Category Archives: Books of 2011

Savidge Reads Books of 2011 – Part II

The midway point though the last day of the year seems an appropriate time to pop up part two of my books of 2011 and my last post of the year (is it me or does that feel weird?). We have already had the books released prior to this year and we now move onto the books that were released this year in the UK (I don’t think any of them came out anywhere else in the world but just in case I have popped that clause in). I actually think that 2011 has been one of the best for contemporary fiction and this was a much harder exercise to whittle these down to just ten. So without further waffle from me here they are again with a quote from the full reviews which you can find by clicking on the title…

Gillespie and I – Jane Harris

“Like its predecessor, the wonderful ‘The Observations’ (which I am going to have to re-read soon, it’s one of my favourite books which made me rather nervous about this one), ‘Gillespie and I’ is a book that is all about evoking an atmosphere, wonderful writing, an unforgettable narrator, and those clever twists you never see coming. Yet it is no carbon copy by any stretch of the imagination and stands in its own rite. I loved this book, it’s very easy to find a fault with a book, particularly one at over 500 pages in length, yet there are none I can think of. I would go as far as to say I think ‘Gillespie and I’ could be an almost perfect book…”

The Proof of Love – Catherine Hall

“I can’t hide the fact that I loved ‘The Proof of Love’. It’s a book that gently weaves you in. You become both an ‘outcomer’ and one of the locals. You are part of the loneliness and isolation of Spencer as well as the gossiping heart of the community, part of the mystery and part of the suspicions. It’s a very subtly clever book, it doesn’t show off the fact that it’s a rare and wonderful book at any point, but I can assure you it is.”

Annabel – Kathleen Winter

“I don’t think I have read a book that uses the third person in such a way that you see every person’s viewpoint so vividly. Every character, no matter how small a part they play, springs to life walking straight off the page and I honestly felt I was living in Croydon Harbour (atmosphere and descriptions are pitch perfect), whilst also being shocked that such a place still exists in modern times, and went along with Wayne’s journey every step of the way. It is incredible to think that ‘Annabel’ is Kathleen Winter’s debut novel; I was utterly blown away by it and will be urging everyone I know to rush out and read this book.”

The Borrower – Rebecca Makkai

“Rebecca Makkai is certainly a big fan of books of all genres, this adds to her prose and not just in the words and descriptions she uses but also the style. We have a letters and one of Ian’s short stories interspersed in some chapters, there are also chapters in the style of other books such as ‘Choose Your Own Fiasco’ where Lucy gives you her current scenario and you have to decide for her by going to ‘number three or go to number five’ like those quest books I used to read. It’s a really inventive way of writing the book, there is even a table or two in there, and adding another dimension to the whole experience of reading, in some books this doesn’t work, in this one it did.”

The Hunger Trace – Edward Hogan

“There is a real sense of humour in this novel, dark but often very funny, yet in many ways it is a moving tale of people and their sense of isolation or being an outsider often leading to events in their pasts be the recent or from years ago. These are events that leave a trace on you and which is described beautifully when Louisa discusses her prized bird Diamond who she saves and leads to the novels title. ‘When a falcon is undernourished, the feathers cannot grow properly. A fault line appears, even if the bird is fed again. The fault is called a hunger trace.’ It is this hunger trace that runs through the main character of this novel and their obsessions which keep the real world at bay be they Louisa’s birds, Christopher’s obsession with Robin Hood or Maggie’s need to succeed despite what anyone else says.”

There But For The – Ali Smith

“…so far it’s my favourite of Ali Smith’s works to date that I have read. She has taken bits of her earlier work; great characters, observations, comedy, unusual narratives, prose and pacing and put them all together. It’s a tour-de-force as opposed to a hotch-potch. I don’t want to say this is her most accessible book, even though in many ways it is, because that makes it sound like it’s not experimental and it is. It’s just honed down, controlled and done without ego.”

The House of Silk – Anthony Horrowitz

“I loved spending time with Holmes and Watson again and was gripped and tricked along the way. I just loved the adventure of it all. It doesn’t try to take Holmes anywhere new that the loyal fans will be unhappy with, nor does it become a pastiche of a Holmes novel. I knew it wasn’t Conan Doyle but I knew I was in safe hands. It has certainly made me want to turn back to the original Holmes novels; I hope Horowitz and Holmes fans will do the same, to me that is the sign of a great return and a successful one.”

In Other Worlds: SF & The Human Imagination – Margaret Atwood

“…because the way Atwood writes makes it feel like you are sat having a conversation about these things with her (if only), there is a humour and knowingness as you go along, secondly because it shows the forming of a writer which I always find fascinating and thirdly because it made me think. A lot. This isn’t writing you can rush, you need to read it, pause, think a bit, make some mental notes, read on, have a bigger pause, think more. I loved that this was the effect it had on me.”

