Monthly Archives: March 2011

A Red Herring Without Mustard – Alan Bradley

The joy that overcame me when ‘A Red Herring Without Mustard’, the latest Flavia De Luce novel, arrived on the door mat was quite something. I have been following Flavia’s adventures since I received an early proof of ‘The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie’ and then ‘The Weeds That Strings The Hangmans Bag’ and each has been a pure pleasure to read. Then my joy wavered slightly as I had that worry of ‘oh no, will this be as good as the previous two?’ and so I held of reading… for a whole day when I could wait no longer. How chuffed am I then that ‘A Red Herring Without Mustard’ might just be my favourite of the Flavia novels, and also one of the most enjoyable reads for me of the year so far.

The only problem with writing any book thoughts on a mystery is that you really don’t want to give too much away and this is the issue I am facing writing about ‘A Red Herring Without Mustard’ because so far of the Flavia De Luce mysteries I think this is the most twisty and complex. It is still set in the 1950’s fictional English town of Bishop’s Lacey where the De Luce’s reside in the grand house of Buckshaw and it is indeed in the grounds of Buckshaw where a brutal attack is carried out on a gypsy who Flavia has given permission to camp in. Palings is a slightly spooky wooded part of the estate which of course gives great atmosphere to the opening of the book and makes it all the more thrilling.

Naturally the police involved, in particular Inspector Hewitt, don’t want Flavia to be. This is much to Flavia’s fury and indeed indignation as she has solved a few crimes for them for in the past. So naturally she starts trying to investigate herself. What turns up is not just the mystery of the gypsy but a murder mystery from Bishop Lacey’s past and one that isn’t as forgotten as Flavia initially believes. If that wasn’t enough as Flavia uncovers more secrets new light starts to shine on the very death of Flavia’s mother Harriet, all started off by her whimsical visit to the gypsy in question at the village fete.

Some people might say that these are cosy crime novels and yet I think in every one of Alan Bradley’s novels so far there is a real darkness, along with a certain camp, that make them so addictive. I also think his choice of Flavia as an unusual child protagonist with her character and observations are precocious, hilarious and blunt all in one, are spot on. You are thrilled and entertained in equal measure. In only a few pages, when discussing her sisters Daphne and Feely, you know you are in the mind of Flavia and the fun begins.

“Oh there you are, you odious little prawn. We’ve been looking for you everywhere.”
 It was Ophelia, the older of my two sisters. Feely was seventeen, and ranked herself right up there with the Blessed Virgin Mary, although the chief difference between then, I’m willing to bet, is that the BVM doesn’t spend twenty-three hours a day peering at herself in a looking glass while picking away at her face with a pair of tweezers.
 With Feely, it was always best to employ the rapid retort: “How dare you call me a prawn, you stupid sausage? Fathers told you more than once it’s disrespectful.”

I loved ‘A Red Herring Without Mustard’. Not only for its plot which is the perfect mystery with thrills and spills, and lots of red herrings, also because I got to spend more time with Flavia, more time with her family and more time with some of the bonkers characters living in the village. If you want a mystery that is entertaining, well written (and really makes you feel you are living in the world it creates) and will have you guessing then you can’t go wrong with this. 10/10

Have any of you read the Flavia de Luce books? If you haven’t then drop what you are doing and read them from the start straight away. They will bring you hours of entertainment I can almost guarantee. Which are your favourite series of novels, be they crime or not, and why? Any novels where you simply read them to spend time in the protagonists company?

14 Comments

Filed under Alan Bradley, Books of 2011, Flavia de Luce, Orion Publishing, Review

March’s Incomings…

March has been a bumper month for books arriving at Savidge Reads new HQ and initially I wasn’t sure I should share them in case you were all appalled and disgusted. But… then I though well lots arrived for my birthday, lots arrived as get well parcels and I bought (and in some cases exchanged) quite a few of them and also March has proved a proof-tastic month with lots of books not out until the summer suddenly arriving. What I am going to do is simply list the books this month, marking out the proofs as I go. I haven’t included the books that I got for the Orange longlist as I did a separate post on those, nor have I listed the ones I have read and reviewed. So let’s start with the paperback and middle sized hardbacks/trades…

  • Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin (Penguin)
  • The Once Was A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbours Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (Penguin)
  • True Things About Me by Deborah Kay Davies (Canongate)
  • Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa (Vintage)
  • Ruby’s Spoon by Anna Lawrence Pietroni (Vintage)
  • Advice for Strays by Justine Kilkerr (Vintage)
  • Blue Heaven by C.J. Box (Atlantic Books)
  • Naming The Bones by Louise Welsh (Canongate)
  • My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin (Headline)
  • These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf (Mira)
  • The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood (Picador) – review coming very soon
  • There But For The… by Ali Smith (Penguin) – proof copy for summer
  • Irma Voth by Miriam Toews (Faber) – proof copy for summer
  • Saints and Sinners by Edna O’Brien (Faber)
  • Anatomy of Disappearance by Hisham Matar (Penguin)
  • The Alice Behind Wonderland by Simon Winchester (Oxford University Press)
  • The Possessed by Elif Batuman (Granta)
  • The West Rand Jive Cats Boxing Club by Lauren Liebenberg (Virago)

Blimey, now onto the big hardback books, which consist of over half that aren’t out till June/July which makes me feel a bit better…

  • Nothing To Envy by Barbara Demick (Granta)
  • To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal (Abacus) – proof copy for summer
  • The History of History by Ida Hattemer-Higgins (Faber)
  • The Devils Mask by Christopher Wakling (Faber) – proof copy for summer
  • The Possessions of Doctor Forrest by Richard T. Kelly (Faber) – proof copy for summer
  • On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry (Faber) – proof copy for summer
  • My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira (Penguin)
  • What The Do In The Dark by Amanda Coe (Virago) – proof copy for summer
  • The Book of Lies by Mary Horlock (Canongate)
  • The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg (Faber) – proof copy for summer
  • Lasting Damage by Sophie Hannah (Hodder)

