Monthly Archives: August 2015

Noontide Toll – Romesh Gunesekera

When the Gordon Burn Prize shortlist popped/ thumped through my letterbox (kindly sent by New Writing North who run the prize) I thought that I would head to the biggest first and work my way down, literally in size. However as my trip to America gets ever nearer so does my reading for it, which is roughly eight books some of which are massive, so I decided to pick a more slender volume and grabbed Noontide Toll. I soon discovered that Romesh Gunesekera’s latest work might be slender in size yet is a book that keeps on giving and most importantly keeps making you think both whilst reading and long after.

Granta Books, 2014, paperback, fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by New Writing North

On the island of Sri Lanka we meet our narrator “Vasantha the van man” who, as you might have guessed from his nickname, spends his days driving around the island ferrying tourists, soldiers, business men and their colleagues or wives, ex pats, aid workers and more to their various destinations. In doing so, in what is a collection of short stories which form the novels narrative, he introduces us to all the aspects of present day Sri Lanka, it’s history, its people and also the predicament that it seems to find itself in as a place that has often been torn apart by wars and natural disasters.

‘You ok?’ I asked Chen.
‘Sure, sure.’ His head tilted, not quite as buoyant as he had been at the start. Perhaps he was too young to know any of the gruesome history of his homeland. Maybe there they don’t talk about the terrors of invasion, the herding of people, the famine, the ideological culling, the suppression of the decent. All that probably disappears in the harmonious joy of economic development. At least that’s the idea, I think.

I have to admit that reading Noontide Toll had a slightly shaming effect on me whilst being utterly fascinating, sometimes grimly so. Despite having some friends from the country I had absolutely no idea, other than the Boxing Day Tsunami, what turmoil the country had been through. As Vasantha drives through both the North and the South (which is also how the book is divided in parts as well as stories) we meet the landscape and people who have been scarred by the historical tumultuous past. Old mansions which if haven’t been blown up or destroyed have been ransacked for anything or worth, wrecked ships that have now become the backdrop to music videos. Hotel managers who can throw bottles at rats with such precision you know they have had to defend themselves, people whose grief at losing a family is etched on their faces and yet manage to stay positive on the lookout for turtles laying eggs at sunset.

Whether you know the whole history or not one of the most intriguing things which Vasantha notes when he is with any client, is that his homeland is now free of war yet is struggling in a whole new way as it tries to reclaim itself as a country and with other countries around the world. In some aspects, like with The Weightless World which I discussed a while ago, it is trying to work out what its place and its worth is within the economic worlds (be it tourism or business and trade) of both the West and Asia. It is also a country that is trying to decide what to do with its history; should it embrace it and own it or should it erase any sight of it? Can we really simply remember and move on? What is also somewhat unsettling is that it seems that those who live there are both wary and befuddled by their own homeland being a place of peace can it really last?

I asked the soldier whether I could park the van around the side. He shrugged. In the military I thought one had to be more decisive and heroic, but perhaps that was further up the chain of command and only in times of real conflict. Peace has made us all dozy, I guess. Even the crickets were muffled.

If this all sounds very serious, rather maudlin and a little heavy going, I promise you it is not. With the structure of this book Gunesekera gives you these wonderful intense vignettes from Vasantha that you can read as a single short standalone story in itself or indeed read a few as you are utterly charmed by Vasantha and some of the characters that he meets along the way and interweave creating a patchwork of views and insights into all walks of life from all over the place which form this incredibly complex world yet all in bite size portions which really entertain you whilst leaving lingering, occasionally unsettling, thoughts in your mind.

I found Vasantha a really interesting character. By the end of Noontide Toll you are utterly charmed by him and yet he remains something of an enigma. He gives you insight into the history of Sri Lanka and the lives of those in his van, yet bar the occasional titbit keeps himself something of a mystery. I wondered if this was because Gunesekera wanted him to literally be a vehicle for the reader, or if we were meant to feel like one of his clients on a long road trip around the island being told the tales of previous clients yet never themselves, as is the case often when you go aboard and have a driver. That slight customer and contractor relationship which is intimate yet distant all at once.

I think Vasantha is a marvellous creation and a brilliant character. He embodied everything l  admired so much about Gunesekera’s colourful and vivid writing. As you go along his humour and (mainly) joyful wonder of everything around him is a delight. He always knows just when to tell you something funny amongst it all, one of my favourite moments which I think sums him up is when he describes a lighthouse as a naughty beacon of the south, perfect. I was completely charmed by him and his narration as we drove around and often felt his musings about life were very much like mine and in particular my thoughts on why we read.

I like to know about the world beyond our shores. About faraway countries where people behave differently. I like to hear about their food and customs. How they deal with the cold and the rain. What it is like to drive on the other side of the road. I like to take foreign tourists around because it gives me a glimpse of a place that is different in touch, taste, smell, sound and look, from the place I am stuck in. I watch how they sit, how they walk, how they talk, and I try to see what they want to escape from and return to. They are not all driven by the desire for sex in new places. Some want to know our history and our culture and what makes us live the way we do. So do I.

I am not sure I would have read Noontide Toll if it hadn’t been shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize, as I have  to admit I hadn’t heard of it until then, so I am very grateful that it has. It is a wonderfully narrated and intricately detailed tale of a country its history and its people, by the end I felt Gunesekera had educated me with writing of delicacy, wit and slight horror. It is also a book that will remind you why we read and why we should read as widely as we can to experience and learn through other people’s eyes. I would highly recommend giving it a read.

Have any of you read Noontide Toll or any of Gunesekera’s other novels? I have that lovely feeling you get when you discover a new-to-you writer where you want to run off and get your hands on everything else that they have written.

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Filed under Gordon Burn Prize, Granta Books, Review, Romesh Gunesekera

Other People’s Bookshelves #70 – Thomas Otto

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, for the (fanfare) 70th post in the series we are going through the shelves of a very special guest, Thomas Otto. Thomas is not only my co-host on The Readers but he is also one of my best bookish buddies and someone I have known since my blogging began, or at least it feels like that. So we head to Washington D.C where he doesn’t just have shelves but an entire library, one which I will be having a gander at in four weeks when I spend a few days in DC after Thomas and I go on a road trip around America to Booktopia MI. So let’s all grab on of John’s pina colada’s, give Lucy a pat and find out more about Thomas and his books.

A puppeteer and demolitions expert by day, Thomas Otto has been blogging since 2006. Okay part of that first sentence is true, I will leave it up to Simon’s readers to figure out which part. But seriously, I live in Washington, DC with my husband John and our dog Lucy. I blog about bookish stuff at Hogglestock.com (formerly My Porch), and I co-host a bookish podcast with some guy in England.

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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?

My reasons for keeping books aren’t very straight forward. The only thing that is a constant is I don’t keep books I don’t like and I keep books I like. I know that sounds straight forward but there is a middle ground of books I am somewhat ambivalent about that fall under other criteria that aren’t always the same. At some point, if I need to start getting rid of books, I will probably keep stuff that is harder to find because they have been long out of fashion. I hate the thought of those books disappearing. Lately I’ve been thinking of my will. My collection may not fetch much money but I want it to go to someone who will appreciate some of the oddities I have rather than having my next of kin pulping them when they find out they aren’t worth anything.

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?

With a few exceptions, all of my fiction is organized alphabetically by author and then chronologically by title. I used to have my TBR on separate shelves, but since we moved back into the house after the renovations I have mixed them with everything else. I can’t bring myself to break up my Persephones into alpha order, so they are all together as are my collection of Melville House novellas and those little old Oxford World Classics that can fit in your pocket. My nonfiction is roughly divided into memoirs/letters, books on books and literature, books on music, books on England, etc. One day I will organize John’s collection of garden books, but for now they are grouped rather higgedly-piggedly.

