Monthly Archives: April 2011

Behind The Scenes at the Library

Last week before my latest operation I wanted to do something to cheer myself up. Seeing as I have always not-so-secretly wanted to be a librarian, host a spooky tv show like Most Haunted and I am nosey, so a tour behind the scenes at a rather fabulous library seemed perfect and naturally I wanted to take you all with me, so come join me…

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You may remember that I went round The John Rylands Library, and feel completely in love with it, when I moved to Manchester. Since then I have taken Polly of Novel Insights outside it, as they had closed, and Kim of Reading Matters in it when she came to visit. Now it was Paul Magrs turn who believe it or not had never been, though now he knows you can go and research, read and write there might be found in one of the hidden alcoves.

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We visited hidden turrets and walkways you can see but can’t enter normally.

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As we went round we were given the fascinating history of the site and how it was built by Enriqueta Rylands (who had all her past documents destroyed and would visit the poor around Manchester in disguise giving them money, which is all primed for a novel itself) originally and then added to in the wars which included a hidden out of sight room which houses the first known painting of Shakespeare (which I couldn’t get any pictures of) but we did get to go and see some papers of Elizabeth Gaskell.

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And various other relics like old library cards and letters between poets.

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For me though my favourite bit was the hidden bunkers of books which incould have spent hours routing through as they just went on and one…

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…and on! They also had a rather spooky, yet weirdly calming, feeling about them too. Who had walked through here and who had read all these books before?

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All in all a perfect bookish outing (which was followed by afternoon tea by the canal in the sunshine) that I strongly advise any of you try and get on if you are ever in Manchester!

Why brilliant bookish day out have you had? Any behind the scenes joys?

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Smut – Alan Bennett

One of the bonuses of having read so much (with all my hospital and recovery time of late) is that I have managed to get lots and lots of reading done and have lots of reviews at the ready. However when you pick up a book that’s freshly arrived and you simply can’t wait to discuss it, it involves a fair bit of regigging but for a book like Alan Bennett’s latest ‘Smut’ it is definitely worth it. I had mentioned at the weekend how excited I was about this novel and the book thoroughly lived up to all my expectations when it dropped through the letterbox yesterday morning and had been read by teatime.

Profile Books, hardback, 2011, fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

There are ‘two unseemly stories’ which make up ‘Smut’. Both look at the rather more racey and sexual side of different peoples lives. The first story is of ‘The Greening of Mrs Donaldson’ a tale, which would sit comfortably in Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’ collection (which I have very recently read and as yet reviewed anywhere), of a widow who after her husbands death needs to increase her income and so takes on a rather unusual job which brings along a possible suitor plus, and in some ways rather more importantly some lodgers who are forever running late with their rent. These two strands lead Mrs Donaldson into an unlikely situation which, without giving too much away, opens up her eyes to a side of life she thought she knew about and yet really it seems, rather unseemingly, didn’t.

“Mrs Donaldson’s first instinct was to look away so that rather than frankly considering this naked young man kissing his equally naked girlfriend with his hand buried between her legs she found herself looking at the floor and wondering if it was time she had the carpet cleaned.
 ‘Bring back memories?’ said Laura, Andy’s face now where his hand had been.
 ‘Ye-es,’ said Mrs Donaldson, though the truth was it was a memory of a vase in the British Museum.”

The second of the tales ‘The Shielding of Mrs Forbes’ is rather different and in some ways a less lovely and insular world that Bennett often wonderfully writes. In fact it’s a tale of a whole family, who are welcoming a new member through marriage, and all the secrets that they hide. Mrs Forbes is a wonderful matriarch adoring her son Graham and rather disliking his new bride to be whilst Mr Forbes, a rather silent man, looks on. As the wedding approaches the reader begins to see that for not of these characters things are ever as they might initially seem. It’s a rather wonderful farcical family tale, to give too much of it away would be a disservice to anyone who goes onto read it – and you should, which has all the witty observations of people and their lives we have come to know and love in Bennett’s writing.

“For though she could never admit it, Graham’s mother blamed herself for calling him Graham in the first place. In the years since he was born her sights had risen and Graham was not nearly the classy name she’d once thought. She wished now that she could get rid of it as she had got rid of the dark oak dining suite that belonged to the same period.”

‘Smut’ is a pure delight to read. Alan Bennett takes his readers both into a familiar narrative in the first instance and a rather new, and slightly more explicit, one in the second. It’s a collection which proves eye opening and outrageous all in one and shows a new side to Bennett which I hadn’t encountered before, keep in mind I haven’t read all of his works though, and really enjoyed. It’s a tale which, as Bennett himself said in an interview recently, shows ‘there’s nowt queer as folk’. 10/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

This was a delight to read, and done so in a single setting. It has of course made me want to re-read and re-watch all the ‘Talking Heads’ once more plus revisit ‘The Uncommon Reader’. I think I might try something new though and head to his diaries next instead, are they any good? Which Bennett novels have you read, any recommendations?

