Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Year of the Ladybird – Graham Joyce

Happy Halloween to you all. I mentioned yesterday that this is one of my favourite days of the year and most of you will know I love a good chilling and creepy tale. One of the most recent spooky tales that I have read is The Year of the Ladybird, even subtitled ‘a ghost story’, by Graham Joyce. Many of you will know that sadly Graham Joyce passed away last month which was so sad to hear, especially at the mere age of 59 and because he is such a wonderful writer and storyteller. It was Gav who decided that for his choice for Hear Read This we would read his final novel, one which he had discussed with us on The Readers when we interviewed him about the amazing Some Kind of Fairy Tale and which I bought as soon as it came out in paperback.

Gollancz books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 265 pages, bought by my good self

It is the summer of 1976 and a heat wave has hit Britain, the hottest since records began. David, a young man who wants to go and find out more about the world, takes a break from his studies to become one of the staff at a holiday camp beside the sea and sands. David has decided that this first taste of true freedom away from the world of his mother and step father will be a big adventure. Yet as he gets to know the people behind the smiling ‘employee’ faces of the holiday park he soon discovers a much darker side to their characters and the society of the day. He also becomes aware of a man and young boy who seem to be following him, yet who can disappear without a trace.

I was an Alice in Wonderland. It was a world I knew nothing of, hyper-real, inflated, one where the colours seemed brighter, vivid, intense. I was excited to be working there, being part of it, but the truth is I felt anxious, too. It wasn’t just about being an outsider, it was the strangeness of it all. Many of the staff I met were odd fish. I had a crazy idea that they all had large heads and small bodies, like caricature figures on an old-style cigarette card.

With The Year of the Ladybird Graham Joyce was an absolute master of tension and an ominous atmosphere. Holiday camps are of course places of fun for all the family. You have the sand castle competitions, the donkey rides, the camp and ridiculous games and shows. Joyce marvellously gives all these things a sense of menace be it with an act of violence at the end of a singers act, be it the little looks certain staff members give each other, or be it an incident with the donkeys that goes from being very funny to something bordering on animal cruelty. Everything that is glitz, glamour and fun has its own rotten underside. Even ladybirds can become small monsters when arriving on mass. Every bit of beauty, glitz, glamour and camp has its rotten underside. Like the heat the tension crackles through it.

What also adds to the tension is our protagonist and his general naivety. David is a young man who is excited and almost overawed by all he sees and those he meets. There is quite a cast of characters at this holiday camp and almost every one of them has a darkness about them be it Tony and his illusions and control, the grumpy Dot running the uniforms who almost enjoys giving you the wrong size, the all too camp and nice to be true Luca or Nobby who lets say lives up to his name. David’s actions are also occasionally unwise, and not always moralistic, even if accidental. Firstly he falls head over heels from the woman that he really shouldn’t. Terri is the wife of the over bearing and brutal Colin, should you talk to him the wrong way, let alone look at his wife, and you might find yourself in more trouble (and possible pain) than you could bargain for. In his keenness to get to know Terri, David sort of befriends Colin accidentally and it is through this friendship that another tension arises as Colin takes him on a day out which ends up in a meeting of the National Front (which I am amazed is still going) and shows him some of the darkest and most unnerving side of society and politics. I was chilled before we had even got to the actual ghost of the tale.

It was the man in the blue suit I’d seen on the day of the sandcastle competition. He was hugging a child – presumably the boy I’d seen. Maybe the blue suit was made of some synthetic material because its threads caught in the sun’s rays and darted light. He had a rope coiled over his shoulder.
But then the sun darkened and I felt dizzy. My breath came short. I heard a groan way off – way out to sea and I felt an uncomfortable panic, triggered by something very old shifting deep inside me. I looked up. The man and the boy had turned to look at me, perhaps because I was acting oddly. But their faces were in the shadow. It made no sense. They were turned full on to the sun, but their faces were grey flat and smooth like beach pebbles, almost in silhouette. Even though their faces were indistinct, they peered back at me with suspicion, as if I had somehow meant to harm them. I felt a wave of revulsion. My teeth chattered.

Any of you who read this blog regularly will know I love a ghost story yet I am very picky about them. I have read many a novel where I have been thoroughly creeped out throughout until the ghost reveals itself and I think ‘really, that was what was scaring me?’ and being let down by the ghoul/demon/monster. I have to admit that I didn’t feel particularly chilled by the ghost of the man in the blue suit, which of course inspires the American title of The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit, more puzzled and intrigued by who he and the little boy were. Without giving anything away, I liked the eventual reveal (even if I sort of guessed it, being a guesser) and the story that it told. Once you have read it, which you should, you will know what I mean. The same happened with the ladybirds, I was intrigued by the phenomenon of this plague of cute insects but not left as scared or freaked out by it as I was expecting.

Yet I don’t really think that is where Joyce wants us to be chilled and creeped out. As with Some Kind of Fairy Tale, the chilling moments happen where you might not expect them. For me personally it was the sections involving the National Front that I found to be the most chilling parts of The Year of the Ladybird. Firstly there is the fact that from a historical context this was a ‘political party’ of neo-Nazi’s who started to do well in the local elections when the big parties were leaving people feeling disillusioned. They thrived by spreading a campaign of fear and bullying and even horrific acts of violent protest. This is all the more chilling as currently here in the UK we have a party doing that, without the violence, and then worldwide we have ISIS and other terrorist groups who create a world of fear. Joyce looks at their motives and also their attitudes which makes for some uncomfortable reading in all sorts of ways.

The Year of the Ladybird may not be a conventional ghost story, in fact to me it is more a case of a story about the darker aspects of humans with a ghost in it. It is a tale of the fear that we humans can create in bullying and violence and how some people can be irrationally afraid as what they see as different or wrong and what that fear within them can do. For once the blurb on the back of the book didn’t lie when it said ‘this is a novel that transcends the boundaries between the everyday and the supernatural while celebrating the power of both.’ It is also a book that looks at the darkest of shadows in the world, even on the sunniest days of the most humid heat wave.

If you would like to hear myself, Kate, Rob and Gav talking about the book in even more detail, and also getting all their views on it, check out this episode of Hear Read This! If you would like to hear myself and Gavin interviewing Graham almost two years ago and discussing the wonderful, wonderful Some Kind of Fairy Tale you can do so here. Graham Joyce will be much missed and I cannot help think of all the wonderful stories he had still to tell, though fortunately (in a slightly odd way) I still have most of his works to go back through. Who else has read The Year of the Ladybird, or indeed The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit, and what did you make of it? Which other of Graham’s novels would you recommend I head to next? What have you been reading this Halloween?

3 Comments

Filed under Gollancz Publishing, Graham Joyce, Review

Spooky Stories…

As you will all know tomorrow is Halloween which is one of my favourite days of the year. I think it comes second to Boxing Day, seriously these are both above my birthday and Christmas in terms of times of cheer and joy for me. Anyway, it will be Halloween and I don’t know about you but I am in just the right mood for some spooky stories and tales of terror. Which ones to read though?

Well, funny you should ask that as I have made a little selection of potential books which I thought I would share with you in case you need inspiration, though I would love more recommendations from you below…

IMG_5950
Cold Hand in Mine
by Robert Aickman – Recently republished by Faber & Faber, this second collection of Aickman’s ‘ strange stories’ is supposed to be one of his creepiest, weirdest and most chilling. I am really looking forward to reading these, they also happen to be my latest choice for Hear Read This when we record in a couple of weeks so I hope they are in Gav’s suitcase while he travels around America.

