Monthly Archives: January 2014

Let’s Talk About Sex…

Well ok, let’s talk about sex in books – as I bet the title of this post raised a few eyebrows which sex seems want to do including sex in books. Last Sunday I posted a review of Mateship With Birds, Carrie Tiffany’s second novel, which I thought was a rather amazing and brilliant book. I also mentioned that it had rather a lot of sex in it, which I had taken as a kind of metaphor for the characters inner frustrations. After I write and post a review I allow myself to go and read other reviews of the book by other bloggers or broadsheet critics and see if my thoughts matched up with theirs, what surprised me was how many of them had judged the book for the amount of sex that was in the book (apparently too much) and how this took away from the books other qualities, some people even saying it would have been a better book without the sex.

Initially this made me think ‘oh what a bunch of prudes’ as I had thought the sex was very powerful, not arousing but very powerful in terms of the insight it gave to the characters, the way it matched the charge of the atmosphere and everything else. I then thought ‘oh goodness, does this make me a bit of a pervert’ as I seemed to be one of very few people who hadn’t minded it that much. Yes it was graphic, but it wasn’t gratuitous or just done for the sake of it. It gave me a lot to ponder, and indeed I talked about it with Thomas on the latest episode of The Readers. Would I have felt differently if the book simply had been gratuitous?

Well, if it had been the case I probably would have thought ‘is there any need’ but I wouldn’t have called it ‘a dirty, filthy book’. Sex is after all a part of our lives, we are all the products of it in general and we have all done it, so why is it still such a tricky (I nearly said sticky but that would have been wrong) subject for some people to read about? Especially in an era where one of the biggest selling books of all time is now Fifty Shades of Grey which from what I read (when I skimmed through a copy I bought The Beard’s mother as she didn’t want to) I thought was really just graphic and gratuitous sex for the sake of getting tongues wagging (no pun or euphemism intended) and sales – which worked.

But who am I to judge. Look at Lady Chatterleys Lover or Lolita both of those were released to horrors and have become classics. Then there is of course Marquis de Sade or Anais Nin, one who has become seen as a saucy romping classic writer the other a feminist. I also noted that here in the UK we have an award for the worst sex in a book and yet not one for the best, is that because really sex in books makes us cringe and feel awkward and so it is best to laugh at the awful sex scenes? Yet surely the good sex in books should be celebrated as books embrace all that we as people do, or should it be like the Mills and Boons of old and simply leave the bedroom door firmly closed?

It is interesting isn’t it? What your thoughts about sex in books? Or will you all be too shy to comment?

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The Week That Whizzed By Before The Looooong Weekend

I feel like I have no idea where the last week has gone. Actually that is a big lie, I know exactly where the week has gone. Work ate it. I spent Sunday working most of the day, then working until 9pm on Monday (in the office) and then 11pm (at home so in some comfort/reach of cupcakes) last night. I have been well aware that the summer will be utterly mad and I will be working left right and centre (which I embrace as I like to be busy at work), I wasn’t quite expecting it to be this mad this soon.

Hopefully the madness is over, for a while at least, though this has meant that in the last four/five days has involved working or slobbing on the sofa/sleeping. Though I did manage to record an episode of The Readers where I moan about having no time to read – oh dear! Hoorah’s ahead though as with all those extra hours I have now got a lovely long three day weekend ahead of me and (after having spent this afternoon having a lovely lunch and then lazing with a DVD, the cats, sweets and the Beard – who feels he hasn’t seen me in forever) I am going to dedicate those days to these…

A Long Weekend of Books

Yes it is time for a long weekend of book binging. I have a huge craving for crime so plan on heading straight into some S. J. Bolton, then I really want to read Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall which I bought in Waterstones when I fell in deliriously the afternoon before it won the Costa, Deborah Levy because I have become a huge fan and some lovely ‘early Levy’ books turned up in the post this week. Then I have two books with ‘deadlines’ of sorts to them. Oscar Wilde’s short stories have been chosen by Kate for the next Hear… Read This! and book group is a week on Saturday and Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder has been chosen by Rita – all I know is it is a fictional tale involving philosophy and its history, I am terrified of it yet also hoping reading it might make me seem brainier and able to spout philosophical diatribe left, right and centre. Ha!

I also plan on doing some reviews and catch up on comments here and blogs all over the shop. Bliss. What are you reading at the moment or are planning to read? How do you manage to find time to read when there seems to be no time to read? Have you read any of the books I plan on devouring this weekend? Note: I know I won’t read all of them! What else is news?

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Mateship with Birds – Carrie Tiffany

So as it is, or probably with the time difference and the fact I have ended up working six hours from home today (on a Sunday and everything), Australia Day today I thought it would be nice to get a review of some Australian literature up on Savidge Reads. I am often telling myself I must read more Australian fiction as I like it whenever I do and so it seems an appropriate nudge. After much mulling and debate I settled on Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany, which won the inaugural Stella Prize in 2013 and which I have had waiting on the shelves for too long. Far too long as it turned out as I was left rather astounded by this book.

9780330544467

Picador Books, 2013, paperback, 224 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

On the outskirts of a town somewhere in Australia in the early 1950’s we join two neighbours. Harry owns a dairy farm and spends his days between milking his herd and watching the local wildlife, mainly a family of kookaburra’s, and looking over his past seemingly happy with and yet questioning his lot in life. Betty rents the house next door with her two children Michael and Little Hazel, often wondering what has become of her life and often wondering about Harry. We follow these two characters, Betty’s children, and their weird neighbour Mues over what I thought was a season – though it could be much longer or indeed shorter as Mateship with Birds has a sense of nothing and everything happening all at once, all in the grubby wilds of the countryside.

Dairy pastures are difficult to establish in gullies where there is seepage and drainage. They drift like continents; their hides are maps of uncharted countries. Keep the herd on dry ground through the winter. Sunlight shines ginger through their ears. Plants shelterbelts to reduce wind speed. Elastic ropes of snot hang from their nostrils; their hocks are stuck with shit.

There is much to love in Mateship with Birds but what stood out for me was the depiction of two people who are intensely lonely. No matter how many cows Harry has to milk, inseminate and calf or how much interest he takes in the birdlife he is a man who has been left by his wife and left with a huge chasm he doesn’t know what to do with. Betty may have her day job caring in nursing home and two school children/early teenagers to look after yet her life is spent pretty much in an internal monologue, and one that is filled with disappointment and heartache, she knows people talk about her in the town and avoids it, and mirrors, all she can.

Betty tries not to look at her reflection in the co-op window. She glances. There’s nobody about. She stands in front of the glass, pulls her stomach in and smiles. The puffy flesh of her cheeks rises up around her eyes and she is brought up sharp by the sight of herself so doughy, so exposed, like when her hair has just been cut and set and there is too much of herself on display. This is how she feels most of the time now; always blowsy, always overstuffed.

Harry and Betty have befriended each other out of mutual loneliness and mutual interest, there is an underlying tension between them which they never talk about. Both headed for middle age they have no one else and so Harry regularly visits for Sunday dinner or to help out and has indeed taken Michael under his wing on the farm and in the ways of being a man, which leads to Harry writing to Michael about how life was for him as a teenager and pass on all his, in unflinching detail, experience with women and sex. Let’s say we soon learn he might not be the best man to pass advice onto.