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I also ‘face’ my shelves. That is, I make sure all the spines are lined up at, or near, the edge of the shelf. It drives me bananas when they are pushed to the back of the shelf and the spines of the various sized books are uneven. I should also note that I got to customize the dimensions of my shelves and I made them shallower than the typical bookshelf which I find far deeper than what I need for fiction.

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

One of Helen Cresswell’s Bagthorpe books, but I don’t remember which one. It may have been Ordinary Jack which is the first in that series. My copy of it disappeared over 30 years ago, but oddly enough I just bought it on my recent trip to Powell’s Books in Portland. There was a small, very short-lived bookshop in my hometown when I was a kid. For some reason I bought the Cresswell and was wildly confused by all of the Britishisms in it that I didn’t even realize were Britishisms at the time. I guess even then I was an Anglophile.

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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?

Although I don’t feel any guilt about them, I think that the non-Buncle D.E. Stevenson novels probably fit this category. They are overly twee, chaste romances that are not very well written, and some of the 1970s paperback versions are definitely embarrassing to be seen reading in public. I also have most of Nevil Shute’s novels. He tells great stories but his prose can be a little embarrassing. Still, I never feel guilt when I read them, only pleasure, and they both hold pride of place with the rest of my fiction collection.

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?

Many of the books on my shelves are not expensive but they are hard to come by, so it is hard to think of which one I would save in a fire. There is a whole class of books on my shelves that fit that category. However, if I had to choose just one I would have to go with a limited edition of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. Not only is Lewis one of my favourite authors but this edition has colour illustrations by Grant Wood and is numbered and signed by the artist. It was also an insanely thoughtful gift from my husband.

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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?

Although my parent’s read quite a bit, there really wasn’t a bookshelf, it was more of a library existence for us in those days. The first adult book I read was Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews. I was far too young to read it but that didn’t seem to bother anyone even though my mother and older sister read it first.

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 haven’t borrowed a book in many years, but if I did and loved the book, I would definitely buy my own copy.

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

I just bought 61 books at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, but they are being shipped so I haven’t added them to my shelves yet. I did, however, recently add Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw. I have never read her so I hope I like it.

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

I still need to find about 20 D.E. Stevenson novels as well as more R.C. Sheriff and Richmal Crompton.

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

Unless they have tastes similar to mine I think their eyes would cross as they tried to find books or authors they recognized.

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A huge thanks to Thomas for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. I am beyond excited about heading over to the US to see him and go on our road trip, I am counting down the days. 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 Thomas’ responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

There is a sad truth that sometimes it can take the death of an author to remind you that you have always meant to read them. This was very much the case when Maya Angelou died last year and I was reminded that I had still not attempted to read any of her many volumes of autobiography. These books also happen to be some of my mother’s favourite books and on many occasion she has told me I really must read. So when I saw the first four of them pristine in a charity shop last autumn I snapped them up, it took my friend Rachael choosing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for book group earlier this year for me to finally get around to reading it.

Virago Books, 1984, paperback, memoir, 320 pages, kindly bought by me for me

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings covers the first year of Maya Angelou’s life, opening in the small segregated town of Stamps we soon learn that Maya and her brother were sent there to live with family after their parents marriage failed. What breaks your heart early on, and indeed sets a tone to this memoir, is the fact that they had tag attached to them labelled ‘To whom it may concern.’ The landscape and times of Maya’s childhood are not easy. Whilst Stamps is segregated that doesn’t mean that it is safe from racism or other evils of the world and nor is living with her grandmother really an exactly happy or enriching experience especially once she is sent away again to live with her mother having only just got used to almost calling one place home.

In Stamps the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like. Other than that they were different, to be dreaded, and in that dread was included the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the worked for and the ragged against the well dressed.
I remember never believing that whites were really real.

From here things swiftly go downhill as Maya where she is sexually abused by her mother’s partner and once this is discovered he is soon found dead having been murdered, Maya becomes a mute. What then follows from here is a tale of how a young woman who has already faced so much difficulty must not only try to make her way with that mental and physical scaring, but also in a world set against her firstly because she is black and secondly because she is female.

If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.
It is an unnecessary insult.

There were several things that I found fascinating about I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. First and foremost was its look at the plight of black people during a horrendous time in America’s history, though scarily you see moments of the past in the present when you watch the news, when racial tensions were incredibly heightened. Black people were simply considered second rate, if that, and what adds such an impact to Angelou’s writing is that everything she encounters is fact not fiction. Big moments such as having to help hide her uncle from the Klu Klux Klan, how an employee of hers simply changes her name to Mary (partly because it is easier but also because it is whiter) to smaller yet just as awful moments like simply being unable to see a dentist when she has toothache as he only deals with white girls. Yet amongst all this, we read, there remainded hope.

Champion of the world. A Black boy. Some Black mother’s son. He was the strongest man in the world. People drank Coca-Colas like ambrosia and ate candy bars like Christmas. Some of the men went behind the Store and poured white lightening in their soft-drink bottles, and a few of the bigger boys followed them. Those who were not chased away came back blowing their breath in front of themselves like proud smokers.

 As I read on I both admired Angelou for the things she accomplished (which I will not spoil) before she even turns twenty, as the book ends when she is seventeen, and also because of all the things she encompasses in writing  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings later in her life. It is interesting that in some ways you get the older and younger writer all at once, if that makes sense. I found her honesty, forgiveness, humour and acceptance both humbling and fascinating. I also found her passion for literature wonderful (there was a bit about The Well of Loneliness which I found very funny) and I loved how she talked about and looked at class, family and identity.

Bailey persisted in calling her Mother Dear until the circumstance of proximity softened the phrase’s formality to ‘Muh Dear,’ and finally to ‘M’Deah.’ I could never put my finger on her realness. She was so pretty and so quick that even when she had just awakened, her eyes full of sleep and hair tousled, I thought she looked just like the Virgin Mary. But what mother and daughter understand each other, or even have the sympathy for each other’s lack of understanding?

There is a small but for me, my mother will be reading this and raising an eyebrow sorry Mum, which that is that I actually wish I had read it back in my teens. Whilst I totally understood it is an incredibly important piece of work, one which should frankly be on the syllabus around the world especially in the US and UK, I did feel that coming to it now it did have a slight less impact that I wanted it to. This might be because so many people have told me how fantastic and important it is, which can add a lot of hype and pressure to a book, yet I think it is because I have read a lot of other works that look at this time period and the horrendousness of it all, albeit through fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that you only have to have read a few books on a subject to understand it (far from it, on some parts of history we can never know enough no matter how difficult) and you can’t really compare fiction to fact. I was often very moved by the book; I just didn’t really gel with it until about two thirds/three quarters of the way through, I wondered if this was because Maya’s memories of her early childhood might not be as strong until her early teens and hence why sometimes I felt rather distant and confused with what was going on. However as Maya grew up and became more independent, I became hooked and was very disappointed when it then soon ended, meaning I will have to get to the second in due course. I have a feeling the further I read on with Maya Angelou and her story the more and more effect it will have on me.

What I found interesting was that Tracy, Rachael and Barbara, who I am in my book group with, all felt very similar. Have you read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and what did you make of it? Have your read the following six volumes and how was your journey, no spoilers, with Maya as you went on? Do you think how old we are, or where we are in our life affects the responses we have to books along with what we have read before?

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Filed under Maya Angelou, Non Fiction, Review, Virago Books, Virago Modern Classics

Significance – Jo Mazelis

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging  Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next few weeks (and indeed last six weeks) I will be (and have been) sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one per week alongside the team at Fiction Uncovered. In the penultimate week this week it is all about Jo Mazelis’  novel Significance which is quite unlike any literary crime novel that I have read before, seriously.

Seren Books, 2014 (2015 edition), paperback, fiction, 472 pages, kindly sunbmitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

Lucy Swann has run away. She has fled the life she had in Britain to start a new life with no attachments and no history. She has dyed her hair, bought new clothes and changed her image. What we the reader want to know of course is why. What the people in the Northern French town she comes to stay in want to know is who on earth this mysterious woman travelling alone is. Yet just as we, and they, are beginning to get some insight into Lucy (we the old Lucy, they the new invention) she is brutally murdered. Inspector Vivier and his assistant Sabine Pelat are called to investigate and as they do they begin to learn not only more about Lucy but about all the people in the town she ended up in.

Lucy orders a bottle of vin rouge. Madame Gallo watches her from behind the bar, she is middle aged, but her face is still pretty, her hair dark and glossy. She dresses well. Looks exactly right for the part. As does Lucy, who is a runaway in the disguise of a confident young woman with money and credit cards and expensive clothes.

So far admittedly it sounds very like many a murder mystery or thriller you might have read before. However the murder and indeed the murderer and their motive are really the background of the book, whilst remaining the driving force of the novel. I know this sounds somewhat bonkers so let me explain, without giving anything away of course. In the lead up to, and indeed after, the murder of Lucy Swann we not only get insight into her life, we also get insight into all the people that she interacts with even if it just be a random bumping into in the street. Slowly but surely Mazelis spins us into a web of the stories of many of the people in the towns and what their relationships are and what it going on behind closed doors.

Florian looked at Suzette; three weeks ago she had invited him back to her flat. They had drunk tequila together, biting into oranges between shots instead of limes. He had not expected her to suddenly kiss him, but she did. And had wordlessly taken his hand and drawn him into her bedroom. But in the morning he’d had to get up early and was slightly hung-over. She hadn’t given him her number. He hadn’t asked, nor given her his. It was his mother’s birthday so he’d gone to dinner that evening, though he’d really wanted to see Suzette again. The night after that he’d gone to the bar to see her, but it was her day off. Then, for some reason or another, he couldn’t get to the bar for another three days, and the next time he tried she was again not working. More than a week had passed before he finally saw her at the bar, but it was unusually busy and Jaques was in a foul temper. When Florian caught her eye Suzette barely looked at him. He took the hint and left after just one drink.

I loved this element to the novel as we really get into the lives of a whole cast of characters with many mini stories or vignettes interweaving around the main one. This I found gives Significance additional depths to a simple ‘whodunnit’ or ‘whydunnit’ as it shows the secrets that the victim of murder has, how the murder effects a town brimming with secrets and whose secrets and relationships are significant to each other and the murder. It is rather like Mazelis has taken a box filled with all the crime novel/thriller tropes and really shaken it up to see what can be done outside the box. Have I gone too far with that metaphor? Maybe, but it is true none the less. I think I also loved it because I am quite a nosey person, which I think all readers are to an extent as why would be want to read about so many other people’s fictional lives, and this gives you a chance to have a really good route around into a whole host of characters lives. I found the stories of Suzette the bar maid, Joseph a young black soon to be medical student and Marilyn and Scott holidaying with his younger autistic brother to give his parents a break as interesting and poignant as Lucy’s.

There is also a much deeper level to the novel that just an enthralling and entertaining, and it should be said beautifully written (you can tell Mazelis is a poet, the writing is lyrical yet has real pace) and crafted, read. From the title you would imagine that the novel is about the significance of a murder and of course it is, yet it is also about many other significances; the significance we give ourselves and others, the significance we are given, the significance of tiny details or moments and how they can change everything. It is also a book that is very much about perception, the things we notice and the things that we don’t. I was reminded a lot of this novel when I was reading Melanie Finn’s Shame which has been shortlisted for the Not The Booker which is also a sinister tale which unravels in all directions, changes perspectives and expectations as it goes.

It is dark when she leaves the hotel. A boy is standing on the edge of the pavement across the road. Lucy has the curious sensation that she passed him earlier – hours earlier, when it was still light, although the shadows had been lengthening.

I think Jo Mazelis has created something quite unique with Significance. Not only has she created a tense (occasionally quite sinister and gothic) literary thriller, she has also created a novel where the murder is really the back story and the human nature of a collection of people in one town and how their lives and their little actions can create a turn of events. It is a novel that will have you guessing and as Poirot, or Agatha Christie really, said it is a novel where those “grey cells, sometimes they work even better in the dark”, mine certainly did and not just about murder but a whole host of societal issues.

I would love to know if any of you have read Significance and what you thought of it. I would also be really keen to hear if you have read any of Jo Mazelis (who also writes as Jo Hughes) other works for there are lots of them, short stories, novels and non-fiction, do let me know.

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Filed under Fiction Uncovered, Jo Mazelis, Review, Seren Books

Your Thoughts; Board Games, Stationery & Incoming Books

I have been thinking about bringing some new posts to Savidge Reads, and indeed bringing some old posts back, so have been pondering them all. I then thought ‘hang on, who better to ask for some feedback on all this than those lovely folk who visit the blog’ and so that is what I am doing, I know I am like Sherlock in my deducing of problems, ha!

So, first up new ideas. One of them I have been thinking about for a while and it involves stationery. I have been a huge fan of stationery since time began, well since I was about eight or nine. I can spend hours and hours, and often have, in a Paperchase and am always hankering after a notebook fix. Myself and the lovely Kate of Adventures with Words, did try and start a blog on stationery alone back in 2014. I was rubbish, Kate was brilliant, we both got crazy busy. Well I am thinking of bringing the occasional stationery post to Savidge Reads as in general if you love a good book you love a good notebook… or twelve. What do you think?

The next new idea has a much less booky link and I have to admit I hadn’t thought of doing until I had an email this morning. The email was asking if I would like to review the occasional board game or two. Now admittedly I don’t play them often but I do love a board game and as the nights draw in and you long to sit in front of a fire of an evening (even when you don’t have one like me, weeps) sometimes you want to actually spend some time being social rather than having your face in a book. I know, it sounds crazy but it’s true. Well there are only so many more episodes of The Good Wife, which I am obsessed with, that I have left to watch and I used to love Monopoly, Cluedo, The Gunge Game, etc. So I am thinking about it, it could be fun every now and again?

Clacts-10-Best-Learning-Board-Games-For-Kids

Finally I am pondering whether I should bring back my incoming posts. Not everything that comes in to Savidge Reads, that would be bonkers and with so many unsolicited (and sometimes totally inappropriate) copies of books coming here it might make my fingers bleed. I am talking about the highlights, some books that you might want to check out in the forthcoming weeks and months. I love nosing at what other people get copies of, but it can seem show offy. Maybe there is another way I could do it? Could I consider bringing back some embedded vlogging?

I would love your thoughts on these, bringing back the old or keeping the new. Feel free to shout ‘what the hell are you thinking of Simon, the blog is Savidge Reads not Savidge Stationery or Savidge Games – what next from board games to yawn tastic ‘gaming’ on the computer and telling us all about that or maybe you’ll just start with a weekly post about kittens? ‘ or want to yell ‘Book blogs should be just that and nothing else, think on sunshine!’  I would also love to know if you have anything you would like to suggest for a new series of posts or any other feedback, like get on with commenting back (which is my next ‘thing’ over the next week) or things you don’t like on the blog, only the later if you put it nicely – ha! As always any feedback and thoughts on my thoughts are welcome. Blimey, that was only meant to be a short post.

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A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

Back in May I spent a bank holiday weekend in tears. That is because I spent the three day break (which I still don’t understand why we have several times a year, yet obviously embrace) reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Though saying that you read a book like A Little Life I actually think does it a disservice as it is one of those all encompassing books that you live through. It is rare that a book as it ends leaves you feeling a somewhat changed person to the one who started it, that is what happened to me and is probably why this will be one of my all time reads.

Picador Books, 2015, hardback, fiction, 736 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

A Little Life is one of those books that slightly fool you from the start. As it opens it seems to be the tale of four men who become friends in college, we watch as they struggle (well three of them do) to make successful lives in New York; Willem as an actor, JB as a photographer, Malcolm as an architect and Jude as a lawyer.  Initially the novel traces how the four men meet, how their friendship develops and then how their lives and careers in the big smoke unfold. If you are thinking ‘oh right, it is another of those New York novels about successful men’ whilst rolling your eyes, you would be wrong as Yanagihara weaves in various question marks about all of these men and the darker parts of their personalities and pasts, particularly into the unknown and almost mysterious psyche of Jude who never gives anything away, not even snippets, of his youth.

His feelings for Jude were complicated. He loved him – that part was simple – and feared for him, and sometimes felt as much his older brother and protector as his friend. He knew that Jude would be and had been fine without him, but he sometimes saw things in Jude that disturbed him and made him feel both helpless and, paradoxically, more determined to help him (although Jude rarely asked for help of any kind.) They all loved Jude, and admired him, but he often felt that Jude had let him see a little more of him – just a little – than he had shown the others, and he was unsure what he was supposed to do with that knowledge.

It is Jude who fairly soon becomes the focus as the novel and it is here that A Little Life starts to take its, now infamous, darker turns. Without giving too much away, and I think it has been discussed quite a lot all over the shop, we look into his background, the horrendous abuse that he endured and the physical and mental scars it has left and which he is still dealing with now. How does someone cope with having been abandoned and then physically and sexually abused? How does someone make a success of their lives after that? How do they survive? These are some of the many questions that Yanagihara asks and some of the answers are not comfortable ones. For example in order to escape the almost constant pain, Jude often (to the horror of those who know about it; Willem, Jude’s physician Andy and his mentor Harold) uses the release of self harm. Yes it makes for disturbing reading, yet I have never understood the psychology behind it before as I have reading this.

Jude shrugged, and Willem felt his annoyance quicken into anger. Here Jude sat after what was, he could now admit, a terrifying night, acting as if nothing had happened, even as his bandage-wrapped hand lay uselessly on the table. He was about to speak when Jude put down the water glass he’d been using as a pastry cutter and looked at him. “I’m really sorry, Willem,” he said, so softly that Willem almost couldn’t hear him. He saw Willem looking at his hand and pulled it into his lap. “I should never -” He paused. “I’m sorry. Don’t be mad at me.”

Yet this is one of the things that Yanagihara seems to want to look at. Her writing, whilst admittedly (and she has said intentionally) making everything a little extreme, has an honesty about the things we like to talk about and also the things that we don’t which I found impressive and often heartbreaking because we have all felt or thought these things. “I’m lonely,” he says aloud, and the silence of the apartment absorbs the words like blood soaking into cotton. And there is so much Yanagihara looks at; pleasure vs. pain, success vs. failure, love vs. hate. She also looks at how society has expectations for us from birth; we should all be able to endure anything, we should all want success and riches, we should all have the best relationships possible of all kinds, we should all love sex, we should be grateful to be alive, we should all be survivors. But what if we don’t, are we failures, and are we not truly ‘human’ if we are not conventional in all ways? I could talk about the thoughts and questions A Little Life gave me for days and days.

If you are thinking that this sounds like the most miserable, upsetting, confronting and disturbing novel you are going to read, you would be wrong. Yes there are a lot of moments where it will leave you bereft and broken; however it is also a novel of incredible hope, especially in the testament of friendship and the power of love. I cried as many times through happiness as I did sadness, I laughed as much as I gasped or winced in horror. In some ways there is a fairy tale like quality to A Little Life both in its sense of timelessness, the way it has it’s goodies (Willem is now my idea of a contemporary Prince Charming if ever there was one) and baddies (Caleb and Brother Luke will make your skin crawl) and also in its believe in the goodness of many over the wickedness of some and the power/magic there is in love in all its forms.

“All I want,” he’d said to Jude one night, trying to explain the satisfaction that at that moment was burbling inside him, like water in a bright blue kettle, “is work I enjoy, and a place to live, and someone who loves me. See? Simple.”

Someone asked me the other day, after I had recommended that they read it, why on earth it had to be so long? Good question, why couldn’t Yanagihara have made it 500 or even 350 pages long instead of over 700? My answer is simply that you have to get completely immersed into these lives in order for the book to have the incredible emotive, happy and sad, effects that it does. By the end of the novel you will feel you have made friends and lost them, you will have felt like you have endured their happiness and their pain, you will feel you have lived a little of other people’s lives and been subconsciously made to reflect on your own.

I am going to urge everyone I know to read A Little Life. It is a novel that looks at love, friendship, loss, pleasure, pain, hope, survival, failure and success. It is a book about class, disability, sexuality and race. Overall it is a book about what it means to be a human. It’s amazing, it is also brutal. Like I said back at the beginning of this post, A Little Life is not just a book you read through, it is a book that you experience and live through. Without a doubt this will be my book of the year, if not my book of the decade, something about it (and Jude and Willem) will stay with me for many, many years to come. I am changed a little, something only the rarest and most moving and thought provoking books can do. Get it, read it, then talk to me about it.

If you would like to hear more about A Little Life from Hanya Yanagihara, you can hear her in conversation with me on the latest You Wrote The Book. If you have read A Little Life I would love to know and hear your thoughts on it and the affects it had on you, whatever they were. I think it’s clear this is a book I could talk about all day, this review took fifteen edits, I kid you not! I would also love to know if any of you have read Hanya’s debut The People in the Tree’s which I have and want to read right now and yet want to save, as it may be a while before we get the next Yanagihara novel.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Hanya Yanagihara, Picador Books, Review

Other People’s Bookshelves #69 – Thom Cuell

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 in the wonderful town of Buxton to join blogger, writer, publisher, all round good guy and complete book addict Thom Cuell. If you don’t have the Workshy Fop bookmarked as a favourite then you should. Before we have a rummage through all of his shelves, lets all settle down on her lovely sofa’s, grab a glass of spa water and find out more about him.

(I hate writing bio’s in the third person, so here goes) – I’m a book reviewer and essay writer, and my writing has appeared on websites including 3am Magazine, The Weeklings and The Literateur, as well as the blog Workshy Fop, the website I began in 2007. I also co-host a literary salon in London, for authors, reviewers and publishers, and my latest venture is the indie press Dodo Ink, which will be publishing exciting and innovative new writing, launching in 2016. I have an MA in English and American Literature from the University of Manchester, and I live in Buxton with my daughter Gaia. My favourite novels include Great Apes by Will Self, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis and Zone by Mathias Enard, and I’ve recently fallen for Nell Zink in a big way. I am also one of the founders of new imprint Dodo Ink which will be launching in 2016, with three original novels. You can be part of it by donating to The Grand Dodo Ink Kickstarter here.

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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’m a terrible hoarder, so yes, most books do end up on my shelves after I’ve read them! My main ambition for old age is to have a study lined with books from floor to ceiling, so I’m making a start already (I wish I had that sense of forward planning when it came to finances – maybe my collection can become my pension. Wishful thinking?). But space is quite limited, and the shelves are constantly overflowing, so I tend to do a monthly sweep where I try to find at least a bagful which can go to charity shops…

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?

Before I give my answer, my favourite ever reply to that question was from someone on Twitter who said that they organised their books ‘in ascending order of threat to national security’. My shelves are colour coded – I think I first sorted them that way about 5 years ago, and have kept it in four different flats now. I’ve tried different things before, like by publisher or subject, but I prefer the look of colour coding. The main thing is that I’ve always been opposed to alphabetical order. Sam (Mills, author and co-director of Dodo Ink) has a habit of wandering off with my books, so I don’t want to make it any easier for her to find what she’s looking for…  The downside is that I have found myself thinking ‘I could do with more red books to fill a shelf’. And the ever-expanding TBR pile is currently on the floor, awaiting the arrival of more shelving.

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

I have no idea! I can tell you my first record (Mis-shapes by Pulp), but no memory of what the first book would have been. However, I do have a huge storage container full of books from when my parents moved house about 10 years ago, so it is almost certainly in there, going mouldy, whatever it was.

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, no shame! At some point I might have to hide some of the Victorian filth away I suppose, for practical reasons. (One disclaimer – the Shirley Conran book is Sam’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?

The piles of books probably make my flat a massive fire hazard, so this question is quite worrying… I don’t tend to get into big emotional connections with specific books – the words in them, yes, but not the physical entity. There are a few I’d be sad to lose though – a Left Book Club edition of The Road to Wigan Pier, which my dad bought me, and my paperback copy of The Quiddity of Will Self, which is full of crossings out and notes from when Sam used it in a reading. And there are two more, which I’ll talk about in the next question.

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?

I was always surrounded by books when I was growing up, and I was never told that any of them were off limits. I think the first ‘adult’ books might have been some of Roald Dahl’s horror stories, which I borrowed from my junior school library – I had a bash at A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovic when I was 10 or 11 as well. From my parents’ shelves, there are a few that stick in my mind: American Psycho and Trainspotting, both of which I read, and are now on my shelves (I got both copies signed by the authors too), and also A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, which I never read at the time, but have bought and read since.

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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 do prefer to have my own copy, yes – just in case I ever have to refer to them for any reason (I’m always dreaming up elaborate research projects). I normally wait to see if I can find them in charity shops though.

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

I was in Southport this weekend, which turned out to be secondhand book heaven – especially Broadhurst Books (note – this was the book shop Granny Savidge used to spend her weekends reading in as a little girl). By the time I got to the third floor there, I was testing the patience of a six year old who had been promised a trip to the beach, so I didn’t get to explore as much as I’d have liked, but I did come away with Murder in the Collective by Barbara Wilson – a 1980s crime novel involving anarcho-feminist communes. I’ve been getting very into The Women’s Press recently – they published some stunning novels which are often out of print now – so I’m really excited about this one.

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

Ah, there are always more books! One that I’ve always wanted, but which comes with a hefty price tag, is Il Settimo Splendore by Girogio Cortenova, the catalogue from an exhibition I went to see in Verona in 2004. And there are loads which I do own, but are buried in storage when they should be on my shelves – In Search of the Pleasure Palace by Marc Almond is one, and my collection of Attack! books, a short-lived imprint created by sadly deceased NME journalist Steven Wells, which specialised in highly offensive gonzo thrillers.

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

Probably that I am a mad pervert! I’d like to think that it shows a wide-ranging set of interests…

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A huge thanks to Thom for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. Don’t forget if you would like to be part of helping set up an new publishing imprint, you can help kickstart Dodo Ink here – backers can receive rewards including bookmarks, signed books and invitations to launch parties. 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 Thom’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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Thunderstruck & Other Stories – Elizabeth McCracken

One of the most talked about short story collections of last year was undoubtedly Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck & Other Stories rave reviews were flying in left right and centre and so earlier this year, when the praise had died down somewhat, I decided that I would give them a whirl. Having not read any of McCracken’s work before (which interestingly horrified many and led them to say ‘but The Giant’s House is so you’, I still need to get my mitts on it) I went in blind to a collection of stories that when you initially describe them might sound dark and maudlin but actually have many moments of hope and humour.

Vintage Books, 2015, paperback, short stories, 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Short stories are always a little difficult to write about because you don’t want to give everything away in each one, yet at the same time you want to give anyone thinking about reading it a sense of what the whole work is about. In the case of Thunderstruck & Other Stories the one thing that ties them all together really is loss. It might be the loss of a partner, a child, an animal. People tend to die or go missing predominantly in these tales at the start and then we go off backwards to find out more about them or forwards into the ripples of loss and grief that follow. ‘Oh bloody hell,’ you might be thinking ‘this sounds like a right cheery bunch of tales.’ Yet whilst the overall feeling, particularly as it ends on the title story, might be one of make sure people know you love them before they or you die or disappear, there is a quirky humour and sense of hope that resides within the whole collection. I probably sound like a loon saying that, once you have read it you will know what I mean.

Once upon a time a woman disappeared from a dead-end street. Nobody saw her go. She must have stepped out the door of the Victorian she shared with her father and son. She must have walked down the front steps. She was accompanied or unaccompanied, willing or unwilling. She left behind her head-dented pillow like a book on a lectern, on the right page one long hair marking her place for the next time. She left behind socks that eventually forgot the particular shape of her feet and the shoes that didn’t, the brown leather belt that once described her boyish waist, dozens of silver earrings, the pajamas she’d been wearing when last seen. She left behind her mattress printed with unfollowed instructions for seasonal turning. She left behind her car. She left behind the paperback mystery she’d been reading.

I am not going to tell you about every single tale in the collection as I think that might over egg the pudding and you would have very little left to discover. I will however give you a taste of some of the stories I really loved. If you go and read any other reviews, as I did before I borrowed the collection, what you will find interesting is that no person’s top three or four stories are the same though some feature the same one or two. Those tend to be Juliet and Thunderstruck itself.

Juliet initially starts as a slightly kooky tale of a town seen through the eyes of a librarian as she observes her patrons, soon enough things take a darker twist as we discover that there has been a murder, of a woman named Juliet, which leads to a confrontation between patrons and librarians and librarians with librarians. The farce with the tragedy becoming truly bittersweet. In Thunderstruck a pair of concerned parents decide to take their daughter away to France, after she is brought home by the police having done drugs at a party. In France it seems that she blossoms and all is well, only of course McCracken has a twist waiting for you and what a twist indeed. I thought this was interesting both in how it brought up the subjects of parents not always knowing best and teenagers just being teenagers, whilst also being a contemporary look at the old historical act of sending young girls to France to better themselves which has happened throughout time.

Somewhere, a dog barked. No, it didn’t. Only in novels did you catch such a break, a hollow in your stomach answered by some far-off dog making an unanswered dog call. Dogs were not allowed at Drake’s landing. Still, surely somewhere in the world a dog was barking, a cat was hissing, a parrot with an unkind recently deceased owner was saying something inappropriate to an animal shelter volunteer.

Two other highlights are Property which tells of a couple who sell their house to return to America for the next stage of their life, only for the wife to die before they leave. Her widow then has to move into a new rental home which is far from idyllic and seems to match his situation as life no longer has the shine, romance or excitement without his wife with him. If you aren’t broken (and then enraged) by this you have no heart. Hungry also looks at grief, though in a very different way as whilst staying with her grandmother one summer not knowing her father is about to be taken off life support, ten year old Lisa is left to her own devices and the contents of the larder and fridge, where she gorges her grandmother to grief stricken and guilty to do anything about it. It sounds funny but it becomes incredibly difficult to read. I should also nod to The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston and The House of Two Three Legged Dogs which were also highlights but I won’t say more about as I will end up telling you about them all.

I do have a favourite though and actually I would suggest you leave this till last, though it is first in the collection. Something Amazing is just that, something amazing. It is the tale of the children of a neighbourhood who believe they still see the ghost of Missy Goody, who was six and a complete bully, since her death they believe her mother Mrs Goody is a witch and a mad woman. In many ways Mrs Goody is mad, driven crazy by grief, to the point where her grief and loneliness cause her to do something quite bonkers indeed. Yet oddly, because McCracken writes her so well, understandable in a very, very weird way – you don’t condone it, you get it though.

Something Amazing just worked for me on every level. It has a Du Maurier (highest form of compliment from me) gothic sensibility, it is utterly creepy and then utterly heartbreaking whilst also having the elements of a ghost story, mystery and fairytale. I had to read it all over again as soon as I had finished it. For me the whole collection is worth the cover price for this tale alone. There, I have said it. I liked the others very, very much indeed this one though completely stole my heart.

Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Gooby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees. That thumping noise is Missy bopping a plastic Halloween pumpkin on one knee; that flash of light in the corner of a dark porch is the moon off the glasses she wore to correct her lazy eye. Late at night when you walk your dog and feel suddenly cold, and then unsure of yourself, and then loathed by the world, that’s Missy Goodby, too, hissing as she had when she was alive and six years old, I hate you, you stink, you smell, you baby.

So as you can see I concur with all the rave reviews of Thunderstruck & Other Stories and think that the way McCracken uses tragedy and farce, emotion and dark humour marvellous. I also love the way she writes about every day people, everyday problems yet at moments of great endurance in one way or another. I am now very keen to go and read all of her other collections and novels. So would love to hear your thoughts on them and of course on this collection too.

*Note in case you are thinking ‘didn’t you say that book was from the library yet you’ve had it sent from the publishers?’ I did get it from the library in hardback and read that copy in Spring and then was sent a paperback unsolicited later and read Something Amazing another three times, which was delightful.

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Filed under Elizabeth McCracken, Review, Short Stories, Vintage Books

Shame – Melanie Finn

Whilst people are off reading the Man Booker longlist, I have decided to be slightly different and give both the Gordon Burn Prize shortlist and Not The Booker shortlist a whirl as the variety that they both provide really interests me. Shame is up for the latter, where it could win the author’s Holy Grail that is The Guardian Mug, and if it is a sign of all the reading ahead then I am in for some unusual and thought provoking treats over the next month or so.

Orion Publishing, 2015, hardback, fiction, 308 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Pilgrim Jones is having a pretty horrendous time of it. The first of the awful things to happen to her, we learn, is that her husband has left her for a younger woman they met on a social weekend all together with mutual friends. She is, as the book opens, now in Tanzania after picking the first flight she could to leave the broken home they had created in the Swiss village of Arnau before ditching her fellow safari goers half way through a trip in Magulu. However, it soon becomes clear that this is no holiday of respite; Pilgrim is running away from something far worse, an accident that left three children dead. Yet as Pilgrim seeks escape the past and try to deal with it, it seems her past is coming looking for her.

But they are without shame. Like animals. Do you see? You maybe feel shame for them, but they do not feel shame for themselves.

For the first third of the book Shame reads like a compelling thriller. We move forward with Pilgrim as she gets to know the people of Magulu, such as Dr Dorothea and PC Kessy as well as the mysterious and pretty skin crawling inducing Martin Martins. We also begin to learn of the people of Africa’s superstitions which come to the fore when a box of albino body parts, deemed to be a curse, are left in the village not long after Pilgrim and Martin’s arrivals. Whilst all this is going on we are also going backwards to Switzerland and learning of the ripples immediately after Pilgrim’s divorce and the accident that labels her kindermörderin, child killer and the detective who investigates it, Strebel. Then about 100 pages in Pilgrim suddenly decides to leave, on a whim, and head elsewhere. Fate seemingly intervenes and suddenly she is in Tanga where she meets fellow ex-Americans Gloria and Harry and things take a surreal turn before just after half way Finn turns the book completely on its head, and I mean completely.

It is a huge gamble that Finn takes here as, without giving anything away, she shifts the book completely out of Pilgrim’s perspective and narrative and then takes it into some of the characters that she has met along the way. We are dropped by one character and then suddenly scooped up by another. It also gives the book a huge plot twist/reveal that I did not see coming from any direction. Readers will be completely intrigued; completely enraged by it or like me somewhere in the middle, as it both baffled me and completely thrilled me. I just couldn’t not read on.

I think, again without any spoilers, that the reason Finn does this is to highlight the two biggest themes of the book and no I am not talking about shame. I am talking about redemption vs. revenge and the stories we tell others vs. the stories we tell ourselves. Whilst shame is a huge theme in the book, as the title would suggest and as pretty much every single character feels shame (for what they have done, didn’t do, can’t do or won’t do) in some way I actually think it is the other topics that have their roots the deepest in this novel. Each character has an image they put forward that is very different to the one underneath their skin whatever their colour or whatever their background. They have secrets or problems they are shamed by in some way which they tell little lies and stories to cover up. Can they redeem themselves? Can they live with themselves? Can they even scores? All these things are looked at in Shame.

I do have to admit I had a few wobbles with Shame on and off which I think are worth highlighting before I recommend you all to read it, which I do. Occasionally there seems to be a lot of sudden reaction without motivation. For example Pilgrim’s sudden decision to leave Magulu and how she suddenly ends up in Tanga, which whilst I got it at the end seemed very confusing and broke the pace for the novel with me for a while before I was hooked again. I also felt that this happened with the sudden arrival of the albino body parts. Whilst I found the African magical elements/beliefs really interesting and occasionally grimly fascinating sometimes I felt it both strengthened and weakened the plot. Instead of adding darkness or a threatening presence, which I think was the intention, it added occasional confusion or diverted your eye away from its intent. These were by no means fatal flaws and I should add. Africa is described wonderfully in this book, with its mystery, oppressive heat, cultural ways and brooding landscape it becomes a character and presence all of its own.

Kessy smiles. ‘Imagine someone hates you this much? What have you done to him? Perhaps in your heart you know you are guilty. And this magic speaks to your heart.’
A sensation comes over me, as if something is moving underneath my skin, one of those terrible worms that beds down in your flesh.

Shame is a compulsive, fascinating, perplexing and disorientating one which keeps you in its thrall. It is a book that plays with storytelling, genre and expectations. It also looks at the way we perceive ourselves and others as well as how they perceive us, which changes from person to person, emotion to emotion. It is brilliantly written, quirky and plays with the reader as it goes along. Most interestingly it is a book that is about revenge vs. redemption, right up until the very last line. You’ll be left pondering what should be the most fitting outcome for all the characters, potentially feeling some shame yourself as to what fate you decide to leave them too.

Who else has read Shame and what did you make of it? It is one of those books I am desperate to talk about now I have finished it, so do let me know if you have. I am going to have to hunt down her debut novel Away From You at some point which is another novel about Africa too and was longlisted for both the Orange and IMPAC prizes. I am certainly looking forward to what she writes next. Next up from the Not The Booker shortlist I will be reading The Anatomy of Parks by Kat Gordon, which keeps making me think of my new (belated, last to the party – I know, I know) favourite show Parks and Recreation.

Note – I have just gone off to read some other reviews of Shame, as I do only after I review, and it seems that myself and the lovely Naomi of The Writes of Woman have blog snap as she has written about Shame today too.

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Filed under Melanie Finn, Not The Booker Prize, Orion Publishing, Review, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

I’ve Had Visitors…

I have just had the joy of my mother and my little brother coming to visit for a few days and it has been really, really lovely. The weather was amazing and so we headed to Crosby and Anthony Gormley’s statue (see below) as well as going to Formby which I had completely forgotten was where my Great Uncle Len and Great Aunty Betty used to live, and so where my mother spent quite a few summer holidays visiting as a girl. We had gone to see if we could see any red squirrels and after a serious bit of hunting we did in deed see… one. Yes, just the one but still one was better than none.

My mother, some random man and I

My mother, some random man and I

Of course my mother being my mother, there was a huge amount of book chat that went on. In fact at one point my mother said ‘I am so sorry but with all these books on all these shelves I find it very difficult to talk about anything else without staring at the shelves and talking about what I have and hadn’t read.’ It is at moment’s like this that I know we are really family, ha. I also managed some rather good book shopping as in Formby we played, with my brother and The Beard (whose mother met my mother for the first time this trip, eek) of course, the Charity Shop Challenge – who could get the best gift for someone else, chosen from a hat, for just a fiver! We all did very well, though I did most well at finding these bargains for myself…

Bargain book haul!

Bargain book haul!

It has been a wonderful few days. There is nothing quite like some quality time with family and fresh air, or indeed a cheeky charity shop haul, especially when you get some real gems. None of these were more than £2. I am thrilled with all of the above and they will feed my current need for some older fiction between my contemporary reads. What have you been up to recently? Got any book bargains at all? Have you read any of the books that I managed to get my hands on?

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Filed under Book Spree, Random Savidgeness

Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth (Redux)

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next few weeks (and indeed last five weeks) I will be (and have been) sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one per week alongside the team at Fiction Uncovered. This week it is all about Emma Jane Unsworth’s wonderful, funny and deftly written Animals. 

I am making a slight change to the series of posts as Animals was the only book that won or was longlisted for the prize that I had already read (and blooming loved) before I was signed up as a Fiction Uncovered judge. Rather than write a review again, or indeed tweak the previous one, I thought I would simply give you a link to go and head off and read that review, because nothing has changed bar that fact that if anything I love Animals that little bit more since having some wonderful conversations about it with the other judges; India, Matt and Cathy. You should read it, well read my review and then go and read it. Ha!

You can also hear Emma and I having a lovely chat about Animals over a pint outside a Manchester public house last autumn on You Wrote The Book here too. Frankly I am spoiling you.

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The Weightless World – Anthony Trevelyan

Sometimes the title of a book can call to you and for some reason The Weightless World was one such title from the moment it arrived in the post. It intrigued me without even having to have read a page (or as you can see below without any illustration on the cover, though in its own way that is also intriguing enough). Throw in the fact that it was a debut (I do like a debut novel, all those idea’s all that energy) and was from an independent press, the press who published A Girl is a Half Formed Thing no less, and three of my favourite ‘I am strongly inclined to read this’ boxes were ticked. Before I knew it, I was off adventuring with an unlikely group of fellows in India.

Galley Beggar Press, 2015, paperback, fiction, 265 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Raymond Ess is going to kill me.
This is the thought I can’t stop thinking. One way and another I have been thinking it for years, though I used to mean something like Raymond Ess is going to be annoyed at me or Raymond Ess is asking too much of me. I don’t mean either of those things now. I just mean he is going to kill me.
One night soon, when he find out what I’ve done. Raymond Ess is going to slip quietly into my room and murder me in my bed. He’s going to stab me through the sheets with a kitchen knife, crush my throat with his speckled hands, and he’s not going to do it because he’s mad, though he is (stark, staring); he’s going to do it because it’s what I deserve. Because it’s the only punishment that fits the crime.

They say that the opener of a book should instantly draw the reader in. The Weightless World  pulls you in with some force. We soon discover that the Raymond Ess is not some psychopathic monster hunting our narrator, Steven Strauss, down but actually his boss and Steven has done something he believes is so terrible it is worthy of murder. But what? Well, obviously that is the question that a lot of the book is based around so I am not going to tell you. What I can say is that Steven has ended up on the other side of the world from his home in England and is now on a trip to India with his boss to go and find an antigravity machine. Yes, an antigravity machine.

What makes this all the more intriguing, and frankly bizarre, is that Ess found this antigravity machine when he was away in India finding himself after having a mental breakdown of sorts which meant he had to take leave from the company he cofounded, Resolution Aviation. The company he has also almost driven to bankruptcy after a big gamble that went massively wrong. Whilst on his travels in India he got lost from his guide Asha and found himself in the middle of nowhere where in a wooden hut near a river he found recluse Tarik Kundra who just happened to have build a machine that can make anything (including concrete moulds of swimming pools) defy gravity. Now, with Steven and Asha in tow, he wants to find him again and make the company and himself millions once more.

Now I have to say as the novel went on I was slightly unsure I was going to get along with it. The reasons for this being I don’t like books based around business and work colleagues (hence why I was one of the only people on earth who didn’t like Joshua Ferris’ And Then We Came To The End) and also because on the mention of antigravity, whilst making the wonderful title make complete sense, I had an ‘uh-oh this is going to end up going to space’ moment. I was wrong on the latter count as we don’t go to space, well maybe one character does, and whilst yes this is a book about business I rather enjoyed it because at its heart I think The Weightless World is something of a farce.

In actual fact as I was reading Trevelyan’s debut I kept thinking of Graham Greene and both The Ministry of Fear and also in particular Our Man In Havana. Not because this is a spy story, though there is an element of that thrown in, but because The Weightless World  is very much a tale of a bumbling white middle class male a little bit lost and out of kilter with everything, except his girlfriend Alice when he can reach her on Skype, who somehow starts to find himself in the most random and adverse of situations, as his naturally complicates them no end. Also, like Greene, it is brilliantly written with some stunning prose even when Trevelyan is merely writing about the complexities of a Skype call.

I stare at the screen. The circles ping, ping. Then the wifi icon shrivels, the circles dim then blip to nothing and the screen holds nothing but futile light.
Somewhere on the face of the earth Alice is staring into her laptop. She’s waiting for it to conjure me, incarnate me. But the magic has failed. She is there and I am here and the curve of the planet turns stubbornly, irreducibly between us.

I have to admit that on occasion I did get a little lost. As the characters build, from just Ess and Steven to Ess, Steven, Asha and Harry (a slightly smarmy and seemingly untrustworthy business man who tags along after he invites himself) there are occasionally moments you feel that you haven’t quite got a handle on them and indeed sometimes they haven’t quite got a handle on themselves. There is a lot of ‘do you know what is going on?’ said to one another which is often both funny and slightly confusing and distancing so I would have to go back and figure things out. This is a minor grumble as Trevelyan offers a lot more going on below the farces facade.

What I think The Weightless World is about on deeper level is the relationship between India and the UK (and indeed the Western World). As Steven and Ess adventure on India broods in the background both with its trading, be it big business or on the market stalls in the streets, its western interference to dominate and ‘make good’ whilst also making profit (there is a poignant moment involving a collapsed warehouse) and also the instability India has with and without interventions; as Steven and Ess arrive there is a huge bomb in Banaglore. It is also a book about the brilliance, nightmare and reliance that we put on technology and how sometimes, with a very moving story back in the UK with Steven’s girlfriend Alice, we feel the world has got much smaller and that technology can placate and replace reality. An interesting debut indeed.

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Grasshopper Jungle – Andrew Smith

When I was at Booktopia last year one of the books almost everyone kept raving about was Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith. They were all saying that it was their books of the year. As the synopsis they gave me was that it was about ‘the importance of love while giant horny mutant grasshoppers take over the world’ I thought they were all mad. Well guess what? I must also be mad because one of my books of the year is Grasshopper Jungle, and it is about the importance (and confusion) of love whilst giant horny mutant grasshoppers take over the world. Yes, first it was bees and now it is grasshoppers, insects in fiction are clearly my thing.

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Electric Monkey, paperback, 2014, young adult fiction, 400 pages, bought by me for me

Austin Szerba is trying to work the world out. He is trying to work school out, he is trying to work his family out, he is trying to work his friendships out and if he loves his best girl or boy friend the most, plus he is trying to work out what the point of everything is and how it all interconnects both in Ealing, Iowa, and outside it in the great beyond. You know, all the stuff you spend hours and hours pondering over when you’re a teenager and start to freak out about. Only soon, after an incident he is involved with, Austin and his best mate Robby unleash something which gives them something to worry even more about; they unleash a hidden capsule of the strain plague 412E, which can turn people into giant horny mutant grasshoppers who just want to eat, mate and take over the world. This is far more threatening and concerning than his worries about his own sexuality and who he loves surely?

At that moment, Grant Wallace fell down in his bathroom while taking a piss. Grant hit his head on the rim of his toilet. It was not a Nightingale. Grant Wallace’s head broke open. It didn’t matter. Grant was hatching. The bug that came out of Grant was young and powerful. He was hungry and also very horny. He needed to eat, he needed to find Eileen Pope. He could smell and hear Eileen Pope,  even though she was four miles away from the Wallace home.