Before I Go To Sleep – SJ Watson

“It takes a relatively simple, and equally possible, scenario and flips it on its head. In fact it’s the very domestic and almost mundane ordinariness of the books setting which makes it so unnerving. The fact Watson does this, on the whole, in one house between three characters is truly impressive. It’s an original, fast paced, gripping and rather high concept novel. I am wondering just what on earth, Watson is going to follow this up with… and how?”

When God Was A Rabbit – Sarah Winman

“You see initially after reading it I was a little conflicted about it, however with time for the dust to settle I realized I really, really liked it. There’s a warmth in this novel which is quite unlike any other I have read and it lingers. So as I was saying all in all I really, really, really enjoyed ‘When God Was A Rabbit’. It’s a book you gulp down for the first half and then watch unfold more delicately in the second.”

So there you have it, my top twenty books of the year. (I should add here that ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’ by Emma Henderson and ‘Mr Chartwell’ by Rebecca Hunt were initially on this list but then I discovered this morning they were actually published initially in 2010 and had already popped Part I up – oops, there’s two more recommendations snuck in there though.) So over to you, what do you think of this list and what were your favourite books of 2011?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Books of 2011

Savidge Reads Books of 2011 – Part I

I always struggle with this every year, which books will go into my top books of 2011 and why? I am following the form of the last few years and giving you my top ten books actually published in 2011 and, in this first post, the top ten books I have read this year which were published prior to 2011. I was going to try and rewrite the reviews in a succinct paragraph but in the end have decided to take a quote from the review and if you want to read more pop on the books title and you will find yourself at the full book post. So without further ado here are the first ten…

My Cousin Rachel – Daphne du Maurier

“…the psychological intensity du Maurier weaves through the pages along with the constant sense that she could pull the rug from under you at any given moment is incredible. Before Rachel even appears herself, around 80 pages in, she is quite the presence and the reader has quite possibly made up their mind about her through Philip’s utter jealously and then suspicion of this woman. Daphne then brings in a character quite unlike the one we would imagine. It is this game of Rachel being a misunderstood sweet if tragic innocent or magnificently manipulative calculating monster that makes you turn the page, are you right about her or utterly wrong?”

Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood

“I myself was bullied at school, I think most kids are at some point, so maybe that’s why this rang so true with me, but I simply couldn’t shake the feeling of it and it really, really got to me. To me, though rather uncomfortable, that is the sign of a wonderful book and a wonderful writer. Through Elaine’s often distant and removed narrative I was projecting my own experiences and emotions and it, along with Atwood’s creation of course, drove ‘Cat’s Eye’ and hit home. I can feel the emotions again just writing about the book, it’s the strangest and most emotive reading experience I have had in a long time, possibly ever.”

Moon Tiger – Penelope Lively

“The other thing, apart from the clever way it is told and the great story I cant say too much about, that I loved about ‘Moon Tiger’ was Claudia herself, even though in all honesty she is not the nicest woman in the world. I found her relationship between Claudia and her daughter a difficult and occasionally heartbreaking one. (‘She will magic Claudia away like the smoke.’) She gripes about her life, she has incredibly loose morals (there is a rather shocking twist in the novel that I didn’t expect and made me queasy), isn’t really that nice about anyone and yet I loved listening to her talk about her life. I think it was her honesty. I wanted to hear and know more, even when she was at her wickedest.”

Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford

“What I love about all of Nancy’s writing (and I have also been reading the letters between her and Evelyn Waugh alongside) is her sense of humour. Some may find the setting rather twee or even irritating as she describes the naivety of the children, which soon becomes hilarious cheek and gossip, and the pompous nature of the adults in the society that Fanny and Polly frequent, I myself haven’t laughed so much at a book in quite some time.”

Up At The Villa – W. Somerset Maugham

“…a perfect book when you want something slightly familiar and yet something that completely throws you. There is a comfort in Maugham’s writing that is rather like finding a wonderful black and white film on the telly on a rainy afternoon. That probably sounds ridiculous, or a big cliché, but it sums up my experience of this book the best way I can. You can’t help but lose yourself in it and find you are left wanting to turn to the next one as soon as you can.”

Hallucinating Foucault – Patricia Duncker

“From the opening pages Duncker pulls you into a tale that at first seems like it could be one sort of book and then becomes several books rolled into one whilst remaining incredibly readable. She also shows how many tools a writer has, the book is written in first ‘unnamed’ narrative for the main but also features dream sequences, letters from Michel to Foucault and newspaper clippings and reports. It’s like she is celebrating language and its uses.”

Blaming – Elizabeth Taylor

“Her writing is beautiful yet sparse, no words are used that needn’t be. Initially though there doesn’t appear to be a huge plot there is so much going on. We observe people and what they do and how they react to circumstances learning how there is much more to every action, and indeed every page, than meets the eye. along the lines of Jennifer Johnston and Anita Brookner, whose books I have enjoyed as much, Taylor is an author who watches the world and then writes about it with a subtly and emotion that seems to capture the human condition.”

The Queen of Whale Cay – Kate Summerscale

“It is not only the life of Joe that is so fascinating, the fraught relationships with her parents, the sham marriage for inheritance, her role driving ambulances in the war (her I wondered if she was the inspiration for Sarah Waters ‘The Night Watch’), the endless affairs including with some very famous women, the obsession with a small doll called Lord Tod Wadley (who even had his named engraved on the front door so people would actually call for him), the buying of an island ‘Whale Cay’ and it ruling… I could go on and on.”

84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

“As Hanff and Doel’s friendship blossoms she starts to send packages of food to him and the other workers in the store during the war, getting friends to visit with nylons etc, thus she creates further friendships all by the power of the pen. Initially (and I wondered if Frank himself might have felt this) Hanff’s lust for life, over familiarity and demanding directness almost pushed me to annoyance until her humour and her passion for books becomes more and more apparent along with her thoughtfulness during the war years as mentioned. I was soon wishing I had become Hanff’s correspondent myself.

The News Where You Are – Catherine O’Flynn

“It would be easiest to describe ‘The News Where You Are’ as a tale of a local tv news reader, who is obsessed with the past and lonely people being forgotten, trying to discover the mystery behind his predecessor, and now friend’s, hit and run whilst also trying to deal with his parental relationships I would make it sound like modern day mystery meets family drama. It is, yet that summation simply doesn’t do this superb novel justice. This is a novel brimming with as many ideas and characters as it brims with joy, sadness and comedy. It’s a book that encompasses human life and all those things, emotionally and all around it physically, and celebrates them.”

So that is the first half of my list. Have you read any of these and what did you think? The next lot of lovely literature I have loved this year will be up in the not too distant future…

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Evie Wyld & Edward Hogan’s Books of 2011

I always love it when people you know are on a wave length with the books they love that you have read, it means they might know lots of books you haven’t read but really should. You might remember that I mentioned how a short review Evie Wyld did on Open Book led me to reading ‘The Hunger Trace’ by Edward Hogan, which has become one of my favourite reads of the year. Well after I tweeted about it Evie and I were then emailing about other bookish bits and bobs, as she works in an independent bookshop which I am most envious of, at the same time I was also emailing Ed about Derbyshire (as we are both from there and I had just finished his wonderful second novel and wanted to say wow) and we started discussing books of the year and then I thought why not get both of them to tell me their top five books that I could share with all of you? I think they are two of the literary worlds Bright Young Things and, though it makes me feel slightly sick and hate them just a little that they are only two years older than me and such creative geniuses, I thought it would be interesting to see what two authors of the future (and present, but you know what I mean) have read and loved this year. So that is what I am going to do today…

So, ladies first and Evie’s five books of 2011…

The Devil all the Time by Donald Ray Pollock

It’s not often you read a book in which the author has successfully balanced darkness and comedy so cleverly. There’s something compelling about an author who can write about the worst things imaginable, with such an extraordinarily poor and bleak landscape as their backdrop and still manage to get out of it a bouncy and colourful voice which is utterly compelling. Its set in rural Ohio and West Virginia, and it’s drunken and violent and unsettling – a dream.

The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block

There are sentences so beautiful in A Storm at the Door that you reread them over and over wondering how Block’s brain works. It’s a kind of imagined memoir of his American grandparents. His grandfather spent much of his life in an asylum in Boston. It’s tough and manic and extraordinary, dotted with occasional photographs of the couple, which is a touch I love. You could say it’s an interesting examination of truth in memoir, and the thin line between fact and fiction, but more than that it is a beautifully written book.

A Taste of Chlorine by Bastien Vivès

A graphic novel that takes place almost entirely in a swimming pool. There are pages with practically no words but just the acutely observed sensation of being in a public swimming pool – the light and the movement, the strange isolation. It’s a love story about a man who starts swimming to treat his bad back, and who meets a woman in the pool. Not a lot that you can see really happens, but a lot is sensed. I reread this about once a month.

Waterline by Ross Raisin

I’m baffled as to why Waterline hasn’t been on heaps of prize lists. In the book shop when I recommend it to customers, sometimes they’ll say it sounds too sad, but sad things happen in novels, because they’re about life. Rant over, this is a fabulous book and it’s a devastatingly good book to follow God’s Own Country. Waterline is a journey between Glaswegian shipyards, Australia and London, and it’s about death and guilt and sadness, but it’s also written by Ross Raisin, which means the writing is exceptional and darkly funny even in its most crippling sad bits.

The Vintage and the Gleaning by Jeremy Chambers

The story is of an old sheep shearer who has spent his life filled to the gills with alcohol, and who has just been told that if he drinks again, his stomach will rupture and he will kill himself. He works on a vineyard in South Australia now, and the drinking culture there is just as heavy as that of the shearers, the suspicion of non-drinkers just as tough. The dialogue in this book is the thing that stunned me. Chambers gives the voice enough space that seemingly banal conversations become beautifully funny and meaningful. There’s a story repeated over and over about a dog stealing an ice cream that made me happier than any other storyline this year, possibly ever.

So now to the lovely Edward and his five books of 2011…

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

My book of the year.  It’s about a 19-year-old girl growing up in a Mennonite community in Mexico.  Irma is a brilliant character; she’s funny and forgiving and has a huge capacity for love.  Her hard life is invigorated by the arrival of a Mexican film crew.  Toews herself starred in a film about Mennonites, and she warmly satirises the process here. She’s great at writing about kindness (which is rare), and Irma Voth is funny in that way which makes you laugh, then keel over, then weep with sadness.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd)

A shockingly original and powerful monster story about a boy, Conor, dealing with the impending death of his mother.  It has the ancient power of a parable, but contains all the subtleties and complications of Conor’s grief.  I’ve no idea how Patrick Ness managed it.  The hardback is beautifully illustrated by Jim Kay.

Waterline by Ross Raisin

With the dominant political party and half of the media demonising everyone without a job, the country needs this book!  It charts the fall of Mick Little, a former worker at the Glasgow shipyards, into poverty and homelessness.  Raisin isn’t sentimental about the underworld of the homeless, he shows you how it works in well-researched detail, and presents Mick – with compassion – in all his humanity.

The Virago Book of Ghost Stories

Ghost stories are usually very political, so it’s fascinating to read these tales written by women over the last 150 years or so. Of course, there are the masters of the craft, like May Sinclair, but the contemporary writers hold their own, too. A.S. Byatt’s story is very moving, and Penelope Lively has a subversive story about a middle class woman who is held hostage in her home by a spectral black dog prowling in the garden.

Lazarus is Dead by Richard Beard

I’m only halfway through this sort of fictionalised biography of Jesus’ bezzie mate, but already it’s a remarkable book. Without being patronising or arrogant, Beard shows you how fiction can not only ‘fill in the gaps’ of history, but also revise it, take issue with it. It’s so confident, and also funny. ‘What was Jesus really like?’ one admirer asks Lazarus. ‘Slow at climbing,’ he replies.

So there we have it! What do you think of the selection of books that they have chosen? I haven’t read any of these so in all likelihood the ones I haven’t will now be on my radar. I think I am going to have to read the Ross Raisin book after seeing them both recommending ‘Waterline’, I was told by lots of people I should read that but the boats on the cover put me off. Have you read any of them, or the authors who have made the suggestions novels (my grammar and waffle killer seem to have vanished today sorry)? I would love to hear your thoughts. My top books of 2011 will be appearing on Saturday (when I will be asking to hear what yours are), though if you are gasping for a taster listen to the latest episode of The Readers here.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Edward Hogan, Evie Wyld

The Hunger Trace – Edward Hogan

Some books I think are destined to be read just at the right time, or you are meant to read certain books at the right time. You know what I mean. ‘The Hunger Trace’ by Edward Hogan is one such book and I should explain the background. The editor of the novel emailed me back in the summer knowing that I was a fan of Edward’s debut novel ‘Blackmoor’, she also knew I was from Derbyshire which was the setting once more of his second novel. I said yes I would love to read it but with a certain prize I wasn’t sure I would get to it anytime soon, sadly it languished. However I have to thank the author Evie Wyld who I heard on the BBC’s Open Book who described this novel as ‘a darker, funnier version of The Archers, the perfect book to curl up in front of a fire with’ instantly this was a book I had to read and so I elevated it straight to the top of the pile to read next. I am so glad that I did as ‘The Hunger Trace’ has now snuck in as a late entry as one of my books of the year.

Simon & Schuster, hardback, 2011, fiction, 357 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

From the very start of ‘The Hunger Trace’ I had an early inkling that this would be a book for me. It opens with two women, who clearly don’t like each other for reasons we don’t know as yet, having to capture a herd of ibex which have ended up in the local supermarket car park, using a van and a lot of shopping trolleys. There was a drama and humour in all this, along with a certain mystery, that instantly worked for me leaving me captivated, even better was this was a sense of feeling that Hogan managed to retain throughout the book.

‘The Hunger Trace’ has the unusual setting of a rambling wildlife park in the Derbyshire peaks high on a hillside with the village of Detton below. (This really called to me because in my home town of Matlock we have a castle on the hillside called Riber which was itself a zoo for many years, when it closed the owners moved next door to us with their eagle and other menagerie of creatures, which I was allowed to visit.)In this unusual setting we meet three people deeply affected by the death of the parks owner David Bryant; his second much younger wife Maggie, his son from the previous marriage Christopher and lifelong acquaintance Louisa who lives in one of the lodges on the site look after the birds of prey.

