Monthly Archives: January 2011

Damp Books… Help!

I have something of an urgent call for help for all of you book lovers out there, so do please read on and recommend away as you know how much it means especially in a state of a small but worrying bookish emergency.

As you may know I have moved to a temporary residence oop north whilst I see what’s going on with my health and find a flat in the centre of town that’s ‘just right’, which could of course be looking for the impossible but never mind that for now, I digressed and there are much more important things need addressing on the blog today.  So while I am in temporary residence some of my stuff is in the house and my acre sized bedroom and some of it is in the garage. Like most of you every now and again you sort out a TBR for the bedside table of books which have been floating in your subconscious ‘must be read soon’ and I was sorting that very thing out and realised some of the books were in the garage, and so off I went.

What greeted me left me with a slight chill and dampened brow as it seems that the lovely boxes which I thought looked ever so nice to hide the hundreds of books in Mount TBR aren’t fairing so well in the garage. This of course is understandable as I have had them nigh on three years and they aren’t plastic or wood (some kind of thick cardboard with a nice pattern as you can see from the picture to your left) and they have also done a rather vigorous move a fair few hundred miles, in fact one went missing but we don’t like to talk about that. Sadly in the garage they aren’t doing a very good job of protecting and my lovely beautiful books are getting slightly damp with some covers curling and some pages getting that rather wavey look.   

So in order to stop the palpitations and vexation that I am currently going through, and that horrid feeling where you get busy forget about it and then suddenly remember again, I wondered if you could help.

What I would like to know first is if these books will need drying out or if because they aren’t soggy they will dry ok? Second I wondered what you all use to store your books safe and sound if they cant be on shelves or by the bedside? Third where did you get your storage from, where can you recommend? Thanks in advance.

12 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts

The Passion of New Eve – Angela Carter

I am sure you will have all heard of and popped by and seen all the posts surrounding ‘Virago Reading Week’ which the lovely Rachel of Book Snob and Carolyn of A Few Of My Favourite Things have organised. Initially I wanted to participate, then didn’t think that I could as I have lots of health stuff going on, then I thought hang on I can combine the two and choose a Virago classic I have been meaning to read while I have lots of time in waiting rooms and the like. ‘The Passion of New Eve’ by Angela Carter was the book I plumped for and I can’t lie it was all because of the alluring cover my edition has (which was a reprint in 1982 – the year I was born). I have to say the cover certainly reflects just how trippy and unusual a book this is.

‘The Passion of New Eve’ starts as it means to go on with the rather bizarre opening sentence ‘The last night I spent in London, I took some girl or other to the movies and, through her mediation, I paid you a little tribute of spermatozoa, Tristessa.’ This is not going to be any ordinary tale and indeed it isn’t. We first meet Evelyn he has taken a girl to the cinema and then lets her perform fellatio on him whilst he watches his all time favourite actress on screen.  Suddenly we skip to his arrival in New York a few weeks later, but this is not the New York we know of. It’s a dystopian version of The Big Apple where giant rats and secular groups based on gender, sexuality and race run the streets.

After falling for Leilah, a nightclub dancer, he soon gets her pregnant and sort of tires and the darkness of the city and runs away to the desert where he is captured by a female tribe living in the underworld city of Beulah and, before you think I am giving much too much away, this is where the biggest change of Evelyn’s life awaits him. I could go on and there is so much to talk about that follows and how I felt about it all but really you need to try, if you are brave enough, to read this book yourself for the experience as well as the story.

‘The Passion of New Eve’ is quite unlike anything I have ever read and certainly nothing like I was expecting from reading some of Angela Carter’s previous work. It’s a dark, uncomfortable and sometimes brutal and graphic look at sexuality and gender and what Carter feels defines them and how they can be used to manipulate and hurt rather than in any positive way – though there is a weird sense of hope in the book somewhere deep down which you get flickers of now and again.

This isn’t just some big feminism book where all the men are evil, Carter is far too clever to paint it as black and white and so in characters like ‘Mother’ (who rules Beulah) she creates one of the most heartless and monstrous villainesses I think I have come across in modern fiction. It’s a book that I found compelled me, baffled me, shock and appalled me all at once. Even when I really wanted to put the book down, occasionally just for a rest from some of the descriptions, I remained strangely mesmerised. Its not going to be one of my all time favourite books but its certainly not one that I will forget in a hurry. 7/10.

This is a book I had bought a few years ago in the lovely edition shown for a mere 25p! You can’t go wrong with that and if you see any more of these like in the image above (which Thomas made) just grab them, these oldies are as beautiful on the inside as out!

I’m really pleased that ‘Virago Reading Week’ reminded me of all the lovely battered green editions I have (I simply cant resist them in second hand shops even if I have never heard of the book or author) and lead me to this novel, so a big thanks to Rachel and Carolyn – and do pop and see their round up posts where you can find some reading gems everyone else has been reading.

I’m not sure that Angela Carter will become one of my all time favourite authors just yet, and I might need quite a bit of space to let my feelings subside on this book before I try her again, but she’s certainly an author I need to read more of. Any pointers where to head next?

