Category Archives: Books of 2010

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done was eagerly thrust into my hands pretty much fresh off the printer with the words ‘this book is wonderfully dark, gritty and gothic, very you, you’ll love it’. Which instantly made me nervous of it. I am one of those people who gets reader stage fright. You hear a book is going to be ‘very you’ and you feel the pressure is already too much or start to contemplate what that person recommending you the book thinks of you before you have even opened the cover. In this case I was oddly flattered, strangely even more so when it turned out that Schmidt’s debut was a fictionalised account of the true crime case of Lizzie Borden, who many believed a murderess. I like my fiction dark, gritty and gothic, so believe me when I say that if that too is your bookish bag then this is just the sticky icky twisty treat for you too.

9781472240873

Tinder Press, paperback, 2017, fiction, 356 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

He was still bleeding. I yelled, ‘Someone’s killed father.’ I breathed in kerosene air, licked the thickness from my teeth. The clock on the mantle ticked ticked. I looked at father, the way hands clutched to thighs, the way the little gold ring on his pinky finger sat like a sun. I gave him that ring for his birthday when I no longer wanted it. ‘Daddy,’ I had said. ‘I’m giving this ring to you because I love you.’ He has smiled and kissed my forehead.
A long time ago now.

From the very beginning of See What I Have Done we are thrown straight into the macabre action and cloying, dirty atmosphere of the Borden household as Lizzie finds her father dead on the sofa with his head caved. It starts as it means to go on for this is a house that from the very start feels sick. It is grubby, meat being recooked over and over leaving a stench that pretty much sticks to the walls – and all this before it turns out there is not one dead body in the house but two as Lizzie’s step-mother is soon discovered to have met the same end. But who would take an axe to the heads of these two people, especially with such savagery? That of course is what we the reader, seemingly along with everyone in the Borden household and the surrounding streets of Fall River wonders, though of course deep down they all know it must be one of them.

And this, from the very off, is one of the things that makes See What I Have Done so utterly delicious to read, if a rather gory morsel. Everyone is under suspicion; from the police, from each other and from us as readers. Schmidt kindly, with a cunning and beguiling smile as her prose grips us and pulls us in ever more, invites us to play detective alongside the, erm, detectives. Yet she doesn’t make it easy, where would the fun in that be. Instead she takes us into the minds of four people who as it happens could be the main suspects and through them introduces us to some right shady characters on the side lines who could also be worth further investigation.

Bridget looked me over, her caterpillar eyebrows cracked like thunder, and the second officer took notes, took notes. My feet traced circles across the carpet, I opened my eyes wide, felt the house move left then right as the heat ground into walls. Everyone pulled at their necks to unloose their tightly wound clothing. I sat still holding my hands together.

First of all there is Lizzie, who I actually want to come back to as I think she is probably the finest creation (though there is a plethora) of the whole novel alongside the atmosphere. Lizzie however is the one who discovers the body, she is the one who has been home all day, though the house is like a  disorientating maze so anyone could have got in, and she is also, as we get to see her through others eyes and some hints of her own, the one who seems to have the biggest axe to grind – I am sorry I couldn’t help it.

We then turn to Bridget who is the maid of the house, she cooks and cleans (well both of those are debatable when you take into account the slop in a pan on the cooker and the absolute state of the house) does she know secrets that she shouldn’t, does she have a grudge or a secret of her own to keep? We also have Emma, Lizzie’s sister who mysteriously goes out that day but no one really knows where to, there are vague places alluded to and most people seem to believe her but could she have a grudge against her father and his wife, or worse her own sister. Then there is Benjamin a man who has suddenly appeared in the town, looks like a whole heap of trouble and who has met Lizzie’s (incredibly sleazy and delightfully creepy, remember what I said about shady side characters) Uncle John and may have made a pact with him and the devil.

Exciting isn’t it, all these possibilities. I have to say I really enjoyed, if that is the right word, getting into these four people’s heads, watching them watching each other and taking in all their interior viewpoints whilst having a bit of a root around in their potential motives and trying to work out just who on earth did it. I do have my theories but I will say no more for I don’t want to give anything away and take any of the fun of finding out yourself, or at least trying to.

Of course, being based on true events, even if still brimming with grey areas and shrouded in what ifs and maybes which has kept so many people fascinated, you know what actually happened or can look it up. What Schmidt does with Lizzie’s character, which also makes you forget it is real, will have your absolutely hooked even when you sometimes want to look away or pop the book down for a five-minute breather.

Under Schmidt’s prose, Lizzie is probably one of the most interesting women in fiction you will meet this year and also one of the most grimly fascinating character studies I have come across in a long time. Broken and vulnerable yet cunning and sneaky. Is she a misunderstood victim of her household or a product of it? Is she a potential killer or is she mentally unwell? Whatever the case she is completely enthralling to read, all the more so because her narration is slightly off; sometimes repetitive and childlike, sometimes wise beyond her years and almost gleefully sinister and knowing. You never know where you are with her and you feel she knows this all too well – I could be talking about Lizzie Borden or Sarah Schmidt herself when I say that, ha.

Underneath the sofa were tiny pieces of paper that had come away from police officers’ notebooks, trailing from sofa to kitchen like Hansel’s and Gretel’s hoping to find their way back home. I rubbed my forehead again. There would be many things Emma would have to fix to make everything right. I could see father’s blood on the sofa. I considered things.
Words slipped out of me then. ‘I was here talking to Mrs Borden this morning.’
Emma seized. ‘When was this?’ Her voice scratched at my ear.
‘After she told Bridget to keep cleaning the windows. She said there was a strange smell.’
Emma’s nose twitched. ‘What kind of smell?’
The sweet syrup tripped through my limbs. ‘I don’t know. It was probably her.’ I giggled.

One of the benefits of leaving it sometime between reading a book and writing a review of it is that you can get a distance from it – an excuse which I will be using for why some reviews have taken so long to write. I digress. After all, sometimes books fade a little from that first reading rush, or of course they can grow on you as the themes and thoughts they bring up bloom the larger the more time that you have away from them. Then there are books like See What I Have Done, which as your read them worm their way deeper into your psyche and leave something lingering there long after, these are the books you don’t forget the ones whose characters and places just refuse to budge. I urge you to read Lizzie’s tale and let yourself become entwine in the Borden house before it starts to stick in your head, rather like an axe could.

In rather exciting news, as sometimes books can bring people into your life who become lifelong friends or soul siblings, myself and Sarah will be starting a ‘sinister’ book group later this year where we read an unsettling read a month and you can all join in, titles and dates to be released soon. In the interim, you can get Sarah’s book here if you haven’t already which you really should have.