Finally, I have succumbed to buying books again, and its all the fault of the local book exchange, the new charity shop, and my occasional second hand book hunts with Paul Magrs. I either bought these books or exchanged them, I shall give reasons why I got them…

  • Fraud by Anita Brookner – a read in the lead up to International Anita Brookner Day.
  • The Last Temptation & The Torment of Others by Val McDermid – because I have a new favourite crime writer and want to read them all during my hospital visits. They are the perfect recovery read.
  • The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier – a rare Daphne find as I have almost all of them.
  • The Sign of the Cross by Colm Toibin – I love Toibin and this is non-fiction and travelogue which will be interesting.
  • The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories edited by Susan Hill – It’s a collection of lots of lady authors by one of my favourite lady authors, perfect pre-Womans Word Literary Festival reading.
  • Dancing Backwards by Salley Vickers – I want to read all her books this is her latest novel.
  • Talking Heads by Alan Bennett – I have wanted to read this for years and years
  • Rude Britannia by Tim Fountain – sounded hilarious and rather like something Mary Roach would do.
  • One Extra Large Medium by Helen Slavin – I am quite obsessed by mediums and all things spooky and it was short.
  • A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – been told by everyone and everyone I should read this and is the first World Book Night book I have found.
  • Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann – you have all said I must read this and so I now shall, its also playing a part in ‘Reading With Authors’ more on that soon.

There I am looted out. If you have read any of these or anything by the authors (especially with the first two lots of books as I know very little about most of them) then do let me know. I best get off here and get reading hadn’t I?

17 Comments

Filed under Book Spree, Book Thoughts

The London Train – Tessa Hadley

I am going to do something today that I really tend not to do. Mind you when I asked you all for your feedback on Savidge Reads moving forward (and do feel free to fill in the form if you haven’t already) you pretty much all said you wanted me to do it and so I therefore hold you all responsible for what is coming. A negative review! I sort of find myself wanting to apologise for doing it before I have even begun, but hopefully (and I am sorry to the author who probably took months and months to write it and the publisher who kindly sent it) I will give valid reasons why and not just simply, which would be rather lazy, to slag it off. In fact really the person to blame for my dislike of ‘The London Train’ by Tessa Hadley is me… for finishing the thing frankly.

I think in all honesty I should have stopped reading Tessa Hadley’s at about page 70 of the ‘The London Train’ but what kept me going was hope and a little bit of faith in the blurb that it was ‘a vivid and absorbing account of the impulses and accidents that can change our lives’ and what kept me going, again from the blurb, that ‘connecting both stories is the London train, and a chance meeting that will have immediate and far reaching consequences for Paul and Cora’ those being our two protagonists. In fact it was the promise of Cora’s tale, in the second of what is really two novellas co-joined by the slimmest (and we are talking really slim) of moments that seems to be the longest one of the very few moments that any of the London trains get a mention, that kept me going as Paul’s story was not only boring me silly but becoming more and more ridiculous as it went on.

Credit where credit is due, I have no question that Tessa Hadley knows how to write and from the start she had me gripped. As ‘The London Train’ opens we meet Paul who by the time he gets ‘to the Home, the undertakers had removed his mother’s body.’ This had me full of intrigue and questions such as what did she die of, what was their relationship like, why was she in a home? All very promising and it continued to be, before she was soon buried and Paul’s ex wife was phoning him to tell him their daughter Pia had gone missing. Again I was intrigued and wondering all sorts such as were daughter and father estranged, why did his first marriage end, where on earth could Pia be, will this be a mystery? Yet when Paul finds her it’s the start of a ludicrous storyline, read no further if you don’t want any PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD until I say they have finished.

What followed was the most clichéd tale of Paul finding his daughter pregnant living a council (though apparently it was rebuilt, as if) high rise with her lover and his sister, not that there was any room, and after much secret visiting he suddenly moves in with them all after a row with his current wife Elise, leaving her and her kids behind and having some kind of jolly jaunt living a carefree poor hand to mouth existence aka middle class twaddle as the poorer people in London do not live like that. I was angry, what had started off as such a great book filled with promise had turned into something that simply made me peeved. But hey it’s certainly a reaction isn’t it?

END OF PLOT SPOILERS

This is where Tessa Hadley lost me and yet I continued in the hope that Cora’s promising storyline, a forlorn librarian leaving London for Cardiff and to the house she has inherited where she hears her estranged husband has gone missing, sounded really promising. But sadly, and fear not I am not going to spoil any plots of go on about why, this again started interestingly enough before swiftly alienating me as much as the first novella did. Again threads of storyline got picked up and thrown away, characters remained one dimensional, self-obsessed, a bit smug and all in all dislikeable. I know some dislikeable characters can be brilliant in novels, not these ones though. In fact I really shouldn’t have read to the end of Cora’s story because it made me even more annoyed with its triteness.

