Monthly Archives: April 2014

Did She Kill Him? A Victorian Tale of Deception, Adultery and Arsenic – Kate Colquhoun

With a title like that and a well-known obsession with all things Victorian, there was little doubt that I was going to miss out on reading Did She Kill Him? A Victorian Tale of Deception, Adultery and Arsenic (which from now on we will just call Did She Kill Him? to save my poor fingers) was there? My only slight worry before I embarked on Kate Colquhoun’s latest book was that I haven’t got the best track record with non-fiction, however I needn’t have worried. Truth be told if more non-fiction was written like this, or I discovered more non-fiction with this kind of narrative, I think I would be a huge fan of it.

Little Brown, hardback, 2014, non-fiction, 432 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Being non-fiction the true story behind Did You Kill Him? is not difficult to look up. However I am going to assume that you know very little, or absolutely nothing like myself, of the case of Florence Maybrick. This means I don’t want to spoil it for any of you, as wondering the outcome of this book was one of its many wonders to read. I think it is enough to say that during 1889 Florence Maybrick became a household name all over the country, not just in the city of Liverpool where she (and now I) lived at the time, after she was arrested under the suspicion of murdering her husband by arsenic poisoning. The question on everyone’s lips was ‘Did She Kill Him?’ and Kate Colquhoun looks at the weeks leading up to James Maybrick’s death and just what was happening behind the façade of the Maybrick’s well suited marriage and happy household.

Sitting in the Battlecrease parlour that Saturday morning, 16 March 1889, Florence felt suffocated. It was too quiet. The nursemaid, Alice Yapp, has the children. James was in the city fussing over his deals. Mrs Humphreys, the cook, was preparing lunch. The young maids – Bessie Brierley and Mary Cadwallader – were tucking, polishing and tidying, putting to rights the nursery, straightening the upstairs rooms, quietly moving down corridors as they completed their chores.

It makes for fascinating reading. Again without giving anything away we learn of their marriage and how Florence left her American home, as many women did at the time, being a woman of new money looking for a title and old money in the UK – the husbands also looking for new money and fine young wives making it mutually agreeable. We learn how this initially was a marvellous thing for the Maybrick’s and then discover that for both parties it was not quite what they had pictured. Soon, we discover, arsenic addiction, infidelity and isolation were all part of the Maybrick household. All of this becoming more clear later on when the case goes to trial, when James falls suddenly ill and starts to deteriorate and suspicions over fly papers, bottles of medicine, mental states etc. all come to light, yet we as the reader know this already.

This is part of what makes Did She Kill Him? so wonderful to read. We learn about all the before and then see it through the various witnesses eyes at the time again when it goes to court. If you are like me the very idea of a court case in a book (all those docks and all that lawyer speak) makes you instantly think ‘boring’, think again. You are fascinated to hear the evidence from the witnesses and how different, untrue, cunning, misunderstood it all is (Alice Yapp and one of James’ brothers are such marvellous characters that you just couldn’t make up). Colquhoun also makes it incredibly fast paced and, to use an overused (I am so sorry) cliché, this book reads like a thriller – as will another court based fiction book I will discuss later this week. I digress…

There are some books I read that I call ‘google’ books, though really I should call them ‘run along to the reference section in the library’ books, where you just find out so much fascinating stuff you long to find out even more. Things like the 1857 divorce act and the 1870/1882 married women’s property acts, fascinating. I never thought I would want to know all about the history of arsenic as a substance and how it was used in its raw forms and in day to day life, well I can reveal exclusively here that I was gripped. Who knew?!? Yet Colquhoun makes it fascinating both in how it relates to the case but also Victorian society at large and without ever seeming to show off (some authors do, we’ve all read those books) and condenses pages and pages of what she must have read into marvellous factual titbits.

Some, like Queen Victoria in the late 1870’s, were concerned enough to order suspect wallpapers to be removed from their homes. Newspapers like The Times condemned the government for its laissez-faire attitude, suggesting that MPs would rather allow the slow poisoning of our little ones than the economic repercussions of trying to eliminate arsenic from a wide range of products. Others remained sceptical: William Morris refused to avoid even the most pernicious pigments, believing the scare to be a mere folly. Yet with so much arsenic in the domestic air, it was little wonder that a rest by the seaside could be so beneficial to the middle-class invalid, nor the digestive disorders, redness of eye and odd cramps in the legs resumed as soon as they returned home.

The other thing that makes this book so wonderful is that, as the title suggests, people really could not work out if Florence had or hadn’t killed her husband. The case was debated fiercely in the papers, in the Houses of Parliament and even in the Queen’s chambers, well the palace at least. At some points the case gained more coverage than a certain killed in London called Jack, indeed it worried many people more because Jack the Ripper was clearly some mentally unwell psychopathic heathen, yet if women from good homes and of stature in society were seemingly killing their husbands then no one was safe. Women in particular seemed to have the biggest problem with it, society was moving forward for women and then some supposed ‘sister’ of the cause would go and do something like that. Again, society’s history and state at the time both adding pressure to the case and making for fascinating reading.

The greengrocer’s fruit may have arrived at her cell every day with a note of sympathy, but the women attending the coroner’s inquest hissed when the contents of her letter to Brierley became known. Apart from her mother, few among her own sex were generous to regard her as innocent until proven guilty. Women, it turned out, would be among her most entrenched and bitter critics; it seemed to be widely accepted that unnatural urges and scandalous sexuality went hand in hand with predatory murder.

Considering I read so little non-fiction, whilst true, it doesn’t really put any weight behind my saying that Did She Kill Him? is one of the best non-fiction books I have read. However if I say it is one of my stand out favourite books of the year I am hoping you will all want to give it a go. If you love the Victorian period and society then you will love this, especially as a city other than London takes centre stage – and people forget how important a city Liverpool was in the Victorian era. If you love a good crime novel then with its pace, gripping nature and sense of ‘did she do it?’ you will devour this. In fact if you just love a good read then this really is a book you need to get your mitts on. It is as addictive as the arsenic that features so much in it, maybe the publishers have sneakily filled the pages with it?

If you would like to hear more about the book you can listen to Kate having a chat with me in an old Victorian prison cell on this episode of You Wrote The Book!

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Filed under Books of 2014, Little Brown Publishing, Non Fiction, Review

A Kind of Intimacy – Jenn Ashworth

We all have bad days don’t we, like I might have yesterday, or times in our life when we just want to escape from the world we know and have created for ourselves. In Jenn Ashworth’s debut novel A Kind of Intimacy we follow a woman who gives herself a new start and we then watch as the past slowly starts to haunt her, creeping ever more to the forefront of her life again.

9781906413392

Arcadia Books, paperback, 2009, fiction, 283 pages, borrowed from Emma Jane Unsworth (who may never get it back)

Annie Fairhurst has left her old lonely miserable married life with her husband Will behind her. She wants to start again and so has found herself a new home in the suburbs of a Northern town for herself, and her cat Mr Tips, to start a fresh. She wants to make new friends, have wonderful parties and maybe meet a man like her old love Boris, who rather liked the larger lady like Annie and twice gave her a glimpse of how life could be. She is full of hope for the future, especially when she meets her next door neighbour Neil who she is sure came to her aid once when she was a damsel in distress. Yet this unleashes two things in Annie, firstly the fact that her past is a mystery that keeps rearing its ugly head no matter how hard you try and cover it up, secondly Annie isn’t as stable as she might initially appear nor as truthful or lovely. The plot thickens…

What had I told her that for? Honestly, you can sit me down with a cup of tea and a packet of biscuits and ten minutes you’ve got my whole life story. I clamped my lips together to stop any more noise coming out until I had decided how I was going to approach things. There was no point making a fresh start if you were going to bring all the old junk along with you and I certainly didn’t want new friends to become unnecessarily embroiled in my history.

There is so much to love about A Kind of Intimacy it is going to be hard to do the book justice and also rather difficult not to gush about its brilliance. First credit to Jenn Ashworth has to be the pacing of this book. It is one of those books that really, and I don’t think this gives too much away, slowly racks up the tension. It is also one of those marvellous books where the author will give you a very normal seeming paragraph or two until you spot a word or two in one of the sentences that makes you do a double take and then start to ponder all the layers and dark corners that are going on around the edges. It takes a deft hand to do this, there must be hints and not too much show and tell and yet at the same time you really need to keep the reader interested in the ‘façade’ story, if you will, as the book goes on. It is very blooming clever that, a really hard trick to pull off and Ashworth does it deftly.

‘Annie reacts with appropriate anger when her human rights are infringed,’ I recited, which was as assertiveness affirmation I’d picked up from one of the new books. You were supposed to write them on slips of paper and stick them to all the mirrors in the house, but there were too many, the scraps of paper kept falling off and drifting to the carpet like oblong snowflakes, and so I just spent some time learning them instead. I said it ten times as I washed my bloody and dirtied hands with the lily of the valley liquid soap then I went to my bedroom for a lie down. I stayed up there for a couple of hours, only coming down to get a tub of ice cream and a tin of condensed milk because I hadn’t eaten anything since the sausages and I was hungry again.

Secondly, what makes the book all the more brilliant is the fact it is so centred in reality. The cast of characters around Annie are the people you have around you in any neighbourhood. You have the rather hapless yet helpful Neil and his much younger and rather ‘I am so mature for my age’ but actually not at all girlfriend, Lucy. The slightly randy and often rather drunk neighbour across the way, Raymond, and the lovely and very helpful and thoughtful couple round the corner of the cul-de-sac Barry and Sangita, the latter who sees Annie as a bit of a project to get on the local Neighbourhood Watch. Set in a nondescript town with its hairdressers and discount clothes stores, it all seems oh-so normal.

Thirdly, to create a character like Annie who tells us her side of all her stories (some true, some not so) and yet also cleverly give the reader hints that there is much more, and indeed much darker, things going on in the background making Annie sound delightful yet be utterly unreliable, is some sort of genius. It is something I have rarely seen done quite so well. Somehow Ashworth makes us like Annie despite the fact that we soon learn she is utterly bonkers, I mean loop the loop crazy, does some horrendous things (which are also hilarious whilst nightmarish) yet loves her cat dearly, deep down wants to be the perfect neighbour and friend and who has, if I can be blunt, had a pretty crap past. There are themes of being unwanted, missing out on your full potential, a sense of desperation to be liked and welcomed, and most importantly to be loved. We empathise even though we know we shouldn’t and sometimes might not want to.

Which leads to the fourth point of brilliance, the way in which A Kind of Intimacy switches from hilarious to disturbing, from fantastically filthy to utterly tragic. Ashworth knows how to write with all these emotions and feelings going on without one ever taking over or anything becoming too extreme, even when the book comes to its climax. She also knows how to set one against the other to make the reader more engaged be it the fact that the funny bits make you laugh all the louder because then something disturbing comes along, or because the sense of tragedy in the background hits you all the harder because of the humour, the balance only tilting till Ashworth has you in explosive giggles or feeling devastated or shocked.

As you might just have guessed I rather loved A Kind of Intimacy and thought it was rather brilliant. I love books which are quirky, tell a bloody good story, are well written and make you think. This book makes you do all of those and once you have closed the final page I bet you will find yourself often thinking of Annie. I cannot wait to read all of Jenn Ashworth’s other works.

Note: you can have a nosey through Jenn Ashworth’s bookshelves here.

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Filed under Arcadia Books, Books of 2014, Jenn Ashworth, Review, Sceptre Publishing

Book Guilt; I’m So Behind With Books (And Blogging)

I think I am going through a phase of rather large readers guilt. Yes, feeling guilty about my relationship with books as it seems to have changed in the last year or so.

I am sure I am not the only one though it is quite an isolating and frustrating place to be when you are going through it. Nice one Simon, start the post in a really miserable way and have everyone closing your post down as fast as you can! Ha! I am not miserable at the moment though I have to admit I am slightly cranky and this is partly because when I don’t get regular (and preferably prolonged) reading stints I turn into some sort of bookish banshee. At the moment I am in that phase. I am simply not finding the time to read and its making me resentful. This seems to be caused by three main things; my job – where I am possibly working too many hours; my house – because whenever I am in it I seem to be knackered (possibly from getting up and hour early every morning to try and create extra reading time but less sleeping time) or have chores to do, damn those chores and friends and family – who really selfishly want to spend time with me taking me away from books, ha! Then there is the Green Carnation Prize to sort for 2014 (very exciting news coming next week) and my bookish trip to America in August to finalise, and podcasts – which I have had to put on hold this week as just cannot keep up with myself. I am thinking the life of a hermit for a few years reading might be quite nice.

This lack of time (and I am normally good at being something of a magician and making time, pulling it out of hats and all sorts) of course leads to the age old issue of then being really behind with my reviews and feeling like the blog is a bit of a fraud. The other day I posted the below image on instagram (look up Savidge Reads) showing that my pile of books to review was as big as my cat! (Yes, that is Oscar, yes he has grown!) The thing is since then even more books have been read (yet I feel like I haven’t read anything, interesting) and now I feel really, really behind…

To Review

What makes me all the more cross is that some of the books (not all of them believe me) I have been reading have been utterly AMAZING, seriously BRILLIANT and so a) I want to tell you all about them all the more and b) I want to write reviews – and  that do them justice – which of course takes more time. Damn that thing called time. You see I don’t really think a book blog can be called that if it isn’t really featuring book reviews, and I am in danger of falling into that category. Reading guilt and blogging guilt, oh crumbs. At least I have a three day weekend this weekend coming to sort myself out.

Please tell me I am not the only one who feels a bit behind with books and blogs (I haven’t read another blog in months, also guilt inducing) on occasion leading to minimal moments of despair, some of you must get it too surely? Also does anyone else turn into an epic grump (who their partner and friends don’t seem to understand) and gets really, really cranky when they don’t get enough reading time? Or is that just me, and should I be ashamed? Do let me know, you made me all feel so much better when I had my small ‘there are too many brilliant books in the world’ meltdown the other week, ha! Oh and any recommendations how to make more time or be more organised/systematic most welcomed too, you are all good to me.

Note: I wrote this after having a small book breakdown last night – it is now the Tuesday following said breakdown and a visit to the library and Waterstones has sorted me out 😉

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

Other People’s Bookshelves #39; Jenn Ashworth

Hello and welcome to the latest in Other People’s Bookshelves, a regular series of posts where you get to have a nosey at other book lovers bookshelves. This week we head into the home of author Jenn Ashworth, another fine example of why we should #ReadBritish2014 as you will see in reviews over the next few weeks. So let us sit down with Jenn in her office, have a nice strong cup of northern tea (always the best) and possibly a bourbon biscuit or custard cream and  then have a nosey through her shelves, first though a little more about her…

Jenn Ashworth was born in 1982 in Preston, where she still lives. She studied at Newnham College, Cambridge and the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. Before becoming a writer, she worked as a librarian in a prison. Her first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, was published in 2009 and won a Betty Trask Award. On the publication of her second, Cold Light (Sceptre, 2011) she was featured on the BBC’s The Culture Show as one of the UK’s twelve best new writers. Her third novel The Friday Gospels (2013) is published by Sceptre. Ashworth has also published short fiction and won an award for her blog, Every Day I Lie a Little. Her work has been compared to both Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith; all her novels to date have been set in the North West of England. She lives in Lancashire and teaches Creative Writing at Lancaster University.

books in the office 2

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

I mainly keep hold of my books – I still own anthologies of seventeenth century poetry that I last looked at in my first year of Uni. I’m very minimalist and restrained about all other kinds of stuff. Books are my indulgence. There’s always money for them, and I’m a member of a couple of libraries and have a kindle too. I have been promising myself I will go through and have a cull for ages. But I can’t predict where my interests will take me to in the future. Maybe that collected works of Aphra Benn is going to be just what I need to get the next novel into gear. Who knows? My shelves aren’t quite full, but they will be soon – even though I do buy plenty of e-books these days.

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?

Nothing so organised as any of those things. There’s a vague system. I keep cooking books, reference books, books about nature and wildlife, astronomy, the weather, local history, maps, guides to pubs and walks and days out in Lancashire, loads of pop science books, books about card games and stuff like that – all at home in my red bookcase in my living room. We’ve got piles of board games and DVDs and National Geographics from the 1970s in there too. And paints for the kids, and their old shoes. It’s a sort of ‘everything in here’ bookcase. We could probably get rid of most of these books and rely on the internet, but I like looking up facts in books.

books in the office

At home, I have a pile of current reads next to my bed and a couple of stacks of recently-read-and-need-to-be-taken-back-to-the-office on a shelf over my desk. It’s one of those floating shelves that look quite nice but can’t really hold that many books. When it starts to wobble I take the books to work and dump them in my office. Where they stay. You can see there’s no order at all – maybe a rough chronological one in that the books I’ve read most recently are always closest to hand. I almost always remember what I have and find it when I need it, but I must clean it out sometime.

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

It was The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton and I bought it from Sweetens with book tokens my aunt in Glasgow posted to me. She used to send John Menzies vouchers but that year it was book tokens. I didn’t grow up in a particularly bookish house, though I always had a library ticket and my Uncle worked at Askews and would sometimes bring spoiled and damaged books back for me to keep. I don’t own any of the books I did have as a child – we moved when I was thirteen and left everything behind – but I have tracked down and rebought a few of the special ones I want to have with me since then. What Katy Did. Stig of the Dump. The Brothers Lionheart.  The Baby and Fly Pie. The Whitby Witches books. There’s one I’ve never been able to find – I can’t remember the title or the author – but it was about a boy who refused to go to school, built a raft and sailed away on it on the Mersey. It was narrated, I think, by his younger brother. Ring a bell with anyone?

books in the office close up 3

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’m not guilty about any of my pleasures. Fighting fantasy game books. I’ve just rebought the reissued versions of the Fabled Lands adventure book series, in the hopes I can convince my daughter to give them a go. Ian Fleming – the boxed set of all the Bond novels. I don’t hide anything.  But now I really want to know what is on your hidden shelf and where in the house it is. Spill the beans! (Simon isn’t telling, he might after a few sherries.)

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?

The Brothers Lionheart. And all the books I’ve borrowed and forgotten to give back.

books over my desk

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 used to read anything I could get my hands on. My mum had Danielle Steele books in the house and I remember reading them and being thrilled by the dirty bits. I had a library ticket and would borrow all kinds of weird stuff – there was a huge book called The Empty Fortress which was about children with autism written by an American consultant – I used to borrow that when I was eleven and renew it as many times as they’d let me. I don’t have it anymore but I would like to have it – if only to try and work out what it was that enchanted my younger self so much. I read Agatha Christie – all of them, lots of D. H. Lawrence – textbooks books about deaf culture and British Sign Language, books about wild flowers and foraging and self-sufficiency. I was probably quite an odd child. I suppose because I didn’t have much to do with school and didn’t have a bookish family there was no-one to tell me what kinds of books were the right ones, and which ones weren’t.  Indiscriminate and guiltless reading is something I’ve tried to carry into my adulthood.

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 do borrow copies of people’s books and am terrible about giving them back. Horrific. I would give it back if pressed. And yes, probably buy my own copy if it was something that had altered me. Most books do, in some ways. I’m feeling guilty now.

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

I bought the Fabled Lands books – all six of them – and The Secret Lives of Trees by Colin Tudge which I am currently reading. I also bought A New Kind of Bleak by Owen Hatherly which I’m reading alongside the trees book. A strange and completely satisfactory combination, like fruitcake and cheese.

recent arrivals at the office

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

The one I mentioned earlier about the boy who didn’t go to school. I am haunted by it. Perhaps I imagined it. I had it in hardback and it had a dark brown cover. The implication was that this boy had committed suicide in the Mersey on this raft rather than go to school. I was utterly undone by it. I hope I find it one day. Maybe I did imagine it. I might buy the Empty Fortress if I can find it.

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

I suppose they’d think I was a bit of a book hoarder, was tough on my paperbacks (they are always tattered and written in, with post-its hanging out and bent spines, watermarked from reading in the bath, curry stained, dotted with tea and tears (!) They’d probably notice I had particular obsessions and favourite authors but that I was a magpie generalist.

books by the side of the bed

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A huge thanks to Jenn for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. If you would like to find out more about Jenn visit her website here. I am still beaming at the fact Jenn loves the Whitby Witches which I loved too. 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 Jenn’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions? And can you help her discover what that book with a boy on the Mersey was all about?

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Filed under Jenn Ashworth, Other People's Bookshelves

My Top Ten Dead British Authors…

If you have ever wondered just who my top ten dead British authors are (and why wouldn’t you have wondered this?) then you might like to check out the latest piece I have written for Fiction Uncovered as their guest editor this month. Having done it, it actually looks like my ideal dinner party. Now some of you may well guess who is at number one, but there may be some gems in there you might have missed…


Anyway I thought I would share it with you. Do have a gander and let me know what you think of the list, also do let me know who your top deceased authors might be, British or otherwise?

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World Book Night 2014

Today/tonight is World Book Night which has become one of my favourite nights of the year, yes along with such joys as Christmas, my Birthday and the second night on a long holiday (when you have gone past the first day and night of being knackered from travel and have all that blissful time ahead, I need a holiday abroad soon). Any venture that sends you out into the world, without putting yourself in danger, to give people copies of books is a marvellous thing and in the UK alone they are giving a million books away. Great stuff.

I have been thrilled to have been chosen again, I initially had a sulk thinking I hadn’t until I checked my spam mail, for the fourth year running. I have been very lucky so far giving away copies of some of my favourite books; Half of a Yellow Sun, Rebecca (which I also read from to lots of people that year) and The Reader (at the first night of Liverpool’s first literature festival which really should come back). This year I think I have topped them all, yes even Rebecca, as I am giving away the first in my favourite ever series of books which I read in my teens (and made me feel less alone) and have re-read and re-read since. Yes, I am giving away Tales of the City.

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Now as is tradition, because it means a lot to me, I am giving most of these away to the local cancer hospital where the staff, patients and their loved ones can have copies that hopefully might shine some light in a very difficult time and then be passed on to others again and again.

I am keeping some back though this year and, as a giver who just loves to go on giving, four of them are going to come into work with me tomorrow, two being left on the train in the morning on the way in and two on the way home, with a little note hopefully finding them some new temporary homes and fans who will pass them on again. I am also sorting through my own books to pass some on to people at work and leave more in the library I made in the communal hall a while back.

Who else is giving books away for World Book Night, which title have you got to give and how are you going to give it away? If you haven’t been a giver have you planned on passing some of your favourite books? Oh and just out of interest, if you could give away a million copies of just one book which would it be and why? Suggest a few and who knows I may pick some of you at random to send a bookish treat through the post!

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Rook – Jane Rusbridge

One of the kinds of books I love to read the most (although I have only discovered in the last few years this is the case) are ones set in the British countryside. I am rather bored by books set in London, admittedly less so if they happen to be somewhere between 1850 and 1910. Whilst I know modern London is full of all walks of life, which is marvellous to read about, head out of the capital for a few hours and in the towns and villages some of the best stories can be found. This is one of the reasons I finally picked up Jane Rusbridge’s second novel Rook which I had heard would be right up my street for this very reason. In towns and villages secrets are much harder to keep buried.

Bloomsbury, paperback, 2013, fiction, 352 pages, borrowed from the library

Nora has fled from a love affair gone wrong and the international circuit of touring with her cello, back to her childhood home of Creek House in Bosham, Sussex to teach the locals. Whilst old childhood friends have welcomed her back the same cannot be said for her mother Ada. However things look set to change in Bosham as a TV documentary company, run by the suave Jonny, want to write about the possible body of King Cnut’s daughter buried below the church, along with the possibility of King Harold himself. Yet as a medieval secret of the town is about to be unburied after so long, so could be the secrets Nora and Ada have kept from each other.

Mother daughter relationships, along with all dysfunctional family set ups, are a prime subject for fiction. Nora and Ada’s estranged relationship puzzles and perplexes whilst it also intrigues; just what secrets have both women kept from each other, why did the death of Brian (Ada’s husband) along with Felicity (Nora’s sister) leaving the UK make them more estranged and not bring them together? How long can two women stay in the same place avoiding each other, one with her box of memories (and lots of cocktails, which seem a coping mechanism for getting older as well as keeping secrets locked away), the other with her cello and adopted Rook called, erm, Rook before the cracks finally fracture?

As we read on it is not only the secrets hidden under the floor boards of the local church that mirror Nora and Ada’s struggle with their own histories, the landscape also mirrors them too. It could actually be said that the main character in Rook is Sussex itself, its atmosphere comes out of every page and is often a metaphor for what is going on inside the characters heads.

The mud at low tide is alive with soft-lipped sucks and pops, the creek shrunk to a ribbon in the distance. Nora’s wellingtons slop around her calves as she steps from one hump of eel grass to another, arms spread to counterbalance any slip of the silt. Far off by the sluice gate twenty or thirty swans are clustered, startling white against the bladder-wrack and mud. Every limpid arch of neck and fan of wing displays an orchestrated grace, reminding Nora of her mother.

Occasionally though the sense of place and its relationship with the plot can cloud things. Dangers of flooding, the muddy coastline, the danger of private farmlands, etc are all wonderfully evoked – the prose in Rook is stunning – yet sometimes at the cost of explanations. I would sometimes be unsure if I was with Nora or with Ada, and occasionally we have gone into a flashback in the change of a paragraph which needs to be re-read before you realise what Rusbridge has done. I also on occasion found myself wishing that Rusbridge had written in the voice of Nora or Ada or alternated between the two of them. This may have lost some of the admirable subtleties Rusbridge allows the reader to expand upon themselves, but with all the mysteries Nora and Ada are harbouring themselves and from each other, they are prone to being slight enigma’s themselves. I interestingly found I knew Rook the most as a character and was fascinated learning all about how intelligent these birds are. I used to have a pet duck (super brainy birds) I now want a pet Rook, have I ever mentioned that before I was a book spotter I was a bird watcher? Anyway…

As I mentioned above, I love a book which has a real sense of place and in particular those which look at the British countryside. Therefore Rook couldn’t really be more ideal. Through Nora’s return to Bosham we have that sense we all know of nostalgia mixed with terror and edginess that going back to your hometown can bring. Through Jonny, who is a bit of a so and so, we see the attitudes to ‘the outsider’ which no matter how many times people say is a mentality that doesn’t exist in this forward thinking day and age, does. It is the sense of the atmosphere and nature of Sussex along with the definition of what makes a community (both the good and the bad) which seems to be at the very heart of Rook.

Around the polished table are people she has known since childhood. Miss Macleod is there, head down, reading something. Ted, who, now his son has taken over the day-to-day running of Manor Farm, has time on his hands so sits on many committees and is governor of the village primary school. George gives her a nod, jowls wobbling like wattles. Patricia, Ted’s wife and locally famous for her bridge suppers, flutters her fingers in a wave. Steve, the vicar, gives her a wink, and points to the empty chair beside him. A single father of three, Steve is not what most people expect in a vicar.

Using a ‘natural’ metaphor, which seems apt for this book particularly, I would compare Rook to a small brook (or a creek, all the more apt with Creek House) which slowly meanders to a larger stream which twists and turns into a river which builds up speed before it roars out to the sea. As we read on the pace, urgency and rawness become quicker and louder. I didn’t see the ending coming at all and it hits hard. In many ways Rook is a book about secrets and coping, or indeed not, with what life throws at us and how it changes our relationships with those around us. It is also a love letter to Sussex where Jane Rusbridge lives. It is beautifully written novel from an author I think more of us should be reading.

Who else has read Rook and what did you make of it? Have any of you read Jane’s debut The Devil’s Music as I am keen to give that a whirl. Oh and don’t forget you can find out more about Jane and have a nosey through her bookshelves on the latest Other People’s Bookshelves here.

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Happy (Belated) Easter…

I just wanted to wish you and yours a wonderful Easter, however you are celebrating it, if you are celebrating it – albeit slightly belatedly.

I have had a lovely quiet day of reading and relaxing, no chocolates but I have had my first ever taste of simnel cake which I can now say I would quite like to eat all the time. I hope you have been having a lovely day whatever you have been doing, wherever you are!

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Other People’s Bookshelves #38; Jane Rusbridge

Hello and welcome to the latest in Other People’s Bookshelves, a regular series of posts where you get to have a nosey at other book lovers bookshelves. This week we head into the home of author Jane Rusbridge, a prime example of why we should #ReadBritish2014 as you will see when I review her second novel Rook tomorrow. Before all that though let us sit down with Jane, have some of the gorgeous cupcakes she has made us and have a nosey through her shelves, first though a little more about her…

I live and work in coastal West Sussex and am married to a farmer. We have five grown up children. I’ve been a teacher most of my life, but went back to university to do a part-time English degree when my youngest child started school. Basically I just stayed there for 18 years – firstly to complete an MA in Creative Writing after my degree, and then to teach. My writing took off about 10 years ago when my husband bought me a shed so that I had somewhere to write. I painted it blue. I have two novels published by Bloomsbury, The Devil’s Music and Rook, a Guardian Readers’ Book of the Year.

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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?

When I don’t finish a book it will go to charity or the library, otherwise I’m a keeper. Just not necessarily on shelves. I am more of a various-piles-here-and-there person when it comes to books. My only system is that if I read something on an ereader – which I do sometimes, but only for convenience – if it’s good, I will buy the *real* book too. Novels need rereading. My second or third reading is usually more from the point of view of a writer, to see how an author has handled a particular technique, or plot structure, or ending … Ebooks are not at all pleasing to revisit and, worse, they seem to disappear from memory, don’t you find? Pfft! just like that, author, title and all. Real books keep you company in a way that ebooks don’t.

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 am totally organised – it just doesn’t look like it! New books go straight into the ‘piano’ room (never touch the piano these days, except to put books on it), in one of several piles: new fiction, research, friends’ books, classics to revisit – that sort of thing. With fiction, when it’s read once it goes on the book shelves made by my other half, in alphabetical order (vaguely). Poetry books go into a small (rather impractical) bookcase in the living room. Books about writing and books connected with my previous novels are on shelves in my writing room. Currently I’m researching for novel 3, and all my research books are therefore lying everywhere about the house. In piles.

'Rook' bookshelf

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

This may be a mis-memory, but I think it was The Ship That Flew by Hilda Lewis, with money I got after having no fillings at the dentist. I was lucky as a child and had many books bought for me. (Also, I did not have a filling until I was 19. Not many people know that). The copy I have is a hardback and in a box of books in the attic, now that our children are grown-up. I’m glad you reminded me, because now my grandson has arrived I need to get those books down. I also might need to make use of my husband’s shelf building skills again.

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?

We used to have a copy of The Joy of Sex, which we hid from the children when they were small. They obviously used to thoroughly investigate all the hiding places in our room however, because when the recent TV programme based on the book was on I learned that at least one of them came across it. The only other book I keep out of sight I couldn’t possibly tell you about, otherwise I’d have kill you!

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 treasure my father’s very old medical books. He was 57 when I was born, quite old for a dad, and he died on the night of the ’87 hurricane – so, a long time ago. He was passionate about the value of books, and read to me a lot when I was child.

Precious books my father's medical books

Also, an old illustrated copy of The Dawnchild by Beryl Irving, which was a book I used to read when I went to stay at my grandparents when I was little, while my mother and father were on one of their trips back to Scotland. I loved staying there. Like you, I was given this book when I was older, and it’s the associations which make it precious.

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?

A J Cronin’s Country Doctor. My mother watched Doctor Finlay’s Casebook avidly, but my father had told me the book was the Real Thing. I didn’t ever read 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?

To be honest, these days I tend to buy the books I want to read. I spend more on books than almost anything else. I daren’t add up my annual expenditure, so don’t ask.

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

Where Zeus became Man by Sabine Ivanovas, a book of photographs and notes about Cretan shepherds. It’s for research.

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

Oh goodness – where to start? The next book I’m planning to buy is The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer.

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

They might notice that I read mainly contemporary novels, and my non-fiction reading is rather uneven: masses of books on Harold II and rooks; books on knots and rope; books on Crete. Their fingers might itch to tidy up my book heaps. I hope they realise I love books and reading.

research & TBR piles

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A huge thanks to Jane for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. Check back on Monday for a review of her second novel Rook. In the meantime if you would like to find out more about Jane visit her website here. 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 Jane’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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More Tales From Home; Why I have Decided to #ReadBritish2014

A week or so ago I mentioned that I had been honoured to be asked to be the Inaugural Guest Editor for Fiction Uncovered’s website for a month. As I mentioned then, and have been mentioning for quite some time, I am a big fan of the initiative which every year highlights eight British authors that we really should be reading or should have read yet for various reasons (coverage, missing out on long lists, pure bad luck/chance, etc) we haven’t done.

Since then I have been thinking about it more and more, partly because I was writing my first post which you can see here (which looks at what might lead to some amazing authors going under the radar) and so was looking at it in different ways, without being too pessimistic I hope.

Having given it all this extra thought I decided that rather than just have a month of ‘The Best of British’ or ‘Being British’ which I was planning, and sounded unintentionally xenophobic, I think my aim for the forthcoming year is just to make sure I am reading more of the books about my home country from my fellow country folk. In short I am going to #ReadBritish2014.

This doesn’t mean that I am only going to be reading British authors, as that isn’t me at all I love books from all over the world – I am planning on joining in with Kim of Reading Matters wonderful ANZ month in May for a start. Nor does it mean that I will only be reading the well-known British authors, though I won’t ‘not’ read them to make a point either, but it would be marvellous to find some lesser known gems, all in the spirit of Fiction Uncovered.

Who else fancies reading some more fiction from home, wherever in the world you are? Or are you already a clever clogs and make sure you do this already? Do you think it is important to support local authors as you would a local indie store? Which British authors should I make sure I try and encounter over the next year? Oh and do go over and see my piece for Fiction Uncovered if you have a spare moment, it would be lovely to have you pop by and even comment if you fancied it, hint, hint!

 

 

 

 

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A Visit to Manchester Central Library…

I can’t work out if it I in America all over or just parts of it this week, but I do believe that this week might (important word to cover myself if I feel an utter fool when I discover it isn’t at all) be National Libraries Week – something I think we should bring over to the UK as a single day simply isn’t enough and a week really gets in the consciousness.  Anyway, back off my soapbox, I thought if this was the case it would be nice to share a little trip I made around the all newly revamped Manchester Central Library a few weeks ago.

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I didn’t really know what to expect and as libraries are such wonderful things I was hoping it would be amazing, I wasn’t disappointed so knowing you all love books and the places that home them I thought I would share.

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What I think is wonderful about renovated libraries is when they are modernised and yet have the history and the old sense of a library, as I think Liverpool Central Library does. Manchester council were clearly on a similar wave length as you have the wonderful old features like the stain glassed windows and wooden beams (above) and then you walk into something that wouldn’t look out of place in a sci-fi movie set in the future.

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It is done again when you look through the clear glass into the wonderful archives brimming with hidden treasures…

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Or when you are wandering around the thoroughly modern exhibition, café and seating area and find gems of the old library still being used amongst the new.

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Note – I want one of those old archiving files in my house, just saying. It also carries on as you head up to the top floor, the modern architecture meeting the new and somehow, brilliantly, feeling like they were always meant to work together…

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I think on of my favourite classic meets modern designs was on the top floor where you find all the reference books and the shelves, which run on a track, meaning much more space, have been given these wonderful new case covers that stop it looking like some old nuclear bunker, which sadly can be a look in the library world…

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The other thing I loved about it was how light and airy it was, come on, don’t tell me you couldn’t spend hours sat reading in here? I was pretty much ready to move in.

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Now there is a proper library down in the basement, which is again marvellously light, where all the new books of contemporary and classic fiction sit side by side, non fiction, travel etc all waiting in the wings and you can go and borrow books which is most important of course…

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Yet for me the most astounding room was the main Reading Room which I am slightly obsessed with.

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If ever I am in Manchester you know where to find me, spending a few hours with a book or just sitting people watching and taking in the atmosphere of the place. Marvellous.

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It feels like the heart of the place, not just because it is the dead centre and the centre circle of the building, but because you look around and think ‘wow, all these people are using it again, after all those generations before them’ and it seems to highlight exactly why libraries are so important and why we need to keep them, and as many as possible, forever.

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It was a wonderful trip and I think I spent about three hours just wandering, not even picking up a book. I should add that the whole time I lived in Manchester this building was the biggest tease in the city. It was closed the whole time but looked so marvellous from the outside and so, so tempting. So it is lovely to see it up and running. Manchester you are very lucky, though I know I am exceptionally lucky having the Liverpool Central Library down the road – I haven’t forgotten.

What do you make of this renovation? Which is your favourite library, where is it and why do you love it so?

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Aaaaaaaaaaargh, There Are Just Too Many Books…

Is it just me or do any of you ever get the feeling that there are just too many books out there and that you might not be able to read all the ones you want and how do you find out about the amazing ‘just you’ kind of books that would make your life a better place and what about all the authors you love and never seem to catch up on reading the back catalogue of and what about all the authors in translation, being translated or yet to be translated, and what about the classic novels, not just the ones from your countries canon but the ones from all over the rest of the world too and then what about all the books that are being edited or written or even just thought of or not even imagined yet for the future? And breathe.

That is how I have been feeling a little of late. I love books, can’t get enough of the blighters, yet sometimes the sheer numbers of them (be they from the past, present or forthcoming) just daunts me. It could be simply going through my shelves and boxes and boxes of books ‘to be read’, popping to the library, perusing publishing catalogues or book magazines and sites, listening to bookish podcasts, having a look at other people’s bookshelves or going to the London Book Fair (see picture below, post coming soon) etc – suddenly the amount of books just looms on you, and you get readers fright, your unable to perform reading-wise. Eek.

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That is where I am at the moment and I am sure I am not alone. There is excitement about all the reads ahead but also some fear and general bafflement. Then that sense of panic that I should be reading every spare second I have and if am not getting really frustrated and cross. Serioulsy the later happens, you can ask The Beard (who I have been with 2 years today, hoorah) all about my epic grumps if I haven’t had enough reading time. The ranting about ‘why can’t I just quite my job, eat dust and read all day’. Frightful. So how do we get through these moments? Should I switch off the bookish bit of my brain and spend some time doing other things or just get a grip and read on?

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Other People’s Bookshelves #37; Catherine Hall

Hello and welcome to the latest in Other People’s Bookshelves, a regular series of posts where you get to have a nosey at other book lovers bookshelves. This week we have a doubly apt host, Catherine Hall. Firstly because they are one of the authors who has been selected for Fiction Uncovered in the past, which I am guest editing at the moment, and also I happen to be staying in her house (so she is literally hosting me) while London Book Fair is on, in fact I took the pictures and almost took some of the books. Oh, did I mention that she is one of my most lovely friends who I have become chums with since I read The Proof of Love a few years ago. Anyway, I could waffle on more but I shall not, let us find out more about Catherine and have a nosey through her books…

I was born and brought up on a sheep farm in the Lake District where we lived with another family in a vaguely communal way. I always loved books and ended up doing English at Cambridge. Part of me loved it, but I found it a bit odd that we didn’t read anything written after 1960 and not that much by women. After that I went to London and got a job in a television production company making films about the environment and development issues, and then worked for an international peacebuilding agency doing communications. I left when I inherited some money from my grandmother and have written three novels: Days of Grace, The Proof of Love and The Repercussions, which will be published in September. I live in London with my two little boys, their dad and his boyfriend.

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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?

I used to keep all of them because it was like a diary of my life, sort of marking where my thinking was at different times. Now I have to have liked them enough to want to live with them, otherwise I pass them on to Oxfam. Having said that, I’m quite a generous reader – I usually find something I like in most books. But my shelves – and there are a lot of them in our house – are pretty overflowing.

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?

There’s a sort of system, or at least there was when we moved in which is that they’re divided by genre – fiction, history, biography, travel, poetry, plays – and then within that vaguely alphabetically as in by author surname but not strictly, because that would mean rearranging everything every time I bought a new book. I have a massive pile of books to be read next to my bed. Since I had kids it’s all gone a bit messy, and of course they have loads of books that end up all over the place.

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

It was Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton. I loved her books as a child and would save up my pocket money to buy them. It’s on my boys’ bookshelf now waiting for them to be old enough to read it.

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’ve got lots of guilty pleasures but I’m pretty out and proud about them. There’s a lot of Jackie Collins and Jilly Cooper on my shelves sitting next to Dickens and Doris Lessing. At college my friend Cath and I used to buy Jilly Cooper’s books as soon as they came out and retire to bed to read them in one go instead of reading Chaucer or whoever it was that week. Her politics are questionable but I learned a lot about character and plot.

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

That’s a really hard question. I love the proof copies of my novels – they’re the things that I’m most proud of producing in my life. I also love my ancient copy of The Golden Notebook because that really changed the way I thought about things, and Oranges are Not the Only Fruit because I remember coming down to London on a school trip and sneaking to the Silver Moon women’s bookshop and buying – shocker – a lesbian novel. So I’d definitely save them, and then I think I’d want to save some of my children’s books because they remind me of reading to them as they’ve grown up.

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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?

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. That’s another book that I’d definitely save. I have two copies of it, one annotated, the other clean for reading. It introduced me to psychoanalysis and of course the concept of the ‘zipless fuck.’ It was probably the most thrilling book I’d ever read. For my A levels I wrote a long dissertation type thing about Freud’s question on what women want, and the way it was answered in literature, ranging from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Fear of Flying. It was my favourite essay ever. I go back to Fear of Flying every couple of years to read it again and it’s still relevant to me now.

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

I have to have the book if I love it, so I’d go and get a copy. I borrow books sometimes if people have them to hand but generally I just buy what I want to read. I find it very satisfying to have a pile of books just waiting for me to dive into.

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

My dad, Ian Hall, just wrote a memoir called Fisherground: Living the Dream about the farm that we grew up on. I was very proud to add it to my bookshelves. The last books I bought were Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Taiye Selassi’s Ghana Must Go.

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

I’m dying to read Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English, Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, and The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. Oh, and of course Armistead Maupin’s Days of Anna Madrigal. I’m so excited to read that.

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

I think they’d probably think it’s quite eclectic and pretty wide-ranging. Perusing shelves is the first thing I do when I go to someone’s house – it really does tell you a lot about the person, and I’ve bonded with people or fancied them because of their taste. So I hope my taste makes me look good!

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A huge thanks to Catherine for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, as if she had any choice, and for letting me stay so often when I pop down to London town. She is rather a legend. If you haven’t read The Proof of Love, which is one of my favourite books and if you have read this blog for a while you will know that, then you must get a copy NOW! Anyway… 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 Catherine’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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The Farm – Tom Rob Smith

Without making myself sound up my own bottom or like I am some connoisseur of the genre, but it does take a rather different crime to really make my deerstalking covered ears prick up and I settle down to devour a good crime novel (with my pipe and my smoking jacket) in one big gulp because I can’t get enough. This is exactly what happened when I read The Farm by Tom Rob Smith. He who wrote Child 44 which is one of my favourite crime novels of recent years. Oh, though in reality I don’t actually wear a Sherlock Holmes outfit when I read crime fiction, but it’s an idea.

Simon & Schuster, hardback, 2014, fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by Riot Communications

Imagine one day you are on your way back from Tesco/Waitrose (or any other supermarket) and you get a call from your father out of the blue telling you that your mother is unwell, it isn’t something physical or something terminal, your mother has had a mental breakdown of some sort and she believes that something, which your father won’t divulge, dreadful has happened. This is the rather intense and intriguing way that Tom Rob Smith starts The Farm, yet this is only the beginning.

‘Dad?’ ‘Your mother… She’s not well.’ ‘Mum’s sick?’ ‘It’s so sad.’ ‘Sad because she’s sick? Sick how? How’s Mum sick?’ Dad was still crying. All I could do was dumbly wait until he said: ‘She’s been imagining things – terrible, terrible things.’

Things get even stranger, very quickly so I am not spoiling anything, as no sooner has Daniel spoken to his father and packed to head for Sweden (where his parents have moved to) he receives a call from the airport from his mother, Tilde. She has been released from the psychiatric ward she had been placed in by her husband and is about to get a flight to Daniel to tell him her story, a story he might not believe and might implicate his own father in having been part of something very dark and very wrong.

To say too much more about the plot would be to spoil what is a fantastically gripping account of a woman who goes back to her homeland, taking her husband with her, to live a life close to nature on a remote farm which at first seems idyllic and soon turns into a nightmare for her.

Looking out the window I was reminded of just how lonely this landscape was. In Sweden, outside the cities, the wilderness rules supreme. People tiptoe timidly around the edge, surrounded by skyscraping fir trees and lakes larger than entire nations. Remember, this is the landscape that inspired the mythology of trolls, stories I used to read to you about giant lumbering man-eating creatures with mushroom warts on their crooked noses and bellies like boulders. Their sinewy arms can rip a person in two, snapping human bones and using splinters to scrape the gristle out of their shrapnel teeth. Only in forests as vast as this could such monsters be hiding, yellow eyes stalking you.  

There are lots of things that are marvellous about The Farm. The main thing for me was the sense of unreliability throughout. Tom Rob Smith has Tilde recount what has happened to her, from her perspective, from start to finish providing items she feels prove her story. These are interjected with questions from Daniel as he tries to understand, as we readers try and figure it all out, and also interjections from his father, Chris, calling trying to find out what is going on and trying to tell Daniel his mother has had a breakdown and isn’t to be believed.

This adds a marvellous sense of tension to the book. Which parent should we believe? Has Chris been part of something horrendous? Has Tilde misread what she has seen with so much additional time on her hands in the remote wilderness, has she escaped to a place of trolls from her childhood, has she gone mad or could she be telling the truth? You are constantly second guessing all of the characters as you read on and just when you think you have taken a side, something happens to make you change your mind. It is a web intricately spun.

What adds to this is the fact The Farm is laced with secrets. As we read on we learn there are many secrets behind the façade of this family (as in real life). Why did Tilde and Chris really leave the UK and head to the middle of nowhere? What happened in Tilde’s childhood which led her to fleeing her home country and makes everyone question her all the more? What is really going on in the neighbouring farm of Håkan Greggson (a brilliantly constructed neighbourhood bully, who I loved to loathe) behind closed doors? What secret is Daniel himself keeping from his parents? Throw in the atmosphere of Sweden with is brooding landscape, mythology and remote nature and how can a read fail to be compelled?

I thought The Farm was superb. Cliché alert, I couldn’t put it down. I read it in just two settings begrudgingly putting it down when I selfishly needed some sleep before waking up very early to get back into it. Tom Rob Smith creates a genuinely thrilling mystery where secrets brood along with the atmosphere. Whilst also being a gripping read it looks at the stories we tell our families and also, more importantly, what we leave out. It also takes an interesting look at mental health and asks some big questions surrounding that. All in all The Farm is a multi-layered compulsively readable thriller that puzzles and provokes. One of my books of the year so far.

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