Monthly Archives: April 2016

Catching Up & Some Thoughts…

The last three weeks have been a bit of a madness, in fact April as a month seemed to be there and gone in the blink of an eye. There was a week in London which all centred around the London Book Fair which became a wonderful whirl of catching up with people, though one of them (or more likely a stranger on the tube) gave me flu which lead to me having almost an entire week feeling lousy to the point where I was actually in bed, in a darkened room, for four days I was that sick. I felt like a mad Victorian character locked in an attic until they could come to their senses, it was pretty awful. Then, whilst still feeling pretty rough, I was back down to London for work, all whilst liaising with my team working on Hillsborough – the families of whom deserve a medal I think, before a big family do yesterday. No wonder I slept for over twelve hours last night. I still have a cough like a 20-a-day pensioner but I am certainly feeling more human and am now feeling like I can return to the digital world after a week of being forced to returning to the real one in an exhausted haze. Have you missed me? Ha!

I have spent most of today catching up, partly on some telly I became addicted to Line of Duty (in the two days of bed when I could cope with light after the four I couldn’t) and have watched three series in less than a week, if you haven’t seen it you must – I am trying to get The Beard to watch it so I can start it all over again. I have also done a bulk set of recording of The Readers with Thomas, plotting with Gav, Kate and Rob on a new project, as you know how I love those, and sorting out over a month’s worth of books coming in. They are now looking rather delightful here.

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Now this leads me to something I have been pondering a little over the last few weeks and was something I was talking to the lovely Jen Campbell about when we had lunch in Dishoom (I feel so current as it is THE place to eat in London now) last week… Some light vlogging. I have been wondering if you guys would be interested in me occasionally vlogging/making videos on that there YouTube (again, as I did it a while back) about some of the books that come in (be then sent by publishers like the first two piles above – of which 24 were unsolicited – or bought by me like the last pile) to Savidge Reads HQ as well as some mini posts on books I have read in the month, as my reviews are soooooooooooooooo behind (we are talking about 15 reviews behind) as well as some ad-hoc videos that might take my fancy, for example I am off to Cardiff with some mates in two weeks and thought that could be fun as we explore castles and bookshops. What do you think?

This doesn’t mean I will be blogging less, though doing some geeky checking of stats and Savidge Reads facts, this last month has been the least I have ever blogged – which I am blaming solely on London and flu. I just thought it would be another way of you all getting to know me and my books a bit better. You might all think it is a rubbish idea, let me know along with your thoughts on vlogging in general in the comments below either way.

Speaking of books… Reading. I have done hardly any of that of late. I am almost finished with My Name is Leon, the debut novel by Kit De Waal who I had the joy of meeting for a coffee last week, which is due to be HUGE and I think rightly so both for the writing and some of the topics that it brings up. I am also still reading Christos Tsiolkas’ short story collection Merciless Gods which I have been slowly (very bloody slowly) devouring since February but am determined to finish this long weekend. More on those soon and more reviews in general soon, full stop. In the meantime though I would love to hear what you have been reading of late, books you would recommend and books you might not too and which books you have your eyes on, that would be lovely.

So over to you all, what are your thoughts on vlogging (and any recommendations of vlogs you love, I have mentioned Jen’s above which is my fav) and all your thoughts on what you have been reading, ta very much in advance!

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Filed under Random Savidgeness

The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

Some books simply come into your subconscious awareness without you seemingly noticing. I had seen various tweets, articles and the like all talking about Maggie Nelson’s latest book The Argonauts but it was an article in The Pool that suddenly made me desperate to read it. I think that same article, and the background bubble and buzz around the book, also sparked the interest in quite a few people at the same time as spookily I spoke to two people on a single day who had also bought it on the same day and from the same bookshop in London, spooky.

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Melville House UK, 2016, paperback, memoir/non fiction, 192 pages, bought by myself for myself

I am interested in offering up my experience and performing my particular manner of thinking, for whatever they are worth.

If the description of Maggie Nelson’s autobiographical The Argonauts had simply been described as a woman’s journey falling in love and having a baby, it is unlikely that I would have read it. Do not get me wrong, I think women having babies is a real miracle (I seriously considered becoming a midwife six years ago) however there is something about the falling in love and trying to have a baby story that feels a bit done. This could not be further from the truth in the case of The Argonauts, so thank goodness the aforementioned article in The Pool said ‘her extraordinary book about queer family-making’ because this is a subject that I do not think has been written about or discussed enough, certainly not in the amazing way in which Nelson delivers (pun not intended) this book of bite sized thoughts, feelings, moments, questions and observations which form a work that will leave your head buzzing with ideas, information and avenues to question and explore. Oh yes, it is one of those kinds of books.

Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself, insofar as it profoundly alters one’s “normal” state, and occasions a radical intimacy with – and radical alienation from – one’s body? How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity? Or is this just another disqualification of anything tied too closely to the female animal from the privileged term (in this case, nonconformity, or radicality)? What about the fact that Harry is neither male nor female? I’m a special – a two for one, his character Valentine explains in By Hook or By Crook.

With The Argonauts Maggie Nelson shares with us her relationship with her partner Harry and her pregnancy with their son Iggy. At the time that Maggie was pregnant and going through all sorts of changes so was Harry as he was undergoing the hormones, medication and some of the surgery of his transition. They were both also transitioning in their relationship, from that instant attraction and initial lustful sex life to marriage, which neither of them ever thought they would do, and onto becoming a family, not just with their own child but with Harry’s son from a previous relationship. This time of great (in happiness, scale and scope) change brings with it all sorts of questions for Maggie but also many memories of her own childhood and her preconceived notions of what makes a marriage, a family, a spouse and a mother. It is these conversations with, and notes to, herself that make up the book; these also make for some of the most brilliant writing you will come across in quite some time.