Writing is actually a big theme in the book, which makes sense when you have so many characters with little to do and so much going on in their heads. Harry writes the letters to Michael, he also keeps a note of the lives of the kookaburra family that nest nearby, written in the most gorgeous verse it is pure poetry. Keeping with nature, another major theme of the book, Little Hazel keeps her nature diary, and her mother a diary of the children’s illnesses year by year. Each of these forms of writing gives another insight into all the characters and often adds a real sense of humour to what could have possibly become a depressing book though never does.

1951/52
Michael: Concussion from bicycle accident, infected toe from spider bite (?), kicked by cow, v. bad cough, pecked by gander, eye infection, warts on feet, skewered with fork, burnt foot, constipation, infected splinter, nits.
Little Hazel: Tummy upset, headaches, chilblains, pecked by gander, warts, cough, scratched by cat, diarrhoea, nits.

I mentioned the theme of sex previously and indeed it is one of the main themes of the book. Okay, let us be frank there is A LOT of sex in Mateship with Birds, though really any surprise about that should be left at the door when ‘mateship’ is in the title yet it may surprise some as every few pages or so one of the characters either masturbates, inseminates or ejaculates at some point – or thinks about doing it. This will not be for all readers, as it is rather graphic, and I know some readers went completely off the book for it. Yet Mateship with Birds is a very animalistic and quite grubby (in a muddy sense initially) book anyway so I personally thought it worked really well and made sense often working as a metaphor for what else was going on in the book or a way of unleashing internal mental frustrations as well as the physical ones. Plus you also have a group of characters who have very little else going on, throw in that and the heat and it’s all going to get a bit heightened.

When the air is dry and thin
(early February)
you can hear the river birds to the north.
I thought at first
they were an echo,
but when you get your ear in
it’s clear
that each family sings its own song.

I do hope the sex factor doesn’t put people off this books though as really what Mateship with Birds is all about is loneliness, wanting to belong and looking at the question of what family is. I think Carrie Tiffany excels as she manages to create a novel that reminds us we aren’t so different from the birds and animals around us we like to think, we are all beasts and we function the way nature intended us to.

I do love an ‘earthy’ book and a grubby countryside setting – as I think there can be much darker things going on behind those countryside curtains, I also love a book with fully formed and rather dysfunctional characters whose lives you get thrown into. All of these loves are ticked in Mateship with Birds and more. It is wonderfully written and I highly recommend you give it a whirl; sex, warts and all!

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Filed under Books of 2014, Carrie Tiffany, Picador Books, Review

Other People’s Bookshelves #28 – Simon Wilder

Hello and welcome, after a small hiatus while I was in London too hung-over to blog thanks to Kerry Hudson’s bad influence, to the latest in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves. This week we are in London town (though I will be sticking to non alcoholic beverages as we peruse these shelves) and are all round book designer Simon Wilder’s for the day. I am very jealous of Simon’s shelves indeed and I think you may all get a slight book porn overdose, but before you do, here’s Simon with more about himself and his book and blogging addictions…

I’m 55, a graphic designer – I design books. Picture books; cookbooks, reference books, coffee table books. I have recently designed some fiction covers for Helena Halme for the Kindle, and now she’s started putting them into paperback. You can see some of them here. I also take pictures. Too many. I blog them. I’m an over blogger. http://999faces.tumblr.com http://waiterpix.tumblr.com http://maybeitsabighorse.tumblr.com http://wereallgoingona.tumblr.com I expect to finish my 999 faces project towards the end of next summer and am hoping to have an exhibition of it. I could spend a long time talking about it, but it’s not what we’re here for today. And I’ve lived in London all my life.

Bookshelves

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?

A book only has to be hardback for me to keep it. A few years ago I gave 30 years worth of paperbacks to the charity shop. Hundreds of them. I was giddy about it. They weighed me down. I also loved having so much extra space. Since then I give a laundry bag of newer paperbacks to the charity shop whenever it becomes full. I really dislike the smell of old books. I hate the brownness of the paper. Hardbacks are made from different stock, and I prefer them as objects. It’s really about decoration. I’m aware that this is all slightly soulless of me, but, really, the content of books is what’s most important, and I’ve read that.

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

I have one bookcase for cookbooks, another for ‘reading books’. Both are arranged by colour of spine. The reading books are fiction to the left, and much smaller section of non fiction to the right. They’re also arranged by height. I know this is all a bit silly. I much prefer fiction, rarely read anything else in book form (Although Damian Barr’s Maggie and Me was one of my favourite books of 2013). Arranging them all by colour is no problem for reading books – I so rarely reread that I never have to look for them. It’s more of a problem looking for a cookbook. But then you get taken places that you hadn’t thought of, which I love. I sometimes think it would be brilliant to have all the recipes listed alphabetically, by ingredient and by country on my iPad. But one of the things I love most about books is that they make you discursive. I may think I want beef stew, but maybe I really want bouillabaisse, I just hadn’t thought of it. And if I do decide on beef stew, will it be Provencal or Irish? So many choices. Everything is about choice. And talking of Kindles (and their like), I tried one for six months. I don’t feel sentimentally attached to traditional book technology. I gave it a proper go. But for all Kindle’s virtues, turning a real page is still exciting to me, seeing how far I’ve read, how much is left of a book, is part of the pleasure of reading. I don’t think I’m too old to change, but I prefer an actual book. My 79 year old mother, far more conservative in all areas of life than me, very happily changed to reading on a kindle. Although, after two years of it, she went back to printed matter, for pretty much the same reasons as me.

Blue-shelf

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

Almost certainly something by Enid Blyton, or EE Nesbit. Maybe Peter Pan or a Mary Poppins. Oh, Swallows and Amazons? Doctor Doolitle? I can’t remember which, although I remember the experience and how brilliant it felt to be able to choose like that. I loved all the Edwardian children’s classics when I was growing up. I was one of those few boys who loved reading. I belonged to the Puffin club! I, most unusually for a boy, loved reading when I was a teenager, and I still love it. The only one I still have is Peter Pan. It’s a hardback.

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

I try not to do anything that I feel embarrassed by. I have enjoyed some TERRIBLE books, although I’ll defend Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls to the end. No, I read whatever I’m drawn to. I don’t read much chick lit or science fiction. Ok, none of either. I think Zadie Smith is horribly overrated and I’m maybe embarrassed that I bought THREE of her novels, never got further than page 50, before I admitted this. I may find it too easy to discard a book if I’m not enjoying it after, say, fifty pages, but often fewer. If I’m going to get more pleasure flinging a bad book across the room than I’ll get from continuing to read it, I’ll fling.

Grey-cook-2

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

That Peter Pan, maybe. Or my copy of Catcher in the Rye that I read and reread when I was 17. It’s the only paperback I’ve held on to. I might want to keep my signed copy of The Boys: my father was a survivor of the holocaust. He was in concentration camps before being brought here in 1945. The brilliant Martin Gilbert wrote this book about him and the few other teens they could find alive that came here at the same time. It was incredibly important to my father that his story was told to the world. I have an album of photos of generations of my family who lived before I was born, many of whom I never met. That’s the book I’d miss. Otherwise I don’t think I’d care if they all burned.

