Monthly Archives: January 2010

The Secret River – Kate Grenville

You know when you have a book that you have had for ages and ages, everyone has told you that “you simply must read it” and yet you haven’t? We have all got some of these on our TBR’s I would imagine? ‘The Secret River’ by Kate Grenville is one such book for me (though I will admit there are a few) and finally I have managed to get around to reading it “at long last” I can hear some of you cry. It might actually be like preaching to the converted to discuss what this book is about as I have a feeling that most people have already given it a whirl. However, maybe as I hadn’t read it until now there might be some more people out there who don’t know what this book is all about.

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The Secret River opens with a kind of prologue called ‘Strangers’ as William Thornhill arrives fresh off The Alexander in New South Wales, Australia as one of the convicts sent to serve a life sentence in 1806. On dry land he comes across one of the aboriginals a man ‘as black as the air itself’ and what follows is the scene of two men, neither understanding the other sussing each other out. Now this opening scene appeared rather random to me because three pages in you are in the poverty stricken streets of London in the late 1700’s. As the book develops in its different parts you soon come to understand the significance of it as The Secret River is not just about the first convicts to Australia, it is also about racism and a rather dark time in Australia’s history as men try and stake their claims on the continent and in doing so tragic and horrific events unfold.

What I think that Grenville has done in this book which is incredibly clever is give you the back story of William Thornhill and his wife Sal so that you have seen them struggle and fight through poverty, sickness, death and despair through their lives in London and so you come to like them. Therefore when they then become embroiled in situations in the future you have a real difficulty as a reader to then separate the people and the circumstances and the conclusions they bring. I can’t say any more than that as wouldn’t want to give the story away; it did make me really think though as well as affecting, horrifying and unnerving me.

I am aware that I might not do this book justice as if I say to much I culd ruin it for anyone who hasnt read it yet and isn’t aware of the story so am being a bit vaguer than normal. I was impressed how quickly I was pulled into this book and ended up reading it in four sittings. I can be a little hit and miss with historic fiction yet before I knew it I had gotten through half of the book. As I said I liked the characters of Will and Sal and despised some of Grenville’s well drawn vile characters like Smasher who has to be read to be believed. I also felt that Grenville tried to balance the story as best she could by putting you in the minds of both those arriving in Australia and doing anything to make their way and survive and those already in Australia who wanted to keep what was theirs and survive.

If that wasn’t enough Grenville even did the unthinkable and made me enjoy a book that has a lot of ‘boatish’ things going on in it, something I didn’t think was possible. I did have one small issue I must mention to make this a wholly rounded review and that was some of the characters names. I found it distracted me (and if you spotted this you will know why though email me don’t leave in the comments) which sounds a small thing but would draw me out of the story now and again, but a very small qualm overall.

All in all I am really, really pleased that I have finally read The Secret River, if you haven’t read it yet do give it a try. Its finding a book like this that is one of the reason’s why I am so pleased some of my resolutions were ‘whim reading’ and ‘no book buying’… look at what gems I have been missing. I will definitely be reading more of Grenville’s work in the future (I have a few more on the TBR), what would you recommend next? If you have already read The Secret River what did you make of it?

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Filed under Canongate Publishing, Kate Grenville, Review

Simon’s Bookish Bits #6

Is it Saturday already? This week seems to have sped by. Anyway welcome to the latest of my Bookish Bits today I don’t have a link of the week I have a few, I look back over January at my resolutions, some sympathy parcels come in and some of you win some books.

I did have a link for week and now I cannot for the life of me remember what it was so I thought that I would mention a whole list of people who have moved from Blogger to WordPress and become part of my neighbourhood. I love the migration as Blogger is a nightmare to comment on sometimes if you aren’t on Blogger and also WordPress is just so easy to use. Anyway the lovely blogs that have moved (and I should have changed the links of in my list) are Su(Shu), Kiss a Cloud, Bookssnob and Gaskella. Do pop to their new homes and say hello.

