get a Beauty & the Beast size library I’ll immediately be filling it up with physical copies of all these e-books.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

Everyone has different standards they hold people up to when considering their reading tastes. Considering what’s on my shelves they would probably accurately think that I have a taste for contemporary literary fiction as well as first time novelists and slightly more experimental fiction. I have two shelves overflowing with Joyce Carol Oates books so I bet they’d be able to guess my favourite author.

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A huge thanks to Eric for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, I am very excited about next weeks beardy bookish get together. If you are in central London next Thursday and fancy a natter do check the website to see how you could be there with a bookish beardy beverage. Anyway… Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Eric’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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The Days of Anna Madrigal – Armistead Maupin

I am not very good with goodbyes, nor am I very good with endings. There are all those mixed emotions; denial, upset, happy tears, sad tears – it is all a bit much really. I think it is a mixture of all these that has caused me to pause rather often as I have been putting my thoughts together about The Days of Anna Madrigal, Armistead Maupin’s final in the Tales of the City series which I have loved since I was in my teens.

Doubleday, hardback, 2014, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Anna Madrigal is now 90-something and in the prime of old age, she has become something of a legend within the LGBT community, not only in her hometown of San Francisco where she is an institution, but all over the place. However Anna is filled with nostalgia and the events that happened when she was a young boy Andy, a boy who knew he was very different from the other boys and girls and who did something that Anna has been keeping secret for a very, very long time.

I am of course very delicately tip toeing around any spoilers because I really don’t want to give anything away to have those of you who love the series and haven’t read this one yet, or those are just discovering it (and should really go back to the start as then you have nine books to get through) because you have such joys ahead – you lucky things. What I can say is that Anna decides that she will go back and face her past and rectify, if she can, any of the wrongs that she may have caused in her past.

They shared a merry moment of bonding until Brian interrupted it. “Wait a minute,” he said to Anna. “You told me you chose your name for the anagram.” The old woman shook her head slowly. “I told you it was an anagram. There’s a big difference.” Brian’s face turned pouty. “So you were just blowing smoke up my ass.” Anna smiled dimly. “You may have been inhaling, dear, but I wasn’t blowing.”

This gives the book a wonderful sense of resolution and (if you have read it) to the whole series going full circle. Anna Magrigal has always been the heart, and in many ways the link that binds, the Tales of the City series and indeed the wonderful characters, Mouse, Mary Ann Singleton, Mona, Brian etc, together throughout. Wherever she is they end up being (Burning Man is involved in this novel) or somehow finding themselves linked to her in another fateful or coincidental way. At the same time she has always really been its biggest mystery and enigma in the series. Where did she come from? What happened that made her lose contact with her mother and the whore house in Winnemucca? Well we go back to the 1930’s and find out thanks to some wonderful (and vividly described and created) flashbacks which brings the hardship of anyone ‘different’ to the full force and in a way looks back at LGBT history and, of course, supplies us with a great story.

It is this mixture of a great stories with more serious issues lying in the background, sneaking into your brain, which is what I have always loved so much about Armistead Maupin’s writing. There’s levels and there’s bigger issues underlying to make you think, while the characters you love and the situations they find themselves in make it all the more real. The main theme for me in The Days of Anna Madrigal for me was ‘ageing’. Be you in your late twenties or thirties, your sixties or your nineties it is something we all think about, even if for the briefest of moments. Maupin looks at ageing and looks at its pitfalls, like your body failing you or not feeling able to keep up with the rest of the world or being at odds with it. I must point out it also celebrates it in many ways too. I often found it all incredibly touching.

If only he knew, though Michael. Sixty-two was a lot like twelve and hormonal. Teenagers rage against the end of childhood, old people against the end of everything. Instability is a permanent condition that adapts with the times.

The other themes of the book, which link to age in many ways, look at endings and goodbyes – I have already mentioned I am not very good at these. Goodbye’s don’t have to mean death, they can mean goodbye to friends you’ve moved on from, places you loved which maybe aren’t for you anymore, goodbye to guilt or the past. There is so much in any goodbye and again Maupin looks at this in a wonderful way which will move you, unless you happen to be dead inside in which case you don’t deserve the mixed tears of joy and sadness that might be ahead.

