Monthly Archives: December 2013

Books of 2013; Part II

Blimey, it is the last day of 2013 and before we know it 2014 will be upon us. I hope you have something lovely planned for your New Years Eve? I will be back home in the Peak District with my Mum, aunties and all their children which will be lovely, we are combining Christmas and New Years all in one so much merriment will ensue I am sure. Anyway time for more of my books of 2013. I am continuing the tradition of the last few years, and my inability to whittle books down as favourites, and so this is the second of my books of the year post. Today I celebrate my top ten books that were published for the first time in the UK this year, yesterday I gave you all a list of ten corking books published prior to this year – do have a gander. So without further ado here are my favourite books published this year…

10. The Crane Wife – Patrick Ness

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.

9. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil – Stephen Collins

There is one word that sums up the whole reading experience of The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil and that is ‘sublime’. I loved everything about it; the imagery, the atmosphere, the message at its heart, everything. It’s a very moving book and one you cannot help but react to, I even shed a tear or two at the end. There is no doubt that to my mind The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil probably has the best title of any book this year, it also looks set to be one of the most memorable books of the year for its contents too. A quite literally, or maybe that should be quite graphically, stunning book and one of my reads of the year.

8. Maggie & Me – Damian Barr

I really loved ‘Maggie and Me’. I related to it – something that only happens to your very core or bones once or twice in a blue reading moon – and empathised with it. It was the sort of book my younger self was crying out for someone to put in my hands. I can only hope some lovely relatives, librarians, teachers or other influential bods make sure this is passed on to both the younger generation, especially those who call rubbish things ‘gay’, and to everyone they know really. Books like this help make being different both more acceptable and understandable, we need them.

7. Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

There is no question that Hannah Kent has crafted an incredibly beautiful novel with ‘Burial Rites’. It is a book which has a sense of isolation and brooding menace throughout and a book where the prose is as sparse (you feel not a word has been wasted) as the Icelandic landscape it is evoking. It is one of my books of the year without question and one lots of people can expect in their season stockings in a few months time. I strongly suggest you read it.

6. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena – Anthony Marra

‘A Constellation of Vital Phenomena’ is one of those books that Gran would say ‘manages to educate you on something you have little knowledge of’ and ‘makes you walk in a strangers steps, even if the stranger is fictional’. It is a book that isn’t a comfortable read by any stretch of the imagination yet, and I know I am sometimes stuck on repeat when I mention this, I don’t think that fiction should always be neat and comfortable. Sometimes we need brave bold books and authors like this to highlight what is going on or has gone on which we know little about.  Anthony Marra took on a challenge that even an author on their tenth book might not take on and he excels at it. I urge all of you to give this book a try.

5. Alex – Pierre Lemaitre

What Lemaitre actually does with ‘Alex’, which is far more interesting and potent is make you question, as the twists come, what you think is and isn’t morally right and soon this gripping thriller starts to ask so really serious questions of its reader and their ethics. A very clever move indeed, provide a book that makes you think hard about what you might do or what you find to be the ‘right’ thing for someone to do whilst also creating a read which is a complete page turner that has the readers jaw dropping as they go. That is what has made it my thriller of the year so far, it’s genius, and I personally cannot wait for the next one in the Camille series.

4. All The Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

The way Evie weaves all of this together is just masterful. She doesn’t simply go for the route of alternating chapters from Jake’s present and her past, which would be too simple and has been done before. In the present Evie makes the story move forward with Jake from the latest sheep mauling, in the past though we go backwards making the reader have to work at making everything make sense. I had several ‘oh bloody hell that is why she is where she is’ moments with the past storyline before thinking ‘what there is more, that might not be the reason…’ Jakes mistrust of things it seems it catching. This style is a gamble and admittedly initially requires a leap of faith and chapter or two of acclimatizing to the structure, yet it is a gamble which pays of dividends by the end and if you see the end coming, and aren’t left completely jaw droppingly winded by it, then you are a blooming genius. I was honestly blown away.

2= Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Atkinson is a master of prose in my eyes. I love the way she gives the readers discreet asides and occasional knowing winks. I love her sense of humour, especially when it is at its most wicked and occasionally inappropriate. I think the way her characters come to life is marvellous and the atmosphere in the book, particularly during the strands during World War II and during the London Blitz (though I didn’t think the Hitler parts of the book were needed, even if I loved the brief mention of Unity Mitford) along with the tale of her possible marriage were outstandingly written. There is also the element of family saga, the history of Britain from 1910 onwards and also how the lives of women have changed – all interesting themes which Atkinson deals with throughout.

