Category Archives: Jane Harris

Sugar Money – Jane Harris

One of the books that I have been most looking forward to, for quite some time, is Jane Harris’ Sugar Money. I was a huge fan of Harris’ debut The Observations pre-blog, in fact I believe it was one of the books that got me back into reading after Rebecca and Miss Marple, I remember my Gran buying it for me in Scarthin books. Anyway, I digress, long suffering standing readers of this blog will know that back in 2011 I then fell head over heels with Harris’s second novel Gillespie & I; a book which I genuinely felt like had been written for me and me alone. I know that sounds like I have an ego the size of a small continent but we all have those books don’t we, ones which seem like the author rooted through the ‘favourite things’ sections of the bookish corner in our brains? To cut a lot of waffle from me short, after two such reading hits with me how would I get on with her third novel…

Faber & Faber, hardback, 2017, fiction, 390 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Some masters are swift to get to the point when they give instructions; you might say they go directly through the main door, cross the threshold, no hesitation. Father Cleophas was not one of these. He would walk around the property first, try the windows, then wander off into the garden to gaze at the roof before eventually he retrace his step to the front of the dwelling and give a tentative knock and – whiles he went on this bumbling circumbendibus – you oblige to go with him, wondering what abominable toil or trouble might be in store for you whenever he finally came around and stated his requirement. With this rigmarole and in other ways, Cleophas like to cultivate the impression of being an absent-minded, kindly fellow and he would beguile you with that bilge awhile until you became better acquainted and began to cognise just how sly he could be, for true. My brother and I had encountered all manner of individual among the friars; a spectrum of humanity, from gentle coves who scarce could bear to swat a mosquito to the most heartless bully. Whiles Cleophas might not be the worst kind of tyrant, for true, he was surely as slippery as a worm in a hogshead of eel.

I was so tempted to simply leave the paragraph above with the words ‘how could you not read a book after you have read that’ and left that as my review, as really what more do you need to know? Yet a wonderful book like Sugar Money It is a paragraph brimming with everything I love, fantastic vivid prose, you both know the character of the narrator and Father Cleophas in mere sentences and it also brims with the past, the present and a potentially concerning future. It is funny and yet there are horrors hidden in the spaces between the charming tone. It is actually a paragraph that surmises everything that is so brilliant in Harris’ writing, atmosphere and characterisation as well as what you can expect from the rest of the book. But hang about, I have started waxing lyrical already and not even told you what Sugar Money is about so let’s rewind.

The year is 1765 and Lucien and his older brother Emile have been instructed to perform a mission for Father Cleophas who wants them to smuggle 42 slaves from the island of Grenada, where the brothers themselves once lived, back to him in Martinique where he feels they belong as he believes that these slaves have been stolen from the French by the British, or at least that is what he says. Anyway, this is not a mission that either of the brothers can say no to for they are slaves themselves and so a boat is sorted and soon they set sale. Lucien, our narrator, sees this both as a huge adventure and also as a way of seeing some of the people he just about remembers from Martinique. Emile however can only see the hard realities of what lies ahead and what seems and impossible task. Through his interactions with Lucien we get the sense there is much the younger brother doesn’t know and the first prickles of dread appear in our minds, we as readers catching Lucien’s sense of excitement whilst picking up Emile’s forewarnings that this will be anything but a tale of daring do.

I don’t want to give too much more of the story away because an adventure, which I do think this novel is albeit a rather harrowing one which had me in physical tears at the end, when you know what is coming isn’t going to have the effect that Harris clearly intends this book too. I will say that when we get to Grenada the brooding atmosphere that has been lingering at the edges builds and builds as you read on. There are some utterly gut wrenching scenes of how the slaves were treated, which Harris doesn’t flinch away from and show us how horrendously these people were treated and then she also cleverly reminds us that Emile and Lucien are slaves themselves and not two free young men on a rescue mission, they just undergo slightly less horrific lives as slaves themselves, which is a complete mind f**k in itself again. Yet this also calls out to the here and now, how often have we heard people say ‘well, we have made steps forward so that is ok, there is still hope?’ You are reading a ripping yarn but follow the threads and the undercurrents and there is much for us to ponder within the prose.

