Category Archives: Books of 2009

Books of 2009

As the end of the year draws in I find that I become quite reflective. I have actually had a bit of an issue with reading this week and wonder if that is an end of year thing, more on that at some other point. 2009 has been a big year for this blog; it’s also been a big year for my reading. It seems a delightful coincidence that today as I wrap up my best reads of 2009 it is also my 500th post which I think deserves some fireworks…

My original idea of doing my ‘best of’ like I did last year with The Savidge Dozen just wasn’t working. I have read too many brilliant books and so I thought I would instead do two separate top ten’s. The first being my favourite books published or re-issued in 2009 itself which was hard and actually I got down to a final twelve but I had to cut the delightful books Notwithstanding and ‘The Earth Hums in B Flat’ and be tough to make the ten which are (click on each title for full review)…

10. Legend of a Suicide by David Vann – One of the most emotionally raw novels I have ever read. Fictional accounts of a father’s suicide, the events leading up to it and the effects of this tragedy on his son and others around him, based in parts on the authors own fathers suicide. Moving and masterfully written.  

9. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood – The first of two Atwood novels that truly made my year. This dark (and often darkly funny) tale of the future of humanity starts off sounding like something out of a sci-fi novel yet disturbingly slowly reads as a not too distant possibility.  

8. After The Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld – Without question the debut novel of the year for me. A book many are labelling as being a ‘War book’, I wouldn’t 100% agree with that as its so much more. The author calls it a ‘romantic thriller about men who don’t speak’ I would call it ‘a book about the dark truths behind the faces of those we love’ a compelling and moving read.

7. Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill – Some loved it some hated it, I revelled in it. Susan Hill’s thoughts on some of her books and the people she met who wrote them. And she popped by and made a comment or two.

6. The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan – A fictional account of those famous Bronte Sisters which sadly didn’t get the Man Booker notice it should have. This brings the Bronte’s to life and you will think of them slightly differently. Made me want to read every Bronte book I could… as yet I haven’t started but a possible resolution for 2010, that or read all of Morgan’s prior works.

5. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – The deserved winner from the Man Booker Shortlist and the one I guessed (though I was hoping a certain other book would win, see below). I thought that there had been Tudor fiction overload, I was wrong just as I was wrong that reading a book about Thomas Cromwell that was huge would bore me to death, I was enthralled and enwrapped.

4. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie – The only way I can think of to describe this book which skips such a huge expanse of time is ‘a war torn epic’. I thought this was marvellous and was thrilled I got to hear her speak about it and even ask her a question; I was a bit in awe.

3. Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran – Definitely the non fiction book of 2009, well published in 2009. Getting a glimpse into the private world of such a marvellous author and how her criminal mastermind brain worked and plotted was utterly fascinating.

2. Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys – Technically not actually released originally in 2009, but thankfully brought back from the past thanks to the wonderful Bloomsbury Group. The tale of Henrietta and the villagers she lives with during the war had me laughing out loud all over the place.

1. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin – A book I fell wholly in love with from start to finish. It might not have the biggest plot or be brimming with a huge cast of characters but its simplicity is what makes it so stunning. An interesting look at the life of a woman who is sent to be saved from the poverty in Ireland by being shipped to America, only not everyone wants to be saved. Utterly stunning and quietly intense.

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Then I had the ridiculous task of finding the ten ‘best of the rest’ which in a year where I read such delights as The Secret Scripture (which lost a point or two for the ending I won’t lie) and the joy Miss Garnett’s Angel and had a Sensation Season was going to be tough. OK, so it’s not quite ten but it’s as close as I could get. The final ten (cough, eleven) are…

10. Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith – I wasn’t convinced that a thriller based on a child murderer in the time of Stalinist Russia would work for me. I was utterly wrong as I think for me it’s been the thriller of the year. Also thrilling was getting to go to Tom’s house for coffee and questions.

9. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – Proof that sometimes books can be hard work but all that hard work is definitely worth it. Opening with the suicide of the narrator’s sister, this becomes an epic novel of the lives of the Chase sisters and the effects of the Second World War. Also comes with an intriguing novel inside the novel and a sci-fi-ish novel inside that one, are you keeping up?

8. State of Happiness by Stella Duffy – I am a big admirer of Stella and her work and this to me is her best fiction yet (oh but wait for the next one in 2010) despite loving her latest book The Room of Lost Things in 2008. This is a tale about love and ultimately death and it broke my heart and made me cry quite a lot. If you are up for an emotional journey and wonderful writing you simply cannot miss this book.

7. Lady into Fox by David Garnett – Wonderful surreal and touching fable of a husband and how he deals with his wife randomly turning into a fox one day. This is may only be 96 pages long but each page is perfection.

6. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – Most of the planet with have read this novel so I will simply say a modern classic masterpiece about a dystopian future where we are all under the watchful all seeing eye of Big Brother and should ever be fearful of Room 101.  

5. The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett – My first year of reading Persephone books and this one just took me on a journey that I wasn’t expecting. A sensational tale of rich American heiresses, one whom meekly marries an Englishman for a title and vanishes, the other a forthright woman who wishes to seek her sister out and solve the mystery of what has befallen her.

4. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes – A total surprise hit of 2009 for me. I never thought that a ‘sci-fi’ book about a mentally handicapped man and a genius mouse would grab me let alone move me to tears and yet this frankly marvellous book did exactly that.

3. Small Island by Andrea Levy – Really this is a modern masterpiece. A tale of two completely different women brought together through war and adversity. Also a tale of forbidden love, war, racism and hope, a remarkable book I was glad Granny Savidge Reads recommended so strongly and so often.

2. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – This book is what I may now consider the greatest nonfiction book I have ever read (so far – though unlikely to be beaten). A true tale of the ruthless killing of a family in America, and a thought provoking quite often disturbing study of their murderers. In parts bleak and horrific, it’s also emotional (I cried at this one too) and yet a darkly fascinating insight into the minds of killers.  

