Man Booker Prize 2015 Longlist Predictions…

Sorry I couldn’t come up with a more snazzy title than that this morning but having just spent a good hour or two going through my bookshelves, both of the books I have read this year and the ones I have yet to (which made me have a moment of weeping from the shame), so my brain is slightly frazzled. The reason I was doing this exercise was to see which books I thought would make it onto the Man Booker Longlist tomorrow, always a fun game which many people have joined in with already. I must say, before I reveal the list, there is no way on earth I think I am a) anywhere near right b) in a position where I feel I should be c) am not sure I want to be anywhere near right as I like the surprise of new to me books. How can any of us, unless we are one of the judges or the administration team, have a clue? I have just gone on books I have read and loved and books that I really want to read that I can see as being ‘Booker’ books, whatever that is – let’s not open up that can of worms! So here goes…

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A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
All Involved – Ryan Gattis
The Good Son – Paul McVeigh
Girl At War – Sara Novic
A Brief History of Seven Killings – Marlon James
TheWallcreeper – Nell Zink

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I Saw A Man – Owen Sheers
At Hawthorn Time – Melissa Harrison
The Wolf Border – Sarah Hall
The Well – Catherine Chanter
Tender – Belinda McKeon
Us Conductors – Sean Michaels

Note, I am missing one and that is because I don’t have it. I think The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma could also be on the list, it is one I am very eager to read at some point. Now you may be thinking ‘hang on a minute sunshine whatabout x, y or z’ well these lists are tricky and you can only go with your gut but I did have another 11 that I could have had on that list which at the moment I purged I thought could go either way…

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Yes, I know those are a pile of nine books but I cannot find my copy of The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan and Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins is on a very high shelf (yes those shelves in the picture above go on up very very very high) and I couldn’t reach it without getting chairs involved and all sorts. I loved A God in Ruins but I wonder if the clever sneaky very subtle twist will be a marmite effect as I know lots of people who (because clearly they have hearts made from coal surrounded by ice, ha) were left slightly unmoved by it. Anyway, any of the above and aforementioned, if not pictured, I would like to see on the list very much indeed. Though as I have mentioned part of the joy of it is the surprise that may await us.

Would I have a tantrum if any of these weren’t on the list? Possibly with A Little Life, which might be one of my books of a lifetime, and All Involved because I think Gattis has written a fascinating insight into gang culture which puts you on a roller-coaster from start to finish (unputdownable would be the cliche I would use if I could, oh… I have) and is crafted and characterised beautifully, and A God In Ruins will ruin you, if you have a normal person’s heart – hehehe. Annoyingly I have only reviewed the Atkinson as the other two will be on You Wrote The Book in due course so am holding off till then. Oh, I am rambling, let us wrap up. What I can say is that I am very excited about tomorrows list and will be awaiting it with much interest.

If you would like to see more guesses there are some at A Case For Books, A Life in Books, Farm Lane Books and over at Neil D. A. Stewart’s blog. Oh and if you want a whole different list you can vote on then check out the Not The Booker Longlist 2015 too. Now over to you, what do you think of the books I have chosen (have you read any?) and which books are you hoping will make the list and why? Let me know if you have had a go at predicting tomorrows list.

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Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

I first heard about Station Eleven when I was in a hotel room in Asheville, North Carolina. My lovely roomie, Michael Kindness of Books on the Nightstand, was reading it while we were at Booktopia. He was really enjoying it and it was fair to say that when he was seen with it in his company, or when it was heard he had it, there was almost a fever of anticipation and a buzz going through the many Booktopia attendees. I asked what it was about, as naturally Michael and I spent the entirety of our room sharing talking books, and was told it is about the start of the end of civilization and then the aftermath twenty years later. I think you could hear my eyes rolling around the whole of the U.S and I may have made some snarky comment along the lines of ‘oh, that’s not something that has been written about before is it?’ I came back to the UK and Station Eleven  was soon being talked about everywhere, before swiftly becoming many people’s (lots of whom I trust immensely) favourite books of 2014. After someone, who will remain nameless, but who bloody loved this book sooooo much dared me to read it on the promise of £50 if I didn’t like it I decided it was time. Well, I never got the £50 because I loved it and was of course furious I hadn’t stolen Michael’s proof off him when I had the chance.