Naturally I wouldn’t want to put anyone off reading ‘The London Train’ if it’s a book they really think they want to give a whirl, its certainly won over the judges of this years Orange Prize it just completely lost me. The writing was good, but sometimes that’s not enough, it doesn’t matter what revelations come at the end of a book or that there could be some promise just around the corner if an author alienates and looses its reader then it doesn’t really reach its target, and sadly it missed me by a mile or several of train line. 3.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

Like I said there is clearly an audience for this book as before The Orange Longlist 2011 was announced (and reading the whole list from cover to cover as a challenge to myself was the main reason I persevered to the last line with this book) people were saying this would be on the list, and I have seen some rave reviews here and there, plus it got long listed by the judges as I mentioned so they must have all liked it in some way. The fact it got long listed and ‘Mr Chartwell’ didn’t is rather a travesty in my personal, and I happily admit often wrong, opinion. Is it my fault for persevering? Should I have just given up on it and moved on? Why do we have an ingrained gene to finish a book we start? Has anyone else read this or another Tessa Hadley and what did you think?

20 Comments

Filed under Jonathan Cape Publishers, Orange Prize, Random House Publishing, Review, Tessa Hadley

I’m Back… If Briefly…

I thought you would like a little update and so I wanted to say ‘hello, I am back’ but sadly its not for long as I have another two operations to go before things even start to get back to getting back to normal and other procedures and things start. Plus there are several appointments in and out of doctors and specialist consultants in the offing. Around all that I will be able to comment and get to have a wander around other book blogs and the like. I will of course pop a note on the top of the homepage when I go in for any length of time again (the next of which is the 7th of April) though did it stop you from noticing the posts below it out of interest? It does feel a little like my hospital bed is always waiting for my return at the moment…

I do have a big thanks to say to you all before for all your Birthday wishes. All your support, and in some cases cards/parcels, which I have seen and received since I came out the hospital has meant the world to me and I am really thankful just so you know. I didn’t have the best birthday it has to be said, for one I was unconscious for most of it (and not of my own causing which might have made it more bearable), two I then had to have an emergency procedure when I woke up without any sedation – ouch, thirdly I had a really weird reaction (both physically and emotionally) to everything fourthly, and most traumatically, I haven’t had any birthday cake as I haven’t been allowed on solids since, until today actually. You might think all that put me in the bad mood that could cause the negative review coming later today, not the case as I read the book before I went in! With all of that all your positivity and well wishes have done me the world of good.

Right I had better head to the doctors shortly (afterwards I am meeting up with a friend who is also a lovely blogger and is coming up especially to see me, which has really cheered me up no end and of course I will report back about) I look forward to catching up with you all on your blogs, in comments here or by email etc over the next few days. Thanks again!

19 Comments

Filed under Simon's Bookish Bits

The Birth of Love – Joanna Kavenna

Isn’t it funny how the title of a book can put your off it a little? I have to admit that when I saw that Joanna Kavenna, an author I had prior heard very little about, was on the Orange long list with her second novel ‘The Birth of Love’ its very title made me think ‘hmmm, maybe that one will be tricky’. Its not that I am squeamish about birth, in fact I have been a complete addict of ‘One Born Every Minute’, and find pregnancy rather fascinating. In fact whenever relatives (have I said I am soon to be an uncle of sorts?) and friends get pregnant I have endless questions and want to know all the ins and outs of it all. The title just sounded a little saccharine and so it was therefore one of the first books that I thought I should tackle as it would be a bit of a difficult read for me, oh how wrong I turned out to be.

It is four initially disparate stories which make up ‘The Birth of Love’. We first have the story, in forms of letters to a Dr Wilson, of the incarceration of Herr S in a Viennese asylum in the 1800’s. This is a man wracked with guilt over the amount of women he believes he has murdered and the never ending dreams and visions of blood that he is the subject to. Secondly is the tale of Brigid whose second child, she is what is now deemed as a mature mother, is overdue and we join her as her mother arrives and so it seems do her contractions. Thirdly is the narrative of Michael, and author whose works on a doctor from the 1800’s has just been published and on the day of release learns his mother is ill with dementia. Fourthly, and finally, we have the unnamed Prisoner 730004 in the year 2153 who has been captured after leaving the ‘safety’ (which we soon learn are confines) of Darwin C and has escaped to an island where the ‘Magna Mater’ Birgitta is rumoured to have given birth, a quite impossible act in the times of egg and sperm harvesting and offspring farming.

You might think that merely from its title this is a book solely about birth; in fact it’s also about the bonds of motherhood. Michael has a very distant and angry relationship with his mother and the news of her illness seems to completely pass him by, Brigid’s relationship with her overbearing mother leaves her to think about her future mothering of her own children, Prisoner 730004 feels she has lost something by being denied the right to be a mother and Herr S feels he has stolen mothers from there children.

It is a real cacophony of tales and one which could have seemed too far fetched and with too much scope yet Kavenna pulls these four strands together and creates four worlds which are all very real and tangible despite their vast differences. Whilst reading this, and I don’t think its because one of the strands is rather like ‘The Handmaids Tale’, I often found myself thinking of Margaret Atwood’s writing. You constantly feel that Kavenna has you following the exact path she wants you to, observing things and similarities as you go along, almost as if she is connecting with her reader as she writes. This is a quality you don’t find often in books and certainly not ones with so much scope which ask the reader to ‘hold on, it will all come together’ yet you never question that they won’t.

My only small issue with the book was that whilst I liked the way it’s written, and Kavenna’s style of phrase and prose in short bursts with breaks between paragraphs, in the case of Michael’s narrative it seemed to distant me from him some what and on occasion his being an author almost preached as to how clever authors are. I am sure that wasn’t the intention, but something in his sections lost the flow of the novel as a whole for me a little now and again. This however is a small blip in a novel that I found rather exciting to read.

If you haven’t read ‘The Birth of Love’ yet or have been debating reading it then I would say delve in. It’s a fascinating book about child birth, motherhood and has a great humour just as it has a great darkness. It’s interesting that it’s a book that reflects the past, the now and the future as I think in time this could become a modern classic from an author that is certainly one to watch. 8/10

This book was kindly sent by the publishers.