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

I was desperate to read The Dice Man, Portnoy’s Complaint and The Exorcist when I was 13, but they were forbidden to me. My mother was so frightened by The Exorcist that she burned it. Brilliant. She read all of Harold Robbins, and I wasn’t allowed to look at them, either. I think it was the sex that drew her and what made her want to keep them from me. So, all a bit Fifty Shades, although I suspect better written. I have since read Portnoy’s Complaint, and almost everything else Philip Roth has written. He’s one of the greatest 20th century authors. The Dice Man was a sensation when it was first published and still sells, but I remember finding it dull when I eventually read it. I don’t think I finished it. The Exorcist so scared me in the cinema that not only did I never read it, I didn’t make it to the end of the film.

Purple-cook-shelf

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?

I buy every book I want to read. Of course, I don’t want to read every book that makes it to my home. I don’t know what happens between the shop and my bedside table. I find it difficult to read anything because someone tells me to. I prefer, somewhat neurotically, to be the first reader of a book. I don’t want to find bits of other peoples’ dunked biscuits on the pages. I really love books of photography, but don’t buy them these days – I treat them like magazines – flick through then not open them again. It’s an expensive hobby.

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

Oh, The Goldfinch. I finished it two weeks ago and it is the book of the year. Sensationally good. I’m already sad that, because she writes so slowly, we only have a few more Donna Tartt novels to look forward to, at best. And she’s spoiled me for other writers. I’ve started – and abandoned – SIX books since finishing the Goldfinch. Nothing compares to it. Everything else tastes like ashes.

Grey-shelf-2

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

Only the unwritten Donna Tartt novels

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

I’d like them to think I’m a suave sex god.

Cookbook-shelves

******************************************

A huge thanks to Simon for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves! Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the 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 Simon’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband – Natalie Young

If there is one thing I like in a book it is that, in this case almost literally, it brings something new to the table. Be it a different spin on something, a subject to my attention that I haven’t thought about before or may even have written off, whatever the case a book with a quirk gets a big tick. As does a book with many layers, I love picking up a novel thinking it will be about one thing when really it is so much more Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband (which we will just call Season To Taste from now on) by Natalie Young is a book that does both of those things. It is a book about murder and cannibalism, the latter which I naturally would avoid, which is also a book about so much more. It might get a little squeamish in places, though it is most certainly worth it.

Tinder Press, 2014, hardback, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

One day, seemingly out of the blue, in the garden of her country cottage Lizzie Prain hits her husband of thirty years over the head with a spade and kills him. Rather than ring the police, or simply bury his body in the garden or nearby woods Lizzie takes it upon herself to get rid of the body in another way, by eating it. By her calculations she can freeze it and eat it over the matter of a few weeks, maybe a month, and then go to Scotland and find a new life for herself. We follow her from recently murdering her husband until she is ready to consume the very last mouthful.

She opened up the freezer. His right hand, wrapped in a bin liner and labelled in marker pen on a sticky label, was at the top, in one of the removable wire baskets attached to the rim. It was resting on the bag that contained the left hand. The other parts were underneath the baskets, piled up and labelled in black bags, and mixed in with the frozen vegetables.

In a novel such as Season to Taste it would be very easy for the author to sensationalise it all, going to town on the horror of it all. One of the many things that I liked so much about Natalie Young’s second novel is that she never over dramatises the act of murder and cannibalism instead Young takes the more silent and subdued approach wrapping a shocking act firmly in reality. We follow Lizzie as she goes into some strange denial-meets-out of body functionality, one minute working out how on earth she can cook her husband before then working out where she can get a decent set or ten of rubber gloves – would the supermarket or the garden centre be more ideal? There is also a dark humour in moments like that too, dare I say one may chuckle as they ponder which they would go for?

Really though I don’t think cannibalism is the heart of what the story is about. Really it is about is Lizzie, and interestingly I still don’t think of Lizzie as a cannibal despite what she does (I do think of her as a real person though clearly) and at no point do you find what she has done is evil or despicable, in fact you just feel very sad for her. She encapsulates what it is like for anyone to be unhappy without really being aware they are until a sudden moment in their life, in a way it is about depression and how we know something isn’t right but we can’t work out what – as someone who has had depression on and off in the past I found how Natalie wrote this stunningly insightful. Lizzie was a woman whose husband was controlling. He wasn’t a man who punished her, though he may have been having an affair, he didn’t scream or shout and wasn’t violent, he was manipulative in other more silent ways and Lizzie became trapped, a victim of a safe marriage she so seemed to crave.

There was the time she’d found him trying to hang himself from a tree by standing on paint cans he’d put on the wall at the bottom of the garden. Possibly he’d been doing it for attention. He’d looked back at the house to see her standing in the kitchen window. Then, after a while, he’d given up. He’d let his neck out of the noose and come back in, smiling, to put the kettle on.

It also marvellously and rather emotionally, creates the feeling that I am sure many of us have had when we become aware that we are stuck in a rut. You have those feelings of despair and boredom yet simultaneously feel that you are safe and that being almost unsettlingly settled might actually be the best you can achieve in life. The when you break away from the rut and do something different or drastic the feelings of elation come, tinged with fear and a sense that maybe boring and stuck was the better option. I have not had these feelings as well evoked in a novel as I have in Season to Taste.

Really, and do bear with me when I say this, Season to Taste also a novel about grief and how it feels to lose someone, be it as they have left you, you have left them, simply vanished or have died – even if you killed them. You can be the one to end a relationship, just as you can if you have been deserted, and still feel the grief of its loss, the denial that it has happened and the mixture of fear and joy of what is coming ahead. This is depicted at its rawest as Lizzie tries to function in a new life of freedom following an old life of regulation.

Since Monday, then, Lizzie had worn the peg and sniffed menthol and eucalyptus. She had taken to standing in the shed where whiffs of her living husband were still in the air. There were three or four moments of pure denial this week when all senses agreed Jacob was still alive. She smelt him that afternoon in the shed, and then felt him as a breath at her neck at the kitchen table on Monday and Tuesday night. She even thought she’d seen him briefly in the garden, first thing on Wednesday morning, crouching over his hole.

How does Lizzie cope? Well you will have to read Season to Taste to find out but I can say that her coping mechanism is brought to us through a series of bullet points in the novel of some of the voices in Lizzie’s head after Jacob’s death. There is the angry vindicated voice ‘The world is full of parasites.’ There is the factual voice ‘It is going to take you less than a month. Think a fortnight. Think three weeks max.’ There is the practical and purposeful voice ‘All sorts of interesting recipes can be found on the internet.’ or ‘A bit of crispy celery might be nice.’ There is also that unbearably grief stricken voice ‘Put the dog’s bed in your bedroom if it helps you feel less alone.’ It is through these insights that we see all the complexities of Lizzie, even if no one else including herself can.

I hugely admire what Natalie Young has done with Season to Taste. It would have been easy with a subject like this to have gone for a really sensational and gory-for-sales novel. Yet instead she has creates a much more subtle and intricate tale of an average woman who has ended up in an average life and wishes she wasn’t and then acts on it in a moment of a breakdown. Don’t get me wrong, some of the book is not for the faint hearted and I wouldn’t advice reading it whilst eating (I may never see scrambled eggs in the same way again) but the rawness, yet sensitivity, of the subjects of grief, loss and despair are almost unbearably brilliant. It is also in many places deliciously darkly humorous, I giggled grimly all too often. So as you can probably tell I thoroughly recommend you spend time with Lizzie Prain, I won’t forget her in a hurry.

