Monthly Archives: January 2013

Other People’s Bookshelves #8: Sylvie aka Sly Wit

This week we get to have a good old nosey around the bookshelves of Sylvie, who some of you will probably know better as her blogging alias Sly Wit. As it says on her blog she is “half American, half French, and all-around opinionated”, which she thinks pretty much sums her up, but I think you need more than that. She grew up in New England, studied finance in college, and then worked briefly in investment consulting. However, soon realized that wasn’t really for her and going back to school. After doing time in both New York and Paris, completing her Ph.D. in French Studies and teaching classes in everything from British politics to French literature and film, se left academia about five years ago to move to San Francisco and work in textbook publishing as a development editor in French and Italian. She now works as a freelance editor. She is an avid reader, runs a book salon and blogs regularly at Sly Wit, you can also find her, less regularly, at Worth the Detour, where she documents her quest to visit all the U.S. national parks and other travel adventures. So now to the shelves and finding out even more….

Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

When I moved from the east coast to California five years ago, I gave away over half my books (shock! horror!) and now most of my reading comes from the library, so a book has to be really good to be on my shelves. More importantly, it has to look good. That’s right, the first question and it’s already confession-time: I care far too much about the aesthetic look of my bookshelves! They are hyper-organized, certain colours are better than others (and yes, I am tempted to weed out favourites that have ugly spines), and most books are in excellent condition.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

Where to begin? Fiction is in the living room and generally divided into English and French, and then alphabetical by author, and then chronologically by title within each author (hyper-organized, remember?). The shelves in the hall are grouped according to subject, with books from my days as a professor grouped chronologically within subjects (French history, French language and culture, Franco-American relations, national film industries, film criticism) and then other subjects by whatever makes sense for that subject (travel, bande dessinée, children’s books, philosophy and religion, poetry). I also have a number of reference materials for my work as an editor. I try to cull at least once a year.

Fiction Hallway 2

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

One of the first books I remember buying myself was a boxed set of Sherlock Holmes at a tag sale. They had great covers. Unfortunately, they were well loved when I bought them and I read them multiple times, so they eventually fell apart. For my last re-read, I took them along with me on a trip to Brazil and left one book behind (held together with a rubber band) at each place I stayed.

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

No guilty pleasures per se, but the paperbacks I pick up here and there (from work, friends, and library sales) that don’t meet the ‘standards’ of the shelves, end up in the hidden tbr pile by my bed to eventually be given away to the library. In fact, I was thinking my book challenge this year would be to read them or lose them at the end of the year.

Holmes and Christie double-stacked

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

My most prized possession is the complete set of Agatha Christies that I started collecting in high school. It took me over seven years of dutifully sending in a check once-a-month to Bantam Books to receive the entire collection of faux-leather hardbacks. Sadly, since there are 81 volumes, there is no way I could save them in a fire. I’m afraid all efforts and first instincts would probably mean that my childhood companion (a stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh) would emerge from any blaze.

What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

My parents didn’t really have books I considered too grown-up for me or that I aspired to read, but, in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, I do remember sneaking Judy Blume’s first adult book, Wifey, out of the library and keeping it hidden under my bed while I read it. This was after my friends and I had already passed around Forever (her book on teen sex) at school. The only book I currently have by Judy Blume is my original copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

No, most of my current reading comes from the library and I’m generally fine with not owning those books. Most new additions to my shelves are practical—usually cookbooks, travel guides, or second-hand books about San Francisco. However…

Booze and books

What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

After reading A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving for my readers’ choice book challenge, I decided to buy a matching set of three Irving favourites. Because, yes, I like books by the same authors to match (see above re: organizing and aesthetic issues).

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

More classic favourites probably, especially older or interesting editions, or if part of the clothbound classics series designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith. She does fabulous covers. [Simon, you should take a look at the set she did for Sherlock Holmes: http://www.cb-smith.com/]. I keep meaning to replace a collected works of Edgar Allan Poe that I loaned out and never got it back. And I’m always on the lookout for a good book on opera, a newfound passion of mine.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I think they might wonder why I have so little fiction, and almost no contemporary works. However, although my shelves don’t represent my reading now, they are very much filled with books that represent either my life story (my dual citizenship and work as a historian/editor) or my taste, with favourite authors such as Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, and Émile Zola as well as all-time favourite books like Cold Comfort Farm, Théophile Gautier’s Récits fantastiques, The Lord of the Rings, and Rebecca.

Hallway 1

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A big thank you to Sylvie for letting me grill her. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to) in Other People’s Book Shelves series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Sylvie’s responses and/or any of the books she mentioned?

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Ways of Going Home – Alejandro Zambra

I am wondering, though maybe after yesterdays post I should be careful what I say here, if there is a genre to describe when an author writes their book about writing their book, be it in a fictional or non fictional way? Is it simply metafiction? This is part of what Alejandro Zambra’s latest English PEN winning novel, if that is the right term, ‘Ways of Going Home’ does and I have also seen this in a recent Graham Greene read and ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet, a book that I need to get back to. It is a style that I find I liked and wasn’t expecting when I picked this latest book up completely by whim – it was the cover that did the trick, though I was in the mood for a book and author I knew nothing about; we all get that craving now and again don’t we? This appealed because I know little about Chilean fiction and I also want to read more translated fiction. All boxes ticked then!

**** Granta Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 139 pages, translated byMegan McDowell, kindly sent unsolicited by the publisher

‘Ways of Going Home’ opens during at time of both a political time of unease and natural physical concerns in Chile. General Pinochet is dictator of the country and there is murder and torture going on, oblivious to this, initially, is a young unnamed boy who is camping out on the streets as the Santiago has been hit by an earthquake. On that night the boy meets a mysterious girl called Claudia who he becomes infatuated with and who asks him to spy on his neighbour who turns out to be her cousin. The boy doesn’t know why but does it, and we are left to work it out ourselves.

Suddenly though we are drawn out of that narrative to find that we are now in the mind of the author who himself is writing about a young boy who meets a mysterious girl called Claudia on the night of an earthquake. Is this in fact a fictionalisation of his childhood of relative safety under the rule of a dictator that he is looking back on and dealing with the guilt of coming away from such a time so apparently easy? Well the thing is we are never really sure and this adds intrigue along to an already very interesting premise. Is the boy therefore really Zambra? Is the ‘writer’ that we meet? We are never really sure, either way Zambra uses this double narrative and fictional hindsight, as it seems to be, to look at a man’s thoughts at that slightly naive time in youth and then now with adult eyes.

“Back then I was, as I always have been, and I always will be, for Colo-Colo. As for Pinochet, to me he was a television personality who hosted a show with no fixed schedule, and I hated him for that, for the stuffy national channels that interrupted their programming during the best parts. Later I hated him for being a son of a bitch, for being a murderer, but back then I hated him only for those inconvenient shows that Dad watched without saying a word, without acceding any movement other than a more forceful drag on the cigarette he always had glued to his lips.”

The fact this second section, which alternates with the younger aspect again once more in this very short book (which is actually Zambra’s longest at 139 pages), then comes into play made the book doubly intriguing for me. I found this ‘fictional narrators’ reaction of guilt at not being a victim of Pinochet oddly fascinating though I did feel that this reaction in itself highlighted to me that no one in a country where such things are going on ever comes away with an easy mind. Zambra’s writer, and therefore Zambra either way that you look at it (though it can hurt your head), also discusses how writing and reading deal with these things also.

“To read is to cover one’s face, I thought.
To read is to cover one’s face. And to write is to show it.”