11 Comments

Filed under Angela Carter, Review, Virago Books

January’s Incomings…

I haven’t done a post on the latest incomings at Savidge Reads for quite a while. In part because my new temporary HQ didn’t seem to get any post for a while, and then it got deluged which was lovely, and also because I have had too much to natter about instead. I then thought ‘ooh hang on maybe I should do something different in 2011’ and so at the end of each month I will pop a picture of just what comes to Savidge Reads be it bought, a gift, an unsolicited proof or a request etc. I know there is a divide of opinion on these posts and I fall into the ‘love them camp’ as I really like seeing what everyone else gets so am assuming a few of you feel the same. I also like getting your feedback on what you have read that’s in the mix and how you felt about it, or what you might want me to read in the future should my whim take me.

So here are the paperbacks…

 
Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker – I have to admit that I asked for this one from the lovely Alice at Bloomsbury after it came up in conversation loads over Christmas and New Year with several new bookish northern friends saying I simply had to read it. I have and thoughts coming soon.

Even The Dogs by Jon McGregor – another treat from Bloomsbury as one of my bags of books got lost in the move, seriously I can barely talk about it hence why I haven’t on here, and I had arranged a mini rogue book group between myself and the author Isabel Ashdown on it but couldn’t find my copy so will also be discussing this soon.

The Birth Machine by Elizabeth Baines – I got an email from Elizabeth seeing if I wanted to give her book a whirl and after seeing “Out of print for some years, “The Birth Machine” is now reissued in a revised version (which first appeared in 1996). Still very relevant today to modern Obstetrics and Medicine, “The Birth Machine” is however more than that: it is also a gripping story of buried secrets and a long-ago murder, and of present-day betrayals” I thought ‘yes I do’.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett – This turned up as quite the surprise from OUP and I am delighted as I loved her novel ‘The Shuttle’ but have never gotten around to this children’s classic of hers.

Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe – I read this classic romp a few years ago but OUP are reissuing it so I might give it another whirl, or it can replace my rather battered old copy on my shelves for a re-read in the future.

Down Among The Dead Men by Michelle Williams – I have a strange fascination, though not too morbid a one, with death and since reading the wonderful ‘Stiff’ by Mary Roach I have wanted to read a few more along these lines and Michelle’s year as a morgue technician will make an interesting non fiction read. I saw it on amazon and had to send an email to the lovely Constable and Robinson who publish my favourite ‘Agatha Raisins’.

The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas – This was a surprise parcel, I know nothing of it except the fact it’s got a lovely cover.

When God Was A Rabbit by Sarah Winman – Really excited about this one as a few people I know have already read this debut novel (which is getting a lot of press already as a Waterstones 11 choice) and I have heard some great things. The font though is shocking so I might struggle which worries me a little.

Living Souls by Dmitry Bykov – I really want to read more translated fiction from all over the globe in 2011, a mini whim challenge if you will, and this Russian translated book published by Alma Books looks set to be right up my street. “Living Souls follows the lives of four couples struggling to escape the chaos and stupidity of the war around them: a teenage girl who adopts a homeless man, a poet turned general separated from his lover, a provincial governor in love with one of the natives, and a legendary military commander who is sleeping with the enemy.”  

A Room Swept White by Sophie Hannah – I bought the latest in one of my favourite crime series in a charity shop virtually brand new for a mere 50p so that simply had to be bought!

Now onto the hard backs…

 

A Kind Man by Susan Hill – You will all know by now how much I love Susan Hill so this new novella has been devoured and will be read in due course.

The Devil’s Garden by Edward Docx – I know nothing about this, I think the author has been shortlisted for the Man Booker before, other than its set deep in the Amazon which is slightly bittersweet for me at the moment as I didn’t get to go thanks to everything that’s gone on with health etc lately.

The Cry of the Go Away Bird by Andrea Eames – A tale of a young girl in 1990’s Zimbabwe as Mugabe takes presidency; I think this surprise treat will be a perfect read for me.

To The Devil A Diva by Paul Magrs – Paul gave me a spare copy of this, one of his earlier novels, when he was cleaning his desk on his last day of work. I am looking forward to reading this in the near future.

Scissors Paper Stone by Elizabeth Day – Another surprise book that I have heard little about and so can’t really report on!

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller – Now this isn’t out until September but seems like its going to get a lot of coverage. I might have to get my Mum to read and review this one as she is a classicist and might give better thoughts than me.

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman – This is another of the Waterstones 11 and one that I think could be one of the most exciting debuts of the year. This is a tale of immigration and knife crime told from the perspective of a young boy in a new inner city world.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness – I think this book is going to explode everywhere, an adult tale of witches and wizards and a mystery at the Bodleian Library, I will either love or loathe this, I am hoping its love.

Some of these I have read already, some are up at the top of the TBR. Which ones have you read and which do you fancy or have heard great things about?