3 Comments

Filed under Books of 2010, Books of 2017, Random Savidgeness, Review, Sarah Schmidt, Tinder Press

The Final Bits of 2010… What Where My Favourite Books?

I wasn’t really planning on doing a specific post on my favourite books of 2010 and yet I didn’t really feel like I could move onto a new year of reading unless I did. Maybe it’s something to do with having actually finalised the year or some such? Or maybe its simply my love of lists? Anyway its now done…

Well when I say ‘it’ is now done I mean ‘they’, as I couldn’t actually just do a single list of the top ten – I went for two. Now knowing some people don’t like these lists, though I have to say I love them, I thought I would hide them in the blog at the end of 2010, so you can find Part One here and Part Two here.

I have started my first book of 2011 (and almost finished it in fact) finally, and I thought I would have a little competition to get us off to a delightful start to 2011. So if you can tell me what my first read is from its first line pop your answer in today’s comments and two of you will be plucked at random and I will send you a copy of any paperback edition of a book on my best of 2010 lists, and its open world wide… how does that sound?

So the first line is this… ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him’.  So what’s the book? Good luck, you have until the review goes up at some point tomorrow!

18 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, Books of 2010, Give Away

Books of 2010 Part Two…

So in my second list of books that I loved in 2010 I decided to go for books that were published in hardback or paperback for the first time in 2010. There are some exceptions though and I have not included any of The Green Carnation Prize long or shortlisted books as I don’t know if I could rate them in the same way I do the books I read randomly and pop on the blog, is that fair of me? I will have to think about that more going forward in 2011 maybe? Right anyway, as Miranda Hart would say, let’s get on with the show…

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot (Pan Books)

“…there is so much in this book that it’s really, really hard to do it justice in any kind of way. It’s book that will open your eyes to some of the most important times in modern science, the not that distant injustice of racial segregation was still going on (Henrietta was on a coloured only ward) and a real life family drama that you couldn’t possibly believe isn’t fiction, but it’s all very real and makes for an incredibly emotional and utterly brilliant book. I cannot recommend this enough; it’s definitely one of my books of the year, if not the book of the year so far for me. It’s emotional, angering, thought provoking and mind expanding; it’s also incredibly readable and an important book too.”

Purge – Sofi Oksanen (Atlantic Books)

“Sofia Oksanen has written something quite amazing. It is a rare book that takes me on such an emotional journey and to such dark places and yet leaves me almost unable to put the book down. Her prose is absolutely stunning (and here I should credit Lola Rogers on a fantastic translation) and without ever being too graphic she manages to drop in enough information to let the reader work out what’s going on and yet leave enough unsaid that we create the scenes in our own minds which is often the more disturbing and effective than spelling everything out.”

One Day – David Nicholls (Hodder)

“I am well aware that this book won’t be for everyone but anyone who is looking at it and thinking ‘chick-lit by a man with no literary merit’ (and I have heard that said) would be wrong. The prose is incredibly readable without being throw-away. I laughed and cried whilst reading this book in one sitting, it was rather like spending a day on an emotional rollercoaster I have to say and yet once I had put it down I really just wanted to start all over again and I don’t say that too often. It’s not a modern masterpiece but I hope it becomes a contemporary classic… A book that will leave you an emotional wreck, make you want to hug it and also start all over again all at once possibly.”

Beside The Sea – Veronique Olmi (Peirene Press)

“I know there are some people out there who think that if you don’t have children then you can’t relate to tales about mother’s (or father’s) feelings for their child or children. I think that’s a load of rubbish, I believe that a wonderful author can take you absolutely anywhere, into any mind or situation, that’s the wonder of books. Olmi is just such a writer who put me into the mind of a mother thinking of her and her children’s lives and left me rather an emotional wreck and not any books can leave me almost feeling physically winded.”

The Long Song – Andrea Levy (Headline Review)

Slavery is always going to be a tough subject and yet the way Levy writes it both hits home the horrors of what took place, sometimes in quite graphic detail, and yet through her wonderful narrators voice there is a humour there… If you haven’t read any Levy then this is a great book to start with. If you have already had the pleasure then this book continues to show that Levy is a wonderful author who can take you to faraway places with wonderful characters and make it all look effortless… This is a truly wonderful book that haunts you in both its humour and its horrors.”

A Life Apart – Neel Mukherjee (Corsair)

“It is hard to believe that this is a debut novel as to read it feels so accomplished. Unlike other books that could have made you feel almost too much is going on everything is measured and paced, themes are explored but not overly so. No puddings are overegged by Mr Mukherjee here where some authors might have gone into melodrama or overkill. The prose is both lush and stark in parts and has a wonderful flow to it. The only slight tiny niggle I had was that Maud Gilby’s tale is all in bold which played a bit with my eyes, as I said a small niggle though…  Not only, as I mentioned above, is it a book that leaves you feeling a little differently about life, not on a grand scale but in subtle ways and haunts you after you finish the last sentence.”

Room – Emma Donoghue (Picador)

“Emma Donoghue does something incredibly special with ‘Room’. By putting us in the mind of 5 year old Jack she makes us see things from both the innocence of the child narrating and the cynical knowledge the reader has as an adult and rather than play it for a schmaltzy tale of woe, or a calculated tear fest, though the book is emotional in parts. It’s also very funny in parts too and that’s all down to the child eye observance of Jack and his voice. Child narrators can sometimes really grate on me, let alone books that are written in a slightly childish dialect, yet I could have listened to Jack describing his life for pages and pages more.”

Started Early, Took My Dog – Kate Atkinson (Black Swan)

“Not only do you have a mystery or two in the book to work out, you have this overall mystery of just how on earth everything interlinks and with ‘Started Early, Took My Dog’ she draws out the process by introducing each character and bringing their circumstances and personalities to the fore. No one dimensional characters here, not even if they are merely in the book for a page or two. All the main characters are marvelous, readable and real. In doing so she also gets to voice her thoughts on both issues from the past (in this case the serial killings in the seventies which gripped the nation and left many women in fear) and in the present (prostitution, child welfare, the recession, dementia) through their back stories which makes it even a fuller read.”

The Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell (Headline Review)

“I should say it will be hard to do this book justice full stop, it will also be hard to say too much without giving everything away and spoiling it for the reader… For me the star of the whole book was the writing. Every single sentence was a real joy to read and seemed to have been crafted with care as if every word counted and that is a rare find I think. In some ways it reminded me of the way Brooklyn was crafted though the stories are nothing a like at all. The fact that on top of this atmospheric and beautiful writing are two such interesting women, a whole cast of wonderful crafted characters and a plot makes this a wonderful book for the reader, you won’t want to rush it rather savour every line page by page.”

The Clay Dreaming – Ed Hillyer (Myriad Editions)

If I said to you that ‘The Clay Dreaming’ was a book about an aboriginal cricket team arriving in London in 1868 it might not sound like the type of book you would instantly rush down to your nearest book shop to grab… The prose is masterly, the characters are full drawn – apart from the mysterious ones of course and I could easily imagine this having been published in installments in the papers/magazines of the late 1800’s… It’s not a book to be read quickly, nor an easy read by any means (ideally it’s one to be read slowly with no great rush and allowed to unfold in front of the readers eyes – perfect for on your holidays) but it is one that I don’t think people should miss out on.”

You can find the rest of my top books of the year here. Which of the books above have you read and what did you think? Have any of these books been on your must read lists? What were your favourite reads of 2010?

10 Comments

Filed under Books of 2010

Books of 2010 Part One…

I do like a nice top ten list of some kind and here is the first of two that cover my favourite reads of the year. 2010 has been a fairly vintage year for reading both with discovering some wonderful new books along with some older classics and so I thought what I would do is one list which is the top ten book I read in 2010 which were published before the year started and another list which covers all the books published in 2010 be it in hardback or paperback. So let us start with the top ten books I read in 2010 but published before it, links to the full review can be found by clicking on the titles…

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte (Vintage Classics)

“I will simply say that ‘Jane Eyre’ has instantly become one of my all time favourite novels. I have even given ‘Villette’ a few enquiring sideways glances since I finished this yesterday. I would give ‘Jane Eyre’ an eleven out of ten only that would be breaking the rules. I shall simply have to give it a ten out of ten in bold… a simply MUST read book, it’s even made me think about the way I read – and it takes the most special of books to do that to us I think personally.”

Peyton Place – Grace Metalious (Virago)

“I cannot pretend that I didn’t originally want to read this book in part because it sounded like a wonderfully shocking and slightly trashy romp of a tale. Yet to label the book trashy is unfair on ‘Peyton Place’ because Grace Metalious (possibly the best name for an author ever?) writes wonderfully and as a piece of fiction it’s really rather complex, as there are so many characters and undercurrents, and also has a lot to say. Fear not though never once does the author baffle you or over complicate things.”

Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber & Faber)

“If I gave anything away I would be so cross with myself because knowing nothing about this book is probably the best way to let the emotional impact hit you as it unfolds. I will say that Ishiguro creates such a realistic story and scenario that rather than thinking ‘Never Let Me Go’ is set in an ‘alternative England’ in the 1990’s I could very well believe that all that happens in the novel could have really happened and still be happening and you would never know. You might find yourself looking at people you pass in the street a little bit differently. I know I did after finishing the book and to me that shows how real and engrossing a modern masterpiece Ishiguro has created.”

The Drivers Seat – Muriel Spark (Penguin Classics)

“I think this has almost instantly become my favourite Spark yet. In comparison to some of the other works of hers I have read this has the darkest undertone despite its bright cover and flamboyant lead character. It also packed one of the hardest punches yet, and I will say I thought The Girls of Slender Means had a dark twist; this one hits you early on.  It also see’s Muriel dabble in a genre that I wouldn’t have seen her try and yet she does brilliantly in her own Sparkish way. I realise I sound vague but I do so hate to spoil things and this is a book that should not be spoiled in any way at all and in fact if you haven’t read must be read immediately.”

Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks (Vintage)

“It is incredibly hard to try and encapsulate ‘Birdsong’ in a mere few paragraphs and I am sure I haven’t done it justice. The writing is incredible, as I mentioned above I don’t think I have ever had war depicted to me – especially life in the trenches themselves – with such realism. By turns dramatic yet never melodramatic you find you heart racing as much as you do feel the longing of a love affair that seems doomed from the start in the first section. I did initially get thrown by the addition of the modern narration through Elizabeth, Stephen’s granddaughter; however Faulks uses this to add a further dimension to the journey we are already on whilst adding a further tale of the effects of war. The only word for it really is epic, ‘Birdsong’ is a book you’ll want to get lost in for hours and yet be unable to put down.”

The Loved One – Evelyn Waugh (Penguin Classics)

“I laughed out loud a lot with this book and I wasn’t expecting it (though maybe with a dedication ‘to Nancy Mitford’ inside I should have guessed) it charmed me. I loved the irony, comical cynical attitude of the author and random plot developed and it entertained me and took me away from everything for the two hours that I couldn’t put it down. Ten out of ten! This is a lesser known work of Waugh’s that has left me looking forward to reading many, many more of his books in the future… It’s wickedly entertaining and a real riot to read, if in some slightly dubious taste, I bet this caused quite the stir when it was published in 1948.”

Skin Lane – Neil Bartlett (Serpent’s Tail)

“I will admit it left me a bit of a wreck (am not doing spoilers but feel free to in the comments), it was all utterly worth it for a reading experience like this as they don’t come around all that often… I could go on and on raving about this book, the other wonderful characters that Bartlett creates (Mrs Kesselman is a wonderfully drawn formidable yet secretly caring middle aged woman who works with Mr. F), the descriptions of London in 1967 with its living and breathing atmosphere, the parallels with the much mentioned and alluded to ‘Beauty and the Beast’, the role of a victim as a tormentor, sexuality… the list is endless.”

Stiff – Mary Roach (Penguin)

“It might not be a subject that you would think you would want to read about but death is really the only guarantee that we have in life, and though we might not openly admit it aren’t we all a little bit fascinated (in a morbidly inquisitive or scientific way) by it? Well in ‘Stiff’ Mary Roach is very intrigued by just that and meets all the people who have dealings with us when we die and asks all the questions that we would if we honestly could… You get history, you get insight, you get emotion and laughter – yes I was in hysterics at some points – and you get reassurance in a strange way. All the while in the company of Mary Roach who by the end of the book I felt I was firm friends with, if only all nonfiction whatever its subject could be as readable as this.”

On The Beach – Nevil Shute (Vintage Classics)

“Nevil Shute has created possibly one of the most brilliant ‘tart with a heart’ heroines in Moira, who from her first drunken arrival on the pages (and soon followed up with a hilarious ‘accidental’ bra loosing moment which made me laugh out loud) promptly steals any scene that she is in. You could actually say to a degree it is the tales of Moira and Mary that in part make the book such a special read. I know I have picked a few holes in it but I still ended up coming away from ‘On The Beach’ feeling very emotional and it’s made me do quite a lot of reflecting and thinking which all the best books should do. It’s one of those books that will stick with you for days and days, I am sure I will be mulling this book and the question it raises over for weeks and weeks to come. Like I said before ‘On The Beach’ is not the perfect book but it’s an incredible one.”

Firmin – Sam Savage (Phoenix)

“It was the ending and then surprisingly the authors note that popped it back to being five star as I didn’t realize the period in which the book was set was a strange time for Boston and in particular those in Scollay Square. Don’t look that up though until you have read it as the impact of that and the ending left me feeling a little winded and a little more emotional… I would call this ‘a tale of a tail whose owner who loves tales’ and a book that will leave you with more book recommendations than you could shake a tail at!”

You can find the rest of my top books of the year here. Which of the books above have you read and what did you think? Have any of these books been on your must read lists? What were your favourite reads of 2010?

8 Comments

Filed under Books of 2010

Books of 2010… Your Thoughts

It’s getting to that time of year when you start seeing ‘The Books of The Year’ in all the broadsheets, which I always find quite interesting as invariably I have missed out on these choice reads!

Its also the time of year when I start to think which books will make it into my end of year lists and the question always arises ‘have I missed any?’ So I thought I would ask you for some of your favourites from 2010, be they published this year or ones of old (or the last few years/decade) that you have only discovered this year!

Which books might I have missed that you’ve loved this year and I should try and get reading before the end of December? (You might also save some books from getting culled… The cull is almost done, more on that later in the week!)

13 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, Books of 2010

Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

Isn’t it funny how something in your real life can lead you down a different reading path than the one you were expecting? I was planning to make a start on ‘Middlesex’ by Jeffery Eugenides earlier in the week when I received a text from my big sister Holly asking if I wanted to go and see the stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks ‘Birdsong’ in the West End on Friday (today) as her acting agency have a lot of their members as cast in the show. Naturally I couldn’t turn down time with her or the change to go and see a show and so I said yes, and will actually be on the way there when you read this. The thing was though I hadn’t read the book, which has been languishing on my TBR for about 4 years, so with slight trepidation to its size and subject matter I thought ‘right I shall pick it up and read it now’ and wow was it a real reading experience!

‘Birdsong’ is such a wonderful novel that when you try and write about it, and this is my sixth edit, you never feel like you could do it justice without simply telling people to go and read it. However people might want to know a little more about it and I shall try and furnish the finer detail for you a little without giving anything away. Or you could stop reading here and simply go and grab the book if you haven’t already. Anyway, I digress…

As ‘Birdsong’ opens its first of seven parts we are in Amiens, France in 1910. Here we follow Stephen Wraysford as he joins Rene Azaire to spend time in his textile factory at the behest of his benefactor in England. Not only does he spend time in Azaire’s empire he also lives with his family including daughter Lisette, son Gregoire and second wife Isabelle. This is Faulks way of not only setting up life in middle class France before the First World War but also the first dimension of the story as Stephen embarks on a dangerous and secret love affair with one of the women of the household.

The second part of the novel is set six years after the latter parts dénouement as we rejoin a slightly altered Stephen as he fights in the trenches during the Battle of the Somme, his previous years have turned him cold and dedicated so much to the war, for escape I felt, that he will take no leave and seems to want to fight fiercely all he can. The battle rages and soon as Stephen is let in on a sad secret of the next part of their fight, and therefore we the reader learn the same, we follow the war in the most realistic fictional account I have ever read of it. The reader then follows Stephens story through both his eyes and the eyes of his granddaughter in the 1970’s and just when you think the story couldn’t unfold anymore it does and not the way you might expect.

It is incredibly hard to try and encapsulate ‘Birdsong’ in a mere few paragraphs and I am sure I haven’t done it justice. The writing is incredible, as I mentioned above I don’t think I have ever had war depicted to me – especially life in the trenches themselves – with such realism. By turns dramatic yet never melodramatic you find you heart racing as much as you do feel the longing of a love affair that seems doomed from the start in the first section. I did initially get thrown by the addition of the modern narration through Elizabeth, Stephen’s granddaughter; however Faulks uses this to add a further dimension to the journey we are already on whilst adding a further tale of the effects of war. The only word for it really is epic, ‘Birdsong’ is a book you’ll want to get lost in for hours and yet be unable to put down. 10/10

I loved this book and read it in three sittings, I don’t think I can put it any simpler. I was carried away by the love story, equally horrified and gripped by Faulks war scenes and left quite bereft when I finished the final page. I am sure I am preaching to the converted and you have all read this already, however if you haven’t then you must… in fact go, go right now and get it. I am just left wondering which of the novels of Sebastian Faulks to read next and if any could ever compete with this one? Maybe I should have read it last rather than have it as my first read of his work? Though of course I could read everything else and return to this one, which I think I will definitely do at some point. Will the play do it justice I wonder?

This is a book I have had on Mount TBR for about 4 years and always meant to read… how many more like this might I unwittingly own I wonder?

19 Comments

Filed under Books of 2010, Review, Sebastian Faulks, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

The City & The City – China Mieville

Sometimes I can get cross at myself as a reader (please tell me some of you do this too), as you are reading a really entertaining and interesting book such as ‘The City and the City’ by China Mieville yet because of everything else going on in your life you go into some sort of funk and you can’t read. Its not the books fault, and really its not your fault as the reader its just life, but if you are like me then you get really annoyed with yourself. However the sign of a good book is when you can have a break from it for a week or two rejoin the plot and characters and not only be straight back into the story you are also swept away by it again once more and this was one such book and considering its synopsis I actually thought I would struggle to get into it at all the first time.

The title ‘The City & The City’ really hints at what you might be expecting from this book (I don’t think China Mieville would have been able to get away with calling it ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ which could have been a good option) as the reader is rather quickly drawn into a world we almost know, a dystopian idea of some part of the edge of Europe, we must also accept that two cities can actually reside in the same place. It sounds complicated and like it might be hard work, which I thought it was going to be, but Mieville somehow makes the whole idea seem incredibly easy to imagine.

In the city of Beszel people are aware that there is another city, Ul Qoma, that occupies the same space as them and yet as they grow up they are trained in the art of ‘unseeing’. This comes into jeopardy on occasions when either something like a car crash happens in one city and for a while everyone can see both, possibly to do with the shock or the extremity of the situation. As we find ourselves in Beszel a murder of a young woman that seems unsolvable has occurred, and its not until Inspector Borlu, our protagonist, realises someone could be murdering people in Ul Qoma and leaving them in Bezsel that ‘unseeing’ may have to go out of the window and that ‘Breach’ (which is an all seeing all knowing eye, slightly in the vein of Orwell’s Big Brother in ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’) may have to be consulted and assessed.

To say too much more would be to undo some incredibly clever twists, turns and imagination that Mieville creates and passes onto any reader coming to the book afresh and I wouldn’t want to ruin that. I will say that the murder mystery does take on a further twist or seven as we discover the murdered girl was looking for a third ancient city (yep, one more but fear not by this point you will be open to eight cities being in the one place as Mieville makes them so clearly different) which brings a whole new historical level to the book and that the powers that be may be hiding something creating a taught thriller that will have you furiously reading to its incredible dénouement.

Mieville has officially won me over with this novel, the characters are fully built, no one dimensional inspector in sight as some authors might have gone for in favour of story over substance. I know in the hands of another author most of this novel could have gone over my head and frustrated me to the point of throwing my book across the room. Not so in the case of Mieville, he’s clearly a masterful writer and incredibly inventive and clever but without a hint of smugness ever appearing on the page. ‘The City and the City’ is a book that has to be read to be believed, and for someone who doesn’t normally go for this type of book Mieville has gained a huge new fan! It’s a book to get lost in. 9/10 (I actually wanted it to be longer and unfold a little though what he achieves in only 312 pages is incredible.)

So I have found a new author now who I want to read the entire works of. In fact I was most annoyed that this was from the library and I had to give it back. I think had I not had the rush of that deadline, someone selfishly requested it (ha); I might have started the book over and loved it even more. That’s not the book or authors fault, and not really mine its just sods law. I think Mieville fans it seems were slightly let down by this book, have any of you read it? If this is his poorest as some, not all, of his fans believe which books are his best I wonder? Can any of you could recommend where I should head to next, which Mieville books have you read and been blown away by?

This book I borrowed from the library, and returned rather grumpily as I would have liked to have it on my shelves to read again one day, its one of those books you could get something new from every time you read it.

19 Comments

Filed under Books of 2010, China Mieville, Pan MacMillan, Review

The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

As I mentioned to you the other week, a man who helped form the reader I am today sadly passed away. As you read this I will be on the train to his funeral in Kent, where I will be talking to everyone about him during the service, and I thought as a second tribute to him I would re-read one of the books he gave me many moons ago that has become a firm favourite of mine over the years. In fact I still think that ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ may not just be my very favourite Sherlock Holmes story yet also possibly my favourite Arthur Conan Doyle novel, though don’t hold me to that.

When Dr Edward Mortimer appears seeking Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street he comes not only with a mysterious death but also a family curse that has latest through the Baskerville line for decades. Sir Charles Baskerville recently died of a heart attack in the grounds of Baskerville Hall on the edge of the misty moors in the English countryside. However there has been suspicion around his death as his face was filled with a terrible fear and giant paws were found by him, the giant paws of the mythical ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’. With a new heir soon to arrive from America Mortimer wants Holmes to look into the mystery, and yet weirdly Holmes doesn’t seem convinced regardless of how grand a mystery it seems.

In fact it is Watson who is sent back with Mortimer to Baskerville Hall with the instructions that he must just keep Holmes abreast of the goings on and characters in the area and Holmes will join him if he feels the need. Once Watson arrives he finds that the characters are rather dubious and the moors incredibly ominous especially when during the night howls are often heard.

I am refusing to say anymore, though I could go on and on as I love this tale so much, as to give even a snippet away of what comes after the first quarter of the book would do any new reader, or indeed any returning reader who hasn’t read it for quite some time, out of a wonderful mystery that will have you turning the pages faster than you can say ‘whodunit’.

I love the atmosphere of this novel. We start with foggy Victorian London but are soon carried away by carriage to the haunting moors and the countryside that looks so peaceful but proves to be incredibly hostile. Conan Doyle also manages to make what could be another old country house murder mystery so much more using the supernatural of which he was a fervent believer. So as well as a murder mystery you also have a rather spooky tale. All in all this is the perfect tale for dark nights when you want to escape into the fantastical and the sinister. 10/10

Even several re-reads later, and I think this most recent must be my ninth or tenth, I spot new things I hadn’t before. Ok, I know then ending but there is so comfortable in opening a book like this and knowing just where you are but being able to take in all the extras of your surroundings. I can’t recommend this book enough, I am just wondering where to head with Sherlock next? I have suddenly realised with shock I have never read ‘The Valley of Fear’, maybe I should open one of the collections and have a short Sherlock by the bed that I can dip in and out of over these winter nights.

So a huge thanks to my Uncle Derrick for introducing me to such story telling and tales, hopefully me spreading the word will encourage others to try it and leave a little legacy from a man who was a true legend in my life.

This wonderfully covered new edition was sent to me from the publisher earlier in the year when I was planning a Sherlock season… I am still mulling over the idea.

2 Comments

Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Books of 2010, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

I wasn’t sure how I would react to the very real non fiction of ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot as firstly I have been very close to someone dying of cancer when I went and looked after my granddad (Granny Savidge Reads husband) during the last 7 weeks of his life three years ago and therefore I could have a rather emotional response which could be good or bad. Secondly I have never been a big fan of all things scientifical (is that a word), I was hopeless at science, not helped by the fact my Mum was dating and pregnant by my science teacher – who is now my stepdad – and taught at the school so science as a subject was a write off in my moody teenage  years and has been since on the whole. Despite all this I really, really, really wanted to read the story of Henrietta Lacks when I heard about it on the radio and though it was  full of science and made me cry it is an utterly incredible read.

I doubt any thoughts that I try and jot down on ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ will be able to do justice to the book itself but I will try my hardest. To talk about the book I am going to have to give some of true Henrietta Lacks story away but before embarking on the novel you are more than likely to know all this already. Henrietta Lacks was a woman living on the edge of constant poverty in Virginia when in 1951 she discovered she had a ‘knot’ in her body and didn’t feel right. It was soon discovered that she had cancer and though she didn’t know it, or tell anyone, initially at the time this was a devastatingly aggressive kind.

Whist undergoing her treatment some cells were taken from her cervix, she had no knowledge of this, which became the first cells which could live and thrive outside the body, and they were named the ‘immortal’ HeLa cells. What Rebecca Skloot does is not only discover just  what those cells have been used for (nuclear tests, the combating of all sorts of diseases like polio – which I only just had a jab for so made me think even further, I could go on and on but you need to read it to believe it) and how they have changed the world, she also finds out about who Henrietta Lacks was.

Skloot has clearly done hours and hours of research on the facts; looking through documents surrounding HeLa cells and passes this onto the reader without ever bombarding them with too much or showing off the level of work that has gone into this book. She also makes things like cell lines, tissue culture and genetic make up easy to digest and appeal to the layman (i.e. me) which having a BS in Biological Science I thought she might just assume we all knew what she did and she doesn’t. In fact its Skloot’s personal obsession with discovering who this woman was as well as her medical knowledge that adds a certain human something to this novel and that certain something is passion and it’s contagious.

Skloot has spent with those who knew Henrietta while she was alive and most importantly her descendants and in particular her daughter Deborah who didn’t know her mother as she was very small when she died but desperately wants to know all Skloot can find out about her. You are soon drawn into a vivid world of just what it was like for the tobacco farmers in Virginia in the early 1920’s onwards and the true, and quite unbelievable, story of one particular young woman and the family she left behind. What becomes even more shocking to the reader is not only that Henrietta had no idea what her cells would have done in the world after she had departed it but also that despite all these cells have done her family have made nothing from it, whilst companies have made millions, and can barely afford their own healthcare.  

You see there is so much in this book that it’s really, really hard to do it justice in any kind of way. It’s book that will open your eyes to some of the most important times in modern science, the not that distant injustice of racial segregation was till going on (Henrietta was on a coloured only ward) and a real life family drama that you couldn’t possibly believe isn’t fiction, but its all very real and makes for an incredibly emotional and utterly brilliant book. I cannot recommend this enough; it’s definitely one of my books of the year, if not the book of the year so far for me. It’s emotional, angering, thought provoking and mind expanding, its also incredibly readable and an important book too. Read it! 10/10

I don’t want to say anymore than that (though I could go on and on) so I won’t. Well, I will repeat that last sentence… Read it, you really need to.

19 Comments

Filed under Books of 2010, Macmillan Publishers, Rebecca Skloot, Review

Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

I’ve been mulling all things Savidge Reads and blog orientated of late and in doing so, though I haven’t quite finished, have decided that over the forthcoming months much more whim reading and pulling from the shelves and out of the boxes of my mighty TBR is going to be going on. I will still be doing reviews of the latest releases but after my small strop-of-sorts I want to go back to the days when I read what I wanted because I fancied it. ‘Never Let Me Go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro was a book that I decided three weeks ago I really fancied reading despite the fact I have struggled with Ishiguro before  and the fact that Granny Savidge simply said ‘well… many people loved it, I wasn’t one’ which actually made me giggle.

I happily admit that before I started ‘Never Let Me Go’ I had absolutely no idea what the plot would be. I have recently given up reading blurbs of books I am imminently due to read (it actually makes the experience all the better – I do of course read them in order to decide I want to read the book in the first place but invariably the book ends up lost somewhere in the TBR pile for a month or twenty four and so I forget). Therefore the story that unfolded before me was one that I could never have guessed and one that had I known too much of what was to come would possibly have ruined the experience so I am going to try and make you read this book without saying too much and being a bit vague, for this is a book that if you haven’t read then you simply must.

Kathy H introduces herself to the reader as a thirty one year old carer and who has been doing this for eleven years as ‘Never Let Me Go’ opens. In fact it is Kathy B’s narration and voice that are part of what makes the book such a success as we learn how she got from her childhood in the grandeur of Hailsham School to where she is now. As we go through this ‘coming of age’ tale with a rather large twist, in fact it’s the twist that made a genre I don’t like (coming of age tales) such a readable book, Kathy H drops little hints to the reader that she and the other children at this school, such as her two closest friends Tommy and Ruth for it is their three stories ad the triangle they create, are quite different from the likes of you and me and ‘where you come from’.

If I gave anything away I would be so cross with myself because knowing nothing about this book is probably the best way to let the emotional impact hit you as it unfolds. I will say that Ishiguro creates such a realistic story and scenario that rather than thinking ‘Never Let Me Go’ is set in an ‘alternative England’ in the 1990’s I could very well believe that all that happens in the novel could have really happened and still be happening and you would never know. You might find yourself looking at people you pass in the street a little bit differently. I know I did after finishing the book and to me that shows how real and engrossing a modern masterpiece Ishiguro has created.

He manages to write lyrical prose and what you would deem a ‘literary’ novel whilst merging in the speculative and also managing to leave every chapter on a cliff hanger so that you simply have to read on. You will get gripped so maybe try and read this on a very free weekend. Ishiguro also manages to put us inside the heads of all of the three main characters and gives us insight into Ruth and Tommy’s motives only using Kathy’s observations and to me that was a further sign of what a brilliant novel this is. I don’t think I can recommend or rave about it enough. 10/10 (And for a coming of age story to get that from me is quite something. Read it and if you have done so already… read it again, I know I will one day!) 

I mentioned I had struggled with Ishiguro before. It was actually for a book group choice back in the days before blogging and we read ‘An Artist of the Floating World’ I am wondering if the timing was all wrong and I should maybe go back to it sometime as after reading ‘Never Let Me Go’ I can’t understand how I wasn’t bowled over by him before. I shan’t head for that next though, I am already slyly eyeing up ‘A Pale View of Hills’, I could head for his most famous novel ‘Remains of the Day’ but I think I want to read that last. Who else has read ‘Never Let Me Go’ and what did you think? Which other Ishiguro novels have blown you away?

50 Comments

Filed under Books of 2010, Faber & Faber, Kazuo Ishiguro, Review

Purge – Sofi Oksanen

There are some books that I read where I simply want to type ‘you need to read this book’ a few hundred times instead of actually doing a review and ‘Purge’ by Sofi Oksanen is one such book. Of course I wouldn’t expect you to go off and buy a book just on my say so and of course I shall be giving you my thoughts rather than simply copying and pasting ‘you need to read this book’ over and over again. Can you pick up any subliminal messages I might be leaving in this opening paragraph at all?

‘Purge’ is going to be rather a hard book to write about in part because of how big the story is (not in terms of pages just in terms of story and subject matter) or because some of the book is harrowing to say the least but also because to give too much away with this story, I think, would lessen the impact it could have on a reader coming to it and to do that to a book/reading experience such as this would be a disservice. Anyway let’s see how we get on.

Aliide Truu lives a slightly solitary life near woods in the Estonian countryside. One morning after waging a war with a fly, which initially you think are the only bane in her life – you’d be thinking wrong, she spots something in her garden. That something turns out to be young woman, one who is wearing expensive clothes and yet is covered in dirt and bruised, a young woman who has appeared under her tree in the dead of night, a girl Aliide knows she shouldn’t take in because you can almost feel the danger coming from her, and yet Aliide does.

Slowly but surely as Aliide spends the following day or so with the girl, Zara, both Zara’s recent horrific past (the fact this setting is the early nineties was quite shocking for me) starts to unfold as  does Aliide’s which is a past with her sister over fifty years ago which she has wiped from her brain and buried deep elsewhere. As we read on two stories unfold that look at the history of Estonia and its women, the trials they have had to face and how they endured and survived. I shall say no more on the plot other than I think this is a tale that needs to be told and therefore to be read and heard by us no matter how difficult it can get in parts.

Sofia Oksanen has written something quite amazing. It is a rare book that takes me on such an emotional journey and to such dark places and yet leaves me almost unable to put the book down. Her prose is absolutely stunning (and here I should credit Lola Rogers on a fantastic translation) and without ever being too graphic she manages to drop in enough information to let the reader work out what’s going on and yet leave enough unsaid that we create the scenes in our own minds which is often the more disturbing and effective than spelling everything out.

