Monthly Archives: July 2012

Airport Books & Holiday Reads…

As it is the summer in the UK, not that you would really know from the weather we are having, talk here there and everywhere in the bookish world has been of ‘summer reads’ and ‘holiday books’. Just yesterday BBC’s Woman’s Hour did a feature on it which was rather interesting and you can listen to hear. I digress. I have been thinking of summer reads a lot recently, and if I read differently at this time of year which I don’t think I do. Having just come back from an amazing break away I took my usual fare of books with me, some of them just happened to be set where I was staying and some had to be gripping to take me away from the induced fear of being on the plane for several hours of torture for me and anyone who flies with me.

I don’t like flying at all, oddly though I do really like airports. In the hours, generally filled with fear and nail biting, awaiting getting on the tin can that will fly me 35,000 (or more, which just isn’t what humans were meant to do) above the ground to some delightful destination I wander the shops to keep me occupied. You try out aftershaves/perfumes you would never normally by, have a coffee or two and of course hit the bookshops.

I had a good browse and didn’t really find anything that was particularly up my street, but not because there was only ‘holiday reads’ as I have heard many people complain, I thought it was nicely varied I was just under the watchful eyes of The Beard who had only a few hours before been rolling said eyes as I popped the fourth book in my case and two in my hand luggage for the flight there. Only people who really love books can understand why you need to take so many away with you, even on one of those dreaded ‘K’ machines. Mind you, I did feel very smug, whilst also sweating with terror, when the plane back from Italy had to wait in the middle of the airport as it was delayed (due to bad weather in the UK which led to turbulence, vile) and everyone who had a Kindle/e-reader had to turn them off. I proceeded to very loudly turn the pages of Mary Beard, smuggity-smug.

So I thought I would ask you if you all read differently over the summer than you do the rest of the year? I don’t think I do apart from the fact I wouldn’t really read a ghost story, they seem more appropriate for long blustery dark nights, oh hang on we have those in the UK at the moment so it’s fine. What are your thoughts on ‘holiday reads’? What gems of books have you discovered at an airport book shop? Do let me know, I will be catching up on comments and blogs today so will respond very quickly which I have been lax with of late. I will also be reporting on the trip away soon, where shock horror… I did no reading really!

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Two Cures for Love (Selected Poems) – Wendy Cope

I really must educate myself more on poetry. I think in my head somewhere I have decided that I am not clever enough to get it. That said when I went to an open day at The Reader Organisation a while back we all read poetry allowed and the realisation that ‘there is no right answer’ finally hit me after several decades of feeling like I was rather in the dark. However there are two poets I have always loved, as a child Brian Pattern (and I can still recite many of them) was the bees knees and now as an adult I am a huge, huge fan of Wendy Cope. I tend to dip in and out of her collections but sometimes, when I am a little low or out of sorts, I will pick them up and just devour the lot as I did with ‘Two Cures for Love’ one morning a week or so ago.

Faber & Faber, 2010, paperback, poetry, 112 pages, kindly sent by publisher

‘Two Cures for Love’ is a collection of selected works of Wendy Copes from 1979 to 2006 and so it isn’t a collection that has an exact narrative, I see it more as a ‘Best of So Far…’ kind of affair, though of course there has been the collection ‘Family Values’ since this. What these poems all have in common of course are Wendy Cope and her wonderful style. I think I love her poems so much because be they happy or sad, or indeed a mixture of the two, they are human and they are in my kind of language.

I don’t really go for over flowery prose in fiction and so it is no surprise I like my poetry to be similar; it helps me to connect to the words in front of me. I also rather like, and here I may sound a complete philistine but in for a penny in for a pound, poems that rhyme as I seem to find the patterns easier and the rhythm. Not all Cope’s poems do rhyme though yet because the poems are down to earth rather than airy fairy I find that I can cope with them. But what about the poems I can hear you asking; well before I talk about them further let’s have one that I love…

Loss

The day he moved out was terrible –
That evening she went through hell.
His absence wasn’t a problem
But the corkscrew had gone as well.

Isn’t that just brilliant? It combines the utter devastation of losing someone you love or being left and then in her wonderful way Cope makes light of it. Yet she can be just as heart breaking. I don’t want to include it because a) its too long and b) I think you should all be rushing off to read all of Cope’s poems, but ‘Tich Miller’ is just one of the saddest poems I think I have ever read. Every time I read it it just gets me. ‘Being Boring’ is another stunner as it celebrates the joys of the everyday, in fact I think that really sums up Cope over all, everyday emotions of all ranges are celebrated in her work. Time for another poem I think…

Valentine

My heart has made its mind up
And I’m afraid it’s you.
Whatever you’ve got lined up,
My heart has made its mind up
And if you can’t be signed up
This year, next year will do.
My heart has made its mind up
And I’m afraid it’s you.