What I think I liked the most about the book initially was Nelson’s frankness, which only gets more frank as she writes on. In fact almost nothing is off limits. This is not in some wild and wacky, also known as really annoying, memoirs that hope to tantalise and shock you with its direct look at LGBT issues, feminism, literature, death, love, lust, stalking, families, sex. This is a writer who is putting their life out there not to make yours better, though it very well might, but to get a conversation going and one that seriously needs to be had about all sorts of things that you didn’t even realise you wanted to talk about, and still might not (the fisting, ha) but most importantly some of the things that you really, really do. Like queer families and what it is really like to be a part of one as well as the transgender conversation which seems to be going on everywhere but feels a little safe and mainstream (overall, not completely) rather than frank and unflinching, which Nelson brings you unabashed whilst at the same time with heart, humanity, warmth, experience and intelligence.

What I liked most overall about the book was Nelson’s intellect. What I loved about it doubly is that she doesn’t expect you to be as intellectual as she is (thank goodness in my case) or that her thoughts are the be all and end all on the subject. Though when I say subjects there are so many subjects covered in The Argonauts it is pretty much impossible to write them all down, hence why I haven’t as I also really, really want you to go and read the bloody book, but if I can I will explain why her intellect and thoughts appealed to me so much.

Books teach us all sorts, often unwittingly, which is part and parcel of what makes them such marvellous things. With The Argonauts I felt like someone had, painlessly, taken the top of my skull off and was filling my brain with light and ideas and thoughts and conversations that my whole head started to buzz and tingle in a most pleasant way. That may sound like I had one too many lemsips when I was ill last week but it is true. As Maggie starts on the sound board of her pregnancy, Harry’s transitioning and their new family, we fly off in all directions and look at all sorts of things, with quotes from all sorts of brainiac’s who Nelson also makes so understandable. We follow all the directions her brain sparks off into. We have some incredibly heartbreaking moments like Harry’s mother’s death, all the times that they don’t get pregnant, the creepy stalker. We have all the happy ones, Iggy’s birth (told in glorious frankness), the first moments of a great love, all the hope. What we always come back to, and what everything boils down to is kindness, openness, respect and love. That is what this book really taught me.

A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.”

I have kind of said everything and nothing about The Argonauts here. I think overall though this is a good thing because a) I can never do justice to a book like this b) I just want you all to go and read it so you too can have the experience and the ‘I just need to put down this book and have a little think’ moments and then come back and talk to me about it. Which is Nelson’s agenda here fully accomplished frankly; as this is a book that starts a conversation that we all need to be having, openly and unapologetically. So come on, go and read it then let’s talk…

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Filed under Books of 2016, Maggie Nelson, Melville House UK, Memoir, Non Fiction, Review

Sweet Home – Carys Bray

Having had one of the worst bouts of flu in years over the last week, hence the silence, the one thing that would have made it bearable would have reading. As I seemed to become allergic to light this was not possible until yesterday when I promptly devoured Cary Bray’s short story collection Sweet Home (which I discovered through Jen Campbell) and it proved the perfect reading prescription. Short captivating tales with a hint of magical that entertained me and allowed me to doze between each or every other tale and have slightly surreal and magical dreams that matched the books contents. This was a huge relief to me, for the last week while I have been (seriously) sweating, sneezing, coughing or having an occasional woe is me weep, all I have been dreaming about it giving politicians a tour or a very grey office block, seriously, on repeat. So as I said, this collection was the perfect short series of bursts of escapism.

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Windmill Books, 2016, paperback, short stories, 180 pages, bought by myself for myself

When it comes to short stories I tend to have two types that I really love, make that three. First there is the fairytale; be it a classic, a modern retelling or something completely new. Secondly I like short stories that have a twist you don’t see coming or pack a hefty punch when you least expect it. Thirdly I like a bittersweet tale that encompasses a whole novel in mere pages, I want it all – love, grief, happiness, devastation. In her debut collection Sweet Home, which was published in 2012 by Salt (and annoyingly I missed) and has now been republished by Windmill, Carys Bray delivers all three of these things that I love, sometimes all at once.

It is always difficult to summarise a collection, something I say in every single review I do of one I know, yet there are certain themes which Bray seems to be studying and exploring the intricacies with Sweet Home. The first, funnily enough, is ‘the home’. Through the collection what constitutes a home, what makes a happy one and if home really is where the heart is, are all looked at. In the story Wooden Mum, Bray cleverly looks at the role and respect a mother feels she is shown through the ways her children play with a dolls house and the wooden family within it. It is also the main point of the title story which looks at a woman who buys a piece of forest and building a house made from sugar and sweets…

Of course no one accused the woman of being a witch. But she was foreign. Her words percolated up the tunnel of her throat, espresso-thick and strong. Bad weather had eroded her face. Some believed that the sun had crisped her skin into coriaceous pleats. Others blamed the chaw of a wintery climate. No one knew where she had come from, though lots of people privately thought that perhaps she ought to go back.

This leads us nicely into the element of fairytale that runs through the book. In most stories there is mention of one or comparisons of one. It is probably the retelling of Hansel and Gretel in Sweet Home or in The Ice Baby, a wonderful and quite literally heartbreaking tale of a couple who are desperate to have a child and so far have been unable to. There is also the dystopic fairytale, if such a thing exists, The Baby Aisle where the busy working mum or dad can simply pick up a child in a supermarket, they even have reduced ones, it isn’t specified but I think you could probably get club card points with them too. This really is the second main theme and topic of Sweet Home, children and childhood. In stories like The Countdown, Bed Rest and the incredibly unsettling Just In Case, we find parents who have either lost children, are panicking about losing children or are looking at certain periods of worry in their own childhood’s. One of the most powerful stories in the collection is Scaling Never which is told through the eyes of a young boys as he deals with his own, along with his families, grief after the death of his sister Issy…

The house is full of sadness. It’s packed into every crevice and corner like snow. There are bottomless drifts of it beside Issy’s Cinderella beanbag in the lounge. The sadness gives Jacob the shivers and he takes refuge in the garden. Like the house, it is higgledy and unkempt. The lawn is scuffed and threadbare in places like a grassy doormat that’s felt too many feet.