8 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts

Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys

I think my favourite book of last year has to have been ‘Jane Eyre’ such an incredible read that every time I have seen a review of it or talked about it since I have wanted to open the book at page one and read again. Yet that said I am not the biggest fan of re-reading a book too close to the last time, a small issue I had with ‘The Green Carnation Prize’ last year, and so instead I thought I would try ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys which tells the tale of the first Mrs Rochester, though its also a brilliant read in its own right which I wasn’t really expecting.

‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ is a novel of three parts and as it opens in part one we find ourselves in Jamaica in the 1830’s. Antoinette Cosway, now Mason, tells us the story of her youth from growing up with her mother and disabled brother several years after her father seemingly drank himself to death after the emancipation of the slaves – so he then leaves his family in the same state. Things change however when Antoinette’s mother meets Mr Mason, and Englishman of wealth who asks for her hand and restores the land, only the local community have other ideas and in a rebellious act burn their house down. From here things seem to deteriorate further with the death of her brother causing a madness in her mother soon Antoinette is sent to a convent. If you’re thinking I have given everything away then you would be wrong as this all happens in just part one which is a mere 40 pages.

The next narrator to take the helm is an unnamed English gentleman (though clearly it’s mean he is Rochester) who has recently married. As we read on we begin to recognise who is wife is and how he married her due to a mixture of her bewitching allure and also for the fortune she holds from the death of her steward, I think that’s the write expression I am sure I could be wrong. From here I shall say no more on the plot other than that our new narrator receives word that the wife he met may not quite have the history or the stability he is lead to believe and as the reader we follow on from there.

The thing that I loved the most about ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ was the writing. Jean Rhys manages to depict a steadying madness both through Antoinette’s first person narrative, which becomes more jumbled and slightly confused as she reflects on her youth and again later in the book, and through the observations people make of her. Jamaica is vividly drawn, I could smell the flowers and feel the heat and delight of the land as well as its darker sides which Rhys makes sure we enter on several occasions. Antoinette, or Bertha as she becomes, is a complex character and if you’re like me you will be left wondering if the madness was always there or whether circumstances and desperation could be the cause.  

I didn’t really know what to expect when I started ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ as all I had really heard about it was that it was a prequel of sorts to the classic novel ‘Jane Eyre’. Whilst this is in many ways true to simply say that would be to do Jean Rhys a disservice. This is a fantastic novel that you can read as a stand alone tale of a young woman born into hard circumstances, the decisions she has to make and the effect that this then has on her throughout her life. 8.5/10

I am now left wondering if I should maybe try some other prequels like Susan Hill’s ‘Mrs De Winter’? There is of course the possibility of other off shoots like ‘The Eyre Affair’ which I have always been somewhat wary of – I am aware that with ‘Rebecca’ being one of my favourite reads that might seem rather silly as it’s sort of a twist on ‘Jane Eyre’ too. I am also left wanting to read many more of the novels of Jean Rhys, can you recommend which ones I should give a whirl? Or maybe I shouldn’t as I know she had vanished for some time before this novel was published.

12 Comments

Filed under Jean Rhys, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review

Bookshops I Love; Simply Books

I haven’t really had a chance to get out and about quite as much as I would have liked of late what. However in between docs appointments, hospitals visits and generally feeling rubbish I did manage to find a bookish haven not a million miles away from where I am in the small village of Bramhall and as I know how much you like little virtual wanders around bookish places of delight I thought I would share this wonderful place with you all.

‘Simply Books’ is a shop I had heard raved about by several different sources, so naturally when I happened to be in the vicinity of Bramhall when getting from A to B the other week I had to pop round and have a snoop. Initially I couldn’t find it and instead spent a lovely hour wandering the high street and pooping into lots of charity shops, and then suddenly I turned a corner and look what greeted me…

I felt a little like I had found the Holy Grail on a random suburban road as round these parts and indeed in Manchester itself book shops, apart from Waterstones, are few and far between and I do love an independent book shop especially one that greets you like this…

And not only has a rather large fiction section for an independent but also has one of my favourite features in any book shop ‘the staff recommendation shelves’…

Not only that, and in many ways this is why this shop instantly became my dream ‘if I won the lottery I would have one of these’ sort of shop, but on the ground floor there is a small but perfectly formed café (though you can drink outside as you can see from the first picture) which I can personally testify does both great coffee and cakes…

I wasn’t expecting something so immaculate and yet instantly homely and cosy which the shop is, especially shown when you head up stairs and turn into the travel section and find this…

Who wouldn’t want a nice comfy chair to sit at when you have such a huge selection of non fiction and travel to choose from…

What’s more, and believe me there is more, there is another lovely relaxed sitting area and behind that a table and chairs which I thought would be perfect for any book group…

‘Simply Books’ is, quite simply, a little Aladdin’s cave/place of paradise for any book lover. If only you had one of these in every village and every suburb… or at least at the end of my street! Can you tell I am a little smitten? I think it’s because in many ways its my dream place, I might have to beg them for a job or something!

Do you have any marvellous local independent stores like this? Do let me know and if they have a website like ‘Simply Books’ do then pop a link as I do think we should all be supporting our local independents as much as we can, don’t you?