For more insights into Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband you can hear myself and Natalie in conversation on the latest episode of You Wrote the Book here.

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Filed under Books of 2014, Natalie Young, Review, Tinder Press

Does The Imprint Matter?

A few things have been making me ponder the imprints of books over the last few weeks. First up was when I was discussing a book and someone asked me what the imprint was and then if that imprint was very good which was something I wasn’t aware I give much thought to but then realised that I do. A bit like prizes actually thinking about it, you know the ones you really trust the selection of, or not as the case may be.

While in London I bumped into Meike Ziervogel who wrote Magda and also runs Peirene Press, who translate novella’s, which instantly reminded me I hadn’t read as many of their brilliant (they have all been very good so far) books as I have meant to. I also have a friend who has been looking for a new publisher and who asked me if I would recommend any, I instantly reeled off three or four who I would recommend because a) the staff there are lovely b) overall the books I read from their publishing house are just up my street – a publisher to trust on all counts. I also spotted a receptionist in a museum reading a Penguin Modern Classic this weekend, which I instantly recognised from the brand which whenever I see a copy of second hand I snatch up even if I know nothing about it because I trust them on previous experience.

This isn't a biased subliminal picture, it just looks pretty.

This isn’t a biased subliminal picture, it just looks pretty.

Mulling it (I like a good mull) all over made me wonder if I am partial to certain publishing houses in particular and where my bias lies. To get a negative out of the way, a certain book won a prize the other day and I looked at the publisher and rolled my eyes as I don’t really like them, not because of their books but because their publicity departments are a nightmare to work with. It shouldn’t matter but then again it does, a lot like one publishing house who has a publicists whose tweets were so up their own bottoms I blocked them and have avoided their books since. Bad, I know. Judgemental? Very. Yet once you have an impression of an imprint it sticks, good or bad. And it isn’t just the publishers you know in reality, it is also just the publishing houses you read regularly simply as a reader. For example Gran used to say she could generally trust Virago’s if she was stuck for a book to read.

Obviously I am working my way through the Persephone Classics (if a little slower than intended) and the reason for this is because through all the ones I have read, which I think is about ten or twelve now in total, maybe more, there is only one which I haven’t like and I have forgiven it everything because it is a Persephone – which is clearly a rather partial leaning isn’t it? I am hoping that when I re-read it (it was The New House by Lettice Cooper) I ‘get’ it the second time around and am 100% proven that all Persephone’s are brimming with wonder. Anyway, I digress…

Another pair of publishers that haven’t gone wrong for me are another two small independents (I need to mull over the bigger imprints more). They are Peirene Press (who I have already mentioned) and And Other Stories. Both feature novels that tend to be short-ish and cover fiction from all over the world and even though every book has something different about it you understand why it fits in the imprints umbrella, a certain je ne sais quoi if you will? I have actually rearranged my shelves recently so that these imprints’ titles all sit together and I can make a beeline for them as I must read more of them. In fact I really must pick one of them up next!

What about all of you? Do you have a certain publisher that you turn to when you need a good read and are pretty much certain any of their books will do the trick? (Feel free to tell me which one publisher it is!) Are there any you’ve had a pretty bad failure rate with? Do you have a classic or independent print you make sure you have the whole collection of and really support? Or does it simply not matter?

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I’ve Been Away, What Have We All Been Reading?

Oops, it appears that Savidge Reads has been left in a state of neglect this week while I have been away having far too much fun got my own good, and indeed for blogging it seems. Where have I been? Well thank you so much for asking (hee hee) I have actually been in London for the last four and a bit days and it has been a really wonderful time, even if I have come back even more tired than when I left. I meant to schedule posts while away and then thought ‘chill out, Savidge’ so I did.It does mean you can expect a bumper week of blogs next week though…

Post Office Tower

I will give you a full catch up in a post over the next few weeks but some of the highlights have been; meeting a potential Green Carnation sponsor, discussing prize judging with Natalie Haynes, drinking cocktails out of a giant clam with Kim of Reading Matters, feeding the ducks on Hampstead Heath and ending up in a scene from The Birds with Catherine Hall and her two little boys – who know me now as Uncle Sugar Bear, meeting up with one of the other Not The Booker judges, celebrating Gay’s The Word bookshops 35th Birthday – where I saw, but didn’t dare speak to, Sarah Waters –  before going clubbing with Kerry Hudson and showing bemused 20 years olds people in their 30’s can still dance… even to the Macarena and cocktails in Waterstones with Polly and Michelle. It has been brill and I am rather sulky to be back.

I also, thanks to the 2.5 hours it takes to get to and from Liverpool to London and back (take out a snooze on the way as I left Liverpool at 8pm after a late night work seminar and a big snooze on way back as I was so hung-over from Saturday night) I did the first big binge reading that I have managed this year. It is Ray Robinson’s Jawbone Lake which I am about 70% through and finding a very gripping ‘literary thriller’.

Train Reading

Which led me to wondering what you have all been up to and what you have all been reading. So divulge all please…

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Unlikeable Characters; What’s Not To Like?

Now fret not, this is not another discussion on book blagging or any of that shebang (I am officially past all that; well I am now I made that small joke) and in a much lovelier place. Anyway, digression aside, what I want to discuss with you all is the tricky subject of the unlikeable character as they seem to divide reader’s opinions quite a lot.

I am not talking your average villain like the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, or psychopathic murder in a crime novel/ poisonous dwarf in a fantasy etc. I am talking about narrators or protagonists who you simply don’t like for the despicable things they do, or think or simply the dark side of society they show. Examples could be the lead characters in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, the lead character in Alissa Nutting’s Tampa or pretty much all the characters in Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. I actually recently discussed unlikeable characters with Christos, as Barracuda’s protagonist Danny often isn’t the most likeable of folk, in the latest episode of You Wrote The Book and how people can be put off a book by them, which has always mystified me and seemed to mystify Christos.

Firstly how can someone write off a novel, play or short story because of an unlikeable character? You couldn’t watch King Lear and afterwards come out and say ‘ugh, that was awful, Lear is so unlikeable’. I have stolen this from Christos, I wouldn’t watch a Shakespeare play but that is a whole other can of worms.  I just think to write off a book because of a bad or unlikeable character over bad or unlikeable writing seems potty to me.

I personally love an unlikeable character, in fact probably more than I love a villain be they panto or psychopathic. I think it is the fact that they can safely take me to the darker side of life, or expose an ugly side of society and really get me thinking about it and the subject the character brings to the fore as we need to look at the light and dark in life don’t we? They can also look at controversial subjects, one of the reasons Tampa (mentioned above) is going to be one of the books I read in the not too distant future – and the lead character in that is a teacher who seduces her pupils. Dark and uncomfortable, but safely stored on a page I can pop down if I feel the need. This is the common complaint; that it can get too much, too dark or too depressing. Yet the great thing with a character in a book is that you can put them to one side – not so someone truly unlikeable in your life.

So I ask you all, what is there not to like about unlikeable characters in fiction? I would love your thoughts if you love them or if indeed you loathe them…

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Barracuda – Christos Tsiolkas

Often it can be that the best books are those which are so well written and immersive that even though you think you might not like the book for its subject matter you enjoy it regardless, sometimes even wanting to know all about the subject matter that might have at some point made you roll your eyes. Christos Tsiolkas’ fifth book Barracuda is one such book. I am not really interested in sports and the idea of a book about any sport even swimming, despite having an almost-niece who is training to future Olympic swimming standards, turns me off. Yet for all 500 plus pages of Barracuda I was completely hooked and compelled along, so much so I ended up reading it in three or four sittings.