Her two main characters Aliide and Zara are incredible creations. One initially a rather eccentric old lady living alone becomes a kind of unsung heroine, the other a girl who dreamed of a better life and took the opportunities to get there naively and with dark consequences yet who is a survivor. These characters make what could have just become a completely harrowing book (and it’s not because there are some moments of humour here and there) a book that is really about triumph and how people can and will cope when pushed to the edge. It’s also a tale about families.

“That smile became their first game, which sprouted word by word and started to blossom mistily, yellowish, the way dead languages blossom, rustling sweetly like the needle of a gramophone, playing like voices underwater. Quiet, whispering, they grew their own language. It was their shared secret, their game. As her mother did housework, her grandmother would sit in her usual chair, and Zara would take out toys and other things or just touch an object, and Grandmother would form its name in Estonian, silently, with her lips. If the word was wrong, Zara was supposed to notice it. If she didn’t know the word, she wouldn’t get any candy, but if she caught the mistake, she always got a mouthful of sweets. Her mother didn’t like it that Grandmother gave her candy for no reason – or so she thought – but she didn’t bother to intervene beyond a disapproving sniff.”

I strongly urge people to give this book a go. I don’t think books like this come around that often and it really needs to become a success worldwide (it’s already done very well in the rest of Europe). No its not a cosy read for these darker nights but it’s a gripping story that we all need to be told and one that Sofi Oksanen tells in a rather breath taking fashion. A must, must, must read book that may leave you changed a little after the final page. 10/10

I know some of you might now say that you would like to read this but it might be too disturbing and I hope you will look past that and test yourselves. I don’t mean that in a patronising way it’s just sometimes books need to test us and take us places that we don’t want to go. So I thought I would not only ask if anyone else has read this (have you?) but also for you to name me some books which have made for uncomfortable reading in parts but been an incredible and overall almost life changing experience to read as I would love some more recommendations of books along the lines of ‘Purge’?

41 Comments

Filed under Atlantic Books, Books of 2010, Review, Sofi Oksanen

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

For my first ‘Spending Sunday With A Classic’ I thought I would go for what is seen as one of the classics in literature ‘Jane Eyre’. I can’t lie to you and say I wasn’t slightly daunted at the prospect of a classic over 500 pages long, because I was. I don’t always tend to fair too well with the classics on the whole. However I can report back that I owe everyone who has told me to read this book a huge thank you (my mother is staying at the moment and keeps saying ‘I told you so’ every so often as we have been talking about it a lot) as I think in Jane Eyre I may have not only found the perfect narrator but also what I could say is a near perfect book and read. The only problem now is how to do it justice with my thoughts but dear reader I shall try.

I admit that I didnt start ‘Jane Eyre’ with the highest of hopes – I will be honest. First of all there was my ‘history’ with Charlotte’s sister Emily’s novel Wuthering Heights’, which I thought was tosh, but we shouldn’t judge an author on their siblings efforts (Byatt and Drabble or vice versa for instance) should we? There was also the length, 500+ pages, to contend with, the fact it is labelled a ‘classic’ and also the fact it started of with an orphan. Books with orphans as the lead character have, to my mind, become the great cliché of writing however this is one of the earliest and therefore if anything people will have stolen/paid homage to this.

When we first meet Jane Eyre it is under the begrudging guardian ship of her venomous (and therefore I liked her a bit) Aunt Mrs Reed in Gateshead with her vile cousins who contanstly bully and blame her. We are of course instantly on Jane’s side; we always want the underdog to come through after all. Soon enough things come to ahead and the aunt who can never love her  sends her to Lockwood a charity institution for young girls where the uncaring Mr Brocklehurst believes the devil can be taken from the child. I could add in so much here it’s untrue, such as the wonderful Miss Temple and the delightful and tragic Helen Burns, but if there is anyone out there who hasn’t read it I wouldn’t want to spoil a second of the wonderful read you have ahead of you before the main story really starts, yes this wonderful first few chapters is just a warm up for Bronte.

Well, when I say main, I mean more the story we all think we know if we haven’t read the book which is starts as Jane leaves Lowood as a teacher and becomes a governess for the mysterious Mr Rochester’s rather irritating ward Adele. From the moment she ‘bewitches’ his horse something starts between the two characters and takes the story into a darker and more eerie setting in the grand house of Thornfield Hall.

Despite being much older and a bit of a grumpy arse so and so there is something about Rochester that attracts Jane despite herself, and it appears Rochester can see something in Jane despite her plainness (is this where we get the term ‘plain Jane’?) and situation. Only Charlotte Bronte doesn’t let things run smoothly or the way you would assume and instead provides twist after twist taking her reader on a rather heartbreaking, occasionally shocking, slightly enraging, but immensely readable and gripping journey. She also takes you on it with an utterly wonderful narrating heroine who Bronte really puts through the mill and therefore also the reader on an emotional rollercoaster (not that they had rollercoaster’s in Charlotte’s day). Can you tell I loved it?

I still don’t think I have anywhere near done this book justice but then I don’t think I ever could. I could happily rattle on for a good thousand words or more though… However rather than give anything more away to those who haven’t read it and possibly ruin their enjoyment of it (as we can discuss it in more detail in the comments) I will simply say that ‘Jane Eyre’ has instantly become one of my all time favourite novels. I have even given ‘Villette’ a few enquiring sideways glances since I finished this yesterday. I would give ‘Jane Eyre’ an eleven out of ten only that would be breaking the rules. I shall simply have to give it a ten out of ten in bold. 10/10 There we go, a simply MUST read book, its even made me think about the way I read – and it takes the most special of books to do that to us I think personally.

Now can we all have a good old natter about it as I am simply bursting to!?!

(And yes I will be catching up with almost three weeks of comments today too when I can – as Mum is staying so to be on the computer too much might be deemed rude, apologies for my comment rubbishness of late!)

70 Comments

Filed under Books of 2010, Charlotte Bronte, Review, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

The Birds & Other Stories – Daphne Du Maurier

Daphne Du Maurier is always an author that I adore but also worry about every time I read. I have always loved her books, in fact I have actually really loved all of her books so far, yet I always think the next one could be the one that puts me off. So with a mixture of excitement and trepidation I opened up my copy of ‘The Birds & Other Stories’ (have you noticed I am slowly but surely becoming a short story convert?) little did I know I was about to open up what is quite possibly my favourite short story collection so far.