1. East Lynne by Ellen Wood/Armadale by Wilkie Collins – Technically I am cheating but I really couldn’t decide between these two. The epic scope, characters and thrilling plots of each of these was utterly remarkable. In a year where I rediscovered my loved of all things sensational I found these two new favourite books. Both of these are genuine gems of sensation novels and couldn’t have more mystery, twists, dramas or thrills if they tried.

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I have to say I don’t think that minimal short snappy reviews are my fortes so do visit the full reviews, they are much better. Should you be really tough and ask me which out of this final twenty one would be my favourite of the year I would have to go with… Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. I know some people will be surprised after my sensation fiction love in and some of you won’t agree and that’s fine, though don’t push your negative comments below this post (ha, ha, ha), for me it was just wonderful and a true surprise delight in this years Man Booker Longlist read-a-thon. There will be much more Toibin to come in 2010 I promise you. Now I must dash as I have a party to prepare for (attending not hosting) and some resolutions to make… What have been your best books of 2009?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Levy, Books of 2009, Colm Toibin, Daniel Keyes, David Garnett, David Vann, Ellen Wood, Evie Wyld, Frances Hodgson Burnett, George Orwell, Hilary Mantel, John Curran, Jude Morgan, Kamila Shamsie, Margaret Atwood, Stella Duffy, Susan Hill, Tom Rob Smith, Truman Capote, Wilkie Collins

Legend of a Suicide – David Vann

It seems strange to me that two of the best books I have read in 2009 have been within the last few weeks of it. I am also going to possibly sound like a stuck record when I tell you that my second book review this week is down to Kimbofo once again as she gave me a copy of David Vann’s ‘Legend of a Suicide’ at one of our Book Group meetings after I banged on about how much I wanted to read it on her blog. Though book gifts are always welcome there is then that awkwardness of making sure you read it asap (or in this case within three months of getting it) and then after that what happens if you don’t enjoy it? I wouldn’t know the latter this time luckily as Legend of a Suicide is marvellous, if again another difficult book to capture in words. What is it with these reviews this week, is the end of 2009 testing me?

Legend of a Suicide is less a novel and more a collection of five short stories and one novella sandwiched between them. All the stories here deal with the same subject of a father’s suicide, the effects it has on him and those around him leading up to the event and in the aftermath of it. This is a subject close to the author David Vann’s heart as his father killed himself when he was younger. Though not a work based on his own life the emotions and thoughts are very much in every page of the novel making it quite an affecting book as well as an unsettling one.

Even though each tale is quite different they are all based around Roy and his father or the effects his father has on him and others in varying ways. The first take Ichthyology looks at life through a younger Roy’s eyes as he watches his parents break up and has to deal with it by becoming interested in fish (fish is a theme throughout the book though I am not sure why). However its also an insight to his father and the life he has ended up with that this tale really brings home before the deed in the title is done. Rhoda, the second story, is about Roy’s father’s second wife and the relationship they all have giving you further insight into his life and mind. This tale actually made me laugh quite a lot and seemed darkly comical. The third instalment is also witty; A Legend of Good Men is all about all the men who his mother dates who come and go ‘like the circuses that passed through our town’.

Then comes the novella, we what I think is a novella, in the shape of Sukkwan Island. This tale is so well written and delivers such a punch half way through, I wont say anymore than I had to read the paragraph three times before I could believe what I had just read, that sadly the follow up tales Ketchikan (a tale of his fathers past as Roy revisits) and The Higher Blue (an idealisation of everything) fell a little flatter than they might have. However having said that you need all these isolated tales blanketing the middle novella for it all to work.

Sukkwan Island is just amazing writing, differing from the first person narrative of the rest of the book and written in third person, I don’t think I could put it any other way. It evolves around a year long excursion into the wild for father and son in the Alaskan wilderness. I can see why people have compared him to Cormac McCarthy though I would put this tell as a cross between McCarthy’s The Road and Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ its remarkable, shocking and breathtaking all at once. I was horrified by it yet fascinated and mesmerised by it all at once. I read it in one sitting and couldn’t put it down.

It’s a remarkable book in so many ways, I think Vann has put all his emotions into it which therefore cannot help but pour out of the page and into the reader which is quite an experience and one that you don’t get too often. Will it make it into my Best of 2009 tomorrow? You will have to wait and see. The only reason that it might not is that I haven’t had long enough away from it to let it all settle (even the unsettling bits) with me yet, but you may very well see it in there. Who else has read this, who really wants to? I can fully recommend it.

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Filed under Books of 2009, David Vann, Penguin Books, Review, Viking Books

End of Year Meme 2009

So as the end of 2009 creeps ever closer I thought I would once more take part in a yearly Meme. I did this back in 2008 after seeing it on Stuck in a Book and adapting it somewhat. This year the results have suprised me again. Who knew I read so many male authors, I am most suprised. Anyway as ever I have added some questions to it on top of the ones I added last year and here it is.

How many books read in 2009?

This year has been my best reading year yet with me reading 131 books, beating last years 102. Lets hope I can do even better in 2010. Mind you reading shouldn’t be a race and one of my resolutions will be to get through some more tomes I own.

How many fiction and non fiction?

120 works of fiction this year and 11 non fiction.

Male/Female author ratio?

Take in to account I read the same author more than once this year I read 55 male authors and 41 female authors. This shocks me (it did last year too) as I always think I read more women authors than I do men, not so apparently.

Favourite book of 2009?

I think my very favourite book published in 2009 was Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, understated brilliance, but my favourite book is a joint tie with Armadale by Wilkie Collins and East Lynne by Ellen Wood… ooh or Henrietta’s War. You will have to see the post on Thursday.

Least favourite?

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill I couldn’t bare it, bored me silly. I had some I didn’t finish which don’t count.  

Any that you simply couldn’t finish and why?

