The Girl in the Red Coat – Kate Hamer

It seems that the spirit of my holiday in Cyprus has not only stayed with me through Christos Tsiolkas’ short story collection which started there and only recently finished (because I wanted it to last forever) this week. Also, for some unknown reason, my review of Kate Hamer’s debut novel The Girl in the Red Coat which I thought I posted after I got back has been sat in my drafts for four months. Oops. As regular passersby to this blog will know I hate flying and needed a book that would have me hooked at 30,000 feet. So I grabbed this debut novel as from what I had heard it was a thriller meets Little Red Riding Hood and would keep my nerves at bay and hold my attention for the four hour flight, which indeed it did. So with a quick tweak of the introduction which you are now reading (how ‘Meta’ that feels) here are my thoughts, just a little later than intended.

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Faber & Faber, 2015, paperback, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘There’s been nothing for weeks,’ said Paul eventually. ‘No new leads, nothing.’
‘I know.’
Leads – those invisible wires that could take us to her. Or Hansel and Gretel’s trail of breadcrumbs. The wind seemed to have scattered them and time snipped them off. He was right, there’d been nothing.

For anyone who has had children, or has looked after them, the biggest fear when you take them anywhere for a day out is that you will lose them. Hamer plays on this instinct early on in The Girl With The Red Coat when, and I hope this isn’t giving too much away, Beth takes her daughter, Carmel, on a day out and loses her in a maze. The sense of foreboding, unease, tension and fear that Hamer builds up in Beth as she searches madly for her daughter is palpable, I was utterly tense (far more than I was about being on the plane whilst reading it) for what felt like forever though was actually only a few pages. This is the power of Hamer’s writing and yet it is a mere foreshadowing of what she puts you through when Carmel is abducted by a man mere months later at a storytelling festival, the aftermath of which becomes the crux of the novel.

The Girl in the Red Coat is, quite literally in two ways, a book of two halves. Firstly there is the way that it is told. Chapters alternate, though sometimes one voice will take over for a few chapters, between Beth and Carmel from the very start. On the one hand we get the mothers view of her fears for her child when there isn’t any danger, the situation that she and her daughter have found themselves before she goes missing, then the horrors, followed by the dreadful sense of loss (and clinging to hope) when she is gone. How do you carry on?

Sometimes I wonder if when I’m dead I’m destined to be looking still. Turned into an owl and flying over the fields at night, swooping over crouching hedges and dark lanes. The smoke from chimneys billowing and swaying from the movement of my wings as I pass through. Or will I sit with her, high up in the beech tree, playing games? Spying on the people who live in our house and watching their comings and goings. Maybe we’ll call out to them and make them jump.

We then also get the complete opposite perspective from Carmel. She is clearly angry and unsure why her parents have split up, which Beth relates to us, before she goes missing. She is also finding her mother’s protective nature cloying and annoying until, she believes, her mother has had an accident and the grandfather she has never met comes to her aide. We then follow her on the journey that he takes her which, without giving too much away, takes her to a crumbling old house before heading off to another land and what can only be described as a cult. I shall say no more on the plot, however as it goes on Carmel starts to get a sense that something isn’t right and we follow her as she questions things and the repercussions of those questions.

I lean back feeling sleepy and trying not to be. All that I can think is that I wish I was at home with Mum and everything was back to normal. That this wasn’t worth a stupid story about a fairy who has to earn her wings. Or even meeting the real writer. Where are fairies and writers when you need them? If I was with Mum, and everything was OK, I wouldn’t try to get away from her again. I’d stay close to her all the time. I wouldn’t even try looking over the wall at home, not ever.

The Girl in the Red Coat is an absolutely packed novel. One of the many reasons I love reading debuts are that they do tend to be buzzing with ideas and this one certainly is. Here there are tropes and the themes in as much abundance as there are plot twists along the way. As you read on it becomes a mix of thriller and fairytale which is what I was really hoping it was going to be from what I had heard prior to picking it up. You know I love a good fairytale, and indeed a good thriller, so I loved the nods to fairytales as you read on; the title of the book, the crumbling castle Beth is taken to, the evil ogre (who never becomes pantomime which I appreciated, he is just an odious scary but very real villain) you just worry and wonder if there will be a fairytale ending?

Occasionally I did find there was a bit too much going on, which leads to the second reason that for me this was a book of two halves. The first half for me was some brilliant writing of apprehension, brooding tension and nerves. The second half, once we go abroad, whilst still oddly fascinating felt much less real to me. You are probably all incredulously thinking ‘but what fairytales feel real?’ and you would be right yet this isn’t a fairytale all over, it is also a contemporary drama and a thriller/mystery. It was also the section when Carmel’s ‘sensitivity’, which is hinted at in the first half, comes to the fore. I can’t discuss this more here for fear of spoilers again, but maybe in the comments below. The only way I can describe it is like two very different books had suddenly been merged together in the middle. Once I was in the swing of the second half of the book I was off again, it was just a slight jarring on that initial switch, the spell being broken briefly in between.