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Filed under Alan Bennett, Books of 2011, Faber & Faber, Profile Books, Review

One Read Stands… Are The Best Books The Ones You Re-Read or Just Read Once Only?

I’ve been meaning to discuss this subject for a while now but my post on Tuesday when you might have noticed that I really loved ‘Great House’ by Nicole Krauss, however I excluded it from My Orange Shortlist. There have also been some other things which brought it to my attention and I would LOVE your thoughts on it all!

The reason I didn’t pop ‘Great House’ on my version of an Orange Shortlist (I know I said I’d give the orange word a break but it inspired this post) was that though I loved it I wasn’t sure I could read it again, if I did the magic might be broken. That didn’t lessen my love for it the first time, it was just a one read thing but does that mean it’s not as good a book because I won’t go back to it again?

I’m in two minds about this one. One of my very favourite books is ‘American Psycho’ by Brett Easton Ellis, I couldn’t re-read it in part because the consumer passages and pieces about Phil Collins etc, which made the horror all the more vivid with their monotonousness, might bore me rigid but also because it’s a deeply uncomfortable reading experience but I’d still say it’s been one of my favourite books along side Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’, a novel I could probably re-read on repeat regardless. I know all the secrets it has hidden in it’s pages and yet I can return again and again, I can’t say that about some other books as once the secrets revealed you don’t need to go back. Despite my very different thoughts on going back to both these books they are both favourites.

Yet interesting enough, and one of the other reasons that I omitted ‘Great House’ in my guessing on Tuesday, was that when I was a judge on The Green Carnation Prize last year I agreed a (nameless) long listed book I’d loved shouldn’t be short listed because on a second read it all went wrong… And I certainly didn’t want to read it again a third time! It wasn’t an awful book it was just a certain magic spell weaved on read one was broken, I wouldn’t want that to happen with ‘Great House’ too! Had I only read this unnamed book once, in normal circumstances, it would have been one of my favourite reads of 2010. Odd isn’t it? In fact myself and Paul Magrs were discussing the very pros and cons of this at a Green Carnation Chair of Judges handover afternoon tea midweek of last outside on a sunny Manchester street. An excuse for a teapot picture I think…

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Interestingly on her blog Lynne of Dovegreyreader had the opposite feeling to me after equally loving ‘Great House’, she wished she was a judge who could read it again and again, so it’s all down to tastes! Jackie of Farmlanebooks left a comment on my post on Tuesday saying “I want the best books to win and so I’d hate to see my favourites all make the shortlist. I didn’t enjoy Great House or Memory of Love, but they are clearly the best books on the longlist and so I am rooting for them to make it.” Which, in a rather different way, brings the whole question of favourites and best books for a prize up. We all want our favourites to win (well I do) but should they?

So over to you… Are your very favourites books ones you read and re-read or can a book that completely envelops and affects you yet one you wouldn’t read again be of the same merit? Does a book that can’t be read again and again mean its a bad book really no matter how good it is the first time? Should a book that can’t be re-read win a book prize and be a ‘best book’? I’d be utterly fascinated to see your thoughts on this…

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A Pale View of Hills – Kazuo Ishiguro

After asking the question ‘why don’t men read books by women’ the other day I suddenly realised that I had been reading lots of novels by female authors and not a lot by men. I decided that it was time to rectify this, but which male author to choose. I plumped for Kazuo Ishiguro and his debut novel ‘A Pale View of Hills’ in the end. Having read two novels by Ishiguro in the past, one ‘An Artist of the Floating World’ (read pre-blog) which I didn’t like so much and the other ‘Never Let Me Go’ which I adored, I was intrigued to see where his first book would land, would I love it or be left feeling rather nonchalant about it?

‘A Pale View of Hills’ opens in England as Etsuko’s second daughter Niki comes to stay with her mother after the suicide of her older half sister Keiko. A small incident which seems like nothing to anyone but Etsuko finds her looking back at her life in Japan before she moved away and a brief friendship, of sorts, which she had with another woman Sachiko. Through almost dual narratives a rather eerie set of stories starts to come to light. In the present we watch as Niki and her mother start to become fearful and uneasy of her Keiko’s bedroom which could be grief or could it be something more? In Etsuko’s past we find not only a post war and recovering Nagasaki as the occupation looks like it might end, but the mysterious nature of her acquaintance Sachiko.

It’s interesting to see someone revealing not one but two past lives and both have a certain mystery about them. Why in the modern day did Keiko kill herself and why don’t either her mother, who when people ask says her eldest daughter is fine not dead, or sister, who never went to her own sister’s funeral because ‘she always made me feel miserable’, deal with it and almost deny it happened? In the past we not only have what is a time of great change, which through Etsuko’s first husband Jiro and his father, not only for the people and place (both amazingly depicted by Ishiguro) but for Etsuko herself who is carrying her first child. There is also the great mystery of who the woman from across the river is and why she wants Sachiko’s daughter Mariko to follow her into the woods?