For those of you who know of Carys Bray’s incredibly well received and read debut novel, A Song for Issy Bradley, this is where I am guessing the story originated and it has certainly left me with a real hankering to get to that novel very soon. Grief and death soon become clear preoccupations for Bray as much as birth, this also links into health and in many of the stories someone is ill be it bed rest for a child to come, a simple bug, Alzheimer’s or cancer. The latter are the case in two of my favourites tales, which sounds odd considering the subject matter. My Burglar made me want to cry as our protagonist goes around her house telling us, and her daughter, that she is sure she is being burgled or the most random items. Then there is what I think is the collections knock out story, Under Covers.

Carol’s bra is spread-eagled in the hedge like a monstrous, albino bat. The wind has blown it off the washing line and tossed it onto the wispy fingertips of the leylandii, where it reclines in a sprawl of wire, hooks and corralling lace. Despite her best efforts, she can’t reach it. Her washing basket is full of dry laundry. She has removed the pegs from the line and placed them in their little bag. But she can’t go back indoors until she has retrieved the fugitive bra. People might see it.

What follows here is the tale of Carol, her husband, and the two girls watching from the upstairs window and it is just so beautifully told and intricately woven. We see the story of the change in a marriage as an older woman tries to find her bra and thinks of all the things it stands for, from a healthy sex life to a healthy life and the two giggling teenagers who have their whole lives, and love lives, ahead of them. If it doesn’t choke you up and have you thinking long and hard about everything then you have no heart – there I have said it!

It is a testament to Bray’s writing that all these subject matters are dealt with in a way that is  honest, unflinching and confronting, yet told in a warm, emotive and tender way even when at their most bittersweet. Bray also does that thing I love so much, she makes the ordinary seem extraordinary and, particularly in the case of On The Way Home where we flit from person to person down a street, she finds the magical in the tales of everyday folk. I think Sweet Home is a wonderful, wonderful collection. I shall be heading to Cary Bray’s novels very soon indeed.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Carys Bray, Review, Short Stories, Windmill Books

A London Bookshop Crawl (and Why I Bought The Books I Did)…

I mentioned at the end of my literary London post on Thursday that I was very excited as I was off on a bookshop crawl around some of London with Gavin of Gav Reads and formerly my co-host on The Readers. Well we have done it, in fact we did it for most of Friday afternoon and I thought I would share it all with you because come on, let’s face it, we all love going on a really good bookshop. Even the rain in North West and Central London couldn’t put Gav and I off our strides (well once we found a shop selling umbrella’s) as we both took our wallets and some gift cards out for a battering…

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Now what the rain did put off was me taking any actual pictures of the outside of the bookshops because it was honestly pretty grey, bleak and a little bit dire outside, which only made these book havens all the better, so I didn’t take any pictures of them from the front so fingers crossed I can bring them all to life. I didn’t take any pictures inside either as I always think people will think I am taking a picture with my phone to go and buy it on some evil website cheaper, which is frankly unforgivable. Anyway…

First up was Foyles flagship store on Charing Cross Road where I had a meeting before and so seemed like the best meeting point. If you haven’t been to Foyles flagship store before you must, it is six stories of books, books and more books from childrens on the lower ground to textbooks on the fourth and everything in between, from fiction to music, magazines to plays, the list is endless. You can see it all here. Admittedly Gav and I had been in the day before and I had spotted my first purchase in advance, Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile which is currently on the The International Dublin Literary Award shortlist and stood out a mile because I had never heard of it before, so naturally it was the one I most wanted to read and had to be mine…

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We then headed in the mild drizzle to the tube as I had planned that we would head over to Notting Hill to three bookshops which I had never visited before but had heard all sorts of marvellous things about. The first was Book and Kitchen on All Saints Road which Jen Campbell has mentioned quite a few times on her vlog. We arrived, after having found a belated umbrella shop) rather like drowned rats but were instantly made to feel welcome by the staff and encouraged to get downstairs and get a coffee, in the really homely cafe, to shelter from the rain. We were both advised on specialist coffee’s depending on our caffeine tastes/requirements (Gav’s wanted something like rocket fuel, my request was more mild) before being given a guide that downstairs was children’s, young adult, travel, non fiction, coffee, food and crockery and upstairs was fiction, all of it has the wonderful feeling of being in someones home and being allowed to peruse their shelves and then buy one or two of their favourite books, it’s really lovely. We both left with grins on our faces and a book each in our hand’s. Gavin bought Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun from newly established Cassava Republic Press which was recommended to us both highly and with such enthusiasm I nearly bought one too, as I had it at home already I went for The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi…

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This is a book I have been hankering after for a while as I am going away with my friends Polly, Michelle and Dom to Cardiff next month for a weekend away and we like to read a book together set in or with links to where we are. The Hiding Place  tells the story of the six daughters of a Maltese family growing up in Cardiff through the eyes of the youngest, Dolores. Sounds really interesting and I had not yet got my copy so fate stepped in.

After a fond farewell from all the staff at Book and Kitchen we headed to Lutyens & Rubinstein on Kensington Park Road which is both a book shop and a literary agency in one building, Gav and I were secretly hoping to get scouted. As soon as I walked through the door I felt like I was back in America as the store has that feel of culture curated high fashion literature, if that makes any sense. What I loved here was that once you go down into the ground floor all the paperbacks there are a mixture of fiction and non fiction. Initially this threw me slightly but I was won over by the end as because it is a smallish collection of books (its a few thousand I am guessing so not that small) I was more engaged in the non fiction books than I might be elsewhere, which is why I left with a book that (peer pressure alert) Kim has reviewed on Reading Matters, Helen Garner’s This House of Grief which is a tale of a murder trial. I have a small grim fascination for true crime but I like it to be really well written and having read Helen Garner’s novel The Spare Room I have no doubt this is going to blow my socks off.

