Category Archives: Ian McEwan

The Savidge Reads Hall of Fame… Ian McEwan

So today seemed the ideal time to start a new series of posts on the blog in the form of, the rather grandly titled, Savidge Reads Hall of Fame. Over the next few weeks, months and years as I continue on my reading life I will be doing special posts on my favourite authors. I have also created a special page on the blog especially which will contain all the titles by the author and links to the books I have read and reviewed of theirs along the way. This will encourage me to read all the books by my favourite authors and may lead you to some new authors if you like most of the ones that I like, if that makes sense. There are some rules though, but you can find more of those on the Hall of Fame page.

Anyway without further ado my first author in the Savidge Reads Hall of Fame is Ian McEwan…

The first book I read by them was… The very first novel I read by Ian McEwan was his very first novel ‘The Cement Garden’, though I didn’t realise it at the time, it was random fate.

The reason that I initially read them was… If I am being honest, which I think is best; there was no huge plan for me to pick up an Ian McEwan book. I was just meandering through my mother’s shelves when I was in my mid-teens and I picked ‘The Cement Garden’ simply because it was short. I wasn’t expecting it to be the dark and frankly rather shocking story of incest and murder that it was, yet that was actually what gripped me.

The reason that they have become one of my favourite authors, and I would recommend them, is… He never writes the same novel twice. Even if the subject, like in ‘Solar’, might not be the sort of thing that I am interested in he always makes me interested. His narrators always have quirks and you can never quite work them out, yet you like them even if occasionally you know you shouldn’t. I also like the fact there is inevitably a dark streak at the heart of them.

My favourite of their novels so far has been… I think it has to be ‘Atonement’ as it is a masterpiece. That said I think as a novella ‘On Chesil Beach’ is utterly brilliant. It was the first novella I read that showed me they could be as powerful, if not more so, than any novel. Read it!!!

If there was one of their works I had a novel with it would have to be… I actually have two. I started ‘Saturday’ and didn’t quite get on with it, so gave it up but will return to it – I think it was all the brain surgery stuff. I also found ‘First Love, Last Rights’ a compelling read but utterly disturbing and uncomfortable to read, almost too much so.

The last one of their novels that I read was… His latest novel ‘Sweet Tooth’ which is probably his most autobiographical and a must for McEwan fans.

The next I am planning on reading is… I think I need to read ‘Enduring Love’ next out of all of his books because I have heard it has one of the most brilliant opening sequences ever. This excites me.

What I would love them to do next is… I would actually really like him to write another collection of short stories. Having read him writing some short stories as a character in ‘Sweet Tooth’, and enjoying those stories within the story so much, I think it would be really interesting to have another collection of ‘Ian Macabre’ stories, though maybe he has mellowed.

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So that is my first one done. There may be another in just a few weeks, we will see as I want to do it on whim. So who else do you think might end up in my Hall of Fame? Who would be in yours? What do you think of this new series of posts? Do let me know.

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Sweet Tooth – Ian McEwan

There are some authors we each hold so dear that as soon as they have a new book coming out you are simply palpitating at the very thought. Ian McEwan is one such author for me; I am a big fan of all of the novels of his I have read and indeed many of his short stories, so that over time he has become a favourite, even if I have occasionally been a little non-plussed by a story or book along the way. I was particularly excited about ‘Sweet Tooth’ as from the start there were murmurs that this was McEwan’s first proper ‘thriller’, I say proper because there are often thrilling literary elements in all his novels, so as soon as it arrived all life was on hold until I had read it, yes that is how excited I was.

****, Jonathan Cape, 2012, hardback, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘Sweet Tooth’ is set in London during the early 1970’s which, looking back, was a time of great uncertainty with the IRA and the Cold War and a time of social change illustrated in part by, as McEwan brings up more than once, supermarkets and supermarket trolleys cropping up here there and everywhere. It is in this period that our narrator, Serena Frome (rhymes with ‘plume’), ends up working for MI5 and becoming a spy as part of a project called ‘Sweet Tooth’. Serena is given the task of, with her beauty and love of books, getting author Tom Haley to join in a government funded venture which promotes authors with leftish views, apparently this happened. Yet at the same time is Serena being toyed with and spied on herself as an affair with one of her lecturers, who led her to MI5, starts to be scrutinised when it appears that he wasn’t quite the spy everyone thought he was.