I am worried I have made it sound like a book that covers too much and doesn’t know where it’s going and this is far from the case. Ishiguro masterfully, and it should be noted in under 200 pages, makes these narratives weave together (obviously they are both Etsuko’s life but its more than just that) and then takes a few twists and turns that will have the reader speeding through the last few pages completely gripped before leaving the reader with much to think about and ponder after its conclusion. It is an effect that would leave you rather unsatisfied if you weren’t reading a book that leaves you wanting to guess and wanting to figure out the final pieces of this book equivalent of a jigsaw.

I found the women in the book fascinating, in particular Sachiko, who is a very strange and enigmatic woman who teases Etsuko with slight visions into her life but never giving anything away too much or contradicting anything that does. My only slight criticism would be the men. I did find the chapters with Etsuko’s husband and father in law slowed the book down a little, for example one particular chess game and its minimal need in the book became a little dull, yet without them and seeing things through their eyes a changing nation wouldn’t have been so easy to capture I don’t think. The women did really live and breath for me, and how Ishiguro did that whilst making them incredibly disarming with their secrecy I don’t know.

I really enjoyed ‘A Pale View of Hills’. It picked me up, carried me off and then left me wanting more and also really thinking about it long after I had put it down. It wasn’t the spooky tale I initially thought it might be but I was pleased with the new direction it took. I liked the aspect that there were mysteries that Ishiguro leaves rather inconclusive clues (I think that is right) to the reader through out and then leaves you to make your own mind up about what they might mean. He trusts his readers and seems want you to do some of the work yourself and that to me really appealed. It’s not going to be a book everyone loves, its one I would recommend they give a try though. 8/10


This book was kindly given to me by the publishers.

Who else has read this book and what did you think? What did you make of the ending (though if you want to discuss it please mention it could be a spoiler in the comments)? What other Ishiguro books have you read, and which one would you recommend I try next?

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The Orange Prize Shortlist 2011

So it has been announced and the six short listed titles by the Orange Prize 2011 judges are as follows…

My thoughts? Well I really like the list. Though its not the six I would have chosen, I had three of them in ‘My Orange Shortlist 2011’having read all the books on the long list this year from cover to cover. You will see I predicted ‘Room’ and ‘Great House’ might just make the final six. I am over the moon that ‘Annabel’ is in the mix because I loved that book so, so, so much. I am also really thrilled to see ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’ by Emma Henderson on the list too, my thoughts on that one very soon, as it was a book that really took hold of me and has grown on me and stayed with me since. They are the two I would most like to see win at the moment, though I have loved all four of the others (for me ‘Swamplandia!’ just had the edge on a modern fairytale over ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ – reviews of both of these coming soon, though I think a little Orange rest is called for now) in their own ways.

Enough of my thoughts on The Orange Prize 2011 so far, what do you all think about it? What do you make of the short list?

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My Orange Shortlist 2011…

Today will see the announcement of The Orange Prize Short List 2011 and I think it’s the most excited I have been about a prizes short list, other than The Green Carnation Prize of course, in quite some time. I was going to call this post ‘guessing the Orange short list 2011’ but I simply can’t second guess what the panel of judges will have chosen as the final six books, even if I have read the entire Orange long list for 2011 (and I did manage it, thanks to my latest stint in the hospital). I can only go on what I would put forward for my six personal choices after having read the lot. So before I make my guesses here are the 20 books long listed once more, all with my score out of ten and links to the ones have posted already, others are from posts pending which will be up over the next week or so (I’m spacing them out in case you are oranged out, as I almost was at one point)…

So like I said rather than guessing what the judges might or might not have in their short list, no one can do that as five individuals will all love very different books (a few of my favourite submissions for The Green Carnation Prize last year didn’t make the longlist as I was out voted, that’s the way it goes sometimes), I looked at my marks out of ten. Did I still rate those books as highly as I did at the time, how did they compare, had some favourites faded and some books stayed with me when I thought they wouldn’t? I then thought about which of the 20 books I would want to have to read again two or more times and which ones I really loved first time but I am not sure I could read again (something I will be discussing on the blog soon). I also ignored hype, and would hope the judges are too. These are the six that I would have chosen if I was a judge, in order of preference…

  

  

It was a really, really tough decision to make because this years twenty books, ok apart from two of them for me personally, were all really strong and reading them has been brilliant on the whole. You might be shocked as two of my favourite books from the list haven’t made my final six. ‘Room’ because though I loved it last year I feel like I have seen and heard too much about it since. ‘Great House’, which is a book that really surprised me with how much I loved it when I least expected it to, could I read it again though? Probably not, though I would be happy if both of these were on the shortlist too and have a feeling they both with be on the real one.I almost popped ‘Repeat It Today With Tears’ on there too as that has really grown on me, and I liked it a lot to start with, but I couldn’t choose seven titles so had to be tough!

