Monthly Archives: April 2015

What I Have Learnt About Reading, So Far…

I am aware that I have been a little quieter over the last few weeks or so and frankly I blame this all on Fiction Uncovered, in a nice way. On Thursday we are meeting for the first of the ‘whittling out the winners’ meeting (or as I harshly put it ‘the first culling’) and it has been pretty full on in the lead up reading lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of submissions. It has been really rewarding both in finding some utter corkers that I had never heard of before and getting very excited about what the list might look like, though I think there is lots more reading, rereading and discussion before we get to that stage.

On a selfish level it has been like a crash course in reading and I have learnt lots about myself and my own reading habits and prejudices (some of which we have discussed before) in a very condensed period. Though I’m aware reading as a judge is slightly different from just reading as you might normally, with the context of only having a certain not endless books to read and deadlines and the fact these books will a) win the author money and b) could make a real difference to their readership, meaning the judges can be judged on their listing. Anyway… As well as keeping lots of notes on the books themselves I have been keeping notes on what the books have taught me about my own reading and, so far, it looks like this…

  • I can’t always judge a book by its cover, sometimes I really can.
  • Sometimes a single short story in a collection can have as much power as a 500+ page novel.
  • You can tell if a book is for you pretty quickly (probably within 70 – 100 pages) – yes there are books that have an amazing twist at the end, but if you can’t get there without wanting to cry or forcing yourself not to fall asleep then is it worth it.
  • Sometimes that first paragraph really isn’t just a bumpy start, sometimes you can stop reading a ‘quite good book’ when its not giving you life… all in all sometimes Simon you’re really not as ‘Savidge’ as you should be, or savage.
  • Font matters. It shouldn’t but it does.
  • Sometimes I like the idea of a book, or ideas behind it, more than I like it in reality.
  • There are lots of ‘very good books’ the ones you really love and want to hug to a pulp are few and far between. Note – this is not a bad thing.
  • I like dark themes in books, I have my limits though.
  • Some books get better with distance, others burn out.
  • My Kindle still works, I still don’t like it.
  • Some book covers feel funky and can put you off.
  • A brilliant writer will make you enjoy subjects that you wouldn’t imagine they could – yes even horses, world wars, sports, ships etc.
  • One bad sentence can kill.
  • I have prose ticks and serious prose crosses.
  • Ignoring a blurb can really help, a surprise joy is a real buzz. Oh and some lie.
  • I clearly have a very different view on what makes a good book from what might make one for others (this might become even more apparent after the meeting this week, ha!)
  • I don’t like being disturbed from a really, really good book.
  • Certain terrain has been far too quarried by novelists.
  • Life’s too short for books you don’t like.
  • There are far too many good books going unnoticed and maybe it’s time to change the direction of the blog to look at those, after all with so many blogs out there shouldn’t I have a point of difference?
  • I funking love books and reading, even when reading till my eyes might bleed.

I think we will stop there for now or I could go on all day. Of course we never stop learning about how we read and indeed our tastes change, just as they do in food, overtime. I am sure that the meeting on Thursday will enlighten me even further, I can’t wait, and I will report back after – well without giving away any secrets. I am hoping that this year might be the first year ever Fiction Uncovered announce a longlist, I am putting that up for discussion this week. I think that could be really exciting.

Anyway those are some of the things I have noticed about my reading habits in the last few weeks/months, some might just become longer posts over the next few weeks, do we share any? What have you learnt about your own reading habits; the good the bad and the ugly?

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Lucky Winners – How To Be Both & A Place Called Winter

Here’s a quick post that might bring some cheer to some of your Tuesdays, and lets face it when the weekend seems so far away again it is always good to get some cheer. In the last few weeks I have gone give away crazy and have now, thanks to Random.Org, drawn the five lucky winners of Ali Smith’s How To Be Both for our Baileys group read of it on Monday the 1st of June, two days before the winner is annouced, plus the one lucky winner of a signed copy of Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter which I will get signed especially tonight! And the winners are…

Ali Shaw’s How To Be Both winners are…

  • Dirtmother
  • Layla
  • Ruth Slater
  • The Book Magpie
  • Mark

And the winner of Patrick Gales A Place Called Winter is…

  • Snoakes (though I will need your real name for the book to be signed at 6.30pm tonight hahaha)

If you can all email me with the name of the book you have won in the title and a your details to get the books sent to that would be brilliant! Well done all! This has given me such a buzz I will have to do give aways more often I think.

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A Mini Northern Tour with Patrick Gale…

I am very excited about the next few days, as I have the pleasure of spending a few nights with Patrick Gale as he continues his A Place Called Winter book tour. I shared my thoughts with you on A Place Called Winter the other day, and while I was all cool and ‘don’t read this review, just by the book’ actually do read the review because I really do want you to read the book (and reviews take blooming ages to write you know) as it really is quite something.  Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, going on a mini tour with Sir Patrick of Gale…

I have to say I love interviewing authors be it at live events or on podcasts, I love getting more insight into the book, it’s origings, themes and the person who write it. I particularly love doing live events with authors when they are lovely, charming, up for a laugh and open to the audience (and myself) asking them pretty much anything, well within reason. I have done an event with Patrick before, along with Catherine Hall, for Manchester Literature Festival back in 2012 and look how enraptured we all were…

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So what I am really saying is if you are in or near Liverpool on the night of the 27th of April (so tomorrow) or in or near Manchester on the 28th of April do come to Waterstones Liverpool 1 or Waterstones Deansgate and join us for what I promise will be a lovely evening with some lovely bookish banter and possibly some lumberjack attire – let me know if you are coming so we make sure we say hello! If you can’t make it, do please read the book, and if you have any questions you would like me to ask Patrick for you let me know.

In fact because I so want you to read the book (and be there if you can, yet not miss out if you can’t) if you pop to the review and leave a question for Patrick in the comments there, I will then draw one of you out of a hat, or get Patrick too, and get you a specially signed copy and send it anywhere in the world. How’s that? You have until 1800hrs GMT tomorrow the 27th of April and don’t forget the Ali Smith give away too! Lovely stuff, look forward to your questions and will hopefully see some of you there!

