Monthly Archives: May 2009

Not Getting Home

I don’t feel that in all honesty I can review Marilynne Robinson’s Home as I didn’t finish it, in fact sadly I didn’t even get close. Now as I have said I don’t slag anyone’s books off on this blog as I think discouraging people to choose what they wish to read is wrong, encouraging on the other hand is quite a different story. I might hate a book (a very rare thing) and you might love it. If I don’t like a book, as I have said before, there is Rule 80 and sadly Home was one of the books that didn’t make it past Rule 80.

With prose as wonderful as the whole of the first 80 pages were, how could I not continue? This wasn’t a badly written book, quite the opposite, but for some reason it simply didn’t hold my attention. I think in my head there was also what I am naming ‘The Gilead Effect’. I read Gilead a few weeks ago and whilst by no means was I driven by the plot I couldn’t stop reading the absolutely stunning prose it kept me flowing through page after page. I liked the book, I didn’t love it but knowing Home was set in the same village over the same period of time as I picked up the book I found myself thinking ‘I should have given myself a bigger gap between these two’ but as I am reading the Orange list by Wednesday before the winners announced I needed to try and read it.

I don’t know if it was the fact that I read Home so soon after Gilead but I found myself forgetting how wonderful the prose was and thinking ‘this is a cop out, this is an author dishing us up almost the same story in the same village only with a female voice in the mix (which I was actually finding easier to read). I felt a bit like, and I am sure this isn’t true, that having taken 25 years to follow up Housekeeping with Gilead, Robinson had decided to take two yeas to edit re-tell and slightly twist in terms of situation her last book. Sadly this really influenced my reading experience.

I haven’t given up on Home. It has gone into one of my TBR boxes so that one day when Gilead seems to be more of a memory and less fresh in my mind I can read Home and take it as a stand alone book. I am sure the prose will then move me like Gilead’s did I just think sometimes authors and certain books need a big breathing space between them. Do any of you feel like that? What are your thoughts on Home if you have read it?

Note: If Marilynne Robinson’s next book is set in Gilead at the next neighbour’s house then I fear I may not be able to read anything else by her as that would prove a point in my head one that I am trying so hard to dispel.

10 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, Marilynne Robinson, Orange Prize

The Invention of Everything Else – Samantha Hunt

The second of my Orange shortlist reads has quite taken me by surprise. I think I am going to have to stop myself reading other peoples reviews of what I am very shortly going to read and hold off until I have finished reading the book. I love reading other peoples thoughts on books and indeed find some great new books to read through others but sometimes it can overhype a book and other times it can make you dread a book. Samantha Hunt’s novel ‘The Invention of Everything Else’ was falling into the latter category and frankly I shouldn’t have let it.

The Invention of Everything Else starts quite surreally with the inventor and scientist Nikola Tesla waiting for a pigeon at his hotel window, one who when doesn’t appear he goes to find and ends up in deep conversation with. If scientists talking to pigeons would put you off reading a book like it might do me please do try and continue, normally I would have put the book down and not picked it up again, it just seemed a little bit too whacky. However something in Samantha Hunt’s writing kept me reading and held a promise of more to come and she didn’t fail in that.

Nikola Tesla has become something of a recluse in his later life, slightly embittered after having his colleague Marconi steal his invention of ‘the radio’, he has lost touch with reality and the world and lives alone in room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel creating new inventions and avoiding people. However one person he cant seem to avoid is Louisa, a young chambermaid who has an inquisitive streak and keeps ‘cleaning’ his room/laboratory which she finds as mesmerising as his inventions and mysterious air. However it isn’t only the fact that they have the hotel (which is wonderfully described as in the 1940’s it was one of the tallest largest hotels in existence) in common, as the book continues their separate lives become more and more linked. A friend of Louisa’s father suddenly reappears after two years ‘missing’ claiming he has designed a time machine which happens to be based on Tesla’s theories. It is chance that at the same time mysterious man called Arthur bumps into Louisa and knows everything about her and then who is told, by her fathers friend, to be her future husband? I wont say any more for fear of giving away more of the plot which I became totally lost in.

Like I said I wasn’t sure I was going to like this book at all from how it started and also from the fact I hate science (seriously it goes over my head or bores me) but I completely fell under its spell. I can see why people found it The premise is a little whacky though Nikola Tesla is indeed a very real scientist and inventor but I loved the magical almost science fiction to it that in some ways reminded me of one of my favourite books The Time Travellers Wife and in other ways some of Margaret Atwood’s surreal magical moments both of which are great things. An unusual book that I wasn’t expecting and which completely won me over where many couldn’t have.