Say Her Name by James Dawson – I have been meaning to read this for ages, James is now the ruling Queen of Teen and should really be the Queen of Scream as his wonderful novels are like better written Point Horrors for the current generation – and I love Point Horrors! I feel especially bad for not reading this sooner as I challenged James to write this one as I said modern ghost stories can’t be scary. This will definitely be my next creepy read.

The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill. I think Susan Hill is a legend at ghost stories, well I think she is a legend in all the forms she writes in. This is one of the few of her ghostly tales that I haven’t read and is guaranteed to give me the chills. Delightful. It has also reminded me that I have an anthology somewhere of ghostly tales chosen by Hill, that could be another addition. I am currently reading one of the Simon Serrailler series of crime novels by Susan and it is marvellous.

The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah. Sophie Hannah is most well known for her psychological thrillers (which I often find spookier than ghost stories as I mention on this episode of The Readers) and also for recently writing a new Poirot novel. Last year she wrote this spooky tale for the newly reinvigorated Hammer Horror imprint. It is another book I cannot believe I haven’t read yet, mind you like Susan Hill I am very behind with Sophie’s series. Shame on me.

The Mistletoe Bride and Other Stories by Kate Mosse. I have yet to read any of Kate Mosse’s novels. I tried reading Labyrinth when it came out in paperback and wasn’t in the right mood for it. I actually have this collection, subtitled ‘haunting tales’, and the equally creepy sounding The Taxidermists Daughter high up on my TBR. I sometimes like a short story collection as a way into a new author, and also ghost stories can be particularly spooky or chilling in the shorter form.

I know I have recommended it endless times but if you fancy a fast an chilling read do grab The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. Oh and I also must recommend Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter. I will also have a ghostly tale up for discussion on the blog tomorrow. So which books will you be curling up with on Halloween night? Have you read any of the books I have selected? Which books would you recommend?

10 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

Sacred Country – Rose Tremain

I am slightly wary of talking about seeing themes in an authors work for fear of people thinking I have got above my station and am being a bit pretentious. However having now read four, of Rose Tremain’s works for Trespassing with Tremain, Sacred Country being the penultimate, there are a few themes I am spotting. The stories of outsiders seem to be something that Tremain is most captivated by. In Sacred Country it is not one person who is the outsider, though initially you might think it, rather a whole cast of characters who all feel at odds with the world around them and those closest to them, who often feel it too. Tremain is something of a mistress of the unsaid and the voice of those who are different.

Vintage books, paperback, 2002, fiction, 366 pages, bought by my good self

From an early age Mary Ward feels like she is slightly different from everyone else both in her family and in the small village of Swaithey, where the Suffolk countryside meets the coastline. It is not until the funeral for the King, in 1952 when Mary is six, that she knows how to put it into words. As soon as it dawns on her we know that Mary is going to have a difficult life ahead of her fighting against the conforms of normality in many people’s eyes.

She stared at her family, took then in, one, two, three of them, quiet at last but not as still as they were meant to be, not still like the plumed men guarding the King’s coffin, not still like bulrushes in a lake. And then, hearing the familiar screech of her guineafowl coming near the farmhouse, she thought, I have some news for you Marguerite, I have a secret to tell you, dear, and this is it: I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.

There is much that is marvellous about what Tremain does with Sacred Country and indeed with Mary. At the start of the novel I have to admit that I was rather worried. Child narrators are a complex beast in fiction, often used to highlight some moral or social story with naivety which can often come across as either being calculating or utterly off putting because invariably the author decides to make them precocious or overly chipper in the face of diversity. Not so in Tremain’s case, thank goodness. In her youth Mary has a pretty hard life and she just manages to bear it in the main, she isn’t overly chipper, she isn’t precocious, she just survives because it is human instinct. This isn’t to say that Tremain doesn’t use both the naivety and the black and white nature of a child’s mind to her advantage, as in the early parts of the novel she will often use a child’s eyes to highlight some of the things going on that they aren’t noticing but we are as adult readers.

I didn’t want to think about where Estelle was going. On the other side of Leiston there was a place called Mountview Asylum which we had sometimes passed on the way to the sea in Sonny’s van. I whispered once to Timmy that this was a loony bin where boys got sent if they couldn’t learn multiplication. Instead of cringing with fear as I’d hoped, he looked at the place, which was a converted stately home with red walls and flying turrets, and said: ‘Which bit of it is the actual bin?’ And we all laughed. Even Estelle. This is the only time that I can remember us all laughing together – like a proper family in an Austin with a picnic hamper – when Timmy asked the question about the Actual Bin.

As we read on we like Mary, not because she is different and going through a hard time (though that is what makes us root for her) but because she is a fully formed thoughtful young girl, who just happens to have been born in the wrong body and indeed in the wrong place and at the wrong time. I kept thinking of all the people who must lived through this in the past let alone now, as I read along with Mary’s struggle with trying to come to terms with and find out who she really is and where that journey takes her.

This alone in Tremain’s hands would have been a wonderful novel yet she does several things that take it up a notch or ten and make it truly exceptional. Firstly there is the fact that as we read Mary’s tale and meet all the people around her, even those who she merely passes in the streets of Swaithey, we soon discover that many of them too are outsiders in their varying ways. We have mothers who have had children out of wedlock and been left with merely people’s kindness and judgement to deal with, we have people hiding their sexuality, we have unrequited love, we have people with mental illnesses, alcoholics, spinsters who people gossip about and insinuate allsorts. I could go on. With all this going on Tremain both shows the utter hypocrisy of society and people within it. She also looks at the fact that often we all feel lost and alone and don’t talk about it, when if we did we might find out that actually other people feel lost too only for different reasons.

Rose Tremain gives us real insight into what is left unsaid through the style in which the book is written. We will often go from person to person in the village through an omnipresent narrator and then suddenly we will find ourselves in one of the characters heads as they narrate a section of each chapter, which are actually years from the 1950’s onwards, giving us additional insight from different characters vantage points. This is invariably through the Wards be it Mary, her brother Timmy or her mother, Estelle, and father Sonny ; all who give their own slant on their lives and their place in the ‘family’, though some proving quite uncomfortable to be in the mind of. I found Estelle to be particularly fascinating and could have read a lot more of what is unsaid between her and all those around her through her narrative.

Another thing that Tremain does which I have mentioned my love of before on this blog several times, is use the world around the characters to set the scene. The ramshackle and rundown farm in which the Wards live seems to reflect the family within it, as it gets more decrepit so do the relationships within it. The same with Gilbert and his mother, living in a house on the edge of a crumbling cliff face, as time goes by things become eroded, security is lost and the threat of danger comes ever closer. Even the weather and the atmosphere of the countryside often reflects a sign of things to come.

That night the storm came. In ten hours it rained seven inches. The apple trees were stripped of their blossom by the wind. The telephone lines and the power lines fell onto the lanes and fields. The shoulders of the ocean hurled themselves at the undefended shore and the cliffs at Minsmere began once again to slip and fall away.

As Mary grows up and the book follows her life it also literally grows both in scope and in the themes it brings up. As Mary starts turning more and more into Martin we follow life for those people still in her home village but also follow her as her world grows from her own village, to neighbouring towns (when she visits the wonderful, wonderful  Cord) to the cities and then even further afield. As the decades pass there is also a growth in technology and advancement in science, surgery and also society as the world changes. Here again Tremain plays a masterstroke as time moves on. Often the things going on in the background (the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, Vietnam, the swinging sixties and even the world cup of ’66) reflecting the atmospheres or moments within certain characters lives. You often feel like every paragraph has an extra layer or two beneath the initial words and story it is telling you and this is what I am coming to admire more and more in Tremain’s writing.