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We then took a small tour of Holland Park as we headed to Daunts, erm, Holland Park branch. I am a fan of Daunts and have visited the Marylebone store many a time, where you can find fiction by country as well as by author, which is rather exciting. There is the same sort of feel in Holland Park though it is more non fiction by country and fiction in author order. I already had my mind set on a few possibilities as I wanted to get a Daunts Books book in Daunts Books. Sounds confusing but really it is just me taking a long winded approach to saying they publish their own books. I mulled a few options before settling on K J Orr’s short story collection Light Box which I have been seeing lots of pictures of on social media, which as we all know is one of the best places to get a recommendation to head to a book store to buy.

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By this point we were quite hungry from all the perusing and headed back to town for a pizza and then a wander around Waterstones Piccadilly, because we both had Waterstones gift cards which were burning holes in our pockets. Thank you to my lovely team at work, who got me some vouchers for my birthday, I came away with these five gems.

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Waterstone’s Piccadilly is probably has one of my favourite laid out fiction sections as they have it by genre and by author but also by imprints and so you can find some wonderful indie imprints shelve or on display. This is why I left with the Penguin Modern Classic edition of François Mauriac’s Thérèse Desqueyroux, which I don’t even mind having a film cover because its a stunner; the Australian classic and newly reissued The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead which is from a new imprint Apollo (part of Head of Zeus) as well as Will Eaves new book The Inevitable Gift Shop from indie imprint CB editions. I hadn’t heard of the Mauriac, the cover won me then the dark blurb sealed the deal. I saw Stead’s novel (which is HUGE) discussed on The ABC Book Club ages ago and it divided the panel so much I have been meaning to get it since and this edition is STUNNING. Will Eaves is my favourite author that I have never read. We all have those don’t we an author we just know we will love for some gut/supernatural/bizzare/random reason.

I also bought two books by authors I have read and loved. Beryl Bainbridge I discovered a while back and have read many books of, I have always wanted to read Harriet Said as it is set down the road from me in Formby and apparently there is frolicking in the sand dunes. Graham Swift is new to me after reading the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful Mothering Sunday earlier this year. There was a Swift display and Shuttlecock appealed because it deals with the ‘dead crime unit’ which won me over the moment I read it. So I managed quite a haul there.

This was when Gav and I said goodbye as he had a train to run for. I headed off to catch my bus  after a marvelous day and as I did realised I hadn’t bought Catherine Hall a thank you card for letting me stay, so I had to get one and which shop is my bus stop outside… Foyles. Somehow as I was in stationery I remembered I wanted to get Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me, a book written as a letter to the author’s teenaged son about the feelings, symbolism, and realities associated with being black in the United States. Coates recapitulates the American history of violence against black people and the incommensurate policing of black youth. I saw this all over the place in the States and like a dafty didn’t buy it so made sure I went and found it, as I did I passed another apt book I just couldn’t help getting too…

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Bookshelf by Lydia Pyne, part of the Object Lessons series from Bloomsbury. How could I not take a book about bookshelves of the bookshelf to take home to mine, all about bookshelves? It would have been a crime not to and don’t you pretend otherwise. I then hurried away from town and anywhere too close to anymore stores, feeling very happy with my loot.

What do you make of the books I bought and the reasons for buying them? What makes you buy a book? Which books have you bought recently AND have you read any of my purchases and if so what did you make of them? I would love to know answers to all those questions. Right, best do some reading…

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Filed under Book Spree, Book Thoughts, Bookshop Crawl, Random Savidgeness

A Lovely Literary London Trip…

The blog has been a little bit quiet this week because I am down in London and whilst I did bring my laptop (with the intention of catching up with lots of backlogged reviews and the lije) I haven’t turned it on very much as I have been out and about doing some lovely literary and/or touristy things, so I thought I would share some of them with you. First up on arrival in London last Sunday I did something slightly sneaky, I told hardly anyone I was here. I love, love, love catching up with people however I never end up getting time to just have a wander, go shopping or take in an exhibition. I have been desperate to see the Crime Museum Uncovered at the Museum of London for ages and ages (and Sunday was it’s final day) and so stealthily I went, it was amazing.

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You can’t take pictures once you are in, because there are murder weapons and all sorts inside and it is all still owned by Scotland Yard (though there is a book), what impressed me so much was that the way the exhibition is curated and worded the emotion of it all hits you, it is very much about how murder and crime can suddenly happen to anyone by anyone and really, really makes you think about all those involved. I found it horrifying, grimly fascinating but overall very moving and effecting, the Museum of London is also just marvellous, I have no idea why I have never been there before. I spent ages wandering through the exhibitions on London during the plague, the Great Fire, the War and wandering through a Victorian street. Brilliant.

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I then went and pottered around St Paul’s, possibly looking for the First Dates restaurant and then actually for some food. I never visit tourist sights like this and it is SO London, so I wanted a potter round, though I wasn’t paying to go in – I have a theory on paying to go into churches, but that is not for now.

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I then headed to my favourite park in London, Postman’s Park. If you haven’t been you must. There is an area of the park that is a place of memories of those who have died sacrificing themselves for someone else and I never cease to find it moving.

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So that was my Sunday, I managed to be a complete tourist. Monday was spent wandering the shops and reading in cafes, or over pizza, before I met up with Eric of LonesomeReader so the Bearded Bailey’s Book Group could go to the Bailey’s Shortlist party which was very good indeed. The highlight for me might just have been standing with Janet Ellis and Sophie Ellis Bextor talking about books for 10 minutes over cocktails. Lovely stuff.

