Monthly Archives: January 2016

The Ecliptic – Benjamin Wood

As this goes live I should hopefully be out on a (half) Turkish isle, which is a slightly dubious link to my review today, as Benjamin Wood’s The Ecliptic starts off on a remote Turkish island. Admittedly one that is cold and snowy as opposed to the (hopefully) sunny one I will have descended on. I have purposefully headed to Cyprus for a reading retreat, the characters in The Ecliptic however have gone away to help harness their creative endeavours. So I thought it was an apt time to discuss a book which I read on another reading retreat last year and have been thinking about a long time since for all sorts of reasons…

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Scribner, 2015, hardback, fiction, 480 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Portmantle, on the Turkish island of Heybeliada, is a retreat for artists away from the world where they can either rest or recuperate their genius or let that genius loose of their minds and bodies on full cylinders. Here there are strict rules, you must change your name and not only forget the world outside it’s grounds but also endeavour not to refer to it, designed to harness the purity of your concentration and focus. At Portmantle we meet Knell, a painter, along with Quickman the novelist, Pettifer the architect, MacKinney the playwright who have become a little clique, that is until the arrival of a new young artist, Fullerton, whose arrival sets tongues wagging and (as can be the case when anyone new enters a situation) alters the equilibrium between the group. Knell in particular finds herself drawn to Fullerton and his seemingly slightly tortured and mysterious soul.

Of the four of us, it was surely Quickman who valued his detachment most. In the early days, we could not look at him without thinking of the famous photograph on the back cover of his novels – the sunflower lean of him towards the lens, arms crossed defiantly, the brooding London skyline on his shoulders. We had grown up with him on our shelves, that stylish young face squinting at us over bookends, from underneath coffee mugs on our bedside tables. His real name was known in many households, even if it was not part of daily conversation; in literary circles, it was a synonym for greatness, a word that critics added esque to in reviews of lesser writers.

It is hard to say much more about this section of the book for fear of some spoilers which lead to an incredibly gripping, twisted and wonderfully gothic story which I was completely enthralled by. This dramatic conclusion, which is roughly under a third of the book, then sees a sudden shift where we go back to Knell’s life before Portmantle when she was known (and indeed became very well known) as Elspeth Conroy. We follow her life and career as she becomes an assistant, to artist Jim Culvers, after university and then becomes a much acclaimed artist herself in the years that follow.

Now I have to say that the shift in tone niggled me a little at first though Wood soon lulled into the world of the art scene in London (with periods in New York, one of the books strands takes place on a voyage between the two) in what the fifties, yet cleverly has a timeless feel like Portmantle does. As we follow her through the discovery of her creative genius, for that is what she becomes hailed as, we watch as she falls in love, gains confidence, then questions herself as her raise to fame brings other pressures and changes her world for the good and the bad. This is where I found Wood does a marvellous turn at looking at how wonderful the arts and culture world is and also how utterly bonkers and absurd.

I never understood why all this glitz and pageantry was required to sell a picture – it certainly had nothing to do with art. Every painter I respected worked alone in a quiet room, and the images they made were intended for solemn reflection, not to provide the scenery for obnoxious gatherings of nabobs and batty collectors wearing too much perfume. After a while, the company of such people became the norm, and I was expected not only to enchant them with my work, but also to fascinate them with my personality. If I baulked at placating these strangers, it merely served to enthral them even more.

I am not renowned for being a huge fan of books about the arts, in fact often quite the opposite (odd considering I work for a cultural team and love that world, maybe it feels a bit like a busman’s holiday) yet I was converted by Wood because of his writing – which reminds me of Colm Toibin for some reason, which is a big compliment. Firstly the character of Elspeth is such a vivid one, I genuinely felt as if I was with her along all these varied and different through both the highs and the lows. I also thought Wood evoked the era and the places wonderfully, whilst also giving them a slightly surreal edge too almost like a fairy tale but without the magic. I also really liked the feeling that something was coming, again no spoilers here, that would then lead Elspeth to Portmantle and to a life as a pseudonym. I was gulping it all down, especially once we then return to the gothic world of Heybeliada where everything gets all the more odd, sinister and surreal.

There is however a but coming and it is this that I have been thinking about for months since I finished the book and it all revolves around the denouement that you don’t see coming yet sense in the air as the tension gets more and more fraught as The Ecliptic’s conclusion arrives. I think this nameless moment is probably a huge divider for anyone reading the book. People will either love it or they will possibly be a little bit miffed by it, even when another little twist follows. I sadly fell into the latter camp, though I know I am one of the few and far between as many people who I love and trust the opinions of loved it. I felt tricked but not in a good way. I love endings I don’t expect, I love authors doing something different and Wood does these wonderfully. I just think the manipulation that many see as marvellous, and I admire, just lost me and completely unintentionally. I should have worked for me as it has for so many, but it just made me a bit peeved. This was definitely one of those ‘it’s me, not you’ moments as Benjamin as he had me with him for 80% of the book.

Months later the scar from that slight jolt (so dramatic Simon, ha) has passed and as I mention above I can completely understand why what happens happens, the purpose of it and why many wonder at it. I am just in a minority, possibly of one. That said I look back on The Ecliptic and instantly the two worlds of the gothic Portmantle with Knell and the glitzy art world and all behind its facade with Elspeth come straight to the fore because Wood’s writing and characters are superb. I shall definitely be heading to The Bellweather Revivals in due course and think maybe The Ecliptic is a book I may need to take off my shelves in years to come and revisit again because it has certainly stayed with me and made me think about it long after I read it. I would recommend many of you give the experience a whirl and come back and tell me all about it. A perfect book group book if any of you a pondering your next choice, much to ponder and talk about.

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Filed under Benjamin Wood, Review, Scribner

Books To Take on Holiday… Help!

Excitingly I am off on holiday tomorrow to Cyprus for a week of sun, sea, sand, ruins, cocktails and much reading on sun loungers (if the weather is to be believed) or the balcony. I cannot wait, this is my first holiday ‘not doing anything’ in three years and the prospect of just reading, mooching about, paddling and swimming is a little bit too joyful. What isn’t joyful however is deciding what on earth to pack book-wise. As many of you will know I loathe my Kindle Fire with a passion (the glare, the lack of pages, etc, I have tried I really have) so books is the only way. After many painstaking hours I have come up with a shortlist, which is 21 books long and takes up the entirety of one case. So I need your help to whittle it down so I can actually fit some clothes in. Here are the choices…

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  • The Versions of Us – Laura Barnett
  • The Sellout – Paul Beatty
  • Black Water – Louise Doughty
  • The Danish Girl – David Ebershoff
  • The Fair Fight – Anna Freeman
  • Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller
  • The Girl in the Red Coat – Kate Hamer
  • The Ship – Antonia Honeywell
  • Moriarty – Anthony Horowitz
  • The Loney – Andrew Michael Hurley
  • Human Acts – Han Kang
  • Disclaimer – Renee Knight
  • A Reunion of Ghosts – Judith Claire Mitchell
  • This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell
  • The Illuminations – Andrew O’Hagan
  • Anatomy of a Soldier – Harry Parker
  • Merciless Gods – Christos Tsiolkas
  • The Good Liar – Nicholas Searle
  • Gold Flame Citrus – Claire Vaye Watkins
  • A Lovely Way To Burn – Louise Welsh
  • A Year of Marvellous Ways – Sarah Winman

So which of these have you read and, without giving any spoilers away, what did you make of them? I will then check your answers before I leave and pick seven, maybe 8 (as the flight is 5 hours each way, notice the excuses start creeping in) for the trip. Now I better sort out my pants and other attire, thanks in advance.

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon

One of the joys of reading a book way in advance is, if it is a corker, that you feel like you are holding on to a precious little secret that no one else knows about, selfish but true. One of the perils though is that you are desperate to rave about it and discuss it with everyone but you can’t. This is how I found myself feeling when I first wrote the bulk of this review of Joanna Cannon’s marvellous debut The Trouble With Goats and Sheep last year, which I have now tweaked a tiny bit as the book can finally be in all of your hands this week (well in the UK, you have a little longer to wait elsewhere but it is worth it) and I cannot urge you enough to get your hands on it. I have bought three copies of it today alone for some very special people and will be buying many more I can assure you. Yes, it is that good…

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Borough Press, 2016, hardback, fiction, 457 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

No one realised then that, in many years to come, people would still speak of this summer; that every other heatwave would be compared to this one, and those  who lived through it would shake their heads and smile whenever anyone complained of the temperature. It was the summer of deliverance. A summer of Space Hoppers and dancing queens, when Dolly Parton begged Jolene not to take her man, and we all stared at the surface of Mars and felt small. We had to share bath water and half-fill the kettle, and we were only allowed to flush the toilet after what Mrs Morton called a special occasion.

