Monthly Archives: May 2012

A Problem Of Parcels (And You Could Win One)…

I have been away from Manchester, doing my best impression of being a nurse, for just two weeks. I popped round to my aunties today and was somewhat aghast at the amount of bookish parcels that awaited me. Now, as I am sure you all know, I love a bookish parcel almost more than anything I know – my aunty however, not so much. You see this (below) is two week’s worth of books (ok I had to pick up six of these from the sorting office) that my aunty is having to answer the door to whilst looking after two under 4’s…

That’s 28 parcels!!! There is part of me that is thrilled, I mean its books for goodness sake, however when your family have done you a favour housing you for over a (rather up and down) year and you email all your contacts with a new address, then go to the new address and find no post at all – well ok three parcels – and they don’t update their databases (I know they are busy, but I have begged a few times) and your aunty looks at you like she might burn anymore that arrive you have to pop a plea out to the publishers on your blog and say ‘please check your emails and update my address, I will email again just in case you lost/deleted/missed it’.

Like I said, I am beyond thrilled and delighted (especially as I have absolutely NO IDEA what is in any of them) they are coming and I wouldn’t want that to stop, I’m not mad or ungrateful, I would also just like to keep my family talking to me. (The Beard has just chipped in with ‘thought about Royal Mail redirection’ – smugness gets you nowhere – so I am a little at fault, ahem, cough.)

Now, let’s have a game. Which of you can guess the actual number of books that might be hiding in the envelopes in that pile (and some could have more than one parcel in, quite likely at the size of them, but they could just be big bulky books)? I will post a picture in the next day or so of what was in there and if you are the closest I will send you your very own lovely bookish parcel (Madeline Miller winners yours are on the way) to you for taking part, though I can’t promise it will be 28+ titles, but a nice selection none the less! Get guessing…

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And The Winner of the Orange Prize 2012 is…

I meant to write something about the Orange Prize before the winning announcement, however the day seems to have somehow escaped me and so now the winner has been announced and it is… Madeline Miller with ‘The Song of Achilles’!

I am feeling rather ecstatic about this. Well beyond ecstatic, thrilled more like, as it is undoubtedly one of my favourites of the entire reading year (along with ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris which sadly didn’t get short listed, but am keeping this post positive). You can see my thoughts on ‘The Song of Achilles’ here and if that wasn’t enough you can see Madeline Miller getting a Savidge Reads Grills here.

So that’s all lovely isn’t it? Commiserations to all the other authors, especially Esi Edugyan which I have recently read and loved after finishing it second try, but a huge congrats to Madeline Miller. Have I said I am thrilled? What are your thoughts?

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The Forrests – Emily Perkins

What I love about reading books you know nothing about is that they can occasionally make you learn something about the reader that you are. I have always thought I have rather eclectic reading tastes with a slight leaning towards ‘literary fiction’ (if I was forced to surmise it that is how I would put it) yet I have recently read a book that I think was too literary for me. It is the second release from new publishing imprint Bloomsbury Circus, who aim to be ‘unashamedly literary’, which is something which excited me, however I think ‘The Forrests’ by Emily Perkins might be one of those novels that is so literary that while its lovely to read in a way, it completely goes over your head. Well it did for me a little sadly.

Bloomsbury Circus, trade paperback, 2012, fiction, 340 pages, sent by the We Love This Book for review

‘The Forrests’ is a clever mixture of family saga and the story of the life of Dorothy Forrest. It’s also a book which seems to celebrate the ordinary and everyday in life, there’s no major story arch, just the snap shot stories of a woman’s life.

As we follow her from her childhood, and the slightly dysfunctional family that she comes from, we are drawn into her life through snapshots. Yet interestingly Dorothy isn’t the omnipresent narrator or even the main protagonist that you might assume, that role often passes onto other characters. These are mainly her siblings like Eve, some who don’t really appear in the book themselves, or like Daniel a boy who her mother ‘took in’. We often learn more about Dorothy when she is described by others or appears in everyone else’s consciousness. It’s one of those books which rely on what is ‘unsaid’ about people and their actions leaving the reader to do a lot of the work.

I am not averse to making an effort with a novel at all, actually sometimes the books where the author allows the reader a freedom to move within the story and almost create some sort of collaboration between writer and reader can be my favourites. You feel trusted. However, my main issue with ‘The Forrests’ is that there was almost too much effort to work out just what the heck was going on. Paragraphs and sections of the novel can shift viewpoint without you realising who is then talking. You also have small situation set pieces which, as the book is so much ‘a celebration of a normal life’ if you will, seems to be in the book for no reason, they are just another event in Dorothy, Eve’s or Daniel’s life. Again some people will adore this, I found myself oddly frustrated and really trying to find out where the plot was, and I am often saying I can really enjoy a book that is has no plot but is simply observations of peoples/characters lives.

Here’s an example of where the writing it utterly beautiful, yet what is going on is rather confusing and, if I am honest, has no integral part to the story…

“The woman leaned down to examine his collar. ‘Where did you find him?’  
 ‘He’s my dad’s.’ She pointed down the road in the direction the woman came from. ‘I don’t know his name.’  
 ‘Blackie?’ The woman was speaking to the dog. ‘Blackie?’  
 The dog barked again, loud over the running car engine.  
 ‘It’s acting like it can talk,’ Evelyn said. ‘Like you’re having a conversation.’  
 The woman laughed.  
 ‘Is he yours? Evelyn asked. ‘Blackie?’
 ‘Yes. He’s grown a bit.’  
 Exhaust fumes coloured the air. The light of early morning had found its way onto everything now, on the dogs conker-coloured eyes and the woman’s sleep deprived face, in the spaces beneath the tree trunks and over the pile of grey stones Evelyn had gathered.  
 Evelyn dug at the stones with her foot, sending one skittering over to the woman. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘My dad’s really going to miss him.’”