As much as ‘Ways of Going Home’ looks at the Pinochet regime in Chile and how it affected the country afterwards, how hingsight comes into play, how children of the murdered and murderers going to school together etc. It is also a book about the importance, and indeed the power, of books and the relationship between reader and writer and fictional and the non fictional. It is a book that leaves you with a long list of other books to read and plenty to go away and think about and discover more on too.

Has anyone else read this novel and what did you make of it? Are Zambra, the boy and the fictional author all one and the same? Has anyone else read any of Zambra’s other works? If they are as interesting as this one I will have to seek them out.

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Filed under Alejandro Zambra, Books in Translation, Granta Books, Review

‘New Adult’ Fiction; What is the Point?

One of the many things that I love about recording The Readers every week, with Gavin of Gav Reads, is that it makes me think about (and in this case have a rant about) things that I wouldn’t expect it to. This week Gavin wanted to talk about the genre of ‘New Adult’ fiction, I have to admit I knew very little about it to be honest and so I went off and did some research. Having done so I have to admit that my main thought with it is… What is the point of ‘New Adult’ as a genre?

If we use the trusted source (my tongue is slightly tickling my cheek here) Wikipedia for a definition then it is “New-adult Fiction or post-adolescent literature is a recent category of fiction for young adults first proposed by St. Martin’s Press in 2009.St. Martin’s Press editors wanted to address the coming-of-age that also happens in a young person’s twenties. They wanted to consider stories about young adults who were legally adults, but who were still finding their way in building a life and figuring out what it means to be an adult.” What is all the more interesting/odd is that the age range for this new type of genre is according to several sources the age range of 14 – 35.

Now we will slightly gloss over my main issue that this is a genre simply created by some marketing people in a publishing house to sell more books which is no bad thing, until you see some of the quality of some of the books and the sort of stories they are. Snobbish? Maybe! It seems like a cash cow and one which I find a mixture of patronizing and perturbing.

My first concern is that the first book which has been published as a ‘new adult’ novel is Tammara Webber’s ‘Easy’, which starts with the protagonist of the book getting raped. I am aware this happens in the world and that younger people need to be taught the hardships of life (though in my day it was being taught about death by being bought a hamster or goldfish that would invariably pop it’s clogs in a month or two) but at the age of fourteen, really? This for me becomes all the more disconcerting as apparently the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ trilogy has now, along with ‘Twilight’ but not Harry Potter, been put into this category. Do we really want anyone, not just girls, under the age of 18 reading books with graphic sex in them, regardless of the tin of S&M worms that come opened with it? Weren’t we all calling these books ‘Mummy Porn’ just months ago, now because we are so stupid forward thinking and ‘out there’ let’s pass it on to some youths. I am inwardly groaning as I type. I am not a prude but this does all just seem wrong.

The question is what next? Will the ‘Mummy Porn’ become a genre alongside ‘Tragic Life Stories’ (groan) and ‘New Adult’ (I have just seen how appropriate that title is for books that seem to technically be Baby Black Lace/Black Lace for Beginners), will there be a ‘Ready Meal for One/Spinster/Lonely Man in a Cardigan/Eternal Bachelor Fic’ to run alongside ‘Romance’? Will I be dashing to buy from the ‘True Tales of Animals Daring Do’s’ shelves? Will ‘Grey Fiction’ suddenly take off? The mind boggles, though if any of those do become ‘the latest thing’ I want royalties.

Also what annoys me about it is that those publishers pushing this genre are actually closing off a world of books to people rather than opening the eyes of many to more wonderful books. Are we all going to have to follow the same reading trajectory? You start with picture books, then children’s books, then YA, then NA, then ‘fiction’ and that is the only option? What happened to just getting to an age where you read what you want? For me, who is from a generation prior even to YA (yes I am that old), it was a case of reading from Robin Jarvis to Patrick Suskind, possibly via some Point Horror, because I just naturally progressed at my own pace in my teens. Are the ‘New Adult’ book police going to stop my 14 year old sister from her current read of ‘An Evil Cradling’ by Brian Keenan (no she really is) or make my 13 year old cousin stop reading Charles Dickens and C.J Sansom because apparently he isn’t ready for them yet, instead handing them ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ to have a think about as that is what they should be reading at their age? Erm, no thank you! It all seems preposterous to me. And what about YA is this defunct, down graded or what?

Is this 'NA' or is it 'YA' or simply just fiction?

Is this ‘NA’ or is it ‘YA’ or simply just fiction?

That said, as this is a rather one way set of thoughts on the genre I have recently got a ‘New Adult’ book, though it was just in ‘Fiction’, from the library in the form of ‘Dare Me’ by Megan Abbott. I thought I really should try one of the books from the genre I am writing off a) to see what I make of it b) see if really it is just fiction or YA under an addition unnecessary pigeon hole c) because Jessica of Prose and Cons Book Club (who I love and wish blogged every day, no pressure) loved this tale of crazy evil cheerleaders and it might be a laugh. I will report back, I might end up eating my hat, or I might find out this ‘New Adult’ tag is just a bonkers new genre that need not be, we will see.

As you might have noticed this subject has brought out the rant filled part of me, which you can actually here in the last section of The Readers this week, and I could go on all day. I would love to hear other people’s thoughts on it. Regular readers of this blog of course, but also some of the NA lovers out there and maybe even some of their authors. So what do you think about NA, am I just being a grumpy old git or what?

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Filed under Random Savidgeness

Novel Insights on Savidge Reads #1

A few weeks ago I was a little bit gutted when the lovely Polly of Novel Insights decided that she wanted to give up blogging, especially seeing as I nagged and nagged and nagged for her to start one in the first place – see I tell lots of people they should start a blog. Anyway I felt the blogosphere would miss Polly’s ‘novel insights’ into the books she has been reading and so I have bribed her (the things I know after twenty seven years being friends) to come and do a monthly post on Savidge Reads of the books she has been reading and rather enjoying. So I will hand you over to her, make her welcome, let us know what you think of what she has been reading and I am sure she will comment back when she can. Hoorah. Oh and watch out for my interjections, ha!

Hello Savidge Readers!

As this is my first guest post, let me start by introducing myself. Until recently I wrote a blog called Novel Insights which ran for four years. You might have read it, or heard of it on here, or just heard Simon mention me, as we have been best friends since we were playing He-man and She-ra as little kids. (Oh my god Polly, I am the one with all the secrets and all the power – of Grayskull!)

Anyway… at the end of last year I decided that I didn’t want a whole blog to myself for reasons I noted down in my final post. It was definitely the right decision for me, but also rather poignant. Imagine my delight when Simon offered me a guest spot on the wonderful Savidge Reads. I couldn’t refuse…

Onto reading (isn’t that why we are all here? I think Polly meant to add… apart from Simon’s stunning wit and delightful manner). I recently read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for book group in December. I won’t go into too much detail about it as it seems a little unseasonable this side of the New Year, but I will say that everyone should read it. Its short (so no excuses), is told in the most remarkably warm and witty voice (you can almost hear Dickens having little jokes with himself now and then), and is sinister but still charms the reader with beautiful vignettes of Victorian life. I have also just finished The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey but I will wait to review that until after it’s been discussed at book group!

Today I’m reviewing Moranthology by Caitlin Moran and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

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Moranthology by Caitlin Moran

I was first introduced to Caitlin Moran when I read her entertaining take on feminism – How to Be A Woman which was so funny that I chuckled out loud to myself more than once in public. Similarly Moranthology caused me to laugh so violently on London Transport that I could barely stop myself from crying and had to turn away to face the door to try to re-arrange my face!