It is the summer of 1976 and England finds itself under a sweltering heatwave with the hottest summer on record. They say that a heatwave can cause people to do strange things and it appears that on The Avenue, in the suburbs of a northern town, a strange thing has indeed happened. Beloved neighbour and friend Mrs Creasy has vanished and it seems to be the only thing that almost everyone can speak of. Why on earth would Mrs Creasy disappear? Something awful and sinister must have happened surely? Was it her husband or someone else?

All eyes, including those of the police who soon investigate, fall in the direction of one particular personality in The Avenue. Mr Bishop. A man who is a little different and who people have always felt uncomfortable by, since a previous event, and so are therefore suspicious of. All that is except those of two young girls, Grace and Tilly – both aged 10, who decide that with all this summertime on their hands they really ought to go and solve the mystery of just where Mrs Creasy has gone. As they have been taught at church, God knows everything, so they decide to go to start searching each house to see if they can find him and therefore find the answer and whereabouts of their missing neighbour.

I paused for a moment before I allowed the latest bulletin to be released. ‘She disappeared without taking any shoes.’
Tilly’s eyes bulged like a haddock. ‘How do you know that?’
‘The woman in the post office told my mother.’
‘Your mother doesn’t like the woman in the Post Office.’
‘She does now,’ I said.
Mr Creasby began on another box. With each one he was becoming more chaotic, scattering the contents at his feet and whispering an uncertain dialogue to himself.
‘He doesn’t look like a murderer,’ said Tilly.
‘What does a murderer look like?’
‘They usually have moustaches,’ she said, ‘and are much fatter.’

If, like me, you hear a book is a) told from the point of view of a young narrator and b) that young narrator investigates a mystery, you might be holding your hands to your face like that emoticon – I am so current – that depicts the scream. I was very, very wary it has to be said. However, I was proved wrong as I took to Grace within mere pages and loved her narrative. (You may remember this happened with the Flavia De Luce mysteries and I ruddy love those too,) True, the narrative switches here and there because no child can be everywhere no matter how hard they try, yet the novel predominantly comes from her point of view and I think Joanna Cannon has created a fantastic character and narrative voice with her.

Grace is precocious, yet never annoying; she is cheeky which is downright funny. (I also loved the dynamic between her and Tilly.) She also has a habit of hearing things others wouldn’t, because people tend to forget themselves around children and either talk as if a child is stupid or open up to them thinking that it doesn’t really matter as a child won’t understand their adult woes anyway. Sometimes Grace knows exactly what they mean, and the value of what she hears, and other times she has no clue but of course we the reader do and slowly we realise just the level of secrecy that lie in wait behind those twitching curtains. We also come to learn that no matter how much everyone says they loved Mrs Creasy, and indeed she seemed to have befriended the whole of The Avenue, some are worried she might know a little too much about them and think it either dangerous or a relief that she is gone, but why? As someone who is rather nosey interested in life, I loved this. I also loved the fact that whilst there are secrets and mysteries in abounds they are all relatable ones, if morally ambiguous and like one of my favourite authors Kate Atkinson, Joanna Cannon celebrates the ordinary and day to day then makes it seem quite extraordinary and all the more intriguing.

I sat back with a Liquorice Allsort.
All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people from one another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
‘Sheep again,’ said Tilly.
‘I know,’ I said. ‘They’re everywhere.’ I offered her an Allsort, but she shook her head.
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’
Tilly nudged me with her poncho. ‘Why does he hate goats so much?’

This is the section in which the book not only reveals the reason for its title but also shows what the book is about on a much deeper level – people’s perceptions of right, wrong and others actions, which brings to the fore some of their prejudices much more openly. As does the heatwave in many ways, we can be at our worst or most vulnerable when we are hot and bothered. This isn’t just the situation with The Avenue and their feelings on Walter Bishop, though the almost flaming pitchfork approach is shocking (all the more because we can envisage it). It is also the case when a new Indian family move into the close, or when people judge one of the residents who is a single mother. Part of you as a reader thinks ‘oh but it was the seventies, people had gone a bit backward after the swinging sixties’ however if we look at the way that homophobic, racist and other bigoted views seem to be becoming all the more rife again it hits you with an added weight and poignancy. How much further forward have we really moved as a society in 40 years? And, as we see the prejudices that almost every house or neighbour has against another, we ponder on some of the subconscious prejudices and thoughts we have ourselves shown by a mirror (that blinds us with the sun) by Grace and Tilly’s naive, yet frank and honest, actions and observations. I thought this was wonderfully done.

In fact I thought almost every element of The Trouble With Goats and Sheep was wonderfully done. My proof copy had a post-it note on almost every page where something would tickle me, move me, make me gasp with surprise or just leave me revelling in a single sentence. Yes, one of those books that completely takes you over and you find yourself saying ‘oh just one more chapter’ at 1am and then feel rather bereft after you close the final page. (As many of you will know my mother is an even more savage critic than me; she read the first paragraph and then took the book with her when she left that day, she thoroughly enjoyed and admired it and it now appears my step dad has devoured it too and loved it too. That is quite some acclaim.) I think it really excels because it straddles, as it were, the line between an immensely readable and engaging novel with one that is also constructed of deeper layers and questions around prejudices and moral ambiguity .

I could go on, but I won’t. The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is in part a whodunit, in part a coming of age story and in part a story about being a bit kinder and being open to understanding each other a little bit more. All of it is a superb read. I described it the other day as being To Kill A Mockingbird if it was set in the 1970’s in a northern English suburb with as much poignancy only a few more laughs and lashings and lashings of Angel Delight, Butterscotch of course. I really cannot say anymore than that, apart from the fact that I am thrilled it is out there in the world and you can all read it now and talk about it with me. You can probably see why it was one of my favourite books of last year and should be one of yours this year. It is a wonderful book and I am very, very, very excited to see what Joanna Cannon does next.

*If you would like to hear more about The Trouble With Goats and Sheep you can hear Joanna in conversation with me on the latest You Wrote the Book here. If you are in the north of England you can also come and see us chatting at Waterstones Liverpool on the 22nd of February and/or Waterstones Deansgate on March the 1st.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Borough Press, Joanna Cannon, Review

My Top 12 Australian Books

Today the lovely Kim of Reading Matters posted a list of ten books written by Australian authors she loves in honour of Australia Day. So I asked if I could copy her. Here I have to say, before I share my list with you, that Kim’s is bound to be much better so you must check it out. Kim is also only reading Australian books this year which I am going to be following with much interest. My knowledge and Australian reading might not be as good as Kim’s however I have loved many a book by an Australian author and so here are twelve books I would highly, highly recommend you give a whirl. You can find the full review, bar one, by clicking on the books title if you want to find out more.

12. Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

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Burial Rites was one of those books, based on a true story, that blew me way. It is the late 1820’s in Iceland and the lives of District Officer Jon Jonsson, his wife Margret and daughters Lauga and Steina, are changed on their farm of Kornsá when the news that they will be housing a criminal in the lead up to her execution, for we are in times when prisons do not exist. The criminal in question is Agnes Magnusdottir who, many believe, killed ‘healer’ Natan Ketilsson and his neighbour along with Sigridur and Fredrik who are to be housed elsewhere for fear they will concoct some tale or escape. What I thought was particularly great about this novel was that first we ask ourselves if we think Agnes is a killer and then suddenly start to ponder why on earth this family have been chosen to house someone who could be incredibly dangerous. Stunningly written, utterly compelling.

11. Bitter Greens – Kate Forsyth

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As many of you will well know I love fairytales and my very favourite above all the others is that of Rapunzel. In Kate Forsyth’s brilliant Bitter Greens we are sent into the lives of three women. First is Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who has been exiled from the court of the Sun King Louis XIV after a fall from grace too far (which in those times was saying something) and is banished to live in an Abbey with nuns. Second is Selena Leonelli, once one of the most beautiful women in Italy and even the muse of the Venetian artist Titian. Depicted forever in his paintings she has one fear, time, and how it will take her beauty something she will do anything to keep. Thirdly we have Margherita, a young girl trapped in a tower forever unless she finds a way to escape. Yes, you have guessed it all three of these women have the story of Rapunzel in their life somewhere be they the one who retells the tale, mirrors the tale or indeed is part of the tale. Through these three women we learn the magic of storytelling, the hardship of women through the years and how they have had to struggle (in good and bad ways) in order to survive. It is utterly marvellous.