The six I have chosen have stayed with me, I’ve connected with them all in some way and most of all really, really enjoyed them. Will I get it right? I am sure that I won’t, I was rubbish at guessing the long list and am sure it will be the same in this instance. It’s the taking part that’s the fun bit though isn’t it? Which books do you think will make the final six? Which ones have you read, or which ones are you really tempted to read? Will you be reading the short listed titles?

P.S This will be my last post on all things Orange for a while, apart from the actual long list of course which I will post later, I am aware Savidge Reads has been quite orangey in the last week or so, so my missing long list reviews will be sporadic over the next few weeks/months leading up to the winner being announced.

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The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives – Lola Shoneyin

A while back I wrote about my thoughts on debut novels and the fact that I don’t tend to run out and buy them. Well imagine my surprise that during my Orange Longlist reading it’s the debuts on the whole that have really shone out for me, no wonder there were so many (nine out of twenty) on the list. ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ by Lola Shoneyin is one of these debuts. I hadn’t heard of it before the longlist was announced but if I had been browsing in a bookshop and seen the cover and read the title (which is one of my favourites of the year so far) and blurb I think it’s a book I’d have walked away with, and if you see it in your local book shop you should get it sharpish too.

In the roughly modern day we meet Nigerian businessman Baba Segi during a chronic stomach ache. He believes the cause of his problem is down to the fact that his most recent wife Bolanle does not appear to be able to carry a child. When I say recent I do not mean that Baba Segi is a rich divorcee, for the household of Baba Segi is a polygamous one and Bolanle is in fact his fourth wife, one which the other three were not happy to see enter the house. More wives equals less time with their husband, and with every new wife comes the threat that their lives could change forever as each previous wife has a secret and there is also one big secret running through the whole family. What the hostile three don’t realise is that Bolanle has secrets too.

What of course these secrets are I shall keep to myself, because as I read a long I had no idea what was coming and that made the book really enjoyable as a first time read. I have to say that I could happily read it all over again knowing everything as I now do because of the wonderful, and the wicked, characters that appear in the book. Despite the fact you might not like them all, Baba Segi is a bit of a pig really, I think some might find that a mild accusation, and the first wife Iya Segi and third wife Iya Femi aren’t two of the nicest ladies though as you read on you learn why they are the way they are and how they ended up as one of Baba Segi’s wives. Dare I say the more you read to them and discover their desperation the more you understand them?

I think one of the most clever aspects of ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ is that the novel is told in over six or seven narratives and the third person, the latter which fills in the gaps on and off. This could have been a risk because any book where you have more than three or four voices, which doesn’t happen that often, can become confusing. This is not the case in Lola Shoneyin’s debut novel. Every voice is totally different and within a line or two you can tell just which wife is talking as their narratives are so individual and distinctive and it is the women’s voices, as Baba Segi only gets a chapter or two in first person and his driver one, that could have all sounded rather samey.

The other great aspect of the novel is the way that Shoneyin captures Nigeria. Through the wives and how they go about their lives in the present and let the reader into their pasts we glimpse all aspects, and walks of life, in Nigeria over the past few decades. It doesn’t always make for comfortable reading (these wives are hiding things after all) but its very thought provoking and yet written in, and I don’t use this term very often as I think it’s a bit of a cliché but in this case is true, a very compassionate tone.

I loved ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ from the very first chapter. It is a book which manages to say a heck of a lot in fewer than 250 pages, it is brimming with characters, will make you angry, laugh (especially when the women discuss Baba Segi’s anatomy), gasp and possibly cry in equal measure, and is simply a book that you really need to read if you haven’t already. I will definitely read whatever Lola Shoneyin writes next, I hope there are many books to come from her. 9.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

This is the last review of any Orange longlisted novels before the big announcement of the short list tomorrow. At the time this post was scheduled (with my health and hospital visits scheduling is proving most useful) I had half a book left from the longlist to finish so will be guessing tomorrow though I can tell you in advance of that I have everything crossed for Lola Shoneyin and the four wives of Baba Segi’s as its just a wonderful read. Which books are you hoping make the short list? I find it really exciting and promising so many of the debut novels on the list have been excellent, what excellent debut have you read recently? Who else has read ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ and what did you make of it?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Lola Shoneyin, Orange Prize, Review, Serpent's Tail

I Want ‘Smut’… When Authors Surprise Us!

I have to admit that I been wanting to do a title post along those lines ever since Alan Bennett’s new book, or two novella’s in one volume, title ‘Smut’ was revealed. In fact Alan Bennett’s new book (containing ‘two unseemly tales’) brings up a question or two I have been meaning to ask you all for some time. But I think before we go any further we really should see a clip of the man himself reading from one of the two stories in his latest release. This clip is from ‘The Greening of Mrs Donaldson’

The way he looks at the camera, and then off into the distance, at the very end really tickles me each time I have watched it. It’s like he knows he is doing something slightly naughty or ‘unseemly’ as the book promises, and indeed if some reports are to be believed this book could upset some of his fans. Alan Bennett is deemed as a ‘National Treasure’, a title I am not sure he loves, and it looks like with ‘Smut’ he is trying out something a little different and rather more risqué.