Moranthology is a collection of her best columns which she has curated around favourite topics. She has an opinion on everything from solving the world economic crisis to Lady Gaga and delivers it with her own very personal style.

In any collection inevitably there are articles you love more than others. I have to say that although I find her obsession with BBC TV’s Sherlock funny but I haven’t seen it so couldn’t really relate to those articles. I felt maybe I should watch it, but then she also loves Dr Who and I just can’t get into it. What do you guys think? Anyway I digress….as usual…!

I zoomed through this collection and was thoroughly entertained. Some of the more serious stories gave me pause for thought. With A Christmas Carol still in my mind, I get the feeling that she and Dickens if they had had the chance to chat may have shared some opinions on society and public welfare.

Her tone is so personal, my guess is that you will either love or hate her writing – I obviously fall into the ‘love it’ category. This is because she is funny, observant and unapologetic about her views. She is also up-front about being occasionally quite annoying and self-indulgent (for instance, waking her husband up to ask how he would remember her if she tragically died early – what woman hasn’t done something similar!?). In other words she’s human and entertaining and it makes me wonder why I don’t read more ‘funny’ books.

Oh and I tweeted her about my laughing incident and hurrah – she replied – look, look!

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So she’s nice too. Read her.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I downloaded A Monster Calls on my Kindle (oh you filty, filthy…) after reading Simon’s Books of 2012. I was attracted to read it partly because of the beautiful illustrations and because it seemed like a dark fairytale of sorts, saying something (as all good fairytales do) important about the human condition.

Conor O’Malley is the focus of the novel. A thirteen year old boy, struggling with the knowledge that his mother is sick with cancer, he is frightened, angry and unable to talk about what is happening which leaves him isolated at school and at home. In his dreams he is visited by a monster, who appears to him in the form of the ancient yew tree at the bottom of his garden. However, the monster is not the real nightmare, he dreams of something much worse that he cannot bear to put into words.

I have slightly mixed feelings about A Monster Calls. I think it’s a very accomplished book and as Simon commented, the book deals with a difficult subject in a wholly original and effective way. The one issue I had with it was that sometimes I didn’t quite click with the writing style. Perhaps it’s because it’s primarily targeted to the Young Adult market so I felt very aware that it was trying to convey something to me – I felt a bit hand-held. I think my expectations were very high because of how well recommended. That was my only minor complaint.

It lived up to my impression of the dark fairytale however. What a fantastic creation the yew tree monster is – frightening and wise at the same time. He is neither wholly good nor wholly bad and challenges Conor’s ideas of life, forcing him to consider that people and their actions are often not what they seem. Even though it has a magical edge, the book has its feet firmly planted in reality. The characters in the book were all so easy to imagine and relate to. Conor could occasionally be a quite unlikeable, but this is part of what makes the book realistic. Let’s face it people who are dealing with terrible things often are not that nice to be around. The illustrations in the book are beautiful and atmospheric – making me a little sad to be experiencing them on a Kindle and not in print!

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So that’s all for now. I hope you enjoyed my temporary takeover of Savidge Reads. Do read excellent Simon’s review of ‘A Monster Calls’ and I suspect that he might be posting about ‘Moranthology’ as well at some point! Indeed I shall be as I am dipping into it, and chortling a lot, at the moment between other books and when I have only a few minutes to read something.

Until next time… farewell x Px

A big thanks to Polly for a lovely post. Do let her and I know what you think of the books she (and I, we are like book twins) have read. Oh and Polly forgot to mention she is off to the Phillipines at the end of the week and maybe you could give her some holiday reading recommendations too?

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Filed under Caitlin Moran, Novel Insights on Savidge Reads, Patrick Ness

The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

I am beginning to think that my little faux pas that Edith Wharton was one of the UK’s canon authors, when deciding on the six authors for ‘Classically Challenged’ with AJ, was actually a twist of fate and an accidental moment of brilliance. While I liked Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ and enjoyed Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ (let us gloss over Trollope’s ‘The Warden’) I have to say that ‘The House of Mirth’ simply surpasses them for me by a long stretch and has been the first to set me alight. I think it is probably going to become one of my favourite novels of all time and has reminded me what joys there are in the classics and forget the side that makes you feel like you are back at school. Now though I have the nightmare task of trying to write my thoughts on this book which I know will never really do it justice. Gulp!

***** Oxford University Press, paperback, 1905 (2008 edition), fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

In New York in the late 1800’s Lily Bart, at the ripe old age of twenty nine, is in the time of her life where she needs to find a husband. She has had many good seasons living with her rich friends of high society, which is quite miraculous as she herself is made of limited means and no fortune yet Lily is wily. We follow her on her quest to find a husband and the gambles she takes not only with her meagre allowance and cards but in the society she keeps and how she plays them and they play her.

Edith Wharton does some wondrous things in this novel. Firstly Wharton marvellously creates an overview of society at the time. As we meet her Lily actually spends most of her time living off her incredibly wealthy friends. Of course nothing comes for free. It is Lily’s beauty, wit and ability to seem fascinated by anyone and everyone whilst having them fascinated by her that gets her in with the right set. Keeping them as friends and on side however is the really tricky part and one that anyone would find hard to pull off. Lily knows that if she marries someone with utmost wealth she could have everyone at her bidding and the life she has always felt she is her due. This was the plight of many women at the time. When not living off friends though, Lily finds herself living off an aunt, Mrs Penistone, who took her because no one else would after her mother’s death. This relationship I think has a real psychological affect on Lily. She doesn’t want to owe anyone, apart from a husband, anything nor does she want to end up like many of the spinsters that her aunt knows, working in factories and living in boarding houses.

The second wonderful thing about ‘The House of Mirth’ is Lily Bart herself. Lily isn’t really likeable and yet we do like her. She has airs and graces above her station and yet she is witty and does care about people, well overall if we give her the benefit of the doubt. She is the creation of a society at the time along with the aspirations left upon her by her mother’s influence from a young age. There is a real sense of sadness and tragedy underlying her beauty and charm however and I think it is this that while we might not always think she is behaving as we would or correctly makes us like her and root for her all the same. For those of you who have read the book it was her behaviour with a certain collection of letters that showed her true character I felt.

With so much going on it is takes a deft writer to throw in another strand to the story and Wharton does this by introducing, from the very start in a brilliant set of paragraphs where he describes Miss Bart so we are left in no doubt as to her looks and personality, the character of Lawrence Selden. This is another master stroke. He is by no means a rich man having been forced to do the thing that everyone in Lily’s set dreads, work. As a lawyer the rich think he might be useful someday and indeed some of the rich married women of high society, like Bertha Dorset, find his handsome charms might just be the thing to provide some light relief in their lives or all sorts. There is a tension and chemistry between Lily and Selden however, though neither of them really wants it as both know that Lily ideally needs to marry for money, being a woman of no stature. Yet this friction and their love hate relationship are part of what we follow throughout.

‘Exactly. And so why not take the plunge and have it over?’
She shrugged her shoulders. ‘You speak as if I ought to marry the first man who came along.’
‘I didn’t mean to imply that you are as hard put to it as that. But there must be some one with the requisite qualifications.’
She shook her head wearily. ‘I threw away one or two good chances when I first came out – I suppose every girl does; and you know I am horribly poor – and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money.’