The writing is utterly beautiful, yet sometimes Perkins so wants to fill the book with words – which some people will love – the sentences can become never-ending. The style of the novel and it’s drifting nature make it seem dreamlike, yet also, for me personally, meant I was sometimes unsure who in the Forrest family I was following and slightly unable to connect with any one character, especially Dot who the novel focuses on in particular from a midway point, yet she isn’t developed enough at the start. I felt like I knew everyone else and what they thought about her, rather than me actually having connected with her in any way.

I liked ‘The Forrests’ rather a lot in parts, I also felt equally frustrated by it. It’s left me feeling rather like I am sitting on the fence about a book, which doesn’t happen to me very often. I admired it greatly for its prose and style, even if I never quite fully connected with it.. Some people will love this book because the fact it is so dreamy and meandering, yet for the very same reason I can imagine some people might just loathe it. I guess it depends on how literary you like your novels. Odd analogy warning; but it reminds me of when I drank Cristal champagne, I knew it was special and refined and of exceptional quality, I just wasn’t sure it was for me. One thing is for certain though, Emily Perkins can certainly write and its good that Bloomsbury Circus are trying to find authors who have missed out on some of the success they most likely deserve. Plus I could be in the small minority with this book as there is already some buzz that this could win this year’s Booker prize. Who knows?

Has anyone else read this and if so what did you think? I have seen reviews from all extremes but would love to chat about it. Do you have any books that you have tried and found almost too literary for you? How did you combat that? Did you give up or persevere trying to appreciate how good the writing was?

A shortened version of this review appeared in We Love This Book.

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Multi-Tasking, Multi-Reading

I mentioned yesterday that I had been a little bit bonkers with poorly partners (who are back in hospital as I type), travelling here there and everywhere, mass reading for The Readers Summer Book Club and organising The Green Carnation Prize for 2012. Well I think somewhere in this mass of manic activity I seem to have completely lost where I am with reading and what I am reading. It wasn’t until sorting things out for new carpets to be fitted (how domestically unexciting does that sound) that I realised the extent to which my multi-reading has spread. I knew I was reading a few books at once for various reasons, though normally I am a one book boy, but I didn’t realise I was reading so many books at once. I was slightly horrified.

I have tried to protect the identity of these poor abused books, for I bet any book that gets picked up willy nilly and ditched with the same haphazard nature resents its reader, though I didn’t mind you knowing the top one was Mary Beard’s first collection of essays from her blog as that is the sort of book that should be dipped into. The others though I really have no excuse for. They are all fiction, which means somehow I am digesting five fictional stories at the moment and yet I don’t think I am getting confused with them, until I sit down with them. One of them I am actually possibly going to have to start again, I am that confused. Unimpressed.

I think the line of action to take now is to simply sit, and I have a lot of waiting to do while someone is under observations, and concentrate on getting all of these finished, yet of course being the book lover that I am (and the fact I have some books to read for work) I have a rather large pile of books looking at me hopefully, possibly even a little threateningly, to be read.

Any advice on this? How many books are too many to read at once? Do any of you have a secretly stashed pile of half read books collecting dust somewhere in your house hidden away? Do share; make me feel less guilty/bad/naughty/inept.

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The Last Werewolf – Glen Duncan

There were three reasons for me wanting to read ‘The Last Werewolf’ by Glen Duncan. First was the fact that Marieke Hardy, who I often mention on Savidge Reads, discussed it on The First Tuesday Book Group and said some hilarious, if rather negative, things about it, which of course made me want to read it all the more. There had been a buzz about the book, true, but for some reason that hadn’t put me off. Secondly, I wanted to read it because I have always been rather fascinated by the idea of werewolves. Thirdly, my friend, the lovely Emma Jane Unsworth had read it and couldn’t stop raving about it, she had also gone on and binged on all his books afterwards, a sign she was authorly smitten. So when it came time to choose a book for The Readers Summer Book Club, especially as Gavin is such a genre buff, I thought it would be worth taking a chance on. Would I love it or would I hate it?

Canongate, paperback, 2011, fiction, 346 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Jacob Marlowe, or Jake, is ‘The Last Werewolf’ that the title of Glen Duncan’s latest novel revolves around. At 201 years of age he discovers that he is the very last in the line of his kind, which makes him a werewolf with rather a large sum on his head, as it were (pun slightly intended as werewolves, we soon discover, can only be killed by being beheaded or shot with a silver bullet). Not just from bounty hunters who see him as a conquest, we learn jealous, and incompetent, assassins also want him, as do vampires and not for the reason anyone might guess, in fact it was this twist that made me admire the book all the more. Alas, no spoilers, so really in terms of plot that is all you are going to get. Well almost…

You see one of the most fascinating things for me with ‘The Last Werewolf’ was Jake’s reaction to his impending death. You would imagine that his natural reaction is to go on the run and survive, not in the case of this werewolf. Jake is tired. He has had a few hundred years of killing people once a month, even if he does only try to kill the horrid ones and getting to know people only to outlive them and this of course includes loved ones. There are some superb, and shocking, twists with Jake’s back story and you will literally be finishing one chapter to start the next… but again, no spoilers. I am aware I am teasing you but that’s because you should read the book and I urge you to do so.

If any of you are thinking ‘oh another story with werewolves and vampires’ and rolling your eyes, please don’t. I may admit that I was concerned this would be the case but Glen Duncan is a literary author who turned his hand to vampires (I don’t think he would mind me saying this) because his previous books were getting great reviews but they weren’t turning into sales. The cynical ones of you out there, and was it the other way round I would be, will be thinking ‘oh so it’s a cash cow/wolf’ and rolling your eyes again. Stop, stop because Glen Duncan has managed to create a novel that merges literary and genre and is as far removed from ‘Twilight’ (thank goodness – I can say that I have read three of them) as possible.