Home by Marilynne Robinson, some people love her work; I am just not a Robinson fan. Its beautifully written but doesn’t do anything for me.

Oldest book read?

I would say it would be one of the Sensation Season novels, I haven’t thought about what year they were published. How lazy of me.

Newest?

After The Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld has only been recently published and recently read by me. I also think that this book has my cover of the year, its stunning.

Longest and shortest book titles?

Alices Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll and Basil by Wilkie Collins.

Longest and shortest books?

Armadale at 880 pages was the longest, the shortest was Lady into Fox which was only 92 pages long, but both were wonderful. The Childrens Book probably felt like the longest. 

How many books from the library?

Six library books this year which is six more than the last! 

Any translated books?

Voice Over by Celine Curiol, A Perfect Waiter by Alain Claude Sulzer and I Served The King of England by Bohumil Hrabal. I want to read more translations next year as feel I am missing out. Mind you some books I read I don’t realise have been translated which is shameful. 

Most read author of the year, and how many books by that author?

Wilkie Collins is my most read author. I managed eight by him again through the sensation season. I already have a sneaky suspicion who my most read will be in 2010 but my lips are sealed for now.

Any re-reads?

The Woman in White, The Woman in Black, The Man in the Picture, Lady Audley’s Secret and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Favourite character of the year?

Oooh it has to be Lydia Gwilt as she is just a brilliantly evil and malicious character who I ended up warming to in Armadale which is really quite wrong.

Which countries did you go to through the page in your year of reading?

Hmmm, let me see… The British Isles, The Czech Republic, America, Bosnia, Russia, Germany, Wonderland (ha ha), France, Pakistan, Canada, Italy, India, Japan, Afghanistan, Switzerland, Ireland, China, Australia, Brazil, Africa and Jamaica. Phew, its no wonder I am so tired.

Which book wouldn’t you have read without someone’s specific recommendation?

I wouldn’t have read the superb Flowers for Algernon without it being a recommendation by Jackie for the Book Group I started with Kimbofo this year. It was superb and I am so, so pleased I have read it and have it to re-read.

Which author was new to you in 2009 that you now want to read the entire works of?

Colm Toibin, Kamila Shamsie, Ellen Wood and Hilary Mantel.

Which books are you annoyed you didn’t read?

Oh a few in fact there was a list of ones I owned that I should have read, mind you my whole TBR is a pile of books I should have read. I would say today its Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Burberry. Its one to look forward to next year though. 

Did you read any books you have always been meaning to read?

Another thanks to book group and to Gemma who chose George Orwell’s 1984 always wanted to read that and never quite got round to it. Other titles I have wanted to read and now have are East Lynne, Armadale, In Cold Blood and Small Island all were great successes.

There you have it. I would love it if people had a go at this on their blogs (though if you could leave a link where you saw this version that would be lovely) and then leave links to theirs so that myself and others could pop by and have a nosey. You may have already done one so do leave a link and let me know. If you dont have a blog you could always answer the questions on here in a comment maybe? I will be having further reflections of 2009 on Thursday just hours before 2010 starts. Does the whole idea of it being 2010 freak anyone else out? Its come around too quickly hasnt it?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Books of 2009

After The Fire, A Still Small Voice – Evie Wyld

One of the things that I have really loved about 2009 is extending the network of bloggers that I have met. This of course has lead me to some books and authors that I would possibly have missed. One such book is Evie Wyld’s debut and its thanks to a video Kim posted of the author describing her book as a ‘romantic thriller about men not talking’ which you can see here. With such an unusual surmising of a plot I couldn’t really not rush out and read this could I?

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‘After the Fire, A Still Small Voice’ is actually the tales of two separate men told in alternating chapters living in Australia told both in the present and in the past and not always in chronological order yet never confusing for the reader. It is really hard to tell you all about it without giving anything away but do bear with me as I will try and do my best without any spoilers and yet trying to cover everything that this wonderful book does.

The first of the men we meet is Frank. Having recently given up his life in Canberra after a rather rocky relationship he has moved to his Grandparents shack by the sea in an attempt to hide away from the world which he will have to live off, though in the end the world won’t remain hidden, neighbours will be friendly, and he will need money and so takes a part time job in the local marina. But in a small town he is watched with interest and suspicion, especially as a girl has recently gone missing. Franks a tough character and as we get to know him better and the story of his youth, though he is only in his twenties roughly, you gain an insight into why.

Leon is the second male character. We meet him in his youth in a town, where his family are looked down on for being immigrants, as he learns the trade of his father’s cake shop which when his father is sent to fight in Korea he must take over until his father comes back. Once his father returns he is a changed man and adds additional strain to the family home leaving Leon in charge for good. Only Leon himself then gets conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War and like his father the affects of war change him forever.

This makes the book sound quite simplistic and it’s not the case as Wyld throws in quite a few other plots such as a delightful romance for Leon and a wonderful tale of a little girl breaking through Frank’s tough exterior. To say anymore would simply give too much away. I thought that is was particularily remarkable how Wyld got so deeply into the two male lead characters, especially as they are both such complex, emotionally scarred and sometimes quite dislikeable characters. I wasn’t sure this book would be for me for the first two chapters and then I was hooked and read it in three sittings. Through these two men’s viewpoints I went on an emotion filled journey through loss, love, war, discrimination, and also most importantly I felt, hope.

I thought this was a marvellous piece of work, an incredibly impressive debut, I think Wyld is definitely an author to watch out for in the future. I am already wondering if there may be some recognition of this in the 2010 Orange Longlist, I do hope so, its already won The John Llewellyn Rhys prize. I am definitely honouring it with the Savidge Reads “Cover of 2009” prize, if ever you were to judge a book by its fabulous cover make it this one. I am not the only one who enjoyed this thoroughly as you can see Kim’s review here too. One of my books of the year no question.

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Filed under Books of 2009, Evie Wyld, Jonathan Cape Publishers, Random House Publishing, Review

The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone is the final Wilkie Collins read of the season (though thankfully I have still many Wilkie books to go or I would possibly be in despair). This is possibly one of the most famous of Wilkie Collins novels and so telling you all about it and my thoughts on it might really be preaching to the converted.

The book opens in 1799 when during a siege of the Indian town of Seringapatam when Colonel John Herncastle steals ‘The Moonstone’ from a religious statue not knowing that the stone is cursed. He comes back to be ostracised by his family and so in an act of revenge disguised in giving kindness he leaves the stone to his niece Rachel in the hope the curse passes onto her. However her cousin Franklin Blake finds out the secrets of stone and the real reason for its inheritance when he brings it to Rachel. It is when she receives it that after years of keeping the stone protected and hidden she merely leaves it in her bedroom cabinet where of course it disappears during the night. What follows is one of the greatest detection novels in history, and one that I think it would be wrong to give anything more away about, other than stating that it is brilliant.

The book is just as filled with wonderful characters as ever such as the reticent Rachel, the mysterious Rosanna Spearman, the brilliant Sergeant Cuff (who steps in after the police are all inept) and my favourite ‘Limping Lucy’. However characterisation isn’t really the point of The Moonstone, it is clearly plotting that is and unlike other sensation fiction we aren’t looking at bigamy, murder and social mysteries this is a full on mystery of theft. Naturally as a Collins novel you can expect many thrills, red herrings and as much suspense as you could wish for.  

In many ways this book is very different in terms of his other sensation fiction, in fact really I would say this was much more a full on adventure romp than sensation. Being the first proper detective novel (and look what it spawned) it caused quite some sensation at the time. It does share a theme with the other books however, as it does look at social attitudes and, in a way, looks at how people of colour were treated in England at the time through three Indians who appear in the book. I also think that Collins made a concerted effort through his strong female characters in particular Rachel (who I wondered if inspired Du Maurier’s ‘My Cousin Rachel) he tried not to make this too much of a boys book and I think as ever he succeeded. This book is absolutely brilliant; I don’t think I can say more than that.

I cannot believe that we are already at the penultimate Sensation Season read. I am especially sad that this is the last Wilkie read I will have for a while, like I said before though at least I have made sure I have many more of his works left for the future. It’s all gone a little too fast with only one more to go as we see the New Year in which is Charles Dickens ‘Great Expectations’ in two weeks. I hope you will all join in. So who out there has read The Moonstone and what did you think? Remember no plot spoilers please, though am not sure there are many people who haven’t read this are there?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Penguin Classics, Review, Sensation Novels, Wilkie Collins

A Life Like Other People’s – Alan Bennett

It seems timely when a certain book arrives and you are in just the mood to read it, which has happened with Alan Bennett’s most recent memoir ‘A Life Like Other People’s’. It has been a bit of a Bennett fest on the television of late here in the UK as Elaine at Random Jottings has been discussing to mark his 75th Birthday. He also has become some what of a national treasure which he says doesn’t sit with him very well. I read and loved The Uncommon Reader a while back and have enjoyed many of his Talking Head monologues, not just recently, but for a while in fact I had them on audio cassette when I was younger.

Faber & Faber, hardback, 2009, non fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

A Life Like Other People’s, which I keep wanting to call A Life Amongst Others though I have no idea why, is about his formative years though mainly it looks at the relationships of his parents. I don’t have any of Bennett’s previous diaries and memoires to compare this too, though I will be making sure that changes, though what I have always loved about Bennett is his ‘real writing’. He looks at people, and himself, and the actions of real people their emotions there thoughts the whole gambit. There are no tricks and though there is often drama its never written to be dramatic or to gain readers its simply life.

The simplistic and honest writing style is incredibly endearing. Scenes can be quite harrowing and emotional and yet there will be some slight comedy around the corner, its not intentional or planned it’s just the way it is. Two scenes that really hit me were between him and his mother, which almost made me cry, and his mother searching for her sister in a dementia ward. I loved the story of his parents wedding and why there were no pictures as his parents didn’t want any ‘splother’. You will have to read the book to find out just what that means and how they got around it.

Bennett was clarely very close to his mother, though of course he loved his father they didn’t have that same relationship. He seemed to get to know him best when he was driving him to see his mother when she was in hospital on several occasions for depression. In fact these trips, where his father got most annoyed about making sure everything was on time, showed a wonderful dedication between husband and wife, father and mother, that I found deeply affecting. I loved the relationship between them and think that love like that seems to be becoming much rarer in today’s society. I wonder if Bennett would agree. If only I could sit and discuss it all further with him over a pot of Yorkshire tea. We can all dream can’t we?

It’s not a long book and so I can’t really write too much about it without giving lots of things away. I think overall that poignant, in all its ways, is what best describes this work. If you like books about real people and real lives then I don’t think you can het much better. I can only wonder what his diaries and ‘Writing Home’ have in store for me to read in the future. I think 2010 may have to involve a bit of a Bennett binge as I also want to read the whole of Talking Heads again now too. What about you, what Bennett have you read and loved? Or is he someone you have yet to read? If it’s a case of the latter I can think of nothing better than whiling away an afternoon in the company of Alan Bennett. This book comes very, very highly recommended.

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Filed under Alan Bennett, Books of 2009, Faber & Faber, Profile Books, Review

Should Have Reads 2009

It’s odd to believe that we have two weeks left of the year to go. It is especially irksome when I look at my shelves and see the wonderful books that came out in 2009 that I simply haven’t read yet. I feel most shameful. Then I think hang on a second I have two weeks to go, I can probably polish off another five or six of them by then and that is where you will be coming in shortly!

Last year I did a list of the books at the end of the year that I had meant to read but hadn’t and ten seemed a huge amount to me then. I think this years list will exceed that, we will see when I compile it below, which is odd considering I have read more books this year than I have any other year. I blame a new love of all classics in particular sensation novels partly and the fact that I still had so much I wanted to read at the end of 2008. From my should have read list last year I have only read two of the books I intended to in 2009 (though lots more I didnt intend to), it’s not promising is it?

So now I will hand it over to all of you as you were so helpful with my Gran’s list last week. Which of the following books published in 2009 that I have on the TBR must I really try and read before the year is through?

  • The Devil’s Paintbrush – Jake Arnott
  • All The Nice Girls – Joan Bakewell
  • The Death of Bunny Munro – Nick Cave
  • War on the Margins – Libby Cone
  • The Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano
  • The Lieutenant – Kate Grenville
  • The Other Half Lives – Sophie Hannah
  • The Believers – Zoe Heller
  • A Beginners Guide To Acting English – Shappi Khorsandi
  • Pretty Monsters – Kelly Link
  • Hells Belles – Paul Magrs
  • One Day – David Nicholls
  • The Angels Game – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • The First Person and Other Stories – Ali Smith
  • Noah’s Compass – Anne Tyler
  • Legend of a Suicide – David Vann

Actually that’s not as bad as I thought it would be. So over to you… which of these books must I try and devour by the end of the year and why? Which books published in 2009 have I missed and should have tracked down? I am looking forward to your thoughts as ever.

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Filed under Ali Smith, Anne Tyler, Book Thoughts, Books of 2009, Jake Arnott, Kate Grenville, Paul Magrs, Sophie Hannah

The Gates – John Connolly

Though I have never read any of John Connolly’s crime and mystery fiction but I am a huge fan of ‘The Book of Lost Things’ which a friend recommended to me for being a wonderfully warped adult fairytale and it was. This was during pre-blogging days which is a shame as I could rave about that until the cows come home; maybe it’s another book to add to my never ending list of re-reads? So when I saw that ‘The Gates’ was another slightly fantasy and supernatural based book I simply had to read it. I probably would have if I hadn’t read any Connolly as the cover is a delight to behold.

Imagine you are just out walking your dog at the end of your street and there is some huge bang coming from number 666. You go to investigate and find that some of your neighbours have been a little bit bored one afternoon and decided to open up another dimension and the gates of hell? What on earth do you do? This is the situation that school boy Samuel Johnson finds himself in three days before Halloween when he goes out ‘showing initiative’ to do some early trick or treating with his sausage dog Boswell.

As no one believes him it seems that only Samuel can save the world from the evil Mrs Abernathy, or what has possessed the body of the originally not too nice Mrs Abernathy, and her mission to bring ‘The Great Malevolence’ and all his followers to turn earth to ash and dust. Fortunately the portal also brings up the demon called Nurd, who has been banished from several parts of hell for not joining in with evil doings, who becomes an unlikely comrade for Samuel and a very funny one.  

The book is a gripping adventurous romp from start to finish with heaps and heaps of funny moments, I laughed out loud twice and giggled at several points. I thought Mrs Abernathy was a brilliant villain and all the demons where brilliantly described you could just envisage them. I was slightly concerned when I started reading as there were footnotes in the book. I have to say footnotes annoy me normally but these ones make you laugh. In parts the book can be quite scientific and so through these humorous footnotes certain parts of physics and chemistry seem to become really easy to understand and I do not have a chemist/physicist mind as my science teaching step-father would happily vouch for, he taught me these at school. 

Whereas John Connolly’s previous fantasy (I use that term loosely) novel ‘The Book of Lost Things’ was an adult book that teenagers could enjoy ‘The Gates’ is very much a book aimed at teenagers that will love it and adults who will love it even more so. It seems some kind of serendipity or blogendipity if you will (or maybe just timely) that after writing about my favourite children’s books yesterday I should be posting about a book that very much appealed to the inner child in me.

If you like a very well written escapist thrill then you will love this book as I did. I am quite pleased to know that I still have more of Connolly’s supernatural and scary tales to go as there is a seven story collection called Nocturnes which I am now absolutely desperate to read (is that a big enough hint?) I am intrigued about his crime mysteries and may look at those in the future too. Would you recommend his crime what is it like? Have you read any of Connolly’s work? If you haven’t do give this a whirl.

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Filed under Books of 2009, Hodder & Stoughton, John Connolly, Review

Perfumes The A-Z Guide – Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez

When ‘Perfumes The A-Z Guide’ by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez dropped through my letter box I wasn’t sure I needed this guide, wasn’t it for girls? It didn’t help that there was a quote from Jan Moir on the book as I think the Daily Mail writer should be put down. I thought I would have a dip in before writing it off. You should never judge on first impressions should you? In fact that’s something Jan Moir might want to consider. Anyway moving swiftly on…

I was dubious about posting about this book as I haven’t read it from cover to cover and I have an issue with giving my ‘book thoughts’ when I haven’t read every page of a book. That rule I think can be broken by one set of books, maybe two actually I wasn’t thinking of gorgeous (and often never touched) coffee table books. I am talking about guide books. Those precious guide books that you can pick up now and again and know you will get some joy from. I don’t have many; I am more of a fiction boy. Would this be one I would add to my collection?

The answer is a resounding yes. From what I have read so far I know this book is one that I will be treasuring for quite sometime, hopefully for life. I am not the biggest perfume addict in the world and so really I am coming to this book from layman’s terms. I would say that I’ve no idea about perfumes whatsoever, I like what I like and don’t like what I don’t like it’s that simple. Imagine my thrill when the aftershave/cologne I wear gets a full 5 stars and the comment “buy it even if you never put it on” mind you its quite pricey so would be a waste just sitting there.

