Monthly Archives: April 2013

We’re Going Through Changes…

In case you are confused, this is still Savidge Reads… I just thought that it was time to have a minor facelift of sorts to be honest, and we all like a change now and again don’t we? This isn’t going to be one of those big revamps which involves lots of fireworks and shouting to everyone about it nor is it a case navel gazing because its coming from a positive place and just seemed like the right time.

As you might have noticed if you come here often or occasionally (and thank you if you do) in the last few weeks I have been a little bit quieter. This isn’t because I have ‘been thinking’ about everything blog wise –  which has happened in the past – but other things have taken priority. Firstly just with getting Gran sorted out with a hospital (as she was so, so poorly suddenly in the last two weeks), which as I mentioned before take so much rigmarole it is untrue, which took about four days of telephone calls, also with everything Liverpool Literature Festival wise and because I accidentally got a new job…

Yes, that is right (and I think I am allowed to tell you about it, though I don’t start till next week) I am now Social Media Strategist for Culture Liverpool three days a week and I am beyond thrilled – in part as I now get to go to all the summer festivals the city is hosting and also because the office is on the 10th floor overlooking the Mersey, I don’t normally like heights but the view is amazing.

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All this has meant I have had more time away from the blog and the needed step away to realise it had become a bit of a monster that needed feeding everyday and I was possibly struggling with it more than I thought. I also realised I didn’t feel I was in it as much, so be warned the posts and reviews are going to be less ‘professional’ and more my sense of humour, hopefully you will like it but sorry if you don’t. Hence the change really, and the changing banners (thank you Gavin) which I love, love, love – oh and I have made a Facebook page now too, can’t really be a Social Media Strategist if you don’t do your own.

Now speaking of that new role of mine again; one thing I will be doing, as well as the book reviews and book thoughts which are the main focus points of the blog, is keeping you informed of the lovely events and stuff I am going to be doing off blog. Some of these might be a retelling of an adventure I had recently walking to a ‘treasure island’ from the coast the other weekend, some might be the things I am doing for work. In the latter case, to clear any thoughts doubting Thomas’s might have up, I will not be messaging about them for work but because you might be interested in coming on the off chance or you just might like to hear about them after, as I know most of my readers don’t live down the road but miles (tens, hundreds and thousands) away. And hence I will simply pop two pictures below and you can do with the information what you see fit…

Council Estate of Mind Debut Authors

Not being funny but that is a pretty good line up isn’t it? Anyway, enough from me! I might be back with a review later, depending if I am happy with it, though I am actually hosting an afternoon tea with John Whaite (he won the Great British Bake Off last year, which I looooooove) this afternoon and might get lost with all that, which I will be reporting back on in due course. How is all with you? What do you think of my new view at work? Do you like the changes to the blog?

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The Machine – James Smythe

So it seems another day, another book that is a bit of a swine to review in many ways thanks to Mr James Smythe and his third book, though my first of his, ‘The Machine’. There are two main reasons that this book has vexed me from a ‘book thoughts/review’ aspect (as a reader – though is there a difference – I simply thought it was brilliant) firstly the fact that for me the book was so brimming with ideas and themes it will be difficult to encapsulate them, secondly I don’t want to spoil how the book pans out and so I am going to have to watch my words very carefully and allow you to stitch a picture of the book together yourselves, rather like the ominous relationship between the Machine, of the title, and memory in the novel…

***** Blue Door Books, hardback, 2013, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It is a hot day on the Isle of Wight as Beth waits for a mysterious parcel. All we know initially is that whatever is contained in it is something that Beth both has her hopes and dreams encapsulated in, yet at the same time clearly doesn’t want anyone else knowing she had. (This is slightly scuppered when the delivery men have to take her window out in order to get it in her high rise flat.) Once they have left and the unwrapping begins we discover that Beth has bought, highly illegally, one of the few ‘Machines’ left since they were banned some years ago.

This ‘machine’ was designed to rewire the brains, and memories of those who suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s, until someone saw the commercial benefits of an appliance, if you will, that could edit and re-write (“Purge. Commit. Replenish.”) memories and which then went wrong as Beth learnt when her husband, Vic – or Victor, with a nice nod to ‘Frankenstein’, started to use one after an incident fighting in the war, he now lies just a body with no memories in a home. Now though, Beth plans to re-programme her husband with ‘the machine’. But what if people can’t be programmed like a computer, what if ‘the machine’ has other ideas, and possibly memories, of its own?

“She can’t call in sick again the following day, she knows, not this close to the end of term; so she leaves the house after making sure it’s all unplugged. She shuts the spare bedroom door behind her – the Machine’s room, she thinks as she does it – and checks the locks on her front door twice. She doesn’t know why. The Machine’s not going anywhere.”

As if that wasn’t enough of a story/plot for anyone Smythe throws in even more for his readers to ponder and involve themselves with. Firstly is the setting, when we first learn of the machine we get the feeling there is a science fictional element to the book and indeed we are proved right as we learn that global warming, thought it’s never spelt out as such, has caused huge weather changes and floods worldwide changing the landscape of all forever, London itself now has ‘the Barrage’ on its skyline to protect it from further flooding. Yet despite the newly found heat of the UK and the fact it hardly ever rains (almost impossible to imagine as a Brit, yet you do) little else has changed, poundland is still very much a commodity, pubs are still going, etc which oddly adds to the unease of the whole of the book. The sense of place and atmosphere, along with the machine itself are all at once familiar yet very ‘other’ becoming quite unsettling and adding a sense of horror around the edges.

“When it rains, most of the South Coast gets caught up in celebrating. It still rains a little more in Scotland, but the closer you get to London it almost entirely ceases. It’s not a drought any more, though so many people still call it that. The hosepipe ban started and never ended. When it rains, if the kids are in the classrooms, they get more restless than at the end of term. They can’t be kept, and sometimes one or two of them have just stood up in the middle of Beth’s class and walked out, choosing instead to dance around on the torn Astroturf outside.”