From having read previous Daphne Du Maurier’s short stories , and indeed her full novels, I do like it when she goes to the darker side of both her fictional writing, humour and thoughts on human nature and ‘The Birds & Other Stories’ is really like a distilled collection of just those tales. It is of course ‘The Birds’, which is probably the most famous of all her short stories and which gets a full mention in the title, that most people will think they know because of the Alfred Hitchcock film. In actual fact the story is nothing like the film apart from the fact that birds do turn on humans. I would say that (having watched the film again since) Daphne’s original version is much darker and with its setting of a family living in a small town by the English seaside it actually creeped me out much more. What’s great about this collection is that the most famous story isn’t even the best.

I’m not going to give you the ins and outs of each and every tale, or why would you buy them (and I highly recommend you do), but I think a nice taster would be of benefit – and I have made sure I don’t give big things away just a hint or two. ‘The Little Photographer’ is all about a surprising love affair in a hot bored summer that soon turns bad and with devastating consequences, just when you think it couldn’t twist any more… it does. Along similar lines, and yet totally different (if you know what I mean), ‘Kiss Me Again, Stranger’ is one of the most macabre tales in the collection on how love at first sight can blind you from the truth. ‘The Old Man’ is a harrowing family drama and to even hint what Du Maurier does to turn this on its head would ruin everything especially as it’s the shortest story in the collection.

My two absolute favourites however were ‘Monte Verita’ and ‘The Apple Tree’ – though ‘The Birds’ wasn’t far behind, I just thought I new it better than these two which I had never heard of before. When ‘Monte Verita’ opened with two leading male characters who spend most of their spare time rock climbing, I admit I thought ‘oh dear’. Slowly and surely Du Maurier weaves in a mysterious lover and the story of a mysterious legend deep in the mountains of a far off land and soon I was completely hooked. My very favourite of the stories had to be ‘The Apple Tree’ which is a superb and really creepy tale of unease all based on the relationship between a widow and old gnarled apple tree in his garden. Oh so subtly from minor little goings on after his wife’s death Daphne builds and builds odd happenings and you will soon be preying the protagonist doesn’t do just what you know he is going too.

I actually cannot recommend this collection enough. In fact I would say this book might actually get a re-reading over the next few weeks as the darker nights draw in. Even though I have already read them I have no doubt that Du Maurier’s words could build the tension again and again and leave me feeling pleasantly chilled. This is a collection I know I will return to again and again.

A book that will: have you curled up and gripped through the night. Afterwards you might want to leave the lights on and certainly won’t want to walk past cemeteries late or night, or even an orchard! 10/10

Can you tell I thoroughly enjoyed this book? What made it even more delightful was that I then discovered I could take two books of the TBR as my rather rare (with its wonderful cover) copy of ‘Kiss Me Again, Stranger’ is the American title of the 70’s edition of the same collection only in a slightly random order and with two additional stories which can be found in ‘The Breaking Point and Other Stories’. So which Du Maurier’s have you read? Has anyone else given this or any of her other short stories a go? What’s your current favourite short story collection?

24 Comments

Filed under Books of 2010, Daphne Du Maurier, Review, Short Stories, Virago Books

Portrait of a Mother as a Young Woman – Friedrich Christian Delius

Over the last year one of my missions was to read much more translated work. Well actually it was also to check out how much I read that was translated and wasn’t aware of, for some reason I always think that ‘translated by’ should be on the cover – not the case. One publisher that has helped me in this mini quest is Peirene Press who established themselves this year and whose previous titles ‘Beside The Sea’ and ‘Stone in a Landslide’ I have thoroughly enjoyed, one of them quite possibly heading for a place in my favourite books of the year list. So when the third arrived in the post I was really looking forward to it, yet I put it away for a while, I was nervous – would I like it as much as the first two?

‘Portrait of a Mother as a Young Woman’ sounds intimidating before you start it as the book is one long sentence which instantly filled me with dread. I don’t like it when a book does this for a few pages let alone a whole novella. However whether its down to the original, the editing or the translation (without reading the original in German I would never know – something I always think of when reading translations ‘was it this good originally, was it worse, was it better?’) it was a fear that proved unfounded as there are natural breaks in the pattern of the narrative.

Our protagonist is the woman of the title; we meet her during the war in 1943 as a young pregnant German woman residing in Rome while her husband is in army service in Africa. After doctors orders she is walking through the city from her guest house to the church. Initially she simply observes the city and looks back on how her relationship with Gert started and then starts to worry about the future, will her husband be safe, what world will her unborn child be born into? Normally a woman who believes that the almighty is powering and behind everything, worrying doubts are setting in her mind.

There is little more to the story than the way in which her thoughts progress as she wanders, you are simply privy to the internal workings and machinations of this woman’s thoughts. Yet this is not a book about plot, this is a book about time and place and Delius, through his portrait of this young woman, sets the time, place and surreal atmosphere in a city untouched by war yet very much feeling its effects (such as the coffee shortage – how did Italians cope with that?) now and again and forcing the reality of the situation into peoples minds when sometimes they forget.

The writing is simply stunning. Delius paints a vivid picture and an incredibly believable woman’s narrative voice, though the book isn’t in first person the flow of it and structure of a single sentence makes it feel like subconscious and very natural train of thought. Rome is painted vividly, I have never been and yet now feel I have walked those streets in that time period. In fact I feel I have walked those streets as that woman so vivid is the picture Delius creates.

Is there a downside? Well for me a teeny tiny one and that’s the title, which is actually perfect in terms of saying what the story is about and yet I keep getting it wrong when I talk or tell people about the book. I want to call it ‘The Portrait of the Young Woman as a…’ and then I think ‘no, it’s The Portrait of a Lady as a…’I am slightly worried I will tell people about it and they will grab Henry James or think James Joyce wrote a wonderful book about a young Nazi girl. Oh dear. The title though doesn’t really matter as the contents are so wonderful. (Oh and I must credit Jamie Bulloch on an incredible translation!)

A book that will: be perfect if you want something very different from your usual novella or novel and especially if you want to walk vividly in the footsteps of someone else. 8.5/10

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners:

Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers – The whole way through this book I wanted to head back to this novel, nothing to do with the story line but everything to do with the descriptions of Italy and in a way the mentions and thoughts of religion strangely.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden – Again nothing to do with the story line or premise of Delius’s book because it’s so unique but another incredible example of a man writing women flawlessly.

Who else has read this book, what did you think? Will any of you be going to see the lovely Kim of Reading Matters in discussion with the author tonight at ‘The Big Green Bookshop’? If you are I may well see you there. Which books have you read that have left you feeling you have actually stepped completely into someone else’s shoes and life despite the fact they are fictional?

Oh and should you want a copy of this of you very own I am giving one away in the post below…

14 Comments

Filed under Books of 2010, Friedrich Christian Delius, Peirene Press, Review