The writing of the book from Luca and Tania is brilliant, it’s honest, blunt in parts, comic in others but most importantly it’s accessible. There is an introduction to perfume criticism, a look at what male and female scents work, a history of perfume and also a whole twenty pages of readers questions answered. Whether you know nothing about perfume or heaps about it you can’t help but be charmed by the reviews. One which had me in hysterics was a review of Paris Hilton’s ‘Can Can’ was simply “can it, by all means”. The experts are never patronising and though some reviews are a little OTT you just think it’s fabulous and carry on wanting to read more and more.

‘The temperate white floral is a pretty, thoroughly laundered and starch lily-of-the-valley type, presentable in polite company, whereas its tropical counterpart is a disturbing, intense night-blooming creature full of smells of meat, milk, rubber and camphor, which bring out the big hairy moths. Passion is one of the strangest night flowers you can find: the banana jam smell of ylang-ylang. An icy camphor-and-wintergreen accord that could grow icicles in your sinuses, and a thick lactonic note that seems to coat the whole thing in butter.’

The book has become not just a hit with me but a household hit as The Converted One is indeed someone who knows their scents (which became very funny when there favourite got two stars and was “nothing to celebrate”, some sulking has been going on at Savidge Towers since then) and there has even been a tug of war over the book such a hit with both of us that it is. We lent it to a guest this weekend and they could barely get there nose out of it, its just superb and I know so many people who could do with this in their Christmas stockings, I am sure you must too. In fact I imagine some of you wouldn’t mind finding this 600+ page delight in your own stocking this Christmas would you?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Luca Turin, Profile Books, Review, Tania Sanchez

Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks – John Curran

A theme seems to be occurring when it comes to my reading habits. I always say that I am not the biggest fan of non fiction and then I read one each year and it completely takes my breath away (well almost) with its brilliance and soon becomes on of my favourites if not my favourite book of the year. This happened last year with ‘The Mitford’s: Letters Between Six Sisters’ by Charlotte Mosley, I utterly adored it couldn’t put it down and yet at the same time didn’t want it to end. This has happened again this year with ‘Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks’ by John Curran.

I heard about Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks on one of the many book podcasts that I download each week. These notebooks were a recent discovery when Christie’s family allowed Greenway, Christie’s holiday home, to be taken over by the National Trust. They had never been on display, they were a mix up of several plots, daily to do’s, shopping lists, character ideas, lists of books (made me love Agatha even more) she wanted and other thoughts with no chronological order. That is where John Curran, an Agatha expert and friend of Christie’s grandson, came in and this book is the results of four years work trying to decipher some of Christie’s handwriting “often like short hand” and working out what notes related to what books and when.

The discoveries are really very interesting. It seems that Curran’s (and probably most readers of her work) image of Agatha sat endlessly typing murder after murder, book after book with the killer planned at the start isn’t quite so. In fact as you get to read her notes, which John has painstakingly transcribed, you find she would often chop and change the killer as she went. The idea for a book might ruminate for years and start from a simple observation as ‘a stamp’ the notes then look at how such an everyday item could cause someone to commit murder. Who knew that a certain famous Poirot scene was originally meant for Miss Marple? Which books didn’t have the endings you and I might have read? Which short stories then with new characters and a subtle plot twist or motive change became a play or a novel? You can find all these things out and much, much more.

The book isn’t just John’s transcriptions, there are some wonderful pictures (as you can see above)  of the notes she had written with crossings out (which actually meant she had used the notes not that they were rubbish. This book isn’t just about her notebooks, though naturally they are predominantly the subject of the book. He also interweaves her personal life from making hair appointments to having her grandchildren to say and being part of ‘The Detection Club’ a group of the finest detective fiction writers with a secret initiation ceremony. Her disappearance isn’t much mentioned but this is more about the process behind the books and what went on in Agatha’s head.

I have to say I don’t think you have to be a huge Agatha fan in order to read this, though if you are this book is pure gold. If you are interested in how the minds of authors work and in particular one of the great British authors (who has sold over two billion copies of her books worldwide) ever then this is also fascinating. There are a couple of glitches in the book. One, which you can overcome, is that it does give a lot of the books endings away. My thoughts on that are just leave those books a while before you read or re-read them as she has so many ‘you could read one a month for seven years’. The other small glitch for me is Curran’s slight case of repetition; I think in the first hundred pages I had read the same quote three times which seemed to be hammering a point home a little too much. This is minor though as I found Curran a really interesting and enjoyable guide through these notebooks, he was never too clever or condescending just very enthusiastic which we all know is highly contagious.

Ooh, I must mention, well show you, the delightful end papers which are a selection of the notebooks and look gorgeous (my Gran could remember lots of them) I think…

This is a wonderful book that I adored, and I freely admit that I am quite a hard person to please with non fiction yet this won me over almost instantly. This is undoubtedly one of my favourite books of the year It has also made my previous desire to read all Agatha Christie that I can a much bigger desire. I am quite tempted to read The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding next week! Oh, which brings me to the point that this book has finally won me over to Poirot and not just because of the notes, but also the two previously unpublished short stories he features in. A must read in my humble opinion.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Books of 2009, Harper Collins, John Curran, Review

Small Island – Andrea Levy

No more Granny Savidge Reads for a while, you will just have to make do with me from now on. Well until the spring when I am off, with the Converted One of course, up north for a weekend of blogging respite for me but blog building for a certain someone. Today’s post is all about one of Gran’s favourite books which is Small Island by Andrea Levy which I had decided to read while she was staying here and also before the second half of the BBC adaptation is on. Now my Gran and I agree on a lot of books but heartily disagree on many too. Which category would this book fall into?

Small Island starts as two of its main characters come face to face. On a street in London in 1948 Queenie Bligh opens the door to be faced with Hortense Gilbert fresh from Jamaica, a woman she has never seen before but one who turns out to be the wife of one of her lodgers Gilbert. One of several lodgers that Queenie’s neighbours do not approve of as they are black, the fact that Gilbert fought for the British in the War it’s recovering from doesn’t matter one jot. With her husband away Queenie needs the cash and besides she isn’t prejudice, she takes people as she finds them and she finds them alright. Though at first you wouldn’t think these two women have anything in common you soon learn they do and not just in personality or the facts they didn’t marry for love… there is something in their very different pasts that links them too.

