Ooh He’s in the News…

I am aware that this could be seen as a huge brag, when really I am just a little bit proud, however if you happen to be passing a newsagent or news stand today then you might like to pick up a copy of The Times where there might be a face or two (or three or four) that you know…

Times pic

Yes, myself and the fabulous Jen Campbell, Sanne of Books and Quills and Lucy The Reader, have all been featured in an article on BookTube and books which is all rather exciting. I have to say I was nervous as nervous on Tuesday when I went down for the photo shoot, as I am definitely not model potential, but had and amazing time and could quite possibly have quite easily got used to the pampering and hair teasing. Ha. Here is a picture from the set, well shoot, which I love…

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If you can’t get a copy (not that you might even want to, ha) to read physically, then you can head here to do so, it is behind a paywall but I think you can sign in once without paying to read an article. I think. If you don’t follow my channel but fancy a nosy it is here.

I know from some of the feedback that people like the blog or YouTube and not both, but as this is a bit of a moment I thought I would share it with you lovely lot as without people visiting this for the last nine and a half years (almost a decade, jeez) then it might never have happened. I think even my mother is quite proud of this, so it must be something special. Ha!

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The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

Back at the start of the year, I was delighted to be asked by the wonderful women who organised the brilliant DiverseAThon (an initiative to make people read more widely and diversely over a week and then hopefully for even longer) and I leapt at the chance. Part of the week of reading involved a group read of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. This was a book I’d had on my shelf a while and been meaning to get to because the premise sounded so interesting, taking the figurative ‘underground railroad’ which was a network of safe houses that many slaves escaped their confines from (by 1850 it was estimated over 100,000 slaves had used it to escape) and turning it a real physical railroad, underground. I was both intrigued and slightly nervous about how someone would give slavery this speculative twist and how it would work. Yet we need to try things that make us a little nervous, don’t we? Plus, I was hosting the twitter discussion around the book and so on I read.

Fleet Books, paperback, 2016, fiction, 400 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I am always encouraged when a novel takes me straight into the heart of its own story. No preamble, no waffle, let’s just get on with it. (Somewhat ironic because preamble and waffle could be two of my middle names.) Carlson Whitehead does this with The Underground Railroad as we are taken directly into the life of Cora, a young woman living on plantation in Georgia. To use the word ‘hard’ for Cora’s situation would be a huge understatement. As we follow her daily life we are taken back to the witness both the escape of her mother which left Cora abandoned and to fend for heslef as well as the abuse she receives from some of those enslaved with her as well as the treatment. Cora’s life is a difficult one to read, Whitehead rightly writing about it in its full spectrum of horror, yet we can barely even grasp how horrendous that life must have been to live.

A feeling settled over Cora. She had not been under its spell in years, since she brought the hatchet down on Blake’s doghouse and sent the splinters into the air. She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o-nine-tails. Bodies alive roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft. She had seen boys and girs younger than this beaten and had done nothing. This night the feeling had settled on her heart again. It grabbed hold of her and before the slave apart of her caught up with the human part of her, she was bent over the boy’s body as a shield. She held the cane in her left hand like a swamp man handling a snake and saw the ornament at its tip. The silver wolf bared its silver teeth. Then the cane was out of her hand. It came down on her head. It crashed down again and this time the silver teeth ripped across her eyes and her blood splattered the dirt.

Yet after an act of rebellion a fire that seems to have been building in Cora’s soul, no matter how many awful things are done to supress it, an unlikey friendship with a fellow slave, Caesar, soon leads to a plan to escape on The Underground Railroad, a train that will lead them to another city and hopefully freedom. Here the novel goes from a tale of horrors to a tale of glimmer of hope and adventure as they plot and figure out just how to make their great escape.

They met at the schoolhouse, by the milk house after the work there was done, wherever they could. Now that she had cast her lot with him and his scheme, she bristled with ideas. Cora suggested they wait for the full moon. Caeser countered that after Big Anthony’s escape the overseers and bosses had increased their scrutiny and would be extra vigilant on the full moon, the white beacon that so often agitated the with a mind to run. No, he said. He wanted to go as soon as possible. The following night. The waxing moon would have to suffice. Agents of the underground railroad would be waiting.

It is at this point that Whitehead brings us The Underground Railroad itself. Interestingly as you are reading up to this point you feel a strange kind of anticipation, delight and marvel at its arrival from beneath a desolate building under a dusty trapdoor where nothing but a barren station seems to be waiting. Here, Whitehead does something really interesting both in terms of the device of the railroad and the plot. You see the railroad is at once somehow magical and impossible yet very much real. The only way to describe it, which seems such a cop out in some ways, is as a speculative being. Not because we know that it didn’t ‘literally’ exist but because the railroad never really knows where it is going to take you. It could whisk you to Mexico or Canada and safety (I found this particulatly poignant considering America’s current president and his immigration and refugee rhetoric) or it could find you in somewhere much less hospitable. It is a magical lottery or a dangerous game of chance.