6 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, Bookshops I Love

Caribou Island – David Vann

You may remember that back in 2009 I read a wonderful debut work (I say work because it was a mix of short stories and a novella and yet some thought was a novel) by the author David Vann. When you read something quite as powerful, moving and shocking as Legend of a Suicide’ then, if you are like me, you can’t wait for the next novel by the author. Yet when ‘Caribou Island’ arrived as an advance proof copy I was worried, would I like his new book as much as the first or could it have suffered the dreaded ‘difficult second novel’ curse?

I was relieved when I finished ‘Caribou Island’ because it was a brilliant read, though I can’t quite say I enjoyed it as with its subject matter to say you enjoyed such a novel might make you sound a bit mad. We meet spouses Irene and Gary both in their mid-fifties and who seem separately rather unhappy and having slight mid-life crises. Irene’s way of coping seems to be the onset of a mysterious disease, doctors say there is nothing wrong and yet she is sure there is and often finds herself unable to get out of bed for the pain. Gary’s answer to his situation is action, though you sometimes wonder if it’s his way of trying to push his wife away, and to build a dream log cabin on the remote island near their home in Alaska. This is no easy task and with the atmospheric and tempestuous backdrop and Vann’s power with a sense of menace behind every page you know you are on a journey that might make for rather uncomfortable reading (not in a gory sense), though you have to read a long anyway.

I was worried with its opening paragraph of a hanging that ‘Caribou Island’ would be very like its predecessor and in some ways it actually is. There is the Alaskan backdrop, the ominous sense throughout, the stunning writing and the feeling at any moment the author could take you to another darker place. I did wonder if Vann had felt safest having the similarities around him moving from collection to novel or if he just hadn’t finished with the subject and its setting yet? Unlike ‘Legends of a Suicide’ when awful things happened (which of course I won’t give away, I wasn’t left shocked. I sort of figured what was coming early on whereas in one scene in ‘Legends’ I actually had to put the book down a while and get my head round it.

Yet ‘Caribou Island’ does beat ‘Legends’ on several points. Rather than a father son relationship, which is seriously lacking in this novel as Gary’s son Mark is rather distant from his family as a whole and would rather do ‘extreme fishing’ or get stoned than spend any time with them, we look instead at the relationships with couples. As well as Gary and Irene we have their daughter Rhoda and her dentist fiancé Jim who isn’t the initial nice guy we might want him to be, and you do want him two as Rhoda seems so nice. I did notice that in all the couples, bar Carl and Monique where with her femme fatale elements and his utter doormat behaviour buck the trend, that men seem to be depicted as utter swine’s whilst women come across more rounded, accommodating and rather dependable. I mean would you cook your fiancé dinner after he’s not spoken to you for two days or maybe help your husband shift logs across a lake in a storm for an isolated cabin you have no desire to live in?

 There is a lot to mull over with ‘Caribou Island’ and much to discuss, so it would make a brilliant book group choice.  David Vann’s writing is top notch, you can feel the atmosphere and sense of place in every page, and he excels in delivering that often hard to get combination of having wonderful description, characterisation and page turning qualities all in one book. Yet, as you might be able to guess and is the only slight flaw for the book, I found it so hard to write about it without comparing it to his previous work. The settings and themes are in some ways so similar. However regardless of that this is a really compelling book, that I know will stay with me and grow on me more and more, it’s certainly one that I would highly recommend you read. 8.5/10

I did wonder if Vann had felt safest having the similarities around him moving from collection to novel or if he just hadn’t finished with the subject and its setting yet? ‘Caribou Island’ has left me with two thoughts first I am hoping his next novel (which I will rush out to read) blows me away by how completely different it is and two that I don’t think I ever want to live near a lake in Alaska, who knows what could befall me?

1 Comment

Filed under David Vann, Penguin Books, Review

Funny But Substantial Fiction – The Prose Practice

The other dayI received some direct messages from Twitter all the way from Austin, Texas which were asking for some reading suggestions, and as I was both slightly stumped and intrigued in the idea of such a genre I thought I would have it as the latest Prose Practice problem so that all of you could help me and a dear reader out. So the question was this (I have turned what became a chat into a question)…

Dear Simon,

I am looking for some good light reading to cleanse the palate between ‘heavy’ books, ideally funny but substantial. I don’t really have anything like that at the moment and could do with some recommendations please. Dry wit might do?

David

Now initially I thought this would be really easy but then two factors came into play. The first was, well what do you like reading heavy or not, the second was what really funny reading? The first David answer by telling me he really likes ‘everything from the classics to modern classics like Forster to Raymond Carver and Kundra’. The second part I am stuck on because actually I don’t often read funny books, or if I do they aren’t that substantial, and so David has kindly highlighted a question I have often pondered and not yet asked on Savidge Reads. You can bet its something that I quite fancy giving a whirl… I am not too great at farce, but funny and substantial appeals to me.

So today I have a simply question for you, can you please recommend some ‘funny but substantial’ books to a pondering reader… and also to a pondering blogger? Am I right in hazarding a guess that Howard Jacobson would fit this genre or is that misplaced?