One of the things I liked about ‘Sweet Tooth’ so much from the start was that there is so much going on albeit so subtly you do ponder in the first 80 pages if there is going to be a ‘thrilling’ pace at any point because lots of things meander along. As we get to know Serena’s story, which is told after 40 years of hindsight, the hints of her sexual freeness, family background and obsession with escaping into books slowly builds a portrayal of her, though we are never sure quite of her motives or actions. I should mention her that there is a certain coldness and distance from her, coming no doubt from all that happens in the story we read and being a spy, that I did initially think ‘this is so not Ian McEwan’. Yet whilst much is hinted at as the story develops there are almost too many strands none of which are quite fully fleshed out.

As Serena meets Tom Haley everything really kicks off a gear and yet it all slows down at once. The mention of the IRA and Cold War even politics, which I was finding oddly fascinating, sort of fall away to be replaced with a tale about an author in the 1970’s. The book becomes less and less a thriller and more almost a fictionalised account of the author himself. If I was a thriller fan I have to say about 160 pages in I would have been feeling quite cheated, as a fan of McEwan I read on because I wanted more of the story and to see where Serena, who I found oddly compelling as I didn’t know if I liked her or not, went (and the twists at the end do make the book) and also to learn more about Ian McEwan, oh hang on, I mean Tom Haley.

‘My evenings now were empty. I came home from work, took my groceries from ‘my’ corner of the fridge, cooked my supper, passed the time with the solicitors if they happened to be around, then read in my room in my boxy little armchair until eleven, my bedtime. That October I was absorbed by the short stories of William Trevor. The constrained lives of his characters made me wonder how my own existence might appear in his hands. The young girl alone in her bedsit, washing her hair in the basin, daydreaming about a man from Brighton who didn’t get in touch, about the best friend who had vanisged from her life, about another man she had fallen for whom she must meet tomorrow to hear about his wedding plans. How grey and sad.’

The thing that really sold me on the book was the fact that it is all about books, in fact to be honest it is much more about books and writing than it is spies. As I mentioned Serena is a book lover and as we learn of her love of books, as book lovers, we like her a lot more. As she reads up on Haley, his journalism and retells, which seemed slight odd at first, his short stories (which read a lot like McEwan’s early short stories funnily enough, these were wonderful) we almost get a literary critique from as Serena analyses them looking for Haley in them. It is quite an unusual technique, and indeed novel, in a lot of ways and will either really work for you, once you get past the ‘this isn’t really a thriller’ element, or will fall completely flat.

I think, in hindsight and after giving it some thought, ‘Sweet Tooth’ is very much a book from McEwan for his already established audience, which his publishers have labelled his ‘thriller’ rather than saying ‘McEwan does a book about spies and books’ because it might sell better (though it’s McEwan so it will sell regardless, let’s be honest) and reach a new audience. This could prove an error as anyone seeking a thriller won’t get what they are expecting, and that could lead to some serious disappointment. I personally was expecting something along the lines, only different because it was McEwan, of William Boyd’s ‘Restless’ which I really liked. Subsequently I spent a little time being disheartened that the thrills and spills weren’t really there, as I imagined with McEwan they would have been so good, but was won over, and ended up liking the book a lot, because I felt it was the first time I really got into the head of Ian McEwan which I was happy with and also it is a very bookish book. Objectively though, my fandom aside, I am not sure a ‘thriller’ fan would feel quite the same way though.

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First Love, Last Rites – Ian McEwan

I am not generally a prudish person. I might not like the odd swear word in a book if it jars or seems out of character, but I don’t believe reading should always be comfortable and in fact some literature needs to be confronting to address certain issues. Odd then that, a favourite author of mine too, Ian McEwan’s debut collection of short stories ‘First Love, Last Rites’ has left me feeling rather conflicted, I read it all with a feeling that I really shouldn’t continue on and yet I did.

Vintage Books, paperback, 1975, fiction, short stories, 176 pages, from my personal TBR

‘First Love, Last Rites’ is a murky collection of tales. The subject matter in these short stories will disturb and quite possibly offend the most hardened or open minded of us. Here we have a mixture of titillating tales of naked posing, masturbation and dressing up, but we also have a much darker selection based on incest, rape, child abduction, possible murder and abuse. With the lighter few of these stories like ‘Cocker at the Theatre’ (think Mrs Henderson Present’s but a bit filthier and made me guffaw) I read in a rather teenage giggly way. However the darker stories really divided me.

