Monthly Archives: December 2014

Savidge Reads’ Books of 2014

For someone who finds making lists an utter joy yet who can never make them concise you may be surprised that there is only one list of my books of the year this year. Normally I will do two; the ten books that I have loved most published this year and the ten from previous years. Well this year I have decided to be a more savage Savidge and only have ten… well twelve. I cheated a little bit again. I was going to do fourteen for the year we are in but could see that might cause potential problems in 2033. So without any more waffle here are my books of 2014. (For full reviews click on the link in the title.)

  1. Mateship with Birds – Carrie Tiffany

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

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

This book has everything I love in it; the wilds of the countryside (which you might see in a few of my choices), outsiders and a rather wonderfully grubby dirty edge. I will be going book shopping on Friday and will be hunting down a copy of Carrie’s Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living.

  1. The Dig – Cynan Jones

Granta Books, paperback, 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?

I never imagined I would have a book about badger bating as one of my books of the year, it even has an evil horse in it, yet for the same reasons I loved everything about Mateship With Birds I loved The Dig (which was also one of Fiction Uncovered’s titles this year, Naomi Wood’s Mrs. Hemmingway would be book number 13 on this list, just saying – and cheating again). It is a book that wonderfully links the rawness of nature to the rawness of emotions and the savage nature of animals to those of men.

  1. The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane

Sceptre Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 276 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Ruth is a widow who has been living by herself on the coast round from Sydney and for a little while and been coping quite well thank you very much. However on and off in the night she has felt pretty sure that there is a tiger who is roaming around her house. She doesn’t know where this tiger comes from or goes to after it visits her and yet while she doesn’t think it wants to harm or eat her, its presence is unnerving to say the least. Especially when she wakes up and wonders if it was ever really there at all, is she losing her marbles?

Another book that I loved very much at the start of the year (and possibly the most beautiful book of the year if you have the UK hardback) and was desperate to talk to anyone and everyone about as it is so twisty and unreliable in many ways – which of course is why I love it. I even made Thomas, my cohost on The Readers, read it and we had a mini book group which you can hear here, though be warned spoilers abound.

  1. A Kind of Intimacy – Jenn Ashworth

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

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

This was loaned to me by the lovely Emma Jane Unsworth (whose Animals would have been joint number 14 with Kerry Hudson’s Thirst, cheating again) as she thought I would like it. Having read it I hope that is meant as a compliment of my tastes in fiction rather than to my style of friendship. Hmmm. Anyway it was a huge hit with me, Emma will never get this book back again and Jenn’s second novel, she is now writing the fourth, Cold Light will be one of my first reads of 2015.

  1. Under The Skin – Michel Faber

Canongate, paperback, 2000 (2011 edition), fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

This is one book I have loved but not actually reviewed yet, the reason for this is that there is a bog old twist that I don’t want to reveal. Here’s the blurb… Isserley spends most of her time driving. But why is she so interested in picking up hitchhikers? And why are they always male, well-built and alone? An utterly unpredictable and macabre mystery, Michel Faber’s debut novel is an outstanding piece of fiction that will stay with you long after you have turned the last page.

I knew the twist but I have to say that didn’t stop me from enjoying this book from start to finish. It is a book that looks at what it is to be a woman in society and what the true meaning of society and humanity are. I will say no more. I did see the film too… I will say no more on that either, ha! I do need to work out how to deal with books with big twists and spoilers in 2015 though as I have a few reviews pending of such books. Any ideas how to deal with this are much welcomed.

  1. Cover – Peter Mendelsund

powerHouse Books, 2014, hardback, nonfiction, 256 pages, brought by Santa for Christmas

The most recently read which is why it might end up being much higher up over time. Either way, Peter Mendelsund was initially a classical pianist, or a recovering one as his bio says, who after the birth of his first child realised he needed a more stable job with a regular income. But what? Well, as it happened he liked design and then his mother knew someone who knew someone at Knopf Books and after a chat, a viewing of his portfolio (which Knopf being pretty bowled over by what Mendelsund calls “shockingly wince-inducing” self taught designs) and some interviews he then became a junior designer. Now he is Associate Art Director there and his book covers are world famous, though you might admittedly not know they were by him. He is one of those wonderful people who make us want to pick up ALL the books, from Lolita to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo literally. Well, if you live in America, though some have come here too. Cover is his story of how he came to cover books and what doing so means.