In case I am making this sound like too dark and harrowing tale, Harris interweaves the story of Sugar Money with humour which invariably comes from its cast of utterly fantastic characters. There are many things that I have loved in both Jane’s previous novels The Observations and Gillespie and I; unforgettable characters is one of them (atmosphere and sense of place another which are also in abundance in this novel) be they characters who appear for a page or two or the main narrators themselves. In the latter case Lucien is a welcome addition to Harris’ wonderful leads, the bawdy Bessie Buckley and the beguiling Harriet Baxter. He is cheeky, he breaks the rules and heads off on his own when he shouldn’t and his internal dialogue and perceptions have us hooked, and often horrified, by his side.

Unlike Bessie and Harriet, who were lone narrators if that makes sense, here we have the brotherly bond and banter of Emile, who frankly I fell head over heels in love with. He might seem an older bossy brother to Lucien but through the moments Lucien describes, without picking up on himself, we find a man who cares deeply for his brother, his former lover (a wonderful and moving additional strand in the book I won’t spoil) and yet one who knows the darkness of the world and just wants to do what is right or failing that what is best. If you do not fall for him then there is no hope for you and we simply can’t be friends.

‘But who is this with you, Emile?’
Chevallier forced a laugh.
‘You must recognise him?’
The old woman cast her eye over me, her mouth downturn. Then she took a step back.
‘Ha! Just like his mother – big ugly lips and skinny face.’
Well, that was nonsense for my mother was known for her beauty and I would have said as much except Emile shot me a warning glance.
Anqelique sat down and took up her pipe. The firelight threw flickering shadows across her face. Sharp creases ran from the corners of her nose to the ends of her lips. The skin below her eyes look puffy. She was old and lame. Nevertheless, she was still tough as old turtle, for true.

Yet what makes Sugar Money all the more powerful is also the cast of characters around these two. Be they the duplicitous Father Cleophas, the delightful Celeste, the villainous Dr Bryant or the matriarchal Angelique, to name just a few, these characters come to us brimming with life, with their own spectrum of perspectives stories to tell. It is with this collection of characters that we see how people can keep on going in times of adversity or simply times of utter horror and also how people keep hope in their hearts which adds to the emotional impact of a book such as this.

As you can see I could probably carry on singing the praises of Sugar Money for quite some time so, I shall simply round off by saying that if you want a tale of adventure and daring do, filled with wonderful characters, that makes you think and explores a period of history you may not know of (oh and I should say this book is based on a true story) that will leave you heartbroken yet with a sense of hope then this is a book you should be rushing out to get right now or what the tumpty-tum are you playing at?

You can get Sugar Money here if you would like, you can also see Jane and myself in conversation about this wonderful novel and both her others at Chester Literature Festival on November 19th tickets here. End of shameless self promotion in italics. 


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Filed under Books of 2017, Faber & Faber, Jane Harris, Review

Reading With Authors #6: A Summer of Drowning – John Burnside; With Jane Harris


Well Jane I am not sure how you will feel about this, but thanks to the magic of the internet we have ended up in a wooden log cabin in middle of the Artic Circle which is most apt for our discussion of ‘A Summer of Drowning’. It’s a bit chilly so do grab one of those fashionable all in one sleeping- bag outfits hanging up. Whilst you’re doing that what can I get you to drink, anything to eat?

Ah yes, the all-in-one sleeping-bag suit, that most flattering of garments. And in lime green too! Many thanks – I must look a treat. As for refreshments, perhaps in honour of our book “A Summer of Drowning” we should eat Napoleon Cake and drink lashings of coffee (as the narrator and her mother do). Now, let me just zip myself into this suit . . . there! We’re all set to begin.

So Jane, you chose (and no that’s not accusation you can hear in my tone) this book ‘A Summer of Drowning’, which I believe is John Burnside’s seventh. What made you want to read it, well us to read it?

I think this book was on my mind when you asked me to do this discussion. I was wondering what to read next and since I was in a period when I felt extremely liberated and able to read anything I wanted (rather than just reading books connected to my own research) what little I knew of this novel appealed to me. I say I knew little about it because I never ever read a review of a book until I’ve actually read the book itself. If at all possible, I like to know nothing in advance. Reading about what happens in a book spoils it for me. It’s the same with films: I never read the reviews until afterwards. I like to discover stories for myself. So I knew very little about this book, apart from the fact that it was written by John Burnside. I met him once, almost twenty years ago. We did a reading together at Morden Tower in Newcastle, and he seemed an extremely nice, kind man. When I was thinking of what to read next, I found it intriguing that he’d chosen to set his latest novel in a Scandinavian country (I was hazy on the details at that point so wasn’t sure if the location was Norway or Sweden).