She regarded him benignly until she caught his gaze. “So this is the end of candlelight?” He hesitated. “Well… if you wanna put it that way.” “How would you have me put it?”

It was the sense of pleasant nostalgia that I was left with the most having closed The Days of Anna Madrigal knowing it was the end of the series. A nostalgia for all the joy that the characters and their tales have brought me, along with the sense of having gone full circle. After all more often than not, the ending of something is actually the beginning of something else, or the start of a new cycle, isn’t it? I guess I just have to start all over again don’t I and relive the memories and stories that I am most grateful and thankful Armistead Maupin has brought into many of our lives.

Actually, the end of the Tales of the City and Simon Savidge story, as I like to think of it, isn’t quite over yet. For one, I have just got my mother reading them and she loved the first. Secondly, I am giving it away on World Book Night, so I will be passing on the Tales that way too. So who else is a fan of the Tales of the City novels? Is anyone else gutted, even though we have all these to re-read, that the series has now come to an end? Oh and if you would like to hear Armistead talking more about the book, you can do so with me (who turned into a bit of a fan boy) here on You Wrote The Book. Are there any other series that are so endearing you could recommend to fill the void these will now leave?

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Tale Telling Tattoo’s…

Well, sort of, but that does sound literary doesn’t it, which is apt. Not many people would choose to go and get a tattoo for their birthday, however I have been hankering after one for ages. The lovely Emma Jane Unsworth, who said I should call this post Monsters Ink, and I made a pact some time ago (I can’t remember exactly when so this could mean it was when we were rather merry) that we would get them together, being able to entertain the other who may be screaming or crying, and when we booked back in February the waiting list was longer than long and then we were snuck in. So last Tuesday we headed off to The Inkwell which is just down the road from me in Oxton.

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Now I could pretend I was really rock hard and didn’t give a monkeys as I headed there, though Emma would call me a liar if I did. I was very, very nervous and had actually been giving myself pep-talks since waking up, I have never had a tattoo you see and had only been told that it is ‘like a red hot knife dragged through your skin’ by The Beard who is a connoisseur. I am not renowned for being good with pain and can be a bit of a wuss. So when, after a sweet cup of tea and chat about our tatts, it was time to go in I got the nervous chatters until I was lying down and hearing the words ‘are you ready?’ I said yes, after a look of ‘come on love’ from the Unsworth and the famous buzzing noise started.

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I can honestly say that it wasn’t that bad. Initially it felt like a cat scratch, that oddly vibrates, and you soon get used to it. Amazingly the tattooist, and mine was amazing, seemed to know when the pain had gone up a notch and would stop and pop some lovely cool liquid on and start again. The only bit that really hurt was near my elbow when I did admit I wanted to ‘swat the pain as it feels like a wasp’ and was advised not to as ‘I have a big needle in my hand’ ha! An hour and a half later I was being wrapped up and feeling like a turkey after Christmas day. Well a now hyper one at any rate.

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Next up was Emma who was having a lion (which is also apt as she has a wonderful new novel called Animals coming out next month, just saying) from the park she played in as a child on her bicep, I was there ready and waiting to entertain.

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I am not sure I did the best job as we discovered afterwards, or in Emma’s case during, that the bicep is one of the most painful places that you can have a tattoo. Ouch! Looks good though doesn’t it?

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Swiftly after we were done we hurried over to the chemist for some Bepanthen, which they joked keeps them in business in Oxton, cream for the long-term aftercare before rushing off for some short term aftercare which was possibly a half pint in the beer garden before both stuffing ourselves with these…

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Well we deserved it didn’t we? We were such brave soldiers after all. In fact by the time we got back to mine we thought we were too cool for school and rock and roll stars really…

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So what did I have and how is it looking now? Well it looks a little flaky but it has settled down nicely and I think it is very me and in its own way rather literary…

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After all doesn’t every book start with those words, even if they don’t appear in the first sentence?

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