For me one of the aspects of ‘The Machine’ that really hit me the most, along with everything else yet this had a real emotional pull, was the theme of memory. Whilst Vic is not suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia his situation echo’s that of many of those who do suffer from it and also those left caring or on the outside, like Beth, from the affects of it. How does someone cope loving someone who can’t remember them let alone love them back? Do we ourselves forget what the person was really like as we look at someone who seems so helpless; do we not edit the memories of just the happiest of times with them? Even here though the sinister creeps in, as we hear more of Beth’s internal narrative (and struggle) we question just what she herself has chosen to remember of her husband, is he really the man that she describes with loss driven and lonely worn rose tinted glasses?

I found ‘The Machine’ was a book as chilling, and thrilling, as it was emotional and thought provoking. It is also one of those books that delightfully defies any labels of genre, delightful both for the reader and as one in the eye for those who want a book to be pigeonholed if at all possible. It is the sort of book – from the sort of author – that ought to be winning lots of prizes and being read by lots of people. I think that is all I need to say to be frank.

Who else has read ‘The Machine’ and what did you make of it? Which of his other books have your read? It seems that ‘The Explorer’ is meant to be quite something, is that the one that I should try next?

I will be in conversation with Mr Smythe (along with Kerry Hudson and Claire McGowan) on Monday night in Liverpool – scroll down this page a bit for more details – do come along.

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The Long Falling – Keith Ridgway

There are some books that are an absolute bugger to write about, simply because you don’t want to ruin a moment you yourself had as a reader for anyone else. In the case of Keith Ridgway’s ‘The Long Falling’ it is a moment where your jaw drops and you have to re-read the page to check what has just happened really has. This happened to me in chapter one, making it really bloody difficult (thank you Keith, tut) to extrapolate on the book too much, which I so want to do, without giving that moment away. I shall try though…

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Faber & Faber, paperback, 1998 (2004 edition), fiction, 305 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

 

Grace Quinn is a woman lonely and lost, yet actually not alone. First there is her husband, a man who likes to drink so much he killed a local girl in a hit and run. Secondly are the ghosts of her past lives, the one she had before she became Mrs Quinn and the one that she had with her sons; Sean who died, an accident but one she feels very much responsible for partly through her husband’s and the locals responses, and the other who left for Dublin as soon as he could after he had told his mother and father he was gay.

As you get to know Grace and learn of the sorrow at the centre of her life, which is really all encompassing, you don’t feel that things could go much worse for her, but they do. What happens I will not say, as you need to read this book for yourself to find out, yet it means she must go and take some time out from the world with her rather estranged son Martin and the big city life of Dublin. Yet the mother and son bond that was once so tight seems to have become elastic and awkward and there is the fact that both of them are trying to keep their lives rather secret from the other, only projecting the side  of themselves  that they think the other wants to see.

“Martin had always known something about his mother that nobody else knew. But he could not have said what it was. He was aware only that there remained something unspoken between them. Perhaps it was a simple thing, Common memories. Love. But Martin thought that it was something else. To do with their walking away and coming back. The risk in it. Like a dare. It played in her eyes. It had strength. It had stared out at him, and she had allowed no one else to see it but him. He remembered the strength of it. He looked for it now, but either it had gone, or he had forgotten how to see it.”

Once in the city, and in Martin’s world, initially we see just how much the distance has grown between them. Dublin is a city that is trying to modernise itself whilst in the papers and on everyone’s lips is the case of a 14 year old girl who is being banned from leaving the country to abort a pregnancy caused by rape. In fact one of Martin’s friends, Sean who I thought was a right ‘bod cac’ (look it up), is working on the case as a journalist which in itself becomes a twist in the book. Martin’s gay lifestyle is also completely alien to his mother, even though they take her to a gay pub, not only that but Martin is madly, almost recklessly, missing his lover Henry, a feeling Grace has no idea of. The more we read the more we see they are at odds yet the more we know this relationship and its bonds will be important as the book, plot and indeed characters unravel.

Ridgway’s prose is stunning. He can make the grimiest, and in the case of one of Martin’s less glamorous haunts (what is it with Ridgway and saunas? I must ask him) greyest, of scenes somehow beautiful. The writing can occasionally be repetitive and sometimes a little emphatic yet somehow he makes this seem like the poetry of his prose. He also creates brilliantly vivid and flawed characters that you care about, despite some of their darker traits. You can see why it won both the Prix Femina Etranger and Premier Roman Etranger in France.

“Imagine falling from a great height. Without panic. Imagine taking in the view on the way down, as your body tumbles gently in the air, the only sound being the sound of your progress. Your progress. Imagine that it is progress to fall from a great height. A thing worth doing. Though it is not a thing for doing. You do nothing, you simply allow it to happen. Imagine relaxing into the sudden ground. Imagine the stop.”

If I had a little bit of a literary crush on Ridgway’s writing after reading ‘Hawthorn and Child’ last year, I now have something of a full on crush on it from reading ‘The Long Falling’. It shocked me from the first chapter which slowly meanders before a sudden twist, which happens a lot in this book actually, yet unlike some books that first amazing chapter is bettered as the book goes on and for all these reasons I strongly urge you to give it a read. I loved it, if love is the right word? I was also thrilled that this was as brilliant as the previous Ridgway I read yet a completely different book in a completely different style.

You may now see why I am thrilled I will be talking to Keith Ridgway, along with Ben Marcus, tomorrow night as part of Liverpool’s Literature Festival ‘In Other Words’, more details here – do come. Who else has read ‘The Long Falling’ and what did you make of it? For another, and I think much more eloquent review see John Self’s thoughts here. Have you read any of his other novels, like ‘Hawthorn and Child’, at all?