So I am now a quarter of the way through The Orange Longlist 2011 (though of course these posts being scheduled I am possibly much further on that that now – I hope so) and they are all proving to be incredibly varied reads. It is making me think just how many books I miss out on each year, which then makes my head hurt, and shows just why prizes should be followed, we may not agree with the winner or the shortlists but how great is it that such an array of writing can be highlighted to us? Has anyone else read ‘The Birth of Love’? What about Kavenna’s debut novel ‘Inglorious’, which also won ‘The Orange Award for New Writers’? Have any of you read the any of the other Orange long listed books? Is anyone oranged out yet? Sorry if you are… just another 15 to go but fear not there are some non Orange book thoughts coming after tomorrow!

8 Comments

Filed under Faber & Faber, Joanna Kavenna, Orange Prize, Review

Repeat It Today With Tears – Anne Peile

I wasn’t too sure how I would deal with reading ‘Repeat It Today With Tears’ by Anne Peile when I found out that the main plot of the story would be incest. Something about the very idea of it made me feel rather uncomfortable before even opening the first page. It’s odd I had this reaction because I am the first to say that I do think that reading shouldn’t always be a comfortable experience and so bearing that in mind I opened the pages and started it. I am glad that I risked the subject matter because, whilst uncomfortable, Anne Peile’s debut novel is very accomplished and holds much promise for her future works.

Susanna, the main protagonist of ‘Repeat It Today With Tears’, is a rather quiet and subdued young woman. Growing up with an overbearing mother, rebellious sister who her grandmother much prefers over Susanna and lets her know as much, the one thing missing from her life is her father who we learn left when Susanna was very young. What starts off as general inquisitiveness soon becomes an obsession that leads to a rather dark opening of the book from the first line. “The first time I kissed my father on the mouth it was the Easter holiday.” From the very start we know we are in rather unchartered territory and from here on Anne Peile takes us on a rather a dark journey of Susanna from that point, whilst also taking us through her past.

I am sure many people will be put off the book, as I admit I was a little, from the subject this book brings up. Yet I have to say Anne Peile writes fantastically and really gets into the mindset of her leading character. In many ways it makes the story all the darker that a girl who you start of thinking is rather innocent and lost becomes more and more deceitful and manipulative as the book goes on, for her father has no clue that the woman he is having an affair with, behind his wife Olive’s back, is his own flesh and blood. You know from the very start of the book this is dark territory and as the book goes on things get worse and worse.

Despite its generally dark tone there is, interestingly enough, also great humour in this book. The people that Susanna meets once she starts to work in 1970’s Chelsea are a mixed bunch of ‘free loving’ spirits, and the women in her home territory of Clapham and the gossip and foul mouthed tittle-tattle they come out with is hilarious. It nicely adds a sense of place and atmosphere in the book, whilst breaking up the darkness with some light and often saucy blunt relief.

‘Here it comes.’ The bench women were nodding at a younger woman who was entering, pulling her wash behind her in a basket on wheels. Her heels tapped on the mosaic and her newly dressed hair was swept back and lacquered into curls. She eyed the seated women critically for a moment and then said to one, ‘Blimey, close your legs, girl, your meats smelling.’
 The other women guffawed and the superintendent clicked her tongue in disapproval.
 Alison said, ‘They’re such dirty old bags in here, they make me sick. Come on, lets go and tap the phone instead while the wash is doing.’

‘Repeat It Today With Tears’ is a dark and tightly woven ‘coming of age’ tale with a huge twist and one that could lose it some of the audience that I think it deserves. It’s also a very hard book to write about because its short and not knowing what’s coming makes the pay off all the greater. It’s not always comfortable, it gets pretty bleak, and yet it’s written in such a way that you find yourself turning the pages, often despite yourself, up until the final word. It’s a very accomplished debut novel, with one of the best first narrative voices I have read for some time – even if she is a bit bonkers and rather unreliable, that I would recommend people give a try… just brace yourself a little first. 8.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

The Orange long list is proving most fruitful (do you see what I did there) in pushing forward books that I would not necessarily have rushed to read. It’s also making me ask a lot of questions about my own reading habits and attitudes. Have you ever been put off by a book because of its subject matter, and if so which one? Has anyone else given ‘Repeat It Today With Tears’ a go, what did you think? Anyone now tempted on reading it at some point?

13 Comments

Filed under Anne Peile, Orange Prize, Review, Serpent's Tail

The Troubled Man – Henning Mankell

I decided that I would break one of my habits of a lifetime when I received, a few weeks early, a copy of ‘The Troubled Man’ by Henning Mankell … I read a series out of order. I am sure that everyone is well aware that ‘The Troubled Man’ is in fact the final Kurt Wallander case, a detective series which has taken the reading world by storm. I am not really a huge Wallander buff, in fact apart from having read the first Wallander novel ‘Faceless Killers’ (which I thought was very good) and seeing both the Swedish and UK adaptations I guess I am a Wallander novice so I was aware that going from the first of his cases to the last might not work. Yet after reading ‘Great House’ by Nicole Krauss I needed something that would be just as page turning and readable but maybe less involved. Little did I know that reading ‘The Troubled Man’ would have me deeply engrossed from the start, despite my initial ‘eek’ moment when I realised the book would have a lot of submarines in it. I don’t tend to do well with books based on boats or at sea it has to be said.

