Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Claude Glass – Tom Bullough

Last year I made a mini pledge with myself to read more books set in the wilds of the countryside. This had happened after reading two novels, The Proof of Love’ by Catherine Hall and ‘The Hunger Trace’ by Edward Hogan, which blew me away and haunted me all the more with their atmosphere of the brooding rural landscapes. When my eyes happened upon ‘The Claude Glass’ by Tom Bullough in the library the cover alone suggested to me that this could be one of these types of reads and so I took it away with me as fast as I could. The fact I knew nothing of the book or indeed the author only excited me more, would I be discovering a hidden unknown gem. It appears I have, an incredible one in fact.

Sort of Books, paperback, 2007, fiction, 201 pages, borrowed from the library

‘The Claude Glass’ has the story of two boys at its heart. Both aged seven years old Robin and Andrew, who live on the neighbouring farms of Ty’n-y-coed and Werndunvan in Wales, couldn’t be more different. Robin is brought up in a comfortable, if slightly controlled, environment with his seemingly new age parents, who seem to prefer to have their children call them Tara and Adam (which confused me at first) than Mum and Dad. They aren’t wealthy but they seem happy living the life they had idolised. Andrew however is almost feral; he can barely speak, never washes and in fact lives in the crumbling uninhabitable part of the farm hidden behind its pleasant facade. His father Philip is clearly in need of some anger management therapy and his mother Dora spends her days pretending to cook in a kitchen that has barely been cleaned in years.

‘Andrew knew already that it was going to thunder. He had known for some time – in the same way that he knew when he was hungry, or when he needed to go to sleep. Thunder grew in him, as it grew in the air and the wind around them. It scared him in ways that he couldn’t hold in his mind. It was the animal at the door with the yellow eyes, the face that had gawped at him in the room with the pattern for a floor, these people in the yard, calling his name periodically, hunting him down to his den.’

So what is a Claude glass and what is its relevance in the book? Well in part it is pivotal in the ending of the novel, which I won’t give away, but it is also rather symbolic. Claude glasses were created in the late 18th century as a way of seeing the world framed and, due to mirrored glass being tinted a dark colour, making everything look rather other worldly and eerily beautiful. For me as a reader this almost became a metaphor for the two families involved in the story being so polar opposite to one another. Robin’s family being ‘ex-hippies’ who have come to set up a stable life, and Andrews family who appear to have the external physically stable world and yet behind that facade is a crumbling world of madness and abuse.

The effects of a Claude glass...

Yet these two polar opposite families have to communicate, there is an interesting mix of both competition and understanding in part, and in doing so Robin and Andrew meet and a form of friendship seems to spark. I won’t say what happens after because you need to follow the journey there but I will say that it takes quite a long time to get to this point. Bullough seems to want this to be a really slow building novel, the smallest tensions slowly appearing leading up to the novels conclusion, one that is so open ended it may frustrate some readers.

In fact I could imagine this could be a rather frustrating read for some people, there is a plot but it’s built one the smallest moments of near silence. The atmosphere simmers and broods the whole way through building a quite claustrophobic feeling in what should be open space. You think nothing is happening but it is quite the contrary. There are also slightly magical elements of the book too. Set in the early 1980’s Robin and Andrew don’t have access to television their imaginations run wild with ghosts and monsters. The atmosphere around them, and the fact their teacher them the local myths and legends, of Wales only adds to this.

‘Wales, he explained, had once been a very different place to the way it was today: a wilderness of fathomless forests, of talking beasts and birds that pecked at the stars.’

These factors might put off some readers, here I should admit I initially struggled to get my bearings, as there is quite a bit of work and piecing things together, as we have snapshots of the two families lives in different seasons, big things happen and then we skip a month or two not seeing the initial repercussions, plus the magical elements. Yet I loved these elements about the book and I really liked the fact Bullough creates this sense of place and people and wants you to work with him on building the bigger picture and using all the things unsaid along with tiny tensions to create the full narrative tale.  I think by now you will have probably guessed that I thought ‘The Claude Glass’ was an unusual and incredibly accomplished piece of writing, silently impressive and one that rewards you in many ways.

16 Comments

Filed under Books of 2012, Review, Sort of Books, Tom Bullough

Three for Thirty & Forty for Forty

I am going to be thirty in less than a month, something I have mixed feelings about and may possibly keep pretending to myself isn’t happening. It’s not the getting older thing, I am not that bothered about that, it’s that feeling I had (which I have clearly held onto) from being at school and in my late teens that ‘by thirty you should know what you are doing with your life’ – I still have no idea. Anyway, that is by the by but being 30 does have something to do with books as the other day I muttered the worlds I have long used ‘oh that’s another book to read by the time I am 30’. The friend I was with flippantly quipped back ‘better hurry up then’ and I felt perplexed.

I think most book lovers have several lists in their heads at any one time (though of course this could just be me). First is the list of what you have just read, are reading and want to read pretty much next, second is the list of all those periphery books that you want to get your mitts on, third is the list of books for rainy days or to read as a treat, fourth are those books ‘you really should read before…’ Mine has always been books I should read before I am thirty. Oops, failed there.