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Filed under Books of 2013, Faber & Faber, Keith Ridgway, Review

World Book Night & Liverpool Literature Festival – Reminder #1

So tomorrow is, of course, World Book Night and lucky old Liverpool as we have the flagship events all happening up here! I am ever so excited about the event, well ever so excited might actually be a small understatement. With talks from Jeanette Winterson, Jasper Fforde, Jackie Kay, Patrick Ness, Frank Cottrell Boyce and Philippa Gregory (who I am hoping to grill briefly when I can for a special episode of The Readers) in the offing, book swapping and giving plus a literary themed cafe and much more! I think it is going to be my perfect kind of evening, books, book chat and book based food, what more could I ask for and what a perfect way to start Liverpool Literature Festival ‘In Other Words’…

Speaking of the festival I thought I would do a slightly shameless reminder *coughs* or two about two very exciting events that I have lined up in the first week of the festival just in case you fancied coming along (and it would be sooooooo lovely if you did).

First up on Wednesday I will be talking to one of my biggest currently literary crushes Keith Ridgway, whose novel ‘Hawthorn & Child’ was one of my favourites of last year and whose wonderful ‘The Long Falling’ I will be telling you about later, and also Ben Marcus who I am revelling in at the moment. Both authors have done something very different with their latest works and so the night is aptly called ‘Novel Approaches’. It is going to be super.

 Liverpool Lit Fest 1 

I have also been baking like I have never baked before for Sunday afternoon, as I will be hosting an afternoon tea with John Whaite, the winner of the Great British Bake Off last year, at the Liverpool Town Hall – with the Mayor, well one of them, we  greedily have two here as we do Cathedrals. His (absolutely stunning) cook book comes out this week and so I have been trying lots of the recipes in advance, though because the book is so beautiful I have been having to walk from kitchen to mess free zone to keep the book spotless.

Liverpool Lit Fest 2John Whaite

So hopefully I might see some of you in attendance?!? I myself, apart from the World Book Night evening of delight, am planning on going to a talk on Thursday in the depths of the Williamson Tunnels (a must opportunity for anyone who loves the Victorian era and likes to be spooked) for a night celebrating the life and works of James Herbert with a host of horror writers as sadly James was due to host this event himself. I also have plans to go and see Roger McGough and Brian Pattern (who wrote my favourite collection of poems ever, ‘Gargling With Jelly’) on Friday night – phew! I may relax on Saturday though, as next week is even more bonkers, yet there is a book swap going on at Metal Library which I might not be able to resist!

So that is my social calendar sorted for the week, what about you? Will any of you be at any of these events in Liverpool (and have a look at all the listings here IOW Listing Brochure 22-3) over the week, as I would love to say hello if so. What are your plans for World Book Night be you a giver or not, anything special planned?

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Granny Savidge Update #4

I thought it was time for a little catch up post, as I know that many of you have enjoyed her appearances on the blog and since she has been sick have asked how she is either on the blog in comments or via emails and the like and having spent most of last week with her I thought this would be timely.

Poor Gran, she has had a rocky week or so. Her walking has deteriorated and so now she can stand up but that is about it, which is so irritating for both her sense of independence and also having accomplished so much over the last few months since her stroke-that-was-actually-a-tumour-bleed that left her half paralysed. I think it must be maddeningly frustrating especially after the rigmarole of radiotherapy (which we are all pleased she has had as it’s given us another 6 – 9 months and amazingly after losing some of her hair it is now growing back black, she says black hair with white around all the edge will be a new trend!).

She has also just been feeling generally unwell and not wanting to eat from a constant dizziness and nausea. The other thing, and I don’t mean to moan but sometimes a vent is helpful, is that to be honest the NHS are being absolutely s**t, we have an NHS Care Manager who doesn’t care and a District Nurse who tells us to contact her and is, erm, never there. I normally think we are very lucky for the NHS, and know this won’t be the same for everyone, but at the moment it is proving a nightmare. I spent 5 hours on the phone, when I could have been sat with Gran, sorting out a Macmillan nurse at the hospice for her simply because no other bugger had.

Sorry for the mild swearing there but it is just so infuriating, someone with a terminal prognosis of ANY length should be looked after and have the minimal admin, form filling, telephone calls and general sorting out of stuff to do. They should be allowed to do whatever makes them happy in their final months, seeing family and friends, eating ridiculous amounts of chocolate (and falling asleep so being caught in the act – see picture below) and just enjoying their time. Not spending hours and hours with bureaucracy and pen/paper pushing. Oh and don’t even get me started on the night time care, I wouldn’t normally slate charities but Marie Curie have been dreadful, they have pulled out of the last four nights of care last minuet… anyway, let us move on. End of rant.

Caught in the act...

Caught in the act…

As usual of course Gran and I have been talking lots about books. She has read and very much admired Laurent Binet’s ‘HHhH’ (which I need to pilfer back) and has started and absolutely loved Tarquin Hall’s series of detective mysteries featuring Vish Puri and set in India. She has just read her first Val McDermid, seems she is having a crime phase, which she found ‘very page turning’ and is now deep into the latest Philip Kerr. Oh and she liked the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist (and has read a few of them, including the Mantel which she will not bash) though she did say ‘why has the name of the prize become so long, not catchy is it?’ Ha!

So that is the latest with Gran really, I will keep you updated and pass on your thoughts. I am off mid Literary Festival on the 6th as, bless her, she has to have one of her teeth extracted and a root canal, as if having a brain tumour wasn’t enough hey? Back with bookish bits tomorrow… In the meantime if you know any books like the above Gran might like do please let me know!

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Ghana Must Go – Taiye Selasi

There has been a lot of buzz; I don’t want to say hype as that is always an off putting word, building around debut novelist Taiye Selasi in the last few months. She became one of the Waterstones 11 authors this year, there were murmured Man Booker predictions around blogs and forums and then this week she was announced as one of Granta’s Best of British Young Novelists. We also learn that her first published short story was written due to a deadline given to her by none other than Toni Morrison. Therefore, before you have even turned the first page, you might have been put off reading ‘Ghana Must Go’ because of the buzz or be expecting something that will completely blow you away. Well, I am about to add to the buzz because I was completely bowled away, and my expectations were high.