Picador Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Station Eleven opens, aptly, at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto where well-known (more famous in his youth) actor Arthur is taking on the lead role in Shakespeare’s King Lear, that is until midway through the show he collapses and dies from what initially appears to be a heart attack. Yet within hours not only is Toronto feeling the beginnings of what seems to be a pandemic flu, the whole world is following suit. Through the eyes of a seemingly unlinked group of people we watch as flu turns out to be a deadly virus and the end of the world is coming.

Yet Station Eleven is not simply an end of the world novel, in fact bar the initial millions of deaths (99.9% of humans have died, he says casually) in the first few days we are soon sent to the year Twenty when those who somehow survived, or were immune, to the virus are carrying on in a new strange world. Here Mandel focuses in more particularly with Kirsten, part of The Symphony, travelling around North America performing Shakespeare as they head through the wilderness we see both a future that is much simpler (no phones, no television, no electrics) yet where humans living at their most base start to want powers of other kinds. All I will say is ‘cults’ and we know how fascinating, if utterly bizarre, some of those can be.

There was much to love and admire in Station Eleven. Firstly I found the fact that Mandel chooses to write about the very beginnings and then skip to twenty years after the end of civilisation, really interesting. Many authors would have gone full throttle with the horror of what could happen as the humanity falls and then deals with everything’s slowly breaking down and running out. Mandel however, bar a few of the tiniest flashbacks, leaves that all to our imagination which of course can be much worse. I wondered if she felt, like I did when I rolled my eyes back in Asheville like a wally, that maybe this is ground that has almost been covered too much, isn’t how and if people survive after that all the more interesting? It turns out it is.

Before we head to that I do want to mention how brilliantly she does write about the pandemic as it sweeps across continents. It is utterly bloody terrifying as it could all happen so easily, especially if we think what happened with Ebola recently, all it takes is the virus to get on a few plans with a few people and off it spreads. I don’t suggest reading this book on a plane next to anyone with a cold. I thought this also had a real emotive weight on several occasions, with particular reference for those who die not long after including one leading-ish character far from their loved ones and indeed surrounded by strangers (who I won’t name, but I wept) as well as those people who we only see the merest glances of through survivor’s eyes.

“You told me to call you if there was ever a real epidemic?”
“I remember.”
“We’ve admitted over two hundred flu patients since this morning,” Hua said. “A hundred and sixty in the past three hours. Fifteen of them have died. The ER’s full of new cases. We’ve got beds parked in hallways. Health Canada’s about to make an announcement.” It wasn’t only exhaustion, Jeevan realised, Hua was afraid.
Jeevan pulled the bell cord and made his way to the rear door. He found himself glancing at the other passengers. The young woman with groceries, the man in the business suit playing a game on his cell phone, the elderly couple conversing quietly in Hindi. Had any of them come from the airport?  He was aware of all of them breathing around him.

In the year Twenty things are no less emotive or terrifying, just in a very different way. People who have survived the pandemic might die simply treading on a rusty nail as there is no treatment. People are also suffering as with no police/official control/government some lesser individuals see this as a way to form their own controls be it husbands and their behaviour to wives, criminals and murderers lingering just out of eye sight ready and waiting, or self appointed rulers ready to spread wisdom from the past they use old documents and twist the words of or simply make them up themselves. We watch the way someone’s nature, be it good or bad, can come to the fore.

It is interesting to read how the ripples of the past end up affecting the future in ways unseen. Throughout Station Eleven Mandel seems to use it to talk about many things. There is fame and why people become so obsessed with it, we have the fame (or the fading of it) for Arthur in the past, and the seeming need for infamy of ‘The Prophet’ in the future. We look at what truly lasts after the world is ravaged, yes there are aeroplanes and cars and all those sorts of things yet without power they become useless, what really become valuable are documents, words, trinkets, memories and history, even pop culture is celebrated for some of the positive attributes is has in a desolate future.

We stand it because we were younger than you were when everything ended, Kirsten thought, but not young enough to remember nothing at all. Because there isn’t much time left, because all the roofs are collapsing now and soon none of the old buildings will be safe. Because we are always looking for the former world, before all the traces of the former world are gone.

I really like books with layers and Station Eleven has those in bounds. On one level it is just a fast paced and fascinating look at the end of one civilisation and potential beginning of another. There is plague, there is murder, there are cults, there are loves lost and found. There’s also a lot going on under that; we are reminded how vapid celebrity culture can be and yet how obsessed we can become with the famous on our many devices, rather than getting to know a neighbour; the importance of words and culture; how important kindness is. I could go on, the power of all of these and more subtly resonates through the book. The most powerful thing of all though is hope, especially in other people and their choices to be good. That was the message I was left with as I left a world that seemed like the future yet reminded me to look away from all my screens and remember a simpler past – where books ruled.