I can’t really sum up a collection of poems, partly because with the selected works in ‘Two Cures for Love’ they are glimpses of an author at differing stages of her career and I would have to sum each one up and possibly look too deeply into them which might ruin the magic Cope weaves. There is also the fact that with poetry the reaction you have to it is very personal and very individual (yes, I know this is the case with fiction too but with poetry I feel it is stronger maybe deeper). All I can say is that I love Wendy Copes words and I would heartily recommend you read her if you haven’t already.

Wendy Cope is basically the poet I am using to slowly but surely shoe horn my way into poetry properly. Who else would you recommend?

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Books By The (Hotel) Bedside…

So today in my only post not scheduled before we flew to Italy, where I am now, I thought I would bring you one of my ‘books by the bedside’ posts (where I share what I am reading in the hope you’ll share what you are) with a holiday twist as these are the books I packed…

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The Beard did raise his eyebrows at this amount however…I have to pack more books that it is likely I will read on holiday as you never know what you might be in the mood for when you get there do you? I also have to have a crime novel (like the Kishwar Desai) or a funny book (which I think Kerry Hudson’s is meant to be) for the flights as I hate flying and need something to concentrate on. The Desai was perfect on the way here.

I also like books set where I am going. I could have packed William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for Verona (we went to the balcony which I’ll be posting about when we are back) but it was a brief stint there though I did read some Mary Beard while we were in the Roman Arena as it felt apt.

In Florence I have been struggling with ‘The Villa (set in Florence) by Lucretia Grindle, it’s good and it’s teasing me that it’s going to be quite a thrilling mystery if I keep at it but there’s a lot of ‘his hair was like a lions mane’ and ‘she ate systematically if delicately, like a horse’ which is slightly grating so I might switch to Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Enchantress of Florence’ instead.

There is one major temptation though, the hotel we are staying at has the most stunning library (the building was once home Italian journalist and writer Ugo Ojetti, who held literary and art events here) and its brimming with books I want to read…

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So I might be tempted away! Anyway, we are having an amazing time and the suns out so I am off to the pool! What have you been reading of late and what’s on your bedside table? Do you pack more books than you really need for a holiday?

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The Long Earth – Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

If you visit this blog regularly (and I don’t dare to presume that you all do) then you might be surprised to see me writing about Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s first collaborative novel ‘The Long Earth’ because I don’t really read much in the way of science fiction at all, if anything really. However if you listen to the podcast The Readers which I co-host with Gavin of Gav Reads, my having read this book may be less of a surprise as you will know that we had the honour of interviewing Sir Terry and Stephen for a special episode, which if all has gone well should have gone live today (I am on holiday though so can’t quite guarantee it), and so I threw myself into the novel and the genre in advance.

Doubleday, hardback, 2012, fiction, 352 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I have to admit that I might struggle to summarise the premise of ‘The Long Earth’ because it is rather complex. This actually concerned me before I had even started the book that I was going to get very, very lost by it. You see ‘The Long Earth’ is centred around the idea that as well as our earth, or Datum Earth as it is known in 2015 in this book, there are infinite parallel earths. Most people up until 2015 haven’t been aware of them, however on a single day the design for a Stepper leaks, a device which can transport you to them all one at a time and can be made using items easily found around the house. So children start stepping and disappearing. Yet there are people how can naturally ‘step’, and we discover there have been for decades and even centuries. One such natural stepper, Joshua Valienté, attracts attention when the other kids at the children’s home he lives in start vanishing and he saves them and brings them back. Police and big corporations want access and guides to ‘The Long Earth’ and so from here we follow Joshua’s journey and discover with him as he goes.

I admit writing that made my head hurt a little, so therefore reading it might have done, yet it isn’t as complex as it sounds. There is also much more too it as really I have only described the setting up of the story, much more happens from here on in. Yet at the same time it doesn’t… Let me explain. You see my other initial concern, after how would my head cope with all these earths, was that with endless versions of earths ahead this book might become a little repetitive and dull, yet it never quite did. There was a small moment at one or two points where I thought ‘come on, where is this going’ but they were brief.

Pratchett and Baxter create a really interesting Datum Earth, they also create many possible back stories with characters like Private Percy Blakeney who we meet ‘stepping’ during the war in 1916. There is a real sense of humour to the novel, one of the characters initial appears as a vending machine to which there were some giggles from me when he ‘lets a can go’ as it were, there is also the side effects of stepping too. It also looks at big subjects affecting earth now. There is a strand to the story which is about divides, some people simply can’t step even with the machine, and so the debate about ‘difference’ is part of the book as is human nature. As soon as new planets are found some people go to find their own private Idaho, yet some go to pillage and consume, other want to control.

My only slight qualm with the book was that it did feel like the first in a series. The fact the book does rather slowly, if with moments of adventure and discovery, trawl through each parallel earth made me think ‘this isn’t nearly the whole story’ and also the ending very clearly suggests there will be more. I should state that I knew beforehand there were more books coming so that could have been in the subconscious part of my brain but if I am doing a fair and honest review (which is always my aim) I sensed it throughout, I could feel things were being slightly reined in for the future and the bigger picture.