***** Viking Books, hardback, 2013, fiction, 318 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

They say that death is the end, in the case of ‘Ghana Must Go’ it is the beginning as in the very first paragraph we find Kweku Sai dying in his garden, he proceeds to die for the next chapter and indeed then for the first ninety-three pages, which is also the first section, of the book. This is a very clever writing device of Selasi’s because, again as we are told is the case, parts of Kweku’s life start to flash before his eyes and what we learn of is a man who tried hard to create a life for his family away from Ghana, in America, and who failed and fled abandoning them all when he did so.

That in itself could be enough story to fill a large novel, Selasi some manages to tell his story but also the ripples and repercussions that have come from that event several decades later and how his family must reunite and face the past and the memories it brings upon learning of their estranged father’s death.

 “Kweku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise, his slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs. At the moment he is on the threshold between sunroom and garden considering whether to go back and get them. He won’t. His second wife Ama is asleep in that bedroom, her lips parted loosely, her brow lightly furrowed, her cheek hotly seeking some cool patch of pillow, and he doesn’t want to wake her.
He couldn’t if he tried.”

‘Ghana Must Go’ is a book almost overflowing with themes and ideas, in fact sometimes you are amazed at how one story, and one family no matter how estranged, can create all the questions and thoughts that run through your head as you read. The main theme for me was acceptance; how we want to feel accepted by our family no matter how different from them we might be, how we seek acceptance in the place we choose to live and yet want the continued acceptance of where we are from, acceptance in society and most importantly acceptance of ourselves – oddly probably the hardest thing of all.

Home is another theme. It has been well documented that Selasi herself has moved around a lot; born in the UK where she returned to study some of the time, lived in Brookline in the USA, spent time in Switzerland and Paris, now lives in Rome and visits Ghana and Nigeria frequently. As I read ‘Ghana Must Go’ for the first time ever it occurred to me that home isn’t the building you place the label on but it is literally, cliché alert, where the heart is and that is because really you are your own home and the people you surround yourself with make different walls and a ceiling at different times. See, it really, really had me thinking and yet this is all done without bashing these ideas over your head or making the novel a huge epic tome, they just form as you follow the Sai families story.

It is also a book about consequences. Some thinks happen to us and we are obviously conscious of the consequences, in this case Kweku’s death in the present and his abandonment in the past and how it affected his wife Fola and their children both initially and as the years go on. Yet there are also the consequences of things that ripple through we might not think, for example with Fola and the Biafra war and how that changes her life or how our parents and grandparents might have acted or not acted upon things.

What I loved so much about ‘Ghana Must Go’ was that at its very heart it is the beautifully written and compelling tale of a fractured and dysfunctional family and the characters and relationships within it and also a book that really looks at, and gets us thinking, about so much more. It is a book filled with hidden depths and one that left me feeling a real mixture of emotions; heartache, shock, horror and also hope. At a mere 318 pages I think that is an incredible accomplishment and am very much in agreement with anyone else who thinks Taiye Selasi is one author to most definitely watch out for.

If you would like to find out more about the book I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with Taiye last week and she is the latest author on You Wrote The Book here (I think it is my favourite interview so far, if I am allowed to have favourites?) so do have a listen. Who else has read ‘Ghana Must Go’ and if so what did you make of it? Is this book on your periphery at the moment? What are your thoughts on buzz and hype?

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Filed under Books of 2013, Review, Taiye Selasi, Viking Books

The Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2013

So here are the six books that have made the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist 2013…

Womens-Prize-Shortlist-News-Item-2

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)
May We Be Forgiven – A.M. Holmes (Granta)
Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver (Faber and Faber)
Bring Up The Bodies – Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)
Where’d You Go, Bernadette – Maria Semple (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
NW – Zadie Smith (Hamilton)

Alas this year I couldn’t play ‘guess the shortlist’ as I knew it in advance so that I could do a feature for We Love This Book from ‘the man’s perspective’, along with my initial thoughts on the short listed books which you can see here on the website (not a Mantel bashing in site). You will also learn there that, yes indeed, I am going to read the whole of the shortlist, including re-reading A.M. Holmes and trying again with Zadie Smith, this year.

Obviously not having read them all I am in no real position to say which one I think will win, however I did randomly decide that it would be Kate Atkinson that would win this year, and so far the signs are good. I have decided that will be the last of the shortlist I read. I am going to start with Kingsolver, partly because it is the one I am the most daunted by and also because I am at Gran’s and she has a copy and I don’t, ha.

Who else is thinking of reading the short list? I am not going to suggest an official read-a-long but if anyone is reading them might be nice to have some support and people to swap notes with. Even if you aren’t planning on reading all of them what do you make of the list? Which have you read and which do you fancy reading?

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The Panopticon – Jenni Fagan

In the last few years I have become increasingly aware that blurbs can be a funny thing, sometimes they exaggerate and occasionally they just completely portray a different story from the book you actually read (though to be fair this could be the way in which you read the blurb I suppose). So in the last few years I have given up in the main. However there are times when a list of books is released and you have to find out more about the individual titles, this was the case when I first heard of Jenni Fagan’s debut novel ‘The Panopticon’ when it was announced as one of the Waterstones 11 last year. It sounded quite unlike any novel I had heard of with a fifteen year old ‘counter-culture outlaw’ who finds herself in The Panopticon escaping from ‘the experiment’. When we chose the title for The Readers Book Club this month I was looking forward to trying my hand at what promised to be my first delving into a sci-fi dystopian novel in some time, only it’s not a sci-fi dystopian novel, it is something quite different from that.

**** William Heinemann, hardback, 2012, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

At fifteen years of age Anais Hendricks is someone who society has already given up on. As we meet her she has finally been found by the police who swiftly take her to The Panopticon, a home for severe young offenders, where she arrives covered in blood and with the suspicion of having put a policewoman into a coma.

From here we learn more about her current situation, her past home which may have lead her into the world of drugs, underage sex and crime (though many believe she is simply bad through and through, no further explanation needed). We also learn how Anais believes that she is being watched by ‘the experiment’, faceless beings who look human yet have no noses and remain nondescript, who she believes created her on a petri-dish just to see how many awful things a human can undertake.