… So at the moment two books in it’s a roaring success, and I have nearly finished Burnt Shadows which is… no, I shall hold my tongue until the last page is turned as it could all change for the better or worse.

5 Comments

Filed under Books of 2009, Orange Prize, Review, Samantha Hunt, Vintage Books

Scottsboro – Ellen Feldman

…And so here comes (finally I hear you all cry – I did actually finish this book quite some time a go) the first of my reviews, get ready for a mad rush of them over the weekend, of the short listed books that are up for the Orange Prize revealed next Wednesday. I couldn’t decide quite which one to start with (I will admit it wasn’t going to be Home as I had read Gilead too recently) so shamelessly I went for the one with the cover that most appealed and after a toss up between Burnt Shadows and Scottsboro I chose the latter.

Scottsboro is a novel based on the true story of a trail in the town of the same name in Alabama in 1931. A trial which “the principles that, in the United States, criminal defendants are entitled to effective assistance of counsel and that people may not be de facto excluded from juries because of their race.” Two white girls had accused nine young black men of raping them on a freight train back in times when if you were black sometimes you didn’t even need a trial you could just be hung by the locals and it was overlooked by the law and judicial system. However these cases made it to the courts even though “the juries were entirely white, their attorneys had little experience in criminal law, and the judge gave them no time at all to prepare their cases”. I am quite ashamed to admit that I had never heard of what is such an incredibly important case in history.

The fictional story is told through two voices. The first of which is Ruby Bates, one of the girls who accused the boys of rape and then proceeded to change her mind several times. Her story tells of the desperate poverty and life that she led as a penniless prostitute and how the infamy of the case changed her fortunes and her life and yet she knew what she was doing was wrong. Through her eyes we get the tale of a good girl gone bad due to circumstance and how when things get much to big for her she tries to do right but can she change a media whirlwind completely beyond her control. The second voice is that of one of the media, journalist Alice Whittier. However unlike the other journalists who are interested in sensationalizing the whole case, Alice is looking at it from the perspective of ‘what if these young men are innocent’ this doesn’t by any means make her a ‘heroine of the piece’ though. In fact though Alice is a wonderful factual voice for the whole plot and all the key facts and twists in the case, I never felt like I really got to know her which would be my one main criticism of the book overall.

Some people have said the book reads as non fiction, which I would partially agree with, bar the incredibly well created, depicted and carried off character of Ruby Bates who I didn’t like but wanted to follow and read more of. I thought that the other girl Victoria, who also accused the boys of rape, was also incredibly well crafted and incredibly dislikable. I can see how a book couldn’t be carried by just these two though as you do need the facts and the twists. It’s an amazing case (I have included a picture of the boys below as I found it made it even more real) which undoubtedly people should know much, much more about and I think in a market where a book like Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ has done so well a great book like this with find a huge amount of people who will really enjoy the book like I did.

So first Orange Short Lister in and this is my favourite so far! I have read one and a half more since I put Scottsboro down I just needed to give myself a break from the emotional rollercoaster of frustration, anger and sadness that you get with a novel like this (you can’t ask much more from a book than that can you) before I could actually write about it. Would it stay my favourite… you will have to wait and see!

9 Comments

Filed under Books of 2009, Ellen Feldman, Orange Prize, Picador Books, Review

The Unread

That would make quite a good book or movie title in itself wouldn’t it, ‘The Unread’? Anyway, today’s Booking Through Thursday question was, as always, one to make you think. “Is there a book that you wish you could “unread”? One that you disliked so thoroughly you wish you could just forget that you ever read it?”

I have to say that there isn’t a single book that I feel like that about simply because I have a rule with books that I don’t like or enjoy, which I shall come to shortly. Not finishing a book used to absolutely kill me as until I was about twenty four I simply had to finish every book that I started. Maybe if you had asked the question of ‘The Unread’ back then I could have given you a list as long as my arm. What is quite amazing is that any books I didn’t like then have been wiped from my mind, maybe from the horror of them.

That may not necessarily be true though, as believe it or not it wasn’t really the book addict that I am today until a few years ago. I read a fair amount, don’t get me wrong, but I wasn’t as addicted as I am now and could in fact have a break from reading for a couple of weeks without blinking. I am trying to think what suddenly changed it and in all honesty I don’t have a clue but soon enough a book a month became a book a week, became three books a week. I also used to stick to authors I trusted or genre’s I was most comfortable with and so there probably were less rogue books or new subjects and authors that might go wrong if you know what I mean?