Sacred Country is a novel that is as compelling as it is complex. It is a marvellous novel about a young person born in the wrong body and how hard it must be, it is also about much more than that. There is as cast a cast of characters and their secrets as there is themes about society and the world in which we live in and how it has changed over time. It is a book about those who are different and those who become outsiders be it from their situation or in some cases their own choices. It is about communication and what is left unsaid. It is also a book about acceptance. All this told without sentimentality, yet filled with heart and understanding.

It is official. Rose Tremain is swiftly becoming one of my very, very favourite writers and Sacred Country is a book that I will be thinking about for a long, long time. (I am quite desperate to discuss Irene and Pearl, Gilbert and Walter, and many more characters in more detail but didn’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet!) I am thrilled to have so many more of her novels and short stories to go, including of course the final Trespassing with Tremain title Restoration which I will be talking about in three weeks time. In the meantime who else has read Sacred Country and what did you think?

7 Comments

Filed under Review, Rose Tremain, Trespassing with Tremain, Vintage Books

Slowly Does It, Sometimes Less is More…

So something that I have been keeping a little bit of a secret recently is the fact that I have a new job, I actually started yesterday. This is all very exciting, partly as I genuinely didn’t think that I would get it. I am back at the company I worked with on the festival last summer and am part of the team setting the foundations for the next one; I will be working on the events and business tourism side which I am really excited about. So there has been lots of celebrating and even some fizzy pop opened and drunk in the Savidge Reads household over the last week or so. This all became a little more sober and sombre when I suddenly thought ‘oh ****, what about all my reading time?’

Once the initial palpitations stopped and I had calmed down I realised that actually I realised it wouldn’t be as bad as I thought because I have noticed that I naturally of late my reading, and indeed my reviewing have slowed down a lot and that I have been enjoying both more.

FullSizeRender

I used to be in the very fortunate position of being a books pages editor for a magazine which meant that I worked from home and spent most of my days reading. Back then I could get through 130+ books a year without frazzling my brain. This is roughly two or three books a week. I was reviewing them and discussing them but do you know what I don’t think I was reading them and worse still I actually think I was abusing the power a book has and doing these books a disservice. I know this because someone asked me what I thought of X book I read a fair few years ago and I couldn’t remember a thing about it, my own blog post had to remind me. I was a mixture of shocked and saddened by this; I felt I had let the author and the book down. I understand that you will forget some reads naturally but when I went and looked at my ‘books read list’ for those years something became clear. I had become a reading and reviewing machine, not just a reader.

Since leaving London I have lessened the amount I read in part because freelance has been less and so I have had to work more even though it was part time. Then Gran was ill and my mind was too full while she was dying, so I read less again. I then got a full time job and naturally my reading and bookish freelancing stuff fit in with that, lessening over the summer when my work hours were bonkers and only really reading things for work, though I was lucky they were generally things I wanted to read anyway.

When I was back from America I thought ‘oooh I can read a book a day now for the next month or so’ and I started, within a few days I had stopped, it felt like work and not just for the fun of it and books were blending into one again the point Ali Smith makes in Artful popped back into my head “Books themselves take time, more time than most of us are used to giving them. Books demand time. Sometimes they take and demand more time than we’re ready or yet know how to grant them; they go at their own speed regardless of the cultural speed or slowness of their readers zeitgeists. Plus, they’re tangible pieces of time in our hands.”  I have also been reading marvellous books like The Narrow Road to the Deep South which if I had rushed an read in a day, as opposed to reading over the week I did, I think would have really lost something for me. Again, it would have been a disservice to the book, the writing and really me as a reader.

The same applies with blogging and reviewing, if I read and then reviewed a book every day, apart from lessening my reading time because of all the writing and thinking every review takes (currently three separate sessions) it would drive me mad. I am not sure what benefit this would have on the books? If I really want you to read a book wouldn’t it be better for me to review it and leave it there for a day or so, making sure that people have a gander rather than it getting swallowed up and lost in the mass?

I have made a very big decision since getting this job that for the length of the contract I am going to say a polite no thank you to freelance reviews anywhere else (unless I really want to read the book or Fiction Uncovered/the Man Booker/Baileys Prize or any other book prize phone me up), pop You Wrote The Book on hold for a while (I have recorded until Christmas, so will let it have some time off until spring) and just read as and when which titles take my fancy. I will also have a crazy target of only 52 books on GoodReads next year, I should bin that challenge off al together but I like to see what I have read each yet. Either way no rushing, just reading.

This has all really been a very long winded way of me saying that my reading, and naturally my blogging will be slowing down a bit, not masses but if I read and review two books a week that will keep me very happy. If I read more, thats a bonus, if I read less so be it – fortunately I have a backlog of about twelve book thought blog posts. I am hoping with the reviews that I do post and the chatty posts I interweave, as and when, you will find that less is actually more.

*Note I did not type this while at work but a few days before I started and scheduled it – just in case my new boss is reading this. Thank you.

19 Comments

Filed under Random Savidgeness

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

I have recently mentioned the power and intensity that a novella can bring, and indeed have been favouring novellas over longer, most often epic, tome like novels. Yet reading Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which verges on tome and is definitely epic in scope, has reminded me how much I love getting completely lost in a book for a good long week of reading. Then once finished be left feeling the loss of it, unable to shake it. You see it is one of those books that totally envelops you and also contains everything about the world within its covers. It is therefore going to be one of those books that is a complete nightmare to try and encapsulate everything it does or do justice. (Hence why this is one of the longest reviews I have ever written, despite seven sittings over a week to edit and edit it, do bear with me though as you really need to read this book.)

18803672

Chatto & Windus, hardback, 2014, fiction, 464 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is essentially the tale of one man’s life with all that befalls him. Alwyn ‘Dorrigo’ Evans is one of the survivors of the Death Railway in Burma where he was a prisoner of war. He was the surgeon, having the strange job of helping people escape death only to then have them healed and sent off to work that was likely to lead to death be it from sickness, exhaustion or torture. He is a man who has had a love affair with this uncle’s wife. It is really these two particular strands of Dorrigo’s life that this novel follows going back and forth developing a life lived, with it joy, despair, loss and love. This is what makes the book difficult to write about, yet reads so naturally even as it goes back and forth in time. Essentially whilst it is about Dorrigo’s life, it is also these two main strands that have defined him and that our focus is pulled towards.

Flanagan, I think, does something very clever early on as he draws us to both Dorrigo’s elderly years and his early youth very quickly in interweaving bursts. If you are worried you might get confused, as I was so I am not being patronising, you won’t, you differentiate swiftly as you read. Here we are told of something he witnesses as a young man which relates to something in his older years but it also tells us why Dorrigo doesn’t, and therefore we might not want to, consider him a war hero, as Dorrigo is a fantastically and humanly flawed character.

Inexplicably to him, he had in recent years become a war hero, a famous and celebrated surgeon, the public image of a time and a tragedy, the subject of biographies, plays and documentaries. The object of veneration, hagiographies, adulation. He understood that he shared certain features, habits and history with the war hero. But he was not him. He’d just had more success at living than at dying, and there were no longer so many left to carry the mantle for the POWs. To deny the reverence seemed to insult the memory of those who had died. He couldn’t do that. And besides, he no longer had the energy.

Before we have even come to the love story or the horrors of war, we spend time with the fascinating and conflicting character that is Dorrigo. Here is a man who people see as a hero, and who has saved many lives, yet who likes to drink drive and sleep with his wives best friends or his best friend’s wives. He is incredibly likeable is some respects and then utterly reprehensible in others. He combines both good and bad, which is something that we forget that those who die or survive fighting for the good are, we all have good and bad sides be we a victim or perpetrator of war. In fact I think the soul of The Narrow Road to the Deep North is what is good and what is evil, though more of that in a bit.