If you would like to hear Emily St John Mandel talk more about Station Eleven then you can hear her chatting to me (I know, how lucky was I) here on this episode of You Wrote The Book. I would love to hear your thoughts on Station Eleven, a spectrum of which you can see here on Adventures with Words, Tomcat in the Redroom, Mookse and the Gripes and Lonesome Reader. I would also love to know which of Emily’s previous three books you have read (as I now have them all) and what you made of those?

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Other People’s Bookshelves #66 – A.M. Bakalar

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week we are in London, I will be staying in The Shard again I am sure, to meet author A.M. Bakalar, or Asia, and to have a nosey around her bookshelves. Before we do though do grab some Paczki, Sernik or maybe some Piernik (they are all delicious) and a drink and let’s get to know Asia and her shelves…

A.M. Bakalar is the author of Madame Mephisto, published by Stork Press in 2012. Madame Mephisto was among readers’ nominations to the 2012 Guardian First Book Award. She is the first Polish woman to publish a novel in English since Poland joined EU in 2004. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian and The International New York Times. She was the editor of Litro Magazine Polish Issue and recently her essay ‘The Future of Paper Books’ has been published in Wasafiri Birthday Edition. Asia was born and raised in Wroclaw, Poland. She lived in Germany, France, Sicily and Canada before she moved to the UK in 2003. She lives in London, with her partner, a drum and bass musician.

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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?

Everything I read I keep on my bookshelves or any other space I can find for them. But a few months ago I was told there were cracks in the walls which hold some of my shelves, and the living room was becoming a danger zone, in case the books start falling down. Which, frankly, has happened a few times when I tried to place one more book on top of the other so with a heavy heart I began to stack the books I can live without on the floor until I give them away. Now, I try to keep only the books I really really love, and if I read something I’m not super excited about, I add it to the pile of give aways. This is incredibly hard for me because if I could I would make my house one big library but my partner is not too thrilled by the idea. He has a big collection of drum and base vinyl records but his takes less space. There’s a lot of negotiation going on when new books arrive as I try to find place for them.

I keep books in my home in London and I also have boxes of hundreds of books in Wroclaw, Poland, my mum is taking care of them. One day I’d like to ship them to London, when we have a bigger house. I used to have a flat back in Poland and I had to pack all the books in boxes and store in the basement. One day my mum called me there was fire in the basement. I almost had a heart attack thinking all my books are gone. Then my mum said: ‘Guess what, everything burnt except the books.’ Call that luck or some intervention of a Book God, if one exists.

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?

I have to organise otherwise I wouldn’t be able to find anything but it still takes me a while to find what I want. In the kitchen I only keep books by African authors and theory of literature; postcolonialism, comparative literature and world feminism. I was doing PhD in Nigerian and Zimbabwean women’s fiction before I decided to write fiction. A lot of books in that section reflect that period, and any new fiction out of Africa goes there. This is a place where I write as well so there’s a big section of research books depending what I’m working on. And, there’re a few shelves with books that are waiting to be read. I pile them in the kitchen until they are read and moved around. And some cook books as well. In the bedroom I only keep science fiction and books by my bedside.

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The living room is devoted to fiction in translation, British fiction, books from Poland, non-fiction, poetry and drama, graphic novels and books by Middle Eastern authors. In the bathroom I keep a few titles as well, for a quick read when taking a bath. Once I finish reading something I pile it onto a small table until there’s no space and then I distribute them to various sections around the flat and I stack them alphabetically. A few years ago I had a personal book stamp and used to add a date and place where I got a book but there’re so many of them I can’t be bothered anymore. I have a Kindle but can’t stand reading eBooks which my partner finds incredibly disappointing because he thinks one day we will both be buried under the books and it will be all my fault.

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

Honestly, I don’t remember the first book I bought. I remember the first money I ever made was weeding out the garden of my grandmother’s neighbour and I spent it on books but I have no idea what I bought then.

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?

I have some books which disappointed me but I still keep them, until I give them away of course. One man’s thrash is another man’s treasure. Reading is so much fun I don’t really care whether people feel embarrassed when they look at my books. One of my friends told me she only reads very violent crime fiction and her mother suggested perhaps she should not invite men for tea to see her book collection as they will be scared of her. But she loves her books so they are stay where they are. I had people feel uneasy about some of the books I have, e.g. Dying for the Truth. Undercover inside the Mexican Drug War by the Fugitive Reporters of Blog Del Narco, but there’s a yellow tape around it with a warning so they think twice before opening it.