That small quibble aside I was rather surprised how much I enjoyed ‘The Long Earth’ being as it is not my normal reading fare at all. I lost myself in the world/worlds that were created for me and had a bit of an adventure along the way. I can’t say I will be throwing myself into science fiction from now on but I will certainly read the follow up to this and will definitely be trying some of both Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s other solo novels in the future.

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Filed under Doubleday Publishers, Review, Stephen Baxter, Terry Pratchett

The Uninvited Guests – Sadie Jones

It isn’t really the time of year to curl up with a truly spooky ghost story, and yet sometimes I do want something a little surreal and supernatural to escape into. Having heard various reports about Sadie Jones third novel ‘The Uninvited Guests’, and having kindly been sent a spare copy from Simon of Stuck in a Book a while back, I thought this would be just the kind of book for me at just the right moment.

Chatto and Windus, hardback, 2012, fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent by Simon T of Stuck-in-a-Book

In the country house of Sterne, somewhere on the outskirts of Manchester, it is the last day of April 1912; it is a big day for the Torrington family. Firstly it is Emerald’s, the middle child of the family, 20th Birthday and she is lost in the preparations of what she hopes will be her most fabulous birthday party yet. It is also an important day for the family as Edward, the head of the family, is off to Manchester on urgent business, business that could save the family. As day progresses into night there is an awful train crash nearby, the survivors of which are sent to Sterne filling the house with rather odd strangers, one in particular who will make himself especially well known to the whole family with some rather ulterior motives.

That is all I can say for the premise without giving anything away, well, apart from the fact that the youngest daughter of the household, Smudge (a rare delightfully precocious fictional child), has also seen this night as the perfect night for her ‘Great Undertaking’ which adds much humour to the novel, rather than the sinister possibilities the title conjures. Smudge was one of the characters that really made this book for me, even if the storyline was utterly farcical and it is the characters that set this book alight for the reader. Charlotte, who is rather at the crux of the story, is the mistress of the house and is utterly wonderful to watch as she starts gaily making merry of the day only to become more bitter and bitchy as the day goes on and on.

This is the other aspect of the book that I really admired. Nothing is initially what it appears. The Torrington’s themselves are not straight forward, Smudge is indeed the only child of Charlotte and Edward, Clovis (the only character I didn’t care much for) and Emerald being from Charlotte’s previous marriage and while Sterne initially seems a grand Edwardian estate it is in fact crumbling all around the edges, facades are slipping left right and centre and I don’t just mean with the house. Also with the mysterious stranger I started guessing just who he was from his arrival, changing my mind continuously and by the end having been proven wrong every time.

Sadie Jones also throws in a wonderful sense of humour to the book, occasionally dark and biting sometimes light and a little camp, yet the book never slips into a full blown farcical camp bit of nonsense which it could easily have done in the wrong hands.

I love ghost stories and I love books set in rather crumbling old houses. ‘The Uninvited Guests’ really does hit the spot on both levels. It isn’t a book that will have you shaking with fear, though there are some uneasy sinister parts to the book, but it might have you shaking with laughter at the barbed words between its characters and the situation as it gets more and more surreal. Like Julian Clary’s ‘Briefs Encountered’, which I read earlier this year, this is a ghostly book one set out to entertain rather than scare. I saw someone review another book very positively recently calling it an ‘entertainment’ and now I know just what they meant.

I haven’t read any of Sadie Jones other novels yet. I have heard that this is a very different novel to her previous ones though, I am intrigued. Have any of you read this or have you read, and would recommend, any of Sadie Jones’ other novels? I am rather keen to give them a whirl after this one.

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The Man Booker Prize 2012

So today is the big day and we will find out what the judges of the Man Booker Prize 2012 have decided as a collective are their best 12 or 13 books of the past year. I personally love all the waiting and the guessing in the lead up to the announcement as well as all the discussion once the list has been announced; all of the ‘oh I can’t believe that this was on the list when that wasn’t’ etc. The debate it creates about books is fantastic and who can complain at that?

I also really love trying to guess the books that will make the Man Booker longlist each year. I am always way of the mark and look completely inept but who cares, again it is all part of the fun. I was asked by the lovely Katie at We Love This Book, rather in advance as I am away; if I would suggest some titles I would love to see on the list this year. You can see it here (which will open in a new window).

These are not my predictions though, I doubt my tastes will match five judges, I also think that we will see a lot of familiar faces this year (Amis, Carey, Banville etc) with previous listed authors being automatically being entered again. I have been thinking about this recently I can’t decide if I think that this is a good thing or a bad thing to be honest, there are pro’s and con’s.

