Category Archives: Books of 2015

Savidge Reads’ Books of 2015 Part Two…

And so we arrive at the last day of 2015 and my last selection of books of the year. Yesterday I gave you the books that I loved the most this year that were actually published originally before 2015 (yes, even the ones that came out in paperback in 2015 but were in hardback before then) and today I am sharing the books that I loved the most that came out this year. You can probably all hazard a guess at the winner. Without further waffle or ado, here are the twelve books I really, really, really loved that came out in 2015; you can click on the titles to go to my full reviews, with one exception…

11.

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Starting off my list is a book by my favourite author which made does something incredible with a single paragraph that changes the whole meaning of book. Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins charmed me, entertained me, thrilled me, beguiled me and then in the simplest, smallest and most understated of moments completely broke me when I never expected it to. It is also a wonderful insight into what it is that makes us human, what can make anyone of us become a hero and the highs and lows that might follow such an act. Kate Atkinson is a master of storytelling, character and celebrating those simple day to day moments (and people) we often overlook.

10.

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A Place Called Winter is a blooming marvellous story. Gale is brilliant at placing you into the heads and hearts of his characters, mainly because his prose calls for us to empathise with them, even if we might not want to. We have all been in love, we have all done things we regret, we have all fallen for a rogue (or two or three), we have all felt bullied and the outsider at some point, we have all had an indiscretion and left the country to become a farmer in a foreign land… Oh, maybe not that. Yet even when our protagonist goes through things we haven’t Gale’s depiction and storytelling make us feel we are alongside Harry. We live Harry’s life with him; the highs and the lows, the characters and situations good or bad.

9.

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Grief is still something that we modern human folk are pretty rubbish at. It is something that we don’t like to talk about along with its frequent bedfellow death. I have often felt that in The West and particularly in Britain we are told to keep a stiff upper lip and get on with it. In reality this doesn’t help. If we are going through it we bottle it inside, isolate ourselves and tend to make it look like we are fine. When people are grieving we tend to find ourselves unsure what to do and either go one of two ways by being over helpful (and accidentally overbearing in some cases) or by distancing ourselves from people thinking they probably don’t want our help or need us in their faces – or maybe that is just me. Yet until we talk about it more, in all its forms, we won’t deal with it better individually or as a society, so thank goodness for people like Cathy Rentzenbrink who have the bravery, for it is a very brave act, to share their real life experiences with grief in a book like The Last Act of Love.

8.

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Physical is a stunning, raw and direct look at what it is to be male. It celebrates the male physique in all its forms as much as it celebrates the foibles of the male species. It is a collection that asks a lot of questions, primarily ones such as in the poem Strongman, which asks ‘What is masculinity if not taking the weight?’ Be you male or female you need to read this collection. Books, poems and stories are all about experiencing the world of others and walking in their shoes, Physical excels at this and from an unusual and original view point.

7.

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If I told you that you should really read a book set during the Troubles in Ireland which throws in poverty, religion, sexuality and violence, both domestic and political, you would probably look at me in horror, which is why The Good Son is such a brilliant book. It has all of those elements in their unflinching rawness and yet with Mickey’s voice and cheeky sense of humour McVeigh gives us an image of an incredibly difficult and fractured time in some sort of rainbow technicolor whilst with a very black and white viewpoint. It is something I have not experienced before and I thought it was marvellous. It also gives us hope.

6.

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I loved, and hugged, Mobile Library which is frankly some of the highest praise that I can give it. It is a book that reminds you of the magic of books, friendship, family and love without any magic having actually occurred. It is also an adventure story, possibly the most quintessentially British road trip novel you could encounter. It is also a book that despite being marketed for adults, I think many a ‘youth’ should read as I think it will remind them of the brilliance of reading and the fun it can be, as much as it reminds we adults of all ages, of just the same thing. I’m a massive fan of books, Mobile Library reminded me why whilst making me even more of a fan.

5.

Faber and Faber, 2015, hardback, fiction, 128 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Faber and Faber, 2015, hardback, fiction, 128 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It is no surprise that from the title of a novel such as Grief is the Thing with Feathers the subject is going to be, you guessed it, grief. Whilst the idea of members of a family coming to terms with the passing of a loved one and the effect this has on them might not be the newest of subjects, I think it is safe to say that I have never read a book that describes the varying emotions of grief in such an honest and fractured way. We see grief through the eyes of the three people in the house, a father and two sons, as they try to come to a way of understanding the loss that now surrounds them and the blank unknown of what lies ahead. Into this space appears Crow an unwelcome guest who is both helpful and hindering and who will stay put until these three no longer need him.

4.

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As the Yorkshire Ripper began his several years of killing women, Una herself was the victim of sexual abuse. Una looks back on this period in hindsight and looks at how the situation around the Yorkshire Ripper and the attitude towards predatory men and their victims not only caused the murder of many innocent women and the pain and loss to their families and loved ones, but how the ‘victim blaming’ culture of the time also affected people like Una who were the victims of crimes that went undetected/unsolved or people feared reporting. Becoming Unbecoming is a very brave, important and thought provoking book. I urge you all to add it to your reading stacks and talk about it once you have.

3 (=).

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So here is the thing my next choice, Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, it is not actually out until the end of next month, however I had the delight of reading it in advance early this year and fell completely in love with the writing, the characters, everything. So really I couldn’t save it until my best of 2016 list even though I know I will read it again in the new year! My review is set to go live around release but for now I will tease you with this – England 1976. Mrs Creasy is missing and The Avenue is alive with whispers. As the summer shimmers endlessly on, ten-year-olds Grace and Tilly decide to take matters into their own hands. And as the cul-de-sac starts giving up its secrets, the amateur detectives will find much more than they imagined…

3 (=).

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The Natural Way of Things is a book that will shock many of its readers for all the right reasons. By the end you will be enraged as to why women are still subjected to ‘slut shaming’ and victim blaming if they speak out about something bad? That is the dark root at the heart of this novel from which everything else spirals, only not out of control as scarily you could imagine this happening. That is where the book really bites, its reality and its all too apparent possibility. Shocking all the more because what seems extreme isn’t the more you think about it. This is a fantastically written horrifying, whilst utterly compelling, story that creates a potent set of questions within its readers head and asks you to debate and seek out the answers yourself. I cannot recommend reading it enough. (It is out in the UK in June but already available in Australia, I suggest trying to get it early!)

2.

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I do love it when a book takes me by surprise, even more so when one takes me out of my comfort zone. What makes this all the better is when this comes at the least expected time. This happened with All Involved by Ryan Gattis which when I was first emailed about, being told it was the tale of the 1992 LA Riots from a spectrum of seventeen witnesses and participants, I instantly thought ‘that isn’t my cup of tea’. Thank goodness then for several people raving about it and saying I must read it because one I started I couldn’t stop reading, even when I sometimes wanted to. It is a book that has stayed with me ever since I read it and lingers in my brain, when it is out in paperback everyone I know is getting a copy.

1.

So my book of the year will not surprise many of you. I think A Little Life is just incredible, it is a novel that looks at love, friendship, loss, pleasure, pain, hope, survival, failure and success. It is a book about class, disability, sexuality and race. Overall it is a book about what it means to be a human. It’s amazing, it is also brutal. Saying that you read a book like A Little Life I actually think does it a disservice as it is one of those all encompassing books that you live through. It is rare that a book as it ends leaves you feeling a somewhat changed person to the one who started it, that is what happened to me and is probably why this will be one of my all time reads. (Yes, I stick to that claim and you can hear me on Hear Read This defending that statement in a special that went live recently!)

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So there we are the first half of my books for the year. I do feel like I should give some honourable mentions to A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass, Everything is Teeth by Evie Wyld & Joe Sumner, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and two corking crime novels Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, I don’t care if this is deemed as cheating. Let me know your thoughts on those in my first list you have read. Oh and fancy ending the year/starting the new by winning some books then head here. What have been some of your books of 2015?

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Filed under Books of 2015

Savidge Reads’ Books of 2015 Part One…

So we have hit the penultimate day of 2015, where does the time go? Back by popular demand (well David kindly asked me) is the first of my two lists of the books that I loved most in 2015. Today’s selection for your delectation are the books that I have loved the most this year that were actually published originally before 2015 (yes, even the ones that came out in paperback in 2015 but were in hardback before then) which means some classics have given way to more modern books but this really reflects my tastes in general. More on that another time though. Without further waffle or ado, here are the first twelve books I really, really, really loved in 2015; you can click on the titles to go to my full reviews, with one exception…

11.

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2015 has been a year that has seen me devour and enjoy more graphic novels and memoirs than ever before and I have loved it. Undoubtedly that love was started this year with The Encyclopaedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg which combines history, myths and fairytales (with a slightly wonky twist) to create a wonderful visual world of Vikings, giants, gods, eskimo’s and more and celebrates the marvels of great stories and wonderful storytelling. A delight from start to finish.

10 (=).

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If you’d told me back at the start of 2015 that one of my books of the year would involve giant mutant preying grasshoppers /praying mantises then I would have laughed in your face. This would have been a) cruel and b) completely wrong. Grasshopper Jungle is a thrilling, gripping and entertaining rollercoaster of a read that looks at love, sexuality, friendship and how to survive if mutant killer insects who only want to breed and eat take over the world. What more could you ask for?

10 (=).

From the off, and indeed throughout, the world in Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours is, to be frank, pretty f***ed up. (I honestly tried quite hard to not use ‘the f bomb’ but it is the only word that seems apt.) Girls are now bred, yes bred, for three reasons. They can become a companion to the men in society who can afford it and have babies, which will only be boys as these girls have been bred to be breeders of the male line; they can become a concubine, and have sex (with no babies) with all the men in society who can afford it; or they can become chastity’s and shave their heads, wear black gowns and raise more manufactured young girls to keep the cycle ticking along. See, I told you, f***ed up, and that is only the beginning. I have a feeling Louise O’Neill is one of those authors whose careers we are just going to watch grow and grow and grow. Atwood, watch out, ha!