These are books that as a reader part of me does genuinely want to read and also some of me feels I simply have to have read. These include some of the generic classics I have missed out on as yet like ‘Madame Bovary’, ‘Crime and Punishment’,  ‘Of Human Bondage’ etc as well as more modern novels like ‘Catch 22’. Do you know the sorts of books I mean?

Of course I can’t read all the books on my ‘to read before I am thirty’ (Dickens was one but I am now bored of the whole Dickens anniversary to the point it has officially put me off) list, especially as I said I would read by whim this year. But I think I will try and read three of them, one for each week I have left in my twenties. The first of these might just be ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ by Anne Frank which I cannot believe I have almost reached the age of thirty and not read. I am mulling over the other two options, but mulling is good because I also want to create another list of novels, and here I need your help, as I want to create a list of 40 books I should have read by the time I hit forty. I know it is ten years away but that makes it rather manageable.

I would love you to suggest your very favourite books, choose a few that you think I should definitely read or you would recommend to anyone as a perfect read. They don’t have to be classics, they just have to be books you adore (and tell me why) in fact the lesser know ones along with some infamous ones might make a nice mix. I am thinking of books which it simply is a crime not to have read by then in your opinion. I will then compile a list of the forty to publish in my first week post thirty and start reading, four of these a year seems manageable.

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

The Poison Tree – Erin Kelly

I always watch each Richard and Judy, or TV Book Club, announcement of novels with interest. Some will instantly grab me; some leave me needing a little coaxing. ‘The Poison Tree’ by Erin Kelly was one of the latter cases when I saw it on the list last year. It looked like it could be an interesting thriller but I wasn’t sure it would be anything out of the ordinary. Twitter changed all that. You see though it may not prove to be the best form of picking an author, if I have a bit of banter with one on twitter, and they don’t try to sell me their book, I invariably want to read it because they seem lovely. Erin Kelly was one such author. I’d never met her but we have chattered about books, the weather and music and got on, so I thought I would probably like her book.

Hodder Books, paperback, 2011, fiction, 368 pages, from my personal TBR

I really like a good crime novel and I really like a good thriller, I tend to forget that sometimes they don’t need to have any police involved (or rather on the periphery rather than as a lead character) and ‘The Poison Tree’ is one of those novels. The story centres on Karen Clarke and her time studying languages in a university in London in 1997 where she meets Biba. Biba isn’t quite like anyone that Karen has ever met before; she’s a young rather bohemian aspiring actress who spends most of her life partying quite the antithesis of Karen who is rather prim, proper and studious. This of course is all set to change as she befriends Biba when teaching her how to pronounce German authentically for a part. We know from the very start that somewhere in this particular summer something awful is going to happen, what that is we aren’t quite sure, but we know that it’s bad, life changing and involves Karen, Biba and Biba’s brother Rex (as there is an alternating storyline in the present which alludes to things that could have happened).

I don’t tend to get on with ‘student’ books set in those ‘wonderful university years’, this may possibly be because I didn’t experience them myself as I went into work rather than studying. However I found myself really enjoying ‘The Poison Tree’ and I think that is because Erin Kelly really focuses on characters. Biba in particular is incredibly readable, if rather annoying, because of her nature, she is mysterious and flighty and (possibly due to the past we discover she and Rex have) rather on the edge a lot of the time, she has a sense of darkness. The first hundred and fifty or so pages flew by, and then I had a mini wobble. Biba goes off the rails and it seemed a little unoriginal, she dates a druggy and starts living a rather dubious life all in the name of ‘role research’, that and her first role in a play seemed a little over drawn but I carried on and the pace came back.

I am not going to say what ‘the event’, which I what I shall call it, that we are leading up to is because I don’t want to spoil it, but I do need to mention it because it had an interesting affect on me as a reader. For when ‘the event’ happened I was rather non plussed. In part this was because it wasn’t what I was expecting and so completely wrong footed me, but also because I had this strange feeling of ‘oh… is that it?’ and I stopped reading to mull over my reaction. I wasn’t disappointed exactly, because Erin Kelly does so wrong foot you it is impressive, it just didn’t seem to gel for me. I should be honest and say this could be because I had felt so clever guessing what was coming or expecting some massive heightened event that this left me feeling a bit cheated, or less clever. I almost sulked. Yet I read on and soon Erin Kelly saved it again (though I wonder if she ever lost it and with the alternating present storyline was actually wanting the reader to have the complete wrong idea) as in the last 50 or so pages she throws in some twists one of which I had hazarded at and was proved right (and so felt clever again) and two which genuinely threw me and, to coin a cliché, thrilled me. I actually had to speed read the last twenty pages in a panic simply desperate to know how it would all unfold.

So overall I liked ‘The Poison Tree’ and I am glad I gave it a whirl. I want to add the clichéd review comment of ‘this shows a promising new voice’ because a) it does and b) when this novel had me gripped it really had me gripped. I liked the evocation of 1990’s London, the mention of the Spice Girls took me right back, and the fact that Kelly’s characters are so well drawn that when things do have a small lull in the middle you read on because you want to know more about them. In a way that’s why you read on after ‘the event’ and get those final surprising twists and turns. I was an enjoyable and escapist read and at some point I will try her follow up novel, this isn’t a series by the way, ‘The Sick Rose’ (and I am not just saying that as she is a good chatting companion on Twitter, i don’t even think she knows I read the book).

