Monthly Archives: August 2011

Taking Little Novel(la) Risks…

I am deep in the middle of reading Man Booker longlisted novels for We Love This Book and also the submissions for the Green Carnation Prize and it’s made me realise, and often without those two excuses, that I do tend to read a lot of contemporary fiction. In fact looking at my reviews most of them now veer towards books published in the last year or soon out. I have started to feel I am missing out on books pre-2010/11 and I think I need to combat that.

I also worry I’ve not read enough of ‘the greats’ either. I’m not just talking about Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens (seriously I haven’t read them, I shouldn’t call myself a lover of books should I?) but also writers like Somerset Maugham or Forster and what about modern-ish classic writers like Philip Roth or Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Well the other day I had a slight epiphany.

Going to the library one lunch time this week (as I don’t already have enough books do I?) I saw ‘Lesley Castle’ by Jane Austen. It was very short, it would be a taster of her writing. I had a brainwave, why not search the shelves for some authors I have meant to try/heard are masters from all eras and find the shortest books by them too? This is the collection I pulled off the shelves…

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I wanted a real mixture from all eras, areas of the world etc and so I ended up with ‘Lesley Castle’ by Jane Austen, ‘Claudine in Paris’ by Colette, ‘Memories of my Melancholy Whores’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, ‘The Lady and the Little Fox Fur’ by Violette Leduc (which Simon T has mentioned), ‘Up At The Villa’ by W. Somerset Maugham and ‘Anthem’ by Ayn Rand. What a collection!

I am going to read them randomly at whim, well I have already devoured two on trains in and out of town this week, but I like the idea of slowly upping my classics in take and being introduced to new older authors between more ‘current’ reading.

What do you all think of this idea? Do any of you do all this already? How do you try and keep a more stable reading diet combined with a whim routine? Or do you not?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness, Taking Little Novel(la) Risks

August – Bernard Beckett

I first heard about Bernard Beckett’s first novel for adults (though some debate this is also a young adult novel I would disagree), he has written very successful young adult novels in Australia, ‘August’ on that wonderful TV show ‘The First Tuesday Book Club’ where Jennifer Byrne was enthusing about it as ‘one of the other books I have been reading this month’. I liked the sound of the plot, a very unusual thriller of two strangers ending up in a crashed car together, and by the cover. Yes, those two things made it sound like just the read for me and so I begged to review it for We Love This Book.

Quercus Publishing, paperback, 2011, fiction, 208 pages, sent by We Love This Book for review

The premise of ‘August’ sounds an unlikely one. How on earth might two strangers, Tristan and Grace, end up in a car that has crashed together if they didn’t know each other before hand? Well really to give too much away would be to spoil ‘August’ for anyone who is thinking of reading it, and that is part of the joy of this novel. I can say that as the story line develops it seems these two might not be quite the strangers to each other as we the reader, and indeed them as characters, believe.  

You might not think that two people stuck in a car, in agony battered and broken, would make for a thrilling read. This is where Beckett excels. Not only do we have the cleverly plotted slow reveal of their back stories as they try and keep each other awake, in case of death, as they await help, Beckett’s writing has a real pace to it and I was hooked from the opening paragraph as Tristan and Grace’s crash is described to us.  

“For a moment the balance was uncertain. The headlights stabbed at the thick night. A rock loomed, smooth and impassive, then swung out of the frame. A stunted tree rushed at him, gnarled and prickly. The seat pushed hard, resisting his momentum. Road, rock again, grass, gravel. The forces resolved their differences and he was gliding, a dance of sorts, but he was deaf to its rhythm, just as he was deaf to her screams. Instinct fought the wheel, but the future drew them in.”

There is a slight ‘but’ coming though. Again it’s hard not to give anything away but I became slightly disinterested in their past stories as I realised this was going to be one of those slightly philosophical and almost theological novels. Tristan is from ‘The City’ and a closed religious group where ‘The Rector’ has decided he is the perfect person to test his theories on, a human guinea pig if you will. Only these theories are all about things from guessing which direction a ball will roll, and if it as an inanimate object can choose where it goes, to being able to predict how all humans think, do we really have free will?  

