Category Archives: Books of 2014

Savidge Reads’ Books of 2014

For someone who finds making lists an utter joy yet who can never make them concise you may be surprised that there is only one list of my books of the year this year. Normally I will do two; the ten books that I have loved most published this year and the ten from previous years. Well this year I have decided to be a more savage Savidge and only have ten… well twelve. I cheated a little bit again. I was going to do fourteen for the year we are in but could see that might cause potential problems in 2033. So without any more waffle here are my books of 2014. (For full reviews click on the link in the title.)

  1. Mateship with Birds – Carrie Tiffany

Picador Books, 2013, paperback, 224 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

One of the first books I read this year and one of the ones which has stayed with me. On the outskirts of a town somewhere in Australia in the early 1950’s we join two neighbours. Harry owns a dairy farm and spends his days between milking his herd and watching the local wildlife, mainly a family of kookaburra’s, and looking over his past seemingly happy with and yet questioning his lot in life. Betty rents the house next door with her two children Michael and Little Hazel, often wondering what has become of her life and often wondering about Harry. We follow these two characters, Betty’s children, and their weird neighbour Mues over what I thought was a season – though it could be much longer or indeed shorter as Mateship with Birds has a sense of nothing and everything happening all at once, all in the grubby wilds of the countryside.

This book has everything I love in it; the wilds of the countryside (which you might see in a few of my choices), outsiders and a rather wonderfully grubby dirty edge. I will be going book shopping on Friday and will be hunting down a copy of Carrie’s Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living.

  1. The Dig – Cynan Jones

Granta Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 156 pages, kindly sent by the lovely folk at Fiction Uncovered HQ

In The Dig we follow the lives of two men who live in the same remote countryside and who have met briefly once and who couldn’t be more different. Daniel is a farmer who is struggling both with keeping his farm profitable and running and also with a personal tragedy. I will not give away what because when you find out early on it is like a physical punch. I cried that is all I will say. The other character, who we only know as ‘the big man’ is a much darker kind of fellow; one who trains his dog to kill rats, catches badgers for baiting and has been to prison for something we are unsure of. The question is of course how and why might these two men meet up again?

I never imagined I would have a book about badger bating as one of my books of the year, it even has an evil horse in it, yet for the same reasons I loved everything about Mateship With Birds I loved The Dig (which was also one of Fiction Uncovered’s titles this year, Naomi Wood’s Mrs. Hemmingway would be book number 13 on this list, just saying – and cheating again). It is a book that wonderfully links the rawness of nature to the rawness of emotions and the savage nature of animals to those of men.

  1. The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane

Sceptre Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 276 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Ruth is a widow who has been living by herself on the coast round from Sydney and for a little while and been coping quite well thank you very much. However on and off in the night she has felt pretty sure that there is a tiger who is roaming around her house. She doesn’t know where this tiger comes from or goes to after it visits her and yet while she doesn’t think it wants to harm or eat her, its presence is unnerving to say the least. Especially when she wakes up and wonders if it was ever really there at all, is she losing her marbles?

Another book that I loved very much at the start of the year (and possibly the most beautiful book of the year if you have the UK hardback) and was desperate to talk to anyone and everyone about as it is so twisty and unreliable in many ways – which of course is why I love it. I even made Thomas, my cohost on The Readers, read it and we had a mini book group which you can hear here, though be warned spoilers abound.

  1. A Kind of Intimacy – Jenn Ashworth

Arcadia Books, paperback, 2009, fiction, 283 pages, borrowed from Emma Jane Unsworth (who might never get it back!)

If the first two books had a link of the rawness of nature, these two have the link of the unreliable, dark and twisty. Annie Fairhurst has left her old lonely miserable married life with her husband Will behind her. She wants to start again and so has found herself a new home in the suburbs of a Northern town for herself, and her cat Mr Tips, to start a fresh. She wants to make new friends, have wonderful parties and maybe meet a man like her old love Boris, who rather liked the larger lady like Annie and twice gave her a glimpse of how life could be. She is full of hope for the future, especially when she meets her next door neighbour Neil who she is sure came to her aid once when she was a damsel in distress. Yet this unleashes two things in Annie, firstly the fact that her past is a mystery that keeps rearing its ugly head no matter how hard you try and cover it up, secondly Annie isn’t as stable as she might initially appear nor as truthful or lovely. The plot thickens…

This was loaned to me by the lovely Emma Jane Unsworth (whose Animals would have been joint number 14 with Kerry Hudson’s Thirst, cheating again) as she thought I would like it. Having read it I hope that is meant as a compliment of my tastes in fiction rather than to my style of friendship. Hmmm. Anyway it was a huge hit with me, Emma will never get this book back again and Jenn’s second novel, she is now writing the fourth, Cold Light will be one of my first reads of 2015.

  1. Under The Skin – Michel Faber

Canongate, paperback, 2000 (2011 edition), fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

This is one book I have loved but not actually reviewed yet, the reason for this is that there is a bog old twist that I don’t want to reveal. Here’s the blurb… Isserley spends most of her time driving. But why is she so interested in picking up hitchhikers? And why are they always male, well-built and alone? An utterly unpredictable and macabre mystery, Michel Faber’s debut novel is an outstanding piece of fiction that will stay with you long after you have turned the last page.

I knew the twist but I have to say that didn’t stop me from enjoying this book from start to finish. It is a book that looks at what it is to be a woman in society and what the true meaning of society and humanity are. I will say no more. I did see the film too… I will say no more on that either, ha! I do need to work out how to deal with books with big twists and spoilers in 2015 though as I have a few reviews pending of such books. Any ideas how to deal with this are much welcomed.

  1. Cover – Peter Mendelsund

powerHouse Books, 2014, hardback, nonfiction, 256 pages, brought by Santa for Christmas

The most recently read which is why it might end up being much higher up over time. Either way, Peter Mendelsund was initially a classical pianist, or a recovering one as his bio says, who after the birth of his first child realised he needed a more stable job with a regular income. But what? Well, as it happened he liked design and then his mother knew someone who knew someone at Knopf Books and after a chat, a viewing of his portfolio (which Knopf being pretty bowled over by what Mendelsund calls “shockingly wince-inducing” self taught designs) and some interviews he then became a junior designer. Now he is Associate Art Director there and his book covers are world famous, though you might admittedly not know they were by him. He is one of those wonderful people who make us want to pick up ALL the books, from Lolita to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo literally. Well, if you live in America, though some have come here too. Cover is his story of how he came to cover books and what doing so means.

A book about books that every book lover should read or own, the end.

  1. Bitter Greens – Kate Forsyth

Allison & Busby, 2013, paperback, fiction, 544 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

My favourite fairytale, and indeed possibly story, of all time is Rapunzel. With Bitter Greens Kate Forsyth weaves a tale of three women to retell it and indeed to write a thrilling love story to it. First is Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who has been exiled from the court of the Sun King Louis XIV after a fall from grace too far (which in those times was saying something) and is banished to live in an Abbey with nuns. Second is Selena Leonelli, once one of the most beautiful women in Italy and even the muse of the Venetian artist Titian. Depicted forever in his paintings she has one fear, time, and how it will take her beauty something she will do anything to keep. Thirdly we have Margherita, a young girl trapped in a tower forever unless she finds a way to escape.

I was in book heaven reading this. I don’t tend to go for historical novels very much, and know very little about the court of Louis XIV but I revelled in it and want to know much more about it. All in all a wonderful, saucy, gripping, brilliantly written, literary romp – pitch perfect storytelling. You can hear me talking to Kate about this and more here.

  1. He Wants – Alison Moore

Salt Publishing, paperback, 2014, fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Lewis is a man who seems to be stuck in a rut. He is at the end of middle age yet not quite on the cusp of old age. He goes and looks after his father, Lawrence, at the old people’s home and yet his daughter, Ruth, comes round every morning to look after him and deliver soup that he actually doesn’t want. He has recently retired as his role as an RE (religious education) teacher yet having been widowed sometime a go he has no one to share his retirement with, just time and his own thoughts. He spends most of his days at home apart from when he goes to visit his second favourite pub, and that is probably how he will go on spending it. What Lewis isn’t expecting is a blast from the past, in the form of an old friend Sydney, to turn up one day and Lewis’ comfortable, if boring from the outside, life is shaken up.

There are some books that leave you feeling both completely uplifted and utterly devastated, all at once. I know it sounds implausible, such a dichotomy of emotions, yet these books are often the ones that leave us feeling the most enriched by the experience. Alison Moore’s He Wants is such a book. I loved this, I loved The Lighthouse; I need to read everything Alison ever writes and will do so. You can hear me talking to Alison about this and more here.

  1. Trespass – Rose Tremain

Vintage Books, hardback, 2010, fiction, 272 pages, inherited from Granny Savidge

This was undoubtedly the year of Rose Tremain and I, even though she didn’t know it – well actually I got to meet her and then she did. Ha! (The American Lover would have been on this list but I thought a title per author was fair, and I promise that is my final cheat!) As it opens we follow a young, rather spoilt, girl Melodie who is struggling to fit in at her knew school and so on a trip out runs away into the countryside where she discovers something horrendous amongst the tranquillity. What she has discovered we have no idea because we are swiftly taken away from this moment into the lives of two pairs of siblings, soon beginning to realise that in some way one or both of these siblings have something to do with whatever it is that poor Melodie discovers, but what and how?

She was one of Granny Savidge’s favourite living authors and Gran always told me I should read her, interestingly saying this would be my way in, she was completely correct. It is such a shame I can’t talk to her about these as we would have had some corking conversations but Gran has certainly left me with a legacy of recommendations. You can hear me talk to Rose Tremain about her books and writing here.

  1. Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey

Penguin Viking Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

This should have won so many awards. From the start of the novel we meet Maud who, when she is not repeatedly going to the corner shop and buying more (and more) tinned peaches, is always finding notes in her pockets that remind her that her friend Elizabeth is missing. She may sometimes forget the name of the women who come and make her tea or clean her house but with these notes everywhere possible she cannot forget this and she must find out where she went, why her house is empty and why Elizabeth’s son never seems to care. At the start of the novel Maud also discovers a compact mirror, where we are not initially sure, which suddenly brings back the disappearance and mystery of what happened to her sister Sukey 70 years ago.

I just love this book so, so, so much. Emma’s writing is incredible, the way she handles the theme of dementia is beautiful yet honest and so occasionally very funny. Cliché alert but it is really amazing this is her first book, no pressure on the next then? You can hear me talk to Emma about this and much more here. Oh and side note, she would be cross if I didn’t mention it, this is also one of my mother’s favourite books of the year – we discussed it a lot at Christmas. Read it.