Has anyone else read ‘The Poison Tree’? If so what did you think? What about ‘The Sick Rose’?

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Filed under Erin Kelly, Hodder & Stoughton, Review

What Happens When You Move & Don’t Update Publishers With Your New Address?

Well, you go and visit the lovely family members you were staying with after a few weeks of being in your own little new world and find they have had an avalanche of parcels for you, which you then have to lug all the way back to your new abode. Let me illustrate that for you…

Oh and…

I stopped doing ‘incoming posts’ but know some of you like them so see this is a random special return. (I’m not going to list all the books just some highlights, you can click on the pics for a bigger image I think.)

There was some delightful parcel opening once I had dragged several ‘bags for life’ (and really tested them to see if they live up to their name) brimming with parcels home, as some of the finds were wonderful. In general these were unsolicited copies, but I had asked for a few. Maura at Riot PR had sent some of the Waterstones 11, so I think I have almost all of those now, as I don’t have relationships with all of the publishers on the list. I have been very excited about them all but both ‘Care of Wooden Floors’ by Will Wiles and ‘The Lifeboat’ by Charlotte Rogan in particular, but didn’t think those two would be appearing via my postman, I was wrong as I had a copy from Little Brown, so I might give one away when the book comes out. ‘The Art of Fielding’ by Chad Harbach I asked for with the clause that I would try it but I might not finish it, I am being honest, and so I will at some point.

I am beyond excited about Peter Ackroyd’s biography on ‘Wilkie Collins’ and the new short story collection ‘Guilt’ by Ferdinand Von Schirach as I greatly admired ‘Crime’ when I read it last year. I think William Boyd’s new book, which Alice at Bloomsbury had signed for me as I couldn’t make the Bloomsbury Blogger event, ‘Waiting For Sunrise’ might be the next from these piles I read, though it is getting a lot of mentions on blogs, we will see. It could have some stiff competition from ‘Love From Nancy’ (which is more Nancy Mitford letters than I could dream of) as to who makes it from the TBR to the bedside table, we will see.

Pretty much all the other books came unsolicited as I mentioned but there are some titles there that I am intrigued by, I will have a proper sift over this weekend, and so am pleased arrived. I have yet to read Peter Carey, ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ just looks so looooong, but ‘Chemistry of Tears’ looks shorter and sounds very interesting so I will give this major Man Booker winner a whirl finally. I am also thrilled with two of the recovered (in a team up with the V&A) and soon to be reissued Vintage Classics which turned up, ‘The Sea, The Sea’ by Iris Murdoch and ‘The French Lieutenants Woman’ by  John Fowles. They are authors I have read one book by before and then I said I will return to and then haven’t. Both look very good, and I fancy some more chunksters this year, and I had no idea ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ was neo-Victorian until recently so I am definitely going to give that a whirl soon.

What books have you bought/been sent/been given lately? Which of these would you like to see me give a whirl on a whim? What are you reading now?

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Filed under Book Thoughts

First Love, Last Rites – Ian McEwan

I am not generally a prudish person. I might not like the odd swear word in a book if it jars or seems out of character, but I don’t believe reading should always be comfortable and in fact some literature needs to be confronting to address certain issues. Odd then that, a favourite author of mine too, Ian McEwan’s debut collection of short stories ‘First Love, Last Rites’ has left me feeling rather conflicted, I read it all with a feeling that I really shouldn’t continue on and yet I did.

Vintage Books, paperback, 1975, fiction, short stories, 176 pages, from my personal TBR

‘First Love, Last Rites’ is a murky collection of tales. The subject matter in these short stories will disturb and quite possibly offend the most hardened or open minded of us. Here we have a mixture of titillating tales of naked posing, masturbation and dressing up, but we also have a much darker selection based on incest, rape, child abduction, possible murder and abuse. With the lighter few of these stories like ‘Cocker at the Theatre’ (think Mrs Henderson Present’s but a bit filthier and made me guffaw) I read in a rather teenage giggly way. However the darker stories really divided me.

I have read many book in which horrific things are depicted, be they from incest to the horrors of war, and have found the occasional graphic nature of them to be appropriate and justified rather than offensive, uncomfortable yes but not without reason. With ‘First Love, Last Rites’ I couldn’t really work out if these darker tales needed to be told (odd I know seeing as I think McEwan’s ‘The Cement Garden’ is a fantastic if horrific novella) and if so how graphically. For example ‘Butterflies’ would be a celver but disturbing tale of a man abducting a child, agreed not a story for everyone, and yet when the actual horrific act happens McEwan does a lot of showing and telling, rather than possibly leave it to the readers imagination – which can actually be worse.