Not that I have it yet though, this is yet another scheduled post (though a rather late Sunday afternoon one, sorry, as I wanted as many of your thoughts on my Daphne Du Maurier Season idea as possible) but I do believe it is out now, and it is riding high at the top of the list of books that I am bursting to read. Part of that is because I love Alan Bennett anyway and partly it is because I want to see Bennett behaving badly and doing something that his readers might not quite expect.

I wondered what your thoughts were on authors doing things differently, or doing something a little bit naughty. Do you like it or would you rather they stuck to what works already? Do authors who do the same tricks every time bore you, or can it be comforting? Should authors always be trying to do something knew and leave you guessing what might come next? What book, if any, have you read by a favourite author that was so different from anything they had done before it didn’t pay off and put you off? What subject would you love to see your favourite author write that they haven’t and why? What books by your favourite author have outraged you… for whatever reason?

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Re-Reading ‘Rebecca’… Or A Daphne Du Maurier Season?

Isn’t it funny how sometimes a few individual things can suddenly give you an idea to do something that you really should have done a long time ago? A few individual items and moments in the last week or so have got me plotting and planning something all about Daphne Du Maurier, probably my very favourite author and one I can’t believe I have not done a special something on sooner.

So what got me thinking about Daphne and her wonderful books? After reading the wonderful ‘Annabel’ by Kathleen Winter (you simply must read it) which lead me to thinking of books with a single name title, and ‘Rebecca’ popped into my head. I then went on a hunt, and failed, to find the Hitchcock adaptation of ‘Rebecca’ and so wondered if I should re-read it?

Then several other things made me think. First of all was the announcement of a new collection of unpublished stories by Daphne Du Maurier called ‘The Doll – Short Stories’ which Virago are publishing at the start of May and I can barely contain myself about. Second . Thirdly my research for ‘Woman’s Word 2011’ made me pull some of Daphne’s books out of the TBR. Festivals and the like then reminded me of the Daphne Du Maurier Festival in May, which I have always dreamed of going to. In fact I have dreamt that I would be invited by her descendents/the Du Maurier estate and stay in Menabilly and have a marvellous time, oh  one can dream… hang on I have digressed.

Suddenly the simple spark of re-reading a book became a whole ‘what about a Du Maurier celebration/reading season?’ after all the Sensation Season I did in 2009 was great fun, all the discussion and getting people to join in reading a genre I loved, why not with an author I loved over a prolonged period? I do like a project , they keep me going (and my summer one ‘Reading With Authors’ will be unveiled in the next week or two). Yet May, to coincide with the festival, seemed too soon… so what about one for the autumn?

So that’s what I am planning, with the help of another blogger (can you guess which one?) who loves a good Daphne tale too, and I thought I would put the idea out there and see what you all thought? I have some ideas for special guests and giveaways and the like, so it could be a hoot. I also thought it would be rather fitting, as it is exactly 80 years since Daphne’s debut novel ‘The Loving Spirit’ was published. It all seems to have come together in a rather lovely way.

So, would you be up for a Du Maurier season later this year? Maybe trying some of her lesser known books as well as reading/re-reading some of the better known ones? Are you already a firm fan of Du Maurier or have you not tried her before?

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Annabel – Kathleen Winter

Sometimes the only way you can describe the effect that a book has on you is to say you were bowled over and that is exactly how I felt when I had turned the last page of ‘Annabel’ the debut novel by Kathleen Winter. I was hoping that it might be something quite special when I first saw it on this years Orange Prize Longlist. I then went off and looked at some reviews and it seemed that on the whole people had loved it. Initially I planned to save it until later on in my Orange reading but after changing my approach to the list I picked this one up next and to sum it up in a word I found it incredible, so much so I have lots and lots to say about it.

I have to admit from reading the prologue of ‘Annabel’ I wasn’t sure that this would be the book for me. It’s a short and rather final encounter between a young girl called Annabel and her blind father as they take a canoe ride to see white caribou in the Canadian wilderness. This proves to be their final outing together and is told in a rather dreamy and magical realist way. Interestingly it’s not reflective of the rest of the book, and yet in its way it has a pivotal place in the rest of the book.

As the book itself opens proper we join Jacinta Blake in the final painful moments of giving birth surrounded by the many of the women of the small town of Croydon Harbour in the Canadian region of Labrador in 1968. Once the child, named Wayne, is born it is local women Thomasina Baikie that notices something different about the child. Wayne has been born with both sexes genitalia, he is there for a hermaphrodite, or ‘intersex’ as I believe the term is now preferred.

“Thomasina hooked a plug of slime out of the baby’s mouth with her pinky, slicked her big hand over face, belly, buttocks like butter over one of her hot loaves, and slipped the baby back to its mother. It was as the baby latched on to Jacinta’s breast that Thomasina caught sight of something slight, flower-like; one testicle had not descended, but there was something else. She waited the eternal instant that women wait when a horror jumps out at them. It is an instant that men do not use for waiting, an instant that opens a door to life and death.”