Ooh, we do the same thing with books; I don’t like to know much before either. Though in this case I broke with that rule slightly as I hadn’t heard of it so googled the blurb to see what it might be like and I have to say from the blurb I was really excited. It sounded like a wonderfully dark mystery meets fairytale all around the drowning of some boys and why suddenly these deaths happened, along with the spooky tale of this creature/thing called ‘the huldra’ on a remote island called Kvaløya. Did it live up to your expectations, if you had any? I know I was expecting something…

Well, like I say, I tried to read as little as possible about it in advance but yes, I had an expectation that it would be a dark Scandinavian mystery, with echoes of a lot of the stuff that’s there in the culture at the moment, in films like “Let the Right One In” and in mainstream crime novels by authors like Jo Nesbo and Henning Mankel. I’m a bit of a scaredy cat when it comes to thrillers and horror. I don’t read much in that genre because it affects me too much. I haven’t read any Nesbo or Mankel, though I may do, if I pluck up the courage. I suppose, in the back of my mind, I was hoping that “A Summer of Drowning” would have some of the edginess of one of those Scandinavian thrillers, without being too gory.

I can recommend the first Mankell, I though Nesbo was quite good. Neither of them have become favourites and I havent got on with the Larsson books. Can anyone recommend any books for Jane out there? Back to this book, and I hate to do this… but I didn’t like the book overall, I have to say. BUT, and this is a big but, I did like the sum of its parts. I will get the negatives out of the way first, and first up is the nature of the writing. There is no question John is a wonderful writer in terms of the way he puts his prose, but from the prologue alone I thought ‘goodness this is repetitive’. It was almost like he had to use every possible variation on ‘this is going to be a mystery’ and go on about it… admittedly in a beautiful way. Am I being too harsh as beautiful writing is beautiful writing?

He is a fabulous writer, isn’t he? I suppose I know what you mean about the writing being repetitive, and normally that would probably annoy me but I found it hard to dislike this book. I had a bit of trouble getting into it, at first, but once I did sink into its atmosphere – and atmosphere is, I think, the most stunning element of this novel – I almost felt like I was in a trance: a trance, or a dream which turned, at times, into a nightmare. I don’t know how he has done it, but he seems to have captured certain moods, emotions, states of mind, ways of being and ways of seeing, that I can hardly even put into words. There’s the immense lonliness of Liv, the narrator, and the sense of what it’s like to be young and living in a remote place. There’s the eeriness of being alone in a vast landscape, and what can be the sudden overwhelming panic and terror of that (something I’ve experienced a fair few times in my life). There’s the sense of being observed, and the addiction to observing, as experienced by Liv when she spies on her neighbours. Yes, at times, the prose was repetitive but I began to wonder whether that was part of the point – was this Liv, obsessively working things over and over in her mind, poring over every little detail, examining nuances, notions, neurotically trying to find answers to the mysteries in the story, unable to tell what was real any longer, and what was not?

More drink or nibbles Jane? Could you give the fire a poke while I am doing that?

But of course. No more cake, thank you, otherwise I’ll never get out of this slug-suit. But I’d love some more coffee.

My second critique is that the book seemed to have so much to say, so many themes and yet no anchor to the story. Some books have no plot and they work really well, this had lots of threads, mystery, the pedophilic storyline, the coming of age, the relationship with mothers theme, the magical fairytale/fable element, the underlying horror… I could go on and on. After I finished whilst I was left impressed by all Burnside had written I didn’t feel they all cohesively worked. Again maybe I am being too harsh or didn’t get it?

Yes, in a way I know what you mean and I think that ordinarily, all that might have frustrated me. I suppose, to begin with, I was expecting something more plot-driven, some form of detective element perhaps, with Liv solving the mysteries of the disappearances and strange occurences. However, once I realised that I wasn’t going to get that, I just allowed myself to sink into the narrative that Burnside had created. And in a way, the book was more scary and creepy than if he’d worked on consolidating the plot or tying up the loose ends. It was more nightmarish because the strange things that happen remain unexplained. It’s not even as simple as knowing whether what happens is real or all in the mind, or minds, of certain characters. I’m not a huge fan of magic realism (that’s an understatement, by the way) and I love the way Burnside kept the story rooted in the real, while, around the edges, it’s almost as though a hidden, terrifying world is peeping through, threatening to overwhelm reality.