I have mentioned that the pace is furious and there are so many plot twists and turns which you won’t see coming, if that wasn’t enough Glen Duncan has another trick up his sleeve. He is a bloody (pun not intended) good writer. The language in this book is masterful. Somehow a gory murder scene will read like sumptuous dinner party, that sounds a bit odd yet I am hoping you understand what I mean. This isn’t just bodies being torn into, there is a beauty in there, the very fact Jake can read their memories as he eats them I found oddly beautiful, heart breaking and downright clever. The language is incredibly graphic, within a few pages I had seen the f-word and c-word more times than I ever have in a book, yet it doesn’t seem to be done for shock. Jake is an animal, this book is animalistic so are the events that unfold and the language used to describe them.

If you haven’t guessed I really, really enjoyed ‘The Last Werewolf’ and will definitely be reading the next in the series if it promises to be as good as this one. Does the sequel have Jake in it? Well, you will have to read this one to find out and again I urge you to. It’s a real adventure story combined with a love story that will have you reading its beautiful prose at a frantic rate. It also has a compelling and complex protagonist who you will be rooting for to survive, even if he himself isn’t. I want to go and try some of Glen Duncan’s back catalogue too, have any of you read any of those? What did you think of ‘The Last Werewolf’ if you have given it a whirl?

As I mentioned above, I read this finally because of The Readers Summer Book Club which it was the first of the selection of. You can hear myself and Gavin interviewing the author and discussing the book with special guests here.

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The Green Carnation Prize 2012

I seem to have gone off radar on Savidge Reads recently, apologies for that but it has all been a little bonkers of late. I have had a poorly other half to contend with and a sudden dash back to A&E when everything got a bit worse suddenly (The Beard is now doing much better), then had a trip to Cardiff (more on that soon), a mass of recordings for The Readers Summer Book Club (more on that later today) and to top it all off I was finalising everything for The Green Carnation Prize which I am delighted to say is back again this year.

I am thrilled it is back, I have had several moments of panic but this year I think, if a little belatedly, it might be back bigger than ever with some very exciting new judges who I am looking forward to working alongside, plus there are some changes coming to it and we have a few extra surprises coming along the way. We are just currently looking at how to make it more interactive and such like so if you have any ideas then let me know.

Anyway, I thought I would pop by briefly and explain my absence and give you an update on one of the bookish projects I am really passionate about. Do pop and visit the website and find out more. Before normal service resumes later today… What have you all been up to over the last weekend/week, any news and the like?

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Fiction Uncovered 2012

I have been waiting for this list of books to be announced for weeks, finally it is here, the Fiction Uncovered list of titles for 2012. If you are currently thinking ‘well what on earth is that’ let me explain, this is not a longlist of books of which one will eventually win a prize, it is list of eight titles that may just have gone under the radar and have been deemed, by a team of judges, as being books we all should have read because they are excellent yet didn’t get the buzz that they deserved. These selected titles are then promoted in book shops (including the lovely Book Barge) around the UK and in libraries, lovely. Well now it is back for 2012. I even voted for a book I wanted to see on the list if I were a judge, I must go to that list again to get even more recommendations. Anyway…

So why am I so excited? Well in part it’s the fact that it is another list of books that I might want to read (I have to admit I think I actually want to real ALL the books on this years list) and because its pushing books which might not have been pushed. The other reason is more personal as last year this is where I first heard about, and then tried, ‘The Proof of Love’ by Catherine Hall and we all know how that read went don’t we? I was also introduced to Ray Robinson’s fantastic novel ‘Forgetting Zoe’. I have both their previous novel/s to read in the future. I also started both Tim Pears ‘Disputed Land’, which I loved but was a little too close to home at a specific time so I had to stop, and Sarah Moss’ ‘Night Waking’ which I was loving but had to crack on with reading the Green Carnation Prize submissions, which is what could stop me from reading this years eight which, with my brief thoughts below each ones blurb, are…

Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke by Peter Benson (Alma Books)

When young Elliot gets a labourer’s job at Mr Evans’s after being sacked from a pig farm for liberating six of its sows, he thinks he’ll have even more opportunities to lean on gates or stare at fields. But his best mate Spike keeps getting him into trouble, first by showing him what is being grown in a tucked-away polytunnel, and then turning up at his caravan’s door with a van full of weed. As Elliot tries to help his friend get rid of the hot merchandise, they find themselves at the receiving end of a cruel cat-and-mouse game.

Simon says: The fact this has polytunnel (my mother has just got some she is obsessed about) in the blurb makes me think of The Archers and we all know how much I love that show. It also sounds like an English countryside book, which I also love. I must read it.

My Former Heart by Cressida Connolly (Fourth Estate)

When she grew up, Ruth would say that she could place the day that her mother had decided to go away. She didn’t know the actual date, but she recalled the occasion: it was on the afternoon of a wet day, early in 1942, during a visit to the cinema. She thought she could even pinpoint the exact moment at which Iris had made up her mind to go, leaving her only child behind. Neither of them could have guessed then that they would never live together again. Spanning the second half of the last century, “My Former Heart”, Cressida Connolly’s mesmerising first novel, charts the lives of three generations of Iris’s family, the mother who walked away from her child. Ruth will be deserted again, many years later, by a husband she loves, but not before she has had two children by him. She leaves London to live with her uncle, where she creates a new life for herself with another woman. And we follow the lives of her two children, trying to make a place for themselves in the world in the shadow of the family that precedes them. With its large cast of fascinating characters, this is an outstanding novel about families and their ability to adapt. It surely marks the beginning of long career as a novelist for Cressida Connolly.