As I mentioned before I am sadly out of the country while the announcement and all the initial debate is going on (the joys of being able to schedule posts ahead of time) which will be lovely as I will (hopefully) be relaxing in the sun but I am miffed that I will miss it all going on at the time, I will have to wait until I am back. So I thought I would ask you all a little favour…

I am hoping that some of you will please leave your comments (which I have been rubbish at replying at, sorry, I will be better when I am back and have had a proper break) below with your guesses or books you would like to see listed (or links to them), thoughts on the books when they are listed and what you would have liked to have seen appear on the list as well as or instead of. Then I can come and join in with you all when I get back – especially as I don’t have Facebook and the Man Booker website forum pages have vanished in the revamp. Oh and… Are any of you planning on reading the lot?

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Do You Have Divisions of Authors?

I have been back in Derbyshire visiting my Gran and also visiting my old childhood haunts this past weekend. Gran was in good form, despite having had a nasty fall last week, and can now almost lift her foot (whilst nearly going blue in the face with effort bless her) and can move her left thumb and slightly squeeze her hand so it’s all good. She can also read again and this of course led to talking about books, which brought up the subject of divisions of authors. (I thought I would pop a picture of her bookshelves here that I took this weekend as a bit of book porn and because I don’t like posts without pictures… oh dear.)

Gran’s Bursting Bookshelves

I have been trying to recollect the exact way this conversation came up but I know it came down to Gran wanting to know if I had read Anita Shreve.  I mentioned that I hadn’t, as I had mistakenly thought that (from the covers) she was chick-lit, but had recently bought ‘The Weight of Water’ as my mum had lots on her shelves and then Kim of Reading Matters reviewed her and reminded me she too was a big fan. At the moment I mentioned chick-lit my Gran frowned and said ‘I wouldn’t say that, I would say she is more a second division author…’

I have never heard of this expression before, or even given the ideas of divisions of authors so there was an odd silence afterward whilst I was getting my head around it. She then quoted Somerset Maugham who apparently said something about this, of course I have now completely the quote, but I think I can paraphrase by saying he always aimed for first division but knew he would remain in second – which I think a lot of people would disagree with.

I do find the idea of an author division league, oddly like football which I never thought I would mention on this blog, intriguing even if I don’t quite agree with it. Would it be a case of authors going from first to second if they wrote a dud one etc? I may possibly have over thought this, I was wondering how it would work with debut novelists would they have to work their way up no matter how good their debut novel?

I have been thinking of having a Hall of Fame for my very favourite authors on this blog, maybe its time to pull my finger out and do it! What do you think? Do you have divisions of authors? How do you categorise the people you read, is it a case of favourites, ones I like and the ones that I don’t? I would be interested to know and will report back to Gran (who I will grill a little more on this too) when I next visit her.

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From Books to Baking & Back Again

I have something to divulge/admit to you all… I love a bit of baking! Well when I say love, I should actually state I used to love it about a decade ago (maybe less) and then just stopped doing it completely – though oddly my love of cake and baked goods didn’t stop. In the last few weeks I seem to have reclaimed the love however.

It all started about two weeks ago when I woke up with the random urge to bake. This was possibly after The Beard had baked a delightful batch of fairy cakes (no pun intended) to take to my mother’s for their first meeting. (A quick aside story; my little sister is known for her baking in the family and the Beards baked good started a ‘bake off’ and she was promptly found the next morning creating a citrus marble cake, the kitchen gloves were off, well on actually, as it were.)

Well these ruddy cakes, how lovely they were and how his working in the food industry clearly showed through (I didn’t spoil it all by saying he had bought the icing – oops) went round the family and when we visited my aunty on a trip to see Gran I had the comment ‘you can’t bake can you Simon?’ That night when babysitting for said cruel (ha, joke) aunty we watched ‘Julie and Julia’. Oddly the next morning baking was just what I wanted to do and announced the fact within moments of waking up. To say that The Beard was sceptical was an understatement…

However he was wrong because within minutes of him leaving I had rifled through the limited selection of baking and cookery books we have on the kitchen window sill, which I feel needs illustrating…

…And had whipped up a list of ingredients, run (well walked) to the supermarket bought them all, come home and started to bake.

Was I going to do fairy cakes for a first bake, was I heck! I decided on doing something different…

Lemon and poppy seed muffins I felt were called for and despite me using cases that were too small and having far too much mix in each one I was quite thrilled with them.

Yet that wasn’t enough, my baking whim wasn’t quite sated and so, after a quick dash round the kitchen and to the local grocery I came back and started making something seriously chocolate based…

Within four hours I had not only got twelve muffins, I also had a chocolate and pear cake cooling on the side. Simon looked and saw it was good.

I then text aforementioned aunty a picture of the cakes with ‘and who says I can’t bloody bake?’ to which the response came ‘Impressive. Look pretty but do they taste like ****?’ Well the chocolate cake didn’t though I will admit the muffins were a teeny weenie bit dry and not lemony enough for my personal tastes, but I was blooming impressed. I should add we had so much cake we actually had to donate it to family members throughout the week.