A book about books that every book lover should read or own, the end.

  1. Bitter Greens – Kate Forsyth

Allison & Busby, 2013, paperback, fiction, 544 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

My favourite fairytale, and indeed possibly story, of all time is Rapunzel. With Bitter Greens Kate Forsyth weaves a tale of three women to retell it and indeed to write a thrilling love story to it. First is Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who has been exiled from the court of the Sun King Louis XIV after a fall from grace too far (which in those times was saying something) and is banished to live in an Abbey with nuns. Second is Selena Leonelli, once one of the most beautiful women in Italy and even the muse of the Venetian artist Titian. Depicted forever in his paintings she has one fear, time, and how it will take her beauty something she will do anything to keep. Thirdly we have Margherita, a young girl trapped in a tower forever unless she finds a way to escape.

I was in book heaven reading this. I don’t tend to go for historical novels very much, and know very little about the court of Louis XIV but I revelled in it and want to know much more about it. All in all a wonderful, saucy, gripping, brilliantly written, literary romp – pitch perfect storytelling. You can hear me talking to Kate about this and more here.

  1. He Wants – Alison Moore

Salt Publishing, paperback, 2014, fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Lewis is a man who seems to be stuck in a rut. He is at the end of middle age yet not quite on the cusp of old age. He goes and looks after his father, Lawrence, at the old people’s home and yet his daughter, Ruth, comes round every morning to look after him and deliver soup that he actually doesn’t want. He has recently retired as his role as an RE (religious education) teacher yet having been widowed sometime a go he has no one to share his retirement with, just time and his own thoughts. He spends most of his days at home apart from when he goes to visit his second favourite pub, and that is probably how he will go on spending it. What Lewis isn’t expecting is a blast from the past, in the form of an old friend Sydney, to turn up one day and Lewis’ comfortable, if boring from the outside, life is shaken up.

There are some books that leave you feeling both completely uplifted and utterly devastated, all at once. I know it sounds implausible, such a dichotomy of emotions, yet these books are often the ones that leave us feeling the most enriched by the experience. Alison Moore’s He Wants is such a book. I loved this, I loved The Lighthouse; I need to read everything Alison ever writes and will do so. You can hear me talking to Alison about this and more here.

  1. Trespass – Rose Tremain

Vintage Books, hardback, 2010, fiction, 272 pages, inherited from Granny Savidge

This was undoubtedly the year of Rose Tremain and I, even though she didn’t know it – well actually I got to meet her and then she did. Ha! (The American Lover would have been on this list but I thought a title per author was fair, and I promise that is my final cheat!) As it opens we follow a young, rather spoilt, girl Melodie who is struggling to fit in at her knew school and so on a trip out runs away into the countryside where she discovers something horrendous amongst the tranquillity. What she has discovered we have no idea because we are swiftly taken away from this moment into the lives of two pairs of siblings, soon beginning to realise that in some way one or both of these siblings have something to do with whatever it is that poor Melodie discovers, but what and how?

She was one of Granny Savidge’s favourite living authors and Gran always told me I should read her, interestingly saying this would be my way in, she was completely correct. It is such a shame I can’t talk to her about these as we would have had some corking conversations but Gran has certainly left me with a legacy of recommendations. You can hear me talk to Rose Tremain about her books and writing here.

  1. Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey

Penguin Viking Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

This should have won so many awards. From the start of the novel we meet Maud who, when she is not repeatedly going to the corner shop and buying more (and more) tinned peaches, is always finding notes in her pockets that remind her that her friend Elizabeth is missing. She may sometimes forget the name of the women who come and make her tea or clean her house but with these notes everywhere possible she cannot forget this and she must find out where she went, why her house is empty and why Elizabeth’s son never seems to care. At the start of the novel Maud also discovers a compact mirror, where we are not initially sure, which suddenly brings back the disappearance and mystery of what happened to her sister Sukey 70 years ago.