16 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, The Prose Practise

The Murders in the Rue Morgue – Edgar Allan Poe

I ummed and ahhed about whether I should pop my thoughts on ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ by Edgar Allan Poe up on the blog to be honest as I am not normally a fan of more, erm, negative reviews. However firstly it’s a new year and maybe time for new rules, but also as long as I justify it (even if people respectfully disagree with me) why not have the occasional negative review on Savidge Reads, I hope it could give you all a fuller picture of what I like and why. So here goes, time for me to take a deep breath and have a bit of a vent…

To say that I was disappointed or underwhelmed by ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ by Edgar Allan Poe would be some what of an understatement, but stay with me as I can see why it should be read. I have always wanted to get my mitts on a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of Dupin, who is pretty much the first detective in fiction (though I am sure there are others), because I had heard that it is these tales that gave inspiration to the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie who are seen as the great masters of detective fiction in modern times, and who also happen to be two of my favourite authors. I therefore thought that I was going to love this collection.

The collection starts with the title story. From reading the first page or two I found myself thinking ‘this is going to be hard work’ as a whole three paragraph free pages about analysis of people and I think (and I say that because I was so confused, but simply could not force myself to read it again) Dupin who is the great detective that we come to learn so much more about through his accidental side kick (you can see it almost exactly retold in ‘A Study in Scarlet’ the first Holmes novel), as the pages then go on finally we get to the murder. In all of the tales of Dupin that deal with murder, for some don’t, all I can say is that nothing quite competes with the title story which is a shame as it’s the first one so everything sort of goes downhill from there.

I did find the ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget’ quite interesting as it is based on a true tale, so whilst its not as far fetched as the tale before it insightful as to how people looked at murder in the 1840’s, or sort of didn’t in a way. That brings me to the subject of when the book was written because as I mentioned this collection is seen as the start of the genre of detective fiction, which is why I was so annoyed that it read like both an instruction manual for detection and also like a deconstruction of the whole genre. In fact because so much I have read is based on this book it started to read like a lit crit book of this whole subject and I just couldn’t work with it.

You might be sat there thinking ‘but why is he not telling me about the stories in this collections. Well in truth it’s because there aren’t many. It’s much more about showing how clever Dupin, and therefore Allan Poe, is at solving a mystery and therefore things like character traits, back stories and the very atmosphere of Paris falls by the wayside and so sadly I felt disappointed in every tale. It seemed to me that ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ sadly failed for me because of its credentials. It might be the first of a genre which is now huge and I respect it for that, the thing is people read it then built on it and made something better. I’d recommend this for anyone studying the genre, not for those who want fantastic mysteries, stick to Sherlock if that’s the case but do remember who inspired those tales. 4/10

You might all think I am an imbecile (I am sure in a polite way) for having written this. I do value the novel but I think I would rather have read about it in a section of Kate Summerscale’s rather wonderful ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ or an essay about it rather than fictions which read like rather patronising essays and a how-to-write crime guide. Please tell me that his ghost stories aren’t like this!

I got this book from the local library.

6 Comments

Filed under Edgar Allan Poe, Review, Short Stories, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

A New TV Book Show…

A very quick post between lots of pre-scheduled posts (which are proving invaluable between doctors appointments, hospital visits and generally feeling rather rubbish) as I wanted to share a link with you that made me feel very happy when reading the paper earlier today as there is a new TV show coming soon which is apparently rather like the wonderful ‘Desert Island Discs’… but with books!

‘My Life in Books’ will be on BBC2 and will be hosted by Anne Robinson who will interview the likes of Deborah Devonshire, PD James etc on which five books have proved the most influential, loved or both in their lives, and it will be DAILY! It’s also the start of a year of programming devoted to the written word. Have a look at the link below for further details…

http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2011/jan/23/anne-robinson-bbc2-books

I have to say after having just watched The TV Book Show/Club/Thing barely managing to discuss Andrea Levy’s ‘The Long Song’ (which I loved) and being really rather let down by it all I couldn’t be more pleased that this show, and hopefully many more are coming… Now who do I send a pitch to for a book show I have been thinking about? Can you tell I am a little over excited about this?

7 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts

Truth or Fiction – Jennifer Johnston

I don’t know about all of you but I do think Sundays should be quite a restful day, maybe lots of reading in bed and pottering around? So instead of doing my book thoughts in order of what I have read, which I tend to do but might go out the window as at the moment I am reading some proofs for later in the year as well as dipping into Deborah Devonshire’s memoirs, I would discuss ‘Truth or Fiction’ by Jennifer Johnston as it could be an ideal Sunday read being initially quite gentle and easily read in a long morning in bed. And yes, I did say it’s initially a gentle read.