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?

There’s a book my mum read to me when I was a child, a collection of all Hans Christian Andersen’s stories published in 1969 in Poland. It has my drawings in it when I was small and some over thirty year old dried flowers between pages. For a long time my mum refused to give to me but I managed to convince her. Apart from emotional value it is simply a beautiful book, bound in orange cloth with incredibly delicate pages, and front and back pages of dark indigo sky with stars.

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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?

Both of my parents love reading and my dad has a wonderful collection of science fiction books, while my mum reads everything else. I was always encouraged to read pretty much everything.  But there was a book they kept hidden behind their collection: John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. It was a true undercover operation I had to resort to in order to lay my hands on this book. I would wait until they were both gone to work or ran some errands. I would sneak into the room to read a few pages at a time until I heard a key turn in the lock and frantically place the book the way it was on the shelf so they wouldn’t notice. I would always pretend I was just looking at something to read, with my cheeks burning and praying they would leave again so I could finish it! I think I read this book a few times like that, even memorised some fragments, but sadly I don’t remember any of it now.

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?

I try not to borrow books from friends as I never give them back. I usually write down the title and the author and buy it. Every year I buy a small notebook where I write down titles of books I want to read. Once I buy it I cross it down so I know I got it. I still go back to some of the notebooks from few years back and slowly go through them. I read over 100 books a year and buy around 150. And my parents buy me books as well, especially books translated into Polish which are not available in English, and some Polish books as well. I’m beginning to think I have OCD when it comes to buying books.

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

1988 edition of Ernesto Sábato’s On Heroes and Tombs, which is waiting to be read. A massive over 800 pages long Mrs M. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal  I love reading on herbs and plants and their history. Davi Kopenawa’s The Falling Sky  on Yanomami culture and cosmology. I’m finishing Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice  which I really enjoy reading. And there’re some science fiction books as well: Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, Peter Watt’s Echopraxia and Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. I also got really cool collection of drawings by a Lebanese author Mazen Kerbaj, Beyrouth. Julliet-Août 2006, in French, English and Arabic. During the Israeli attack in 2006 Kerbaj posted a kind of cartoon diary on his blog and it was published in a book form.

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

Complete translation in ten volumes of The Mahabharata. I have the first three volumes translated by J. A. B. van Buitenen, the great Indologist who began the translation at the University of Chicago. When I studied English Literature back in Poland we had an amazing Sanskrit scholar, professor Joanna Sachse, and once every week we had lectures on Indian literature. For an hour professor Sachse was telling us the story of The Mahabharata. I was mesmerised. It really made the huge impact on how I perceive books. (Talking about the power of storytelling!) And since then I’ve always wanted the read the whole thing. The problem with The Mahabharata is that it’s the longest epic poem ever written, almost two million words! So it’s physically impossible for one translator to finish the work because a lifetime is not enough. I’ve been buying each volume every few years. I hope I can still read the ten volumes before I die.

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

I was told I’m slightly mad because of the amounts of books in my place and I guess I am. I’m just totally obsessed with reading but I love it anyway.

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A huge thanks to Asia for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, you can find out more about her at her website here! If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) 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 A’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

It seems that the successes of word of mouth recommendations are still alive and well if we look at Elena Ferrante. Her publishers have not spent lavish amounts on publicising her, in fact no one knows who she is as she likes to keep herself a secret somewhere in Italy (though she could be in Brazil or Bognor for all we know). Yet her latest novels which form the Neapolitan Novels series and start with 2012’s My Brilliant Friend are selling like hotcakes, some several tyears after originally coming out – that is such a brilliant story of readers suddenly loving something en masse and then spreading the word. So after being reminded, quite sternly but passionately, by Daniela of Europa Editions (who publish them here in the UK) that I really, really, really needed to read them recently, I have finally done so…

Europa Editions, paperback, 2012, fiction, translated by Ann Goldstein, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

“Not for you: you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”

Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend starts with something of a mystery. The novel opens with our protagonist Elena, who could actually be the author indeed, as she receives a call from Rino, the son of her close friend of over sixty years, Lila, to tell her that his mother has gone missing. Elena isn’t surprised, for it seems Lila has always been quite ‘a character’ since their friendship and has always said that at some point she will vanish from the world and if Lila is going to do something she does. Elena instead of worrying, decides to write down the story of her friendship with Lila from the grimy streets of Naples of their childhood, and so begins My Brilliant Friend.