2 = Magda – Meike Ziervogel

Two of the biggest powers that books can have are to make us think outside our usual periphery or be a spring board to discovering more about subjects we think we know. Some books can do both, they are a rarity though. Magda, the debut novel from Meike Ziervogel, is one such book which gave me both a different outlook on something I thought I had made my mind up about and left me desperate to find out more when challenged. It is the sort of book where I simply want to write ‘you have to read this book’ and leave it at that so you all do, yet it is also one that is designed to be talked about and the questions it raises be discussed.

1. The Language of Dying – Sarah Pinborough

I thought The Language of Dying was a wonderful book for its rawness and emotion. It is a book that I really experienced and one which I am so glad I have read for the cathartic and emotional effects it had on me (I was openly weeping often) and proved that sometimes books are exactly what you need and can show you truths you think no one else quite understands apart from you. I can’t recommend it enough, without question my book of the year.

I have to say I struggled with this list rather a lot. If any of you have listened to the latest episode of The Readers you will have heard me shamelessly cheating as Gavin and I discuss twelve books we are each looking forward to in 2014. So I will here cheat slightly and say that Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English, Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave, Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, and particularly both Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka and Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, could all easily have made the cut. Maybe I should have created a top twenty?

So which of these have you read and loved? What have been your books of 2013? What are you doing for New Years Eve?

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Books of 2013; Part I

With two days of 2013 to go, I thought it was time to share my books of the year. In the tradition I have set over the last few years, and my inability to whittle books down as favourites, there will be two posts of my books of the year. Today it is the books that were published before 2013 and tomorrow the ones that were published for the first time in the UK this year. Interestingly today’s list has proved so much easier than tomorrows as it seems I didn’t really read many books published before 2013 – and when I did only a few of them blew me away, those ones were…

10. Chocolat – Joanne Harris

I have to say that even though I had seen the film, though it has been a while, ‘Chocolat’ as a book was a whole lot darker and less twee than I thought it would be before picking it up. One of the many things that I admired so much about it was that under the tale of outsiders coming to a place, and quietly causing mayhem, there was the huge theme of people’s individuality and that being different should be celebrated and not ostracised, yet ‘Chocolat’ is also cleverly not a book that smacks you over the head with a moralistic tone.

9. The Detour – Gerbrand Bakker

‘The Detour’ won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year and having read it you can easily see why. Bakker creates a story that is subtle and slow burning yet all at once brimming with a sense of mystery and menace. It is also a book that will linger on with the reader long after you have read it and, if you are like me, long after it devastates you with both its prose and most importantly its story. A much recommended book.

8. The Ministry of Fear – Graham Greene

Greene shows what a master he is not only of atmosphere (war torn and spy strewn London) but of writing a book which takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions as much as it does thrills. Some of the book I found profoundly moving, both the descriptions of the destruction the war inflicted and also in an element I can’t explain here for fear of spoilers. Greene also made me laugh out loud on several occasions which, with all the tension and twists, proved much needed and added a great contrast of light amongst the dark.

7. Riotous Assembly – Tom Sharpe

The more I have thought about Riotous Assembly, the more impressed I have been left by it. The humour gets you through some of the tough bits, some of the bits that people would normally find hard to read and digest palatable by their humour yet equally devastating, if not more so, when the reader realizes the truth in it. So yet there maybe the boobies (and more) and bullets (and more) in it that I was expecting, but the way in which they are used is both titillating and thought provoking.

6. The Long Falling – Keith Ridgway

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.

5. Good Evening Mrs Craven; The Wartime Stories – Mollie Panter Downes

I think Mollie Panter-Downes writing is astounding. I really remember liking it last time but this time I loved it. There are the wonderful, often rather quirky, characters some of whom, like Mrs Ramsey, Mrs Peters and Mrs Twistle, keep returning in and out of the stories which helps build the consistency of the world Panter-Downes describes as they run from 1939 to 1944, the tone changing slightly as the book goes on. She can bring a character to life in just a mere sentence or two and the brevity of her tales and how much they make your mind create is quite astounding.

