Category Archives: Catherine Hall

Other People’s Bookshelves #37; Catherine Hall

Hello and welcome to the latest in Other People’s Bookshelves, a regular series of posts where you get to have a nosey at other book lovers bookshelves. This week we have a doubly apt host, Catherine Hall. Firstly because they are one of the authors who has been selected for Fiction Uncovered in the past, which I am guest editing at the moment, and also I happen to be staying in her house (so she is literally hosting me) while London Book Fair is on, in fact I took the pictures and almost took some of the books. Oh, did I mention that she is one of my most lovely friends who I have become chums with since I read The Proof of Love a few years ago. Anyway, I could waffle on more but I shall not, let us find out more about Catherine and have a nosey through her books…

I was born and brought up on a sheep farm in the Lake District where we lived with another family in a vaguely communal way. I always loved books and ended up doing English at Cambridge. Part of me loved it, but I found it a bit odd that we didn’t read anything written after 1960 and not that much by women. After that I went to London and got a job in a television production company making films about the environment and development issues, and then worked for an international peacebuilding agency doing communications. I left when I inherited some money from my grandmother and have written three novels: Days of Grace, The Proof of Love and The Repercussions, which will be published in September. I live in London with my two little boys, their dad and his boyfriend.

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

I used to keep all of them because it was like a diary of my life, sort of marking where my thinking was at different times. Now I have to have liked them enough to want to live with them, otherwise I pass them on to Oxfam. Having said that, I’m quite a generous reader – I usually find something I like in most books. But my shelves – and there are a lot of them in our house – are pretty overflowing.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

There’s a sort of system, or at least there was when we moved in which is that they’re divided by genre – fiction, history, biography, travel, poetry, plays – and then within that vaguely alphabetically as in by author surname but not strictly, because that would mean rearranging everything every time I bought a new book. I have a massive pile of books to be read next to my bed. Since I had kids it’s all gone a bit messy, and of course they have loads of books that end up all over the place.

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What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

It was Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton. I loved her books as a child and would save up my pocket money to buy them. It’s on my boys’ bookshelf now waiting for them to be old enough to read it.

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

I’ve got lots of guilty pleasures but I’m pretty out and proud about them. There’s a lot of Jackie Collins and Jilly Cooper on my shelves sitting next to Dickens and Doris Lessing. At college my friend Cath and I used to buy Jilly Cooper’s books as soon as they came out and retire to bed to read them in one go instead of reading Chaucer or whoever it was that week. Her politics are questionable but I learned a lot about character and plot.

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

That’s a really hard question. I love the proof copies of my novels – they’re the things that I’m most proud of producing in my life. I also love my ancient copy of The Golden Notebook because that really changed the way I thought about things, and Oranges are Not the Only Fruit because I remember coming down to London on a school trip and sneaking to the Silver Moon women’s bookshop and buying – shocker – a lesbian novel. So I’d definitely save them, and then I think I’d want to save some of my children’s books because they remind me of reading to them as they’ve grown up.

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What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. That’s another book that I’d definitely save. I have two copies of it, one annotated, the other clean for reading. It introduced me to psychoanalysis and of course the concept of the ‘zipless fuck.’ It was probably the most thrilling book I’d ever read. For my A levels I wrote a long dissertation type thing about Freud’s question on what women want, and the way it was answered in literature, ranging from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Fear of Flying. It was my favourite essay ever. I go back to Fear of Flying every couple of years to read it again and it’s still relevant to me now.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

I have to have the book if I love it, so I’d go and get a copy. I borrow books sometimes if people have them to hand but generally I just buy what I want to read. I find it very satisfying to have a pile of books just waiting for me to dive into.

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What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

My dad, Ian Hall, just wrote a memoir called Fisherground: Living the Dream about the farm that we grew up on. I was very proud to add it to my bookshelves. The last books I bought were Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Taiye Selassi’s Ghana Must Go.

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

I’m dying to read Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English, Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, and The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. Oh, and of course Armistead Maupin’s Days of Anna Madrigal. I’m so excited to read that.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I think they’d probably think it’s quite eclectic and pretty wide-ranging. Perusing shelves is the first thing I do when I go to someone’s house – it really does tell you a lot about the person, and I’ve bonded with people or fancied them because of their taste. So I hope my taste makes me look good!

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A huge thanks to Catherine for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, as if she had any choice, and for letting me stay so often when I pop down to London town. She is rather a legend. If you haven’t read The Proof of Love, which is one of my favourite books and if you have read this blog for a while you will know that, then you must get a copy NOW! Anyway… Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Catherine’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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Filed under Catherine Hall, Other People's Bookshelves

Days of Grace – Catherine Hall

There are some authors whose writing I think can touch the very heart of an individual readers ‘reading soul’. I know that might sound a bit bonkers but sometimes you can pick up a book and feel that it has been written for you, regardless of the subject matter. Of course this is lunacy because the author doesn’t know you and many people may too feel the same way about said book, regardless in your head that book was written for you… The end. It’s so rare even your favourite authors don’t always do it, but some do. This has happened to me with authors such as Jane Harris and Edward Hogan (in particular both their second novels ‘Gillespie and I’ and ‘The Hunger Trace’ I swear were written for me and me alone and I won’t hear otherwise). Now Catherine Hall joins this select few authors who I would give both my arms to be able to write like, I am aware of the irony in this, after her debut novel ‘Days of Grace’ has bowled me over just as much as ‘The Proof of Love’ did yet for very different reasons.

*****, Portobello Books, paperback, 201o, fiction, 292 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

‘Days of Grace’ is one of those tricky, thrilling and mysterious novels where you are given two strands of the narrator’s life at once. We meet Nora both in the present as she silently come to terms with the fact that she is terminally ill, we also meet her aged twelve as the Second World war is on the cusp of breaking out and she is evacuated to the countryside.

The strands of her life at these points we meet her move forward, in the present as she watches and then comes to the aid of a pregnant neighbour and in the past as she moves into the Rectory of a Kent village and befriends the daughter of the family Grace, a friendship so strong it binds them together as friends for life, and complicates life for Nora, only something happens so tragic that it casts a shadow on Nora’s life forever leading to the lonely life of a secretive spinster in the present.

Of course you will all now be desperate to know what the secret is won’t you? Well, you would have to read the book to find out and whilst that may seem teasing of me I really do hope you rush out and get a copy because it is just so wonderful. And now I shall explain why…

I found Nora fascinating from the off. Having read some other reviews of the book since it seems some people have found her aloof and a little cold, I can understand what they mean but I was all the more intrigued about her because of it, how does a relatively care-free young girl (well, as care-free as one could have been during WWII) become a woman so cut off from the world? As I read on, especially as everything is revealed, I could completely understand it. Yet she is also at odds with herself, she helps a pregnant young girl, only years ago she was a vital part of a vibrant independent bookshop (this is a bookish book, I loved her all the more for loving Rebecca as a young girl), I was rather fascinated by her no matter how distant she could be. There is of course the question of how reliable she may or may not be, obsession can lead to romanticising and changing events, but again I loved this too. I do like an unreliable narrator.

“Be careful what you say. Like everyone else, you will hear things that the enemy mustn’t know. Keep that knowledge to yourself – and don’t give away any clues. Keep smiling.”

What I also really admired and loved about the book is that even though we have one narrator we have two stories. These are told in alternating chapters throughout the book. This device is one that is used often and normally I have to admit one story will overtake my interest as I read on. Not in the case of ‘Days of Grace’. I was desperate to know what was going to happen with Nora and Grace as the war went on both in idyllic Kent and the roughness and danger of London but I also wanted to know, just as much, what was going to happen with Nora in the present, her health and the relationship with Rose and her baby. Both stories had me intrigued and I think that was because Catherine Hall very cleverly has the stories mystery foreboding the past tense narrative and shadowing the present without us knowing what it is until the last minute. I thought this brilliantly paced and plotted out. I had no idea what was coming yet in hindsight I can see where the clues and hints were dropped.

I was completely spellbound by ‘Days of Grace’. It made me cry on more than one occasion, the first being because of the cancer storyline and everything going on with Gran (yet this was also oddly cathartic) at the moment but at the end just because the culmination of the book and the emotions running through it suddenly hit you.

For a book of 292 pages there is a huge amount going on and so, like with a lot of my favourite authors, there is not a spare word unnecessarily nestled in the prose. It is also one of those wonderful novels that manages to be ‘literary’ yet also have that utterly compelling pace and mystery at its heart that you become quite addicted. I didn’t actually want to be parted from it (so I nearly cancelled seeing people), and yet I didn’t want it to end (so I kept my appointments after all). Basically, if you haven’t taken the hint yet, I am urging you to give this book a whirl. It’s marvellous.

Has anyone else read ‘Days of Grace’, if so what did you think? Did any of you run off and read ‘The Proof of Love’ after I raved about it last year? Do any of you have moments, like I mentioned early on, where you start reading a book and think ‘this was written for me’ and if so who is the author and what was the book?

Oh and a small note: you can see me in conversation with Catherine Hall and Patrick Gale next Monday at Manchester Literature Festival, where I will be demanding to know when the next book is coming out and more.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Catherine Hall, Portobello Books, Review

The Proof of Love – Catherine Hall

There are some books that catch your unawares when you least expect it. They take you away to a world you aren’t sure will be your ‘cup of tea’ and captivate you, they make you want to read the whole book in a sitting or two whilst also wanting to make every single page count. You are bereft when the book finishes and you can’t stop talking about it at any opportunity you get. ‘The Proof of Love’ by Catherine Hall is a book that did just that. I admit that if someone had said ‘read a book about a Cambridge mathematician who escapes the academic world by voluntarily farming in the lake district in the 1970’s’ I probably would have said, very politely, ‘I’m not sure that’s my thing’. However I couldn’t have been more wrong by this exceptional novel which will be flying into my top five books of the year so far no questions.

Spencer Little arrives in a rural village in the Lake District by bicycle on the hottest day of the sweltering summer of 1976 looking for nothing more than work in exchange for lodging and board. He decides to try the first farm he comes across, Mirethwaite, and the home of the Dodd’s family. Here he becomes a kind of addition to a rather interesting family consisting of the young and loveably precocious ten year old Alice, her subdued mother Mary and the head of the household, and rather frightening, Hartley, a man fuelled by alcohol and anger. It’s an interesting dynamic to a tale about rural life and ‘incomers’ as well as one of just why Spencer is escaping from the very start and one that becomes more compelling as it goes.

“It was hard to get used to Hartley’s new, jovial manner. Together with the beer, it made Spencer feel disorientated, as if he had stepped into another world, somewhere far away from either the competition of Cambridge or the tensions of Mirethwaite. Now Hartley was going over to the bar and ordering three large glasses of whisky. He brought them back to the table, his cheeks flushed, eyes bright under dark eyebrows.”

As well as there being the family dynamic in ‘The Proof of Love’ Catherine Hall also introduces the villagers and village life. She gets the mixture of slightly claustrophobic and rather remote spot on. Add to it this sweltering heat and you can really get a sense of atmosphere. She also makes sheep farming and village fetes rather exciting which I think deserves a mention. I was honestly on the edge of my seat during a scene involving the removal of a ram’s horns. Not something I would have expected to ever hear myself say. In creating the sense of a real village one of Hall’s other great achievements is her characters, one of my favourites after Alice, was the elderly spinster Dorothy Wilkinson. Dorothy in a way becomes the middle man of the story and gives it a peripheral view on occasion, who many people think is ‘a witch’ and yet is one of the few people to befriend this new outsider Spencer. Hall as an author also manages to encapsulate the gossip and one up man ship caused by boredom and small minds in the women of the town, the men are too often in the pub and not seen so often, in fact it’s these very things that give the book its great twists as it moves forward.

“Oh, leave him alone,’ said the lean, well-dressed woman on her right. Unlike the other women she was wearing make-up, her lips painted an immaculate red. As he turned towards Spencer he caught a whiff of strong perfume. ‘There’s plenty of time for him to get involved in the wretched fete if he wants.’ She flashed him a glossy smile. ‘Although I’d think carefully about it, if I were you. It seems to get people rather caught up in it.
 Margaret bristled. ‘Oh Valerie. I just thought it would be a good way for him to make friends. He cant spend all his time up at the farm with Hartley Dodds and that brother of his.’
 ‘And Mary,’ said Valerie, raising a perfectly arched eyebrow. ‘We mustn’t forget her.’
 She was looking at Spencer with something which seemed like amusement. Avoiding her eyes, he looked out of the window. A farmer was sitting on a tractor, cutting grass in the field beyond the vicarage. He wished they could exchange places.”

Catherine does something very clever with Spencer. He does both alienate and ingratiate himself in village life. He builds a lovely relationship with the young Alice Dodds, whilst also trying to keep everyone at arms length. Ask him anything about Cambridge and he shuts down, this off course adds a second strand to the tale of just why he left and encourages us to read on. It’s like a story of a man’s struggle to reinvent himself as the man who he really is. You will of course probably need to read the book, and indeed you should, in order to get what I mean and see the brilliance of Hall’s writing as she achieves that.

“He was, he thought, quite unlike the person who had arrived on his bicycle a month before. He felt excitement stir in his stomach, a rumble of possibility, as if he were emerging from a cocoon. The prospect was both daunting and a thrill.”

As I mentioned I didn’t think that this would be a book that was my sort of thing but I was proven 100% wrong as Catherine Hall weaved me into a subtle and sublime tale that shocks its reader in quick succession half way through and within pages gives the reader a real foreboding of what might be coming for the final 100 pages. You want to read on and you daren’t all at once. I wonder if it’s that factor that has caused the ‘Sarah Waters meets Daphne Du Maurier’ quote. It’s a big hype for any author to be compared to these two novelists, and one I don’t think it’s fair to call. In fact I think Catherine Hall deserves to simply be called a brilliant author in her own right.

I can’t hide the fact that I loved ‘The Proof of Love’. It’s a book that gently weaves you in. You become both an ‘outcomer’ and one of the locals. You are part of the loneliness and isolation of Spencer as well as the gossiping heart of the community, part of the mystery and part of the suspicions. It’s a very subtly clever book, it doesn’t show off the fact that it’s a rare and wonderful book at any point, but I can assure you it is. 10/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

I should mention the fact that I was first made aware of this book through Cornflower Books and then ‘Fiction Uncovered’ (I have also read ‘Night Waking’ by Sarah Moss – review soon – which is on the shortlist and well worth a read, so I may now have to read them all) and you can see a wonderful, and much shorter – sorry, endorsement from one of its judges Sarah Crown, who is also the editor of the Guardian Books website, which I thought I should share…

I couldn’t agree with her more and urge you all to read ‘The Proof of Love’ and let it slowly and silently creep up on you unawares. I am going to have to get Catherine Hall’s debut novel ‘Days of Grace’ very, very soon. Has anyone else read either of Catherine Hall’s books? Which book has completely surprised you with its brilliance, when you were least expecting it, of late?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Catherine Hall, Fiction Uncovered, Granta Books, Portobello Books, Review