It was this factor that made me feel rather like a voyeur and made me ponder on why I was reading these stories. What was the point in them when they had no real depth and seemed to be a young author’s first works based on how to be shocking; this was the difference between these shorts and ‘The Cement Garden’ which is a fully rounded deeply disturbing tale. It was this very feeling which I tried to express on twitter when I said that I had been compelled to read them when I didn’t think I should and how I then ended up feeling rather ‘grubby’ afterwards.

As a fan of McEwan’s work (and I have read a lot of it) I weirdly wasn’t as disappointed with this collection as I could have been despite my thoughts above. It sort of seemed to make sense. I interestingly don’t think I would have been compelled to read anymore of McEwan’s work; in fact I was rather surprised it won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976, if I had happened upon this first apart from possibly as a teenager when the titillation factor would have won over, hey I wasn’t so selective in my reading then. However having become a fan of McEwan from his more modern and better known novels I can see this whole series of tales as almost warm ups as to what was to come. This didn’t endear me to ‘First Love, Last Rites’ any the more, it just explained it in some way to me.

‘First Love, Last Rites’ is a challenging and dark read, one which should you choose to try out will have you looking at the fine lines between being a reader and a voyeur and also between what makes a challenging read and one which seems set simply to shock, albeit very well written like all of McEwan’s works.

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Filed under Ian McEwan, Review, Short Stories, Vintage Books

Black Books…

I am probably the last person to the Black Books party, however I did turn down anyone who invited me to try and join it. I didn’t think that a comedy set in a bookshop run by an alcoholic would be my thing. How wrong was I? I am completely converted. (I must admit that anything with Tamsin Grieg in it will almost certainly be brilliant, The Archers, Green Wing I could go on. She is brilliant in this as Fran.) I thought in case anyone else has missed it or resisted it I would share my favourite scene so far, well the least rude one, with you all. Bear with it, I howled with laughter.

Who else is a convert, any favourite scenes? Any other bookish situation comedies out there I am missing? I have The Book Group and need to dig it out again.

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Filed under Random Savidgeness

The Greatcoat – Helen Dunmore

When I heard that Hammer Horror were going into a publishing partnership with Random House I was instantly excited. I do love a good ghost story and who better than Hammer to bring the genre back again. The first of the novellas to come out is ‘The Greatcoat’ by Helen Dunmore, not an author I have to admit I would have associated with ghost stories, I was intrigued.

Hammer Horror Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 196 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Ghost stories are always really difficult to write too much about as they work best when the reader knows very little and so they can work their suspenseful magic. This is something Dunmore does very well and it would be bad of me to spoil any of this. I will however give you the premise. Our narrator Isabel is a young woman, recently married, taking on the life as doctor’s wife in a small English town in the countryside near York in the early 1950’s. As a new found housewife Isabel is unsure what to do, she feels the locals love her husband yet don’t feel so inclined towards her and so she leads a solitary life under the roof of her slightly disapproving landlady. However when she discovers an wartime greatcoat in her flat there is soon a rapping at her windows when her husband is on call one night things begin to change.

That sounds incredibly vague but really it’s all I want to say about the premise, what I can talk more about are the factors of what makes a great ghost story and the way Dunmore uses them to create a quietly gripping tale with ‘The Greatcoat’ which gets under your skin more than you think.

The first thing you need in a great ghost story is the perfect location ripe for a spooky atmosphere. Isabel leads a solitary life in a small town, often frequented by fogs, surrounded by fields and nothingness, well apart from a disused over grown dank airfield. The second is the question of a narrators reliability, Isabel spends a lot of time on her own and her husband Philip starts to notice that she not only becomes slightly too attached to an item of seemingly forgotten clothing from the war but that gin is disappearing in the house. Is Isabel really coping with her newfound life, could more be going on than meets the eye.

You also need unease and here I think Dunmore created her finest character in the form of Mrs Atkinson the landlady. Does she go into Isabel and Philip’s flat when they aren’t there? Is she moving things? Why does she seem to intensely dislike Isabel from the off? Why does she walk back and forth in her room upstairs all night long? As you can probably imagine I loved Mrs Atkinson and was most intrigued by her, there is a slight Mrs Danvers likeness about her.

Finally and most importantly you need a good ghost. Should the ghost at any point seem unreal then all the work the author has put in is lost for good. Well, again without giving anything too much away here, Helen Dunmore does something very clever because we have an initial obvious (but believable) ghost and then as the story goes on we realise there might be more than one ghostly thing going on, if not more. That sounds incredibly vague yet again, but sadly I must be if not to ruin everything should you read the book.

‘The Greatcoat’ is a very good ghost story. It didn’t scare me like I imagined it would (though there is one scene with a fingernail and a tap-tap-tapping which did bother me quite a lot), possibly because this was after all a Hammer Horror book so I had hyped it in my head a little, but the unease builds and just when you think you have worked it all out, or that it might all be over, like the best ghost stories there are some very clever twists in the end you don’t see coming.

I am very interested to see what the next Hammer release, written by Jeanette Winterson and based on the British legend/true story of the Pendle Witches, is like as they have certainly got off to a very promising start. I am also looking forward to seeing ‘The Woman in Black’ tomorrow, how I have managed not to dash to the cinema and see it for so long I do not know.  What’s your favourite ghost story?  Have you read any of Helen Dunmore’s other novels, should I give them a whirl?