To try and explain My Brilliant Friend simply a tale of two girls growing up together, which I have seen it described as, I think is quite lazy. Okay that is the overall plot; we follow them from early school days until one of them gets married. Yet friendships themselves are complex relationships and also have their own trajectories. Elena and Lila initially become aware of each other before becoming best friends, falling out, becoming friends again, running away together, starting petty jealousies and competitions and then having the testing time of their teens where one is able to carry on going to school and one is not. This all sounds relatively simple, we have read such stories before, yet I don’t think I have read friendship written so frankly and intricately before, even the complexity of forming a friendship at a young age.

Lila knew I had that fear, my doll talked about it out loud. And so, on the day we exchanged our dolls for the first time – with no discussions, only looks an gestures – as soon as she had Tina, she pushed her through the grate and let her fall into darkness.

I don’t know about you but I can still remember those moments of forging friendships as a kid and how hard it all was to gage, especially when all you wanted to do was play house or build She-Ra a castle in the sandpit. For example, I remember when my friend since 4 years old, Polly, gave me the signal in the playground we could be friends when she made her fingers into a gun and shot me. We hadn’t spoken much before, twenty-nine years later still the best of friends. Anyway the reason I mention this, is not a detour of waffle as you might think, is that it illustrates how Ferrante almost instantly made me empathise with Elena and Lila whatever it was they were going to go through and how your friends just become your friends even when (this doesn’t apply to you Polly, if you are reading this) sometimes you wonder if you actually like them as a person, though of course the person we know in private and the one that they appear in public tend to be very different, most of the time.

Lila was malicious: this, in some secret place in myself, I still thought. She had shown me not only that she knew how to wound with words but that she would kill without hesitation, and yet those capacities now seemed to me of little importance. I said to myself: she will release something more vicious, and I resorted to the word “evil”, an exaggerated word that came to me from childhood tales. But if it was a childish self that unleashed these thoughts in me, they had a foundation of truth. And in fact, it slowly became clear not only to me, who had been observing her since elementary school, but to everyone, that an essence not only seductive but dangerous emanated from Lila.

Friendship isn’t the only thing that we read about, nor is it the only thing that is intricately written about. The neighbourhood and the neighbours are also a huge part of the book, and what a neighbourhood it is. Elena says “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.”  And she is not half wrong; there are extramarital affairs, brawls, madness, assault, business wars, class wars and one-upmanship, even murder. The book brims with intricate tales and moments that weave behind the curtains of the houses around Elena and Lila and occasionally to sit at, or be talked about around, their dining tables. Yet what I thought was marvellous about this was that there are no bangs and whistles or big fanfares, things happen and Ferrante writes about them frankly without much drama just great writing.

He gave me ten lire and we all went, silently, to the top floor of a building near the public gardens. There, next to the iron door that led to the terrace, where I was clearly outlined by slender segments of light, I lifted up my shirt and showed them my breasts. The two stood staring as if they couldn’t believe their eyes. Then they turned and ran down the stairs.
I heaved a sigh of relief and went to Bar Solara to buy myself an ice cream.

I am not normally a fan of the coming of age novel, or indeed the more fancy title for it, bildungsroman, I was strangely charmed by this one. In part I liked it simply because it is a tale of two people growing up somewhere very different from me so from the foods to the customs I was intrigued. What I found really interesting was the aspects of the competition verses the companionship of the girls really interesting (I have seen this happen with many of my female friends with their female friends) and how each girl tries to keep both dynamics going yet also trying to figure out their futures where class, education and even beauty are all part and parcel of success according to the society they grow up in at a certain time in a certain place.

I am pleased I have finally read My Brilliant Friend and spent time with Elena and Lila, I am looking forward to finding out where their friendship will go in the next three Neapolitan Novels as well as what happens to the people and the place around them. I am doubly thrilled to have finally read Ferrante though whose writing just gets me; the people, the situations, everything seems so vivid and real. I found myself completely engaged without needing any gimmicks or over blown plots, just a story of two girls and the complexities that friendship brings. I now want to read all her books, especially as I have heard some of her standalone ones can be incredibly dark, so I will be on the hunt for those in particular soon. How lovely to find a new to me author with so many more books to discover.