Jenni Fagan asks a lot from her reader from the start of ‘The Panopticon’– and in doing so takes a lot of risks. The book is filled with swearing, violence, drug taking and underage sex from pretty early on (and it gets darker from here on in). You also find yourself, or this reader did anyway, not quite sure if you like Anais and if in fact she might just be a bad person through and through. Yet Fagan’s gamble pays off if you bear with it, a few chapters in and not only did I like and empathise with Anais but I enjoyed spending time with her. I found one minute she would make me laugh, then say something which would almost break your heart.

“…Also, there is the second time that you have stolen a minibus from outside Rowntree High School, but this time you,’ the woman scrolls her pen down the report in front of her, ‘drove it into a wall?’
‘I drove it intae the wall both times.’
‘Something was different the second time, Miss Hendricks?’
She raises her eyebrows, stops, like she is asking a pub-quiz question. The other three panel members look to see what I’m gonnae say.
‘The second time it was on fire,’ I respond after a minute.
‘Correct.’
Brilliant. A correct answer. What do I win? The woman’s running her eye up and down the charges again, looking for something. I hate. This chair. Their faces. That shite gold clock on the wall.”

She is a real conundrum. One moment she dreams of a quite life in Paris, the next she wants to kick someone’s head in, one minute she is reading a book about the supernatural with a naivety that is younger than her years, the next she is telling you about her last drug binge. She is an incredibly unreliable narrator and yet you cannot help but warm to her. Fagan plays a top trump here with the fact that Anais lets no-one into her life, apart from us the readers, which I found a really cleverly written aspect of the book.

 “Open my book, it’s mostly vampire stories just now, before that it was witches. I could handle being a vampire, an evil one with mansions everywhere. I’d fly, and read minds, and drink blood, until I could hear wee bats being born right across the other side of the world. I hear other people’s thoughts when I’m tripping, ay. I dinnae really know if it is thoughts actually, maybe it’s just voices. They urnay my thoughts – I know that much. It’s like tuning into a radio frequency that’s always there, but when you’re tripping you cannae tune it back out. I get voices in my head that urnay mine, and I see faces no-one else sees, but mostly it’s just when I am tripping, so I mustn’t be totally mental in the head yet.”

So what of ‘the experiment’, because after all this was what had intrigued me so much about the book and what I was hoping to be delved into. Well, to be honest, it wasn’t in the book as much as I was expecting or indeed would have liked. In fact if it hadn’t been for Anais, her narrative and her story, the book probably would have really disappointed me a little bit. Occasionally a sense of these mysterious men and the plan that Anais thinks they have for her appear on the periphery or are referred to, along with the rumour that Anais’ mother was only seen once smashing through a window of an asylum – where she promptly gave birth and escaped again – on a winged cat, yet I thought Fagan could have gotten away with doing it a lot more, making the reader question Anais’ reality and sense of reliability, even more.*

 “I dinnae say I’ll volunteer to help some old lady with her shopping, and her cleaning, and if I’m really fucking lucky she’ll take me under her wing and get tae like me and feed me apple pie and gin – and tell me her stories about the good old days. Those urnay the things I say.”

 As I mentioned, had Anais and her story not been the whole story, and therefore what made an impressive and thought provoking book (you cannot call a book like this ‘enjoyable’), then I might have been a tad disappointed by ‘The Panopticon’. However as it was I was bowled over by it. It is a confronting and occasionally horrifying novel that will make you feel as deeply uncomfortable as it will make you laugh – and that is all down to the strength of Jenni Fagan’s writing and the heroine that she creates. It is also a book that leaves you with a huge question but one I think I should leave those of you who go on to read it, and I do think you should, to discover and try and answer for themselves, I myself am still thinking about it all.

*Interestingly when recording The Readers Book Club on ‘The Panopticon’ last week with two sci-fi fans I was amazed to see that they didn’t think the experiment was real, where as I (the ‘literary’ head) completely did. But I think you are meant to question this throughout anyway.  they didn’t think the experiment was real, where as I (the ‘literary’ head) completely did. But I think you are meant to question this throughout anyway. You can listen to that discussion here.

Who else has read ‘The Panopticon’ and what did you make of it? Would you call it ‘literary’, ‘sci-fi’, ‘magical realism’ or, as I think, ‘gothic’? Does it even matter? Which other books have you read that had a blurb that didn’t quite match the book that you ended up reading? Are you like me and find you tend to ignore blurbs on the whole?

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Filed under Jenni Fagan, Review, William Heinemann Books

A Break of Fate

So after having had some ‘head down’ time, which actually became a week of mad reading and lots of author interviews, I was all ready to come back with a review post today, a little post about some bookish treats tomorrow and the latest Persephone project on Sunday. Fate seems to have other ideas though as my wifi has gone kaput and may be kaput for sometime. Plus I don’t get 3G in my apartment (I believe it’s the Victorian ghosts) and so right now I’m typing and setting this all live from the bottom of the garden (where the pixies live, joking, I don’t believe in pixies). But I thought I would try and do a catch up post anyway before vanishing again for a while. So…

This week has been lovely as my belated birthday books arrived from The Beard (it’s our one year anniversary on Sunday, very exciting) this week and what a bounty it was – so much so we’ve had to hire a guard cat to watch over them, you wouldn’t mess with Millie.

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In case you can’t quite see these are; a copy of Gregory Maguire’s ‘Wicked’ which I already have but the musical cover not the original cover which was on my imported first edition I lent to someone and never got back, ‘Building Stories’ by Chris Ware, ‘Black Vodka’ by Deborah Levy, and the next three Persephone’s that I was missing; ‘The Victorian Chaise-Longue’ by Marghanita Laski, ‘The Home-Maker’ by Dorothy Canfield Fisher and ‘Good Evening, Mrs Craven’ by Mollie Panter-Downes. All very exciting.