Initially this was quite interesting but about a third in, after two pages discussing which way a ball might roll and why, I started to loose interest. The same applied when Tristan becomes embroiled in a real live test of wills the rector has set with two ‘children of the night’ to win their freedom with no rules. It should have been exciting, but it wasn’t quite. Bizarre then that I should say I wished this book was longer, though maybe with less of ‘life’s big questions’ in it. I would have loved to know much more about ‘The City’ and those who inhabited it, where it was and get deeper into the foreboding atmosphere it had that only remained on the periphery.

Beckett makes ‘August’ something more than a ‘self help/deep thought through fiction’ novel with its two protagonists in the car, these moments of fear trapped in their metal wreckage are interspersed between the back stories and add a huge amount of tension. As the novel progresses there are twists and turns in Tristan and Grace’s story which will have you hooked, including one or two shocks. You think you know why and how they got there and what might happen next only to have Beckett twists and turns the plot and you too are thrown off course yourself. It has certainly left me wanting to read much more of Beckett’s work.

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Filed under Bernard Beckett, Quercus Publishing, Review

An Evening With Sue Johnston (and Savidge Reads)…

I have been bursting to tell you all about this for ages yet it wasn’t all finalised and definite until yesterday lunchtime and so I can’t hold it in anymore. You know how much I love the TV show ‘Waking The Dead’, how much I love ‘The Royale Family’ and the delights of crazy ladies from the W.W.I in ‘Jam & Jerusalem’ I am sure, in fact I am certain I have mentioned these several times on Savidge Reads. You might not know I used to be a huge fan of Brookside. What do all these have in common and what on earth do they have to do with books? Well Sue Johnston, a national treasure frankly who has a memoir/autobiography ‘Things I Couldn’t Tell My Mother’ out next week, and who is coming to Waterstone’s Deansgate on September the 6th AND who is in conversation there with… me! Eek!

I am so excited I could actually burst (though I am also so nervous already it’s untrue). I haven’t read the book yet (it’s in the post) but already I have lots and lots and lots of things I want to ask her about. I couldn’t believe it when Waterstones asked me to do it, I knew she was coming and had dropped a massive hint I will admit, but they have and it’s happening. I have been a fan of Sue’s for years and years so it’s a big deal for me, I only hope I don’t turn into a fan boy. I also really want to get my hands on a copy of ‘Hold On To The Messy Times’ which is a ‘collection of reminisces’ of hers that came out in 1989, none of you happen to have a copy do you?

If you fancy coming along then do. It’s from 7pm and tickets can be bought in store, if you have a Waterstones Card (and let’s face it if you love books why on earth wouldn’t you) then you get a discount. It’s already looking like a sell out event. Hope to see some of you there, it should be ace.

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Filed under Random Savidgeness, Sue Johnston

Reading With Authors #3: Valley of the Dolls – Jacqueline Susann; With Paul Magrs

So Paul only a day late, oops, blame the Transpeak (I actually almost got stranded in Matlock last night, not funny)…we’ve nicely invited ourselves (Savidge Reads and it’s readers) to your house, well your Summer house actually. Are Fester and Panda here? Can we get a nice cuppa we’ve brought biscuits (though no digestives or fig rolls), what would you like? 

Really, I think we need pink champagne for this one. And some sort of fancy nibbles. I’m amazed you went to such effort and dragged up again, Simon. You look fantastic, but mind your hem as you come trolling across the lawn. Come and sit on one of these garden chairs where all the neighbours can see. I’ve got some Dolly Mixture we can pretend are prescription drugs. Aren’t you a bit too warm in your beaver, by the way?

Oh yes, I must get rid of this thing, in fact seeing as you tricked me into fancy dress when you haven’t I might just pop and get changed… there that’s better. All normal now, well normal-ish. So Valley of the Dolls, why did we choose it again? 

I wanted an excuse to reread it. I love the old movie, and there’s a fantastic biography of Jacqueline Susann that makes me laugh and laugh. She had such a rackety life and career, and she was determined to make it. But she behaved so badly and was so tasteless and brilliantly vulgar. I love the movies about her, ‘Ain’t She Great’ with Bette Midler, and ‘Outrageous Me’ with the wonderful Michelle Lee. And, a number of years ago, I was completely gripped reading her novel ‘The Love Machine’ while on holiday in Paris. I wanted to go back to the first novel to find out why and how she’s so readable.