4. The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing

Lessing’s writing is unflinchingly brilliant. As I mentioned about the sense of menace and oppression is wonderfully evoked as the landscape and weather match the atmosphere of impending doom the book has and also Mary’s mental state. Mary is also an incredible creation, one of the most complex characters I have read. She is never completely likeable nor dislikeable, yet you find yourself fascinated by a woman who in turns goes from victim to venomous, from independent to weak, from sane to crazy, from racist to not and back again. It is confronting and equally compelling and highlights the society at the time and the conundrum and conflict a country and its society found itself in and in some ways, shockingly, still does.

3.Mariana – Monica Dickens

If someone had told me this is what the book was going to be about before I started I might have been inclined to think that this book really wouldn’t be for me. Yet I loved every single page of it and was completely lost in Mary’s life. Part of that was to do with the character of Mary that Monica creates, she isn’t the picture perfect heroine at all, she can be moody, ungainly and awkward, a little self centred on occasion but she is always likeable, her faults making her more endearing even when she can be rather infuriating. Part of it was also all the characters around her, I want to list them all but there are so many it would be madness, some of them delightful, some spiteful but all of them drawn vividly and Monica Dickens has a wonderful way of introducing a new character with the simplest of paragraphs which instantly sums them up. All of these characters are part of the many things that make you go on reading ‘Mariana’, every page or two someone new lies in store.

2. HHhH – Laurent Binet

I don’t think I have learnt so much about World War II from a book I have read in all my 31, nearly 32, years. Considering that I studied it for about five years in my history lessons at school this is quite something. I had no idea about some of the smaller but utterly fascinating facts behind this time period; that the Hitler wanted authors such as Aldous Huxley, Rebecca West, HG Wells and Virginia Woolf; that the Nazi’s built their own brothel (Kitty’s Salon) to film other Nazi’s to see if they were true to the regime or not. Nor did I know of some of the utterly horrific things, like what an ineffectual plonker Chamberlain was, the plans for Nazi attack cells in all the cities all over the UK and the horrendous atrocities such as Grandmothers Gully in Kiev.

1. The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

… 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.

So that is the first of my selection of books of 2013. I have only taken a small quote from my thoughts on each book, to find out more click on the link to each book. Which of these have you read and what did you think? I have realised I need to get into more of the books from the past and less of the shiny new ones, but that is for discussion more in the New Year. Any other books by these authors that you would recommend I read in 2014?

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Black Vodka – Deborah Levy

And so here is my final review, or set of book thoughts as I think of them, of 2013. This seems fitting considering I read this book not once, not twice but three times in total throughout the year as Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka is a collection of stories that is most beguiling because it evokes many sensations as you read it. There is darkness here, puzzlement and often a sensation that you need to read each story again and again to get more from it – so I did.

And Other Words, 2013, paperback, short stories, 125 pages, bought by my good self

Short story collections, I find, are rather a nightmare to write anything about. The instant thing most people ask is ‘what is the theme of the collection?’ Well to be honest with Black Vodka I am not sure. Many have a sense or need of belonging somewhere within them, though in differing forms. There is also the theme of love in many; sometimes its loss, sometimes where it sparks, sometimes where it lacks, sometimes where it never quite is. This all sounds very vague and if this was for a broadsheet I would probably be fired, but thankfully as it is my I can’t fire myself (well I could but I won’t) but I can ask the question… Does every short story collection really need to be about themes? Can’t a short  story collection just be what it says it is? As to try and give Black Vodka set themes seems to limit it and I don’t think that is what Deborah Levy would want or has set out to do.

What we have is a collection of ten stories that cover a huge spectrum of human experiences, ones which seem to show the signs of our times. Infidelity seems to be one of the most common as within Vienna, Simon Tegala’s Heart in 12 Parts, Pillow Talk, Black Vodka, and Roma there is infidelity going on somewhere in the tale. Levy doesn’t preach though, some lovers are forgiven, some are not and occasionally love blossoms from an act of infidelity and we have all heard such tales from friends, or friends of friends. There is also, as I mentioned the sense of belonging, be it to a place (Shining a Light), a person (Roma), or simply just to society (Black Vodka).

