A Golden Note(book) From Gran

Those of you who have been following Savidge Reads for the last however many years will know of Granny Savidge Reads. Since she died there has definitely been a big part of my life missing, especially the chats on the phone at least two or three times a week to put the world to rights and to talk about books – let alone trips to see her which always involved a bookshop or two if we could. Anyway, she made a random appearance in my booky life today as I was sorting out and culling my books. I had picked up Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and I was wondering where I had got it from when I opened it up and…

Gran gave a Savidge review...

Gran gave a Savidge review…

…It was a book I had inherited from Gran, I didn’t realised that she left notes in some of her books. I also didn’t realise that she could be so savage, or Savidge, in her reviews of books – maybe I should be a little more Gran sometimes. In case you can’t read her writing she says ‘I hated this book but as it is highly regarded by many people & someone else in the family may appreciate it more than I have I decided to keep it.’ Wowsers! It was weirdly really nice to find this note and think that randomly I might be the member of the family who could appreciate it, though I am somewhat worried I won’t get it. It was also really nice to get a message, almost a footnote to the book from beyond the grave. It made me laugh and then made me cry, in a nice way if you know what I mean.

Anyway I thought I would share it with you as lots of you liked her thoughts and opinions. I am now wondering if I should be brave and try and read this in the late summer/early autumn and see if I agree with Gran or not, maybe some of you would like to join in – an unofficial read-a-long maybe, nothing too heavy yet something supportive, let me know. Oh and any thoughts on notes you’ve found in books, or even on The Golden Notebook (no spoilers though mind), that you have let me know. Back to culling, I have managed 419 books so far but feel I could do more – and I am off to my mothers tomorrow so want to take a nice big selection to her.

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The Culling Game

By giving it the title of the culling game I am of course being ironic, for any booklover that moment when your shelves (or maybe your partner) simply groan with the strain of all those books can be the beginning of what is an emotional, conflicting and painful thing – sorting out all those books you have somehow accumulated. It is something some of us have to go through once a year, some of us much more regularly. Dear readers and fellow book lovers, I am at that point and will be enduring it for the next few days/week. Starting today…

The hardbacks are the first in the line for sorting...

The hardbacks are the first in the line for sorting…

I am going to pace myself though and have a system in place both for how I attack (it sounds so vicious) these books and how I decide to keep them or not. Firstly I am not doing it all in one go. I will firstly go through my shelves of hardbacks and trade paperbacks, then my shelves of recent paperbacks, then my shelves that got mixed up because I had no space and had to buy more shelves and then onto my six boxes of ‘backlist’ books. I am giving myself a day for each of those set of shelves (even though there’s loads in each) and two days to do the boxes. This will stop any small (read as massive) meltdowns I have along the way, as has happened before. It is a long game this one, especially as I want to reduce my books by not a mere quarter, or a tricky half, but a true culling of two thirds of what I own. I know, it’s drastic but I think it needs to be done.

My criterion for books staying are these three simple points (because anymore and you start making excuses and this is a Savidge cull)…

  • Did I buy them/ask for them/are they a special edition?
  • Could I get it from the library, which should be used as much as possible?
  • Have I owned this book for more than two years and if so why so?

As odd as it may sound there is actually quite nice about the feeling you get post cull. I find that not only does everything seem neater and more organised (with me actually knowing what books I own) but it also reinvigorates how much I love books. Yes, even when you have just got rid of lots. This is because if you are anything like me books are your addiction and hoarding setting. To get rid of a book, even if they are going to good homes as mine do, is like snuffing out a potential adventure that you might have had within those pages. Yet we have to look forward and the fact that the books we have on our shelves are ones we know we will love and are desperate to read as well as freeing up the space for future reads.

It is this feeling that I will be focussing on along with a) the fact that I want to have all my shelves sorted by June the 23rd when I have an unofficial restart of the blog (so I need to sort the backlogue of reviews I have by then too) giving me a goal b) thinking of all the people who will get enjoyment out of the books I am passing on – this will mainly be my mother who I am off to see this weekend for my sisters 17th (I feel so old) birthday. It is going to be quite a torturous task but I am going to feel so much better after!

Right, less chatting on here and more culling, wish me luck!