Their sparing with each other show what Lily is really thinking or planning and why. Also through Selden’s eyes we get this rather brutal and pitying look on Lily and the monster she threatens to become. This was another of the things I loved about this book; the ability of Wharton to flip between Lily’s perception of things and then to the perceptions others have of Lily and her actions, these perceptions of course being based on whether the person has sympathy for Lily or is in some way her rival or superior. This also highlights the calculating nature of a certain group of women, who Wharton was clearly aware of at the time, from the destroyer such as Bertha Dorset and indeed our own Lily in her calculations of how to get a suitably rich husband or live off others, whichever the case may be.

It was not that Miss Bart was afraid of losing her newly-acquired hold over Mr. Gryce. Mrs. Dorset might startle or dazzle him, but she had neither the skill nor the patience to affect his capture. She was too self-engrossed to penetrate the recesses of his shyness, and besides, why should she care to give herself the trouble? At most it might amuse her to make sport of his simplicity for an evening–after that he would be merely a burden to her, and knowing this, she was far too experienced to encourage him. But the mere thought of that other woman, who could take a man up and toss him aside as she willed, without having to regard him as a possible factor in her plans, filled Lily Bart with envy. She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce–the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice–but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life.’

‘The House of Mirth’ is a real unflinching and honest lifting of the lid on society and how it worked just before the turn of the 20th century in America and you feel Wharton new exactly what was going on no holes barred. She also looks at the interesting divide of old money and new money and how the latter felt they had to win the other over until the Wall Street crash when roles were reversed. Here the initially, to Lily, odious Mr Simon Rosedale suddenly becomes the man everyone wants to know and many women want to wed. There are so many layers, sub plots and characters to the book I could go on all day, so I shall bring myself to a close and surmise.

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Having had some space from the book and time to mull it over there is very little doubt in my mind that ‘The House of Mirth’ is an absolute masterpiece and could easily be one of my favourite books. I loved Wharton’s prose, her humour and the fact she did completely the opposite of what I was expecting with Lily’s story which alas I can’t discuss in detail for I would completely spoil it for you if you have yet to read it – if that is the case you must go and get it now. Lily Bart walked fully off the page for me and I found myself thinking about her a lot when I wasn’t reading the book. Reading it is an experience, and I don’t say that often. One thing is for sure, I will not be forgetting the tale of Lily Bart for quite some time and I believe I will be returning to it again and again in the years to come.

Who else has read ‘The House of Mirth’ and what did you think? Did anyone else (without any spoilers please) see the end coming? What about Bertha Dorset, did anyone loathe her as much as I found myself doing? Did anyone else think that Selden was a bit of an ineffectual wet lettuce? Which other works of Wharton’s have you read, as I now want to get them all, and you would recommend?

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Filed under Books of 2013, Classically Challenged, Edith Wharton, Oxford University Press, Review

The Savidge Reads Hall of Fame… Muriel Spark

Time to introduce my third author into, the rather grandly titled, Savidge Reads Hall of Fame. Muriel Spark is an author I have been reading longer than I have been blogging all thanks to the lovely Polly of Novel Insights, who will be doing a series of monthly guest posts here soon, and how much she used to praise Spark’s works and made me finally take the plunge when she chose ‘Aiding and Abetting’ for a book group we had at an old workplace. Since then, with the exception of a few books, which I think I need to re-read as I didn’t ‘get’ on a first read, I have thoroughly enjoyed every Spark novel that I have read, all the more when her wicked wit and wry knowing prose are at their most extreme.

The first book I read by her was‘Aiding and Abetting’ oddly starting with one of Spark’s later books and one that was based on a true tale which she ‘took great liberties with’.

The reason that I initially read her was… As I mentioned above, the lovely Polly of Novel Insights chose Spark’s penultimate book for a book group we had where we both worked. I admired the tale, based on two men thinking they were the infamous Lord Lucan and a fraudulent psychiatrist, because of the fact she did so much in a relatively small book. I also really liked the dark humour and knowing nature her prose had.

The reason that she has become one of my favourite authors, and I would recommend them, is… I really like the fact that I never know what I am going to get with Spark, I think she keeps her readers on their toes and also throws in a twist or element that you were never expecting. I love the fact she can write fully fledged characters, back and splintering stories and create an entire world within very few pages – she isn’t an author who needs to say a paragraph when she can do it in a sentence. I also love the wicked sense of humour she has and the darker levels that always brood in the background of each tale.

My favourite of her novels so far has been… Without question ‘The Driver’s Seat’. One of her shortest novels but one that actually made me gasp at the sting in the tail of it which I never saw coming. It is a book that packs a huge punch for such a short novel and one that I think everyone should read. Though I always like to savor an authors works to the end, hence why ‘Memento Mori’ will have to wait patiently in the TBR as I have heard that it is meant to be one of her best and darkest.

If there was one of her works I had a wobble with, it would have to be… Oddly enough the book I have had the biggest wobble with is probably her most famous. I really didn’t get ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ at all when I read it. It was my second read of hers and I wasn’t sure afterwards if I would give her another whirl. Polly wisely said that I should try another and maybe come back to it at a later point. I did try more and loved them so Polly was wise and I do think I will give ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ another try one day. I am now intrigued what it was about it I didn’t like or didn’t understand.

The most recent one of her novels that I read was… ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ one of the far too many of her books that are no longer in print, which I think is an absolute crying shame. This was a wonderful tale of some rather crazy nuns (the film adaptation is aptly called ‘Nasty Habits’) and is a satire of the Watergate scandal, that said you don’t need to know anything about to enjoy it though – in fact I avoided knowing about it so I didn’t equate the fictional nuns with real politicians. It was Muriel at her sparklingly wickedest and I would highly recommend you try and track down.

The next of Muriel Spark’s works I am planning on reading is… I quite fancy reading some of her short stories, of which there are many, though I don’t own any of them so that would require shopping. Gran, who is also a fan, is always saying that I should read ‘The Mandelbaum Gate’ so that could be a future read, though I have a lovely old hardback of ‘Do Not Disturb’ which I quite fancy. It is alas another of her books that now seems out of print but you can often find her books in many a second hand bookshop and they have some fabulous old kitsch covers.

What I would love her to do next is… Alas Muriel Spark died six years ago. I would have loved to have been able to have had her partake in a Savidge Reads Grills, though I think that would have been something I could only have dreamt of. I have plenty of her books still to read though.

You can see a full list of Muriel Spark’s works on the Savidge Reads Hall of Fame page, a special page on the blog especially for my favourite authors and links to the books of theirs I have read and reviewed and the ones I haven’t as yet. This will encourage me to read all the books by my favourite authors and may lead you to some new authors if you like most of the ones that I like, if that makes sense. There are some rules though, but you can find more of those on the Hall of Fame page too.

So who else is a Muriel Spark fan? Which of her novels have you read and loved? Are you yet to try her?

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Filed under Muriel Spark, Savidge Reads Hall of Fame

The Abbess of Crewe – Muriel Spark

As I mentioned last week whilst visiting Gran’s I always pack far too many books for the length of time I am there. I also have to plan which ones to take which sort of defeats my aim of reading by whim on the whole this year. However Gran has a vast selection of books in her house and perusing this actual gave me some short treats to read while I was there, one of which was ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ by the wonderful Muriel Spark, subtitled ‘a wicked satire on Watergate’. How could I not read this when it so explicitly mixed Muriel Spark and wickedness?