My next statement might sound bonkers but the whole collection is also linked by a European feel. America and Asia are mentioned but in every single tale Europe seems to stand out, all the tales are set in Europe but no matter where somewhere else in Europe will be mentioned. Someone will compare something to ‘a fisherman’s cottage in Greece’, ‘orchards of Istanbul’ or be somewhere continental feeling very homesick for the rain in the UK. Shining a Light looks at this as Alice finds herself in Prague, her luggage lost, befriending the people who she thinks are locals but are in fact foreigners too . They become united by their want, or need, of having a good time to cover their homesickness, only Alice can go home her new acquaintances cannot. In Pillow Talk lovers Pavel and Ella are from completely different backgrounds yet have met and started a relationship in London, Pavel has an interview in Dublin so will the relationship last (especially as he does something stupid) long term and can it with these differences we try so hard to be cool with yet also try and cover up as if they don’t matter? Vienna, a tale of a regular extramarital tryst, puts it well…

He thinks about Magret swimming in the cold pool below her apartment, her head surfacing, her mouth opening to take a breath. He knows she is dead inside and he is aroused that this is so, and he takes out a cigarette and lights it. He thinks about  how there is life with rye bread and black tea and there is life with champagne and wild salmon. He can live without champagne but he cannot live without his children; that is grief he knows he cannot endure but he must endure and he knows his hands will itch for ever. He thinks about feeling used, teased, abused and mocked by middle Europe, whose legs were wrapped around his appallingly grateful body ten minutes ago, and he thinks about the twentieth century that ended the same time as his marriage.

I should here mention Levy’s writing, which I fell in love with in Swimming Home and loved just as much in this. Actually I may have loved it more as I got a more varied sense of it and all its shades as every tale in the collection is different, a novel can show many shades in a particular form. With Black Vodka as a collection we have short stories in the literary form you might expect along with tales with a tinge of science fiction like Cave Girl; which sees a woman wanting a body transplant and what effects that has, plus ghostly tales like Placing a Call; which also somehow manages to break your heart, a stand out moment for me. In all the stories the prose is short and to the point and crackles along, there is also a deliciously dark feel to each tale, even when there may be a happy ending, which leads me to my favourites…

I have to say I liked every tale, even when they completely baffled me upon a first read. There were several standouts though. Shining a Light which initially I didn’t quite get, on a re-read or two made me think about Europe, the state of it and my relation to it. Stardust Nation had a wonderful sense of unease, which only tales of madness can, and twists when you least expect it reminding me of everything I love about Daphne Du Maurier at her darkest. It is also a very clever tale looking at the pressures we have as adults and how cracks we have cemented from our past can be triggered by them devastatingly. Placing a Call in a very few pages it broke my heart and made me cry. Finally the title tale Black Vodka which I have now actually read four times and each time have loved the sense of needing to belong which it evokes but have also left feeling it is the most hopeful story or the most heart breaking depending on my mood and I have not experienced that before.

Black Vodka is a marvellous collection because it looks at the internal and external worlds of people and how they affect the worlds of  others through their actions or sometimes lack of them. In Pillow Talk Pavel asks his girlfriend Ella ‘Have you ever had that weird feeling in an airport when you panic and don’t know what to do? One screen says Departures and another screen says Arrivals and for a moment you don’t know which one you are. You think, am I an arrival or am I a departure?’ For me, and I could be wrong, that is really what Levy is looking at with these stories; how we arrive and how we depart from other people’s lives. She then lets us ask questions of what those arrivals and departures mean, occasionally seeing some of our own actions, the good and the bad, in them especially as the real world gets smaller and smaller in modern times. A brilliant collection indeed.

Deborah Levy signed

Who else has read Black Vodka and what did you think? I have to admit that it is one of the hardest collections to write about in part because of its scope and brilliance and also as I met Deborah earlier in the year (one of my 2013 highlights) and she said how much my review of Swimming Home had meant, no pressure with this one then – ha! I am now desperate to read more of her back catalogue of works and have borrowed Billy and Girl from the library though I believe many of her books are being reissued in the new year, have you read any of them and what did you think?