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Looking for Something Different?

I have been pondering the direction of this blog for the future. Not in a naval gazing or woe is me way, no one likes those sort of introspective blog posts, actually in a very positive and hopefully exciting way. As the blogosphere grows, seemingly daily, there are now a plethora of places where you can find book reviews in abundance, yet strangely it seems that the more blogs there are the more the same books get discussed. I don’t know about all of you but I sometimes feel like I want something different. A wander round Waterstones Piccadilly last week, where all this posts photos were sneakily shot, made me realise this all the more last week.

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However, I am a fine one to talk. Which is one of the most talked about books in and out of the industry at the moment? Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. Which book did I review only last week? A God in Ruins. That said, she one of my favourite authors who I have loved ever since Gran introduced me to one of her lesser known novels. Why am I sounding defensive though, isn’t that what we all want from our reading, to read some of the most talked about books AND read a diverse mix of books that you might just find on a random mooch and meander around a bookshop looking on the shelves and the tables. I know I do. I am always keen to hear what books people are talking about, yet I only read them if I really want to not because the world seems to be telling me so.

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Often though (for me) it is the books I might be missing, the hidden gems somehow overlooked, that I am keener to find out about. Judging Fiction Uncovered has shown me there are vast numbers of these books in the UK alone and those are contemporary, when you think about all the ones there must be all around the world be they books published right now or back listed, modern classic or truly ancient, the mind starts to boggle and highlights my point. There are so many books out there not being discussed or seemingly hunted down, and I think that is what I want to do but maybe it is just me?

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The reason why I ask if it is just me is that I have noticed on Savidge Reads that when I review a lesser known book, for example something like the wonderfully quirky Girly which I mentioned yesterday, there seems to be less chatter on the blog and (as I went and had a look) a few less views than when I talk about one of the big buzz books. Now this isn’t an issue as I am not a hits and views chaser, don’t get me wrong they are lovely but I still see this blog as a diary of my journey to find great reads for myself. Selfish so and so aren’t I? I can also understand it as I love seeing what bloggers I respect and follow have thought of books I have read in the past and the potential to have a natter about them (I know my commenting has been rubbish, I have been chastising myself this very morning) as reading can be a lonely activity.

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With their being so many books coming out; being rediscovered, republished and translated and with all the wonderful powerhouse publishers and the new and niche imprints and independents, it is the books I know nothing about that will have me clicking to read further. Maybe that is just me though? Maybe I am just at a stage in my reading life where I need to go off on a tangent and read by the seat of my pants in some unusual and different directions. Reporting back of course along the way!

I would love your thoughts, if my ramblings made any sense? If they didn’t thanks anyway for providing me with a sounding board, it may have muddied the waters your end but they are much clearer here, if you know what I mean? Oh dear Simon, quit while your ahead! Right, chip in with your thoughts below if you fancy…

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Girly – May-Lan Tan

I cannot for the life of me remember where I saw pictures of May-Lan Tan’s Girly, a chapbook of two short stories Pacific and Little Sister, but I think it might have been Instagram (how modern) and just from the cover I knew it was something I wanted to try. Yes, even though I already owned Things to Make and Break, the magpie that lives in my head wanted something new, shiny and also rare as Girly is a limited edition of print runs – I think. So order it I did and a couple of weeks later it arrived from the U S of A, was it worth the wait?

Future Tense Books, chapbook, 2014, fiction, 33 pages, bought by myself for myself

Girly is aptly made up of two short stories that depict the life of two very different girls as they head into womanhood and also into independence, in two variants of the word. The first of the stories Pacific tell the tale of a young woman who has somehow ended up on the opposite side of the world, stuck in motels with an on/off ex who seems to come and go on a whim. As the story unfolds we learn through various flash backs how this girl has ended up so far away from home and in the predicament she is in.

After a while, it will all look the same.  You’ll wonder if you’re on an elevator that keeps stopping at the same floor. Perhaps there is only one motel, one gas station, one diner,  and the extras are putting on false moustaches and changing their hair. Sometimes you’ll think of your house at home. Your princess and the pea bed. The sound of the wok spitting oil, and your desk drawer crammed full of poems. Imagine your parents sitting on the sofa under the painting of flame trees, wondering where you are. Be too scared to call.