Simon says: The LGBT twist in the blurb interests me and would make it stand out in its type of fiction if you know what I mean. I was slightly worried when I saw this was compared to Alan Hollinghursts latest novel, only this is only 240 pages. I am intrigued.

Lucky Bunny by Jill Dawson (Sceptre)

Crime is a man’s business, so they say, though not according to Queenie Dove. A self-proclaimed genius when it comes to thieving and escape, she reckons she’s done pretty well. Yes, she had a tough childhood in London’s East End during the Depression, with a father in and out of prison. But she survived the Blitz, learned how to get by on her wits, and soon graduated from shoplifting to more glamorous crimes. Daring, clever and sexy, she thrived in the Soho of the Krays and the clubs of Mayfair, fell wildly in love, and got away with it all. Or did she? For beneath Queenie’s vivacious, unrepentant account lies another story – of punishment and loss, and a passionate relationship that turns sour. To the end, she believes she was lucky, but did she simply play the hand that fate dealt her? Vividly portraying the times and circles she moved in, Lucky Bunny captures an intriguing, engaging woman as it questions how far we are in control of our own lives.

Simon says: This has been on my radar for ages, so reading it is a no brainer, in fact it will be a done deal.

Crushed Mexican Spiders by Tibor Fischer (Unbound)

‘Crushed Mexican Spiders’ is classic Fischer. Don’t be fooled by the title: the poet laureate of London grime is on home ground as a women returns home to discover the key to her Brixton flat no longer works – Haunting images and crisp one-liners are about all that link it with the second tale, ‘Possibly Forty Ships’, the true story of the Trojan War. In a scene straight out of a Tarantino movie, an old man is being tortured, pressed to reveal how the greatest legend of all really happened. Let’s just say it bears scant resemblance to Homer: ‘If you see war as a few ships sinking in the middle of the waves, a few dozen warriors in armour, frankly not as gleaming as it could be, being welcomed whole-heartedly by the water, far, far away from Troy, if you see that as war, then it was a war – ‘ The stories are being illustrated by the work of the acclaimed Czech photographer Hana Vojakova .

Simon says: At a mere 64 pages and with illustrations I want to read this just to see how it is so powerful in so few words, I also like the Unbound project so if I read it I will kill two bords of intrigue with one stone.

Hit and Run by Doug Johnstone (Faber and Faber)

Driving home from a party with his girlfriend and brother, all of them drunk and high on stolen pills, Billy Blackmore accidentally hits someone in the night. In a panic, they all decide to drive off. But the next day Billy wakes to find he has to cover the story for the local paper. It turns out the dead man was Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord and, as Billy struggles with what he’s done, he is sucked into a nightmare of guilt, retribution and violence. From the author of the acclaimed “Smokeheads”, “Hit & Run” is another pitch-black psychological thriller.

Simon says: I heard about this thanks to a review of Kim’s on Reading Matters and was intrigued. I like the fact a thriller has made the list too, I like a good thriller, only concern is it might be a bit ‘blokey’ for me though that could be a good test.

When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones (Mantle)

In turn of the century London, Grace Farringdon dreams of polar explorations and of escape from her stifling home with her protective parents and eccentric, agoraphobic sister. But while Grace longs to cross glaciers and survive sub-zero conditions with her hero Ernest Shackleton, she seems destined for nothing more than marriage, or a life shackled to the family home. But when Grace secretly applies to Candlin, a women’s college filled with intelligent, like-minded women, she finally feels her ambitions beginning to be take shape. There she forms an Antarctic Exploration Society with the gregarious suffragette Locke, the reserved and studious Hooper and the strange, enigmatic Parr, and before long the group are defying their times and their families by climbing the peaks of Snowdonia and planning an ambitious trip to the perilous Alps. Fifteen years later, trapped in her Dulwich home, Grace is haunted by the terrible events that took place out on the mountains. She is the society’s only survivor and for years people have demanded the truth of what happened, the group’s horrible legacy a millstone around her neck. Now, as the eve of the Second World War approaches, Grace is finally ready to remember and to confess…

Simon says: The phrases ‘turn of the century’, ‘agoraphobic sister’ and ‘polar explorations’ have me officially sold. I am going to beg, steal or borrow a copy of this.

The Light of Amsterdam by David Park (Bloomsbury)

It is December in Belfast, Christmas is approaching and three sets of people are about to make their way to Amsterdam. Alan, a university art teacher stands watching the grey sky blacken waiting for George Best’s funeral cortege to pass. He will go to Amsterdam to see Bob Dylan in concert but also in the aftermath of his divorce, in the hope that the city which once welcomed him as a young man and seemed to promise a better future, will reignite those sustaining memories. He doesn’t yet know that his troubled teenage son Jack will accompany his pilgrimage. Karen is a single mother struggling to make ends meet by working in a care home and cleaning city centre offices. She is determined to give her daughter the best wedding that she can. But as she boards the plane with her daughter’s hen party she will soon be shocked into questioning where her life of sacrifices has brought her. Meanwhile middle-aged couple, Marion and Richard are taking a break from running their garden centre to celebrate Marion’s birthday. In Amsterdam, Marion’s anxieties and insecurities about age, desire and motherhood come to the surface and lead her to make a decision that threatens to change the course of her marriage. As these people brush against each other in the squares, museums and parks of Amsterdam, their lives are transfigured as they encounter the complexities of love in a city that challenges what has gone before. Tender and humane, and elevating the ordinary to something timeless and important, The Light of Amsterdam is a novel of compassion and rare dignity.

Simon says: I was a little nonchalant about this one with Alan’s ‘situation’ but I then read about the other two and now rather fancy reading this.