I loved the idea of ‘the huldra’, a Norse myth of a woman who seduces men and then kills them or rewards them dependent on mood, and how Liv (our narrator) thinks she is embodied to Maia who is a local girl on the island. There was  something in that which reminded me of when you are at school and you think your teacher is a witch etc. I thought this theme and story arch was my favourite, was it yours?

Yes, I agree. I found all of that stuff incredibly creepy and scary. The encounters between those two girls, the description of the painting that Liv’s mother paints of Maia, the sense of Maia being a power that cannot be reckoned with – all extremely powerful. It really did give me chills. Even now when I think about it, it makes me shiver.

‘A Summer of Drowning’ is told by Liv, who is looking back on it as memories, did this work for you? I wondered why Burnside used it especially with regard to the ending which is ambiguous to say the least…

That’s an interesting point and it’s always a very niggling question for a writer, I think – what point in time do you tell your story from? I always agonise over that because it has such an impact on how your narrator will tell the story, how fresh it is in their mind, how much they have been able to rationalise or gloss over events, and so on. To be honest, I didn’t really question the decision that Burnside had made so I suppose it must have worked for me. I like where he has the character of Liv ending up – it seemed inevitable that she is now doing what she does, and there’s a delicious ambiguity right until the end, which I enjoyed.

I have to say the ending made me cross. Really cross. I felt like after all that I ended up at a loss, and I am not a reader who has to have everything spelt out for them, I felt cheated like I had made all this effort and what for?

Yes, I know you don’t need everything spelt out for you because of what you’ve written about certain other books (ahem!).  Like you, I don’t tend to like everything spelt out either. I’m going to have to think a bit more about “A Summer of Drowning”. I just finished it this morning, so it’s all very fresh in my mind. I can say though that it didn’t make me cross because about two thirds of the way through I had a feeling I wouldn’t get the kind of answers that one might expect from a mainstream thriller and so I put aside that expectation and tried to accept the novel for what it was, and to appreciate the consolations of being drawn into such a creepy world, while not being able to figure out exactly how he (the writer) was making me scared and unsettled.

That all said I would like to try some of John Burnside’s other books, maybe this wasn’t the best one to start with?

If I were you I might try “A Lie About my Father” which is Burnside’s memoir.

So over to all of you, pop a sleeping bag suit on and get cosy in the cabin with some cake and tea. Who else has read this and what did you think? Is it reflective of John Burnside over all? What other books would you recommend of his to Jane and myself? Anything else to add?


Filed under Jane Harris, John Burnside, Reading With Authors 2011

Savidge Reads Grills… Jane Harris

The wonder of the internet means that you can do an interview anywhere in the world. So today we are whizzing up through the countryside with Jane Harris, author of ‘The Observations’ and ‘Gillespie and I’ which has become my latest favourite book, with Glasgow as the destination. Whilst sipping on cups of tea, from a flask of course not that train dishwater, and maybe munching on a cupcake or two. Discussing ‘Victorian sensation novels’, second book syndrome, reading, writing and books. So grab yourself a cup of tea too and join us for a natter…

Can you explain the story of ‘Gillespie & I’ in a single sentence?

Thinking of a single sentence to describe this book is quite difficult. I’m tempted to take the Hollywood route and say that it’s “Jaws” meets “The Turn of the Screw” – but with a heart. (Simon can confirm that without their being any sharks or boats he actually knows what Jane means here.)

How did the story come about? Was there anything in particular that inspired you with this novel?

When I was thinking about what to write after ‘The Observations’ I went back to the box in the attic where I’d kept a number of unfinished ideas for short stories (which is where I discovered the beginnings of ‘The Observations’). On one scrap of paper, I found something I’d scribbled years ago: “Artist, 19th century, Glasgow.” This appealed to me – although I’d wanted, after my first novel, to write something contemporary and short. But this historical idea was the one that grabbed me so. . . I went with it. Initially, I had thought of writing something quite feminist, perhaps featuring one of the Glasgow Girls (a group of Scottish female artists of the time) and her struggles to be taken seriously as an artist, but once I began doing my research the story changed direction. It was particularly when I read about a particular court case that the beginnings of a psychological thriller plot began to form in my mind.