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A Place Called Winter – Patrick Gale

There are some novels that I read where all I want to do for a review is simply write the words… Read this book. Nothing more, nothing less. However I am aware you need more than those three words to get you to part with your pennies or head to the local library, the question is how to encapsulate a book like Patrick Gale’s latest novel A Place Called Winter in a mere review? Well, here goes.

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Tinder Press, hardback, 2015, fiction, 340 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

When we first meet Harry Cane he is locked in an institute, what he has done we do not initially know, and is undergoing a rather horrendous kind of treatment. Yet soon he is taken away to Bethel, a community for those who have been shut out or locked away from society. He is encouraged to tell the story of how he got there, the story of how a well to do and well off man started his life in England and then ended up in the middle of the Canadian wilderness building a new life that has seemingly, to an outsider, driven him mad.

Gale structures A Place Called Winter in delightful way, as we get insights into various pivotal moments in one man’s life alternating between their present and their past making the links between the two. We watch how he grows up in England looking after his brother Jack, how he marries and then falls for the charms of Mr Browning; who soon becomes his downfall leaving Harry no choice but to head to the wilds of Canada without his family to start again. In case you are thinking I have just spoiled the whole story, there is so much more to come, including the journey he makes there and the people he meets along the way, not always with the outcomes you may guess at. The last I will say on the plot is that it is a real journey of adventure, danger and self discovery and you will want to read it in a few sittings, often weeping for all sorts of reasons.

A Place Called Winter is a blooming marvellous story. Gale is brilliant at placing you into the heads and hearts of his characters, mainly because his prose calls for us to empathise with them, even if we might not want to. We have all been in love, we have all done things we regret, we have all fallen for a rogue (or two or three), we have all felt bullied and the outsider at some point, we have all had an indiscretion and left the country to become a farmer in a foreign land… Oh, maybe not that. Yet even when our protagonist goes through things we haven’t Gale’s depiction and storytelling make us feel we are alongside Harry. We live Harry’s life with him; the highs and the lows, the characters and situations good or bad.

It also has a wonderful sense of adventure, sometimes exciting sometimes perilous. The surroundings and settings of the book become characters as much as the people. For example the hustle and bustle of London, the leisurely nature of Herne Bay, the power of the seas, the wildness of Moose Jaw and the desolate and endless monotony (cleverly without ever being boring) and harsh extremities of Winter itself. I have mentioned only recently how much I love reading about nature and the countryside/wilderness in books and this has that aplenty.

He opened it, welcoming the cold night air, and stared out at a landscape transformed. There were stars, a seamless, spangled fishnet of them from horizon to horizon, coldly lighting the land and lending the farm buildings, outlined sharply against them, an eerie loveliness.

I love a book that looks brims with layers and explores several themes, or can set your brain off thinking about things  from a different angle or that you may not have before. I found the way Gale looks at and discusses homosexuality fascinating and heartbreaking. It is the way that due to society everything must go unspoken. There was no such thing as ‘being gay’ you were seen as a sexual deviant of the lowest order, end of. Even those rare people who tried to be accepting struggle, as Harry is asked “Is it… Is it emotional or simply a physical need the two of you are answering?”  to which he replies “I suppose, in a different world, where everyone felt differently, it would be both. When a thing is forbidden and must live in darkness and silence, it’s hard to know how it might be, if allowed to thrive.”  We the reader live in a world where it has become more acceptable (though we still have a way to go) and gay rights are fought for, we look back on this in hindsight and see how horrific it is.

Gale even looks at the psychology that this world must have created, the need for secrecy and how it might even bring out internalised homophobia in those who were living such a life. “Christ, Harry! Listen to yourself. You’re not attractive when you plead. I preferred you married and unobtainable. In fact that is how I prefer all my men. Men can’t live together like a married couple. It’s grotesque and whatever would be the point, even if they could? It’s not as though they’re going to start a family.” (See what I said about Gale putting you in the heads of those you do and don’t want to empathise with.) Gale also looks at the ironies of a place where men would dance with men due to the lack of women, and shack up with other men in winter for practical reasons be they financial or simply survival, yet who would exile gay men as they would women of rape or the indigenous Indian community.

In case that makes this sound like one of those worthy books which tries to preach at the reader it isn’t at all. Yes, one of the main themes is homosexuality yet by its very nature what the whole of A Place Called Winter is about is humanity and also love; regardless of gender be it familial, platonic or passionate. It was this which led me to describing it as ‘Austen meets Brokeback Mountain’ as it wonderfully combines a marvellous contemporary novel with the sense and sensibilities (see what I did there?) of the classic trope. It is pacy, thrilling, horrifying and puts you through the wringer emotionally, whilst having those wonderful storytelling and prose qualities of the past where you have the tale of a life and the intricate situations, places and people who surround and intertwine with it.

I will wrap up by simply saying that A Place Called Winter is a fantastic novel and I think the best that Patrick Gale has written so far. It has all the qualities that create a real treat of a corking read for me. It introduces you to wonderful characters, takes you away from the world you know, makes you think, laugh and cry and all whilst telling you a bloody good story. I was completely lost in Harry’s world and his life and recommend that you go on the journey with him as soon as you can. Easily one of my books of the year; so go on, read this book!

If that still hasn’t sold it then nothing will, well, maybe I should add that for a few days (because I binged on this book) I became an uncommunicative zombie whose head was stuck in this book at all hours, even refusing to watch House of Cards! Oh and even higher praise, this book has lots of horses in it and spends some time on a long boat journey and I didn’t even care, which regular readers here will know is a huge achievement. Anyway enough of my thoughts, who else has read A Place Called Winter and what did you think?

Ooh, and quick note,  if you are ‘oop north’ and near Liverpool on Monday the 27th or Manchester on Tuesday the 28th of April (next week) then do please come and see me in conversation with Patrick about A Place Called Winter in Waterstones. Details here and here. Hope to see some of you there.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Patrick Gale, Review, Tinder Press

The Thwaites Wainright Prize Winner is…

Last night Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel was announced the winner of the Thwaites Wainright Prize for UK nature and travel writing! As promised I said that I would get the whole shortlist to one lucky winner who told me their favourite fiction and non-fiction titles about the countryside…

Nature books aptly surrounded by my floral sofas inherited from Granny Savidge

Nature books aptly surrounded by my floral sofas inherited from Granny Savidge

And the winner picked at random with the help of Random.org (I was going to get the submissions throw them in the air and see which one the cats picked but they were having none of it) is… Caroline C who recommended The Poet’s Wife by Judith Allnatt and A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson; the latter is all about bees and we all know how much I now love books about bees and bees themselves. Caroline C if you could email me your details to savidgereads@gmail.com I will get these books sent to you.

In the meantime do keep your nature book recommendations coming, I have a review of a book set in the wilds coming later, and also don’t forget you can win a copy of How To Be Both by Ali Smith here until the end of play Monday!

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The Nature Of, Erm, Nature Writing

I think I have mentioned in the past my love for books set in the countryside, particularly ones set in the British countryside. This isn’t patriotism or xenophobia because chuck me into the Brazilian jungle, drop me on the islands of Sweden or the African plains and I am more than happy with the right book and the right writer – there is just something about the countryside I grew up in, or like it, that speaks to me. These books I mentioned are in the most part (seriously about 98% of the time) fiction. So why when I love the countryside and am obsessed with wildlife programmes on the telly do I not ever read any non-fiction nature books?

This is what I have been pondering on the many times I have headed into a branch of Waterstones in the last few months with birthday vouchers burning a hole in my pocket. As suddenly there seem to be books about nature here there and everywhere. Now I would say this is due to the success of H is for Hawk recently only I know someone will (quite correctly I am sure) say ‘no you philistine there have been lots of books about nature around forever, that one has just hit the public psyche;’ or something like that.

Yet why has the nature book suddenly become so popular and to the fore? If I had to hazard (a word which always makes me think aptly of buzzards, just putting that out there) a guess I wonder if it is because we are all beginning to get a bit over tired of screens and commuting and rushing and are looking out to nature as a calming influence. What do you think?

Anyway, fate has seemed to step in, as is often her want, as I then had an email from FMcM who do the PR for the Thwaites Wainright Prize, which I had to admit I hadn’t heard of before. As soon as I discovered it was for UK nature and travel writing I was sold especially as they were emailing about the shortlist which had just been announced, the winner is announced tomorrow…

  • Running Free: A Runner’s Journey Back to Nature, Richard Askwith (Yellow Jersey)
  • The Moor, William Atkins (Faber & Faber)
  • Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet, Mark Cocker (Vintage)
  • Meadowland, John Lewis-Stempel (Transworld)
  • H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald (Vintage)
  • Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place, Philip Marsden (Granta)

After going and googling away I saw this as a really exciting list of, bar the aforementioned H is for Hawk, new to me books and could be a really interesting way into this kind of writing. Yes even the running one. I also thought this would be a good chance to give some of these kind of books a whirl and as luck should have it a set is winging its way to me in the post, perfect post Fiction Uncovered reading as something very different and new to try.

And so could you. Yes, the lovely folk at FMcM have said one lucky visitor of this blog (again, like yesterday’s book giveaway, in the UK only due to postage) can win a set of all the shortlisted titles! What do you have to do? Well you know I love a book recommendation as much as recommending books so… I would like to know which fictional AND non fictional books about the countryside and nature have been a complete hit with you? Let me know by midnight tomorrow night (April 22nd) and I will announce the winner on Thursday, good luck! Oh and if you have any theories on why nature writing has become so popular again I would love to know that too.

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The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist Giveaway: How To Be Both – Ali Smith

Really this post should be basically entitled, who would like to read Ali Smith’s How To Be Both along with me as that is what I really want to know. What on earth am I talking about? Well, the other day I got a lovely email from the lovely folk at the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction, whose longlist I tried to guess a while back and whose shortlist I discussed here, to see if I would like to champion on of the shortlisted books once they were announced. Of course I said yes immediately, especially when they said that five of you could win the book too.

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I was instantly desperate to do it, though I was worried there might be some raised eyebrows at a man reading one of the titles (seriously did you see my Twitter account the other day when I dared ask why a single man couldn’t be on the judging panel as a man who loves fiction written by women, anyway…) and it seemed obvious that the book I should keep on championing would be Laline Paull’s The Bees which I have read and banged on about ever since, or maybe A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie. However I thought there could be a nice twist, and the start of something different on Savidge Reads, by having it as a kind of book group (like we did with the Not The TV Book Club when I hosted it here and here or when I did the Sensation Season) and doing something I haven’t read as yet and so plumped for…

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How To Be Both By Ali Smith. This is a book I have been meaning to read for bloody ages both as I love Ali Smith, and have done for quite some time, and also because I love the idea that a book can be read in two different ways, literally not just figuratively.  I also love the idea of having a book group of sorts on Savidge Reads, I have been a fan of Cornflower’s Book Club for some time, where you know the books in advance and can read ahead and join in the debate, rather than when I post my reviews, which I hope have an element of surprise.

So who fancies joining me? We could agree to all read it and talk about it on Monday the 1st of June, two days before the winner is announced, what do you think? I would love lots of you to be involved, I think it could be a hoot.

I can also get copies of it into five of your hands (you have to be in the UK to be eligible for postage reasons, sorry, I would still love readers everywhere to join in) thanks to the folk at the Baileys Prize for Fiction who have held some copies aside. All you have to do is leave a comment saying you are in and up for it below by 1600hrs GMT on Monday the 27th of April! Good luck! Oh and you are all being spoiled silly as I have another give away coming tomorrow too…

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Other People’s Bookshelves #55 – Naomi Frisby

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 books and shelves. This week we are in the North of England (the north is the best lets us be honest, yes I went there) and the city of Sheffield  to join the lovely Naomi. Before we have a nosey through her shelves,  and steal some of those lovely biscuits and a Bailey’s or two, let’s find out more about her…

I live in Sheffield with my husband and stepson. Until last summer, I was a secondary school English teacher, a job I did for twelve years. I left the profession to embark on a PhD in Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. My thesis is on representations of the female gender in circus and sideshow literature, so I’m looking at bearded ladies, human mermaids, conjoined twins and intersex characters, amongst others. I run the blog The Writes of Woman which I set up in 2013. It’s a one-woman attempt to do something about the gender imbalance in books reviewed in the mainstream media.

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

I keep almost all of them; I’m a nightmare for it. The first thing my dad said when I told him I was moving in with the man who became my husband was, ‘Does he know how many books you’ve got?’ I’m not a hoarder generally but I can’t seem to help myself when it comes to books. The only ones that don’t end up on the shelves are duplicates which I give to a friend or the occasional one I really dislike. I used teaching as an excuse for years, you never know when you might be teaching a particular book or you’ll want an extract either to show students how something’s done or how not to do it. I need a new excuse now!

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?

My shelves are split into fiction and non-fiction. The fiction section has separate sections for children’s/young adult, poetry and plays. The non-fiction section is divided into memoir, music, television, feminism, history, travel and so on. All sections are then in alphabetical order and in the case of writers with more than one book in my collection, by date of publication. (Unless it’s a hardback as they only fit on the middle and bottom shelves. Although I have exactly the same system for them.) That sounds very anal, doesn’t it? I get frustrated when I can’t find things I want quickly! The exceptions to this are the books I’m reading for my PhD and review copies from publishers. The PhD books have two shelves roughly arranged into those I’ve read and want to use in my thesis; those I want to read next because they look most useful, and those I’m planning to read later on. Review copies are stacked up on top of the shelves in the kitchen; I’ve run out of shelves for those. I’ve only culled once when I moved from Sheffield to London from a house to a flat. My dad was helping with the move and took the boxes of books to donate to a charity shop, a couple of years later I discovered they were in my parents’ garage. Most of them are still there; my dad’s been working his way through them!

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

I’m not entirely sure what it was. It was probably an Enid Blyton or a Roald Dahl bought with birthday or Christmas money. If I was going to guess, I’d say Enid Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl Is a Monitor but that might be because the cover’s bright pink so it stands out in my memory. I’ve still got all my books from childhood, some are on my shelves, some are on my stepson’s.

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?

No. I’ve stopped believing in feeling guilty about books I enjoy reading. The ones people would be surprised at, I think, are the ‘women’s fiction’/so-called ‘chick-lit’ novels (I dislike both of those terms) but the Jilly Cooper, Freya North, Miranda Dickinson, Marion Keyes, Jojo Moyes, Ruth Saberton novels are on the fiction shelves like everything else.

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Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would bea 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?

At the risk of sounding like an arse, it’s a signed manuscript of Carys Bray’s novel A Song for Issy Bradley. I was due to cover an event at Cheltenham Literary Festival for Hutchinson Books where they introduced forthcoming books from Helen Dunmore and Dea Brøvig. A few weeks before it happened, Bray was signed by Hutchinson and added to the bill. So I could read the book before the event, I was sent the manuscript. It has a different title to the finished novel and it’s pre-final edit, so not only is it exciting that I have it from a book geek point of view but from a writing point of view, it’s interesting to compare it with the published version and see what changes an editor at a publishing house decided to make.

As for saving in a fire, I’ve become less precious about my books. I also have an online database in case I ever do need to replace any (also to stop me buying duplicates which was happening with alarming frequency). However, the Carys Bray manuscript would definitely need saving and I have a few favourite novels that are signed – Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (with the original black and silver cover) and Trumpet by Jackie Kay are two that come immediately to mind – which I’d be gutted to lose. Now you’ve got me wondering whether I should put them all together somewhere in case I ever need to grab them!

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

My parents didn’t have many fiction books when I was growing up but of the selection they did own, it was Wuthering Heights that attracted me the most. There were two reasons for that: one, no one else had managed to get past the first few chapters and I was determined I would! Two, we lived on the border between South and West Yorkshire so I was aware of the landscape where it was set. I did read it. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on it (alongside Jane Eyre and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) and I’ve taught it to secondary school students. I have my own copy on my shelf – it’s heavily annotated!

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

I went through a stage of buying every book but I’ve begun to borrow more recently, partly because I’ve a group of bookish friends that I met through Twitter so we’ve quite a library between us and I was acquiring too many unread hardbacks on the shelves long after the paperbacks had been published. If I love something though, I do have to own it. This also applies to books I’ve read on Kindle (which I do quite frequently); if I really love it, I have to have a physical copy to keep on the shelf.

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

Because I’m not working at the moment, I’m on a book-buying ban so I haven’t bought anything since early December and they were all PhD related. The last review copies to arrive were Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent and Mailbox by Nancy Freund and for Christmas, I got Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and an anthology of short stories Sideshow: Ten Original Tales of Freaks, Illusionists, and Other Matters Odd and Magical from my husband and Storm by Tim Minchin, DC Turner and Tracy King from a friend. I’ve started to get into graphic novels lately.

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

I have a ridiculously long wishlist of books I’d like but nothing particular like a series or a first edition. I did read Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star recently and it went straight onto my ‘best books I’ve ever read’ list but I read it on Kindle, so I definitely need that on my bookshelves, it’ll need to go on the newly created ‘In case of fire, rescue these first’ shelf!

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

I think they’d probably think I was up my own arse! My collection’s mostly literary fiction so it probably does look pretentious. I suppose I’d like them to think I was intelligent; I might have a Barnsley accent but…what’s that phrase? Don’t judge a working class book by its cover.

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A huge thanks to Naomi 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 as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Naomi’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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A God in Every Stone – Kamila Shamsie

I mentioned a while ago that I had a small backlog of book reviews, which is fortunate as I can’t really talk to you about what I am reading at the moment. One book is Kamila Shamsie’s sixth novel A God in Every Stone which has just been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which I read last year. Why have I held of reviewing it until the shortlisted nudge? Well, A God in Every Stone is one of those books that is epic for its size in both its stories scope and indeed the themes that are held within. This is a readers dream, it is also blooming hard work for a reviewer, here goes…

Bloomsbury Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

There are three strands within A God in Every Stone. The book opens with us in the Persian empire in the company of Scylax, an explorer in the fifth-century BCE, this is a very brief snippet before we are thrown into 1914 and the first of the two major strands, but don’t forget old Scylax, as we join Vivian Rose Spencer as she joins a Turkish archaeologist, Tahsin Bey, at a dig in Labraunda. Tahsin has been in her life for many years as a friend of her father and used to often tell her stories of Scylax when she was a young girl, inspiring her love of adventure, archaeology, history and the stories of the past and its people. As they work together an additional bond is built yet soon the First World War begins and are separated when Vivian is sent back to London to serve as a VAD.

The second main strand is that of two brothers living in Peshwar, Najeeb (who is an utter joy to read and instantly became my favourite character) and Qayyum. Qayyum has been a soldier for the British forces, and is returning after having been kept in Brighton to recover from some injuries. He returns to find his home city a changed place, having left the battle fields he returns to a city that seems to be on the very edge of unrest and potential catastrophe. How do these all interweave, well that would be telling I don’t want to spoil it for anyone so I am not going to tell you, you need to read the book.

If this all makes it sound like A God in Every Stone is rather confusing and disorientating, it honestly isn’t. This is a novel where characters, and most importantly really history, interweave and intertwine creating a wonderful tapestry of interconnecting lives. Now I worry I have made it sound twee and this book is anything but that; there is one huge twist in the novel that I didn’t see coming and hit me with an emotional wallop that actually made me gasp, as the book leads to its conclusion on The Street of Storytellers it depicts one of the biggest atrocities in Peshwar’s history, yet one that is little known or spoken of outside of the country.

The book is also teeming with themes one being history. Regular visitors will know that my mother is a classics teacher who would love to do archaeology and dragged me round Pompeii for a day when I was younger, so when I started reading about archaeological digs a bit of me went back to that day and winced. However the story of a woman in that setting in the male dominated pre-war era is a really interesting one and Vivian is quite the forward thinking woman who fights against stereotypes often through some very awkward situations with men who want to tame her, women who hate her – oh and the secret service wanting to hire her. It is little gems like that, based on fact, that give the book added dimensions and Shamsie is very good at giving every character some kind of additional story without it feeling forced or that she wants to bash you over the head with all the research she has done.

How can I explain how it feels to hold an ancient object and feel yourself linked to everyone through whose hand it passed. All these stories which happened where we live, on our piece of earth – how can you stay immune to them? Every day here in Taxila I dig up a new story. And, yes, I am grateful to the English for putting this spade in my hands and allowing me to know my own history. But to you history is something to be made, not studied, so how can you understand?

Shamsie takes a very interesting look at history in the novel. She looks at how we see events before something life changing occurs, how we see it during and how we think of it afterwards both instantly and in hindsight. All of the characters do this be it on a small or large scale. Shamsie also looks at how history is not actually something solely from the past, it is also something from the future because we are building it every second, every minute and indeed as we think our future actions through.

I know the stories of men from twenty-five hundred years ago, but I’ll never know what happens to you.

Another large theme in A God in Every Stone is the importance of story; how stories become history, how history becomes a story. She also looks at the power of stories and storytelling, be they the ones we tell others, the ones we tell ourselves and the ones that we will never know. In fact really you could say that this novel is the embodiment of how we can learn through stories, be they fictional or factual, and how we use those stories of the past to build the stories of the future.

I still don’t feel like I have really done A God in Every Stone justice, thought I felt the same after reading Burnt Shadows (you can see the review but bear in mind it was written long ago and made me wince a little as I read it) which is also a deceptive epic for its 300 pages too. It is just one of those tricky yet marvellous books that are very hard to write about if you haven’t read them and experienced them. Experienced is the right word actually because having come away from this novel I really felt I had lived, lost and loved alongside all the characters and what they went through. Suffice to say I think you should stop reading this and go and read Shamsie instead.

If you would like to find out more about A God in Every Stone, you can hear Kamila talking about it (far more eloquently than I can write about it) in conversation with me on You Wrote The Book here. Who else has read it and what were your thoughts?

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Why I Still Turn to Fairytales…

Some might say it is a little bit queer (rolls eyes at self) that a thirty three year old man would be desperate to see Cinderella as his 33rd birthday treat, yet this was my story just a few weeks ago. Since I can remember when I have loved a good fairytale. This I blame on my family frankly.

Firstly my highly over imaginative grandfather who made me believe that the tower at the top of our hill (actually part of The Heights of Abraham) was where Rapunzel lived (who I named my pet duck after) and who also wrote me magical tales with me in them when I was three upwards. Secondly my pair of wicked ugly aunties (only joking Caz and Alice, honest, gulp) who told me tales of witches who lived on the hill, which I think they made up. Thirdly my mother who would read and reread (and reread and reread and reread) the wonderful Ladybird Well Loved Tales to me as a child. Fourthly my Gran who also read me those and would watch the Slipper and the Rose (one of the best versions of the Cinderella story, end of) at least four or five times, with a break in between for The Wizard of Oz or the odd Doris Day movie, when I would stay in the school holidays. I know, this explains so much right there doesn’t it?

My old family home, surrounded by forest – Sleeping Beauty much?

So I guess fairy tales were a safe haven when I was growing up and indeed have been my turn to books whenever I am feeling a little off kilter, ill, out of sorts or have the dreaded readers block. There are the odd exceptions but Into the Woods was a film not a book and probably shouldn’t be mentioned ever again. Oddly enough once I realised how much darker they were than sanitised Ladybird or Disney incarnations I loved them all the more, though still haven’t read all the ‘fairy tales uncut’ as it were. That was why there was really no other first tattoo option for me; I am planning a ‘woodland fairytale scene’ on my other arm as we speak. Seeing Cinderella, which was extremely good indeed thank you for asking, and having the new routine of watching an episode of Once Upon a Time with my breakfast and coffee and sometimes my lunch – the urge for me to read the originals and the new homage’s and the like has come back really strong.

I thought instead of me just asking you for advice on which ones I should look out for, though you all know I am going to ask that later let’s not pretend, I decided I would share with you some fairy tales and fairy tale themed books I have loved and some I have been buying and hoarding and planning to read at some point.

Just a selection from my shelves...

Just a selection from my shelves…

First up are some books that I would really, really recommend and indeed have reviewed. There are of course the originals but you all know about all of them. There have been some wonderful authors who have taken on the fairytales and given them their spin. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is one fine example, as is Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales (which do what they say on the tin) and I would highly recommend Sarah Pinborough’s trilogy of Poison, Charm (which I have read but yet to review) and Beauty (which I have yet to read) which give the tales of three princesses a much darker and saucier feel, and cleverly interweaves them all.

If you fancy some new fairytales then you can’t go wrong with the fantastically gothic graphic novel collection of both Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods and Isabel Greenberg’s An Encyclopedia of Early Earth one which will give you the horrors, the other which looks at myths, fairytales and legends and their creation. Then there is the wonderful collection by Viktor and Rolf, which safe to celebrates the campiness of the fairytale, disco hedgehog anyone? Oh and how could I forget the sublime, sublime, sublime Diving Belles by Lucy Wood which is one of my favourite short story collections every and will have you seeing magic, mermaids and witches everywhere when you leave the house.

There is one standout though that both reinvents and invents. With Bitter Greens I think Kate Forsyth, who is actually a Doctor of Fairytales yet who we shall just call Queen of the Fairy Tales for now, has done something incredible that any fairy tale or story lover of any type should read. In it we meet three women all isolated from society for various different reasons, a storyteller locked in a nunnery, a woman locked into getting revenge and a young girl locked in a tower. These women’s tales come together to create a wonderful novel about storytelling, history, and fairytales and of course my favourite tale of all the story tales… Rapunzel. Just read it. I need to read The Wild Girl which I believe looks at the Brothers Grimm themselves and nicely links in to some books I haven’t read yet but have bought.

So what of the books to read?  I didn’t realise this until recently, and now it seems so obvious, but Kate Hamer’s debut about a child abducted The Girl in the Red Coat is one I am itching to read, as is Kirsty Logan’s collection of modern fairytales The Rental Heart. Then there is the series that I have seen lots and lots and lots of people going crazy over, the dystopic Lunar Chronicles which sees Cinderella as a cyborg, Little Red Riding Hood turn detective/street crime fighter and Rapunzel a computer hacker. I. CANNOT. WAIT!

Oh and then there are two nonfiction books I should mention. Once Upon a Time which is Marina Warner’s short history of the fairytale (apparently she is an expert so I might end up wanting her entire backlist) and I am also desperate to read, Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland which comes with the subtitle the tangled roots of our forests and fairytales which I have had on the shelves for far too long and needs to be read.

Phew I think that is enough! As you can see this list is not exhaustive and I am sure there are many, many recommendations you would love to pass onto me. Hint, hint. Has Margaret Atwood not done some fairytales, it will be a crime if not. If you would like to hear Kate Forsyth and I talking fairytales, you can do so here, oh and if anyone would like to be a secret benefactor and send me to Australia to do a doctorate of fairytales and follow in Kate’s footsteps do let me know. Right over to you; which of the above have you read and what would you recommend?

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The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2016…

The Women’s Prize for Fiction is one of the prizes that I get excited about every year, indeed trying to guess the longlist of (failing delightfully) every year as I tend to read more female authors than male authors – which I should look into more I think. Anyway, here they are the six novels that have made the shortlist from the twenty strong longlist (of which a group of lovely bloggers have been shadow judging)…

  • Outline by Rachel Cusk
  • The Bees by Laline Paull
  • A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie
  • How To Be Both by Ali Smith
  • A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
  • The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

As you might guess I am ECSTATIC about Laline Paull’s The Bees being on the list. It was one of my first reads of this year and I just adored it. I have also read the Kamila Shamsie and should really pull my finger out with a review of that one soon. I shall get it live for you all on Thursday, promise. I have read and enjoyed both Waters and Tyler before, Rachel Cusk though is an author I have yet to encounter.

Even more thrilling I am also excited because tomorrow I find out which of the shortlisted books the lovely folk at the Bailey’s Prize will be sending me (one I haven’t read yet, I believe) and also to five of you to read along with me before the winner is announced on the 3rd of June 2016. And yes you read that right, along with five of you… How you can win a copy of the book I will let you know in the next day or so, as soon as I know what it is.

In the meantime what do you think of the list? Any you would have switched, or are you happy as it is? Which have you read?

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The Book Tingle (#BookTingle)

When I was sat with my lovely fellow judges at the first proper Fiction Uncovered meeting, the subject of what we were all looking for in winning books came up. As it went around the table with the judges and the Fiction Uncovered team things like the prose and writing style, something different that stands out, great stories etc all come up. When everyone looked at me for my response the words that came out of my mouth were ‘I want the book tingle’ and they all looked at me like they might have someone unhinged (or living up to the Simple Simon namesake) sat with them. And so I explained…

For me a book tingle is a rare and elusive phenomenon. You would initially think that for a book to give me all the tingles it would simply need to be an amazingly written book that ticks all my literary likes. Well yes, but you see there is more to it and I bet you have all had them too. You can have books that start amazingly and then, for various reasons, go off on a tangent, these ones don’t. From start to finish they have you.

The first time I had this sensation was with Catherine Hall’s The Proof of Love*.  I should hear add that since then Catherine and I have become firm friends, down to the book actually, yet when I picked it up I hadn’t heard of her before and had no knowledge of the book. Oh, expect that on the cover it said ‘Sarah Waters meets Daphne Du Maurier’ which piqued my interest and also made me wary all at once. In fact, cheeky little scamp that I am I actually thought ‘compared to Du Maurier eh? Go on then, impress me…’ and it did taking me completely by delightful surprise. You see from two or three paragraphs in I just knew this was a book for me. It is often the sense of surprise when this happens that adds to the experience.

These books are rare gems; you don’t get them often. There is an almost unexplainable feeling from the start which lasts until the final full stop. Not for a single moment does the book let you down, or indeed out of its grasp, you are effectively spell bound by it. It feels like all the rest of the world goes completely out of your mind and all that is left is you, the book and the author’s words. It is the prose, the characters, the atmosphere, everything! You almost feel, without it sounding arrogant, that this book was written just for you.

This has happened again very recently, if I may be so bold, with Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, review coming soon. Four pages in and I knew we were off. I was in an effortless zone of book reading bliss. This book has nothing in common with The Proof of Love, well actually maybe something in hindsight but I wouldn’t have known from the start. They are set in different times, completely different places, yet somehow I just knew. And it is the same with some other books which gave me that same sensation (have I said tingle too often now making it sound even weirder than it did at the start?) like Gillespie and I, The Hunger Trace, Small Island, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, My Policeman etc ** from the very beginning I just knew. They all just got me, or did I just get them, either way it was a perfect match.

So what I am saying really, and what I think I am not looking for in just Fiction Uncovered judging but also in my reading life in general, is that the reason I keep reading is to hunt for that next kick and those extra special books. The books that you more than simply just love, the ones that give you that magic feeling, don’t let you go and afterwards become both part a landmark in your reading history and a part of your psyche.

To hear me talking about it slightly more eloquently, yet with more giggles, listen to the latest episode of The Readers. I would love to know (in the comments below) which books you’ve read that have given you the book tingle, or whatever you would like to call it, from the very start and held you throughout, plus how it feels when you just know a book is going to be just your sort of book. Which books do you feel were really written just for you? Do also share them on Twitter with #BookTingle, let’s get it trending!

*You may have noticed I have not mentioned Rebecca. This is in part because it is the book that got me reading again, so is a whole separate stratosphere and also in part because I wouldn’t have known what a book tingle was if it had hit me square between the eyes.
**These with Catherine Hall are the books, prior to my last tingle with Ms Burton, that I thought of when I was thinking of books where the feeling hit me within a few pages or a chapter. I just knew.

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The Assumptions We Make About Books & Authors…

Last week when the lovely Thomas and I were thinking about subjects to talk about on the latest episode of The Readers Podcast he came up with the idea that we should discuss ‘bookish assumptions’. I was horrified, how dare Thomas suggest that I made assumptions about books. I mean I don’t have any, well, apart from the fact I don’t like books set on boats, set around sports (a new one), set on another planet or with a horse in them or on the cover… Oh! The thing is the more I thought about it the more I realised I do it.

Judging for Fiction Uncovered is underway, and I am reading like a little book machine. When the first batch of book arrived I was filled with excitement, so much so that I put it off for a few hours. Upon opening them I took the books out one by one and instantly started making assumptions about them. I can’t talk about what the books are, as I have sworn to secrecy, but I can say I was basing my thoughts on the following; the cover, what I had heard about the author from other readers if I recognised their name, the blurb/premise. Shameful. This was judging before I should even be judging and so I set the books on a shelf in alphabetical order by title and that is how I have been reading them, and it has been somewhat of a revelation as now I am just reading them one by one and focusing on whether the writing style and prose, story, characters, etc are working for me. Oh and if any of them are giving me a book tingle – more on that tomorrow.

The reality of the situation is that if we are having a good old mooch around a book shop these are the very things that we will judge a book on if we are honest. Though that said this is in the instances when we know very little about the book and so that is all we can judge it on. What about authors themselves, Thomas asked me before we recorded…

‘Oh I don’t judge authors, I will give anyone a whirl, I think.’
‘Really?’
‘Erm yeah, unless they have written a book about a talking horse who is stuck on a boat filled with men who can only endure the long days boxing as they are stuck in an ocean on another planet with no help.’
‘Right, so what about authors that you have seen behaving badly on social media or who have extreme views?’
‘Erm, well I won’t read those obviously, who wants to read a book written by a knobhead?’
‘Okay… and what about E.M. Forster?’
‘Oh…’

First let me tackle the authors I think are knobheads might perhaps not come across very well on social media or who have some extreme views. I like to believe that goodness and kindness will out. So if I see an author on social media or maybe read/hear an interview with an author where they are coming across like a pompous/arrogant or worse homophobic/racist/bigoted then no I really don’t want to read their book thank you very much. One, I don’t want to give them any money/sales and two; I wouldn’t want to spend my time with them in the flesh so why would I want to spend my time in their heads where the book has come from. A prime example is Ender’s Game I don’t care how good it is, I don’t want to read a book by someone with his views. I don’t mind reading books about homophobia but I don’t want to read a book written by someone whose mind is laced with it.

Secondly, and lastly in case I am going on which as I love a waffle is likely, the authors who I have read before and made assumptions about. Rise Mr E.M. Forster, who I actually (having thought about it) have to admit that I may have tarnished unfairly because I loathed A Room With A View and swore I would never read anything by him again. Why was this unfair? Well, I think really it might more have been the way it was taught by a dreadful English A Level teacher at Devizes 6th Form College in 1997/1998 who made it as painful and unbearable to dissect and repeat, repeat, repeat both book and film. However, more recently, having read The Martian (or trying to) I can confirm I will never ever attempt/bother reading Andy Weir again. Ever. (I’m sure with the huge adaptation rights he has sold he won’t be crying into his pillow.)