Did you enjoy it? Do you think Valley of the Dolls deserves its cult status?

I’m not sure! It was huge at the time, of course. Mostly because (if we are to believe biography by Barbra Seamann and the two biopics) Susann was such a whizz at self-publicity. She went on TV and book tours – but she also did things like taking breakfast and coffee to the lorry drivers who were transporting her books around the US. It has sold insanely well over the decades and I say, rather than a cult value, it has a kitschy one. It’s a pure product of its era – an absurdly outdated piece of pop culture. It’s camp, of course – but despite itself, rather than setting out to be self-consciously ironic and amusing. It’s too stodgy and earnest, I think, to be a true Cult classic. It terms of vintage tat, it’s the literary equivalent of one of those scary half-dolls with no legs and knitted frocks that sit on top of toilet rolls.

I’ve been a bit up and down with it, I loved it initially but Anne’s story seemed to go on a little bit too long, I was glad of the narrative change weren’t you?

Yes, I was – at the two hundred page mark, or whatever it was. It was heaven to get into the stories of Jennifer and Neely. Anne is too good to be true – she’s a bit winsomely perfect, and she drives me up the wall, really. My feeling is that Anne was Jacqueline Susann’s idealized version of herself. (Susann posed for adverts, and TV, etc – and knew that world.) And so the writer indulges herself in that strand of the story – Anne’s ever so slightly sanctimonious point of view. For me, though, it’s when Helen Lawson, the singing battleaxe comes on stage, that the book really lights up. She’s incorrigible and frightful and behaves quite justifiably like a monster throughout. The scene in the ladies’ lavs when Neely rips her wig off and shoves it down the loo is my favourite in the whole novel.

Did you have a favourite between the ‘Dolls’ out of Anne, Neely or Jennifer? I know I did, can you guess which?

I reckon you liked Neely best. Don’t know why. Oh yes, I do.

You might just be right there though I am intrigued as to why you think that, maybe that’s a conversation to have another time… it might have something to do with the scene you mentioned, maybe… 

As for me…well, if I can’t choose Helen, then I’d choose Jennifer, I think. I love how useless she is! She doesn’t even notice that her Italian crooner husband has a mental age of ten! She falls into a lesbian relationship because she quite likes skiing and getting stroked! She plumps up her breasts each night with cocoa butter and goes about in a haze of self-worshipping stupefaction! And she winds up in mucky French arthouse movies cause she can’t think of anything better to do! And then she winds up committing suicide because of something her STUPID second husband says at her near-deathbed – and Jacqueline Susann thinks we should worship her perfection. Amazing! 

I was surprised how moving, and slightly depressing, Jennifers story was. This to me was almost the heart story of the story if that makes sense…

Oh, I just answered that above. I thought she was a bit of a dope, but I was fond of her. Why do you think it’s her at the heart of the book? Because she pays the highest price for their lavish and extravagant lifestyles?

In part it is that, it’s the bit of the book that sort of hit me the most. I think it also felt like Susann was the most passionate about this part of the book. It read differently to the rest of the novel for me, well her third person narrative did. I think… In it’s day this novel was a sensation in part because it shocked so much, do you think it has dated? Did you think any of it was shocking still?

I believe it was the lesbianism and the oral sex that were eyebrow-raising back in the day. Also, the exposing of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. All of that is old hat to us now. What seemed shocking to me now was how the women’s dependence upon men and marriage is completely taken for granted. These are successful, independent women and they’re still desperate for a bloke to pop the question. To me, though, the most shocking thing is the casual homophobia. There’s all this derisory, dismissive talk of ‘fags’ as lesser beings, necessary but barely tolerated in this world of showbiz. It’s outrageously shocking to modern sensibilities. Were you surprised by it, or is it just something where you think – it’s part of the way the book has dated? Or do you think it still rings true?