Ooh while we are on the subject of Persephone’s, they do lead me to saying that as I am wifi-less discussing Etty Hillesum’s ‘An Interrupted Life’ will be postponed to a week on Sunday. I hope that’s ok?

This week has felt a bit bonkers. Everything is getting finalised for the Liverpool Literature Festival (so having no wifi is really annoying right now) and then somehow I ended up with three author interviews in one week, meaning masses of reading.

I have had the pleasure of chatting to Jenni Fagan for the latest Reader Book Club featuring ‘The Panopticon’ and then have been recording two advance episodes of You Wrote the Book! with Alan Bradley (of the Flavia de Luce series – which I love) and then Taiye Selasi, an author who is as beautiful on the inside as the outside as the picture below shows, whose debut ‘Ghana Must Go’ is doing incredibly well as, well, it is incredible. More on that soon…

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Speaking of You Wrote the Book, which you can listen to on repeat if you miss me while I have this blip, the latest episode with Joanne Harris is now live and next week I am recording with… Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, so if you have any questions for her then let me know. I am just about to start ‘Americanah’ finally.

I am also off to see Gran for a few days next week so if you have anything to pass onto her then let me know.

That’s me all up to date. I hope to be back ASAP but am seeing it as a break-of-fate from everything in the meantime. In fact actually this weekend is the perfect time to have a huge book sort! What plans have you this weekend? What else is news with you?

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Head Down; More Reading, Less Everything Else…

I shouldn’t really be typing this. I should actually be busy reading and nothing else. But having looked at the next few weeks it seems that all I should be doing is reading and pretty much nothing else. You see, the thing is my bookish projects have started to get a little out of hand, though in a good way, I think…

Books Ahead

What you see above this is two piles of books I really need to read over the next few weeks, yes I said weeks. On the left are some of the books that I need to read or re-read for discussions that I will be having at the Liverpool Literature Festival (you can find the brochure here IOW Listing Brochure 22-3). I say some of the books as I am still waiting on a few and need to dig out a few Jeanette Winterson and Philippa Gregory novels before the big World Book Night launch that I will be reporting on and involved with launching this year in Liverpool and sort of kicking the festival off.

On the right we have some more books that I need to be reading (again am waiting on a few copies of other books by these authors) in preparation for forthcoming episodes of You Wrote The Book! which seems to have kicked off with a bang and now I am kicking myself with joy at some of the authors who have said yes (though Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Caitlin Moran still need final confirmations) and so might be making the podcast weekly instead of fortnightly.

Here I should note that I am in no way complaining about all this, it has left me all a bit daunted/panicked and a little muddled too. Which is why I need to stop talking, tweeting, photo posting, and blogging – well at least lessen them all – and just get on with reading shouldn’t I? I haven’t even taken into account that I will be reading the entire Women’s Prize shortlist for We Love This Book. Erm, let’s move on, shall we? Ha!

Anyway, I thought I would explain where I am at and why the blog and I might be a little quieter for a month or two (of course reviews of these books will pop up, as will bookish thoughts and reports from various events and things). I have said ‘Middlemarch’ reading is now postponed until further notice, I was going to say May or June but I don’t want to make a promise that I can’t keep so will update you after May if that is ok. Right, best get on with some of this lovely reading hadn’t I and stop this waffling on. What are you all reading at the moment?

P.S if you see me on Twitter too much can you tell me off, ha!

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Australian Authors…

A fairly quick post today and one which calls for your recommendations whilst telling you about a lovely reading project from a fellow blogger, who is a favourite of mine, which could also make money for a good literary cause. The ever-so lovely Kim of Reading Matters is hosting her second Australian Literature Month throughout April 2013, which of course is now. What’s more, as well as doing some lovely giveaways, she has said that “for every review of Australian literature posted on Reading Matters — and on other blogs around the world using my logo — during Australian Literature Month (April 1 to 30), I’m going to donate 50 pence to the Indigenous Literacy Fund. That might not sound like much, but if we get 100 reviews posted online that’s an easy £50 right there.”

6a00d83451bcff69e2017ee908e15b970dI think this is a wonderful idea and while I was planning on joining in with Australian Literature Month anyway (as it is a project where you can read by whim whichever books you like by Australian authors) it has given me the added incentive to read a few more than I was planning in order to raise some money for charity, via Kim and I thought some of you might like to aswell?

Of course now the question is which blinking books do I read, because I am actually a bit hopeless on knowing where authors come from and when I was trying to think of some Australian authors my mind just went blank. I have thought of Tim Winton, Thomas Keneally, Kate Grenville and Peter Carey… then I got a bit stuck, and I fancy some quite different authors this year, I have a plan to read one massive Rapunzel based book for the end of the month if I can squeeze it in, but I would like some others along the way. I am hoping a parcel from Australia containing one of Ruth Parks books might make it across the pond in time, we will see.

Who would you recommend as your favourite Australian author and which of their books should I read? Do you have one particular favourite Australian novel of all time (in fact I must pop and check The ABC Book Group – my fav book show ever – to see if past shows can give me any inspiration) that you would recommend? I would love your thoughts and inspiration.

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The Crane Wife – Patrick Ness

One of the books I was most excited about for 2013, even before the year started properly, was Patrick Ness’ novel ‘The Crane Wife’. I was a huge fan of ‘A Monster Calls’, my sister is the biggest fan of the Chaos Walking Trilogy, and when I heard that it had magical and fairytale elements to it, well, it was a done deal. We all know how much I love an adult, though not in a fifty shades way, fairytale don’t we? Yet once the book arrived I started to worry, would the book be everything that I imagined (we all imagine what an author has written in a book from time to time don’t we?) or had I subconsciously overhyped the book in my head?

***** Canongate Books, hardback, 2013, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

One perfectly average night George is awakened by a strange sound, something between a cry and a crash. Initially thinking that it is his bladder he soon realises that the noise is coming from outside and on investigating he discovers a huge injured crane in his garden. Half thinking it a dream George manages to help the crane which then flies off and life seems to go back to normal. Yet a soon a woman, Kumiko, arrives at George’s printing shop and Georges fortunes, and the lives of those around him start to change. Will these changes be for the better though and why does this mysterious and remarkable woman seem so intent on helping George, what motives might she have? You will of course have to read the book to find all that out as I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. However I think I can talk about the book a little more without spoilers, firstly the characters.