As my reading became more diverse and my book buying unstoppable things had to change, and thanks to my Granddad ‘Rule 80’ was recommended to me. When my Granddad got terminally ill with cancer I asked him if he had any regrets and he said ‘none… I cant even say bad books as if I didn’t like a book by page 80 I just stopped reading, life is too short’ and since then that’s what I have done. It was really tough at first as like I said I used to swear by the reading rule “if I started it I need to finish it” but with the amount of books I own and read it has made a huge difference and reading more enjoyable. I even applied the rule at my previous book group. I would always try and give everything a go (and actually only couldn’t finish two) and then would discuss why it was I didn’t like it rather than, like some members, simply say ‘hated it and had to force myself to read it’.

Which two books could I not complete at book group? Well that would be telling! I try really hard not to slate books on this blog. If I didn’t love it and couldn’t get past page 80 it’s unlikely that it would end up on my blog anyway as I only review (bar one or two occasions) books I have finished, as we all know everything can change in the second half of a book, or even in the last 30 pages. I also think that the time you read a book is really important as you have to be in the right frame of mind for a book, everything needs to be aligned. After an emotionally wrought or dark massive fantastic epic you might not be in the right mind for another of the same and so read something light next. There is also the fact that one reader’s trash is another readers treasure and some of you might hate a book I love and vice versa but that’s what makes it so interesting.

12 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts

Man Booker Musings…

Firstly, a big congratulations to Alice Munro for winning The Man Booker International Prize today! It did make me think though as for some reason (I should undoubtedly be ashamed) I thought that the Man Booker Prize was International. However after doing some research I found the non-international Man Booker eligibility really interesting though I did question a few things which I have added in italics.

– Any full-length novel, written by a citizen of the Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland or Zimbabwe is eligible. Such a book must be a unified and substantial work. Entry for books is dealt with in Rule 4. (Why only the countries mentioned here???)

– Authors must be living at the time of the award. (What if they died after the longlist is announced, do they automatically get disqualified and the book withdrawn? What if they died the day of the announcement? Please note I am wishing no authors ill, I just find that random!)

– No English translation of a book written originally in any other language is eligible (So are they saying its only English speaking countries that can put a book forward as that goes again the very first point and what about America? )

– Self published books are not eligible where the author is the publisher or where a company has been specifically setup to publish that book. (Not very promising for struggling new talent but then they probably can’t afford the £5000 for the publicity publsihers contribute to any longlisted book.)

– All shortlisted books will be made available by publishers as e-books within two weeks of the shortlist announcement. Extracts from the e-books should be freely accessible for downloads. (Now I never knew e-books could count, that’s amazed me. This also means Margaret Atwood’s new book wont be in the long list as it’s out in September and I thought that would be a definite long lister at least)

– Children’s books will only be accepted on the condition that they have also been published by an adult imprint within the specified dates. (Never knew this, very interesting, but has it ever actually happened. Can you imagine Harry Potter having won the Man Booker?)- No entry shall be ineligible because its author has won either the prize or any other prize previously. (But if it has won other awards does that help?)

I also found this really useful “United Kingdom publishers may enter up to two full-length novels, with scheduled publication dates between 1 October 2008 and 30 September 2009. In addition, any title by an author who has previously won the Booker or Man Booker prize, and any title by an author who has been shortlisted in the last five years may be submitted.” Now I know all the above I can have a proper go at guessing who will make it onto the long list of thirteen before the 28th of July 2009. Is anyone else up for that game? I will do a blog on it again nearer the time. I have to say I am predicting already that The Children’s Book by AS Byatt (which popped through my letter box yesterday) will quite, quite possibly win, the signs are all then. I will let you know my thoughts in a week or so when I have read it but that’s an early guess from me.

Back to today’s announcement, I wondered what differentiates the Man Booker Prize each year from the Man Booker International Prize. The obvious answer, to me any way, is that the International Prize is more for an author than for a piece of work. The site though makes the eligibility a bit vague “Any living author who has published fiction either originally in English or whose work is generally available in translation in the English language. The winner is chosen solely at the discretion of the judging panel; there are no submissions from publishers.” Isn’t that a little bit too open?

Now for the winner herself… naturally I now want to read some Munro and wondered if any of you had and if so what did you think? What would you recommend?