Its been rather a haul of books for the postman this week, I will be writing about most of them on Tuesday but I wanted to say a special thanks for four that have arrived. One from the above mentioned Gaskella who I won a copy of ‘The Girl With The Glass Feet’ by Ali Shaw which is one of my choices for Not The TV Book Group. Ooh speaking of the NTTVBG don’t forget its just over a week until the first online meeting, hope you have managed to get some copies of Brodeck’s Report. Anyway, the sympathy supplies…

As well as the recent win from Gaskella, I also received three parcels from some very kind people two who don’t blog and one who does. My first arrivals were ‘If The Spirit Moves You’ by Justine Picardie which I was sent ‘because you loved Daphne and I know you are fascinated by the spiritual… and you need to read more non-fiction’, I was also sent ‘A Rope of Sand’ by Elsie Burch Donald because ‘the cover is very you, the book is a bit dark and mysterious and Kate Atkinson has a quote on the front’ these do both sound very me. I also had a gift all the way from America as the very kind Kristen M sent me ‘A Reliable Wife’ by Robert Goolrick after I commented on another blog how much I would like to read about a ‘poisoning wife’ sounds quite sensational. A big thank you for these, most kind.

These all of course make the book buying ban I embarked on from the 1st. I have to say so far I haven’t found it too hard. I have even been in some second hand shops, and visited my favourite old book binge haunt to give them a few hundred of mine and left with none. I even dared to have another mooch. As it’s the end of January almost I did wonder what about my other resolutions? Recently my whim reading has slightly wobbled so that needs sorting, am still reading short stories not in one go just working through a collection between books or when I fancy a quick read. Translation books are going better however I have as yet not read a Brazil based book, so that’s something to change for February. How are you all getting on with your resolutions?

Is it me or does it feel like a funny old week? Not the world of blogs just in general, they do say it’s the most depressing week, I think the word is melancholic. Well hopefully I can bring some joy into two people’s lives. In last weeks Bookish Bits I said anyone who commented would be thrown in for a signed copy of the latest Agatha Raisin. Well congrats to Verity and Kirsty who have both won one each… let me have your addresses and they will be in the post sharpish. If you didn’t win do keep your eyes peeled over the next couple of months as we have some huge Agatha Raisin giveaways to come so that’s something to look forward to.

So how have your weeks been? Any nice new books in your household? How are your New Year’s resolutions going? Who is joining in with next weeks NTTVBG? What have you read in the last week that you have loved?

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Filed under Ali Shaw, Book Thoughts, Justine Picardie, Not The TV Book Group, Simon's Bookish Bits

To The Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

So it was a fortnight ago that I thought I was about to commit a sacrilegious act here on Savidge Reads by admitting that I wasn’t a great fan of ‘Mrs Dalloway’ and that whilst I had respect for Woolf’s delightful London imagery and prose I wasn’t a fan of the book. I did say I would carry on with the ‘Woolf in Winter’ which I signed up for last year and use ‘To The Lighthouse’ as a second attempt to get along better with Ginny, would it work?

When ‘To The Lighthouse’ opens we join James Ramsey and his parents as they discuss the likelihood of visiting the nearby lighthouse the following day. Mrs Ramsey tries to pacify her son by saying that they can ‘if the weather is fine’ however Mr Ramsey is pessimistic and almost cruel in telling his son that ‘it won’t be fine’ somehow this initial chapter both sets the tone for the rest of the book. In fact really it sets the scene for the rest of the book where in three parts we see what becomes of the Ramsey family before and after World War I and why many years later they make that journey back to the lighthouse in question.

I found the way this book was written was quite incredible. The first part of the book sets the scene and tone of the rest of it, as I mentioned before whilst introducing all the characters. The second part I found an incredible piece of technically skilled writing as Woolf manages to encompass a decade of a family’s life including an event that rocks the family during the war torn years of World War I (Woolf called this writing a H, with two parts of a story and a corridor in the middle). The thing is I am not sure a book can live by prose alone in some books (see Home by Marilynne Robinson) and I found myself meandering mentally away during this book and then having to re-read a page or two.

I will say that I generally gelled with this book much better than I did with Mrs Dalloway. I seemed to care more about the characters in this novel and wanted to know more about them from the start. I think having had the previous Woolf experience of her writing through streams of consciousness I was also more open to the writing style and enjoyed this novel the more for it. I am not sure how this novel would be received by someone new to Woolf. This post is probably a slightly rambling and confused set of book thoughts, I think that is simply how Woolf leaves me. Stunning prose but, but… I don’t know quite what the but is but there is one and its making reading Woolf more of a chore than a pleasure.

