Category Archives: Canongate Publishing

Me and You – Niccolo Ammaniti

I have been thinking about my reading and my blogging a lot recently and one of the things I decided to do was to go back and look at authors that I really enjoyed but seemed to fall of the trail with. Some of these authors I may have only read one book of but you have to start somewhere and some of those book have haunted me years on yet I haven’t managed to play catch up with another of the authors novels. One such author is Niccolo Ammaniti, I loved ‘I’m Not Scared’ when I read it in 2010, and when I saw his latest novel/novella ‘Me and You’ at the library I swiped it up there and then.

****, Canongate Books, 2012, hardback, fiction, 160 pages, translated from Italian by Kylee Doust, borrowed from the library

‘Me and You’ is told in hindsight by Lorenzo Cuni looking back on a particular week in his childhood that changed him forever. It is the summer that he told a lie, one of his most sudden and as it turns out most complicated. As a child Lorenzo never really fits in, while he loves his mother and father but has no real attachment to anyone outside of his household. After being sent away from many private schools he starts at a public one where he learns he must disguise himself as one of the other kids so as to go unnoticed, some serious psychology there. Fearing his parents are unconvinced and disappointed, when he hears a girl sorting out a skiing trip with her friends he finds himself telling his mother he has been invited too. Now he must orchestrate an elaborate lie, involving him filling the cellar with enough food and entertainment to last him a week, only what he doesn’t bank on is someone finding him, someone with bigger issues than him who also knows many of his family’s secrets.

If you think I have given the game away there too much I honestly haven’t. What I loved about ‘Me and You’ was also what I loved about ‘I’m Not Scared’ in that there is a mystery in the premise (and the blurb on the back of the book) but there is so much more going on in the novel and it has a most poignant sting in its tail that comes in a sudden twist at the end.  That should have tempted you right there!

As I mentioned this is a really psychological novel and I was really fascinated by Lorenzo’s character (you can ask for nothing more in a book can you?) the fact his is so removed from people is quite chilling. This becomes more chilling when you watch him working out how, like a real species of fly does with wasps, he starts to copy what other children do in order that people think he is ordinary. What makes it all the more calculated is that he says you must never overdo it and become a caricature simple subtly works best.

“‘But does everyone who has problems lie here?’ I asked Professor Masburger, as he pointed towards a faded brocade couch.
‘Of course. Everyone. This way you can talk more freely.’
Perfect. I would pretend to be like a normal kid with problems. It wouldn’t take much to trick him. I knew exactly  how the others reasoned, what they liked and what they wished for. And if what I knew wasn’t enough, that couch I was lying on would transfer to me, like a warm body transfers to a cold body, the thoughts of the kids that had lain there before me.
And so I told him all about a different Lorenzo.”

Apparently the psychological/scientific term for this is ‘Batesian mimicry’ looking it up on Google (I actually love it when books make me do this) I was interested to learn that this is generally something done by a ‘harmless species’ to confuse its predators, yet I am not sure that Lorenzo is initially that harmless. It appears sometimes he quite likes being the way he is and even allows the character of the predator he is mimicking to take over. This all sounds rather dark, which it is and thrillingly so, yet the other thing that I admire about Ammaniti is that while darkness is the overall atmosphere, in a brooding sense and in the fact this book is mainly set in a cellar, there is a humour running through it. We need those shades of dark and light in books don’t we, in fact I think the best books have them. Yet the humour here always has a little menace behind it.

“‘Life is sad without a sense of humour,’ I said.
‘Amen,’ answered a lady standing next to me.
My father has said this thing about a sense of humour after my cousin Vittorio had thrown a cowpat at me during a walk in the country. I was so angry I grabbed a huge rock and threw it up at a tree, while that retard rolled on the ground with laughter. Even my father and mother had laughed.”