I didn’t think anything of the ‘fag’ stuff, I might have slightly arched an eyebrow at it, but that was just the time of the novel. I agree with you totally on the whole ‘need a man theme’ I couldn’t believe all these women, well apart from Anne, thought all they needed was to be a wife and life would be ok. In that aspect, and a few others I do think this novel is so much more than just a trashy shocker isn’t it…

I’m not sure it is, on this reading!

Really I am surprised, whilst I didn’t love it as much as I had hoped to do, it’s no ‘Peyton Place’ in my mind – which is true genius and is in part a trashy shocker and also a wonderful tale about a time in America’s past and the history of women and their rights (and gossip) at the time. This didn’t quite hit the nail on the head for me, but I did think it had weight.

It’s not wittily or cleverly constructed…

Oh some of it did make me laugh a lot, occasionally for the wrong reasons…

It reiterates the prejudices and mores of the society is depicts – there’s no clever, ironic critique going on. The characters are all clearly types. It doesn’t step outside the genre, create an ironic counterpoint to it, or exceed its bounds in anyway. It’s stodgy and overlong and points out the bleeding obvious. BUT… it also feels like the invention of a genre. It’s the genesis of what would, by the 80s, be called a bonkbuster. With a glitzy spot-laminate paperback cover, an ensemble cast of deeply-flawed sexy monsters brimming with ambition, revenge, etc etc.

I would agree about the stodgy aspect of the books, it needed to be about 100 pages shorter I thought. Initially I wanted to give Susann the benefit of the doubt when Anne just went on and on at the start, I thought it was building to ‘the fall’ and it was but not really enough to warrant that never ending opening narration. I don’t think I ever liked Anne. You can see how it’s influenced novelists of today can’t you, I am not just thinking of Jackie Collins etc…

And it becomes Dynasty and Dallas on TV. I think Jackie Collins’ ‘Hollywood Wives’ is maybe the ultimate expression of the type. Or, if you’re looking for the innocent entering the big city, commerce and the sexual economy and eventually winning through – Barbra Taylor Bradford and ‘A Woman of Substance.’ Or even Shirley Conran’s wonderfully stupid ‘Lace’ (‘Which of you three bitches is my mother?’) As time moves on it becomes less about our heroine ‘finding herself’ as it as about becoming a brilliant business woman.

As the novel goes on there is a sense of impending doom throughout, well there was for me anyway, did this make you want to read on, as it did me, waiting for awful things to happen or were you worried for our femme fatales? 

Yes – terrible sense of doom. Any novelist worth their salt puts their characters through the wringer. But in the glitzy bonkbuster there is even more impetus to create victims. My favourite doom-sequence in Valley of the Dolls is Neely getting shoved in the nuthouse by Anne. I love the fact that she gets fat and gets out and becomes a huge star again, stealing Lyon from under Anne’s prim nose. I wish we’d seen more of Neely reveling in her revenge. Maybe it’s too early in the genre to make one of the lead characters an out-and-out villainess?

I would have liked ‘nuclear’ Neely, I kept thinking that. There was a bit too much simmering and being a bit cross and not enough utter villainy.

I wonder if ‘Vanity Fair’ is the true beginning of this genre? Or even ‘Moll Flanders’? Or ‘Fanny Hill’? Or the ‘Wife of Bath’?  Has the scandalously enjoyable fuck-book always been with us, do you think?

Hahaha, I think they should have that as a new genre in the bookshops, can you imagine? I think maybe Wilkie Collins ‘Armadale’ or ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ by Mary Elizabeth Braddon could have been the start of it actually. They were the true shocking ‘sensation’ novels filled with murder, incest and all sorts of shenanigans.