10. You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead – Marieke Hardy

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Those of you who have followed this blog for sometime will know that I am something of a Marieke Hardy fanboy. I think she is ace and love her thoughts, even when I don’t agree with them, whatever they are when she discussed books on my favourite book TV show here. You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead  is a collection of frank, funny and filthy memoir essays about various points in Marieke’s life so far. It is one of those books which manages to make you laugh out loud, feel ever so uncomfortable at its honesty, possibly makes you want to cry and then makes you laugh all over again. When someone writes their memoirs it isn’t necessarily that the full truth doesn’t come out, just that the author tends to look at things in a rose tinted way, highlighting their best bits – not so in the case of Marieke, she is quite open to showing some of her worst/most cringe worthy and I love her all the more for it, in a non stalker kind of way.

9. Mateship With Birds – Carrie Tiffany

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I have just noticed that the cover of this book is very like my new wallpaper, anyway… On the outskirts of a town somewhere in Australia in the early 1950’s we join two neighbours. Harry owns a dairy farm and spends his days between milking his herd and watching the local wildlife, mainly a family of kookaburra’s, and looking over his past seemingly happy with and yet questioning his lot in life. Betty rents the house next door with her two children Michael and Little Hazel, often wondering what has become of her life and often wondering about Harry. We follow these two characters, Betty’s children, and their weird neighbour Mues over what I thought was a season – though it could be much longer or indeed shorter as Mateship with Birds has a sense of nothing and everything happening all at once, all in the grubby wilds of the countryside. I loved this, it has the earthy countryside wilds elements which I love, it has a deep sense of unease at times and is a book which just holds you from start to finish. It is hard to say more than that.

8. The Spare Room – Helen Garner

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When Helen says that her old friend Nicola to come and stay in her spare room she has a limited idea of what she is taking on. It is not simply a friend coming to stay for a short holiday; Nicola has terminal cancer and could possibly have come to stay with Helen to die. Helen becomes more than just Nicola’s friend she becomes her nurse, maid and the one who stand up to her no matter how unpopular that might prove. What follows is an emotionally gut wrenching and heartbreaking account of friendship at its most potent and at its most tested. Having been a carer once before I read this the honesty of the novel was both shocking yet also deeply consoling.

7. All The Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

“Another sheep, mangled and bled our, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.” And so starts ‘All The Birds, Singing’ and so we find our heroine Jake as she takes in the sight before her, another of her sheep has been mutilated, killed by some ‘thing’. Yet what is the ‘thing’ that could be killing her flock one by one? Could it be the local kids who think she is some out of town witch? Could it be the neighbours’ crazy son? Could it be a monster, be it real, imagined or from Jake’s hidden past? Could it be linked to the sudden appearance of a new ‘incomer’ in the area? Evie Wyld keeps us guessing as the story goes back in time whilst also going forward, we glimpse moments in Jake’s past not from the point where something awful happened that she fled but slowly back to that moment, which is a treat to read whilst being both highly accomplished and very original. It is another of those wonderful books that keeps you guessing without you (quite) tearing your hair out.

6. Loaded – Christos Tsiolkas

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I am a huge fan of The Slap, I am a huge fan of Barracuda yet it is Christos’ earlier and slighter novel Loaded that I think has stayed with me the longest after I have read it and I think it is because of the voice. he narrator of ‘Loaded’ is quite a fascinating one. Nineteen year old Ari lives in the city of Melbourne in Australia, he is Greek, he has no job, he is gay but secretly, he loves nothing more than going on massive drink and drug fuelled binges preferably with lots of random anonymous sex along the way. In fact from the first page where the novel opens with Ari masturbating with a massive hangover you pretty much know the story that you are getting here, well you think you do at least, as we follow him for the next twenty four hours. As we read on between all the drug taking, drinking, etc there is a lot that this book is looking at and saying. One of the main senses you get is a sense of needing to belong, to be a part of something and yet rejecting that very thing at the same time. The other is just what it means to be an Australian man.

5. Under The Skin – Michel Faber

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There is no link to this book because as I have discovered several times now Michel Faber is an author who I simply cannot write reviews of the books of. I can devour the books happily, I can sit and interview him fine and dandy yet when I come to write a review of his work it’s like a block. In Under the Skin Isserley, an unusual-looking woman with strangely scarred skin, drives through the Scottish Highlands both day and night, looking for just the right male hitchhikers. She picks them up, makes enough small talk to determine she’s made a safe choice, then hits a toggle switch on her car, releasing a drug that knocks her victims out. But why? Well you will have to read the book to find out and it is so worth doing.

4. The Natural Way of Things – Charlotte Wood

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I only read this last year however I know it is a book that will stay with me for quite some time as it has a force of nature about it. When Verla and Yolanda find themselves waking up in a strange unknown room, both strangers to each other, dressed in old fashioned uniforms their first instinct is that they are dreaming, then when the realise they are not they panic. Well, as much as anyone can panic when they are groggy from clearly having been drugged. Soon they are taken to another room, where they initially think they will be raped or killed, to have their heads shaved and join a further eight women, all dressed the same and shaven, who too have become captives to a pair of men. Why and for what they do not know, yet. We follow them as the shocking truth is revealed and these two women’s lives are changed forever. A dystopian thriller, a feminist text and a love story to nature.

3. On The Beach – Nevil Shute

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In an alternative 1963, bear in mind this book was originally published in 1957, a nuclear war has left nothing much of the northern hemisphere and the radiation fall out is heading south to Australia where ‘On The Beach’ is set and where the last of earths survivors are living in a mixture of denial and hope. To say all this is not to spoil the story as its pretty much spelt out to you in the first 40 pages (and of course in the blurb), in fact really you could say this story is the tale of the end of humanity, unless of course there is some major miracle – which of course I wont tell you if there is or not as you need to read this book if you haven’t. It is one of the most emotionally draining, terrifying and yet life affirming novels I have read set at the potential end of the world.

2. The Secret River – Kate Grenville

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One of Australian’s contemporary classics, which also caused much controversy when it came out, is The Secret River which initially looks like a tale about one of the first convicts to Australia trying to make a life for themselves, yet soon reveals itself to be superbly brutal and shocking novel about racism and a rather dark time in Australia’s history. As men try and stake their claims on the continent and in doing so tragic and horrific events unfold. I don’t want to say anymore than that for fear of ruining the impact this book will have on you if you are yet to read it.

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

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This book left me speechless and almost unable to review it because of how moving and brilliant it is. Alwyn ‘Dorrigo’ Evans, based somewhat on Flanagan’s own father, is one of the survivors of the Death Railway in Burma where he was a prisoner of war. We follow his life before, during and after it and look at the man before and the man forever changed afterwards. The Narrow Road to the Dark North is a book that you experience, one of those books which makes you feel every paragraph emotionally and in your very core. Not only did it introduce me to a period in history, and indeed a place, that I knew almost nothing about; it also made me want to be kinder than I am, note how lucky I am, tell my loved ones I love them more often than I do and reminded me that not a second of life should be wasted because you never know what may come around the next corner. It is a book about war, peace, love, hate, death and life. Yes, it really is one of those life changing and life affirming books, an incredibly written modern masterpiece. I think it is one of my books of all time.

There is my list. Going of and trying to scout if I had missed any authors (and yes I know some of my list are anglo-Australian) I found a whole selection of authors I must read; Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally, Shirley Hazzard, Gail Jones, David Malouf, Christina Stead, Patrick White, etc. I must also read some more of the authors above and more form authors such as Tim Winton. Oh and get to some more of the classics too. I really want to read Picnic at Hanging Rock quite badly. Anyway, I would love to know which books you have read on the list and also which are your favourite books by Australian authors, I am always ready for more recommendations. Happy Australia Day everyone, though if you are in Australia it is probably the day after – oops. Now over to you…

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Filed under Random Savidgeness

In A Dark, Dark Wood – Ruth Ware

Having written the blog for over seven years what is wonderful (and I am always telling you all so) is the lovely people that I have met throughout that time be they fellow bloggers, folk from social media, the authors of the teams within the publishers themselves. Back in the early stages of my blog one member of a publishers publicity team was always super nice and that was Ruth Ware. So it all seems quite meta and bizarre that all these years later I should be reviewing her first crime novel In A Dark, Dark Wood. Good thing then that it is a right old page turning thriller or this could have been really, really awkward.

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Vintage Books, 2015, hardback, fiction, 352 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It hurts. Everything hurts. The light in my eyes, the pain in my head. There’s a stench of blood in my nostrils, my hands are sticky with it.
‘Leonora?’
The voice comes dim through a fog of pain. I try to shake my head, my lips won’t form the word.
‘Leonora, you’re safe, you’re at the hospital. We’re taking you to have a scan.’
It’s a woman, speaking clearly and loudly. Her voice hurts.
‘Is there anyone we should be calling?’
I try again to shake my head.
‘Don’t move your head,’ she says. ‘You’ve had a head injury.’
‘Nora,’ I whisper.
‘You want us to call Nora? Who’s Nora?’
‘Me… my name.’
‘All right, Nora. Just try to relax. This won’t hurt.’
But it does. Everything hurts.
What has happened?
What have I done?

I don’t normally include the entire first chapter of a novel in my reviews/book thoughts, and it is not something I am planning on making a habit of. However in the case of In A Dark, Dark Wood it is very short and also shows exactly where Ruth Ware throws her reader from the off. We are in a hospital, with a woman called Leonora, or Nora, who has clearly gone through something horrendous and traumatic, the question is what? Well, here Ruth Ware is very clever indeed because actually exactly what is not revealed until the very end, instead what follows are glimpses into three strands of Nora’s life which lead up to and then reveal just what on earth happened on  a weekend in the woods.

We all have certain friendships which start off intensely and then for some reason (be it from either party) the friendship falls foul/turns sour and is over as quickly as it started. The intensity stays and lingers becoming guilt, bitterness, annoyance or loss. Whatever the lingering feeling the one thing we are sure about is that we don’t want to talk about it or think about those times or the person we might have been then. If by chance that person suddenly comes back into your life so do all those feelings, plus that tiny glimmer of hope, come back to the fore. This is the position that Nora finds herself in when she gets invited for a weekend away on Clare’s hen night. She hasn’t seen Clare in years since she left her old hometown after the two had fallen out, so why does she suddenly want her at this event, and does she really when the invite is in fact from Clare’s new best friend Flo. Yet cajoled by Nina, who also knows Clare yet doesn’t know why the two fell out as Nora won’t discuss it, they decide to go together. Soon enough things start to take a darker toll as Nora, Nina, Flo and Clare, joined by Melanie and Tom, end up in a house in the middle of a wood with no life around them, bar woodland animals and fauna, for miles and soon things start to go awry.

‘You know –’ I was thinking aloud ‘-what really creeps me out isn’t the footprints – or not as such. It’s the fact that if it hadn’t have been for the snow, we’d never have known.’
We looked out, contemplating the unbroken white carpet across the path to the forest. My own steps from the run that morning had been filled in, and now you would never have known a human foot had passed. For a long moment we all stood in silence, thinking about that fact, thinking about all the times we could have been observed, completely unaware.

There were many reasons why I thought that In A Dark, Dark Wood was a bloody (pun intended) good read and why I enjoyed getting carried away with it all. I have to admit before I started it I couldn’t decide if a hen weekend (a weekend where a bride and all her closest friends go crazy for one final big night or two of shenanigans, if you don’t know the term) would be an utterly brilliant idea for a scenario or not, of course it is, it makes all the drunken hysteria and tensions completely magnified. The setting of a house in the middle of nowhere also means no phone signal for help and who doesn’t get slightly scared in the middle of a big wood at night regardless of who you are with once the lights go out and even more so if one of them might be a psychopath?

On a more ‘literary’ level I thought that the plotting and the delivery of In A Dark, Dark Wood were brilliant. As I mentioned earlier the actual ‘incident’ that leaves Nora in hospital isn’t revealed until as close to the end as is possible and leaves you wondering just what Nora is forgetting or what she might be concealing as well as who the culprit of anything might be, well it did me and I guessed completely wrongly every time. Is Nora a reliable narrator? You’ll have to read to find out. I also thought the way Ware uses three time lines as slow reveals were added to the tension marvellously; what happened during the school years, what happened in the woods and everything that happens while Nora is in hospital. I also really enjoyed the characters who all had something to hide and were a bit spiky, in one case utterly mad (though the latter story actually made me a bit weepy at one point, which has never happened in a crime novel) or just a bit awful.

On a pure ‘escapist entertainment’ level In A Dark, Dark Wood also again excels. I felt like Ruth had soaked in all the things she loves in classic crime novels; locked house mysteries, footprints in the snow, as well as tropes from great gothic novels. There is also a wonderful nostalgic (for me anyway) sense of those brilliant movies of my teens like Scream, Urban Legend and I Know What You Did Last Summer with a sprinkling of Mean Girls the later years. What I am saying in essence and this is a huge compliment from me and so I hope is seen as such, is that this is a like a really, really good Point Horror novel for the grown up generation with a sprinkling of the spirit of Christie. It is also occasionally genuinely creepy. So what is not to like?

If you are looking for a crime novel that will give you chills, spills and thrills (I never understand what the spills part of that actually means) then I would highly, highly recommend you spend a few nights with In A Dark, Dark Wood. I also dare you to try and be able to work out just whodunit and what on earth they did before Ruth Ware unleashes the denouement. No reason Reese Witherspoon, Richard and Judy and myself all love it, and what a group of recommender’s that is! I am looking forward to Ruth’s next criminally good (sorry, couldn’t help it) novel which will be out this summer.

If you would like to hear more about the book, you can find Ruth and myself in conversation on You Wrote The Book here.

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Filed under Review, Ruth Ware, Vintage Books

Decorating Done, Reading Retreat Ready…

After what has felt like the longest two weeks in history, well in the last few years, I am thrilled to say that the redecoration is done. At last. It was actually finished earlier this week but then the furniture had to go back in and of course the books had to be sorted. I think it is looking pretty good though, a nice haven for me to sit and read in. What do you think?

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I only finished the shelves sorting about thirty minutes ago. Always a painful process; all those questions like ‘when on earth will I ever read all these?’, ‘why on earth did I get that?’, ‘hang on where have some of those books gone?’ Yes, sadly some books have been lost (about 35 we won’t speak of) and many have actually been culled today and amazingly somehow I have space for more books, which is quite exciting and is sure not to last. Let us mark the occasion though.

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As you can imagine The Beard and I (particularly The Beard who did it all) are blooming shattered from it all, so this morning we went crazy and I have booked us a week away in the sun a week tomorrow which I am most excited about. We are going to go to Cyprus for a week of visiting ruins, making the most of the all inclusive buffets and bars and lounging by the pools.

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It is going to be such a treat, our first holiday together in three years, and I am going to read like a demon. I have a pile of potential books at the ready but was thrilled to discover that the hotel prides itself on being the perfect place for book lovers, I might have to be dragged out of it’s library quite often.

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Can. Not. Wait. Anyway, apologies for the lack of reviews and posts, I didn’t intend to go as silent as I have. Things will be up and running as normal from tomorrow. Now I have to crack on reading as I need to be scheduling posts for when I am away! What is the latest news with all of you? Oh and obviously what are you reading? I am bang on half way through Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which if any of you who have read it will know is when everything changes, I am most keen to get back to it.

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Books I’m Looking Forward to in the Next Six Months

I know we are past the middle of the first month of 2016 but, as is my want, I thought it might be a nice idea to let you know about some of the books that I am really looking forward to reading over the next six months published in the UK. I know, I know, it is the list you have all been waiting for. Ha! For a few years now, every six months, Gavin and I share 13 of the books that we are most excited about on The Readers podcast, based on which publishers catalogues we can get our mitts on – so sometimes we miss some, so I thought this year I would make it a new biannual post. Getting to that final thirteen is almost impossible (actually one year it was a struggle) and this year it has been particularly tough as it looks set to be a year of corkers. In fact my longlist of books I’m keen to get my hand on is 60 books (and would have been 62 if I hadn’t already read The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon and Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh) long. Yes that is right, 60 books. I have highlighted a few each month that I will definitely be reading or getting my mitts on. So, grab a cuppa tea and settle down with a notepad or bookstore website open next to you…

January

Mr Splitfoot – Samantha Hunt (Corsair)

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Nat and Rose are young orphans, living in a crowded foster home run by an eccentric religious fanatic. When a traveling con-man comes knocking, they see their chance to escape and join him on the road, proclaiming they can channel the dead – for a price, of course. Decades later, in a different time and place, Cora is too clever for her office job, too scared of her abysmal lover to cope with her unplanned pregnancy, and she too is looking for a way out. So when her mute Aunt Ruth pays her an unexpected visit, apparently on a mysterious mission, she decides to join her. Together the two women set out on foot, on a strange and unforgettable odyssey across the state of New York. Where is Ruth taking them? Where has she been? And who – or what – has she hidden in the woods at the end of the road? Ingenious, infectious, subversive and strange, Mr Splitfoot will take you on a journey you will not regret – and will never forget.

Human Acts – Han Kang (Portobello)

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Gwangju, South Korea, 1980. In the wake of a viciously suppressed student uprising, a boy searches for his friend’s corpse, a consciousness searches for its abandoned body, and a brutalised country searches for a voice. In a sequence of interconnected chapters the victims and the bereaved encounter censorship, denial, forgiveness and the echoing agony of the original trauma. Human Acts is a universal book, utterly modern and profoundly timeless. Already a controversial bestseller and award-winning book in Korea, it confirms Han Kang as a writer of immense importance.

The Widow – Fiona Barton (Transworld)
Paulina & Fran – Rachel B. Glaser (Granta)
The World Without Us – Mirelle Juchau (Bloomsbury)
The Outrun – Amy Liptrot (Canongate)
Sea Lovers – Valerie Martin (Serpents Tail)
Dinosaurs on Other Planets – Danielle McLaughlin (John Murray)
The Actual One – Isy Suttie (Orion)

February

The Sympathiser – Viet Thanh Nguyen (Corsair)

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A profound, startling, and beautifully crafted debut novel, “The Sympathizer” is the story of a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties. It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. “The Sympathizer” is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, “The Sympathizer” explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta (Granta)

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One day in 1968, at the height of the Biafran civil war, Ijeoma’s father is killed and her world is transformed forever. Separated from her grief-stricken mother, she meets another young lost girl, Amina, and the two become inseparable. Theirs is a relationship that will shake the foundations of Ijeoma’s faith, test her resolve and flood her heart. In this masterful novel of faith, love and redemption, Okparanta takes us from Ijeoma’s childhood in war-torn Biafra, through the perils and pleasures of her blossoming sexuality, her wrong turns, and into the everyday sorrows and joys of marriage and motherhood. As we journey with Ijeoma we are drawn to the question: what is the value of love and what is the cost? A triumphant love story written with beauty and delicacy, Under the Udala Trees is a hymn to those who’ve lost and a prayer for a more compassionate world. It is a work of extraordinary beauty that will enrich your heart.

The Butchers Hook – Janet Ellis (Two Roads)
The Narrow Bed – Sophie Hannah (Hodder)
Scary Old Sex – Arlene Heyman (Bloomsbury)
The Children’s House – Charles Lambert (Aardvark Bureau)
13 Minutes – Sarah Pinborough (Orion)
The Catch – Fiona Sampson (Chatto & Windus)
Gold Flame Citrus – Claire Vaye Watkins (Quercus)
Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist – Sunil Yapa (Little Brown)

March

Where Love Begins – Judith Hermann (Serpents Tail)

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Stella is married, she has a child and a fulfilling job. She lives with her young family in a house in the suburbs. Her life is happy and unremarkable, but she is a little lonely-her husband travels a lot for work and so she is often alone in the house with only her daughter for company. One day a stranger appears at her door, a man Stella’s never seen before. He says he just wants to talk to her, nothing more. She refuses. The next day he comes again. And then the day after that. He will not leave her in peace. When Stella works out that he lives up the road, and tries to confront him, it makes no difference. This is the beginning of a nightmare that slowly and remorselessly escalates. Where Love Begins is a delicately wrought, deeply sinister novel about how easily the comfortable lives we construct for ourselves can be shattered.

Hot Milk – Deborah Levy (Penguin Books)

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Today I dropped my laptop on the concrete floor. It was tucked under my arm and slid out of its black rubber sheath, landing screen-side down. The digital page shattered. Apparently there’s a man in the next flyblown town who mends computers. He could send off for a new screen, which would take a month to arrive. Will I still be here in a month? My mother is sleeping under a mosquito net in the next room. Soon she will wake up and shout, ‘Sofia, get me a glass of water’, and I will get her water and it will be the wrong sort of water. And then after a while I will leave her and return to gaze at the shattered starfield of my screen. Two women arrive in a Spanish village – a dreamlike place caught between the desert and the ocean – seeking medical advice and salvation. One of the strangers suffers from a mysterious illness: spontaneous paralysis confines her to a wheelchair, her legs unusable. The other, her daughter Sofia, has spent years playing the reluctant detective in this mystery, struggling to understand her mother’s illness. Surrounded by the oppressive desert heat and the mesmerising figures who move through it, Sofia waits while her mother undergoes the strange programme of treatments invented by Dr Gomez. Searching for a cure to a defiant and quite possibly imagined disease, ever more entangled in the seductive, mercurial games of those around her, Sofia finally comes to confront and reconcile the disparate fragments of her identity. Hot Milk is a labyrinth of violent desires, primal impulses, and surreally persuasive internal logic.

Patience – Daniel Clowes (Vintage)
Rain – Melissa Harrison (Faber & Faber)
A Girl in Exhile – Ismail Kadare (Vintage)
The Paper Menagerie & Other Stories – Ken Liu (Head of Zeus)
An Unrestored Woman & Other Stories – Shobha Rao (Virago)
Vertigo – Joanna Walsh (And Other Stories)

April

The Sunlight Pilgrims – Jenni Fagan (Random House)

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Set in a Scottish caravan park during a freak winter – it is snowing in Jerusalem, the Thames is overflowing, and an iceberg separated from the Fjords in Norway is expected to arrive off the coast of Scotland – The Sunlight Pilgrims tells the story of a small Scottish community living through what people have begun to think is the end of times. Bodies are found frozen in the street with their eyes open, euthanasia has become an acceptable response to economic collapse, schooling and health care are run primarily on a voluntary basis. But daily life carries on: Dylan, a refugee from panic-stricken London who is grieving for his mother and his grandmother, arrives in the caravan park in the middle of the night – to begin his life anew.

What Belongs To You – Garth Greenwell (Picador)

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On an unseasonably warm autumn day, an American teacher enters a public bathroom beneath Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. There he meets Mitko, a charismatic young hustler, and pays him for sex. And so begins a relationship that could transform his life, or possibly destroy it. What Belongs To You is a stunning debut novel of desire and its consequences. With lyric intensity and startling eroticism, Garth Greenwell has created a indelible story about the ways in which our pasts and cultures, our scars and shames can shape who we are and determine how we love.

The Trees – Ali Shaw (Bloomsbury)

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There came an elastic aftershock of creaks and groans and then, softly softly, a chinking shower of rubbled cement. Leaves calmed and trunks stood serene. Where, not a minute before, there had been a suburb, there was now only woodland standing amid ruins…There is no warning. No chance to prepare. They arrive in the night: thundering up through the ground, transforming streets and towns into shadowy forest. Buildings are destroyed. Broken bodies, still wrapped in tattered bed linen, hang among the twitching leaves. Adrien Thomas has never been much of a hero. But when he realises that no help is coming, he ventures out into this unrecognisable world. Michelle, his wife, is across the sea in Ireland and he has no way of knowing whether the trees have come for her too. Then Adrien meets green-fingered Hannah and her teenage son Seb. Together, they set out to find Hannah’s forester brother, to reunite Adrien with his wife – and to discover just how deep the forest goes. Their journey will take them to a place of terrible beauty and violence, to the dark heart of nature and the darkness inside themselves.

The Cauliflower – Nicola Barker (Random House)
Foreign Soil – Maxine Beneba (Corsair)
The Last of Us – Rob Ewing (Borough Press)
Fragments – Elena Ferrante (Eurpoa Editions)
A Different Class – Joanne Harris (Transworld)
Ladivine – Marie NDiaye (Quercus)
The Bricks That Built Houses – Kate Tempest (Bloomsbury)
Six Four – Hideo Yokoyama (Quercus)

May

The Doll Master & Other Tales of Terror – Joyce Carol Oates (Head of Zeus)

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Six terrifying tales to chill the blood from the unique imagination of Joyce Carol Oates. A young boy plays with dolls instead of action figures. But as he grows older, his passion takes on a darker edge…A white man shoots dead a black boy creating a media frenzy. But could it be that it was self-defense as he claims? A nervous woman tries to escape her husband. He says he loves her, but she’s convinced he wants to kill her…These quietly lethal stories reveal the horrors that dwell within us all.

The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus)

It is the tutor who tells the young Gustav that he must try to be more like a coconut – that he needs a hard shell to protect the softness inside. This is what his native Switzerland has perfected – a shell to protect its neutrality, to keep its people safe. But his beloved friend, Anton, doesn’t want to be safe – a gifted pianist, he longs to make his mark in the world outside. On holiday one summer in Davos, the boys stumble across a remote building. Long ago, it was a TB sanitorium; now it is wrecked and derelict. Here, they play a game of life and death, deciding which of their imaginary patients must burn. It becomes their secret. The Gustav Sonata begins in the 1930s, under the shadow of the Second World War, and follows the boys into maturity, and middle age, where their friendship is tested as never before.

The Bones of Grace – Tahmima Anam (Canongate)
The Beautiful Dead – Belind Bauer (Transworld)
The Witches of New York – Amy McKay (Orion)
This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press)
The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso (Chatto & Windus)
Now and Again – Charlotte Rogan (Virago)
The Wicked Boy – Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury)

June

Fen – Daisy Johnson (Vintage)

Daisy Johnson’s Fen is a liminal land. Real people live their lives here. They wrestle with familiar instincts, with sex and desire, with everyday routine. But the wild is always close at hand, ready to erupt. This is a place where animals and people commingle and fuse, where curious metamorphoses take place, where myth and dark magic still linger. So here a teenager may starve herself into the shape of an eel. A house might fall in love with a girl. A woman might give birth to a – well what? English folklore and a contemporary eye, sexual honesty and combustible invention – in Fen, these elements have come together to create a singular, startling piece of modern fiction.

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry (Profile Books)

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Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890’s, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way. They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners’ agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.

Foxlowe – Eleanor Wassberg (Harper Collins)

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A chilling, compulsive debut about group mentality, superstition and betrayal – and a utopian commune gone badly wrong We were the Family, and Foxlowe was our home. There was me – my name is Green – and my little sister, Blue. There was October, who we called Toby, and Ellensia, Dylan, Liberty, Pet and Egg. There was Richard, of course, who was one of the Founders. And there was Freya. We were the Family, but we weren’t just an ordinary family. We were a new, better kind of family. We didn’t need to go to school, because we had a new, better kind of education. We shared everything. We were close to the ancient way of living and the ancient landscape. We knew the moors, and the standing stones. We celebrated the solstice in the correct way, with honey and fruit and garlands of fresh flowers. We knew the Bad and we knew how to keep it away. And we had Foxlowe, our home. Where we were free. There really was no reason for anyone to want to leave.

Daisy in Chains – Sharon Bolton (Transworld)
Everyone Is Watching – Megan Bradbury (Picador)
Addlands – Tom Bullough (Granta)
The Girls – Emma Cline (Chatto & Windus)
Black Water – Louise Doughty (Faber & Faber)
Early Riser – Jasper Fforde (Hodder)
The Little Communist That Never Smiled – Lola Lafon (Serpents Tail)
The Bed Moved – Rebecca Schiff (John Murrary)
Smoke – Dan Vyleta (Orion)
Our Young Man – Edmund White (Bloomsbury)

Phew! So that is the list, it has changed slightly since we recorded The Readers as Gav and I had a couple of snap choices and also I found out some other books were coming out earlier than thought or I simply only discovered them in the last few months. There will be many more I discover or hear about too I am sure. I have just thought of several I have missed (Kit De Waal, Nicholas Searle and a whole shelf of prrof I can’t get to due to scaffolding) so there will be many more. Anyway, quite a few for you to go and find out more about and a good list for me to have when I am stuck in a bookshop without a clue of what to by next – as if that ever happens. Right, I better get reading then. Which of these do you fancy? Which books are you looking forward to in the next six months?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

A Wild Swan and Other Tales – Michael Cunningham

“And then what?” How many times have we been asked that by a small child or indeed remember asking it as a small child ourselves? Yet when we are young and are first read fairy tales you never ask that question when the words ‘and they lived happily ever after’ appear at the end. Michael Cunningham does this in A Wild Swan and Other Tales which somehow manages to combine the magical with reality and has some truly wonderful moments for doing so. From the very start of this collection we are greeted with Dis. Enchant, not quite an introduction rather a statement of intent mixed with a slightly knowing question that makes us ponder the question of when we went from the innocent all believing to the more cynical and, dare we even think it, more wicked selves, this sets the tone for everything to come.

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Fourth Estate, 2015, hardback, short stories, 144 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Please ask yourself. If you could cast a spell on the ludicrously handsome athlete and the lingerie model he loves, or on the weeded movie stars whose combined DNA is likely to produce children of another species entirely… would you? Does their aura of happiness and prosperity, their infinite promise, irritate you, even a little? Does it occasionally make you angry?
If not, blessings on you.
If so, however, there are incantations and ancient songs, there are words to be spoken at midnight, during certain phases of the moon, beside bottomless lakes hidden deep in the woods, or in secret underground chambers, or at any point where three roads meet.
These curses are surprisingly easy to learn.

I may have let out a small cackle myself having read that. In fact during A Wild Swan and Other Tales I cackled on quite a few occasions as Michael Cunningham looks at what went before once upon a time and what followed on from happy ever after with this collection of ten stories which mainly feature fairytales that many of us will have grown up loving. From favourites Snow White to Beauty and the Beast and from Jack and the Beanstalk to Rapunzel each tale is taken back to its darker routes and then given a slight tweak or twist all encompassed in a rather gothic essence and large sprinkling of as much dry wit as there is magical fairy dust.

It is hard to give much away about the way in which Cunningham does this without ruining the twist, which is of course what makes them all so (prince) charming to read, however I will try. In Beasts we discover that if you fall for a beast you might still be falling for a beast just one that is more apparent and has been changed for good cause. In Steadfast: Tin we look at how we fall in love with the people we really wouldn’t imagine and then how we make that love last and how complicated marriage can be, even if built on true love it can still go awry. In Her Hair we look at if looks matter and if so what happens if they fade.

Throughout each tale Cunningham’s wry wit is what keeps them either endearing, cackle inducing or all the more twisted. In the title story A Wild Swan there are several very funny moments all around the impracticalities of having swans wings instead of arms, on the subway or in a club etc, that actually become bittersweet and all the more thought provoking when you realise that the tale is in fact about imperfections and even disabilities by which people are judged. This black humour is also used just as often to be simply downright funny, sometimes even with a knowing wink, well slight of hand.

Jack and his mother still don’t have a black American Express card. They don’t have a private plane. They don’t own an island.
And so, Jack goes up the beanstalk again. He knocks for a second time at the towering cloud-door.
The giantess answers again. She seems not to recognise Jack, and it’s true that he’s no longer dressed in the cheap lounge lizard outfit – the tight pants and synthetic shirt he boosted at the mall. He’s all Marc Jacobs now. He has a shockingly expensive haircut.
But still. Does the giantess really believe a different, better dressed boy has appeared at her door, one with the same sly grin and the same dark-gold hair, however improved the cut?

I must also mention the illustrations before I move on, which are wonderful. Using only black and white artist Yuko Shimizu creates wonderful gothic images of depth which have you noticing more and more. The book itself is designed to be a work of art. The hardback edition also has a wonderful embossed cover with swans on, which you might not get on the paperback and certainly can’t get on the Kindle edition, coughs. Each story is given its own illustration to accentuate the world of the tale that Cunningham has created. It’s beautiful.