I know it is a real cliché, but sometimes they are hard to avoid, saying that an author’s characters have walked right off the page, yet in ‘The Crane Wife’ that is exactly what they did do. George is initially the main protagonist of the novel and what I loved about him, and indeed what I thought Patrick Ness did marvellously, was that he was a very good man yet not a really middle of the road man who bored the pants of you, even if that is how his ex-wife might have felt about him – in fact I think she says he is just too safe. Genuinely good characters are easy enough to make likeable, not so easy to make interesting though. Ness manages this by giving us insight into various points and events in his life and background. He is middle of the road but you just really like him and want to get to know him better, without him ever becoming ineffectual or dislikeably (not a word, I know) likeable.

“The crane, for its part, seemed to have already given up on him, to have already judged him, as so many others had, as a pleasant enough man, but lacking that certain something, that extra little ingredient to be truly worth investing in. It was a mistake women often seemed to make.”

Patrick Ness also makes the characters around George incredibly interesting, almost show stealing. Obviously we have the mysterious enigma that is Kumiko, we also have George’s daughter Amanda who not only did I love but occasionally wondered if Mr Ness had somehow been inside my head and stolen some of my thoughts. I have a feeling a lot of readers will feel like this about Amanda, she may well become one of my favourite characters in fiction. Amanda is one of those people who find themselves at odds with life; she finds it all a bit awkward.  You know when you go to a party and people are sharing jokes and you someone tells a joke that is either a bit too graphic, a bit dirty or a bit unsavoury (yet you know every other bugger at the table is desperate to laugh deep down but daren’t) that is very much Amanda. Subsequently she has found it hard to keep friends, illustrated with a time when she says something shocking about ‘The Wizard of Oz’ which had me laughing for ages, and indeed has a failed marriage behind her though she does have a lovely son from it. She also finds that this being at odds makes her angry, very angry. I loved her, mainly for her flaws, because she was a really honest character and I completely empathised with her. We have all been Amanda at some point.

‘Oh, sweetheart, I don’t even know why you’re crying now, but please –‘
‘Because I don’t understand how people talk to each other, Dad. I try, but I just blunder on in and knock over the china and spit in the soup and break all these rules that no one will even tell me –‘

It is the same with some of the more minor characters in the book. George’s brilliant, yet completely useless and rather lazy, assistant Mehmet and Amanda’s frenemy Rachel are wonderfully drawn and you will feel you have definitely met them before. Even characters who appear in one page stayed with me long after they were gone, one of George’s teachers and an old lady especially. This of course all down to Ness’ writing which I have loved before but the love seemed to runneth over with ‘The Crane Wife’. I loved the brooding and mysterious atmosphere of the novel, the characters obviously but also the way the book seemed so magical and so everyday all at once in that way that only some authors can get. Here I am thinking of the lovefest which I had with Graham Joyce’s writing in ‘Some Kind of Fairy Tale’, if you loved that you will love this. The first chapter of the book made me cry through the sheer joy of the prose from the opening paragraph on.

“What actually woke him was the unearthly sound itself – a mournful shatter of frozen midnight falling to earth to pierce his heart and lodge there forever, never to move, never to melt – but he, being who he was, assumed it was his bladder.”

If I had to pick a fault, and it is a small one, then for me it would oddly be the way that the original fairytale of ‘The Crane Wife’, though written by Ness, was interjected in sections through the book. It was interesting to see Ness write in a different style, it’s very sparse and is done in an almost confusing state of magical realism, yet whilst I understood it was to give us a sense of foreboding at what might be coming it broke the story of George, Kumiko and Amanda a little. Not enough to really bother me, but it was something I noticed even though I enjoyed these sections when I came to them.

Overall I absolutely adored ‘The Crane Wife’. It made me cry at the start, possibly at the end and a few time, with laughter, through the middle. It has been a good few weeks since I read the book now and I still find myself pondering what has happened to the characters since, always the sign of a good read, and the writing just blew me away.  Patrick Ness says in this book that “A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew.” I hope this story grows to be a huge success as it certainly deserves to be read and loved.

I know it only came out yesterday but on the off chance have any of you had a chance to read ‘The Crane Wife’ and if so what did you think? If you fancy hearing more about the book you can listen to a discussion with Patrick and myself on ‘You Wrote The Book!’ just so you know. Which other of Patrick Ness’ books have you read and loved? I need to read the Chaos Waling Trilogy don’t I (don’t you dare tell my sister I haven’t yet as she has said I must for ages), though first I think I am going to get my mitts on Patrick’s first two books. Has anyone read those?

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Filed under Books of 2013, Canongate Publishing, Patrick Ness, Review

‘Literary Fiction’ as a Genre…

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was bored of hearing people slating Hilary Mantel for winning lots of awards of late. This last week or so I have been feeling the same about the wave of back biting about the term ‘literary fiction’ which seems to have suddenly reared its ugly head again. Why is it that the term ‘literary fiction’ seems to divide people so much? And why does there seem to be a new phase of almost snobbery about book snobbery? Let me explain…

Ever since the year that the Man Booker was hauled over the coals for daring to say that its judges were looking for ‘readability’, and indeed so incensed were people they started a new ‘Literary’ prize, there seems to have been an ongoing debate about ‘literary fiction’. The latest debate I have been directly involved in was with Gavin of GavReads this week on The Readers. Now Gav knows me and my reading tastes quite well and yet a Twitter conversation and comment he through my way had rather, admittedly in a wry way, annoyed me – in fact I may have even raised an eyebrow, which takes some doing.