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Filed under Hammer Horror, Helen Dunmore, Random House Publishing, Review

Book Based Magazines

Reviews are coming I promise, I am just getting back in the swing of reading after a particularly bad phase of readers block. Readers block is always a bit of a nightmare and one of the things that can cure it is what my post is about today… book magazines.

I do like a good book magazine and whenever I come across one be it in the library or one of the local book shops. I love reading all the reviews, like I like reading the broadsheets and blogs, in the magazines and the author interviews, features – I just love the buzz about books that I have once I have finished reading one. It is that love of books which comes off the pages and the celebrate of old and new books within these magazine pages that makes me want to run off and read as many books as I can as soon as I can.

I should mention here that I do on occasion write for some, though I always ignore the bits I have written, however recently I have been asked if I might like to do more than just contribute one. Would I be interested in co-founding and editing a new one? Well you know how I love a new bookish project and working with other people on these (hence the joys of The Green Carnation Prize, The Readers and Bookmarked Literary Salon which I have loved working with my lovely co-founders on) so I am currently mulling the whole idea over.

My initial reaction is to say yes, because its more bookish stuff, but I also have a few reservations. In part because I am quite busy with the above mentioned projects but also because it’s going to be an online and download only magazine and I am not sure (and I have told them this so they won’t be shocked if they see it on here) we need one. You could say the more the merrier, but with the world of book blogs being so huge, and the fact a new one seems to start every other week – which I am all for, is there room for another online something? I’d like to think there is but I am not quite sure maybe one more is too many, mind you when I think about the amount of women’s monthly magazines maybe I am wrong?

So I thought I would use you all as guinea pigs and see what you thought (and help me make a decision)? Do you think in this digital world we have going on there is room for another bookish magazine be it online? If we do, what prey tell would you like to see in it? What contributors and what features would you be interested in and what authors? Would a bloggers section be good? Which book magazines do you like and why? Which book sections in general magazines do you love? Does anyone know what’s happened to Waterstones Quarterly?

Your thoughts and advice would be marvellous as always (though I don’t want you thinking I am abusing you as market research, you love books so I am interested), after all I asked you all about podcasts and you know what happened then…

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Filed under Random Savidgeness

Speaking of Books…

I think this might be like buses, I don’t see books about books very often and then three come along in quick succession, but which one to read? Last week I told you about ‘Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!’ and ‘The Library Book’ and then in the library I found another gem caught my eye, appropriately titled ‘Speaking of Books’.

I haven’t heard of the editors Rob Kaplan and Harold Rabinowitz before, but apparently they have another book like this called ‘A Passion for Books’ which may need seeking out. Initially I thought it was simply going to be lots of quotes about ‘the best things ever said about books and book collecting’ from many of the greats of reading, which is the actual premise. However it has been done in a wonderful way where the quotes come in forms of categories. We have ‘in praise of books’, ‘bibliomania’, ‘the enemies of books’ etc, etc each with their own introduction and discussions on how they can be applied to the avid reader and book lover.

The section entitled ‘what to read’ is the one I have had a chance to devour so far, because I was stuck on what to read, and what could be more helpful than quotes like…

‘A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.’ Dr. Samuel Johnson

‘Choose an author as you choose a friend.’ Wentworth Dillon

‘Read the best books first, or you may not have the chance to read them at all.’ Henry David Thoreau

I have to admit I have no idea who those three people are, but what they say certainly makes sense. Winston Churchill himself seems to sum up the idea behind this very book (clearly he knew this book would be produced someday) when he says…

‘It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations… The quotations when engraved upon the memory can give you good thoughts. They also make you anxious to read the authors and look for more.’

Well who could argue with that?

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Filed under Books About Books

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

I normally avoid books that are getting either a lot of hype in the book world in general or suddenly appearing in a flurry of rapturous reviews on book blogs. I am not sure quite why this is, but it is indeed the case. ‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey has been one such book, rumblings about it started at the end of last year when proofs went out, then it got chosen for the Waterstones 11 and in the last few weeks I have seen it mentioned, with rave reviews, on several book blogs I visit. I have to admit had it not been for the fact that Gavin and I are interviewing Eowyn for The Readers tonight I would have left it a while, instead I am now going to add to the glowing reviews that you may well have already come across here, there and everywhere. This is a marvellous book.

Headline Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 432 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

I have always been a fan of fairytales for adults. Books which spell bind you as an older, wiser reader and yet in some way bring back the comfort, endless magical possibility and thrills of your early reading years. Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel ‘The Snow Child’ is a prime example of a writer getting the mix of these two elements just right. Ivey takes the reader on a rather magical journey in Alaska in 1920, cleverly though she actually gives the book a timeless feel, as apart from a few famous authors of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s which feature in the book this could actually have been set at any period in the remote snowy wilderness, more on that later, lets discuss the story first.