As Cora heads north, you might think that the story is going to become a tale of her arriving at the next destination and setting up a comfortable new life. Whitehead has far more in store for her than that taking us from one destination to another and in doing so depicting a much broader and also all the more unnerving vision of America at the time. From one stop in a small town she would have been better not to have ended up in, to a city which seems so pristine and hopeful and yet has some very dark secrets hiding behind its seemingly forward thinking and accepting façade.

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood. With the surgeries that Dr. Stevens described, Cora thought, the whites had begun stealing futures in earnest. Cut you open and rip them out, dripping. Because that’s what you do when you take away someone’s babies – steal their future. Torture them as much as you can when they are on this earth, then take away the hope that one day their people will have it better.

I will only add one small thing here in terms of plot as I really feel to best experience Cora’s story is to simply go on this journey (sorry, I hate that expression) with her. However, I do have to add that what I found wonderful about this book is the characters, be they at the forefront or in the background no matter how long they are in the novel for. Whitehead manages to capture the essence of the slaves, those who sympathised with them and wanted to help them and those who hated them and wanted to capture, own and punish them. From a couple who risk everything to help Cora, to Ridgeway an utterly contemptible man – one of those villains you really, really, really love to hate and adds a Victorian-like cat and mouse element to the book. From a character who appears for the briefest of times (I won’t give their name away but I will say I wept at their exit from the tale) to Cora herself who is one of those lead characters who just has your heart from the start.

The Underground Railroad is a fantastic book. Brimming with both the horrors and hopes of life. My slight quibble, and it is slight yet something I felt, might be that I would have liked another stop or two on the underground railroad but then how much can any character or reader endure in one book? See, very slight quibble. It is not often I say a book should be a staple read in everyone’s literary diet but as Obama has already done so with this book I feel I can. Whilst creating a brilliantly written gripping tale of adventure Whitehead reminds us unflinchingly of the horrors of slavery and the past which provides a dark mirror to what is going on in America now. The Underground Railroad feels at once like a contemporary new voice and take on this subject whilst also being part of the rich existing canon of fiction around the subject.

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Filed under Colson Whitehead, Fleet Publishing, Review

Days Without End – Sebastian Barry

I wanted to start the revamped Savidge Reads by talking about a book that whilst I read much earlier in the year has been a book that has lingered with me long after reading it. This is not what I was expecting when Days Without End first arrived in my hands. In fact, truth be told, if I am being completely honest, when I was first sent it back in 2016 I wasn’t really that fussed about reading it and had my Gran been alive still it would probably have ended on a pile of books for her.

Don’t get me wrong, when I read The Secret Scripture many moons ago I thought it was something pretty great, I just wasn’t sure that other Barry books were for me, unlike my Gran who raved about him. With its themes of civil war in America’s 1850’s, something I really have little interest in, I was almost certain it wouldn’t be my bag. Yet when it beat books I had read and loved (The Essex Serpent, The Gustav Sonata and This Must Be The Place, what a cracking shortlist right there) I decided I had to give it a whirl. A week later I wanted it to win the Costa and all the other awards.

Faber & Faber, hardback, 2016, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The method of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake. Like decking out our poor lost troopers for marriage rather than death. All their uniforms brushed down with lamp-oil into a state never seen when they were alive. Their faces clean shaved, as if the embalmer sure didn’t like no whiskers showing. No one that knew him could have recognised Trooper Watchorn because those famous Dundrearies was gone. Anyway, Death likes to make a stranger of your face. True enough their boxes weren’t but cheap wood but that was not the point. You lift one of those boxes and the body makes a big sag in it. Wood cut so thin at the mill it was more a wafer than a plank. But dead boys don’t mind things like that. The point was, we were glad to see them so well turned out, considering.

From the very beginning of Days Without End we are taken into the unflinching narrative of Thomas McNulty as he joins the US Army having escaped the Great Famine back in Ireland and become a refugee, where upon he witnesses the true horrors of the Civil War. Yet here he also meets John Cole with whom, and rather frankly but simply ‘And then we quietly fucked and then we slept.’ he starts a relationship. We then follow the two as they take part in a platoon before ending up in bar where they take on the role of female impersonators to entertain the locals who have not the joys of the company of the opposite sex.

They need only the illusion, only the illusion of the gentler sex. You’re it, if you take this employment. It’s just the dancing. No kissing, cuddling, feeling or fumbling. Why, just the nicest, the most genteel dancing. You won’t hardly credit how nice, how gentle a rough young miner dances. Make you cry to see it. You sure is pretty enough in your own way, if you don’t mind me saying, especially the smaller one. But you’ll do too, you’ll do too, he says, seeing John Cole’s newly acquired professional pride coming up again. Then he cocks and eyebrow, interrogatory like.
John Cole looks at me. I didn’t care. Better than starving in a wheat-sack.