I just love this book so, so, so much. Emma’s writing is incredible, the way she handles the theme of dementia is beautiful yet honest and so occasionally very funny. Cliché alert but it is really amazing this is her first book, no pressure on the next then? You can hear me talk to Emma about this and much more here. Oh and side note, she would be cross if I didn’t mention it, this is also one of my mother’s favourite books of the year – we discussed it a lot at Christmas. Read it.

  1. A Month in the Country – J. L. Carr

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

Gran left me with a legacy of authors to read and also a legacy of books of which this was one. 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.

It is really hard to say much about A Month in the Country, as it is essentially a very silent and still yet powerful book, other than it is pretty much book perfection. If I hadn’t had such a (similarily yet more epic) visceral reaction to the next book it would have been my book of the year. You can’t hear me discuss this with Mr Carr as he is dead BUT you can hear me discussing it with Gav, Kate and Rob (some of us might weep) here.

  1. The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

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

I never thought a Booker Winner would be my book of the year, especially after the last few years but Richard Flanagan just blew me away with this book. 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.

Easily the book I have loved the hardest (and therefore was the hardest to write about) this year and will more than likely be one of my all time favourite and most memorable reads. And guess what, yes, you can hear me chatting to Richard about it here (I was such a lucky sausage with interviews this year) and more. Richard’s back catalogue will be being bought by myself over the next few years and devoured.

So that is my list! If you have read any of these let me know what you thought of them. If you haven’t why on earth are you still reading and not running to a bookshop/library, no I don’t care what time it is or if it is a Bank Holiday, and getting them now? If you have made a list of books of the year do let me know, I will have a look at them in 2015. If you haven’t then please share some of your favourites in the comments below, or I will sulk which is no way to end one year and start the next is it?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Random Savidgeness

Cover – Peter Mendelsund

I was very, very lucky this Christmas as Santa brought me not one but two books imported all the way from America, and to note not via a certain evil website, both of which were by book jacket designer extraordinaire Peter Mendelsund. I was told about both Cover  and What We See When We Read by many, many people (indeed the later was in the Yankee book swap but I wasn’t mean enough to swap it for Gone Girl) when I was at Booktopia Asheville, indeed Ann and Michael have sung their praises on Books on the Nightstand. Having read Cover I can completely understand why; it is such a wonderful ode to books and a book which safe to say will be riding very high on my books of the year tomorrow.

powerHouse Books, 2014, hardback, nonfiction, 256 pages, brought by Santa for Christmas

Peter Mendelsund was initially a classical pianist, or a recovering one as his bio says, who after the birth of his first child realised he needed a more stable job with a regular income. But what? Well, as it happened he liked design and then his mother knew someone who knew someone at Knopf Books and after a chat, a viewing of his portfolio (which Knopf being pretty bowled over by what Mendelsund calls “shockingly wince-inducing” self taught designs) and some interviews he then became a junior designer. Now he is Associate Art Director there and his book covers are world famous, though you might admittedly not know they were by him. He is one of those wonderful people who make us want to pick up ALL the books, from Lolita to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo literally. Well, if you live in America, though some have come here too. Cover is his story of how he came to cover books and what doing so means.

During those years at the piano, I was completely unaware that book cover design, as they say, “was a thing.” Though I’d read plenty of books over this period, it had not occurred to me that a book’s cover was consciously composed and assembled by a human agent. Not that I assumed book jackets were made by machines, or committees (it turns out they can be made by either), I had simply never given book jackets a passing thought.

What did I see then when looking at the front of the book if not the cover? The title and the author’s name. Which is to say, I saw past the cover to the book.

However Cover is not just Mendelsund’s thoughts on what makes a book cover so important. As we go through the sections Classics, Vertical (which is all about Manga), Literary Fiction, Genre Fiction and Non Fiction & Poetry we hear from the writers who Mendelsund has made covers for, well apart from in Classics then Jane Mendelsohn discusses Kafka whose reissues were one of the first works that made everyone really sit up and pay attention to Mendelsund’s work. (No I am not popping pictures of those in, you will have to go and buy the book to see them, and they are stunning.) Here is Ben Marcus discussing the importance of the cover for the author and what the power of a cover can do…

The missing jacket is the final piece to by which nearly everyone will come to know the book. The writer wants the jacket to stand up for the book, serve as the most perfect flag. The jacket should celebrate the strengths of the book and conceal the flaws. It should perhaps rouse dormant chemicals in the body of and cause a sharp kind of lust in the buyer, that might only be satisfied by actually eating the book.

Of course it is Mendelsund and his work, and the process of it, that links this book. Throughout you really get a fantastic insight into how the idea’s for covers are initially formed and then how the process carries on. I don’t want to spoil any of this for you but I thought I would give you a sneaky peak, for example here is the final design for Steig Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which Mendelsund jokes, in one of his many brilliant footnotes on some of his designs, thankfully lost the title of The Man Who Hated Women which he had to have as one of his design’s titles) the he created…

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Here are many of the ones that didn’t make the cut, these are marked throughout with red X’s…

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You therefore get the mental process and the design process which I found completely fascinating, as I am sure any book lover would. And this is a book for book lovers. Did I mention that? I have come away with an epic list of books; obviously Mendelsund reads all these books and was an avid reader and book lover before, and I have now an urge to read many he has covered and clearly loved. (He even almost convinced me about Kafka at one point!) I am particularly keen to read Lolita as Mendelsund has some interesting thoughts on it. I know, I know I should have read it already. Also added to the list are now in particular Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, which Mendlesund has a fascinating relationship with, and these two books by Imre Kertesz. I don’t care what they are about (Mendelsund has done his job as he does) I just want to read them for their covers…

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On top of these are The Woman Destroyed by Simone De Beauvoir, the aforementioned Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Something is Out There by Richard Bausch, Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam, Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu and both Never Fuck Up and Easy Money by Jens Lapidus. (You can find these again on my new To Get My Mitts On page here with some others.) Oh and the whole of the Pantheon Folktales and Fairytale Library. Though I couldn’t work out if these had been commissioned or not. I will do some digging; if they have they will be mine.

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You might have possibly had the merest hint that I bloody loved Cover. It was a book I thought I would dip in and out of over time, I sat with it and lost several sittings perusing the covers, taking in peoples thoughts on reading and books – it is rather like a book version of having a relaxed mooch through a book shop perusing the covers and eavesdropping on the other book lovers, no higher praise can be bestowed really. As I mentioned before Cover will easily be in my best books of the year and I am now very excited to read What We See When We Read, though I think I might just spend some more time revisiting and staring at Mendelsund’s collection of books and their covers, again and again and again.

Oh and if you want to hear more about book covers then do listen to this edition of Front Row, which I had the joy of whilst getting home in a snow blizzard (I exaggerate not) on Boxing Day on the way home from my mothers. Have you had the joy of reading either of Mendelsund’s books? Do you own some of his covered books in your collection? Which other wonderful books about books would you recommend? I have a new fancy for a selection of my new shelves (yes I have been shopping for more today) being dedicated to books about books of all shapes and sizes.

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Filed under Books About Books, Books of 2014, Peter Mendelsund, powerHouse Books, Review

Mystery in White; A Christmas Crime Story – J. Jefferson Farjeon

Well I think I might have just discovered the perfect Christmas read if ever there was one. Mystery in White was first published back in the 1930’s in that golden age of crime, yet for some reason went out of print until The British Library republished it as part of their Crime Classics series, along with many other forgotten novels, this year. Believe it or not in the lead up to Chrimbles it became one of the biggest selling paperbacks, having read it I can see why and I wish I had read it sooner (or could travel back in time in a time bus) to make sure you all had it in all your stockings and those of the people you love most.

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British Library Crime Classics, 1937 (2014 edition), paperback, fiction, 256 pages, bought by myself by myself

On Christmas Eve, along the track between London and Manchester, a train becomes stranded in the snow. Those onboard must decide if they can stick it out in their carriages or if it might be best to seek shelter somewhere else. In one carriage a group of strangers, bar brother and sister David and Lydia, all decide that they will try and head to the nearest station of Hemmersby some miles away. Yet as the snow starts to fall harder they realise they are lost, until they (literally) stumble upon a country house. A country house where the door is unlocked, the larder is full, the kettle is over boiling and there is absolutely no one at home. Shelter overrules suspicion or concern, that is until the fires are lit and the passengers are warm and then the feeling that there is something very wrong with the situation starts to arise.

“Funny!” said the owner of the head. “Tea all dressed up and nowhere to go! I say, David, what do you make of it?”
David turned from the couch.
“There’s still upstairs,” he replied. “I’ll tackle that, if you’ll stand by here.”
“Wait a moment!” exclaimed Lydia.
“Why?”
“I don’t know. Yes, I do. What I meant was be careful.”
“That doesn’t explain anything.”
“Nothing explains anything! If it were a fine day it might be quite natural to run out of a house for a few moments while a kettle’s boiling, but in this weather – can you explain that? Where have they gone? Not to post a letter or cut a lettuce! Why don’t they come back? I didn’t tell you, the kettle wasn’t boiling in a nice quiet respectable manner, it was boiling over. Oh, and there was a bread-knife on the floor.”

When I was ranting about discussing The Floating Admiral (read it you might have a giggle) with you all the other day I mentioned my love of the golden age of crime novels. Mystery in White reminded me just why that is the case, before promptly making me quite cross that duds like the aforementioned Detection Club’s offering have been  in print almost continually where as gems like this haven’t. Sorry, I need to let it go, but it is quite cross making.

Mystery in White has everything you need in a brilliant crime novel. It has a situation we can all imagine ourselves in, stranded in snow (as I very nearly was yesterday on the motorway of all places), it has a group of strangers who know nothing about each other and might have all kinds of secrets, it has a creepy old mansion house as its setting, it has one or potentially two crazy murderers about and it is thrilling with a slight sense of horror and the supernatural about it hiding in the corners of every room or behind every tree. Most importantly of course there are no mobile phones and so there will be no help, well not until the snow thaws and melts and who knows if these unlucky souls will last the night.

The cast of characters too is almost perfect for its era. David is clearly the hero, though he hasn’t quite got the range in terms of brains. Lydia is his plucky sister who will not be treated as just a mere girl. Jessie is the typical damsel in distress, spraining her ankle and fainting around chapter three – though note, she may be a chorus girl but she might have the second sight. Mr Hopkins is initially referred to only as ‘the bore’ yet once in the warmth a slyer seedier side is revealed. Mr Thomson, with no P, is the flaky man who blunders rather. Mr Smith, the dodgy bloke from East London with the cockney accent. And then there is Mr Edward Maltby, of the Royal Psychical Society, who very early on asserts himself as the lead and detective yet does he know too much?

All this would be a complete cliché with a cast of utter caricatures if it wasn’t for the fact that it was so brilliantly written and superbly plotted. If all of his books are like this I have no idea why J. Jefferson Farjeon is not much better known with all of his books in print. As you go on reading the Mystery in White not only will you be completely bamboozled as the plot takes on some brilliant twists and turns (which I will not spoil, I couldn’t see any of it coming) and as the element of horror and suspicion starts to build the atmosphere is tense and palpable, it is honestly marvellous.

I think a Mystery in White could be one of my crime novels of the year. I was genuinely hooked by the plot, reading the book in two or three sittings; I enjoyed the cast of characters immensely. Most importantly I couldn’t see, or second guess, the ending. It also has that wonderful sense of nostalgia with it that only the novels from the golden age can produce. Here’s hoping that The British Library republishes all (over sixty, wow) of Farjeon’s books, if they do I will be one of the first in the queue to get my mitts on them.

I am tempted to advise you, if you have yet to read the book, to grab a copy and cancel all your plans for Wednesday evening. Just curl up with this instead and you will have one of the most enjoyable New Years Eve’s you could hope for. Who else has read Mystery in White and what did you make of it? Were you lucky enough to get it for Christmas? Have any of you read any of the other crime classics that The British Library is publishing? Naturally I want to read all of them now, though they will have quite something to live up to.

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Filed under Books of 2014, British Library Crime Classics, J. Jefferson Farjeon, Review

The Rabbit Back Literature Society – Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen

Sometimes a book takes you completely unawares. You have no expectations with it at all and it beguiles and then completely charms the pants off you, or maybe that should be charms the dust jackets off you? This was the case with The Rabbit Back Literature Society, I had no real prior knowledge of it other than I wanted to read it, when Kate chose it for December’s edition of Hear Read This. My only real thought was that it might be about books, it is and brilliantly bonkers and bookish all the way through.

Pushkin Press, 2014, paperback, fiction, 345 pages, translated from Finnish by Lola M. Rogers, kindly sent by the publisher

I am going to do something that I never do with a book, I am going to steal the blurb from the back of The Rabbit Back Literature Society because I simply would not be able to sum it up any better and indeed would over complicate it and put you off if I tried. So here it is. Only very special people are chosen by children’s author Laura White to join ‘The Society’, an elite group of writers in the small town of Rabbit Back. Now a tenth member has been selected: Ella, literature teacher and possessor of beautifully curving lips. But soon Ella discovers that the Society is not what it seems. What is its mysterious ritual, ‘The Game’? What explains the strange disappearance that occurs at Laura’s winter party, in a whirlwind of snow? Why are the words inside books starting to rearrange themselves? Was there once another tenth member, before her? Slowly, disturbing secrets that had been buried come to light…

She wasn’t thrilled. Not at all.
She’d wanted to do literary-historical research that might bring to light a few smallish skeletons – secret relationships, homosexuality, that sort of thing. Pleasant little scandals. Murder victims weren’t the sort of thing she’d been hoping to dig up.
Amateur detectives in fiction always annoyed Ella. They were so unrealistic. She didn’t intend to be the Rabbit Back version of Miss Marple or a cheap Baker Street knock-off, and she really didn’t like the idea of making the tabloids. That was no way to advance an academic career.

I have to say I was completely charmed by The Rabbit Back Literature Society from the start. From the moment we first met Ella as she describes herself; academic, unable to have children, with good lips and something artistic in the colour of her nipples, I knew I was going to be reading something that didn’t really fit into a mold or genre, rather breaking out of it instead. That is the kind of book this is and as we follow Ella – as she tries to work out just what on earth is going on with this secret writers society, the strange changing books in the library and the mysterious society member who has vanished – we discover a book that straddles over all the genres and then straddles them all riding them like a crazy pony. It’s contagious, look what it is doing to me as I write about it. Some of you might be put off because of this, normally I would, yet it works.

The novel is a crime novel, there is a mystery, or indeed two, as it unravels. It is a fantasy novel, with the atmosphere that anything could happen in the land of Rabbit Back; people vanishing in a whirlwind of snow, gnomes in the gardens attacking the gardeners etc. It is a comedy, I have not laughed as loudly at a book in sometime, generally because the giggles are quite dirty flirty ones from the accidental pornographic advent calendars the local children get by mistake a few pages in, onwards. It is a gothic ghost story. It is also a sinister thriller that will have you turning the pages. At its heart though it is a beautifully written literary love letter to, well, literature.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society really celebrates everything there is about reading, writing, readers and authors. It looks at how important escapism is, at how everyone can read a book differently (even without the endings changing as they do here) and how we use stories to cope with difficult things, or tell ourselves/create stories to make things better. It looks at authors and shows how writing is in its own way a kind of magical power, yet at the same time these people are all just very ordinary and shouldn’t be treated as anything special, even if some of them think they should. It is really all about the power of stories and storytellers, and what those writers can do with their powers, be it the bad or be it the good. (This is where ‘The Game’ and ‘Spilling’ is so brilliant, but I won’t spoil it!) It is about the power of words really.

“Well… I might turn those curls of yours black and make you fatter or thinner by ten kilos or so, whatever comes to me. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll change one of your eyes, perhaps this left one, into a glass eye.”
The woman’s mouth dropped open. “Huh?”
Winter smiled.
“Or I might give you a wooden leg, or some kind of disease. How does syphilitic brain damage sound? Or maybe I’ll have you broken in two in an auto accident?”
She gave a shrill laugh. “You are truly awful!” she said. “I’m not telling you anything now, or I might end up in your next novel.”
Winter gave a slight bow.
“That is your right. It would no doubt put you in much less danger of being used. But I may never the less steal your way of moving, the expressions on your face! Perhaps I’ll even take that way you have of smiling with your mouth open, your little tongue peeking out now and then between your teeth to see what’s happening in the world. And those freckles that start on the bridge of your nose  and continue all the way down between your breasts, that’s a detail that might come in handy in a piece I am writing at the moment.”
The woman smiled, frightened. “You’ll eat me alive.”

I really, really, really enjoyed (and loved a little bit) The Rabbit Back Literature Society. It isn’t the perfect book, on occasion the book goes off on tangents it never comes back to in its weird and wonderful way yet I didn’t care because I just bloody loved reading every single page of it. If you could get an amalgamation of all the types of rollercoaster’s and then converted them into a book, I think you would get this one. It sounds an odd analogy I admit, I think it is one Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen would appreciate though. I really hope that Pushkin Press are planning on translating all his books and bringing them to many more readers.

For more of my thoughts along with Kate and Gavin (Rob was sick) you can hear the latest episode of Hear Read This here. Anyone else read The Rabbit Back Literature Society, if so what did you make of it? I have a feeling it could be a marmite book, though if you love books and everything booky I can’t see how you couldn’t love it.

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Filed under Books of 2014, Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen, Pushkin Press, Review

A Christmas Memory – Truman Capote

I always think I don’t have that many quirks, or OCD moments, when it comes to reading and books yet it seems I have more than I think. One such quirk which you might have heard on the festive episode of The Readers is that I only like reading Christmas books at Christmas if I can help it. I often actually plan a small Christmas selection in advance the first of which was Truman Capote’s collection of three festive stories A Christmas Memory, which I picked up on a bargain hunt back in August when I was in Washington DC, part of my American haul, that I have been saving to read until now.

The Modern Library, 1956 (2007 edition), hardback, short stories, 107 pages, bought by my good self

The Modern Library, 1956 (2007 edition), hardback, short stories, 107 pages, bought by my good self

A Christmas Memory is, as it says on the tin pretty much, as selection of three Christmas memories from Truman Capote’s past that he has fictionalised in some way. Interestingly I didn’t actually realised they were all from the same narrator ‘Buddy’ until almost the end of the second story, and so we see through Buddy’s eyes a world of nostalgia with the additional vantage of hindsight  these three particular festive moments which have lasted in the boys mind.

The first A Christmas Memory tells a wonderful story of Buddy and his friend Mrs Sook, and her dog Queenie, have been saving up all year to make over 30 Christmas cakes. Some are for their friends locally, though interestingly not so many for the distant relatives that Buddy lives with, and for more random people further afield, like the president. It is a tale of a happy nostalgic ritual and how they go about keeping the tradition when times are hard.

It’s always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: “It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.”

The second tale One Christmas is the shortest of the three and sees Buddy leaving the home he has been sent to with distant relatives, to spend a Christmas with his estranged father. This is an interesting tale which starts of quite magically and ideally and then takes on a slightly more and more sinister turn of events as father and son try to work out the relationship between them. It also looks at how Christmas is changing in modern times, the classic Christmas against the commercial and contemporary.

Snow! Until I could read myself, Sook read me many stories, and it seemed a lot of snow was in almost all of them. Drifting, dazzling fairytale flakes. It was something I dreamed about; something magical and mysterious that I wanted to see and feel and touch.