When you start reading ‘The Troubled Man’ you can almost instantly tell from its style and delivery that this is going to be the last of the Kurt Wallander novels. Not because the ending of it all is given away from the start, and fear not I shall not give anything away here either, but because Wallander seems incredibly reflective and nostalgic about his past and indeed his future. Initially this concerned me slightly. This wasn’t going to be a case of an author spinning out the final instalment using as many words and random tangents as possible was it? Not really, is the answer. What Mankell uses this for is to show us just where our protagonist is in his head and why he takes on a case that really doesn’t fall under his jurisdiction, though I could be wrong as I don’t know the ins and outs of Sweden’s legal system or its police procedures.

When Hakan von Enke suddenly vanishes on an April morning it is most out of character. However it is not a case which Wallander or his team are given and yet he gets himself embroiled in it all. This isn’t for professional reasons; in fact it’s all rather personal as his daughter Linda (now a police officer like her father) has met the man of her life, who happens to be Hakan von Enke’s son. This could seem rather intangible but having read ‘Faceless Killers’ and in the glimpses of back story we get we soon learn his and Linda’s relationship has not always been good. Here is a father who desperately wants to keep that relationship and help, and possibly protect his daughter.

As the mystery develops not only does Hakan’s wife Louise go missing, but a political secret starts to come to light from the past as well as some more personal family secrets the von Enke’s have been hiding. In fact these secrets from the past, which all evolves around the Cold War and Sweden’s part in it (based around submarines as Hakan von Enke was in the navy as a commander) becomes an additional strand to the novel and one that interested me far more than I would have expected it to.

I did think that ‘The Troubled Man’ could have done with a fair bit of editing. It seemed to go on with various sub-plots of crimes that Wallander sort of starts investigating, and then leaves in favour of this more personal case, seemed like padding. I also thought the characters slightly weaker, well lots of them vanished in fairness, in this novel. Wallander seemed fully built, if a bit solemn and self pitying (but then as the book goes on we see why), as did his daughter Linda, everyone else was a little more two dimensional, but maybe that is where me not having read all the series and previously followed all of the characters to this final dénouement comes into play. This is both a positive and a negative as it has made me want to go back and start again, but also disappointed me somewhat as I tend to think the best series are the ones you can pick up at any point. Even if normally I tend to read them in order.

Regardless of how good this book is or isn’t, and I did find myself hooked apart from the odd ten pages or so every so often, people will be buying ‘The Troubled Man’ in their droves. It’s not the thriller that I was expecting, in fact it’s darker and rather more depressing, than I had imagined but it is a solid crime novel. 7.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publishers.

Will you be one of the many Wallander fans that will be devouring this novel instantly, if you haven’t already of course? Is there anyone out there who hasn’t read a Wallander novel yet, will you start at the end or the very beginning? Is anyoe not bothered about Wallander (you might find this review by The Guardian very funny, I sniggered)? I do feel like Wallander a little now, as I have the start of his story and the end of it, do I turn to the middle sections and discover more?

4 Comments

Filed under Harvill Secker Books, Henning Mankell, Review

Great House – Nicole Krauss

When I saw that ‘Great House’ by Nicole Krauss (which in my head rhymes, should it?) had made the Orange long list I went off and did some research on it and though ‘eurgh’. The reasons for this were thrice fold, first was the fact every review seemed to say it was a book about a desk (which didn’t fill me intrigue or hope), second was a mention that it jumped from strand to strand like one of my nemesis reads ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell and thirdly its scope seemed to wide. How could a book manage to cover the gaps of New York, London, Jerusalem, Paris, Nuremberg, Chile whilst also fitting in the subjects of holocaust, Alzheimer’s, incest and much more? It was going to be a brick of a book that I was going to really, really struggle with wasn’t it? Well I was wrong on both counts, as I discovered when it arrived in the post and I read it only pausing to catch my breath with a cup of tea now and then.

I was expecting that when ‘Great House’ arrived through my letter box it would make itself known with a loud thud that would leave a dent in the hall. Instead a much slimmer volume of 289 pages arrived leaving me slightly non-plussed, yet Nicole Krauss’s latest novel is a book where its size is extremely deceptive and has so much in its 289 pages that I already know I am going to be struggling really hard to convey just how much happens and just how clever this novel is in any form of ‘book thoughts’ I now type.

I have to address the thoughts I had read, prior to picking up the book itself, that this book evolves around a 19 drawer desk. The idea that any item of furniture could hold four very different stories across decades and continents both intrigued me and completely put me off in one go. Yet actually this is possible, every heirloom has a tale and so therefore does every antique. I personally couldn’t go as far as to say that ‘Great House’ is a book about a desk or that the desk is the lead character, in fact the desk gets a mere sentence in the first half of one of the books inner tales ‘True Kindness’.

What I would say is that Nicole Krauss has used a desk to draw, if you will excuse the pun, four compelling tales together – which in their own ways do weave in and out of each other anyway, well, sort of! Krauss only hints at how in each of the parts initial halves but in such a way it teased me to read on and see if I could grab the lose threads and for a fuller picture. This is a clever and compelling tool; a literary book where you find yourself turning the pages in need of finding out more.

So what are these stories? Well the first tells of a novelist Nadia, living in New York, and how she (back before her career really took off) came to be the owner, through a friend of a friend, of all the Chilean poet Daniel Varsky’s furniture including his desk, the desk that she then goes on to write her many novels on thereafter. She also spends a single night with Daniel, a night that stays with her long after as he sends postcards until suddenly they stop and she discovers he has been taken, arrested and tortured by Pinochet back in Chile. From there Daniel goes on to haunt her and when she receives a call asking for his furniture back Nadia begins to unravel and we are left on a cliff hanger as Nadia contemplates a huge change in her life which we will come back to later, this is the narrative jumping I feared would leave me cold, it hooked me in.