It’s a book that you don’t want to give too much away with, so that makes reviewing it and questioning you rather difficult. I think it’s safe to say that the narrator Harriet Baxter is quite a complex lead figure, how did you create her?

You’re right, she is complex and also flawed (as are most, if not all, of my characters). I like flawed characters. I had a lot of fun with Bessy, the narrator of ‘The Observations’, but I knew that in my second novel I wanted a new challenge and so I picked a character who was quite different from Bessy. Instead of an almost illiterate (though clever) Irish girl who is quite garrulous and uncontrolled in some ways, and who doesn’t know the first thing about punctuation, I came up with Harriet who, as narrator, is a highly-educated, very controlled Englishwoman, who is completely anal and who over-punctuates and uses long sentences. I had in mind one or two old ladies of my acquaintance, apparently charming, girlish-voiced old dears, whose polite manners and polish conceal a viper-like wit.

As ‘Gillespie & I’ goes on there are lots and lots of twists and turns, which of course we don’t want to spoil. Yet when reading it there are the subtlest of hints which cause the reader to become engrossed and also rather uneasy, was that a difficult situation to create? How do you know when you are sewing the right, or indeed wrong red herring, seeds of doubt in a readers mind as you write the book?

I was learning all about that sort of technique as I wrote this book and I’m still not quite sure what the answer is. I think partly it’s down to instinct. Of course, I plan everything beforehand, the major twists and turns, but I tended to seed the red herrings and clues as I went along, and kept checking that I wasn’t overdoing it by reading everything aloud. It’s only when the manuscript is finished that you can really tell whether you’ve over or under-done it. I also had a lot of help in this respect from my editor and a handful of trusted readers. As it turned out, in the initial draft, I had been too subtle, so it was a question of going back and making a few things a bit clearer.

I think it’s fair to say that both ‘Gillespie & I’ and your debut novel ‘The Observations’ are quite gothic and have the Victorian ‘sensational’ feel about them, were books by the likes of Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon books that you have always loved or is this just the sort of books you naturally write?

I’m an indiscriminate reader in that I will read almost anything that is set in front of me. As a child, I would read cereal packets if there was nothing else to hand. So I devoured all kinds of books: contemporary, pre-20th century, all the novels my parents left lying around, and everything I could carry home from the library. To be honest, I think it’s an accident that I’m writing this kind of novel. When I started writing, I was coming up with contemporary short stories about my boyfriends and family. It was only in desperation (after almost giving up writing) that I decided to try and write a novel set in the 19th Century, based on an unfinished, lengthy short story which seemed to hold some promise. Luckily for me, that book caught the attention of a publisher. However, having said that, as a child I loved 19th Century novels like Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, The Water Babies etc, and as an adult I still love Henry James, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Wilkie Collins. However, I do wonder if I’ll return to writing about the contemporary. One strand of ‘Gillespie and I’ is set in the early 1930s, which pleases me, because at least I have a toehold in the 20th century.

After the success of ‘The Observations’ did you ever worry about that ‘second book syndrome’ or feel any additional pressure about ‘Gillespie & I’? Was this why there was such a gap between the two?

The only thing that worried me about ‘second book syndrome’ was the fact that, even before I had begun book two, I knew for certain I’d be asked this question by journalists and bloggers and it would be an effort not to betray my irritation. Ha ha! (but true).

Here’s the long answer. I don’t think I felt any additional pressure for the second book. I think writing books is hard enough anyway. The first one was hard. The second one was hard. They’ll all be hard, in different ways. My first novel took me 12 or 13 years -four years in total of writing with about nine years of just lying in a box (that’s the novel, not me), so I’ve done the second book in less than half the time. The gap between the two was four years (The Observations was published in 2006 in the UK, and I submitted ‘Gillespie and I’ at the end of 2010). Both these novels are 500 pages long: that’s twice as long as the average novel, so it follows that it should take twice as long to write them. Four years divided by two is two years. The received wisdom is that a writer should be turning out a book every two years. If you look simply at page count, I’ve done that. Besides, I could have produced a book within two years, but it would have been a much worse book. In my opinion, the book is everything; some arbitrary deadline is nothing. Better to have a book that I’m proud of – a book that gets reviews like the one you gave ‘Gillespie and I’ yesterday (for which MANY thanks) – than a book which is undercooked or less ambitious.