**** Penguin Books, paperback, 1975, fiction, 104 pages, nabbed from Gran’s bookshelves

‘The Abbess of Crewe’ is told in a rather strange way, as the book opens we find the Abbess and one of her nuns Sister Winifrede deep in a hinted discussion that they may have done something untoward which, as we read on, might relate to the reason that policemen and police dogs are patrolling the grounds of the abbey. You aren’t sure what is going on but then you flit back between now and the repercussions and what actually happened.

As we read on, though I don’t want to give too much away, it turns out that the whole abbey has been under observations with phones tapped along with hidden video cameras and microphones (even in the fur trees in the grounds) and which have been discovered around the recent election of the new abbess herself against her rival Sister Felicity.

‘What is wrong, Sister Winifrede,’ says the Abbess, clear and loud to the receptive air, ‘with the traditional keyhole method?’
Sister Winifrede says, in her whine of bewilderment, that voice of the very stupid, the mind where no dawn breaks, ‘But, Lady Abbess, we discussed right from the start –‘
‘Silence!’ says the Abbess.  ‘We observe silence, now, and meditate.’ She looks at the tall poplars of the avenue where they walk, as if the trees are listening.’

Here I am sure a more intellectual blogger might allude to, or indeed inform you of, how this all relates to the Watergate Scandal. I admit, partly because I felt that I should, I did go and read a bit about the whole affair though I then decided against it as I found myself trying to work out which characters in the book were in the real political scandal, and it started to take the fun out of reading about these barmy nuns instead. So I stopped. This does show that you don’t need to know of the Watergate Scandal to enjoy the book as Spark creates one of her most Machiavellian female leads in ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ and a wonderful cast of cloaked characters around her.

I thought Felicity, the Abbesses main rival initially, was a wonderful character. Some people would say she was a ‘new nun’ in the fact that she is devoted in depth to God and also to free love, the latter of which she is having with a Jesuit monk called Thomas around the grounds as often as she can. This of course causes talk, I laughed very loudly when one of the nuns said she didn’t understand why on earth she didn’t do it in the linen closet where it’s warmer, and threatens to change the vision of the convent and abbey that many people, mainly the abbess, have for it. If one nun turns bad and gets away with it surely others may to and there could be a revolt.

‘Nobody knows where Felicity has been all day and half the night, for she was not present at Matins at midnight nor Lauds at three in the morning, nor at breakfast at five, Prime at six, Terce at nine; nor was she present in the refectory at eleven for lunch, which comprised barley broth and a perfectly nourishing and tasty, although uncommon, dish of something unnamed on toast, that something being in fact a cat-food by the name of Mew, bought cheaply and in bulk. Felicity had not been there to partake of it, nor was she in the chapel singing the Hour of Sext at noon.’

I also loved Mildred and Winifrede who remain hard done by and a little bit ditzy throughout. There was also the wonderful Sister Gertrude who phoned often from one of her many missions around the world, such as trying to unite cannibals and vegetarian tribes on either side of a Himalayan mountain, to talk philosophical gibberish which never made sense and yet seemed to make the other sisters suddenly do very rash things. There are also some wonderful set pieces like a meeting of a nun to pay a bribe in a Selfridge’s toilet and much, much more.

It seems a shame then that ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ is out of print. I do wonder if it is because people might think it has aged or will seem aged being a satire of Watergate. It seems a real same if that is the case as for a little book, at just 104 pages, it gives a lot, I ended up wishing it was a lot longer though. There was a lot of very wicked laughter for me throughout ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ and it had some of my most favourite characters Spark has created so far in my reading of her. I also think it is one where her wicked sense of humour, which I love so much, shines through most devilishly.

Who else has read ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ and if so what did you think? Did you find you had to read all about Watergate or like me did you just enjoy it regardless? Which of Sparks’s books have you read and enjoyed? Oh and if you haven’t as yet one of her most famous ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ (which oddly isn’t my favourite though it is deemed her classic) is current Book at Bedtime on Radio 4.

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Filed under Muriel Spark, Penguin Books, Review

Other People’s Bookshelves #7: Peter aka Dark Puss

So for the seventh, yes seventh and still plenty more to come, we have our first male reader and their shelves from the delightful, and oh so wry, regular commenter here Dark Puss, aka Peter. Peter is a particle physicist and professor at a University in SE England. He is an avid reader though he has given up buying books because of a lack of shelf space. He was brought up by two academic parents who surrounded themselves with books and thus he rarely had to buy any himself as a child or teenager. He has inherited a love of modern European and Japanese literature from his late father and a fascination with Proust from his mother, though he has yet to read further than the end of Swann’s Way. He reviews books for the Journal of Contemporary Physics and puts his paw marks on a number of literary weblogs under the pseudonym “Dark Puss”. He runs the weblog “Morgana’s Cat” http://morganas-cat.tumblr.com/ which is an outlet for his photography and occasional comments on novels, plays, music etc. A number of steampunkish pictures from other sources are also to be found there.

Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

There are all sorts of books on my shelves but as they are all full (as you can see!) I do not buy books for myself anymore. I do still go into many bookshops and if I saw something I just had to get then I would indeed be looking for a book, or books, to remove to make space.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

In my office at work the books are ordered by subject; quantum mechanics, optics, particle & nuclear physics for example. At home there is some order, photography & typography go together and most of my cookery books occupy a single shelf, but mainly books are placed according to size.

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What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

The honest answer is “I do not know”. My parents were avid buyers of books both for themselves and for me so I very rarely had to buy any myself. One book that I do remember buying from an Oxfam shop in Taunton when I was  about 11 and which does still reside on my shelves is “Water Power Practice” by Johnstone-Taylor (1931).

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

I don’t have pleasures that I’m guilty about!

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

That’s a tricky question. I’ll answer the last part first and say that I would rescue as much of my art collection as I could in preference to the easily replaceable books. Books that I would be very sad to lose in a fire would include “Lettere di XIII Huomini Illustri” which was printed in Venice in 1561 and is my oldest book, “Sisters Under the Skin” by Norman Parkinson (a literary lady who inscribed something very lovely in it knows why this is important to me) and “The Romance of Engineering” by Henry Frith, 1895 which was given to me by my late father and, coincidentally, was awarded as a prize at my old school in Edinburgh in 1898. You can see a photograph of this book on Cornflower’s famous weblog here: http://cornflower.typepad.com/domestic_arts_blog/2008/07/knitting-but-not-as-we-know-it.html

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What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

It’s four decades ago so I cannot vouch for accuracy, but probably it was “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir which I read when I was thirteen or fourteen. I found it profoundly influential but I didn’t own it then and I don’t own it now.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

In the past probably yes, but nowadays almost certainly no. I’ve run out of space! I make very good use of public and university libraries.

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What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

The two volumes of Murakami’s 1Q84 which I received last Christmas as a present from my family.

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands! I’d love some of the large “picture” books by photographers whose work I admire (e.g. Cartier-Bresson, Brandt, Man Ray, Mapelthorpe, Miller, Rankin) there are certainly many cookery books I’d love to add and, given my desire to read it completely one day, the latest translation of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I really don’t know! They would spot my love of Colette, some Murakami, a number of technical works (at home) on astronomy, typography, botany and ornithology. They might, if eagle-eyed and very curious, locate a fairly large collection of music for the flute which I am currently re-learning under the expert eyes and ears of my fantastic teacher Katie Morgan. They would note the number of books on London and some of its quirkier aspects such as the lost rivers and abandoned tube stations. They would note my enthusiasm for cooking and wine, noting the preponderance of books by Nigella Lawson, Nigel Slater and Rick Stein. What would I like them to think? “We could get a good meal, a glass of interesting wine and some diverse conversation here. Maybe we can ask him about the Higgs boson too!”