From the moment Thomasina tells Jacinta, who up until that point has been her best friend something which then is occasionally tested, a secret is born but one that the baby’s father Treadway isn’t as oblivious to as the women might think. Treadway is a silent man who disappears into the woodland and wilderness for half the year to earn his families keep, a man who talks to nature and through nature learns more than people would give him credit for – this brings occasional moments of magical realism throughout the book as it goes forward. He knows his child is of two worlds, a woman’s and a man’s, he also believes that a decision must me made  one way or the other. However life is never that black and white nor is it that easy.

From here we follow how this all changes the lives of the three main people at Wayne’s birth. Treadway and how he forces his fatherly role on Wayne, and Wayne taking part always wanting his fathers approval which he feels he never quite gets, thinking its for the best (there is one sequence of events involving a childrens den which almost made me cry in frustration). Thomasina as she struggles to go along with Wayne’s parents decision and then how she deals with grief after her family die tragically. Jacinta as she copes with the fact that once the decision is made she gains a son but also looses a daughter, something that is wonderfully brought to life when she goes to one of her friends Eliza’s houses (we also see here what a wonderful job Kathleen Winter does of fleshing out some of the smaller characters in a paragraph) for a sociable lunch.

“No matter how outrageous Eliza’s reasoning, Jacinta had tried to understand it. Even now Jacinta did not argue about the Valium, though she felt Eliza’s new outlook was chemically induced illusion. This is my problem, Jacinta thought. I am dishonest. I never tell the truth about anything important. And as a result, there is an ocean inside me of unexpressed truth. My face is a mask, and I have murdered my own daughter.”

You might all be wondering about Wayne Blake, do we not follow him too? Yes of course we do from his first few years and into his childhood. During this time though we see how he, unaware of the female half of him, is rather different from all the other children of both sexes but through the eyes of his parents and Thomasina. Its not until he gets older and how naturally his other self, who he addresses as Annabel as Thomasina does after the death of her daughter (see the beginning does bear a huge relevance), starts to show herself in the smallest of ways. It is as he learns the truth, in a rather shocking sequence of events, that we see things through his eyes and his narrative, through the third person, in the second half of the book.

“Where did she go? She was in his body but she escaped him. Maybe she gets out through my eyes, he thought, when I open them. Or my ears. He lay in bed and waited. Annabel was close enough to touch; she was himself, yet unattainable.”

I don’t think I have read a book that uses the third person in such a way that you see every person’s viewpoint so vividly. Every character, no matter how small a part they play, springs to life walking straight off the page and I honestly felt I was living in Croydon Harbour (atmosphere and descriptions are pitch perfect), whilst also being shocked that such a palce still exists in modern times, and went along with Wayne’s journey every step of the way. It is incredible to think that ‘Annabel’ is Kathleen Winter’s debut novel; I was utterly blown away by it and will be urging everyone I know to rush out and read this book. It is just superb and possibly my favourite read of the year so far. 10/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

I don’t think I can say anymore than that really. I just loved it. I am wondering if, as well as hoping it makes the Orange shortlist, it will be eligible for this years Booker Prize? Regardless of that, I am hoping that lots of other people will read it, if they haven’t already, as I am busting to discuss it to death. Has anyone else given this a whirl?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Jonathan Cape Publishers, Kathleen Winter, Orange Prize, Random House Publishing, Review

The Apple – Michel Faber

In part because I don’t want Savidge Reads to become a series of posts about my health (though I have done an update below) and also because of the timeliness of today’s book post in question I thought I would pop up a second of two posts this Thursday. One of my favourite periods in history is the Victorian period, and one of my favourite genres, which I think it can be called, is ‘the sensation novel’ by the likes of Wilkie Collins etc. Every now and then a modern writer will come up with a book that seems to encapsulate that period and its atmosphere and one book which did just that with me several years ago was Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White’. Here in the UK we will have seen the first episode of the BBC’s adaptation air last night (though as this is scheduled I can’t tell you my thoughts yet) but before I watched it I wanted to get reacquainted with its heroine, of sorts, Sugar and ‘The Apple’ is a collection of short tales set before and after ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ and I knew now was the perfect time to read it.

I wasn’t sure that ‘The Apple’ would be a collection that would work if you hadn’t already read ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ and happily, as I hadn’t read the latter for so long I had forgotten a lot of it, I was proven wrong. Here in a series of seven tales you are introduced to/reacquainted with Sugar and the other characters working in or visiting Mrs Castaway’s whorehouse in darkest Victorian London. From the opening lines of the first story ‘Christmas in Silver Street’ I was escorted by Sugar once more into her world, though a rather snowy and slightly more delightful version than I remember previously, as she goes through the streets and completes her Christmas shopping. You may think ‘well that doesn’t sound like much happens’ and in a way it doesn’t but the descriptions, and indeed Sugars actions while out and about, keep you reading on.