Next we find ourselves in Israel as a father talks internally to his son, a son who has returned from England where he is a judge for his mother’s funeral after leaving the family behind several years before. It’s a bitter and occasionally rather uncomfortable narrative looking at how parents don’t always love the children that they have, in fact sometimes it can be quite the opposite. From here we then move to England where the final two narrators, and in some ways pieces of Krauss’s carefully crafted puzzle, are based.

We have Arnold who is looking back on the life of his wife, another author, Lotte. A woman who always wanted her freedom to be hers and her past, she hails from 1930’s Germany, to remain a secret if at all possible – in fact she rarely mentions it in her work, interviews or personal conversations, even with her husband. Slowly secrets of hers are unlocked in stops and starts as her husband learns much more about her when her Alzheimer’s starts to reveal all as they grow old together. Finally there is Izzy who tells her tale of the relationship she has with brother Yoav Weisz, one which seemed doomed from the start with his domineering father George (and antique collector) and the unusually close relationship with his rather jealous sister Leah. You couldn’t get four more different stories and yet Krauss magically and, to put it frankly, effortlessly does make them connect.

How exactly? Well if I told you that you wouldn’t read the book now would you, and I am going to urge that you do so but it might have something to do with the desk! It also has a lot to do with doubt, what we pass on to others and how we move forward in life!

It’s interesting that I love the idea of books that tell completely different stories that have an underlying arch between them all, why do I therefore dread them at the same time, well because often they don’t work. ‘Great House’ works, in fact it works wonderfully. The characters Krauss creates all instantly lend themselves as storytellers who you want to listen to the narrations and memories of, several of them are writers so that could help but then again Aaron, who is one of the strongest narratives for his bitterness, doesn’t like writing. In fact he is very insular which only made his narrative all the more interesting for me. The writing is compelling and also lyrical with sparkles of humour in unlikely places. I was expecting a much more subdued book and while it’s not laugh out loud funny, it is quite sombre really, or an easy read it’s very readable too.

I am sure you can easily tell, from the amount I have already written, that I could go on and on about ‘Great House’. I will stop and simply say read it. It’s a clever and insightful novel, a tale with four tales to tell, and one that will stick with you once you have turned the final page. Not only is it incredible for all its subject matters and the characters but for the fact you might have just read a near perfect novel. 9.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publishers.

So one of the books I was, if I am totally honest, rather fearful of has become one of my favourite reads of the year. It would be easy for me to know say ‘this should win the Orange’ but actually I am only 4/20 down, I can only hope the long list throws many more books like this in my direction. Books that get you fired up and excited about reading. I haven’t read either of her other novels and am now thinking I should… should I? Is she as an exciting author as this book promises? Has anyone else read ‘Great House’? I know it has received a mixed bag of reviews so would be interested in hearing more thoughts from you all, has anyone been as nervous/wary of it as I was?

23 Comments

Filed under Books of 2011, Nicole Krauss, Orange Prize, Penguin Books, Review, Viking Books

The Report – Jessica Francis Kane

I have mentioned before how books about WWII have to be something a little bit different in order to grab me as it’s a subject that gets written about one heck of a lot. From its blurb ‘The Report’ by Jessica Francis Kane looked like it would be such a book, as rather than being a telling of the war it focuses on one of the biggest tragedies at the time, and one that wasn’t caused by a bomb. I first heard about the book on ‘Books On The Nightstand’ where it Ann Kingman raved about it and then again on Open Book on Radio 4 where Mariella Frostrup (who I love and would like the jobs of please) gave its author rather a grilling.

Jessica Francis Kane’s debut novel ‘The Report’ centres around the true-life tragic deaths of 173 people, 62 of which were children, who were making their way into Bethnal Green Underground Station on March the 3rd 1943 to use it as an Air Raid shelter. Yet this was not caused by a bomb but a sudden case of mass hysteria as the crowd entering were suddenly alarmed, and so surged into the entrance causing a crush. Initially the whole incident was hushed up, however not too long after an inquiry and afterwards ‘a report’ was established. Jessica Francis Kane explores the process that happened and the people who this happened to in the guise of fiction or faction, or whatever the term is.

Initially I have to admit that I was a little disappointed by the book and though this didn’t last I do feel I should explain why.  The book is separated into sections and during ‘The Shelter’ I could tell Jessica Francis Kane could clearly write but something was causing a real distance between myself and the events and people. At first I thought it was that the jumping of perspectives, one minute we are with several different characters (confusing enough initially) and their viewpoints of the events, and then we are with Laurence Dunne the man behind the investigation both in 1943 and also thirty years later when he is asked to be part of a documentary. Yet as this went on I got used to who we were with and what was going on, that really was me as a reader not the book in this case.

I then realised that while I was reading a book that was meant to be fiction in actual fact the level of research that Francis Kane had done (to her credit and without showing off) in order to make the inquiry so real to the reader was in fact making me feel like I was reading non-fiction. Really good non-fiction though. This, technically, was rightly so as this book is a fiction retelling on an inquiry where people simply tell the facts of what happened, rather than the event itself. In some ways, and I don’t know if this was because of the fact it was a real life event and those effected by it and their descendents are still living, the author does try and veer the reader away from the actual tragedy on the underground staircase and I was expecting a lot more as if I was there when it happened and therefore giving me more of an emotional response to it. This comes later though.

What Jessica Francis Kane then does in the section called ‘The Inquiry’, about 70 pages in, is build up on characters from the earlier parts of the book and interweave their stories of surviving and moving on in the aftermath of the event along with the how’s and why’s it happened. This then brought in the human element I felt I was initially missing out on. I was originally surprised not to see this book on the Orange list from premise alone, however with the slow start before the gripping pay off I can imagine if this was a book that had been put forward for ‘The Green Carnation Prize’ when we get so much to read, I might have not continued, but this wasn’t and so I did. So from that I can highly recommend that if you get this book, and it is worth getting, you keep going past page 70 and you will have yourselves a very interesting read ahead.

