Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Lady in the Van – Alan Bennett

I have been somewhat berating myself of late over the fact that I seem to be reading more shiny new books than I do the backlists of authors that I am either big fans of or think I could be big fans of. (I have mentioned my thoughts on an author binge of late who I have been meaning to read much more of.) I was therefore delighted when my lovely friend Barbs chose Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, both as it was short and I have been prize judging (she’s very considerate) and because Bennett is a writer I love who I haven’t read enough of. Shockingly though I have read it twice I don’t have a review of The Uncommon Reader on the blog which is a HUGE favourite here as it is with most readers. Anyway, I was excited to read this and chat about it with three ladies in a restaurant…

Profile Books, paperback, 1989 (1999 edition), non fiction, 96 pages, bought by myself for myself

‘I ran into a snake this afternoon,’ Miss Shepherd said. ‘It was coming up Parkway. It was a long, grey snake – a boa constrictor possibly. It looked poisonous. It was keeping close to the wall and seemed to know its way. I’ve a feeling it may have been heading for the van.’ I was relieved that on this occasion she didn’t demand that I ring the police, as she regularly did if anything out of the ordinary occurred. Perhaps this was too out of the ordinary (though it turned out the pet shop in Parkway had been broken into the previous night so she may have seen a snake). She brought her mug over and I made her a drink, which she took back to the van. ‘I thought I’d better tell you,’ she said, ‘just to be on the safe side. I’ve had some close shaves with snakes.’

And so The Lady in the Van starts as it means to go on and throws us straight into the (very much true) story of Alan Bennett and his neighbour Miss Shepherd. Well, when I say neighbour, I actually mean the woman who lived in a van on his road until some people complained to the council and Bennett kindly offered her the space on his drive/front garden in front of the garage. What Mr Bennett didn’t realise was that the invite to stay there for a couple of weeks turned into the small time of a mere fifteen years. Through short sharp diary entries he lets the reader into a relationship and friendship of sorts which he never expected.

It is almost too obvious to say that what I loved most about The Lady in the Van was Alan Bennett’s writing, yet it is true – I just love his writing. The way he captures people’s characteristics is wonderful and Miss Shepherd’s full (or full on) personality comes loud and clear, what a character she was. Some people might have made me more of a figure of fun, some might have made her a tragic case, Bennett brings all of her sides and intricacies to life; at times she is witty, difficult, frustrating, upsetting, a villain and a victim. Bennett is also very good at writing honestly (or as honestly as one can) about himself. He isn’t some hero in shining armour who befriended an old lady and made her life wonderful, he is a man who did something very kind and sometimes wondered why on earth he had bothered yet at the same time he made as much a difference to her life as she did to his. It is deftly done.

October 1984. Some new staircarpet fitted today. Spotting the old carpet being thrown out, Miss S. says it would be just the thing to put on the roof of the van to deaden the sound of rain. This exchange comes just as I am leaving for work, but I say that I do not want the van festooned with bits of old carpet – it looks bad enough as it is. When I come back in the evening I find half the carpet remnants slung over the roof. I ask Miss S. who has put them there, as she can’t have done it herself. ‘A friend,’ she says mysteriously. ‘A well wisher.’ Enraged, I pull down a token piece but the majority stays put.

As much as it made me laugh at times, especially when Miss S decides to become a member of parliament or hints at moving in or pretends the utter mess she lives in is merely blown from all over the road, I was also very much moved by The Lady in the Van. As whilst it is a tale of a crazy lady who ended up in Bennett’s garden, it is also the story of a woman with no family or friends to speak of who has been spending the most of her last decades alone and seen as ‘a character’ which may be the case on the outside but what about on the inside and why she ended up surrounded by cake crumbs, papers and a spotless cutlery set in a van and clothes in a robin reliant. You chuckle, then you think a little deeper.

Through Alan’s observations and thoughts we ponder old age and how no matter how old we get there is still the same person and personality within that body that looks somewhat different than it once did. It also looks at care for the elderly and the benefits (and pitalls) that independence can bring. It also highlights the fact that we tend to forget that elderly people have lived a full life, possibly full of all sorts of secrets and lessons we could learn, yet all we see is the result of those years and sadly sometimes judge them. In fact I would say judging people is probably one of the biggest themes of the book along with kindness, after all how many of us would have done what Bennett did if we found ourselves in that position?

So for me Alan Bennett triumphed once again with The Lady in the Van. As with his fictional writings such as Smut, The Uncommon Reader and his Talking Heads series (which I used to have on tape and listened to religiously before bed in my teens) and with memoir like A Life Like Other People’s he hits us just at the spot where humour and poignancy meet. He is a lover of character and characters and celebrates them with their flaws and all. I must read more of his work and I must see this when the movie comes out in November…

What about all of you? Have you read, or seen the play of, The Lady in the Van? Which of Alan Bennett’s other works have you seen or read and should I head to Untold Stories, Writing Home or Telling Tales next?

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Filed under Alan Bennett, Book Group, Books of 2015, Non Fiction, Profile Books, Review

Other People’s Bookshelves #59 – Erica Jones

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week we are down in the garden of England that is Kent and having a nosey around the shelves of fellow book blogger Erica. Now that we have helped ourselves to some Kentish treats and a whole host of lovely beverages we can get to know Erica and her bookshelves a little bit better…

Originally a northerner, I now live in Kent (via Wales). This means I do a lot of travelling to catch up with scattered friends and family. Combine that with an obsession with books and bookshops, and it was inevitable I’d one day find an excuse to visit as many of them as possible, which is how I started writing my blog The Bookshop Around the Corner in my spare time. I’m basically on a one-woman crusade to remind people why they should be buying their books from real (preferably but not necessarily independent) bookshops on the high street. However rather than going on an angry rant I chose to do it in a positive way, sharing the bookshopping fun with anyone who wants to read. Also, I’ll only write about bookshops I like and have spent money in. You can find me on Twitter @bookshopblogger.

Erica full bookshelves

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?

If I like a book I keep it. All the books I own are on display somewhere in my flat – mostly on the shelves in my living room, but also in other strategic points, such as the kitchen, next to the bath or in piles on my dining table (waiting for me to tidy up the shelves, a regular problem given how many books I buy). The only ones hidden away are my old Open University course books. It felt a bit pretentious to have them on show.