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Tuesday was more mooching and wandering sprinkled with a meeting or too, sometimes it is just nice to have a wander, before catching up with my almost ex-husband (not long to go) before heading out for dinner with the lovely Catherine Hall and some interestingly spelt Turkish food…

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Wednesday was day one of the London Book Fair. Now if, like I once did, you imagine the London Book Fair to be the Motor Show of the book world (lots of free books and the like) think again. It is a madness of sweltering sales people and deals and other goings on.

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I did however have meetings there on the Thursday but headed over on the Wednesday, with the lovely Rob of Waterstones and Adventures with Words, to go and see Deborah Levy talking about Hot Milk with Alex Clarke, who through Twitter I feel like I have known for years and who is just as lovely as I wanted her to be in real life…

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Before then seeing Jeanette Winterson talking about her new novel which takes on Shakespeare.

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I then ended up seeing lots of friendly faces as I milled round getting my bearings for the following day. I left with Rob feeling like this…

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I then caught up with my mate Andy who I hadn’t seen for seven years for an epic decompress after Olympia before readying myself for a second day, filled with meetings, before meeting up with my old co-host of The Readers, Gav of Gav Reads, we were much happier about it than we looked…

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…Before heading of to Kensington Palace (as you do) for the Man Booker International Prize shortlist party. Where I saw so many lovely faces, some who I had only met on Twitter, some who I have known a while and was delighted to catch up with all of them, and had lots of lovely bookish chats whilst also keeping my eyes peeled for royalty, ha.

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Then it was probably one of the highlights of my trip so far, but something ace is coming tomorrow, as I went off to Soho post Booker party to meet up with some of my fellow Waterstones Bloggers; Kim, Nina, Rob, Kate and Eric for some wonderful cocktails, nibbles and gossip, I mean natter…

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Rob, Kate and I then went off to meet Gav, who had been to the Terry Pratchett memorial, in a cafe on Leicester Square where we proceeded to drink coffee, eat cake and end up plotting a whole new project, more on that soon. Blimey, it has been a full week. I am now off to dash to two more meetings before going on a bookshop crawl with Gavin today, which I will report back on. It’s been such good fun and I still have a few days left. What have all of you been up to lately?

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The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2016

So after what feels like a few months, yet is actually mere weeks I have just been reading so much brilliant women’s writing, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist for 2016 was announced last night and here are the six shortlisted titles…

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I have linked to those that I have reviewed, I still have three outstanding shortlist reviews (as well as five outstanding longlist reviews) because I have been reading so much, but they will be up on the blog in due course. What do I think of the shortlist, I think it packs a punch there is a mix of magical realism, comedy, grit, drama and most importantly some blooming great women’s writing and that is what this prize is all about after all.

That is also why I am not going to bemoan there not being X or Y author having gotten through to the shortlist, partly because it looks like sour grapes (and no one likes those), partly because there will only be one winner and also at the end of the day I am not a judge (and having judged prizes it is a tricky, yet brilliant, task) I would rather celebrate all the books that have been given the attention of the longlist and say congrats to the shortlisted authors. This is why I didn’t guess the shortlist publicly (though Eric of LonesomeReader has mine on his phone somewhere that he can use against me at some point, ha) I wanted to just enjoy the list and be Switzerland, neutral. Ha.

So before we focus on the shortlist over the next few months what would I like to say about the books that didn’t get shortlisted? Well since you all asked so nicely, bar Kate Atkinson and Melissa Harrison‘s novels I had not read any of them and I have been introduced to some cracking books. I wouldn’t have ended up whaling in 1908 with Shirley Barrett or being whisked away with the uber rich oligarchs with Vesna Goldsworthy. I wouldn’t have ended up being taken away with the circus by Clio Gray, in Nagazaki with Jackie Copleton or on a space ship with a Becky Chambers. I wouldn’t have discovered the tale of a recluse with Rachel Elliott or (on a polar oppsite scale) read a book about King David in 1000BC with Geraldine Brooks. I wouldn’t have got round to reading Elizabeth Strout so soon or getting back to Petina Gappah and joining Memory  in Chikurubi Maximum Prison in Harare trying to discover her story. I wouldn’t have found a new author who seems to combine everything about my favourite TV shows (The Good Wife, House of Cards, Damages) in the book form of a superb political thriller with Attica Locke. I wouldn’t have discovered two novels with will probably be two of my books of the year with Sara Novic’s gripping and heart breaking tale of war torn Croatia’s or Julia Rochester‘s family drama with sprinklings of ‘the other’. Myself and Eric will be recording a podcast about all the longlist in more detail soon. In short though, that is a lot to celebrate! And celebrate we did last night…

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So commiserations to the authors who didn’t get shortlisted and congrats to those that did, what a corking list of books though either way – go and read lots of them. And a huge thank you to the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction which once again has highlighted some incredible women’s fiction this year, ans it always does, and let me be a part of it (and continue to be, there is some exciting stuff to come) and for scheduling my reading for the last five weeks which I have rather enjoyed. I now have to go and choose what to read next – possibly in a bookshop if I fall into one though I have packed three potentials in my case – and the limitless possibilities is quite daunting. I may need another coffee. What are your thoughts on the shortlisted titles?

Oh and thanks to random.org I have picked a winner for the longlisted books giveaway, well done Cathling, you have been emailed.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club

I’m Planning A Bookshop Crawl in London…

…Next week with Gavin of Gav Reads and An Unreliable Reader when we are both in London. Gavin and I haven’t seen each other in aaaaaaages, though we talk all the time, but we thought a fun way to spend a day would be to wander the streets of London book hunting, and possibly book hauling. What could be better? The question though now is which bookshops do we go to?