This is Life by Dan Rhodes (Canongate)

This is Life is a missing baby mystery and an enchanted Parisian adventure. Hand in hand with lovable heroine Aurelie Renard, you will see life as you’ve never seen it before, discover the key to great art, witness the true cost of love, and learn how all these things may be controlled by the in-breath of a cormorant. Chock-full of charming characters and hilarious set-pieces this is a hugely enjoyable novel that will make you see life anew.

Simon says: The only book on the list by an author I have read before (and love, seriously he is brilliant) and I am thrilled that Dan is on the list, so as its one of the few of his I haven’t read already I will DEFINITELY be reading this one and probably within the next week or two. If you haven’t read him you must, ‘Gold’ has been my favourite (funny and heartbreaking) so far, I have high hopes for this.

So that is the list. What do you make of it and indeed the venture of Fiction Uncovered itself (the website is here)? Have you read any of these or anything else by the authors? I would love some further insight.

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Has The World Gone Mad; First Waterstones and Kindles, Now The Orange Prize…?

I don’t tend to do ‘topical’ too often on Savidge Reads but today I feel the need after the random double whammy of odd bookish news around Waterstones and the Kindle and what has happened with the Orange, or should that be the no longer Orange, Prize for Fiction.

I have to admit I was one of the people who did fear that the world might be ending when I heard the news yesterday that Waterstones, the UK’s biggest chain of bookshops, will be selling Amazon’s Kindle (or as I like to call it ‘the machine of the devils making’) in their stores. To me, as an avid book lover and fan of the chain, this seems ludicrous – but then again I am rather old school in terms of all things devils device e-reader based.  I understand that Waterstones have been having issues with people coming into bookshops, browsing the shelves, then seeing how much it is on Amazon via their smart phone apps instead. This must be incredibly disheartening, as well as business busting, for any company, but surely there must have been other options? I spent yesterday mulling this over silently for hours (whist nursing the sick, so I wasn’t just sat contemplating ha, ha) before decided to comment.

When James Daunt took over I was one of the many people who thought ‘phew, at last’ and having spent time hosting events and working alongside the lovely team at Waterstones Deansgate I have seen the wondrous changes that Daunt has implemented alongside his allowance of independence in stores, trusting that each branch know their customers and can appeal to them in the right way. Now teaming up with a company which is as damaging to books and the authors of course, as supermarkets can be seems a little odd to me? Or am I overreacting? I have even pondered if I should boycott the chain as I am so cross. That could be an overreaction. Though it would push me into supporting even more local independent bookstores and that is no bad thing is it?

Anyway here is James Daunt talking about it all, see what you make of it…

The other news that made me think the world has gone crazy, which was announced mere minutes ago, was that after seventeen years Orange have withdrawn their sponsorship of the Orange Prize, or they will have after the winner is announced next week. My initial thoughts are ‘well they could have waited and not over shadowed the winner before she is even announced’ my second was ‘oh dear, could this be another literary prize that vanishes like the John Rhys Llewellyn Prize did last year?’ my third was ‘well what will they call it now?’

Now in no way does this quite compare but I am currently working like a mad thing behind the scenes to make sure that The Green Carnation Prize runs for its third year in 2012. With the other two co-founders having left it is literally just me approaching all the people that I can think of who will judge and chair for free. For a prize that received over 80 submissions last year, and could do again this year, it’s a big ask. You get to hear the phrase ‘I am terribly sorry but no’, however I think I have pulled it off and an announcement will be made later today/tomorrow finally.

What has all that to do with the Orange? Well people will be cry that it is another award dead in the water; however I am not so sure. If the worst case scenario of no sponsor (unlikely if I am honest, I think Kate Mosse is very tenacious and passionate so will secure something) comes I am betting she will easily find volunteers, and I have found people who do it for free have a real passion for the book that makes them all the better book prize judges, they want to talk about the books and have a debate, they want to spread the word about great books. I am not sure I feel that way about what’s going on with Waterstones at the moment, maybe that’s just the cynic in me though? Thank goodness for the Fiction Uncovered list being announced tomorrow, that might be some less doom filled news.

What are your thoughts on this bumper amount of bonkers bookish news?

Note: I totally understand that for some people, like my Gran who likes to change the font of a book for her eyes, or have less to carry on her globe trotting adventures the Kindle is a good thing. For me however, not so.

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Books You Love To Hate

Yesterday I gave you some of my rantings thoughts on ‘Mary Barton’ by Elizabeth Gaskell, which I had read (and had to finish) for book group. Had it not been a book group choice I would undoubtedly have given it up, yet book group being book group the very nature of it is all about trying books you might not like/normally read and so I had to finish it, no matter how much it hurt. That said I was in part pleased I read it as it brought up the issue of books that you rather enjoy disliking.

Picture by Teigiser

You see for me an utter dislike (I don’t really want to use the word hatred, but if you should wish to that’s fine I won’t judge you) of anything at all always makes me ask the question of why I don’t like it? It hones the critical skills in some ways and also makes you really appreciate the good things more. So now when I pick up a new book there is a relief after a few pages that it’s ‘not another Mary Barton’, lovely, and I appreciate it all the more.

There is also that rare moment when you get to the point that you are enjoying the fact you love hating something so much. As I said yesterday, it was actually rather a bonding moment at book group when we all held our breathe as Lucy started talking about the book and, slowly but surely, let out sighs of relief as each one of us admitted we hated it. This isn’t to be confused with a bookish version of bullying. We were soon laughing at how tedious, dull and dire we had found the experience. We all then started discussing other books we had loved to hate and it felt quite theraputic and freeing, though the latter could have been the wine maybe.

So I wondered if you would like to share books that you have loved to hate, and what was it about disliking that book so much that made it enjoyable, in a very weird way? I am hoping some of you will give examples or I might fear I am alone in the world with this feeling.