 Jack and Mabel are a married couple who since the still birth of their first and only child have been drifting apart in their own separate insular isolated worlds within the very real world of isolation that is the Alaskan wilderness. This was meant to be the place that made them, a place where they started a whole new life together. Now in their 50’s what was once paradise has become a snowy frozen wasteland and not just in terms of their surroundings but also their emotions. Neither feels that they have a bond with the other, all the unspoken things becoming chasms rather than cracks in their relationship. Mabel in particular, who wanted this so much, if not the most, seems to be dealing with all of this the worst.

‘They were going to be partners, she and Jack. This was going to be their new life together. Now he sat laughing with strangers when he hadn’t smiled at her in years.’

One night however things change, thanks to a random snowball fight which proved to be one of the most moving scenes I have read in years (you need to read it to believe it – I admit I welled up), and the couple decide to build a snowman, only soon they have created a snow girl, yet the next morning it has vanished, replaced by a trail of a child’s footsteps from where it stood leading into the forest. It is not long after this that Jack and Mabel start to see, initially always in the peripheral, glimpses of a young girl and a fox dashing through the fields and woods near their house, they even separately start to talk to her. Could they have magically somehow created a child of their own from snow?

I will leave the plot at that point for fear of spoilers. I will say that Eowyn Ivey plays a very clever game of making the reader wonder if this girl could be real or not early on as when she does start to speak back it is never in quotation marks it is just inserted in the narrative. Could this therefore be a figment of this couples imagination or their way of dealing with grief, after all the other locals (including the wonderful Esther) have never seen this young girl and they have lived there longer and therefore must know everything. Also, because we get the internal dialogues of Jack and Mabel as the reader while they themselves barely communicate with one another, we wonder all the more.

Another clever device in Eowyn Ivey’s tale was including the Russian fairytale ‘Snegurochka’ (which inspired Arthur Ransom’s ‘The Little Daughter of the Snow’, which inspired Eowyn to write this novel itself) in the book as a favourite tale of Mabel’s as a child. She couldn’t read the language, but she could certainly understand the illustrations of this tragic children’s bedtime story. That tale too is of a man and woman, unable to have children, creating a girl out of snow, but could this mean that Mabel already knows the fate her snow child’s before her life has truly begun? If of course she exists.

If I have made that sound complicated I apologise as it’s not at all, it is all woven together wonderfully and this leads me to Eowyn Ivey’s writing which is second to none, and what a storyteller too. When I started the book I was thinking ‘how on earth is this going to last over 400 pages’ but it whizzed by, no saggy dragged out middle and most importantly no endless descriptions of snow. Without ever over egging the snowy pudding and mentioning snow every other word the cold atmosphere is always present but never mentioned too much. In fact I have probably mentioned snow much more in every sentence of this review than Eowyn does in the book herself. That said when she does its beautiful, especially in the dreams that haunt Mabel. A possible sign of cabin fever closing in?

‘Snowflakes and naked babies tumbled through her nights. She dreamed she was in the midst of a snowstorm. Snow fell and gusted around her. She held out her hands and snowflakes landed on her open palms. As they touched her skin, they melted into tiny, naked newborns, each wet baby no bigger than a fingernail. Then wind swept them away, once again just snowflakes among a flurry of thousands.’

I think the best thing which Eowyn Ivey did for me on top of all the above (this sounds like a gushing review because it is, I can find no real fault with the book at all) was that I really cared about all her characters, especially Jack and Mabel. With so much time to think and so little distraction they often reflect on their lives leading to this point. We, as the reader, are then given their background through these reflections and can see how much they loved each other, how it has all changed since and of course how it changes after the snow child appears. I really cared about them and hoped beyond all hope that this fairytale might have a happy ending for all concerned. Does it? Well, you would have to read the book to find out.

I was enjoying ‘The Snow Child’ so much from the start that I did something I hardly ever do. Rather than read it in chunks when I could, I simply devoted almost a whole day to it. I could have saved it and made it last, but sometimes you have to think ‘stuff that’ and just get lost in it all. So I did and read the book in pretty much one go just gorging on it. Now that is the sign of a truly magical book, I was completely spellbound… apart from having to pop the heater on and making the occasional hot drink as the snow really does feel like it’s coming off the page. This is a highly, highly recommended read.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Eowyn Ivey, Headline Review, Review

World Book Night Returns with ‘Rebecca’

Many apologies if the jubilations yesterday evening woke you up, or disturbed you, wherever you may be. I think most of the people in the local vicinity of where I reside will no doubt already be aware that I got picked to give out Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’, my favourite book of all time so far, for World Book Night on the 23rd of April. To say I was beyond thrilled would be something of an understatement.

I really enjoyed the experience last year when I gave away many a copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, one of my favourite contemporary novels, at Christies Hospital (which specialises in cancer) last year. Without dumbing down that experience I have to say I even more excited that I can now share my very favourite read with 25 unsuspecting people, and know that they will have several hundred pages of utter reading delight ahead of them. The only questions now are where to give them out and how?