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Now while I lived in London for 12 years the first few were spent in a barren period of book buying as I only regained my love of books and bookshops in the last few years that I was there and then I generally spent times in the ones in central or the ones in and around Tooting. So I was wondering if you lovely lot could tell me about your favourite bookshops (be they chains, indies, in central or out of it) in the capital and why you love them so much? We may just pop to them and I may just get one of you, picked later at random, a gift as a thank you, ha!

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Filed under Give Away, Random Savidgeness

Pleasantville – Attica Locke

In the last 12 months I have become quite fascinated by American politics and law. No, not because of the whole Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump furore, the latter is frankly petrifying rather than fascinating. I have become somewhat addicted to political and legal drama’s such as House of Cards (which I am waiting to watch season four of until I have completed all of my Bailey’s longlist read, of which this novel is one), Damages ad current obsession The Good Wife, which I am limiting myself to two episodes of a night. Occasionally three because season five is so, so good. Anyway… I have now found a novel that brings all that televisual love into my literary landscape, Attica Locke’s third novel Pleasantville.

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Serpent’s Tail Books, 2016, paperback, fiction, 432 pages, kindly sent by the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

I am going to do something that I do not do very often, and I am slightly embarrassed by. I am going to borrow the back of the blurb so I can give you a synopsis of the book. This is not something I normally do on blog posts as I don’t like it however I think that the blurb will sum up the start of the novel far better than I will as it is quite a complex set up, which Attica Locke (and whoever wrote the blurb) make seem so effortless but have defied me five times so far, so here it is…

It’s 1996, Bill Clinton has just been re-elected and in Houston a mayoral election is looming. As usual the campaign focuses on Pleasantville — the African-American neighbourhood of the city that has swung almost every race since it was founded to house a growing black middle class in 1949. Axel Hathorne, former chief of police and the son of Pleasantville’s founding father Sam Hathorne, was the clear favourite, all set to become Houston’s first black mayor. But his lead is slipping thanks to a late entrant into the race — Sandy Wolcott, a defence attorney riding high on the success of a high-profile murder trial. And then, just as the competition intensifies, a girl goes missing, apparently while canvassing for Axel. And when her body is found, Axel’s nephew is charged with her murder. Sam is determined that Jay Porter defends his grandson. And even though Jay is tired of wading through other people’s problems, he suddenly finds himself trying his first murder case, a trial that threatens to blow the entire community wide open, and reveal the lengths that those with power are willing to go to hold onto it.

You see that makes it sound so less complex than it is, not in a ‘difficult to read’ way more a ‘there is so much going on’ way, and almost lessens the power of what Attica Locke does which is to create a completely gripping thriller that twists politics, law, murder, domestic drama and a take (because it is fictional set around some factual) on recent African-American issues and history. She makes all of this poignant and gripping whilst also adding a sprinkling of the great noir novels gone before as well as the great crime classics. We meet unlikely private detective, shady politicians, dodgy business men and women, ruthless hacks and half arsed police officers as well as getting introduced to small subplots that may mean more than we think.

“Look,” the cop says. “Officer McFee and I have no problem amending the initial report, Mr. Porter, adding in your description of the intruder and the bit about the misplaced glass.” He delivers that last part as f he were describing the plot of an Agatha Christie novel. This isn’t a murder mystery, he wants it known, just a simple case of breaking and entering, one of thirty or forty on a given night in the city of Houston, depending on the weather.”But I will also add words to support my opinion, based on ten years on the force, that I did not see evidence of an intruder in your place of business at the time my partner and I were present.”

At the same time as making this all a gripping murder investigation, intriguing political election and then fast paced courtroom drama, which would be enough in itself, there is another layer to Pleasantville and that is the story of a man dealing with a dip in his career and a home life tinged with grief and recent single parenthood after the loss of his wife. Jay Porter is a brilliant character both in the story surrounding him for the reader but also all that he stands for. Many thrillers will take the same old, same old hard done by divorcee who numbs the pain with drink. Jay numbs the pain by wanting to do what is best for his clients, what is best for Pleasantville and what is best for Houston. He’s not a cop with a grudge, he is a solicitor with a heart who is bloody good at what he does. He is a role model, almost a nod to Atticus Finch in there somewhere, well in his To Kill A Mockingbird guise at least. His home life becomes as much a part of the story, plot, pace and drama as his work life and I liked that a lot.

If I am making this all sound a little too dark or noir, there is also a great sense of humour in the novel. To me it really felt that Attica Locke is writing books about things she feels are important, like the law, African-American issues and politics, but also having fun whilst writing it and wanting the reader to do the same. After all which is more affective, a book with a sense of humour as well as a sense of worth (without being worthy just to add) or a book which takes itself and its issues far too seriously.

The Harris County District Civil Court has long set, by its own bylaws, an ancillary judge, a name assigned and rotated every two weeks, to handle emergency motions, and Judge Irwin Little, through no choice of his own, got this one. A “doozy”, he calls it from the bench. He leans his pudgy torso all the way back in his leather chair, resting his hands on the mound of belly beneath his black robe, waiting to be entertained.

Like Judge Irwin Little, I wanted to be entertained, I got the complete opposite of a “doozy” with Pleasantville though. Admittedly I read thrillers to escape, however as much as I  like them to pack a punch with plot a thriller will get me all the more if there are additional layers to them too. Not that I don’t enjoy a simple cosy, or indeed grisly, throwaway crime novel from time to time. Oh, you know what I mean, a literary thriller will get my brain tingling and ignited whilst at the same time have me routed to my sofa avoiding the real world. This is such a novel. Pleasantville has all the escapism you want with a sense of reality that makes you think and want to go and find out more. I will certainly be reading more Attica Locke, I will soon be somewhat shamefacedly be dusting off the copy of Black Water Rising which has been on my shelves since it was published. It appears I have committed a true reading injustice right there.

