Category Archives: Books of 2012

Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma – Kerry Hudson

If any book last year was talked about because of its title then it would be ‘Tony Hogan Bought me and Ice Cream Float Before he Stole my Ma’, the title of Kerry Hudson’s debut novel. There was no question that the title of the book was a discussion point, which is always a good thing in a market that is getting tougher especially for new authors, yet it was also a risk because people either thought it was a brilliant idea or were completely put off buy it. I have to admit I was in the latter camp, until I read the book that is.

Chatto & Windus, paperback, 2012, fiction, 266 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Janie is born into the long line of Ryan women. A line of women who on the outside simply seem like loud, abrasive, confrontational wasters by onlookers yet underneath all the front, or anger, they are really just rather mixed up. When Janie is born her grandmother would rather be at the bingo gossiping and getting drunk than coming and picking her daughter and granddaughter up. Within hours of being ‘home’ World War Three is raging through the Ryan household and Janie and her Ma end up on the streets in the rain with nowhere to live. Life is a bit grim and really it doesn’t seem to get better, especially when Tony Hogan, of the exceptionally long title, turns up.

No sooner are Janie and her Ma (she is called Ma so much you forget she has a name) settled into some accommodation by social services and the housing association, than her mother meets local hard man/drug dealer/abuser Tony Hogan and things spiral out of control and history just keeps on repeating itself, even when Janie and her Ma try and leave Scotland for places anew. There is hope in there somewhere but I won’t go into too much detail of that for fear of spoiling the book.

“I didn’t tell her that that face meant I was scared, scared for Frankie and scared for her and us even more. We were a glass family, she was a glass ma and I needed to wrap us up, handle her gently.”

I loved ‘Tony Hogan Bought me an Ice Cream Before He Stole my Ma’ (which will henceforth be known as ‘Tony Hogan…’) partly as I think it is an incredibly brave, honest and confronting – yet also very funny in parts – novel that looks at the part of society many people write off or brush under the carpet. Those people on the dole, or who find themselves living on benefits, who get sneered at and slated in the press as ‘wasters’ and looks at the people behind that label. Okay, some of the people, like Tony Hogan himself, are wasters but what about the others? What about those people who find themselves victims of circumstance who want to make a better life? What about either of these camps children, where is the hope for them? That is what ‘Tony Hogan…’ looks at, rather bluntly, and even though the book itself is set in the 80’s and 90’s its incredibly relevant considering the climates of finance, benefits and employment in the UK, and elsewhere, at the moment.

“Davey and Leanne’s parents liked a drink. That’s what Ma said when I asked her why they sometimes couldn’t walk. It was true; whether I called for Leanne morning or night there would be a sweating can of lager and a plastic bottle of cider on the table and her ma and da would be lounging on the sofa watching the one channel they could with a bent coat hanger.
Ma called them Jack Spratt and his wife because Leanne’s da was so skinny you could see his bones and her ma’s big arse spilled over the sofa’s edge. They both had blurry sea-green tattoos up their arms and if you stared long enough you could make out the dragons and lions and words crawling up their skin and under their T-shirt sleeves. The only thing I ever heard Leanne’s da say was, ‘Leanne love, fix us a snakebite.’”

I also loved all the things that you should love in a good book. Kerry Hudson is a wonderful writer; she can break your heart and make you laugh in a sentence or two. Her characters, whether you like them or not – and sometimes you won’t be sure which it is, are vivid, fully formed with warts and all, and walk of the page. The themes in the book are thought provoking, as I have mentioned, and you will be thinking about Janie long after you have left the book. I was slightly concerned at the start that the voice might bother me, not the Scottish dialect which is used on occasion, as Janie narrates the book from birth. This could have really annoyed me, with another author I might have been questioned the fact a child wouldn’t understand it all, yet interestingly with Hudson at the helm I went with it and really loved the narrative voice.

On a personal level ‘Tony Hogan…’ also really chimed with me, which of course made me love it all the more – though if this was a professional review I would have to cut all this out completely, as its not let me waffle on further. I too was the only child of young single mother in the 1980’s, whilst my father wasn’t a random American and we didn’t get chucked out of the family home – my mother took me with her to university actually, I do remember moving around a lot, never being poor but things being tough (I didn’t get the latest ‘trendy’ shoes – Dr Martens or Kickers, remember them – until after everyone had moved onto the next ones and once I think we had cereals  with water as we couldn’t afford milk, it was just once – and then I had a phase of pouring Ribena all over my dinner, anyway) and I, like Janie, remember loosing myself in the world of libraries and books. Unlike Janie I was more a Spice Girls fan than an Oasis one, though I did see the latter at Knebworth, get me. Also unlike Janie I always felt I was wanted and loved and the fact Janie questions, and has to question, that was another thing that I found so moving and so deftly done in this book. I wanted to be her best friend and Kerry Hudson’s too because of the world and people she had created.

“Running to sit at the little plastic chairs I felt the library’s warm, still air push inside me to slow my thumping heart and the second-hand-shop smell snake up my nostrils, winding itself snug around my insides. When I opened the books, and I could open as many as I liked because it cost us nothing, the pictures lay on my eyes like oil on water and the dancing letters settled on my tongue with the smell and the taste of black-jack sweeties. Whilst Ma bit at her lips, ripped at her cuticles and read old magazines, I was learning how stories made me feel safe.”

You may have hazarded a guess that ‘Tony Hogan Bought me an Ice Cream Float Before he Stole me Ma’ was one of my favourite reads of last year and you would be right. It is a very assured, bluntly honest and highly crafted debut novel filled with laughter and heart ache, it is full of reality, it can be grim but it also celebrates life and all walks of it and might have you reassessing some of the subconscious assumptions you find you make about some of the people you pass in the street, and about books with quirky long titles. I can’t wait to see what Hudson writes next. Highly, highly, highly recommended reading!

After that rave review you may be wondering why I didn’t have this as one of my books of 2012, as it clearly was, yet even though this was the case so were all the shortlisted books for the Green Carnation last year (the book was also shortlisted for The Guardian First Book Award and I have fingers crossed for The Women’s Prize for Fiction) and it seemed a bit odd to just make up a list of them when you already have one, if you know what I mean? Anyway, who else has read this book and what did you think? What are your thoughts on the title? Are there any books you’ve picked up because of a quirky title or avoided because of it and did the book match up?

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Filed under Books of 2012, Chatto & Windus, Kerry Hudson, Review

Savidge Reads Books of 2012 – Part Two…

As I mentioned on Saturday I was going to try and be really brave and break the habit of this blogs and just do a single top ten books of the year. I tried and tried and tried, and I failed. I simply couldn’t only have ten, in fact I actually had a top thirty roughly, but then I have read 167 books (Green Carnation submissions always bump this figure up, what will next year be like without them) this year so maybe that will make it slightly more understandable. So what I have done once again is have two top tens, one of the books published for the first time in the UK in 2012 and another with all the other books published before that – today I am listing my favourite books published for the first time in the UK in 2012. For the full review click on the link, I have chosen a highlighting paragraph to tempt you for this post.

10. The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

I think ‘The Lifeboat’ is one of the most brilliant fictional takes on ‘mental warfare’ and how people change under certain circumstances that I have come across in a very long time, especially from a modern writer. Dare I say there was something rather Daphne Du Maurier-like about the darkness that develops? What I won’t say is anything about the other characters (apart from the fact I was scared of Mrs Grant) because I don’t want to give anything away, but Rogan creates a fascinating psychological game with them all, and with Grace herself Rogan pulls the trump card.

9. The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

I was enjoying ‘The Snow Child’ so much from the start that I did something I hardly ever do. Rather than read it in chunks when I could, I simply devoted almost a whole day to it. I could have saved it and made it last, but sometimes you have to think ‘stuff that’ and just get lost in it all. So I did and read the book in pretty much one go just gorging on it. Now that is the sign of a truly magical book, I was completely spellbound… apart from having to pop the heater on and making the occasional hot drink as the snow really does feel like it’s coming off the page. This is a highly, highly recommended read.

8. The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon

The book is a story of a girl who leaves an unhappy home, yet we figure that out as we read on because really Mary is quite happy with her life on the whole thank you very much. The fact the story is reminiscent of a Victorian classic also works in the books favour because it feels comfortable and yet different, does that make sense? I have to admit that i did hazard a guess at ending that seems to have shocked other people I know who have read it, which I will not spoil or even hint at, not that it stopped me loving the book because I was being taken along by Mary who I could have read for another few hundred pages or more.

7. Some Kind of Fairy Tale – Graham Joyce

If you are thinking of dipping your reading toes/eyes into fantasy from literary fiction or vice versa, or more importantly if you just want a really good story, then you need to read ‘Some Kind of Fairy Tale’. I am really pleased that I ended up choosing this for one of The Readers Book Groups on a whim because I can promise you that I am going to read everything that he has written so far after reading this. I really like his prose and in a way he is doing with literary fiction and fantasy what I think Kate Atkinson and Susan Hill have done with their crime novels, merging them so they become one genre, a genre I call ‘bloody good books’.