It hasn’t stopped since, another chocolate and pear cake has been whipped up and thanks to the lovely Louise at book group I have, using her recipe, made what The Beard (almost begrudgingly) called ‘the best lemon drizzle cake ever’…

So the baking bug is definitely back. (Second story aside: I mentioned it to Mum the other day and she said that she wasn’t surprised. As a child I had forgotten I would often bake things, I once baked with my mum and she ended up taking mine to a friend’s party instead of hers as mine didn’t deflate and sink in the middle – a story I had also forgotten.) So much so that with The Beard opening a food shop in the Wirral imminently (he is leaving cheese which I have not quite forgiven him for yet) and us both loving cooking and baking, plus we are off to an Italian Cookery School next week, we thought maybe we should make up a blog about it?

What do you think? We thought it could be a blend of what we cook personally (and the fact we both make up meals), where we dine out, random foodie things we try, cookery book reviews/recipe reviews, the cookery school and even have a food based book group – hence why I asked about books with cooking or ingredients as the theme or in the title the other day. Naming the blog though, unlike the content, seems to be the problem… So far we have come up with ‘The Fabulous Bearded Baker Boys’, ‘Beat It, Bake It, Eat It’, ‘Savidge Eats The Beards Treats’ (but that might be seen as a euphemism, mind you cooking is full of those – we’ve all watched Nigella) along with some other rather silly ones (‘Bitchin’ in the Kitchen’ etc) but are having issues, any suggestions and would you want to see a site like that?

Also what cook books would you heartily recommend? I really want Paul Hollywood and his ‘How To Bake’, oh, I mean I really want ‘How To Bake’ by Paul Hollywood, along with anything by Lorraine Pascale, Lisa Faulkner and any Nigella’s we don’t have… but what would you recommend? Thoughts on great cook books and if you would like a sideline bakery blog too please.

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Who Would You Like To See On The Man Booker Longlist?

It is a mere week away that the Man Booker Prize Longlist 2012 will be announced. After the interesting year that it had last year (which some might think is an understatement, I actually liked the surprise list last year) it will be interesting to see what this year’s new group of judges list as their best twelve or thirteen books from the submissions.

I have been asked to write a list of the twelve books that I would like to see on the list for We Love This Book and so I have been mulling it all over this morning (though I have until Monday to hand my thoughts in) as it is very different as to what I think will actually get longlisted next week, which I will report back on nearer the time.

So I thought in the interim, because everyone likes a guessing game and a list of books don’t they, I would ask all of you what you would like (and what you think if you want) will get longlisted for the Booker this year. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Are any of you planning reading the longlist or shortlist this year? I will read some of them, if I haven’t already, but as I am deep in prize submissions for the Green Carnation (hence why for a while there might be more ‘bookish thoughts’ posts than ‘reviews’ on the blog) it will only be the books I really fancy giving a whirl.

Oh and whilst I am asking questions… do you think I should have a Savidge Reads page/account on Facebook?

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Foodie Books, But Not Cook Books (Well, Not Quite Yet)

I have had a real craving for a certain type of book at the moment. I really want to read books with food in them, almost in a starring role of their own. If you are thinking that I have gone a little bit mad and am talking even more gobbledygook than normal then I should explain that this is in part because I am off to a cooking school in Italy next week, and also to do with a sort of Savidge Reads off shoot project that I will be doing with The Beard, but more on that in detail on Thursday as in the interim I just really want to know what books you have loved that have had food as a character/plot device or food in the title. I don’t mean cookbooks, not quite yet. I have pulled some down off the TBR already; this is in part to start reading them, and satisfy this current reading whim, and also to show any people still thinking I am bonkers that they exist.

I am sure I have more than those pictured above, and I haven’t actually gone and looked in the lounge at books that I have read already (‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ has instantly popped into my head, oh and now ‘Heartburn’ has with its recipes throughout) but in case you can’t see them they are…

  • Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (which I read in my teens and must re-read)
  • Chocolat by Joanne Harris (which is one of those rare books where I have watched the film but not read the book, I do now think it’s been long enough since I have seen it that I can read it. She has written lots of books with food in hasn’t she, should I be delving deeper than this obvious title?)
  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (which I have been meaning to read for ages and ages and ages and ages)
  • Eating for England by Nigel Slater (I adored his memoir of food and childhood ‘Toast’ immensely and The Beard has just started it and been howling with laughter)
  • John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk (which is out in September but Alice at Bloomsbury thrust in my hand when I visited and demanded I read because it is apparently so brilliant. I discovered it’s like a foodie version of Suskind’s ‘Perfume’ which was all about scent, I am now very excited – in fact I think this book started the whole craving so maybe I should read it first?)

So that should really do me for now but I am desperate to know of other gems which I might be missing. I am desperate for a foodie book like the above set in Italy, as that would be too perfect for my trip away, does anyone know of any? Which books featuring food have you read and loved? Have you read any of the above and where should I start?