Have you read My Brilliant Friend and if so what did you think? Have you read the rest, or more, of the Neapolitan Novels, what treats (without spoilers) do I have ahead? Have you read any of Ferrante’s other standalone novels and if so what did you make of them? Questions, questions, questions…

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Reading Retreats #3: The Shangri-La Shard, London

Sometimes we want to get away from it all and just get lost in a good book. Last year I had the luck of going to three places where such a thing was all too possible. Firstly I went of to Fjallbacka, where I could literally live in a book as I spent a few days reading some of the Camilla Lackberg crimes that were set there which was quite brilliant, I then went out into the middle of nowhere (well the ocean) to stay on the Weather Islands and read in the silent still surroundings there. I also went to a Booktopia last year in Asheville, North Carolina which I bizzarely haven’t blogged about, but I will when I go back to the US in a few months I promise. Anyway, a few weeks ago I found myself in quite the reading retreat, one which was much closer to home and yet whilst in the middle of London still felt like some kind of hidden idyll away from the world, possibly because I was over 40 stories above it with Canary Wharf looking like a potential bookmark…

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The idyll in question was the amazing five star Shangri-La Hotel which sits between the 34th and 52nd floors of the iconic Shard Building, which I have been meaning to go in/up ever since Doctor Who did all those years ago when it was revealed it was actually an alien spacecraft. Obviously, it isn’t really yet there is something brilliantly sci-fi about it when you are below it…

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I had initially been invited to attend the Shangri-La’s new series of Cultural Salon’s (an intimate and fascinating event as I told you all on Tuesday) then as a thank you for travelling so far, and as a little extra treat I was kindly offered a night in the hotel as a bonus, well how on earth could I say no. I mean it gave me the most amazing reading base for twenty four hours I could imagine, so naturally I made sure I checked in the moment that I could and headed up to my suite ready to read. When I opened the door I was smitten.

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I mean how could you not want to read on that bed? Or at that desk? Or in that armchair? I mean the options were instantly endless, I would have to read hotdesk frankly. And then I was given the ultimate reading treat when I opened the door to the bathroom…

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I mean seriously, firstly the bath has a book holder in it, secondly, THAT VIEW!!! I did actually notice the view first obviously but being such an utter reading addict as soon as I spotted the book holder I knew where I was going to be spending many of my hours that evening and indeed reading, I did a lot.

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Yes, that is indeed Tower Bridge that I was looking/reading over. Quite the most surreal experience but by the time it had gone dark and the water had gone cold for the third time I had finished off one book and was headed onto the next, though in bed. I have to admit though I actually ended up staring at the night time lights of London for an hour or two until I had to pop the blinds down so I could read a bit more and get some kip. Because the next day were two more highlights. First up was breakfast…

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Now I don’t know about you but a) I love hotel living anyway and could happily tour hotel to hotel for the rest of my adult life, well maybe a lot of it if not all b) I am an absolute 100% fan of the hotel breakfast buffet. If I go somewhere and there’s just a menu, I judge it instantly. I mean I love an Eggs Benedict like the best of them but in a hotel I want both the fun and the potential opportunity a buffet can provide. In fact my love in my life probably goes 1. Books 2. Cats 3. Hotel breakfasts 4. Loved ones and friends. 5. Bed. Seriously. Well the Shangri-La met my challenge…

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And again…

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And again.

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Yes that is Dim Sum on my breakfast plate, I am destined to move in forever, this hotel knew me that well. It  was amazing and I won’t lie will be in my number one breakfast moment of the entire year, this is high praise from me. Anyway, I had to get a wriggle on and a swimming costume because next up was a date on the 52nd floor, with a swimming pool…

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And also another book blogger, who I was allowed to sneak in for a Friday morning dip, the lovely Eric of LonesomeReader. Note – this is the highest infinity pool in Europe and we had it all to ourselves for several hours as we chatted; mainly about books and the view…

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And even did a little light reading…

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Seriously, it is like some kind of readers paradise. If you ever get the change to stay, and it is worth treating yourself let alone any of your loved ones, then I would highly recommend it as somewhere to escape from it all, with a good book, great food and incredible views and service. I loved it. I could get quite used to it. A big thanks to both The Shangri-La Shard London and Virginia at The Massey Partnership for inviting me and letting me stay, I won’t ever forget the experience.

So I would love to hear from you as to where some of your favourite Readers Retreats have been, be they intentional or found by luck and chance? I would also love to know if you ever go on holidays away from it all just to read, be it with friends and family or without. If you have recommendations of any other Readers Retreats I should go or hunt out let me know, I am always up for the potential to escape it all with a good book, aren’t we all?