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Mary Barton – Elizabeth Gaskell

I haven’t reported back on how the Manchester Book Club’s second meeting yet have I? In part that is because I have been busy yet I will admit that I have also veered away from discussing our first group read, chosen by Lucy, which was ‘Mary Barton’ by Elizabeth Gaskell. This choice was one I was quite looking forward to, I don’t read enough classics, and being a ‘Manchester tale’ seemed completely apt. Well, I am sorry to report that I hated it (but in a rather healthy loved to hate it way) and I don’t like writing slating, if constructive, but I am going to and as she is dead I don’t feel as bad, though I know she has a legion of fans who will probably now think I am a philistine.

Vintage Classics, paperback, 1848 (republished 2008), fiction, 496 pages, borrowed from the library

I am not someone who tends to read blurbs before I read a book, a topic for another time, yet as ‘Mary Barton’ was a book group choice and we vote on one of three titles chosen by a member and so we read the blurbs to decide. I voted for ‘Mary Barton’ because it sounded like it had all the elements of a great classic. There was a love triangle, a murder and a tale of mystery, injustice and a city in the grip of an industrial revolution. It sounded really epic and Mary Barton herself sounded like she could be a fantastic heroine struggling in the face of adversity. I did think it might be a rather stereotypical Victorian classic, but it would be fun to read one set in the city in which I live. I wasn’t expecting such a grim and depressing book which would also bore me rigid.

What makes it really hard to write about Mary Barton is that fact that, if we are all being honest, nothing actually happens in the book until the murder (and that isn’t giving anything away because you know one is coming from the blurb) yet that doesn’t actually take place for about 250 or more pages. So what are the first few hundred pages about? Well mainly how miserable everyone is and how it is ‘grim up north’ really. I know people say Manchester can be a rainy and slightly overcast place but this was too much.

‘The next evening it was a warm, pattering, incessant rain – just rain to waken up the flowers. But in Manchester, where alas! there are no flowers, the rain had only a disheartening and gloomy effect; the streets were wet and dirty, the drippings from the houses were wet and dirty, and the people were wet and dirty.’

I will admit the opening chapters are of a slightly lighter nature, the first describing the countryside around Manchester, and while initially I thought it was interesting to see the names of places I knew this waned and I was hoping for some plot or characters, if this book was going to be endless descriptions I wasn’t going to get on with it. The second chapter from its very title ‘A Manchester Tea Party’ suggests we will be getting characters and a situation, yes we do but for me it was a sudden mass of characters and initially I was cross and confused until I had figured out who everyone was.

As we do get to meet and know a character, which doesn’t happen too often as everyone seems to die a few pages after we get to know them, we are given insight into the social history of Manchester at the time. I can’t say I know much, or have ever been keen to know much, about the Industrial Revolution yet discovering about it became a glimmer of hope in what was fast becoming a book I was falling swiftly out of love with it. I did learn a lot I have to admit and I think in its day this book would have been somewhat of an eye opener. Gaskell was clearly doing something to make a point in the first half, alas after the murder she seems to give up, of what people were going through at the time. Good for her, and back then great reading I am sure, in the present day however someone would write a lengthy essay rather than have the same issues repeated over and over again for a few hundred pages and in such huge chunks you almost can’t take it in, or simply get bored and bogged down by it.

 ‘For three years past trade had been getting worse and worse, and the price of provisions higher and higher. This disparity between the amount of the earnings of the working classes and the price of their food, occasioned, in more cases than could well be imagined, disease and death. Whole families went through a gradual starvation. They only wanted a Dante to record their sufferings. And yet even his words would fall short of the awful truth; they could only present an outline of the tremendous facts of the destitution that surrounded thousands upon thousands in the terrible years 1839, 1840, and 1841. Even philanthropists who had studied the subject, were forced to own themselves perplexed in their endeavour to ascertain the real causes of the misery; the whole matter was of so complicated a nature, that it became next to impossible to understand it thoroughly. It need excite no surprise, then, to learn that a bad feeling between working-men and the upper classes became very strong in this season of privation. The indigence and sufferings of the operatives induced a suspicion in the minds of many of them, that their legislators, their magistrates, their employers, and even the ministers of religion, were, in general, their oppressors and enemies; and were in league for their prostration and enthralment. The most deplorable and enduring evil that arose out of the period of commercial depression to which I refer, was this feeling of alienation between the different classes of society.’

See what I mean, and that’s only half of that paragraph. I spared you the rest.

I could be lenient and say that this was a debut novel, so it is probably a book written from ideas and ideals. I also think I should state that it is a book of its time that hasn’t really aged very well. Yet forgive it all that and actually ‘Mary Barton’ isn’t really a novel, it’s more an overlong view of the Industrial Revolution and I think at heart that is really what Gaskell wanted to write. I am sure there will be academics up in arms at that sweeping statement but it’s true. Mary isn’t really a fully formed character, we learn more about those around her and their situations than we do her, she seems to simply be a tool for Gaskell to observe, fair enough, but give her some gumption.

 In fact that said I think that might be my big issue with ‘Mary Barton’ as a whole, it seems a half baked book. My reasons for such a critique are as I mentioned above Mary as a central character with no real central drive, just an observer, a murder which happens so late and becomes so clear who did it that it’s inconsequential, as is the trial later. These things are padding to a book that is far too padded with observational opinion already. If Gaskell had fully formed everything around the central issue of society at the time and in her area this could have been incredible, as it stands it’s a bit of a ‘moral guide to…’ instead. Sorry Mary.

What was interesting was that I rather enjoyed how much I disliked it in the end. It reminded me why we need bad books and to get cross now and again. I also rather naughtily felt pleased I could write off another writer, is that bad? I was also pleased to see that the feelings were felt unanimously between the twelve of us who met for book group, it was quite bonding. You can see a review from Lucy, who chose the book, here and another from Alex here.