6. The End of Your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe

There are some books out there that you need at a certain time in your life. They can be therapeutic and upsetting but show you just how important a book can be as an object that emotionally resonates with you. These books may be recommended when you are going through something or they may be found through researching yourself. That said they are not self help books, just books which chime in with you at that moment. Will Schwalbe’s ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ is one such book, a book that seemed to mirror my life in many ways it was both a comfort and occasionally uncomfortable, overall though just amazing.

5. Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

I don’t think I have read a book that has taken me to such dark places, it’s not a graphically disturbing novel though get ready to have your mind played with and warped, and have so many twists and turns. I also don’t think I have read a book that so cleverly asks the question ‘how well do you really know your partner’ and answers it in such a shocking, brutal yet also worryingly plausible way. ‘Gone Girl’ is easily one of the best novels I have read this year, I cannot recommend it enough… well, unless you are about to get married, have just got married or have just had a bit of a row with your other half as it might give you second thoughts, or sudden ideas, good and bad.

4. The Age of Miracles – Karen Thompson Walker

I thought that ‘The Age of Miracles’ was a truly marvellous novel, definitely one of the highlights of the year so far for me. Naturally because I loved it so much I am finding it very difficult to do the book justice as I feel I missed so much out. I was so lost in the book that I felt the people’s dread and I felt like I was with Julia along the way; I got very upset several times, and as the book went on worried all the more. I was hooked. It seems almost patronising to say ‘I was also really shocked this was a debut novel’ yet if I am honest I was. Karen Thompson Walkers prose is wonderful in the fact it captures the changing atmosphere of the people and the planet, and I should mention here the brilliant way she creates a divided society with people who keep ‘clock time’ and people who decide to live with the earth’s new unnaturally timed days, and also ever so slowly and skilfully builds up the tensions in relationships, fear and terror as the earth slows down and the book leads to its conclusion.

3. Hawthorn & Child – Keith Ridgway

I think the best way to sum up the wonderfully quirky, exciting and surreal yet real ‘Hawthorn & Child’ comes from one of the many characters who could be a psychopath or sociopath or just mad who says “Knowing things completes them. Kills them. They fade away, decided over and forgotten. Not knowing sustains us.” This is a book where not everything is resolved, stories create stories, some fade and some linger, the only constant is the brilliant writing, compellingly created cast, sense of mystery and dark humour which will sustain you from the start until the end and may just have you turning to the first page again as soon as you have finished the last.

2. Diving Belles – Lucy Wood

‘Diving Belles’ is a collection of stories that it would be easy to describe as fairytales for adults, that very statement may of course put people off, and while it is a book that finds the myths and legends of the Cornish coast seeping into every page of it there is so much more to it than that. Of course writing about a whole collection is always difficult (made doubly so when you loved every single one in the book) as you could end up giving too much away on each story or end up writing something as long as the collection itself.

1.  My Policeman – Bethan Roberts

I adored ‘My Policeman’, despite the fact it made me cry on a few occasions. I found it incredibly difficult to break away from it for any period of time yet I also found that as the book went on I was trying not to read it too fast, in part from the sense of impending doom and also because I didn’t really want it to end. I felt I was there, a bystander watching it all, feeling for Marion then Patrick and vice versa. It is one of the most beautifully written and emotionally engaging novels I have read this year. It is also a book that highlights a bit of our history that we often brush under the carpet, mainly because we think we are more tolerant now, and yet is one that should definitely be acknowledged and learnt from.

There are of course a few other books I must mention, for example both winners of the Green Carnation Prize, ‘Moffie’ by Andre Carl van der Merwe and ‘A Perfectly Good Man’ by Patrick Gale, and also Kerry Hudson’s ‘Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma’ which was one of the debut highlights of the year for me, I will be reviewing/reporting back on all the long list next year, as they were all rather brilliant. Also ‘The Lighthouse’ by Alison Moore and ‘Swimming Home’ by Deborah Levy which would have been joint tenth with ‘The Lifeboat’ and my final two had I done a Simon’s Booker Dozen type of post. Overall it has been a great year of reading and I am looking forward to the next.

What about you? What have been your highlights of the year published in 2012? Which of these have you read and what did you think?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Books of 2012

Savidge Reads Books of 2012 – Part One…

I was going to try and be really brave and break the habit of this blogs and just do a single top ten books of the year. I tried and tried and tried, and I failed. I simply couldn’t only have ten, in fact I actually had a top thirty roughly, but then I have read 167 books (Green Carnation submissions always bump this figure up, what will next year be like without them) this year so maybe that will make it slightly more understandable. So what I have done once again is have two top tens, one of the books published for the first time in the UK in 2012 and another with all the other books published before that – it is the latter we are focusing on today. For the full review click on the link, I have chosen a highlighting paragraph to tempt you for this post.

10. The Claude Glass by Tom Bullough

I really liked the fact Bullough creates this sense of place and people and wants you to work with him on building the bigger picture and using all the things unsaid along with tiny tensions to create the full narrative tale.  I think by now you will have probably guessed that I thought ‘The Claude Glass’ was an unusual and incredibly accomplished piece of writing, silently impressive and one that rewards you in many ways.

9. You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead by Marieke Hardy

‘You’ll Be Sorry When I Am Dead’ is one of those books which manages to make you laugh out loud, feel ever so uncomfortable at its honesty, possibly makes you want to cry and then makes you laugh all over again. When someone writes their memoirs it isn’t necessarily that the full truth doesn’t come out, just that the author tends to look at things in a rose tinted way, highlighting their best bits – not so in the case of Marieke.

8. Days of Grace by Catherine Hall

What I also really admired and loved about the book is that even though we have one narrator we have two stories. These are told in alternating chapters throughout the book. This device is one that is used often and normally I have to admit one story will overtake my interest as I read on. Not in the case of ‘Days of Grace’. I was desperate to know what was going to happen with Nora and Grace as the war went on both in idyllic Kent and the roughness and danger of London but I also wanted to know, just as much, what was going to happen with Nora in the present, her health and the relationship with Rose and her baby. Both stories had me intrigued and I think that was because Catherine Hall very cleverly has the stories mystery foreboding the past tense narrative and shadowing the present without us knowing what it is until the last minute.

7. The World That Was Ours – Hilda Bernstein

‘The World That Was Ours’ shows the power of books, writing, journalism and memoir. When it was published back in 1967 it was a dangerous book to release and there were many people who would have liked to see it destroyed. Thank goodness it found a publisher back then and thank goodness Persephone have chosen it as a book to reprint for us to discover because it is just the sort of book that everyone should read. I will be re-reading this again for definite.

6. Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

You can feel the sense of unease on almost every page, both in a combination of the mystery of Hiero unraveling and war drawing nearer does give the book a slight thriller twist. If you think that is a negative thing it is not I promise you because Edugyan merges the literary elements of the novel with the tension and pace perfectly… and it stays with you long after you read it.

5. The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

There were so many things that I loved about Beryl Bainbridge’s writing that it might be hard to encompass them all, I will endeavour to try though. First of all is how much is in such a small book. At a mere 200 pages, and in fairly big print which could be devoured in a few hours, so much happens that when you have finished you find yourself recapping it all and thinking ‘did that all just happen in this book?’ There are funerals, hilarious seductions in cellars, hilarious seductions in a shared bedroom and a shared bathroom, a mother in law with a grudge to bear and a gun in her handbag, a fight in Windsor Castle, horse riding with the Queen’s funereal regiment, something awful on an outing which leads to a strange trip to a safari park, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

4. Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn

I always admire an author who can write beautifully and simply, an author who can create the most understated of melodramas will win me over. I also always admire an author who can write a passage that chills you before one that makes you laugh out loud and then another which horrifies you all over again. All these things are encompassed in Edward St Aubyn’s first Patrick Melrose novel ‘Never Mind’.

3. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I don’t think I have yet read a piece of fiction which seems to encapsulate the entire breadth in which cancer can affect people and not just those in the eye of the storm it creates. Ness looks at the full spectrum of emotions for all those involved, from Conor, his mother and grandmother to those on the periphery such as Conor’s teachers. He takes these feeling and reactions, condenses them and then makes them readable, effecting, emotional and compelling in just over 200 pages. The monster itself is also an incredible character being utterly evil in many ways and yet having hints of goodness amongst the chaos he creates so that you are never quite sure if he is friend or foe.

2. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I wouldn’t normally say that I was a reader who subscribes to adventure stories or love stories and yet Madeline Miller’s debut novel ‘The Song of Achilles’ is easily my favourite read of the year so far. The reason for this is simple, she’s a bloody good storyteller, a great writer and I think the enthusiasm she has for classics becomes contagious somewhere in the way she writes. Madeline Miller has made me want to run out and read more books with this book, what more can you ask from an author than that?

1.  Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl

I think ‘Kiss Kiss’ will undoubtedly remain one of my favourite short story collections, and one that I will happily dip in and out of again and again in the future. It has that delightfully dark, yet awfully darkly funny, essence to it that I just really enjoy. It has made me want to go out and read all of Dahl’s other adult work (especially with the covers in this new series by Penguin) and also dig out my old childhood favourites which I am sure I will now see in a whole new light. I would definitely recommend that you read this collection if you haven’t, they are mini macabre masterpieces.

So that is my first top ten of 2012 and all the books I really, really loved published before this year that I read this year. Make sense? I do also want to mention ‘Now You See Me’ by S.J. Bolton, ‘Packing For Mars’ by Mary Roach (both of which I read for The Readers Summer Book Club and adored), ‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen and ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens (both have been part of Classically Challenged and the latter of which I will be talking about tomorrow), all highly recommended.

So what about your what are your post-2012 books of 2012? Which of these have you read and what did you think? Any other books you would recommend you think I might like having loved the above? Do pop back for Part Two on Monday!

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Books of 2012

The End of Your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe

There are some books out there that you need at a certain time in your life. They can be therapeutic and upsetting but show you just how important a book can be as an object that emotionally resonates with you. These books may be recommended when you are going through something or they may be found through researching yourself. That said they are not self help books, just books which chime in with you at that moment. Will Schwalbe’s ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ is one such book, a book that seemed to mirror my life in many ways it was both a comfort and occasionally uncomfortable, overall though just amazing. A book which no doubt I will not be able to do justice to.

Two Roads Books, hardback, 2012, non-fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

One day when Will Schwalbe was taking his mother for one of her appointments at the Memorial Sloane- Kettering Cancer Centre he asked her ‘what are you reading?’ as they sit in the waiting room. Unbeknownst to them at the time this is the start of an unofficial, and not really ever totally acknowledged book group, book club that will see them reading and swapping the same books as one another during the hospital visits and small trips away over the months ahead. These books and their themes, characters and the questions they raise also occasionally being a way of mother and son talking to each other about the situation they find themselves in without ever having to spell everything out.

This might sound a little bit gloomy, and I will freely admit I did get very teary eyed in several parts of the book, yet this is actually one of the most heart warming and (I don’t want to use the word inspirational) uplifting books about cancer, death and grief that I have ever read – and probably one of the most important because it looks at it, confronting it, head on looking at the effects cancer has on the person with it and those around them. It is also very much a book about the power that books have and not just in these most emotional and distressing times but over someone’s whole life.

As much as this book is about Mary Anne’s condition and the books that she and Will read after her diagnosis, it is also the story of an incredible woman. Without her it would be very unlikely that there is now a library in Kabul, which the US Government has given $3 million towards, Afghanistan being one of her favourite places in the world. Mary Anne started off wanting to be an actress, then directing admissions for LAMDA in America, then working in education at Radcliffe and Harvard before turning to humanitarian work in Africa, Thailand, Afghanistan with refugees also setting up the Women’s Refugee Commission and looking at literature and libraries abroad. There is all of this and also her being a wonderful wife, mother and grandmother.

The whole theme of books being important at what is such a difficult time for Will and of course his mother all really chimed with me and what is going on with Gran at the moment. Though Gran doesn’t have pancreatic cancer, the tumour she has means the prognosis is similar. I am visiting whenever I can and the main thing that we both like to talk about it books. Face to face we have discussed books we have both read, authors we both wish we had and must do soon, topical things like if J.K. Rowling’s book is any good and if Mantel really should have won the Booker a second time. Every phone call, which is pretty much daily when I am not there, tends to have the question ‘what are you reading?’ thrown in at some point. Of course Will’s situation and mine are not the same, but this book made me feel like even though things will get hard and very upsetting what I have is very precious and so I am making the most out of it. ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ is very much a prelude to grief, if that makes sense, and is exactly where I am at mentally. Will Schwalbe felt like a friend, without that sounding weird, that I was discussing this all with and in a way has made it all feel a little bit better, if that is possible, about everything or maybe more comfortable. The power of the book.

I could literally have filled a post or two on all the wonderful quotes about the joys of reading and bookshops, debates about certain titles, cosy books and confronting and even the debate over e-reader vs. real paper books in your hands – as the book has all of these and more – the one I wanted to use though was the one that struck me the hardest and I will always keep with me as I have popped it in my book notes notebook…

‘And then something occurred to me. “You know: the thing about our book club is that we’ve really been in it all our lives.”
 Mom agreed but pointed out that she’d been doing the same but with others too – talking about books with my sister and brother and some of her friends. “I guess we’re all in it together, “ she said. And I couldn’t help but smile at the other meaning of the phrase. We’re all in the end-of-our-life book club, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be the last, each conversation the final one.”

I want everyone I know to read this book. It doesn’t matter if you have had close contact with cancer, death or grief, this book will chime with you because you love books – which is why you have found yourself here I am guessing. ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ is touching without ever being saccharine, confronting and honest without ever being emotionally manipulative. It also celebrates life and highlights that we are part of each other’s ‘life-book-club’s’ through the discussions we have at book groups, on blogs, to our friends and family, or randomly on public transport about books and the power that they have. It has also left me with a list of books to go off and read as long as my arm. One of my favourite books of the year and one I will be turning to again and again.

Who else has read ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ and what did you think? Did you come away wanting to be Schwalbe’s new best friend too? I am tempted to write to him just about books. Which books have you read at just the right point in your life be it sad, difficult or happy? I would love to hear your experiences with books that have done that.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Review, Two Roads Books, Will Schwalbe

Some Kind of Fairy Tale – Graham Joyce

So hopefully yesterday you spent the day in Christmas bliss. I am imaging you all waking up with that fizzy ‘ooh its Christmas’ feeling, or possibly having excited children screaming at you to wake up, then follows the present opening madness and the juggling skills of making Christmas dinner whilst stopping family members fighting or getting too drunk. I don’t imagine any of you have had a knock at the door and discovered a long lost relative you thought missing, or even possibly dead, on your doorstep saying they have been away with the fairies. Well that is pretty much what happens to the Martin family on their Christmas Day in Graham Joyce’s latest novel ‘Some Kind of Fairy Tale’ and so it seemed appropriate to share this wonderful book with you today (especially if you got book vouchers yesterday) on my favourite day of the festive season – I seriously love Boxing Day, it is like Christmas day but without the fuss.

Gollancz, hardback, 2012, fiction, 389 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Anyway, back to ‘Some Kind of Fairy Tale’, as I mentioned above the book opens upon a pretty ordinary day for Peter Martin and his family, until his parents phone to announce that his sister Tara has turned up twenty years after she disappeared aged just fifteen. Things start to get even more strange when Peter arrives and notices that his sister doesn’t actually look any older than when she left, while his parents (and even he) have started to go grey and been aged by the years as is normal Tara herself doesn’t seem any different. Why is it and just where on earth has she been? Well, when she decides to tell her story it isn’t one that any of them could have imagined, for Tara believes she was taken away by the fairies and has only been gone for six months.

If any of you are thinking of scrolling on because I mentioned fairies and the possibility of them, fear not. What I think is one of the most accomplished things that Graham Joyce does with ‘Some Kind of Fairy Tale’ is firstly to leave enough leeway that if you believe in the possibility of fairies then you can read it with that mind-set, just as you can, if you are like Tara’s family, should you be much more sceptical about these things. Joyce also makes sure that the fairies, if that is what they are (as you are very much left to make your own mind up), are not anything like the Tinkerbelle’s you might be imagining. These are very much human like, which makes them (again if that is what they are) all the more threatening in a way and all the darker.

I think the second wonderful thing about ‘Some Kind of Fairy Tale’ is that Joyce creates a story of a family dealing with the loss, and then the sudden reappearance, of a family member and all the effects that has on them afterwards and throws in something possibly magical around the edges. I would call this a literary novel with a slightly magical twist. As we read what happens after Tara appears we also learn what happened after she disappeared in Charnwood Forest all those years ago. We have the heartbreak of the parents, Peter’s obsession in finding his sister or whoever is responsible for his disappearance and also how the Martin family decide to bury it all, Peter’s children only discovering they have an aunt after she suddenly appears. There is also a brilliant and heart rendering tale of Richie, Peter’s best friend and Tara’s boyfriend at the time, and how becoming the suspect of her possible murder at such a young age, and all those decades ago, ruined his life forever. All of this whether it is funny, heart-breaking, magical etc. is dealt with by Joyce in a really domestic and realistic way. How do a northern English family deal with a crisis, have some tea to start and try to carry on as normal.

“Tea being the drug of choice in the Martin household, Dell concocted more of it, thick and brown and sweet. After all, they’d had a bit of a shock; and whenever they had a shock or an upset or experienced a disturbance of any kind they had poured tea on it for as long as any of them could remember. The fact is they poured tea on it even when they hadn’t had a shock, and they did that six or seven times a day. But these were extra special circumstances and Peter knew he had to wait until the tea had arrived before he could begin any kind of questioning. Even when the tea did arrive, the questioning didn’t go well.  Peter had hardly taken his eyes off his sister since his arrival. The same half-smile hadn’t escaped the bow of Tara’s lips since he’d walked into the room. He recognised it as a disguise of some kind, a mask; he just didn’t know quite which emotions it was intended to camouflage.”

Joyce’s writing is, I think, marvellous. There might be tales of fairies in these pages but he doesn’t mess about with his prose. It’s earthy, straight to the point, believable and you find yourself becoming one of the Martin family yourself, your opinion of her and her story changes as you see it from Peter, Richie and indeed herself. What I also think Joyce should be given a huge amount of credit for is that he always leaves the book open to the readers own interpretation, which if you think about it is a very hard thing to do, you have to supply the reader with the possibility of their being magic or fairies and yet at the same time the possibility that Tara is just mad without straying into one territory more than the other.

If you are thinking of dipping your reading toes/eyes into fantasy from literary fiction or vice versa, or more importantly if you just want a really good story, then you need to read ‘Some Kind of Fairy Tale’. I am really pleased that I ended up choosing this for one of The Readers Book Groups on a whim because I can promise you that I am going to read everything that he has written so far after reading this. I really like his prose and in a way he is doing with literary fiction and fantasy what I think Kate Atkinson and Susan Hill have done with their crime novels, merging them so they become one genre, a genre I call ‘bloody good books’.

Who else has read ‘Some Kind of Fairy Tale’ and what did you think? Now I am on a mission to read all of Joyce’s books where should I turn to next?

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Filed under Books of 2012, Gollancz, Graham Joyce, Review

My Policeman – Bethan Roberts

I will be talking about the ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda’ books of 2012, the books you wanted to read and never get round to when you mean to, before the year is through. One book that I definitely didn’t want to have on that list was Bethan Roberts’ third novel ‘My Policeman’ which I have had on and off the pile of books by the bedside since its release in hardback back in February. It was one of those books you occasionally get which you are fairly sure you are going to love and so keep it for a rainy day, you know the ones I mean I am sure. Well it has been raining a lot on the Wirral recently and so I finally decided to pick it up and just in time too, as it will definitely be making its way onto my Books of the Year posts next week.

Vintage Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 341 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

‘My Policeman’ is the tale of a love triangle set in 1950’s Brighton. Marion, an initially rather young and naive girl, falls head over heels in love with her best friend Sylvia’s brother, Tom, and is determined (in a hopelessly romantic fashion rather than a grim gritted teeth way initially) that one day he will be hers. His teaching her to swim seems the ideal way, which she reminds him he promised her when he returns, to be a policeman, after having been away catering for the army.

As the two become better acquainted after his time away from Brighton, he introduces her to his friend Patrick, who we as the reader know is more than just Tom’s friend and watch as Marion makes the connections that in that time were illegal and seen as perverted. Will she be prepared to share the man with whom she has become obsessively in love with?

The way I have summarised the novel really doesn’t do it justice at all, in fact it makes it sound a bit prescriptive and it is anything but. Bethan Roberts does several things that really make this book stand out, the first is the perspective of the book. This isn’t told by these characters in the prime of their youth when everything was happening, quite the opposite. As Marion narrates her sections of the book, there are five parts of the book in all, she tells it from ‘surburbia-on-sea’ in hindsight as the trio are in their late fifties, sixties and seventies. From the opening of the book we learn that Patrick has recently had two strokes and has, against all odds, ended up living with Marion and Tom at her request. Especially when she says ‘I no longer want to kill you’, which makes you realise this book has a very dark heart at its centre, and as she finds caring for him rather difficult.

“You were particularly trying this morning, refusing to look at the television, even though I’d switched it from This Morning, which we both hate, to a rerun of As Time Goes By on BBC2. Don’t you like Dame Judi Dench? I thought everyone liked Dame Judi. I thought her combination of classical actressiness and cuddly accessibility (that ‘i’ in her name says so much, doesn’t it?) made her irresistible. And then there was the incident with the liquidised cornflakes, the tipping-over of the bowl, which made Tom exhale a hefty tut. I knew you weren’t quite up to sitting at the table for breakfast, even with your special cutlery and all the cushions I’d provided to stabilise you, as Nurse Pamela suggested. I must say I find it difficult to concentrate on what Pamela says, so intrigued am I by the long spikes protruding from her eyelids.”

The book is not just narrated from her point of view. Another master stroke from Roberts is that she also narrates some of the parts from Patrick’s point of view. These are written in the present tense at various points in the past and really highlight just how difficult it was to be homosexual back in the 1950’s. The secrecy which needed to be conducted and the devastation that could be caused simply from someone implying you were ‘comme ca’, as it was then put, are both threateningly real all the time and when they happen described tragically and I have to say Roberts makes these incidents incredibly emotive to read.

“Where to begin? I had a sudden desire to stand up and stride about like a barrister, telling him a truth or two about this life, as he put it. Meaning my life. Meaning the lives of others. Meaning the morally dissolute. The sexually criminal. Meaning those who society has condemned to isolation, fear and self loathing.”

As the two narrations are drawn together not only does Roberts let you know what happened to the trio between their initial meeting and the present, bit by bit making the tension mount as she does so, but your sympathies switch almost constantly with both Marion and Patrick. Are they simply naive, is one of them the bad person, is neither at fault for their actions or are both to blame? I found it very interesting that never do we hear from Tom, who is the catalyst really, yet it didn’t matter that we didn’t either oddly, through Marion and Patrick we picture him and his actions, the good and the bad (Roberts brilliantly gives all her characters strengths and weaknesses making them all the fuller), in full.

I adored ‘My Policeman’, despite the fact it made me cry on a few occasions. I found it incredibly difficult to break away from it for any period of time yet I also found that as the book went on I was trying not to read it too fast, in part from the sense of impending doom and also because I didn’t really want it to end. I felt I was there, a bystander watching it all, feeling for Marion then Patrick and vice versa. It is one of the most beautifully written and emotionally engaging novels I have read this year. It is also a book that highlights a bit of our history that we often brush under the carpet, mainly because we think we are more tolerant now, and yet is one that should definitely be acknowledged and learnt from. It is very hard to believe that Bethan Roberts wasn’t a closeted gay man, or married to one, in the fifties so vividly is it portrayed and so affected are you by the prose. You must read this book.

Has anyone else read this and what did you think? For some reason I thought this was Bethan’s debut novel, it is in fact her third, have any of you read ‘The Pools’ or ‘The Good Plain Cook’? I am most keen to try them.

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Filed under Bethan Roberts, Books of 2012, Review, Vintage Books

Hawthorn & Child – Keith Ridgway

I think I should state from the very start of today’s post that I don’t think any review, let alone my own, could really do justice to ‘Hawthorn & Child’, Keith Ridgway’s fourth and latest novel. However, now we have got that slightly awkward moment out of the way let me tell you why, without a doubt, I think it is one of the best books that I have read all year. So much so that I have read it three times, yep it is that good. I could finish there but I won’t, you need more of a push to pick it up than just that.

9781847085269

Granta Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 282 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

It doesn’t seem any accident that the opening of ‘Hawthorn & Child’ starts with Hawthorn asleep and dreaming as his partner Child drives them to a hospital to interview someone who has been shot before they are operated upon. There is very much a slightly dreamlike, or occasionally nightmarish, quality to a book which is in a way a novel and also very much a collection of short stories that sort of interweave and interlink and sort of don’t. Do not let this put you off in the slightest because this is actually one of the many things that is so blooming brilliant about a book that takes risks in its writing style and had this reader completely thrilled by it.

Hawthorn and Child are two partners in fighting crime in London. Despite the fact that they are the title characters of the book they aren’t actually the main characters throughout, well maybe Hawthorn is in a way (see this book is delightfully tricky), but they do link all the stories that create this wonderfully quirky novel appearing in the forefront or back ground of every tale/chapter. Nor, again despite its title and the characters it links to, is this book anywhere near your run of the mill crime or ‘literary crime novel’ either. Mystery is definitely the main theme of the book, but not in the way that you would think.

For example at the start of the book there is a shooting, I naturally assumed that this would be the overall story arch of the whole novel, I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact as the book goes on, and more thrills, crimes and unique stories and characters appear it fades into the back ground and the mystery becomes more about the mysteries we as people hide from others. A brilliant example of this is when Hawthorn and Child, investigating a suspicious suicide, go to interview the deceased acquaintance that may have seen him last who knows nothing of this case really but, as we see through his internal monologue, may well be a serial killer of male and female prostitutes.

The prose is brilliant, simple, dark, punchy and effective. Ridgway manages to bring London and a whole cast of creepy, crazy and complex characters utterly to life. Just my cup of tea. Hawthorn was probably my favourite, I didn’t ever feel I knew Child so well, a half decent copper who is openly gay (and gets much jibes and ribbing because of it) and who is prone to weeping and anonymous sexual encounters. There is something grubby about this book, but grubby in a good earthy way. I don’t know if you can call a book sexy, and I do not under any circumstances mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way just to clear that up, but it has a certain animalistic nature to it that I found rather irresistible. The sort of writing that might give you a crush on an author. Maybe I am not making sense; maybe I have been lost in the ‘Hawthorn and Child’ world completely myself. I am fine with that if so.

An example of this is one of my favourite pieces/chapters/stories in the book ‘How To Have Fun With A Fat Man’ which manages to several clever things in just fewer than twenty pages. Firstly it manages to be three separate narratives, one is Hawthorn at a riot, the second Hawthorn cruising for sex in a gay sauna (not for the prudish, but you are all open minded readers here I know) and the third a visit to Hawthorn’s father. The latter story stands alone, despite being in the middle of the other two and looks at how Hawthorn copes with his sexuality at work and with his family, plus has a very sweet nostalgic twist brought on by a horrendous tale of someone’s death. However the cleverest part of this tale was that Ridgway writes the riot and the sauna sequences in such a way that sometimes you can’t tell which is which. Brilliance, here is an example of this…

“At a signal they move from the wall. They move towards the others. It is always a confrontation. It is always a stand-off. Hawthorn is shoulder to shoulder with men like himself. He is eye to eye across the air. He is picking out certain faces. He is making calculations. There are certain things he wants to do. There are things he doesn’t want to do. These things are always people. He accepts or declines each face. Each set of shoulders. He is agreeing to and refusing each body in turn. His mind is ahead of him. He is saying yes to that one, no to that one. He is choosing. Choice is an illusion.”

I think the best way to sum up the wonderfully quirky, exciting and surreal yet real ‘Hawthorn & Child’ comes from one of the many characters who could be a psychopath or sociopath or just mad who says “Knowing things completes them. Kills them. They fade away, decided over and forgotten. Not knowing sustains us.” This is a book where not everything is resolved, stories create stories, some fade and some linger, the only constant is the brilliant writing, compellingly created cast, sense of mystery and dark humour which will sustain you from the start until the end and may just have you turning to the first page again as soon as you have finished the last. I have heard some people say this is a difficult book, I just found it a complete joyride. This has easily been one of my reading highlights of the year, again and again and again. I loved it and strongly urge you to give it a whirl.

Who else has read ‘Hawthorn & Child’ and what did you think? I have to point you in the direction of John Self who has done an amazing review of this book, really promoted it and has also a great interview with Ridgway himself too (not jealous at all, cough!) Have you read any of Ridgway’s other novels and which would you recommend, though I have to say I think I want to go and read them all now, smitten?

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Filed under Books of 2012, Granta Books, Keith Ridgway, Review

Kiss Kiss – Roald Dahl

For years and years and years and years and years and years (you are getting the picture I am sure) people have been saying to me that I “simply must read some of the adult short stories by Roald Dahl”. For years and years and years and years and years and years I have been ignoring them. Why? Well I am not too sure. As a child I absolutely loved his stories and so in some weird way I think I had assumed that any adult fiction he had written might have a childish edge to it, oh how I am kicking myself now. It was after an episode of the Readers where I was waffling on, as usual, about a story I read as a kid that freaked me out about a man living in a house smelling of almonds that I got an email from a listener telling me it was probably ‘The Landlady’ by Roald Dahl from his collection of short stories ‘Kiss Kiss’. I looked it up and saw it was a collection of dark, disturbing, macabre and haunting tales and whoops I had clicked and bought it. I am so, so pleased that I did.

Penguin Books, paperback, 1960 (2011 edition), fiction, short stories, 303 pages, from my own personal TBR pile

‘Kiss Kiss’ is a collection of eleven of Roald Dahl’s tales, the only thing that really links them is that they are all really rather dark and have twists, some gory, some jaw drooping, some shocking, at the end that even if you loathe the main character will leave you wanting them not to get whatever awful comeuppance is coming to them, yes even when they might actually deserve it. What I wasn’t expecting, and what I really loved about them all, was just how dark they would be.

In a collection of eleven short stories you might, well if you are a bit of a cynic like me, expect there to be maybe one or two that you don’t like as much or ‘get’. I thought that pretty much every single story in ‘Kiss Kiss’ was a corker. Now I just have the mission of explaining why without giving anything away so that if you haven’t read them you will go and do so.

For me the best stories in the collection are the ones that I started reading with an initial sense of ‘hmmm this doesn’t seem new’. I won’t mention specific names as that might spoil them. There were tales, for example, starting with cheating wives, or doormat wives who lead meek lives under their husbands watchful gaze (which comes up in a few of the tales actually) yet what Dahl does is take these familiar tales or characters and completely turn them on their heads. I have discovered with a book or two this year is something I really enjoy and must find more books that do this for the wonderful surprise they give you.

I should really mention, before we go any further, the fact that after about three stories I had a strange feeling of déjà vu. I knew I had read ‘The Landlady’ at school in my first year of secondary school, and it was a memory of this tale that made me get the collection, and felt like ‘William and Mary’ was very familiar when an old school friend reminded me that we had in fact studied the lot. Somewhat understandably between the ages of eleven and almost thirty-one I had forgotten them all pretty much and so it was nice to have the twists still waiting for me and I could see why I would have loved them so much at that age as that sense of the macabre is clearly something I simply like and always have done. And what twisted endings these tales do have…

‘Pig’ left me feeling a little nauseous and also with my jaw placed firmly on the floor, simply never saw that coming. ‘Royal Jelly’ really surprised me with its twist, and oddly fascinated me with all the facts about bees Dahl threw in, and I was left wondering what happened next. I cheered for the comeuppance of some very naughty/underhand people in ‘Parson’s Pleasure’ and ‘The Way Up To Heaven’ despite how unpleasant it might have been.

I will admit that ‘Edward the Conqueror’ left me a little cold until the last paragraph, but that might have been the point though it seemed a lot of work for little reward unlike the others, and ‘The Champion of the World’ (which is indeed the original idea for the kids classic ‘Danny, The Champion of the World’) didn’t really set me racing through them like the others, but I did enjoy them.

I have to say in terms of favourites ‘The Landlady’ remains up there, even if it is not the very best tale, just for the nostalgic feeling and creeps it continues to give me in a slightly delicious way. I also thought that ‘Georgy Porgy’ (which is what we used to call a next door neighbour, now I know why) was one of the funniest tales and had a wry sense of humour that made me laugh out loud, and then giggle a lot. It was also another tale that made a joke of spinsters and men of the cloth which seemed a theme along with down trodden wives in this collection throughout. My very favourite though for the fact it is pure genius was ‘Genesis and Catastrophe – A True Story’; a tale of a woman whose babies all die but one survives and the twist blew my mind. Brilliant!

“The next day it was Miss Unwin. Now Miss Unwin happened to be a close friend of Miss Elphinstone’s and of Miss Prattley’s, and this of course should have been enough to make me very cautious. Yet who would have thought that she of all people, Miss Unwin, that quiet gentle little mouse who only a few weeks before had presented me with a new hassock exquisitely worked in needle point with her own hands, who would have thought that she would ever have taken a liberty with anyone? So when she asked me to accompany her down to the crypt to show her the Saxon murals, it never entered my head that there was devilry afoot. But there was.”

I think ‘Kiss Kiss’ will undoubtedly remain one of my favourite short story collections, and one that I will happily dip in and out of again and again in the future. It has that delightfully dark, yet awfully darkly funny, essence to it that I just really enjoy. It has made me want to go out and read all of Dahl’s other adult work (especially with the covers in this new series by Penguin) and also dig out my old childhood favourites which I am sure I will now see in a whole new light. I would definitely recommend that you read this collection if you haven’t, they are mini macabre masterpieces.

Who else has read ‘Kiss Kiss’ and what did you think? Which of his other collections or adult novels would you recommend I try next?

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Filed under Books of 2012, Penguin Books, Review, Roald Dahl, Short Stories

The Lighthouse – Alison Moore

I really should listen to people more and stop making assumptions so quickly, I really should. One book that has certainly highlighted this recently has been reading Alison Moore’s debut novel ‘The Lighthouse’, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year. I had assumed that with a lighthouse on the cover it would be about the sea and boats, which it isn’t but I don’t read blurbs so I just assumed it would be. Then I heard it was a ‘walking book’ and as a child who went on too many walking holidays (sorry Gran, I do think of them more fondly now) that put me off too. However Trevor of The Mookse and the Gripes raved about it to me when we recorded a Man Booker special of The Readers and now, having finished it, I am kicking myself for having not read it sooner.

Salt Publishing, paperback, 2012, fiction, 184 pages, borrowed from the library

Futh, which I admit I initially found such an unusual name it bothered me to start with and slightly distracted me, is a man who has decided to take himself off on his first holiday alone walking in the German countryside. As we meet him on the ferry we learn that he has recently become separated and in some nostalgic way has done what he and his father did when his mother left and head to Germany for a break of sorts. It is this almost circular and mirroring of the past and the present that we see more and more of as ‘The Lighthouse’ goes on. As Futh walks in the days that follow certain things mainly scents, as he is a chemist who creates artificial scents which I couldn’t help think was inspired by the fact the only thing of his mothers he had was a perfume bottle shaped like a lighthouse, remind him of the past and memories start to come back that he can’t quite figure out, yet as the reader we can which I thought Moore had planned rather intricately.

Now I am aware that I have fallen into the trap of making this book sound like it is a ‘walking book’ and actually it is so much more and that is where the second strand of the novel comes from in alternating chapters. Ester is a rather unhappy landlady of a B&B in Germany called Hellhaus (which is German for ‘lighthouse’) where Futh comes to stay. Her husband, Bernard, no longer seems interested in her and so finds herself sleeping with single men who stay at the hotel, and who will have her, in a way of getting her husband’s attention. This works but not in the way she hopes, his reaction is of a darker jealousy which cleverly creates a sense of unease and dread in the reader for all concerned.

“In the past, she always used beds she had already changed, but since receiving complaints about the sheets, she makes sure to use rooms not yet cleaned. Or she uses rooms whose occupants are out for the day, brushing off and straightening up the bedding afterwards, and sometimes, while she is there, browsing the contents of drawers and suitcases, picking up perfumes and lipsticks, testing them on herself. If guests ever notice their possessions, these small items, going missing, they rarely say anything.”

Both the characters of Ester and Futh are polar opposites yet they have similarities and are so fascinating they make you read on. She appears from the outside a little cold, sexually dominant and manipulative; you learn how she went for Bernard when she was originally dating his brother etc. Yet really ester is a woman who fell in love with a man who became bored of her and she became bored of her life, she wanted romance and indeed still collects and reads Mills and Boons, the promise they offer consoled with drinking gin during the day. Futh on the other hand is one of those people who seem to amble through life a little bit confused and is often overlooked, misunderstood or finds himself misunderstanding the world around him. I did love the fact that wherever he stays he has to work out an exit of safety, hence why he doesn’t like planes. He is someone who goes under the radar possibly because he is actually a bit boring. It is this ambling nature and of not understanding or being understood which makes the ending of the book all the more horrifying, but I won’t say more on that subject.

“He has got into the habit of always determining an escape route from a room in which he is staying, imagining emergency scenarios in which his exit is blocked by a fire or a psychopath. This began, he thinks, when he was in his twenties and living in an attic flat. His Aunt Frieda, worrying about stair fires and burglars, gave him a rope ladder. It seems important he should always know a way out.”

Another thing I really admired and found rather enthralling was the circular feel to ‘The Lighthouse’, something which the title seems to allude to right there and indeed the quoted paragraph above does too. Themes of how history repeats itself, with Futh’s mother (also called Angela) leaving his father for being boring, and then his wife does the very same thing. The very walk itself he goes in is circular, the bottle in his pocket is a lighthouse, Esters hotel has the name, the place Futh saw his father hit his mother and ended their relationship was on a walk to a lighthouse etc. Occasionally these fall into symmetries and seem a tad too much, the fact Ester dated one brother then another and Futh’s wife might have had an affair with his estranged step brother, or the fact Futh creates scents and carries an empty bottle of his mothers and Ester collecting perfume bottles seemed one too far but because the book is so, so good I ended up overlooking it, even if it did seem to be one connection that was thrown in for the plot a little.

I think ‘The Lighthouse’ is one of the most accomplished debut novels that I have read in quite some time, and indeed is one of my favourite novels of the year so far. It is a book that says so much and is brimming with themes and ideas in fewer than two hundred pages. It has shades of dark and light, there is some real humour at Futh’s expense making the darker undertones all the darker, the unease build throughout and the ending all the more upsetting. I had to keep re-reading the last few chapters. I would highly recommend you give this book a whirl and am thrilled that the Man Booker judges chose this over some more famous names or I might have missed out.

Who else has read ‘The Lighthouse’ and what did you think? Have you ever been put off a book by its cover and/or what you have assumed about it or thought the subject matter wouldn’t be your thing (I am also thinking of Madeline Miller’s ‘The Song of Achilles’ here) only to love it and wish you had read it sooner? Oh and you can read Trevor of Mookse and the Gripes thoughts here and also Kim of Reading Matters here as it was Trevor who said I should read it and Kim’s review that made me get this from the library!

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Filed under Alison Moore, Books of 2012, Man Booker, Review, Salt Publishing

Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

One thing I really love and admire from a writer is when they give us a familiar scenario and manage to completely turn it on its head or take it apart analyse it and rework it into something quite unfamiliar. Deborah Levy’s ‘Swimming Home’ did this for me early in the year with an initially formulaic idea of a middle class holiday and the arrival of a stranger, now Gillian Flynn has done it with a brilliantly written thriller based on a missing spouse with ‘Gone Girl’. No surprise then that both of these books will easily be sitting high up on my list of books of the year without a shadow of a doubt.

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, hardback, 2012, fiction, 416 pages, borrowed from the library

‘Gone Girl’ opens with Nick Dunne telling us how on their fifth wedding anniversary, after a call from the neighbours, goes home to find the door wide open, the lounge smashed up and his wife Amy missing. Soon the police become involved and, as Amy was made infamous in her youth through her parents’ novels featuring the ‘Amazing Amy’, there is a county and soon nationwide interest and search into her disappearance. This is all quite familiar but the first, of many, clever tricks which Gillian Flynn throws into this book is the fact that as we get the story in the present from Nick, we alternately start to read the diary entries from Amy at the start of their relationship.

These diary entries initially start with all the joy and romance of her initial meeting with Nick, her dismay when he vanishes for a while and elation when he comes back. As their relationship goes on it really is all perfect, that is until his parents separately fall ill, Nick and Amy both get made redundant, spend most of her trust fund and wind up living in Nick’s hometown of Carthage, Missouri. This is not a place Amy wants to be and as she writes she tells of her feelings of alienation and that Nick might be buckling under the pressure, and a darker side of her husband is revealed.

The stories start to converge as Nick continues to narrate his version of events in the present and as the police and the public start to cast a suspicious eye on him. Yet as the stories start to meet nothing one spouse is saying about the other quite matches and what really happened is full of twist after twist after twist after twist.

I won’t say anymore about the plot for fear of spoiling anything, and you do want to go into ‘Gone Girl’ knowing as little as possible to be honest. I will say that I think this is one of the best books that I have read all year. I have certainly been completely bowled over by Gillian Flynn’s writing, and not just for incredible and complex plotting, which she makes seem effortless as we read, also for the way in which the world that Nick and Amy inhabit is so vivid and how real they become. I felt I followed their story from young loves dream to rather disillusioned marriage as if I was one of their acquaintances, even when the stories didn’t match which is all the more clever.

I also liked the little intricate bits of them and their marriage was wonderfully done. I thought the back story of ‘Amazing Amy’ was brilliant and how that would affect someone. The issue of cancer and Alzheimer’s which Nick’s parents raise as well as redundancy and the death of the city and the small town were both current and completely believable. The whole world of this novel worked, which is why I couldn’t just label this book as simply a thriller, it is so much more than that.

As you can probably tell I could enthuse about ‘Gone Girl’, and indeed Gillian Flynn’s writing of it, endlessly. I don’t think I have read a book that has taken me to such dark places, it’s not a graphically disturbing novel though get ready to have your mind played with and warped, and have so many twists and turns. I also don’t think I have read a book that so cleverly asks the question ‘how well do you really know your partner’ and answers it in such a shocking, brutal yet also worryingly plausible way. ‘Gone Girl’ is easily one of the best novels I have read this year, I cannot recommend it enough… well, unless you are about to get married, have just got married or have just had a bit of a row with your other half as it might give you second thoughts, or sudden ideas, good and bad.

Who else has read ‘Gone Girl’ and (without spoilers) what did you think? Have you read any of Gillian Flynn’s other novels and if so which ones should I be reading next? I have to admit though the urge to go and get them both now is very, very strong.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Gillian Flynn, Review, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

The World That Was Ours – Hilda Bernstein

Yesterday I mentioned that I am about to start reading all the Persephone books in order and the book that played a part in getting me thinking about doing so was ‘The World That Was Ours’ by Hilda Bernstein, which happens to be the 50th Persephone title and the halfway mark (so I will be coming back to it in a few years). One of the things I have liked about all the Persephone’s that I have read so far is that they have all been, twee isn’t the right word, erm, ‘rather delightful’ might be better. I don’t mean that to sound like I am dumbing them down, just the select few I have read have had a slight ‘frightfully marvellous’ feeling about them be they crime, sensation novels, etc. This, as I said, I love but has also made me read them sparingly and as ‘safe’ choices. I am now thrilled that ‘The World That Was Hours’ felt like a very dark and dangerous book and a memoir that needs to be read to be believed. I am hoping my adventure into Persephone’s will lead me to more like this.

Persephone Books, paperback, 1967 (2009 edition), memoir, non-fiction, 416 pages, from my personal TBR

‘The World That Was Ours’ is a rare first account of the period in South Africa’s history in the 1960’s when the apartheid had been running for some time yet tension seemed to be building to a breaking point with the Government of the time creating bills and arresting people left, right and centre. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, small towns and villages mainly populated by black people were being destroyed and people were being severely punished, even by death, for the smallest of incidents. Hilda Bernstein and her husband, Rusty, were two of the many white people who were fighting for fairness and equality at that time and so were of course raided and often arrested, even imprisoned throughout this period. ‘The World That Was Ours’ in Bernstein’s memoir of the trying and horrific times of that period, not only for her, her family and the people she knew but also of the innocent people, be they black or white, and what the consequences of this awful time were.

I feel slightly ashamed to admit that until recently I have not had much understanding of the apartheid, though I knew who Mandela was and how important all he has done was. That said two of the books on the Green Carnation Prize longlist dealt with the subject, or its effects, fictionally and so Bernstein’s memoir has given me an equally fascinating and horrifying look into the time all the more. Through fiction I was shocked, seeing it written down as a memory has made the horror of it all the more real and mind boggling. I find it difficult to comprehend people’s behaviour or the fact they could think what they were doing was right at the time, I don’t mean the Bernstein’s here obviously, I mean the Government, police and justice system. It is one of those books that has you googling everything and learning more, it is a very important book.

“Now we knew that time was running out for us. The punishment for refusal to accept racial rule was inflated; the objective, to remove every single dissenter, either by forcing them completely out of the country, or by shutting them completely away into jail. Nothing less. Even house arrest was an interim measure; together with specific bans its objective was to make such living impossible, unable to live like a human being, the victim finally left the country. You could not stay and go on living freely.”

Not all memoirs work of course. People can have seen or been part of horrendous things but if they can’t write it can lose something along the way. Bernstein is an incredible writer, and indeed at the time was a journalist, she manages to evoke the atmosphere and tension effortlessly and not just for herself and her situation in Johannesburg but for everything going on in the country too, from both sides. At the same time she writes in a style that makes the book feel like a thriller, in part because there is the aspect of all the secret things that she and her husband were doing in the anti-apartheid movement, yet also from the way she paces it. I found it very difficult to tear myself away from the book even during trials and the explaining of the policies and bills the Government were creating every other day.

This leads to the other very important aspect of ‘The World That Was Ours’, Bernstein manages not to make the book seem like a historical document, even though that is exactly what it is essentially. She brings the message home of how awful things were and the level and scope of the atrocities going on without repeating everything. Her writing seems to say ‘why repeat the point over and over when you can hammer it home highlighting points once’. This doesn’t mean she just says ‘oh it was awful’ and finish there, she gives you an example of one of the awful incidences and then explains how it was happening everywhere and telling of another different incident. Many books would repeat themselves endlessly, Bernstein doesn’t feel the need. She shows faith in the reader’s intelligence too by not over explaining who every person is in the book, or the exact ins and outs of every bill or change to policy/the country/Government. This could have become a reference book in some ways, or a patronising explanation, yet she trusts the reader doesn’t need to be spoon fed and I think wanted readers to go away and read/find out more, which I did almost fifty years after publication.

“And finally – although this was only at the end – there were great quantities of books and pamphlets which we had put into storage fifteen years before to save them being taken in police raids; and now they were all banned, or by authors who were banned, and could not be put in the dustbin or given away, but had to be burned. So we became book-burners. Books resist burning, their pages curl and singe and the fire goes out; it is necessary to work at the burning and destroy them successfully. Perhaps that bath, packed solid with black brittle ashes of books and papers, had become the most striking symbol of the evil and destructive times to which we had come.”

‘The World That Was Ours’ shows the power of books, writing, journalism and memoir. When it was published back in 1967 it was a dangerous book to release and there were many people who would have liked to see it destroyed. Thank goodness it found a publisher back then and thank goodness Persephone have chosen it as a book to reprint for us to discover because it is just the sort of book that everyone should read. I will be re-reading this again for definite.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Hilda Bernstein, Persephone Books, Review

Dolly – Susan Hill

It is always nice when you discover a book is coming out by one of your favourite authors that you had no idea about. In this particular instance it was even more exciting when the author herself, for it was Susan Hill, tells you so in a tweet. I had just tweeted about how excited I was about her latest Simon Serrailler novel ‘A Question of Identity’ coming out when she replied ‘you just wait for my new ghost story ‘Dolly’’ well I was of course both intrigued and thrilled. Firstly a new ghost story is always good and just from the sounds of the title alone, and the images it conveyed, I was really, really, really excited to read ‘Dolly’.

Profile Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Having been a big fan of both Susan Hill and her ghost stories, ‘The Woman in Black’ being one of my favourite ghost stories and books of all time, there was a slight worry with ‘Dolly’ that I might hype it up too much in my head. I needn’t have worried as I think ‘Dolly’ might be one of the uneasiest and creepiest stories I have read all year, and indeed in some time since I re-read the aforementioned ‘The Women in Black’ itself.

‘Dolly’ is set in the British Fens, a marshland South Western region perfect for a ghost story, as two cousins, previously unknown to each other, come and stay with their Aunt Kestrel for a period during their childhood. It is Edward, not his cousin Leonora, who tells us the tale of the uneasy and creepy things which happened in his aunts rambling old manor, Iyot House, over this time and how they lingered well into the future. These of course concern themselves with a doll or indeed two actually, though how I will not say as with all good ghost stories you should have absolutely no idea where the story is going and where the unease lies hidden in the pages awaiting you.

I can tell you though that ‘Dolly’ is a crackingly good ghost story. It is not one of utter jumps and horrors, it is far subtler than that and actually reminded of the great Edwardian and Victorian tales of mystery and unease (can I use the word unease any more?) where is isn’t just ghosts that can be scary, objects indeed can be supernatural too as can the ordinary if it has just a hint of the extraordinary  or unusual. Here we have what is really quite a traditional tale of a spooky old house with a rather creepy young girl, doll and a housemaid (Mrs Mullen is a little bit Danvers-esque, which of course I loved) but as Susan Hill herself has said “some of the traditional ingredients rarely fail – the old, isolated house, the churchyard – but best be sparing. One small hint, a shadow, one rustling sound and you can have the reader in your power.” And indeed in the case of ‘Dolly’ she does just that.

Having thought about it I think that ‘Dolly’ might just be my favourite of Susan Hill’s ghost stories so far after ‘The Woman in Black’ and interestingly they do share some of the same ingredients, yes the old house is very important as a device, as are the marshes and a good graveyard, we also have a sensetive male narrator and ‘Dolly’ also has that feel of timelessness about it. You can’t quite place when it is set, there are cars and in the ‘current’ narrative there is indeed facelifts and plastic surgery but it feels like a period where they just came in and so the main story in the past tense has that Victorian edge to it. Yet I should add here that is doesn’t feel like a carbon copy or ghost story by numbers, it’s quite a story of its own and I loved it. It definitely gave me the chills and unease I was hoping for.

If that doesn’t make you want to rush out and read it then try this brilliant trailer out for size (no more video’s for a while)…

Has anyone else read ‘Dolly’ yet and if so what did you think? If you haven’t and you fancy something creepy for the autumn nights then I heartily recommend you pick this up.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Profile Books, Review, Susan Hill

Persuasion – Jane Austen

Many of you may know that I have always wavered a little in reading or wanting to read this classics. In my head this conjures up English Literature lessons in school being forced to read the same sections of a book over and over and over, analysing it to death and taking all the fun out for reading. This has lead me to having missed out on many a ‘canon’ author including Jane Austen, and people said a small collection of her early work didn’t count, so when I embarked, with AJ Reads, upon the idea of Classically Challenged she was the first author I wanted to try and thanks to you, and your votes, I did so with ‘Persuasion’. Did it persuade me to read anything else by her though?

Oxford University Press, paperback, 1817 (2008 edition), fiction, 304 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

If they had had the expression ‘middle child syndrome’ in the early 1800’s then I think Anne Elliot, the heroine of ‘Persuasion’, would be a prime example of someone who could suffer it, though being a heroine of course she doesn’t. She has a vain and wealth obsessed father and sisters, elder unmarried Elizabeth and younger married Mary, and so really she is overlooked by most of her family. Fortunately she does have the attention of neighbouring Lady Russell who was her sadly deceased mother’s best friend. However Sir Walter Elliot though obsessed with his position in life and wealth, is lacking in how to keep or make the right amount of money and so has to rent his estate, Kellynch-hall out which in doing so brings a former, rather fortunately unknown, engagement, Captain Wentworth, of Anne’s younger years back into her life and also a whole host of people that change her perception of what life can be and what can indeed be made of it.

I have to say that I really, really enjoyed ‘Persuasion’. I will happily admit that I found the first page to be one of the most mind numbing and off putting pieces of fiction that I have read in some time (which is interestingly the same thing, only for fifty more, that has stopped me getting anywhere with ‘Pride and Prejudice’) as Sir Walter reads about an almost encyclopaedic history of himself and all its pomp, which reads a little woodenly. Yet, just another page on I was suddenly hit with a beaming smile as the wit I had heard Jane Austen has, but didn’t believe she did, smacked me round the chops as Sir Walter’s pomp, causes him to look at everyone else around him, and I found it very funny.

“It sometimes happens, that a woman is handsomer at twenty-nine than she was ten years before; and, generally speaking, if there has been neither ill health nor anxiety, it is a time of life at which scarcely any charm is lost. It was so with Elizabeth; still the same handsome Miss Elliot that she had begun to be thirteen years ago; and Sir Walter might be excused, therefore, in forgetting her age, or, at least, be deemed only half a fool, for thinking himself and Elizabeth as blooming as ever, amidst the wreck of good looks of everybody else; for he could plainly see how old the rest of his family and acquaintance were growing. Anne haggard, Mary coarse, every face in the neighbourhood worsting; and the rapid increase of the crow’s foot about Lady Russell’s temples had long been a distress to him.”

From this point in the book was honestly a real joy. I felt that I actually ‘got’ Jane Austen and the more I read on the more and more I realised that my preconceptions of her were way off the mark. I had imagined this would all be rather twee and sentimental but have the happy ending I was expecting. Here I must say I did guess the ending but firstly I loved the twists that went on throughout and secondly doesn’t the ending have a dark ominous overtone?  What I actually got was a very witty, often a little darkly so, and intelligent and wryly perceptive author who clearly watched and observed and then, in wonderful prose – though it took me a little while to get into the Olde English, writes it almost to a level of pastiche, yet so convincing it never goes too far, for the reader to enjoy.

I must add here that I am never ever letting my editor moan at me about how much I over use comma’s. I shall simply say ‘have you read Jane Austen?’ and leave it at that. I liked the fact we had this in common and as I read on I became more and more sure that had I sat with her, people watching over a pot of Earl Grey tea, I would have very much enjoyed her company and possibly laughed quite a lot as I did throughout the book. I am not sure I was always meant to find everything as hilarious as I did, Louisa’s fall in particular, but I giggled, occasionally wickedly a lot, sometimes at the most subtle of things.

“’There we differ, Mary’ said Anne. ‘I am sure Lady Russell would like him. I think she would be so much pleased with his mind, that she would very soon see no deficiency in his manner.’
 ‘So do I, Anne’ said Charles. ‘I am sure Lady Russell would like him. He is just Lady Russell’s sort. Give him a book, and he will read all day long.’
 ‘Yes, that he will!’ exclaimed Mary, tauntingly. ‘He will sit poring over his book, and not know when a person speaks to him, or when one drops one’s scissors, or anything that happens. Do you think Lady Russell would like that?’”

The other aspect of her writing is how much of an insight it gives into the social state of the country at the time and indeed the plight of women. Firstly there is the fact that all women seem to be failures if they do not marry ‘up’ or, heaven forbid, marry at all. No wonder Anne is disproved of when she turns down Charles, who Mary then marries (awkward much?) and isn’t sure the debonair and seemingly wealthy Mr Elliot is right for her. More interesting for me was the cases of Miss Smith, who I really loved and wanted to look after, illustrated the plight of a widowed woman of no wealth and at the other end of the spectrum was the rather matriarchal Lady Russell who seemed to have it so easy, well apart from the loss of her husband that is. I found this all rather fascinating, the shock of Anne wanting to associate with a woman who couldn’t even afford a servant rather hit me, and also highlighted what a bunch of pompous pests she unfortunately was related to.

This does bring me to my only slight qualm with the book and Austen’s writing. Here we go, get ready for everyone who is sat thinking ‘see we knew you would like her and find her faultless’ to get a little more annoyed, but I want to be honest. In some of the characters, having seen so many adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, whilst not having read it I know, I felt that I had seen them before. There were a few Mrs Bennett’s and indeed a rather Wickham like character which whilst never stopped me enjoying ‘Persuasion’, indeed all the ‘vexing’ is wonderful, did spoil one twist in the tale alas. It made me wonder if all her novels have the same set characters and aim to achieve the same moralistic, yet also rather fairytale like, ends. I shall have to read more to make up my mind.

If you haven’t guessed already I was quite smitten with ‘Persuasion’ and also with its author. I got a whole lot more than I bargained for and indeed had my misconceptions of Austen and her writing have been fully highlighted and I see the error of my assumptions. If all of her novels contain this level of observance, wonderful characters be they good or bad, illustration of the human condition (and amazingly people still behave like this, maybe why it resonates to this day), emotion, humour and wry commentary I could become a hardened fan.

I will definitely be reading much more of Jane Austen’s work in the future, so if you have any recommendations for the next port of call do let me know, in the meantime though I am really excited about reading the rest of the Classically Challenged titles (next is ‘The Warden’ by Anthony Trollope) with AJ, whose thoughts on ‘Persuasion’ will be live here in due course, over the next few months. For now though… what are your thoughts on ‘Persuasion’?

P.S I am so sorry this post is so lengthy, the book gave me so much to write about.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Classically Challenged, Jane Austen, Oxford University Press, Review

My Soul to Take – Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Sometimes there are books that you read at just the right time, sometimes there are books that you read in just the right place. It is very rare that you read something at just the right time and in just the right place, however with ‘My Soul to Take’ by Yrsa Sigurdardottir I think I just managed to get both spot on as I read it in Iceland, where it is set, and during the dark autumn nights, perfect for a chilling murder mystery with a slightly supernatural twist.

Hodder Books, paperback, 2010, fiction, 456 pages, translated by Bernard Scudder & Anna Yates, kindly sent by the publishers

In 2006, heroine of ‘Last Rituals’, Thóra is in the middle of a very boring dispute over letter boxes in her work life and having to deal with her children, one who has got his equally teenage girlfriend pregnant, her difficult ex husband and the fact that her finances are in tatters.

So when a client of hers, a bit of a hippy, Jonas Juliusson invites her to come to his New Age Health Spa as he believes it is haunted by a young woman and a young girl and so wants to sue the sellers whilst offering some free respite she can’t turn him down. No sooner has Thóra arrived the body of Jonas’ architect is discovered having been mutilated and raped and Jonas becomes the prime suspect but Thora suspects there is much more going on than meets the eye and, of course, there is.

So how does this link with the story from the beginning in 1945? Well I am not going to tell you that am I as I want you to run out and get the book because it’s so good. I can say that I had no idea what the link was or indeed who the villain of the whole novel was until very close to the end because Yrsa fills this book with so many characters motives and twists and turns you are always second guessing and you second guess is invariably always wrong. I will say that the period of history, and this doesn’t give anything away, and the role of Iceland and the Nazi’s in WWII was a really interesting part of the plot, and therefore the book, because I had no idea about any of that at all and found it grimly fascinating.

I will say that I do think that Yrsa Sigurdardottir is swiftly becoming one of my favourite voices in crime at the moment.  With ‘My Soul to Take’ she does all the things I loved in ‘Last Rituals’ that I loved all over again but keeps it feeling fresh and new. There is the supernatural element, is there a ghost or not, the folklore of the country, the rather grisly murders (made all the worse by the fact you do feel you have an emotional connection to the victims which I always think makes everything more heightened), the sense of atmosphere of Iceland and, equally importantly, a dark and wry sense of humour running through it. It’s rather like its protagonist Thóra in many ways actually. There was one scene that made me laugh and laugh but I worry if I shared it with you I would be judged and you may never come back to this blog again. Let us move on shall we and have a nice picture of the lake I sat reading this by in Iceland…

A beautiful lake in Iceland, possibly inspiration for the first murder scene in ‘My Soul to Take’?

If you are looking for an intelligent crime novel that has an original gutsy heroine, victims you empathise with, clever crimes and more red herrings than, erm, a red herring factory then I would highly recommend ‘My Soul to Take’. I should add here that while it is the second in the series it would stand alone, however if you are like me and you have to read a series from the start then do pick up ‘Last Rituals’ as soon as you can, go on, get it now. I am certainly looking forward to the third instalment of Thóra, though before I turn to that I am going to read Yrsa’s latest novel ‘I Remember You’ which is a standalone horror, perfect for this time of year and arrived just this morning.

Who else has read any of Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s novels? What did you think? Do they get better and better? What are your thoughts on the humour in these novels? Have you been completely flummoxed by the killer the whole way through too?

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Filed under Books of 2012, Hodder & Stoughton, Review, Yrsa Sigurdardottir