So what does this mean for me and ‘Woolf in Winter’? At the moment I am a bit 50/50. I loved the idea of this read-a-long as I felt like I had support out there; sadly though I am also worried reading Woolf every two weeks for the two books could endanger me from being put off for life. I think what might be best is to have ‘Orlando’ on the bedside and the selection of short from the library loot the other day and see if they spark any interest. If they do marvellous, if they don’t well that’s fine too. Does that sound like a complete cop out? Do pop over to the wonderful Emily who is hosting today!

How did you all get on with ‘To The Lighthouse’? Do let me know as your thoughts after ‘Mrs Dalloway’ invigorated me for the next Woolf challenge and may again. I am sure lots of you will have lots of insight into this book that might push it from 3 stars (Mrs Dalloway would have had 2.5, so it’s a step forward) to 3.5, ha. So go for it, what did you think?

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Filed under Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Virginia Woolf

Precious – Sapphire

I am one of those people who likes to read a book before I see the film and so with a planned visit to the cinema to see ‘Precious’ this weekend I thought that I would read the book, originally titled ‘Push’, by Sapphire. I didn’t really know what to make of it, if you have seen the trailer then you will get some idea, it looks like it could be quite a harrowing movie (though one already to wipe the Oscars clean this year) and therefore you would think it might be fairly harrowing read. The thing with harrowing or tragic tales is that they can also hold infinite hope inside them.

“I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby by my favher. That was 1983. I was out of school for a year. This gonna be my second baby. My daughter got Down Sinder. She’s retarded. I had got left back in second grade too, when I was seven, ‘cause I couldn’t read (and I still peed on myself). I should be in the eleventh grade, getting ready to go into the twelf’ grade so I can get gone ‘n graduate. But I’m not. I’m in the ninfe grade.”

From the very first paragraph we are taken straight into the world of Precious Jones and truth be told its not a world for the faint hearted. Pregnant for the second time by her own father Precious has grown up illiterate in the back streets of Harlem where the only thing she wants is an education which will bring freedom and opportunity. She lives with her abusive mother who is living off the money she receives for having her daughter and granddaughter living in the house, though in truth Precious’s disabled daughter has been shipped off to her grandmothers while her mother claims the extra money.

As we join Precious she is reflecting on her life and how she came to be in the position she is in and as you come to know her back story it not only makes you sad it also makes you quite angry. Precious is soon kicked out of high school under the pretext of simply ‘being pregnant’. However a teacher takes sympathy on her and has booked her on an alternative education course Each One Teach One. This is, Precious knows, probably the last chance she has of an education along with the likes of Rhoda, Jermaine and Rita (all with dark and unfortunate pasts) but with a second baby due, a mother who doesn’t want her to do anything but be a slave and a means of benefits is Precious really ever going to change her life?

I thought, though in parts it made me angry, that this is one of the most amazing books I have read in a long, long time. It brings home the lives that some people live in modern times who could really be in the same city as we are and we just don’t notice. Though the book is set in the 1980’s this is still going on and actually shows how rather worryingly in some ways things haven’t moved on as much as we might hope. Precious is a remarkable character and a sign of hope in dark times, as are all the girls in her class at Each One Teach One and her teacher Blue Rain, having humour when most of us would give up. Though fictional this book packs a huge punch as you know that these things are really going on out there. We need books like this and people need to read them, especially when they are written with such a blunt (the language is quite out there as are some of the scenes described), compelling, honest, emotional and occasionally funny voice.   

I was utterly blown away by this book, I am not sure how I will be able to handle the movie, it left me speechless and with a huge amount to think about for such a small book. Books like this show just why reading shouldn’t always be a safe and comfortable experience, sometimes we need harder stories like this. Its remarkable, not an easy read but most certainly a must read.