8 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, Man Booker

Savidge Reads Grills… Karen Campbell

Yesterday I raved about the wonderful book After The Fire by Karen Campbell. Today Karen has been kind enough to do an interview with Savidge Reads all about both her books, what’s coming next and getting praise from Kate Atkinson…

You yourself were a police officer, what made you swap the law for the world of literature? Was the transition difficult? Do you think there are skills in police work that transfer to creating an intricate plot?
I’d done English Lit at uni before I joined the police, so I guess it wasn’t a huge transition. And every case you ever write in the police is a narrative of sorts – you have to make it coherent, convincing and believable. But it was really after I’d left the police, when I had my first daughter, that I began to try and capture some of the sights and sounds I’d experienced. Being a cop is a tremendous privilege – it opens the door to people, worlds and stories you might never meet otherwise. And I also wanted to show that cops are real people. They’re not drunks or sexist bigots or mad mavericks (!), but generally just decent folk trying to do a difficult job.

Had you always wanted to write?
Yes, even as a little girl, I was always writing my own books, illustrating them, stapling them into little pamphlets, bringing them into school. Once I’d left the police, I went back to uni and did a post graduate Masters in Creative writing, which really helped – not in terms of shaping my writing so much as just being in a community of writers.

Where did you get the initial ideas for the characters and stories of James, Cath and Anna for the books?
With my first book, ‘The Twilight Time’, the dynamic was very much between Cath and Anna, looking at the choices women make between career and motherhood, and how your sense of identity can change when you become a mother. The police was really a backdrop to that, although of course, the nature of Anna’s job means that she encounters crime & its effects on a daily basis. With the second novel, I wanted to write about someone’s life turning upside down because of a split-second decision, and I also wanted to examine policing and firearms – something that’s often in the news. So I made Jamie, Cath’s husband, the main pivot of the book. I wanted my protagonist to be a guy with a lot to loose!

It’s a very unusual set up between them all how have you managed to keep that realistic and also not make any character a victim or one ‘the bad person’.
My writing pretty much stems from characters rather than plot – if something doesn’t feel ‘right’, then I’d never shoehorn a character into an unconvincing situation. I’m not a fan of ‘black & white’ fiction – life is ambiguous and intriguing, and I like stories that reflect that. Often, people behave in ways we can never explain or expect – that was certainly something I learned in my time in the police!

After The Fire is a stand alone book and yet is in a way a follow up to The Twilight Time, is this going to be a series (please say yes) and was the second one difficult to write?
I’m glad you think you could read ‘After the Fire’ as a stand alone. It’s a very different book to ‘The Twilight Time’, which is more sinuous, I guess, with lots of different strands and themes. Because I already knew the characters and I had a very clear idea of where I wanted the ATF story to go, the second book actually came very quickly. I’ve just finished a third book about Anna, called ‘Fade to Grey’ and have started work on the fourth – I’ve always seen this as a quartet.

Where did the title ‘After The Fire’ come from?
Well, I liked the biblical connotations it had, of the shocked stillness following an all-consuming disaster. But also, literally, ‘after firing’ – basically, it’s as if the old Jamie has burned away after the shooting incident, so it’s about what’s left in the ash, both for him & Cath. It’s also about how Anna behaves after the passion of ‘The Twilight Time’ has burned itself out. And the title also refers to another incident in the first book – which I won’t go into since you’re reading them in reverse!

Which authors do you love?
As well as the classics like Austen & the Brontes, I read mostly contemporary fiction – AL Kennedy, AS Byatt, Janice Galloway, Ali Smith, people like that.

Now not only is Savidge Reads a huge fan but one of my favourite authors Kate Atkinson has also raved about your work, how did that feel?
Just brilliant! I’ve always admired Kate’s work – from ‘Behind the Scenes’ onwards, and it was a real thrill to get a thumbs up from someone who combines literary prose with thrilling narrative to such great effect. I’ve never met Kate, but if our paths ever cross, I will definitely… I don’t know…go up and curtsey or something!

What is your writing routine?
I usually write when my girls are out and the house is quiet, so I tend to get up, run the girls to school, walk the dog, and then sit down at the computer. I break again at lunch to give our manic border collie his second walk of the day, but I actually find this helps the writing process – just the rhythm of walking and letting my mind go blank seems to unknot any blocks and let inspiration float in. I’ve had some funny looks occasionally, when I’ve been muttering over a bit of dialogue in what I think is an empty, wooded path – then someone coughs politely and overtakes me!