Atlantic Books, 2014, trade paperback, 528 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

An initial description of Barracuda could simply be that it is a tale of an adolescent, Danny Kelly, who becomes one of the best swimmers in Australia (winning every race going and destined for the Sydney Olympics 2000) until suddenly he doesn’t. Once no longer the best so follows a very public fall from grace and the breakdown of Danny and who he believes he is which changes his life completely and Barracuda follows how he accepts this, or not as the case maybe. Failure isn’t an option until it becomes a reality. Yet Barracuda is so much more than that. It is a book about acceptance, pressure, class and I think at its heart belonging within your country, your family but most of all belonging within yourself.

He was kicking. Barracuda. Breathing in. Fierce. The water parted for him. Barracuda. Breathing out. Fast. The water shifted for him. He breathed in. Barracuda. The water obeyed him. Dangerous. He breathed out.

Tsiolkas does four pretty bloody marvellous things which make this such a compelling novel as we read on.  Firstly, he has created an incredibly interesting, complex and often unlikeable but very readable character in Danny Kelly and as importantly those around him and their relationships with him. Secondly he has constructed a book with a mystery at its heart, as we know early on that Danny has been to jail and left Australia for Scotland, which we are tantalised by and dreading and feel the need to work out the nature of. (Unlike several blogs/broadsheet reviews I am not going to give away this mystery/event.) This is added to by the structure of the book, which flits about between a narrative from the past and a narrative further in the future (pre-awful event and post-awful event if you will), and the visceral prose which are the third master stroke. The fourth is that this is also a novel exposes the, often rather ugly, underbelly of a country and the walks of life who inhabit it be they poor; like the Kelly’s, or rich; like the people who also inhabit Cunt’s College where Danny has been given a scholarship to for his gift. It is really rather epic in its scope, though as I mentioned the 500 pages rush by.

As I mentioned I found Danny incredibly fascinating and disturbing to read, yet as you read on you may not empathise with Danny but you do get an understanding of him and the fact really he is a lost person in society, almost literally a fish out of water. He comes from a working class immigrant background, yet he is thrown into the world of the ‘golden boys and girls’ and their social circle and families. Alienating himself from his friends but also his family and the sacrifices they have to make for his training. Along with all this he is also coming to terms with his sexuality as his competitive nature with Martin Taylor also becomes an obsession and something of a crush. I should here say I admired the fact that there is no big ‘coming out scene’ or anything so obvious, in fact it is never really commented on once he has a partner or even a factor then, it simply isn’t the be all and end all of Danny’s life it is just another aspect for him to sort out which I liked the reality of.

What this all creates is a lack of belonging, someone who really is lost in almost all aspects of their world. A scary place to be for anyone let alone someone going through adolescence where let’s face it no one really feels like they belong in their own body. Interestingly body obsession (too much fat, too much hair) starts to take over Danny, not only in himself but how he feels about those around him The only place Dan Kelly feels any sense of belonging is in the water, yet we understand that Danny’s belief is if you are the best, the fastest, the strongest you don’t need to belong, you are perfection and everyone should want to belong to you, bow down to you or in some cases be scared of you. If you don’t, watch out.

In the change-rooms, no one would look at him. But no one dared to mock him, no one dared say anything to him. He could just hear the murmurings behind him and around him, sensed the whispers first take form in Luke’s astonished and admiring stare. He could hear the words, Jesus, that Danny Kelly they whispered, That Danny Kelly. He’s a psycho.

With all these themes, questions and thoughts Barracuda is not the easiest of reads. I don’t mean that the writing is too lofty, literary or complex, some of the language is just rather confronting, with racial and homophobic slang throughout. The structure of the book, with its sense of mystery, also throws you occasionally as though it alternates between past and almost present there is no direct chronology; you have to put everything together at the end. Those factors along with the graphic nature of some of the scenes and unlikeable nature of the characters (which are often all too realistic) may also put some readers off but I am not sure those are the readers that Tsiolkas is after really. I think he wants to write a book which challenges readers and rewards them hugely once they have finished, contemplated and thought about it all.

 In fact books and their power and importance and how they should challenge us is also a theme in the book in a way. When Danny discovers literature, and a love of sorts, in prison he discovers Greene and ‘He understood the writer’s characters, sympathised with their weakness and cowardice, responded most to their refusal to find excuses for their failures.’ For me this is really what Christos Tsiolkas does with Barracuda. He takes a character who isn’t always likeable or reliable and who may be from the wrong side of the tracks, which most people like to hide away, and exposes them for the benefit of anyone who reads on, compellingly with warts and all. I admire Tsiolkas hugely for this novel and would highly recommend anyone who likes a read that provokes questions and disturbs – after all the best fiction should do that shouldn’t it and I think Barracuda is contemporary fiction at its finest.

For more insight into the book (if that review wasn’t long enough, ha, though I still don’t think I have done it justice) you can hear Christos and myself in conversation about Barracuda here. Who else has read it and what did you make of it? I am annoyed I didn’t review The Slap after I read it a few years ago, which other books of Tsiolkas’ would you recommend? What are your thoughts on confronting books and unlikeable, yet realistic, characters?

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Filed under Atlantic Books, Books of 2014, Christos Tsiolkas, Review

Other People’s Bookshelves #27 – Matt Cresswell

Hello and welcome to the latest in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves, which must mean it is the weekend and I have survived my first proper full week of work, and have been in blog-hiding after my honest and possibly offending post, and am probably/hopefully curled up with a good book somewhere or watching Kylie on The Voice. This week we are back in the Manchester area (because the north is the best, ha) as we join jack of all trades, as he would call himself, Matt Cresswell, who is a writer, editor and illustrator and soon hopefully bookshop owner. I will let him explain better…

The projects seem to be piling up. I’ve published short fiction in various places, including Icarus Magazine, Hearing Voices magazine and in Shenanigans: Gay Men Mess With Genre from Obverse Books, and, like half the people I know, am halfway through writing a novel – a steampunk/Victorian detective novel with Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle and Queen Victoria as the detective’s gang of assistants. I blog at www.mattcresswell.com, and I also edit Glitterwolf Magazine, a UK-based literary magazine showcasing fiction, poetry, art and photography by LGBT contributors. And I am the creator, writer and co-illustrator of End of the Rainbow, an online webseries (www.endoftherainbow.co.uk) set on Canal Street in Manchester, which has a print omnibus forthcoming in 2014 from Lethe Press. When I’m not balancing all those plates, I put the bread on the table with freelance copy-editing, graphic design and audiobook narration. I am also an avid reader.

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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?

Before I moved to university I never threw a book out. But then when I moved out it was like Sophie’s Choice. From then on I’ve had to be picky about what can take up space on my shelves. I currently live with a flatmate who has almost as many books as me, and we had to negotiate our bookshelves, like negotiating a delicate truce. There’s bookcases in every room, including two in the hallway. I always judge people by their shelves though, so what’s left on display is just the favourites. And when I say ‘just’, that’s still quite a few of ‘justs’… My system for maintaining that is yearly trips back home with boxes of books for the attic because I still can’t bring myself to not in some way possess them.