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Filed under Books of 2010, Books To Film, Review, Sapphire, Vintage Books

Savidge Reads Grills… Xiaolu Guo

I always get excited at the prospect of a Savidge Reads Grills as I love getting to know authors better. It makes it even more exciting when its an author that you adore and today I have the pleasure of bringing you an interview with the wonderful Xiaolu Guo. If you havent read any of her work then I cannot recommend them enough, pop to yesterdays post to see how much I enjoyed her latest novel Lovers in the Age of Indifference. Anyway on with the grilling.

Savidge Reads is already a huge fan of your work but for those readers out there who may not have read one of your books how would your describe them and where would you say they should start?
Well, it is no good to do self recommendation I guess, but you know, every book has it’s own reader with its own accidental chance, you may pick a book from me in a corner bookshop, and that is something, we say in chinese – yuan fen, an accidental destiny. I can say that I like some of my novels: A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers, and 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth for example…but you cannot say that.  I always prefer the next one which I am writing….
 
Where does the inspiration for your books and your characters come from?
Life, life, and life. other’s life, self life, life’s life. 
 
All your novels tend to have quite kooky female lead characters and yet these women are quite alienated characters too, why is that?
That’s how humans are in this world nowadays….of course, from my point of view. You don’t need to have the same vision like mine.
 
Though some of the contents of your books are quite hard hitting, for example rape in A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers, or the poverty and future of China in UFO in Her Eyes, there is also a lot of dark and wry humour, is that intentional in your writing?
Not intentional but natual I would say. It is almost unconcious I would say.  Or I can say these stories are so much in my bones, they presented my visions of this world, me and the story are together, there are not much separation in between.
 
Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?
No. Very casual and sometimes rather painful to sit down to write. My problem as a writer is that I don’t like writing, really don’t like the mear act of writing, it is an act of anti body. I prefer do anything other than writing if I can… 
 
You also make films; do these two occupations work well together? If you had to choose one occupation which would it be?
I like doing films. I don’t think one has to choose one thing. Filmmakings and writings, I like both in a sense that they can provide me very different method via different vision-story, I think film media is great, modern and complicated – that is the charm and power of the visual world when you actually comes from the word-world, the literature world….
 
When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer? Was it an easy thing for you to do?
Very young… my early teenager days. It is not a question of easy or difficult, it is a matter of if one finds the beauty of the literature or not.
 
So what is next for Xiaolu Guo? You have a new book out in January, what are you working on after that?
A short story collection Lovers in the Age of Indifference just came out in english, which is a book I like very much. 17 stories on lovers’ relations. I am now working on – of course, some new ideas….
 
Which books and authors inspired you to write? Who do you love to read at the moment?
Too many, and at different stages some books have different importance to me. For example I used to be very much in love with Duras, Modiano, the french literature from 60s and 70s, lately I loved Boris Vian’s novel The Foam Of Daze, and recently a kind of russian literature, for the similar communist background… Sometimes I prefer to not read english literature just because the fact we are too much living in a english speaking world. But when I was younger I loved beat poets and perhaps I still do.
 
Which other Asian authors would you recommend people MUST run out and buy right now this second, well once they have finished reading this?
That is not my style, I don’t urge people read it is their choices. But I do like chinese writer Zhu Wen, he is very cool, and deep.

A huge thank you to Xiaolu for taking the time to participate in a Savidge Reads Grills you can see more of them with other authors and my Gran here. You can also find out even more about Xiaolu Guo by visiting her website www.guoxiaolu.com

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Filed under Savidge Reads Grills..., Xiaolu Guo

A Poetic Costa Winner…

I have a Savidge Reads Grills going up within the next few hours which links to yesterdays post but seeing the Costa winner before I went to bed provided me with an interesting and enquiring interlude. So I will leave you all with a question or two over night (and on into the day of course dependent where you are worldwide and when you read this) and see what you all came up with.

Firstly though congratulations to Christopher Reid whose book of poetry ‘A Scattering’ won the overall Costa Award yesterday. I won’t deny that I had high hopes for the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful ‘Brooklyn’ but that got Costa Novel Award so I can remain a little thrilled, a little chuffed and even a little smug that my favourite book of the year ranked highly with the judges too. Back to this years all round winner, I am pleased Reid won as the story of why it was written (it’s all based around his wife’s illness, death, the after effects and emotions) is a poignant one, I think he is a worthy winner, it is also unusually poetry too. I am not sure when a book of poetry last won this award but I gather it’s a rare thing.