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A big thank you to Peter/Dark Puss for letting me grill him. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to) in Other People’s Book Shelves series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Peter’s responses and/or any of the books he mentioned?

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When Nights Were Cold – Susanna Jones

Thank you all very much for your snowy book recommendations on Friday, as the snow had stuck on the Wirral (which apparently rarely happens) over the weekend I decided I would curl up with a book that was suitably icy, though as it turned out not one of the books you recommended – no offence. I had been meaning to read ‘When Nights Were Cold’ by Susanna Jones ever since it was on the Fiction Uncovered List 2012. I am a big fan of Fiction Uncovered, an initiative to give some books that might have gone under the radar in a particular year more attention, and it has lead me to some gems such as Ray Robinson’s ‘Forgetting Zoe’ and of course Catherine Hall’s ‘The Proof of Love’. I have most of the listed books in the TBR and seeing as ‘When Nights Were Cold’, one of 2012’s choices, was a Victorian tale (and you know how I love those) with an icy and Arctic twist the timing seemed perfect for it to be read.

*** Mantle Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 341 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Grace Farringdon seems a woman who is rather out of sync with her time, if only by half a decade or so, from a young age she has an obsession with the polar regions and follows the adventures of Ernest Shackleton and his expeditions into this unknown frontier. Being the late Victorian period, and though the suffragette movement is beginning, this is not seen as ‘the done thing’ for a young woman who should be only occupied by the idea of marrying well. Grace exasperates her father, and mother particularly, all the more when she applies, and secretly seeks funding from a distant aunt, to enrol in a woman’s college where she sets up the Antarctic Exploration Society with fellow students, and an unlikely set of friends, Leonora Locke (daughter of an infamous actress), Winifred Hooper (a meek woman set to become a doctor’s wife) and Cecily Parr (orphaned daughter of two mountaineers). These three women decide to defy conventions further by becoming mountaineers themselves, only what happens to them becomes more chilling than the Welsh and Alpine mountains they start to explore.

“I scratched a few unsatisfactory sentences on my sheet, tucked it into the envelope, placed it on my dressing table. The letters informed our families that we had died knowing all the risks we faced and that we loved them and were sorry for the pain we caused, but that we had done it for the greater good of womankind and it was better to have tried and failed than to have stayed home embroidering tablecloths. Locke addressed her letter to her parents and Geoffrey, and Parr’s was addressed to her aunt and uncle in Wales. She grumbled that this was unnecessary and would put a curse on the adventure. And it’s only the Breithorn, she said, but she wrote the letter nevertheless and placed it on her bedside table.”

There were lots of things that I enjoyed about ‘When Nights Were Cold’, the fact that the whole way through there was a hint of something awful having happened at some point and the mystery behind it, the strained relationships of Grace and her mother and father, the difficulty she had adjusting from being alone and independent to coming home, why her sister had disappeared for fifteen years, the sibling rivalry for a certain Mr Black (a very clever strand in the book that twisted and turned itself), the stories of Shackleton and Scott and their adventures we hear through Grace and, what seemed to me, the main heart of the novel which is the tale of four women who wanted to do something bold to break the mould which Victorian society had women bound in still.

There is though a ‘however’ coming along. As much as I loved all of these strands, and I really did, there was almost too much going on and this caused me issues for two reasons. The first was that the book worked its best when Grace was retelling the tales of the Antarctic explorers and indeed when she was out in the Welsh mountains training for the forthcoming Alps, and then the atmosphere and adventure (and it was gripping, scary and dramatic) when they were there. It was in these situations that Grace came alive and so the book did. When there was less going on, and in these testing times we get a real insight into Grace, when she is at home with all that going on, and the possible madness of her sister, Grace (who I occasionally wondered if had gone slightly insane) sort of retreats from the reader while the story takes hold. I only felt I got to know her a bit and that was when she was in the mountains.

That said that does link to the second slight issue I had. There is a mystery, in fact two actually, bubbling in the background of the book the whole way through. Interestingly you don’t see it until about a quarter of the way through the book and its one that really makes the final chapters of the book whizz by with you gripped. Again, like Grace’s character, this mystery seems to get swallowed up by the domestic side of the tale and a possible love story, which again could have been given more space to really grab the reader. I felt like I was being pulled along by lots of great factors and yet they were fighting for space with each other. What I really enjoyed about the book was also what was occasionally causing me to pause with the book.

What I am saying, probably rather badly and in much too lengthy a way, is that actually I think ‘When Nights Were Cold’ was a very good book, but had it been about 200 pages longer it could have been an absolutely amazing epic. Susanna Jones’ prose, characters and atmosphere of the sinister and dangerous Alps are all marvellous I just need it all to have longer to unfold especially with Grace and all her secrets. I think had Susanna Jones had longer to do all this, and more pages and time for the reader to be involved in everything that was going on, I could easily have loved this book as much as ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris. That said I enjoyed it a lot, I was just left wanting more – which is a good thing overall, I think.

Who else has read ‘When Nights Were Cold’ and what did you make of it, it is one of those books I wish I could discuss over coffee at a book group, especially with its ending. Have any of you read any of Susanna Jones other novels, for this is her fourth, and what did you make of them? Have you read any of the other 2012 Fiction Uncovered titles, or indeed the 2011?

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Filed under Fiction Uncovered, Mantle Publishing, Review, Susanna Jones

Book Blogs – The Possible Do’s and Dont’s…

I had an email yesterday from someone, who has asked to remain nameless, asking for thoughts on book blogging as they were thinking of setting one up. I am a firm believer in the more book blogs the merrier, in fact I have been known to say to many people ‘you know you should really write a blog’. Now this person didn’t just want my thoughts they also wanted all of yours too. I did send a small tweet out about this last night but then today thought ‘sod it, let’s make a blog out of it’ – though I am hoping my honest response won’t get me in trouble in the meantime. So here is part of the email that sparked this all off and after I have had a rant go at responding I (and they) would love your thoughts too…

This might seem an odd request but I was wondering if you or your readers might have any tips for a budding new book blogger? I am always amazed by the breadth and diversity of the book blogging world and would love to be a part of it. I just wondered if there were any things you could recommend doing when starting a new blog, or indeed recommend not doing. I would love your thoughts on what you like about other blogs you read or anything that puts you off revisiting a blog, and of course any insights from other bloggers and followers of blogs on what they do and don’t like?

What is interesting about this is that this year I have been pondering the same thing myself a little. As I mentioned a while back, when I was reaffirming my own blogging boundaries, I realised that I had gone from following ten blogs to around five to six times that many blogs and so I have been looking at lessening that and this has meant looking at what puts me off other blogs and what keeps me coming back. So I came up with five reasons for each, firstly what keeps me coming back…

  • Lashings of personality – I like reviews in the broadsheets, however the reason I like blogs all the more is that I get an emotional and personal reaction to a book and the enthusiasm or emotive response to a book can have me rushing it up the TBR quicker than an academic one on the whole. I also feel like I am getting to know the blogger.
  • A good sense of humour – Something I am often jealous of in a few bloggers is how they make their reviews so witty and so I enjoy reading them even if I have no plans to read the book they have read, if that makes sense. I need to do this more; I do in my vodcasts and on The Readers I think, but not so much my reviews.
  • Well rounded and backed up reviews – Be it a rave review or some constructive criticism on the whole, as long as it is not the sort that involves being vile with a smile, I like a blog that has a bit of depth. Not being a snob but if I wanted a brief ‘it was good’ or ‘it was crap’ I would go on a certain shopping website. I don’t expect a literary essay by any means, a nice thoughtful well rounded review does the trick.
  • More than just book reviews – I love reading about books. I also love book blogs which talk about the behind the scenes of reading. What books they have bought (even if they know they shouldn’t have) or borrowed recently, where they have been out and about, book habits etc. That said if all I got was those and no reviews, and just cat pictures or knitting for a week, I would be put off.
  • No agenda, just enthusiasm – I have noticed some blogs seem to have an agenda, either you feel the blogger just wants all the latest books and then doesn’t actually write about them or that someone is writing it purely in the hope they will get a blog-to-book deal or some job in publishing. If that is an aspect of it or an off shoot of it, and I know it can be with me and my job – but I don’t mention it on the whole and hope you think I am genuine, that is fine and in some ways will fuel the fire of bookish enthusiasm. Enthusiasm always shines through.