One of my favourites of the tales was ‘Clara and the Rat Man’ which saw a smaller character from CPATW featured in a story all of her own. It is a rather crude little tale, well she is a Victorian whore and Michel Faber often doesn’t mince his words, in many ways especially once you learn why the rat man is paying her lots of money to simply grow one finger nail, but the narrative and then the twist had me in hysterics.

As you may guess from the above story Sugar doesn’t feature in every tale. In fact during ‘Medicine’ as we meet William Rackham once more (or for the first time), it is the haunting thoughts, memories and the feelings he has of Sugar that see her mentioned. I should also point out that in ‘A Mighty Horde of Women in Very Big Hats, Advancing’ all about the suffragette movement we only her of a ‘Miss Sugar’ once or twice.

‘The Apple’ is a great way to be introduced to Michel Faber’s incredibly atmospheric, though often very blunt and explicit, version of Victorian London and the characters that in habit it, its also a great way to get back into the world of Sugar if you have loved it before. Humour, darkness and rather a lot of sex await those who read this book, I would recommend be you a former client or a Sugar virgin that you give these tales a try, though occasionally you might get slightly mixed up where in her history you are. 7.5/10

That may seem a rather harsh mark after such a rave review but I did want a bit more Sugar throughout and also I was a little miffed there wasn’t much more of Mrs Castaway who in ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ is a marvellous character that I am very much looking forward to seeing Gillian Anderson playing in this rather fabulous makeover…

It’s also a very short collection, unlike the tome its predecessor is, which while makes for a great series of tales to read here and there wasn’t quite as meaty as I liked. I did love it though, and it didn’t feel like a spin off which I almost expected it to. So who has read ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’? Did anyone catch the adaptation last night and if so what did you think? Would you want to read a spin off like ‘The Apple’? Which of your favourite novels would you like to see a collection of mini-tales of the characters and what they have been up to before and since be published?

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Filed under Canongate Publishing, Michel Faber, Review

I’m Off To The Hospital Again…

Yes, lucky old me, by the time you read this I shall be installed at the hospital for the fourth of five operations (though this could become six as I learnt via post rather than face to face yesterday, thanks NHS) today. It feels like it has been no time between visits… oh that’s because it hasn’t! If you are all as bored by my health antics as I am fear not there is a book post scheduled for later on, if you aren’t do read on…

Despite my small gripe above about the communication issues I am discovering with the NHS when you are out of hospital, I have to say the staff have been wonderful and I have even had a few chats about books here and there, oh and e-readers, eurgh! I have been told I am an excellent and rather undemanding (don’t please look shocked, rude) patient, except it appears when I come around from anaesthetic when apparently I am a swearing ranting horror. I thought they were pulling my leg but I keep getting the same comments each operation so it must be true, eek! Good luck to all the nurses today, please bear a thought for them.

It’s actually rather exciting today as I am at a different hospital from the norm (which I am hoping isn’t like the one pictured below, which would be a brilliant setting for a book) and a change of scene will be interesting. What books am I taking? Well as I have typed this up in advance I am not sure as I have decided I am going to read by whim. I am also taking my iPod and have a backlog of ABC’s ‘First Tuesday Book Club’ vodcasts and ‘The Bookshow’ podcasts, along with about two weeks of the BBC’s radio soap opera ‘The Archers’ and the wonderful Mariella Frostrup’s ‘Open Book’ so bar the small issue of pain its rather like a holiday trip… sort of.

Not the hospital I am going to... I hope!

Sorry I still haven’t replied to all your comments and emails, as you can imagine it’s a little manic in general at the moment, but do ‘bear with’ and I will get back on it once I am up and about. I think after today am going to need quite a lot of recuperation time. I’ll keep you all posted. I hope you are all well? Let me know what news is with you all as I do feel rather out of the loop, and often loop the loop all at once.

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Filed under Simon's Bookish Bits

Oranges Are Not The Only Books…

I think I mentioned the other day that I was starting to feel the beginnings of Orange Overload. I am fully aware that I gave myself the challenge of reading every word of the longlist and so really I shouldn’t be moaning, and actually you will see once I get back on track and stop rambling that I am not. I love the Orange Prize, in fact I love book prizes in general, as it opens my eyes to lots of books and authors that I might not have come across before or maybe ones I have in the TBR and not yet got around to. I think though so far with the Orange Longlist 2011 reading I might have been at fault with the method I have used to attack the challenge (maybe the use of the word attack is a little strong but until earlier this week it was the way I felt) itself.

Rather than read the ones that I really, really fancy reading first, I have saved them up until the end. I do this with dinners too, eat all the bits I am less of a fan of and then reveal in all my favourite flavours at the end, this isn’t just something I am alone in doing I don’t think, or is it? Yet this isn’t working, instead I am finding that I have been looking longingly at the ones I really wanted to read instantly whilst reading the others I didn’t know of or, if I am honest, didnt really fancy that much. My head started to feel like exploding orange!