Whilst I did have a few quibbles here and there, they didn’t stop my overall enjoyment of the novel and indeed the aforementioned plane journey quite literally flew by. I then finished it off the next morning at the hotel before breakfast, so it was quite literally a two sitting read. This is because of Hamer’s writing, which is wonderful and I found particularly strong through Beth’s eyes where the tensions and the emotions of the novel lay for me. (This is probably because I don’t tend to like children narrators and nothing to do with the drawing of Carmel’s character.) Hamer can certainly create an intriguing cast of characters and spin a good yarn. The Girl in the Red Coat is an unusual and brimming debut, I will be intrigued and look forward to whatever she writes next.

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Audiobook Advice

Firstly, thank you all so much for your recommendations of book to take to a spooky old mansion last weekend. I took Lesley Glaister’s Little Egypt which might have actually been recommended on Twitter. Anyway it was lovely to get all your recommendations, almost as lovely as it was to stay in a house where I had several moments mentally being Mrs Danvers. As it was I actually did no reading all weekend as it took so long to get to Kent (6 hours) that we arrived with just enough time to change into our glad-rags and get to my Great Aunt’s 80th, the next morning waking up for (one of my favourite things in life) the hotel breakfast before deciding we would dash straight home in case it took the same time again, which it nearly did. Too much time in a car. Though this does lead me into my ponderings of this post, audiobooks.

I have always had very mixed feelings on audiobooks in the past, I completely understand why they are brilliant for many but have never been that sure they are for me. I have had some dalliances and some have been brilliant (Agatha Raisin is wonderful on audiobook) others I have tried I soon realise I have missed a chapter of because I have been too busy watching the world go by and ignoring my headphones. However on the first lengthy road trip we stopped early on, well as early as two hours is out of six, and I was looking at CD’s I could buy to possibly stop The Beard going mad from my 1990’s-early-2000’s pop music fest, when I saw there were audiobooks.

What stopped me from buying any was a) the choice was somewhat limited in a motorway service station b) I couldn’t work out what would work to both mine and The Beard’s tastes c) the price, so expensive were they in this franchise of a high street store that I won’t name them, I opted for a wifi-dooberry-whatsit-thing – official name – that means I can transmit my whole iPod to a radio station and play that. Many hours of The Archers, Woman’s Hour and The Beard’s favourite, Cher, then ensued. The allure of the audiobook was there and has remained, as we have another epic drive next week for a wedding, we may call on them then as I don’t think (no matter how good I think they are, and I am gutted one is leaving us) book podcasts will do the trick now we have run out of the other variety.

Yet I have realised this week that this is not the only time audiobooks could work. I have quite a lot of admin hours at work where I could ‘pop a book in my ears’, plus with several festivals ahead quite a lot of setting up and de-rigging hours ahead, oh and there is the fact I have rejoined the gym (and the dreadful ‘diet’ world) which I am really enjoying as you can see…

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(I know, any excuse to share a picture of me looking sweaty and beardy on the internet!) So I could possibly have books in my ears in all those times, I think the question is which ones are best for me. This is of course where you come in. I would love to get some recommendations of audiobooks for me that a) have a great plot b) a hook so I want to listen on c) a narrator I can bear to listen to. My normal tastes of literary novels, thrillers, short stories etc apply. I would just love for you to rave about some that you have listened to and loved. I would also love some recommendations of narrative non-fiction ones which The Beard (or Mr Non Fiction as I may rename him) and I could listen to together. That would be lovely. Thank you.

Oh and PS – Reviews are coming, I have a long weekend this weekend and so can play catch up. PPS – I hope all is well and lovely with you all?

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Other People’s Bookshelves #76 – Christoph Fischer

Hello and welcome to the latest in 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 Wales to join Christoph Fischer wonderful shelves. Christoph, whose blog you can head to here, has put quite the spread on for us with something for everyone, so let’s all grab a cuppa/glass of something and a nibble of something and join him in his wonderful lounge meets library before we have a nose through those tempting bookshelves and learn more about him.

I’m a German expat living in West Wales with my partner and three Labradoodles. I was born by the German/ Austrian border, studied in Hamburg and then came to the UK 23 years ago where I lived in London, Brighton and Bath. I’m a trained librarian and worked for the British Film Institute, local Libraries, Museums and for an airline. Three years ago I’ve taken voluntary redundancy and started writing and publishing my own books. I still spend far too much time reading. (Simon says this is not possible!)