I have to admit that from the start of the novel I was sceptical to say the least. How on earth was a book about mutant grasshoppers a) going to interest me b) make me give a monkeys c) leave any lasting impressions on me? Well, blow me down because it did all three. From the start of the book I was pretty intrigued by both Austin as a character and also as a storyteller. Before all the big (six foot tall, green armoured) drama starts, we get into the mind of a boy whose mind is all over the shop. He is a mass of hormones and questions. He thinks about sex all the time, both with his girlfriend Shann and openly gay best mate Robby – a friendship which also gets him constantly bullied He also manages, well sometimes between sex and more sex, to think about so much else including history (personal and world), the power of language, books, philosophy, science and human nature vs. animal (or insect) instinct. I instantly felt for him and was engaged by him.

So I was already intrigued before the green monsters of menace arrived onto the scene, then I became hooked. I know, me who doesn’t really read science fiction or fantasy – utterly gripped. Smith writes with a thrillingly gritty and gross style that appeals to the part of me that is still in my teens and likes to spend stupid amounts of money on Jelly Belly’s just because he can. I loved the gross descriptions of how the grasshoppers are born and how they then go on and rampage, killing and mating left, right and centre. You feel like you are in an utterly bizarre yet totally brilliant movie frankly, and you don’t want it to end.

Pastor Roland Duff continued, ‘Masturbation can also turn boys into homosexuals.’
When he said homosexuals, he waved his hands emphatically like he was shaping a big blob of dough into a homosexual so I could see what he was talking about.
That frightened me, and made me feel ashamed and confused.
Then he called my mother into the office and talked to her about masturbation too.
Up until that day, I was certain my mother didn’t know there was such a thing as masturbation.

Before you all start thinking that this novel is just a huge crazy romp, which for the most part it is an unashamedly so, there are some really interesting and much deeper things going on beneath the surface of the best monster movie we have yet (though apparently soon) to have watched. One of the things that Smith looks at, through the eyes of Austin, is how we need to find our place within the world and also connect with it. No matter who we are we have spent, and occasionally still spend, hours and hours mulling about this.

There is the sexuality theme, which is done brilliantly – I can’t imagine people reading it and thinking ‘eww that’s gay’, even though it sort of is – and is actually more about love defying labels or not being labelled at all (rightly so). It also looks at how hard is it to talk about, ask about and (with society and schooling being the way it can be) even think about. There is also the theme of longing for a connection with what has gone before us so we feel part of society and the bigger picture and also so that we can conquer the future, whatever awaits us. Though hopefully for most of us it won’t include having to try and save the world from a giant insect riddled from of Armageddon.

What I also really liked about it was that at no point did I feel patronised and nor did I feel that the young adult market, for which it is primarily aimed, would feel this way either. Smith writes Austin’s voice with authenticity and in a quick, speedy, frank manner which engages, entertains and makes the reader think as they read on. It is also one of those brilliant books which is bound to send it’s reader, again as it has done me, to want to go off and read lots and lots more books, starting with the ones it features. I have already bought Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and will be reading that in due course.

As I said earlier Grasshopper Jungle is going to be one of my books of the year without a shadow of a doubt. It has it all; thrills, thoughts, death, destruction, emotion and some very, very funny moments with some very moving ones. I also think it could make a huge amount of teenagers feel a lot better about some of the questions that are going through their heads; that it is ok to be gay, straight or whatever. It does all of that without ever preaching or persecuting whilst also being a whole load of fun. It’s a book that will educate and entertain adults and young adults alike.

Who else has read Grasshopper Jungle and what did you make of it? Have you read any of Andrew Smith’s other novels? I have The Alex Crow on the shelves and will be reading that after I get to The Chocolate Wars. As always, I would love any other recommendations of some corking, entertaining and enlightening YA novels (I will be recommending Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours to you all soon) that you have read and really rate.

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Filed under Andrew Smith, Books of 2015, Electric Monkey Publishing, Review

Other People’s Bookshelves #68 – Sabeena Akhtar

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 in London to have a nosey through the shelves of lovely blogger Sabeena Akhtar of The Poco Book Reader. I am a recent lurker to Sabeena’s site and am a big fan already and have got several wonderful recommendations to help increase the diversity of my shelves even more. Before we have a rummage through all of Sabeena’s shelves, lets all settle down on her lovely sofa’s, grab a brew and find out more about her.

I think I’m probably very similar to many of you – An insatiable book buyer, I love books, I read a lot of them and occasionally blog about it! 🙂 I review Post-Colonial Literature at The Poco Book Reder and sometimes feel like the oldest person on the Internet because I have never reviewed (or read!) a YA novel. Born and bred in London, I enjoy noise, road rage, rain and not being disturbed when reading on the tube please and thank you.

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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 think I’m becoming a hoarder in my old age. I never used to be so precious about books and frequently gave them away, but now they all have a place on my shelves and are slowly taking over the house. My husband once suggested I buy a kindle. He’s buried beneath a pile of books somewhere. (Simon laughed about this till he cried for almost ten minutes.)

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?

When I was studying it was easier to group books together in terms of my modules for example all  American Lit on one shelf. Even though that was quite a while ago now, the system seems to have stuck and particularly makes life easier when I’m blogging and need to find a book quickly. I do however, have about three shelves reserved just for the books I love. My TBR books are in piles next to my bed, either on the floor or lining the fireplace.

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

I wish I knew the answer to this. I don’t remember the first book I bought myself, but I do remember my older sister once taking me out to buy me the first books that belonged to me and weren’t hand me downs. We walked to the bookshop on a freezing winters day when I was about eight and I vividly remember the warmth and ambience of the bookshop. She bought me a hardback copy of Roald Dahl’s The Witches and I was spellbound by the cover and then the story. I’ve passed it on to my daughter now so it currently resides on her bookshelf. I’m pleased to say she loves it just as much as I did.

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?

Not really. I’m a bit of a book snob and don’t read romance, crime novels or any other books I might be embarrassed by! My husband, however, does have a dodgy sci-fi/fantasy shelf that I constantly feel the need to tell people belongs to him and not me!  

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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?

There’s probably a few, but one that stands out for me is a copy of Beloved by Toni Morrison that I bought as a  teenager, simply because of the impact it had on me.  Today, we all know Toni Morrison is massive, so much so that it’s become cliché to cite her as a favourite author. But then, I knew nothing about her and had never read anything like it. Beloved swept me away. For a sixteen year old brown girl to read a novel by a black woman, about black women, using a black vernacular was mind blowing. It was the first time in my life that I thought that minorities could be protagonists in their own stories and that their own stories could be written however the hell they wanted to write them. (It was the also the first time I’d encountered a dialogic narrative!) Suffice to say, it informed a large part of what I read today. Until that point I had only read classics ( I didn’t get out much!) and secretly fancied myself as starring in a Bronte-esque adaptation. I shared this dream with my sister who side eyed me and said ‘erm yeah, maybe as the servant’. Beloved introduced me to a literary world that I could picture myself inhabiting.

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?

Strangely enough, my parents had a small, beautiful purple bound hard-back copy of Tragedy of a Genius by Honor de Balzac on their shelf. I have no idea where it came from but I was drawn to it and read it when I was about twelve. Randomly, I found it in their attic last year and nabbed it for myself again.

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 don’t really borrow books any more, as I have book buying addiction problems! But I definitely do have to have copies of books I love. On a recent rummage around a charity shop in Leather Lane I found a hard back copy of The God of Small Things, which I love. Even though I already have a paperback copy, I bought it again!

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

I’m trying to curb my book binging at the moment so sadly I haven’t bought any for a while, although embarrassingly, I hadn’t read any of Elif Shafak’s books so ordered some of those on the recommendation of a dear friend. My very inquisitive 8 year old then spent about a week last month asking me who the Bastard of Istanbul was!

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

Thousands, millions probably. I’m still waiting to acquire the library from Beauty and the Beast so that I can fill it with treasures.

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

I’d like to think that they thought ‘wow what an interesting woman with eclectic, cross cultural reading tastes’(!) Recently a friend came over and as he stared at the books, I imagined that this was what he was thinking until he turned around, creased up his nose and said ‘You’ve got a lot of ‘brown’ books haven’t you?’

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

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