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Other People’s Bookshelves #25 – Mike Ward

Hello and welcome to the latest in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves where we are all probably feeling a little full after the festive food and so thankfully we can have a wander along the seafront and down the pier as we are in Brighton! This week we join Mike, and his cat LouLou – who came with the name, as he makes some room for us in his study (with alcoves for books and everything like a gentleman’s club) which of course I am rather jealous of. Anyway, before I get myself arrested for stalking, I will hand over to Mike to tell us more about himself before we go routing through his shelves…

I grew up in a house full of books, so was always a keen reader as child when I used to devour books, mainly Enid Blyton, and I used to dream of being orphaned or packed off to boarding school and thereby being exposed to smugglers and wicked relatives – sadly (or perhaps thankfully) this never happened. As I got older I sort of fell out with reading, only picking up books when on holiday, then three years ago I moved from London to Brighton and found myself with a hour long commute each way and started reading again.  I also joined the local book group – an enormous but friendly group where often 25 or more people will turn up on the allotted first Wednesday of the month for lively debate and a few pints.  I had always viewed reading as a solitary activity and the book group really opened my eyes to the pleasure of talking about books.  Last autumn (at Simon’s suggestion) I set up my own book review blog 0651frombrighton.blogspot.co.uk, which has become a bit of an obsession. I started off trying to blog a book a day, drawing on a back catalogue of books that I had read previously, this has now settled down to three a week – Wednesday (non-fiction), Saturday (fiction) and Sunday (glossy coffee table books) – which I can comfortably keep supplied by reading 2-3 fiction and 2-3 others a week.  I decided to take a concise approach to my reviews, so some of my reviews are little more than a few lines, though recently I have allowed myself to write some slightly longer reviews. Recently I have started to read more non-fiction including autobiographies, which regular readers of my blog will know are a source of constant frustration for me on account of the dreadful writing style of the ghost writers.

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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?

Occasionally I have a purge of books, relegating ones that I didn’t enjoy to the charity shop, but generally I keep most of them on the shelves.  Recently I have started to buy more e-books to feed the dreaded Kindle, but as a Times subscriber I also picked up their paperback of the week most weeks over the last year so the shelves are still receiving regular new additions. If I don’t manage to finish a book (100 page rule) then it generally gets sent to the charity shop.

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?

My shelves are in two alcoves – one for fiction and one for non fiction.  The fiction shelves are alphabetical by author and my Agatha Christie’s are further split into detective series in order of publication.  I also make sure that any unread books protrude about an inch in a futile attempt to shame me into not buying new books until I have read all the ones I own. My mission this year has been to read all of the unread ones, so that in future whenever I but a book I will read it straightaway – I’m almost there with the fiction shelves with only about 10 books left to read.

The non-fiction shelves were loosely themed into biography, history, philosophy and by country – though it got a bit random – for example all of my George Orwell’s sat on the Spain shelf because of Homage to Catalonia.  More recently I’ve moved all the really big books to the top shelf to free up space lower down, so the theming has got even more random – every now and then I have an enjoyable Sunday morning re-organising the shelves with the Archers omnibus on in the background.  I’m a sucker for glossy coffee table books so the TBRs in non-fiction number over 100, so still some way to go with my target.

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

I have no idea, but I would guess that it was an Enid Blyton as I was an avid fan – I always secretly wanted to be orphaned as it seemed to open up a world of adventures!  I did randomly buy a load of Enid Blytons on ebay recently, so whilst I don’t have my original copies I may have a replacement….

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?

Everything is on show – I trust that any embarrassing ones will simply merge into the background…

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?

I’m not terribly sentimental so this is a difficult question, I do have quite a few signed copies though they are all merged into the shelves so in a fire I would probably struggle to grab them all.  My favourite book ever is Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale and I do have a signed copy so I would probably grab that. I met Patrick at the event Simon hosted last year (or was it the year before?) in Manchester – I’m looking forward to his next book which is partly set in Canada I believe and must be due out soon.

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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?

I remember being introduced to Agatha Christie by my Gran when I was about 11 years old, it was quite exciting to realise that I wasn’t just restricted to children’s book anymore.  I have the whole collection now – as a result of another slightly obsessive ebay binge. My favourites are the standalone stories and the Miss Marples, I’m not so keen on the Poirots, which is a shame because they are by far the largest group. I think that I’ve read  all of the Christies at some point over the years, but occasionally I will pick one up and find that I either haven’t read it or don’t remember it.

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 – I hardly ever borrow books, so generally I always buy my own copy. I also rarely buy secondhand, not for any reason other than I tend to buy based on review, recommendation or previous work by the author, so charity shops are a bit too hit and miss for me to bother with; I will buy second hand from online sites though.