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Pure – Andrew Miller

There are books that you mean to read for ages and ages and simply don’t get around to; ‘Pure’ by Andrew Miller has been one such book for me. With its cemetery setting (I do like a cemetery, I was even a tour guide for one) and the fact it sounded like a dark, brooding, sensational and gothic novel I thought this was going to be the ideal book for me from its release date. I didn’t read it. It then won the Costa prize and again ignited my interest in it. I didn’t read it. Then I begged Gavin to put it on the list of The Readers Summer Book Club titles and so had to read it. So finally I ended up reading it about a year after I intended to. How does this happen with books?

Sceptre Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 352 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

The year is 1785 as ‘Pure’ opens and we meet Jean-Baptiste Barratte, a young engineer from the countryside who is put in charge of demolishing the oldest (and smelliest) cemetery in Paris, les Innocents, which many believe has become the blight of the city. In doing so Barratte faces one of the most difficult tasks of his career, initially it seems just from a logistical point of view, however as time goes on events unfold Barratte realises that this could be the most difficult tasks for many more reasons than professional, and that a place some wish to destroy is held dear by some.

That all sounds rather grand, gothic and indeed ‘sensational’ which was all part and parcel of why I was looking forward to the book so much. Within a few chapters I was hooked by Miller’s writing, from Barratte’s first meeting at Versailles to his first steps in les Innocents, which is incredibly atmospheric. The stench of the streets, markets and people around the cemetery which have become coated in the stench of death comes of the pages and you can feel it cloying at you. It’s hideous yet also wonderful to feel the place and its history coming alive before your eyes as you read on.

“She has watched it all her life and has never wearied of it, the market and – more directly in her view – the old church of les Innocents with its cemetery, though in the cemetery nothing has happened for years, just the sexton and his granddaughter crossing to one of the gates, or more rarely, the old priest in his blue spectacles, who seems simply to have been forgotten about. How she misses it all. The shuffling processions winding from the church doors, the mourners tilted against each other’s shoulders, the tolling of the bell, the swaying coffins, the muttering of the office and finally – the climax of it all – the moment the dead man or woman or child was lowered into the ground as though being fed to it. And when the others had left and the place was quiet again, she was still there, her face close to the window, keeping watch like a sister or an angel.”

I do love a really dark book and I like a good mystery and as I devoured the first part of the book, in almost a single sitting, I had this wonderful feeling of apprehension in my stomach as things in the Monnard, where Barratte resides, go bump and scratch in the night and whispers are heard and people spy on others sleeping. That and the mystery of those unhappy to see Barratte at the church in les Innocents were making a wonderful ominous concoction and I was thoroughly enjoying it.

I don’t know quite what happened in the second part of the novel, I am not sure if it was Barratte going home to the countryside to find his friend Lecouer, and his mining men, to help him with his task or if it was the introduction of several new strands such as a love story and then the actual task of demolishing, but I sort of lost my way. The writing stayed powerful, precise and completely atmospheric and yet characters names started to confuse me, which woman was which etc, and the task of moving the bodies, which was initially gorily interesting (with mummified corpses and random bones with stories to tell) started to bog me down a little, the mystery seemed to vanish with practicality for a while. Miller did pull it out the bag for me again after this when something completely unexpected and dark happens to Barratte (though it was resolved a little neatly and vaguely all at once) and within the final ten chapters the book had the pace and sense of menace that beguiled me at the start.

The middle did sort of interrupt my flow, partly because I kept having to re-read it and make notes of who was who and why there were there. Yet oddly this isn’t a book that is difficult to read or, again I must praise the writing, get lost in because of its atmosphere, I just wondered if it was trying to do a little too much at one point and so it spread its strengths out which slightly weakened it in the middle over all. Whinge over though because as I said the last third of the book completely won me round and I was shocked with the sudden few twists that came.

So overall I really, really enjoyed ‘Pure’. Without a doubt les Innocents as a place and indeed a character of its own is the absolute star of the show because of the stunning way Miller creates it in your head with his prose. I loved the darkness of the book, it is also darkly funny in parts, and indeed I was fascinated by the period in history which I feel I simply don’t know enough about. A book I would recommend but not sensationalise in case you were left slightly disappointed by the hype someone else had created, which I think was my slight problem with ‘Pure’, though a problem I think I had created in my own head. I will re-read it one day far in the future without expectations and see if it does better, as I do want to return to les Innocents and Miller’s writing is incredible.

Who else out in the ether has read ‘Pure’ and what did you think? Who has read any of Miller’s other books? Where should I go next with regard to reading him? I have been thinking ‘Casanova’ or ‘Ingenious Pain’ might be my next port of call maybe.

I read this book for The Readers Summer Book Club, if you would like to hear the author discussing the book you can on this week’s episode of The Readers Summer Book Club here.