Each of these characters is coming to terms with the loss in their lives but also with how to relate to one another. Louisa, to put it mildly, doesn’t like Maggie for reasons that become apparent as the book goes on so I won’t spoil, I shall merely tempt you by saying that Louisa and David shared a secret in their youths. Maggie herself has to cope with taking on a venture like the wildlife park which she had never planned to be her role in life and also missing her husband and the emptiness in her life he has left in several ways. Christopher is working out not only how to cope with his step mother, especially now she is taking over all aspects of his life, he is also learning how to deal with the world as someone who is a bit different, I read him as being autistic though it’s never spelt out, and is often misunderstood or perceived as a threatening force. Things have been simmering a while and over the space of a few months and the arrival of Adam, a male escort (shocking, ha) and another character used to isolation and not quite fitting in with secrets abound, seems to start to bring things to a head.

Hogan’s writing and storytelling is incredible, especially in the underlying and unsaid. He somehow manages to highlight the way people feel about each other in not only what they say and its delivery but even more impressively, and true to life, in what they don’t say. It’s those small actions, sideways looks, and delivery of tone which we have all witnessed in real life which Hogan manages to make come off the page, something that is incredibly hard to do. Normally in fictions it is either the spoken work or inner monologue, and while Hogan does this both of these things too, it is those smaller actions which he makes say so much.

Maggie knocked loudly on the door, but then entered without waiting for a reply and stepped quickly through the hall and into the kitchen. She smelled of the clean air outdoors, along with a faint cosmetic scent – the first in Louisa’s house for some time.
  ‘Louisa, thank God. I knew you’d be awake. I need your help,’ Maggie said.
  Louisa turned back to the sink. ‘I’m busy. What is it?’
  ‘We’ve had a breakout over at the park. Some of the ibex – the big goats –‘
  ‘I know what they are.’
  ‘They got loose somehow, and they’re on the road now.’ Maggie took a long breath. ‘If they get to the duel carriageway, we’ve got some serious trouble.’
  ‘You’ve got serious trouble. What am I supposed to do about it?’
  ‘Well, the Land Rover won’t start.’   
  Louisa took the keys to her van from her pocket, and threw them to Maggie. ‘Take mine.’ Maggie wiped the watery smears of blood from the keys with her sleeve and looked up with an apologetic smile. ‘I need you, as well,’ she said. ‘The trailer’s at my house and we’ll need to hook it up before we go.’  
  ‘Jesus,’ Louisa said under her breath. But she could not refuse. She dried her hands on her jeans and followed.

Atmosphere is one of the things that ‘The Hunger Trace’ is also filled with. Like with his previous novel ‘Blackmoor’ Derbyshire is a brooding and slightly menacing presence, the landscape always features in the novel as those brooding moors, the winding hilly roads you worry your about to drive off and the forests which always seem to hold so many secrets linger in the background (being from there myself his descriptions really hit home). Hogan interestingly propels all these feelings and features in all of his characters be it in the slightest of ways. Christopher is a prime example, he is often very funny with his binge drinking and utter bluntness and yet there is always a slightly threatening feeling of danger with him, you never know what he might say or do next, these feelings spread throughout the book and your always just on the edge of your seat, rather like standing on the precipice of a Derbyshire valley with the wind almost pushing you over the edge.

‘At that time of year, nature blended the boundaries. Leaves from the hilltop churchyard blew across the animal enclosures and onto Louisa’s land. Wasps crawled drunk from grounded apples in the acidic fizz of afternoon light.’

There is a real sense of humour in this novel, dark but often very funny, yet in many ways it is a moving tale of people and their sense of isolation or being an outsider often leading to events in their pasts be the recent or from years ago. These are events that leave a trace on you and which is described beautifully when Louisa discusses her prized bird Diamond who she saves and leads to the novels title. ‘When a falcon is undernourished, the feathers cannot grow properly. A fault line appears, even if the bird is fed again. The fault is called a hunger trace.’ It is this hunger trace that runs through the main character of this novel and their obsessions which keep the real world at bay be they Louisa’s birds, Christopher’s obsession with Robin Hood or Maggie’s need to succeed despite what anyone else says.

If you haven’t guessed already, I thought ‘The Hunger Trace’ was an utterly marvellous book. It is superbly written, its characters live and breathe from the page and you are always left wanting more of both the humour and the dark sense of impending menace and mystery. I simply cannot recommend it enough, easily one of my favourite books of the year. It is books like this which really make reading worthwhile and I hope that many more people discover this gem of a novel.

It’s interesting that two of my favourite books this year, and I am including Catherine Hall’s ‘The Proof of Love’ with Hogan’s latest, have been based in small villages in the countryside with darker undertones. This could be a setting which simply works for me, so I am wondering if you could recommend any more novels along these lines. I have also noticed that these two books, which are also some of the best writing I have come across this year, have been under the radar to many. I am wondering how I can seek out more of these slightly undiscovered gems? Your recommendations will be a start, so get cracking (and you could win a copy of this wonderful novel). I look forward to seeing what you suggest.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Edward Hogan, Review, Simon & Schuster

Last Rituals – Yrsa Sigurdardottir

I always feel a bit bad when I say that I enjoy crime fiction, not because I don’t rate the genre (quite the opposite in fact) but because there is always that worry that if you say you enjoy crime novels and a good murder then you might be a secret homicidal psychopath. Not the image you want to be putting out there really is it. Yrsa Sigurdardottir has stopped me feeling strange about saying this both having met her at The Manchester Literature Festival (you can hear me interview her here) and having read her first crime novel ‘Last Rituals’ which you may have already guessed by now I thoroughly enjoyed.

Hodder Books, paperback, 2008, fiction, 432 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

I have to admit I do like books that are rather dark and brooding and that is just the atmosphere that Yrsa Sigurdardottir sets with her debut crime novel ‘Last Rituals’. After a student, Harald Guntlieb, is found dead (well he falls out of a cupboard onto his professor) at the University of Iceland, lawyer Thora Guttmondsottir is asked by his family to look into the case, she initially isn’t sure she wants the case but is won over by the amount of money it will earn her. A man has been arrested for the crime however the Guntlied family think different and so want her and another investigator they have hired, Matthew Reich, to find out what really happened.  

So far, so typical crime set up. Yet this is by no means a run of the mill crme novel, it is the character of Thora and the landscape of Iceland and its past that will have you hooked and gives the novel a real edge. Thora is not perfect, but she is very real and she shows real back bone both in her personal life when dealing with her ex-husband and in her professional life when wryly taking on Matthew who seems to believe he is the one in control. She also has a wonderful humour about her, rather deadpan and cynical which really made me laugh out loud on several occasions, mainly in her dealings with Matthew but really in anyone who she meets, especially her receptionist/PA/secretary Bella who, to put it mildly, is utterly inept.

‘Someone phoned’ Bella mumbled, glued to her computer screen.
Thora looked up in surprise from hanging up her anorak. ‘Really?’ she said, adding in forlorn hope: ‘Do you have any idea who it was?’
‘No. Spoke German, I think. I couldn’t understand him anyway.’
‘Is he going to call back perhaps?’
‘I don’t know. I cut him off. By accident.’
‘In the unlikely event that he does ring back, even though you cut him off, would you mind putting the call through to me? I studied German and I speak German.’
‘Hmph,’ Bella grunted. She shrugged. ‘Maybe it wasn’t German. It could have been Russian. And it was a woman. I think. Or a man.’
‘Bella, whoever calls – a woman from Russia or a man from Germany, even a dog from Greece that speaks in tongues – put them through to me. Okay?’ Thora did not wait for a reply, not expecting one anyway, but walked straight into her modest office. 

Laughing out loud at a murder mystery, unless a cosy crime maybe which believe me this isn’t – far from it, is not something I was expecting and I found it really refreshing. Having been lucky enough to have met the author and chatting with her I can see where it comes from but I must also praise Bernard Scudder who has clearly translated this wonderfully. The dry sense of humour of the book wasn’t the only thing which set it apart, I loved the fact Yrsa also brings in Iceland’s history.

I cannot really say how without giving anything away (the plot is a good one and makes the reader do lots of second guessing whilst turning the pages), but one of ‘Last Rituals’ strands involves the tales of medieval witchcraft and witches. Yrsa has clearly researched all of this heavily and yet it never came across as showing off, it just fascinated me. This is a side of Iceland I had never heard of (not that I know mc=uch about Iceland apart from the fact I have always wanted to go) so between the joys of spending time with Thora and then having the unexpected added bonus of learning about a macabre and unsettling historical and religious period of Iceland’s history made this an almost perfect read. I was gripped, entertained and horrified – brilliant!

I like books where the dark, and sometimes horrific, is merged with a sense of humour, ‘Last Rituals’ is a book that nailed this for me. It is a rather disturbingly graphic crime novel; it is also one which has a real sense of humour about it thanks to its protagonist the delightfully imperfect Thora. I cannot wait to read the rest of this series so far; with great writing and such a great main character it looks set to become a firm favourite. If you love crime and haven’t read Yrsa Sigurdardottir then you really must (and in fact you can as part of today’s Savidge Reads Advent Calendar). I have already taken the next in the series ‘My Soul to Take’ off the shelves and will be reading it in the next few weeks.

Have you dipped your toes into this series? If so what did you think? Have you found any other crime novels that are dark and yet darkly funny (I have just thought of the Kate Atkinson books actually) that you would recommend? Have you discovered a wonderful new crime series this year and if so what was it?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Hodder & Stoughton, Review, Yrsa Sigurdardottir

In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination – Margaret Atwood

I am quite surprised that I have not seen more mention here there and everywhere, though I could have been looking in the wrong places, about Margaret Atwood’s latest book ‘In Other Worlds’. Those of you who visit Savidge Reads will know that I am a huge fan of Atwood’s (indeed with both my mother and Gran loving her it was only time really until I would feel the same) both for her ‘literary fiction’ and for her ‘speculative fiction’ so I was instantly looking forward to this as a read, especially with its subject matter.

Virago Press, hardback, 2011, non-fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It’s this very thing that lies at the heart of ‘In Other Worlds’ I can’t think of anyone or anything, apart from possibly the Man Booker, which causes such debate about science fiction and ‘literature’ and the divides or lack thereof. I know some people who love her writing and yet feel slightly disappointed she has gone off into these speculative worlds like ‘The Handmaids Tale’ and that she is writing a follow up to ‘Oryx and Crake’ and ‘The Year of the Flood’.

 I remember reading a very negative piece somewhere that claimed Margaret Atwood didn’t want to be labelled as a science fiction writer and thought ‘that’s a bit snobby’ but this was taken out of context. Then came the Ursula K. Le Guin review of Atwood’s last novel ‘The Year of the Flood’ in which she quoted from (are you keeping up) Atwood’s essays ‘Moving Targets’, which I now really want to read, saying that Atwood didn’t believe her books were science fiction because the things in them were possible and may be happening, therefore they are speculative. Longer story shorter, ‘In Other Worlds’ is Margaret Atwood’s response to this and is even dedicated to Le Guin. It is so much more than a simple SFF vs. the rest of the literary world book though.

The book is set into three sections. In the first ‘In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination’ we are treated to three long essays. The first of which Margaret Atwood discusses her love of science fiction, based on the fact that growing up in rural Canada she would read anything and everything and this meant a lot of her father’s science fiction, comic books, pulp, noir, you name it. She went on to draw and create stories of her own superhero’s… flying rabbits, and looks at the myth of the superhero and compares it to science fiction. The second looks at the myths and religions that make up science fiction in varying ways and the third how Margaret Atwood created ‘ustopia’s’ based on merging utopias and dystopias. I loved this section, in part because the way Atwood writes makes it feel like you are sat having a conversation about these things with her (if only), there is a humour and knowingness as you go along, secondly because it shows the forming of a writer which I always find fascinating and thirdly because it made me think. A lot. This isn’t writing you can rush, you need to read it, pause, think a bit, make some mental notes, read on, have a bigger pause, think more. I loved that this was the effect it had on me.

The second section entitled ‘Other Deliberations’ is a selection of reviews and essays about novels or writing that people see is either definitely science fiction, definitely literary fiction with a science fiction twist or seen as speculative fiction. One of the books she covers is ‘Never Let Me Go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro (another book I love) and it’s here I think she shows that really does it matter what genre or pigeon hole books are pushed, good and thought provoking writing is what matters. “Ishiguro isn’t much interested in the practicalities of cloning and organ donation… Nor is this a novel about future horrors: it’s set not in a Britain-yet-to-come but a Britain-off-to-the-side.” Not only did I want to rush and read that again, I found all the books she discussed which i hadn’t read such as H. Rider Haggard’s ‘She’ and ‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley are going to be racing up the TBR and being borrowed from the library.

The final main section of the book ’Five Tributes’ are works of Atwoood’s which she believes are truly SF works of fiction, they are all slight but all wonderful, I loved everyone of these. I also thought it was particularly clever of her to choose ‘The Peach Women of Aa’A’ from ‘The Blind Assassin’ as the final one. This is a fictional tale written inside her fictional tale at the heart of ‘The Blind Assassin’ and not only reminded me of what an incredible writer she is but how diverse, I smiled to myself that a book which won the Booker does indeed have a science fictional twist in it’s heart and then felt a little cross people forget that. It also reminds the reader that reading shouldn’t be about boundaries people confine them to, in fact all literature should celebrate the fact that the boundaries are endless full stop, so why are we so obsessed with defining it?

I hope that you come away from this long ramble that forms a ‘review’ or set of ‘book thoughts’ with an inclination to pick up this book when you can. It’s a book for book lovers in the fact that it’s overall theme is the celebration of writing, and then looking at the way we take writing in and pass on our thoughts. It also shows once again what a wonderful writer Margaret Atwood is regardless of whatever genre of writer you might feel the need to put her in. ‘In Other Worlds’ is certainly one of my books of the year without a doubt.

So where do you sit on the Margaret Atwood Speculative vs. Science vs. Literary fiction debate and why do we feel the need to pigeon hole and then get defensive over those pigeon holes?

P.S Small note to say this was a hot topic between myself and Gavin on this weeks The Readers podcast which you can listen to here.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Margaret Atwood, Non Fiction, Review, Virago Books

My Cousin Rachel – Daphne Du Maurier

There are some books which you finish and feel a mixture of utter joy that you read something so wonderful, swiftly followed by that lurch in your chest when you realise that these books come few and far between and that you won’t have this exact experience ever again, even if you were to re-read the book from the start… something which you invariably want to do in these situations. This was the exact set of feelings that I had after I had read the very last line, and oh what a closer it was too (no spoilers coming though I promise), of ‘My Cousin Rachel’ by Daphne Du Maurier.

Virago Books, paperback, 1951, fiction, 304 pages, from my personal TBR

Philip Ashley is the narrator of ‘My Cousin Rachel’ he is a rather naïve young man who has grown up under the care of his elder cousin Ambrose, who owns a large estate, and has become like a mixture of father, brother and best friend. He is also being lined up as Ambrose’s heir and replacement as manager of the estate which often means when Ambrose has to go away to avoid the winters Philip is left in charge. On one such trip to Italy Ambrose writes to Philip that he has met ‘our cousin Rachel’ a woman who slowly looms larger in letters before Ambrose announces they have married, only soon after Ambrose suddenly dies after sending Philip some much more ominous correspondence and soon Rachel herself descends upon Philip’s life.

The story so far does sound a relatively simple one; however I have only really given you the gist of the very first parts of the book. As it goes on, and what sets it apart, the psychological intensity Du Maurier weaves through the pages along with the constant sense that she could pull the rug from under you at any given moment is incredible. Before Rachel even appears herself, around 80 pages in, she is quite the presence and the reader has quite possibly made up their mind about her through Philip’s utter jealously and then suspicion of this woman. Daphne then brings in a character quite unlike the one we would imagine. It is this game of Rachel being a misunderstood sweet if tragic innocent or magnificently manipulative calculating monster that makes you turn the page, are you right about her or utterly wrong?

“Since my journey to the villa she had become a monster, larger than life itself. Her eyes were as black as sloes, her features aquiline like Rainaldi’s, and she moved about those musty villa rooms sinuous and silent, like a snake.”

As with all of Daphne’s novels this is also a book about the human psyche generally, again this is often the case, the much darker sides of it. Jealousy is at the heart of this novel (I occasionally wondered about the nature of obsession too in terms of Philip and his attachment to Ambrose, or was there something other that dared not speak its name?), Philip makes all his initial opinions on Rachel on nothing more than that one pure emotion, after Ambrose’s death comes grief and anger and here too Rachel becomes the focal point for this. We also have to ask ourselves if Philip is an incredibly perceptive young man despite his almost closeted childhood, or is he possibly just as unreliable and possibly as innocently beguiling as Rachel herself? Something on every page makes you question yourself, it is quite incredible.

The atmosphere of the book is also utterly brilliant. In fact ‘My Cousin Rachel’ rather reminded me of the sensation stories of the late 1800’s, which I think is when this novel is meant to be set though we never officially know the time period. From the very opening sentence ‘They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.’ we know we are in for a dark and brooding tale, and Du Maurier certainly doesn’t disappoint.

Many people claim this is like a sister novel to Du Maurier’s most famous work ‘Rebecca’ and I think to say that does do ‘My Cousin Rachel’ an injustice. Yes there is the gothic feel and uneasy atmosphere of both novels, they both feature large estates, we also have a mystery at the heart of each tale and a woman who takes over every page even though she may not be in the book that often. I grant the fact they do both also look at dark human traits but in very, very different ways and though ‘Rebecca’ will always be my favourite Du Maurier novel I am not sure that ‘My Cousin Rachel’ could be beaten for it’s sense of never knowing the truth, in fact I would say Daphne leaves much more to the reader in this novel than she did in ‘Rebecca’ and I loved that.

I had always been told to leave ‘My Cousin Rachel’ as one of the last of Daphne Du Maurier’s novels because it was one of the best. I would heartily recommend people read this as their first Du Maurier novel because once you have read it I can almost guarantee you will want to go off and discover more of her works, I really envy you joy you have ahead of you if you haven’t read this novel before. This will easily be a contender for my book of the year almost exactly fifty years after it was originally published.

I should actually thank Ruth (and I think Jeanette) for making me read ‘My Cousin Rachel’ much sooner than I had ever intended, this was going to be one of those ‘save it for a rainy day’ reads that would languish on my TBR forever. I had also not anticipated reading Daphne so soon after ‘Discovering Daphne’ with Polly. I am thrilled I read it and it’s another reminder that I need to stop putting off the books I really want to read and just get on and read them as I mentioned a week ago.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Daphne Du Maurier, Review, Virago Books