I have read many book in which horrific things are depicted, be they from incest to the horrors of war, and have found the occasional graphic nature of them to be appropriate and justified rather than offensive, uncomfortable yes but not without reason. With ‘First Love, Last Rites’ I couldn’t really work out if these darker tales needed to be told (odd I know seeing as I think McEwan’s ‘The Cement Garden’ is a fantastic if horrific novella) and if so how graphically. For example ‘Butterflies’ would be a celver but disturbing tale of a man abducting a child, agreed not a story for everyone, and yet when the actual horrific act happens McEwan does a lot of showing and telling, rather than possibly leave it to the readers imagination – which can actually be worse.

It was this factor that made me feel rather like a voyeur and made me ponder on why I was reading these stories. What was the point in them when they had no real depth and seemed to be a young author’s first works based on how to be shocking; this was the difference between these shorts and ‘The Cement Garden’ which is a fully rounded deeply disturbing tale. It was this very feeling which I tried to express on twitter when I said that I had been compelled to read them when I didn’t think I should and how I then ended up feeling rather ‘grubby’ afterwards.

As a fan of McEwan’s work (and I have read a lot of it) I weirdly wasn’t as disappointed with this collection as I could have been despite my thoughts above. It sort of seemed to make sense. I interestingly don’t think I would have been compelled to read anymore of McEwan’s work; in fact I was rather surprised it won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976, if I had happened upon this first apart from possibly as a teenager when the titillation factor would have won over, hey I wasn’t so selective in my reading then. However having become a fan of McEwan from his more modern and better known novels I can see this whole series of tales as almost warm ups as to what was to come. This didn’t endear me to ‘First Love, Last Rites’ any the more, it just explained it in some way to me.

‘First Love, Last Rites’ is a challenging and dark read, one which should you choose to try out will have you looking at the fine lines between being a reader and a voyeur and also between what makes a challenging read and one which seems set simply to shock, albeit very well written like all of McEwan’s works.

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Filed under Ian McEwan, Review, Short Stories, Vintage Books

The Cement Garden – Ian McEwan

I am not in general much of a re-reader. I think it’s because with so many new books out there each week I always feel like I might be missing out on something. Every now and again though one of my previous favourite reads will take my fancy or seem to be calling to me and Ian McEwan’s debut novel ‘The Cement Garden’ which was recommended when I asked on twitter for a shirt dark read that might take a hold of me during a mini reading funk (yes I have had one of those already in 2011, fortunately it seems to have passed) and though I had read it I thought it might be just the ticket and indeed it was.

‘The Cement Garden’ is only 144 pages but it’s a book that certainly packs a punch. After the death of their mother Julie (17), Jack (15),  Sue (13) and Tom (6) decide, with their father already dead, that rather than be separated and go into care they will cover up their mother’s death by encasing her in cement in the basement. If you are thinking that this is a grim start (and I haven’t given much away as that’s very near the beginning) thinks get darker as the book progresses. Soon Jack begins to take the role of head of the house to a new level and the siblings begin to become aware of their own sexuality, which leads them to look at each other in a whole new light, including Julie’s dating of Derek which threatens the whole dynamic and leads to a rather dramatic dénouement.

To say much more would be to ruin what can occasionally be a jaw dropping and shocking read. Having read it before I thought the effect might not be so great on me, I was wrong. I found the atmosphere and the things that were left unsaid even more ominous than the first time round and actually more uncomfortable than the events that happen as the book progresses. At the same time it’s a fascinating look into the psyche of teenagers and young adults as they grow and indeed how they cope with death and their own mortality, though of course most teenagers don’t bury their mother, start to experiment in cross dressing or with their own siblings.

Some people will no doubt find this book distasteful. I’m not really someone who thinks you should always be sitting comfortably with a book and after all this is fiction. It’s incredibly written, the writing being taught to create the same atmosphere, and is well told and constructed. It’s dark as well as occasionally, and you might find this odd, being sometimes rather melodramatically comic. Even though you might not like the characters or what they do you won’t be able to stop yourself from routing for them as the novel goes on. Or maybe that’s just me? It’s a book thats horrifically gripping and will stay with you for weeks afterwards. 9.5/10

I would recommend you give this a whirl, be you a fan of McEwan or not, even if you think it might make for a rather uncomfortable read. I personally would like to see McEwan go back to his darker roots with his next novel as when he does bleak he des it with brilliance.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Ian McEwan, Vintage Books

In Between The Sheets – Ian McEwan

For some people the two words ‘Ian McEwan’ will have them running for the hills from any blog post. I personally am quite a big fan, in fact as yet there haven’t been any of his books that I haven’t liked (enjoyed isn’t always a word you can use with McEwan) though I might have struggled with a few here and there. I had, until now, never tried his short stories – short stories seem to be the perfect reads between Green Carnation submissions at the moment. ‘In Between The Sheets’ is a collection that I borrowed from my Mum when I stayed recently and thought it was about time I gave a whirl. This can prove a risk, as short stories are hard to write, I have noticed in the past (not naming any names) some of my favourite authors can’t do it, could McEwan?