 

As ‘Rebecca’ is such a special read to me, as you may know, I really want to do something rather different. My initial idea was to dress as Mrs Danvers, but I decided that might actually freak people out (and while I have lost a good three stone in the last few months, Polly of Novel Insights didn’t recognise me initially when we last met up, I don’t think I have the austere willowy figure Danvers requires) and that might have them running away without the book rather than running off to read it. Second thought was to give the book out at a suitably Manderley old house, yet I am not sure a stately home’s clientele are going to be hard up for money to buy a copy of it, and I do want to spread the Daphers and bookish love to those who might not have the opportunity to have read it for whatever reason. Hmmm, there’s something to puzzle over a while. I do have a good few weeks though.

For now I will just revel in the warm happiness of knowing I am giving the book away, and keep brainstorming. If you have any ideas for a way of me appropriately giving ‘Rebecca’ away then do let me know. Have any of you been chosen, and if so what are you planning to do? Any stories, or ideas, if you gave books away last year are also welcome.

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Daphne Du Maurier, World Book Night

The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters Between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill 1952-73 edited by John Saumarez Smith

There is nothing worse than a book funk, those dreaded times where no matter what you might have on your bookshelves/at the library/in the local charity shop nothing, but nothing, seems to tempt you. Thank goodness then for friends’ bookshelves, as spotting ‘The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street’ the other day I begged and pleaded to borrow a copy, now they might be begging and pleading for it back. I mean seriously, how could a book combining Nancy Mitford, books and bookshops go wrong?

Francis Lincoln Publishers, paperback, 2005, non fiction, 192 pages, kindly lent by a friend

I have to say initially ‘The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street’ made me feel like a bit of a Mitford ignoramus. How did I have no idea that Nancy Mitford had owned part of a bookshop when I am such a fan? I had a good think about it and a vague memory came to me from ‘Letters Between Six Sisters’ that she does actually mention working in one. 10 Curzon Street was that bookshop and though she owned it in some part for some time and it became known as ‘Nancy Mitford’s Bookshop’ the owner was actually Heywood Hill (which sounds like a place but is in fact a man). This book is a collection of edited snippets of their correspondence through two decades, an utter joy for a Mitford fan like me.

Being a writer, a lover of literature and having worked in a bookshop Nancy Mitford makes an interesting correspondent to start with. Throw in her wit and the fact that she mingled in some of the most interesting society in London and Paris as a Mitford sister and you have insight into so many worlds, written in such a way that you cannot help be fascinated whilst smiling wryly. Who else read and yet knew Evelyn Waugh, and many other authors of the times, so well? Apparently Heywood Hill as it goes, close friend of Nancy and the likes of Ivy Compton Burnett, and so the sparing of these two literary lovers, who also happen to be at the heart of the literary world at the time, is any book lovers dream.

‘It’s like with Mr Maugham who calls me Nancy and I always feel I can’t get out Willie… Oh for an amusing novel – no not Henry Green, not yet at least. How I wish I could get on with Miss Compton Burnett but it’s my blind spot. So I plod on with St. Simon, such a nice readable edition, Racine, which, on account of the notes, is as good as Punch.’

My one slight issue with the book is that whilst it is called ‘letters between’ it’s actually very much ‘edits of letters between – with notes’. None of the full letters actually appear in the book, it’s very much just tasters of the best bits. The positive of this of course is that we get the highlights, yet unlike having read so many of her full letters Nancy Mitford could describe walking to the shop or some other every day event in an immensely readable and funny way, it seemed a shame these day to day comments were cut. It also annoyed me and yet intrigued me to read John Saumarez Smith’s notes and the regular mention of a collection of Mitford’s letters called ‘Love from Nancy’ when he didn’t include them, I wanted to read them there and then but alas don’t own them, which of course needs to be rectified. I liked the highlights as I said, yet I wanted more and not just simply the snippets we get. You read a bit and want the rest.

‘…I would like a book plate, simply Nancy Mitford like the Baskerville Bible title pages, lots of squiggles. Could you ponder…?’
‘…Oh isn’t it lovely [the bookplate]… Can we start with 500 or do I have to stoke up for life? Goodness what a sticking and licking there’ll be – yes please, gum…’

That aside I think John Saumarez Smith does a good job with editing this collection of letters. He explains the background behind Nancy and Heywood’s interesting relationship as business partners (‘do let’s divorce’ Nancy wrote at one time) and thanks to a great introduction, best read after you have finished the book as always I think, plus footnotes and commentary between some of the letters to explain what was going on in Nancy or Heywood’s life, we get more insight into the underlying tones of the words and where some of the in jokes, which are never too exclusive, are directed.

I came away feeling I knew Nancy Mitford all the more, well as much as anyone can ever know one of their sadly deceased icons, through these letters of a friendship that lasted decades. Best of all there were times when certain things she wrote particularly struck a chord with me and that can be a rarity and feels all the more special in the instances where it happens.

‘You know my flat and now there’s not room for another bookcase. Every month I give at least 20 books to “the students” who come for them with a sack – many French writers now send me their books, with fulsome dedicaces all of which go in the sack! Unread of course…’

I really, really, really enjoyed ‘The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street’, being a fan of all things Mitford it bowled me over far more than Helene Hanff’s ’84 Charing Cross Road’ which I enjoyed but actually now think is slightly inferior to this collection of letters (though that is more personal taste and love of Nancy) and deserves to be as well read frankly. If you are a lover of the Mitford’s, and Nancy in particular, then you simply must read this book. I would also strongly suggest any lover of books to give this one a whirl; though maybe try a Mitford novel first for a flavour of the style of wit you are getting, as she might not be for everyone. I really must order ‘The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh’ back out from the library pronto.