The third and final tale is The Thanksgiving Visitor which tells of Miss Sook getting into the spirit of hospitality and charity (which has vanished if you look at what happened on Black Friday this year) when she invites a stranger to dinner. The stranger happens to be Buddy’s worst enemy at school, Odd Henderson, bringing a new tension into the young boy and older woman’s friendship and also brings about a tale of revenge which backfires somewhat.

Talk about mean! Odd Henderson was the meanest human creature in my experience.
And I’m speaking of a twelve-year-old boy, not some grownup who has had the time to ripen a naturally evil disposition.

It is an interesting, if a little strange, collection this one. A selection of almost fables. The whole collection brings about the childhood of a boy who isn’t living the stereotypical life with a stereotypical family, as his parents have split up he stays with distant family members as I mentioned before. In this scenario the wonderful friendship between Buddy and Miss Sook, who seems to have some form of learning difficulties and is in many ways childlike herself, is utterly beautiful and in the title story completely gorgeous and moving.

The slight problem I had with it though is that there lies a hint of bitterness in the second and third stories. Whilst the first is all about the good in people Christmas can bring One Christmas is really about greed and the commercialisation of Christmas, and The Thanksgiving Visitor is a tale of someone seeking revenge and that revenge sort of back firing. True enough, both these tales end well (and we can see the moral of the story) yet there is a certain negativity in them, or still lingering anger which Capote may have seen this as therapy for, which made the book have a rather miserable after taste. I am a Scrooge enough as it is at Christmas, this ended up leaving me feeling glum when what I needed was something lighter and more chipper maybe?

Either way you cannot fault the writing. Capote is an author whose craftsmanship with words is just a marvel, simple as that. Maybe it should be no surprise that with his love for the macabre, as in In Cold Blood, and the darker side of the happy story (if you have read Breakfast at Tiffany’s rather than see the film you will know what I mean), this would be about the shadows behind the Christmas tree rather than the ones in front. I just wish they had all been like A Christmas Memory which I think is possibly the perfect modern Christmas tale.

Have you read this collection and if so what did you make of it? Have any of you seen the film which I have only just discovered exists? Finally, am I the only person who likes to only read about Christmas at Christmas?

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Filed under Review, Short Stories, The Modern Library, Truman Capote

What A Lovely Christmas

I am hoping you have all had as lovely a Christmas as I did. I was at my mothers for the first time in a few years and it was a full house as I brought The Beard (first Christmas away from his parents in almost two decades), both my stepsisters were there with their partners, plus my Mum stepdad and my little sister and brother. And so ten of us all spent a lovely 24 hours in my mother and step fathers converted old pub. You can see me playing Where’s Wally here after dinner, when I had unsurprisingly hidden away with a book for a while, though I didn’t really read anything much…

Where's Wally?

Where’s Wally?

I got some lovely presents, though I won’t list them or show you pictures of them all as I find that whole oversharing of the commercial side of Christmas makes me feel a little bilious. I will share the two books I received both by Peter Mendelsund, a book designer who I learnt all about in America when I went to Booktopia Asheville and Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness, who host Books on the Nightstand, as well as several of the Booktopians were raving about both his books, so Cover and What We See When We Read came all the way from the US and will be being read in very early 2015…

Cover & What We See When We Read

Cover & What We See When We Read

Apart from the slight bit of reading, present unwrapping and mass eating we also played lots of board games, made more than one trip to the pub, went walking, drank rather alot and were generally a very jolly bunch, and I get a second Christmas Day on Sunday which I am really looking forward to, that and another week off reading. Bliss.

Me, The Beard, my stepdad, Mum, little brother and sister; all having far too jolly a time!

Me, The Beard, my stepdad, Mum, little brother and sister; all having far too jolly a time!

What about all of you? Did you have a wonderful day? Did you get any lovely books? Which ones did you give to people? What did you read?

Small additional note – this is my 2000th post! That’s madness!

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Merry Christmas…

Just a quick post to wish you all a very, very, very…

80b34-merrychristmas

There are many more important things that you should be doing today than reading blogs and the like, but if you pass by somehow then I just want to wish you and yours a wonderful day!

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Filed under Random Savidgeness