You might think this has made me harsher on the books that I have read so far (and I must change the currently reading image as I haven’t started ‘The Invisible Bridge’ by Julie Orringer yet because, despite how great everyone is telling me it is, the size of it intimidates me along with the subject of The Holocaust, I will read it in due course though) and actually its not been the case, I have found some absolute corkers so far I wasn’t expecting, such as ‘Great House’ by Nicole Krauss and ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ by Lola Shoneyin a review of the latter is coming soon, and I think have enjoyed them all the more because they have surprised me.

In fact maybe this is time to let you know what I have read so far, I have linked the reviews already up though some are coming soon. I’m not putting the marks out of ten given to each one as I think I need a rethink as some have grown on me and some have faded faster overtime…

So only another nine to go, but this is where things have changed. After finishing of ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ I thought to myself ‘hang on a minute, this is the fun you can have reading, stop reading the ones you don’t know or don’t fancy so much and just head to the ones you do, hence why ‘Annabel’ was next.  I also reminded myself that ‘oranges are not the only books’ and so I have been reading a random book I fancy between them, or even two if the mood takes me. This is working much better so far and gives me high hope I might just have read them all (especially with the third operation of four tomorrow and lots more recovery time after) by short listing day. Though if all the reviews of them haven’t quite gone up by then… so what? I have decided though, no more long list and short list challenges in the future though.

Have you read any of the Orange Longlist this year? Are trying to read them all? Are you just not bothered about The Orange Prize or longlist and if not why not (so sorry if you aren’t, normal service will be resummed soon)? What are your thoughts on reading challenges be they self set or a collective venture?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Orange Prize

The Worst Witch To The Rescue – Jill Murphy (When What You Need Is A Childhood Read Retreat)

You could be inclined to think that this post is a belated April Fools but its not, and I am sure some literary aficionados might judge this post and that’s fine too. True, I don’t normally review childrens books, I leave that to the likes of my kind volunteers The Bookboy and The Girl Who Reads Too Much. Yet while I have been having ups and downs on the health front of late and been somewhat of an invalid I have wanted certain comforts and that includes childhood ones. In fact whilst reading ‘The Worst Witch To The Rescue’ by Jill Murphy I was eating vanilla custard slices so I really was going back to my ten year old self. ‘The Worst Witch’ series was one of my absolute favourite series as a child and so when I saw that the latest one, as Jill Murphy has brought the wonderful Mildred Hubble back a few times since the first book in the 1970’s and second and third in the 1980’s, in the library I simply had to pick it up. It proved to be the perfect comfort read and as the series was such a huge part of me becoming a reader I wanted to report back on it as it had me spellbound yet again.

Mildred Hubble, to whom the title ‘worst witch’ refers to, is as the title suggests a fairly dreadful witch. Though when you say dreadful we aren’t referring to evil, she is just a bit hopeless. In fact her least favourite teacher Miss Hardbroom often refers to her as a ‘trouble magnet’. In this, the sixth and latest, instalment of the series ‘The Worst Witch To The Rescue’ the first day of a new term at Miss Cackles Academy for Witches all seems to be going unusually well for Mildred Hubble. Firstly she has managed to come up with a surprise summer project which is sure to impress Miss Hardbroom, who she knows is her sternest critic, she shows an incredible natural aptitude at a new subject and even her worst enemy Ethel Hallow seems to be being nice. Of course though this is the world of Mildred Hubble and nothing can stay that good for long can it?

I can’t really say any more than that on the book as I wouldn’t want to ruin how it goes wrong for Mildred in case you decide to throw caution to the wind and get this yourself, which of course you should do. It was wonderful to be reunited with Mildred along with her friends Maud and Enid, plus her faithful feline Tabby and indeed the scary Miss Hardbroom and evil Ethel. It had me feeling like I did when I was much younger and wishing I too was a student at Miss Cackles Academy (the fact I wouldn’t have been able to be a witch didn’t concern me and hey its fiction anything is possible) and could join in with these gentle and enjoyable adventures. I also love the pictures, they evoke a love for the series and reading that I had as a kid.

To say that I enjoyed this book would be a complete understatement. It’s very unusual that a book series you loved in your childhood is still going, there was a gap of a decade between book three and four and again between book four and five when Jill Murphy was looking after her relatives with dementia. I am hoping that there are plans for some more outings of Mildred Hubble as to spend an hour and a half (a real little one read reading treat) in her company is just the thing. 8/10

I took this book out from the local library.

If I had been on the BBC’s ‘My Life in Books’ (or indeed the wonderful series that Simon of Stuck in a Book is doing which I loved reading) then I think it would be highly likely that I would choose The Worst Witch as my childhood book, even over Roald Dahl surprisingly. Of course this post isn’t just about how much I loved the latest Worst Witch tale; it’s about the feelings that turning to your favourite children’s books can evoke. Its also been nice reading some of this book to my littlest cousins. Have any of you read The Worst Witch series? Do you have a series that does this to you too and if so which one is it, is it still going, do you turn to it often?

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Filed under Jill Murphy, Puffin Books, Review