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A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next few weeks, and indeed last week, I will be sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one winner per week. This week it is Lavie Tidhar’s pulp meets alternate history tale A Man Lies Dreaming, which manages to be both a fast paced thriller and a confronting and thought provoking discussion on the prejudice suffered by Jews in the anti-Semitic movement that may still have happened whoever won the Second World War.

Hodder Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 288 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

As A Man Lies Dreaming opens we are greeted by the diary entries of a private detective named Wolf in London, November 1939 as he describes his latest mission to find a missing woman given to him by, as he says in the very first line, a woman with the face of an intelligent Jewess. Yes, from the off we are given a lead character who is a bit of a bigot, to put it mildly. We are then thrown all the more as we realise that not only is Wolf a rather alternative version of any detective we would want to meet (let alone hire, but his client is desperate) but the London we find ourselves in is a completely alternate one. For a start Oswald Mosley is standing for election and overseas the Nazi’s are not the ruling power, Germany is now a communist country, though still a threat in a very different way.

As we follow Wolf as he takes on the case we are taken deeper and deeper into and under these mean and grimy streets into a world of prostitution and a world where all those who dreamt of dictatorship of Germany, and the world, have now fled and are ruling mini domains in the streets of Soho where not only are people going missing, someone is starting to murder prostitutes and carving swastikas into their bodies; a case which will soon get closer and closer to the one Wolf is looking into.

In Berwick Street the whores were busy at their trade. The watcher in the dark had seen the detective exit his office and speak to the young German whore and to the coloured one, and seen him leave, but he remained behind. He had time. All the time in the world. He eyed the whores.

Yet this is not the only strand of A Man Lies Dreaming for after every few chapters of Wolf’s journey we are sent to somewhere quite different and somewhere horrendously real, Auschwitz. Here in one of the biggest concentration camps during the Second World War, where we know thousands of atrocities were committed, we join Shomer. Shomer was a writer of pulp and noir crimes before he found himself encamped in his horrific surrounds with hundreds of other people. When the world for him there gets too much, which as we read on we get the full comprehension of, he retreats to his slumber and a tale of a villainous dictator who has become a detective on the streets of London. This is both his coping mechanism and way of surviving from day to day no idea if today or tomorrow could be his last.

There is only now, no past, no future, there is only Auschwitz, an island floating on the Polish ground. The dead rise in black ash into the sky, day and night the ovens burn, day and night the trains come laden. And Shomer’s mind retreats into itself, the way it had when he was still a man. For he had been a writer of shund, of pulp, for Haynt and other publishers. He had made his living with his hands, at his desk, writing lies for money.

I found this construction of the novel interesting and also incredibly effective. Firstly there is this sense that Shomer is in the real world dreaming of another world where he can wreak revenge on those who have put him here. Wolf gets sexually abused in an S&M club, tortured not long later and (much worse for his ego) publically humiliated at several social events both over the failure his political and writing careers, the latter seeming to wound him most as many feel he was a one hit wonder. Yet at the same time there is a sense that the alternate Communist lead west could be the ‘reality’ and that horrifyingly Auschwitz is still happening somewhere else just not run by the regime we know. This creates a whole onslaught of concerning if fascinating thoughts in our heads.

The other way in which this is so effective is that, without this sounding weird or offensive, he makes The Holocaust more bite size and digestible while all this other noir adventure and goes on around it. This may sound like it is diluting those holocaust sections or making light of them, it is quite the opposite. Yes there is an irony throughout the novel, yet irony can be quite powerful, as can some of the humour in the utterly horrific – though to clarify this doesn’t happen in the holocaust sections but in the London ones the dark and disturbing can have some darkly funny moments especially as Wolf gets put through the ringer which Tidhar does with quite some zeal. I also think humour can often be used in a very effective way in order to highlight the darkest moments and provide contrast (and some light relief when things get very grim) and heighten the effect which I think A Man Lies Dreaming is a prime example of.

In creating an alternate version of the past, and indeed using many well known names and faces of the day not only do we feel slightly clever for recognising them (when we do, the Mitford’s, Ian Fleming etc) we also see how things could have been horrific in different ways. This again doesn’t detract from how awful things were in the Second World War, rather it highlights the fact that prejudice can poison all forms of society all over the world regardless, and sometimes because of or in spite of, of political agenda’s or historical acts. This is one of the novels lasting thoughts, or at least it was for me.