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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?

If I have a hard copy I always want to keep it – unless it was REALLY bad (and even then throwing or giving it away feels wrong. The librarian in me cannot let go of them). I have lost a lot of literary treasures because of my move from Germany to the UK and I deeply regret that. Now I’m over-compensating, I guess. Sadly, a lot of my books are e-books now, and I don’t develop the same kind of bond with those. I never get to see the cover or hold it, and once I’ve read it, the file sinks to the bottom of the electronic ocean, never to be seen again.

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

Yes. Once a German librarian, always a German librarian… (My partner likes me to Monica from Friends). I’ve organised them into General Fiction (alphabetical), Crime Fiction, Scandinavian Fiction, Travel Literature and Non-Fiction. I also have a corner for my own books.

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

I think my first book was “Five Go to Mystery Moor” by Enid Blyton. As I said earlier, I don’t have any of my childhood books. Briefly after I moved to the UK my father passed away and I didn’t have the means to ship everything over, so they went to a charity shop.

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

I have a stack of ‘adult’ themed gay comics from Germany. They are humorous, not ‘erotic’ but I wouldn’t want my father-in-law to find them. I’ve positioned them on a shelf that he can’t reach.

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?

I have a small selection of signed books from author events at Toppings Booksellers in Bath; most notably from Lionel Shriver, Simon Mawer, Armistead Maupin and Christos Tsiolkas. Your question is a good reminder for me to put them all together in a place so I can save them in case of a fire.

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?

“The Good Soldier Švejk” by Jaroslav Hašek. I had seen a fringe play that my father directed when I was ten, but I was told that I wasn’t old enough to fully understand it. I loved the funny illustration by a Czech artist on the cover and read it anyway, but did find the book too difficult at the time. I’ve rediscovered it a few years back during research for one of my own novels and loved it. My father was born in Czechoslovakia and the book reminded me much of him and his sense of humour.

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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 probably would have to buy it if I borrowed a good book, but I usually buy all of my books in the first place. In the indie author community and the blogo-sphere I come across so many interesting books, and then there are the book fairs and trips to book shops. I’m also reviewing books for the Historical Novel Society, so really, I’m drowning in books….

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

I’ve organised the Llandeilo Book Fair and came back with 15 books from it: Most looking forward to “Motherlove” by Thorne Moore, “The Beaufort Bride” by Judith Arnopp and “The Man Who Never Was” by Olga Ninez Miret. More traditional late additions are: Haruki Murakami’s “Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki”, Simon Mawer’s “Tightrope” and my fourth copy of “Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts (I keep giving it away to friends).

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

“The Slap” by Christos Tsiolkas – I keep giving copies of that away, too, to visitors and friends. I really would like to read it again…

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

I’d like them to think that I’m open minded to all types of books and am neither a snob nor fixated on one genre.

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Huge thanks to Christoph for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. 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 Christoph’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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What Should I Read Whilst Staying in an Old Manor House?

After another bonkers week at work (where we had our diaries cleared to plan and deliver a huge parade through Liverpool if LFC won – which we won’t talk about after the game went the way it did) I am shattered but very much looking forward to this weekend when I am off to my Great Aunt’s 80th birthday party which plans to be full of food, drinks, merriment and dancing. The additional highlight to celebrating this with her is that I have booked to stay in a rather wonderful, and slightly spooky – in a good way, manor house as an extra treat. And after visiting a fairytale castle last weekend too, I do love a castle, stately home or manor. I would never normally dream of staying in one. Doesn’t it look marvellous?

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The question on my mind now is, of course, what on earth to read while I am there. I am almost at the end of a brilliant collection of contemporary short stories and feel that next I should read something that befits the setting. I would therefore love to hear your recommendations of favourite books set in slightly gothic houses (I don’t want to read Rebecca again at the moment, though did contemplate it) be they mysteries, crimes, boarding school tales or anything else that might fit the bill. Name as many as you like, I will be squeezing in as much reading time as I can.

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And The Winner of The Man Booker International Prize is…

Han Kang’s compelling, quirky, terrifying, slightly bonkers and utterly wonderful The Vegetarian translated by Deborah Smith. I thought that this book was ruddy brilliant and I am ruddy thrilled. You can find my full thoughts here.