Here I wanted to say that this novel is like a cow as it has two hearts, then I realised that they have two stomachs and Dr Who has two hearts, then I realised that I should just say that the book really just has two hearts to it. Blimey, that was over complicated, let me explain.

One of the hearts of this novel, no pun intended, is the love story between Dorrigo and Amy. Here again Flanagan creates an interesting dichotomy as we read on. When the affair between Dorrigo and his uncle’s wife starts, after a wonderful meeting in a bookshop, I was thinking ‘you awful pair of saucy buggers’ soon though I was caught up in it. Frequenting readers will know I am not a fan of a love story; I was gripped by this one. Flanagan wonderfully captures the passion and almost obsession that love can form and the reckless monsters it can make us. There is nothing saccharine here. Again I cannot spoil anything but I was rooting for Dorrigo and Amy even though I knew morally I shouldn’t be. Once again Flanagan cleverly makes us question what we see as good and bad behaviour dependent on cause and circumstance.

She wanted to bury her face in those armpits there and then and taste them, bite them, shape into them. She wanted to say nothing and just run her face all over him. She wished she wasn’t wearing that print dress – green, such a bad colour, such a cheap dress, so unflattering and her breasts she wanted up and out not lost and covered up. She watched him, his muscles little hidden animals running across his back, she watched him moving, wanted to kiss that back, those arms, those shoulders, she watched him look up and see her.

One of the things I really admired about The Narrow Road to the Deep North was how whilst a story of Dorrigo Evans’ life we get to see him through other people’s eyes. Above you have the obsessional view of him from Amy, you get his rather blunt and cynical opinion of himself and through characters like Darky Gardiner you also get to see the man he is with his comrades during the war when life is at its hardest and most cruel, just as you do through Nakamura as one of those running the war camps. This also means you get different people’s perception of the war, be they on either side of it, or all the way back in Australia. War is very much the second heart of this novel.

The scenes, and indeed middle section, in the novel that are set on the Death Railway are some of the most devastating that I have ever read. Even thinking about them I genuinely get a shiver up my spine. I hate to use the term that a book was ‘bravely written’ yet I cannot think of any other way to describe Flanagan’s writing at these points. The daily life there in the jungle with the endless back breaking work, the lack of food, the illness, the beatings, the torture, the loss of life are all viscerally depicted. Some of the scenes blow your mind be it with the horror of what occurred, the frank and gruesome nature of some of the surgery Dorrigo must do to save someone, the confronting scenes told by men who like to torture or the moments of love the men show each other as they try and keep their own humanity. Utterly incredible.

As I want to be reasoned with this review and not just bang on about how amazing it is so you think I would have just lapped it anything up, even had Flanagan made Dorrigo sale across on ocean with a talking horse for company, I did have a slight wobble with the books final section. Suddenly Dorrigo’s elderly years go into overdrive and he suddenly goes through a few more devastating things and I did wonder if we needed them. Obviously I can’t give any spoilers but there was one story that made me think ‘really?’ briefly before then something else happened and I was so moved at the end I cried for about the sixth time.

A minor quibble but one I wanted to mention so you know I can see any amazing books flaws, as no book is completely perfect, though this is close. Now, of course, I am worried I haven’t mentioned some of the other amazing things like the Haiku’s that run through the novel and how they accentuate it, or how Dorrigo uses books and literature to work out his place in the world, how the book is constructed in parts that almost mirror each other or discuss some of the other characters that appear in the book but I am in danger of never shutting up. See it really was one minor quibble. Anyway…

As I mentioned earlier I think the main theme of this book is what is good and what is evil. We are taught from an early age that, whichever view you side with, there are goodies and baddies in war. The people who die fighting for the good are untouchable heroes and those who are on the bad side are all villainous and odious. Life is not that black and white and that is what The Narrow Road to the Deep North is really saying through Dorrigo Evans life and all he goes through. He is a war hero and an adulterer. Some of his fellow men suffer and are wonderful people; some are nasty pieces of work. Nakamura heads a prisoner of war camp where abominable things are happening; for him this comes from doing what he thinks is best for his country in the long term and using the enemy to create a better, great and good, future for Japan.

Flanagan looks at the good and the bad in the good and the bad. It is not comfortable and is incredibly confronting, especially in scenes described both on the Death Railway and later some insight into Japan at the time, but it makes us question and think without drip/force feeding us or even giving any answers, as all the best books should.

The journalist said he had done a story on the survivors, had met and filmed them. There suffering, he had said, was terrible and lifelong.
It is not that you know nothing about the war, young man, Dorrigo Evans had said. It is that you have learnt one thing. And war is many things.

The Narrow Road to the Dark North is a book that you experience, one of those books which makes you feel every paragraph emotionally and in your very core. Not only did it introduce me to a period in history, and indeed a place, that I knew almost nothing about; it also made me want to be kinder than I am, note how lucky I am, tell my loved ones I love them more often than I do and reminded me that not a second of life should be wasted because you never know what may come around the next corner. It is a book about war, peace, love, hate, death and life. Yes, it really is one of those life changing and life affirming books, an incredibly written modern masterpiece.

I could go on, I won’t. I will just say you need to read this book. I can see why it won the Booker. It is easily going to be one of my books of the year and I now want to read everything that Richard Flanagan has written. If you want to know more about the book, the background it has with his father (the book is dedicated to him ‘prisoner 335’) and more you can hear me and Richard in conversation here, I nearly blubbed at one point – professional. Who else has read The Narrow Road to the Deep North and what did you make of it? Which of Flanagan’s novels should I read next?

15 Comments

Filed under Books of 2014, Chatto & Windus, Man Booker, Review, Richard Flanagan

Over 1,000,000 Views…

I just wanted to pop a quick thank you post up here on Savidge Reads after I was given a notification very early this morning that this had happened…

FullSizeRender (2)

Believe it or not you guys have contributed to over 1,000,000 – yes that is right over a million – views of Savidge Reads since it moved to WordPress back in late 2009 – I am of course now wondering how many that is in total since 2006 in its various guises! Anyway, I am almost quite, quite speechless and also somewhat elated, whilst also thinking that it is completely bonkers. Anyway. I thought I would share it with you and say thank you all for stopping by, be you a lurker or a commenter on the blog, you are all ace! This has added to the other celebrations which have been going on here as I have got a new job, more on that in due course, still waiting for all the finer details to be sorted and signed. Excitement all round though!

Right now back for the seventh edit in a week of my review of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which I am determined to try and do justice and encapsulate all it does. Big thank you again and sorry if this seems a smug self congratulatory post, I am just dead chuffed/thrilled.

18 Comments

Filed under Random Savidgeness

#LockedInABookshop – The Books I Would Read if I Found Myself in the Position of the #WaterstonesOne

Most of you will have undoubtedly heard about the luck misfortune of David Willis who suffered the amazing awful ordeal of being accidentally locked into the Trafalgar Square store of Waterstones for a few hours before, having tweeted, he was rescued. The most amazing thing I found about this story was that he actually told anyone that he was stuck in there, I wouldn’t have. If you haven’t been to the Trafalgar Square branch of Waterstones it is one of my favourites, floors and floors of books, loads of stationery, comfy armchairs and a wonderful cafe and restaurant. It would be a dream to spend a night, let alone two hours, stuck in there. We have all surely had that thought of hiding somewhere in a bookshop and waiting to be locked in haven’t we? I would have had a good old wander through the store and picked up some books to read, made a cocktail or two at the bar and headed for a comfy sofa for the evening. I certainly wouldn’t do this…

Waterstones have themselves blogged amusingly about the types of books they would recommend if you were stuck in there for two hours. Kate of Adventures with Words, has gone for a list of five books that she would recommend if you were stuck in there the whole night, or maybe with her list if you were stuck in there for a few days – maybe over Christmas, if you really want to avoid the family (light bulb goes on in head). I thought I would be a bit different and so have come up with the top five books I might read if I was lucky enough to have the wonderful ordeal myself…

Finish the book I am currently reading…

I know this might sound really boring but before I could even consider reading anything else I would have to finish the current book I was reading. I am a real stickler for being monogamous with books, unless you are reading something really, really long (be it fiction or not) and have something very different to read between. At the moment that would mean finishing off Sacred Country (my hands automatically always type scared, what does that say about me?) by Rose Tremain which I mentioned I was reading yesterday. I am really enjoying this thought provoking novel of a young girl who aged 6 decides she wants to be a boy, so that would stand me in good stead for a while. So that would be my first port of call, the T section for Tremain. Oh and don’t even question if it would be in stock, Waterstones Trafalgar Square has almost every book in the world in it.

Go and grab that book by a favourite author I have been saving for a rainy day/saving for being locked in a bookshop…

We all do it, don’t we? We buy books by our very favourite authors that we leave languishing on a shelf because we know that there will at some point be that just right rainy day, or night locked in a bookshop, when we will turn to that book because we know it will be brilliant. I have a few contenders for that title; Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne Du Maurier, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, I’m the King of the Castle by Susan Hill, and Music for Chameleon’s by Truman Capote, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan. That’s a list of five books in its own right so for the sake of this exercise I will pick just one… Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood would be my choice today.

The book that everyone else seems to be going on about and I haven’t read yet…

This would easily be We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves  by Karen Joy Fowler. I wanted to read it when it came out. Then I heard the spoiler twist, which I won’t spoil, and still really wanted to read it. Then almost everyone seemed to be reading it. Then it was long and shortlisted for the Man Booker and the whole world seems to have read it but me, even my aunty text me this very morning asking if I knew the ‘yellow and black book with ourselves in the title’. Not everyone loves it, my dear friend Tracy Trim – as I like to call her – is struggling at the mo, and some people downright hate it. I still feel it is a book I need to read, so I would get that from the entrance hall where it’s bound to be on several tables.

A book completely at random…

As I am in a bookstore and have potentially read a book or two and a half by now, I would probably need a longer wander than just to the bar or the loos to stretch my legs. So I would go and just have a wander and see what randomly took my fancy. Quite probably something short and in translation!

That big bloody classic I have always meant to read…

Yes I am talking about that masterpiece that everyone else has read, probably twice, and I just haven’t. For some people it is Moby Dick (it’s boat based, I will never read this book, I am at one with that fact), for some it is War and Peace (which my mother waited until she was on maternity leave, awaiting the arrival my sister, to crack) for some it is Crime and Punishment or one of the other Russian greats. For me it is Gone With The Wind. I took it away with me to the US and came back with having made a small, rather pathetic, 150 page dent in it. The bookmark is still stuck in page 150. I need to be stranded somewhere to read it from cover to cover properly because while I was enjoying it, now back home I have so many other books to choose from. Oh, I have seen a major flaw with this choice… Let’s move on.

So if you were to be locked in a bookshop over night which books would you go and find and read? Which books, like Kate, would you recommend to others? I haven’t done this because there are only so many times I can mention Rebecca on this blog in a post and sometimes I worry I am in danger of reaching that limit. And this last question almost seems silly to even ask, but would you actually tell anyone? I think I would simply stay in there all night and wait for the staff to arrive the next day.

38 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

What Are You Reading Right Now?

So as this week has been bonkers, and because I always love seeing what everyone is reading as I am a right old nosey so and so, I thought we could quickly share what is going on in our reading worlds at the moment. Ever one to share I am just about to start reading Sacred Country by Rose Tremain, which is the next in the Trespassing with Tremain project which I am doing in honour of Granny Savidge. I am really looking forward to settling down with it over the weekend, especially as I have read pretty much nothing since last weekend and also as I am 99% sure I am going to love it as Rose Tremain is becoming one of my favourite writers.

IMG_5762

So what about you lovely lot? Which book or books have you got on at the moment? How are you finding them? What might you be thinking of reading over the weekend?

75 Comments

Filed under Random Savidgeness

Just Richard Flanagan and I, Having a Chat…

Blimey where have the last two weeks gone? Last week seemed to be taken up with the Green Carnation Prize longlisting meetings and discussions (and all the admin that followed), plus a few author interviews, then I was off back home to the Peak District to stay with my mad aunty Caz and then this week I have been prepping for something else which I can’t talk about yet. This isn’t me trying to be mysterious and coy. I am just waiting to find out what is what. Anyway…

One of the interviews I recorded last week was with the lovely Richard Flanagan for You Wrote The Book, well he only went and won the Man Booker Prize this week! I thought being a bookish lot you might like a listen to it maybe, perhaps? If so the link is here.

I will be telling you all about The Narrow Road to the Deep North on Sunday but in the interim let me just say it is quite, quite amazing. I still can’t quite shake it. Kim of Reading Matters has been telling me to read him for ages and I have wanted to read this one in particular since I saw it discussed on The First Tuesday Book Club with Jennifer, Marieke, Jason and co. I can certainly see what all the talk has been for.

So have a listen if you fancy it. Just because I am nosey though, what are your thoughts on the Booker prize this year, both the lists and the new rules?

3 Comments

Filed under You Wrote The Book!

My Top Ten UK Bookshops (Currently)

I thought today, in honour of the Books Are My Bag initiative, I would share some of my favourite bookshops with you all. Obviously you will be heading to your local bookshop today and supporting them, if they are one of these then pretend I am there in spirit. Though actually if you are in my number one choice this afternoon it is quite likely that I will be there perusing the shelves and then head up for coffee and cake. So without further waffle or ado here are my top ten bookshops…

 

  1. Scarthin Books, Cromford, Derbyshire

Scarthin Books has been a constant in my life from roughly from birth. Coming from Matlock Bath, which is just up the road, we would often go for a walk (not every week) that took us up and down the hills with a wonderful reward halfway along. I used to love spending a good hour or so in the small corridor room under the stairs which was the children’s section whilst Gran and Mum explored the new and second hand books. Of course as I have grown up it has been a case of myself and Gran and/or Mum doing the same while someone waits upstairs eating a cake! Scarthin is a wonderful place, brimming with books and happy memories for me.

  1. Scriveners, Buxton, Derbyshire

Derbyshire is doing well with my selection so far, true there is the bias of my background and homelands BUT to only think it is that is to do both Scarthin and Scriveners a disservice. Scriveners is like a wonderful maze of second hand books over five floors. Yes you read that right, FIVE FLOORS. So that you have a good old browse there are even free refreshments and sofas, you need a good few hours to wander and I doubt you will leave empty handed. Two additional fascinating facts about Scriveners is that they print books in house and also have a ghost!

  1. Wenlock Books, Much Wenlock, Shropshire

I think if I was ever to own a bookshop, which is the dream of many of us isn’t it, then Wenlock Books would pretty much be it. They have a wonderful selection of new books downstairs which you feel are truly hand selected. There is also a wonderful array of bookish gifts (mugs, bags, etc) and stationery and then, if that wasn’t enough, there is a wonderful floor upstairs that are crammed with second hand books. Wonderful.

  1. The Book Barge, On The Canals of the UK

Floating along the canals of the UK, and possibly heading to Europe soon, is the lovely Sarah and her wonderful barge filled with books and even a house boat bunny on occasion. Here there are a mix of new and old books and it just feels like a wonderful haven bobbing up and down brimming with books. If the Book Barge is ever near your house then get yourself to it pronto! Sarah has even written a book all about running it which you will be hearing about here very soon!

  1. Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London

I have always been a big fan of Foyles and when I was part of a London bookshop I would a) meet my other book group members before and b) buy the next book afterwards in the South Bank branch. I also loved spending hours on the old Charing Cross Road branch. I was slightly apprehensive about the ‘new’ one, but when I went there for a GCP meeting last month I fell in love. It is airy, spacious, has thousands of books, a wonderful cafe – let’s face it I could move in. Expect a tour on the blog in the next few weeks!

  1. Gays The Word, London

I remember when I first moved to London I went and hunted Gays The Word down. It was a place of legend. As a young gay man I used fiction as a way to discover ‘people like me’ and try and understand it all and indeed myself. I was too scared to go in and so looked at it, walked past, turned around, walked past and looked in again. I finally went in a year later. Since then I have always popped in and since becoming close friends with the lovely Uli there make sure I pop in on every trip back. They have brilliant events, often with booze  – booze and books are a wonderful mix, and it is like the history of LGBT writing opens before your eyes when you walk through the door.

  1. Persephone Books, London

I am quite cross that I didn’t discover this gem until not long before I left London, especially as I was such a fan of the books however for some bonkers reason I didn’t connect the two. Perspehone Books of course only stock Persephone Books and there is something rather magical about that in itself. Now whenever I go back I make sure that I pop in and if I am lucky Nicola Beauman is in and we have a coffee and a natter. I always end up buying at least two or three books, how could you not?

  1. Waterstones Deansgate, Manchester

I wanted to include Waterstones because whilst they aren’t independent they are a place that I have spent many happy times and indeed have been a wonderful place to head to in unhappy times. Waterstones were always a treat, like Thorntons, to visit when myself, Mum and Gran went on shopping trips. They were the reward after wandering around a museum, cathedral, art gallery or three hour tour of John Lewis. I would be allowed to pick three books and that was my treat. In adulthood I have spent many hours wandering them with Polly, competing as to who has read the most. Deansgate is extra special to me because when I left London is was a haven and the place I would meet most of my mates. I also got to read Rebecca, well the first chapter, to an audience for World Book Night there, have been to some of my mates book launches there, even had (hope The Beard isn’t reading) a few dates in there and ran a literary salon there for a while. Books and brilliant memories, with the odd splash of something sparkly. Lush.

  1. White Horse Bookshop, Marlborough, Wiltshire

When I was a youth, and in my early teens, I lived in Marlborough in Wiltshire. The library was the place that we headed the most, however as a treat when I had been extra good (which in my teens wasn’t very often, the telly got banned once) I would be allowed to go and get a nice new pristine book from the White Horse Bookshop which spans over a few floors. I haven’t been in quite a few years but I heard from Naomi Woods, when she was at the Marlborough Literature Festival, that it is still wonderful.

= 10.  Lingham Booksellers, Heswall, Cheshire

Now I have a joint pair of books at number ten and that is because they are both local to me and very, very different in delightful ways. Linghams won the independent bookseller of the year last year and as soon as you walk in you know why. There are the latest must reads, unusual staff picks (from some of the most friendly and knowledgeable staff) and they have some corking events. They also do their own line of wonderful bookish gifts and I have a very special ‘one off’ purple Linghams bag which I am most proud of. Happy, knowledgable, friendly staff and a good selection are always a winner.

= 10. Oxton Village Books, Oxton, Cheshire

Finally there is the wonderful Oxton Village Books which used to be in the post office, and when I saw had closed down I almost physically wept, yet now resides in the wonderful Williamson Art Gallery and Museum which is roughly three minutes walk from my house. They only deal with second hand books inside BUT you can order new ones through them. They are my number one destination when I am looking for something slightly older or just fancy a browse and also when I have a good few bags of books that were sent unsolicited that I don’t want – well after my mother gets first dibs obviously, in case she is reading this. The owners are wonderful and it feels like the perfect addition to such a cultural spot. Lovely stuff.

So those are the bookshops I would highly recommend. Obviously I have not been to every bookshop in the land, though wouldn’t that be marvellous? I could write a Rough Guide to British Bookshops.  I have missed a few of my other favourites, but eleven seemed a cheat enough, I could also have mentioned any of the Daunt Bookshops, which are wonderfully organised by country which is a brilliant idea; I could also have mentioned the lovely Review Bookshop in Peckham which is run by the lovely Evie Wyld… There are so many!

So which bookshop will you be heading to? Which is your local favourite and do you have any other favourites that you think readers of this blog should visit? Have you any titles you have in your site that you might end up popping in your Books Are My Bag bag?

9 Comments

Filed under Bookshops I Love

The Green Carnation Prize Longlist 2014

Now if you have seen me chuntering on about this on Twitter, you can forgive me, ignore this post or just enjoy the exciting news all over again. Yes, today has been the announcement of the Green Carnation Prize 2014’s longlist. You may or may not know that this prize is very close to my heart as it is one that I co-founded way back in 2010 (I won’t go on you can read all about it here) to celebrate LGBT writing as it is something, that believe it or not, there is still sometimes some stumbling blocks in the way of. The prize has gone from strength to strength in the last five years, with a lot of hard work I won’t lie, and is now in association with Foyles Bookshops and this years judges have come up with this rather wonderful selection of books…

The Green Carnation Prize Longlist 2014

  • Through The Woods – Emily Carroll (Faber & Faber)
  • The Absent Therapist – Will Eaves (CB Editions)
  • The Fair Fight – Anna Freeman (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
  • All The Days and Nights – Niven Govinden (The Friday Project)
  • Vixen – Rosie Garland (Borough Press)
  • Thirst – Kerry Hudson (Chatto & Windus)
  • The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales – Kirsty Logan (Salt)
  • In Search of Solace – Emily Mackie (Sceptre)
  • Any Other Mouth – Anneliese Mackintosh (Freight)
  • The Lives of Others – Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
  • Unspeakable Things – Laurie Penny (Bloomsbury)
  • Invisible Love – Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt (Europa Editions)
  • The Glasgow Coma Scale – Neil D. A. Stewart (Corsair)

What is exciting is that while I do all the admin of the prize and the snaring of judges, I have absolutely no control over what the judges choose as their longlist out of the submissions they get (this year was the most ever). I just make sure they all have them really and sit in on meetings to make sure it is all above board. I have to keep my mouth shut and remain nonchalant throughout even if books I love get culled – after all I haven’t read the whole lot of submission have I? Well, not since I stopped judging. So the longlist is always a surprise to me. Having had a few days to think on this list (a small bonus that almost makes up for all the press release, website and social media scheduling madness that follows the decision) the more and more I have fallen in love with it.

To me, at least, it seems like a really diverse and exciting list of all sorts of writing be it a thick epic novel or a short snappy one, a memoir, a short story collection, memoir, non fiction or graphic novel. Amazing. There is a mix of the big publishers and the smaller indies. There is also a wealth of authors I had and hadn’t heard of, meaning some new exciting voices look to be on my reading horizon… Yes, I am planning on reading all (eight) that I haven’t yet in the next few weeks and I am really excited about it. Though I might not be able to talk to you about them until after the winner, though maybe not being a judge I can? What do you think? Hmmm, I will have a think! Either way is it bad that I feel very proud of the prize, the judges and even a teeny weeny bit proud of myself?

For more info on the prize, the judges, events and more head to the website here. What are your thoughts on the list? Have you read any of them? Will you be reading any of them? As always I would love to hear your thoughts.

2 Comments

Filed under The Green Carnation Prize

The Dig – Cynan Jones

I have been pondering why it is that I am becoming a fan of shorter fiction more and more. I have heard many people saying shorter fiction is perfect for the social generation who find it very hard to concentrate on reading anything longer than a status update. There may be a modicum of truth in that I suppose, on occasion, yet when you read a book like Cynan Jones’ The Dig and undergo what is an incredibly visceral, earthy, upsetting (I cried and I heaved – seriously) and emotionally intense experience you wonder why any author bothers writing anything over 160 pages. Of course some short works do not come close to that experience and some long books are immersive wonders, you get my point though I am hoping.

Granta Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 156 pages, kindly sent by the lovely folk at Fiction Uncovered HQ

In The Dig we follow the lives of two men who live in the same remote countryside and who have met briefly once and who couldn’t be more different. Daniel is a farmer who is struggling both with keeping his farm profitable and running and also with a personal tragedy. I will not give away what because when you find out early on it is like a physical punch. I cried that is all I will say. The other character, who we only know as ‘the big man’ is a much darker kind of fellow; one who trains his dog to kill rats, catches badgers for baiting and has been to prison for something we are unsure of. The question is of course how and why might these two men meet up again?

The Dig is incredibly written. It consists of paragraphs that give us snapshots into both characters feelings, occasionally slipping us up as to who is narrating, meaning that both characters show their darker and lighter sides. I love books set in the countryside because behind the picturesque white fences and lace curtains, or down the back alleys and over the hills, there is a dark animalistic nature (pun not intended) to the countryside which is isolating, hard and dangerous. Jones depicts this beautifully, yet without ever getting flowery. This book is all about cold drips, muddy squelches, twigs cracking and fires crackling. Note – those are all my words just for illustration, Cynan has a much broader vocabulary than I.

The scent of her was in the room and it almost choked him to understand how vital to him this was; how he could never understand her need for his own smell, could not even understand howshe could find it on him under the animal smells, the carbolic, the tractor oil and bales and all the things he could pick out on his own hands. He had this idea of smells layering themselves over him, like paint on a stone wall, and again he has this sense of extraordinary resilient tiredness. He wondered what isolated, essential smell she found on him, knew the mammalian power of this from the way pups would stumble blindly to their mother’s teat, the way a ewe would butt a lamb that wasn’t hers. In the shock of birthing, all that first recognition would be in that smell. They would take the skin sometimes of a dead lamb and tie it on an orphan like a coat in the hope that the mother who had lost her lamb would accept and raise it as her own.

Now when I say the book looks at nature and humans in at its most raw, I am not kidding and it may be too much for some people. There’s blood, there’s badger baiting, there’s putting hands into sheep’s wombs (I wanted to say up sheeps bottoms to break the tension slightly and make you all chuckle, but that would be anatomically incorrect). Yet they are described naturally, frankly and without any sense of voyeurism or only writing to shock. Even the shocking parts have their importance within the novel be it the badger baiting (which made me cry, did I mention I cried quite a lot at this book) or some of the raw basic nature of the farming, one scene which lead me to heave as Daniel has to deal with a problem many farmers are sure to face in their career. They show another sense of duality that The Dig seems to have throughout. Here it is the acts of violence we humans can inflict upon nature and the acts of violence nature can inflict on itself and humans.

These dualities appear a lot in The Dig and I wondered if that was an intention of Jones’? From the start Daniel and the big man are polar opposites, Daniel being vulnerable and the big man being dangerous. Then we have the dualities of their thoughts and actions. The big man having some nasty thrill at watching his semi starved dogs killing rats or trapping badgers, yet constantly fearful of being trapped or caught out himself. Daniel is at the darkest depths of his emotions and yet he witnesses the amazing gift of new life with his animals. There is also the question of traps and not only the ones we set for others, or fall into, but the ones we create for ourselves. The beauty of nature vs. the brutality of nature. All this interwoven in a sparse swift book, it’s quite astounding.

It feels almost wrong to say I enjoyed The Dig, in fact at one point between weeping for the badgers and heaving at the bluntness of what I was reading I may have cursed Cynan Jones, yet at the end I was really thankful for the gut wrenching experience. (It also helped that I reminded myself that no badgers were actually harmed in the making of this book.) I think in many ways The Dig is something of a masterpiece. I have not read a book quite like it and certainly not one that in so few pages creates the essence of the countryside at its raw and wildest, the animalistic nature of, erm, nature and the fact that we humans are really nothing more than animals too. Oh and the inherent evil of horses.

The Dig was one of this year’s winners for Fiction Uncovered and once again proves why it is such a bloody marvellous initiative as it highlights such brilliant books. You can also see a fantastic spoiler free review here from Just William’s Luck and a brilliant one with a slight spoiler here at The Asylum, I have warned you of the spoiler. Who else has read The Dig and what did you make of it? Have any of your read his other novels The Long Dry or Everything I Found on the Beach, as I am now desperate to get them in the TBR.

4 Comments

Filed under Books of 2014, Fiction Uncovered, Granta Books, Review

The Darkness of Wallis Simpson – Rose Tremain

One of the reasons that when I was choosing the list of books for Trespassing with Tremain I decided to include The Darkness of Wallace Simpson and Other Stories, was that it was the one book of Tremain’s that I bought before inheriting some of her others from Gran. I remember picking it up years ago simply because Wallis Simpson was a woman who had always fascinated me; as a person, her role in history and how people reacted to her, simple as that. I also thought it might be interesting to see how Tremain handles the short story, which many authors say is much harder than writing an actual novel.

Vintage Books, paperback, 2006, short stories, 224 pages, from my personal collection

The Darkness of Wallis Simpson is a rather fascinating collection of short stories in many ways. This set of twelve tales may happen all over the world in different time periods yet the main narrator of the tale, or protagonist, is undergoing some sort of darkness. It might be loss, it might be grief, it could be death surrounding them or being upon them, each tale has its own dark heart. This might make it sound like a sombre and rather macabre collection yet when you come away from the collection you feel anything but depressed. After all aren’t the best fairytales about just these things.

It could be tempting to give this collection the tag of ‘modern fairytale’ in part because there are often abandoned children, snowy landscapes and in one case, Moth, there is even a child who magically sprouts wings. Yet there is so much reality, and often a historical link, embedded in them that you feel these are the stories of ordinary human beings in unordinary situations of high drama within their lives. When we go through loss and/or grief we are of course at our most emotional extremes and life doesn’t seem quite real and yet it is. Tremain has a wonderful way of capturing that.

Some of the short stories are literally just that, short sharp bursts into a characters life. How It Stacks Up looks at a man who suddenly on his birthday realises he is utterly unhappy with his life. The Dead Are Only Sleeping starts with Nell answering the phone to discover her dad has died and relief fills her. The Over-Ride  is quite something as is takes in one person’s youth, marriage, widowhood and downward spiral in only ten pages. The aforementioned Moth is another such short wonder. Not a word is wasted, every single one counts.

In those days, there was a madhouse in our village.
It’s name was Waterford Asylum, but we knew it as ‘the Bin’.
It appeared to have no policy of selection or rejection. If you felt your own individual craziness coming on, you could present yourself at the door of the Bin and this door would open for you and kindly staff would take you in, and you would be sheltered from the cruel world. This was the 1950s. A lot of people were suffering from post-war sadness. In Norfolk, it seemed to be a sadness too complete to be assuaged by the arrival of rock’n’roll.
Soon after my sister, Aviva, died of influenza in 1951, my brother in law, Victor, turned up at the Bin with his shoes in a sack and a broken Doris Day record. He was one of the many voluntary loonies, driven mad by grief. His suitability as a resident of Waterford Asylum was measured by his intermittent belief that this record, which had snapped in half, like burned, brittle caramel crust, could be mended.

This is also the case in the longer tales and here, as shown in the opening sections of The Ebony Hand (which isn’t the ghost story you might be imagining, yet is marvellous regardless), Tremain has a wonderful way of managing to make a story within these stories in a mere paragraph of two. She does this again in the wonderful Loves Me, Loves Me Not which is one of the most bittersweet and heartbreaking love stories I have ever read, it will break your heart and then do it again. The same happens with The Cherry Orchard, with Rugs which is subtle, beautiful and devastating tale of an almost love affair. Both times you come away pretty close to being emotionally shattered and you thank Tremain for doing that to you.

If this makes it all sound like it is too dark or wrought, Tremain does what she did so marvellously in Trespass where she combines the dark with the very funny. Mentioning Moth again, which as you will have guessed was one of the standouts for me, we have the magical and bizarre image of a child who can fly away from its parents, and we also have a suicide which is greeted with a one liner that made me cackle and cackle. The same duality works in all the tales, Peerless also standing out as Badger, a nickname that stuck from childhood, adopts a Penguin who soon reminds him of someone from his past, it is funny and tear inducing, just what all the best tales are.

I also loved the way you could see what had inspired Tremain. You may be wondering why I have included a picture of James Tissot’s Holyday, well it is the inspiration behind Death of an Advocate which is another tale that had me giggling at the start before being shocked out of my laughter. History inspires many of the tales here too. The post war syndrome inspiring The Ebony Hand, one of the Word Wars inspiring Loves Me, Loves Me Not and the knocking down of the Berlin Wall inspiring The Beauty of the Dawn Shift. One tale, Nativity Story, is based on, erm, just that. Then of course there is the real life historical figure of Wallis Simpson who inspires the title tale.

Kissing her one minute, hitting her the next. A person out of a nightmare. There’s no talking to such a creature. Wallis can say words today, but why should she? Why should she waste her precious breath talking to this hag?
She turns her face away. Sees the girl in the apron staring at her with such a sad pitying look, it makes her weep. Fuck all these people. Piss in the damned pan and be done with them. Have them draw the curtains again. Go back to the darkness.

Before I round up the collection I want to pay special attention to The Darkness of Wallace Simpson itself which I think is one of the best short stories I have ever read. It is the longest of the collection at forty pages and yet is the one I rushed through the fastest before having to read it all over again once I had finished the collection. It brims, it is jam packed. Firstly there is the tale of Wallis herself, as she lies dying in Paris she is thinking over her life and Tremain somehow packs in the life of a woman in forty pages, yet I felt I had came away reading a biography. Her childhood, marriages and old ages are all covered, it is deftly done. There is also the tale of a woman always slightly on the back foot of life, from being disapproved of by family, then husbands, then the public and even her own careers. It looks at domestic abuse, grief, lack of freedom and love. It is just incredible.

Yet again Tremain has delivered for me in abundance. Her writing is clear, concise, vivid and just wonderful really. Each story stood out, they might have had a linking theme throughout but The Darkness of Wallis Simpson and Other Stories  is a wonderfully diverse collection where each story stands out.

I loved it and cannot wait to read her new collection, The American Lover on and off over the next few weeks as well as Sacred Country and Restoration as we carry on with Trespassing with Tremain. That is quite enough from me though for the moment, if you have read it what did you make of it? If you haven’t read it yet, read it.

16 Comments

Filed under Review, Rose Tremain, Short Stories, Trespassing with Tremain, Vintage Books

Other People’s Bookshelves #48; Ruth Lawrence

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the filthy book lust/porn and either give you a fix of other people’s shelves to stave you off going on a buying/borrowing spree, or making you want to run and grab as many more books as you can. This week we head ‘oop North’ (not too far from me, so do pop by after) to join Ruth between bike rides. So let’s all grab a cuppa and get to know Ruth better as we have a nosey through her bookshelves and reading life…

I’ve spent most of my twenty five years in the North West of England, at present in Lancaster having escaped from Burnley, where I grew up. Reading has been my love ever since I was taught how. Once I could read I grabbed anything that had words in order to get my fix. I’d like to say that I am more selective now than I was then, but I think that I will still read anything that I can get my hands on. When I’m not absorbed in a book then I will be out cycling. Sometimes I wonder which I enjoy more, the reading or the cycling. If I could work out a way to do both at the same time then I would die of happiness.

???????????????????????????????

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?

All my books go on my shelves. Well, that’s not true, I’ve run out of shelf space so there are towers of books growing up all over the place. I try to confine them to my room, but they seem to be springing up all over the place. Also if I buy a duplicate of a book by mistake (happens more frequently than I would like to admit) the duplicate is banished to a box before it goes to a new home. I’ve created a spreadsheet of my books to try and prevent this from happening, an idea I stole/borrowed from my housemate.

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?

They are separated loosely by genre and then alphabetically by author. I read them in that order too, I know it’s mad, but it takes away the horrible feeling of having to choose a new book when there are so many to choose from. Breaking the system is allowed, but only if there is a very good reason. I’ve thought about culling, mainly because if I don’t stop buying books soon, I will run out of space. When I have thoughts like that I do something to distract myself and the thought soon goes.

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

Probably When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr. I remember buying it when I was eleven just before we moved half way across the country. It was a comforting thing having a new book when everything else was in a state of chaos. I bought it with a gift voucher that I had been given as a leaving present from my church. Book vouchers are the best presents to get, they chose well! Clearing out my stuff from my parent’s house I found it again, about a year ago, and have brought it back to a prominent place on my bookcase.

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?

My Redwall series by Brian Jacques is probably the only set of books that I would feel slight embarrassment about. Only slight though. I loved them when I was a child and intend to read them through again one day. There’s something about mice in a medieval setting that just can’t be beaten.

???????????????????????????????

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 suppose the obvious ones would be the novels by Alexandre Dumas that have collected, just because I’ve spent so long finding and collecting them. If there was just one book to save it would be The Whitehouse Boys by R. A. H. Goodyear. I have no idea what it is about but it was a present from my great grandmother to my dad. In the front it says To Derek, wishing you a happy xmas from Nanny and Uncle Tom xx. One day I will get round to reading it.

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?

When I was younger I remember my parents watching a BBC adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens. What I saw I enjoyed and then I saw a copy of the book hidden away somewhere. I think that must have been the first book that I really wanted to read and it annoyed me that I couldn’t. It may also have been one of the books that I have enjoyed the most, just because I had finally expanded my reading ability enough to be able to read it. No book was out of reach after that.

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?

For most books, probably yes, but I’m trying not to because I’m worried that I will run out of space. I haven’t been very successful yet though.

???????????????????????????????

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

The Divine Comedy by Dante, but that will probably have changed within the next twenty four hours. I bought it because it is a book that I have heard a lot about but never had the opportunity to read. Also it was only a quid.

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

I would like to complete my Dumas collection, but not all of them have been translated into English. I may end up learning French so that I can read them all. Other than that I’m looking forward to getting a copy of the new Lauren Oliver book that is out this year.

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

They would probably think that it is quite eclectic, given how many different genres I can have on one shelf. I’d like people to think that I was well read, I keep my classics on view partly for that reason (I also like looking at them).

???????????????????????????????

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

A huge thanks to Ruth for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves! If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the series then drop me an email tosavidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Ruth’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

7 Comments

Filed under Other People's Bookshelves