Little Sister tells of a young woman having her first period at school, how she copes with it and also how those around her deal with it. Yet it is also has the additional layers of sisterhood (be it with those of you who are in the same family and those who aren’t and perform sisterly acts) and, as it goes on, gives you an insight into the lives of some of the women in society. It has a wonderful concoction of just the right amount of humour and poignancy.

When I pull my pants up, it feels like I’m straddling an air mattress. I think of all the people who already have it. Teacher Willow and Head Teacher Pear and Miss Hong Kong and Jennifer Aniston and the white-gloved girl who presses the lift buttons in Sogo. They must be so angry.

Whilst both the stories are about two girls coming of age, they couldn’t be more different both in terms of their settings and their structure. On one hand we have the campus tale of America, given the spin of being seen through an outsider’s eyes and on the other we have one set in modern Hong Kong. It is very rare that in just two stories you can you’re in the hands of an incredible talent and one who likes to experiment with form and play with prose and language, Tan does this seemingly effortlessly with Girly.

Pacific is written in two very clever ways. Firstly there is the way in which Tan weaves the present and various points in the past playing (nicely) with us as the readers as to how our protagonist is in the situation she is. It is also written in the style of a ‘How To…’ manual (with headings like How to Burn, How to Move, Death by Drive-Thru) and a self help guide, only one that is being written whilst its author learns the hard way. Little Sister seems more straight forward and yet as you read on there is both a slight magical and fairytale like element as well as a rawness as it moves on and a certain bittersweet tone as it leads to its conclusion. In both instances Tan creates characters personalities through the smallest of things. It could be that a character has an eraser the shape of a hamburger or that one writes stories about Vietnamese vets, whatever the case Tan uses a few words to create so much and so within paragraphs you are in these girls lives, warts and all. Both stories are brilliant and I could have read more of.

Needless to say, if you fancy a book that is both different in terms of its contents and its very physicality then I would heartily recommend you order yourself a copy of Girly pronto. There is something quite special about Tan’s writing both in how it tells you a story, the hidden depths they have and also what they leave out for the reader to make up themselves. I am really looking forward to reading Things to Make and Do over the summer when I am planning on having something of a short story binge, as with authors like Tan I am becoming a huge fan of the form. Great stuff!

If you would like to order a copy of Girly before they all sell out then you can head here to Future Tense Books. In a random aside I was at Literary Death Match in London back in April (a while after I read these stories for the first time, I have returned since) and guess who ended sitting next to me? May-Lan Tan! She recognised me from Twitter and between author’s reading and judges judging’s we had a lovely natter; so talented and lovely a double win!

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A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson

It is going to be very hard to write about Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins without mentioning its predecessor Life After Life, which I loved and is one of my favourite of Atkinson’s novels. The first reason for this is that as I am sure many of you will be aware A God in Ruins is a ‘companion’ novel to its predecessor, as we follow Teddy Todd who is the brother of Life After Life’s protagonist Ursula. The second reason is that if you haven’t read Life After Life (and you really should have because it’s brilliant, I was on the panel that crowned it winner of The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize) then I wouldn’t want to spoil the experience you have to come. Thirdly I just think to compare them is lazy as yes they have some of the same characters and situations, and indeed this one nods to the other on occasion, yet all books should stand alone in their own right. A God in Ruins certainly does.

Doubleday, hardback, 2015, fiction, 395 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

A God in Ruins is essentially the story of the life of Teddy Todd. We follow him from his younger years with his siblings, under the domineering matriarchy of their mother Sylvia, through the First World War and then onto the second, where he serves his nation in the skies, and onto life afterwards when he becomes a husband, father and grandfather. To give you all that information doesn’t spoil anything either,  as it is the story of a life though not a linear one. We the reader see Teddy’s life through a jumble of periods in time, perspectives and people and builda picture puzzle of his life by putting together the set pieces.

I am a huge fan of Atkinson’s and have been ever since my Gran gave me a copy of the brilliantly bizarre Human Croquet. Her writing is quite simply brilliance. Firstly she is a master of the art of a bloody good story; one of my favourite things she does is use parentheses (which you will all know I am a fan of, though not as much as I love a comma) to make you feel that she herself is telling you the story over a cup of tea. Secondly she is fantastic at characters; who all walk straight out of the book, off the page and probably down the same street as you. Thirdly she plays with the form of writing without it ever being pretentious or a little too clever for its own good; she can mix up a story so the reader has the joy or putting it all together and play tricks with language (like with Mr Manners). Fifthly, she has a wonderful sense of humour and knows just when to use it, bringing laughter at just the right moments, even when they are dark.

Teddy took the train back north the same day and lay awake all night worrying about his only child and her only child. Viola had been a lovely baby, just perfect. But then all babies were perfect, he supposed. Even Hitler.

I think with A God in Ruins, and with the creation of Teddy, Atkinson may have brought us one of her most vivid characters, who is also one of her most subtle. We have the enigma that is Ursula, the wonderfully comic and sarcastic snobbish Sylvia (who I could read an entire book about) and the vile Viola. Teddy, and indeed his wife Nancy to a degree, is a very average man who does some extraordinary (to us, as they are just his life to him – another sign of Atkinson’s genius) things and who we get to see every side of be it through his eyes or those around him which I found utterly fascinating.

Her father seemed so old-fashioned, but he must have been like new once. That was a nice phrase. She tucked that away for later use as well. She was writing a novel. It was about a young girl, brilliant and precocious, and her troubled relationship with her single-parent father. Like all writing it was a secretive act. An unspeakable practice. Viola sensed there was a better person inside her than the one who wanted to punish the world for its bad behaviour all the time (when her own was so reproachable). Perhaps writing would be a way of letting that person out in the daylight.

I should add here that in A God in Ruins even the characters who only show up for a page or two all come fully formed and often (through Atkinson cleverly and almost unnoticeably stepping in and telling us of the future even though we are in the past) giving us their life ahead. These seemingly minor characters can also be used to highlight issues with a real poignancy, for those of you who have read it I will give you one name, Hilda – completely got me when I was least expecting it to.

I really wanted to have a chat with Atkinson (if only we could all be so lucky) after reading the book because I wanted to ask her if one of the themes in A God in Ruins is ‘what makes a hero’ or ‘what being a hero means’. As we follow Teddy’s life we see what it is that can make an ordinary person become a hero and how a hero can go back to being an ordinary person. There are several moments that made me think of this. Most obviously there are all the ordinary people drawn in to fight wars, who go from being civilians to fighters or spies yet then what happens to them after the war when ‘normal’ life resumes. What do they do and how do they cope with the change? This in itself leads to what it means to be a war hero?

‘Teddy won’t shoot anything,’ Sylvie said decisively. ‘He doesn’t kill.’
‘He would if he had to,’ Nancy said. ‘Can you pass the salt please?’
He has killed, Teddy thought. Many people. Innocent people. He had personally helped ruin poor Europe. ‘I am here, you know,’ he said, ‘sitting next to you.’

Yet in giving us the full story of Teddy’s life Atkinson looks at the quieter moments of heroism too. The moments that are heroic yet on a much smaller minimal scale, like a selfless act of pure love, a simple moment of kindness, or something which seems insignificant and costs nothing yet can change a person’s perception of themselves, their life or the world around them. She also looks at what it means simply to be good.

Previously on this blog I have mentioned I feel that the world wars are periods in time which have been well mined, possibly overly, by contemporary writers and so really need a different angle in order to make me sit up and take notice. I have to admit that initially when the sections of Teddy’s life during the Second World War came up I was worried that I might possibly lose interest. I had to study the Blitz at least three times at school and so I always think I am going to be lectured to. On occasion I initially wanted the pre and post war stories of Teddy’s life to take over again. This faded the more into the war we went as Atkinson writes from the lesser used angle of the skies brilliantly and one particular chapter had me on the edge of the sofa. However the most poignant moment of the whole of A God in Ruins is linked to the war and, without giving anything away, it is a single paragraph which will hit you over the head like the shovel (and probably make you cry a little bit as it did me) and make you understand why Atkinson has written the book she has. I will say no more than that.