9.

Before I read it, I had some really odd preconceived ideas about H. G. Well’s The Invisible Man. First up I thought that it was a tome of some several hundred pages, wrong, it is a novella. Secondly I thought that it was set in the 1970’s (impossible as it was written in 1897) and involved some old man in a mackintosh who smoked, wrong, that is just something I naively surmised from an old 70’s edition of the book my mother had on her shelves. Thirdly I didn’t think I would enjoy it in any way shape or form, so wrong. What I got was an incredibly dark and sinister novel that suddenly becomes both incredibly moving and incredibly disturbing as you read on. Naturally with that in mind, I absolutely loved this book.

8.

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Imagine if Thomas Hardy and Cormac McCarthy had a bastard lovechild… He would be Benjamin Myers in my humble opinion and I think Beastings testifies that notion. I almost don’t feel I need tos say more, but I will. We know it is raining, we know that a young woman has fled the house she was living in with a baby that isn’t hers, we also have the sense that both her and the baby were in danger. We soon learn that she is being followed, although hounded/stalked sounds more sinisterly appropriate, and is heading for a secret island somewhere off the coast. Because on an island in the ocean no-one can sneak up on you. The question is if she can get through the forests and mountains of Cumbria and head to the ocean without being caught and without hardly any supplies. And with that, we are off…

7.

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I only recently devoured Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None yet it shot straight into my top ten without hesitation. Ten strangers are sent to an island under false pretenses, they are soon all accused of murder or implicated in a death, then they start to die one by one following the pattern of an old nursery rhyme. The premise is impossible, yet as Agatha Christie’s fantastic novel unfolds we soon come to learn that anything is possible, no matter how chilling or unbelievable it might first appear. An utterly stupendous thriller, once you have read it you understand why it is the biggest selling murder mystery in the world, ever.

6.

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Sometimes all I want as a reader is a bloody good story. I want a twisting plot, characters that walk of the page and that you love, hate or preferably a bit of both. I want mystery and intrigue. I want to be taken to a world I know nothing about and get lost in it and its entire atmosphere. I can be a right demanding so and so however Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist delivered all this to me in abundance as it took me on a gothic journey with Nella as she walked onto the threshold of Brant house in Amsterdam 1686.

5.

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2015 has also been a year where memoirs have been a hit, in several cases centring around grief and this is one of those. H is for Hawk is an incredibly special kind of read, which all the above culminates towards, simply put it is a generously open, honest and brutal yet beautiful book. Helen Macdonald takes us completely into her life and her world at a time when she was at her most broken and vulnerable and shares that with us in all its technicolour splendour of emotions. You will laugh, you will cry and you will have felt incredibly privileged to have spent time in the company of Helen, Mabel the Goshawk and the writer T.H. White.

4.

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Until this year I had never read a word of Patricia Highsmith’s, well don’t I feel a fool after reading this. Deep Water is one of the most entertaining, snarky, camply dark, vicious and twisted psychological thrillers I have read. It is also one of the most unusual as the reader watches a sociopath come to the fore from their normally meek mild mannered self… and we egg him on and like him, even understanding him oddly, the whole time. It is a fascinating insight into the mind of a killer, if this is a prime example of what Highsmith fondly described as “my psychopath heroes”, I can’t wait to meet the rest.

3.

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It seems that 2015 was the year of insects in fiction for me, this time with bees and heaven forefend ones that talk. From this alone I should have had some kind of anaphylactic shock to this book (see what I did there) however I was completely won over by the story of Flora as she works her way through and up the hive in Laline Paull’s wondrous debut The Bees. I have been talking about this book ever since and also been boring as many people as possible with the fascinating facts I learnt about these winged beings as I read. A book which for me had it all; brilliant writing, fantastic pace, fantastic facts and a real heart looking at class, religion and women’s rights.

2.

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Now then, this is the book I have yet to review and yet is a book which took over my life as I was enravelled in the whole life of another man, Logan Mountstuart. A man which I am still struggling to believe isn’t real as his diaries from 1923 – 1998, which make up William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, take us through school romps, to wild affairs, marriages, more affairs, wars and gossip with famous people through the decades and give us not only a vivid encounter with the recent history of Britain and its endeavours (which take us all over the world) but celebrate the lives of us strange folk and the power of the pen and the written word. Ruddy marvellous and a complete and utter nightmare to review hence why I haven’t managed as yet. You can hear me talking about it here though.

1.

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I talked about book tingles earlier in the year, that wonderful feeling you get when you read a book and the words just wash over you and you know everything in this book in front of you is going to encapsulate everything you love about reading. Carys Davies’ The Redemption of Galen Pike had that for me within paragraphs of it’s very first story. In this collection we are taken to places all over the world, to all walks of life and never given the story we expect in the beginning but something so much more; be it funny, dark or magical. It was a book that arrived completely new to me, no hype or anything and completely bowled me over. I adore this book with all my heart, it brought joy to my beardy face for the whole time I read it.

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So there we are the first half of my books for the year. I do feel like I should give some honourable mentions to Susan Barker’s The Incarnations, Susan Hill’s I’m The King of the Castle and Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart, but that will be deemed as cheating. Let me know your thoughts on those in my first list you have read and do pop and see my next list tomorrow. What have been some of your books of 2015?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Books of 2015, Random Savidgeness

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

It seems apt to be posting a review (which I meant to post last week) about this novel at a time when the idea of eating anymore meat makes me feel slightly queasy post Christmas dining like a loon. The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a book I have had on my shelves since this time last year, however the buzz and word of mouth praise around it had been building and building. Then when a copy of her next novel to be translated (again by Deborah Smith) Human Acts landed through my letter box I was reminded that I needed to get a wriggle on and read the first, erm, first.

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Portobello Books, 2015, paperback, fiction, 186 pages, translated by Deborah Smith kindly sent by the publisher

When The Vegetarian opens we are taken into the rather contented, safe and traditional world (as he sees it) of Mr Cheong. He describes how he met his wife, Yeong-hye, and fell for her not because of love but because she was basically very average, quite unremarkable and wouldn’t threaten his life or lifestyle. Okay, so she didn’t wear a bra which was rather shocking but nothing too radical, she would be a good ‘wife’ to him. That is until a few nights ago when he is awakened to his wife getting all the meat out the fridge and freezer, throwing it away and declaring that from now on she is a vegetarian. Her reason? All she will say to him is that she has had a dream and from there the novel starts to spiral, first with Mr Cheong (with a small detour to his shocked and appalled colleagues) and then Yeong-hye’s immediate family reacting badly, a reaction – when her father tried to force feed her pork – which is the start of a real change in Yeong-hye’s life and those close to her.

People turn vegetarian for all sorts of reasons: to try and alter their genetic predispositions towards certain allergies, for example, or else because it’s seen as more environmentally friendly not to eat meat. Of course, Buddhist priests who have taken certain vows are morally obliged not to participate in the destruction of life, but surely not even impressionable young girls take it quite that far. As far as I was concerned, the only reasonable grounds for altering one’s eating habits were the desire to lose weight, an attempt to alleviate certain physical ailments, being possessed by an evil spirit, or having your sleep disturbed by indigestion. In any other case, it was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine had done.

I don’t want to give too much away, I never do, yet I will need to give a few additional teasers to really get into the heart of why I loved the book and also the way it was written, structured and stunningly translated by Deborah Smith. The Vegetarian is a book in three parts, which were originally three separate novellas about several stages in Yeong-hye’s life. What is really interesting is that none of them are told by Yeong-hye herself. Firstly we have the story told by her husband from the lead up to the announcement of her vegetarianism and to the family dinner where it all unravels. In the second section we switch to the viewpoint of her brother in law as he becomes erotically obsessed with his sister in law and believes she will be part of his next great art work. The third is told through her sister as she visits Yeong-hye who is residing in an institution after a breakdown.

There was much I loved about the way in which this works for a reader. As we read on we gain insights and glimpses into the society in Korea, what it finds acceptable and inacceptable and what your role within that society is deemed to be. Yeong-hye is meant to be the perfect wife, the perfect sister, the perfect daughter, the perfect muse. The simple act of becoming a vegetarian, I say that flippantly because here in the UK it is a simple act, conspires to a full breakdown not only of Yeong-hye herself but of those close to her and even those who have only met her a few times and/or have to interact with her.

It is not just people and their roles or their expectations that Kang is looking at either. In the first part Mr Cheong looks at his career, the corporate world and the traditional roles of marriage and the expectation of each spouse. In the second part we look at the art world, the creative, the erotic and the role of desire (in good and bad ways) and society’s views on sex in and outside of a marriage. Thirdly we see society’s attitudes to mental health, and the health care system as it stands, which of course by its very nature defies ‘the norm’ or what is deemed acceptable behaviour. This last section I found incredibly powerful. Pressure and judgement is everywhere, one act can have major reverberations and one small fracture in a family can cause complete wreckage, whereupon who is left to pick up the pieces, if anyone wants to.

 ‘Ah, you’re visiting today?’
The woman is Hee-joo, how is receiving treatment for alcoholism and hypomania. Her body is stout but her round eyes give her a sweet look, and her voice is always somewhat hoarse. In this hospital, the patients who are in good control of their faculties look after those with more acute psychological problems, and receive a little pocket money in return; when Yeong-hye had grown difficult to manage, refusing point blank to eat, she had come under the care of Hee-joo.

It actually turns out that Yeong-hye is not the small act that lead to this, in a way is a case of her using some form of control to deal with another act from her past, which I don’t want to spoil for anyone who hasn’t read it because it is incredibly powerful, from a single line, when the penny drops. I was left feeling very numb for sometime afterwards. I will say no more on this part of the book, other than it is superbly, superbly done showing the power of Han Kang’s writing and Deborah Smith’s marvellous translation from the original Korean.