‘The Report’ is a book which in throwing you in slightly at the deep end by giving you lots of voices and facts build upon them creating a gripping and insightful yet sensitive tale of a true life tragedy. It’s a book you need to bear with and if you do so you will reap the rewards. It’s a very different look at the lives of the people in London’s East End during the Blitz and one that was partially forgotten. In parts it reads more like non-fiction than the ‘fiction’ it has labelled itself but really once it gets going it’s such a fascinating read it doesn’t really matter. 8.5/10

This book was kindly sent to me by the publishers.

This book has brought up the whole subject of facts in fiction and indeed the genre of ‘faction’. I think reading ‘The Report’ reminded me of reading, the also wonderful, ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ by Kate Summerscale which was the opposite of this novel as it was non fiction but read like fiction. Am I making any sense at all? Who else has read ‘The Report’ and what did you think? Which non-fiction books that read like fiction and which fiction books based on fact would you recommend me trying next? Which of the two styles do you prefer?

13 Comments

Filed under Jessica Francis Kane, Portobello Books, Review

Some Savidge Reads Respite…

It might look like I am blogging at the moment from the comfort of my recovery suite, however I am not really, in fact it is a mini illusion.

Whilst I am recovering from an operation earlier this week (on my birthday in fact, how mean), and reading lots and lots, scheduled posts of reviews/book thoughts that have been lingering behind the scenes for a while will be appearing on Savidge Reads. This means I won’t be able to comment/email back but I promise I will be catching up with all once I am back and about. Hopefully that will be sooner rather than later. Until then posts will keep popping up beneath this one, so keep your eyes peeled for them.

6 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts

It’s My Birthday… And I’m in Hospital!

Yes today sees me personally, not the blog for I don’t believe blogging has been possible for such a length of time, celebrating my 29th Birthday. That said, celebrations will be on hold at Savidge Towers for quite some time, as I shall be spending most of the first day of my 29th year unconscious thanks to the joys of general anaesthetic. In fact when you are reading this, unless it’s very early when I will be in bed opening some presents (only one book shaped so far), I will either be fully under the influence of the anaesthetist or recovering from it all and feeling a little groggy.

I could get all mopey about it and start on about how unfair it is that its all being done on my birthday, but having said that its one of a few upcoming appointments (and currently the most crucial) that could save my life – and that is not something to moan about, though it sounds rather dramatic, even if also rather true. There is, as ever, a good side to all this and that of course is the several days bed rest and therefore reading time that I will have ahead and so last night I went through the TBR and picked out some ‘Recovery Reads’ which have a bit of everything, as who knows what I might fancy…

I probably don’t need this many books but c’est la vie. I have some crime, which I always seem to be in the mood for at the mo, with the next in the series of both Sophie Hannah and Val McDermid. I have popped some of The Orange Longlist in, the rather huge debut from Julie Orringer which I am slightly nervous of plus ‘Annabel’ which is one of the titles I am most excited about and therefore guess I wont actually read. We have some supernatural sensation mixed with balmy old biddies in the fourth Brenda and Effie novel ‘Hell’s Belles’. Some dark adult fairytales in the wonderfully entitled collection ‘There Once Was A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbours Baby’. Non fiction, which I am getting more and more into in the form of ‘The Hare With Amber Eyes’, a book nearly everyone is talking about and I want to find out why. Oh, plus a classic and ‘book I should really have read by the time I hit 30’ which is ‘Pride and Prejudice’ more on this latter type of book in due course.

Posts are scheduled to go up while I am away but forgive me if I don’t comment back, if they stop due to glitches or if you don’t see me commenting on your blogs if you have one. I will report back when I can and let you know how I get on. Right I best be off, I bet they don’t do birthday cake at the hospital do they??

44 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Lyrics Alley – Leila Aboulela

I don’t like to start of my thoughts on a book too negatively, in fact I don’t even like doing negative reviews (not that this might be one), but I do like to talk honestly about how I come to read a book and what makes me rush to a particular title and what doesn’t. I don’t think if it hadn’t been for its Orange long-listing, and subsequent arrival through my letter box, I would have picked ‘Lyrics Alley’ by Leila Aboulela up, especially based on the cover alone. Its not that it looks cheap, thought the title font is a little basic, its just it looks a bit obvious maybe a bit blandly so. That being my initial thoughts I decided it would be the next Orange long listed title that I would attempt, my thoughts have been hitting the ones I am initially the least excited about or look the hardest work first. Is ‘Lyrics Alley’ a book that should have judged from the cover or not?

What intrigued me about ‘Lyrics Alley’ before I started reading it was the time and place of its setting. I don’t know very much about the 1950’s and I certainly know nothing about Sudan. However this is the scene we find ourselves in as we are thrown into the lives of the Abuzeid family, a rather renowned and sprawling dynasty in their time yet a family also slightly at odds with one another. In some ways an incredibly close family, in fact brothers Mahmoud and Idris marry their offspring off to each other they are also at war with power struggles occasionally between brothers and fathers and sons.

Yet it’s the story of the men of the household Mahmoud, his sons Nassir and Nur and Mahmoud’s brother Idris that left me feeling somewhat cold. As their family business develops and the world they find themselves changes with the sun setting on British rule and self government on the horizon I should have been gripped by their changing circumstance and all it brought, yet I wasn’t really. I mean I read it happily enough, I liked how the story spread through Sudan, Egypt and England, I just wasn’t hooked.