As you may have guessed I thought A God in Ruins was rather ruddy marvellous. It charmed me, entertained me, thrilled me, beguiled me and then in the simplest, smallest and most understated of moments completely broke me when I never expected it to. It is also a wonderful insight into what it is that makes us human. It also does something slightly unusual with the Second World War book, yet probably the one of the most affecting alongside Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I would highly recommend you read it. I cannot wait to see what Atkinson has up her sleeves for us next.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Doubleday Publishers, Kate Atkinson, Review, Transworld Publishing

The Fiction Uncovered Longlist 2015

I am thrilled, because this is the first time they have done it and I have keeping it secret for a few weeks, to be able to share with you the Fiction Uncovered Longlist 2015. After what has been a good few months of ‘extreme reading’ here are fifteen books that we judges (Matt Bates, Cathy Galvin and myself chaired by India Knight) are all very keen that you go and read, right now…

  • The Incarnations – Susan Barker (Transworld)
  • The Stray American – Wendy Brandmark (Holland Park Press)
  • The Redemption of Galen Pike – Carys Davies (Salt)
  • Dear Thief – Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape)
  • Wittgenstein Jr – Lars Iyer (Melville House UK)
  • The Way Out – Vicki Jarrett (Freight)
  • The Offering – Grace McCleen (Sceptre)
  • The Spice Box Letters – Eve Makis (Parthian Books)
  • Significance – Jo Mazelis (Seren Books)
  • Beastings – Benjamin Myers (Bluemoose Books)
  • The Four Marys – Jean Rafferty (Saraband)
  • Mother Island – Bethan Roberts (Chatto & Windus)
  • A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth (Canongate Books)
  • Mobile Library – David Whitehouse (Picador)

Indis has said “It is absolutely thrilling to have found such brilliant books, across such a wide variety of genres, and from authors that live and write all over the country. These are fantastic writers who deserve to be household names.” I agree it is a very diverse and interesting list, though I am probably biased somewhat but I think the list is a really eclectic one (well, I can tell you that for definite having read them all) and it is going to be rather difficult to whittle them down to a final eight for June the 18th. I have to say so far the judging process has been a real joy with lots and lots of laughing and delightful booky chatter, maybe the final meeting is where the gloves will come off? Ha!

For more information on all the books do visit Fiction Uncovered’s website here. I am off to go and do some more re-reading, in the meantime I would love your thoughts both on the books on the list (have you read any, are there any you are going to hunt out) and also the list itself. I’m very excited to hear what people think of it!

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Pondering: The Return of 40 By 40 (I Need Your Book Recommendations)

You may remember way back in the distant past, well back in 2013, I discussed the idea of reading 40 books before I was 40 and even making a list of the titles. A lot has happened since then, mainly Gran getting very ill, and so that project sort of when by the wayside. However I was reminded of this when the new (stunning) edition of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley arrived through the letterbox – a book I have been meaning to read, by an author I have always meant to read.

Going back and looking at the list of books that I had chosen I realised I had read three so that was quite good. I also realised that I wasn’t sure I had created quite the right list. The forty books I had chosen were all books where I hadn’t read the author before and, if I am being super duper honest, some of them feel quite ‘worthy’.

So I am pondering doing it again starting from scratch. Yet this time I want to rethink about the sort of books I want to read, and of course I want your suggestions. Yes, I would still like to read some of the books by authors I have missed and really shouldn’t have, yet I also need to think about books by authors I like who I haven’t read in ages. When was the last time I read Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, (both Alias Grace and The Remains of the Day I have been intent on reading for ages) or even Daphne Du Maurier? Shocking.

So here is the start of my new list…

  1. The Talented Mr Ripley – Patricia Highsmith
  2. Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood
  3. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

…But which books next? I am going to go through my shelves over the next few days/weeks and see which books I already have I have been meaning to read, whether I have read the author or not. I would also love to have recommendations from you. These could be your top 5 books (and I can see if I have read them before), books you have spotted I haven’t read and should and also the books that you have always meant to read and haven’t (maybe you could join in or it will give you a nudge to give them a whirl). So over to you for your suggestions in the comments below! Next up for me to reignite is the Persephone Project, I seemed to get stuck on book eight, 2013 wasn’t a good year for me starting projects but then it was a bugger of a year!

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