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 three groups: standard paperbacks; misc; bookshop blog. Standard paperbacks is fairly obvious, this is an A-Z of the paperback fiction and non-fiction of my life. However last year I downsized from a house and had to cull around five boxes of books. This section took quite a hit, mostly classics from school (in the hope someone else will fall in love with them) unread university course books (the heavier side of studying English literature) and those I’ve inherited, but I agonised over every volume before putting it into the box. In the end the only reason I was able to give them up was because I knew how much the bookshop they went to would benefit. This section takes up the bottom three rows of shelves and includes the random oversized books on the right of the main picture.

Erica A-Z close

Misc is a combination of hardbacks, larger books and my childhood Sweet Valley High collection. It’s generally in alphabetical order according to size and also took a bit of a hit during last year’s enforced cull. Some of the books that mean the most to me are found in this section. This is the bookcase to the left of the main picture. The third grouping is for the bookshop blog. It takes up the top row of the bookcases and also on top of them. Given how obsessed I can be with alphabetical order, these shelves are the ones that make people look twice: the books are arranged in chronological bookshop order. The first book, The Princess Bride was bought at the first bookshop I wrote about, Big Green Books in Wood Green, London. Then they follow in order, spilling out onto the top of the bookcases as I’ve run out of room. Next to these, acting as bookends and topped with random other bookshop items, are small piles of books relating to bookshops I’ve not yet written about. This is my favourite section and I’m never culling from it, the books are too great a reminder of all the fascinating places I’ve visited and people I’ve met since starting the blog. Nothing beats looking along a row of books for inspiring good memories.

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

This was probably one of my Sweet Valley High books, I couldn’t tell you which one, but they are all proudly on display on the bookshelves in my living room.

Erica Sweet Valley High

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?

There should be nothing guilty about a book. Whether you’re reading Ladybirds, 50 Shades of Grey or Shakespeare, the simple act of reading is something to be proud of. Which is why in my A-Z shelves Dune sits next to The Iliad, and Stephenie Meyer’s spines are just as obvious as John Irving’s or Iris Murdoch’s.

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

I’m guessing I’m not allowed to keep all the books from the bookshop blog? Instead I’ll pick out a couple of special ones: My first edition of The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, it’s my favourite book and was given to me be someone who’s had a big impact on my life; Perfect Cooking by Parkinson, my great-grandmother’s cookbook, including her notes along the side of the recipes; and Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, which taught me not to judge a book by its cover.

Erica rescue from fire

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?

There weren’t many books in my parents’ house, so holidays at my Gran’s generally led to me coveting her shelves. The simple fact she had books meant I coveted all of them. When I was finally allowed to start reading them her Jeffrey Archer collection came first, probably First Among Equals. Then I moved on to Jane Austen and Iris Murdoch. The first developed my fascination with politics, the latter two with reading. I’ve kept the latter two books.

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?

My TBR pile is so large I try not to borrow books! When I can I take part in a bookshare but I use this as an opportunity to read books I’d not normally go for. So far, this has inspired me to buy more of the other books by the authors I’ve been introduced to. Having said that, I am still on the lookout for a copy of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which I borrowed from my university’s library more than a decade ago. I’d love to re-read it and add it to my shelves.

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

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, bought at The Kennington Bookshop. I’d actually intended to buy a different book, but another browser beat me to it (it’s all on the blog).

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

I have an ambition to own and read all the Swallows and Amazons books by Arthur Ransome. I once found a complete set of first editions (in Stephen Foster Books, Chiswick ) and seriously considered blowing my salary on the lot until reason kicked in. Instead I’m on the look out to buy them one at a time in order, in whatever format I encounter them. Swallowdale, the second in the series, is proving surprisingly difficult to find. I’m also always on the hunt for more titles by Elizabeth Gaskell and Edith Wharton.

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

I’ve no idea what anyone would think of my shelves. The best compliment anyone looking at my bookshelves could pay me would be to think my bookshelves look accessible, varied and interesting – and ask to borrow something.

Erica bookshop blog close

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A huge thanks to Erica 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 Erica’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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Filed under Other People's Bookshelves

When You Fancy An Author Binge…

As I was going through my book cull I was astounded by how many authors I didn’t realise I had rather a lot of works of. This is the problem with housing your books on doubled up shelves and in boxes. Admittedly some of them had been sent to me, yet I wouldn’t have kept a hoard of an authors work if I hadn’t read one of their books or didn’t think that they would be my cup of tea, would I? In many of the cases of these authors whose backlist I didn’t realise I owned lots and lots of I kept a note that I really should get a wriggle on and read some of their books. (I have started to wonder if I should try the whole book jar thing to make this happen more often!) In one case though as I looked at their books, and remembering what I have read of them before, I suddenly had the urge to have a complete book binge on one author.

This does not happen often. In fact I don’t think, apart from Discovering Daphne way back when or with the Sensation Season when I had a big Wilkie Collins binge, is it something I have done more than two or three times since I have started this blog seven and a bit years ago. Yet on rare occasions I have been tempted to just have a big old binge (mainly with crime series) and have held back. Why? I am not 100% sure, I think it is magpie syndrome and I simply always have a peak at all the other books I have to read between every few chapters, well when I am reading in bed anyway. I also don’t want to run out of reading material, which is why with Discovering Daphne I only selected a certain amount of books as I don’t think Du Maurier is going to publish anything else anytime soon being dead and all, though maybe some gems will suddenly be found.

This time though I am going to follow my gut instinct and see what happens as I head off into the world of Philip Hensher.

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As you can see the binge urge took over so much I went to the library and got King of the Badgers and The Northern Clemency  from the library even though I had The Emperor Waltz, The Missing Ink and Scenes from Early Life on my shelves. You see I have actually read one and a quarter of his books before. The first was King of the Badgers which I got from the library, it was a huge hardback and some other so and so ordered it so I had to give it back and have always meant to re-read/finish off, the second was Scenes from Early Life which I read for The Green Carnation and we shortlisted. I haven’t reviewed it for that reason and actually fancy re-reading it without the judging pressure. I also want to read some new to me stuff and will be taking The Northern Clemency, a book that is actually on my draft 40 before 40 list I am recreating, to Newcastle with me next weekend when I need a nice long read or two.

I think I will restart The King of the Badgers tomorrow after I finish the new Kate Grenville. Whilst I say this is a binge, I will probably read something or some things in between the two though, and maybe if once I have discovered I love his writing (I am going for the positive because its in my nature and because of what I have read before) I want to save The Emporor’s Waltz for a rainy day that is fine too – I am getting better at no pressure.

Does that make this more of an author urge (which sounds filthy) than an actual binge? Either way I am following my gut. Have you read any of Philip Hensher’s work and what did you make of it? Which authors have you binged on and how did the binge go, or have you never binged at all?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

What A Character I’ve Become…

I have always wanted to be a character in a book. I think in reality it is every readers dream. Well, believe it or not it has happened, and in one of my favourite contemporary crime writers latest books too…

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Yes that’s Simon Savidge, headteacher and local hero on the Falkland Isles, or Sharon Bolton’s version of them in her latest thriller (a standalone) Little Black Lies. Only could there be come to this Mr Savidge than meets the eye…

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Could he be a suspect and murderer? I have no idea and am reading like a loon to try and find out! Not that I will tell you either way, you’ll have to get Little Black Lies when it comes out in July. I can say it’s a corker and is making me slightly obsessed with shipwrecks, something I never thought I would say. Anyway, I just had to share my excitement with you all!

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Filed under Random Savidgeness, Sharon Bolton

Us – David Nicholls

David Nicholls’ One Day is one of the biggest selling books of recent years, it was one of those books that you saw people reading absolutely everywhere. Interestingly it is my second most viewed review on this blog ever, with well over ten thousand views only a few thousand behind Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog so there is some additional trivia for you. It is a book I really, really enjoyed (even if it left me a wreck) and so, like many readers, I was very excited about Us when it came out last year, especially after a five year wait.

Hodder Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 416 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

One night Douglas Petersen is woken by his wife Connie, automatically he thinks that either their house is being burgled or something awful is happening to her or their son Albie. As it happens there isn’t something wrong with Connie, though she decides to tell him that she feels that their marriage of over twenty years is finished and that once Albie is safely off to University after the summer she is going to leave Douglas and get a divorce. This is devastating news to Douglas who is still completely in love with Connie and also, though admittedly it hasn’t been all fireworks in the last few years, he thought they were happy enough, settled and happy.

On a slightly smaller scale, though not insignificant Douglas, he remembers that they have booked a huge summer holiday as a family, thinking it would be the last with Albie not the last with all of them, on a grand tour of Europe. As this dawns on Douglas so does the idea that maybe this holiday could be what cements them once again as a family and win back Connie’s heart and her love for him. What follows is both what comes after Connie’s sudden revelation and the holiday in questions, which we know is going to be a rollercoaster before we even start on it with them, and also the story of how Douglas and Connie met, fell in love, married and then ended up in the situation they are in.

The device of going back and forth in time from the opening of a novel is, admittedly, hardly anything new or earth shattering in the world of literature. Sometimes these well used tropes in writing can, when done well and by the right writer, can be what makes a novel work so well and I personally really, really liked Nicholls’ use of it in Us. I don’t know about all of you but I am someone who always wants to know the ins and outs of a relationship; how people met, the funny stories of years of a relationship, the highs and the lows etc. With Us, Nicholls’ gives us theses in abundance from the moments a couple will tell you on any night out like how they met (see below) but also and often more fascinatingly the ones they keep just between each other.

I hadn’t spoken this much for years. I hoped, from Connie’s silence, that she was finding me fantastically interesting, but when I looked her eyes were rolled far back into her head.
‘Are you alright?’
‘I’m sorry. I’m just rushing my tits off.’
‘Oh. Okay. Should I stop talking?’
‘No, I love it. You’re bringing me down, but in a good way. Wow. Your eyes look massive, Douglas. They’re taking up your whole face.’
‘Okay. So… should I keep talking then?’
‘Yes, please. I like listening to your voice. It’s like listening to the Shipping Forecast.’

Nicholls is brilliant at characters and their relationships. He can build a character in a sentence using the oddest yet most realistic and human of quirks, like them being described as the shipping forecast by others etc. He is particularly good at relationships, be they platonic friendships (which we see less in this novel), those between a couple and those between a parent and a child, which is really the second biggest theme in the book alongside middle age. Us is very much about the relationship between a father and their son, something which was particularly close to Nicholls when he wrote the book. This comes up particularly on the trip away, which reminded me quite a lot of one of the strands in David Park’s The Light of Amsterdam which if you loved this you should most definitely read.

Douglas himself makes for an interesting narrator. He is a quirky ‘nice guy’, someone safe, someone inoffensive and someone who sometimes doesn’t quite get or click with the world around him. That isn’t to make him a victim, though sometimes I did think he was the cruel butt of some of Nicholls jokes, he is just someone that you initially find a bit odd and then warm to him. Like many of us with our unusual quirks. His distance to the world, which is how I saw it, did occasionally make me feel a little distanced from him and therefore occasionally less sympathetic or empathetic to his plight. I also wondered sometimes if Nicholls was using this device to hold back a little and I wasn’t sure why. That said even in holding back, and indeed with distance, Nicholls is still very funny and as always human.

Other people’s sex lives are a little like other people’s holidays: you’re glad that they had fun but you weren’t there and you don’t necessarily want to see the photos. At our age too much detail leads to a certain amount of mental whistling and staring at shoes, and there’s also the problem of vocabulary. Scientific terms, though clinically accurate, don’t really convey the heady dark intensity, etc., etc. and I’d like to avid a simile or a metaphor – valley, orchid, garden, that kind of thing. Certainly I have no intention of using a whole load of swear words. So I won’t go into detail, except to say that it worked out pretty well for all concerned, with a pleasant sense of self-satisfaction, as if we’d discovered that we were still capable of performing a forward roll. Afterwards we lay in a tangle of limbs.

I have to admit I had a few niggles with the book. Occasionally the father/son stuff and Douglas being so try hard got a little bit much for me, having thought about it I think this might be that as I had no relationship with my dad, then a very difficult one before going back to no relationship, I wonder if this is just something I don’t connect with. Nicholls won me back over with family dynamics and mishaps with them as a whole on the holiday though, again because we have all been in those situations. I was reminded by my mother not long ago of the time she accidentally booked us into a brothel in Greece thinking it was a hotel, the ladies were lovely to us though – I was about eleven before that gets misconstrued, and isn’t far off what happens to the Petersen’s.

My biggest quibble was the lack of Connie’s voice in the story which occasionally I would have really liked to counteract Douglas’. Nicholls makes much of how they are polar opposites, he is a scientist and she is an art curator, so it would have been interesting to hear that voice as well as seeing what made her fall for Douglas, something Douglas himself doesn’t get, filling in a couple of the blanks I felt were occasionally left. Maybe Nicholls thought that would be too like One Day though, I wish I had asked him now, anyway… Again this was countered by the fact that Nicholls does, albeit through Douglas, look at the huge question of the sciences vs the arts (Douglas isn’t bookish, Connie devours them) which gives the book additional layers and depth. So all my niggles were flattened by the positives.

All in all, Us is another very good Nicholls novel indeed. It is a story of falling in and out and in and out of love, it is a coming of middle age novel and also a family drama, with an emphasis on comical drama, all rolled into one. I think it is also a novel that looks at marriage in modern times and how once upon a time we would fall in love with people we might grow apart from and have to put up with them, now we don’t but what does it mean for us all? I expected a novel that would leave me broken again; instead I got one that had hope.

If you would like to David talking about Us further, you can hear him chatting to me on You Wrote The Book here. I should also add that both my mother and step father have read it and were raving about it this very weekend just gone and they are much tougher critics than me (my mother even said I was being tough on it, I think this may have been that a) it was described as a divorce comedy which when you’re going through a divorce is anything but comical b) I loved One Day so much anything that followed it would have to super impress c) I did like this book a lot so get off my case mum, ha) so there is some extra impetus to read it! What about any of you, have you read it and what did you think?

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Filed under David Nicholls, Hodder & Stoughton, Review

Other People’s Bookshelves #58 – Lloyd Shepherd

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week we spending time round at author Lloyd Shepherd’s where he has kindly laid on an afternoon tea for us all. Before we have a nosey through his shelves let us get to know more about him, it is only polite after all…

My name’s Lloyd Shepherd and I’m a writer (I always said to my wife that I wouldn’t call myself a ‘writer’ until I’d had four books published, and the fourth book is out next year, so I’m going for it). The four books I’ve published to date have all been historical crime fiction – with a twist. The twist being there’s more going on that quite meets the eye. Before writing books, I worked as a digital product manager for the likes of the Guardian, Yahoo, Channel 4 and the BBC, and before that I was a journalist, writing about the tortuous financial shenanigans of the film industry.

As well as writing a new book, I’m currently engineering an Adventure In Reading, called The Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club. You can find out more about that at www.riddleofthesands.net – we’re calling it Taking a Book for a Walk. Because books need to get off their bookshelves every now and then, you know.

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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?

Well, first things first – they’re not MY shelves, because I’m married to a woman who reads voraciously, and who has a hoarder’s attitude to books. I’m more vicious – I’m only really sentimental about books that I have personally loved, or were given to me by someone close to me. Other than those – they’re heading out. Even the hardbacks.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

I have what can only be called a Multi-Zone Approach To Book Husbandry. Zone One is in the living room, and consists of Attractive Books Wot Might Be Worth Summat In Future Years. Hardbacks of classics, first editions, and a massive number of Folio Society publications acquired by my father. He was a lifelong subscriber to Folio, and though I’m not convinced he read a lot of them, they’re all beautiful things. So, if you need to read Moby Dick or a history of the Byzantine Empire written by a 1950s emeritus professor, it’s the living room you want.

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The bedroom is the Fiction Grotto, with two bookshelves groaning with paperbacks and hardbacks in alphabetical order, often double-shelved and generally all over the place, thematically. Also, my wife hangs her clothes on these shelves. Don’t ask me why. Perhaps she’s hoping they will gain something from being hung next to made-up stuff. Finally, my office is the Library of Facts (and poetry and drama and other stuff we don’t read in bed). It’s where I keep my history and reference books, my graphic novels, copies of my own books (hem hem) and my wide and random collection of sheet music. I also have two guitars in there, which are monumentally unplayed.

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

Gosh, good question. I don’t think I can quite remember. I want to say The Dark is Rising, but I’ve got a feeling that was a school library book which never quite made it back to said school library. I did buy a copy shortly afterwards, and two years ago I got it signed by Susan Cooper, which was thrilling. I remember going to buy The Lord of the Rings in Sevenoaks Bookshop (which is still there, bless its soul) with my Dad, and picking up the massive paperback collected edition while looking longingly at the three-volume hardback version. We left with the hardbacks. As I said, my Dad was a nut for nice books. I didn’t even pay towards it. I read those hardback editions, out loud, to my son when he was little.

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, not at all. I’m not embarrassed about anything I’ve read. Wish I could say the same about everything I’ve written.

The Study: History and Poetry n ting

The Study: History and Poetry n ting

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

Well, Dad’s Folio books and the Lord of the Rings volumes mentioned above. My copy of Paradise Lost from university (there, I’m allowed one affectation, aren’t I?). The thing about books is, of course, that they’re replaceable – it’s only when they constitute memories rather than literature that they take on a different meaning. An old paperback of Sophie’s Choice, a collection of Emily Dickenson, a two-volume edition of The History of the Port of London – they’ve all got memories outside themselves which would be lost if the books were lost, even if the words were replaceable.

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 Dad had one of those massive Hamlyn collections of Robert Ludlum novels – you know, the 70s things which contained five or more novels in one edition, with type so small only a young vigorous chap could read it, but weighing so much you needed a fork lift truck to turn the page. I read The Scarlatti Inheritance, The Osterman Weekend, The Gemini Contenders and, most brilliantly of all, The Holcroft Covenant, which is still my favourite thriller of all time. It had a Fifty Shades of Grey bit in it, too, I seem to recall.

Smart Books For Public Display (Folio!)

Smart Books For Public Display (Folio!)

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 buy almost everything I read, I think. I like buying books. People should buy more books. And I also like giving books away, a practice which is a bit shit if you’re an author but a bit great if you’re a human being.

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

In no particular order: a 1970s edition of The Riddle of the Sands for our Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club project; The High Middle Ages (Folio!), Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck (the best book I’ve read in the past year), Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, and The 9th Directive by Adam Hall. My reading overlaps!

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

David Hepworth’s upcoming book on 1971. Julian Cope’s One Three One and Krautrocksampler. An edition of Ulysses abridged by Simon Armitage (this doesn’t exist).

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

He Liked Books And A Good Story Well Told. Also, why is that dress hanging there?

Bedroom Fiction Shelf with Clothes

Bedroom Fiction Shelf with Clothes

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A huge thanks to Lloyd for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, don’t forget to check www.riddleofthesands.net and follow the adventure into the world of a book! 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 Mark’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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A Golden Note(book) From Gran

Those of you who have been following Savidge Reads for the last however many years will know of Granny Savidge Reads. Since she died there has definitely been a big part of my life missing, especially the chats on the phone at least two or three times a week to put the world to rights and to talk about books – let alone trips to see her which always involved a bookshop or two if we could. Anyway, she made a random appearance in my booky life today as I was sorting out and culling my books. I had picked up Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and I was wondering where I had got it from when I opened it up and…

Gran gave a Savidge review...

Gran gave a Savidge review…

…It was a book I had inherited from Gran, I didn’t realised that she left notes in some of her books. I also didn’t realise that she could be so savage, or Savidge, in her reviews of books – maybe I should be a little more Gran sometimes. In case you can’t read her writing she says ‘I hated this book but as it is highly regarded by many people & someone else in the family may appreciate it more than I have I decided to keep it.’ Wowsers! It was weirdly really nice to find this note and think that randomly I might be the member of the family who could appreciate it, though I am somewhat worried I won’t get it. It was also really nice to get a message, almost a footnote to the book from beyond the grave. It made me laugh and then made me cry, in a nice way if you know what I mean.

Anyway I thought I would share it with you as lots of you liked her thoughts and opinions. I am now wondering if I should be brave and try and read this in the late summer/early autumn and see if I agree with Gran or not, maybe some of you would like to join in – an unofficial read-a-long maybe, nothing too heavy yet something supportive, let me know. Oh and any thoughts on notes you’ve found in books, or even on The Golden Notebook (no spoilers though mind), that you have let me know. Back to culling, I have managed 419 books so far but feel I could do more – and I am off to my mothers tomorrow so want to take a nice big selection to her.

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The Culling Game

By giving it the title of the culling game I am of course being ironic, for any booklover that moment when your shelves (or maybe your partner) simply groan with the strain of all those books can be the beginning of what is an emotional, conflicting and painful thing – sorting out all those books you have somehow accumulated. It is something some of us have to go through once a year, some of us much more regularly. Dear readers and fellow book lovers, I am at that point and will be enduring it for the next few days/week. Starting today…

The hardbacks are the first in the line for sorting...

The hardbacks are the first in the line for sorting…

I am going to pace myself though and have a system in place both for how I attack (it sounds so vicious) these books and how I decide to keep them or not. Firstly I am not doing it all in one go. I will firstly go through my shelves of hardbacks and trade paperbacks, then my shelves of recent paperbacks, then my shelves that got mixed up because I had no space and had to buy more shelves and then onto my six boxes of ‘backlist’ books. I am giving myself a day for each of those set of shelves (even though there’s loads in each) and two days to do the boxes. This will stop any small (read as massive) meltdowns I have along the way, as has happened before. It is a long game this one, especially as I want to reduce my books by not a mere quarter, or a tricky half, but a true culling of two thirds of what I own. I know, it’s drastic but I think it needs to be done.

My criterion for books staying are these three simple points (because anymore and you start making excuses and this is a Savidge cull)…

  • Did I buy them/ask for them/are they a special edition?
  • Could I get it from the library, which should be used as much as possible?
  • Have I owned this book for more than two years and if so why so?

As odd as it may sound there is actually quite nice about the feeling you get post cull. I find that not only does everything seem neater and more organised (with me actually knowing what books I own) but it also reinvigorates how much I love books. Yes, even when you have just got rid of lots. This is because if you are anything like me books are your addiction and hoarding setting. To get rid of a book, even if they are going to good homes as mine do, is like snuffing out a potential adventure that you might have had within those pages. Yet we have to look forward and the fact that the books we have on our shelves are ones we know we will love and are desperate to read as well as freeing up the space for future reads.

It is this feeling that I will be focussing on along with a) the fact that I want to have all my shelves sorted by June the 23rd when I have an unofficial restart of the blog (so I need to sort the backlogue of reviews I have by then too) giving me a goal b) thinking of all the people who will get enjoyment out of the books I am passing on – this will mainly be my mother who I am off to see this weekend for my sisters 17th (I feel so old) birthday. It is going to be quite a torturous task but I am going to feel so much better after!

Right, less chatting on here and more culling, wish me luck!

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Looking for Something Different?

I have been pondering the direction of this blog for the future. Not in a naval gazing or woe is me way, no one likes those sort of introspective blog posts, actually in a very positive and hopefully exciting way. As the blogosphere grows, seemingly daily, there are now a plethora of places where you can find book reviews in abundance, yet strangely it seems that the more blogs there are the more the same books get discussed. I don’t know about all of you but I sometimes feel like I want something different. A wander round Waterstones Piccadilly last week, where all this posts photos were sneakily shot, made me realise this all the more last week.

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However, I am a fine one to talk. Which is one of the most talked about books in and out of the industry at the moment? Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. Which book did I review only last week? A God in Ruins. That said, she one of my favourite authors who I have loved ever since Gran introduced me to one of her lesser known novels. Why am I sounding defensive though, isn’t that what we all want from our reading, to read some of the most talked about books AND read a diverse mix of books that you might just find on a random mooch and meander around a bookshop looking on the shelves and the tables. I know I do. I am always keen to hear what books people are talking about, yet I only read them if I really want to not because the world seems to be telling me so.

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Often though (for me) it is the books I might be missing, the hidden gems somehow overlooked, that I am keener to find out about. Judging Fiction Uncovered has shown me there are vast numbers of these books in the UK alone and those are contemporary, when you think about all the ones there must be all around the world be they books published right now or back listed, modern classic or truly ancient, the mind starts to boggle and highlights my point. There are so many books out there not being discussed or seemingly hunted down, and I think that is what I want to do but maybe it is just me?

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The reason why I ask if it is just me is that I have noticed on Savidge Reads that when I review a lesser known book, for example something like the wonderfully quirky Girly which I mentioned yesterday, there seems to be less chatter on the blog and (as I went and had a look) a few less views than when I talk about one of the big buzz books. Now this isn’t an issue as I am not a hits and views chaser, don’t get me wrong they are lovely but I still see this blog as a diary of my journey to find great reads for myself. Selfish so and so aren’t I? I can also understand it as I love seeing what bloggers I respect and follow have thought of books I have read in the past and the potential to have a natter about them (I know my commenting has been rubbish, I have been chastising myself this very morning) as reading can be a lonely activity.

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With their being so many books coming out; being rediscovered, republished and translated and with all the wonderful powerhouse publishers and the new and niche imprints and independents, it is the books I know nothing about that will have me clicking to read further. Maybe that is just me though? Maybe I am just at a stage in my reading life where I need to go off on a tangent and read by the seat of my pants in some unusual and different directions. Reporting back of course along the way!

I would love your thoughts, if my ramblings made any sense? If they didn’t thanks anyway for providing me with a sounding board, it may have muddied the waters your end but they are much clearer here, if you know what I mean? Oh dear Simon, quit while your ahead! Right, chip in with your thoughts below if you fancy…

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Girly – May-Lan Tan

I cannot for the life of me remember where I saw pictures of May-Lan Tan’s Girly, a chapbook of two short stories Pacific and Little Sister, but I think it might have been Instagram (how modern) and just from the cover I knew it was something I wanted to try. Yes, even though I already owned Things to Make and Break, the magpie that lives in my head wanted something new, shiny and also rare as Girly is a limited edition of print runs – I think. So order it I did and a couple of weeks later it arrived from the U S of A, was it worth the wait?

Future Tense Books, chapbook, 2014, fiction, 33 pages, bought by myself for myself

Girly is aptly made up of two short stories that depict the life of two very different girls as they head into womanhood and also into independence, in two variants of the word. The first of the stories Pacific tell the tale of a young woman who has somehow ended up on the opposite side of the world, stuck in motels with an on/off ex who seems to come and go on a whim. As the story unfolds we learn through various flash backs how this girl has ended up so far away from home and in the predicament she is in.

After a while, it will all look the same.  You’ll wonder if you’re on an elevator that keeps stopping at the same floor. Perhaps there is only one motel, one gas station, one diner,  and the extras are putting on false moustaches and changing their hair. Sometimes you’ll think of your house at home. Your princess and the pea bed. The sound of the wok spitting oil, and your desk drawer crammed full of poems. Imagine your parents sitting on the sofa under the painting of flame trees, wondering where you are. Be too scared to call.

Little Sister tells of a young woman having her first period at school, how she copes with it and also how those around her deal with it. Yet it is also has the additional layers of sisterhood (be it with those of you who are in the same family and those who aren’t and perform sisterly acts) and, as it goes on, gives you an insight into the lives of some of the women in society. It has a wonderful concoction of just the right amount of humour and poignancy.

When I pull my pants up, it feels like I’m straddling an air mattress. I think of all the people who already have it. Teacher Willow and Head Teacher Pear and Miss Hong Kong and Jennifer Aniston and the white-gloved girl who presses the lift buttons in Sogo. They must be so angry.

Whilst both the stories are about two girls coming of age, they couldn’t be more different both in terms of their settings and their structure. On one hand we have the campus tale of America, given the spin of being seen through an outsider’s eyes and on the other we have one set in modern Hong Kong. It is very rare that in just two stories you can you’re in the hands of an incredible talent and one who likes to experiment with form and play with prose and language, Tan does this seemingly effortlessly with Girly.

Pacific is written in two very clever ways. Firstly there is the way in which Tan weaves the present and various points in the past playing (nicely) with us as the readers as to how our protagonist is in the situation she is. It is also written in the style of a ‘How To…’ manual (with headings like How to Burn, How to Move, Death by Drive-Thru) and a self help guide, only one that is being written whilst its author learns the hard way. Little Sister seems more straight forward and yet as you read on there is both a slight magical and fairytale like element as well as a rawness as it moves on and a certain bittersweet tone as it leads to its conclusion. In both instances Tan creates characters personalities through the smallest of things. It could be that a character has an eraser the shape of a hamburger or that one writes stories about Vietnamese vets, whatever the case Tan uses a few words to create so much and so within paragraphs you are in these girls lives, warts and all. Both stories are brilliant and I could have read more of.

Needless to say, if you fancy a book that is both different in terms of its contents and its very physicality then I would heartily recommend you order yourself a copy of Girly pronto. There is something quite special about Tan’s writing both in how it tells you a story, the hidden depths they have and also what they leave out for the reader to make up themselves. I am really looking forward to reading Things to Make and Do over the summer when I am planning on having something of a short story binge, as with authors like Tan I am becoming a huge fan of the form. Great stuff!

If you would like to order a copy of Girly before they all sell out then you can head here to Future Tense Books. In a random aside I was at Literary Death Match in London back in April (a while after I read these stories for the first time, I have returned since) and guess who ended sitting next to me? May-Lan Tan! She recognised me from Twitter and between author’s reading and judges judging’s we had a lovely natter; so talented and lovely a double win!

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Filed under Future Tense Books, May-Lan Tan, Review, Short Stories

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson

It is going to be very hard to write about Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins without mentioning its predecessor Life After Life, which I loved and is one of my favourite of Atkinson’s novels. The first reason for this is that as I am sure many of you will be aware A God in Ruins is a ‘companion’ novel to its predecessor, as we follow Teddy Todd who is the brother of Life After Life’s protagonist Ursula. The second reason is that if you haven’t read Life After Life (and you really should have because it’s brilliant, I was on the panel that crowned it winner of The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize) then I wouldn’t want to spoil the experience you have to come. Thirdly I just think to compare them is lazy as yes they have some of the same characters and situations, and indeed this one nods to the other on occasion, yet all books should stand alone in their own right. A God in Ruins certainly does.

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Doubleday, hardback, 2015, fiction, 395 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

A God in Ruins is essentially the story of the life of Teddy Todd. We follow him from his younger years with his siblings, under the domineering matriarchy of their mother Sylvia, through the First World War and then onto the second, where he serves his nation in the skies, and onto life afterwards when he becomes a husband, father and grandfather. To give you all that information doesn’t spoil anything either,  as it is the story of a life though not a linear one. We the reader see Teddy’s life through a jumble of periods in time, perspectives and people and builda picture puzzle of his life by putting together the set pieces.

I am a huge fan of Atkinson’s and have been ever since my Gran gave me a copy of the brilliantly bizarre Human Croquet. Her writing is quite simply brilliance. Firstly she is a master of the art of a bloody good story; one of my favourite things she does is use parentheses (which you will all know I am a fan of, though not as much as I love a comma) to make you feel that she herself is telling you the story over a cup of tea. Secondly she is fantastic at characters; who all walk straight out of the book, off the page and probably down the same street as you. Thirdly she plays with the form of writing without it ever being pretentious or a little too clever for its own good; she can mix up a story so the reader has the joy or putting it all together and play tricks with language (like with Mr Manners). Fifthly, she has a wonderful sense of humour and knows just when to use it, bringing laughter at just the right moments, even when they are dark.

Teddy took the train back north the same day and lay awake all night worrying about his only child and her only child. Viola had been a lovely baby, just perfect. But then all babies were perfect, he supposed. Even Hitler.

I think with A God in Ruins, and with the creation of Teddy, Atkinson may have brought us one of her most vivid characters, who is also one of her most subtle. We have the enigma that is Ursula, the wonderfully comic and sarcastic snobbish Sylvia (who I could read an entire book about) and the vile Viola. Teddy, and indeed his wife Nancy to a degree, is a very average man who does some extraordinary (to us, as they are just his life to him – another sign of Atkinson’s genius) things and who we get to see every side of be it through his eyes or those around him which I found utterly fascinating.

Her father seemed so old-fashioned, but he must have been like new once. That was a nice phrase. She tucked that away for later use as well. She was writing a novel. It was about a young girl, brilliant and precocious, and her troubled relationship with her single-parent father. Like all writing it was a secretive act. An unspeakable practice. Viola sensed there was a better person inside her than the one who wanted to punish the world for its bad behaviour all the time (when her own was so reproachable). Perhaps writing would be a way of letting that person out in the daylight.

I should add here that in A God in Ruins even the characters who only show up for a page or two all come fully formed and often (through Atkinson cleverly and almost unnoticeably stepping in and telling us of the future even though we are in the past) giving us their life ahead. These seemingly minor characters can also be used to highlight issues with a real poignancy, for those of you who have read it I will give you one name, Hilda – completely got me when I was least expecting it to.

I really wanted to have a chat with Atkinson (if only we could all be so lucky) after reading the book because I wanted to ask her if one of the themes in A God in Ruins is ‘what makes a hero’ or ‘what being a hero means’. As we follow Teddy’s life we see what it is that can make an ordinary person become a hero and how a hero can go back to being an ordinary person. There are several moments that made me think of this. Most obviously there are all the ordinary people drawn in to fight wars, who go from being civilians to fighters or spies yet then what happens to them after the war when ‘normal’ life resumes. What do they do and how do they cope with the change? This in itself leads to what it means to be a war hero?

‘Teddy won’t shoot anything,’ Sylvie said decisively. ‘He doesn’t kill.’
‘He would if he had to,’ Nancy said. ‘Can you pass the salt please?’
He has killed, Teddy thought. Many people. Innocent people. He had personally helped ruin poor Europe. ‘I am here, you know,’ he said, ‘sitting next to you.’

Yet in giving us the full story of Teddy’s life Atkinson looks at the quieter moments of heroism too. The moments that are heroic yet on a much smaller minimal scale, like a selfless act of pure love, a simple moment of kindness, or something which seems insignificant and costs nothing yet can change a person’s perception of themselves, their life or the world around them. She also looks at what it means simply to be good.

Previously on this blog I have mentioned I feel that the world wars are periods in time which have been well mined, possibly overly, by contemporary writers and so really need a different angle in order to make me sit up and take notice. I have to admit that initially when the sections of Teddy’s life during the Second World War came up I was worried that I might possibly lose interest. I had to study the Blitz at least three times at school and so I always think I am going to be lectured to. On occasion I initially wanted the pre and post war stories of Teddy’s life to take over again. This faded the more into the war we went as Atkinson writes from the lesser used angle of the skies brilliantly and one particular chapter had me on the edge of the sofa. However the most poignant moment of the whole of A God in Ruins is linked to the war and, without giving anything away, it is a single paragraph which will hit you over the head like the shovel (and probably make you cry a little bit as it did me) and make you understand why Atkinson has written the book she has. I will say no more than that.

As you may have guessed I thought A God in Ruins was rather ruddy marvellous. It charmed me, entertained me, thrilled me, beguiled me and then in the simplest, smallest and most understated of moments completely broke me when I never expected it to. It is also a wonderful insight into what it is that makes us human. It also does something slightly unusual with the Second World War book, yet probably the one of the most affecting alongside Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I would highly recommend you read it. I cannot wait to see what Atkinson has up her sleeves for us next.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Doubleday Publishers, Kate Atkinson, Review, Transworld Publishing

The Fiction Uncovered Longlist 2015

I am thrilled, because this is the first time they have done it and I have keeping it secret for a few weeks, to be able to share with you the Fiction Uncovered Longlist 2015. After what has been a good few months of ‘extreme reading’ here are fifteen books that we judges (Matt Bates, Cathy Galvin and myself chaired by India Knight) are all very keen that you go and read, right now…

  • The Incarnations – Susan Barker (Transworld)
  • The Stray American – Wendy Brandmark (Holland Park Press)
  • The Redemption of Galen Pike – Carys Davies (Salt)
  • Dear Thief – Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape)
  • Wittgenstein Jr – Lars Iyer (Melville House UK)
  • The Way Out – Vicki Jarrett (Freight)
  • The Offering – Grace McCleen (Sceptre)
  • The Spice Box Letters – Eve Makis (Parthian Books)
  • Significance – Jo Mazelis (Seren Books)
  • Beastings – Benjamin Myers (Bluemoose Books)
  • The Four Marys – Jean Rafferty (Saraband)
  • Mother Island – Bethan Roberts (Chatto & Windus)
  • A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth (Canongate Books)
  • Mobile Library – David Whitehouse (Picador)

Indis has said “It is absolutely thrilling to have found such brilliant books, across such a wide variety of genres, and from authors that live and write all over the country. These are fantastic writers who deserve to be household names.” I agree it is a very diverse and interesting list, though I am probably biased somewhat but I think the list is a really eclectic one (well, I can tell you that for definite having read them all) and it is going to be rather difficult to whittle them down to a final eight for June the 18th. I have to say so far the judging process has been a real joy with lots and lots of laughing and delightful booky chatter, maybe the final meeting is where the gloves will come off? Ha!

For more information on all the books do visit Fiction Uncovered’s website here. I am off to go and do some more re-reading, in the meantime I would love your thoughts both on the books on the list (have you read any, are there any you are going to hunt out) and also the list itself. I’m very excited to hear what people think of it!

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Pondering: The Return of 40 By 40 (I Need Your Book Recommendations)

You may remember way back in the distant past, well back in 2013, I discussed the idea of reading 40 books before I was 40 and even making a list of the titles. A lot has happened since then, mainly Gran getting very ill, and so that project sort of when by the wayside. However I was reminded of this when the new (stunning) edition of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley arrived through the letterbox – a book I have been meaning to read, by an author I have always meant to read.

Going back and looking at the list of books that I had chosen I realised I had read three so that was quite good. I also realised that I wasn’t sure I had created quite the right list. The forty books I had chosen were all books where I hadn’t read the author before and, if I am being super duper honest, some of them feel quite ‘worthy’.

So I am pondering doing it again starting from scratch. Yet this time I want to rethink about the sort of books I want to read, and of course I want your suggestions. Yes, I would still like to read some of the books by authors I have missed and really shouldn’t have, yet I also need to think about books by authors I like who I haven’t read in ages. When was the last time I read Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, (both Alias Grace and The Remains of the Day I have been intent on reading for ages) or even Daphne Du Maurier? Shocking.

So here is the start of my new list…

  1. The Talented Mr Ripley – Patricia Highsmith
  2. Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood
  3. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

…But which books next? I am going to go through my shelves over the next few days/weeks and see which books I already have I have been meaning to read, whether I have read the author or not. I would also love to have recommendations from you. These could be your top 5 books (and I can see if I have read them before), books you have spotted I haven’t read and should and also the books that you have always meant to read and haven’t (maybe you could join in or it will give you a nudge to give them a whirl). So over to you for your suggestions in the comments below! Next up for me to reignite is the Persephone Project, I seemed to get stuck on book eight, 2013 wasn’t a good year for me starting projects but then it was a bugger of a year!

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Other People’s Bookshelves #57 – Sandra Danby

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week we are having a nosey around the shelves of author Sandra Danby who spends her time between the UK and Spain, though has this weekend kindly opened her doors to us in her UK home but do grab some polverones to have with your horchata, which she kindly brought back on her last trip. Now that we have helped ourselves to those we can get to know Sandra and her bookshelves a little bit better…

I grew up on a small dairy farm at the bleak edge of East Yorkshire where England meets the North Sea. I started reading early and have never stopped. When I was eight a friend of my mother’s emigrated to New Zealand and their house was emptied of furniture, I was given a small oak bookcase. My very own bookcase. I shared a room with my older sister, so this was a really big deal. I filled it with Puffin books [I was a member of the Puffin Club], alphabetized: I still organise my bookshelves the same way. And some of those first Puffin books are still on my shelf, the faded letters still visible on the spines. The only difference is that after +35 years as a journalist, I now write fiction as well as read it.

Orwell, Murakami, Murdoch

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 wish I had the space to keep everything I read. I do keep favourites, series, anything I know I will want to read again. Everything else is donated to Oxfam, I believe firmly in recycling books and buy quite a lot of mine second-hand either from my local Oxfam shop or via Oxfam online. I review books for my blog [www.sandradanby.com] and so receive advance e-books which tend to pile up on my Kindle, I do have a periodic clear out and delete the ones I know I will never want to read again. If I read a book on Kindle and I absolutely love it, I buy the paperback. I buy hardbacks of my favourite authors, the ones I know will be 5* – Kate Atkinson, Sarah Waters, PD James, Jane Smiley, Hilary Mantel, William Boyd.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

I have a to-read shelf in our spare bedroom, hidden away behind the door. Books are scattered around the house in various bookshelves, and some seem to have migrated into my husband’s study: he has all my old William Boyds, for example, and old Grishams. 95% of my books are on the shelves in my study, and in piles on the floor. There is a system but at the moment it is a bit out of control. The fiction is A-Z without genre separation, shelves for poetry, short stories and drama, two shelves of Spanish language text books and novels [we live in Spain some of the year which I blog about at www.notesonaspanishvalley.com], and a shelf of journalism and creative writing text books dating back to when I taught journalism. My reference bookshelf includes the usual suspects plus research books for my novels, so lots on adoption and family history for the ‘Rose Haldane: Identity Detective’ series [I’m writing book two now, book one Ignoring Gravity is available at Amazon] plus World War Two which I am fascinated about and will write about ‘some day’.

the to-read shelves

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

Yes, I still have it and re-read it. When I was 10 I was given Pigeon Post by Arthur Ransome as a present and loved it. I bought Swallowdale, the second in the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series, with my own money. Every birthday of Christmas present after that was another S&A book.

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?

Guilty pleasures? I am fond of crime [I like the intellectual puzzle, not the violence] and often pick up a familiar Susan Hill or Stieg Larsson. I recently blogged about reading a Simon Serrailler novel and called it a comfort read, which Susan Hill took me to task over – I meant comfort in the sense of ‘relaxing into the familiar’. Also I find children’s/YA series addictive: Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight, Wolf Brother, Swallows and Amazons. But they are not hidden: they are either on my bookshelves or my Kindle. And they do get re-read.

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

My father’s copy of Treasure Island. It’s a beautiful thing, not worth anything I don’t think, but I love its green and gold binding. It is more than a book: it is a memory of my father who encouraged me to look at books and newspapers even before I could read the words. It’s because of him that, as a farmer’s daughter from a remote seaside corner of Yorkshire, I made my own magazines full of stories and drawings, and seemed destined to read English at university. He always gave the impression that everything was possible.

The S's

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 mother’s copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the one I wanted to read, knowing it was controversial but not understanding why. I did read it, much later, in fact I took it to university with me though the paper was thin and fragile by then. I am proud of Mum, who ordered the book from our village newsagent and brought it home in a brown paper bag. By some quirk, the warden of my college – Goldsmiths, London University – was Sir Richard Hoggart who was an expert witness at the obscenity trial of LCL in 1960 when Penguin published the full unexpurgated edition.

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?

It is rare that I borrow a book from a friend. I do borrow library books, particularly for research or to try out a new crime series. If I like it, I will buy it. I do not want to know how much I spend every year on books. Best not calculated.

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

This week I bought the new poetry volume by Clive James, Sentenced to Life. Very moving, very true, a difficult but beautiful read.

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

Early Warning by Jane Smiley and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson.

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

I have no idea what someone else would think of my shelves, it is such a broad mixture. I don’t mind what a visitor might think of my reading taste: I buy and read the books I want to read, I don’t buy them because of labels or image. If I did I wouldn’t have The Hobbit next to William Trevor, or Orwell next to Spike Milligan, Murakami and Murdoch. I find book snobbery pointless.

comfy sofa

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A huge thanks to Sandra 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 Sandra’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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