I am making it sound like the book is just about these two women and that isn’t the case at all, they just take over every scene they are in even when they aren’t narrating it. The book is actually narrated by Queenie, Hortense and their two husbands Gilbert (who is just lovely) and Bernard. Each has a very interesting tale to tell not only on their lives and backgrounds, which are revealed in a slightly disjointed order. They also give four voices to war, culture, love and racism which aren’t small topics by any means.

Hortense who comes to England after buying her marriage to a man she doesn’t love only to find it isn’t the dream she dreamt of and that despite her high opinion of herself society sees her as the lowest of the low is a particularly interesting story. Gilbert, who always tries to better his life and his difficult wife’s dreams, yet gets stuck at every step because of the colour of his skin. Queenie’s story comes later in the book but it packs a punch or two, especially when the repressed Bernhard comes back.

I could gush and gush on and on all the praise I have for this book for hours. It just worked on so many levels for me. It had great storylines and plots; in fact this book had so much to say and was so delightfully written I think I could have read another few hundred pages of the voices and their backgrounds and thoughts on the situations they were in. My only wish is that I hadn’t seen the first half of the BBC adaptation (which you can see on iPlayer) before I started reading the book as it gave away some of the forthcoming plots and twists, but only some, and it is a wonderful adaptation.

So like my Gran I absolutely loved this book; in fact I utterly adored it. Could you tell? I thought it was just so wonderfully written, the characters vivid (I think Hortense and Queenie are two of my favourite characters of the year). How Levy came up with the back stories and how they all interweaved together I will never know, they were completely believable despite happening on opposite sides of the world and you couldn’t guess how it would all work out. So good indeed was this wonderful novel that I ended up missing my stops on the tube several times reading this book which is a very good sign. One of my books of the year, in fact a book that will be whizzing straight into my top ten books of all time. Utterly marvellous, if you havent read it (which I think most of you will have – what did you think?) then you simply must!

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Filed under Andrea Levy, Books of 2009, Books To Film, Headline Review, Review

East Lynne – Ellen Wood

I mentioned the other day that out of all the sensation season reading material so far Ellen Wood’s (or Mrs Henry Wood) ‘East Lynne’ has been by far the most complex and difficult to get through. I want to make it clear that I don’t mean that in a bad way. In fact the main reason it’s quite a book to get through is because of a whole host of characters (initially a village full) and a whole host of plots. This isn’t for those of you who are looking for a throw away sensational read you have to dive in and just go for it. Once you have read the final page though you will be left in no doubt that this is a masterpiece and may, as many say, be the mother of all sensation novels.

East Lynne is a grand old house not to far from the village of West Lynne, you will learn to love the village and all of its wonderful (even if some are downright evil) characters. From the first chapter we are introduced to the main character of the book Isabel Vane or as the first chapter is called ‘The Lady Isabel’ who lives in East Lynne with her father not knowing he has sold the house to local solicitor Archibald Carlyle. We join them as they first meet and naturally Carlyle falls in love with her one site, as one must this is after all a sensation novel.

The very same night Lady Isabel meets Captain Francis Levison a charming man who she instantly falls in love with though he proves a real rogue. Isabel’s father dies shortly after and Isabel finds herself left with a not so nice member of the family before accepting Archibald Carlyle’s hand in marriage admitting to him she doesn’t love him but one day she may. Throw in a possessive half sister, the wonderfully named Cornelia Carlyle, a local girl Barbara Hare who is clearly in love with Archibald and keeps meeting him in secret (though its actually because her brother is wanted for a murder he didn’t commit – see lots of stray storylines) send the delicate Isabel to France for respite where she meets Captain Levison again and you have the perfect recipe for one hell of a sensational novel… and that is not even half of the story. I can’t give away anymore and no one should as it would spoil such a wonderful, wonderful book.

The faults that I have seen reported in other thoughts on this book are that it’s too far fetched and yes in a way the plot is quite implausible… but this is sensation fiction (and fiction in general does this Nineteen Eighty-Four anyone?) and that in part is what its about. Though, if you research it, actually at the time divorce was becoming available in society. This book does look at the social history of the time along with the sanctity of ‘family’ in that period as step mothers who were from second marriages, not from the death of the first wife but of divorce instead, started to appear more things for women were changing again as naturally divorces were always in favour of the male party.

Enough of the social history and back to the book… I just thought the characters were wonderful. I loved the delicate, often flighty and slightly idiotic Isabel. She isn’t calculating just rash and fanciful and in a way her story is quite a tragic one and shows the lengths some people could go to for family, I can’t give anything more away than that. I though the bubbly Barbara Hare was a very interesting character with hidden depths. Naturally it was for me the icy, sister in law spinster Cornelia Carlyle who just for me walked off every page of the book as if she was in the room filling it with her (often wrong or prejudiced) opinions and thoughts. A magnificent character, in fact a magnificent set of characters. Throw in all of the plots, back stories and twists and I was left quite breathless by its brilliance.

This book has not only made me want to read everything that Ellen Wood (or Mrs Henry Wood) has ever written it has in many ways opened me up more to the idea of reading many more books that have such a grand scale and are so filled with several plots and characters which is giving me hope for reading Dickens in the future. I can certainly see why everyone at the time bought this book in their droves; it’s just a shame that they don’t do that now. I am hoping this will help, I will make sure I pop and say thank you to Ellen Wood every time I pass her at Highgate, she deserves more recognition.

If you are wondering why I haven’t used the most famous quote in the book, and it is very famous, it’s because it gives away quite a lot when you know some of the plot, so don’t go searching for it. So who else has read this? If you haven’t why on earth not you must run out and get it now.