So – thanks for coming round, Simon. Will you read any more Jacqueline Susann, do you think? ‘The Love Machine’ is a wonderful saga about the world of US TV in the 60s. Then there’s the book about her poodle and one about Jackie O, or there’s her crazy science fiction novel…

Thanks for having us all round Paul. I might give Susann another go, I expected to run after another of her novels, well maybe walk swiftly, after reading ‘Valley of the Dolls’ but I wasn’t quite as hooked, gripped or even scandalized as I had hoped. Right let’s hand over to everyone else who has popped by. I only hope we have enough pink fizz…

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Filed under Jacqueline Susann, Paul Magrs, Reading With Authors 2011

A Peak Time ‘Valley of the Dolls’ Delay…

Apologies are called for this morning if you are eagerly awaiting a lovely Reading With Authors book group with me and Paul Magrs today discussing ‘Valley of the Dolls’. I was looking forward to us all bombarding Paul’s lovely summer house together, the power of the internet and imagination hey, but there’s a small technical glitch…

You see I rather misjudged the length of the book and slightly how gripping it might be (I struggled to start with but it got much much better). So this meant I didn’t email Paul everything before I left for the Peak District (where signal is a bit rubbish) I did it last night.

Hopefully though we will still be having afternoon tea at Paul’s summer house later or maybe for supper if I can get to the internet proper (3G isn’t great to post) between seeing my cousin Alfie playing cricket and meeting up with an author in the flesh…

Yes, randomly after I reviewed ‘Forgetting Zoe’ by Ray Robinson he emailed me to say thanks and asked if I knew Matlock. Know it, I’m from it!! So while I am here we are going to go in search of places for a good murder, I’ll explain that properly when I report back, and grab a pint. What a small bookish world eh?

Oh and because I like posts with pictures heres the view from my bedroom window this morning of Riber Castles ruins in the sun…

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Hopefully I’ll manage to virtually (I always want to say virally) get to Paul’s later and see you all there! What are you doing in the real world this weekend?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

Chorlton Bookshop & Charity Shops Galore

A few weeks ago I went on a trip to post flyers for Bookmarked in all the places that I could think of in South Manchester. There were two particular destinations I had in mind, the Oxfam Bookshop in Didsbury (which I have been in before and almost spent silly money) and the Chorlton Bookshop which is meant to be one of the finest independent bookshops in the country. I went and got a bus day-saver, the buses up here are something else cost wise honestly, and set about my journey and eventually found my destination…

Doesn’t it look like the shop in ‘Black Books’ from the outside? As you can see there was the dreaded/thrilling words ‘book sale’ on a sandwich board outside, and just peering in the window I knew temptation would be a possible issue. I haven’t seen these publisher specific display shelves in years (the books don’t actually correspond to the publishers but I like the look)…

So in I went and was instantly smitten by the fact they had comfy chairs and a fireplace, I covertly took pictures, in what is the children’s and non-fiction section, doesn’t it have a homely feel?

It also has a really impressive selection, especially for a smaller shop, of the latest fiction which I had a gander through and saw some books I wanted, but I am being very strict and only buying books if I am desperate for them – I did want to give them some business but hopefully some of you will dash there and spend oodles on my behalf. 

So what about the charity shops, oh dear I did cave in on a few ‘must buys’. I didn’t even have anyone with me egging me on. You see rather than get the bus to Didsbury and then straight to Chorlton after Oxfam wouldn’t put my poster up (because it wasn’t part of the charity, fair enough) was then wander all down Didsbury High Street (which has lots of charity shops), then get off at Withington to visit some more, and then found lots more in Chorlton-cum-Hardy itself. Mind you out of a whopping twelve charity shops I visited I only came away with four treats…

‘The Beekeeper’s Apprentice’ by Laurie R. King because all of you who know I love Sherlock Holmes have said I should try this spin of series (and I loved the cover), ‘Curriculum Vitae’ which is Muriel Sparks autobiography of sorts so how could I not, ‘The Child That Books Built’ by Francis Spufford a book about books I have been meaning to get for ages, and finally Stella Duffy’s ‘Fresh Flesh’ which is the fourth of her five (so far) Saz Martin crime novels and one I have been hunting down for ages. Hoorah.

So what was your last charity find? Have you discovered any local independent bookstore gems?

The Chorlton Bookshop sadly doesn’t have a website but you can find it at 506, Wilbraham Road, Manchester, M21 9AW its open Monday to Saturday from 9.30 – 5.30 do pop in if you can the staff are lovely.