What puts me off…

  • High opinions of themselves – Says the man who is spouting on about what he does and doesn’t like, but I have been asked, ha! Sometimes you get a tone with someone’s writing that they could have written this whole book better than the author or that people should be thankful that they have written a review of any book at all. It is hard to explain but you know it when you read it. I like to feel I would want to hang out with the bloggers I read.
  • Layouts – This actually could be a whole list in itself. I don’t like (though I make an exception of one blog) white writing on black background, blog posts where you have to ‘click to continue reading’, lack of pictures (just text and I turn off, odd considering books are all text on the whole and so is this post), adverts – well too many of them (this annoys me on broadsheet websites), pages that are too busy, odd text (sans serif etc). I like a nice clean spacious layout.
  • Reviewing books way in advance – this sounds really silly but if a book isn’t out for a week or two, let alone a month or two which can make me grind my teeth/snarl inwardly, I have no interest in reading a review of it. What is the point? Ok, I could add it to a wish list I guess, like I do many, many books, but I have no thoughts on it to share, nothing to add and if the blogger is doing it all the time it just seems a bit smug even if that is not how it was intended. I myself like to have a chat on my blog with commenter’s about the books when I can, how can I do that if none of them have read it and only the publisher has? Each to their own though.
  • Endless Meme’s – I admit I used to be a bugger for this, and those blog to blogging awards (which seems like constant back patting), yet after a while they got too much. One every so often doesn’t nark me at all, but a few every week… erm, no.
  • Too much negativity – If a blogger never has anything good to say about a book, or only likes one book in five, then I just haven’t the time. The internet is a place that people use all too easily to be mean and I have no interest in it. Why would you spend your time wanting to read books you loathe let alone write about them?

So that is my thoughts on it all.  If I had to pick one thing though I think as I started my blog as a diary of bookish thoughts that is what attracts me to others overall, that and not taking themselves too seriously. Oh I am off again. As I said I did ask on twitter what put people off and got some of the following responses which I don’t think the people who tweeted me back will mind me sharing…

@1mpossiblealice – I like blogs for the human touch… like chatting to a well informed friend

@afictionhabit – reviews that regurgitate the plot and then give a score rather than describing what it felt like to read the book…

@sly_wit – Basic readability. Not the writing, but layout issues; black backgrounds, clutter, etc. Then it is just a question of style.

@dogeardiscs – High brow literary commentary, cluttered layout, constant memes and lack of voice

@penandpencilgal – sounds silly I know, but not enough photos

@stujallen – meme’s, pointless ones. Lack of personality, like to know who is behind the blog

@chasingbawa – Too much complaining about not being taken seriously, etc. Reading + writing blogs should be informative and enjoyable.

@JacquiWine – Anything too academic/over analytical. My work is v analytical, so I am looking for something more personal/engaging from blogs. I am not too keen on scores either

Blimey, that wasn’t even all of them, but these were the commonly occurring factors. Mind you my main tip would be blog for yourself and do what you like. But what about you out there be you a blog writer, blog reader or a blog lurker what do you love about them, or what keeps you coming back?. I would love your thoughts and so would this soon to be book blogger (and probably a few others too).  Though if you all say a blogger who writes a cruddy blog post like this I may weep, ha, ha, ha!

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Savidge Reads Library Loot #3

So here is the third in my new series, yet first of the year, of vlog posts where I get to embarrass myself once more talk to you all about the latest books that I have borrowed from the library, and waffle a lot about why. There is a lot of waffle at the start so beware though Oscar does show his face briefly. Anyway here is the latest library loot from me, I will pop a list of the books mentioned below…

The books mentioned amidst all that rambling were…

The Chalk Circle Man – Fred Vargas
Seeking Whom He May Devour – Fred Vargas
The History of a Pleasure Seeker – Richard Mason
Tom-All-Alone’s – Lynn Shepherd
The Good Plain Cook – Bethan Roberts
The Pools – Bethan Roberts
Wonder – R.J. Palacio
Zoo Time – Howard Jacobson
A Death in the Family – Karl Ove Knausgaard

As is the usual routine I would love to know your thoughts on any of the books, have you read them, did you like them, and are you thinking of reading them etc and any thoughts on the intermingled waffle. Many thanks in advance.

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Usual Service Disrupted Due to Snow…

I don’t know if any of you have heard (sarcasm fully intended) but there seems to be snow everywhere in the UK. This has become a veritable snow storm in the press and you’d think, especially with tube lines closing – shock horror – in London, the world might be going through another ice age. Oop north it’s pretty horrendous.

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The shops are selling out of bread, roads are closing, schools shutting and I have to try and make it back to Liverpool through the snowy Peak District. Could be interesting!

Anyway while chaos reigns I thought I would ask you all for your favourite books featuring snow? If I manage to get home, or not, the likelihood is I will be snowed in with proper snow, so fancy a book that’s suitable. Your recommendations please…

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Other People’s Bookshelves #6; Kate Gardner

For the latest instalment of other peoples book porn bookshelves we get to have a nosey through the lovely Kate Gardner’s shelves this week. Kate blogs at Nose in a Book for three years, she says “I still feel like I’m just discovering how it all works and how many great book blogs are out there. I’ve always been an avid reader – I remember many a mealtime as a child being told to put my book down just long enough to eat! I live in Bristol with my boyfriend Tim and I’m originally from the Forest of Dean, which is beautiful but rural so maybe my book love comes from a lack of anything else to do? Or maybe it stems from me having glue ear when I was six, which made me almost deaf for about a year and as a result super shy. Or maybe it was a love that was always destined to be! It was a glorious moment for me when in 2011 we turned our dining room into a library/games room. Sadly it’s currently full of boxes while we’re redecorating other parts of the house but I look forward to getting it back soon!” So let’s find out more about Kate and through her shelves shall we?

Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

I try to be strict with myself and only keep books that I thought really good and/or want to read again. That’s probably a bit more than half of the books I buy, so I am fast running out of space!

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

I keep my TBR books separate in their own half a bookcase (and they’re overflowing that…) and I don’t organise them at all. But my other books are strictly alphabetical order. There’s just too many to be able to find the book I’m looking for otherwise. I have sections for general fiction, poetry/plays/philosophy, literary non-fiction, reference, children’s, comics/graphic novels, SF and fantasy. Most of those last three genres aren’t my books anyway, they’re Tim’s. Not that I object to muddling our books up together, it’s just an easy separation to make.