Have you read ‘Mary Barton’ and what did you think? What other Gaskell novels have you read? I am bad to feel relief that I can write off an author after enjoying loathing one book so much?

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Ssshhhhh… Someone is Recovering…

No it’s not me being ill this time, in fact I seem unusually well and full of the joys of spring. I have been a little bit quieter of late as that crazy thing called real life has got in the way. The Beard, normally a reading/blogging distraction of sorts in a lovely way, has sadly been rather poorly and had to have an operation and so I have gone from being someone who frequents hospitals rather a lot for myself and needs nursing to some who has become a visitor and nurse. Here is a picture from today when someone should have been sent home but alas had to stay in…

I have just come back from ‘visiting time’ with his Mum and Dad (who are lovely and love books, good stuff) and can you believe they weren’t allowed to keep the flowers by their bedside on the ward? I have had to find somewhere to house them at Beard HQ until his return, which needs to come quickly frankly.

Role reversal seems to have not just happened with nursing and hospital visiting but also with reading. The Beard is engrossed in books at the moment, I don’t seem to have read anything for about a week, and with The Readers Summer Book Club titles and new year of Green Carnation Prize submissions due to start arriving after the relaunch next Monday (both these projects have also kept me crazily busy in terms of admin, some exciting announcements coming though)
I should be cracking on! I have managed to catch up on comments here and visit some other blogs, though briefly. I feel like I am talking/reading about books rather a lot, yet not actually picking any up and reading them. Does anyone else get like this?

Fortunately I do have a rather large backlog of reviews and shall be scheduling them over the next few days, this blog is meant to be about books after all. In the interim though… what to try and read? Maybe it is time to dust off an old favourite and have a Miss Marple adventure with Agatha Christie?

What would you suggest, something delightful but not necessarily taxing and with a hint of excitement? Also book recommendations for poorly people in recovery would be nice too if you can think of both.

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Books Bring People Together…

It always amazes me how small the world is. Obviously in reality it is an absolutely giant planet hurtling thorugh space, though I don’t like to think about that last bit too much. Anyway, in the last two weeks I have been reminded once more just how small a place it is and bizarrely through books and conversations, in one way or another, that they have sparked. These events have also made me doubly sure that books bring people together, despite reading being such a solitary activity.

You may remember when I came back from my blogging break that I gave you a summary of what I had been up to and I introduced you to a new feline friend called Tolstoy (see picture —>). Well, imagine my surprise when I received an email that informed me that the cat I had taken a picture of was actually called Santiago and that the writer of the email, Charlotte who had been looking for a new book group, knew this because it was her sister’s cat and who lives next door to me. How crazy is that? It seemed all the more crazy when I discovered that Charlotte had also seen me read at Waterstones on World Book Night and neither of us had a clue who the other was then. We have since been to book group together and travel back chatting about books all the way home, lovely.

I mentioned on Sunday, in the post on my London trip and book looting spree, that thanks to books I made a new friend on the train journey home. Now here I have to admit I am not the most befriending kind of person on public transport. If I happen to have a long train journey I always see it as ‘reading time’, in reality I spend most of the journey looking out the windows and staring at the British countryside.

However after a long day in London the train back to Manchester was a late night one so there was no countryside to steal my attention. I headed to the quiet coach and sat down opposite a woman reading. In my head this meant I would have two and a half hours silence in which I could read; this wasn’t to be. You see I couldn’t help rummage through the selection of books I had nabbed and spotted out the corner of my eye that the woman opposite was crowing for a sneaky look. Once I had put them all back she carried on reading, I spotted she was reading Haruki Murakami’s ‘Kafka on the Shore’ and had to hold back from saying ‘ooh I have read that isn’t it marvellously bonkers?’ I was on the quiet carriage after all! That said I had no sooner taken out Toni Morrison’s ‘Home’ to read than I heard ‘Excuse me, is that the new Toni Morrison book, the one that’s not out yet… how have you got that? I love her…’

Well that was that, we both downed tools, well books, and proceeded to spend the rest of the journey talking about books, books and more books as we walked home and discovered we lived on the same street! How mad is that? Maybe there is some literary subconscious draw to that road? I just thought it was so nice and I came away with about five more authors I am keen to read.

Of course these are both people who live in and around Manchester and so that could be part of it, yet there is one more story that I thought I would share. I opened my emails to one entitled ‘OMG… It’s You’, initially I did think ‘oh **** what spam is this’ until I discovered it was my step-aunt Jane. This might not sound a big deal, but actually it is because she was my first stepdad’s sister, he sadly passed away a few months after he married my Mum almost 20 years ago and she had moved abroad and we had lost touch. Well, she had been looking for a ghost story for her teenage son and a review of mine popped up, she followed the trail and found my email. How nice is that?

See, proof right there that books bring people together and reunite people. I bet this has happened to some, if not all, of you in the past. Care to share your stories of books befriending you to someone or reuniting you?

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(Some of My) Summer Reading…

As it is just two weeks away, I thought I would give you a reminder that The Readers Summer Book Club is just around the corner. I am not suggesting that you read every single one of the eight books on the list, though if you wanted to that would be lovely (and they are available in libraries here there and everywhere from what we gather, so we aren’t trying to flog books) as we would love to get as many of you, wherever in the world you are, taking part in what we hope is going to be a worldwide book club.