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Filed under Book Spree, Book Thoughts, Bookshops I Love

On Canaan’s Side – Sebastian Barry

There is a rare moment, as a reader, when a narrator’s voice makes the hairs on the back of you neck stand up with emotion, a kind of book lover’s bliss – even when the content is sad. I had this within a paragraph of ‘On Canaan’s Side’ when Lily Bere asks ‘What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year old heart breaking?’ and from that moment on I was hooked by Lilly’s voice. Which is a good thing as in Sebastian Barry’s latest novel she is the woman whose life we follow and through whose eyes we see all.

Faber & Faber, hardback, 2011, fiction, 272 pages, sent by publisher

Lilly Bere, it first appears, has decided that her life is over since the suicide of her grandson, who survived the Gulf war physically though not mentally, and the cause of her heart break. You are left to wonder if the death of her grandson reignites memories of her brother Bill’s death in 1919 during the war, and starts the reminiscence that we are then told over a period of seventeen days. In fact it is her brother’s death which introduces her to Tadg Bere, a former soldier who fought with her brother, a moment which sparks a romance and changes her life for the better. Happiness doesn’t seem to last, it soon forces her to flee Sligo for America after Tadg joins the Black and Tans, this is itself again like an echo or rippling of the previous effects of her past and her fathers’ time in the police force which we learn of in her childhood.

There is a sense of tragedy from the start, you know that Lilly’s grandson’s suicide is not the first tragedy that has befallen her in her life and so we go back to her childhood and look to the present and how she ended up in Long Island and why. Initially fearful leaving her homeland and the family she loves, fear always seems a few steps behind her.

“Fear is a force like a seasickness, could you call it a life-sickness, a terrible nausea caused by dread, creeping dread, that seems to withdraw a little in dreams while you sleep, but then, just a few moments after waking, rushes back close to you, and begins again to gnaw at your simple requirement for human peace. Gnawing, gnawing, with long rat like teeth. No one can live through that without changing.”

You would be forgiven for thinking this is a melancholic piece of writing, yet through her character and highlighting life’s tragedies Lilly also emphasises the pleasures in life, often the smallest of them being the very greatest. I can safely say from the character of Lilly and her narration alone this will be one of my favourite reads of the year, sometimes she will break your heart and other times you will laugh out loud at her frankness because she doesn’t sensor herself be it from the first time she and Tag become properly intimate, to the fact in her old age certain bodily functions are playing her up.

“This is a day the land is being absolutely thumped by rain. Millions and millions of little explosions in the fields, making the soil jump. The roots of things I am sure are delighted by it, if it doesn’t actually kill them.
                I walked over to the other side of the pond to see Dr Earnshaw, because, even if my stay on earth is to be short from here on in, I had to do something about the constipation that is plaguing me. I had my umbrella, and my long plastic coat, but the wind was very disrespectful of me, and blew the rain against every bit of me, so that I arrived to the surgery drenched.
                ‘Mrs Bere, did you fall in the pond?’ the receptionist said, with her spiky blonde hairdo.”

If there were a theme in this beautifully written novel, and the prose is quite something else as I hope you can tell from the quotes I have used; I would say that, after death and grief, it is the fact that history has a way of repeating itself no matter what. It also highlights the stupidity of those who don’t learn from the past over those who seem to unwittingly draw the same events to them time and time again. I had hoped I would love it after reading The Secret Scripture’ I wasn’t quite prepared for the journey that Lilly and I would have together, and what a journey it was, one I won’t be forgetting for quite some time.

Regardless of how far after the Man Booker longlist ‘On Canaan’s Side’ gets, this is a book that is a deceptively small epic novel. As the blurb says it is ‘at once epic and intimate’ and I think quite extraordinary. I thought this might be a re-hasing of Colm Toibin’s ‘Brooklyn’ which is a book I don’t think any could match, my fears were unfounded, the only similarity s a woman’s journey from Ireland to America. I have heard that Lilly is in fact the sister of one of Sebastian Barry’s earlier novels, a lot like the narrator in ‘The Secret Scripture’ met characters from his previous novels, if they are all as good as this I think I need to read much more of the Dunne family and their interspersed yet connecting stories, any recommendations?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Faber & Faber, Man Booker, Review, Sebastian Barry