You can pretty much guess what this collection centres on from its title ‘In Between The Sheets’ but rather than just a collection of stories based around sex and sexuality McEwan uses these themes to build a set of stories which are much more than that. ‘Reflections of a Kept Ape’ is both a nod towards Darwin’s views on evolution and also in a way looks at the ideas behind the Oedipus complex whist setting gorilla’s in a house in the present day as neighbours of humans. The title story ‘In Between the Sheets’ uses a young girl’s sexual awakening to highlight the marriage breakdown of her parents. ‘Two Fragments: March 199-‘ starts with a slightly sexual theme, which it returns to later on, but is actually in fact about a dystopian future which McEwan was predicting could happen in the 1990’s, this collection being published in 1978 and was a vision of London that I found quite harrowing yet most readable and quite fascinating.

Naturally in any collection there are some books which you instantly warm to and others you don’t, in fact I think a collection in which you love every single story is a rare thing. Both ‘To and Fro’ and ‘Psychopolis’ I didn’t really get and I think would need a re-read but I think that’s more an issue with me as a reader and my understanding and what I took from them rather than them not being such good tales.

I was bowled over by two particular tales in this collection, bar the two mentioned in the paragraph above they all worked from me just two stood out particularly. ‘Dead As They Come’ is a brilliant and comically dark tale of a man’s obsession with a woman, only as you read on you realise the woman is not what you would first assume (I can almost guarantee its not what your guessing either) and leads to a melodramatic climax which has me gripped and starting the tale all over again.

The opening story ‘Pornography’ (which I would have placed as the last tale because of its impact) is the tale of womanising O’Byrne and how he gets his comeuppance. In fact it’s a rather feminist tale which I would direct any reader to read if they think McEwan is a male testosterone driven writer, which he can be on occasion I admit. That particular story is one that had a rather wince inducing (if you are a man) twist in its tail that I really wasn’t expecting.

In fact I think I would direct both people who already love McEwan and haven’t read this collection along with people who think they don’t like McEwan to ‘In Between The Sheets’. This was his fifth fiction outing and I do like the darkness in his earlier work, and have taken ‘The Cement Garden’ off the shelves for a re-read, and this is brimming with it. It also shows glimmers of where he took his writing afterwards.

A book that will: appeal to those who like McEwan regardless and possibly show him in a very different light to those who aren’t sure about him. An entertaining and thought provoking collection which makes a very interesting read. 8/10

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners:

The Breaking Point by Daphne Du Maurier – I am not comparing the authors, this is just one of my all time favourite short story collections of which some of its tales have stayed with me vividly ever since.
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – This has the dark sensuality of this collection only instead is a modern twist on certain fairytales. Interestingly this was published a year after ‘In Between The Sheets’ so maybe there are other collections from the late seventies I should be looking up?

Can you recommend any other late seventies short story collections I might want to have a crack at as I liked this and ‘The Bloody Chamber’ so much? Has anyone read McEwan’s other collection ‘First Love, Last Rites’? What are your thoughts on McEwan in general?

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Solar – Ian McEwan

I think I am one of the few people I know (in the flesh) to have read quite a few of Ian McEwan’s books and not to have yet felt I have been let down by any. I know plenty of people who have loved one or two and then really disliked one or two. So far I have enjoyed all of his works that I have read and yet there is always a small worry when you open the next one, just in case. His latest novel ‘Solar’ is one of the books I have been most excited about this year and so when it arrived last week the book I was currently reading was relegated for some other time. I knew nothing then of what the book might be about as it has been rather shrouded in mystery until the last week or so. I was worried though… I knew it was a book about science, and if you had been at my secondary school where I almost burnt down the science lab you would know me and science don’t really mix (in fact as my teacher at the time became my step dad it’s become a family fable). Anyway, back to the book.