Which book, apart from any you have written, would you demand Savidge Reads and this blogs readers run out and buy right this instant?
I’ve just finished ‘The Given Day’ by Dennis Lehane, which I loved. It’s a historical story about the Boston Police strike, but it’s also about families, immigration, workers’ rights, black oppression – even baseball! It’s got everything: romance, drama and a real sense of place. I’ve never read any of Lehane’s work before, but what appealed, again, was this kind of cross-over, in that he writes about crime, the police and social issues but most of all, he just writes about people. I think genre labels can be limiting, and I’m all for not having them at all. For me, defining a book that has lots of different layers as a particular ‘type’, whether it be ‘crime’ or ‘historical’ or whatever, means the reader thinks they know what they’re getting before they even open the book. And where’s the pleasure in that?!

And on that note we come to the end. I would like to thank karen for taking the time out to do this and urge you all to read this series, I honestly thought this book was fantastic and will be running out to get ‘The Twilight Time’ this week despite my book ban!

5 Comments

Filed under Karen Campbell, Savidge Reads Grills...

After The Fire – Karen Campbell

I do love a good crime book, I haven’t always in fact I think it’s a fairly recent thing bar my teenage obsession with Sherlock Holmes. A while back on this blog, after reading the first Scarpetta book by Patricia Cornwell, I mentioned that I would love to know of any other great thriller/crime series that you thought I should give a go. I have already tried and loved Susan Hill, Kate Atkinson, Stella Duffy and of course the proper old school favourites like Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Now I think that I have found a new author in this genre… Although technically Karen Campbell found me, and my blog, and asked very nicely if I would read her second novel After The Fire. She did also mention that, one of my favourite authors, Kate Atkinson had “really enjoyed the book” (Kate actually said “I loved this book”) and that, plus Karen’s lovely email, was the deal done.

After The Fire is all about recently convicted police officer Jamie Worth who, not long after having qualified as a firearms officer, shoots and kills a young girl who appears to have no gun on her. The press and indeed the police force are looking for blood and blame and soon enough Jamie is imprisoned for murder. What follows is not just a gripping and twisting tale of what happened that night and why, it is also a tale of how the people involved come to terms with what has gone on.

Jamie himself is a policeman in prison, which I don’t think is a perspective that I have read in a novel before, and this was an incredibly interesting storyline for me. Not only seeing how prisons run and the state of them but how someone who might have put some of his cell mates in jail deals with them when he is in there too. At the same time Jamie is coming to terms with his own guilt about what happened to the young girl Sarah and what will happen to his family and all the people he loves in the world outside the prison. Outside the prison we see how Jamie’s wife, who herself was once a cop until she had children, comes to terms with what her husband has done. Though she believes he did what he thought was best she still has to deal with the fact that her husband has killed a girl the same age as their daughter. It doesn’t help when Anna, the woman Jamie had an affair with, appears on the scene wanting to help Jamie and his family. This all makes for an engrossing domestic dynamic alongside the thrilling plot of what happened the night of the shooting.

I loved Karen Campbell’s writing style. It’s punchy, fast paced and most importantly real. I don’t know if this comes from the fact that Campbell was herself a police officer before she started writing which might have something to do with how direct the book is. There is, in what is a very dark book, some real wit (I laughed a fair few times) though which really reminded me of Kate Atkinson in her Broadie books and yet at the same time you really feel for all the characters even if they aren’t people you would like one bit in the real world. Most importantly for me though was that I could believe it all (this goes for all genre’s of books from crime to sci-fi and all in between) all the voices are real nothing is done simply for effect. There is also the history between the characters also makes for great ‘domestic drama’ as well as reading about a man living on his nerves and trying to stay alive in prison.

I only have one very small gripe with this book and that is that in reading After The Fire before reading Karen’s debut novel The Twilight Time I have inadvertently broken one of my cardinal rules… always read a series in the right order. The Twilight Time is technically a prequel to After The Fire and features some of the same characters. The fact that this book was so good, and stood firmly so well all by itself, has made all rule breaking forgiven. I do kind of wish that I had read The Twilight Time first as though at no point whatsoever do you feel you should know the characters back stories and also their history relating to one another you wish that you did know it all first. Though now of course I am incredibly excited about finding it out when I manage to get my mitts on The Twilight Time which I will be doing very, very soon.

Now this is a real cliché but I am going to say it anyway… it would be a crime not to read this book. I dont rave about books that often but this is one I will be I promise! I hope there will be more in this series as I was hooked from start to finish. Campbell is definitely an author to watch out for and I am very excited as she is doing an interview with me for the blog tomorrow, so make sure you pop by then!

4 Comments

Filed under Books of 2009, Hodder & Stoughton, Karen Campbell, Review