Monthly Archives: February 2016

Where Does The Time Go? (I Used To Be A Blogging Machine)

Without blowing my own trumpet, as this is not something I can do and I have tried, over the years lots of people have asked me the same question quite a few times. No, not that one, another one. ‘How do you make time and fit everything in?’ I used to look bewildered or just, with a vague smugness, say ‘oh I make time’ and serenely drift off. Well, karma is a bitch and recently I have been asking myself just how on earth I managed work, a social life, reading, blogging and podcasting all in one week because over the last few weeks it has seemed impossible. Where once I was some kind of blogging machine, who could read a book every other day and blog every day, I have now become a man who takes a week to read a book or two and seems to only find snippets of time not long enough to write reviews. Or finds he has a day so back dates a few and then realises has no future content. It has all got a little muddled somewhere.

Not that I am complaining I have been busy doing lots of things that I love. Work has been good with some lovely literary Liverpool projects to work on as well as lots of exciting festivals over the next year or three, though my probation meeting is next week and I am somewhat nervous as you never know. Then there’s been decorating, trips to Cyprus, an engagement, time away with my mother seeing some family I hadn’t seen for over a decade last weekend, got far too excited by an All Saints reunion, hosted some live events with Joanna Cannon (have I mentioned you really must read The Trouble With Goats and Sheep) oh aswell as becoming a Stonewall School Role Model (and giving my first talk), being made a member of the Library Advisory Board and a This Girl Can Forum, so am feeling like a proper grown up. One of my new year’s resolutions was ‘to do lots of different things and lots of things differently’ and I am definitely doing that.

One of my internal new year’s resolutions was to blog more and I am a bit narked at myself that I haven’t been blogging as much. BUT I have been plotting and planning a few projects off blog all around books, book prizes and the like which will be coming to, or featuring on, the blog soon (two of them this week in fact, so I am not just being vague with no actual grounds) so things are coming honest and equilibrium is being reached, which feels very nice as I do miss blogging. Speaking of which I haven’t caught up with a blog or a bookish podcast in ages, I need that magic spell Hermione Granger has that allows her to do several things at once, don’t we all?

Anyway, this is a long winded (though hopefully not wanky and self indulgent or just on the safe side of) was of saying ‘oops, I haven’t blogged as much as I would like’ but I should be, even if it is just a random blog asking you what you are all reading, or a simple snapshot of something bookish like a shameless picture of Liverpool Central Library who I am working very closely with and am secretly hoping I could get a desk in a few days a week, I mean look at it…

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Anyway, even more long-windedly as it turns out, that is where we are, things are getting more balanced again. Ooh and by the way, I would love more of you to take part in Other People’s Bookshelves, the volunteer pool seems to have dried up and I love this series as much as, if more so, than regular readers here do, so please do volunteer your services and your shelves. I would also love to know if there is anything you would like me to do on the blog I am not, or any other thoughts, all welcome. Right I am off to try and catch up with something else I have been meaning to do for ages, watching the Icelandic crime drama Trapped. What are you all up to?

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The Story of Antigone – Ali Smith

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I had the urge to return to my classicist roots, well genes if such things are in the blood which I feel they might be, and was working out how to do it. I plumped for the option of heading to a retelling by a favourite author and whilst I had Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad I decided to go for one I didn’t own by another author I love dearly too. Any excuse for a new book, I can’t lie. This was a book I had no idea existed until I saw Jen Campbell mention a while back, when doing a video on Ali Smith’s works. It was The Story of Antigone. So I promptly bought a copy and proceeded to read it in one big wonderful gulp one night after work. (I so need more books I can do that with, it’s quite the feeling to come home from work and somehow devour a whole book!)

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Pushkin Press, paperback, 2015, fiction, illustrated byLaura Paoletti, 100 pages, bought by myself for myself

Ali Smith sets herself no easy challenge in adapting the story of Antigone for a new audience, which this book is part of an initiative to do, because it is both complex and part of a the greek myths which tend to have glimmers of what could be bigger stories within the one epic. Antigone, a young Theban princess, has not long lost her father (King Oedipus) and now her brother Polynices has just been killed in battle. Polynices has been declared a traitor by the new King, King Creon, and so his body must remain outside, uncovered and open to the elements, to be eaten by crows. Should anyone dare to try and bury him they will be found and stoned to death. Funnily enough this is what Antigone wants to do, despite her sisters best efforts to beg her to leave Polynices and save themselves. Yet if you are facing death anyway what is there to lose?

In many ways the story of Antigone is actually a story that is really part of the story before it, and after it, if you know what I mean. I know you could say this of most books; however it is particularly so here. Many authors would struggle to set it up as a tale in its own right, though many have tried, Ali Smith seems to do this effortlessly. One of the instant ways in which she does this is to tell it through the voice (and eyes) of a crow. One of those crows that is probably going to get to chow down on Polynices at some point if Antigone doesn’t get there first.

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This works brilliantly. Firstly, despite my disdain for talking animals in fiction, who doesn’t like a talking crow? By their nature crows are a little bit sinister and somewhat untrustworthy and unpredictable by nature. Therefore being the perfect sarcastic and unreliable narrator who will appeal to readers of all ages. The crow is also, obviously, not human which also adds a distance to the story that is unfolding below. This to me makes the story at once all the more macabre and gory, because every Greek myth tends to be and crows delight on the bloody bits, and also oddly all the less disturbing as it takes away the human fear of death (which this story is all about) yet observes the human emotion of grief and makes the human need for power and control seem a bit daft frankly. In Smith’s hands the crow really is the perfect narrator.

“So,” the crow said. “What happened then was this. First his mother/wife killed herself, didn’t she, for ‘shame’. For ‘scandal’. And what did King Oedipus do then, for goodness sake? He put his hands in his own head and he took out his own eyes! And off he went, wandering the world like an old tramp, not a king at all. Typical still-alive stuff. His two sons. The big brothers of those two girls we just saw arguing, decided they’d share being king instead. The guess what happened? Go on. Guess.”

What I also really loved about crow and his voice (apart from the very witty interview he gives Ali Smith at the end about why she wrote the book, very meta and very entertaining) is that you are completely captivated. You also leave The Story of Antigone wanting to read a whole heap more around it. The way crow introduces the context of the story inside the story before and the story after (oh here I go again, making it sound all complicated unintentionally) hints at these othetr wonderful tales and leaves you desperate for more, as you can see above. I wanted crows version of the tale of Oedipus in more detail, maybe Ali Smith could just come back and adapt them all in a series all of her own?

Before I round off I do need to mention the gorgeous illustrations throughout by Laura Paoletti. As Smith does with the text, Paoletti again takes the old elements of the ancient classic and gives it a modern twist. I felt the pictures were at once contemporary and yet harked back to the wall paintings that you see when visiting a collection of Greek works in a museum or adorning the walls of a Greek ruin where they have survived. I thought this was a fantastic and apt addition to the book.

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The Story of Antigone was the perfect way back into the world of the ancient classics and myths and legends that I have been hankering after of late. It has left me most keen to go away and find more adaptations but also head back to the real thing. My mother, who is a classicist and who I saw last weekend, has told me I need to seek out a really good translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses so if any of you know of a great edition of that please let me know. A new translation of The Iliad has arrived this week, so I am wondering if may that is where I will head next, though it does look rather daunting. What do you think, just dive in? I also really want to try the other Pushkin ‘Save the Story‘ titles too, The Story of Gilgamesh by Yiyun Li particularly appeals.

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An Evening With Joanna Cannon…

As many of you will know I am a huge, huge fan of Joanna Cannon’s debut novel The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, it is one of those books which I would called ‘required Savidge reading’, ha. So I was delighted last night to host the first event of her book tour at Waterstones Liverpool One last night, and it was a real treat – hopefully as much for the audience as it was for Joanna and myself.

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What I love about live events with authors, whether I am hosting them or not, is the fact that you can find out so much more about the book than you could ever imagine because people always have some really quirky questions. I also just love hearing from authors on how the story comes to live, not so much the writing rituals (though that can be fascinating) more the way certain little sparks can lead to a stories creation and where characters come from. I love all of this and was enthralled as Joanna read and answered my questions and even more interestingly lots from a very engaged audience.

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I would highly recommend you read The Trouble With Goats and Sheep at your earliest convenience and, if you can and happen to be in the vicinity, I would highly recommend you go and see Joanna on the rest of her tour, she is charming, fascinating and a joy. So there! Can you tell how big a fan I am of this book. Anyway, come on, join the flock…

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I am feeling quite spoiled as I will be chairing the Manchester event next Tuesday at Waterstones Deansgate, so get to do it all again. It would be lovely to see some of your smiling faces there. Do let me know if you can make it. If you can’t make any of these dates you can hear Joanna and I on the last episode of the second series of You Wrote The Book here. Right enough of The Trouble With Goats and Sheep for now, though I will be banging on about it a lot throughout the next year… or five, or more. Ha!

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So What Are We All Reading Then?

I have had another bonkers week followed by a lovely weekend away with my mother. The former has meant I haven’t done much reading, the latter has meant I have done loads as a) the weekend away was five hours by train away on the other side of the UK b) I had a hotel suite to myself which always means more reading. So I thought I would share what I am reading right now, in the hope that you might tell me all about what you are reading, have read and want to read too.

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So my current read is Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways. Remember I mentioned authors whose debuts are so good you are nervous of the follow up? This falls into that category as I thought Sunjeev’s debut Ours Are The Streets was pretty brilliant when I read it back in 2011, when I was somewhat more succinct in my book thoughts. So far The Year of the Runaways  is proving to be just as brilliant, if not even more so. I should say here that this picture is actually slightly misleading, though does show you my second favourite train pastime – eating M&S picnics, as I am not only reading one book but two. I am  also slowly (because it is so good) reading Christos Tsiolkas’ Merciless Gods one story at a time so as I can savour it for as long as possible. That said Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk is begging me to read it at the moment, well next.

I can also tell you what a few other people are reading. The Beard has devoured The Trouble With Goats and Sheep (which his mum is now reading) before he comes to see Joanna Cannon and I in conversation at Liverpool Waterstones tomorrow at 6.30pm, he is just about to start Love Nina by Nina Stibbe, now with Savidge Reads fiancé status he has to get his reading habits up frankly. My mother was almost finished reading A Little Folly by Jude Morgan, apparently I started her onto Jude’s books, it seems I need to read them. She is going to read (a signed copy of) Carys Davies’ The Redemption of Galen Pike which I gave her this weekend, I would buy that book for everyone in the world ever if I could.

So what about all of you? What have you been reading, what are you reading and what do you possibly fancy reading next?

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A Year of Marvellous Ways – Sarah Winman

When I read a debut author whose writing I love there is always a mixture of feelings when their second book arrives. As a rule I am both ridiculously excited as their new work could be even better than its predecessor and also really nervous because it might not be. Tricky. It was with this mixed bag of emotions that I met A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman, whose debut novel When God Was a Rabbit I absolutely loved when I read and also had the pleasure of raving to everyone about at my first (short lived, weeps) literary salon in Manchester ‘Bookmarked’ and beyond. I finally read it on holiday, aptly in a desolate cove.

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Tinder Press, paperback, 2015, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Marvellous Ways is waiting for something, she doesn’t know what on earth it might be, she just knows she has to wait. Well, she was told to wait by one of the three loves of her life, albeit from beyond the grave in a dream. (This might all sound bonkers, it is, stay with me.) What she is waiting for turns out to be Francis Drake who, on a mission after the Second World War to pass a letter from a soldier to his father, ends up washed up on the shore of the cove where Marvellous spends much of her time. Drake it seems has given up on life and had it not been to keep a promise to a dying man might have ended it all, Marvellous realises her mission is to bring back to him a passion for life and a life yet to live whilst being close to the end of her own.

My initial summation actually makes the novel sound both a little too simple and also much more linear than it is to read. Whilst it has a beginning, middle and end (as all books do) it also has a fluidity and magical element to it that means it all flows and interlinks, if that makes sense? The first thirty pages tell of how Marvellous lives, waiting, by the sea in Cornwall in her late eighties and creates a wonderful image of an eccentric character who likes to swim naked every day, regardless of the weather, and potter around the hamlet nearby sharing her stories. We then switch to Drake at a pivotal moment in World War II and then follow him back to London where he tries to find Missy, the woman he believes is the love of his life.

She watched the tide of life below. People doing their very best, trying so hard to make it better. And she took to wondering, like so many often did, what it had all been for. The triumph of two years ago hadn’t gained access to wallets or purses or homes. People were poor and the city was crumbling.

What he finds is both a woman and a city changed forever and an incident that soon sees Drake fleeing London and into the cove and life of Marvellous. It is from this point that the novel, I think, really grabs the reader as we enter the world of Marvellous Ways again and get lost in both the stories that she tells Drake (how her mother was a mermaid, how she had had three great loves of her life; a lighthouse keeper and two brothers, how starfish came to be) and some of the lives of those who live nearby and become part of Drakes new life. I was soon swept up in what becomes a fascinating and beguiling narrative of one woman’s history and also the history of some of the lives that she has touched; be they a minor character or a major one, be they good or bad.

Rumour has two very distinct sounds. When it flies free the sound is similar to a ship’s hull scraping against a harbour wall. But when rumour is caught, the sound is of expiration: like a fearful sigh in the vacant dark whorls of long-abandoned shells. And marvellous pointed to the whelks.
She knew these sounds well because she’d had a rumour-catcher outside her caravan and it had caught many over the years, most having been carried on the breath of Mrs Hard. She’d launched rumours like royalty launched ships.

Without a doubt, for me, it is Sarah Winman’s creation of Marvellous Ways that gives life to the whole of the novel. What is unusual for me though is that I would have liked the book to be longer. This is unusual as regular visitors here will know that I can veer away from both lengthy novels and novels about the world wars. I would have, shock horror, liked to have had more of both Drake and Missy’s life during the war. Drake for the impact of the war and the propulsion to do what he does, which I think Winman would have written incredibly. Mainly for Missy though because the glimpse of the life that she led during the war (which I knew nothing about and won’t tell you because I really do want you to read this book) made me have a small jaw drop and I wanted to get more of an insight into how that slowly affected her rather than how much it had at the point we meet her. This all sounds very vague because I don’t want to ruin anything. It also sounds like a backhanded compliment which I don’t mean it to because I enjoyed the experience of A Year of Marvellous Ways as it was.

The reason for this is simply Sarah Winman’s writing. Throughout the novel you will be greeted on every page with sentences as simple and sharp as Hatred doesn’t need much watering or care. Just a nudge. She can also be quite whimsical and florid but never at the cost of being twee or unbelievable, just slightly magical. Speaking of which there are some truly gorgeous mini stories, legends and fables that interweave the stories of Drake and Marvellous which add to it immensely. One I particularly loved, and almost included as a quote in this review but didn’t because I want you to go and read it yourself, is that of how starfish came to be. It is just utterly gorgeous.

All these traits of her prose excel when combined to create characters and evoke places and atmospheres. She creates, erm, marvellous fully formed, and often flawed) characters. Marvellous is the standout of the lot unsurprisingly, her narrative just resonates and charms even when she is telling you some of the most unbelievable or cuckoo sounding stories, but that is what is so vivid and wonderful about her. It is hard to describe. It is not just characters that Winman is a wonder at, she excels in settings too. War torn London comes fully to life with all its shattered homes, hearts and hopes. Her writing of Cornwall, with its sense of the possibility of the impossible, comes off the page just as it does when you go and visit it now, all these years later there is still something quite ‘other’ about that part of the world.

I could ramble on and on about A Year of Marvellous Ways for much longer but I will save you from that. Suffice to say I really enjoyed it and loved getting enthralled and (sometimes a little literally) lost in the story of Drake, the story of Marvellous and the story of Drake and Marvellous. It somehow manages to be a story of nothing and a story of everything, most importantly though it is a (sorry in advance) marvellous story of stories and a particularly (sorry again) marvellous storyteller. I ended the book with quite the bottom lip wobble because I didn’t really want Winman’s fairytale to end.

Have you read A Year of Marvellous Ways, or indeed When God Was a Rabbit, and if so what did you think? Have you any second novels of debut authors you’ve loved left nervously on the shelf and if so which ones? I now need to get a wriggle on with both S J Watson (who was also at the first Bookmarked with Sarah) and Lucy Wood’s second books very soon, as they have been waiting on my shelves far too long.

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Some None Bookish News… 

Now we have told everyone who we wanted to that might be furious/sad if they saw it on the internet first, I can share something rather exciting with all of you. Whilst we were out in Cyprus the week before last it seems the spirit of Aphrodite took us over completely…


Yes, The Beard and I got engaged. Who saw that coming? Certainly not me. I am thrilled and very excited though. There will be bookish bells (in a very bookish venue if I have my way) late summer 2017 all going well. Thought I’d share it with you all, even if it’s not really that booky at all! Books will be back tomorrow.

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Is It Time For Me To Head Back To The Ancient Classics?

It is funny how long you will deny something to yourself and indeed the reasons for doing so. From an early age I was brought up not just on fairy tales but on the stories of, and adventures around, the Greek gods and goddesses. You see my mother is something (understatement of the year) of a classicist and so as often as I would ask to be regaled with the story of Rapunzel again and again, I would also ask to be read and reread the tale of Persephone. I was also obsessed with Jim Henson’s The Storyteller spin off about the Greek Myths, I also just had a flashback to a phase I had of loving the animated Shakespeare series, especially Zoe Wannamakers Lady Macbeth. I digress. This all changed when I went to school, where Mum taught, and got 99% in my classics exam. Rather than this being a good thing, some bullying little sods at school made my life hell and said I was either a complete geek or my mum had told me all the answers. My response of course was to shut down and shut out classics. Wow, this is like therapy.

Almost 23 years later when I found myself picking potential holidays Cyprus (have I mentioned I have been on holiday at all) kept coming up and once I explored it, it wasn’t just the all inclusive four star hotel bargain that kept pulling me back, if I am being honest it was also the fact there were ancient tombs, moments, rocks, myths and legends about the island too – like being the birthplace of Aphrodite – that kept drawing me back. And when I got there it was the archaeological park that was one of the first places I wanted to visit, and oddly when I did I felt strangely at home.

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This might of course be because of all the times I went to these places with my mother as a kid (driving through the Greek mountains recently I was reminded of those trips where I played all Cathy Dennis’ albums on repeat) even the seven hour trip around Pompeii, which may have also hardened my heart to classics a little bit possibly. What I wasn’t expecting was for mosaics to bring such a sense of nostalgia back to me…

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But they did…

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And then I was really cross with myself when I couldn’t remember the stories surrounding some of the mosaics that we saw, even when I recognised the names. The more we saw the stronger the sense of nostalgic and slight pining for these tales of ancient times became.

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As did the sense of the ancient world suddenly being so vivid and overwhelming the more of the old ancient sites that we visited. Really there is nothing like standing in or in front of an old Odeon to bring back the spirits and beliefs of the people who would have been sat in there watching some performances.

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So the more we wandered round, and the more that we saw throughout the week, the more I started to get the old classicist itch, which I honestly thought was more dormant than Mount Vesuvius. So now I feel I need to scratch it, or if we want to go right down Pun Alley, the more I want to start an archaeological dig on my soul and start to excavate this side of me again.

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I have dabbled with the classics in the past few years. I read Poetics by Aristotle (who my mum once named a cat after) and thought it was a brilliant piece of writing about, well, writing. I loved Mary Beard’s collection of essays It’s A Don’s Life, and loved her TV show Rome but I love Mary Beard regardless, who doesn’t? I also really enjoyed Natalie Haynes’ The Amber Fury which weaves Greek tragedies through it, and enjoyed the nods to Greek tragedy in Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. And then there is Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles which I love, love, love, love, love. If you haven’t read it you must.

The question is what next? I have just gone and ordered Natalie’s The Ancient Guide To Modern Life as I think that will be up my street and am debating both Robert Graves Greek Myths (as I want to be reminded of them all, if it isn’t dry and dusty) and Ali Smith’s The Story of Antigone. In fact speaking of Ali Smith, I should get my hands on more of the Canongate Myths series really shouldn’t I? Oh and Vintage did kindly send me a copy of Euripides The Bacchae so that could be next. Blimey so much choice. What do you think? Any ancient classic texts you would recommend to me, or indeed any other retellings?

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