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

I attended a brilliant and intimate Times+ event a couple of weeks ago and left with a goodie bag containing Hugo Rifkind’s My Week*, Sathnam Sangara’s Marriage Material and Kevin Maher’s The Fields. I love an author event and book signing so always look out for them.  I did go through a phase of always getting a cheesy photo with the authors but then I met Lionel Shriver and was too scared to ask her – she is one intimidating lady!  I also can get a bit starstruck – when I met David Sedaris, I was so conscious that his anecdotes include people he has met at book signings that I clammed up a bit.

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

I would love to have my Agatha Christie’s in the re-released facsimile copies of the first editions – the cover artwork is awesome, obviously owning the originals would be even better!

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

I think at first glance they would probably think I was well read – simply based on quantity.  If they looked deeper they would probably notice that I am very light on the classics and may change their view! What would I like them to think? I don’t know… hopefully that I have interesting taste?

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A huge thanks to Mike for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, and almost making me sick with jealousy his study, the levels of jealousy that these posts evoke in me is unhealthy! Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the 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 Mike’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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The Burning – Jane Casey

You can enjoy a crime novel at any time of the year, however in the autumn and winter with the long drawn nights it seems an even more ideal time to pick one up – I am currently mulling over just which one to read next. Whilst I decide I thought I would tell you about the first in a new-to-me series, The Burning, by a new-to-me author, Jane Casey. As many long term readers of the blog will know I do like a good crime series though I am always rather trepidatious about starting a new one; partly because the ones I read are so good and partly because when you sign up to a series you know you are signing up to something long haul and even if you don’t like it you will probably want to read the next one despite yourself to see what happens next.

Ebury Press, 2010, paperback, crime fiction, 486 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

London is in terror of a serial killer that the media have named The Burning Man after he has beaten and burnt four women to death in secluded parks throughout the city. A fifth victim, Rebecca Haworth, has been discovered and yet there seems to be something different in the minutiae of her killing. Either The Burning Man has changed the way he is dealing with his victims ever so slightly, or there is a copy cat killer who could possibly be about to start a spate of murders or just wanted to kill and have someone else take the blame. Whatever the outcome it is up to Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan to find out more yet the more she learns about this supposed fifth victim the more and more confused she is, as Rebecca Haworth was a bit of an enigma, seemingly perfect but do still waters run deep?

He nodded, then strutted away, trying and failing to look like a taller man than he was. Anton Ventnor, prize git. I would have dreaded going in to an office he ran; I would have been delighted to get away from him if I’d been in Rebecca’s shoes. But I wasn’t Rebecca; I didn’t even really know what she was like. The highly organised business-woman. The good-time girl you’d never marry. The loyal, scatty friend. The desperate employee. I had no doubt I would get a different account of Rebecca’s character from her parents, when I spoke to them. She had been whatever people wanted her to be, right up to the moment when what they wanted her to be was dead.

I have to say I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Burning before I read it, lots of people had told me that it would be my kind of crime novel and I think that might be because Casey does a very good job of mixing the police procedural with a psychological thriller – these are not the same things as I have discovered over my reading of the genre. DC Kerrigan is a woman in a very masculine world, in fact she is one of only a few females on her team as we have the hunt for The Burning Man there is much crime scene investigation, clues and dead ends to be lead down.

At the same time we know there is more to the book than meets the eye as from early on we switch narratives from Maeve as she gets on with the procedural side of catching a killer and also Louise, Rebecca Howarth’s best friend. The story divides slightly into two strands and even takes another twist as we learn of a death in Rebecca’s Oxford past and so in a way we soon find we are following three different cases all in one book. With the two different narratives we think we are learning more than DC Kerrigan, but are we really? This is a clever trick if you can pull it off but a very hard web to weave.

Overall Casey does this really well. I have to admit that when the book started to head off to Oxford and Rebecca and Louise’s student days I did inwardly groan as firstly, I don’t really like campus novels, and secondly I was rather grimly fascinated by The Burning Man and it does seem that for a hundred or so pages so does DC Kerrigan almost informing us of the fact there are multiple murderers out there instead of leaving us guessing until the last possible moment. A small quibble though really as when The Burning Man case reaches its denouement it really paces along and grips, yet you know there is more to come, double the detecting. I also think Casey could have quite easily cut a hundred pages. I didn’t need the switch of narrative to one of Casey’s colleagues, Rob, for example as we could have gained the information in a paragraph or two in a different way and sometimes the dual narratives meant repetitions though of course the whole point is what is missing or what is concealed by one party or not which I liked hunting for.