I thought that ‘Me and You’ was a very clever book. It’s dark, brooding and packs a real emotional punch at the end, even if you think you know what that end will be. Is it wrong to say that I admire the book even more because it is short? Too late I guess as I have now, but sometimes I find myself more impressed by short novels like this where an author can create a real atmosphere throughout and build whole dysfunctional characters and their histories to life. Highly recommended.

I must read more Ammaniti, I had ‘Crossroads’ but alas it was in one of the boxes that vanished in the most recent move (how have I managed to lose a box of books every time I have moved?), fortunately my library has that and ‘Steal You Away’ so I will definitely be reading more of his work in the future. Have you read this or any of Ammaniti’s other novels, if so what did you think, or is he an author you’ve been meaning to get to?

*Apologies for not having reviewed a book in ages, am still deep in prize submissions and can’t write about those alas.

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Filed under Canongate Publishing, Niccolo Ammaniti, Review

The Last Werewolf – Glen Duncan

There were three reasons for me wanting to read ‘The Last Werewolf’ by Glen Duncan. First was the fact that Marieke Hardy, who I often mention on Savidge Reads, discussed it on The First Tuesday Book Group and said some hilarious, if rather negative, things about it, which of course made me want to read it all the more. There had been a buzz about the book, true, but for some reason that hadn’t put me off. Secondly, I wanted to read it because I have always been rather fascinated by the idea of werewolves. Thirdly, my friend, the lovely Emma Jane Unsworth had read it and couldn’t stop raving about it, she had also gone on and binged on all his books afterwards, a sign she was authorly smitten. So when it came time to choose a book for The Readers Summer Book Club, especially as Gavin is such a genre buff, I thought it would be worth taking a chance on. Would I love it or would I hate it?

Canongate, paperback, 2011, fiction, 346 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Jacob Marlowe, or Jake, is ‘The Last Werewolf’ that the title of Glen Duncan’s latest novel revolves around. At 201 years of age he discovers that he is the very last in the line of his kind, which makes him a werewolf with rather a large sum on his head, as it were (pun slightly intended as werewolves, we soon discover, can only be killed by being beheaded or shot with a silver bullet). Not just from bounty hunters who see him as a conquest, we learn jealous, and incompetent, assassins also want him, as do vampires and not for the reason anyone might guess, in fact it was this twist that made me admire the book all the more. Alas, no spoilers, so really in terms of plot that is all you are going to get. Well almost…

You see one of the most fascinating things for me with ‘The Last Werewolf’ was Jake’s reaction to his impending death. You would imagine that his natural reaction is to go on the run and survive, not in the case of this werewolf. Jake is tired. He has had a few hundred years of killing people once a month, even if he does only try to kill the horrid ones and getting to know people only to outlive them and this of course includes loved ones. There are some superb, and shocking, twists with Jake’s back story and you will literally be finishing one chapter to start the next… but again, no spoilers. I am aware I am teasing you but that’s because you should read the book and I urge you to do so.

If any of you are thinking ‘oh another story with werewolves and vampires’ and rolling your eyes, please don’t. I may admit that I was concerned this would be the case but Glen Duncan is a literary author who turned his hand to vampires (I don’t think he would mind me saying this) because his previous books were getting great reviews but they weren’t turning into sales. The cynical ones of you out there, and was it the other way round I would be, will be thinking ‘oh so it’s a cash cow/wolf’ and rolling your eyes again. Stop, stop because Glen Duncan has managed to create a novel that merges literary and genre and is as far removed from ‘Twilight’ (thank goodness – I can say that I have read three of them) as possible.

I have mentioned that the pace is furious and there are so many plot twists and turns which you won’t see coming, if that wasn’t enough Glen Duncan has another trick up his sleeve. He is a bloody (pun not intended) good writer. The language in this book is masterful. Somehow a gory murder scene will read like sumptuous dinner party, that sounds a bit odd yet I am hoping you understand what I mean. This isn’t just bodies being torn into, there is a beauty in there, the very fact Jake can read their memories as he eats them I found oddly beautiful, heart breaking and downright clever. The language is incredibly graphic, within a few pages I had seen the f-word and c-word more times than I ever have in a book, yet it doesn’t seem to be done for shock. Jake is an animal, this book is animalistic so are the events that unfold and the language used to describe them.