Admittedly in the wrong hands this juxtaposition could come across as either totally unbelievable or completely farcical, yet with Barry’s deft and steady assurance this works and indeed provides some light relief (pun not intended) before sure enough Thomas and John are drawn back into the ranks to fight as the Civil War begins in 1850. It is from here that the novel takes a much darker twist, Barry looking at the appalling things that happened to many of the Indian’s living in the Great American wilderness. Yet once again there is a moment of light hidden here as Thomas and John take on the niece of an Indian chief, Winona, and an unlikely family is created. What constitutes a family being one of the major themes in the novel along with accepting and celebrating what is different.  Though if you think a happy ending is coming here then you would be wrong, there be many villainous types abounds, however I will say no more as I wouldn’t want to spoil it.

Suffice to say that whilst I admit I was sometimes a bit confused where in the tale we sometimes were, Barry would flash back on tiny moments in Thomas’ life prior to leaving Ireland (which I actually would have liked more of as well as his journey) and we also ended up in the female impersonators bar on another occasion in the tale, overall I was completely won over by this story of two men caught up in events so much greater than them, who happened to fall in love. In fact, it was this particular almost casual aspect to their love story that I think made it all the stronger. Bar one or two mentions of ‘Prairie fairy’ the fact the love story was two men is totally what Days Without End is about and yet is in no way sensationalised, it is just quietly celebrated. This was such a refreshing take for me and wonderfully dealt with, all the more wonderful when you know Barry wrote this book for his son after he came out.

Of course, all the best sentiment in the world can’t make a book wonderful just because of the angle at which it comes, the writing could be crap, the atmosphere dry, the war an aside. None of these things are true of Days Without End. It might not always be the easiest of reads; some of the content is quite horrific but it is a war after all, Thomas speaks in a lilted dialect and for a short book about war the pace can be rather slow as opposed to some violence filled rush. Well, there is violence but it is not by any means rushed. Instead what Barry creates is a beautifully written – seriously the prose is just stunning even when it is about rat infestations or bodily infections – that it carries you along. You just need to take a breath now and again to take it in.

Spring comes into Massachusetts with her famous flame. God’s breath warming the winter out of things. That means something to a thousand boys heaped into camp at a spot called Long Island outside the old city of Boston. Except the endless yards of rain as thick as the cloth that falls on us. Battering the tents. But we got new business with the world and our very hearts are filling with the work. That’s how it seems as we set out upon our war.

I often find the books that surprise you the most are the books that you end up thinking on the most and, a lot like fellow Booker longlisted Exit West by Mohsin Hamid which I will be talking about in the next few weeks, are the books that grow on you and linger the most after you have put the book down for the final time. Days Without End is one of those books and as well as making it into my books of the year so far, has also reminded me why I enjoyed Barry’s writing so much before and why I should head to it much more often in the future. It is a subtle, understated yet emotionally charged book which looks at love and hope in times of war and the face of hate.

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Filed under Costa Book Awards, Review, Sebastian Barry

And Savidge Reads Is Back…

Hello everyone, yes after some tinkering and some tearing out of hair (more on that in a moment) Savidge Reads is back. It has been a few months of false starts and was almost one again tonight (remember that tearing out of hair moment) but I am back and am ready to bring you lots of book reviews, bookish chatter and all that staff I did before with a few new occasional series and the like. Oh and a library update, finally. It is all finished and looking lovely.

So how have you all been, what has been happening? Huge thanks to those of you who filled in the survey that I asked you to give a whirl if you had the time, I am going to leave it open for a couple more weeks as I have found it really helpful. If you haven’t filled it in and fancy it please do, you could win some lovely books too as a thank you.

So what has changed on Savidge Reads? Well there are the lovely new logos (refresh the page and they change colour) because I fancied something that reflected me a little more. There is a new events page so if you fancy coming to some events I host with authors or any workshops or talks I am giving you can head there. I will update it fairly regularly as I have some lovely bits and bobs planned over the next few months. I have also given my bio, review policy and guidelines a tweak. Other than that not a lot has changed. I did try and give a new theme and layout a try and it all went wrong so I have kept it as is, familiar is the term I like, and actually lots of the feedback from the survey was simply ‘leave it as its, just post a lot more’ so I have taken that on board.

The layout change wasn’t what almost made me tear my hair out though (yes remember that) the fact that for some reason I can’t seem to upload backdated posts at the moment was. Ooh I am cross. I promised you some reviews to meander back through when I relaunched but I haven’t been able to upload them (they are just sat waiting in limbo for now) as soon as I can I will – if you are subscribed you will probably get notifications of these. These were reviews of some books I have read this year but now shared here yet, would you like my thoughts on some bookish highlights from last year too?