Speaking more of the writing, to avoid any spoilers, not a line is wasted in this book; it is precise, beautiful and quite searing. Kang manages to create scenes, landscapes and sections of society and the culture around it effortlessly – let us not forget this is a slim volume even made up of three novellas. Her triumph in The Vegetarian though is the creation of Yeong-hye and her story. Yeong-hye is at once a complete individual and also a symbol of many, many women and the pressure and expectation that is put on them. She speaks for no one and yet everyone, and yet she also never speaks. Her family, society and everyone else does the talking for her and yet somehow Kang makes these characters see her from only their viewpoint yet the reader is given her fully formed. The only things we ever hear from her are a few small sections from her dreams/nightmares and I think we all know what Kang is trying to say with this.

Dark woods. No people. The sharp-pointed leaves on the trees, my torn feet. This place, almost remembered, but I’m lost now. Frightened. Cold. Across the frozen ravine, a red barn-like building. Straw matting flapping limp across the door. Roll it up and I’m inside, it’s inside. A long bamboo stick struck with great blood-red gashes of meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit. Blood in my mouth, blood-soaked clothes sucked onto my skin.

If I am making this book sound to heavy it is honestly not, which is also what is so brilliant about it. There are some very funny, magical, titillating and sexy moments in the book amongst the thought provoking and questioning layers throughout. You can also just read this as being a book about a woman who decides to stop eating meat and become a plant. Yet The Vegetarian is so, so, so much more than that. It is a book that has imprinted itself on my brain and one I will be recommending to anyone and everyone, it is certainly one of my books of the year. I cannot wait to read Human Acts which I have on my bedside table waiting for the first week of January when I will devour it. If you haven’t read The Vegetarian yet I seriously recommend you do and will be reminding you so again in a few days – yes, it is one of my books of the year!

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Filed under #DiverseDecember, Books of 2015, Granta Books, Han Kang, Portobello Books, Review

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie

I hope you have all had a marvellous Christmas? I certainly have so far. Those of you who have been kind enough to pop by over the last seven years will know that today, Boxing Day, is my very favourite day of the festive season. I love it because the stress of Christmas is gone, you generally end up seeing another set of family and so have all the grub and present delight but it is more of a slobbing day where you can wear your pyjamas for 70% of it and read, catch up on some telly or both. I am actually making the following two days additional Boxing Day’s I love it so much. Where does this link in with Agatha Christie? Well, it is the perfect day to read a classic crime and invariably there is one on the telly, tonight being the night a whole new adaptation of And Then There Were None starts, so I thought I’d better read the book before I watched it.

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Harper Collins, 1939 (2011 USA edition), paperback, fiction, 247 pages, bought by myself for myself

Soldier Island! Why, there had been nothing else in the papers lately! All sorts of hints and interesting rumours. Though probably they were mostly untrue. But the house had certainly been built by a millionaire and was said to be absolutely the last word in luxury.

When eight strangers are separately invited to spend a weekend on Satin Island, they find their host missing with only the staff, Mr and Mrs Rogers, left to attend to them. After having settled in and having a pre-dinner drink they are all shocked to hear a message from an unknown voice telling them all of their complicity in various deaths. No sooner have they taken in the shock, one of their group suddenly dies and the poem ‘And Then There Were None’ hanging in their rooms along with the ten figurines in the dining room start to take on an even more sinister twist. Who is it who wants revenge on this party and why? More importantly with a murderer in their mist, who seems to be one of their own, will anyone survive?

From the very start of And Then There Were None I was hooked. As we travel with each member of the party by train, car and boat the tension is instantly racked up by the fact that we know from the off that they are being lied to. There’s also a wicked streak to it where  we know that doom is around the corner and the characters don’t, so we are ahead of them as the apprehension, tension and fear slowly dawns on the hapless guests and suspicions begins to mount. 

Mrs. Rogers had a flat monotonous voice. Vera looked at her curiously. What a white bloodless ghost of a woman! Very respectable-looking, with her hair dragged back from her face and her black dress. Queer light eyes that shifted the whole time from place to place.
Vera thought:
“She looks frightened of her own shadow.”
Yes, that was it – frightened!
She looked like a woman who walked in mortal fear.
A little shiver passed down Vera’s back. What on earth was the woman afraid of?

For me this novel is Agatha Christie at the most gothic and sinister that I have read her so far. She is also at her sharpest in terms of plotting. As I read on I had no idea who the victim might be (though thanks to the nursery rhyme I had the ability to guess how they might be bumped off) and certainly had no clue as to who the murderer was and if they were one of the group or not which is brilliantly puzzling. It seems impossible the more it goes on and then at the end I marvelled at Christie’s cleverness rather than feeling miffed I didn’t cotton on. Something only the best crime writers can achieve, especially as it does make sense (and there are some very clever clues left) by the end. She’s a genius.

It would be amiss of me not to mention this book without the history of the title which I think has somewhat unfairly labelled it as being a classic that is racist. Here me out… Firstly, language and times have changed thank goodness and the original title isn’t acceptable anymore, rightly so. I admit initially when one of the characters started saying some pretty anti-Semitic things I had a wobble until it clicked, Agatha Christie is pointing out how stupid and backward these attitudes and thoughts are. You are meant to flinch at the casual racism and sexism throughout.

“Ah, I understand you now. Well, there is that Mr. Lombard. He admits to having abandoned twenty men to their deaths.”
Vera said: “They were only natives…”
Emily Brent said sharply: “Black or white, they are our brothers.”
Vera thought: “Our black brothers – our black brothers. Oh, I’m going to laugh. I’m hysterical. I’m not myself…”

I actually think characters prejudices are all part of the plot, they certainly add to the flaws of all the characters and their unreliable nature. You might think ‘good on Emily Brent’  (above) one minute, before she launches a tirade about single mothers and women having children out of wedlock. None of these characters a lacking in prejudice, often it is this that has lead someone to the island and to their deaths. Christie is using a page turning novel to make a point and possibly educate a few people along the way about the ridiculous nature of some views, she does it without bashing them over the head (well, with the exception of some of the fates of her characters – is this symbolic?) or taking a moral high ground which turns any reader off frankly. We don’t want to be preached to and Agatha doesn’t, she just makes a point, with murder.

So there you have it, I can completely understand why And Then There Were None has gone on to become not only Agatha Christie’s best selling novel, but one of the bestselling thrillers/crime novels of all time. It certainly ties with Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (which is totally different but if you haven’t read you simply must) as my favourite of Christie’s novel and shows what an incredible master of plot she was. Highly recommended, if you aren’t one of the 100+ million people who have already read it!

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Books of 2015, Harper Collins, Review

Becoming Unbecoming – Una

I am trying to remember when it was that I became convinced that Becoming Unbecoming was essential as part of my reading year. I think Emma Jane Unsworth might have mentioned it when I saw her last, which would make sense as she is quoted on the cover of my edition. I know I heard the author on BBC Woman’s Hour, of which I am one of the 40% of male listeners. Why it became an internal insistence in my brain that I must buy it and read it though I am not sure. Maybe it was just a hunch? If so, I must follow them more often because Becoming Unbecoming will no doubt be one of my books of the year.

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Myriad Editions, 2015, paperback, graphic novel/memoir, 224 pages, bought by myself for myself

Becoming Unbecoming is Una’s memoir of a very difficult and tumultuous time in her life. As the Yorkshire Ripper began his several years of killing women, Una herself was the victim of sexual abuse. Una looks back on this period in hindsight and looks at how the situation around the Yorkshire Ripper and the attitude towards predatory men and their victims not only caused the murder of many innocent women and the pain and loss to their families and loved ones, but how the ‘victim blaming’ culture of the time also affected people like Una who were the victims of crimes that went undetected/unsolved or people feared reporting.

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As you read on six strands form in your mind. The utter loneliness of a young girl who had been taken advantage of and why she didn’t want to speak out. The fear that spread for young girls everywhere at the time. The way in which so much innocence was lost at the time, not just in the victims and Una’s case but also in something prevalent in time, as highlighted by a small appearance from Jimmy Saville. The way prostitutes were portrayed by the press, and society succumbed, as almost being asked to be killed because of what they did for money. The inept way in which the police handled the case (in part because someone called a hoax, in part because they thought he was only killing prostitutes even when a victim was not one) and why people didn’t want to report it.

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And the sixth, I hadn’t miscounted, is how this is still in our society today all around the world. Una highlights how we often sit in shock at what is happening in other countries around the world to women (in Africa, Syria, I could go on) and yet how we somehow forget that it is going on in the western world too, often through the digital world but also in schools just as it did when she was younger. It is an important message about the state of misogyny which is still rife and why we need more books like this and more projects and reactionary endeavours like Everyday Sexism and the like.

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I like to think of myself as quite a forward thinking man, yet Una made me check something about myself that I hadn’t thought of before. Una talks about the keen interest in true crime especially in the cases of Peter Sutcliffe, Jack The Ripper, The Wests, where women are the victims. Now she isn’t judging readers on this, she is pondering it (I think). I then had this awful niggling doubt as to if that might be why I had initially felt I needed to read this book, because of the Yorkshire Ripper and my interest in him and some true crime.

Now before you jump the gun and go thinking the worst, there are a few reasons I have wanted to read around the Yorkshire Ripper. Firstly, you know that fear I mentioned earlier that young girls had at the time, my mother was 12 when Peter Sutcliffe and despite living several hundred miles away still remembers the fear in which she, her sisters and Mum all felt at the time. This has always stayed with me, how could someone cause such fear, what really happened. This I would say is more a history pondering than a true crime one. Secondly, I started (and had to put down but will try again) to read Dan Davies In Plain Sight, which won the Gordon Burn Prize this year and is about Jimmy Savile and mentions the Yorkshire Ripper also, it is a disturbing but important book about how we might spot predators and making sure they are not covered up. Thirdly, I went to a talk about I’m Jack which is a fictional account of the hoaxer I mentioned above and how it affected the case in such a disatourous way. I am now still debating in my head reading them as being some entertainment unwittingly at the expense of the victims or if it is about acknowledging awful acts in history and learning from them? I still have a lot of mulling over to do.