But are assumptions actually a bad thing? I am going to say in the most part no, occasionally yes. In the latter case I have been proved by James Dawson, E. Lockhart, R.J. Palacio and Andrew Smith that YA novels, which I had made some rather negative assumptions about, are bloody brilliant when done really well and now plan to read Patrick Ness, Lisa Williamson and many more. The reason I think no is that actually as much as we are looking for more books to fill our lives and shelves with, we also need to filter down the amount of choice there is out there. This can be through materialistic things like a bad cover, personal choices about if an author being an utter wally can put us off or if we just don’t trust horses or more importantly if we just don’t like certain authors styles of prose and their books just don’t work for us. It is all about tastes really isn’t it?

Tomorrow we will be talking about book tingles, the best things in the world. In the meantime I would love to hear some of things that make you have assumptions about books (subject matters, talking animals, genres etc) and also about the assumptions you have made about books both ones you have been right and wrong about… Help me feel a little less crazy/judgemental.

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The Bear – Claire Cameron

It is very unlike me to leave reviewing a book till almost a year after I have read it, yet with Claire Cameron’s debut novel The Bear I almost felt I needed quite a distance from it. Not actually that this is a new review written from nothing this morning – though they never are – these thoughts were started when I was reading it, then tweaked after I had finished and then I needed to think about it more. This is because, for me, The Bear is one of those books that really divided me whilst reading it, straight after finishing it and then in the months after that. It was also one of the books I was most excited about reading in 2014, it had me and my expectations from the blurb…

Anna is five. Her little brother, Stick, is almost three. They are camping with their parents in Algonquin Park, in three thousand square miles of wilderness. It’s the perfect family trip. But then Anna awakes in the night to the sound of something moving in the shadows. Her father is terrified. Her mother is screaming. Then, silence. Alone in the woods, it is Anna who has to look after Stick, battling hunger and the elements to stay alive.

Vintage Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 241 pages, kindly sent by the publisher (I blooming love this cover)

I don’t normally start a book review with a blurb as I find it useful to try and rewrite one that I think is more fitting to my experience of the book. However I think the blurb of The Bear is pretty much perfect both in the stop-start simplistic yet precise style it has to it and because it sets up the incredibly high octane start to the book for any reader. The beginning of The Bear is some of the most arresting, thrilling then chilling and unsettling fiction that I have read in quite some time. Even if it written in the voice of a five year old child.

The reason I put ‘even if’ in that final sentence is because I have serious issues with books told from the perspective of a narrator under the age of eleven. Admittedly there are the occasional exceptions; however the rule of thumb is that they make my skin crawl. You see they tend to fall into one of two camps, firstly there is the precocious tone that is generally used (because apparently kids telling stories can only be the precocious ones) or secondly there is the case of an author feeling they are being clever or edgy using this style and actually coming across as a pompous/pretentious arse. Claire Cameron doesn’t fall into either of these clichés; she is one of the exceptions.

Admittedly I was worried that Anna might get on my nerves a little, yet Claire Cameron uses her voice very wisely. Her initial masterstroke is that things happen very quickly from the off, so whatever narrative the book could have been written you would be hooked. What gives it the extra dimension and power is, and this is something that the best authors do with child narrators, it tells you some horrific things very naively and leaves us to fill in the blank/grey areas with our own horrid little imaginations. It is very skilfully done.

I also think this works even more in the narrators favour as because we have put our adult selves back in the position of a small child we also reach for our own nostalgic fears. Who wasn’t scared of potentially being lost in the woods (or indeed even Waitrose) as a small child? Who doesn’t occasionally imagine there could be a shark in the swimming pool as a thirty three year old… oh… this got awkward, moving on. This means we are further on Anna’s side, well you would have to be quite a dark soul not to be anyway as she’s lost in the middle of a wood with a bear with a taste for blood and her little brother to protect, and so by default become all the more desperate that she is safe. Even those of us with hearts made of coal will find ourselves becoming somewhat endeared to her the more we read.

Also there is more wind and I feel a little colder on my legs. It is going to be night-time and we need to get to our safe place. I pull on Stick’s arm so he will stand up and come because I think no more water on my legs it’s too so we walk over to the trees part. It is darker because the trees are spread out like a roof all over the top. Our safe place can be at the cottage because we have two beds. Or Toronto and we need to find it. We walk in there for a little bit and my feet don’t hurt until a pine needle decides to prick them ouch. Mostly they don’t prick only a few mean ones. Stick gets them too because he says ‘owey’ and stops and makes me look at his foot.
‘Gotta splinter.’

You may have sensed it, BUT there is a ‘but’ coming. The tension at the start is epic and somewhere in the middle it seems to suddenly run out. I honestly thought I had missed a chapter or two as the tension suddenly started at the end again because I felt like for a good third (maybe even a little more) of the book we were somewhat stuck in a limbo and getting nowhere. This may have been the idea yet bar a small moment of some tree rustling the drive and indeed sense of peril seemed to vanish. I soon learnt that there is only so much cookie and berry hunting, and indeed descriptions of toddler’s soiling themselves that I could take. It wasn’t the narrative, in fact that pulled me through, it was more that I felt a bit bored. This again could have been the intention as the tension rockets up again at the end, I just thought Cameron could have given us moments of the beginning throughout, after all wouldn’t a five year old be pooing themselves at everything – physically they were but mentally too you would think?

This has been my dilemma in the past year. Oddly The Bear reminds me of a book that I have never read, bear with me, Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love. That particular McEwan novel is meant to have one of his best opening chapters, something to do with a balloon, yet apparently from then on is a little bit pedestrian after such a full on start and feels like a corking writer making what should just be a short story turn into a full novel. That is how I felt with The Bear. I will never forget the opening pages, Cameron is clearly a brilliant writer, it just maybe needed to be left a short story or had a few extra moments jaw dropping tension to match the promise it held at the off. Read it for the opening pages alone you won’t forget them I am still thinking about them months on; though don’t plan to go camping anytime afterwards.

I definitely want to read more of her work, I wonder if her debut The Line Painter will come out over here at any point, it looks properly creepy, I will look forward to whatever comes next. Who else has read The Bear and if so what did you make of it?

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