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Filed under Books of 2009, Ellen Wood, Mrs Henry Wood, Oxford University Press, Review, Sensation Novels

Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes

If you haven’t heard of Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (no relation as far as I know to Marian Keyes) then don’t worry as neither had I. However since it became the latest choice for book group after Jackie’s choosing I found out that actually this is rather a cult novel. First published as a short story in 1959 and then rewritten in novel form becoming and award winning classic, such a classic infact it has been turned into a film and even a musical in the late 1970’s starring Michael Crawford. Who knew, the things you learn. What about the book though, would this work for me as it does come under the science fiction umbrella?

The Algernon in ‘Flowers for Algernon’ is actually a mouse and though isn’t the main character is certainly pivotal to the plot. This is no ordinary mouse as Algernon has undergone some experimental surgery that means he is a super intelligent mouse. It is from this successful operation that the people and researchers at Beekman have decided to try this out on a human and through this we meet our narrator Charlie Gordon a 32 year old cleaner in a bakery with an IQ of 68 who is mentally disabled. It is Charlie’s diaries or ‘progress reports’ from just before the operation and its effects afterwards that we read as the story unfolds.

I have to admit that when I started reading this book and knowing it was science fiction I just didn’t think this would be a book for me. It didn’t help that the first part of the book is written phonetically as Charlie cant spell. I was wrong though as after getting used to Charlie’s initial bad grammar and spelling (which does pass) and following his journey as he changed and saw the world change around him I was gripped. There were two reasons for this. The first was reading his personal history how his parents couldn’t cope, how his sister hated him and how people picked on him, something he hadn’t realised before his level of intelligence was altered and makes for quite heart breaking reading and looks at the way people with mental disabilities are treated in some cases. There is also quite a twist in the tale as Algernon starts to behave oddly with wild mood swings and his intelligence deteriorates, what will happen to them both?  

It’s such a though provoking read that I am sure book group will have been filled with fascinating discussion (I am posting quite a bit ahead at the moment so we haven’t met as I type). What will we make of the two women who come into Charlie’s life, his teacher Alice and his crazy fabulous neighbour Fay, and their treatment of him? What was Keyes trying to say in this book, and where did the inspiration come from? Do we all feel we have been able to gain additional insight into what it is like to have learning and mental disabilities? I know I feel like I have made to think about the subject more than any other book has made me do. What about the ending, did anyone else cry a bit… I shall say no more about it (and don’t anyone else give anything away); they could be happy or sad tears you will have to read the book to find out.

It is books like this, which I know had I seen this in the book shop I would have not read, that show why book groups can be so great. Has it changed my not too high opinion of science fiction? Yes in a way, I have realised now its not that I don’t like science fiction (though no Star Wars or Trek on any account) it’s more that I am daunted by it. If I can find more science fiction that hits me like this I can see myself becoming much more of a fan of the genre.

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Filed under Book Group, Books of 2009, Daniel Keyes, Review

The Year of the Flood – Margaret Atwood

I have been meaning to read Margaret Atwood’s latest novel The Year of The Flood for ages. I don’t know exactly why it took me so long to get around to opening the first few pages. I think part of it was the question as to whether or not you have to read Oryx and Crake first which I haven’t done. Some people say you do and some people say you don’t. Margaret Atwood herself has said you don’t need to, so I went with her opinion as apparently this is a ‘sister’ novel.

The Year of the Flood is set in the future, though quite when I wasn’t sure I personally felt it wasn’t too much in the distance and yet not in the next decade. The book is told through the experiences and life’s of two members of what people deem the cult ‘God’s Gardeners’ who await ‘the waterless flood’ which will kill out most of mankind. Here their leader Adam One teaches the followers of this mix of science and religion in a slightly free spirited way. After all this is the man who says ‘it is better to hope than to mope’ also showing some of Atwood’s wry humour. Two female members who come into this cult are Ren as a young girl when her mother runs off with her and one of the other members of God’s Gardeners, the other is Toby who is literally though never quite spiritually saved by Adam One.

The book alternates between the voices of Ren in second person and Toby in first person both in the times before ‘The Flood’ and in the times after interspersed with the preaching’s and hymns of Adam One and the God’s Gardeners (which I did find a little irritating – tiny bit – but could see their purpose). Ren has become a dancer and worker in a high class sex club and Toby has been living out of a derelict AnooYoo Spa living off the edible treatments. The question of what the flood is and if human kind, green rabbits and liobambs (dangerous creatures half lion half sheep) can survive is one that you will have to read the book to find out.

Now I don’t want to give anything away but I do need to give a little to explain further why I thought this book was so brilliant. Atwood uses the way the women enter the world of God’s Gardeners in a really interesting way in aspects to their views on it. Ren is brought there as a child and so really knows no better than the confines she is in until she leaves them (I won’t say why or when or how) and has to be a child in the ‘real world’ a world where SecretBurgers are made from just that… secrets ingredients, and if you are a cat fan beware of this chain and where the CorpSeCorps rule everything. Toby herself is rescued from that world and though joins the God’s Gardeners and becomes an Eve herself she is never quite sure if she believes all that she is meant to.

I found these different outlooks on the cult group fascinating and also their reactions to the fearful world outside the God’s Gardeners habitats. It’s also these differing pasts before The Flood that make how both women survive the initial time after when we join them so interesting and so utterly opposite. Mingle in Atwood’s dark tales of urban life, her wry humour, a death scene which made me cry and her thought provoking plot and you can’t really go wrong. Can you tell that I really, really loved this book yet? It’s a speculative spectacle.

So do you need to have read Oryx and Crake first? I hadn’t before I read this, though I will be reading it very soon I can assure you, and I didn’t feel that I was confused by the book as its wonderfully drawn for you with Atwood’s prose and is so rivetingly readable. Maybe I will read Oryx and Crake and think ‘oh no… I know how this ends’ but time will tell. Have you read either of these books?

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2009, Margaret Atwood, Review