‘Truth or Fiction’ is really a novel that looks into just what the difference is between people’s own truths and their own fictions. Caroline Wallace is a journalist in her forties who thinks she is fairly happy in her living with her partner Herbert, an author, living in Notting Hill. That is until Herbert proposes, a scene which actually made me laugh out loud, and it brings all the things that have been bubbling under the surface of Catherine’s mind to the fore. Around the same time her editor decides to send her to Dublin to meet and interview the rather reclusive ageing author Desmond Fitzmaurice whose works seem to have been forgotten and are deserving of resurgence.

You might think ‘oh this is obvious Catherine is going to fall for Desmond and that’ll be that’ which I might possibly have thought was coming only having read Jennifer Johnston before (thanks to Kimbofo who is a Johnston connoisseur and chose ‘The Illusionist’ for the NTTVBG last year) and knowing that she is far to clever for that, and indeed far too deceptive too as you have the feeling something darker is set to come. As we read on Catherine gets more and more entangled in Desmond’s life from his current wife, ex-wife and the one that got away, to his relationships with his children and to something in his past he did and cannot quite get over.

This is where I come into some slight conflict with the book however. Whilst I liked the way Desmond was quite quirky, the fact there was more to him than met the eye and the fact that Johnston used him to look at the feelings behind old age and the modern family with divorces and estranged children. I didn’t ever feel like I got to grips with the depths of the other characters, his first wife Pamela being a slight stereotype of the woman who needed to be free, and the same with the current wife Anna being the woman who became more and more embittered as she aged. Catherine herself was another character that I never quite formed fully in my mind, but maybe that was all me?

I thought the first three quarters of the book were rather brilliant in that observational writing style where little happens but much is said and passed on to the reader, a style I am quite a fan of and always impressed by any author that can do it so well and Johnston certainly can. Yet suddenly it seemed Johnston went from a fifth gear into first and so much happened within a few pages, which of course I won’t give away, that I was thrown before suddenly it was the final page and that was that. I don’t believe an author has to tie everything up nicely; in fact I really like authors who leave the reader to do some work themselves, here however I felt a few strands had simply been dumped and it bothered me a little especially as I was left wondering what in the last 152 pages had been fiction and had been truth. Maybe though that is the idea? 7/10

It sounds a little bit like I am moaning about this book reading it back and honestly I am not. Though I came away wanting a longer book and wanting to understand more of the peripheral characters (so that I could make sense of the big character of Desmond at the forefront of it all) I did come away still wanting to read much more Johnston. I really like her prose; Johnston’s writing has an honesty, humour and darkness to it which works for me. The fact Johnston trusts you to, and possibly thinks you should, work at the novel is a quality I admire and I will definitely be picking up another of her books in due course.  

I wonder if my surprised enjoyment of ‘The Illusionist’ and its becoming such a hit with me created a certain level of expectation in this one to some degree. Have you ever had that experience where you have read and loved an author’s book and then read another one, liked it a lot, but expected more? Has anyone got any suggestions of where to turn for another Jennifer Johnston novel?

I got this book from the library where they seem to do a good line in Jennifer Johnston, I shall have to get another!

3 Comments

Filed under Headline Review, Jennifer Johnston, Review

Young Adult, Teen & Crossover Fiction…

I think it’s quite well documented here on Savidge Reads that I have a few little glitches in my personal reading taste; the last one I mentioned was of course audio books. Non-Fiction used to be a real issue, yet in the last year I really worked at it and by the end of the year quite a few of the books I really loved were that very genre. The next genre or category on my hit list is Young Adult Fiction… or Teen Fiction… or Crossover Fiction whichever one you want to call it. I might have just come up with a new way of getting my head around it, but I will need your suggestions so do read on and recommend.

I have been talking this who conundrum over with The Bookboy lately, he did after all suggest I read ‘Just William’ and lend me it. He of course is coming up to the teen market age (he’s 12), though having said that he has just recently finished ‘Wuthering Heights’ a book I didn’t read until fairly recently, and reads widely. The ‘Harry Potter’ novels are the only books that we have both read, and so we came up with an idea. As well as me doing the blog as normal and him doing his collective posts every now and again, wouldn’t it be interesting if we both read the same book and reported back together?

Now of course we have the issue of which titles should we head for? As we all know this is a huge, huge market…

…And one which neither of us feels we fully know enough to pick a prime title or three from to try out. It needs to be something new to both of us, though he is itching to read ‘The Graveyard Book’ and I did mention he read the first three Twilight books and then we could do ‘Breaking Dawn’ but I think that’s too old at the moment for him, plus he gave a very outward groan. We know there are some perfect books out there for us both to get our teeth into. I can almost hear you all screaming ‘The Hunger Games’ before I have even asked for suggestions, its one I think we would consider, but what else is there out there?

So which fairly recent ‘young adult/teen/crossover’ novels would you recommend? What is it about the genre that you love, or indeed that you don’t? Do you think a joint blog from me and The Bookboy every now and again would work?

21 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts

Blaming – Elizabeth Taylor

I have been told by many a friend and reader of this blog that I ‘simply must read Elizabeth Taylor’. You can call me slow on the uptake but until I had done some research the only Elizabeth Taylor that I knew of was the actress. It happened that in the library the other week they had a lovely old copy of ‘Blaming’ by Elizabeth Taylor as they were ‘digging up forgotten gems from the basement’. I liked the cover, loved the fact no one had taken it out for about a decade and thinking of all the recommendations I promptly picked it up.