Anyway, I didn’t want to let that stop me so get ready for all the reviews and bookish business as usual to return. Is there anything in particular you would like to see over the next few weeks? Let me know. Looking forward to it!

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The Man Booker Prize Longlist 2017

I know I said that the relaunch of Savidge Reads would be next week, however one of the  most common comments from those of you who have done the feedback survey (which I posted earlier in the week and would love even more of you to fill in, you might win some books if you do) was that people loved hearing about prizes on here. So with that in mind here is the Man Booker longlist for 2017 which has not long been announced…

MB2017 BookStack

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) (Faber & Faber)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) (Canongate)
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) (4
th Estate)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)
The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India) (Hamish Hamilton)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury)
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (UK-Pakistan) (Bloomsbury)
Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) (Fleet)

What do I think of it? Well my initial thoughts (as I am literally typing this moments after the list going live) is that it is an interesting list if not a wholly surprising one. Barry, Hamid, McCormack, Roy, Saunders, Shamsie, the Smiths (not the band but imagine if Zadie and Ali made a band that would be something) and Whitehead have all been heralded and been up for several awards – if not winning them before.

This is by no means a slight as a) long time readers will know I do have a thing for the Booker b) I have read and loved the Barry, Hamid and Whitehead novels this year (reviews coming soon) and indeed love Ali Smith full stop, plus as with Ali’s I have been very keen to read the new much awaited Roy novel. I am also intrigued to get to both the Saunders and the McGregor as they have been on my TBR for quite some time. So interestingly this is one of the most instantly ‘yes I would read all those books’ Booker longlist I have seen in some years, in fact it is also one of the most ‘ooh I have actually read a few of those’ Booker linguists. Yet one of the things I love about book awards is discovering something or someone completely new to me.

This is possibly because I am a contrary old so and so but it is true. So for me the Fridlund and the Mozely are the ones I am the most keen to rush out and read now (if I wasn’t myself judging the Costa’s, though I may still have to get it). That said alongside the Mozely the other book I most want to read is the Shamsie, an author who has been up for many an award with both Burnt Shadows (which I funking adored) and A God In Every Stone (which I also thought was pretty blinking brilliant) and whose new novel feeds into my recent mini obsession of greek myths retold. So those may be three I try and squeeze into my summer/fall reading.

Which would I like to win at this point? Without a seconds thought Mohsin Hamid is my current personal favourite to win, which may shock some of you as you may know that I fell hard for the Barry. Yet, I utterly adored Exit West when I read it and it has grown on me more and more since both in the way it looks at refugees, war and love with a speculative yet oh so realistic twist or two. More on that book, and some of the others, very soon.

In the meantime… What about all of you? What are your thoughts on the list? Are you happy, is there a title or two missing for you? Which have you read and what did you make of them? Any favourites?

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Filed under Man Booker, Random Savidgeness

Feedback for The Future, A Relaunch is Coming (Plus a Give Away)

After an on and off few months or so, and several posts promising a return to the old routine of Savidge Reads, I have some news. Savidge Reads will be relaunching on the 1st of August 2017 and I am very, very, very excited.

New logos have been made, I have been beavering away making content both for the next few weeks (to get ahead of myself) as well as some backdated content (only a few weeks) so you to have some stuff to discover if you fancy a binge, I know I like a bookish binge here and there every once in a while.

In the interim while I make a few final tweaks and edit a few last posts I thought I would ask you all for some feedback moving forward, we all need feedback now and again and I know I love filling in a survey now and again, especially when there is the promise (or bribery) of a potential treat at the end.

So I have made a survey of ten questions here for you lovely lot to fill in all about the blog in particular.

Should you be kind enough to do so, which I am hoping all of you will because you are all a lovely bunch in my head, then one of you will be picked at random after the 1st of August and you can win this lovely selection of books which I am happy to send anywhere in the whole wide world. (See what I said about bribery, ha!)

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In the meantime though, please let me know that you are still out there, what you have been up to in the last few weeks/months and of course what you have been reading – the good the bad and the ugly. Ha.

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And The Winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017 is…

…Naomi Alderman’s The Power.

9780670919987

Stay With Me – Ayobami Adebayo
The Power – Naomi Alderman
The Dark Circle – Linda Grant
The Sport of Kings – C.E. Morgan
First Love – Gwendoline Riley
Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

I have popped links to all my thoughts on the shortlisted books, bar Do Not Say We Have Nothing which I have tried to complete twice. I might try it again in July as a buddy read with my good old pal Mercedes off of that YouTube. Speaking of youtube if you fancy a bitesize round up of the books that were shortlisted and indeed the winner on my booktube channel here.

So what do you think about the winner? Which of them was your favourite? Which, if you still have some to read, will you be heading to next?

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction