Monthly Archives: March 2016

The House at the Edge of the World – Julia Rochester

I have mentioned before how some books you instantly fall in love with and know are for you as you get that elusive feeling of the book tingle. Something I haven’t written about, and probably should, is when you start a book slightly unsure and then it coaxes you and surprises you as you completely fall in love with it and end up hugging it (yes, hugging it) afterwards. The latter was very much the case with Julia Rochester’s debut novel The House at the Edge of the World, which I will be very much surprised if it doesn’t become one of my books of the year even though it is barely April.

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Penguin Books, 2015, hardback, fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

When I was eighteen, my father fell off a cliff. It was a stupid way to die. There was a good moon. There was no wind. There was no excuse. He was pissing into the chine at Brock Tor on his way home from the pub and fell headlong drunk into the spring tide with his flies open.

As The House at the Edge of the World opens we are drawn into the world twins Morwenna and Corwin one night they will never forget, well they were all asleep but you know what I mean, when their father is last seen, by a drunk friend, falling off a cliff into the depths below. A night when everything changes, or a night where everything gets a little more surreal afterwards for Morwenna and Corwin don’t live in a typical 2.4 children family. Their grandfather, Matthew, spends hours and hours hidden away in a room painting a map of a land that symbolises where they live, their family and the stories of both. Their mother seems to have suddenly been freed by the death of her husband, yet resentful left in a house she feels she was never really wanted in.

This all unfolds within the first few chapters, however initially I wasn’t sure I was going to get through the first few pages as the writing was throwing me slightly, as was the narrator. There is something quite surreal as this novel starts in the fact that everything feels a little bit surreal and a little bit, well, drunk. Having had this feeling with Sarah Perry’s debut After Me Comes The Flood and being thoroughly rewarded for my perseverance I, well, persevered. Then there came Morwenna as a narrator, spiky, sarchastic and pretty much disliked by everyone she meets, don’t get me wrong I love a dislikeable character but she along with the style of the book were throwing me around a bit and testing me… But I like to be tested and sure enough she won me over, which I imagined if she was real and knew would really piss her off, ha.

That morning the heat had sparked a rush on Slush Puppies at the Sea View Cafe and we ran out of electric blue, which upset people. ‘It’s all the same shit,’ I told my customers. ‘They’re not flavours, they’re just different combinations of chemicals. The virulent green tastes almost exactly the same and is just as bad for you.’
My boss took me aside and said, ‘Morwenna, you are a bad tempered, foul-mouthed little smart arse and the only reason I’m not firing you is that it is the end of the season anyway.’
‘I’m terribly sorry,’ I said to my customers, chastened. ‘But we’re out of raspberry.’

Anyway back to the story. Things settle somewhat after their fathers death and soon enough Morwenna and Corwin are spending more time away from the family home, yet always it calls to them and draws them back. Seventeen years after their fathers death Corwin starts to question that fateful night and as the twins start digging into their families past they discover a family, a map and a crumbling house brimming with secrets all infused with the urban legends and myths of the land in which they were born. Well I was pretty much hooked from then on and became more and more so the more I read and the more quirky and mysterious it all became.

One of the many things that I think Julia Rochester does fantastically well with this book is set it very much in the now and yet somehow make it feel timeless and also slightly other worldly. Morwenna ends up living in London after leaving home, yet because bar a few work colleagues and a boyfriend she reluctantly meets she seems out of time with the city and a bit of a ghost living in it. When she goes back home most people dislike her and her friendship group have dispersed and so again she becomes some kind of loner, almost a harbinger of something. This makes her both a fascinating and interestingly frank and vulnerable narrator who also has an agenda and scores to settle which brings in the question of her reliability. All of which I love in a novel and the way Rochester did this felt really unique.

The other aspect that gives The House at the Edge of the World this wonderful sense of otherness is the interwoven tales of otherness. As we read on we are told of tales of mermaid sittings, demons roaming the valleys, things that live in the woods, the devil himself and also those people who seem a bit other and out of kilter with the world. Those people who are part of society yet seem so very different, those people who fascinate some or bring fear to others. Like an old lady who might look like a witch, or a Crab Man…

The Crab Man looked like Matthew’s idea of Long John Silver, but without the peg-leg or the parrot. Instead, his props were the crabs that rattled about in the metal bucket at the kitchen door. Laughing saltily, he would take a couple out of the bucket, one in each hand, and, with a leathery leer, wave them in Matthew’s face. Snippety-snap went the terrifying crab claws within an inch of Matthew’s nose. They smelt of fish-water and engine oil.

What adds to all this is the sense of mystery and the fact that at its heart this is also a family drama. Actually I want to turn that around and say… THIS is how you write a family drama. I like a family drama as much as the next reader yet sometimes they can be a bit staid. With otherworldly maps, demons and hints of the supernatural, unsolved family mysteries and legends all whirled into the mix of relations who love and loathe each other, Julia Rochester has created something quite, quite brilliant and I think rather unique. I cannot say better than that this book in some way cast a spell over me which I had no idea was coming. In fact you could say The House at the Edge of the World was the perfect unexpected tale of the unexpected. I hugged it after I closed the final page, superb.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Books of 2016, Julia Rochester, Penguin Books, Review

Whispers Through A Megaphone – Rachel Elliott

One of the things that I always enjoy about any prize longlist is that invariably it introduces me to a lot of books that I have either never heard of you have only seen and pondered on. Rachel Elliott’s debut Whispers Through A Megaphone is a book that I saw promoted quite a lot in Foyles earlier in the year and almost bought (because when a hardback is half price you want to buy it regardless) and then again had a mental dalliance with when my boss was reading it and raving about it. Then the Baileys longlist popped it straight into my reading path…

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ONE (Pushkin Press), 2015, hardback, fiction, 352 pages, kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

Whispers Through A Megaphone is initially a tale of two halves and two people. First we encounter Miriam Delaney, a thirty-five year old woman who has not left her house for three years. Well she hasn’t gone further than a few feet of it, thanks to the help of her best friend, Fenella who does her shopping, and her neighbour, Boo who takes her bins down the drive and onto the street. That really is the interaction at its maximum between Miriam and the outside world. But why?

It’s three years today since Miriam last stepped out of this house.
No, that’s not quite true. She has stepped into the back garden to feed the koi carp, stepped into the porch to collect the milk and leave a bin bag for her neighbour to place at the end of the drive. But to step out into the street? No chance. Risk collision and a potentially catastrophic exchange with a stranger? You must be joking. Not after what happened. Not after what she did. Inside the cutesy slipper-heads of two West Highland terriers, her feet have paced the rooms of 7 Beckford Gardens, a three bed semi with a white cuckoo clock, brown and orange carpets, a life size cut out of Neil Armstrong.

That ‘why’ becomes the main focus point of Miriam’s story and as we read on we learn that her mother might have been a little bit crazy, well she did get caught cleaning the school by the Headmaster in nothing but socks and shoes which then starts a long affair, yet Elliott cleverly and teasingly lets us know that there is much more going on her as we discover letters to a Grandmother and a more recent incident for which Miriam feels much shame and fear. This becomes in many ways the main propulsion of the book, or at least it did for me. But I mentioned there is initially another main character and that is Ralph Swoon, a happily married part time psychiatrist and father of two.

Blow me. He almost Googled this phrase once, to discover its origins, but decided against it when he imagined the kind of sites that might pop up. He tried not to utter these words, especially when working with female clients, but saying blow me was something he inherited from his father, along with narrow shoulders and a pert little bottom. Frank Swoon had been famous for his buttocks. Women wolf-whistled as he walked down the street. “Oh you do make me swoon, Mr Swoon, Just look at those cheeks.” It was the kind of compliment a man would have been slapped for.

Yet something is bubbling away underneath his home life too, something which we soon discover leads him to simply walking out on his family, mainly after a fight with his wife Sadie, and going and living in a hut in the woods, just off the local park. You can probably guess what is coming, Miriam and Ralph are going to meet, the question is are their timelines the same and if so might these two strangers help each other or, as I thought because I am quite dark, could their meeting be the awful event in Miriams recent past. You will of course have to read the book to find out, I know I am a rotter doing that to you aren’t I?

What I can say as the book goes on is that I interestingly found that whilst the novel is herding you into believing that Ralph is the second of the main characters I think Rachel Elliott’s focus was more firmly on his wife Sadie who really becomes the catalyst of Ralph leaving after which point I think she gets a lot more airtime, or wordage to be correct, than Ralph as we discover the secret that she has been keeping from herself and everyone else for quite some time. As her story gains momentum, Ralphs lessen though the effects upon him become stronger. I know that is terribly vague but once you have read the book you will see what I mean. This caused me a couple of slight problems with the book.

Joe squeezed Stanley’s bottom, which made his voice rise at the end of the sentence. His mother didn’t notice. She probably wouldn’t notice if the high note turned into a whole song from Annie, with Stanley singing as loudly as he could about the sun coming out tomorrow. She wouldn’t notice if Joe gave him a blow job right there in the middle of the kitchen. She was tweeting, pouring Prosecco, muttering about whether she had bought enough sausages. His mother the great multitasker, always in her own world, always oblivious.

I wouldn’t describe Sadie as oblivious, I would describe her as completely and utterly self centred. As we are treated to her Twitter feed/life where she tries to create a persona of who she aspires to be, one that is a bit more interesting, a bit more irreverent. This worked and didn’t work for me, personally I loathe tweets in books as a rule almost as much as talking horses, yet at the same time we see there is a huge insecurity with her. The only issue with this is that occasionally Sadie is either the butt of other characters jokes, boringly dislikeable at moments or she becomes rather overdramatized and farcical, by the end I was a little bit frustrated with her overzealous storyline and Ralph’s slightly ineffectual one. Not that it ever got so bad I wanted to skip their sections, it just seemed a bit too monster and victim, in fact some of the funniest moments of the novel centre around Sadie. And boy is this book funny.

What I really loved about Rachel Elliott’s writing was her eye for the detail of people’s mannerisms. There were probably a paragraph or two every ten or so pages where I would cackle loudly, and was grateful I spent a day (I wanted to devour it) when I was feeling a bit under the weather on the sofa with it as it cheered me up and saved me the embarrassment of openly giggling to myself on public transport. There are some truly gorgeous set pieces of mini stories within the main one that show just how ridiculous we can all be, especially when we are wrapped up in our on dramas. Elliott beautifully catches these moments and it brings her characters fully to life.

It was these moments that made Ralph and Sadie’s domestic strife so utterly readable. I do have to say though that Whispers Through A Megaphone is both in practice and literally a book of two halves. For me they were great writing but the part of the novel I will remember the most, and indeed the key to it all, is Miriam and indeed her story, as I mentioned that propels you to read more and more and more. It is also the part of the book that I connected with the most and actually wanted much, much more of her story and her mother Frances, especially when everything unravels and is revealed towards the end in an incredibly powerful and shattering chapter you probably won’t see coming. Whispers Through A Megaphone is an enjoyable, intriguing, witty and human debut novel and I am very much looking forward to what Rachel Elliott does next.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, ONE Books, Pushkin Press, Rachel Elliott, Review

The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah

When I read Petina Gappah’s debut short story collection, An Elegy for Easterly, back in 2010 I was pretty much bowled over by it. Somehow I missed her debut novel coming out last year and so was thrilled when I saw that it had made the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year, which as you know I am reading all twenty of. Thrilled. As soon as I managed to get my hands on it I sat and read it straight away and was rewarded from its opening paragraphs until its conclusion.

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Faber & Faber, 2015, hardback, fiction, 276 pages, borrowed from the library then kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize

Memory sits in her cell in Chikurubi Maximum Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe having been convicted of murder waiting for an appeal, or if that fails potentially waiting for her death. As she sits and waits she starts to write, in notebooks given to her by a well known journalist, the story of how she came to be in the cell. From growing up in a family where her siblings kept dying through tragedies until the point where she watched her parents give her away in exchange for money to a white man named Lloyd. The man many believe that she murdered.

I could also start by telling you all about Lloyd. I could start by telling you that I did not kill him. ‘Murder’, said the prosecutor who laid out the case against me at the High Court, ‘is the unlawful and intentional killing of a human being who was alive at the time.’
After the police came for me on the night he died, after they arrested me and took me to the police station at Highlands, after I had spent three days without food or drink, after I had wept myself hoarse and my marrow dry – for Lloyd, I told myself, but really it was the fear – and after the dreams started coming again, I told them what they wanted to hear.
Their disbelief exploded in bursts of laughter. ‘Just tell us the real truth. You were his girlfriend and he was your boyfriend. He was your sugar daddy. Just tell us the truth, that you killed him for the money.’

I am a sucker for a novel where you are pretty sure an injustice has been done and you follow the victim of the injustice as they tell their tale and you get the real story. The Book of Memory is one such book, yet it is also very different and unique from others of its type. Memory herself is a really intriguing narrator and also potentially (one of my favourite things) a really unreliable narrator. We know what children’s, erm, memories can be like and sometimes a story that you were told can become part of your memory history in some way, you didn’t witness but you think or are certain you did. There is also the fact that many people who have committed murders claim their innocence, so why should we believe her? This tension runs wonderfully through three quarters of the book, I shall say no more for fear of spoilers.

Yet there is more to Memory’s story than that and as we read on into her childhood, the main one being that Memory was born albino. This brings in a whole new set of elements to the novel. There is the fact that during Memory’s childhood and beyond Zimbabwe is trying to get its independence from the ‘white’ ownership. Memory is African yet in some ways she is seen as a white person, however what also comes into play and in many ways is far, far worse for her is that being albino she is seen as being supernatural and by default dangerous, untrustworthy and scary.

I longed to play on Mharapara with the others but I could not join in. I could not join in because, if I went out and stayed in the sun for any length of time, my skin cracked and blistered. I spent my days indoors with the sound of the township coming through my mother’s shining windows, or I sat and observed them from our Sunbeam-red veranda. And when I did venture out, it was to be greeted as murungudunhu, so that I thought that must be part of my name.

Whilst there is time when this helps, she gets left alone from prison trouble for the most part, overall this is the most defining thing in her life, being ostracised at school, her own mother believing her a curse and then in time, when she studies in Britain, being seen as some sort of sexual predilection to the wrong kind of men initially. I found all this utterly fascinating, whilst often heartbreaking, to read.

Before I get to another highlight, which was the way Gappah plots and reveals various things as she goes, I wanted to share another couple of elements to the book which I enjoyed very much, the prison element. When Memory starts to talk about the other women that she is in prison with there comes a warmth and a element of comedy that I wasn’t expecting in the novel and liked all the more for it. In an odd way, and I mean this as a form of praise, I was reminded of Orange is the New Black as these women share their stories with each other (some very funny, some truly shocking yet told in a clever understated way) and form a camaraderie of sorts which Memory has not experienced before. Even the guards on occasion show a kind side.

What I also thought was rather marvellously done by Gappah was to show how crazy things in Zimbabwe, and indeed many parts of Africa, around the time in which The Book of Memory is set. We don’t have specific dates yet we know this is fairly recent and taking that in to account the fact that myths and magic were so prevalent and used as propaganda I found incredibly bizarre to read. It also gives Gappah another chance to show the very real danger to everyone’s lives was also so absurd, whilst also once again adding a certain humour to the novel, through hindsight which also comes with a bittersweet note of the reality of it.

I watched the news, stunned at the mix of bare-faced lies and superstition presented as fact. A convicted murderer who had been pardoned was declared a national hero. A house was blown up by witchcraft in Chitungwiza. A goblin was stealing women’s underwear in Gokwe. The adverts were all in celebration of the ruling party: I gazed in amused disbelief at the most unlikely figures ever to grace a football field, three big-bottomed women from the city’s oldest and most chaotic township, dancing on a football field in ruling party ‘team colours’. They shook their thighs of thunder as they sang in praise of the ruling party. They danced to the beat of their own oppression.

Finally, as I could go on for ages about this book, I have to mention just how brilliantly plotted I thought Gappah made this novel. There are seemingly throwaway moments which have a deeper resonance later on. She teases you that there are more secrets than meet the eye that will only be revealed just when she wants them to be and then have you puzzling how they affect everything else. She also cleverly uses Memory and indeed memories themselves to show you your prejudices, your assumptive second guessing and how nothing is every clear cut. Can you tell I really, really, really, really enjoyed The Book of Memory? I strongly recommend it.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Books of 2016, Faber & Faber, Petina Gappah, Review

Halfway Through The Baileys Women’s Prize Longlist, So Let’s Give Some Away…

Hoorah! I have just (within the last twenty minutes or so as I type this) got over half way through the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, as I popped down my tenth read My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, which I am reading for the Bearded Bailey’s Book Club. Whilst I have a break to celebrate, then play catch up on reviews and start book ten, I thought it would be a nice idea to give some of the twenty books away…

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This isn’t because I don’t want them or don’t like them, not at all. Thanks to the kindness of the lovely team at the Bailey’s Prize (who sent me the whole longlist last week) aswell as the kindness of some publishers who before, and since, the list was announced have sent me additional copies I have some extra. I thought that one of you might like them. Here is the selection…

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I also have a slightly battered copy of Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies, so if you want that I can pop that in too. So what do you have to do to win this lovely selection of books? Simple, just tell me (in the comments below) what your favourite book is by a female writer and why. The competition is open worldwide, as I am still in the birthday spirit, you have until Monday April the 11th when the shortlist is announced. Good luck!

UPDATE – We have a winner chosen by random.org. Congratulations Cathling, you have been emailed for your details!

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Give Away, Random Savidgeness

Gorsky – Vesna Goldsworthy

Vesna Goldsworthy’s Gorsky first arrived at Savidge Reads HQ last year unsolicited and I have to admit that having heard (on which podcast I cannot remember) that it was a reimagining of The Great Gatsby I promptly gave it to the book swap shelf at work. It is not that I have anything against reimagining’s, retellings or prequels and sequels, it is more that I found the original to be The Quite Alright Didn’t Set My World on Fire Gatsby. However with it being on the Bailey’s longlist, and as part of the Bearded Baileys Book Club, I had to read it and so I braced myself…

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Vintage, 2015, paperback, fiction, 278 pages, kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize

As the rich of Russian move into London one particular oligarch, Gorsky, is getting the most talk and the most press because he is a man of not mere millions but billions – well, if the press are to be believed. So it comes to quite a surprise to Nikolai Kimović, or Nick as he likes to be called, finds this very man standing in the bookshop in which he works, in one of the backstreets between Knightsbridge and Chelsea.

We were independent alright. And bookish, too. In spite of the mess, which gave the appearance of frantic activity, I managed to read a couple of titles a day, even on what passed for a busy one. I certainly did not expect to have to deal with ‘big business’, and everything about this man – from the way he stepped out of the vehicle, giving brief instructions to the sharp-suited driver who held the car’s door open for him, to the manner in which he lingered uncertainly among the shelves as I completed a minute transaction and chatted with one of our morning regulars, and the tone in which he finally uttered that if I might – spelled out big business.

Gorsky wants Nick to help him create the perfect library in his new home, which surprisingly happens to be the great house on which Nick’s low rent gate house belongs. So he has a new landlord and a new client all in one. Things take another turn when Nick discovers that Natalia, the woman of his dreams who comes in occasionally for books, seems to have some history with Gorsky and here Nick may once again be of some service.

If you have read The Great Gatsby, and I don’t think there are many people who haven’t, then you will know roughly what the plot that unfolds from here is. I say roughly because Goldsworthy does through in some twists and turns here and there as this is no straightforward retelling as I mentioned before. What you would be expecting is the wondrous world of London’s super rich echelons which Goldsworthy draws from the start and right up to the end. Indeed it was this that kept me reading on, along with all the book talk that Nick throws in along the way.

What then took me even further into the novel was something I wasn’t expecting at all, as Goldsworthy uses the reimagining of Gatsby to tell a much wider story, one which will have your thoughts fully provoked…

‘You can’t defeat them unless they wish to be defeated. They are like beasts. They will die in their millions without needing the consolations of an afterlife. You’ll never find such men and women anywhere else. Forget about the Muslims. They blow themselves up in the hope of seventy-two cherries to pop. The Russians are scarier. They fight hoping for nothing. Do you know that Natalia is from Stalingrad? Volgograd as it was called at the time she was born. Daddy was a Stalingrad rat, fifteen in 1945. It takes a special kind of zest to survive all that and then procreate so unstoppably. He had five children in a country in which most people stop at two. And not even religious. Unless you count Communism…’

As Gorsky unfolds Goldsworthy uses this famous plot of the young and rich, and the older rich and corrupt, to look at several things. The first is the situation with London now, which is becoming a city that is out pricing itself, and how the very rich are buying up masses of buildings just to visit, or worse still (considering the cry for affordable housing, which Nick himself lives in, is so high) simply leaving empty. It then looks, sometimes rather crudely through the eyes of Summerscale as quoted above (Natalia’s rich British husband, who could well be a take on Nigel Farage head of the awful political party UKIP), at the situation with the UK – and in some instances the world – with Russia, which I find as fascinating as I do petrifying. This then also leads to how the UK sees itself and is perceived by the rest of Europe. This is of course particularly topical at the moment with the European referendum coming up (I want to stay in, just saying) in the next few weeks. Nick is the perfect set of eyes for this as being a Serbian migrant he sees it all both from outside the world of the rich and as someone who is the focus of much debate at the moment with migration being a very hot topic.

I thought it was all of this that made Gorsky really stand out to me. Interestingly this is some ways does come at a slight cost. Goldsworthy is wonderful at constructing scenes, buildings and atmospheres, yet there is a slight struggle going on with the characters. As the main characters all have a certain plot to follow in many ways, it slightly constricts them. Most of the time, with many of the characters Goldsworthy works wonders, occasionally (particularly with Natalia) they feel slightly less like characters and more like chess pieces being forced to move in a certain pattern or direction. This is a minor qualm though when the discussions the book creates are so strong and the scenes in which they are set so luscious and so detailed.

All in all I really enjoyed Gorsky and read it in a couple of sittings. It entertained me and gave me much food for thought in a very subtle and subconscious way, which I really liked. I will have to go off and discover what else Vesna Goldsworthy has written.

Update: Gorsky is one of a selection of the longlisted Baileys Women’s Prize books that I am giving away worldwide here.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Review, Vesna Goldsworthy, Vintage Books

34 Things To Do Before 35…

Today I will be celebrating my 34th birthday. I always find birthdays to be a time to reflect, even more so than a new year, I guess because they are your personal new year. So from this year on I have decided to do something new and give myself a list of things that I would like to do in the next twelve months. I thought 34 would be a good number for obvious reasons, though what I will go if I live to 99 I do not know. Anyway here goes…

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  1. Fly a bird of prey and have it land on me and become my new best mate, I am thinking of a massive owl or eagle at the moment.
  2. Visit a country I have never been to.
  3. Take part in a 24 hour readathon, and not fall asleep.
  4. Be able to run on a treadmill for more than 30 minutes, in one go, without dying or thinking/feeling I might.
  5. Be kinder to idiots.
  6. Embrace household chores, think of all the podcasts I can listen to.
  7. Judge another book prize.
  8. Finally watch Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. No, really I never have. You’re shocked aren’t you, I can tell.
  9. Have better control of my giveaway facial expressions and eye rolling.
  10. Hold a duckling.
  11. Follow my gut instinct, be swayed less.
  12. Go ‘proper’ walking more, in your head you hate it but after that first mile you’re off.
  13. Take that first week off in February again in 2017 because after the evil of Christmas it’s a winner. Maybe Croatia.
  14. Visit more castles, stately homes, art galleries and museums.
  15. Go to a book festival abroad.
  16. Learn a second language, properly.
  17. Read more, I read a lot but I also spend ridiculous amounts of time on various apps on my phone.
  18. Try something new on a menu whenever in an Italian, Chinese or Indian – you always have the same Savidge, it’s boring.
  19. Never take a single day for granted, sometimes you get jaded.
  20. Sit and have a chat with Margaret Atwood.
  21. Get on Woman’s Hour, somehow.
  22. Get a new tattoo, something animal, but think about it a bit more first.
  23. More rock pooling.
  24. Find a house with guest rooms and a bath tub, oh and more space for books.
  25. Do something to help authors in the North of England and working class voices from all over.
  26. Go to a fancy dress party… and enjoy it.
  27. Manage to sleep in a tent for a whole night, maybe even two.
  28. Sort out your personal admin/filing system in the house and on your computer, it’s a disgrace unlike your work desk which is filed within an inch of it’s life.
  29. Head to the wilds of Scotland in a camper van, you have wanted to for about 10 bloody years.
  30. Carry on refusing to be a proper grown up 45% of the time.
  31. Not give myself 20 minutes to write a list that takes a whole year of my life into account.
  32. Give up on books I think are just not for me.
  33. Use one notebook at a time until it is completed. Well, ok, use at least one large notebook and one small notebook at a time instead of four or five.
  34. Stop procrastinating. Well maybe stop procrastinating so much, in a bit.

So that is my list of 34 things. I am going to do the best I can without stressing if I fail, but not using ‘not being bothered’ about failing as an excuse to not give it all a good crack. Seems simple enough? Do any of you ever make big to do lists like this and if so what is on them? Any from my list you might like to try yourself?

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Talking Dead – Neil Rollinson

To celebrate World Poetry Day today I decided that I would spend the day reading some. I had a few collections to choose from however in the end I settled on Neil Rollinson’s latest selection Talking Dead. I have to say, being a slight novice to poetry I hadn’t heard of Rollinson before, however the lovely Kate at Vintage sent me one as she said they were corkers and also because she thought the cover might appeal to me. I don’t know what on earth she was implying…

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Jonathan Cape, 2015, paperback, poetry, 56 pages, kindly sent by the publisher (as Kate Neilan thought I would like the contents as much as the phallic looking cover – she knows me so well)

Talking Dead is an unusual and interesting collection of poems which centre around three things. They are about death, sex and nature or occasionally all three, if you are lucky. In this selection of 37 of Neil Rollinson’s poetry we are thrown into random moments of people’s lives, sometimes the very last ones, around the world and throughout history. That is no mean feat and yet Rollinson does it with a wry grit, honest earthiness and often with quite the wicked sense of humour. The language can be as fruity as the subject matter, some poems are sensual and some shocking, together they form a quite eclectic mix. I laughed and I gasped as I read through.

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One of the things that I most enjoyed about the collection was how down to earth it was. Whilst Rollinson’s poetry is vivid, lyrical and beautiful it isn’t flowery. It has a rugged nature to it, not masculine per say more ‘muddy’ for want of a better turn, that’s sparseness is all the more powerful because of the honesty within its lines. Poems such as Christmas in Andalucía, which tells of a couple chatting at Christmas world aparts on Skype, have as much beauty and emotion as a man lying waiting for the rain after an epic drought in the aptly titled Monsoon. The same is the case for poems such as the stunning Ode To A Magnolia Tree or the tale of a historical beheading (I thought it was meant to be Marie Antoinette, it may well not have been) in The National Razor, both of which I thought were stupendous for completely polar reasons.

In many ways this is what is so brilliant about the collection, you can go from a love poem to a poem talking about the torturous ways you could be killed in the past, and there are not a lot of poetry collections that I can think of (but then again I am not the most prolific in poetry) where you would go from two such extremes with everything in the middle.

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See, I told you this was a varied collection. So varied in fact that I ended up having a slight issue with it because of the way the poems were organised. There is a series of poems, from which this collection takes its name, which all feature the Talking Dead literally (as you can see an example of above) as they are told by those who have died. For me personally it would have made sense to have them in the same section of the book. I don’t mean in one clump, however you could have interspersed them with poems such as Mother Die, Chesed Shel Emet or the aforementioned The National Razor. Then you could have had some of the more earthy poems like Cuckoo Pint, Bartolo Cattafi: Winter Figs and Starling all together – though actually Starling is all about death so maybe I am talking gobbledygook. I think I just sometimes felt the collection stopped and started rather than flowed. It seems an odd grumble considering I loved almost every poem (I didn’t like Gerbil or Foal  – but the latter was about a horse and the former was a bit too icky for me) I guess I just found it odd going from some deep poem about life, nature and death to suddenly a collection of poems about a hot beverage in The Coffee Variations.

That isn’t a slight on that series of mini poems by the way, I liked The Coffee Variations quite a lot and they actually lead me into one of the things that I loved most about some of the poems in the collection… they celebrate the ordinary. Poems such as X-Ray Specs, Love Sonnet XI, Starling, Ode To A Piss (which I loved and took me back to thinking of Andrew McMillan’s marvellous collection Physical), The Very Small Baseline Group Convenes at the Cat and Fiddle and Picnic were all wonderfully and made the ordinary extraordinary.

In fact the saucy, lovely and raw Picnic leads me into bringing up my favourites, for alongside Ode To A Magnolia Tree, Bartolo Cattafi: Winter Figs, Feathers and Talking Dead – Blackbird (in fact all the Talking Dead poems) it was one of my very favourites and so I will share it with you before I wrap up. (Click on it if you want to make it bigger.)

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Talking Dead is an interesting collection because at its heart, even when it is about death, this is a book about living and celebrating all the moments you are alive be they the extraordinary or the ordinary. I will have to head to Rollinson’s back catalogue I think.

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Filed under Jonathan Cape Publishers, Neil Rollinson, Poetry, Review

The Green Road – Anne Enright

Knowing I was going to be reading all of them once the Bailey’s longlist was announced, one of the books I was rather nervous about was Anne Enright’s The Green Road. This was because I read her Man Booker winning The Gathering way back in my pre-blogging days and wasn’t really a fan, I then started The Forgotten Waltz but just didn’t get into it. Anne Enright and I had despite best intentions) a little bit of history, I hadn’t managed to ‘get her’ yet, so would The Green Road be the book to do it?

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Vintage, paperback, 2016, fiction, 314 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The Green Road is a difficult book to describe as in essence you could describe it simply as the tale of one family, when actually it is a much more complex and intriguing one than that. In the first part of the book, through the eyes of the four Madigan siblings and then their mother Rosaleen (who always looms in her children’s tales) we are given insight into parts of four separate people’s lives and the jigsaw puzzle of one families story, no matter how fractured it gets. In the second half of the novel we watch the family return to their childhood home, Ardeevin, for one last Christmas as Rosaleen has suddenly decided to sell it. Yes, you know there is going to be some family dramatics there.

Hanna’s mother had taken to the bed. She had been there for two weeks, nearly. She had not dressed herself or done her hair since the Sunday before Easter, when Dan told them all that he was going to be a priest.

I really, really enjoyed the first half of the book. Having found The Gathering a somewhat difficult, slightly miserable and cold read I have to admit I was expecting the same again. However within pages I was wrapped in the warmth of Enright’s prose and loudly cackling as we see life through Hanna’s eyes as her mother reacts rather badly to some news in 1980, perfectly setting up the family dynamic. We then follow Dan’s escape from his family which takes him to New York in 1991 and the gay scene. We then return to Ireland, County Limerick in 1997 where Constance is having a mammogram before heading to Segou, Mali to find Emmet working surrounded by poverty and sickness. Finally returning to Ireland once more to find Rosaleen writing Christmas cards and thinking about all her children and how her family have become so seemingly fractured and apart, deciding to sell the house.

Before we move on to the second half, where you might feel a ‘but’ is coming, I want to pay particular attention to one of these stories which blew my mind. I thought all of the first part (which is aptly called Leaving) was wonderfully written and crafted, one part in particular was some of the best writing I have read all year. The segment set in New York 1991 was so powerful I actually finished it sobbing. Whilst this is claimed to be Dan’s story it is actually the story of all those men who tragically lost their lives to HIV and the Aids virus, the men who Dan finds himself amongst while in turmoil about his own sexuality.

This resonated with me for two reasons. Firstly, because of the way Enright draws Dan, flaws and all. Dan is one of ‘the beautiful ones’ who people fall for and sometimes, because he can and other times because he is struggling with dealing with all his confused feelings, is an absolute bastard and a bit of a coward. Where you should be enraged by him, you feel pity for him and I think Enright looks at the shame sexuality has had (and indeed still has in some counties and mindsets) unflinchingly. She also looks at how horrendous that time was for the men who caught the virus were as well as those loved ones around them. I don’t know if it was Enright’s intention or not, however, in giving the narrative as a collective ‘we…’ they the ghosts/souls of those who had died watching telling me of the aftermaths of their dying and their deaths. It utterly floored me, I was a mess. I thank Enright for this because these stories need to be told and these people’s voices to be heard, without compromise or making them more palatable for the masses. It should be slightly uncomfortable by its nature.

Of all the signs, the purple bruise of Kaposi’s was the one we hated most because there was no doubting it and, after the first mother snatches her child from the seat beside you on the subway, it gets hard to leave the house. Sex is also hard to find. Even a hug, when you are speckled by death, is a complicated thing. And the people who would sleep with you now – what kind of people are they?
We did not want to be loved when we got sick, because that would be unbearable, and love was all we looked for, in our last days.

The second half of the novel, Coming Home, was also wonderfully written. Enright gets certain moments spot on within family dynamics; the old resentments you have from when you were ten and can’t let go of, the negotiation of interactions and unwritten hierarchy when you’ve all been apart for so long, the moments you fight for everyone’s love and rebuke it too. All of this was perfectly drawn as I turned the pages. So there is a ‘but’ coming, as I hinted, in fact there are two.

My only two small criticisms of The Green Road were thus. I thought that the ending of the book, which I won’t spoil, fell into a bit of an old family matriarchal cliché and at once somehow became over dramatic and anti-climactic all at once. I think the book could have ended at page 280 and I would have been perfectly happy to be left guessing. The other small niggle I had was Emmet. Despite his quite interesting story in Mali was interesting, I felt that the novel wouldn’t have been much different without him, in fact I would have liked more of Hanna, Constance and (in particular) Dan’s stories instead. These are minor quibbles and probably just me sulking after being so bereft leaving New York and wanting Enright to give me more of that story, no matter how painful. That is the power of that section, I will let go and move on because really this is a beautiful book.

If you crossed the long meadow, you came to a boreen which brought you up over a small rise to the view of the Aran Islands out in Galway Bay, and the Cliffs of Moher, which were also famous, far away from the south. This road turned into the green road that went across the Burren, high above the beach at Fanore, and this was the most beautiful road in the world, bar none, her granny said – famed in song and story – and rocks gathering briefly into walls before lapsing back into field, the little stony pastures whose flowers were sweet and rare.

The Green Road has left me pondering if I have missed a trick with Enright all this time, or maybe I just read her at the wrong time as can happen. Enright is unquestionably a fantastic writer who, for me with this novel, conjured up the world of a family with all its highs and lows that felt like they might be having this reunion down the end of your road. Well, if it was Christmas and you lived in County Clare but you know what I mean. I didn’t notice it in her previous novels, so I guess I will have to go back again, that Enright does two of my favourite things in fiction. She makes the ordinary, and everything we take for granted, seem extra ordinary. She also gives voices to those who have not been able to share their tales. I know, I know, I cannot let that New York section go, but the writing is stunning. I mean could you forget, especially when Enright so aptly writes His head was a museum. And when he died the museum would be empty. The museum would fall down. Thought not. Let books like this one, though fictional, be some kind of museum or memorial for those who could not, or cannot, speak up.

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My Waterstones Book of the Month: March

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I thrilled to be chosen by Waterstones as one of their new bloggers. Unlike here where I could write about a different book every day, I am more limited (I have learnt I am better with long reviews than short, ha) to what to recommend. So, having given the whole thing much thought I decided that every month on their blog I am going to choose a particularly special book that I would love loads of people to have a gander at, my ‘Book of the Month’ if you will (though I might do two some months, thinking ahead to April when there are two corkers I have in mind). It will also be a book that I have not yet featured on the blog, to make it all the more tempting for you to have a nosey. This month it is…

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One Point Two Billion, Mahesh Rao’s short story collection. You can read my succinct review (something I have learnt I am not good at) over on the Waterstones blog here, along with some recommendations from my mate and fellow book lover extraordinare Nina. I will be back with a longer review of it here at the end of the month.

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Three Irish Books You Should All Read & Three Books I Want To

Today is St Patrick’s Day and I thought it would be a nice idea to share some Irish books that I have loved with you all. Initially I thought this was going to be easy, after all I am a huge fan of Irish books. Well, while in my head this is true I discovered (whilst researching for next week’s episode of The Readers) that I haven’t read as many Irish novels or authors as I thought I had. It is weird when our brains do this isn’t it? Anyway, I decided I would share three books by Irish authors I have loved and also address this unknown-until-now imbalance by sharing three books by Irish authors I really want to read. First up my top three favourites, links to full reviews in the titles…

A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

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I found A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing a book that confused, then compelled and finally confronted me. Not just because of the subject matter but also because it made me rethink the way I read. The abstract sentences and initially rather confusing style start to form a very clear, if quite dark, picture. You just need to reset your brain and allow it to do the work, or working in a different way. This is of course the point of prose after all, it shouldn’t always be spelt out just so and I hugely admire (and thank) Eimear McBride for writing such an original and startling book which will reward intrepid readers out there greatly. Tip – read it out loud to yourself. I am very excited about seeing the play in two weeks with my pal, and colleague Jane, should be something quite special. You can hear Eimear talking about the book on You Wrote The Book here.

Brooklyn – Colm Toibin

I am not going to hold back I loved ‘Brooklyn’. I thought Toibin’s style of prose and narrative was simple and beautiful. I was totally and utterly engaged throughout the whole book. I liked and believed in all the characters and I loved the subtle simple plot. In fact ‘subtle and simple’ are possibly the perfect two words to sum this book up for me. Yet at the same time it’s quite an epic novel and one that covers a huge amount in fewer than 250 pages. With characters, plot and backdrops like this I would be amazed if you could fail to love this book. Sadly I have yet to get Colm Toibin on You Wrote The Book, but one day, one day. I should also add I absolutely LOVED the film too, which is unusual for me, it was one of my movies of 2015.

The Good Son – Paul McVeigh

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Whilst many novels of the Troubles would make them the main focus and give you them in all their rawest and most shocking detail, I think McVeigh gives you something far more clever and intricate. A young lad growing up at the time Mickey does would, as Mickey is, be used to it and so it is not the be all and end all of his thoughts. This of course leads us into a false sense of security so when things like the night time raids or the murder and bombing in the street happen it gives us all the more of a sense of shock, some of these parts of the novel are really harrowing reading. Yet often more striking are the random smaller moments in which we are reminded the streets the kids are playing in are territory of war, I found these truly chilling. I also found the novel incredibly hopeful, funny and is probably the book I would recommend to anyone wanting to dip their toe in Irish waters fiction wise if they have not already. You can hear Paul talking about the book on You Wrote The Book here.

And now onto the three Irish books which I am most looking forward to, shamefully I have stolen their blurbs from Waterstones (who as I now blog for I am sure won’t mind, as they nicked them off the backs of the books anyway. They are…

The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien

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When a wanted war criminal from the Balkans, masquerading as a faith healer, settles in a small west coast Irish village, the community are in thrall. One woman, Fidelma McBride, falls under his spell and in this astonishing novel, Edna O’Brien charts the consequences of that fatal attraction. The Little Red Chairs is a story about love, the artifice of evil, and the terrible necessity of accountability in our shattered, damaged world. A narrative which dares to travel deep into the darkness has produced a book of enormous emotional intelligence and courage. Written with a fierce lyricism and sensibility, The Little Red Chairs dares to suggest there is a way back to redemption and hope when great evil is done.

Beatlebone – Kevin Barry

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He will spend three days alone on his island. That is all that he asks …John is so many miles from love now and home. This is the story of his strangest trip. John owns a tiny island off the west coast of Ireland. Maybe it is there that he can at last outrun the shadows of his past. The tale of a wild journey into the world and a wild journey within, Beatlebone is a mystery box of a novel. It’s a portrait of an artist at a time of creative strife. It is most of all a sad and beautiful comedy from one of the most gifted stylists now at work.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither – Sara Baume

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You find me on a Tuesday, on my Tuesday trip to town. A note sellotaped to the inside of the jumble-shop window: Compassionate & Tolerant Owner. A person without pets & without children under four. A misfit man finds a misfit dog. Ray, aged fifty-seven, ‘too old for starting over, too young for giving up’, and one eye, a vicious little bugger, smaller than expected, a good ratter. Both are accustomed to being alone, unloved, outcast – but they quickly find in each other a strange companionship of sorts. As spring turns to summer, their relationship grows and intensifies, until a savage act forces them to abandon the precarious life they’d established, and take to the road. Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a wholly different kind of love story: a devastating portrait of loneliness, loss and friendship, and of the scars that are more than skin-deep.

So there are my picks both for you to read, if you haven’t, and me to read in the months ahead. If you have read any of these do please let me know your thoughts. I would also love to hear what your favourite Irish novels and/or novelists are that you would recommend I, or anyone reading this, give a whirl.

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Thoughts on the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2016

Normally I do a post dissecting the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist after it comes out each year. Well as it happens I have been too busy reading them at every opportunity I get (I am now on my sixth, so doing ok) to write something, however myself and my fellow Baileys Beareded Book Club partner in crime Eric of LonesomeReader have recorded something on the twenty titles instead…

You  can hear it over on The Readers here for over an hour of Bailey’s bookish chatter,  Any of your thoughts are, as always, welcome. I best get back to my book nook and crack on with reading.

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Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist 2016

It has been book list central recently with many prizes announcing their long and short lists in the last few weeks. I have mentioned the Bailey’s Prize as I am half of the Bearded Bailey’s Book Club and would now like to tell you about another prize which I am involved with and will be telling you more about over the next few months… the Wellcome Book Prize.

What exactly is the Wellcome Book Prize? Funny you should ask that, it is “an annual award, open to new works of fiction or nonfiction. To be eligible for entry, a book should have a central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. This can cover many genres of writing – including crime, romance, popular science, sci fi and history. At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human. The subjects these books grapple with might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity. In keeping with its vision and goals, the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics.”

Now when the PR team behind the prize, the lovely folk at FMcM, asked me to work on this years prize from behind the scenes last year I initially responded ‘but I know nothing about medicine, I barely passed science at GCSE’ I was promised there would be books that would make even the science phobic, like myself, be won over by medicinal books and from the looks of the shortlist announced today they are right. Here it is…

For homepage

The shortlist…

  • The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
  • Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss
  • It’s All in Your Head by Suzanne O’Sullivan
  • Playthings by Alex Pheby
  • The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink
  • Neurotribes by Steve Silberman

What are they about? Well instead of giving you the full blurbs, or me badly surmising, here is what was in the press release “The two memoirs on the list, ‘The Outrun’ and ‘The Last Act of Love’, are both stories of devastation and recovery, one following addiction and the other a debilitating accident. ‘Neurotribes’ and ‘It’s All in Your Head’, the other two non-fiction contenders, are studies of autism and psychosomatic illness respectively, reflecting society’s interest in the human mind. The remaining two books on the list are works of fiction. ‘Playthings’ is an immersive imagination of a schizophrenic mind, while ‘Signs for Lost Children’ recounts the pioneering work of an early female medic.”

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The lovely judges; Tessa Hadley, Sathnam Sanghera, Joan Bakewell (Chair), Damian Barr, Frances Balkwill

I have only reviewed Cathy Rentzenbrink’s wonderful, wonderful The Last Act of Love on the blog so far but get ready for thoughts on the other five amongst Bailey’s long listed reviews over the next few weeks and maybe a bit more here and there as I will be working with the lovely Wellcome folk over the next month and a bit till the (£30,000 not to be sniffed at) winner is announced including hosting a bloggers brunch at Wellcome HQ with some special guests on April the 2nd. Very exciting.

So what are your thoughts on the list and indeed the idea of prize itself? Have you read any of the shortlisted books and if so what did you make of them?

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The Secret Chord – Geraldine Brooks

When it comes to historical fiction I tend to stick to two particular periods willingly. These are the Victorian era and the Tudors, the latter which I actually read less than I would like because I am picky. Anything before then makes me nervous, bar the Greek and Roman times which I am well versed in (though less well read in) with my mother being a classicist. So, despite having loved Year of Wonders in my pre-blogging days, I was rather worried about reading Geraldine Brooks latest novel The Secret Chord with it being set in 1000BC, a period in history I know next to nothing about…

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Little Brown, hardback, 2014, non-fiction, 302 pages, borrowed from the library

As The Secret Chord opens we are thrown into the world of Natan, prophet and scribe to King David, who has just been given the mission of going off to meet with the people who have journeyed with him or crossed his path in the lead to his rule. David, who we soon come to learn is quite vain, wants his life documented and as Natan only knows of it from a certain point (when David killed his father and was just about to dispatch Natan when he announces his first prophecy) he must go and find out other peoples truths and tales of the king. As he heads to find his rulers family and first wife, interestingly both distant and reticent, he starts to look back on his times with David, a king who seemed to rise from nowhere against all odds and conquer the land.

I have to say initially I wasn’t sure I was going to buy into The Secret Chord as the idea seemed a little forced/contrived (unless I missed something, this plot device also vanishes) and on page nine a line describing a murder as ‘It was as intimate as rape.’ made me quite cross, however I continued and was soon lost in the storytelling of the characters that Natan meets as well as Natan’s own stories, which of course are all Geraldine Brooks wonderful retellings. Natan of course being an intriguing character in himself as he, without control much to his frustration, can see some of the future coming before anyone else which often leads to the intriguing questions of what he should tell, what he should withhold and what he is missing?

For a seer, I was remarkably obtuse. I know this now; I did not know it then. Yoav and I had conspired to find some occupation that, while worthwhile in itself, would serve to distract a restless and unhappy king. Instead, he found a way to distract me, to get me out of his way. A man will silence the voice of his conscience when it suits him to commit sin. But if your “conscience” walks and breathes as a living man in your service, you might have to go to some additional lengths. I did not see this. I did not seen that proud and vital man who feared his manhood waning might take any reckless step to prove himself it wasn’t so. In the service of my gift, I had to forgo much that makes a man in full. I know now that this sacrifice has left me blind to certain things. I can see what others cannot see, but sometimes I miss what is apparent to the dumbest simpleton.

There was much that I admired about Brooks evocation of King David’s life and ruling. Firstly was her clear passion and enthusiasm to tell his tale, which is quite contagious. Through Natan she also creates a fully formed character, flaws and all. David is seen as a ‘great man’, he can often be a kind and impassioned king, he can also be an absolute bastard to both his enemies and those close to him. As Natan watches his relationship with Yonatan, King Shaul’s son and sibling of David’s first wife Mikhal, we see David at his most loving and vulnerable. This section may bring up some questions to historians or certain religious views but I found it fascinating and reminiscent of one of my favourite books, Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles.  Yet by that very same stretch we see how cruel and heartless he can be with his relationship to Mikhal as the novel continues. Brooks doesn’t portray him as some amazing hero, he appears fully formed warts (well not quite) and all and I really liked this. Well apart from the rape and pillaging, this occasionally made me have to put the book down.

Throughout there is a dark, grittiness to Brooks’ writing which brings the atmosphere or the time fully to the fore. These were dark times, though some might say we are still in them now, as people fought for supremacy and power. David thinks nothing of being sent to collect 100 foreskins from the dead bodies of Shaul’s enemies (in fact he goes for double) to win Mikhal’s hand. As I mentioned, parts of the book may not be for some of the fainter of heart readers out there. When Brooks gets out on the battlefield with David and Natan, which happens quite a lot, things get pretty bloody and pretty gory. Here is a taste of one of the battle scenes from early on in the novel, see how you fair with it.

When I reached the ridge, the king was making an end of another fighter. He was up close, eye to eye. His sword had entered just above the man’s groin. He drew it upward, in a long, slow, arching slash. As he pulled the blade back – slick, dripping – long tubes of bowel came tumbling after. I could see the dying mans eyes, wide with horror, his hands griping his guts, trying to push them back into the gaping hole in his belly. The king’s own eyes were blank – all the warmth swallowed by the black stain of widening pupils. David reached out an arm and pushed the man hard in the chest. He fell backward off the narrow ledge and rolled down the slope, his entrails unfurling after him like a glossy ribband.

One scene in particular I found almost too difficult to read and did question it’s taste, once you have read the book you will know which I mean, which leads me to a few quibbles about the book before I mention it’s greatest strength. I have to admit on the odd occasion I did get a little lost. Brooks doesn’t like to show off all the research she has clearly done in writing this book which I admired. However there are moments where her knowledge means she assumes she knows something, and I knew nothing which meant I got lost and on occasion a character, generally a man, would suddenly give reference the history of why people were at war in an aside that felt slightly like a reference book, these were rare moments and minor issues because I ended up reading this book in almost a single sitting and that was because of the women’s voices and tales in the novel – which in a slightly circular way leads back to the scene I almost found too hard to read.

One of the things I like the most about historical fiction is that it can give voice, if done well, to those people who were less documented and in the case of the time of 1000BC it is generally the women. Not so in The Secret Chord where Brooks brings them fully to life and ready to tell us all. In particular the voices of Nizever; David’s forgotten mother, Mikhal; David’s first wife who goes through the ringer, the wonderful Avigail; David’s third wife and the brains behind his early rise, Maacah; his fourth wife and mother of his only daughter Tamar, and Batsheva; his eighth and final wife, who all have quite the tales to tell, giving her-story to the history which I thought was poignant, upsetting, moving and fascinating. They are what make this novel standout, the forgotten voices unleashed.

“It is important that you know, I want you to set it down: ‘Mikhal was in love with David.’ Nobody ever writes that about a woman. It’s always the man whose love is thought worthy of recording. Have you noticed that? In all the chronicles, they state it so. Well, you write down that it was I. I was the one who loved.”
Her observation was quite true. Indeed, in most of our important histories, it’s rare enough for wives to be named, never mind the state of their affections noted. So I set it down as she had requested. I paused, and looked up at her.

All in all I thought The Secret Chord was a compelling and escapist read. It introduced me to a time I know absolutely nothing about and held me there for the five and-a-bit hours it took me to greedily devour it, only stopping for the occasional cup of tea or breather from the Second Iron Age shenanigans. If you are a fan of historical fiction then I would imagine this might be just your fare and if you aren’t it is great place to dip a tentative toe and see how you get on.

So there are my thoughts on The Secret Chord, I would love to hear yours if you have read it. It has certainly reminded me of how much history there is still out there to learn about. It has also made me reflect on how much I loved Brooks’ Year of Wonders (which I took to my heart so much as it tells the tale of Eyam, the only place outside London to get the Black Plague and sacrificed itself, which happens to be mere miles from my hometown) and how I should check out more of her novels, any you would recommend in particular that I should read next?

*I read this as part of the Baileys Bearded Book Club as Eric of LonesomeReader and I try and read all the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year, more details here.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Geraldine Brooks, Little Brown Publishing

Hello. It’s Me. 

Though my actual birthday is in two weeks time, I have just had my big birthday present which was an evening watching one of my favourite singers. Can you guess who?

  

Well if you guess that is was only blooming Adele then you would be be absolutely correct. And she was absolutely phenomenal. 

 
She looks a lot futher away that she felt to be honest, despite being about 10,000 other people in the arena it felt really intimate. From the moment we heard the word ‘Hello’ come from out of the darkness to the confetti cannons at the end of Rolling in the Deep two hours later it was just incredible. There were all the wonderful songs (Set Fire To The Rain is my fav and made me cry, Someone Like You just makes everyone cry)  but there was also the chat and the banter, and the swearing six as the’F**k, stop. I’ve sung the wrong bloody words. What am I f**king like? Sorry everyone, let’s start again.’ moment. She just hung out with us then belted the songs out way better than on her albums, which are obviously amazing. 

  
So that was that. I thought I would share it all with you because it was amazing. Definitely worth a night off from reading for, hahaha. 

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