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