TBR NIAB

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

I don’t remember for certain. I do know my favourite present from an early age was book tokens. When I was quite young (about 7?), there was a competition in the local paper to be the first to go into the town bookshop and sing this song they’d made up to the tune of “Oh my darling, Clementine”. I studiously memorised the words (I still remember the opening: “Down in Coleford, there’s a bookshop…”) then rushed down into town and sang it at the shop. I think they were a bit surprised by my eagerness! The prize was a book token and I think I spent it there and then, possibly on Roald Dahl books? I certainly still have all those, with my name scrawled inside the covers because you know, sibling rivalry and all.

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

Not really. Although I must admit I wouldn’t read Anais Nin outside the house, but somehow it’s fine to have her on the shelves!

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

Tough one. I suppose some of my old kids’ books that I loved and have held onto – especially Alpaca by Rosemary Billam – but it’s the stories that have meaning for me, so if I lost them and had to buy replacements I’d be okay with that. I mean, I’m sure I’d be upset, but not over any specific book.

children's books NIAB

What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

I was encouraged by my Mum to read any books available to me from pretty young so I don’t really remember a specific transition at home. Certainly I know Mum was passing her Jean Plaidy and Victoria Holt books on to me when I was really too young for them! But I do remember the transition at school quite clearly. In third year infants (so I was 6 or 7) I had finished all the infant readers but the teacher didn’t want to start me on junior books yet so she opened up her special book cupboard for me. It was amazing! In there I found Mrs Pepperpot, Mr Majeika, all sorts. The teacher retired soon after that so it was literally a whole career’s worth of collecting great kids’ books together. We all loved her.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

No, borrowing is fine…until I get an urge to read it again. Usually I spend a while hunting for it before I remember I don’t own it!

library in summer NIAB

What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

The newest And Other Stories turned up in the post last week – Black Vodka by Deborah Levy. I’m excited to read that as I really enjoyed Swimming Home. (Which I may well have bought on your recommendation, Simon, so thank you! It was so good, I subscribed!)

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

Oh, far too many. My wishlist is at least 100 titles long and that doesn’t count all the books I want because they’re pretty. Ahem.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

Reasonably eclectic, quite literary but with some unusual stuff thrown in there, like my collections of the Modesty Blaise comic strips. I must admit that some of the more impressive titles, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, I haven’t actually read, but I totally intend to. There will be time one day.

bedside book stack NIAB

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A big thank you to Kate for letting me grill her. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to) in Other People’s Book Shelves series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Kate’s responses and/or any of the books she mentioned?

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In Search of a Character – Graham Greene

You are all probably going to get most bored of the expression ‘this reading by whim malarkey throws books you weren’t expecting in your direction’, yet it is proving to be the case and I am sure will remain so throughout the year. As usual I have completely over packed, in terms of books, for a week at Gran’s. I brought four thinking that a) as the journey is 4 – 5 hours each way so that is really a book each way, roughly b) I will have plenty of time to read with her or when she is asleep. Well in truth a) I tend to end up watching all the beautiful scenery and listening to peoples conversations, don’t pretend you don’t b) it is just non stop at Gran’s. I am only managing to write this as she has been sent to bed, well sort of sent, ha. The other thing I had forgotten was whim and Gran’s bookshelves have proved too tempting in the hunt for some short reads to gobble down when I can. That is how I came to Graham Greene’s ‘In Search of a Character’ a book I didn’t even know existed until I spotted it yesterday whilst having a nosey.

*** Penguin Books, paperback, 1961 (1981 edition), non fiction, 106 pages, from my Gran's own personal library

*** Penguin Books, paperback, 1961 (1981 edition), non fiction, 106 pages, from my Gran’s own personal library

‘In Search of a Character’ was never really meant to be published as it is a (very short) volume of two sets of his journals that he kept on two visits to western Africa. The first, a trip to the Congo in 1959, was the setting, researching and seed sowing of ideas for his novel ‘A Burnt Out Case’ (which I haven’t read), the second in 1941 on a convoy which inspired ‘The Heart of the Matter’ (which I also haven’t read, oh dear). As he keeps his journals he interweaves them with the ideas he is having about the books he has in the periphery of his mind and so really we are shown the internal workings of Graham Greene’s writing mind. He puts it best in the introduction…

“Neither of these journals was kept for publication but they may have some interest as an indication of the kind of raw material a novelist accumulates. He goes through life discarding more than he retains, but the points he notes are what he considers of creative interest at the moment of occurrence.”

Regardless of whether you have read the novels that the period Greene describes in these journals they do make for interesting reading. Firstly there is the way that such a famous authors, though I am sure it is similar to less well known/budding authors too, mind works. He tells of overhearing the case of a man who spied his wife having an affair with his clerk, saved up enough to buy a old car that he used to run the clerk down before then deciding full of remorse to kill himself – he then later puts this into ‘A Burnt Out Case’ as a small side story that manages to solve another gap in plot strands. It also shows how much doubt goes through his head as he writes, and indeed how little he really knows and how slowly his own story reveals itself to its author. As someone who loves books and the crafting of them I found all of this fascinating.

“Perhaps the first argument concerning X will be whether he should be classed as a leprophil. At the moment X stands still in my mind: he has hardly progressed at all. I know only a little bit more about his surroundings. Perhaps it will be necessary to name him – and yet I am unwilling to give him a definite nationality. Perhaps – for ostensible reasons of discretion – he should remain a letter. Unfortunately, as I learnt before, if one uses an initial for ones principal character, people begin to talk about Kafka.”

The other thing that I found equally fascinating was the subject of leprosy in the novel. Greene doesn’t just watch from afar by any means. He finds himself working closely with a specialist doctor of leprosy and indeed living amongst the lepers himself, which at the time many people thought was sheer madness as they didn’t understand how contagious or not it was. Occasionally it is not for the queasy reader but it highlights a period in history that I knew very little about, and one that wasn’t that many moons ago. Here, through Greene overhearing tales he doesn’t use, we discover how infected men will drag their wives with them regardless of the fact their wives may catch the disease yet how if a wife catches it she is abandoned, unless she takes a lover and all hell breaks loose. We also learn how people started to figure out how the disease worked and how they might be able to cure it, which also lead to the novel Greene was writing’s title.

“Leprosy cases whose disease has been arrested  and cured only after the loss of fingers or toes are known as burnt-out cases. This is the parallel I have been seeking between my character X and the lepers. Psychologically and morally he has been burnt-out. Is it at that point that the cure is effected? Perhaps the novel should begin not at the leproserie but on the mission-boat.”

It might seem odd to have read ‘In Search of a Character’ before reading the books that it inspired, though it has made me want to read ‘A Burnt Out Case’ (which I think I have somewhere in the TBR) before the year is out. It might also seem an odd choice as my fourth ever Greene read, my first being ‘The End of The Affair’ followed by ‘Our Man in Havana’ and then ‘Brighton Rock’. Yet it worked for me. I found getting inside the authors head, learning about him and seeing how it all came to fruition really, really interesting. Maybe I missed a few things I wouldn’t have if I had read the books first but I can always come to this one again afterwards at some point can’t I? If you have ever wondered how an authors mind works and where they get their ideas (if that doesn’t make them sound like a rare endangered breed of beast, oops) then I would recommend you give this a whirl, of course if you are a firm Greene fan already it will be a no brainer to pick this up.

Weirdly it seems apt that I dropped reading ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet as it has the same sort of duality as this one, and I think Binet’s is even more fascinating. I will be reading that again when I leave Gran’s and reporting back in due course. Back to Greene though… Which of his novels would you really recommend? Should I read ‘A Burnt Out Case’ next or something else?

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Filed under Graham Greene, Non Fiction, Penguin Books, Review