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Filed under Attica Locke, Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Serpent's Tail

A Girl is a Half Formed Thing – The Play

Tonight* I have had the pleasure, if pleasure is the right word, of watching what might be one of the most intense, brilliant and gobsmacking pieces of theatre and acting that I have ever seen in my 34 years. Seriously, that good.

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Tonight I have had the experience of seeing Annie Ryan’s adaptation of Eimear McBride’s incredible novel A Girl is a Half Formed Thing which I read (and was bowled over by) back in 2013, which went on to win the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Goldsmiths Prize the following year. Without giving too much away the novel is a tale of an unnamed young woman from just before her birth to her early twenties, all told in a rush of quite unusual language, which Ryan has used and condensed to create a one hour and twenty minute monologue, here is a taster…

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skim she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

This one woman show is all given to you, and I want to say given rather than acted or performed because it is lived and literally given to you as an experience, by Aoife Duffin who is nothing short of phenomenal. Not only does she manage to remember 80 minutes of dialogue (which I do not understand how anyone could do) she manages to make her own face and voice contort into a whole set of other characters and the unusual language seem utterly understandable. You are shocked, you are saddened, you cringe and quite often you cackle with laughter.

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If you are worried you haven’t read the book then don’t, I went with my friend and colleague Jane and she was as spellbound – and this is a woman who has fallen asleep in a show (the night before with her family) and walked out of one half way through (with me, though I stayed and shouldn’t have) because she wasn’t enjoying it. She is now really, really keen to read the book and I am really keen to give the play a read to relive it all.

Can you tell I rather loved it? Understatement of the year, I thought she, and the play, were just absolutely incredible and had to share it with you. Here is a small taster of the play…

Sadly the UK tour has ended. I am really hoping that someone like BBC Four or Sky Arts, or even better BBC One or Channel 4  will have it on the television at some point because it should be seen, or heard on the radio. However if you are in the USA then you are in luck as I believe that it will be heading to New York in the not too distant future, so keep your eyes peeled for further announcements and whatever you do get yourself some tickets. It is quite unlike anything I have ever seen before and I thought it was utterly, utterly fantastic.

You can see my review of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing here and hear Eimear McBride in conversation about the novel with me on You Wrote The Book here.

*This was written on the night that I saw A Girl is a Half Formed Thing I have just been so busy reading the Bailey’s longlist or having food poisoning my reviews have been a little delayed and out of kilter, oops.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Eimear McBride, Random Savidgeness, Theatre

Ruby – Cynthia Bond

When the Baileys Women’s Prize longlist came out a few weeks ago Cynthia Bond’s Ruby was not one that I had heard of before. Those of you reading this in America might be looking aghast, or possibly even shouting ‘what?’ at the screen as I know it has been a bit of a hit, especially after Oprah chose it for her book club. Having now read it I am pretty sure that it is going to get read and discussed by many more people over this side of the ocean…

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Two Roads Books, 2015, paperback, fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher and by the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

Ruby Bell was a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels were too high. The people of Liberty Township wove her cautionary tales of the wages of sin and travel. They called her buck-crazy. Howling, half-naked mad. The fact that she had come back from New York City made this somewhat understandable to the town.
She wore gray like rain clouds and wandered the red roads in bared feet. Calluses thick as boot leather. Hair caked with mud. Blackened nails as if she had scratched the slate of night. Her acres of kegs carrying her, arms swaying like a loose screen. Her eyes the ink of sky, just before the storm.

From the opening of Ruby Cynthia Bond instantly submerges us into Liberty Township where Ruby Bell is very much the outsider in her own hometown. So much the outsider that she now lives in a ramshackle dwelling deep in the nearby woods. She has become ostracized and of course as readers we want to know why. Whilst most of the town laugh and jeer at her one man, Ephram Jennings, sees Ruby with different eyes and we soon learn he has been smitten with her since childhood. He too is seen somewhat as an outsider yet to a much lesser extent thanks to being somewhat shrouded by his sister Celia, who has followed in their Reverend father’s footsteps becoming quite the feared God fearing woman, who does not approve of Ruby at all.

You might be thinking that this is therefore going to be some great love story set against the odds. In some ways it could be seen as that and yet, as Cynthia Bond soon shows us, there are many dark corners, secrets and layers of both Ruby the character and indeed Ruby the book. And as Ephram goes in the woods to give her White Lay Angel Cake as an offering of love and acceptance, after being scared in town and dropping her bread in her own urine, he discovers that there may be something else darker in the piney woods with Ruby, and not just her memories, though something just as sinister and something that has been following Ruby since childhood.

That night, when the Dybou slid into Ruby’s bedroom, it stopped at the door. It seemed to grow larger. The air became electric. Spider cracks spread across the panes. Instead of reaching for Ruby, the Dybou lifted above her, the whole of the ceiling in shadow, then it dropped down upon the new spirit sleeping within her.
In seconds the girl was gone, inside the creature, screaming, terror flashing in her clear eyes, small arms reaching for Ruby, as the Dybou slithered across the floor.  

If you are wondering what a Dybou is, and why would you not be, without giving too much away it is an evil spirit that feeds off other spirits and can take over the body of humans. Some might say it is the spirit entity of the devil. Yes, this is where Ruby takes on a rather strange turn as it becomes more and more magically surreal. Interestingly though I found it became all the more powerful and effecting for it. As we read on we both succumb to the world in which Ruby inhabits, learn why it has come to pass that she is so filled with these demons and spirits and why her childhood in Liberty Township and then her horrendous time in New York might have driven her to the depths of madness, if she is mad? If this had been written by many another writer I would have probably put this book down very quickly, with Cynthia Bond at the helm I was mesmerised both in horror and in hope for Ruby’s possible salvation by Ephram deep in those piney woods.