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Filed under Books About Books, Books of 2012, Francis Lincoln Publishers, Heywood Hill, John Saumarez Smith, Nancy Mitford

Was This You?

I know you all love books but I had no idea that you would all rush out to where my hundreds of culled books went and raid it…

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I mean the least you could have done is pop for a coffee!

On a serious note the story is a sad one, I mean who would actually raid a charity shop, disgraceful. I did though have visions of all of you rushing into my local book charity shop (which isn’t the one that got raided) with empty bags going bonkers. Of course I know you would pay for your wares! It just made me think of you all.

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Filed under Random Savidgeness

The Pleasures of Men – Kate Williams

I have dragged my heels about sharing my thoughts about Katie Williams’ debut novel ‘The Pleasures of Men’ and have kept putting it off. I first became aware of the book when it caught my eye in a book shop window. The cover alone suggested this would be a very ‘me’ book; it looked Victorian, gothic and murderous – lovely. The more I found out about it the more I thought I would like it, a neo-Victorian novel written by a historian on the field and with a serial killer. Should have been my perfect read shouldn’t it? Sadly, not so.

Michael Joseph, trade paperback, 2012, fiction, 400 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Catherine Sorgeuil has moved from the delights of Richmond to London’s East End to live with her uncle under some mysterious circumstances. As she does a series of murders by ‘The Man of Crows’ starts occurring in the East End. As the story goes on the murders become more frequent and more bloody thirsty and Catherine starts to believe, while starting to write her own crime novel, that she has some connection to the murderer and may be able to catch him. We also start to learn bit by bit why Catherine is living with her uncle and her own dark past starts to come to light.

Before I go any further I should stipulate that I wanted to absolutely love this book. It had all the elements that would make a ‘cracking read’ for me. Whilst it did have some moments of brilliance I found myself left very cold by it. I pondered initially if it was the fact that because Catherine as a narrator was so mysterious, and Williams slowly showing and telling all Catherine’s secrets, I didn’t really connect with her, and that I do think was part of it. I also couldn’t initially, and was still left a little non plussed at the end, as to why she became so obsessed with ‘The Man of Crows’ apart from it being Williams way of linking the story of a serial killer with a woman in the Victorian times and discussing the society and women’s place in it at the time.

This leads to Kate Williams main strengths. As a historian she knows the Victorian period and so London during that period does live and breathe. She has chosen the darker seedier side of it which is always fascinating and titillating to read, though it’s also rather disturbing as some of the book is incredibly graphic – a small warning should you avoid books like this. There are some brilliant set pieces with theatres and magicians that are wonderfully realised. Yet there are some pieces, such as a visit to a home for foundlings which seem to simply be there for the sake of showing more society issues, it’s all well and good but haven’t we read this before?

Kate Williams has been compared to Sarah Waters, possibly for the aspect of the story which involves lesbianism in the Victorian period. That to me is where the similarities end. Kate Williams can clearly write, and she is an extremely successful biographer, but ‘The Pleasures of Men’ can fall into over writing. I saw the intent was to make the book have a claustrophobic feel and yet the fact chapters started with ‘my hands were cold, as if they had been buried in damp soil’ or ‘that night my mind burnt with plans and I could not sleep’ and ‘I slammed the door of Princess Street as if I had been chased there by demons’ became overkill. Maybe Williams felt that as Catherine starts to write her own book in the book, or notes of deduction, she felt that Catherine must be a wordy narrator, or maybe as a debut novel she was trying to prove something.

Interestingly though, and to make sure this is a fair assessment of my thoughts on the novel, when Kate writes about the victims of ‘The Man of Crows’ the book excels. These are intermittent chapters in each victim’s life before she meets her untimely end and yet in that single chapter Williams wonderfully evokes their circumstances, thoughts and their back story. I wanted more of this.

Whilst I didn’t love ‘The Pleasures of Men’ I liked some of it and I will be interested to see what Kate Williams does next. With her knowledge of the era I wonder if I should read some of her non-fiction and see how I get along with that. In many ways this book has elements of a very unusual neo-Victorian novel, sadly it didn’t quite grip me but that could be because I had over hyped the book in my head and was so excited about it maybe? If you like novels of this genre, or in that era I would say give it a try, lots of people (like Fleur Fisher, whose review tantalised me all the more) have really enjoyed this. I am still in two minds about it, but I did finish it which says something. I still think the cover is utterly stunning.

Phew, there that’s out there, hopefully if a little negative I have backed my feelings up. Who else has read this and what did you think? Which books have you been really excited about and then have fallen flat, and why? Do you think, as readers, we can over hype a book we are excited about in our heads and therefore almost ruin the experience for ourselves a little? As ever I am interested in your thoughts on all the above questions.

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Filed under Kate Williams, Michael Joseph Publishing, Penguin Books, Review