  1. A Month in the Country – J. L. Carr

Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1980 (2000 edition), fiction, 112 pages, inherited from Gran

Gran left me with a legacy of authors to read and also a legacy of books of which this was one. In A Month in the Country Tom Birkin reflects several decades later on the summer of 1920 when he ended up in the village of Oxgodby for a single month. Here on a mission left by recently deceased spinster Miss Hebron he is being paid, begrudgingly by the Reverend Keach who is only allowing it as Hebron left the church money if he did, to uncover a possible medieval wall painting inside the church. Birkin reflects upon that summer, the place he was in mentally in his life at the time and thinks about the place he was in physically and those who peopled it.

It is really hard to say much about A Month in the Country, as it is essentially a very silent and still yet powerful book, other than it is pretty much book perfection. If I hadn’t had such a (similarily yet more epic) visceral reaction to the next book it would have been my book of the year. You can’t hear me discuss this with Mr Carr as he is dead BUT you can hear me discussing it with Gav, Kate and Rob (some of us might weep) here.

  1. The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

Chatto & Windus, hardback, 2014, fiction, 464 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I never thought a Booker Winner would be my book of the year, especially after the last few years but Richard Flanagan just blew me away with this book. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is essentially the tale of one man’s life with all that befalls him. Alwyn ‘Dorrigo’ Evans is one of the survivors of the Death Railway in Burma where he was a prisoner of war. He was the surgeon, having the strange job of helping people escape death only to then have them healed and sent off to work that was likely to lead to death be it from sickness, exhaustion or torture. He is a man who has had a love affair with this uncle’s wife. It is really these two particular strands of Dorrigo’s life that this novel follows going back and forth developing a life lived, with it joy, despair, loss and love.

Easily the book I have loved the hardest (and therefore was the hardest to write about) this year and will more than likely be one of my all time favourite and most memorable reads. And guess what, yes, you can hear me chatting to Richard about it here (I was such a lucky sausage with interviews this year) and more. Richard’s back catalogue will be being bought by myself over the next few years and devoured.

So that is my list! If you have read any of these let me know what you thought of them. If you haven’t why on earth are you still reading and not running to a bookshop/library, no I don’t care what time it is or if it is a Bank Holiday, and getting them now? If you have made a list of books of the year do let me know, I will have a look at them in 2015. If you haven’t then please share some of your favourites in the comments below, or I will sulk which is no way to end one year and start the next is it?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Random Savidgeness

Cover – Peter Mendelsund

I was very, very lucky this Christmas as Santa brought me not one but two books imported all the way from America, and to note not via a certain evil website, both of which were by book jacket designer extraordinaire Peter Mendelsund. I was told about both Cover  and What We See When We Read by many, many people (indeed the later was in the Yankee book swap but I wasn’t mean enough to swap it for Gone Girl) when I was at Booktopia Asheville, indeed Ann and Michael have sung their praises on Books on the Nightstand. Having read Cover I can completely understand why; it is such a wonderful ode to books and a book which safe to say will be riding very high on my books of the year tomorrow.

powerHouse Books, 2014, hardback, nonfiction, 256 pages, brought by Santa for Christmas

Peter Mendelsund was initially a classical pianist, or a recovering one as his bio says, who after the birth of his first child realised he needed a more stable job with a regular income. But what? Well, as it happened he liked design and then his mother knew someone who knew someone at Knopf Books and after a chat, a viewing of his portfolio (which Knopf being pretty bowled over by what Mendelsund calls “shockingly wince-inducing” self taught designs) and some interviews he then became a junior designer. Now he is Associate Art Director there and his book covers are world famous, though you might admittedly not know they were by him. He is one of those wonderful people who make us want to pick up ALL the books, from Lolita to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo literally. Well, if you live in America, though some have come here too. Cover is his story of how he came to cover books and what doing so means.

During those years at the piano, I was completely unaware that book cover design, as they say, “was a thing.” Though I’d read plenty of books over this period, it had not occurred to me that a book’s cover was consciously composed and assembled by a human agent. Not that I assumed book jackets were made by machines, or committees (it turns out they can be made by either), I had simply never given book jackets a passing thought.

What did I see then when looking at the front of the book if not the cover? The title and the author’s name. Which is to say, I saw past the cover to the book.

However Cover is not just Mendelsund’s thoughts on what makes a book cover so important. As we go through the sections Classics, Vertical (which is all about Manga), Literary Fiction, Genre Fiction and Non Fiction & Poetry we hear from the writers who Mendelsund has made covers for, well apart from in Classics then Jane Mendelsohn discusses Kafka whose reissues were one of the first works that made everyone really sit up and pay attention to Mendelsund’s work. (No I am not popping pictures of those in, you will have to go and buy the book to see them, and they are stunning.) Here is Ben Marcus discussing the importance of the cover for the author and what the power of a cover can do…

The missing jacket is the final piece to by which nearly everyone will come to know the book. The writer wants the jacket to stand up for the book, serve as the most perfect flag. The jacket should celebrate the strengths of the book and conceal the flaws. It should perhaps rouse dormant chemicals in the body of and cause a sharp kind of lust in the buyer, that might only be satisfied by actually eating the book.

Of course it is Mendelsund and his work, and the process of it, that links this book. Throughout you really get a fantastic insight into how the idea’s for covers are initially formed and then how the process carries on. I don’t want to spoil any of this for you but I thought I would give you a sneaky peak, for example here is the final design for Steig Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which Mendelsund jokes, in one of his many brilliant footnotes on some of his designs, thankfully lost the title of The Man Who Hated Women which he had to have as one of his design’s titles) the he created…

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Here are many of the ones that didn’t make the cut, these are marked throughout with red X’s…

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You therefore get the mental process and the design process which I found completely fascinating, as I am sure any book lover would. And this is a book for book lovers. Did I mention that? I have come away with an epic list of books; obviously Mendelsund reads all these books and was an avid reader and book lover before, and I have now an urge to read many he has covered and clearly loved. (He even almost convinced me about Kafka at one point!) I am particularly keen to read Lolita as Mendelsund has some interesting thoughts on it. I know, I know I should have read it already. Also added to the list are now in particular Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, which Mendlesund has a fascinating relationship with, and these two books by Imre Kertesz. I don’t care what they are about (Mendelsund has done his job as he does) I just want to read them for their covers…

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On top of these are The Woman Destroyed by Simone De Beauvoir, the aforementioned Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Something is Out There by Richard Bausch, Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam, Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu and both Never Fuck Up and Easy Money by Jens Lapidus. (You can find these again on my new To Get My Mitts On page here with some others.) Oh and the whole of the Pantheon Folktales and Fairytale Library. Though I couldn’t work out if these had been commissioned or not. I will do some digging; if they have they will be mine.

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You might have possibly had the merest hint that I bloody loved Cover. It was a book I thought I would dip in and out of over time, I sat with it and lost several sittings perusing the covers, taking in peoples thoughts on reading and books – it is rather like a book version of having a relaxed mooch through a book shop perusing the covers and eavesdropping on the other book lovers, no higher praise can be bestowed really. As I mentioned before Cover will easily be in my best books of the year and I am now very excited to read What We See When We Read, though I think I might just spend some more time revisiting and staring at Mendelsund’s collection of books and their covers, again and again and again.

Oh and if you want to hear more about book covers then do listen to this edition of Front Row, which I had the joy of whilst getting home in a snow blizzard (I exaggerate not) on Boxing Day on the way home from my mothers. Have you had the joy of reading either of Mendelsund’s books? Do you own some of his covered books in your collection? Which other wonderful books about books would you recommend? I have a new fancy for a selection of my new shelves (yes I have been shopping for more today) being dedicated to books about books of all shapes and sizes.

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Filed under Books About Books, Books of 2014, Peter Mendelsund, powerHouse Books, Review

Mystery in White; A Christmas Crime Story – J. Jefferson Farjeon

Well I think I might have just discovered the perfect Christmas read if ever there was one. Mystery in White was first published back in the 1930’s in that golden age of crime, yet for some reason went out of print until The British Library republished it as part of their Crime Classics series, along with many other forgotten novels, this year. Believe it or not in the lead up to Chrimbles it became one of the biggest selling paperbacks, having read it I can see why and I wish I had read it sooner (or could travel back in time in a time bus) to make sure you all had it in all your stockings and those of the people you love most.

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British Library Crime Classics, 1937 (2014 edition), paperback, fiction, 256 pages, bought by myself by myself

On Christmas Eve, along the track between London and Manchester, a train becomes stranded in the snow. Those onboard must decide if they can stick it out in their carriages or if it might be best to seek shelter somewhere else. In one carriage a group of strangers, bar brother and sister David and Lydia, all decide that they will try and head to the nearest station of Hemmersby some miles away. Yet as the snow starts to fall harder they realise they are lost, until they (literally) stumble upon a country house. A country house where the door is unlocked, the larder is full, the kettle is over boiling and there is absolutely no one at home. Shelter overrules suspicion or concern, that is until the fires are lit and the passengers are warm and then the feeling that there is something very wrong with the situation starts to arise.

“Funny!” said the owner of the head. “Tea all dressed up and nowhere to go! I say, David, what do you make of it?”
David turned from the couch.
“There’s still upstairs,” he replied. “I’ll tackle that, if you’ll stand by here.”
“Wait a moment!” exclaimed Lydia.
“Why?”
“I don’t know. Yes, I do. What I meant was be careful.”
“That doesn’t explain anything.”
“Nothing explains anything! If it were a fine day it might be quite natural to run out of a house for a few moments while a kettle’s boiling, but in this weather – can you explain that? Where have they gone? Not to post a letter or cut a lettuce! Why don’t they come back? I didn’t tell you, the kettle wasn’t boiling in a nice quiet respectable manner, it was boiling over. Oh, and there was a bread-knife on the floor.”

When I was ranting about discussing The Floating Admiral (read it you might have a giggle) with you all the other day I mentioned my love of the golden age of crime novels. Mystery in White reminded me just why that is the case, before promptly making me quite cross that duds like the aforementioned Detection Club’s offering have been  in print almost continually where as gems like this haven’t. Sorry, I need to let it go, but it is quite cross making.

Mystery in White has everything you need in a brilliant crime novel. It has a situation we can all imagine ourselves in, stranded in snow (as I very nearly was yesterday on the motorway of all places), it has a group of strangers who know nothing about each other and might have all kinds of secrets, it has a creepy old mansion house as its setting, it has one or potentially two crazy murderers about and it is thrilling with a slight sense of horror and the supernatural about it hiding in the corners of every room or behind every tree. Most importantly of course there are no mobile phones and so there will be no help, well not until the snow thaws and melts and who knows if these unlucky souls will last the night.

The cast of characters too is almost perfect for its era. David is clearly the hero, though he hasn’t quite got the range in terms of brains. Lydia is his plucky sister who will not be treated as just a mere girl. Jessie is the typical damsel in distress, spraining her ankle and fainting around chapter three – though note, she may be a chorus girl but she might have the second sight. Mr Hopkins is initially referred to only as ‘the bore’ yet once in the warmth a slyer seedier side is revealed. Mr Thomson, with no P, is the flaky man who blunders rather. Mr Smith, the dodgy bloke from East London with the cockney accent. And then there is Mr Edward Maltby, of the Royal Psychical Society, who very early on asserts himself as the lead and detective yet does he know too much?