I am useless when it comes to poetry and apart from the occasional re-read of Brian Pattern from my youth (Gargling With Jelly is just a wonderful book) I rarely touch it and don’t go out of my way to find it. I don’t know why it just doesn’t get to me. I wonder if it’s just because I haven’t read enough or tried enough. Since reading The Bell Jar I have wanted to try some Plath poems, is she a good place to start? Who would you recommend to get a man who doesn’t think he likes poetry to absolutely love it? I know you will come up with some wonderful ideas.

After thought – Isn’t it odd that as I wrote this post as I noticed my next read is actually a crime mystery novel written in verse, not intentional I swear, this could make for interesting reading!

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Filed under Book Thoughts

Lovers in the Age of Indifference – Xiaolu Guo

As you may well know by now I am a real fan of the work of Xiaolu Guo. So when I was sent an advance copy of her latest book ‘Lovers in the Age of Indifference’ I was really, really excited. Though with the great excitement you feel a slight trepidation, well I do, when you are going to read an author who you really enjoys latest book. Will it be as good as the rest? What if I don’t like it? I am sure I am not the only one who does this with a favourite readers new work, or one you havent read before.

I wouldn’t describe Lovers in the Age of Indifference as a novel; I also wouldn’t really call it a collection of short stories either. I guess I would call it a collection of fictional works. By this I mean that we have seventeen fictional pieces some of which are so short they are more like snapshots into peoples lives, some are longer and would fall in to the short story category, not that I know the rules on how long a short story should be.

They are a collection of brilliant works, each involving very different characters but all in some ways looking at love. Not always in the cosy way that we are used to. Guo looks at love through both rose tinted spectacles in some of her characters and the eyes and minds of hardened cynics in others. We have tales of long distance romance ‘Letters to a City of Illusion and Hope’, tales of unrequited love ‘Today I Decide To Die’, tales of affairs ‘Then the Game Begins’ and tales of love that cannot be spoken ‘Into The Unknown’ really Guo has covered the whole gambit and I haven’t even mentioned them all. I should mention that everyone should read ‘An Internet Baby’ which is only eight pages long but completely shocking.

Actually having said its all about love there is one story ‘Junk Mail’ which I couldn’t see linking to love, as its about those emails we all receive about having won millions, or getting a share in someone else’s millions brilliantly told through emails. In fact ‘Beijing Morning Star’ is about how we have to edit things in our lives and in this case in a paper in order to be PC and not offend. I would say that it’s a book about modern times, modern people and modern emotions, yet the last tale Flower of Solitude reads like an old myth. I think maybe its best to simply describe it as a book of brilliance instead.

Guo is an author who will use differing forms of writing in her books. In UFO in Her Eyes the book is written in case notes and transcript interview records and 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is interspersed with images. In this book, more than in her previous books, Guo really goes to town with writing styles. Some as I mention are told through emails, some through letters, some simply in first or third person, one short story is told in time sequence another by alternate narrators, making it a heady experience for the reader. One tale that I think shows the brilliance of Guo and her writing is called ‘The Third Tree’ and is told through thirty pages of text messages. Now when I saw this I didn’t think it would work, however I got completely involved in the tale and even felt the emotional punch at the end. Utter genius. Again it’s also a very insightful look at modern love in our society today now we have this technology.

This is another wonderful book by Guo, she hasn’t failed me yet and I only have one more book of hers to go. I think this is my favourite since ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’ maybe because like that it’s a quirky and unique look at love in modern eyes. If you haven’t read Guo before then you really must and if you have read her then you have to read this one too. Oh and if you are a fan you might just want to pop back tomorrow, or just come back for a quirky post. I originally read this towards the very beginning of the year but have been holding out posting it waiting for a little special something to be sorted, more on that tomorrow. Until then I will hand over to you, what are your thoughts on Guo, have you read this or been wanting to? Which works have you tried, or have you not tried any quite yet?

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Filed under Books of 2010, Chatto & Windus, Review, Short Stories, Vintage Books, Xiaolu Guo