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Filed under Andrew Miller, Review, Sceptre Publishing, The Readers Summer Book Club

Fifty Shades of ‘Oh I Say’…

I can’t not talk about it any longer, I have to finally admit defeat to what seems to have become the literary sensation of the last decade, let alone the last week or month, which is ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. Everyone is talking about it (by the sales week on week it seems they are also all buying it) and when I say everyone I mean everyone. Get ready for a little, and rather funny, Fifty Shades story that happened the other day…

On Sunday The Beard’s Mum and Dad, who are in their late sixties, took us both out for dinner as part of The Beards birthday week treat (he was 41 on Wednesday, send belated wishes, he’d love it) and what a lovely dinner it was. Between mains and dessert The Beard and his Dad left the table. His Mum and I were chatting when she suddenly leaned over and said ‘Si, I was wondering… You couldn’t get me a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey could you?’ I think it was one of the very few times my jaw has almost hit the floor and I have been speechless. We caught each others eye and both started laughing and I said ‘of course’ and more laughing ensued. It was at this point that The Beard and his Dad came back and asked what we were discussing, when they learnt what it was I thought The Beard was going to faint from a mixture of shock and awkwardness. I have to admit I was oddly touched his Mum felt that she could ask me, anyway…

Since then I haven’t stopped hearing about the book be it on Woman’s Hour (I feel no shame I listen to this as a male), my Aunty telling me all her friends (housewives in their forties) are reading it but she’s not and Gran said when I saw her on Thursday (she can move her left thumb, minor progress but promising) that the nurses are talking of nothing else. Ha!

Well today whilst supermarket shopping I saw this…

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Well I went and caved in didn’t I?

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Not for me though! I will be taking it as a gift tomorrow for The Beards mum when we go round for dinner (and to see how Oscar copes there as he will be visiting while we are in Italy, then I will get her the other two as a thank you for cat sitting, ha) as I know she nearly bought it at another supermarket the other day ‘but too many people were watching’.

I am pondering if I should read it. I’ve been a little snobby about it, and in hysterics reading it aloud to The Beard in the kitchen just now (he’s even more horrified I’m giving the book to his mum after those extracts) but can I judge it and roll my eyes (or give people a dirty look when seeing them buying it) without having read it myself? What do you think?

I also wondered about your thoughts, be they good bad or indifferent, to the whole Fifty Shades debate! Have any of you read it… Dare you admit it? Do tell…

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

Ghost World – Daniel Clowes

I still haven’t posted my list of ‘forty books to read by the time I am forty’ yet, however if I had (well until now as I have read it) you would have seen ‘Ghost World’ by Daniel Clowes firmly placed on this list. Graphic novels are really something I have only started to truly appreciate in the last few years but Daniel Clowes ‘Ghost World’ is one of the cult graphic novels that everyone recommends I read, along with ‘Maus’ by Art Spiegelman. So when I spotted ‘Ghost World’ at the library I decided I should give it a whirl.

Jonathan Cape Publishing, paperback, 1997, graphic novel, 80 pages, borrowed from the library

‘Ghost World’ is a graphic novel centring on two best friends, Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer, who are going through their teenage years together in a small town where nothing really happens, well unless you are Enid of Becky. With their teenage cynical, nonchalant attitude they seem to somehow sense a mystery about everyone despite acting like they don’t care. Regulars at their diner become, through the girls imaginations, perverts, incestuous siblings, Satanist cult leaders and serial killers. It’s a series of chronicles of points in their friendship, originally a series in Clowes comic book series ‘Eightball’, which makes the whole of this graphic novel.

I have to admit that I am rather torn on ‘Ghost World’. Part of me thought that the book was brilliant. I really enjoyed the dark humour of the girls and how they creates such dark and wicked pasts for everyone they knew, whether they liked them or hated them, as it appealed to my sense of humour. I also really liked the dynamic between the girls which Clowes creates and the way in which he looks at how their friendship alters as their hormones do. Clowes creates a very believable relationship between them as boys, other friendships and college threaten to tear them apart. Is it patronising to say I thought this was particularly well done as Clowes is not and, as far as I know, has never been a teenage girl.

So where did it go wrong? Well overall it didn’t. I enjoyed reading ‘Ghost World’ in a single hour long sitting. The problem was as soon as I put it down after finishing it my feeling was ‘well that was ok then’ yet really, especially after all the hype from people who know graphic novels and comic books. I was expecting the book to come to life more as other graphic novels I have read in the past have like ‘Fun Home’ or ‘Blankets’. This did feel like a comic, rather than a fully formed graphic novel. That isn’t meant to be a slight as I love reading Batman comics etc, I just didn’t think ‘Ghost World’ had the depth I was expecting and hoped for, the more I thought about it the more it seemed a tale of two rather angry girls who cynically saw the worst in everyone and liked to swear a lot, gossip and talk about sex.