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

I routinely re-organise them, create a complex system, which then immediately goes to pot. Currently there are three shelves of favourites (the top two of the black shelves, and all the shelves by my desk – which also have my slim section for my own publication credits), a shelf of LGBT fiction, about six or seven shelves of to be read, short story collections, non-fiction and what has come be known in the household as the ‘pretentious hardbacks shelf’ which were all the books I bought because Waterstones said I should, and I’ve never read.

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

My god… I’m not quite sure. When I was growing up, my dad was an antiquarian book dealer, and our home didn’t have a television, so I was bought lots and lots of books. We spent half our lives in second-hand bookshops, and because he used to get dealer’s discount on whatever leatherbound tome he’d ferretted out, they just used to throw in all the paperbacks that I’d found for free—so I never had to buy my own books. The first I can remember buying for myself was Outcast of Redwall by Brian Jacques, when I was about seven, bought at a school book fair. I read the whole series, passing the books to my mother who read them after me. I was very sad to hear of his recent death—without exaggeration, it was like bit of childhood fading! It’s not on my shelves anymore, but it’s with the rest of the series on my mother’s shelves, where it’s been read by a few of the generation after me.

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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?

When my parents visited once, I stripped the house of anything even slightly sordid, but missed the tattered paperback of Lolita that my Presbyterian minister dad leafed through then put back hurriedly. I’m not really embarrassed of any of it, although my partner John tells me that I am subconsciously embarrassed of his books – fantasy epics in the vein of Raymond E. Feist, Robert Jordan, Trudi Canavan, etc. – because I relegate them to the bottom shelves or the bookcases in the bedroom.

Mind you, I do get a bit defensive over the presence of both of Belle du Jour’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl books on my favourites shelf. But that just makes me stubborn and determined to put them on display, because I tell myself off for being a book snob.

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?

There’s a 15th century Bible that you can see on the desk shelves. Me, my brothers and my sister all took one book from by dad’s library after he died to remember him by. I have no attachment to the actual words on the page inside it, but the book itself would be the first thing I’d save in a fire. Aside from that one, there are very few things I’d actively be heartbroken about. I have some signed copies that I’d be quite sad about – Neil Gaiman, Paul Magrs, Iain Banks, and, um, John Barrowman – but as long as I can remember the events themselves, the books aren’t as important. 

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

My mother had The Lord of the Rings on her shelves – which was very odd, because the rest of her reading was in the line of biographies of missionaries, and books like Harry Potter were frowned upon for their ‘black magic’. I read The Lord of the Rings when I was nine, but had to break the spine of the paperback into the three books because I couldn’t hold it otherwise. My teachers at school didn’t believe I was actually capable of reading it, and quizzed me to check I wasn’t making it up. It’s still on my shelves, the same, split-into-three copy, with covers that I made out of cut-and-stick photocopies. I didn’t think of it as an adult book though – I thought of it as another children’s fantasy that just went on a lot longer. My brother lent me the novelisation of The Fugitive the same year—he meant to censor the first chapters, but I was impatient, read it anyway and scared myself silly.

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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?

Yes! I’m a completionist. I don’t tend to borrow books though – I’m usually the lender. But I’ll buy something for the kindle and if I like it, I’ll feel the urge to have a physical copy to put on the shelf. The reverse of this was The Time Traveller’s Wife, which I bought seven times, after each loaned copy was lent on to someone else in the excitement, and lost.

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

Hal Duncan’s forthcoming short story collection, Scruffians! which I was lucky enough to get an ARC of. I’m recording the audiobook version of it too, which when I was asked, made me giddy with hero-worship. He’s a wonderful, wonderful writer.

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

I’ve recently dipped into the starts of series and am now wishing I had the whole series on my shelves – George Mann’s Newbury and Hobbes, Discworld, Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May, Lev Grossman’s Magician series, Mark Hodder’s Burton and Swinburne and all of China Mievelle’s oeuvre. I’ve made a start with all of them, and am now panicking at the volume of ongoing series I’ve opened a door to. So many books, so little time…

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

My dad popping Lolita back on the shelf, or perusing all the gay fiction titles would probably think ‘Filth!’ but hopefully that’s not what everyone else would think. I was very conscious after English Literature at university of trying to get away from the ‘book-snobbery’ that kind of education brings on, so I hope that my shelves look like a hodge-podge of someone who loves books for the enjoyment, and isn’t trying to check off a list of ‘worthy reads’, as it were.

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A huge thanks to Matt for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. 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 Matt’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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Taking Blogging Back to the Beginning

I discussed my reading resolutions last week and have been mulling my blogging ones. If I am honest, in the lead up to Christmas and the New Year, I was feeling a bit cheesed off with blogging and so was not in best of places with it. Before we go on I should say that this is not a navel gazing post, in fact it could paint me in a bad light as opposed to the martyrdom or woe-is-me navel gazing writing aspires to. Basically before Christmas I was wondering if in fact the whole book blogging world had really got a bit/gone to shit. Oh, I should say this post may contain some swearing and is quite long! Do bear with it though as it means a lot and try not to judge me, ha.

I noticed I had distanced myself from the blogosphere somewhat. I have blogged for over six years now and followed some book blogs for a good while before that and so I have seen how it has changed. For me last year I just felt it had become to ‘grabby’. I was sick of seeing bloggers desperately begging for books on Twitter or showing off how they had the latest hyped book (because it was the latest hyped book, rather than actually loving the author or really wanting to read it) yet seemingly never reading or reviewing them. I was fed up with how competitive it had become (and indeed bitchy as I saw this morning when bloggers were tweeting how they thought some other bloggers – being vague – were only writing reviews to please publishers – WTF? I completely disengaged from it especially as two of them were two of the biggest offenders), was bored of seeing the same books flying everywhere, seeing bloggers feeling offended because they hadn’t received a certain book that was ‘so my blog’. I could go on…

I was particularly sick when on occasion I noticed that I myself was joining in. Yes on a couple of occasions I found myself thinking ‘erm, why on earth have I not had a copy of X when X has?’ and indeed emailing/tweeting publishers vying for a certain book they were showing off on Twitter. The moment I realised I had done it once or twice I felt rather sick with myself. What was happening that made me get like the people I was getting so disappointed and annoyed with? And why was I also feeling so negative to the people who were multiply offending? I suppose I felt it was giving book bloggers a bad name.

So here comes the truth about blogging for me personally – though I bet lots of bloggers have been through this in varying degrees, they just might not say so. And it all gets a bit dark. Back when I started blogging there weren’t many book blogs. You didn’t get free books, and so you certainly didn’t feel entitled to get free books because you had written a few dozen posts, let alone three or four, which seems to have become the case. No one really commented on mine, I didn’t expect them to. For me it was like a reading diary, a place to put my thoughts and stop boring all my friends. Simple as that.

Then a few people started to pop by, then a few bloggers started to comment and more came and I started to read them and a lovely network formed. Then publishers who were sending me books for work started to send some for the blog, lovely. Then a few non bloggers started to comment and follow, even more shockingly they weren’t my family and friends. I started to meet bloggers. Then my followers went up into their hundreds each month, and I was really chuffed, even a bit excited, (even when another blogger told me they got a few hundred a day – so there maybe has always been competitiveness about). I even got quoted in some books. I started a book podcast with Gav. I worked on some literary festivals, went to some blogger parties. It was all lovely.

By the end of 2012/start of 2013 somehow I was getting thousands of readers/hits a day. Somewhere at that point I started to believe Savidge Reads own hits hype. Somewhere I started to want more hits and more readers and more books and I needed to be reading more and more books and writing more and more posts. It had become a monster I was spending all my spare time thinking about and feeding. I was checking my hits every few hours and where I was in the ebuzzing Literature charts every month. There was even a tiny bit of my egotistical side, we all have one, who was thinking fame must surely beckon. I was talking about the blog all the time to family like it validated me, not my journalism or things I was doing socially weirdly. It was unhealthy. See, told you I would be honest even if it makes me look a right nutter. Judge me all you like, I am aware it is on the spectrum of crazy.

Some of all this unhealthy madness I put down to needing a diversion, which became a sort of coping obsession whilst my marriage broke down, I left London, was rather ill twice, Gran suddenly got ill. Some of it was just ego and believing my own hype. Then as Gran got more and more ill and I started spending more and more time helping to care for her as much as I could whilst getting a new job, I just couldn’t keep it up. I tried; blogging at night, blogging between Gran’s naps but my reading was out of sorts and so I had to stop. No choice. And I started to see, and even feel as the itch to blog was still there for a while and returned a little by September I was over the hits but wanted the content higher and better, the monster that had been created online and in my head. It wasn’t good. Then I started a new job and the Christmas madness was looming so I knew I needed to have a word with myself; blog less, read more, think on.

Note: Blogging has been brilliant for the wonderful people I have met, chatted to and started projects and podcasts with, the support when things have been a bit shit etc has been amazing, the books I might not have read without it and publishers have been great finds in the main, all the authors I have met which has been lovely, – I don’t want you thinking I am an ungrateful bookish bastard, ha!

So over Christmas I was mulling it all and I admit I was wondering if enough was enough? Yet then Gran intervened, from beyond the grave in a way, as on New Year’s Eve my mother gave me a bag of things of mine Gran had kept and in amongst the postcards and pictures and letters was this…

Early Review

One of my very first book reviews, of R.L. Stine’s Night of the Living Dummy, from when I was 10. Way before I had any idea about the internet or blogging and when all I wanted to do was write my thoughts on the book I had read. It seemed like a message, or the answer to the question I had been mulling subconsciously… Get back to the books and just writing about them. Forget everything else, enjoy the chatter and stuff that comes with it but don’t take it too seriously. Life is too short and there are too many brilliant books to read.

I think there is an illusion somewhere that getting lots of hits, which people seem to think getting lots of the latest free books equates too, might make you famous (it won’t), get you a job in journalism (unlikely), make publishers and authors fawn over you (get real, especially if all you are doing is being sent books and not reviewing them – which again I admit I have been prone to do on the odd occasion, sorry). It won’t even make you respected if you look desperate or obsessed about it. It is not what blogging is about, it should be fun and enthused, it should be about loving whatever it is you blog about. Anything else is a bonus.

So that is where I am at. I am ditching the negativity, not giving a toss what people think or how many hits I am getting, cutting all the “bookish bullshit” out of the equation and ignoring, or switching off/disconnecting with the book blaggers and whinge-bags. It is time to get back to simply reading the books I fancy, enjoying them, enjoying talking about them when I feel the need and just doing my own thing and not feeling the need to talk about book ALL the time, shocking I know! Ha!

I have pressed the restart/reset button and it feels very good to go back to basics and the books, speaking of which I out to get cracking on with reading a few and writing a review for later in the week. In the meantime who else is ready to join me in a positive fresh start?

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The Murder of Halland – Pia Juul

It seems odd that my second read of the year should be the first review of the year especially as I only finished The Murder of Halland this morning. However I thought I would do a very, very fresh (as I normally take a while to mull a book) review for a bit of a change. In case you were wondering the first book I read this year was Artful by Ali Smith, which I do need to mull and don’t want to share my thoughts on before Hear Read This goes live on Friday. Anyway back to the book in question, The Murder of Halland

Peirene Press, 2012, paperback, fiction, translated by Martin Aitken, 170 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Everyone loves a cold crime don’t they? Yet the more and more that are translated and come over the more and more, bar a few exceptions like Yrsa Sigurdardottir, they seem the same. The Murder of Halland is a cold crime novel but it one with a difference as the murder at the start of the novel is not really the heart of the novel, in fact as we read on Pia Juul lets the murder fade into the background as the reader follow the deceased’s grieving partner after the horrific event – even then Juul gives us something rather different as Bess, the partner of Halland who has recently been shot by person unknown, is a much more complex character than first meets the eye.

To outside eyes, and indeed rather envious ones like Stine, it would appear that Bess has the perfect life. She is a well known author, her partner Halland is also respected and handsome, if a little older, and they seem to have a very comfortable and fulfilled life together. However we join Bess the night before Halland’s death as they are getting ready for bed and we are inside the house where things are normal yet there seems a slight tension in the air. Next thing Halland is dead and unlike in the police dramas, that Halland and Bess so liked to watch, nothing is solved fast and Bess is left confused and grieving, and looking back on her life – it is this which becomes the real story of The Murder of Halland and not the one that makes all the papers.

All I needed for happiness was a detective series. And there were lots to choose from. Simplicity was a virtue. First a murder, nothing too bestial. Then a police inspector. Insights into his or her personal problems, perhaps. Details about the victim. Puzzles and anomalies. Lines of investigation. Clues. Detours. Breakthrough. Case solved. Nothing like real life. I watched one thriller, then another. But as soon as the penny dropped I lost interest. The puzzle attracted me – the solution left me cold. Nothing like real life.

As Bess grieves, we soon come to learn that Halland and her were completely in love with one another and yet Bess never felt quite at ease with him. It may have something to do with the fact that she left her husband, Troel who isn’t the nicest of men and soon turns up wanting to see if Bess might fancy sleeping with him in her grieving state, and her daughter Abby after meeting Halland in a bookshop and electricity struck. It may be something to do with the neighbour Brandt. Juul is wonderfully ambiguous even to the very end. Whatever the case they were ‘happy’ but not ‘happy’ all at once.

Indeed after Halland dies one of his relatives, Pernille his sisters foster daughter, suddenly turns up heavily pregnant and wanting to know who will pay the rent of the room on her house Halland was using to stay in and to store things in. This is news to Bess and intriguing to us as we keep trying to solve the crime that Juul has tantalisingly led away from us because what she also really wants to talk about is the effect a murder has on those around it.

It isn’t just the closest of the deceased and the police that are affected, though Juul’s main focus point is Bess obviously, it is also those in the houses and town around the murder that get affected. Some point fingers, some act like it didn’t happen, some gossip, some go mad, some see it as a chance to change or reveal other secrets and Juul writes about this all brilliantly. Her best writing though is without a doubt when she is writing of Bess and her grief but also her confusion. Not just how she felt/feels about Halland and what she did or didn’t know of him but also what her life has meant, the questions of mortality that death often brings. It is deftly and all too realistically done, we don’t all just weep and weep and weep after all.

Halland lay alone in a bare room with a sheet over him. He looked the same and yet he didn’t. I both knew him and didn’t know him. I was his and he was mine, only now we weren’t. We were both alone. I laid my hand gently against his cheek, a gesture I made whenever he seemed in pain and I didn’t have the courage to ask him if anything was wrong.

I found The Murder of Halland a very compelling book. I read it in just two sittings, being one of the Peirene Press novels it is chosen for such a reading. It is part of their ‘small epic’ series and I can see why as for such a slight book it raises so many questions, not always answering them, and somehow encapsulates both a town caught up in a drama and the internal drama of a grieving woman all at once. I wouldn’t say it turns crime fiction on its head, which I read somewhere and was one of the reasons that I decided to finally read it on a random whim, but it is one of the most honest portraits (character study doesn’t seem quite right) of grief I have happened across and all done by a very accomplished writer I feel wish we had more of the translated works of here in the UK. I would definitely like to read more from Pia Juul.

You can see more reviews of The Murder of Halland at Reading Matters here, Winstons Dad blog here, Andrew Blackman’s blog here and David H’s blog here. Who else has read it and what did you make of it? Read any of Pia Juul’s other works? Have you read any other ‘cold crime’ works with a very different twist or take on things?

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Other People’s Bookshelves #26 – Lucy Rock of Relish Reads

Hello and welcome to the latest in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves, and the first of 2014 so I thought we would have someone rather special to start the year with in the form of Lucy Rock who blogs at Relish Reads. Lucy became one of my best bookish chums when I was living in Manchester for a year, after I had left London. We went to the Women’s Institute to talk books and help set them up a bookish group and set up our own one in Manchester which is still going only now with Just Lucy at the helm *coughs – nothing to do with Lucy making me read Elizabeth Gaskell*  swiftly moving on before I dredge all that up I will hand you over to lovely Lucy and her shelves…

My day job takes up huge swathes of my day, come playtime I reach for my books and bury my head in characters and fantastical lands far, far away. I grew up in a close family full of avid readers where a full bookshelf in every room of the house was ordinary and a trip to the library a huge excitement for my little brother and me. Although I can’t say I really started reading ‘properly’ (i.e. at least one book a month) until I had grown up a bit, I still remember taking the maximum amount of books out just for me to pop on the shelves and dream about picking up! Nothing’s changed really… I have been book blogging for the past three years and the vibrant and friendly community online has truly transformed by reading experiences.

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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?

Unless something was absolutely dire, I used (much to my boyfriend’s dismay) to keep every single book I read, regardless of whether it would just sit on the shelves for the rest of all time collecting dust. However, our local train station now has a wonderful little library where you can take and leave books as you please, no strings attached. I now have a mini rule with myself; if neither of us will ever pick it up again/lend it to someone, it goes in the box for someone else to enjoy. Even if I hated the book, I like to think that everything I leave in there is pretty decent and I therefore get REALLY mad if it’s still sitting there after a day!

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?

Because I like to just pick books to read on whim – apart from those I have to read for reviews/book club, etc – I try to keep our books almost entirely randomly organised, which I know would drive most avid readers potty!  That said, we recently had our local joiner do us some lovely shelves and there is now some slight organisation going on. Classics downstairs (because the room is pretty and it makes us look clever) and everything else in ‘Lucy’s Room’ upstairs; where we aim to have an entire wall of modern fiction, climbing, outdoorsy books, maps, coffee table books and rafts of foreign fiction, which I always buy on a whim telling myself I’ll bother to read it in the original language and never do. As you can see from the photo, our ‘wall of books’ is looking a little bare at the moment, which is pretty depressing. There are many books still holed up in our loft from moving house, I must liberate them immediately!

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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 think the answer to this question is either Junk by Melvin Burgess or Great Expectations by you-know-who. Junk was, as far as I can remember, a marvellous, incredibly enlightening tale of teenage angst which I read and re-read as a teen and, for nostalgia’s sake, still resides on my shelves to this day. I had only ever read the first few chapters of t’other one until a couple of months ago, but my lovely Vintage copy, not the original version I panic-bought and I think is now with my brother.

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?

The only people in my life who read as avidly as I do is my family so really, any kind of book seems to make a cosy impression upon our friends. I’m not easily embarrassed and believe that, as long as you’re reading, that’s the most important thing of all. I’ve read everything from Charles Dickens to Barbara Erskine this year and I’m dead proud.

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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 have a number of old books my parents have bought me over the years that I treasure. Some of them deal with medieval French history, courting and troubadours, which I studied at University and one particular fave is an old collection of Prosper Mérimée’s short stories. It has a lovely old inscription to the recipient and was obviously a Christmas gift. Mine was too and there’s now a message for me in there. All in all though, I’m not too precious about my books and most of them are very paperbacky/drop-in-the-bathable.

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?

The big Russian door-stop novels by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy have always been hugely fascinating for me. Even now I’m a grown-up and have them on my shelves I still haven’t read them! My Dad can be rather philosophical and his collection of Jean-Paul Sartre novels also always intrigued me. I thought I might have some kind of awakening one day and discover myself….I still haven’t read them.

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?

Back in the days where I would keep every book I read without discrimination, I would also go on uncontrollable book-buying frenzies, the speed of which my reading can simply never keep up with. Nowadays, if I’m lucky enough to be in the vicinity of a good indie/charity bookshop (which I happily do have locally) I’ll have a peruse and go a bit mad and, to keep my faith in the chain bookstores going (we sadly don’t have any decent independent bookshops in Manchester) I’ll purchase my monthly book group book full price if it doesn’t look completely rubbish. Even if I don’t manage to read them all, I make a point of taking books out of the library and renewing them until I’m forced to take them back! The decent loans I do read I won’t buy myself but WILL then buy as gifts for other people.

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

Something I bought would be Misfortune by Wesley Stace, our latest book group read. Thoroughly entertaining and quirky and we had an excellent discussion on gender-identity, etc, to boot. The latest thing I’ve been sent is Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, which I am very excited about. Sounds like the perfect wintery, fantastical read.

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

I really don’t think you have the room on your blog for a frank answer to this question BUT, what I will say is, there isn’t enough life to read everything I want to read. That scares me and means I simply couldn’t have everything sat there staring at me. The pressure would be too great.

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

I think my boyfriend and I’s little library reflects the reading of open-minded, thoughtful people who are as at home with Solzhenitsyn as with Joanne Harris. Considerate, left-of-centre, intellectual, outdoorsy, unpretentious and INTERESTING. All the things I would love to be.

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A huge thanks to Lucy for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, if we don’t meet up much more often this year I will be simply furious! Anyway… 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 Lucy’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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No Resolutions, Just Reading

So when I was talking about the first books of the year yesterday (I am now reading Ali Smith’s Artful) I mentioned that I would talk about my reading resolutions for 2014 today. Well this was slightly misleading as I have decided that this year all reading resolutions are out the window.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against them and have done them in the last few years. I could say that this year I will be more adventurous, I will seriously tackle the TBR, read every book by my favourite author, read more translated works or non-fiction, I could go on. The thing is though it adds pressure to reading and reading should just be a pleasure not a pressure.

Last year with everything that happened with Gran, the chats I had with her about books (mainly her saying life is too short, read what you want you never know what your last book might be) and everything else and also just how my relationship with reading and blogging (more on that next week) changed because of everything that was going on I just feel the need to simply read and read lots. No rules, no only old books or only new, no ‘I must’ or ‘I mustn’t’ read this that or the other… or anything at all – just reading. That is it. Hopefully you will join me on the journey that the books in the year ahead!

How about you? Have you made any reading resolutions or are you throwing caution to the reading winds this year too?

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