If you haven’t guessed I really, really enjoyed ‘The Last Werewolf’ and will definitely be reading the next in the series if it promises to be as good as this one. Does the sequel have Jake in it? Well, you will have to read this one to find out and again I urge you to. It’s a real adventure story combined with a love story that will have you reading its beautiful prose at a frantic rate. It also has a compelling and complex protagonist who you will be rooting for to survive, even if he himself isn’t. I want to go and try some of Glen Duncan’s back catalogue too, have any of you read any of those? What did you think of ‘The Last Werewolf’ if you have given it a whirl?

As I mentioned above, I read this finally because of The Readers Summer Book Club which it was the first of the selection of. You can hear myself and Gavin interviewing the author and discussing the book with special guests here.

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Filed under Canongate Publishing, Glen Duncan, Review, The Readers Summer Book Club

True Things About Me – Deborah Kay Davies

Writing thoughts on ‘True Things About Me’ by Deborah Kay Davies brings up the interesting question of ‘how come if I managed to read a book in one sitting am I left feeling both impressed and appalled by it at the same time?’ In fact the more I have thought about it, the more I have wondered if that was just the author’s very aim.

One of Deborah Kay Davies most powerful tools in her debut novel is to have a nameless narrator. In fact the narrator of ‘True Things About Me’ isn’t just nameless; she is really a blank canvas. This means that whatever horrendous things befall her there is a distance between us and her, a space for us to put our own feelings and emotions. It’s a risky manoeuvre for an author; people might find the character cold or have to work a little bit harder rather than put themselves in that persons place. Add short chapters and sparse threatening prose and, like with this novel, the risk pays off – you have your reader hooked.

When we meet this unnamed woman she is working as a benefits officer with a night out to the cinema with a colleague, and best friend, Alison later that evening. That is all we know about her before one of the claimants comes in, flirts with her, waits for her outside of work and drags her off for a quick risky sexual encounter in a car park before bundling her off into a taxi. It is this moment that she seems to have been waiting for, this is the moment of her undoing. Afterwards, even though she knows she shouldn’t, she searches him out and lets him into her life again, something she will regret as it only brings obsession and abuse.

“I’d put his address in a kitchen drawer. It was the one I kept my sharp knives in.”

There is a real sense of threat throughout the book from the moment that this blonde curly haired mystery man enters her life. We know as little about him as we do her, in fact weirdly as the book goes on you feel you know her parents, best friend Alison and Grandma better than you do the person telling you the story, but then they are the observers and the outsiders to her so they should be to us, especially as she goes on isolating them the further into a breakdown she goes.

“I looked at the sleeping tablets on the bedside table. I’d emptied them out of their plastic strips and put them in a little bowl. It was funny how they looked like the courtesy mints you get offered in some restaurants. I picked up the bowl and offered it to my reflection. Do have some, won’t you? I said in the voice of Judith Chalmers, my gran’s favourite travel presenter. Take a handful, feel free! I promised myself that after I’d looked at my poor coat properly I’d take some and sleep for days. I walked around the room, and read my magazine for a bit. I’d bought it because of the caption on the front cover, announcing and article about a woman who’d been knocked out by a frozen over chip.”

I realised I have made this book sound really, really dark and depressing. In many ways it is yet it’s the compelling nature of the story, her obsession becomes the reader’s addiction as she becomes more and more outlandish, that keeps you reading along. There are also some big scenes of humour which make you laugh out loud along with feeling rather mortified. For example there is a scene in a bakery when she is babysitting which made me laugh loudly and also a blind date which she is sent on by Alison and her husband which proves to be a drunken mortifying experience.

“I felt as if I were disintegrating. I struggled to dress but I was shaking too much to do it properly. My bare bottom squeaked like a frightened mouse against the car seat. I shoved my bra in my bag. I put my pants on back to front. My clothes had lost their magical properties. The lake was blank, its surface corrugated with little waves. No stars. Rain started to thump against the windshield. Then he drove me home. Once or twice he tried to make conversation. The windscreen wipers grated against the window. A snake of laughter kept wriggling in my throat but I swallowed it down.”

The only slight issue of ‘True Things About Me’ was the lack of background. I wondered just why she had randomly had sex with this man (I know it can just happen, I am no prude), the fact that I never quite got the answer did rather niggle at me I have to say. Maybe it was just one of those inexplicable moments of chemistry, maybe it was something she had been lacking in childhood something psychological, or maybe she was simply bored? I would have just liked that to have been a little clearer as with knowing her motivation would possibly have come more understanding.

‘True Things About Me’ isn’t a comfortable book, it is one that should you start will have you gripped to its inconclusive but very dramatic dénouement. It’s a book that leaves you with a real variety of emotions and possible endless questions. You will be angry, shocked and rather appalled – possibly because you laughed along the way on occasion. I am still not sure whether I liked the experience or not, but I feel that’s exactly what Deborah Kay Davies wanted to achieve, and indeed she has. 7.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

This was one of the titles mentioned in the Culture Shows ’12 Debut Novelists’ which I mentioned here. So far, on the whole this list has been a great one. I have a few more reviews from these novels coming up soonish, have you read any of the others? Have you read this and if so what did you think? It’s definitely a book of questions (in fact Fleur Fishers review shows this perfectly) which was the last book that really made you think?

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Filed under Canongate Publishing, Deborah Kay Davies, Review

Jamrach’s Menagerie – Carol Birch

Generally speaking any book that evokes the Victorian period is one that is going to win me over. Equally any book that is set one a boat is highly likely to be a complete failure with me. This therefore was an interesting dichotomy which faced me before I started reading ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ because I knew this book was a mixture of both my very favourite of settings in time and also one of my least favourites places to base a book. So before I had even turned a page of this book I knew that this was going to either be a book which I absolutely love or absolutely loathe.

‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ opens in 1857 as we meet Jaffy Brown aged eight years old as he gets born for the second time. Sounds odd, but when you have come close to death it is said you often feel reborn. You see Jaffy Brown is an inquisitive little fella, and on one of his wanderings through London’s streets he comes across ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ and a tiger, a creature he has never seen before and wants to befriend, only tiger’s don’t always want to be friends as he soon learns when it tries to eat him. This is the moment that Jaffy meets Jamrach himself (despite the title Jamrach is not really in the book much he is more a catalyst) and his life changes forever. He becomes one of the workers at the menagerie, an equally thrilling, surreal and slightly dark world filled with unknown creatures from all over the seven seas. It’s here he makes friends, and equal foes on occasion, with Tim Linver a friendship that is going to be tested and tried through their life time, especially when they both set sail on the hunt for a dragon for one of Jamrach’s wealthiest clients.

From here, as we set sail, I was expecting to either loath the book, or Carol Birch might do what several authors have failed to do before and have me captivated as we went to sea. I was hoping after such a stunning start to the book in the East End that Carol Birch would take me on an epic adventure, and guess what, she did. As Jaffy and Tim, alongside their new sea fairing friends including the wonderful but rather mad Skip whose story might just break your heart, start their three year voyage on The Lysander initially hunting for whales I was both thrilled at the chase and horrified at the event when it took place. The same applied as they then arrived in the Dutch East Indies and hunted the islands for dragons. I had thought that the book would lose its drive after this, but Birch has much more hidden up her sleeves, or should that be in the pages that follow, as the book continues.

There were two things that I would never initially have expected from a book like this. The first of which was to feel that I had actually lived the adventure and been with the crew on every step of the way. Can you say you felt camaraderie with a bunch of fictional sailors? If so then I did. The second was that I would find the book such an emotional one. Jaffy and Tim’s friendship which has turbulent times to begin with becomes one of equal comfort and malice a decade on as the wave’s crash around them. There is competition, one-upmanship and secrets. There is also one of the most heartbreaking twists when tragedy strikes, of course I am not sharing what the tragedies or twists are but never in a million years did I expect to be sat reading a book about a boat and being on the edge of tears for any reason other than boredom. Oh how wrong I was.

This is by no means ‘the’ perfect book, it could do with the tiniest of thinning out on the sea in between hunting for whales and the dragon, but it’s a gripping novel that is written utterly brilliantly. Birch never shows off how much research she has done, Jamrach was a real person and the event on The Lysander is based on a true life whale hunting boat in the early to mid 1800’s, but sometimes she does slightly over egg the Victorian descriptive pudding. For someone like me who loves that period too much is never enough, yet I did wonder if I wasn’t would I love how descriptive it was or feel the tiniest bit claustrophobic with the description? There were so many parts of the book I wanted to quote I have decided to quote none of them as this review would never end. It’s like a modern twist on the adventure stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and that to me is a great thing. I would heartily recommend everyone giving it ago.

Carol Birch’s ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ is a book that beguiles you with its cover (if awards for covers were being dished out on books published in 2011 then this one would have to win hands down in my personal opinion) and then leads you through the vivid city streets of Victorian London before taking you on an emotional adventure on the high seas. It’s an epic book, filled with surprises, twists and turns, and with characters you will route for. Yet it’s one which manages to achieve its status without having to be over 350 pages. I think this is an incredible achievement and one which should be widely read. 9/10

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher.

I really enjoyed this book so was surprised that it didn’t make the Orange Prize Shortlist (I read it quite a while ago when I was reading the whole longlist). I was thrilled to learn that this was Carol Birch’s eleventh novel (after I went and did some research, I like to go into a book a little blindly and see what avenues I want to discover afterwards) so there are more for me to go and discover which I shall now be doing. Anyone got any recommendations of her earlier novels? Anyone else read ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ and what did you make of it?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Canongate Publishing, Carol Birch, Orange Prize, Review

The Apple – Michel Faber

In part because I don’t want Savidge Reads to become a series of posts about my health (though I have done an update below) and also because of the timeliness of today’s book post in question I thought I would pop up a second of two posts this Thursday. One of my favourite periods in history is the Victorian period, and one of my favourite genres, which I think it can be called, is ‘the sensation novel’ by the likes of Wilkie Collins etc. Every now and then a modern writer will come up with a book that seems to encapsulate that period and its atmosphere and one book which did just that with me several years ago was Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White’. Here in the UK we will have seen the first episode of the BBC’s adaptation air last night (though as this is scheduled I can’t tell you my thoughts yet) but before I watched it I wanted to get reacquainted with its heroine, of sorts, Sugar and ‘The Apple’ is a collection of short tales set before and after ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ and I knew now was the perfect time to read it.

I wasn’t sure that ‘The Apple’ would be a collection that would work if you hadn’t already read ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ and happily, as I hadn’t read the latter for so long I had forgotten a lot of it, I was proven wrong. Here in a series of seven tales you are introduced to/reacquainted with Sugar and the other characters working in or visiting Mrs Castaway’s whorehouse in darkest Victorian London. From the opening lines of the first story ‘Christmas in Silver Street’ I was escorted by Sugar once more into her world, though a rather snowy and slightly more delightful version than I remember previously, as she goes through the streets and completes her Christmas shopping. You may think ‘well that doesn’t sound like much happens’ and in a way it doesn’t but the descriptions, and indeed Sugars actions while out and about, keep you reading on.

One of my favourites of the tales was ‘Clara and the Rat Man’ which saw a smaller character from CPATW featured in a story all of her own. It is a rather crude little tale, well she is a Victorian whore and Michel Faber often doesn’t mince his words, in many ways especially once you learn why the rat man is paying her lots of money to simply grow one finger nail, but the narrative and then the twist had me in hysterics.

As you may guess from the above story Sugar doesn’t feature in every tale. In fact during ‘Medicine’ as we meet William Rackham once more (or for the first time), it is the haunting thoughts, memories and the feelings he has of Sugar that see her mentioned. I should also point out that in ‘A Mighty Horde of Women in Very Big Hats, Advancing’ all about the suffragette movement we only her of a ‘Miss Sugar’ once or twice.

‘The Apple’ is a great way to be introduced to Michel Faber’s incredibly atmospheric, though often very blunt and explicit, version of Victorian London and the characters that in habit it, its also a great way to get back into the world of Sugar if you have loved it before. Humour, darkness and rather a lot of sex await those who read this book, I would recommend be you a former client or a Sugar virgin that you give these tales a try, though occasionally you might get slightly mixed up where in her history you are. 7.5/10

That may seem a rather harsh mark after such a rave review but I did want a bit more Sugar throughout and also I was a little miffed there wasn’t much more of Mrs Castaway who in ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ is a marvellous character that I am very much looking forward to seeing Gillian Anderson playing in this rather fabulous makeover…

It’s also a very short collection, unlike the tome its predecessor is, which while makes for a great series of tales to read here and there wasn’t quite as meaty as I liked. I did love it though, and it didn’t feel like a spin off which I almost expected it to. So who has read ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’? Did anyone catch the adaptation last night and if so what did you think? Would you want to read a spin off like ‘The Apple’? Which of your favourite novels would you like to see a collection of mini-tales of the characters and what they have been up to before and since be published?

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Filed under Canongate Publishing, Michel Faber, Review

I’m Not Scared – Niccolo Ammaniti

A few people have mentioned to me before that I might rather like Niccolo Ammaniti’s rather dark novel ‘I’m Not Scared’. It was Rob of Rob Around Books mentioning of it as a great summer read a while back that propped it firmly on the bedside table. Since it was mentioned then more and more people have emailed or left comments saying that I definitely had to give it a go and despite my slight concern over the quote ‘sucks you in like the Blair Witch’ I thought ‘why not?’ and picked it up.

Canongate Books, paperback, translatd by Jonathan Hunt, 2004, fiction, 208 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I didn’t really know what to expect from ‘I’m Not Scared’, I knew from the blurb that the premise of this novel was six children exploring in the Italian countryside during the summer. One of the group, nine-year-old Michele Amitrano, discovers much more than he bargained for, something so shocking he cannot tell a soul and naturally this changes his life and the way he views things forever.  However I was wrong with automatically thinking I knew what he would find and did get rather a shock especially as the book twists on. This does sound somewhat a ‘coming of age’ novel which isn’t a genre/theme that tends to work terribly well for me but add the slight thriller feel to the novel and the mystery that keeps you turning the pages… and you have me reading it in two sittings (I could have done it in one but selfishly I had work to do).

Now this is one of those books where if I gave anything else away I would be ruining it for anyone new to the book, not to helpful for a review, and so I shall not add too much more in terms of the plot. I did want to mention though, because I found it rather an interesting twist, that I personally thought Michele didn’t tell anyone in part because of the shock and because he isn’t quite sure what to make of what he finds he doesn’t tell but also because its something only he knows and as a child I remembered how precious that feeling was (though thankfully I never discovered anything quite like Michele does). Which nicely illustrates how Ammaniti does really put you in the mind of Michele, even if sometimes you find his reactions to things aren’t quite what yours would be – how could they be he’s a nine year old and so of course he wouldn’t.

That did take me a little time to get used to but once I got it I thoroughly enjoyed it and it reminded me of certain feeling you have as a child, like being chased through the woods (in Michele’s case he actually might be) or down roads by some unseen thing at night. I found that what hadn’t instantly gelled with me became very evocative as I read on.

I can completely understand why Rob mentioned this makes a perfect summer read, some may say the subject matter isn’t summery but I am of a mind that reads of any season sometimes need to be slightly uncomfortable and leave you thinking, this does just that. The heat of the Italian summer hits you on almost every page and for me personally gave this ‘coming of age’ thriller a sort of southern gothic feel (without being in America which I know defeats the point but hopefully you get what I am driving at) not because anything supernatural happens but because in this Italian village in the middle of nowhere you begin to learn nothing is quite what it seems and something dark lies behind its sunny façade. The fact it’s also very well written; and indeed very well translated by Jonathan Hunt; along with also being a very intelligent and gripping tale only makes it an even greater read regardless of season.

A book that will: leave you thinking and surprise you in more ways than one. 8/10

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners;

What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn – Another thriller seen from a wonderful child narrators eyes in part. Only set in Birmingham rather than the heat of Italy.
When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson – Okay so you might want to start at the beginning of this marvellous series but the last one (very excited about the new one coming soon) had the wonderful Reggie, though seven years older than Michele, trying to work out life’s mysteries and certainly coming to terms with mortality.
(Note my little brother was sat with me while I typed this and said that I should compare this to Batman: The Return of the Scarecrow which has just made me howl with laughter.)

So who else has read ‘I’m Not Scared’? Anyone read any of the other Ammaniti novels? I will definitely be reading more of his stuff in the future, so thank you again to all of you who recommended this book!

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Filed under Canongate Publishing, Niccolo Ammaniti, Review

The Girl Who Married A Lion – Alexander McCall Smith

If you mention the name Alexander McCall Smith I have noticed that two things seem to happen. Either people utterly love him/really like him or, simply put, they really don’t. I am in the really like him camp… for some books! I really like to turn to Mma Precious Ramotswe and ‘The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency’ series when I am in need of some comfort and a jolly read. I am not such a fan of either the ‘44 Scotland Street’ or ‘Corduroy Mansions’ though living in London adds a certain something to the latter. Anyway I decided to try something completely different with my latest McCall Smith and went for his retelling of African folktales (which I originally thought was part of the Canongate Myths Series); I do like a good folk tale after all.

Originally entitled ‘The Children of Wax’ when it was first published in 1989‘The Girl Who Married A Lion’ is a collection of over 30 folk tales from Zimbabwe and Botswana that McCall spent a lot of time researching and being told from the people to who these stories had been handed down to through the generations. Some people may say ‘Well these aren’t McCall Smiths tales then are they?’ but they he has edited and changed somewhat to carry the McCall Smith feel and are his way, so he states in the introduction, designed to introduce readers to the wonderful tales of those regions and letting them live out in the world.

The tales themselves are really quite wonderful. I won’t give you a synopsis of each of the 34 tales because that would a) take forever and b) take the enjoyment out of the book for any of you who go on to read it. However I will try and give you an overview. In this collection we have cannibals, a woman who gives birth to children who are made of wax, a man who has a tree growing out of his head, a girl who marries a lion and several stories of how different breeds of animals learnt to mistrust each other through various escapades plus many more tales. Of course why all these situations came to be you would have to read the book to find out.

The whole collection does wonderfully evoke Africa (I went to Kenya when I was much younger and this brought it all back) even though each tale is a maximum of around four pages each. I love the idea of days from the past where animals and humans communicated and you are really carried away with your imagination. You can feel that they all have the history, landscape and heat of the country embedded in them. I loved the simplicity of them even though in many ways they are all magically surreal some more so than others, and you can see why this was re-issued as a book in both adult and child editions. These tales also carry a moral at the end of the story and I am sure all of us whatever age we may be could gain something from this book as well as thoroughly enjoying reading it. 7/10

This collection has made me want to read the folklore and fairytales from all over the world. I read Perrault’s tales not too long ago (am still enjoying Angela Carter’s retellings sparingly to savour them) and have Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm’s collections in the TBR as well as a collection of Amazonian folk lore but which ones am I missing? Do you know of any? Or of any wonderful modern re-tellings?

(P.S Sorry for the late post, it’s my wedding anniversary today and so a second day of surprises has been lined up for both parties.)

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Canongate Publishing, Review, Short Stories