All this would be a complete cliché with a cast of utter caricatures if it wasn’t for the fact that it was so brilliantly written and superbly plotted. If all of his books are like this I have no idea why J. Jefferson Farjeon is not much better known with all of his books in print. As you go on reading the Mystery in White not only will you be completely bamboozled as the plot takes on some brilliant twists and turns (which I will not spoil, I couldn’t see any of it coming) and as the element of horror and suspicion starts to build the atmosphere is tense and palpable, it is honestly marvellous.

I think a Mystery in White could be one of my crime novels of the year. I was genuinely hooked by the plot, reading the book in two or three sittings; I enjoyed the cast of characters immensely. Most importantly I couldn’t see, or second guess, the ending. It also has that wonderful sense of nostalgia with it that only the novels from the golden age can produce. Here’s hoping that The British Library republishes all (over sixty, wow) of Farjeon’s books, if they do I will be one of the first in the queue to get my mitts on them.

I am tempted to advise you, if you have yet to read the book, to grab a copy and cancel all your plans for Wednesday evening. Just curl up with this instead and you will have one of the most enjoyable New Years Eve’s you could hope for. Who else has read Mystery in White and what did you make of it? Were you lucky enough to get it for Christmas? Have any of you read any of the other crime classics that The British Library is publishing? Naturally I want to read all of them now, though they will have quite something to live up to.

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Filed under Books of 2014, British Library Crime Classics, J. Jefferson Farjeon, Review

The Rabbit Back Literature Society – Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen

Sometimes a book takes you completely unawares. You have no expectations with it at all and it beguiles and then completely charms the pants off you, or maybe that should be charms the dust jackets off you? This was the case with The Rabbit Back Literature Society, I had no real prior knowledge of it other than I wanted to read it, when Kate chose it for December’s edition of Hear Read This. My only real thought was that it might be about books, it is and brilliantly bonkers and bookish all the way through.

Pushkin Press, 2014, paperback, fiction, 345 pages, translated from Finnish by Lola M. Rogers, kindly sent by the publisher

I am going to do something that I never do with a book, I am going to steal the blurb from the back of The Rabbit Back Literature Society because I simply would not be able to sum it up any better and indeed would over complicate it and put you off if I tried. So here it is. Only very special people are chosen by children’s author Laura White to join ‘The Society’, an elite group of writers in the small town of Rabbit Back. Now a tenth member has been selected: Ella, literature teacher and possessor of beautifully curving lips. But soon Ella discovers that the Society is not what it seems. What is its mysterious ritual, ‘The Game’? What explains the strange disappearance that occurs at Laura’s winter party, in a whirlwind of snow? Why are the words inside books starting to rearrange themselves? Was there once another tenth member, before her? Slowly, disturbing secrets that had been buried come to light…

She wasn’t thrilled. Not at all.
She’d wanted to do literary-historical research that might bring to light a few smallish skeletons – secret relationships, homosexuality, that sort of thing. Pleasant little scandals. Murder victims weren’t the sort of thing she’d been hoping to dig up.
Amateur detectives in fiction always annoyed Ella. They were so unrealistic. She didn’t intend to be the Rabbit Back version of Miss Marple or a cheap Baker Street knock-off, and she really didn’t like the idea of making the tabloids. That was no way to advance an academic career.

I have to say I was completely charmed by The Rabbit Back Literature Society from the start. From the moment we first met Ella as she describes herself; academic, unable to have children, with good lips and something artistic in the colour of her nipples, I knew I was going to be reading something that didn’t really fit into a mold or genre, rather breaking out of it instead. That is the kind of book this is and as we follow Ella – as she tries to work out just what on earth is going on with this secret writers society, the strange changing books in the library and the mysterious society member who has vanished – we discover a book that straddles over all the genres and then straddles them all riding them like a crazy pony. It’s contagious, look what it is doing to me as I write about it. Some of you might be put off because of this, normally I would, yet it works.

The novel is a crime novel, there is a mystery, or indeed two, as it unravels. It is a fantasy novel, with the atmosphere that anything could happen in the land of Rabbit Back; people vanishing in a whirlwind of snow, gnomes in the gardens attacking the gardeners etc. It is a comedy, I have not laughed as loudly at a book in sometime, generally because the giggles are quite dirty flirty ones from the accidental pornographic advent calendars the local children get by mistake a few pages in, onwards. It is a gothic ghost story. It is also a sinister thriller that will have you turning the pages. At its heart though it is a beautifully written literary love letter to, well, literature.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society really celebrates everything there is about reading, writing, readers and authors. It looks at how important escapism is, at how everyone can read a book differently (even without the endings changing as they do here) and how we use stories to cope with difficult things, or tell ourselves/create stories to make things better. It looks at authors and shows how writing is in its own way a kind of magical power, yet at the same time these people are all just very ordinary and shouldn’t be treated as anything special, even if some of them think they should. It is really all about the power of stories and storytellers, and what those writers can do with their powers, be it the bad or be it the good. (This is where ‘The Game’ and ‘Spilling’ is so brilliant, but I won’t spoil it!) It is about the power of words really.

“Well… I might turn those curls of yours black and make you fatter or thinner by ten kilos or so, whatever comes to me. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll change one of your eyes, perhaps this left one, into a glass eye.”
The woman’s mouth dropped open. “Huh?”
Winter smiled.
“Or I might give you a wooden leg, or some kind of disease. How does syphilitic brain damage sound? Or maybe I’ll have you broken in two in an auto accident?”
She gave a shrill laugh. “You are truly awful!” she said. “I’m not telling you anything now, or I might end up in your next novel.”
Winter gave a slight bow.
“That is your right. It would no doubt put you in much less danger of being used. But I may never the less steal your way of moving, the expressions on your face! Perhaps I’ll even take that way you have of smiling with your mouth open, your little tongue peeking out now and then between your teeth to see what’s happening in the world. And those freckles that start on the bridge of your nose  and continue all the way down between your breasts, that’s a detail that might come in handy in a piece I am writing at the moment.”
The woman smiled, frightened. “You’ll eat me alive.”

I really, really, really enjoyed (and loved a little bit) The Rabbit Back Literature Society. It isn’t the perfect book, on occasion the book goes off on tangents it never comes back to in its weird and wonderful way yet I didn’t care because I just bloody loved reading every single page of it. If you could get an amalgamation of all the types of rollercoaster’s and then converted them into a book, I think you would get this one. It sounds an odd analogy I admit, I think it is one Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen would appreciate though. I really hope that Pushkin Press are planning on translating all his books and bringing them to many more readers.

For more of my thoughts along with Kate and Gavin (Rob was sick) you can hear the latest episode of Hear Read This here. Anyone else read The Rabbit Back Literature Society, if so what did you make of it? I have a feeling it could be a marmite book, though if you love books and everything booky I can’t see how you couldn’t love it.

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Filed under Books of 2014, Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen, Pushkin Press, Review

The American Lover – Rose Tremain

If one book could sum up my reading year it would probably be Rose Tremain’s collection The American Lover. In part this is because this has been a year in which I have rediscovered my love of the short story. It wasn’t that I had abandoned them; I think I was just reading the wrong ones. It is also the year that I finally read Rose Tremain, after reading her work in honour of Granny Savidge who rated her as one of her favourite living authors. I am kicking myself for not having read her sooner and The American Lover again shows why she is such a master of the story whatever length.

Chatto & Windus, 2014, hardback, short stories, 232 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

One of the things that I most love about Rose Tremain’s writing is how she gets into the heads of the outsider or the underdog, or indeed the forgotten voices in society. This is probably the theme that runs through all her work and is the only thing that really connects The American Lover which is about as eclectic a selection of short stories as you could ask for in terms of scope, lengths and subject matter.

We have all felt, even the most confident of us, like outsiders at some point in her lives and this theme chimes within us even if we aren’t like the two old men in Captive or Smithy, who both live alone and try to get by and be helpful both (heartbreakingly so), we can empathise with them from what we have experienced as we do in all the stories. Rose also looks at people who choose to be outsiders such as Walter and Lena in A View of Lake Superior in the Fall who have become recluses hidden away in the wilds to hide from their grown up daughter, you will laugh and you will cry; and in another tale the very real Leo Tolstoy who appears, having escaped his horrendous wife in The Jester of Astapovo. She also looks at Sapphic love and how being different in whatever way makes us feel an outsider in the brilliant Extra Geography. Another highlight for me though was the appearance of one of my very favourite fictional outsiders…

Everybody believes that I am an invented person: Mrs Danvers. They say I am a creation: ‘Miss du Maurier’s finest creation’, in the opinion of many. But I have my own story. I have a history and a soul. I am a breathing woman.

You can imagine my chills of excitement when I saw that yes, Rose Tremain takes on Rebecca in The Housekeeper looking at it from a completely different angle of the relationship between muse, writer and the finished works. In fact writing is one of the themes interspersed throughout The American Lover, indeed in the title story we discover the tale of Beth whose affair with a much older man when she was younger inspired the bestselling novel The American Lover, yet what was she left with after. This is a wonderful and, another Tremain trope, heartbreaking tale and you can see why it was up for the short story award earlier in the year. As we have a reimaging of how Rebecca was inspired and how Tolstoy spent his last days we also get a wonderful modern retelling of a rather famous Shakespeare play with 21st Century Juliet, which had me cackling. The excerpt below made me laugh and also reminds you all to pop my birthday date in your diaries, ha!

24th March
Cook supper for Cousin Tibs. I adore the bastard like the brother I never had. We get smashed on the (four) bottles of Corvo he’s brought and I tell him about Mayo and about Perry’s declaration. Relief to get everything out in the open. And Tibs is really sweet and on my side and agrees with me that good sex is awesomely rare and that Perry Paris is verging on being a pillock.

What I also love about Rose Tremain’s writing (and I have a lot of love for it if you hadn’t noticed) is that she explores all aspects of we strange human folk. She looks at loneliness, grief, rage, love, loss, death, kindness, bitterness in all their forms. One of the tales that did this best (and is probably in my favourites of the collection with The American Lover, Captive and obviously The Housekeeper) is BlackBerry Winter where we meet Fran as she goes home for Christmas. Here with time to reflect she does the things we all do now and again, and something that Tremain is very good at discussing in her work, asking the questions of ourselves we don’t like to face or are shocked to face. Some are hard and dark; what are we doing with our lives, are we in the right relationship, do we like ourselves? Some are dark but funny (Tremain does black comedy so, so well) like when we contemplate killing our mothers, or wishing we were dead, even just for a moment.

Fran unpacked her clothes and put them in her old wardrobe, which used to creak and grumble in the night, like something alive. Then, she sat down on the single bed and took out her BlackBerry and emailed David. She told him that she almost wished Peggy had been sliced in half by the gin trap; she told him that the moonshine on The Trib had made her long to be a Tahitian again; she told him that her love for him was as dark and familiar as the wood. When she signed off and contemplated her evening alone with Peggy and the TV, she experienced thirty seconds of wanting to be dead.

I loved the whole collection of The American Lover, there is so much that is wonderful in here I haven’t managed to mention A Man in the Water, Juliette Greco’s Black Dress, Lucy & Gaston  or The Closing Door which are all marvellous, and all have all the Tremain-isms in them that I mention above. Also you might need another reason to quickly run and get this from the shops for loved ones, though really I would recommend you just treat yourself and find a few hours to curl up with it and all the worlds and stories Rose Tremain creates for you.

When Simon Met Rose...

When Simon Met Rose…

I had the joy of meeting Rose, who is just lovely, and talking about The American Lover and some of the other books she has written (and indeed I have read for Trespassing with Tremain, the review of Restoration coming before the end of the year) a month or so ago which you can listen to here on You Wrote The Book. Who else has read this collection and what did you think? What about Tremain’s other works? I still have plenty to go which I am so excited about; she is definitely a firm favourite author of mine now.

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Filed under Books of 2014, Chatto & Windus, Review, Rose Tremain, Short Stories

Bitter Greens – Kate Forsyth

Rapunzel is my favourite fairytale of all time, I actually broke the spine of the Ladybird Classic I had of it I read it/was read it so much. Being brought up in the town of Matlock Bath we had a Tower on our hillside, part of the Heights of Abraham where I used to be allowed to play at will as a child as they were our neighbours, which naturally I thought Rapunzel lived in. When I got my first pet, a duck, guess what she was called? Yep, Rapunzel! What did I nearly have tattooed on my arm? Rapunzel letting her hair down, from a tower at the top of my shoulder all the way to my wrist. I settled for Once Upon A Time. So you knowing Bitter Greens was about this tale and even came with the tagline ‘you think you know the story of Rapunzel’ I was both really excited about it and slightly fearful. If possible it has made me love the story of Rapunzel and the story behind the story even more.

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Allison & Busby, 2013, paperback, fiction, 544 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Bitter Greens follows the lives and stories of three women. First is Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who has been exiled from the court of the Sun King Louis XIV after a fall from grace too far (which in those times was saying something) and is banished to live in an Abbey with nuns. Second is Selena Leonelli, once one of the most beautiful women in Italy and even the muse of the Venetian artist Titian. Depicted forever in his paintings she has one fear, time, and how it will take her beauty something she will do anything to keep. Thirdly we have Margherita, a young girl trapped in a tower forever unless she finds a way to escape.

These three things were true;
Her name was Margherita.
Her parents had loved her.
One day, she would escape.
At the worst of times, when the walls of the tower seemed to press upon her ribcage, Margherita would repeat these three things over and over again, like sorrowful mysteries muttered over a rosary.
She had been locked away in this one small stone room at the age of twelve. Fifty-one full moons had passed since then, shown by the scars on her wrists. If she did not escape soon, surely she would die.

The question you are probably all wondering, as was I, is how on earth (bar Margherita) do all these stories link to the tale of Rapunzel. Good question and one I will half answer because to know all the ways this tale weaves around that one would be to spoil it. What I can say is that Charlotte-Rose de la Force was a real woman, who really did get expelled from the court of Louis XIV (for all in all being a right naughty minx) and who wrote fairytales including Persinette, which was the first written account of the tale which became Rapunzel, whilst expelled in the Abbey of Gercy-en-Brie. This Kate all found out whilst doing her doctorate in fairytale, I know sign me up for that course right now!

It is interesting because Charlotte-Rose is really the heart of this story and initially I was thinking ‘erm, where is the Rapunzel bit?’ yet within a few chapters I was so enjoying spending time in the court of Louis XIV I was quite happy to just see what happened. What I am saying here is that the Rapunzel story that links Charlotte-Rose, Selena and Margherita was brilliant and fascinating but I wasn’t only wanting that part, if you see what I mean. I was happily reading about a woman who was a flirt, a gossip, a teller of tales and who once dressed up as a bear to rescue a lover. What more could you want from a heroine.

Forsyth also creates a fascinating insight into the time; yes there is the political and religious histories, which I found fascinating, but also the social history too. I loved reading about how the court worked, how the King dealt with his rampant libido (sometimes just with a servant up against a wall if he felt the need) and mistresses and also how the fear of witchcraft spread the land. Forsyth brilliantly fills Bitter Greens sort of historical facts that I find fascinating, who knew that architects had to rebuild doors for dresses and head fashion or that people threw cats at carriages containing fleeing protestants? Fascinating.

The other themes at the heart of Bitter Greens are or course fairytales and storytelling. We don’t get the Ladybird Classic version, or the Tangled one (both I love just to note) we get the dark one that was originally told, the one where Rapunzel endures many horrors in the tower, and the prince sleeps with her and gets her pregnant and all the twists that brings. Disney couldn’t have done that, Forsyth revels in its gothic nature. She also explores the famous tropes of fairytales, what makes a woman a witch or become one, for example.

She also celebrates storytellers and storytelling whilst telling a great story, it would be a bit awkward otherwise wouldn’t it? Through Charlotte-Rose we see both how stories were an important part of the social world of the time historically, think going to a book club only you hear the story told by someone and might get impregnated by the King after, and also how stories and their escapism can help us at our darkest times.

The Marquis de Maulevrier used to lock me in the caves under the Chateau de Cazeneuve. They were as cold as the church, and much darker. A hermit lived there once, many hundreds of years before, and had died there. I wondered if his skeleton was still there, hidden under the stones. I imagined I heard his footsteps shuffling closer and closer, then I felt his cold breath on the back of my neck, the brush of a spectral finger. I screamed, but no one heard me.
Surely he was a good man, that long-ago hermit, I told myself. He would not hurt a little girl. I imagined he was taking my hand because he wanted to show me the way to escape the cave. Perhaps there was a secret door down low in the wall, a door only large enough for a child. If I stepped through that door, I would be in another world, in fairyland perhaps. It would be warm and bright there, and I would have a magical wand to protect myself. I’d ride on the back of a dragonfly, swooping through the forest. I’d battle dragons and talk to birds and have all kinds of adventures.

Kate Forsyth has created quite an incredible piece of work in Bitter Greens. It is the story of Rapunzel that you thought you knew, yet told bare, and it is also so much more. It is the tale of three women in three different time periods that are all fighting for survival and a place, and in some cases stature, in a world dominated by men. It is also a wonderful historical novel that captures the essence of all the time periods it covers in all its glory and all its gothic nasty corners. It is also a romping story that celebrates storytellers and the power of stories. I loved it, you should read it.

Mary Magdalen Repentant - Titian

Mary Magdalen Repentant – Titian

As you might have guessed this will be very high on my list of books of the year and may well be in a few lovely lucky peoples stockings, oops spoiler there. It has reminded me how much I love a really good historical chunkster of a novel and how much I love fairytales for adults (not adult fairytales that is quite something else, though this book is brilliantly saucy and salacious). I also need to read much more about the court of Louis the XIV, I have Nancy Mitford’s The Sun King and Jean Teule’s Monsieur Montespan (whose wife features in this book a lot) on my shelves by the bed in readiness. Any other recommendations about that period would be most welcomed. As would thoughts from anyone else who has read Bitter Greens or any of Kate’s other books, and indeed any other great fairytales for grownups. You can also hear Kate and I in conversation about Bitter Greens and fairytales here.

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Filed under Allison & Busby, Books of 2014, Kate Forsyth, Review

Byrd – Kim Church

One of the things that I said I really wanted to do with Savidge Reads was to try and uncover some books that I hadn’t heard about and therefore maybe you hadn’t and introduce you all, like some kind of book and reader dating site. I think that Byrd by Kim Church is one such book. It is a book I had the pleasure of reading sharing a room with the person who recommended it to me first, the lovely Michael Kindness, and on a bookish retreat in North Carolina which the author was also on too. Yes, Booktopia Asheville, part of my American trip which I still haven’t told you all about – I will honest. Anyway, it is a book that is not released here in the UK but I would urge any agents, editors and publishers to hunt down and publish pronto as it is a gem of a novel.

Dzanc Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 239 pages, kindly thrust into my hands by Michael Kindness

Addie Lockwood thought, as a young girl, she would become a famous writer and marry Roland Rhodes (the boy at school who mainly ignores her) who himself would become the next Bob Dylan. Life didn’t turn out that way. Yes, she and Roland had a relationship of sorts both as teenagers and again in a mad whirl of nostalgic romance in their thirties. Yet these romances didn’t end up as a love story in a fairy tale, instead they ended up with Addie pregnant in her early thirties with a baby she is just not ready for, not now, maybe not ever and so she gives her child, who she calls Byrd as it is a name no one else will ever give him, up for adoption.

Byrd opens with a letter that cleverly sums up all this in a letter, which we later learn social services have advised she writes to her son. What follows on from this are the four main parts of Addie’s life, and indeed Byrd’s, as she would define them; Unborn, Born, Missing, Grown. We follow Addie as she first meets Roland and that flush of teenage awe and obsession over flow her, and then as life moves on reality sets in more and more, the question we are always trying to find the answer to is will Addie, Roland and Byrd ever be united.

Church does many wonderful and admirable things with this novel. Firstly there is the way that it is all structured. As I mentioned the book is made up of four parts, within which there are short chapters which themselves are made of short bursts of paragraphs. This gives the novel a real pace and you whizz through thinking ‘oh go on, just another chapter’ as you race to find out what comes next. Additionally what might have made this confusing, but doesn’t which is a sign of how good Church’s writing is, is that as we go on we see Addie’s life through the eyes of others not just hers. Sometimes we will flip into the head of her brother, mother, father, lover, friend etc and so her character becomes more and more vivid.

Interspersed throughout all this are the letters from Addie to Byrd. In the wrong hands these could have been over dramatised and clichéd pieces of prose that made you want to roll your eyes, stick your fingers down your throat or throw the book across the room (and so could a book with a character called Byrd) yet Church writes these with a brutal and honest clarity which Addie has of her situation that again they add to her character, and not always in good ways, and give a true insight into the way she feels at particular points. It’s cleverly and subtly done, poignant without ever verging on saccharine.

Dear Byrd,
I would like to tell you your father and I loved each other. Maybe we did; maybe love is the right word, though it’s not one we ever used. What I can tell you is, he trusted me. He let me see the purest part of him, the music part.
Trust is a sweet thing, and fragile. I was not always as careful with your father’s as I should have been.

Addie is one of the main reasons you will keep reading this novel, Church creates a brilliantly complex character. She is endlessly flawed. She sleeps with her tutor, she can be horrible to her siblings, she sleeps with Roland without protection and when he has a girlfriend, hides her pregnancy from everyone including Roland, tries to have an abortion and then gives her child up for adoption. In the wrong hands you would read her as heartless bitch or she would be the villain of the whole piece. Instead because we see her as she tries to love her family, with a distance because her father is a bit of an alcoholic and so family life is turbulent when she is young, how she tries to keep her life on the straight and narrow despite temptation and rebellion, how she is with her other lovers in the future etc. Oh and she loves books, winner right there. All in all she is human, she is like us, we have all made mistakes, done some bad things but we try and be better, we try and be the people we know we should be or can be.

Addie believes in books. They are more interesting than real life and easier to understand. Sometimes you can guess the ending. Things usually work out, and if they don’t, you can always tell yourself it was only a book.

I also really admired the way that Church looks at adoption with Byrd. All too often we are given fiction about adoption that looks at the hard and difficult times of a child given up for adoption, rather than how actually their life might be better than if they hadn’t been. Or they will be tales of young mothers who have to give their child away or have them taken away. I have never read a book before where a woman in her early thirties gets pregnant and knows the time isn’t right, and may never be right, so makes what she thinks is the only and right choice. How her choice affects her and those around her is what follows, all told without judgement either way.

If I am making this sound all doom and gloom and a bit melancholy, fret not. Church combats this in a few ways. Firstly there are the short sharp bursts in which the novel is written which means when things get very emotional, and they do, it is a quick pin prick or two. That makes it sound throw away, it is actually very effective because the emotion is intense. Yet she also throws in some wonderful set pieces, some of which come when Addie works in a bookshop and then gets her own and with some of the customers she meets and the second hand books she is given, did I mention this book is very, erm, booky? There are also some wonderful scenes between Addie and her brother Sam in her youth, plus all the awkward moments of adolescence, and then with William later on, which I loved.

William believes that no act, if it’s purposeful, is too small. He protests junk mail by filling postage-paid return envelopes from one company with advertisements from another. Addie follows his example and sends Time magazine the fake check for $58,000 dollars that came from the credit card company.

Too often you read about coming of age tales which focus on your teens as if after that everything is tickety-boo, it  blooming isn’t! When we are young we think that life is all we could want it to be. We think we could meet the prince or princess of our dreams, we think we could one day be superhero’s or if not then surely a life as a vet, pop star, wizard or famous writer awaits us. Life however has other intentions and the dreams we have get turned and twisted a little, chipped slightly now and again by situations we didn’t expect and circumstances we often didn’t ask for. Byrd is a story which conjures that wonderfully, encapsulating the difficult times and yet with a wonderful sense of humour, even when times are tough, and with a sense of hope. There need to be more tales about coming to terms with your ages as you go through your life, Byrd is an example of that. I cannot recommend it enough.

Like I said at the start, publishers here there and everywhere should be fighting to get their mitts on this and publishing it all over the shop.If you have read Byrd then do let me know what you thought of it. If you haven’t then you should be trying to get your hands on a copy. If you have read any gems like this that aren’t published everywhere yet and you think they should be I would love to hear about those too!

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Filed under Books of 2014, Dzanc Books, Kim Church, Review

Through the Woods – Emily Carroll

Those of you who have been visiting this blog for some time will know that I am a huge fan of the fairy tale and have been since I was a youngster, so much so that I named my first pet, a duck, Rapunzel. Imagine my delight then when Faber emailed me and asked me if I would like to read a copy of Emily Carroll’s graphic/comic short stories, Through the Woods, a collection of creepy fairy tales and urban legend like tales. Of course I practically bit their hands off through the medium of email and what arrived in the post a few days later was a thing of beauty, though as we know even the most beautiful of things can have a dark heart…

Faber & Faber, hardback, 2014, graphic short story collection, 208 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Through the Woods is a collection of five very eerie, gothic and deliciously chilling tales. Each tale manages to do that wonderfully uneasy thing of somehow allaying themselves to your childhood, and indeed grown up, fear.  First there is Our Neighbours House which tells of three sisters who are told by their father, before he goes off hunting in the snow, that if he does not return they must head to their neighbours house, of course he disappears and so the sisters must decide what to do alone with only each other and the mysterious neighbour through the snow and woods. Second up is A Lady’s Hands Are Cold about a second wife who moves into her new home where something isn’t happy about her arrival.

Next up His Face All Red looks at how dangerous jealousy can be even between siblings, though admittedly this is the one that worked the least for me. Penultimate tale My Friend Janna is a tale of a medium which has a very, very clever twist as it goes on which I admired very much. Then finally we have The Nesting Place which is all about a young girl who visits her brother and his wife and soon wishes she had never made the journey and superbly describes one of the most sinister written noises, skreaaak skriiiick, which has just made me shiver thinking about it. I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone who has the joy, or terror, of this collection to come so I will say no more on how the tales twist and turn out.

Carroll does some very clever things with this collection. The first of which is that, as I mentioned before, she marvellously plays with fears we have as children such as isolation or being lost, be it in a wood or the middle of a snowy wasteland. She also plays on more adult fears like the loss of teeth, which is something I have nightmares about now and comes up in one of the tales. She also plays with things that bother us, even if we don’t admit it, as adults and children the noises that you hear in the middle of the night and tell yourself that the house is either warming up or cooling down for the night for example. We all do this even as adults don’t we? No, just me? Oh, let us move swiftly on…

She also delightfully, be it for the blatant inner fairy tale geek in you or the nostalgic one in your subconscious, brings back and plays homage to the fairy tales of your childhood. Notably it is the darker  well know ones like Red Riding Hood (come on, who wasn’t petrified of meeting a wolf in a wood that would eat your Granny?) and the lesser known but very, very dark tale of Bluebeard. She also does it with some of the more modern gothic tales, with I thought a nod to Rebecca in one, but I would think that wouldn’t I? She also plays with the tropes that we know so well, for example swapping the wicked step mother figure in one tale to being a different new member of the family. These nods and winks add to the delight of the collection.

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She also plays with emotions we all know all too well and have done all our lives; jealousy, rage and most importantly fear. At the start of Through the Woods there is a brilliant introduction in the form of a tiny piece of memoir which explains how as a child Emily would read long into the night herself and be scared to turn the light out just in case something was outside waiting at the window or ready to grab her from under the bed.

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In channelling that into these five tales along with the incredibly atmospheric and (cliché alert) haunting illustrations Emily Carroll genuinely creates a book that will properly creep you out, not just give you the odd chill or two. The Nesting Place, which was my favourite tale, is one that actually wormed (once you have read it you will see what I did there) itself into my brain and stayed in there bothering me, especially at night when I dreamt about it – and I know about three other people this has happened to with one or two of these stories.

Through the Woods is an incredible achievement and a cracking collection.  Somehow in using just the right words and just the right images Carroll creates a piece of work that genuinely gets into your head and plays with your fears in both a good shivery way and a really uncomfortable one. You will be reading it well into the early hours and left wondering just what on earth could be lurking outside your window on one of these cold dark nights before you turn the light off.

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Who else has read Through the Woods and what did you make of it? Will anyone else admit to be genuinely bothered by it? Which other collections of spooky stories or fairy tales, be they retellings or originals, would you recommend?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Faber & Faber, Graphic Novels, Review, Short Stories

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

I have recently mentioned the power and intensity that a novella can bring, and indeed have been favouring novellas over longer, most often epic, tome like novels. Yet reading Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which verges on tome and is definitely epic in scope, has reminded me how much I love getting completely lost in a book for a good long week of reading. Then once finished be left feeling the loss of it, unable to shake it. You see it is one of those books that totally envelops you and also contains everything about the world within its covers. It is therefore going to be one of those books that is a complete nightmare to try and encapsulate everything it does or do justice. (Hence why this is one of the longest reviews I have ever written, despite seven sittings over a week to edit and edit it, do bear with me though as you really need to read this book.)

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Chatto & Windus, hardback, 2014, fiction, 464 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is essentially the tale of one man’s life with all that befalls him. Alwyn ‘Dorrigo’ Evans is one of the survivors of the Death Railway in Burma where he was a prisoner of war. He was the surgeon, having the strange job of helping people escape death only to then have them healed and sent off to work that was likely to lead to death be it from sickness, exhaustion or torture. He is a man who has had a love affair with this uncle’s wife. It is really these two particular strands of Dorrigo’s life that this novel follows going back and forth developing a life lived, with it joy, despair, loss and love. This is what makes the book difficult to write about, yet reads so naturally even as it goes back and forth in time. Essentially whilst it is about Dorrigo’s life, it is also these two main strands that have defined him and that our focus is pulled towards.

Flanagan, I think, does something very clever early on as he draws us to both Dorrigo’s elderly years and his early youth very quickly in interweaving bursts. If you are worried you might get confused, as I was so I am not being patronising, you won’t, you differentiate swiftly as you read. Here we are told of something he witnesses as a young man which relates to something in his older years but it also tells us why Dorrigo doesn’t, and therefore we might not want to, consider him a war hero, as Dorrigo is a fantastically and humanly flawed character.

Inexplicably to him, he had in recent years become a war hero, a famous and celebrated surgeon, the public image of a time and a tragedy, the subject of biographies, plays and documentaries. The object of veneration, hagiographies, adulation. He understood that he shared certain features, habits and history with the war hero. But he was not him. He’d just had more success at living than at dying, and there were no longer so many left to carry the mantle for the POWs. To deny the reverence seemed to insult the memory of those who had died. He couldn’t do that. And besides, he no longer had the energy.

Before we have even come to the love story or the horrors of war, we spend time with the fascinating and conflicting character that is Dorrigo. Here is a man who people see as a hero, and who has saved many lives, yet who likes to drink drive and sleep with his wives best friends or his best friend’s wives. He is incredibly likeable is some respects and then utterly reprehensible in others. He combines both good and bad, which is something that we forget that those who die or survive fighting for the good are, we all have good and bad sides be we a victim or perpetrator of war. In fact I think the soul of The Narrow Road to the Deep North is what is good and what is evil, though more of that in a bit.

Here I wanted to say that this novel is like a cow as it has two hearts, then I realised that they have two stomachs and Dr Who has two hearts, then I realised that I should just say that the book really just has two hearts to it. Blimey, that was over complicated, let me explain.

One of the hearts of this novel, no pun intended, is the love story between Dorrigo and Amy. Here again Flanagan creates an interesting dichotomy as we read on. When the affair between Dorrigo and his uncle’s wife starts, after a wonderful meeting in a bookshop, I was thinking ‘you awful pair of saucy buggers’ soon though I was caught up in it. Frequenting readers will know I am not a fan of a love story; I was gripped by this one. Flanagan wonderfully captures the passion and almost obsession that love can form and the reckless monsters it can make us. There is nothing saccharine here. Again I cannot spoil anything but I was rooting for Dorrigo and Amy even though I knew morally I shouldn’t be. Once again Flanagan cleverly makes us question what we see as good and bad behaviour dependent on cause and circumstance.

She wanted to bury her face in those armpits there and then and taste them, bite them, shape into them. She wanted to say nothing and just run her face all over him. She wished she wasn’t wearing that print dress – green, such a bad colour, such a cheap dress, so unflattering and her breasts she wanted up and out not lost and covered up. She watched him, his muscles little hidden animals running across his back, she watched him moving, wanted to kiss that back, those arms, those shoulders, she watched him look up and see her.

One of the things I really admired about The Narrow Road to the Deep North was how whilst a story of Dorrigo Evans’ life we get to see him through other people’s eyes. Above you have the obsessional view of him from Amy, you get his rather blunt and cynical opinion of himself and through characters like Darky Gardiner you also get to see the man he is with his comrades during the war when life is at its hardest and most cruel, just as you do through Nakamura as one of those running the war camps. This also means you get different people’s perception of the war, be they on either side of it, or all the way back in Australia. War is very much the second heart of this novel.

The scenes, and indeed middle section, in the novel that are set on the Death Railway are some of the most devastating that I have ever read. Even thinking about them I genuinely get a shiver up my spine. I hate to use the term that a book was ‘bravely written’ yet I cannot think of any other way to describe Flanagan’s writing at these points. The daily life there in the jungle with the endless back breaking work, the lack of food, the illness, the beatings, the torture, the loss of life are all viscerally depicted. Some of the scenes blow your mind be it with the horror of what occurred, the frank and gruesome nature of some of the surgery Dorrigo must do to save someone, the confronting scenes told by men who like to torture or the moments of love the men show each other as they try and keep their own humanity. Utterly incredible.

As I want to be reasoned with this review and not just bang on about how amazing it is so you think I would have just lapped it anything up, even had Flanagan made Dorrigo sale across on ocean with a talking horse for company, I did have a slight wobble with the books final section. Suddenly Dorrigo’s elderly years go into overdrive and he suddenly goes through a few more devastating things and I did wonder if we needed them. Obviously I can’t give any spoilers but there was one story that made me think ‘really?’ briefly before then something else happened and I was so moved at the end I cried for about the sixth time.

A minor quibble but one I wanted to mention so you know I can see any amazing books flaws, as no book is completely perfect, though this is close. Now, of course, I am worried I haven’t mentioned some of the other amazing things like the Haiku’s that run through the novel and how they accentuate it, or how Dorrigo uses books and literature to work out his place in the world, how the book is constructed in parts that almost mirror each other or discuss some of the other characters that appear in the book but I am in danger of never shutting up. See it really was one minor quibble. Anyway…

As I mentioned earlier I think the main theme of this book is what is good and what is evil. We are taught from an early age that, whichever view you side with, there are goodies and baddies in war. The people who die fighting for the good are untouchable heroes and those who are on the bad side are all villainous and odious. Life is not that black and white and that is what The Narrow Road to the Deep North is really saying through Dorrigo Evans life and all he goes through. He is a war hero and an adulterer. Some of his fellow men suffer and are wonderful people; some are nasty pieces of work. Nakamura heads a prisoner of war camp where abominable things are happening; for him this comes from doing what he thinks is best for his country in the long term and using the enemy to create a better, great and good, future for Japan.

Flanagan looks at the good and the bad in the good and the bad. It is not comfortable and is incredibly confronting, especially in scenes described both on the Death Railway and later some insight into Japan at the time, but it makes us question and think without drip/force feeding us or even giving any answers, as all the best books should.

The journalist said he had done a story on the survivors, had met and filmed them. There suffering, he had said, was terrible and lifelong.
It is not that you know nothing about the war, young man, Dorrigo Evans had said. It is that you have learnt one thing. And war is many things.

The Narrow Road to the Dark North is a book that you experience, one of those books which makes you feel every paragraph emotionally and in your very core. Not only did it introduce me to a period in history, and indeed a place, that I knew almost nothing about; it also made me want to be kinder than I am, note how lucky I am, tell my loved ones I love them more often than I do and reminded me that not a second of life should be wasted because you never know what may come around the next corner. It is a book about war, peace, love, hate, death and life. Yes, it really is one of those life changing and life affirming books, an incredibly written modern masterpiece.

I could go on, I won’t. I will just say you need to read this book. I can see why it won the Booker. It is easily going to be one of my books of the year and I now want to read everything that Richard Flanagan has written. If you want to know more about the book, the background it has with his father (the book is dedicated to him ‘prisoner 335’) and more you can hear me and Richard in conversation here, I nearly blubbed at one point – professional. Who else has read The Narrow Road to the Deep North and what did you make of it? Which of Flanagan’s novels should I read next?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Chatto & Windus, Man Booker, Review, Richard Flanagan

The Dig – Cynan Jones

I have been pondering why it is that I am becoming a fan of shorter fiction more and more. I have heard many people saying shorter fiction is perfect for the social generation who find it very hard to concentrate on reading anything longer than a status update. There may be a modicum of truth in that I suppose, on occasion, yet when you read a book like Cynan Jones’ The Dig and undergo what is an incredibly visceral, earthy, upsetting (I cried and I heaved – seriously) and emotionally intense experience you wonder why any author bothers writing anything over 160 pages. Of course some short works do not come close to that experience and some long books are immersive wonders, you get my point though I am hoping.

Granta Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 156 pages, kindly sent by the lovely folk at Fiction Uncovered HQ

In The Dig we follow the lives of two men who live in the same remote countryside and who have met briefly once and who couldn’t be more different. Daniel is a farmer who is struggling both with keeping his farm profitable and running and also with a personal tragedy. I will not give away what because when you find out early on it is like a physical punch. I cried that is all I will say. The other character, who we only know as ‘the big man’ is a much darker kind of fellow; one who trains his dog to kill rats, catches badgers for baiting and has been to prison for something we are unsure of. The question is of course how and why might these two men meet up again?

The Dig is incredibly written. It consists of paragraphs that give us snapshots into both characters feelings, occasionally slipping us up as to who is narrating, meaning that both characters show their darker and lighter sides. I love books set in the countryside because behind the picturesque white fences and lace curtains, or down the back alleys and over the hills, there is a dark animalistic nature (pun not intended) to the countryside which is isolating, hard and dangerous. Jones depicts this beautifully, yet without ever getting flowery. This book is all about cold drips, muddy squelches, twigs cracking and fires crackling. Note – those are all my words just for illustration, Cynan has a much broader vocabulary than I.

The scent of her was in the room and it almost choked him to understand how vital to him this was; how he could never understand her need for his own smell, could not even understand howshe could find it on him under the animal smells, the carbolic, the tractor oil and bales and all the things he could pick out on his own hands. He had this idea of smells layering themselves over him, like paint on a stone wall, and again he has this sense of extraordinary resilient tiredness. He wondered what isolated, essential smell she found on him, knew the mammalian power of this from the way pups would stumble blindly to their mother’s teat, the way a ewe would butt a lamb that wasn’t hers. In the shock of birthing, all that first recognition would be in that smell. They would take the skin sometimes of a dead lamb and tie it on an orphan like a coat in the hope that the mother who had lost her lamb would accept and raise it as her own.

Now when I say the book looks at nature and humans in at its most raw, I am not kidding and it may be too much for some people. There’s blood, there’s badger baiting, there’s putting hands into sheep’s wombs (I wanted to say up sheeps bottoms to break the tension slightly and make you all chuckle, but that would be anatomically incorrect). Yet they are described naturally, frankly and without any sense of voyeurism or only writing to shock. Even the shocking parts have their importance within the novel be it the badger baiting (which made me cry, did I mention I cried quite a lot at this book) or some of the raw basic nature of the farming, one scene which lead me to heave as Daniel has to deal with a problem many farmers are sure to face in their career. They show another sense of duality that The Dig seems to have throughout. Here it is the acts of violence we humans can inflict upon nature and the acts of violence nature can inflict on itself and humans.

These dualities appear a lot in The Dig and I wondered if that was an intention of Jones’? From the start Daniel and the big man are polar opposites, Daniel being vulnerable and the big man being dangerous. Then we have the dualities of their thoughts and actions. The big man having some nasty thrill at watching his semi starved dogs killing rats or trapping badgers, yet constantly fearful of being trapped or caught out himself. Daniel is at the darkest depths of his emotions and yet he witnesses the amazing gift of new life with his animals. There is also the question of traps and not only the ones we set for others, or fall into, but the ones we create for ourselves. The beauty of nature vs. the brutality of nature. All this interwoven in a sparse swift book, it’s quite astounding.

It feels almost wrong to say I enjoyed The Dig, in fact at one point between weeping for the badgers and heaving at the bluntness of what I was reading I may have cursed Cynan Jones, yet at the end I was really thankful for the gut wrenching experience. (It also helped that I reminded myself that no badgers were actually harmed in the making of this book.) I think in many ways The Dig is something of a masterpiece. I have not read a book quite like it and certainly not one that in so few pages creates the essence of the countryside at its raw and wildest, the animalistic nature of, erm, nature and the fact that we humans are really nothing more than animals too. Oh and the inherent evil of horses.

The Dig was one of this year’s winners for Fiction Uncovered and once again proves why it is such a bloody marvellous initiative as it highlights such brilliant books. You can also see a fantastic spoiler free review here from Just William’s Luck and a brilliant one with a slight spoiler here at The Asylum, I have warned you of the spoiler. Who else has read The Dig and what did you make of it? Have any of your read his other novels The Long Dry or Everything I Found on the Beach, as I am now desperate to get them in the TBR.

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Filed under Books of 2014, Fiction Uncovered, Granta Books, Review

He Wants – Alison Moore

There are some books that leave you feeling both completely uplifted and utterly devastated, all at once. I know it sounds implausible, such a dichotomy of emotions, yet these books are often the ones that leave us feeling the most enriched by the experience. Alison Moore’s He Wants is such a book.

9781907773815

Salt Publishing, paperback, 2014, fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Lewis is a man who seems to be stuck in a rut. He is at the end of middle age yet not quite on the cusp of old age. He goes and looks after his father, Lawrence, at the old people’s home and yet his daughter, Ruth, comes round every morning to look after him and deliver soup that he actually doesn’t want. He has recently retired as his role as an RE (religious education) teacher yet having been widowed sometime a go he has no one to share his retirement with, just time and his own thoughts. He spends most of his days at home apart from when he goes to visit his second favourite pub, and that is probably how he will go on spending it. What Lewis isn’t expecting is a blast from the past, in the form of an old friend Sydney, to turn up one day and Lewis’ comfortable, if boring from the outside, life is shaken up.

As we follow Lewis through his day to day existence, often veering off on one of his nostalgic moments, we build a picture very much of the everyman. It is not that Lewis has not had dreams and desires, or that he has failed to accomplish many of them. It is more that Lewis is a man who has been happy in the village he was brought up in, happy to following his father’s footsteps to be a teacher, happy to fall in love and marry a good woman and just live the life he leads. No matter how conventional. It is not that he is ineffectual, he has just been happy with his lot and has never questioned otherwise. Suddenly seventy or so years have gone by and life has been perfectly fine and good, is that not enough? As he spends his time thinking about the past, the choices he has made, what could of been and also about the future and what may or may not lay ahead, should he have lived life a little more on the edge of his seat, has he wasted time?

When the school recruited a new librarian who was a single lady of Lewis’ age, Lewis became a big reader of whatever classics the library carried. As he returned each of these books at the end of the loan period, he attempted to discuss them with her, but each time, Edie, eyeing the Austen, the Eliot, the Woolf, would say, ‘I haven’t read it. It’s not my sort of thing.’
On their first date, they did not talk about books; they talked about food, what they had or had not eaten in their lives. ‘I’ve never had beef Wellington,’ said Edie. ‘I’ve never had black pudding,’ said Lewis.
When Lewis and Edie had been courting for a year, Lewis’s father asked if he planned to marry Edie. He asked again, many times, over the years, saying to Lewis, ‘What are you waiting for?’ They had been a couple for seven years before Lewis finally got around to proposing. After a three-year engagement, they married in the summer of 1977.

This is where the main theme of the book comes to the fore. All the different versions we have of ‘want’ in our lives. All the things we have wanted in the past, the things we didn’t want but somehow got, the things we wanted to ask for but were too shy or scared, the things we thought we wanted but actually didn’t, what we want for and from others, the things we want to forget, the things we want right now at this moment, the things we want for the future. Moore wonderfully describes all these things as Lewis assesses his life, even by the chapter titles throughout like ‘He does not want soup’, ‘When he was a child, he wanted to go to the moon’, ‘He wants a time machine’. All these thoughts and wants are covered by Moore in under two hundred pages, it is quite marvellous.

Aging and the world moving on around us while we stop and contemplate or just stop full stop, is also another major aspect of the novel. Lewis sees with his own eyes that once Edie died the world just carried on around him and without her, how can that be? As I mentioned before he is also at the end of middle age yet not quite on the cusp of old age, looking after yet being looked after too. Yet what defines old age, do we really have to pop to the shop and only buy beige when we hit a certain birthday? I loved this aspect of the novel which often adds a real sense of emotion, as we see Lawrence’s decline in the home, and yet some hilarious moments as Lewis tries to grapple with the real world.

When the computer is ready, Lewis opens up his email, finding new messages in bold. Someone he knows – a friend of his or someone he’s acquainted with – keeps sending him pictures, but Ruth says he mustn’t open them, he mustn’t look. ‘That’s not a friend,’ she says. One email says he is due thousands of pounds, but there is a link he must click on to claim the money, and he daren’t. ‘Incompetent in love,’ says another. He does not want cheap Viagra or SuperViagra; he does not want bigger, harder, longer-lasting erections. He does not want a nineteen-year-old Russian girl or an Australian virgin who wants to talk. He doesn’t not want a replica Rolex watch or a fake Gucci handbag.

He Wants is also a book which both makes the reader work with it. Moore doesn’t think we are stupid, she wants us to be a part of it all and form our own opinions as we fill in the gaps. The way in which He Wants is constructed is neither linear, nor is it a case of alternating between the present and the past. Each chapter hops skips and jumps between different parts of Lewis’s life until towards the end when we have built up the picture, little clues being handed to us here and there, and can work out where it’s all going? Or do we? As with The Lighthouse you might get a surprise or two as you read on.

It almost seems lazy to compare He Wants with The Lighthouse further, as they are very different novels in many, many ways. Yet Moore’s writing does some of the same marvellous things in both. Firstly the wonderful ‘did I really just read that?’ moments where something really shocking or revealing will happen in the middle of what seems such a pedestrian (which sounds so wrong as the story and writing are anything but pedestrian, but you know what I mean) memory or seemingly insignificant act. We have to read back to believe our eyes. She works wonderfully with the everyday and making it darker and edgier whilst all the more realistic at once. She also might just leave you to go off and work it all out; I will elaborate no further as I do not want to spoil what is just a wonderful and brilliant reading experience.

He Wants will easily be one of my books of the year. Alison Moore’s writing is so deft in so many ways it is hard to try and do it justice, or without spoiling any of the many delights, twists/surprises and ‘did I just actually read that then?’ moments which the novel has in store. So I will reiterate what I said at the start, He Wants left me feeling both completely uplifted and utterly devastated, all at once. It is a perfect example of the sort of book I want to be reading. I loved it.

If you would like to hear more about the book, you can her myself and Alison Moore on this episode of You Wrote The Book. Have you read The Lighthouse or He Wants and if so what did you think? I am very much looking forward to reading Alison’s short story collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories, in the non too distant future.

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Filed under Alison Moore, Books of 2014, Review, Salt Publishing, You Wrote The Book!

Trespass – Rose Tremain

And so to the first of the books that I (and fingers crossed hopefully a lot of you) are reading for Trespassing With Tremain, a way of me remembering my book loving Gran and in a strange way reading along with her through another of her favourite authors and one who she was always telling me I really should have read. Why start with Trespass? Well, it was the book of Rose Tremain’s that Gran kept saying that I simply had to read as she thought it was the most me, which as you will see I found rather interesting after finally having read it…

Vintage Books, hardback, 2010, fiction, 272 pages, inherited from Granny Savidge

Trespass is one of those infinitely clever novels that pleases, perplexes and plays with its reader. As it opens we follow a young, rather spoilt, girl Melodie who is struggling to fit in at her knew school and so on a trip out runs away into the countryside where she discovers something horrendous amongst the tranquillity. What she has discovered we have no idea because we are swiftly taken away from this moment into the lives of two pairs of siblings, soon beginning to realise that in some way one or both of these siblings have something to do with whatever it is that poor Melodie discovers, but what and how?

From the beginning of Trespass I have to say I was hooked in with the mystery and the promise of darkness yet of course a book has to deliver far more than just those two things to really stand out and Trespass does that in spades. The mystery is very much at the fore and then gets sent brooding in the background awaiting its moment as we then get caught up in the worlds of two siblings. Firstly Audrun Lunel, who lives alone in a isolated in the woodlands in a ramshackle bungalow on the edges of her old family home Mas Lunel, now inhabited by her alcoholic brother Aramon. Secondly Anthony Verey, a man once famous for his antique dealings but who has fallen on harder times and is looking to escape his life in London and so heads to the south of France and his sister Veronica.

Of course as Trespass goes on you wonder how on earth these two pairs of siblings will become entwined in something that we know will end darkly. It isn’t until we discover that Aramon is keen to sell off Mas Lunel, much to Audrun’s horror, and Anthony is very much looking for somewhere to live that these people’s lives entwine for a moment. Even then Tremain cleverly keeps us guessing as to what will come because what I thought was going to happen didn’t, in fact the book kept twisting tighter and tighter as it went on.  I don’t want to give too much away though, suffice to say I had to read it in one sitting because I wanted to know what the heck was going to happen, to whom and how.

Episodes, the doctor called them. Short episodes of the brain. And the doctor – or doctors, for it wasn’t always the same one – gave her pills and she took them. She lay in her bed, swallowing pills. She put them on her tongue, like a Communion wafer. She tried to imagine herself transfigured by them. She lay in the Cevenol night, listening to the scoop-owl, to the breathing of the land, trying to envisage a chemical river in her blood. She saw this river as a marbled swirl of purple, crimson and white; the colours drifted in skeins, expanded into almost-recognisable shapes, like clouds. Sometimes, she wondered whether these envisagings were inappropriate. She’d also been told that her mind was liable to ‘inappropriate ideas’. It could imagine terrible things.

As Trespass unravels Tremain does something that l love, she makes the characters and their histories and relationships unravel with it. Yet with the two sets of siblings Tremain makes this all the more heightened. As Anthony flees to Veronica we watch a pair of siblings where one has always looked out for the other, V being the big protective sister. Yet once in the same space this relationship becomes cloying, particularly for V’s lover (the brilliantly named) Kitty Meadows who has never liked Anthony and has always vied for V’s attention with. Does familial love always beat passionate love, can you compete with someone who has been in your lovers life infinitely?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the selling of Mas Lunel is the final straw in Audrun and Aramon’s strained relationship. The siblings have not been close for years despite the fact that Audrun lives on the edge of the land of Mas Lunel, she only goes into her old family home if she absolutely must. What is it that keeps her away and why can two siblings who live so close be so utterly apart? The dynamics and mysteries within the mystery unravel slowly but surely, making the novel only the darker and the characters all the more compelling.

What also makes Trespass compelling are the themes it looks at. Most obviously is the theme of sibling relationships, which brings in family histories and secrets which are always a fertile ground for a novel. There is also the theme of sexuality with both Veronica and her ‘friend’ Kitty but also Arthur and his certain secret proclivity. There is also the sense of trespassing you might think that sounds rather obvious yet Tremain looks at this in many ways. Trespassing on the boundaries of land or personal space, trespassing on relationships, trespassing on other countries and their heritage with the theme of rich Europeans buying French land meaning locals can’t. I could go on. At its heart though, both with the siblings secrets and Melodie (don’t forget about her), there is the theme of how the things we witness or experience as children affect us in later life.

In all this darkness there is a wicked sense of humour which makes it all the more delightfully gothic in its tone. There is the same darkness in Tremain’s humour which offers some light(er) relief in parts both in some of the peripheral characters and their set pieces, like Lloyd Palmer and his accidental pant wetting when laughing which made me giggle very loudly. You will also often find yourself often smiling wryly as Tremain gets her characters to do something we all wish we would do and never dare.

Out of her kitchen window, she watched him toiling in the afternoon heat. Sun rays bounced off his bald head. He was a small man, but full of petty cruelty, she could tell, proud of his ability to wound. Audrun crumbled some black earth from the geranium pot on her kitchen window sill and threw it in with the ground coffee because she knew this could have the power to quell her anxiety, to watch the surveyor imbibing geranium compost and never knowing it.

Trespass is an utterly marvellous novel. One that I don’t really feel I could do full justice without writing something almost as long as the book itself – which I should add manages all the above in just over 250 pages. It is a beautifully written and intricately crafted gothic tale, which has a slight evocation of a fairy tale in some ways, and also the pace and mystery of a thriller. I cannot wait to read more of Tremain’s work.

So you see it seems Gran was right, Trespass is indeed a very ‘me’ book. I am only cross that I didn’t listen to her a few years ago and read it with her at the time as we could have had a real natter about it, and about why she would pair me with such a dark twisty book? It has also broken the spell of being unable to write a review, which has been a bit of a black cloud over me of late. Anyway, who else has read Trespass and what did you make of it? Had you read Tremain before, if so how does this compare and if not what did you think of this as a first foray? I am very much looking forward to The Road Home, which just happens to be the next Trespassing with Tremain title, as I think I might become quite the Tremain fan!

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Filed under Books of 2014, Review, Rose Tremain, Trespassing with Tremain, Vintage Books

Thirst – Kerry Hudson

You may remember at the very beginning of 2013 I raved about a debut novel with the rather ‘stop and stare’ title of Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. It was by a debut author Kerry Hudson who seemed, by some kind of witchcraft, to totally depict and understand my childhood; lots of moving, not masses of money, lots of trips to the library etc. It was one of those ‘blimey, this book gets me and I get this book’ moments that we are lucky to have every so often. After a small amount of stalking and some meringue caterpillars (long story) weirdly this Kerry Hudson became a mate who loved Alphabites and gelato – not together – as much as I do. A true bonus from a brilliant book. Yet this of course created a dilemma when Thirst came out. I wanted to read it because its predecessor was so brilliant however Kerry was also a mate. So I decided I would do what I would do with any book I want to read, and always will do, and just judge the book on the book. So here goes…

Chatto & Windus, hardback, 2014, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Security guard Dave first meets Alena, not long arrived in the UK from Siberia, when he catches her trying to steal an expensive pair of shoes from a luxury store (which naturally pays its staff piss poorly) and helps her from being arrested, much to the dismay of his manager. Why Dave does this he is not sure, though the fact she is rather attractive may help, and neither is Alena yet in Dave she senses a safety from the world which she desperately needs and soon manages to find a way into his life and into his flat. No, not in that way you dirty lot but from this initial meeting and in the weeks after a relationship of sorts starts though if it is one that either can speak of or will last neither of them know, especially when their backgrounds, and indeed their baggage, start to come to the fore.

Hudson writes both of these characters intricately, and also does something very clever by revealing their pasts in glimpses here and there and creating layers of both Alena and Dave at their best and their very worst, their most attractive and their most ugly. Initially I struggled with Alena as though I knew she had a dark mystery she was running from in her past, which gives the novel a great momentum from the start, I couldn’t work out if she was an innocent victim caught up in something horrendous, or someone far more calculating and unlikeable.

She went to the mirror again and inspected herself; she didn’t have food around her mouth, anything in her teeth; she had good lips, pretty eyes and beautiful breasts, everybody said so. She checked that her expression wasn’t too pathetically grateful, though she was. She was so grateful and very afraid of being sent away, but the trick of staying was to make him the thankful, fearful one. And as she caught herself smiling in the mirror she reminded herself that this was all just a trick, there was nothing real here, and killed the smile instantly, like a small insect under a hard finger tip.

The same applies to Dave, though almost in reverse. Initially we see him as the lonely good guy who looked after his mother when she was dying of cancer and also followed her dying wish of marrying the wrong women. Poor Dave. Yet as we learn more his story gets darker as grief and regret, along with loneliness inside a relationship, all take over. Who here is really the good and who is the bad? Do we have to be one or the other or do we have both in us which we have to keep in check?

Of course these are the points that Hudson is making with Thirst, or one I thought she was making, is that no character is black or white, nor is anyone wholly good or wholly evil. We are all various (I nearly said fifty, shame on me) shades of grey and we have all done things in our past that are commendable and things that we all feel ashamed of. Hudson looks at these both with Dave’s failed marriage and also Alena’s past (which I don’t want to give too much away of because it’s utterly chilling and needs to be experienced cold) as she becomes caught in the sex trafficking industry and has to do anything she can, no matter how bad or how dark, to get through it. Both characters ask the questions of how far we can be pushed as people both physically and emotionally and what we will do in order to survive life and all it throws at us.

Before I make all this sound to dark and depressing I must mention two things. Firstly there is a love story at the heart of this and one which thankfully isn’t saccharine or sugar coated but real and bumpy and awkward and wonderful. Secondly there is a lot of humour in Hudson’s writing, a sentence can make you laugh before the next one tears you apart emotionally and vice versa. There is also hope. Though by me saying that don’t think this book has a happy ending; you will be left to decide that, which is another brilliant stroke. Like its predecessor Thirst looks at the sense of belonging, be it to places or people, that we as humans all hunger for (no pun intended) and the journey that the quest to find it takes us on, be it another country or just through the highs and lows of getting through your day to day life.

He went and sat on the scorched, scratchy piece of grass outside with his food. The dogs did nothing, just flicked their tails in his direction and flared their dry black nostrils when he opened a bag of crisps. And there they sat together, all of them with nowhere to go.

To bring up Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma again, the things that I loved about it are the things that I also loved about Thirst and I think could be the things that carve Hudson’s career for the long haul and make her stand out. Her characters are real, funny and flawed, they walk the places we walk and whilst they pay attention to the beauty, or beautiful ugliness, of their surroundings and the people who walk in and out of their lives, they also live and breathe, go to the toilet and eat crisps like we all do. Hudson’s celebration of the simple and everyday actions making them all the more vivid. They are also about those people who might not be able to put pen to paper and write about their own life experiences and yet whose stories need to be told in all their beautiful brutality.

Phew, if I had hated it that could have been awkward. I would have just never reviewed it and anytime it was mentioned swiftly say ‘Did someone say free gelatos?’ There is the slight point that I now think Kerry is rather a genius and have some internal envy and rage going on, but let’s move on. If you want to see more rave reviews (they are popping up everywhere) head to Lonesome Reader and Workshyfop. Who else has read Thirst and what did you make of it? What about Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma? Which other books have you read which brilliantly celebrate the small day to day things in life that make us who we are? And which books have you read that shine a light on the people in society whose voices are sometimes lost in the literary middle classes?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Chatto & Windus, Kerry Hudson, Review

A Month in the Country – J.L. Carr

There is something rather wonderful in the fact that Granny Savidge is still influencing my reading almost a year, in fact it is a year tomorrow, since she died. As someone who I talked about books at least three times a week there is a void left now yet through having inherited some of her books my thought was that some of her favourites, as they were the only books she would keep unless a random gift like the Barbara Cartland I once bought her as a joke, would become my future reads and maybe some of my favourites. Well luck struck first time with J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, which I tried to read when she was ill (on her recommendation) yet just couldn’t yet have been much, much more successful this time around.

9780141182308

Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1980 (2000 edition), fiction, 112 pages, inherited from Gran

In A Month in the Country Tom Birkin reflects several decades later on the summer of 1920 when he ended up in the village of Oxgodby for a single month. Here on a mission left by recently deceased spinster Miss Hebron he is being paid, begrudgingly by the Reverend Keach who is only allowing it as Hebron left the church money if he did, to uncover a possible medieval wall painting inside the church. Birkin reflects upon that summer, the place he was in mentally in his life at the time and thinks about the place he was in physically and those who peopled it.

Ostensibly it sounds like there isn’t really much to this novella and in some ways you would be right, plot wise there are no twists and turns. Yet somehow Carr creates a novel where very little happens and yet everything happens too. We learn through reflections he had that month which he reflects upon (bear with me) of his failing marriage, yet we also get hints of what happened after that summer. We also get glimpses of what he had to face during the war which has left him with shellshock and a nervous twitch. We learn of the friends he makes; Charles Moon who also fought in the war and is on another of Miss Hebron’s missions, Alice Keach the younger wife of the Reverend who feels like she isn’t accepted, Kathy Ellerbeck a young girl who befriends Birkin and whose family are the first to welcome him properly into the area.

Through all these friendships Carr creates very condensed additional stories. With the Ellerbeck’s he looks at how the families and people in the countryside were as affected by the war as those in the cities, only in a different way, and also looks at class. With Moon, whose storyline is sharply bittersweet, we get another side of the war and also another side to social mores of the time. Through Alice Keach we look at marriage, a mirror of sorts to Birkin’s to an extent, and indeed lust verses love and how love and marriage connect or don’t.

See it is brimming and what makes this all the more masterful is that fact that Carr does this all so succinctly. The story is in itself only 88 pages and yet there is all of this life within it. The prose is magical, not something I say often yet is so true in this instance. Within a line he conjures a character completey, a situation is a mere paragraph or so. Sometimes within very few lines he can capture the things we ponder about life and just put them plainly and simply, in terms we wish we could, it is just marvellous.

I never exchanged a word with the Colonel. He has no significance at all in what happened during my stay in Oxgodby. As far as I’m concerned he might just as well have gone round the corner and died. But that goes for most of us, doesn’t it? We look blankly at each other. Here I am, here you are. What are we doing here? What do you suppose it’s all about? Let’s dream on. Yes, that’s my Dad and Mum over there on the piano top. My eldest boy is on the mantelpiece. That cushion cover was embroidered by my cousin Sarah only a month before she passed on. I go to work at eight and come home at five-thirty. When I retire they’ll give me a clock – with my name engraved on the back. Now you know all about me. Go away; I’ve forgotten you already.

One of my favourite things in fiction is looking at difference and also the relationship between the outsider and the insider. Interestingly it is books with a rural setting where this can be used to its full potential. In villages things are rarely missed or go unnoticed, in cities you can lose yourself, others or things. With A Month in the Country Carr adds even more levels to this. The metaphor of the outsider is tripled as not only is Birkin an outsider to Oxgodby, he is an outsider to some of the religious views of the villagers and in many ways in his present state an outsider to life. This is doubly felt as he uncovers the wall painting, seemingly learning about the villagers (possibly uncovering their secrets) and himself at the same time, and of course there is the image that the walls depict, but I won’t spoil that for you.

The other things that I loved so much about the book are firstly how awash it is in the sense of nostalgia and secondly the way the atmosphere and place are so well depicted and come to life. I left the book feeling as if I had been wandering away and hour or two reflecting on that summer, as I had walked it’s streets, seen Miss Hebron’s spooky old house, witnessed a sermon in the church, has dinner with the Ellerbeck’s and tea with Charles Moon when these moments are just a sentence here and there within.

If I’d stayed there, would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around the corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.

I think it is safe to say, and very apparent, that I adored A Month in the Country. I think it is easily one of the best things that I have read in years and a book that will not only last with me for years to come but also be read by me again and again for years to come. It is the kind of rare book that makes you look at your life and tells you not to waste it, not to have regrets and to do all the things you want to do, not what people want you to. If you haven’t read it, which is possibly unlikely, then you must. I can see why so many authors have it as a firm favourite, it is a perfect piece of prose. A little gem of a novella.

Inscribed by Gran

Inscribed by Gran

My only real regret with the novel is that I can’t talk to Gran about it. As soon as I had finished it I felt the age old urge to phone her and rave about it all (yes, a year down the line this still happens when I read a book I really love) and discuss it further. However, not to get too nostalgic and melancholic, I just sat and thanked her for a moment for having led me to it, plus I have all of you to discuss it with now don’t I?

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Filed under Books of 2014, J.L. Carr, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review