DC Kerrigan herself is a great lead. I liked her struggle to be one of the boys whilst having to compete so strongly to be seen and heard which I bet is the case within the police system. I also enjoyed her hunt for the killer or killers and can safely say that Casey is very good at creating serial killers who have very different motives from the one you might think, particularly in the case of The Burning Man who once unmasked I found incredibly chilling indeed.

I would also like to think, and if this is true I hope Jane Casey sees this and let me know, that this might be a kind of homage of sorts to Du Maurier’s Rebecca. They don’t have the same story line by any means but throughout the novel there is a woman, with the name Rebecca obviously, who is quite clearly alive for many of the characters despite her death, yet she is also a complete enigma. If so I am of course thrilled, if not I am clearly far too obsessed with that book.

After reading The Burning will I be returning to follow DC Kerrigan on another case? Yes. Jane Casey clearly wants to wrong foot her readers, in a nice way not in a smug clever clogs way, and if this novel is anything to go by she not only has a huge scope which she wishes to encapsulate in her tales, with various tangents and strands of investigation. She also likes to lead you into a false sense of security when you know who the killer is. I guessed who the murderer might be from quite early on, yet I was often thrown into doubt until the moment Casey wanted all to be revealed, yet even then she cleverly throws a twist or two in for good measure keeping you going after the big reveal.

Who else has read any of Jane Casey’s crime series, or indeed The Missing, the standalone novel? What did you make of them and do I have many more thrills and spills ahead of me? Which are your favourite crime novels that I should consider as I debate my next murderous fictional fix?

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Filed under Ebury Press, Jane Casey, Review

Bonkers – Jennifer Saunders

I don’t know about all of you but I am a much bigger fan of Boxing Day than Christmas Day, you still get all the food, chocolates and see relatives but it all feels calmer and less pressurised and you don’t have to worry about offending anyone if you go off into a corner and read a book. If you are anything like me the festive season is all about reading old favourites (some of the Armistead Maupin Tales of the City series), a good gripping crime or two (next read for me), and the celebrity memoir (I am just about to start Angelica Huston, or Jelly Who-who as I like to call her). One celebrity book that I can heartily recommend, and I do have rather a penchant for them on the sly, is Bonkers by Jennifer Saunders who I think gets it spot on.

Penguin Viking, 2013, hardback, autobiography, 292 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Unless you have been living in a cave or been on the moon since the 1980’s it is very unlikely you don’t know who Jennifer Saunders is. She was part of the Comic Strip before French and Saunders took over the telly box for many, many years. There has been Absolutely Fabulous (which The Beard is obsessed with, occasionally spending the day channelling Edina Monsoon – I know, I know), the Fairy Godmother in Shrek and my very favourite Jam & Jerusalem. Through all these we have come across a lot of Jennifer’s wonderful writing and yet she has always remained rather an enigma, this of course adds to the delight of wanting to read Bonkers. From the start you know you are going to enjoy what is to come.

I have been told that publishers these days like a particular type of memoir. They like a little bit of misery. They like a ‘mis mem’.
Well I am afraid I have had very little ‘mis’ in my life, and nowadays I have even less ‘mem’. So we can knock that one on the head.

Really Bonkers’ tagline gives it all away for you – ‘my life in laughs’ and as a reader you will spend many, many chapters just chortling away. Saunders seems to have chosen to write the funniest moments in her life as sketches that could be in a comedy show, or with subjects like cancer where she became ‘Brave Jen’ to the world she looks for the humour in even the darker parts of her life. She also knows what we ‘the reader’ really want to read about.

If you are standing in a bookshop and have accidentally picked me up (as it were), I can guess what you might be thinking. Oh no! Not another celebrity autobiog by someone cashing in on TV fame!
But let me tell you…
Yes! That is exactly what this is.
I realize they’re everywhere nowadays. Like a disease. But a lot of books out there are by babies. Biebers and Tulisas. They’ve only been awake a couple of years. Next we’ll have tiny foetuses writing books.
The thing that this one has going for it is that I am really quite old. I have also met quite a few celebs, which is always a good sales point. I was told to stuff it with celebs and royalty and a touch of sadness.

 So unlike some memoirs  that I can think of, where the writer spends at least a chapter on every audition they tried and failed at from the age of three until fame came a knocking, or how they spent seventy pages picking the perfect dress to wear for a party when they went to their first celeb bash etc, we get an insight into Jennifer’s childhood, some of her first trips away (one which has a link with Ernest Hemmingway and inspired Edina Monsoon), how she met Dawn French and how that initially didn’t go as we might expect, how she felt about making shows on her own, her dealing with fame, dealing with cancer, dealing with children getting older, all with some lovely celeby stories and lots and lots of giggling along the way.

I also felt I got to know her a little bit better, and as she has said herself these are the sort of stories you tell at dinner parties, they aren’t the most intimate of moments but stories you share with people you are getting to know. Interestingly her letters to Joanna ‘Jack’ Lumley, or faxes, and her thoughts on cancer and on the Spice Girls musical closing (not to compare the two) show her at her most natural and funny and honest and rather vulnerable, in both cases letting us in all the more.

So a big recommendation for Bonkers, which I think is the most suiting of titles, if you are a fan then you will have already got your mitts on a copy, or found it in your stocking a few days ago maybe? If not then when you next head to your local bookshop, which of course we all do with our book tokens (I got some woo-hoo) after Christmas, then you might want to add this to the ‘pile of joyous books to read over the festive period’ that I am sure we all have on our bedside tables at the moment.

If you want to hear more about the book, and have a few more giggles, then you can hear Jennifer and I having a pre-Christmas natter on the latest episode of You Wrote The Book here.

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Filed under Jennifer Saunders, Penguin Books, Review, Viking Books

Happy Christmas – Daphne Du Maurier

I don’t think I have put a book review as a post on Christmas Day before, I am sure you are all having too much of a lovely time with your family, or just filled with chocolates and the like, to be reading the blog. I hope I will be. However there didn’t seem a more ideal day to discuss Happy Christmas by Daphne Du Maurier, a rather rare short story/novella that couldn’t be more ideal for today and so I have done some scheduling, not sledging, scheduling.

Todd Publishing, 1953, novella, 24 pages, bought as an early Christmas present for myself

Todd Publishing, 1953, novella, 24 pages, bought as an early Christmas present for myself

The Lawrence house is busy and bustling trying to get itself organised, well the staff are, in time for Christmas and a day of festivities and feasting between the Lawrence family and their neighbours. Busy Mr Lawrence is watching all from the side lines while his wife fusses over what needs to be done (by the staff) and their children Bob and Marjorie (their names being one of the few things that dates this tale) squeal about what they want for Christmas. We all know the score. However after a phone call the mood changed when the local refugee charity, who Mrs Lawrence signed up to because she felt she should as everyone else was, call telling them that they have a Jewish couple in need of shelter. Worrying that this will inconvenience and possibly ruin Christmas they decide that they have no room other than above the garage building and so begrudgingly agree.

I won’t say more on the plot as the tale is only a very short 24 pages. I can talk about my reaction to it though. Initially I have to say I had a horrid feeling that this was a rather racist tale, especially after how put out the Lawrence’s are about the Jews coming to stay and a few rather antisemetic comments fly from her and her husbands mouths. However, that was a lazy initial reaction and one I was annoyed at myself for even thinking Daphne would deign to write. As I read on I realised that in a modern mirroring of the religious tale of Christmas, rather than the big jolly fat man with a beard, Du Maurier is actually pointing out that deep down many of us have forgotten just what on earth Christmas is actually about.

This isn’t a case of religious preaching or bashing the reader over the head and as someone who isn’t religious I think I would have spotted it if it was. It is just a tale that says Christmas isn’t all about having the latest most marvellous gifts, showing off to relations and neighbours (or indeed trying to outdo them), it is a time to think how lucky we are and remember it is a time of charity and giving, the latter not having to be on such a grand scale. As someone who had up until this point been mildly grumpy that I wouldn’t be getting an iPhone 5S for Christmas it gave me a short sharp slap round the face and I know that whatever happens on Christmas Day I will just be feeling thankful I am with people who love me and who I love… even if they probably want to play bloody charades!

Considering Happy Christmas is now sixty years old it is a short story that most of us in this modern world could do with reading to be given a reminder to look sharp, buck up and think on as to what Christmas is really all about. It is only short but it packs one very big punch. Well done, Daphne.

Oh and if you want an extra little magical tale, you can find out the way I ended up getting this copy of Happy Christmas here. Bookish fate. I hope you are all having a wonderful day.  

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Filed under Daphne Du Maurier, Review