Here is a picture of all the books in the order we are reading them (I have read three now and liked every single one and I am not just saying that) with the dates below…

28th May – The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan
4th June – Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
11th June – Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
18th June – Bleakley Hall by Elaine di Rollo
25th June – Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
2nd July – Now You See Me by S.J Bolton
9th July – Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
16th July – Pure by Andrew Miller

We are still looking for victims volunteers to join us on ‘the discussion panel’ part of the show, so if you have read any of these already, or you want to (and there is a free copy of the book if you do) and would like to speak to us on Skype with some other readers about them, love them or loathe them, then we would love to hear from you via bookbasedbanter@gmail.com you can find more out about the summer shows here too.

What has been lovely to learn is that people are meeting up to discuss the books in the flesh too, and there is proof if you look at one of our goodreads forum threads. I will be talking about how books bring people together tomorrow. Interestingly, and on a similar theme, Gavin and I (with our OH’s) will be meeting in Cardiff next week and actually spending time with him face to face rather than on Skype. I am so excited about it I could burst, and meeting Gavin too. Ha! And seriously, please do let us know if you would like to join in and your thoughts on the books.

P.S if you are a Readers listener the podcast will be up later today, there was a technical fault, oops (just as there was with a post saying The Green Carnation Prize would be relaunching today when it is in fact next Monday the 21st, dear oh dear).

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Lovely London Loot…

The week before last I finally bit the bullet and went back to London for the day. Having left almost a year and a half ago, and not under the most favourable of circumstances, I will admit I was feeling very nervous about it. However, the day was mainly about books and if anything is going to make a daunting trip somewhere better then it is going to be books isn’t it? I had been kindly invited by Lynsey at Transworld to come to a dinner with S.J Bolton in the evening and as a trip down to London is rare for me now I decided to make a day of it.

I could bore you with the dreadful journey down, I had reserved seats (thanks again Lynsey) and yet the train was so overcrowded, from the start, they cancelled all reserved seats and so it was a fight for any seat going. Oh the grump I was in! Fortunately the man who decided to tell me his life story (and I had my best ‘I am reading’ expression/concentrated glare on too) got off after two stops by which point reading went out the window as I was too busy eavesdropping (see Dovegreyreader’s post on the joys of being nosey here) on the fascinating conversation between mother and daughter who were dishing all the family secrets. I actually had to hold myself back from say ‘oh she sounds awful’ when the mother had finished a five minute rant about her son’s new girlfriend and asked her daughter what she thought.  I do love a family drama, which was apt as my first meeting of the day was brunch with my aunty who was in London too. I then had the joys of meeting my friend Dom for lunch (who I hadn’t seen since I left, which was far too long) and then headed to meet some publishers, the first of whom reside in my favourite place in London, Bedford Square…

The reason I love this square so much is that it feels like Victorian London, be it the posh bit, is still weirdly living and breathing there. The area doesn’t seem to have changed and still has a certain atmosphere. If I could ever afford to live anywhere I could then I think it would be Bedford Square. Anyway the reason I was there was to meet Alice at Bloomsbury! I couldn’t actually believe that I have been emailing Alice for about five years and I had never met her before, and I even lived in London for a few years of the correspondence, shocking. We had a lovely brew and discussed lots and lots of bookish bits and bobs, both projects coming from me and titles coming from Bloomsbury. I also laughed when I discovered Alice knows me so well, she has speedily discovered ‘hmmm, I am quite busy at the moment’ means ‘I have absolutely no desire to read that but am too polite to say, thanks anyway’ – we both giggled about this as I was unaware, till she pointed it out, that I did it. It was too soon time to leave but I did manage to take some books, just a few…

Next up I headed only a few streets further afield to meet Frances and Corinna from Atlantic Books. Again, these are two of the publicists that I have had the longest relationships with (I am not showing favouritism here, it’s just true) and yet had never met even though emails and parcels often fly through the ether/through the joys of Royal Mail (any publishers reading this please stop using DPD couriers, you will notice I never receive these parcels because they are useless) and so it was lovely to sit and get to know two people, who I already feel I already know, all the better over coffee. We discussed some very exciting autumn titles and I came away with yet more gifts…

I don’t want to appear to have favouritism towards a certain book; however, Frances and Corinna had been discussing new books when Frances ran off to get an older book. She had suddenly thought of it and ‘just know you will love it, seriously’. Well as soon as I saw the cover of ‘Woman’s World’ it was love, however when I opened it I was spell bound. Graham Rawle’s debut novel is made from cuttings from magazines and papers used to make a story, it sounds bonkers so here is a picture…

Doesn’t that just look amazing? Even the page numbers are from magazines. It really blows me away. Apparently Rawle’s new book is experimental too, based on random cards he has found on the streets over the years, I am very excited about these and ‘Woman’s World’ is getting read very, very soon. So with my new loot I dashed off to meet the lovely Jane Harris, this is the joy of books – you sometimes fall in love with an author’s voice in books then meet them and they are just as lovely. We had a nice glass (or two) of wine, cackling away in the corner of a private members lounge.

I had to dash quickly after that to get to The Cage in Villiers Street to meet S.J Bolton for cheese and (more) wine. This was when I realised I had left my wallet somewhere during the day, would you believe it… I rang around and someone had handed it in (whoever you are thank you), isn’t that amazing? I didn’t even begrudge a round trip, lots of walking as my travel card was in my wallet, to get it, though I was embarrassed to then turn up to meet S.J. Bolton about an hour and a half/two hours late. She was lovely though, and it was nice to meet her before we record The Readers Summer Book Club which her novel ‘Now You See Me’ is one of the titles Gavin and I have chosen. I left with another goodie back of her books, a mug (which is in the dishwasher) and some other treats. Lovely stuff.

So a big thanks to everyone I saw, and apologies to some of the people I couldn’t see (next time I promise) but especially BIG thanks to Lynsey who treated me to such a lovely day out overall. It was nice to visit London, if briefly, and I am looking forward to returning in the not too distant future for something very exciting. I was shattered on the train back however I made a new friend, again thanks to books, but more on that later…

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