Not looking he bumped into something soft and full that smelled of expensive perfume. A squeal of delight followed and a familiar female voice said, ‘Wolfy!’
He raised his head and found himself staring directly into the adoring eyes of Unity Mitford.
‘Valkyrie?’ he said. He had always used her middle name.
‘Don’t you recognise me?’ she said, laughing.
Wolf winced. He found he could not draw away from her, his eyes kept searching that sweet, smooth face, the full red lips, the mischievous eyes. She had not changed. Her delicate perfume tickled his nostrils. ‘You haven’t aged a day,’ he said.

What I think Lavie Tidhar does with A Man Lies Dreaming is make an immensely readable book about the unreadable. He mixes hardboiled noir; dystopia and magical realism to create a dark and thought provoking novel, sure to compel the reader whilst making them face the darker sides of humanity. It is a book about war, power, politics, sex and religion whilst being a page turning thriller which gives a new and usual twist on tales of World War II and The Holocaust which manages to entertain and then slap you round the face with reality. I think it is one of the most visceral novels I have read in some time and one which weeks and months later I am still thinking about with a thrill and a shudder, it is quite brilliant. I urge you to read it.

You can hear Lavie and I talking about A Man Lies Dreaming on the Fiction Uncovered FM catch up shows here. I would love to hear from other people who have read A Man Lies Dreaming and what you thought of it. I would also love to know if you have read any of his other novels such as Osama or The Violent Century, or indeed any of his other works – lots to discover from an author who I think we should all be reading much more of.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Hodder & Stoughton, Lavie Tidhar, Review

A Literal Literary & Cultural ‘High’ Light…

I am a big fan of books live, by which I mean events where you get to hear, see and even meet the authors. Be they literary festivals, events at bookshops, literary salons, recording of radio shows or even a signing (though I find signings a bit impersonal, it’s can all be a bit ‘thanks, now jog on… next’) put me down for them if I can get to them as they always give an interesting (both positive and negative) insight into a writer and their work which I find endlessly fascinating.

So when I was asked if I would like to attend what could be the highest cultural and literary salon in Europe, maybe even the world, I jumped at the chance and two weeks ago headed to the Shangri- La Hotel in London on the 52nd Floor of The Shard, a building I have always wanted to go into since it was built…

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The event was for author and poet, Tishani Doshi who was coming to talk about her work, her life and what makes her the artist and woman she is as well as the links and influences of both the British Isles and Asia have had on her work as a ‘citizen of the world’.

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I have to admit that I had not read anything by Tishani before, though as you will see this didn’t matter as I didn’t leave empty handed. (I don’t mean I kidnapped her, I mean I bought a book.) However the things that I knew she would be talking about, because the first year of this series of salons is all about the links between Asia and the UK and the fact I had heard wonderful things about The Pleasure Seekers made me feel pretty certain I would enjoy it. Plus canapés and champagne on the top floor of the Shangri-La were a pretty big incentive too…

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Anyway, from the moment Tishani started talking I was spellbound, quite literally – I know that sounds a cliché. She started by telling us a story, which was actually much more of a myth meeting a fairytale, about her life growing up both in Indian, before heading to Mold in Wales, then India again, then London, then America and back to India. She told us tales of her family which we had to guess if were true or not, she told us tales of The West vs. The East. She read from her poetry collections and from some of her fiction work. As soon as the opportunity came for us to be able to ask questions we all just wanted to hear more from her and her prose. She was incredible.

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In fact Tishani and her event was everything that I love about ‘books live’. I was completely engaged, I got to learn more about her as a person and as an artist, more about what captures her imagination and how she writes what she writes and she made me think, leaving my mind buzzing with thoughts and things to go and find out more about. I also wanted to go and buy everything she had ever written. Unfortunately for me, but fortunate for my bank balance, they only took cash at the book stall so I only managed to leave with The Pleasure Seekers (which I had signed, that isn’t me in the picture above). I have a feeling I will love and want to then read everything else.

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Oh the picture above? That is of my bathroom as I got a chance to stay in the Shangri-La afterwards which I will be telling you more about on Thursday, where you may also see a special guest. In the meantime though I would love to know of your thoughts on book events, which ones you have been to and loved, as well as some more unusual ones you have been to – especially if they are quite unusual like this one certainly was at 52 stories above the city. Speaking of which, if you would like to keep up to date with the future cultural events going on in the Shangri-La at The Shard then head here www.slculturalsalon.com I am hoping to go for an event in February that was secretly whispered in my ear, it is a corker though so sign up for updates or bookmark that sight if you happen to be in London, I highly recommend it! I would also love to hear from you if you have read any of Tishani’s works too!

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Filed under Book Events, Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness