Monthly Archives: July 2014

Savidge Reads Heads To Sweden For A Holiday!

By the time you read this I will either be chewing my nails to pieces waiting to get on a plane, be up several thousands of miles in the sky in that tin can plane or be safely in Sweden enjoying a fortifying drink, of any variety. I am going to be spending a long weekend visiting Gothenburg, Fjallbacka, Valo Island and the Weather Islands as the Swedish Tourist Board are very kindly sending me off to the fictional murder sites (which looks rather ominous when you see it like that, ha) of the novels of Camilla Lackberg, who I have been devouring the series of in preparation. I absolutely cannot wait.

The Weather Islands

Instead of scheduling posts, or taking my lovely new purple laptop with me I have decided to give myself a well earned rest, post festival, and also give the blog a rest for a while. I plan a few days of adventure and exciting yet also some quiet time of thinking and just taking the world in and pondering. I think I need it. (I will be tweeting and instagramming as I go though. Ha!) Reading however I have most certainly packed for as you can see, all aptly Swedish.

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Once I am back there will be no stopping me, I have a week of Swedish themed posts and a holiday to report back on, plus I have plans to gig the blog about a bit which I will mull over I am sure when I am not in awe at my surroundings over the next few days. Which reminds me… While I am away do please, please, please keep your questions and suggestions coming in.

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A Giant Spectacular Finale (and Hitting The Headlines)

And so the festival is officially over and what a finale we had, and I don’t mean the one last week where I ended up getting so drunk I staying in a hotel in my own city. The finale of the IFB2014 was the return of The Giants. If you think I am overtired and hallucinating, or still drunk, I swear to you I am telling the truth!

You may not remember but back way back when I first met the Beard and was doing the whole dating thing and thinking about moving to Liverpool we accidentally ended up crossing the path, or ripples, of the Giants that came and conquered the city before sailing away. Well it was a huge success for the city at the time and so Culture Liverpool, who since that fateful boat trip I only went and worked for and now work for the sister company of, brought them back again. Little (no pun intended) did the project team realise how close we would get, even though we knew they were passing and had our sandwiches at the ready, or that one of us might end up in the headlines of the Liverpool Echo (guess who?)…

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So as you can see above we were all ready and waiting with eager anticipation for the Granny Giant to arrive. Soon enough the crowds started to build and build and sure enough she arrived…

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If I am being 100% honest, I had forgotten how brilliant the giants were the first time they came (then too I was a bit nonchalant about it all) yet once I could see her, see the way the crowd was loving following her the buzz of excitement started to build and build as she came nearer. As it turned ut we had some of the best seats in the city…

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Here I should stipulate that I don’t really understand what the story for the giants was, and I read the flyer, but they had come from beyond the Milky Way and were here to commemorate the anniversary of WWI. It does sound bonkers I understand, but it worked brilliantly. As she stood below us she started to read letters from those who had been in the war or those who had written to them. It was very moving.

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Now as I was saying as it went on the excitement and emotion just sent us all a bit giddy and we couldn’t help but try and get a picture with the giants, and indeed some of us resorted to selfies…

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What I didn’t expect was for my selfie to end up in the Liverpool Echo as one of the images from the first day of the Giants visit, but it did as you can see here. My fifteen minutes of fame right there. However at the time we didn’t know this and what was interesting was as she slowly headed past us and off to find her granddaughter and her dog you really felt sad to see her leave…

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The other thing it made me feel was immensely proud. Not just of the festival I have worked on this city and the people I have worked with, which goes without saying as it and they have been amazing. I also felt extremely proud of this city, Liverpool, and the people who go the extra mile to make it a vibrant place bringing new people in but also putting on a bloody good show for the people who live here. I feel honoured that I am an honorary Liverpudlian, of sorts.

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To get more of the effect of the giants, their story and see how amazing the logistics of them (and all the man power with her crane and all the people who move her limbs swinging up in the air – which you soon stop seeing bizarrely) then do watch the video below. It is quite inspiring. I can’t wait for them to come back. What a brilliant way to end the festival too.

Anyway I thought I would share that with you all as some of you mentioned, when I asked you to ask me anything and make suggestions which I will answer all the questions from when I am back from my trip away, that you would like to see more posts about random things I get up to off blog. I think encountering giants and making the headlines will do won’t it?

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Trespassing With Tremain; The Plan

A week or so ago I told you all about my idea to honour Granny Savidge Reads and pass on her reading legacy (which sounds very grand and she would love) by reading one of her favourite contemporary authors Rose Tremain. So I thought we could go Trespassing With Tremain into the lives and worlds she creates which Gran was such a fan of and kept telling me off for having not tried. Thank you all for your enthusiasm, I have now been through her bibliography and have finally decided on the list, so here it is with the dates… (Please note the dates have changed!)

  • Trespass – Sunday August the 10th
  • The Road Home– Sunday August the 24th
  • The Darkness of Wallis Simpson and Other Stories– Sunday September the 7th
  • Sacred Country– Sunday September the 21st
  •  Restoration– Sunday October 5th
  • The Road Home – Sunday September the 14th
  • The Darkness of Wallis Simpson and Other Stories– Sunday October the 5th
  • Sacred Country– Sunday October the 26th
  • Restoration– Sunday November the 16th

So why these choices? Well, Trespass was the one that Gran thought would be most up my street and closest to what might be my comfort zone (I don’t quite know what she meant and didn’t think to ask, silly me) so this seems an apt way to begin. I have already got myself a copy from the library, it is pretty short too so two weeks should be enough. I love the former Orange Prize so I thought one of her prize winners, The Road Home, would be a good second step. Mid way I thought short stories might make a nice change of scene and I find Wallis Simpson really fascinating so look forward to the title tale. Sacred Country is one of the titles I had never heard of and looking it up the whole question of gender it brings up sounds fascinating. I thought we could end with one of Rose Tremain’s most famous, and largest, novels with Restoration and one which has the sequel of Merivel if we all love it insanely.

In fact it was leaving some of the well-known ones for later if we love her that stopped me choosing Music and Silence and also The Colour, always good to have something else to look forward to, and some of the lesser known ones may well be gems to discover like I am hoping Sacred Country is.

So who is joining in and with which titles and when? Anyone in it for all of them (no pressure) as company would sure be nice!

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In Case You Were Wondering What My Day Job Entails…

I am one of the small project team who make big things like this happen…

It is all over now though. I am feeling a mixture of very proud, emotional, nostalgic and knackered. Thank goodness August has two big holidays lined up for me!

 

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Man Booker 2014 Musings

Unless you were like me, in which case you were far too busy moving furniture, walls and the like, then you all probably saw the longlist for the Man Booker Prize 2014. With its rule changes last year, becoming open to any book written in English anywhere in the world published for the first time between October 2013 and September 2014, the long list was one which many felt would now be an American full house. It doesn’t seem to be the case, yet weirdly it doesn’t seem to be a longlist that is doing very much for me.

Here it is in full in case you too were otherwise engaged and have been since…

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris (Viking)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)
The Blazing World – Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
J –  Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell (Sceptre)
The Lives of Others – Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
Us – David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Dog – Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate)
Orfeo – Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
How to be Both –  Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
History of the Rain – Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

Man Booker Five

I have only actually got five of them, I would have had six but I found the Niall Williams gratingly pretentious when I tried to read it a while back, and have read not a one so I can’t judge them on what’s inside yet very little really excites me here. Actually that is not 100% true or fair. I am excited by the Karen Joy Fowler because that is a book I have been wanting to read ever since I saw it on the sadly (and criminally) now defunct Review Show. I have also heard amazing things about the Flanagan in all the right places, from Marieke Hardy to  Kim of Reading Matters. I have also read Mukherjee, Nicholls and Smith before and really, really liked their work. I am also intrigued by the Kingsmith, which would be a marvellous winner as it is a debut and Unbound, who publish it, are a crowd sourced publishers, exciting. Yet I am still not really that excited and really with a prize like the Man Booker I should be.

The Williams-effect might be part of it, I may be judging the books on that. I may also be feeling indifferent to it because a) I am knackered post festival b) Ferris and Mitchell are two authors many people love yet I just simply do not get. It could be that it just all feels terribly white middle classed male (with the exceptions of the women and Mukherjee) and not the exciting, vibrant, diverse list I always hope it is going to be. I also think it is really strange that at present so many (5) of the books aren’t even out, Jacobson not coming out until the 25th of September, it doesn’t seem a list that can yet excite the public does it? And does it mean if the dates don’t change then the publishers are breaking this rule – Each publisher of a title appearing on the longlist will be required to have no fewer than 1,000 copies of that title available in stock within 10 days of the announcement of the longlist. Will they be withdrawn/disqualified? Today it seems about the only exciting thing that might happen from this list.

It makes me wonder if the Man Booker is really the prize for me anymore. Maybe I should just stick to the Women’s Prize (which I find very difficult to call the Bailey’s, and I love that tipple) and Fiction Uncovered as it seems that is where the well written AND diverse voices most seem to be found with very similar prize remits. Maybe I should read a few and reserve judgement? What do you all think?

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Questions & Suggestions

Today is the last day of the International Festival for Business 2014 which is the project that has been taking up all of my time in the last few months with lots of events and all those shenanigans. It has been a blast and tonight we will be celebrating and getting merry in grand style – to the point where I am staying in a hotel in my own city as I think I may end up rather a mess! Anyway, as the festival ends the questions begin on how everything has gone and the suggestions of what might happen next time (it is coming back in 2016, though none of us know as yet if we are) start. This made me wonder if I should do something similar with the blog…

Recently Annabel of Annabel’s House of Books, inspired by Simon of Stuck In A Book doing it first, decided she would be brave and ask her followers/readers/passers-by to ask her anything they wanted. It didn’t have to be about books it could be about absolutely anything. I couldn’t find Simon’s original post but his answers are here and Annabel’s are here and here and they make for really interesting reading. So I thought I would hop on this idea, only giving it a slight twist…

Question mark of books

So, you can ask me anything you like (be it about books, kittens, chemical biology, ha, whatever you like) and, as long as it is within reason, I will take all the questions away have a think over them and answer them in a post in the next few weeks. I would also really, really, really like you to make some suggestions. Firstly, I would like you to suggest new things, or old things I could bring back, which you would like to see on the blog. Secondly, I would love some suggestions of any topics you would like me to waffle on about on the blog or features you might like to see.

I may choose to ignore them, I may use them all, as is my want but what I will say is that anyone who asks and question and/or makes a suggestion will be put into a hat and The Beard will draw two (or three if there are lots) of you out of the hat and a bookish parcel will wing its way out to you for your efforts. How does that sound, get asking and suggesting away…

 

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Thirst – Kerry Hudson

You may remember at the very beginning of 2013 I raved about a debut novel with the rather ‘stop and stare’ title of Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. It was by a debut author Kerry Hudson who seemed, by some kind of witchcraft, to totally depict and understand my childhood; lots of moving, not masses of money, lots of trips to the library etc. It was one of those ‘blimey, this book gets me and I get this book’ moments that we are lucky to have every so often. After a small amount of stalking and some meringue caterpillars (long story) weirdly this Kerry Hudson became a mate who loved Alphabites and gelato – not together – as much as I do. A true bonus from a brilliant book. Yet this of course created a dilemma when Thirst came out. I wanted to read it because its predecessor was so brilliant however Kerry was also a mate. So I decided I would do what I would do with any book I want to read, and always will do, and just judge the book on the book. So here goes…

Chatto & Windus, hardback, 2014, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Security guard Dave first meets Alena, not long arrived in the UK from Siberia, when he catches her trying to steal an expensive pair of shoes from a luxury store (which naturally pays its staff piss poorly) and helps her from being arrested, much to the dismay of his manager. Why Dave does this he is not sure, though the fact she is rather attractive may help, and neither is Alena yet in Dave she senses a safety from the world which she desperately needs and soon manages to find a way into his life and into his flat. No, not in that way you dirty lot but from this initial meeting and in the weeks after a relationship of sorts starts though if it is one that either can speak of or will last neither of them know, especially when their backgrounds, and indeed their baggage, start to come to the fore.

Hudson writes both of these characters intricately, and also does something very clever by revealing their pasts in glimpses here and there and creating layers of both Alena and Dave at their best and their very worst, their most attractive and their most ugly. Initially I struggled with Alena as though I knew she had a dark mystery she was running from in her past, which gives the novel a great momentum from the start, I couldn’t work out if she was an innocent victim caught up in something horrendous, or someone far more calculating and unlikeable.

She went to the mirror again and inspected herself; she didn’t have food around her mouth, anything in her teeth; she had good lips, pretty eyes and beautiful breasts, everybody said so. She checked that her expression wasn’t too pathetically grateful, though she was. She was so grateful and very afraid of being sent away, but the trick of staying was to make him the thankful, fearful one. And as she caught herself smiling in the mirror she reminded herself that this was all just a trick, there was nothing real here, and killed the smile instantly, like a small insect under a hard finger tip.

The same applies to Dave, though almost in reverse. Initially we see him as the lonely good guy who looked after his mother when she was dying of cancer and also followed her dying wish of marrying the wrong women. Poor Dave. Yet as we learn more his story gets darker as grief and regret, along with loneliness inside a relationship, all take over. Who here is really the good and who is the bad? Do we have to be one or the other or do we have both in us which we have to keep in check?

Of course these are the points that Hudson is making with Thirst, or one I thought she was making, is that no character is black or white, nor is anyone wholly good or wholly evil. We are all various (I nearly said fifty, shame on me) shades of grey and we have all done things in our past that are commendable and things that we all feel ashamed of. Hudson looks at these both with Dave’s failed marriage and also Alena’s past (which I don’t want to give too much away of because it’s utterly chilling and needs to be experienced cold) as she becomes caught in the sex trafficking industry and has to do anything she can, no matter how bad or how dark, to get through it. Both characters ask the questions of how far we can be pushed as people both physically and emotionally and what we will do in order to survive life and all it throws at us.

Before I make all this sound to dark and depressing I must mention two things. Firstly there is a love story at the heart of this and one which thankfully isn’t saccharine or sugar coated but real and bumpy and awkward and wonderful. Secondly there is a lot of humour in Hudson’s writing, a sentence can make you laugh before the next one tears you apart emotionally and vice versa. There is also hope. Though by me saying that don’t think this book has a happy ending; you will be left to decide that, which is another brilliant stroke. Like its predecessor Thirst looks at the sense of belonging, be it to places or people, that we as humans all hunger for (no pun intended) and the journey that the quest to find it takes us on, be it another country or just through the highs and lows of getting through your day to day life.

He went and sat on the scorched, scratchy piece of grass outside with his food. The dogs did nothing, just flicked their tails in his direction and flared their dry black nostrils when he opened a bag of crisps. And there they sat together, all of them with nowhere to go.

To bring up Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma again, the things that I loved about it are the things that I also loved about Thirst and I think could be the things that carve Hudson’s career for the long haul and make her stand out. Her characters are real, funny and flawed, they walk the places we walk and whilst they pay attention to the beauty, or beautiful ugliness, of their surroundings and the people who walk in and out of their lives, they also live and breathe, go to the toilet and eat crisps like we all do. Hudson’s celebration of the simple and everyday actions making them all the more vivid. They are also about those people who might not be able to put pen to paper and write about their own life experiences and yet whose stories need to be told in all their beautiful brutality.

Phew, if I had hated it that could have been awkward. I would have just never reviewed it and anytime it was mentioned swiftly say ‘Did someone say free gelatos?’ There is the slight point that I now think Kerry is rather a genius and have some internal envy and rage going on, but let’s move on. If you want to see more rave reviews (they are popping up everywhere) head to Lonesome Reader and Workshyfop. Who else has read Thirst and what did you make of it? What about Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma? Which other books have you read which brilliantly celebrate the small day to day things in life that make us who we are? And which books have you read that shine a light on the people in society whose voices are sometimes lost in the literary middle classes?

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Books That I’ve Bought of Late

I have been thinking about the books that I should be sharing on the blog, aside from the ones that I review of course. By that I mean the books that come in to Chez Savidge Reads. I used to do regular-ish posts of the books that the publishers were sending me yet whilst this came from enthusiasm, I was saying mere days ago how when I come home to a pile of parcels it still feels like Christmas, I have noticed that there seems to now be almost a sense of showing off the latest free books incoming around the blogosphere. All a bit icky and not something I am not interested in perpetuating despite my genuine enthusiasm.

So I have decided that I will tweet and Instagram select moments of postal joy, on the blog however I will review the ones I read AND share with you the books I have bought. I love book shopping, my bank doesn’t part of why blogging has been so amazing, since having a more regular salary (less freelance living) I have been enjoying ‘payday treats’ only sometimes more than just on payday. Here are the books that I have bought in the last few months and the reasons why (some are so flimsy it is shameful)…

Books Bought

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith – I know, I know. I haven’t even read the hardback I have of The Cuckoo’s Calling but I admit sometimes I can fall for the hype. This may well not get read until some point next year but it was half price, oh thinking about it it’ll probably be less than half price in paperback. Oops. Least I have the hardback set though, so far, meaning I will have to by the next. Oh…

The Girl Who Saved The King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson – I don’t know about you but I hate, hate, hate food and household good shopping. I have been offered to not have to do this, however I would end up with food stuffs and household trinkets I don’t like I am sure of it. So when said big shop happens every weekend, if particularly stressful I treat myself to a book. This was bought on one such trip when I had become infuriated by the bananas and so went off to buy something, anything. And I am going to Sweden so it made sense. I haven’t read Jonasson’s debut, it is on my devil’s device which I seem to have misplaced/forgotten where I put it.

The Rental Heart by Kirsty Logan – I am a big fat liar. The publisher sent me this pretend you haven’t seen it, I have clumsily mis-shelved it.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou – Isn’t it awful that the death of an author can lead you to finally getting your hands on their work. My mother has been telling me to read Maya Angelou for ages and ages, it sadly took her passing to make me actually go and buy a copy. I will be reading this as soon as my holiday week starts.

Things I Don’t Want To Know by Deborah Levy – Can you say you are a big fan of an author after only reading two of their books? If so I am a HUGE fan of Deborah Levy and this is meant to be an answer to George Orwell’s Why I Write which I have inherited from Gran. I may read them back to back especially.

The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell – This is the lovely Kate of Adventures with Words choice for the next episode of Hear Read This. I know nothing about it, but that can be quite exciting to have in your reading diet from time to time.

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson – Shirley Jackson is one of the many, many authors I often think ‘ooh I must read more of’. Yes, there are lots of those. This is apparently a newly reprinted old tale of hers that Penguin have brought back from the depths of time. Simon of Stuck In A Book has done a glorious review of it, and two others in Shiny New Books, which sent me off in search of it. Who doesn’t think a gothic family household at the end of the world sounds amazing? See, everyone agrees, instant must read.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark – Gavin has chosen this for next months Hear Read This along with Kate’s choice as we have been and are doing novellas over the summer. I have read this and loved it however didn’t have a copy, so a reread is a perfect excuse to by my own copy. I have to say any time I see a Penguin Modern Classic I want to buy them all.

The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves – After loving Charles Lambert’s With A Zero at It’s Heart so much and it being such a ‘different’ read I asked for recommendations along those lines. David (who should have a blog himself frankly) said that he had recently read this and it would be right up my street. I have been meaning to read Eaves for a while too.

Eeny Meeny by M. J. Aldridge – I apologise profusely, I cannot remember who was raving about this as a brilliant crime thriller, it might have been on Twitter or Instagram but safe to say they made me buy it. It was before it was announced on the new Richard and Judy book club list, just saying.

The Girl With All The Gifts by M. R. Carey – So I bought this as M. R. Carey was coming to read at Waterstones in Liverpool (where it has apparently sold the most copies in any store) and I have heard great things. I then got a shift at work which meant I couldn’t go. So it awaits a read, maybe he will come back again?

The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce – Graham Joyce told me and Gavin about this when he joined us on The Readers Book Club. I am intrigued as to how he makes a holiday park in the British summer time heatwave of the 1970s spooky. I have a feeling it will be very good.

Randall by Jonathan Gibbs – Spur of the moment buy when lovely lady said ‘oh you have used all ten of your stamps so you get ten pounds free’, you get a stamp every time you spend ten pounds. Having loved A Girl is a Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride I have been meaning to try more of Galley Beggar Press’ novels, this apparently is a pastiche of the art world so should be fun. Note – only after I got home did I realise a) I only got that loyalty card 5 weeks ago b) I have another Galley Beggar Press book at home waiting to be read. But hey, life’s short.

Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes – The next choice for my book club and since I have suddenly discovered Barnes is actually an author I think I really like I am very excited about reading this.

Red Moon by Benjamin Percy – I blame supermarkets again. This is apparently a ‘spin on the werewolf novel’ and I do love werewolves, those ghosts and dragons I am all a fan off. It had also been a rather trying time in the ‘baked goods’ aisle, so a treat was once more needed.

The Ravens by Thomas Bannerhed – I have been picking up and putting down this book every time I have gone into Waterstones lately. The cover is stunning and it sounded like one of those ‘out in the countryside where things are more raw, rough and grubbier’ kind of novels which I love. Every time I have looked at it the copy has been battered so I have resisted. New ones came in, it is set in Sweden and so will be going with me in a week and a bits time. Job’s a gooden.

Beastings by Benjamin Myers – “A girl and a baby. A priest and a poacher. A savage pursuit through the landscape of a changing rural England.” I think that this is definitely going to be one of those ‘out in the countryside where things are more raw, rough and grubbier’ kind of novels which I love. And also like the above is from a small press so I purchased it even though I have not yet read Pig Iron which I have renewed from the library twelve times, true story.

So that is my haul. I have just realised I have missed the second hand copy of Persepolis which I bought myself today. I hadn’t been in any second hand shops for ages and was on the hunt for the second and third of Camilla Lackberg’s books however I only found the fourth and fifth, amazingly I didn’t buy them wasn’t I good? I am planning a big (baggage allowance allowing) second hand spree in Washington with Thomas which I can then go and read by his pool everyday on my mini tour of America so expect to hear about those then.

By the way, before I ask you all some questions, I am aware Other People’s Bookshelves has gone quiet recently. I have sent lots of the forms out am just waiting for the pictures and responses but if you fancy taking part please email me via savidgereads@gmail.com with Other People’s Bookshelves in the title! Back to today’s post though. Which books have you bought recently? Have you read any of the ones that I have grabbed lately?

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Word Crimes…

Very quick post as it has been the last full week of the festival I am working on so I have been a bit slack, again. Sorry. Anyway. I wanted to share a video with you which I think anyone who loves books and words will just love…

Isn’t that just brilliant? My lovely colleague Kelly told me about it, she would be furious if  had claimed I found it all myself – which was tempting. I thought you would all like it. Erm, that’s it for today, I will be back with a very book filled post tomorrow… In the mean time what is your biggest word crime? Mine is the numbers instead of letters disgrace!

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Levels of Life – Julian Barnes

I feel a bit like I owe Julian Barnes an apology. You see for some unfathomable reason, known only in the unreachable part of the 90% of my brain that I don’t use, I had decided that he wasn’t an author for me. I think around his Man Booker win and the way everyone was talking about him I created an author who I wouldn’t like, would find dry and miserable and a bit worthy – completely forgetting I had read and loved Arthur and George which resides happily on my bookshelves in the lounge. Imagine then the horror I felt when Rob chose Levels of Life for Hear Read This! and not long after Claire had chosen Flaubert’s Parrot for book club. I decided to start with the short one first…

Vintage Books, paperback, 2014 (2000 edition), fiction, 128 pages, kindly sent by the publisher (almost passed on if Rob hadn’t chosen it for Hear Read This!)

I have to admit that when I started Levels of Life the odds were stacked against it. I had been told that it was a book about ballooning and grief, in particular the grief Barnes has been going through since the death of his wife. Ballooning? And grief? Ballooning and grief? This wasn’t going to work. I was internally chanting ‘thank goodness it is short, thank goodness it is short’. Well silly old me because a book that is indeed about ballooning and grief had me enthralled and then in absolute tears, and I admired every sentence of it. Barnes does something very clever indeed with Levels of Life, and not in a clever pretentious way, by creating three sections (or levels in a way) which link in some ways you would expect and many ways you wouldn’t hazard a clue at.

The first section, around 24 pages, of the book are indeed about the history of ballooning. Now ballooning doesn’t appeal to me; a lot like boats, submarines, cricket (or indeed sport in general), horses (full stop) or talking animals of any variety, it is just a subject I don’t think I have any interest in. Well apparently I am a liar to myself because I found the history of ballooning, in Barnes’ capable hands, utterly fascinating. Who knew? It is the sign of an accomplished author and sparky narration to make anyone interested in something they swear they couldn’t really give two hoots about.

You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed. People may not notice at the time, but that doesn’t matter. The world has been changed nonetheless.

The second section/level of the book is all the love affair of French actress Sarah Bernhardt and English colonel Fred Burnaby, who happened to be two of the pioneers of ballooning. We read about them a little in the first section, yet it is really Gaspard-Félix Tournachon who is in the limelight of that section, here these two lovers become full focus and we look at how independent people might or might not make the ideal couple and tame one another, or possibly not. Again I was gripped by this section, especially by the story of Sarah Bernhardt and her menagerie including a pillow eating python she bought here in Liverpool. I did begin to ponder if Barnes had a mind to write a fictional account of her and used it in this instead, she fully comes to life with Fred and their affair is totally tantalising.

You put two people who have not been put together before; and sometimes the world is changed, sometimes not. They may crash and burn, or burn and crash. But sometimes, something new is made, and then the world is changed. Together, in that first exaltation, that first roaring sense of uplift, they are greater than their two separate selves. Together, they see further, and they see more clearly.

Then everything changes and the real force behind the book comes to the fore as in the third and final section of the book Barnes writes about his grief after the death of his wife, literary agent Pat Kavanagh. Grief is a very, very personal thing and something we are not prone to discussing even though we all go through it. Barnes does something exceptionally brave, though he probably wouldn’t see it as such, in sharing the brutal honesty of how much the loss has affected him. From contemplating suicide to talking to his wife or dreaming her up at night, even though he knows she is dead. He shares his story of grief but also the stories of others and how everyone grieves differently. It is raw, devastating and incredibly moving.

You may here of course be wondering how the ballooning does interlink to it all and this to me added even more depth and, as clichéd as it will sound because of the title of the book, levels to this final section. Firstly there is the slightly obvious motifs of the rise and fall of the balloon, from how at a great height, and in hindsight, we appreciate everything around us etc. Secondly there is the fact that actually loving someone is a risky business, like early ballooning. You might crash and burn, you might soar off into the sunset, their maybe storms and unknown danger ahead. Love comes with risk. There are also the links to earlier moments. Barnes will compare grief to the python overstuffed with pillows Bernhardt has in the second section, he will compare it to the fall to the death one man had who ended up embedded in a flower bed his own legs forcing his internal organs to be ripped out, his world and himself exploding. These all add an extra dimension to the book, so difficult to describe yet so totally affecting.

You put together two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon: do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash? But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed. Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible, but it is emotionally possible.

I can’t quite put into words how brilliant I thought Levels of Life was. In terms of a piece of literature it is incredibly original and so cleverly constructed. Yet there is so much more to this book than it’s amazing construction, it is an emotionally driven and filled work. I don’t think I have read anything so raw and visceral about love and grief. Possibly ever. Having gone through the death of Gran last year this book chimed so much on an emotional level with me I couldn’t stop crying through the final section of the book, though I think anyone who reads this and doesn’t cry probably has a piece of coal where their heart should be, and I am so thankful to Barnes for being as honest as he is and urge you all to go and grab a copy of this book.

Of course I am now feeling a) all the more stupid for writing him off as an author I didn’t like after this mini masterpiece b) very excited about reading Flaubert’s Parrot. I am also pondering which others of his books I should read as it appears Barnes is very much a ‘me’ kind of writer. You can hear more of my thoughts on Hear Read This, along with Kate, Gav and Rob. Who else has read this book and what did you make of it? Can any of you recommend any other books on grief, as this seemed very cathartic for me, that I should look out for? Oh and any recommendations on books about Sarah Bernhardt are most welcome, she sounded fascinating, I could become obsessed!

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Filed under Julian Barnes, Non Fiction, Review, Vintage Books

Trespassing with Tremain…

It has been a year since Gran died. A year which seems to have gone all too quickly and also weirdly slowly all at once. How does time do that? Naturally I have thought about her daily since, at the weirdest of times, and missed her a huge amount both as my Gran and also as being one of the most bookish influences I had around me. I miss speaking three times a week about anything and everything and ending up on seeing how we were getting on with X or Y book, I still finish a book and wondering if she would like it, I miss reading the same book and having the same good or bad thoughts on it or polar opposite thoughts which we could get into heated debates about, I miss discussing our latest book group lists and meetings. The list could go on.

I was umming and ahhhhing how to mark the year since her passing. Did I mention it? Did I just let life go on? Having recently read one of the books I inherited from her, A Month in the Country, and loving it so much I thought maybe it was time to do something like Greene for Gran again and see if, like you all did amazingly last year, you would like to join in. The question was who or what to read?

My initial thought was to go for authors that she loved that I had read like Graham Greene last year. The choices could be Kate Atkinson, Margaret Atwood, John Updike, William Trevor, Antony Trollope (gulp) and Anne Tyler etc. Yet the bittersweet joy, because I couldn’t talk to her about it afterwards, in reading A Month in the Country was that she had introduced me to a new author and favourite book, even though (annoyingly) she doesn’t know it. I also decided that I quite fancied a more contemporary, and indeed living, author would make a change. So I ransacked my brain for the authors she had lots of books by and I had read and the answer was obvious…

Trespassing-With-Tremain2

Rose Tremain, Gran raved and raved about Restoration, The Colour, The Road Home, Music and Silence and Trespass. In fact I seem to remember giving my proof/new incoming copies of anything Tremain because I knew the buzz she would get from having them early. I think she had almost all of Rose Tremain’s thirteen novels and a few of her short story collections. I can also remember how annoyed she would get when she asked if I had read any of them, ironically forgetting I had sent them her way, and my response would be ‘not yet, but I will’ with the response ‘you’d better.’

Trespassing-With-Tremain4

Well Gran, guess what, in honour of you I am going to try Trespassing with Tremain into all the different era’s and lives that she writes about. I am thinking of reading and writing about four of her books and one of her short story collections – one every fortnight – from the 10th of August until the 5th of October. I will announce which ones when in due course, after your recommendations really. So where to start and who is up for joining me and hopefully finding some more great reads?

 

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A Month in the Country – J.L. Carr

There is something rather wonderful in the fact that Granny Savidge is still influencing my reading almost a year, in fact it is a year tomorrow, since she died. As someone who I talked about books at least three times a week there is a void left now yet through having inherited some of her books my thought was that some of her favourites, as they were the only books she would keep unless a random gift like the Barbara Cartland I once bought her as a joke, would become my future reads and maybe some of my favourites. Well luck struck first time with J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, which I tried to read when she was ill (on her recommendation) yet just couldn’t yet have been much, much more successful this time around.

9780141182308

Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1980 (2000 edition), fiction, 112 pages, inherited from Gran

In A Month in the Country Tom Birkin reflects several decades later on the summer of 1920 when he ended up in the village of Oxgodby for a single month. Here on a mission left by recently deceased spinster Miss Hebron he is being paid, begrudgingly by the Reverend Keach who is only allowing it as Hebron left the church money if he did, to uncover a possible medieval wall painting inside the church. Birkin reflects upon that summer, the place he was in mentally in his life at the time and thinks about the place he was in physically and those who peopled it.

Ostensibly it sounds like there isn’t really much to this novella and in some ways you would be right, plot wise there are no twists and turns. Yet somehow Carr creates a novel where very little happens and yet everything happens too. We learn through reflections he had that month which he reflects upon (bear with me) of his failing marriage, yet we also get hints of what happened after that summer. We also get glimpses of what he had to face during the war which has left him with shellshock and a nervous twitch. We learn of the friends he makes; Charles Moon who also fought in the war and is on another of Miss Hebron’s missions, Alice Keach the younger wife of the Reverend who feels like she isn’t accepted, Kathy Ellerbeck a young girl who befriends Birkin and whose family are the first to welcome him properly into the area.

Through all these friendships Carr creates very condensed additional stories. With the Ellerbeck’s he looks at how the families and people in the countryside were as affected by the war as those in the cities, only in a different way, and also looks at class. With Moon, whose storyline is sharply bittersweet, we get another side of the war and also another side to social mores of the time. Through Alice Keach we look at marriage, a mirror of sorts to Birkin’s to an extent, and indeed lust verses love and how love and marriage connect or don’t.

See it is brimming and what makes this all the more masterful is that fact that Carr does this all so succinctly. The story is in itself only 88 pages and yet there is all of this life within it. The prose is magical, not something I say often yet is so true in this instance. Within a line he conjures a character completey, a situation is a mere paragraph or so. Sometimes within very few lines he can capture the things we ponder about life and just put them plainly and simply, in terms we wish we could, it is just marvellous.

I never exchanged a word with the Colonel. He has no significance at all in what happened during my stay in Oxgodby. As far as I’m concerned he might just as well have gone round the corner and died. But that goes for most of us, doesn’t it? We look blankly at each other. Here I am, here you are. What are we doing here? What do you suppose it’s all about? Let’s dream on. Yes, that’s my Dad and Mum over there on the piano top. My eldest boy is on the mantelpiece. That cushion cover was embroidered by my cousin Sarah only a month before she passed on. I go to work at eight and come home at five-thirty. When I retire they’ll give me a clock – with my name engraved on the back. Now you know all about me. Go away; I’ve forgotten you already.

One of my favourite things in fiction is looking at difference and also the relationship between the outsider and the insider. Interestingly it is books with a rural setting where this can be used to its full potential. In villages things are rarely missed or go unnoticed, in cities you can lose yourself, others or things. With A Month in the Country Carr adds even more levels to this. The metaphor of the outsider is tripled as not only is Birkin an outsider to Oxgodby, he is an outsider to some of the religious views of the villagers and in many ways in his present state an outsider to life. This is doubly felt as he uncovers the wall painting, seemingly learning about the villagers (possibly uncovering their secrets) and himself at the same time, and of course there is the image that the walls depict, but I won’t spoil that for you.

The other things that I loved so much about the book are firstly how awash it is in the sense of nostalgia and secondly the way the atmosphere and place are so well depicted and come to life. I left the book feeling as if I had been wandering away and hour or two reflecting on that summer, as I had walked it’s streets, seen Miss Hebron’s spooky old house, witnessed a sermon in the church, has dinner with the Ellerbeck’s and tea with Charles Moon when these moments are just a sentence here and there within.

If I’d stayed there, would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around the corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.

I think it is safe to say, and very apparent, that I adored A Month in the Country. I think it is easily one of the best things that I have read in years and a book that will not only last with me for years to come but also be read by me again and again for years to come. It is the kind of rare book that makes you look at your life and tells you not to waste it, not to have regrets and to do all the things you want to do, not what people want you to. If you haven’t read it, which is possibly unlikely, then you must. I can see why so many authors have it as a firm favourite, it is a perfect piece of prose. A little gem of a novella.

Inscribed by Gran

Inscribed by Gran

My only real regret with the novel is that I can’t talk to Gran about it. As soon as I had finished it I felt the age old urge to phone her and rave about it all (yes, a year down the line this still happens when I read a book I really love) and discuss it further. However, not to get too nostalgic and melancholic, I just sat and thanked her for a moment for having led me to it, plus I have all of you to discuss it with now don’t I?

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Filed under Books of 2014, J.L. Carr, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review

With a Zero at Its Heart – Charles Lambert

If I was to mention to you a book written in 24 themed chapters, each with 10 numbered paragraphs of exactly 120 words in length then your thoughts may go several ways. Some of you may think it sounds pretentious, some of you may think it sounds too clever and a gimmick, some of you may think it sounds like an author testing their craft and being experimental leading to amazing results. The latter of you would be right, the book I am describing is Charles Lambert’s With a Zero at Its Heart which I had the pleasure of living with for a while recently and was rather sad to leave.

The Friday Project, paperback, 2014, fiction/non-fiction (you decide), 150 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I can’t decide if With a Zero at Its Heart is a novel or a memoir. I can’t decide if it matters. I have decided that with each chapter being made up of ten concise short bursts of recollection around a theme that it lingers somewhere delightfully between the two. I have also decided it is going to be quite a mission to do it justice and explain just how wonderfully it evokes the story of a (rather bookish) young man as he grows up, discovers he is gay, finds himself, travels, becomes a writer and then deals with the death of his parents and the nostalgia and questions that brings about the meaning of life and how we live it.

What is so clever about With a Zero at Its Heart is the way that the novel is constructed. I don’t just mean the 24 chapters with 10 paragraphs all of 120 characters, though this makes for a very condensed work and intensifies the gamut of emotions (joy, sorrow, love, loss, the works) throughout. Initially because every paragraph in every themed chapter is from a different point in the narrator/authors life you worry that you are disconnected. Soon you feel completely opposite as the more you read the more you connect these snippets and short stories from a life into the wider whole story. For example we follow, on and off, the huge story that is the experience of the death of his parents, we also follow smaller stories like a bunch of cleaned bottles which clearly are a vivid part of his memory and have a tale to tell. There is something joyous in the celebration and companionship of the bigger and smaller stories all interweaving.

He’s waiting for his father to get home, standing on the sofa beside the bay window that looks out onto the street. When the car comes round the corner he waves and jumps up and down. His father drives past the window and beneath the arch that leads into the yard, then storms into the house. He’s furious. He walks across the room and grabs the arm of his son, who’s still on the sofa, and pulls him off until the boy is half-standing, half-crouching on the floor. His father slaps him round the back of the head. By the time his mother comes in they’re both shaking. That sofa’s new, his father says. He must think I’m made of money.

It is in a way a collection of 240, I think I have done the maths right there, moments that in themselves are a small story and world within the bigger universe of a person’s memory. Here also the themes in each chapter come in to play. The titles are wonderful, with a sense of the serious and the fun, like ‘Language or Death and Cucumbers’, ‘Money Or Brown Sauce Sandwiches’ or ‘Correspondence or Coterminous with the Cat’. Yet what is fascinating is that as we read about subject like death, money, sex, and the body we see how the relevance of those words and indeed those objects change as his life progresses. The first paragraph/memory/story being the earliest and then they come nearer to the future.

It is also a book very much about books, writing and the power of words and language. Through both the experimental form, showing us what words can do in varied and unusual ways and the fact that the prose is so short, sharp and beautifully pristine. As I mentioned the condensing of it has a real intensity which will sit with you throughout. It is of course also the story of a young man who becomes a writer and creator of stories themselves.

His favourite aunt gives him a typewriter. The first thing he writes is a story about people who gather in a room above a shop to invoke the devil. When they hear the clatter of cloven hooves on the stairs the story ends, but the typewriter continues to tap out words, and then paragraphs, and then pages until the floor is covered. He picks them up and places them in a box as fast as they come, and then a second box, and then a third. There is no end to it. I am nothing more than a channel, he whispers to himself, and the typewriter pauses for a moment and then, on a new sheet, types the word Possession.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I loved With a Zero at Its Heart. I found it deeply touching and moving in its subject and prose, and also exciting for its form. It is one of those wonderful books which tests you slightly as a reader, plays with you (in a good way) and then grabs hold of you and takes you over. It is a relatively short book yet one that I was reading both in gulps and then having a break to let all the stories settle and the bigger picture slowly but surely form. It is in essence the story of a life in 24 chapters and is quite unlike anything I have read before. Highly recommended reading, one of the most original books I have read in a very long time.

I am definitely going to have to head to more of Charles Lambert’s back catalogue as it is rare that an author can write a book with such an unusual form and make something so emotive and compelling. The last time I came across such books were Dan Rhodes’ Anthropology and the slightly shorter – in all senses – and teeny bit more gimmicky (if I am being honest, though I liked it a lot)  The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan. I have to say though, Lambert’s has a much heftier emotional punch than either, and you know how much I love Mr Rhodes! Have any of you read any of Charles Lambert’s novels and if so which should I head to next? Which other original and ‘experimental’ books have you tried and been rather bowled over by and why?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Charles Lambert, Review, The Friday project

Banished To Room 101…

This post, stealing from the episode of The Readers it is inspired/regurgitated from, was going to have the tagline/subtitle ‘Where Bad Bookish Bits Are Banished…’ which seemed a bit dramatic but does actually describe the very essence of what today’s post (which I have been meaning to write for about five weeks) is all about. The bookish bits and bobs which really get on our nerves and we would love to see banished into Room 101, which of course comes from that great novel 1984 by Mr George Orwell. A place where your worst, in this case bookish, fears are hidden away.


So I thought what I would do is share my top five most disliked bookish bits and bobs, the ones that if I could I would have banished from books and my booky lifestyle, then maybe you can all share some of yours too. It’s like playing god really which is something I wouldn’t mind once in a while. Anyway, without further ado and waffle here are the things I would send to the depths in reverse order…

5. Indented or Italic Speech – One of the things that makes me inwardly groan when I read a book is when it comes to a character speaking and instead of simply putting the speech in speech marks, which would seem the normal and proper thing to do, someone up above in the publishing house (or even the author) has decided that this is an outdated form and they can do better… with indents or italics. With indents I just get pissed off because it looks really cheap and almost as if no one could be bothered to do a ‘ and thought a – was much more hipster and modern. Don’t even get me started on italics, they offend my eyes even more – quite literally as they make me feel I have gone out of focus.

4. No Chapters/Excessive Paragraphs – Now like the above this isn’t a complete killer, it just frustrates me. Well in the case of no chapters it frustrates me. You see I am one of those annoying people who like to know when the next chapter ends to see how many pages I have left that I can squeeze in a random ten minutes, quick bus journey, trip to the loo (oh come on we all do it) etc. I worry and get a bit stabby otherwise. Worst case scenario I will find a page that ends in a full stop, where I can fully stop. Excessive paragraphs oddly offend me more, and don’t even suggest books with no paragraphs because it makes me feel quite faint. Unless it is stylistic (I did read a book that was one single sentence – the whole thing – and rather enjoyed it) then it just comes across as an author loving the sound of their own voice/prose a little too much.

3. #AmWriting – Speaking of authors this hashtag on Twitter infuriates me, almost to the point of blocking. Now I know that really this isn’t in books, but it is by the people who write them and honestly I just cannot stand it. We know you are writers, we often love that you are, but how about saying ‘I am doing some really interesting research for my new book’ which is quite conversational? Imagine if everyone online hashtagged their jobs #AmFixingBrains #AmUnblockingToilets #AmRobbingYourHouse You aren’t writing, you are tweeting, you are clearly bored or feeling like you need some attention. Just write the book.

Now the top two offenders…

Dan+Brown+Inferno+Set+Best+Seller+Year+PwAPEm_GVgql

No not Dan Brown…

2. Stickers on Books – Who thought this was a good idea? Ever? You go to a bookshop buy a lovely new book, go home, peel the sticker off and either a) it leaves a sticky residue for any old fluff to get stuck on or the other book you bought when they both go on your TBR together b) tears a bit of the cover of so you are hastening to stick it on the bloody book again c) takes of the lacquer leaving a dull sticker shaped mark. In charity shops with old books it’s even worse, they are apocalypse lasting stickers. They tear, they tug, they leave a mess. Ugh. Oh and some charity shops pop them on the first page – ARE YOU MAD? #AmStoppingStickersOnBooksNow

dogeared pages

1. Cracking Spines/Dog Earing Pages/Writing in Books – I call this book butchery. I can understand if you are at school writing in a book might be plausible, but don’t you have an exercise book? This should go into adulthood. I love keeping notes on books, in fact to write a decent review I need to keep notes. I have book notebooks for this. Dog earing pages just makes me ponder why? After all bookmarks, beautiful items they can be, were invented for a reason. No bookmark? Try a ticket, a piece of tissue, your tie… ANYTHING other than dog earing. Library books seem to get this the worst which offends me more… it’s a public book! Cracking spines? Well why don’t you just stamp on my heart, the book is screaming, how would you like it if someone cracked your spine. These three all link into why I never lend people books, the fact this may happen makes me have night sweats. Yes, I am one of those people whose shelves you look at and ponder if I have actually read them… I have and I am proud they are pretty much perfect.

So those are my top five, for all of my Room 101 rants (and there were a few more) aswell as the lovely Thomas Otto of My Porch’s you can listen to this episode of The Readers. What I would love to know are which bookish things drive you insane, bookish crimes if you will, and why? What would you send to Room 101?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness