Category Archives: Books of 2013

Books of 2013; Part II

Blimey, it is the last day of 2013 and before we know it 2014 will be upon us. I hope you have something lovely planned for your New Years Eve? I will be back home in the Peak District with my Mum, aunties and all their children which will be lovely, we are combining Christmas and New Years all in one so much merriment will ensue I am sure. Anyway time for more of my books of 2013. I am continuing the tradition of the last few years, and my inability to whittle books down as favourites, and so this is the second of my books of the year post. Today I celebrate my top ten books that were published for the first time in the UK this year, yesterday I gave you all a list of ten corking books published prior to this year – do have a gander. So without further ado here are my favourite books published this year…

10. The Crane Wife – Patrick Ness

I absolutely adored ‘The Crane Wife’. It made me cry at the start, possibly at the end and a few time, with laughter, through the middle. It has been a good few weeks since I read the book now and I still find myself pondering what has happened to the characters since, always the sign of a good read, and the writing just blew me away.  Patrick Ness says in this book that “A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew.” I hope this story grows to be a huge success as it certainly deserves to be read and loved.

9. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil – Stephen Collins

There is one word that sums up the whole reading experience of The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil and that is ‘sublime’. I loved everything about it; the imagery, the atmosphere, the message at its heart, everything. It’s a very moving book and one you cannot help but react to, I even shed a tear or two at the end. There is no doubt that to my mind The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil probably has the best title of any book this year, it also looks set to be one of the most memorable books of the year for its contents too. A quite literally, or maybe that should be quite graphically, stunning book and one of my reads of the year.

8. Maggie & Me – Damian Barr

I really loved ‘Maggie and Me’. I related to it – something that only happens to your very core or bones once or twice in a blue reading moon – and empathised with it. It was the sort of book my younger self was crying out for someone to put in my hands. I can only hope some lovely relatives, librarians, teachers or other influential bods make sure this is passed on to both the younger generation, especially those who call rubbish things ‘gay’, and to everyone they know really. Books like this help make being different both more acceptable and understandable, we need them.

7. Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

There is no question that Hannah Kent has crafted an incredibly beautiful novel with ‘Burial Rites’. It is a book which has a sense of isolation and brooding menace throughout and a book where the prose is as sparse (you feel not a word has been wasted) as the Icelandic landscape it is evoking. It is one of my books of the year without question and one lots of people can expect in their season stockings in a few months time. I strongly suggest you read it.

6. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena – Anthony Marra

‘A Constellation of Vital Phenomena’ is one of those books that Gran would say ‘manages to educate you on something you have little knowledge of’ and ‘makes you walk in a strangers steps, even if the stranger is fictional’. It is a book that isn’t a comfortable read by any stretch of the imagination yet, and I know I am sometimes stuck on repeat when I mention this, I don’t think that fiction should always be neat and comfortable. Sometimes we need brave bold books and authors like this to highlight what is going on or has gone on which we know little about.  Anthony Marra took on a challenge that even an author on their tenth book might not take on and he excels at it. I urge all of you to give this book a try.

5. Alex – Pierre Lemaitre

What Lemaitre actually does with ‘Alex’, which is far more interesting and potent is make you question, as the twists come, what you think is and isn’t morally right and soon this gripping thriller starts to ask so really serious questions of its reader and their ethics. A very clever move indeed, provide a book that makes you think hard about what you might do or what you find to be the ‘right’ thing for someone to do whilst also creating a read which is a complete page turner that has the readers jaw dropping as they go. That is what has made it my thriller of the year so far, it’s genius, and I personally cannot wait for the next one in the Camille series.

4. All The Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

The way Evie weaves all of this together is just masterful. She doesn’t simply go for the route of alternating chapters from Jake’s present and her past, which would be too simple and has been done before. In the present Evie makes the story move forward with Jake from the latest sheep mauling, in the past though we go backwards making the reader have to work at making everything make sense. I had several ‘oh bloody hell that is why she is where she is’ moments with the past storyline before thinking ‘what there is more, that might not be the reason…’ Jakes mistrust of things it seems it catching. This style is a gamble and admittedly initially requires a leap of faith and chapter or two of acclimatizing to the structure, yet it is a gamble which pays of dividends by the end and if you see the end coming, and aren’t left completely jaw droppingly winded by it, then you are a blooming genius. I was honestly blown away.

2= Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Atkinson is a master of prose in my eyes. I love the way she gives the readers discreet asides and occasional knowing winks. I love her sense of humour, especially when it is at its most wicked and occasionally inappropriate. I think the way her characters come to life is marvellous and the atmosphere in the book, particularly during the strands during World War II and during the London Blitz (though I didn’t think the Hitler parts of the book were needed, even if I loved the brief mention of Unity Mitford) along with the tale of her possible marriage were outstandingly written. There is also the element of family saga, the history of Britain from 1910 onwards and also how the lives of women have changed – all interesting themes which Atkinson deals with throughout.

2 = Magda – Meike Ziervogel

Two of the biggest powers that books can have are to make us think outside our usual periphery or be a spring board to discovering more about subjects we think we know. Some books can do both, they are a rarity though. Magda, the debut novel from Meike Ziervogel, is one such book which gave me both a different outlook on something I thought I had made my mind up about and left me desperate to find out more when challenged. It is the sort of book where I simply want to write ‘you have to read this book’ and leave it at that so you all do, yet it is also one that is designed to be talked about and the questions it raises be discussed.

1. The Language of Dying – Sarah Pinborough

I thought The Language of Dying was a wonderful book for its rawness and emotion. It is a book that I really experienced and one which I am so glad I have read for the cathartic and emotional effects it had on me (I was openly weeping often) and proved that sometimes books are exactly what you need and can show you truths you think no one else quite understands apart from you. I can’t recommend it enough, without question my book of the year.

I have to say I struggled with this list rather a lot. If any of you have listened to the latest episode of The Readers you will have heard me shamelessly cheating as Gavin and I discuss twelve books we are each looking forward to in 2014. So I will here cheat slightly and say that Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English, Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave, Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, and particularly both Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka and Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, could all easily have made the cut. Maybe I should have created a top twenty?

So which of these have you read and loved? What have been your books of 2013? What are you doing for New Years Eve?

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Books of 2013; Part I

With two days of 2013 to go, I thought it was time to share my books of the year. In the tradition I have set over the last few years, and my inability to whittle books down as favourites, there will be two posts of my books of the year. Today it is the books that were published before 2013 and tomorrow the ones that were published for the first time in the UK this year. Interestingly today’s list has proved so much easier than tomorrows as it seems I didn’t really read many books published before 2013 – and when I did only a few of them blew me away, those ones were…

10. Chocolat – Joanne Harris

I have to say that even though I had seen the film, though it has been a while, ‘Chocolat’ as a book was a whole lot darker and less twee than I thought it would be before picking it up. One of the many things that I admired so much about it was that under the tale of outsiders coming to a place, and quietly causing mayhem, there was the huge theme of people’s individuality and that being different should be celebrated and not ostracised, yet ‘Chocolat’ is also cleverly not a book that smacks you over the head with a moralistic tone.

9. The Detour – Gerbrand Bakker

‘The Detour’ won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year and having read it you can easily see why. Bakker creates a story that is subtle and slow burning yet all at once brimming with a sense of mystery and menace. It is also a book that will linger on with the reader long after you have read it and, if you are like me, long after it devastates you with both its prose and most importantly its story. A much recommended book.

8. The Ministry of Fear – Graham Greene

Greene shows what a master he is not only of atmosphere (war torn and spy strewn London) but of writing a book which takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions as much as it does thrills. Some of the book I found profoundly moving, both the descriptions of the destruction the war inflicted and also in an element I can’t explain here for fear of spoilers. Greene also made me laugh out loud on several occasions which, with all the tension and twists, proved much needed and added a great contrast of light amongst the dark.

7. Riotous Assembly – Tom Sharpe

The more I have thought about Riotous Assembly, the more impressed I have been left by it. The humour gets you through some of the tough bits, some of the bits that people would normally find hard to read and digest palatable by their humour yet equally devastating, if not more so, when the reader realizes the truth in it. So yet there maybe the boobies (and more) and bullets (and more) in it that I was expecting, but the way in which they are used is both titillating and thought provoking.

6. The Long Falling – Keith Ridgway

If I had a little bit of a literary crush on Ridgway’s writing after reading ‘Hawthorn and Child’ last year, I now have something of a full on crush on it from reading ‘The Long Falling’. It shocked me from the first chapter which slowly meanders before a sudden twist, which happens a lot in this book actually, yet unlike some books that first amazing chapter is bettered as the book goes on and for all these reasons I strongly urge you to give it a read. I loved it, if love is the right word? I was also thrilled that this was as brilliant as the previous Ridgway I read yet a completely different book in a completely different style.

5. Good Evening Mrs Craven; The Wartime Stories – Mollie Panter Downes

I think Mollie Panter-Downes writing is astounding. I really remember liking it last time but this time I loved it. There are the wonderful, often rather quirky, characters some of whom, like Mrs Ramsey, Mrs Peters and Mrs Twistle, keep returning in and out of the stories which helps build the consistency of the world Panter-Downes describes as they run from 1939 to 1944, the tone changing slightly as the book goes on. She can bring a character to life in just a mere sentence or two and the brevity of her tales and how much they make your mind create is quite astounding.

4. The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing

Lessing’s writing is unflinchingly brilliant. As I mentioned about the sense of menace and oppression is wonderfully evoked as the landscape and weather match the atmosphere of impending doom the book has and also Mary’s mental state. Mary is also an incredible creation, one of the most complex characters I have read. She is never completely likeable nor dislikeable, yet you find yourself fascinated by a woman who in turns goes from victim to venomous, from independent to weak, from sane to crazy, from racist to not and back again. It is confronting and equally compelling and highlights the society at the time and the conundrum and conflict a country and its society found itself in and in some ways, shockingly, still does.

3.Mariana – Monica Dickens

If someone had told me this is what the book was going to be about before I started I might have been inclined to think that this book really wouldn’t be for me. Yet I loved every single page of it and was completely lost in Mary’s life. Part of that was to do with the character of Mary that Monica creates, she isn’t the picture perfect heroine at all, she can be moody, ungainly and awkward, a little self centred on occasion but she is always likeable, her faults making her more endearing even when she can be rather infuriating. Part of it was also all the characters around her, I want to list them all but there are so many it would be madness, some of them delightful, some spiteful but all of them drawn vividly and Monica Dickens has a wonderful way of introducing a new character with the simplest of paragraphs which instantly sums them up. All of these characters are part of the many things that make you go on reading ‘Mariana’, every page or two someone new lies in store.

2. HHhH – Laurent Binet

I don’t think I have learnt so much about World War II from a book I have read in all my 31, nearly 32, years. Considering that I studied it for about five years in my history lessons at school this is quite something. I had no idea about some of the smaller but utterly fascinating facts behind this time period; that the Hitler wanted authors such as Aldous Huxley, Rebecca West, HG Wells and Virginia Woolf; that the Nazi’s built their own brothel (Kitty’s Salon) to film other Nazi’s to see if they were true to the regime or not. Nor did I know of some of the utterly horrific things, like what an ineffectual plonker Chamberlain was, the plans for Nazi attack cells in all the cities all over the UK and the horrendous atrocities such as Grandmothers Gully in Kiev.

1. The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

… there is very little doubt in my mind that ‘The House of Mirth’ is an absolute masterpiece and could easily be one of my favourite books. I loved Wharton’s prose, her humour and the fact she did completely the opposite of what I was expecting with Lily’s story which alas I can’t discuss in detail for I would completely spoil it for you if you have yet to read it – if that is the case you must go and get it now. Lily Bart walked fully off the page for me and I found myself thinking about her a lot when I wasn’t reading the book. Reading it is an experience, and I don’t say that often. One thing is for sure, I will not be forgetting the tale of Lily Bart for quite some time and I believe I will be returning to it again and again in the years to come.

So that is the first of my selection of books of 2013. I have only taken a small quote from my thoughts on each book, to find out more click on the link to each book. Which of these have you read and what did you think? I have realised I need to get into more of the books from the past and less of the shiny new ones, but that is for discussion more in the New Year. Any other books by these authors that you would recommend I read in 2014?

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Black Vodka – Deborah Levy

And so here is my final review, or set of book thoughts as I think of them, of 2013. This seems fitting considering I read this book not once, not twice but three times in total throughout the year as Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka is a collection of stories that is most beguiling because it evokes many sensations as you read it. There is darkness here, puzzlement and often a sensation that you need to read each story again and again to get more from it – so I did.

And Other Words, 2013, paperback, short stories, 125 pages, bought by my good self

Short story collections, I find, are rather a nightmare to write anything about. The instant thing most people ask is ‘what is the theme of the collection?’ Well to be honest with Black Vodka I am not sure. Many have a sense or need of belonging somewhere within them, though in differing forms. There is also the theme of love in many; sometimes its loss, sometimes where it sparks, sometimes where it lacks, sometimes where it never quite is. This all sounds very vague and if this was for a broadsheet I would probably be fired, but thankfully as it is my I can’t fire myself (well I could but I won’t) but I can ask the question… Does every short story collection really need to be about themes? Can’t a short  story collection just be what it says it is? As to try and give Black Vodka set themes seems to limit it and I don’t think that is what Deborah Levy would want or has set out to do.

What we have is a collection of ten stories that cover a huge spectrum of human experiences, ones which seem to show the signs of our times. Infidelity seems to be one of the most common as within Vienna, Simon Tegala’s Heart in 12 Parts, Pillow Talk, Black Vodka, and Roma there is infidelity going on somewhere in the tale. Levy doesn’t preach though, some lovers are forgiven, some are not and occasionally love blossoms from an act of infidelity and we have all heard such tales from friends, or friends of friends. There is also, as I mentioned the sense of belonging, be it to a place (Shining a Light), a person (Roma), or simply just to society (Black Vodka).

My next statement might sound bonkers but the whole collection is also linked by a European feel. America and Asia are mentioned but in every single tale Europe seems to stand out, all the tales are set in Europe but no matter where somewhere else in Europe will be mentioned. Someone will compare something to ‘a fisherman’s cottage in Greece’, ‘orchards of Istanbul’ or be somewhere continental feeling very homesick for the rain in the UK. Shining a Light looks at this as Alice finds herself in Prague, her luggage lost, befriending the people who she thinks are locals but are in fact foreigners too . They become united by their want, or need, of having a good time to cover their homesickness, only Alice can go home her new acquaintances cannot. In Pillow Talk lovers Pavel and Ella are from completely different backgrounds yet have met and started a relationship in London, Pavel has an interview in Dublin so will the relationship last (especially as he does something stupid) long term and can it with these differences we try so hard to be cool with yet also try and cover up as if they don’t matter? Vienna, a tale of a regular extramarital tryst, puts it well…

He thinks about Magret swimming in the cold pool below her apartment, her head surfacing, her mouth opening to take a breath. He knows she is dead inside and he is aroused that this is so, and he takes out a cigarette and lights it. He thinks about  how there is life with rye bread and black tea and there is life with champagne and wild salmon. He can live without champagne but he cannot live without his children; that is grief he knows he cannot endure but he must endure and he knows his hands will itch for ever. He thinks about feeling used, teased, abused and mocked by middle Europe, whose legs were wrapped around his appallingly grateful body ten minutes ago, and he thinks about the twentieth century that ended the same time as his marriage.

I should here mention Levy’s writing, which I fell in love with in Swimming Home and loved just as much in this. Actually I may have loved it more as I got a more varied sense of it and all its shades as every tale in the collection is different, a novel can show many shades in a particular form. With Black Vodka as a collection we have short stories in the literary form you might expect along with tales with a tinge of science fiction like Cave Girl; which sees a woman wanting a body transplant and what effects that has, plus ghostly tales like Placing a Call; which also somehow manages to break your heart, a stand out moment for me. In all the stories the prose is short and to the point and crackles along, there is also a deliciously dark feel to each tale, even when there may be a happy ending, which leads me to my favourites…

I have to say I liked every tale, even when they completely baffled me upon a first read. There were several standouts though. Shining a Light which initially I didn’t quite get, on a re-read or two made me think about Europe, the state of it and my relation to it. Stardust Nation had a wonderful sense of unease, which only tales of madness can, and twists when you least expect it reminding me of everything I love about Daphne Du Maurier at her darkest. It is also a very clever tale looking at the pressures we have as adults and how cracks we have cemented from our past can be triggered by them devastatingly. Placing a Call in a very few pages it broke my heart and made me cry. Finally the title tale Black Vodka which I have now actually read four times and each time have loved the sense of needing to belong which it evokes but have also left feeling it is the most hopeful story or the most heart breaking depending on my mood and I have not experienced that before.

Black Vodka is a marvellous collection because it looks at the internal and external worlds of people and how they affect the worlds of  others through their actions or sometimes lack of them. In Pillow Talk Pavel asks his girlfriend Ella ‘Have you ever had that weird feeling in an airport when you panic and don’t know what to do? One screen says Departures and another screen says Arrivals and for a moment you don’t know which one you are. You think, am I an arrival or am I a departure?’ For me, and I could be wrong, that is really what Levy is looking at with these stories; how we arrive and how we depart from other people’s lives. She then lets us ask questions of what those arrivals and departures mean, occasionally seeing some of our own actions, the good and the bad, in them especially as the real world gets smaller and smaller in modern times. A brilliant collection indeed.

Deborah Levy signed

Who else has read Black Vodka and what did you think? I have to admit that it is one of the hardest collections to write about in part because of its scope and brilliance and also as I met Deborah earlier in the year (one of my 2013 highlights) and she said how much my review of Swimming Home had meant, no pressure with this one then – ha! I am now desperate to read more of her back catalogue of works and have borrowed Billy and Girl from the library though I believe many of her books are being reissued in the new year, have you read any of them and what did you think?

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Mr Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo

Joining a new book group is always a little nerve-wracking however your first choice for a book club I think even more so. By then everyone has got to know you but not necessarily what your book taste is. I decided to take an educated gamble with my first choice and choose Mr Loverman, the latest of Bernadine Evaristo’s novels, after having heard her read from it back in February at a Penguin Bloggers Night where she had everyone laughing – a lot. Throw in the fact that several people whose opinions I trust had loved it. Oh and I thought the subject matter would cause some interesting discussion after I read someone somewhere calling it a geriatric Caribbean Brokeback Mountain set in Stoke Newington…

Hamish Hamilton, 2013, paperback, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Mr Barrington Jedediah Walker, Esq is a character. He is a smart dressing, rum drinking, well off property developing 74 year old, the father of two daughter, husband to Carmel and owner of a decent house. He has also been in a secret relationship with his best friend Morris, and has been since there teenage years in Antigua. Now as his marriage seems to be bringing him more and more unhappiness, his daughters having fled the nest, he is wondering if it is time to come clean with his wife, who thinks he is out most nights womanising, and tell everyone the truth – can he actually do it though?

My first thoughts, well after initially thinking it was sweet that at 74 he was so in love before then thinking ‘hang on, he is cheating on his wife and lying to everyone around him’, was just how on earth Barry had got into this situation, then why he hadn’t left his wife sooner. The latter is something wondered by Morris who at one point in their past, which we get revealed slowly but surely in flashbacks, after his wife leaves him after discovering their secret before her eyes and he wants Barry and himself to be together, Barry refuses and a major bump ensues. Now it seems things might be different, though Barry has a slight issue with everyone knowing that he is a ‘buggerer of men’ as he puts it. As for how this all started, we soon learn that the Caribbean is not a place where homosexuality is responded to well and it is this background to the story that creates the situation they all find themselves in.

I’d been under such pressure back home. A young man showing no interest in girls, when he could have any one of them? I was twenty-four when I married Carmel, and I’d almost left it too late for some. They was talking, and I was afraid I’d be up before a judge on some trumped-up charge of indecent exposure; or end up lying on an operating table with a bar of wood between my teeth and electric volts destroying parts of my brain forever; or in a crazy house pumped full of drugs that would eventually drive a sane man mad.

What I thought was wonderfully done by Evaristo is how fully realised her characters are, with the exception of Barry’s daughters, one stereotypically spiky, the other so camp you know what will happen there. Barry is a charmer and quite loveable, he is also a man who has big secrets and even with the most carefully constructed life the pressure is mounting, cracks are showing and can’t be covered up no matter how big a smile you put on your face. He is also a bit of a swine, the way he treats Carmel, even if sometimes she asks for it, is often harsh and also incredibly chauvinistic admittedly in part due to his social upbringing. Yet you like him and feel for him, even if you don’t always agree with how he handles his issues.

Carmel is also a very interesting character. Initially I really disliked this woman who came across as a controlling harridan, always demanding to know everything and berating her husband no matter what he did good or bad. However as the book went on I really felt for her. This is a woman who longed for love, way back when she was a girl and one of the most handsome men around took an interest in her. Yet really she is a smoke screen for Barry and all the more saddening as it is unwittingly so, which really hit me and I think Evaristo has done this purposefully, if the society of Barry and Carmel’s upbringing had been more tolerant then these people wouldn’t be in this mess. Of course Carmel doesn’t know all of this or why Barry is so distant, and can only guess – wrongly, the result is the same though, she is unloved and turns, with the addition of post natal depression after baby two, to bitterness.

…on your own again, isn’t it, Carmel?
late this night, praying up against your bed, waiting for him to come home, knowing he might not come home at all, but you can’t help yourself, can you, acting like a right mug as the English people say…
waiting, waiting, always waiting…

If this all sounds thoroughly depressing, trust me it isn’t. Mr Loverman is brimming with humour which makes all the sad parts all the more heartbreaking. I don’t often belly laugh out loud but I did often and (very) loudly thanks to Evaristo’s humour which always comes along just at the right moment. There are several wonderful set pieces based around Morris’ observations or Carmel’s coven of friends who live in fear of the homosicksickals their Pastor George forewarns them of. Small minds can make big laughter, which also leaves poignancy in the air.

Merty’s getting into her stride now; plays her trump card.
‘And another thing, I hear from very good authority on the grapevine that Melissa is one of those women who lies down with women.’
Yes, you go-wan Merty. All roads in  your dutty mind lead back to sex.
‘Yes , I think I heard that too… er…’ Drusilla says unconvincingly, glancing nervously at Merty but determined to continue her id for power. ‘What I always say is, if woman was meant to lie with woman, God would have given woman penis.’

As you may have guessed I really, really loved Mr Loverman (what’s more so did my book group, I think it is one of the highest scoring books in a while) and found it a funny, touching and thoughtful book on a subject which I don’t think many authors would write about, there is still a huge stereotyping and homophobia towards black gay men which makes this book all the more important. One of my books of the year, and an end of year surprise rather like My Policeman at the end of last year, and one which has also introduced me to an author I have been meaning to read since Blonde Roots and now will definitely read much, much more of. Highly, highly recommended reading!

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Filed under Bernadine Evaristo, Books of 2013, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books, Review

The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing

After the sad news that Doris Lessing passed away earlier in the year, and seeing everyone’s incredibly positive thoughts on her works I started thinking about all the authors, including Doris, who I hadn’t read but really felt I should have. Along with Nathan Dunbar, a lovely bookseller across the ocean, we decided that we would read The Grass is Singing, her first novel from the 1950’s, and have a read-a-long of sorts in the form of #DorisInDecember. I have to admit though I was rather daunted about the task ahead.

4th Estate Books, 1950 (2013 edition), paperback, 206 pages, fiction, bought by my good self

The Grass is Singing starts with the announcement in a local paper of the shocking news that on one of the farms in Ngesi, Southern Rhodesia, there has been a murder. Mary Turner has been murdered by her and Richard Turner’s houseboy, one of the natives. The mystery at the heart of the article, and indeed The Grass is Singing, is why this has happened. What adds to the interest from the start is that it isn’t the police that have taken over the investigation but the neighbouring farmer Charlie Slatter and, as we learn in the first chapter, Tony Marston, the new English farm hand, thinks there may have been more to the incident than meets the eye. Even if Moses, the houseboy, has admitted to the murder what led him to committing it, and what was the relationship between himself and Mrs Turner?

The newspaper did not say much. People all over the country must have glanced at the paragraph with its sensational heading and felt a little spurt of anger mingled with what was almost satisfaction, as if some belief had been confirmed, as if something had happened which could only have been expected. When natives steal, murder or rape, that is the feeling white people have.
And then they turned the page to something else.
But the people in ‘the district’ who knew the Turners, either by sight, or from gossiping about them for so many years, did not turn the page so quickly.

Considering that The Grass is Singing is relatively slight at 206 pages, there is so much going on within it that I left the book feeling that Doris Lessing (who was only 25 when she wrote this) was an utter genius. The big story at its core initially seems to be the one about race and the racist attitudes of society in what is now known as Zimbabwe. The way that ‘natives’, as they were called, are treated is horrendous and we get to see this as we follow Mary once she marries Dick and joins him on his ramshackle farm. Which leads to another subject of white poverty, but I am ahead of myself already.

Really is it Mary, who we initially see as the victim of the piece, whose story we follow. As a young girl she grew up on the farms in Southern Rhodesia and hated it. She hated the way her father drank and behaved, she hated her mother’s shrill voice and low tolerance of the staff and after the bliss of boarding school gets away to a town as fast as she can. Once alone she blossoms through her late teens and early twenties yet by thirty she is still not married. Mary sees nothing wrong with this until she overhears so called friends laughing and gossiping about her. Deflated she looks for a husband to escape the life she loved but now believes is tainted; only her escape route is a completely miserable one.

Five years earlier she would have drugged herself by the reading of romantic novels. In towns women like her live vicariously through the lives of film stars. Or they take up religion, preferably one of the more sensuous Eastern religions. Better educated, living in the town with access to books, she would have found Tagore perhaps, and gone into a sweet dream of words.
Instead, she thought, vaguely that she must get herself something to do. Should she increase the number of chickens? Should she take in sewing?

Mary is bored. While she likes her husband, Dick, she also thinks he is rather ineffectual, there is a wonderful yet rather sad sequence of Dick’s attempts to make them money with bee’s, then pigs, then turkeys, then bicycles. They are living in extreme poverty, which even his neighbours – the vile Slatters – can’t bear to see as apparently there is nothing worse than seeing poor white people almost living in the squalor black people do, which depresses her and she longs for town or just escape. Instead she becomes angry and embittered, hating the landscape (which Lessing gives a wonderful sense of menace) and the weather (Lessing making the descriptions of heat utterly oppressive) and going slowly mad. Of course anger needs a focus point to be unleashed on and soon Mary does this with her husband but then more and more so with her servants.

The next day at lunch, the servant dropped a plate through nervousness, and she dismissed him at once. Again she had to do her own work, and this time she felt aggrieved, hating it, and blaming it on the offending native whom she had sacked without payment. She cleaned and polished tables and chairs and plates, as if she were scrubbing skin off a black face. She was consumed with hatred. At the same time, she was making a secret resolution not to be quite so pernickety with the next servant she found.

Lessing’s writing is unflinchingly brilliant. As I mentioned about the sense of menace and oppression is wonderfully evoked as the landscape and weather match the atmosphere of impending doom the book has and also Mary’s mental state. Mary is also an incredible creation, one of the most complex characters I have read. She is never completely likeable nor dislikeable, yet you find yourself fascinated by a woman who in turns goes from victim to venomous, from independent to weak, from sane to crazy, from racist to not and back again. It is confronting and equally compelling and highlights the society at the time and the conundrum and conflict a country and its society found itself in and in some ways, shockingly, still does.

When old settlers say, ‘One has to understand the country,’ what they mean is, ‘You have to get used to our ideas about the native.’ They are saying, in effect, ‘Learn our ideas, or otherwise get out: we don’t want you.’ Most of these young men were brought up on vague ideas about equality. They were shocked for the first week or so, by the way natives were treated. They were revolted hundred times a day by the casual way they were spoken of, as if they were so many cattle; or by a blow or a look. They had been prepared to treat them as human beings. But they could not stand out against the society they were joining. It did not take long for them to change. It was hard, of course, becoming as bad as oneself. But it was not very long that they thought of it as ‘bad’. And anyway, what had one’s ideas amounted to?

The Grass is Singing is not the easiest of reads. The characters are often far from likeable (I haven’t gone into the vileness of the Slatter’s but they are quite a creation) yet they all have a truth to them no matter how awful, it is the fact you know this was happening that makes them all the more scary, along with the situation of course. There is also the dense atmosphere of the book which rightly so is menacing and cloying but sometimes can feel like slowly wading through mud, yet again this is apt. Then there is Mary, a character on the edge of madness which is hard to watch both emotionally knowing the ending as you do and also because she reflects all the varying sides of society, the good, the bad and the ugly. Yet it is for all these reasons that The Grass is Singing is a book which needs to, and must be, read. It is a small but perfectly formed melancholic masterpiece that will leave you with a huge amount to think about – a true reading experience.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Doris Lessing, Fourth Estate Books, Review

HHhH – Laurent Binet

One of the biggest surprises for me in 2013 is that this year has lead to me doing a complete u-turn on my opinions of books based around war, in particular WWI and WWII, with special reservations for the latter. Having studied it so much at school and then read so, so, so many novels about it I guess I just felt there was nothing new to be found in it and actually that as a subject for me it was over done. Then I went and read HHhH by Laurent Binet, and indeed Magda by Meike Ziervogel, and the originality of the writing and the way the books were structured and what they were trying to say made them stand out and ignited my interest in the subject once again from the very different angles which they portray events. 

Vintage Books, 2012, hardback, 336 pages, translated by Sam Taylor, kindly sent by the publisher

Laurent Binet’s HHhH is a work which cleverly tells three stories. Firstly there is the story of Operation Anthropoid, which during WWII in 1942 saw two parachutists sent on a mission from the UK to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich. The second story is that of Heydrich himself and how he came to be the chief of the Nazi secret service and on of the most trusted and feared men in the regime. Thirdly it is also the story of a man called Laurent Binet who is trying to write a book, be it fiction or non-fiction, on Heydrich and Operation Anthropoid. If you think this meta-factional book sounds confusing then please don’t because it is actually utterly amazing and is a book likely to make you gasp, laugh and cry often within a few pages.

For some people the very idea of the author of a work popping into the text would be an annoyance regardless of the subject matter, with something as harrowing as the second world war it is a huge risk for Binet to take but one that I am so grateful he did as this is what stops it from becoming a book with just facts and figures, no personality, no emotion behind it and no real lasting effect. Binet’s narrative/writing has all of those things in abundance and what makes it all the more affective is that he writes the book from the first moment he really discovered the story of Operation Anthropoid when he discovered where it ended and we join him from that moment as his interest and intrigue are piqued and as he discovers more and more about these brave parachutists and this monster Heydrich, and all they do, we as the reader also become more and more engrossed.

There were still fresh traces of the drama that had occurred in this room more than sixty years before: a tunnel dug several yards deep; bullet marks in the walls and the vaulted ceiling. There were also photographs of the parachutists’ faces, with a text written in Czech and English. There was a traitors name and a raincoat. There was a poster of a bag and a bicycle. There was a Sten submachine gun (which jammed at the worst possible moment). All of this was actually in the room. But there was something else here, conjured by the story I read, that existed only in spirit.

I don’t think I have learnt so much about World War II from a book I have read in all my 31, nearly 32, years. Considering that I studied it for about five years in my history lessons at school this is quite something. I had no idea about some of the smaller but utterly fascinating facts behind this time period; that the Hitler wanted authors such as Aldous Huxley, Rebecca West, HG Wells and Virginia Woolf; that the Nazi’s built their own brothel (Kitty’s Salon) to film other Nazi’s to see if they were true to the regime or not. Nor did I know of some of the utterly horrific things, like what an ineffectual plonker Chamberlain was, the plans for Nazi attack cells in all the cities all over the UK and the horrendous atrocities such as Grandmothers Gully in Kiev.

Heydrich in Prague

This could have become too much and with all the descriptions of how Heydrich changed how Jews, and anyone who got in his way, were killed could simply have made me want to run away from the confrontational imagery that it depicts. Binet does something clever here, which could have easily epically failed him, by inserting a sort of light humoured alternative (or interrupting)voice of himself as he shows how farcical some of the Nazi’s idea’s were, and how far delusions of grandeur went, as well as interjecting his own voice about the nightmare of writing a book.

Of course I could, perhaps I should – to be like Victor Hugo, for example – describe at length, by way of introduction, over ten pages or so, the town of Halle, where Heydrich was born in 1904. I would talk of the streets, the shops, the statues, of all the local curiosities, of the municipal government, the town’s infrastructure, of the culinary specialities, of the inhabitants and the way they thin, their political tendencies, their tastes, of what they do in their spare time. Then I would zoom in on the Heydrich’s house: the colour of its shutters and its curtains, the layout of the rooms, the wood from which the living-room table is made. Following this would be a minutely detailed description of the piano, accompanied by a long disquisition of on German music at the beginning of the century, its composers and how their works were received, the importance of Wagner…and there, only at that point, would my actual story begin.  

As I said this is very risky some people might be put off by sections such as the above or lines such as Once again I find myself frustrated by my genre’s constraints. No ordinary novel would encumber itself with three characters sharing the same name – unless the author were after a very particular effect or All good stories need a traitor. Personally I thought it was brilliant. He both manages to show the horrors of the time and then also highlight with hindsight how utterly horrendous those horrors were, which gives the book a double whammy effect. He also holds your hand when things get tough in a way; you are going through this story and this time together and as his enthusiasm and admiration for the parachutists increases, along with his mounting anger at the Nazi regime, so do yours.

I found the ending of the book incredibly emotional and incredibly hard going but boy, oh boy, was I glad (which seems the wrong word, maybe thankful is better) to have gone through it. HHhH is one of those rare books which change your perceptions, where you feel your world has been altered by reading it. In Binet’s case (and I must here say a huge congrats to Sam Taylor with his translation and capturing the authors nuances) it made me not only think about the importance of remembering what happened in WWII he also reminded me of the importance of history and of how and why we need to keep telling these stories – and indeed the stories of how we tell these stories. Everyone should read this book; I think it should be on syllabuses in schools around Europe.

To hear more discussion on Laurent Binet’s HHhH listen to the first episode of Hear Read This where you can hear myself along with Gavin, Kate and Rob talking about it in more detail.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Laurent Binet, Review, Vintage Books

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

I don’t often wonder if I have got too comfortable in my literary tastes as I tend to think that I am quite eclectic in my choices of genres within fiction, though I am always aware I could really try and read more non-fiction. However when I picked up Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and began to read I discovered that whilst I might experiment in genre I am not really used to experimenting with prose, or indeed the many forms that a novel can take.

9780957185326

Galley Beggar Press, 2013, paperback, fiction, 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It is not often that as a reader we realistically open a book and are almost instantly thrown by the text. The thing is in reality, the truth of the matter and all that, experimental fiction/literature is much more than what many describe it now; a complex plot, a book of unlikeable narrators or the occasional book written in verse. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is, from the very start a truly experimental piece of literature and one that from the start may put many an avid reader off as it throws you out of sync with what you are used to, I would urge every reader to be a little more adventurous and read on…

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skim she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

If you are anything like me, the words ‘what the blooming heck is that all about?’ might just have escaped your lips. I couldn’t work out what on earth was being said yet as I read it over and over (I suggest trying about four or five times) there is something lyrical, poetic and fluid about it that I then did the same for the next paragraph, and the next, and the next and slowly the story formed for me of a girl living with her Catholic mother and sick brother, who has a tumour all through his brain like the roots of trees’ and growing up in Ireland in an unnamed place and unspecific time.

McBride places us firmly in her equally unnamed narrators head, this is less someone telling us a story and more a case of just getting the stream of conscious as it forms in her head from the age of two and then leading into her formative years where she learns she can protect her brother from the cruelty of the world quite literally with herself, but in sheltering him from the pain she contains double herself and as we read on the way in which she deals with this is through sex, and preferably sex with violence hiding pain with more pain. She rebels, to put it mildly, yet in a country so religious she also has to deal with the shame, guilt and sin she feels (particularly when she takes her uncle, not by blood, as a lover) and so the cycle and confusion continues. It is confronting writing and a confronting set of subjects, yet has a raw beauty to it.

I met a man. I met a man. I let him throw me round the bed. And smoked, me, spliffs and choked my neck until I said I was dead. I met a man who took me for long walks. Long ones in the country. I offer up. I offer up in the hedge. I met a man I met with her. She and me and his friend to bars at night and drink champagne and bought me chips at every teatime. I met a man with condoms in his pockets. Don’t use them. He loves children in his heart. No. I met a man who knew me once. Who saw me round when I was a child. Who said you’re a fine looking woman now. Who said come back marry me live on my farm. No. I met a man who was a priest I didn’t I did. Just as well as many another one would. I met a man. I met a man.

There is much that I found impressive about this novel. Whilst there is no time specifically set within the book the sense of place and the religious and family traditions of Ireland, and how oppressive that could be depending on your beliefs and family situation, comes through completely. Our narrator is wild and rebellious, initially I found myself thinking ‘good on you’ before soon thinking quite the opposite, she never becomes dislikeable even though she does some rather concerning and dark things. One of the main themes of the book for me was the nature of evil, what been evil really means and why people judge themselves evil. Much food for thought there, in fact throughout the book you are made to question yourself and how you judge or deem her actions, nature or nurture – or lack of the latter?

Having read it I can completely understand why it won the inaugural Goldsmith’s Prize, which celebrates ‘fiction at its most novel’ and I think you would be hard pushed to find another novel this year, or indeed in the last several, that pushes the conventional sense of prose we are all used to. As I said it took me some time to get into it, a few paragraphs were re-read, some read aloud, but once I was in the rhythm of it I had to read it in one big gulp – the author has herself since told me that she recommends people read it fast. You are sure to find yourself speeding up to the climactic ending though as the character seems to unwind and unravel further and further, faster and faster.

I found A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing a book that confused, then compelled and finally confronted me. Not just because of the subject matter but also because it made me rethink the way I read. The abstract sentences and initially rather confusing style start to form a very clear, if quite dark, picture. You just need to reset your brain and allow it to do the work, or working in a different way. This is of course the point of prose after all, it shouldn’t always be spelt out just so and I hugely admire (and thank) Eimear McBride for writing such an original and startling book which will reward intrepid readers out there greatly.

For more on A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing you can hear myself and the author on the latest episode of You Wrote The Book.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Eimear McBride, Galley Beggar Press, Review

The Language of Dying – Sarah Pinborough

I have noticed a pattern forming. Whenever I think I have got my list of books for the year sorted I will suddenly read one or two books that completely change that. One such book has been Sarah Pinborough’s latest The Language of Dying, a novella which I knew very let about, read, and was completely blown away by – and I don’t say that often.

Quercus Books, 2013, hardback, fiction, 131 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

In The Language of Dying Sarah Pinborough creates a frank and unflinching look at death and how it affects those who are dying and those around the dying. Through an internal monologue, or internal dialogue maybe, of a woman as she looks after and cares for her father, who is dying of cancer, on the last night of his life. As she sits watching the minutes slowly tick by she thinks back over her family’s life, and her life, as a whole and the events over the recent months and weeks. It seems as her father has deteriorated, the links within her family to her siblings have done the same. She also occasionally peers behind the curtains as if waiting for something, but what?

There is a language to dying. It creeps like a shadow alongside the passing years and the taste of it hides in the corners of our mouths. It finds us whether we are sick or healthy. It is a secret hushed thing that lives in the whisper of the nurses’ skirts as they rustle up and down our stairs. They’ve taught me to face the language one syllable at a time, slowly creating an unwilling meaning.
Cheyne-Stoking.
Terminal agitation.

It is hard to put into words just how wonderful this book is, but I will try. First of all there is the writing which is just stunning throughout. I am a huge admirer of authors who can use a sentence to express what many others would take a page and Pinborough is such an author. The whole books prose is short and sharp. Told by a daughter who is so drained and tired that there is a sense of distance to it, there is also a huge amount of emotion and atmosphere. I haven’t experienced that duality in a narrative before I don’t think and it is all the more effecting.

Secondly, I thought Pinborough painted a fractured (and ever increasingly so) family wonderfully. Some of our narrators siblings only appear every so often in the book and yet they, and their flaws, are all there fully formed. As are their reactions to the slow dying of their father, some of them facing it bravely and others falling apart or simply wanting to avoid it. The pressure put on the family during such a time and how old wounds or rifts open is done all too realistically.

Having myself cared for my seventy one year old Gran after she was diagnosed with a terminal tumour and been with her as much as I could, including the whole seemingly never-ending week leading up to her death and being with her when she died, I also had a huge personal reaction to this book. It could have gone either way actually, I could have found it too raw or possibly a saccharine version of events depending on how Pinborough wrote it – she goes for raw. It was actually very raw yet also incredibly cathartic. My jaw almost hit the floor on many occasion as I found myself thinking ‘has Sarah been in my head?’ From the mundane aspects of it, the thickening drinks, the never ending nights, the Cheyne-Stoking, to the incredible emotions you go through from disbelief, to the guilt you feel when you love the person so much but you are so tired and so wrought you just want it all to be over, the things you wish you had said. It is all here, along with the grim reality that someone dying is nothing like you could imagine. This book felt like it had been written for me to read right now.

Standing in the kitchen, I wonder at death. You look so sick. You’ve given up. You haven’t drunk anything. I think this should surely be enough to make death take over. I am wrong of course. You have so much more dying to do yet. You have to become so much less before you go. The doctor is, in fact, spot on. One week. Maybe a little less. The body fights, you know?
Now I do.

Pinborough does take one possible risk with the book, and indeed one which I was worried would break the spell of the book for me personally, and that is when she introduces something ‘other’ and fantastical into the text. That said people who have read much of her work probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid to it anyway. I won’t say what it is, as I want you to all go and get this book right now, I will say that I thought it was actually a wonderful addition to the book and came in just when you needed a change from the grim reality of the situation.

As you can probably guess I thought The Language of Dying was a wonderful book for its rawness and emotion. It is a book that I really experienced and one which I am so glad I have read for the cathartic and emotional effects it had on me (I was openly weeping often) and proved that sometimes books are exactly what you need and can show you truths you think no one else quite understands apart from you. I can’t recommend it enough, without question my book of the year.

If I ever meet Sarah she should be forewarned I may give her the biggest hug and weep on her shoulder for writing this book. Anyway… Who else has read The Language of Dying? Which other of Pinborough’s books have you read? (I will be over on No Cloaks Allowed in a week or so discussing her marvellous reworking of three fairytales.) Which books have you read that you felt were written specifically for you at a time when you needed them, and what were they?

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Filed under Books of 2013, Quercus Publishing, Review, Sarah Pinborough

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil – Stephen Collins

I have put off and put off writing about Stephen Collins’ The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil for a while now since I read it as it being a graphic novel and me not being a connoisseur of the genre I was rather daunted at the prospect. However as it is one of the most enjoyable and completely immersive books, partly because of its genre, I felt I simply couldn’t ‘not’ tell you all about it! So here we are. It may not be to the standards of those familiar with the field of the graphic novel, but I am going to have a bloody good crack at it anyway, especially as I think this is a genre I am going to be dabbling more and more with over the coming months.

Jonathan Cape, 2013, hardback, graphic novel, 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Here is a place quite different from There. Here is a place of routine, uniformity and safety. There is an unknown place of dreadful uncertainly and mystery, people don’t even like to talk about it. Dave lives on the island of here, his house backing the sea which is an equally ominous place and which if must be heard can at least not be seen as no windows can face it. His life is one of routine, he gets up at the same time, wears the same clothes, does the same hours in the same job (though what the company does, and indeed what he does in it, he is uncertain) goes home at the same time the same way and listens to the same song by the Bangles, Eternal Flame, for the same number of times on repeat. That is until one day when the one stubborn hair that always grows, despite Here being a place where facial hair is banned, suddenly mutates, multiplies and Dave becomes the not-so-proud-owner of a gigantic beard – one which cannot be trimmed or stopped and looks set to take over the whole of Here. Run for your lives!

Beard 1

What of course this all boils down to is difference and the fear of it, a great theme for any book. Here is not a place that tolerates the unusual, indeed within moments of it growing Dave is fired from his job and not allowed in the local eateries. People are scared and then become tourists heading to Dave’s home to see if the freakish rumours are true. Even the scientists and politicians are at a loss, the police are called then the army and as a last resort even the hairdressers are called in. It is all done with a wonderful mix of humour and irony but the main point is there, being different is wrong.

photo 1

The imagery throughout is stunning. I pondered if Collins used monochrome to match the monotone routine of the world of Here that Dave resides in. What is so stunning is how Collins uses the shading (who knew there could be shades of blackness?) and creates such a vivid world and atmosphere that soon you forget about this thing called colour and this grey world takes you over as it has done the people within it. The other thing I loved was the way that Collins uses the panels, not just to tell the story but indeed to become part of the picture (either the way they are shaped, how they are arranged) breaking the linear style I am used to and often creating a feeling of that page in the stories atmosphere as well as a broader panorama. I spent absolutely ages just getting lost in every page.

photo 3

The other thing I must mention is the writing itself. Collins’ illustrations and imagery are so strong that you actually wouldn’t need the words to get the story and it’s themes. What I found really interesting was that with Collins has chosen to write the book in verse like one long poem. ‘Beneath the skin of everything is somebody nobody can know. The job pg the skin is to keep it all in and never let anything show.’ It is wonderful. It adds another level to the book both in terms of rhythm and also how you react to it, it makes it feel even more ‘otherly’ too, as well as giving it an extra emotive edge.

There is one word that sums up the whole reading experience of The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil and that is ‘sublime’. I loved everything about it; the imagery, the atmosphere, the message at its heart, everything. It’s a very moving book and one you cannot help but react to, I even shed a tear or two at the end. There is no doubt that to my mind The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil probably has the best title of any book this year, it also looks set to be one of the most memorable books of the year for its contents too. A quite literally, or maybe that should be quite graphically, stunning book and one of my reads of the year.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Graphic Novels, Jonathan Cape Publishers, Review, Stephen Collins

Books – Charlie Hill

I feel like this post today should be a public service announcement to anyone who loves books, the book industry and/or books about books. If you fit into any of those camps then, the aptly titled, Books by Charlie Hill is definitely a book for you as it satires the industry and the mediocrity which is rife in the amount of books that get published. Yet do not mistake that for it being a book for literary snobs, that is not what it is about at all, it is a look at what the role of a book is and why people started reading them in the first place.

Tindal Street Press, 2013, paperback, fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Richard Anger is a struggling writer, possibly as his short stories are rather dour and so experimental nobody can really read them, who as he loves book so much bought and now runs Back Street Books single handed. It is on his annual break from the shop on holiday, packing David Foster Wallace, that firstly he meets Lauren , a neurologist he instantly falls for, and then witnesses the first in a series of deaths caused by SNAPS (Spontaneous Neural Atrophy Syndrome) commenting on what a rubbish book the person who died was reading. When Lauren gets back to Birmingham she learns of more deaths from SNAPS and is intrigued and so looks Richard up again. Richard then puts two and two together realising that mediocre books are making people literally brain dead, and in all these cases the books that were being read were written by Gary Sayles – an author set to have the biggest hit of the year, an author who must be stopped.

Three days later review copies of The Grass is Greener began to arrive at newspaper offices, bookshops and the homes of bloggers. Within twelve hours the reviewers began to die.
A pointlessly detailed passage in Chapter 3, in which the hero of the piece argues with his wife during a Bank Holiday trip to IKEA, accounted for a part-time-critic-about-town on the Bristol Evening Star; Chapter 4’s barely credible description of a drunken seduction and one-night-stand did for a contributor to Beach Reads R Us!; and the Books Editor of the Glasgow Chronicle passed away after becoming cognitively becalmed during the course of a particularly laborious pun in Chapter 5.

Through Richard we see many aspects of the book industry roughly as it is now, though of course through a satirical gaze. As he struggles with rejections from publishers and literary magazines etc, we see how times are tough for the author and how the anti-snobs have almost created snobbery themselves in a different way. (Hill cleverly shows the other side of this with Gary Sayles who is the most up himself author, with minimal talent too, and one who clearly believes his own hype and promotion – I think we all know of those types don’t we?) Through Richard’s shop Back Street Books we get to see how the Independent’s are struggling against the internet and supermarkets and even indeed, dare we say it, the publishing industry itself. Oh and the broadsheets, reviewers and bloggers also get a look in as Richard has his own blog The Bilious Bibliophile – my hackles were ready to raise at this but like the rest of the book it made me laugh at the truth of it and indeed myself.

I should say here whilst Richard is clearly a snob and only wants high literature in his life, you can tell that Hill as the author is not. Hill clearly just loves books with a bit of a punch and it is with a love of books that is where Books comes from, indeed Lauren showing Richard that the best books can meet in the middle is a big part of the book. It’s main redemptive feature if you will – publishers take note! It is also this love of books that makes Hill create a satire here and not a farce.

Interestingly there is another strand to the book, which leads to its fantastical dénouement, which I haven’t mentioned. Pippa and Zeke are two artists hired by Gary to help promote The People’s Literature Tour (a brilliant send up) who are so ‘modern’ they are probably ‘retro post-modern’, yes those types. I didn’t warm to them, but I don’t think you are meant to, and I have to say I could see what Hill was doing but, apart from at the very end, I didn’t really see the need for them as I was more interested in everything else going on. In fact I would have liked more of characters like Muzz instead, who appeared a few times to much comical effect like when he swindles supermarkets bookshelves; another part of the industry nicely highlighted there to for what it does, or doesn’t, seem to stock.

‘It’s like this. The security guard in Waterstones in the city centre, he clocks me every time I go in. I can’t hardly move without him following me. But they’ve got this thing where they don’t mind exchanges. You know, providing the books in good nick they’ll swap it, even without a receipt. So I go to Sainsbury’s, help myself, get it to Waterstones and upgrade. So far I’ve managed to swap Jeffery Archer for Glenn Duncan, a Louise Bagshaw for a Beryl Bainbridge and Breaking Dawn for The Blind Assassin.’

Books is going to easily find itself in my books of the year. It is a brave book, even with its comic tones and edge, for an author to write. In part because it is almost an author speaking out against the industry to a certain point, which might not get you invited to all the big bookish parties (though as Hill is based outside London he won’t get invited anyway as I can vouch – ouch) and might make some people in some circles of the industry a little uncomfortable with the mirror it might hold up. Also being a book that is anti-mediocrity, the author needs to write a bloody good book to stand up to what it is highlighting itself. I can safely say that Hill exceeds that with this book, and indeed it’s his love of books that shines through and makes it such a successful and brilliant satire. If you love books then, erm, read Books – it is that simple.

For more on Books and a discussion about it and indeed books and the book industry, you can hear myself and Charlie Hill in conversation on the latest episode of You Wrote The Book.

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Filed under Books About Books, Books of 2013, Charlie Hill, Review, Tindal Street Press

Riotous Assembly – Tom Sharpe

My very first memories of encountering Tom Sharpe’s books were the copies that aligned the bookshelves in my grandparent’s bedroom when I was a youngster. They were firm favourites with Granny Savidge and Bongy and yet to me they were objects of wide eyed bewilderment bordering on terror. You see when the 7/8/9 year old me saw these books all I could see was that they tended to be covered in boobs and guns, both of which worried me. As you can imagine when they bought me a lovely second hand hardback copy of a Wilt omnibus when I was 15 I was again more worried than grateful and hid it, who knows where it is now. So when Chris chose it for Novembers book group (which was a few weeks ago) I was intrigued and also, with those feelings from way back when, worried about it. Did I really want to spend my time reading a smutty book about boobies and bullets?

Arrow Books, 1971 (2002 edition – though not cover shown, but one like grandparents had), paperback, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Riotous Assembly was Tom Sharpe’s very first published book back in 1971 and tells of a fictitious town, Piemburg, in South Africa and its police force during the apartheid. However this is not the sort of apartheid based story you might be suspecting as Tom Sharpe uses his wit, and some of the ‘naughty shenanigans’ I was expecting, to lampoon what was going on in South Africa at the time, especially those who enforced it.

Kommandant van Heerden, Piemburg’s Chief of Police, is called out to the house of Miss Hazelstone when she phones to tell him that she has killed her Zulu cook. This initially isn’t a worry for the Kommandant as white people (especially the English who he wishes he was and subsequently fawns over) are allowed to kill their black cooks as long as they do it indoors. However Miss Hazelstone killed him in the garden and will not move him, or what is left of him, nor will she have another member of her staff do it. Once at the house himself to try and smooth things over he discovers the unthinkable, Miss Hazelstone has been having relations with her cook since she was widowed and this was a crime passionel! As the Kommandent sees it, this could bring down the whole of society and cause disgrace for the city and so it must be covered up, at any cost.

At this moment he visualized the scene in court which would follow the disclosure that Miss Hazelstone had made it a habit to inject her black cook’s penis with a hypodermic syringe filled with novocaine before allowing him to have sexual intercourse with her. He visualized it and vowed it would never happen, even if it meant he had to kill her to prevent it.

With the help (though that a very ironic word considering what follows) of his number two (more appropriate a term for him by far) Konstabel Els the Kommandant calls a state of emergency over Miss Hazelstone’s property Jacaranda Park while he covers things up. Only in actual fact as the novel goes on we see the police bungle matters completely and make everything much, much worse.

As the book goes on it gets more and more farcical. Els is a psychopath in policeman’s clothing, there are drunken hidden priests, rubber fetishes and rumours of rabies become rife to keep people away. Much to laugh a long with all in all – quite possibly very loudly on public transport! What Tom Sharpe does masterfully here is that as you read on and belly laugh at events as they unfold you suddenly become aware that there is a lot of truth hidden in what you are laughing at. For example, you might be laughing at the outrageous notion that its fine to kill your cook in the house but not out of it, until you realise its true. You might be laughing as Konstabel Els finds even more ridiculous ways to torture someone, then you check yourself as you know that this did happen, and was happening when the book was published. It makes you think.

 ‘Madness is so monotonous,’ she told the doctor. ‘You would think that fantasies would be more interesting, but really one has to conclude that insanity is a poor substitute for reality.’
Then again, when she looked around her, there didn’t seem to be any significant difference between life in the mental hospital and life in South Africa as a whole. Black madmen did all the work, while white lunatics lounged about imagining they were God.

Yet also, strangely – in a good way, once you are aware of the serious nature deep set in the book Sharpe doesn’t make you feel bad for laughing. He has proved a very valuable point and highlighted some shocking truths but he keeps the laughter coming as he makes more and more preposterous things happen. It is a very, very clever way of writing something that really hits home, after all none of the events that go on to happen would have if Kommandant van Heerden has just arrested Miss Hazelstone as she wanted, but of course the true nature of her crime was unthinkable.

The more I have thought about Riotous Assembly, the more impressed I have been left by it. The humour gets you through some of the tough bits, some of the bits that people would normally find hard to read and digest (which nicely links in with what I discussed yesterday in terms of comforting vs. confronting reading) palatable by their humour yet equally devastating, if not more so, when the reader realizes the truth in it. So yet there maybe the boobies (and more) and bullets (and more) in it that I was expecting, but the way in which they are used is both titillating and thought provoking. If you have pondered reading Tom Sharpe, or maybe if you hadn’t or had written him off a little as I had, you need to start reading his work as soon as you can.

A big huge thanks to Chris for choosing this for book group, and also for making the discussion all the more interesting by sharing his childhood in Zimbabwe and being so open to talking about that and how important the book was to him. I am now desperate to get my mitts on Indecent Exposure, as it were!

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Filed under Arrow Books, Books of 2013, Review, Tom Sharpe

Magda – Meike Ziervogel

Two of the biggest powers that books can have are to make us think outside our usual periphery or be a spring board to discovering more about subjects we think we know. Some books can do both, they are a rarity though. Magda, the debut novel from Meike Ziervogel, is one such book which gave me both a different outlook on something I thought I had made my mind up about and left me desperate to find out more when challenged. It is the sort of book where I simply want to write ‘you have to read this book’ and leave it at that so you all do, yet it is also one that is designed to be talked about and the questions it raises be discussed.

Salt Publishing, 2013, paperback, 113 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I have to say I wasn’t sure what to expect from Magda before I read it. I was a little trepidatious, as I would imagine other readers may be, because I knew it was about Magda Goebbels and knowing of her relationship with the Nazi’s, Hitler and, of course, because of what she did to her children.

All these facts flashed through my head, but one thing that I believe strongly is that some books should confront us and make us face the darker aspects of life. After all, if we brush things under the carpet eternally how can we deal with things, change things and most importantly not let certain events repeat in the future. It is questions like that which a book like Magda asks; in this case can we understand a woman who is depicted as the ultimate monster, a Nazi and a child killer?

The first issue I think a book like Magda brings up the fact that there is a lot of stigma, for obvious reasons, towards anything that tries to humanise or explain someone who was a Nazi. There is that worry of ‘what will people think of me if I empathise with a character like that?’ Yet we never think about that when we enter the realms of a crime novel do we? I have read many a novel where I follow a psychopath as they kill at will before, hopefully, they caught. I have enjoyed them but this has never made me question if I am a psychopath. Because the character is completely fictional it is ok, if the character is real and known as a villain then it is a whole different matter. When I discussed Magda with Meike one of the things she said she would worry about having written it was that people might think her a Nazi, just as she did when she wrote of her Grandfather’s in the Guardian. That is how potent and raw the subject still is.

Whilst I don’t think a reader will ever empathise with Magda, I myself didn’t, I do think that you will begin to possibly understand why she might have become the person she did, especially when you come to the ‘speculative’ section which I thought was a brilliant piece of writing in terms of Magda’s possible psychology.  There is a question mark as to Magda’s motives behind joining the Nazi’s but some people joined them because they thought it would end the world problems as they saw them. I don’t agree with what they thought, and what they did it was horrific, yet I found Meike’s novella made me look at her and the Nazi movement from a very different aspect and I admired the bravery Meike has in trying to explain Magda’s story in as unbiased a way as possible. She is never quite a monster nor simply a woman doing what she thought was right, we get something in the middle. Meike fictionally tries to look at the reasoning behind her actions and creates a complex woman who was the product of her emotional and sometimes very difficult past and also the political climate of her country and generation.

Now I must talk about the prose, I do feel for Meike because before anyone (myself included) discusses the prose, characterisations etc invariably they have to defend the book for its subject matter, which isn’t just about the Nazi’s. Anyway, I loved the style in which Meike has written Magda. At 113 pages we don’t get her life story in full, or indeed in chronological order, we get snapshots of Magda’s life, the young girl in the convent, the background behind that, her first marriage and her rise in society leading to meeting Hitler and the events after that.

This is where Meike throws in another masterstroke. Magda is told through three different narratives, interestingly (I have just noticed now) none are from the point of view of Magda herself. We have Magda’s mother, Augusta, who tells of her childhood and how she first came into contact with the Nazi movement and who clearly had a very difficult relationship with her daughter. Plus Magda’s eldest daughter, Helga, who describes the time in the bunker in diary form – reminding me of Anne Frank and then making me think how these two girls found themselves in the most horrendous situations through no fault of their own, that really made me think and was incredibly emotional to read. These narratives highlight Meike’s other main theme in the book, mother and daughter relationships. For the rest of the book we have an omnipresent narrator so we never look at the world quite through Magda’s eyes which I found very interesting, it was as if Meike did need a certain amount of distance from her.

One of the loveliest moments of my life was when Magda came to me and said she wanted to train for domestic service rather than continue studying. I’d had my doubts, you see, that she’d ever be a respectable person, what with her head having been turned, twisted really, round and round and round like in a vice, so that it was perched there on her long thin neck, looking down on everybody, especially her own flesh and blood, her own mother. With those cold… those ice-cold eyes. But he put her back on the straight and narrow, didn’t he?

After initially reading Magda I was hugely impressed by it and thought it a very brave and often uncomfortable tale but one which needs to be so. Since then the book has lingered with me and my admiration of what Meike has done has grown and grown. It has made me ask myself a lot of questions about perceptions and how we look at and deal with history. It has also seen me go off and read other books, such as Laurent Binet’s HHhH (review coming soon), and documentaries and films, such as Downfall, which look at these horrendous events yet with more impartiality. A book which does that is one we should all be reading, so find a copy. It has been one of my reading experiences of the year.

If you would like to hear Meike Ziervogel in discussion with me about Magda then do head here. It is a fascinating discussion even if I say so myself – left me with even more to think about!

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Filed under Books of 2013, Meike Ziervogel, Review, Salt Publishing

Good Evening, Mrs Craven: the Wartime Stories – Mollie Panter-Downes

And here we find ourselves on the eighth Persephone title as I try and read one a month in the order they have been published, and this month it is a re-read for me. I have to say I am not the biggest fan or re-reading books, I always worry that favourites might fade whilst being equally mindful of the fact that there are sooooo many books I have yet to read I should keep reading the new. In the case of Mollie Panter-Downes collection of wartime stories Good Evening, Mrs Craven I am really pleased I re-read them, as whilst I liked them very much last time, I enjoyed them even more this time around and appreciated them far more too.

Persephone Books, 2008 (originally from 1939-1944), paperback, short stories, 203 pages, bought by my good self

I always find summing up a collection of short stories a tricky business. In the case of Mollie Panter-Downes’ Good Night, Mrs Craven the link is in the subtitle The Wartime Stories. Yet unlike many a book you might find yourself reading set in the Second World War, Mollie takes the focus away from the front and looks at the people who were, and still often are, in the main overlooked. In particular she focuses on the women of the time, many of whom are left to watch the war go by – some through choice and some through circumstance and the way society was at the time.

As you read you meet women who are ‘doing their bit’ by housing evacuees, housing relatives they don’t really like, forming groups making things for the troops and also the women who simply want to hide from it all. Not once throughout the stories does Mollie Panter-Downes judge any of them, making martyrs out of those who are doing all they can nor making those who want to run away cowards or villains, she just seems to want to tell you about them and the times in which these women find themselves.

What Mollie Panter-Downes does, in every single story, is make the women you meet (or their situations) really interesting and more often than not gives them a twist. You might have some tales you would expect;  women famously falling out and bickering as they make pyjamas for the Greek Army in Battle of the Greeks, or having to endure evacuees who aren’t grateful In Clover, or worse in-laws you don’t like This Flower, Safety. You also get tales that give a different spin on things; women who are pregnant during the war and seen as carrying doomed children of the future As The Fruitful Vine, or simply a woman who never thought she was bothered about food and then becomes obsessed with it The Hunger of Miss Burton.

Ever since food began to get a bit tight, Miss Burton had carried a wolf around with her under the neat waistband of her tweed skirt. Sometimes she felt that it wasn’t one wolf only. It was a whole wolf pack cutting up in the vacuum at the back of her grey herringbone. Before the war, she couldn’t remember thinking much about food, but now she thought about it constantly.

It is tales like the latter where simple everyday things happen with the war there in the background that I found this book so effective. As war breaks out between Japan and America, a woman almost comes to blows (down the phone) with her husband, another woman goes back to see a former love for the nostalgia of it. With twenty one stories in this collection I could go on and on. I should mention though that it isn’t all women who are the focus of the stories. We have some of the men who couldn’t fight the war for various reasons, one who seriously wishes he could and almost mourns the fact he can’t, too.

I think Mollie Panter-Downes writing is astounding. I really remember liking it last time but this time I loved it. There are the wonderful, often rather quirky, characters some of whom, like Mrs Ramsey, Mrs Peters and Mrs Twistle, keep returning in and out of the stories which helps build the consistency of the world Panter-Downes describes as they run from 1939 to 1944, the tone changing slightly as the book goes on. She can bring a character to life in just a mere sentence or two and the brevity of her tales and how much they make your mind create is quite astounding.

One of the Pringle girls had been wedded and widowed and was now Mrs. Carver. Neither of them was likely to see fifty again, but Pringle girls they remained, their girlishness rather ghoulishly preserved, like the dried flowers and pampas grass that rustled in the draught from the drawing-room.

Panter-Downes is unquestionably a master of prose, in a single sentence she can deliver and say so much. These are just a few of my favourites; ‘in a mood of fine old nostalgia, well crusted on the top and five years in the wood’, ‘wearing a dress so flowery that many foiled bees buzzed angrily around her’ or ‘not forgetting to shoot her the tender, killing glance which made her see what a charmer he must have been, even after that pony broke his nose and the Afghan bullet took a nick out of one eyebrow’ and ‘With difficulty escaping from Gerald’s stomach, which seemed to pursue the conversation like some particularly active octopus, they chatted about theatres.’Again with there being so many wonderful stories and so many examples in each one I could go on and on again, but I won’t.

I shall simply say that having re-read Good Evening, Mrs Craven I have reassessed this collection and, over four years (and over 500 books) later, I don’t just think that this is a brilliant short story collection, I would go as far as to say this is a collection of mini-masterpieces – I think it shows that we become all the more discerning and delve deeper the more we read. In this collection there are a wonderful and vivid gamut of views and outlooks throughout WWII, and not with the normal drama involved of the front, but a quieter drama and one that will have you laughing hysterically and then being deeply moved by. If you haven’t read these short stories then I simply insist that you must, they are not to be missed.

I am really, really looking forward to reading Minnie’s Room; The Peacetime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes,  when I get to the 34th Persephone book. Before that there are many others to come, next up is Few Eggs and No Oranges: the Diaries of Vere Hodgson (the biggest Persephone published so far) which covers the same time period but I think is going to have a very different feel. We shall see. Have you read Good Evening, Mrs Craven and if so what did you make of it? Which books have you re-read and loved all the more the second time around?

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Filed under Books of 2013, Mollie Panter Downes, Persephone Books, Review, The Persephone Project

Almost English – Charlotte Mendelson

Why is it that families can be so fascinating to us in fiction? Is it because we all think our families are absolutely mental? Is it because we can’t choose them yet (I find sometimes rather annoyingly) we have this strange bond with them? Is it because in this modern forward thinking age the idea of a ‘normal family’ (with divorces, step parents, deaths, adoption, disowning) of two point four children simply doesn’t exist and the evolvement of it is strangely fascinating? I could go on, but I won’t – just in case my family are reading this. Family saga’s, though I don’t really like the word saga, especially the dysfunctional kind can make for great reading, such is the case with Charlotte Mendelson’s latest novel ‘Almost English’.

Mantle Books, 2013, hardback, fiction, 392 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Marina is sixteen. She has decided to leave the comforts of her comprehensive and her family home in favour of boarding school, a place she believes will be brimming with adventure, midnight feasts, independence, boys and dare she admit it sex. What more could she need. It also means escaping her mother, Laura, and her crazy Hungarian great aunts and Grandmother, Rozsi. However boarding school is not what she expected it to be, she isn’t popular, she isn’t cool and she isn’t on the young men’s radars at all. In fact she is a bit of a loner and a seen as a bit of a geek. She is miserable.

Admittedly I am not known as a fan of the ‘coming of age story’ yet ‘Almost English’ is in many ways such a tale. Though it is just as a coming of age tale of a young girl, it is also a coming of age story for a mother in her mid forties, as Laura is also miserable too sleeping on her in laws couch, her husband having left one day, in a dead end job and having a very unfulfilling and unexciting affair. Laura is also miserable. It was the duality of this in ‘Almost English’ that I found really interesting and indeed one of the things that I liked the most about it, though truth be told there is lots and lots to like here.

As the book goes on we see how as a teenager Marina is struggling to work out just who she is and what she is made of. Also, after meeting the Viney family, Marina is looking at what she might be aspiring to be. She sees adulthood as being the most thrilling time ever, yet we see through Laura (and of course adding our own life experience into the mix) that adult life is just as hard, in fact sometimes all the harder. There is also, as an adult reader, a strange sense of nostalgia and hindsight which makes you feel all the more empathy with Marina as she bumbles, rather awkwardly, through her sixteenth year and the romanticism in her life wanes slightly.

She is shy; clumsy; short; fatherless; scared of cats, and the dark, and the future. She is going to be a doctor but knows she isn’t up to it, and if she doesn’t get into Cambridge her life will be over. And, unbeknownst to anyone at Combe, she lives with old people in a little bit of darkest Hungary, like a maiden in a fairy story. Or a troll.

In case I am making the book sound like it is depressing, it honestly isn’t. One of the things I really liked about the book was Charlotte Mendelson’s sense of humour throughout. Marina’s clumsiness and general teenage angst will make us laugh in hindsight, we have all been there. Importantly Mendelson knows just when to put a laugh in, when the book gets a little dark we get a titter, never a guffaw, to lighten the tension. This also works the other way will ‘the crazy Hungarian oldsters’, as Charlotte calls them, often provide a laugh yet as we read on their background story is a rather tragic one. Throughout the balance is just right, you will laugh out loud but it doesn’t descend in farce, the bleakness and black humour complement each other, laughter sometimes making a dark turn all the darker.

To the casual Englishman, were one present, she might appear as other grandmothers: reading glasses on a chain, worn wedding ring. Do not be deceived. Rozsi is unusually clever and fearless by her compatriots’ standards. Her younger son Peter, Laura’s former husband, used to call her Attila, with reason. Laura, whose references are more prosaic, thinks of her as Boudicca dressed as Miss Marple. This is not a woman one ignores. She has a white bun and black eye-brows, her cheeks are soft and age-spotted, but consider the cheekbones underneath; you think she forgives easily? Think again.

‘Almost English’ is also a book brimming with issues (depression, cancer, desertion, class, race) without ever becoming an ‘issue based book’, again this is a hard thing to pull off but Mendelson deftly combines these elements as she does the humour, nothing feels forced and even when another dramatic twist ensues it’s not melodramatic. I am wondering if Charlotte Mendelson should take up tightrope walking as her sense of balance is spot on.

Most importantly for me though was the writing. Not just the story telling (we all love a good story) and the characters, or indeed the late 1980’s atmosphere, but the prose. In almost every paragraph there was a turn of phrase, a characteristic, moment or just a sentence that loved, be it snigger inducing or thought provoking. It is one of those books.

What does madness feel like? Can you develop it quite discreetly on the bus home from Oxford Street, carrying mothballs? Can it be normal to cry in a department store toilet, at advertising hoardings or thoughts of distant famine? Somebody must know.

The best way I can describe ‘Almost English’ is that it is a human book. It looks at people and how crazy, selfish, funny, heartbreaking we can all be. It is also a novel that will take you back to those awkward school days and emotions and hopefully make you smile with a certain nostalgic affection whilst also inwardly squirming. It is also a novel where you will leave and breathe alongside the characters and their highs and lows. I thoroughly recommend giving this a whirl. I shall soon be off to head to Mendelson’s earliest works for more.

You can hear me talking about ‘Almost English’ in more detail with Charlotte on the latest episode of You Wrote the Book here. It might be one of my favourite author interviews yet.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Charlotte Mendelson, Man Booker, Mantle Books, Picador Books, Review