The opposite was the case with the women though. In particular the story of Idris’s daughter Soraya, who is the first female in the family to get a full education despite her forthcoming enforced betrothal to her cousin Nur, and her storyline thereafter called out to me. As did the stories and relationships of Mahmoud’s first forced wife Waheeba and his second self chosen bride Nabilah. The latter being from Cairo and of a new age which frowns upon the idea of female circumcision and the ways of old, which is the complete polar opposite of Waheeba. This for me was where the story really lay and indeed it felt like it was where the author’s heart lay, it read truer, it had more passion.

‘Lyrics Alley’ is a true family saga. It has a huge scope and Aboulela manages to pull a rather complicated family together and make you interested in them. I did think that there was a forewarning you might as a reader be confused by the family tree in the front, and indeed I did occasionally need it. She also captures a very interesting period in the history of Sudan, its just that the atmosphere and true impact of it all only seemed to come alive when the women were in charge, and if they had been I think ‘Lyrics Alley’ would have gone from being a rather good book to an incredible one. 7.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

I have wondered if it is the story of the female situations in this book that got it on the Orange long list, and I don’t mean that to sound like Leila Aboulela can’t write as she clearly can, it’s just a point to ponder. Has anyone else given this a whirl? I only wonder as I hadn’t heard about it at all until last week. Are you reading any of the Orange long listed titles? If so which ones and how are you getting on? Has anyone read any of Leila Aboulela’s other novels?

9 Comments

Filed under Leila Aboulela, Orange Prize, Orion Publishing, Review, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

This Could Be A Dangerous New Book Haunt…

As I was walking along the high street at the weekend I spotted a sign that made me stop in my tracks, a new charity shop was opening and it simply said ‘Bookshop Opening March 21st’. Due to a pesky hospital visit I couldn’t go yesterday, you can imagine my annoyance I’m sure, and so this morning (armed with lots to donate) off I went and discovered endless shelves of joy…

20110322-111856.jpg

Well I simply had to take a look through while my gift aid account was sorted didn’t I? I actually proved rather restrained, nothing to do with the fact that I only had £5 in my wallet, and only came away with four books…

20110322-112130.jpg

The Nicola Beauman book was a pure destiny find (when this happens I always think that I am exactly where o should be in life, is that just a me thing) as I am on a panel with her in June discussing women’s fiction and this is all about the woman’s novel from 1914-1939 so will be just the job. I carried on a Virago binge with Elizabeth Taylor’s ‘Angel’ and a rogue novella purchase of ‘Ellen Forster’ by Kaye Gibbons. Finally swooped of the shelves was Julia Darlings ‘The Taxi Drivers Daughter’ which I had been annoyed at myself for not buying in another charity shop a few weeks ago!

So a lovely loot, and my birthday (only 2 days to go) treat to me. I’ll just have to try not to go there too often, it’s on the way to the library which could prove hard work to resist!

Have you read any of these? What charity gems have you found of late?

22 Comments

Filed under Book Spree

International Anita Brookner Day

I mentioned over the weekend that I was in the mood, and in terms of research in need, of reading more female written fiction over the coming months. I am taking up my own mini challenge of reading as many of The Orange Longlist as I can and with my place on the panel at Lucy Cavendish College in Cambridge’s ‘Women’s Word’ festival discussing men’s reading (or the case of lots of them not) of women writers I wondered if you could tell me some of your favourite female writers. Well I have taken up a small mini challenge with the lovely Thomas of My Porch in order to co-host a day when we celebrate a female author we both really admire and that is Anita Brookner and we would love you to join in.

Last year after I read the stunning ‘A Start in Life’ which has stayed with me ever since, I emailed Thomas about doing something Brookner based, maybe Anita August or some such. However life, as is often its want, got in the way and nothing quite came to fruition… until earlier in the year when Thomas emailed me and now we are having a single day dedicated to the lady herself and ‘International Anita Brookner Day’ was born. (And it is international as Thomas and I are on completely different sides of the Atlantic and we are hoping you all join in from all over the world.) Its single aim is just to get more of you reading Brookner’s work.

So what do you have to do to be involved? One single thing is all that is required, simply read one of her books by the 16th of July 2011 (which will be Brookner’s 83rd Birthday) and tell myself and Thomas about it and we will link you and your thoughts whilst doing some posts of our own on the day, and hopefully (if I can make it happen) we will have some lovely international giveaways. So far Thomas has been much more ‘Brookner busy’ than me coming up with a wonderful button for the day (see above) and also a list of all her works you can choose from and where to head. I am pleading sickness as a reason for my slowness in mentioning all this, but better late than never.

If you are wondering ‘why on earth should I read Anita Brookner?’ the answer simply ‘you just should’ yet is a hard one to put my finger on instantly. I would say it’s a certain quiet writing charm. Some people find her depressing, which I can see as she is quite melancholic sometimes but its immensely readable. She’s understated, she’s subtle, every word counts and her books are about people and places rather than an overwhelming plot. If you like your books with plots fear not though, they are there. I haven’t read a huge range of her work as yet, though the ones that I have read have been stunning and over the last couple of years since reading her Booker winning ‘Hotel Du Lac’, which charmed me instantly, I have been buying her back catalogue as and when I see it.

I now have the perfect chance in the lead up to July the 16th to devour the ones I own which are ‘Altered States’, Falling Slowly’, ‘Latecomers’, ‘Look At Me’ and ‘The Bay of Angels’ though you know what I am like, I will be using this as an excuse to get all the ones I don’t have in the lead up to it too and reporting back on them, and reminding you to get reading her too. So will you be joining us, I do hope everyone who pops by Savidge Reads will, and which of her 24 titles might you choose?

21 Comments

Filed under Anita Brookner, Book Thoughts, International Anita Brookner Day