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To show I don’t have completely rose tinted glasses on this collection just because I love a good fairytale and a good reworking of one, I have to admit there were a couple of stories that didn’t quite do it for me like the others. Both Little Man and A Monkey’s Paw were two which I felt didn’t quite work either in there more modern reincarnations or in sync with the rest of the collection despite their best efforts. Little Man, a reworking of Rumplestiltskin, is a clever account of the rarity of a single man who would like a child of his own and can’t really go about that by normal means, it just felt slightly long and the ending (which you will all know) didn’t quite work in its modern confines – it felt a bit wedged in. A Monkey’s Paw was good but as it isn’t based on a fairytale it felt a bit out of place in the collection though it has a wonderful take on both grief and what it is to be very different from what people call the norm. Eight out of ten isn’t bad though which is, funnily enough what I would give this collection should I still give ratings on here.

Overall A Wild Swan and Other Tales excels and I think the best examples of those moments are with my two personal favourites Crazy Old Lady and Poisoned. Crazy Old Lady looks at what it is that would make a women go slightly crazy and leave New York to go and build a house made of candy in the woods before two children (who you might have heard of) come calling and do the unthinkable. Poisoned looks at what happens between Snow White and her handsome prince after the wedding, when it soon turns out that he might have a slightly disturbing kink. These two tales have the whole essence of what the originals did, the brutal, the gothic, the sinister and the sexual and who can argue with those traits.

I really, really enjoyed A Wild Swan and Other Stories, I was thrilled and comforted by both its sense of the new and sense of nostalgia all the way through. It was the perfect collection to end my reading year on in 2015 and was the perfect introduction (I know, I know it is shocking to admit this) to Michael Cunningham’s writing. I need to get cracking and read much more of his work… And get back to reading more and more collections of new, twisted or simply retold fairytales too.

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Filed under 4th Estate Books, Fairy Tales, Fourth Estate Books, Michael Cunningham, Review, Short Stories, Yuko Shimizu

The Tournament of Books 2016

For the last few years I have heard the lovely Ann and Michael, of Books on the Nightstand, mention a mysterious thing called The Tournament of Books. Before many of you laugh or look at the screen and say ‘pah!’, we can’t know everything about books and this is something that happens in the states rather than over here, though admittedly thanks to the internet the world is a much smaller place. It happens every March and it is roughly around the end I finally remember to investigate by which time I have missed out on lots of the fun. Thankfully this year Frances from NonSuchBook reminded me on Twitter and so I have decided to try and read along as it sounds a) like it will introduce me to some new reads b) push some reads up my TBR c) be fun in the realm of the Guardian’s Not the Booker, so I am in.

If you haven’t followed the ToB before, here’s the summary: Starting in early March and proceeding each weekday, one of our judges—the full list is below—will read two books, choose one to advance, and explain how they reached their decision. The criteria is entirely personal; we merely ask for no basketball metaphors, and that the judge render their decision-making process in full transparency, and also tell you any connections they might have to the authors and/or books involved. Then our commentators, Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner, weigh in, followed by the wonderful community of readers that turn the comments section into one of the smarter, more interesting discussions of contemporary fiction that we know about. There. Simple-ish.

I think really the best way to go about it is to get reading (thankfully I have already read the longest one, can you guess which one it is?) and he is the list of books that have formed the Tournament of Books 2016 shortlist…

  • The New World by Chris Adrian and Eli Horowitz
  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty
  • Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson
  • The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
  • Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
  • Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
  • Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving
  • Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil
  • The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli
  • The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra
  • The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • The Whites by Richard Price
  • Oreo by Fran Ross
  • The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard
  • A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
  • The Invaders by Karolina Waclawiak
  • A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

You can find out about each title here. Shock horror, I have only read one of these books (which I have added a link to) but I do own a few (which I have popped in italics) of them. Also having perused the list in full there are lots and lots of book there that I want to read both that I have heard of and some which I had no clue about but might have ordered copies of to come from the US of A – hey I am thinking of reads for my holiday in a few weeks, and as I cannot locate any of my own books what else was I to do? So which are these books, funny you should ask I thought I would share my thoughts.

Anne Tyler and Chris Adrian I have read before and loved, I had no idea the Adrian was already out in the UK so that pleased me. Kent Haruf I have meant to read since forever. When I was in America last year I very nearly bought both Oreo by Fran Ross and The Turner House by Angela Flournoy as they sounds like books I wanted, in fact it was Flournoy’s setting of Detroit after visiting it which I was fascinated by. The Whites had a rave review from Jason Steiger on my favourite book TV show, The ABC Book Club, so it’s been on my periphery. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathiser made it onto my list of books of the first six months of 2016 (you can hear me talk about it and 12 others on The Readers here, a post of a full massive list will go live on the blog on Tuesday) so I will by that when it comes out next month. Then there are the unknowns of which Ban en Banlieue has me at hello, so much so I ordered it from the publisher. Erm, in hindsight I have pretty much mentioned the entire list so no wonder it has got my bookish bits excited. Mind you the longlist also had me very tempted too. Ha!

So which to read first? Anyone else joining in with this, done it before or are completely new to it like me? Have you read any of the books and what did you make of them?

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Redecorating Reigns & Reading Retreat Recommendations Wanted

Sorry for the slight radio silence, I am feeling my blogging and reading has already hit a rather turbulent period in 2016 and we are barely a few weeks in. I have not blogged, worse I have not read (for over a week) what with work being utterly ridiculous last week (at one point I thought I might have to make schedules in my calendar just to visit the bathroom) and the utter hell of living in a building site. Things are looking up though. After a week that has been filled with stubbed toes, expletives and never being able to find anything (seriously I couldn’t find my laptop until mere hours ago) it looks like the halfway point has been hit and the painting has started. This hopefully means things should improve blog and reading wise. Though to be honest the lack of reading has been as much a work thing as an aversion to reading in a room that will be a book haven but currently looks like something from DIY hell, see it appears I cannot read everywhere as I thought. Not long to go though, I have been promised.

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To rectify this reading error, and frankly to go and get away from it all and relax, The Beard and I have decided that we are going to go away somewhere hot, lacking in wifi but brimming with sun loungers, pools, sunshine and endless food. Yes, we are going to book a last minute holiday (or to my mind reading retreat) for the first week of February. We are currently looking at this…

… Paphos in Cyprus, as we have heard some wonderful things but if you have any other recommendations for sunny (but relatively cheap) places to go for a last minute week away from it all then do let me know. I will be booking it next Friday and I’m practically planning my reading pile for it already, so recommendations most welcome.

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Things Have Gone Awry…

I had two intentions for today earlier this week, when I was daydreaming of the weekend (well one day off as I was on site with the Tower of London Poppies again yesterday all day). Firstly, I was going to go to a stately home or castle, in order that I keep up with my resolution to do something different every weekend. Secondly, I was going to spend some time finalising some reviews so I could schedule some posts and feel all happy and clever that the blog had lots of content should I have a bonkers set of weekday evenings like last week. This was not to be. Instead I have mainly spent it in a rather over tired and slightly oversensitive grump, or in bloody B&Q because when I came home last night I was greeted by this…

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Yes, surprise! Pandemonium. Admittedly I shouldn’t have been that surprised as whilst The Beard has the whole of January off we had discussed that we would finally decorate the bedroom (aka my book hoarding lair aka my reading space) as it has needed it. What I wasn’t expecting was that when I came home, after having spent three hours in the freezing drizzle on a Saturday for work, that I would be welcomed by piles of books in the communal hall and then various other piles of books and moved shelves all over the house. I got somewhat told off for my ‘over reaction’ though I think anyone who is a bibliophile will not only understand that a) there is a system amongst the madness b) that when books are the most precious of your possessions you don’t want them moved especially without your consent. You just don’t touch book lover’s books without them knowing do you? I did not sleep well last night, at all. In fact I am feeling stressed even talking about it now. And the painting and wallpapering hasn’t even commenced yet. Oh I could be sick.

Speaking of paint and wallpaper; is there anything more tedious and stressful than a D.I.Y store? The endless aisles of tins of all shades of paint you could imagine. The row upon row of rolls of all those endless patterns. On your one day off, when you swear you may have caught pneumonia from the day before, it is the last thing you want, especially as the decisions between these things can last a lifetime… well at least until you are brave enough to even consider redecorating again. We did whittle down to the final two choices of paper which we put to twitter, even though we wouldn’t actually let a bunch of predominately strangers sway or decision or destiny if we are honest. It got some very split responses, even long after we made it home not speaking. The winner will be shared in due course.

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I have since spent the afternoon in a Location, Location, Location bubble of comfort and reassurance that other people two have very difficult life altering decisions to make. It was much needed, especially as I seem to have developed a stye in my eye (really stressful week at work, lack of sleep, house in ruins) and so can’t currently read for long, or write reviews or lengthy blog posts. What is to become of me?* So really I would love to hear what lovely weekends you have all had and what you have been reading so I can vicariously feel like I have actually had a weekend and read a book or two before I have an early night and then go back to work tomorrow. I would also like your words of support around the moving of books issue, I feel so alone. Just venting has felt like a kind of therapy during this difficult time.** Thanks in advance.

*Note – I am well aware these are first world problems; this post is slightly tongue in cheek.
**Note – I am sometimes a real drama queen.

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The Persephone Project is Back (Again)

I have always loved a Persephone book, back in 2012 I made the decision that I loved them so much I would go back to the very beginning and read them all in order. This was back when there were just 100 of them and it seemed like quite the treat to do. And it was. I started with the idea of reading one a month and writing about them on a specific Sunday so that I could let people join in who wanted to. It was great, I managed one a month for 8 months, then things off blog went awful (after Gran died) and I didn’t quite get my mojo back reading one in 2014 and one in 2015 and not even blogging about them – shame on me. You could say it all went a bit awry, however after heading back into Persephone Books a few weeks ago to say (a slightly shamefaced) hello and buy some books I am back on it and have picked up the challenge again, with the biography of Julian Grenfell by Nicholas Mosley…

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It seems a particularly apt title, completely coincidentally, considering we have the Tower of London Poppies in Liverpool at the moment (indeed I will be event managing them on Saturday so if you happen to be passing do say hello) and this is about one of the soldiers who fought, and died, in the war. It is giving the book and extra poignancy and resonance for me.

The only difference in the ‘Persephone Project v3’ is that while I will still be reading them in the order they were published, I am reading them as and when. This will probably be one a month, yet it might be one every other month (especially if one is massive) or sometimes two a month if they are slighter, or if I just have an urge to read the next one straight after the others. So still planned and yet still whimsical too, I like it.

Now as I mentioned above I didn’t review two of the books I read in 2014 and 2015, thank heavens then for book notes. I thought before I finish the latest title and even contemplate sharing my thoughts on it, I would share some thoughts on those two books so I have a record of them (and can’t be told off for cheating) before we move on, I say we as I would love it if you read along the way. So you can find the reviews of Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson and Good Things in England by Florence White in yesterday’s post, they were both marvellous treats as I had hoped, especially the Florence White.

Anyway, I thought I would update you all and hope that some of you will join in whether it be for the long haul or just now and again. In the meantime do tell me all about some of your favourite Persephone titles that you have read, I would love to know what I have to look forward over the forthcoming weeks, months and years.

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Rounding Up The Reviews #6: A Pair of Persephone’s – Vere Hodgson & Florence White

In the latest of my review round up posts I thought I would catch up with two Persephone Books that I should have mentioned before and haven’t; especially as they are both very good indeed and as The Persephone Project is coming back. More on that soon but let’s get to the two books and thank the heavens for notebooks filled with bookish, erm, notes. Right, the books…

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Few Eggs and No Oranges – Vere Hodgson

During the Second World War, whilst working for a charity in Noting Hill, Vere Hodgson kept a diary during the Blitz from 1940 – 1945. From the opening line ‘Last night at about 1 a.m. we had the first air raid of the war on London. My room is just opposite the police station, so I got the full benefit of the sirens. It made me leap out of bed…’ she draws us straight into the real life loved by those at the heart of London town as we follow her life, and the lives of her friends, as the city tries to carry on in the face of danger, loss and the toughest of times.

I wasn’t sure I was going to love Few Eggs and No Oranges because, as many of you will know from previous posts, I had to study WWII over and over and over again during my school life and, without sounding callous, became somewhat numb to it all from the endless source material we had to read. I found Few Eggs and No Oranges a really interesting and engrossing read. Not everyone is born to be a diarist but Vere Hodgson draws us straight in, even when she is writing about some of the smaller things that might initially seem less interesting, they become more and more fascinating as we realise the little things often meant the most (like the lack of eggs mentioned in the title). I think part of this is possibly down to the fact that, having done some reading after, she was writing this to one of her relations on the other side of the world.

The descriptions of the bombed out streets are incredible and the way she describes “showing how unimportant people in London and Birmingham lived through the war years”. My tip reading it is to spread it out over a longer period of time as you cannot read it like a novel, even if the 600+ pages have a wonderful warmth that some diaries can lack. I actually wish I had taken slightly longer with it, though the longer you take to read a book the harder they are to review and encapsulate as I am being reminded now. Well worth digging out and spending time with for another look at WWII.

Good Things in England – Florence White

I am not normally someone who can pore over a cookbook for hours and hours it has to be said. I love looking at the pictures and receiving the end results but living with a chef the kitchen is out of bounds to me anyway. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that Good Things in England is a collection of 853 regional recipes dating back to the C14th. First published in 1932 and written by Florence White, this country’s first ever freelance food journalist, when you read it you can see why it is such a hit.

As with all good British cookbooks, its starts with breakfast and works through breads, appetizers, soups, ‘oven cookery, etc’ (which made me laugh), fish, boiled meats, sauces, preserves, chutney, sweet dishes, wines and good old country teas. There are wonderful dishes like Camp Treacle Pudding (I don’t think she meant camp like I did, though maybe actually, ha), Fat Rascals, An Interesting Fruit Pudding, or Bacon Olives from The Fanny Calder School of Cookery in my very own now home of Liverpool from 1904. Oh and Another Gingerbread or Parkin and maybe Another Gingerbread or Parkin… or… oh, there’s a lot of gingerbread and parkin.  Each section comes with an introduction, as does the book, and what makes the book all the more wonderful are that here are also wonderful sections of Florence giving advice, tit bits and best of all stories. You have things like ‘concerning seasonings generally’ or one of my favourites ‘the story of stilton cheese’.

I don’t know if you have guessed or not but I was completely smitten with Good Things in England which was a complete and utter joyous surprise. I did eat a lot while reading it though. Like Few Eggs and No Oranges, which actually sounds more like a cook book, I read it over a long period dipping in and out. The only thing I am kicking myself about is that I didn’t try any of the recipes; I have heard there are some other cook books ahead in my Persephone reading so maybe I will try those, or get him indoors to… he has said that he might read this and try some of the cakes and bakes over the next few weeks if I am very lucky – I will report back

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So there are some brief thoughts on two wonderful books. Who knew I could be won over by a WWII or cook book when neither are normally my cup of tea (pun slightly intended) it is the power of Persephone I guess. I am very excited about getting back to these dove-grey delights and what lies ahead with the next 105 (and more that will come) I have awaiting me.

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Book Recommendations; Columbia and Making a Murderer (The Two Aren’t Related, Just To Clarify)

Do you remember in days long ago when I used to get sent queries from people about book recommendations? I haven’t had any for ages and am now suddenly feeling bereft about it. Well not too bereft actually as the reason I am bring this up is that I have two readers who are in slight dilemma’s and one of them is me.

First though is my lovely colleague Jane who is going off to Columbia on Friday for three weeks, yes three weeks. I am not jealous at all, to the point where I am weeping at my desk hourly. Like many of us, though not all, Jane likes to read about the countries she gallivants (sorry, it’s the jealousy) off to while she is there as well as reading books by authors from the places she visits. So I was wondering if any of you have any recommendations of books written by Columbian authors or indeed set there so that Jane can read them when she is bored of all the stunning views or more realistically on the flight or transport between places. (Update she would love some poetry recommendations too!)

As I mentioned the second recommendation is for me. Tonight I will be watching/have watched the final two episodes of Netflix’s brilliant documentary Making of a Murderer. I will not spoil it for you if any of you have yet to read it, suffice to say it is ruddy marvellous and not just because you have no idea who has committed the crime but also, even more horrifyingly in some ways, because of the light it shines on how the justice system does and doesn’t work in America, as well as how some people can abuse it.

If you haven’t watched it do, it is quite something. Like a TV version of Serial, which I think may have made me ask a similar question about reading around cold cases or unclear crimes before, maybe. Speaking of Serial, I haven’t really caught up or got into series two yet, have you?

So there we go two book recommendations needed. Books set in Columbia or written there and some true crime (not grisly for the sake of it please, I have had a debate about some true crime recently here) for me. Jane and I are very grateful, even if I am flicking the v’s at her behind her back constantly with envy… over to you!

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