Gavin had been watching a conversation with Lloyd Shepherd and Joanne Harris after Lloyd had retweeted a piece from Salon.com and quoted “Let’s face it: Literary fiction is f**king boring. It really is. It’s a genre as replete with clichés as any.” To this Joanne Harris had said “Or we could just stop using the term “literary” altogether and start actually *enjoying* books instead of obsessing over genre” and “Too many folk are using the term “literary” to mean “wholly unencumbered by plot”. Gavin had then said that this is what he had been saying to me and that literary books are really books ‘of just 30 pages of popping to the shops’. Now I disagree with quite a few things here.

Firstly I don’t think literary fiction is f**king boring… overall. Some of it can be, in fact I can think of several books I have read over the years that were dull as dish water or were duller because an editor hadn’t stepped in as the author was super famous and so should be allowed to do whatever they liked, apparently. Some of it can go completely over my head and I think ‘oo-er what’s going on here, this is a bit too clever for me’. Isn’t that the same with every genre though, some crime novels might be a little bit too easy to solve or too gory for all readers, some sci-fi novels might just seem one step too farfetched, that’s just taste and the great tapestry of literature. No? Like all genres, it’s a mixed bag.

This of course begs the question; is ‘literary fiction’ now a genre? Something Matt Haig has discussed recently, though possibly more controversially I think. Personally I think it has become a genre but I don’t think that is through any fault of its own. With genres being invented (partly to sell books but also to signpost them for new readers, who we shouldn’t forget just because we might think we are well read) like New Adult etc on top of commercial fiction, crime fiction, science fiction, translated fiction (yes this has become a genre too, I think), young adult fiction etc I don’t think it has had much choice.

I will admit that I don’t like the fact some reviewers/publishers/press/authors use the term to smash it over the heads of many that they have written/read/reviewed ‘an epic masterpiece about the human condition that spans many generations’, some crime does this superbly after all what can test the human condition more than a murder or being involved in one. I digress, you know the drill though – using the term to preen themselves and make themselves feel clever not realising they are alienating readers by the bucket load. It is a tightrope to walk though. Joanne Harris mentions the idea of literary fiction meaning ‘books being unencumbered by plot’, now I like Joanne but I disagree that this should be a bad thing – I completely agree about enjoyment – not all books have to be encumbered by plot.

Just because, as Gav might put it, a book is in the head of one character walking to the shops yet thinking about their impending divorce and what lead to it doesn’t make it boring or lesser because the characters aren’t all singing and dancing of the page and instead an insular, possibly sparse, novel on human nature evolves without any obvious twists and turns and plot. Both have their merits to me personally, I like reading about people of all walks of life and from all backgrounds and places be their stories small or on some mammoth scale.

I have to say though that for me my idea of the perfect ‘literary fiction’ has all of these things, beautiful prose, brooding atmospheres, cracking characters and a good story be it on an epic or more insular scale – the most important thing to me is, cliché alert ‘the voice’ and just getting lost in it regardless of the genre/label/pigeon hole people try and pop it in or it naturally falls in. I don’t like ‘literary fiction’ being used as a weapon to make people feel stupid if they don’t get it or for making people sound like snobs if they do. Am I alone in this?

So what are your thoughts on the whole idea of ‘literary fiction’ as a genre? Also, as a little favour and a gauntlet that Gav has thrown down for next weeks podcast, can you think of some titles considered ‘literary fiction’ that have corking characters and a stonking plot and any books unencumbered in plot that were complete page turners? I would love some lists of both of those, pretty please.

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Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend – An Exhibition

This weekend, whilst I was mulling a few things (thank you for your comments earlier this week), I decided to do some pottering and mooching about in lovely Liverpool. For some reason I have stayed over in the Wirral in the main and not done as much exploring of my new nearby city and its delights. Well, unless friends have come to visit obviously. So I decided to hit the museums and I wasn’t expecting to find anything particularly bookish on my rounds and yet I did, and from one of my favourite authors… Beryl Bainbridge.

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Believe it or not the building above is not Liverpool’s Science Museum, in fact I don’t think we have one, but a very new addition (and quite a controversial one) to the Mersey riverfront and is actually the Museum of Liverpool. Amongst the history of the city through the ages I discovered a little gem of an exhibition for any book lover, Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer Friend.

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I have only discovered Beryl Bainbridge’s novels in the last few years, ‘The Bottle Factory Outing’ becoming one of my favourite books for being so bonkers, yet I knew relatively little about her apart from the fact that she died earlier than she should. For example I had no idea that she was from Liverpool… I know shocking isn’t it?

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On top of that, whilst I had seen some of her illustrations from ‘Filthy Lucre’ which she wrote very young, I had no idea that she was a painter, something this exhibition proves beyond a shadow of a doubt.

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On top of lots of her paintings there is also a wonderful collection of some of the first editions of her books…

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…And indeed one of her notebooks from 1968 which has a story of its own. This was a journal that Beryl (I hope she wouldn’t mind first name terms) wrote whilst on a road trip across America with her lover at the time, Harold Retler. This was a trip that Bainbridge was left very disappointed by and yet, several decades later, she used this journal as inspiration for her final novel ‘The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress’. I found this fascinating in itself.

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One thing that Bainbridge seemed to find fascinating herself, and indeed she wrote about it in ‘Every Man For Himself’, was the Titanic which itself is a huge part of Liverpool’s history. I think the paintings Beryl had done of her imaginings of the Titanic might have been her most poignant and powerful.

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It seemed rather appropriate, if that is the right word, that as you leave the exhibition and museum to head to the centre of town, or the train, after wards you actually go past the very building where the names of the survivors and the dead were read out from the balcony after the tragedy.

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As you can tell I was rather bowled over by this surprise find. I haven’t shared all of it with you as the exhibition is on until the 28th of this month and I am hoping some of you might make it there (if you do let me know I might be about for a coffee, ha) to have a look yourself. If you can’t make it then hopefully this is a small insight into it and you can feel you went and had a wander, sort of, round it. There is a book ‘Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend’ by Psiche Hughes which I am kicking myself for not getting myself. Maybe I will have to pop back?

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