The piney woods were full of sound. Trees cracking and falling to their death; the knell of axes echoing into green; the mewl of baby hawks waiting for Mama’s catch. Bull frogs and barn owls. The call of crows and the purring of doves. The screams of a Black man. The slowing of a heart. All captured, hushed and held under the colossal fur of pine and oak, magnolia, hickory and sweet gum. Needles and capillary branches interlaced to make an enormous net, so that whatever rose, never broke through to sky. The woods held stories too, and emotions of objects; a tear of sleeve, bits of hair, long-buried bones, lost buttons. But mostly, the piney woods hoarded sound.  

As we delve deeper into the stories from the piney woods and Ruby’s story you should be warned, there are some very dark and uncomfortable scenes ahead and some are not for the faint of heart of those easily upset. However, if you can read through them Ruby is an incredibly moving, magical and menacing read that you will feel like you have experienced long after the final page. Bond looks at sexual and domestic abuse, Satanism and the supernatural, interracial racism, legends and myths, sexuality, family secrets and love. All this based in reality, in fact some of the novel is based on Cynthia Bond’s own experiences, with an infusion of magical realism. I know; that is quite a heady concoction. Ruby is one of those books that will leave you as haunted as its characters. That is where its power lies.

Ruby is one of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize longlisted novels that I am giving away here

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Books of 2016, Cynthia Bond, Review, Two Roads Books

My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

As well as introducing me to some debut and/or brand new to me authors reading all of this years Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist has brought me a couple of authors that I have been meaning to read for a while. The first of those is Elizabeth Strout whose Pulitzer prize winning Olive Ketteridge I have been meaning to read for ages and ages since the much missed Granny Savidge Reads read it and raved about it years ago. Her latest, My Name is Lucy Barton, was also one of the most ‘guessed’ and rated books before the official longlist came out and so I was intrigued.

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Penguin Books, 2016, hardback, fiction, 206 pages, kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

After a slow recovery from what should have been a relatively simple operation and recuperation Lucy Barton wakes one night to find her mother, who she has not seen for years, sat at the end of her bed. This is something that Lucy finds wonderful, baffling, terrifying, thrilling and worrying, how do these two women relate to each other after so many years apart and after so much has gone unsaid?

“Hi, Lucy,” she said. Her voice sounded shy but urgent. She leaned forward and squeezed my foot through the sheet. “Hi, Wizzle,” she said. I had not seen my mother for years, and I kept staring at her; I could not figure out why she looked so different.
“Mom, how did you get here?” I asked.
“Oh, I got on an airplane.” She wiggled her fingers, and I knew that there was too much emotion, for us. So I waved back, and lay flat. “I think you’ll be alright,” she added, in the same shy-soundingbut urgent voice. “I haven’t had any dreams.”

After an initial read of the book, which at a compact 200 pages can be done in one sitting, it would be easy to simply say this was a concentrated and heightened fable of the relationship between a mother and daughter. In many ways it is. It is also much more than that as Lucy’s mother’s random appearance brings back many memories and stories of her youth, many of which are unsettling rather than happy. It could also be seen as a novel of a women’s journey to becoming a writer, what inspired her and what compelled her from a young age (mainly escapism through books). Now I have to say that I am not a fan of novels about novelists, so many clichés, however as with Graham Swift’s recent Mothering Sunday, this won me round as it isn’t the focus of the book, rather another layer.

My teacher saw that I loved reading, and she gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my homework was done, in the warm school. But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone! (But it was my secret. Even when I met my husband I didn’t tell him right away. I couldn’t take myself seriously. Except that I did. I took myself – secretly, secretly – very seriously! I knew I was a writer. I didn’t know how hard it would be. But no one knows that; and that does not matter.)

What the real focus of the book is actually tries to evade our eyeline directly unless we catch it unsuspectingly and that is the story of Lucy’s childhood which she doesn’t seem to want to tell us about. This also happens with Lucy’s failing marriage, yet unlike that which she can hide her memories from childhood start coming to the fore without her expecting them or being able to lock them away again as quickly as she would like. We soon discover that Lucy grew up living in impoverished and difficult circumstances, people thought she and her family were trash and they became outcasts, something she wanted to escape.

When I was a child, our family went to the Congregational church. We were outcasts there as much as anywhere; even the Sunday school teacher ignored us. Once I came late to the class, the chairs were all taken. The teacher said, “Just sit on the floor, Lucy.”

Yet as we read on there is another layer amongst that. Deep down are memories of really dark times not inflicted on the family but by them, we only get some glimpses of them but they are there all the same. Strout, through Lucy’s seeming denial, leaves it for us the reader to work out what they are and if this is why Lucy Barton has become so estranged. It also asks the questions as to whether blood is thicker than water and how we cope with having to love someone as they are our parent, with all their failings and even with some serious hatred towards them for some things they have done. How do we then cope with that when they are gone?

There is also something slightly fairytale (both the happy and the horrid elements) and surreal amongst the cracks of this novel too. I love fairytales and you may think I can spot them in every book I read, not always honest but I could in this one. First for me was sudden arrival of Lucy’s mother, for a while I spent quite a lot of the beginning thinking she was a ghost or possibly a post surgery drug induced hallucination, especially when she starts to talk about having not had any bad dreams so all will be well. Then there is the slight Cinderella element of rags to riches. Mostly though it was the monsters lurking in a woman’s memories that made me feel like that, we mainly glimpse them, we know they are real and yet they seem other because of the way Lucy is dealing with them, or not. Naturally this compelled me further.

My Name is Lucy Barton is a deceptive book, both in its size and in the story it tells. I devoured it in a single sitting and it affected me, however since I have read it the affect has grown and grown and bothered me more and more. It is the kind of book that you need to read, digest, walk away from, digest some more and then at some point go back to. It’s affect has grown on me as much as it has grown in my estimation the more and more distance I have had from it. It’s a book that lingers much longer than you anticipate. Looks like I need to head to some more of Elizabeth Strout’s books now doesn’t it?

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Elizabeth Strout, Penguin Books, Review