Sorry I got diverted there. As you can probably see Becoming Unbecoming is a memoir that will make you ponder, question and think. It does this in almost every frame and in the most subtle of ways. The best examples of this are the speech bubble which Una walks around with on her back (sometimes switched to wings) which as the story gets on gets larger with the burden she carries as she keeps the secrets within. There is also the way in which the story is interwoven into the artwork so you have to move the page around and really read it doubling the effect of the imagery as you see more and more. There is also the heart breaking ending, which actually made me cry, when Una looks at how her life has turned out so far and then ponders how the victims of Peter Sutcliffe’s might have turned out, an illustration of possibility for each. This really hits home not only at the loss of their lives but at the loss of any murder victims life and the loss of innocence of anyone who has been sexually abused, deeply affecting reading and imagery.

So as you can see Becoming Unbecoming is quite something. Una doesn’t like people to say she is brave for writing this book yet I think it is an incredibly brave act to use your experiences to highlight uncomfortable issues or important topics which need attention and debate; by default in doing so you open yourself up to scrutiny an opinion which must be a highly vulnerable position. Una is a very brave woman and Becoming Unbecoming is a very brave, important and thought provoking book. I urge you all to add it to your reading stacks and talk about it once you have.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Graphic Novels, Memoir, Myriad Editions, Review, Una

Physical – Andrew McMillan

I don’t really feel qualified to write anything about Andrew McMillian’s debut collection of poems Physical because as we have discussed on here before, many a time, I am not one of poetry prowess. Poems on the whole tend to scare me, as I don’t feel I understand them as I should. (I mentioned this when I was discussing Sarah Lowe’s collection Loop of Jade a few weeks ago.) However a collection like Physical is one that you simply cannot ignore and I simply have to write about because it embodies, see what I did there, everything I want from poems and poetry… a reaction that hits me right at my core, an honest voice and an experience that fiction couldn’t conjure if it tried.

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Chatto and Windus, 2015, paperback, poetry, 56 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Physical, as the title might suggest, is all about the body. However as we read on (or as you might guess from the cover) we come to learn that this is all about the male body, what it can do, what is it meant to do, what it shouldn’t do, how it comes in all shapes and sizes, how it can be desired, loved and sometimes feared. Andrew McMillian’s debut collection is all about masculinity, no scrap that, Andrew McMillan’s debut collection is a book that ponders, despairs and celebrates what masculinity is meant to mean.

If this all sounds like I have gone bonkers, let me explain with the help of the first two poems. In the opener, Jacob With The Angel, and its follow up Urination McMillan plays with our expectations and turns them on their head. What we instantly think is about one thing, is another, something which might occasionally or often shock and surprise us. When we read Jacob With The Angel we initially thing of a classic, literally, poem of a religious scene however the more we read on we start to wonder if this is not in fact the meeting of two gay male lovers.

Similarly with Urination we think it is a poem about the awkwardness of urinating at such close proximity with a stranger (which remains odd no matter how old you get, especially if it’s your CEO and they want to chat to you which has happened to me in past jobs) and then swiftly turns into those domestic moments of ritual within a relationship, the moments we should treasure. This wonderful trickery is something I have only seen once before in that famous scene in Keith Ridgway’s equally brilliant, quirky and just as original novel Hawthorn & Child. In many of these poems we are pulled through the squeamish, the uncomfortable, the thrilling, the erotic, the joyous and the heartbreaking moments of men’s lives be they heterosexual, homosexual, undecided or it doesn’t really matter.

Admittedly there is a main focus on homosexual relationships, it is not the whole story though. Not that it should or would matter if it was. We all feel love and lust, we all compare ourselves to other people of the same sex, often admiring them even if there is nothing sexual in it. Plus when McMillam does write about sex or initimate moments between two men it is done directly and visually but always with a beauty even at its most base of moments. Sex is sex. Love is love. We all go through these things whatever gender, sexuality and race. It is all about how we relate to each other, men and men relating (or not) being one of the themes here too.

Speaking of which, back to the masculine nature of the collection though… There are a whole spectrum of machinations of masculinity, from the danger of Leda To Her Daughter to the questioning and pondering How To Be A Man from the erotically charged Saturday Night to the vulnerable and open Screen, which shows you the bare insights of a lover looking at the object of his love and then at the objectification of the man in the film, albeit a porno, see there are those brilliant twists and flipping things on their head moments again.

at the beginning I asked you
to let me watch you watching porn    I think
I needed to see you existing
entirely without me     your face lost
(from Screen)

There is another interesting construct to Physical and that is that it is made of three parts; Physical, which houses 15 poems; Protest of the Physical, which flips the style of poems as we are used to them (or at least as I am) on their heads; Degredation which consists of a final nine poems. Now as I have mentioned before I am now connoisseur of poetry, though the more I read the more I enjoy it,  but I found this a really interesting shift in perspective and in gear even if I couldn’t quite understand if it had a  purpose. This is me not being au fait with the art form rather than anything McMillan does and I enjoyed it regardless. With the first and final sets of poems being slightly more conventional in terms of form, if not subject, Protest of the Physical is something quite different. It is one great big piece of poetry made up of smaller poems (well that is how I read it) some which take up a whole page, be it in length or in random places literally all over the page, or just a few lines. It is something I will need to read again and again to get more and more from, rather like a painting that holds you and gives you more and more as you stare.

I am worried I am making this sound a little too worthy or too serious and there are a lot of laughs and funny moments in Physical. Firstly from its northern nature and narrative. As you read of Manchester bedsits and poems entitled The Fact We Almost Killed A Badger Is Incidental the wonderful warm Northern tone comes through which is always has a twinkle in its eye, well tone. Elsewhere, yes there is the titillation of the writing of sex, porn, urination etc which might have you expelling a mild giggle before being lost in McMillan’s words. Amongst all this and the honest and thoughtful more serious poems there are some belly laughs. I for one still cannot read the opening of The Men Are Weeping In The Gym without laughing out loud, before the poignancy of what follows settles in.

the men are weeping in the gym
using the hand dryer to cover
their sobs    their hearts have grown too big
for their chests     their chests have grown too big
for their shirts      they are dressed like kids
who have forgotten their games kit
they are crying in the toilet

Physical is a stunning, raw and direct look at what it is to be male. It celebrates the male physique in all its forms as much as it celebrates the foibles of the male species. It is a collection that asks a lot of questions, primarily ones such as in the poem Strongman, which asks ‘What is masculinity if not taking the weight?’ Be you male or female you need to read this collection. Books, poems and stories are all about experiencing the world of others and walking in their shoes, Physical excels at this and from an unusual and original view point. I cannot wait to see what Andrew McMillan creates next.

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Filed under Andrew McMillan, Books of 2015, Chatto & Windus, Poetry, Review

The Natural Way of Things – Charlotte Wood

So I am going to do something a little bit mean today which is also a kind of book lovers public service announcement. I am going to tell you about Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things which is by far one of the best, if not the best, reads of my year and a book which I think every single one of you need to read as soon as you can, if you haven’t already. You see this brings me to the slightly mean part because unless you are in Australia or New Zealand (or are about to visit or have some very kinds friends there as I do) this book won’t reach international waters on this side of the pond/s (UK, US and Canada) until the middle of 2016. I know, I know, I am sorry, I am a tease however if you can get a copy before then do because seriously this is one of those books that consumes you in a rush and spits you out a slightly different person. Yes, it is that blooming marvellous.

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Allen & Unwin, 2015, paperback, fiction, 316 pages, kindly sent by the lovely Anna who I am forever thankful for

Verla follows the girl’s gaze. The floorboards glisten like honey in the sun. She has an impulse to lick them. She understands the fear is the only thing now that could conceivably save her from what is to come. But she is cotton-headed, too slow for that. The drug has dissolved adrenaline so completely it almost seems surprising to be here, with a stranger, in a strange room, wearing this bizarre olden-day costume. She can do nothing to resist it, cannot understand or question. It is a kind of dumb relief.

When Verla and Yolanda find themselves waking up in a strange unknown room, both strangers to each other, dressed in old fashioned uniforms their first instinct is that they are dreaming, then when the realise they are not they panic. Well, as much as anyone can panic when they are groggy from clearly having been drugged. Soon they are taken to another room, where they initially think they will be raped or killed, to have their heads shaved and join a further eight women, all dressed the same and shaven, who too have become captives to a pair of men. Why and for what they do not know, yet.

The confusion and fear at the start is palpable and rather explosive. A lot of novels starting with an opener like this would burn out, that is not the case with The Natural Way of Things. As we follow these women as they are shown around the derelict old building in the vast space in the middle of nowhere surrounded by an electric fence and onto their own cells (which are like kennels) we gain small insights and clues into what it might be that links them and why they might be being subjected to such treatment. Soon it slowly dawns on the women that each of them has been part of a public sex scandal. It also becomes clear that the two men, Boncer and Teddy, are merely acting jailors and a bigger corporation is at the heart of this, the menace of their potential arrival lingers and becomes more torturous than the manual labour and gruel that the women are subjected to whilst they await their fates.

Finally, some instinct rises. She runs her tongue over her teeth, furred like her mind. She hears her own thick voice deep inside her ears when she says, ‘I need to know where I am.’
The man stands there, tall and narrow, hand still on the doorknob, surprised. He says, almost in sympathy, ‘Oh, sweetie. You need to know what you are.’

You might now be thinking that this book is one huge rant or a novel about the wonders of women and the perils of men, neither is true Wood is far too good a writer for that and as we read on more and more layers are revealed. The women are not saintly, in fact we learn there is a woman on the jailers side (the sickly and psychotically sweet ‘Nurse Nancy’ is a true deranged horror), and as we read on Charlotte Wood uses each of the women’s stories and situation before they were captives to discuss choices, responsibilities, victimisation, the abuse of power, societies slant views and much more with a deft touch of fury meeting bafflement, yet without preaching or forcing one message home. True the men centre stage don’t fare well under Wood’s gaze, but they are two pathetic bullying arseholes and in the women’s back stories there are men who are kind and loving and who don’t always do to well out of being so. Yes Charlotte Wood has a point; she is by no means blind sighted by it.

There is more at work than just the debate of misogyny and feminism here too. There is a much deeper question and subject as the novel takes another twist. It is no spoiler to say, as it is in the blurb, that it soon transpires that the women and the jailors are all in a kind of prison as no one is coming, so how will they survive together whilst the food lessens and the prisoners outnumber their captors. In a situation that sees this group of humans returning to their more feral and base levels; who will seek to rule? Who fight or struggle to survive? Who will seek revenge? How far will they go? Through Verla and Yolanda we see how things unfold, both taking very different turns as indeed all the women do (I could talk about Hetty here for ages) but I will say no more for fear of spoilers. I will say that the natural world comes into the fore here and Wood writes about this with a beautiful ruggedness that I loved. Oh and the ending is a brilliant, if unnerving should you read it as I did, question mark which I thought made the book all the more resonant.

My aunty Caroline is a psychologist and she has often said that anger is am emotion that you can, and should, embrace and harness to good use. This is what I feel Charlotte Wood has done with The Natural Way of Things. She has taken all the anger and rage that she feels about the plight of women from all over the world, and indeed the digital world, and harnessed it with precision and subtle prose to create one of the most visceral and fiercely driven novels that I have read in sometime. I read it in one day, in two sittings. She uses a real life case of women captured and imprisoned in the 1960’s and brings it up to date using some examples of  recent cases of sex scandals which combined create an incredibly powerful and thought provoking piece of fiction.

In the days to come she will learn what she is, what they all are. That they are the ministers-little-travel-tramp and that Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.

The Natural Way of Things is a book that will shock many of its readers for all the right reasons. By the end you will be enraged as to why women are still subjected to ‘slut shaming’ and victim blaming if they speak out about something bad? That is the dark root at the heart of this novel from which everything else spirals, only not out of control as scarily you could imagine this happening. That is where the book really bites, its reality and its all too apparent possibility. Shocking all the more because what seems extreme isn’t the more you think about it. This is a fantastically written horrifying, whilst utterly compelling, story that creates a potent set of questions within its readers head and asks you to debate and seek out the answers yourself. I cannot recommend reading it enough.

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Filed under Allen & Unwin Books, Books of 2015, Charlotte Wood, Review

H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

As the end of 2015 beckons I start to think of all those ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’ reads I was so sure, or insistent, that I would get to this year and haven’t and think ‘ooh I must read that at the beginning of next year’. I am not sure how realistic this will be as one of the books which I wanted to read the most in 2014 I only got around to in the second half of this year. That book is H is for Hawk which was one of the books of last year and became something of a sensation. I have to admit that I was slightly worried it wouldn’t live up to the praise from here there and everywhere, however it completely exceeded everything that I could imagine it would achieve.

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Vintage Books, 2014, hardback, memoir, 302 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

When Helen Macdonald learns that her father has died, her world naturally implodes. Grief can affect us in so many ways that it is never the same for any of us, yet in what seems a initially rather extreme reaction to her bereavement Helen sets out to get a hawk, Mabel, to train to distract herself from the world of people and emotional pain that surround her. Yet we learn this is not such a rash decision for Helen has grown up with a huge love of birds (particularly birds of prey) and as we read on we also discover how other people have used the keeping, taming and training of birds as ways to deal with the outside world, one being the author T.H White.

Now I have to admit if I had been sold this book as being about goshawk training, grief and T.H. White, an author who I have never read, I would probably have not have read it. In fact this might have been what stopped me from reading a proof when one arrived eons ago, well how stupid was I? So, if on the off chance you are one of the few people who haven’t yet read it you might feel the same, think again because this is a book that will affect you on so many levels you will be left slightly bamboozled as to why you don’t only read books about goshawk training, grief and T.H. White. Yes, I love it that much; it hooked me in, gripped me and then broke me along the way – something I have realised I really rather like in books.

I look. There it is. I feel it. The insistent pull to the heart that the hawk brings, that very old longing of mine to possess the hawk’s eye. To live the safe and solitary life; to look down on the world from a height and keep it there. To be the watcher; invulnerable, detached, complete. My eyes fill with water. Here I am, I think. And I do not think I am safe.

I found H is for Hawk fascinating and gripping in all of its three strands. Firstly I love birds and indeed whilst I didn’t have a bird of prey as a child the neighbours did (they owned Riber Castle Zoo and when they left they took the bald eagle with them) and I did have a pet duck called Rapunzel, not quite the Red Kite I would have dreamed of but she was amazing and probably actually a bit better as she was cuddly and flew to your feet, not your arm, when you called her. So to read about the world of falconry and taming birds of prey I found fascinating. I also love the way in which Helen writes about it, there is no textbook babble here just pure enthusiasm and passion for the art and the birds.

Without sounding like a weirdo (or more of one) I find books about other people’s grief incredibly cathartic. Not because I think ‘oh phew someone is having it worse than me’ (for the record that would be weird) but because having gone through grief it is a relief/help to hear that other people have gone through all the feelings you have, albeit in a different way, plus many you haven’t but more of all that you weren’t completely batshit crazy when you went through them. I didn’t go out and get a goshawk, though I pondered a pug, I did completely cut off the people I loved from my life and wake up and cry every day. Reading a raw, brave and unflattering account of grief like Helen’s, and indeed Cathy’s earlier this year, makes you feel less alone. This is important. This will also call out to anyone whether they have been bereaved or not because we all know heartbreak, we all know love, we all know loss.

Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.

I have to admit I didn’t think that the elements of T.H. White’s story would grip me though. And they bloody well did, without me having ever read any of his books which I now want to go and read. The story of a man who feels a complete outsider because of his sexuality and all that it stands for and alludes to is quite a heartbreaking one (have a hanky at the ready with this book). As we read on the story as White gets his bird becomes as gripping as the trials and tribulations with Helen and Mabel, yet with different outcomes, though I don’t want to give anything away.

Again here I felt like the book chimed with me again having myself gone through all that questioning, fear and misunderstanding of myself as I came to terms with my sexuality. Here Helen’s writing shows utter empathy, complete understanding and an ability to conjure and channel these feelings. This book just resonated more and more with me which is always quite a magical thing when it happens with a book. I should say that all this will grip any reader regardless of whether they have owned birds, been bereaved or have come to terms with sexuality.

Many people have said that Mabel is the star of H is for Hawk and while she is indeed an incredibly captivating character, she would not be so in the hands of any old author. It is Helen’s writing that makes her so and her writing is just wonderful. Mabel (and I apologise for this) flies off the page, as does every element of this book. I felt I was almost a ghost in the room watching the two of them as Helen describes her time taming and befriending, because it is a respectful friendship, Mabel as well as feeling the joy of watching Helen using Mabel as her view of the world, as she becomes a goshawk herself mentally, and then how Mabel’s view of humans and Helen herself helps her to comes to terms with things, even if she might not credit herself for it. Writing from the heart is not easy to come by, captivating and beautiful writing from the heart even less so, the latter is how Helen Macdonald writes and I thank her for sharing it, and her story, with us.

The feathers down her front are the colour of sunned newsprint, of tea-stained paper, and each is marked darkly towards its tip with a leaf-bladed spearhead, so from her throat to her feet she is patterned with a shower of falling raindrops. Her wings are the colour of stained oak, their covert feathers edged in the palest teak, barred flight-feathers folded quietly beneath. And there’s a strange grey tint to her that is felt, rather than seen, a kind of silvery light like a rainy sky reflected from the surface of a river. She looks new. Looks as if the world cannot touch her. As if everything that exists and is observed rolls off like drops of water from her oiled and close-packed feathers. And the more I sit with her, the more I marvel at how reptilian she is. The lucency of her pale, round eyes. The waxy yellow skin about her Bakerlite-black beak. The way she snakes her small head from side to side to focus on distant objects. Half the time she seems as alien as a snake, a thing hammered of metal and scales and glass.

I could enthuse even more, I will instead round off my thoughts. H is for Hawk is an incredibly special kind of read, which all the above culminates towards, simply put it is a generously open, honest and brutal yet beautiful book. Helen Macdonald takes us completely into her life and her world at a time when she was at her most broken and vulnerable and shares that with us in all its technicolour splendour of emotions. When I finished reading it I couldn’t help feeling that Helen’s father, Mabel (if birds could read) and T.H. White would have been both deeply honoured and immensely proud to live on forever in such a wonderful book. Yes, I too think that H is for Hawk is outstandingly good; one of everyone’s books in 2014 and certainly one of mine in 2015.

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She can draw ducks, there is no end to this woman’s talents!

If you would like to hear more about H is for Hawk from the authors mouth, you can listen to an episode of You Wrote The Book where Helen and I talk about the book, birds and much more in a cafe (so excuse some of the background noise) here. If you haven’t read the book already then I cannot recommend it enough, go and buy it and spend the Christmas holidays with it I beg you. If you have read H is for Hawk I would love your thoughts on it, as with any book we’ve both read.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Helen Macdonald, Review, Vintage Books

The Rental Heart & Other Fairytales – Kirsty Logan

I am a thirty three year old man and I ruddy love a fairytale. There I have said it. I think that at the heart of every create story is the spark of a fairytale, the whole thing with fairytales is after all that anything is possible and when you open any book and enter into its world that is the feeling you should have. No, not every story has magic in it but by taking you away somewhere isn’t every story technically creating its own magic, yes even those gory crime novels. Anyway, I have gone a little off topic; suffice to say I love fairytales and so Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart and Other Stories has been a book I have meant to read for a very, very long time.

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Salt Publishing, 2014, paperback, fiction/fairytales, 128 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The more I loved him, the heavier my heart felt. Until I was walking around with my back bent and my knees cracking from the weight of it. When Jacob left, I felt my heart shatter with a shotgun pellet, shards lodging in my guts. I had to drink every night to wash the shards out. I had to.

It is really hard to summarise a collection of tales like The Rental Heart, partly because there are twenty of them and partly because they are all so varied and each one creates its own world so intricately that I want to surmise each one, but that would spoil it for potential future readers so I won’t. What I will say is that they are all in some way about love, lust or loss, or the emotions in-between and around those three states.  They are all also wonderfully magical and escapist and yet when you read them the world they inhabit is not too far from our own there is just the potential and acceptance that magic and bizarre things can happen be they good or be they bad.

Ladies build paper men in the night to fight their loneliness or buy coin operated boys to the envy of others. Young girls dare to find wicked witches and then fall in love with them. Men take finding a father figure too far. Love and lust reach an epiphany at the end of the world. People eat light bulbs. People fall in love but need to buy a new heart each time they do it. These and many other wondrous, puzzling and magical things happen in the worlds that Kirsty Logan so beautifully creates.

Because it is going to end, and everything I have is not enough. I need another soul, another set of guts to feel this. Maybe her body merging with mine will be the grace I need.
In school they taught us about the Big Bang: the universe expanding out from a dense primordial heat. They didn’t tell us that eventually it was all going to contract back again. For a month I’d been planning to tell her that I needed more space, some time to myself. Then they announced that the world was crashing in on our heads, and now all I want is to get inside her.

Logan’s writing is just gorgeous. She has an ability to conjure up so much in a single sentence or two that it is no wonder that these short stories, no matter how short, come with fully formed worlds with pasts, presents and futures (well with the exception of the apocalyptic The Last 3,600 Seconds, though what comes after the end of the world, probably something with Logan). In a single line or two someone can fall apart or fall in love. She smelled of rain and revolution. I fell. I also loved the originality that I found within all the stories of The Rental Heart even if shades of tales before or genres we know are encountered, there is always something different. In the latter case stories that have a steam punk edge, such as Coin-Operated Boys, also have something fresh and vibrant about them.

Many of the stories that I loved the most were ones which in some way feature an original fairytale that then gets Logan-ised and twisted in a new way, generally more gothic yet often modern too. Underskirts is like a tale of a female Bluebeard, which I adored for its gossipy nature and sauce. Tiger Palace is a wonderful riff on Beauty and the Beast which I shall say no more about for fear of spoiling. There are also tales like All The Better To Eat You With and Matryoska that take tales you know and love and spin them a little more, a heady hint of the new with a sprinkling of nostalgia. However Sleeping Beauty is the tale retold that I found the most brilliant (in terms of what it says and its power) and indeed the most disturbing and Logan turns it into a tale of sexual abuse, not many people could craft a tale like Logan does in this one. There are other tales which hold this particularly dark heart,

Daniel first kisses his brother in a town where no one knows them, a no-account place that’s barely even a town, just some buildings clustered around a highway: a smoky bar, an empty motel, a convenience store that only sells candy and condoms and beer. The nearest gas station is twenty miles away. The nearest bus station is fifty.

Yes some of these tales will shock as much as many of them will tantalise and titillate. This leads on to the many themes and layers of all the tales within the collection of The Rental Heart. In many ways it is a collection of very feminist tales (this is not a criticism, but you know me you’ll know that) and the twists that it takes on tales we know tend to highlight either a woman’s power or her vulnerability in all sorts of different ways, as I said there’s twenty tales here so it is hard to wrap them all up easily and I don’t want to. One of the most wonderful ones is Momma Grows A Diamond which looks at girls being flowers until they come of age and turn to jewels, after all a diamond is harder to damage than a flower – as I said, many layers in these stories.

Naturally in conjuncture with that both gender and sexuality are also predominant themes too. Wonderfully, more often than not, you cannot tell the gender of the person telling the tale and so if they fall in love with a woman or man they too could be a woman or a man. Love is just love after all, in all its queerest of ways. Logan celebrates this, hoorah for that!

One tale in particular stands out in this corking collection for me. (There is always one isn’t there, no matter how brilliant a collection.) Una and Coll are not Friends completely and utterly stole my heart. It is the tale of two young people who both stand out, well you would if one of you had antlers and the other had the tail of a tiger, and so people assume that because they are both different they should get on. Well they don’t, at first, and we follow how that relationship builds and turns out. I know, I know, no spoilers but if it doesn’t choke you up or make you beam then there is no hope for you, or heart in you.

Many, many people told me how much I would love The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales and they were all completely right. It is one of those collections that I will return to and simply pick a tale at random and know I will be lost with a whole world after a few sentences. It is also a collection that has grown on me more and more since I read it, with certain stories lingering in my mind long after. I am now very eager to get to The Gracekeepers (of which the initial idea is in The Gracekeeper in this collection interestingly) and her new collection A Portable Shelter which I treated myself to earlier this year. Treat yourself to this collection if you haven’t already, it is a collection of wonder and brilliance even at its darkest.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Fairy Tales, Kirsty Logan, Review, Salt Publishing

The Good Son – Paul McVeigh

When the Guardian called for votes for their Not The Booker nominations there were two books I simply had to put forward. One was the brilliant All Involved by Ryan Gattis (as someone had already nominated the equally brilliant A Little Life) and the other was a book with a character that I will never forget, Paul McVeigh’s debut novel The Good Son, which stars – there is no other word for it than stars – Mickey Donnelly.

9781784630232

Salt Publishing, 2015, paperback, fiction, 244 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

If I told you that you should really read a book set during the Troubles in Ireland which throws in poverty, religion, sexuality and violence, both domestic and political, you would probably look at me in horror, which is why The Good Son is such a brilliant book. It has all of those elements in their unflinching rawness and yet with Mickey’s voice and cheeky sense of humour McVeigh gives us an image of an incredibly difficult and fractured time in some sort of rainbow technicolor whilst with a very black and white viewpoint. It is something I have not experienced before and I thought it was marvellous. It also gives us hope.

I was born the day the Troubles started.
‘Wasn’t I, Ma?’ says me.
‘It was you that started them, son,’ says she, and we all laugh, except Our Paddy. I put that down to his pimples and general ugliness. It must be hard to be happy with a face like that. I almost feel sorry for him. I spy a dirty, big love bite on his neck and store this ammunition to defend myself against future attacks.

And so we are straight into the narrative of Mickey Donnelly a young boy growing up in Belfast during a time of much turbulence as he is at that age, just before secondary school, when he is full of questions and hormones… oh and there are all the troubles on going in the background. That might sound throwaway yet to Mickey his main concerns are the fact that his family have no money, his Da is a violent drunk so his Ma and little sister Wee Maggie need protecting, everyone calls him gay and it looks like he won’t be going to the secondary school he dreamed of (which symbolises future escape) with his best friend.

 I think McVeign does many wonderful things with The Good Son and first and foremost of these is the character that he has created with Mickey. I am not a fan of child protagonists in fiction, I tend to find them precocious and a bit too clever (which tends to happen when you can see the authors viewpoint or purpose in their behaviour) for their own good. I adored Mickey. He is funny, rude, antagonistic, kind and hopeful. He is at once wiser than his years, due to some of his experiences at home and in the streets, whilst also often being naive. He thinks he knows everything about the world yet we the reader (as fully fledged adults, well I try) see everything around him in a different light and context. It is a real skill to get this just right and I think McVeigh does this effortlessly. His emotions are contagious too, when he is happy we are jubilant, when he is confused we are concerned, when he is defeated we are distraught.

Sorry, Mammy, I’m always going to be on my own until I get away to America.
‘Somewhere over the rainbow,
Way up high…’
Somewhere over the Atlantic away from our street and everybody in it.

McVeigh excels in the use of light and shade within his writing. As I mentioned with Mickey he uses his joy and his defeat to an incredibly emotive effect with Mickey. McVeigh does this in other ways too, humour being one of them. The Good Son can be wickedly funny which, when the bad things happen, also makes the darker moments all the more so. From one moment we are in a world of the musicals of Doris Day (any book with Doris Day gets a seal of approval from me, as it would have my Gran) to the bullying in the streets or worse the violence which broods in the background throughout.

This device I also found incredibly powerful. Whilst many novels of the Troubles would make them the main focus and give you them in all their rawest and most shocking detail, I think McVeigh gives you something far more clever and intricate. A young lad growing up at the time Mickey does would, as Mickey is, be used to it and so it is not the be all and end all of his thoughts. This of course leads us into a false sense of security so when things like the night time raids or the murder and bombing in the street happen it gives us all the more of a sense of shock, some of these parts of the novel are really harrowing reading. Yet often more striking are the random smaller moments in which we are reminded the streets the kids are playing in are territory of war, I found these truly chilling.

In the shop window, there’s an IRA poster. A man’s face. Eyes starin’ at you, frownin’. A bodyless hand covers his mouth. Loose Talk Costs Lives it says. You have to be careful all the time. Keep your mouth shut. I move and it’s like the eyes follow me, same as the 3D Jesus picture in Aunt Kathleen’s.

It is with this deft approach that McVeigh also looks at subjects such as religion and sexuality. Some authors might be rather heavy handed with their approach to these and whack you around the head with them at any given opportunity. McVeigh lets them bubble and simmer in the background, they become part of the story rather than the reason for it. This is a technique many, many authors should be taking on board. McVeigh also uses this restraint in his prose, no word is wasted, no sentence unplanned – and believe me he is a sucker for a brilliant final sentence in ever chapter that makes you constantly say ‘oh just one more chapter then’.

I could go on and on. I could talk about the wonderful relationship that Mickey has with his mother and sister, the way I felt his brother and father are almost visions of what Mickey’s life might be, how much I loved the sense of unsentimental hope thorough out. See I could go on and on. And I haven’t even hinted at the ending which will leave you lingering on it long after you have finished it. What a tease I am. What I shall say to round up is simply that McVeigh has created something incredibly special with this book and its protagonist.

If you would like to hear more about The Good Son then you can hear Paul McVeigh chatting with me on You Wrote The Book here. Who else has read The Good Son and did you love it, and Mickey, as much as I did?

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Filed under Books of 2015, Paul McVeigh, Review, Salt Publishing

Everything is Teeth – Evie Wyld & Joe Sumner

I am rather a fan of Evie Wyld as an author and as a person. I have had the pleasure of interviewing her and having a few coffees and wanderings around bookshops, including her own, the Review Bookshop in Peckham which is also delightful. I first ‘met her’ in book form when I read her first novel After The Fire, A Still Small Voice. I was genuinely bowled over by it and the incredible writing from a debut author, I know people say that a lot but it is true. Then when I read All The Birds, Singing I was blown away once again by her prose but also fell for her sense of menace/the gothic and the way she pulls of something unusual and original in its format. With her latest book she has gone and done something completely different again working on a memoir with illustrator Joe Sumner and creating the truly wonderful Everything is Teeth.

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Jonathan Cape, 2015, hardback, graphic novel/memoir, 128 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It’s not even the images that come first when I think of the parts of my childhood spent in Australia. Or even the people. It’s the sounds – the butcher birds and the magpies that lived amongst us on the back veranda. And stronger still, the smells – eucalyptus, watermelon and filter mud, rich and rude and sickly strong, Most of all, the river, muddy and lined with mangrove. Salt and sulphur; at low tide the black mud that smelled bad, that had stingray burrows hollowed out in it. The smell I associate with the smell of sharks.

When Evie was a young girl she grew up between Australia and the UK. It was on the coast of New South Wales where Evie first learnt of the wonders and the terrors of sharks. After initially reading a few books and going to a shark museum with her father (which later seems somewhat pivotal) sharks soon become something of an obsession for her and one that catches her at the oddest of times, where even back in landlocked London she believed one could be following her or suddenly appear out of a bin and attack her or a friend. Oddly I used to worry that a shark might suddenly turn up in any swimming pool I frequented until I was about twenty-six, seriously. Anyway…

What initially starts as quite a funny and natural obsession (we have all had these keen interests that verge on obsessions in our childhoods) slowly takes on a darker side with greater menace the more we read on and the book takes a slight shift in direction. For Everything is Teeth is also a book about grief, the threat of loss and the potential of depression or fear to be around us at any time no matter how old we are. At least that is how I read it, the shark’s presence being a way of dealing with growing up and all the strangeness that that brings for us, an escape and a way of confronting fears in a different way. Not wanting to give too much away, the later stages of the book centre around the dying and death of Evie’s father and how something like that can bring nostalgia and fears from childhood back to the fore. The bite size (pun not intended) intense bursts of memory in Evie’s wonderful writing making this all the more potent along with the illustrations.

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Oh, the illustrations! I loved, loved, loved Joe Sumner’s illustrations in Everything is Teeth as much as I loved Evie’s writing. (Note, Evie and Joe have worked together on this blog before when Evie and I got him to draw some of your imaginings of the Australian mythical Bunyip.) They are initially deceptively simple, yet have both a precise artistic and then much more comic like edge to them making the sharks seem all the more terrifying and real, with a brutal beauty. These are certainly not comical comic pictures, well with the exception of the shark coming out of the bin which made me cackle. They also, again pun unintended, have hidden depths with a sense of menace looming the longer you look at them.

It is this that makes the pairing, and therefore the whole body of work produced in Everything is Teeth, so powerful; the deception of simplicity of both the lyrical words and the enchantingly disarming images. Yet in fact the more of these intense bursts you read and take in the images of the more intensity they give and the more layers that reveal themselves and make it all the more powerful, effective and moving. It is a book you can’t shake for a while after you have read it, rather like the nagging feeling there could be a shark swimming just behind you at any given moment. I loved it, I hope we have many more novels from Evie Wyld and many more graphic memoirs/novels and the like with Evie and Joe, lyrical and visual treats indeed.

Have any of you read Everything is Teeth and what did you make of it? Which authors you love would you like to see head into the world of graphic memoir or novels? Which graphic novels have you read which affected you deeply? It is a genre I am getting more and more endeared towards when done brilliantly, so I must read more.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Evie Wyld, Graphic Novels, Joe Sumner, Jonathan Cape Publishers

Only Ever Yours – Louise O’Neill

When lots of people tell you over a very small space of time that you simply have to read a book you should listen. This was the case with Louise O’Neill’s debut novel Only Ever Yours, which won the inaugural YA Book Prize earlier this year. I think four if not five very esteemed people I was on several panels with at a conference raved about it endlessly in the space of one and a half days. So naturally I had to pick it up at the nearest bookshop I fell into on the way back to the train station. I started it on said train and suddenly the 5 hour journey had absolutely flown by and I was left looking like something that should be left in lost luggage (a bit battered and worn out) when I got to Liverpool. Yes, Only Ever Yours is one of those books that grabs you and simply will not let go… even now, months later.

9781848664159

Quercus Books, 2014, paperback, fiction, 400 pages, bought by me for me

I am a good girl. I am pretty. I am always happy go lucky.
The robotic voice spills down the walls and crawls along the floor, searching for a receptive ear. And we eves are more receptive when sleeping. We are like sponges, absorbing beauty, becoming more and more lovely as we dream. More and more valuable.
Except for me.

From the off, and indeed throughout, the world in Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours is, to be frank, pretty f***ed up. (I honestly tried quite hard to not use ‘the f bomb’ but it is the only word that seems apt.) Girls are now bred, yes bred, for three reasons. They can become a companion to the men in society who can afford it and have babies, which will only be boys as these girls have been bred to be breeders of the male line; they can become a concubine, and have sex (with no babies) with all the men in society who can afford it; or they can become chastity’s and shave their heads, wear black gowns and raise more manufactured young girls to keep the cycle ticking along. See, I told you, f***ed up.

It is in the interior of one of these schools/factories/compounds that we join frieda and isabel who have been friends since they can remember (no my spell check hasn’t backfired, these girls – or the eves as they are called – have no capital letter at the start of their names because they are lesser and need to know it from the off) who now at sixteen enter their final and defining year when they will be introduced to boys for the first time. These teenage boys will define the girls roles in society based in some part by how they interact with them, which is a tricky beast as we discover, though mainly on their looks which have to be perfection. So the pressure is on and the claws are out, this is the year when their lives will change and no one wants to be less than a companion.

The screen snaps back into a mirror. S41 Delicate Iced Chocco hair. #66 Chindia Tellow eyes. That’s me. That’s what people see when they look at me. I peel off my nightdress and throw it into a trapdoor implanted in the wall underneath the vanity table. The cupboard opens, beeping loudly until I step in, the steel trap closing like a greedy mouth around me.
‘You have gained weight.’ The voice fills the cupboard. ‘You are now 118.8 pounds. I will recommend in your weekly report that you are to take extra kcal blockers until your weight stabilizes between 115 and 118 pounds.’ 

It is a grimly fascinating yet ultimately plain disturbing setting and plot that Louise O’Neill creates. Here is a world where everything is wrong with you if you are less than perfect, even the slightest blemish can ruin you. This of course breeds elitism to the point where it isn’t just weight or height that distinguish, so do race and even when you first menstruate. This is a world where the ideal is to be two dimensional, what do you need the third for after all when all you need to do is look pretty, be able to hold a simple conversation and have male babies every few years? Yet of course by being human, even if manufactured, these girls have feelings, insecurities (which are to be encouraged), fears, jealousies, bitterness and rage. None is particularly likeable, but I imagine I would be a Grade A bitch in such a situation, it is survival of the fittest and prettiest after all so even your closest friends are a threat.

‘Nice? Nice? NICE?’ megan shouts. I try to shush her but she is beyond reason.
‘Yes. You’re nice,’ agyness lies again, looking perplexed at this reaction.
‘Who cares about nice?’
‘I do. I think personality matters.’
‘Are you brain dead? Personality does NOT matter. All that matters is being pretty, you…’ she stammers with rage, ‘you feminist.’ There’s a horrified gasp. ‘Well, it’s true,’ she says defiantly. ‘Being pretty is all that matters.’

In a book like Only Ever Yours there is almost too much to talk about, though this is not a bad thing. I haven’t even started on the whole ‘sex as a powerful weapon vs. weapon of self destruction’ part of the book which I found fascinating – when the girls are given alone time in what seems to be a broom cupboard with the boys – or the way she discusses cyber bullying. However I am worried that anyone who hasn’t read the book yet and hears about all this might be worried it is all too much or all too preachy. I don’t think it is either. I think O’Neill holds back in some aspects; it could be grimmer, it could have had a lot more in it, yet less is more and the fact that O’Neill holds back to a degree, whilst writing a ripping yarn that doesn’t let you put it down, makes it all the more sinister because it is all the more possible. Well, I say possible, this is happening in the world now. I found this also stopped it from being preachy, it is a book designed to make you think and that it does in abounds, praise be.

There were also two things that had particularly stuck me by the end also. Firstly was the fact that O’Neill keeps the world in which the reader enters very confined. It doesn’t really matter that the world has gone to hell outside the four walls we remain in because actually the truly terrifying stuff is happening within them. This is all the more scary because we see the world doing it now. Girls (and the attention is shifting to boys now) are judged on their looks, size, gait etc now by the media and society as I type this, it makes the horror of O’Neill’s world close in on you all the more. Secondly what I think was a master stroke was that O’Neill gives us a group of girls whip are designed to compete with each other, almost in their DNA by default, their bid for freedom means they must one up or destroy their friends, so why do we (women and men) do it so often when we have so many options and so much more freedom than mere generations ago. Remember what I told you about it making you think on.

Then if that all wasn’t enough, there is the ending! I won’t give it away but I will say that it delivered a wallop that was almost winding, yet made your head snap and then realise how powerful it was in its brutal brilliance. Louise O’Neill, if you ever read this, I think you are an utter marvel for this book. So pertinent, so engaging, so important, so well written – I hope this book is now stocked in every school possible, it should be on the curriculum. It is certainly going to be high up on my list of books of the year.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Louise O'Neill, Quercus Publishing, Review

Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Max Porter

It has been brilliant having a good old sort out of books wherever they may be shelved, or indeed hiding, in the house as it has reminded me of the books I have to look forward to and also the ones that I have loved and the ones that I have loved and haven’t written about yet. One of the books which has probably made both the biggest impression on me, whilst reading and in the pondering it has left me with since, has to be Max Porter’s debut Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Such an impression did it leave on me (and so many thoughts did it bring) I had to read it twice within a short space of time.

Faber & Faber, 2015, hardback, fiction, 128 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Once upon a time there were two boys who purposefully misremembered things about their father. It made them feel better if ever they forgot things about their mother.

It is no surprise that from the title of a novel such as Grief is the Thing with Feathers the subject is going to be, you guessed it, grief. Whilst the idea of members of a family coming to terms with the passing of a loved one and the effect this has on them might not be the newest of subjects, I think it is safe to say that I have never read a book that describes the varying emotions of grief in such an honest and fractured way. We see grief through the eyes of the three people in the house, a father and two sons, as they try to come to a way of understanding the loss that now surrounds them and the blank unknown of what lies ahead. Into this space appears Crow an unwelcome guest who is both helpful and hindering and who will stay put until these three no longer need him.

In other versions I am a doctor or a ghost. Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things other characters can’t, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God. I was friend excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.

What or who Crow is changes on the page as often as it will in the readers mind. Is this actually a crow that has just happened upon the scent of loss and wants to do some good? Should we judge him on his dark and pointed exterior for the trickster we see? Is Crow a manifestation of a husband’s way of dealing with the emptiness that invades every thought or is the manifestation of the two boys missing their mother? Is it a father’s madness taking on the form of his slight obsession with the poet Ted Hughes* as some sort of coping mechanism and/or breakdown? Is he an entire emotion come to life filling every piece of emptiness in these three’s house and worlds post death? Could Crow be all of these things? It is up to the reader to make up their own mind.

One of the reasons that I was so gripped/intrigued/horrified by Grief is the Thing with Feathers was the character of Crow, who is a riddle in himself and a puzzle you want to solve. I was also completely captivated by the writing. I felt whilst reading that I was under some kind of spell in the way it mixes the reality of grief, and the horror of it, with a slightly giddy yet unnerving sense of the fairytale or the supernatural. There’s a raw modern narrative and a very quintessentially gothic essence to it which I also loved. It also feels in many ways like an essay to grief that is also a poem, the language is wonderful even when it seems utterly bizarre, you are hooked.

Look at that, look, did I not, oi, stab it. Good book, funny bodies, open door, slam door, spit this, lick that, lift, oi, look, stop it.

The main thing that I really loved (if that is the right word) about this book however was the depiction of grief. I always have huge admiration for writers who tackle the difficult or the ugly things in life and, no matter how hard it might be to write or to read, embrace them and give us them with their full honesty, unflinchingly. As I mentioned when I read Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act of Love, grief is something which we really do not like to talk about and yet we all face and when we do we really need someone to talk about it with. Max Porter has created a novel which does this with a rage and a beauty that moved me so much.

Without sounding too daft, as I read this book I felt like I was going through grief again, in a strange way both for this fictional family that I have never met (because they don’t exist Simon) and for anyone I have lost in my life. On one page I would be slightly confused, the next I would be laughing like a drain, the following I would be howling and then there were those particular brutal bittersweet moments where we mourn everything we have lost and celebrate everything that we had, those memories which break our hearts but remind us of the wonder of love and the people we love or have loved.

The house becomes a physical encyclopaedia of no-longer hers, which shocks and shocks and is the principle difference between our house and a house where illness has worked away. Ill people, in their last day on Earth, do not leave notes stuck to bottles of red wine saying ‘OH NO YOU DON’T COCK CHEEK’. She was not busy dying, and there is no detritus of care, she was simply busy living, and then she was gone.

So to put it simply, I think that Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a rather exceptional book. It is one which puts you through the ringer, leaving you distraught and then hopeful. It is the sort of book you rush through once and then have to go back through and read slowly taking all the intricacies in and then pondering over it all afterwards. It resonated with me and affected me, which is all I ever hope for from a book – one of my books of the year.

*Oh, before I go I should mention the Ted Hughes connection which I have seen has caused some discussion over the interweb with many a bookish sort. If any of you are wondering if you need to have an appreciation of Ted Hughes and his Crow in particular my answer would be no… Because I have read very little Hughes and I had no idea that the Crow collection existed. Before you call me a heathen (possibly too late) I can say that having read Grief is The Thing With Feathers I have got a copy waiting for me at the bookshop to pick up on pay day. So not only did the book affect me greatly, it also got me heading for a poetry collection which is not my normal bag at all. What can I say? Something about the soul of this book resonated with me that I want to find out more around it, even though it is fiction. Yes, this book is that good, not that I needed to tell you again.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Faber & Faber, Max Porter, Review

Dept. Of Speculation – Jenny Offill

My lovely friend Catherine Hall is a book tease. I went and stayed with her quite a lot last year and every time she would rave and rave about Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation as being the best book she had read in ages, and every time she would have lent it to someone else. It also seemed to be a book that had always sold out in bookshops I happened to fall into when it was in hardback. When it came out in paperback though I snaffled it on its day of release, and read it on its day of release, twice. It has just taken me a while to get round to writing about it to the point where I feel I do it justice because Catherine Hall was right, it is one of the best books I have read in quite some time.

Granta Books, 2015, paperback, fiction, 192 pages, bought by myself for myself

That one was so beautiful I used to watch him sleep. If I had to sum up what he did to me, I’d say this: he made me sing along to all the bad songs on the radio. Both when he loved me and when he didn’t.

They say that there is not a single new story under the sun, or something like that, and if I was to say to you that Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation was the story of a couple from their first meeting to the time after one has an affair and the fall out of that, you might think ‘oh nothing new there’. Normally I would be with you, rolling my eyes the loudest, however whilst that story arc might be well trodden in literature I don’t think that anyone has done it in such an original manner as Offill.*

In a series of chapters that are really made up of many short paragraphs or sentences Offill builds us a fully formed vision of a relationship. We have those first moments of connection, the first conversations, the first night of passion, the working out the unwritten rules as the relationship defines itself. We go through moving in together, marriage, children. Then we hit the affair, the questions of forgiveness and of if staying together is right. We have the highs and we have the lows and we have them in possibly some of the most intimate bursts of description I have ever read.

It was still months before we’d tell each other all our stories. And even then some seemed too small to bother with. So why do they come back to me now? Now, when I’m so weary of it all.

Because Dept. of Speculation is a novella, and the way it is constructed is so swiftly done, I don’t really want to give you any more of the story than that. All I will say is that you feel for the narrator as they unravel these moments partly because you have been there before and in some ways feels like you are getting snippets of conversation from a friend. Or if you are like me, snippets of a conversation that is going on at a table not far from you that you simply cannot stop listening to. What I have to tell you about is just how ruddy marvellous Jenny Offill’s writing is, so don’t you try and stop me.

One of the quirky, for I think that is a word which can be applied to this novella, things that I found most affective (after some of the heartbreaking poignant moments) in her writing is the way that as we read on we are given random facts that seem to have absolutely nothing to do with the story. For example we are told about antelopes vision, the habits of birds and facts about microbes. Initially you find yourself thinking ‘what on earth are these about’ and yet as you read on you realise that these seemingly random paragraphs and facts actually bear an uncanny relationship to where our narrators head or heart is at and it gives the novel this additional force of emotion when you (literally) least expect it. There is also no seeming rhyme or reason to them, sometimes they arrive solitary, sometimes in unrelated (yet somehow apt) groups. I found this really powerful.

There is a man who travels around the world trying to find places where you can stand still and hear no human sound. It is impossible to feel calm in cities, he believes, because we so rarely hear bird song there. Our ears have evolved to be our warning systems. We are on high alert in places where no birds sing. To live in a city is to be forever flinching.

The Buddhists say there are 121 states of consciousness. Of these, only three involve misery or suffering. Most of us spend our lives moving back and forth between these three.

Offill might keep her prose short, sharp and sparse but it is filled with imagery, colour, emotion and atmosphere. One of the ways in which I think her writing can be at its most powerful is when (and I know I mention this a lot but it is something I love when done well) she writes a moment that is initially really, really funny and then smacks you round the chops with a sudden realisation of the sadness behind it. There were several moments during Dept. of Speculation where I would laugh out loud and then suddenly be hit with the bittersweet tang of the undertone that was lying in wait for me. Like when Offill writes…

At night, they lie in bed holding hands. It is possible if she is stealthy enough that the wife can do this while secretly giving the husband the finger.

Or…

And that phrase – “sleeping like a baby.” Some blonde said it blithely on the subway the other day. I wanted to lie down next to her and scream for five hours in her ear.

I found these moments incredibly real. No, I haven’t had a child but I have babysat a lot and indeed when my little sister was born, when I was just sweet sixteen, her crying would lead me to sneak into her room take her out her cot and cuddle her much too the fury of my mother and step father who were trying to create a routine. It is probably the level of reality in Offill’s writing that is where the book chimed so much with me. As I read on I found myself having had the same thoughts and emotions as the narrator. It took me back to those wonderful first flutterings of love and lust and those dark moments of utter heartbreak. It delivers all this simply and succinctly, no bells and whistles, just wonderful writing.

Are animals lonely?
Other animals, I mean.

I think Dept. of Speculation is something quite special. It is a book of observations that will speak to you. You will converse with it in your mind, you will relate to it and then you will want to talk to lots of people about it. I also think in living through its protagonist’s relationship you will come away feeling like you understand and value the relationships you have now and the ones that you have had before. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry and you will feel better for both. I highly, highly recommend you read it.

*Note: I will now get lots of emails telling me this has been done before. I won’t believe one of them, ha.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Granta Books, Jenny Offill, Review