Thinking logically from the title and from one of the most talked about topics in the world at the moment you could probably guess that ‘Solar’ could be a book about global warming and you would be right. I have to admit I was slightly concerned that this might not make for an interesting read there’s always the possibility of it coming across as preaching or you have to set the world far in the future to scare the hell out of everyone. In this case McEwan does neither, he sets the book over three period’s in the last ten years and creates a lead character who is a reluctant saver of the planet until he see’s the cash signs it could bring.

Michael Beard is the protagonist of McEwan’s latest work. He’s a Nobel Prize winning physicist (for the ‘Beard-Einstein Conflation’) who as we meet him in 2000 has seen the best days of his career behind him along with the best days of his 5th marriage. In fact Beard isn’t a particularly likeable character he is a philanderer of the highest order, lazy and only works now as head of the Government’s new National Centre for Renewable Energy for the cash. McEwan does write these sort of leading characters rather well and cleverly the more odious, dislikable and dark Beard becomes the more you want to read him.

So where is the global warming story? Well it intertwines with the tale of a man who is a failure at marriage, even the fifth time. As an escape from his wife, who after finding out about all his affairs has decided rather than to get gone to merely get even with their builder which of course makes Beard want her even more, Beard goes to the Arctic as part of his work to see what’s happening there and the need for his company to find clean energy. However once there Beard does wonder ‘how can people who can’t sort out a boot room ever save the planet’. Yet back in the UK someone may have found an answer, someone who Beard comes back to find is the latest in a string of men to shack up with his wife which ends in tragedy and with Beard the holder of the planets salvation… even if he didn’t really come up with it. From then on through several plot twists and some dark detours the book takes us on to the future where Beard becomes the possible hero of the planet and where the books menace really takes shape.

There is a lot of science in this book, in fact the book came to McEwan from his own trip to the Arctic in 2005, yet its digestible you know McEwan has done his research throughout and yet he doesn’t show off and leave you lots after a sentence. The book is also incredibly funny. I laughed and winced at a tale involving a call of nature and the affects of sub zero temperatures on the male appendage, Beards meeting with a Polar Bear is comical too, there is also a darkly comical accidental death looming somewhere, involving a polar bear skin rug, which will make you snigger even though it shouldn’t. If people were worried that this book and its mix of science, some politics (Bush and Blair) and would be preachy or weirdly futuristic you needn’t. This is a tale that makes even more of a point in its sudden conclusion because you have been laughing along the way.

I think this might be one of my very favourite books of the year so far, and that’s from someone who isn’t the least scientific, a clever mix of science, humour and human nature make it a book not to be missed in my opinion. Don’t worry this could be his next ‘Saturday’ (which I should admit I started once and wasn’t sure about so left for a day when the mood was right and now oddly I want another whirl at) because it isn’t but in the same vein don’t go expecting another ‘Atonement’ this is another original novel from McEwan which, like most of his works, is not like anything he has done before. I’ll be very surprised if this doesn’t get Booker long listed – though that prediction could be a kiss of death. If I had a rating system I would give this book a good 5/5!

Oh and should you wish to you can win a signed first edition copy of this on this very blog, all you need to do is go here before midday (GMT) tomorrow when the sun is at its highest point here in the UK. I will be off to get mine signed on Thursday when I go to see him speak at the Southbank.

Is anyone else a McEwan fan? Which books would you rave that aren’t his more well known ones? Have you read any other global warming fiction that hasn’t been set in the distant future?

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Filed under Books of 2010, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape Publishers, Random House Publishing, Review

Fancy a Signed Copy of ‘Solar’?

It’s a bit of a stop press moment… well I hope that you think so!

There will be a set of book thoughts on the most recent NTTVBG choice coming up later on today, first though I have something of a special Sunday giveaway here on Savidge Reads. Yes for one of you lucky so and so’s I have wangled a signed copy of Ian McEwan’s latest novel ‘Solar’ from the lovely people at Random House. I was tempted to call today ‘Spectacular Solar Savidge Sunday’ but thought that might be taking alliteration too far maybe?

So where is the catch and what do you have to do? Well it would be a bit fun if you could try and guess a plot from the title but the websites seem to now be giving that away so that scuppered that one.

So all you have to do is simply leave a comment about your favourite McEwan so far or why you would love to try him and no matter where in the world you are you will be entered for the drawer and you could very soon have a signed edition ready to read. You have until midday (GMT) on Tuesday the 16th to enter, winner will be drawn randomly and announced on Saturday. It’s that simple!

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Filed under Give Away, Ian McEwan, Random House Publishing