I have to admit that I wanted more from ‘Ghost World’ but (before I get hate mail from its cult audience) that isn’t to say it was a letdown or a disappointing read for me overall. I enjoyed the time I spent with Enid and Becky, I liked the friendship they had and the world and relationships that Clowes created around it. It was a nice escapist read but it did feel more comic like to me than a fully formed graphic novel overall.

I know ‘Ghost World’ has a huge cult fan base, if any of you read this blog can you explain what I might have been missing? Also if you know of some corking graphic novels I have most probably missed out on then do give me your recommendations. I need to get my hands on ‘Maus’ next I think.

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Filed under Daniel Clowes, Graphic Novels, Jonathan Cape Publishers, Review

Tales from the Mall – Ewan Morrison

Do you ever feel like the fates are telling you to read a certain author? I ask because a few weeks ago I felt I was bombarded with subliminal, well not so subliminal that I didn’t notice them, messages that I should read Ewan Morrison. One was a conversation with a friend about a new-to-them author called Ewan Morrison who I really should read, a few days later an advance copy of ‘Close Your Eyes’ by Ewan Morrison (with the quote ‘If Ewan Morrison was a woman, Close Your Eyes would be destined for the shortlist’) popped through the door. Then at a meeting with Waterstones Deansgate I was asked if I would like to host an evening of the literary salon ‘Bad Language’ with guess who as the headline act… Ewan Morrison. (It is on tonight.) I took the hint and so soon enough ‘Tales from the Mall’, the book he will be discussing, arrived. Having read it I am thrilled everyone was ‘book pushing’ Ewan Morrison on me as it is something quite quirky, different and rather brilliant.

Cargo Publishing, paperback, 2012, non-fiction & fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by Waterstones Deansgate

The title of ‘Tales from the Mall’ sort of sums up just what this book is about, well, I should highlight the sort of. This is not your conventional collection of short stories as with ‘Tales from the Mall’ Ewan Morrison gives his readers a mixture of short fictions, historical facts and the retelling of stories from real people, what these all have in common is they centre on the cultural phenomenon of malls (or shopping precincts as some people might call them) and the people who work in them and frequent them.

I really enjoyed how the book worked with this mixture of the real and the fictional. One minute you might be reading the fictional tale of women threatening to kill other women over a pair of shoes, separated families using the mall as a ‘middle ground’, etc, then you find yourself learning about the history of malls and how they came to be, then you will read Morrison’s retell, almost journalistic and fictional, a member of staff’s stories of cross dressers in the car parks or attempted suicides. There are also pictures thrown in along the way too and it all comes together to make the fictional seem real and the factual seem rather surreal. They say real life can be stranger than fiction don’t they? It all merges into a wonderful blend.

I had an inkling that I would like the short stories because of the subject matter; I didn’t expect them to be quite as affecting as they were. In each short story I found myself getting full immersed in each of the characters worlds. ‘Redacted’ is a short story, though I enjoyed every single one, is a short story that will really stay with me for a very long time because of the way it twisted and turned and I followed its narrator feeling everything he felt. I am being a bit cloak and dagger as I wouldn’t want to spoil it and with short stories you can invariably end up writing something as long as the story you want everyone to read.

On top of Morrison’s brilliantly written tales you also get these facts and ‘true life tales’. I was fascinated throughout. Who knew I would be interested in why malls ended up where they did, what ‘The Gruen Transfer’ was and why they are the shapes that they are… but I did. I also found the retold tales of staff throughout these malls (from both the UK and America) really fascinating. I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t want to know all the bonkers and bizarre things that real people actually do and get up to. It’s like being in the CCTV room yourself, and if you are as nosey and fascinated by other humans behaviour as I am it proves an absolute treat. My only slight quibble is the lay out. I loved the idea of a map, like a mall, at the front (as shown above) and all the pictures but sometimes it seems quite crammed and I started to get an occasional sense of information overload. But then that’s like a mall isn’t it? And I don’t think this book is designed to be read in one greedy gulp, though I sort of wanted to because of its bite size nature. I know that’s nothing to do with Morrison’s writing but I had to mention it.

‘Tales from the Mall’ is a quirky and rather unusual read but all the better for it. The way that fiction, facts and real people’s real stories retold merge creates this wonderful mix of the real and surreal and captures humans and the way that they behave. I haven’t encountered a book that does this in quite this way before. It’s fascinating, funny (often darkly) and at times really affecting. I am really glad that people pushed me in the direction of Ewan Morrison, now I am hopefully going to be pushing him on you.

Have you read any of Ewan Morrison’s other books? I had ‘Menage’ once but discovered it was the third in a trilogy so didn’t read it, oops. As I mentioned I have ‘Close Your Eyes’ on the TBR and I will be reading that very soon. I also wondered if any of you have read other collections that merge fiction, facts and true tales. I would love to read more books that do this, so please let me know of any recommendations.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Cargo Publishing, Ewan Morrison, Non Fiction, Review, Short Stories