Not having previously read any Elizabeth Taylor novels before I didn’t really know what to expect from ‘Blaming’ if I am honest, maybe something a little twee.  The story opens in Istanbul where Amy and Nick are taking a holiday after his recovering of an illness, what it is we are never quite sure. Here they meet the American Martha, a novelist which they don’t know initially, who is travelling alone. Slowly but surely the three start to become acquainted and before they know it, or have even really consented to it, Amy and Nick find they are sharing a holiday with someone who was until recently a stranger.

“Nick was reading her book about Byzantine art. On the flyleaf was written ‘Dear Martha, I’ll miss you. Love, Simon.’ He and Amy had discussed this, for they couldn’t place Martha, though were less occupied with her than she with them. The three of them, knowing nothing of one another, were cast together by their language and nothing else.”

As the trip continues tragedy strikes, this could be a spoiler so you might want to stop reading or skip this paragraph though it does tell you on the blurb and happens early in the novel, when Nick dies in the night. Amy is left widowed and stranded alone in a foreign country with no one to help her or comfort her than Martha who almost relishes the role especially as an observer. Once back in England Martha tries to get into Amy’s life once more, and with reluctance though as an escape from her rather irritating family (both to the reader and Amy) slowly but surely she allows this friendship to blossom even though she doesn’t want it too and the two are drawn in to each others lives through a mixture of grief, guilt and blame.

I won’t say anymore about the plot as it’s a short book and I would recommend that you gave it a whirl yourself. Taylor never quite puts us into the heads of any of the characters, including Amy’s wonderful cook/parlour man Ernie who provides some brilliant and occasionally needed light relief when he appears on the page, yet she shows us just enough of their motives to see we need to read more and that not everything might be quite as it seems.

‘Blaming’ was actually Elizabeth Taylor’s last novel, in fact having done some research it was published posthumously in 1976 a year after her death. Her writing is beautiful yet sparse, no words are used that needn’t be. Initially though there doesn’t appear to be a huge plot there is so much going on. We observe people and what they do and how they react to circumstances learning how there is much more to every action, and indeed every page, than meets the eye.  along the lines of Jennifer Johnston and Anita Brookner, whose books I have enjoyed as much, Taylor is an author who watches the world and then writes about it with a subtly and emotion that seems to capture the human condition. 8.5/10

Now that I have read Taylor I think I am going to have to delve into her back catalogue for many more of her novels, so do recommend more if you have read her. I am also itching to read another Brookner or Johnston. Which other authors have you read where subtly wins over initial storylines? Is the observational a form of fiction you enjoy?

15 Comments

Filed under Elizabeth Taylor, Review, Virago Books

Presumptions, Assumptions & Hype

Book group this week has really got me thinking. You see when I started the latest choice ‘Water For Elephants’ my expectations for the novel were rather low, and so when I had finished it and really enjoyed it I was left pleasantly surprised. It showed me once again that you can’t simply judge a book by its blurb or latest cover, or rather than judging you simply can’t make assumptions or presumptions. I always get presumptions and assumptions mixed up which is slightly annoying as bookish presumptions and assumptions are what today’s post/ramble of mine is all about.

It interested me that out of the rest of the book group the people who knew nothing of it, bought it off the internet and started reading it pronto simply because it was the book group choice got a lot more out of it than those who had read the blurb, got quite excited about the premise and then read on. In fact people who had got really excited about it prior the meeting seemed to think they had been let down in some way. This could of course simply be sod’s law, or the fact that the book just wasn’t quite for them, but it brought up the question yet again of book hype and how it can affect a read for you.  

I brought up the fact that I had personally bought the book ages ago because there was a whirl of hype about it on its release in the US, I had then promptly not read it. I myself am prone to getting swept up in the excitement when a book seems to explode in the media by the tag ‘New York Times Bestseller’ (or any other newspaper) and endless review or of course all over the blogosphere. I would find myself vicariously buying several books in one shopping swoop because I had heard lots of good reviews, and then go off the idea of all of them (probably swept up by another set of rave reviews of another book) and hence end up with the rather large TBR that I now have – I will get through it one day. Yet last year when I put myself on a book buying ban for 12 months I was amazed that the books I heard lots about and instantly wanted would then fade from my mind a few weeks later. I think only four or five are still on my ‘most wanted’ list. I haven’t been out and binge bought those either.

So that showed me up for my ability to be completely bowled over by media which thankfully I think one other book group member agreed would make them consider reading a book too. The other hype that interests me though is the one we do ourselves. It could be because the blurb simply sounds ‘so you’, the fact you have loved the author before, the quotes on the cover, the cover itself (and in this case most people had a cover they actually said made them think ‘Water For Elephants’ wasn’t for them because it looked rather chick-lit like, they aren’t a snobby bunch, and then were again pleasantly surprised), the fact the premise just really appeals, the list can go on and on. Its something I find interesting and so thought would ask you all about it.