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I won’t ramble on I will simply say that you should rush this right up your TBR if you haven’t read it already. If it isn’t on your TBR then head to your nearest library/bookshop as soon as you can. It is a brilliant, brilliant book. Okay, I am in danger of rambling on…

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Visiting a Fairy Tale Castle (Castle Coch)

Those of you who have been long term visitors to Savidge Reads will know that I adore fairy tales. I love the unadulteratedly dark originals, I love the old Ladybird and (most of) the Disney adaptations, I love retelling and I love modern fairy tales. I even named my first pet, a duck, Rapunzel. Basically this is all just a very long way of saying I REALLY love fairy tales. So when we visited Castle Coch (and yes there may have been a smattering of giggles about the name, the ‘ch’ is meant to be quite throaty not a ‘k’ – snigger – or ‘ch’ as you might automatically do) I was greeted by what to my mind was like Sleeping Beauty’s castle as we arrived towards it.


I won’t lie this is a photo of a postcard I bought as you can’t quite get the magnificence in some of the photos I took from the back of a car on a motorway. After we made it (we almost didn’t) up the windy drive we were in fact greeted by this wonderful silhouette because Dom, Michelle, Polly seemed to bring the sun to Wales with us…


And possibly a ghost if that random blue orb is anything to go by. One up the drawbridge and inside you feel even more like you are in Sleeping Beauty. It is utterly silent. 

We were the only people there and the design of the building is that you open doors and just wander, seriously just wander anywhere. Well anywhere that isn’t locked, as with visiting the farm meant to be Wuthering Heights Polly tried to get in anywhere extra she could only with little success unlike in Haworth. Anyway… as I was saying it’s so still and so silent and the rooms have been left like everyone has just vanished. I imagined Sleeping Beauty would have had this suite, I know she’s not real, at the top of one of the turrets…


And Castle Coch does give great turret…


It also has some of the most beautiful paintings, murals, tiling and utterly breathtaking frescos. I was smitten with the one below which I would love on my own ceiling in my next house or maybe as inspiration for my next tattoo. Isn’t it stunning?


After we had done the inside we went back out for a wander of the grounds which you could quite easily imagine Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf wandering through.


It also had a pretty fantastic moat which also showed the depths of the very, very creepy dungeons plus its ramparts and battlements. Okay, I am just using castle based words I think I know the meaning of but might actually not, so let’s move on.


All in all it was pretty magical really. The perfect way to start our trip away in Cardiff. Who doesn’t love an amazing old castle, or a manor, or stately home. Plenty of room for a huge library… One day guys, one day.


If you are ever in the Cardiff vicinity please do visit this wonderful, wonderful Welsh castle. It’s an absolute treat. Speaking of treats if you tell me about your favourite castle (this one might compete with my other favourite, Warwick) or your favourite manor/stately home (mine is Hardwick Hall thanks for asking) then I might have a spare Castle Coch bookmark for one of you. Yes I know, how could you not want that?

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More Thoughts…

Whilst I have not been blogging anywhere near as much of late, despite my best intentions, I have been thinking a lot about blogging, books, reading and all that stuff it is just finding the time to do it. Between a rather crazy work life, a fair few nights and all the forthcoming weekends in May doing lovely cultural and social things plus viewing potential new homes and trying to sell this one, it has been a bit difficult to do these booky delights. That said I have just done a lovely episode of You Wrote The Book with Wellcome Prize winner Suzanne O’Sullivan, which you can hear here, with a review (along with about 15 more) just waiting to be finished and up on the blog very soon. Anyway, I digress…

I was thinking about all the non booky things and thought I would ask your opinions on something, rather like I did a few weeks ago on vlogging and the like here. I have been wondering if I should blog more about the non booky stuff that is going on in my life of I am working on. For those of you who don’t know I work for Culture Liverpool and we work on most of the cities major events (Giants that walk through the city – see below which got me in the newspapers here, the Three Queens, the International Mersey River Festival, the Blitz commemorations a few weeks ago, Liverpool International Music Festival, the Tower of London Poppies tour and more) so I was wondering if you would like some posts on those, as we are about to go into festival season, on here to give you some insight into that?

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I was also pondering if you might like more posts on some of the random things I do outside of work, blogging and books – I know who knew that there was anything else outside those things? For example more pieces on theatre trips be they bookish or not (I saw an opera set in a men’s toilet in a gay bar starring Lesley Garrett the other week which was quite something) or other outings to castles and museums and the like – I may have asked this before, forgive me – as well as trips away. I am off to Cardiff, below, with some of my dearest friends tomorrow and was thinking of doing some posts while I am away rather like I did with The Readers Roadtrip with Thomas last year. Would they be fun?

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So yes, more thoughts which need more of your opinions. Would you like some non booky content amongst the booky content, or when I can’t quite sit down for long enough to give the booky content the time and thought it deserves? Do let me know, I value your opinions, even if I might just run along and do it anyway. Ha!

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