How can we stop ourselves from falling for the hype in newspapers and our favourite blogs? Why is it that we hype certain books up so much in our own heads and if we do it extensively can a book ever really live up to the impression we have made of it without even turning a page? Do you think its something we are just programmed to do? Have there been books you’ve been desperate to read, then not bought and eventually not been bothered about? Which books have you hyped up yourself and then been disappointed by and which ones have you had the reverse experience with? Any other thoughts? Oh and who can tell me the difference between assumptions and presumptions?

10 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts

Water For Elephants – Sara Gruen

I bought a copy of ‘Water For Elephants’ a few years ago after having heard lots of acclaim for it all over the place on its initial release and not really having taken its premise in. The idea of a book combining the circus (I don’t care for clowns) and the Great Depression (which I knew nothing about other than maybe it was… well… depressing) didn’t really seem to be my thing and so sadly it was left languishing on the TBR. So when it was chosen as the next book group choice I was filled with a mixture of ‘oh finally I get to give it a whirl’ and ‘oh dear this probably isn’t going to work for me is it’. Sometimes though great successes come from low expectations…

Sara Gruen can certainly describe something vividly if ‘Water For Elephants’ is anything to go by. I don’t think I have read a book that has captured me quite so much in the world it creates for quite some time. In this case, through the eyes of protagonist and narrator Jacob Jankowski after the death of his parents, loss of his inheritance due to the financial climate and with nowhere else to turn, we are thrown into the world of the 1930’s circus and ‘Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth’. Here he joins a world of underdogs, freaks, misfits and the beautiful ‘star of the show’ Marlena who is married to the tyrannical and rather unhinged animal trainer August. Gruen slowly sets up a love triangle which you have an inkling from the prologue could end in disaster.

It might sound rather like a typical love story and indeed could be if it weren’t for the setting, animals and most effective interspersed chapters where we find Jacob narrating from an old people’s home in his nineties. This added a certain something to the novel as we see how a man who lived a rather adventurous life, as we come to learn through his memories of the circus, and yet has now been pretty much dumped in a home where no one knows his past and no one really cares, with the exception of a rather delightful nurse called Rosemary. This to me actually made the whole novel all the better, and could have been a novel in of its own in many ways, as it added a rather bittersweet note to the book and gave you pause between the thrills and spills of his life in the 1930s.

Clearly Gruen had done a huge amount of research for this book, as explained by the authors note at the end, and the circus itself was incredibly vivid both in its glamorous ‘working’ glory and the rather dark and horrendous ‘behind the scenes’ aspects. Yet in some ways this occasionally was at the expense of some of the characters and some of the story. The plot is incredibly tight and keeps you turning the pages but then some strands suddenly end, or characters suddenly vanish with no real explanation and it slightly broke the spell Gruen so wonderfully weaved because I found myself thinking ‘oh so so-and-so has gone, maybe Gruen didn’t need them anymore’. Also despite Jacob being so wonderfully written characters like Marlena, August and Walter the Clown seemed more two dimensional. I came away having being thoroughly entertained but also left wanting to know why August was such a psychopath, why Marlena allowed herself to be in the position she was and how Walter ended up this bitter dwarf who then played clown. But then really I think the circus and Rosie the Elephant, who I loved, were maybe meant to be the secret stars of this book.

That said ‘Water For Elephants’ is a truly cracking read. I was occasionally frustrated I couldn’t simply sit and read it all in one go because the world Gruen created I really wanted to be a part of and stay in. It was a book I would simply take to read a few paragraphs of whilst boiling the kettle or walking down the stairs (dangerous) and was constantly in my hands whenever I had the chance.

Pages were quickly turned, I was often shocked at the way the people and animals were treated, two themes which Gruen explores, and I liked the fact that though the Great Depression was there in the pages it loomed darkly in the background not taking over the whole book yet letting its presence be very much known. Again this isn’t the most perfect book I have come across but its one I thoroughly enjoyed and one that I think will stick with me for the atmosphere Gruen created and the sense of having actually been right there with her characters and almost lived it all myself. 8.5/10

I bought this novel from a chairty shop a couple of years ago, it was originally bought in ‘Manali Bookshop, Anjuna, Goa’ apparently according to the sticker on the back, isn’t it lovely its travelled like that?

I had thought I might try and do something a tiny bit different with my thoughts on ‘Water For Elephants’, I was going to do a fair whack about what I thought and then I would do a smaller portion about at the group thought, however it seemed that my thoughts (as I wrote the actual main part of the post before I went) were pretty much along the same lines as everyone else’s both in the pro’s and con’s camp. We did all agree that we much preferred the old ‘unisex’ cover to the rather more ‘chick lit’ cover, these are important things after all.

I am finding it really interesting that so far in 2011 with this and with Brighton Rock’ it’s the books that are making me think about reading and writing that seem to be sticking with me the most so far over the ones I out and out love. I wonder if this is a trend that will continue.

17 Comments

Filed under Hodder & Stoughton, Review, Sara Gruen