Both of your novels seem perfect for adaptation, have there been any discussions of this, can we look forward to them on the screen?

‘The Observations’ was optioned for television but nothing has come of that so far and I believe the option may now have expired so it’s available again. I’d love to see an adaptation of ‘Gillespie and I’. I was particularly impressed by the recent TV adaptation of ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’. I had been dreading the series as it’s a favourite book of mine and I was worried they’d make a hash of it but I think they did a fine job. So, we’ll see what happens.

When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been writing for?

I always enjoyed writing compositions at school, but nobody in my family was a writer, I didn’t know any writers and it just didn’t seem like a career option. In my secondary school the careers guidance woman told me that hairdressing was a safe bet. I had to take my exam results to the assistant head and ask him if they were good enough to go to university, because nobody was pointing me in that direction. It turned out my results were good enough, and so I went to university and took English and Drama as my main subjects. I loved reading literature, but got rather sidetracked into theatre and drama (the English Department at Glasgow was so dry and old-fashioned in those days that it put me off reading for years). So it wasn’t until years later, when I was 29, that I began writing in earnest, and that only happened because I was stranded in a country where I didn’t speak the language, knew virtually nobody, and had no TV and hardly any books and no money, nothing to distract me, apart from a pen and some pieces of paper.

Which current contemporary authors do you really rate?

Anne Tyler. William Boyd. Jonathan Franzen. Sarah Waters. Michel Faber. Barbara Vine.

What is your favourite ‘guilty pleasure’ read?

Well, I do love leafing through my collection of back-copies of “Hustler”. Not really. Seriously though, I don’t think I have a guilty pleasure read. I love reading Victorian ‘true crime’ stories, such as the Madeleine Smith trial – perhaps that counts?

Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?

I begin work early, as soon as I wake up, which can be anything (under normal circumstances) from 6am onwards. I work all day, that is, I sit at my computer all day, although sometimes I’ll delete more words than I write. For the last novel, I tended to begin the day by editing what I’d done the previous day. I always read the work aloud as I write. Every few paragraphs, I’ll pause and read it back. Sometimes, I go outside and look at the garden for a breath of fresh air, but I hardly ever leave the house. I like things to be neat, so tend to tidy up the room if it’s looking too disorganised. I read a book during lunch or, if my husband is working at home, we eat together, chortling, while watching an episode of Seinfeld. Laughter is important. A chuckle at lunchtime and a chuckle to end the day (night-time chuckle is currently the fabulous “The Trip” with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon). I rarely work beyond 6pm, though I will sit at the computer fiddling about on Facebook and Twitter in between bouts of writing and at the end of the day. When writing a novel, I require satisfaction-guaranteed TV in the evening, in order to cleanse my brain, so am a fan of all the most wonderful shows like The Apprentice, Masterchef, Great British Menu and America’s Next Top Model. Having spent all day in the 19th Century, trying to juggle plot and characterisation and voice and sentences, I require something to take me into a different world entirely. Plus, I can’t really go out much while writing as I find it too distracting, with the result that I’m a bit of a happy hermit.

How relevant do you think book blogging is to the publishing industry? Do you ever pop and see what people have thought of your book or is it something you avoid at all costs?

Book blogging seems to me to be increasingly important. I think that readers and book-lovers have found a real community online in sites such as yours, a place to share opinion and hear about what people whose opinions they respect are reading. I am as much of a book fan as anybody, so I do surf sites to track various books (but after I’ve read them – I hate knowing too much about a book or film before I experience it for myself). As for my own books, I can’t help but read reviews. I know that it’s possible not to (which is the route my husband takes, as a film-maker) so I do believe those people who say they don’t read reviews, but I, for one, can’t help it.

Which book, apart from your own, would you demand Savidge Reads and readers run out and buy right this instant, a book you would call your favourite?

Gosh, that’s a hard question as I’m not sure I have a single favourite book. I’m assuming that all Savidge Readers will have read Great Expectations, so I might have to plump for The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler, which is still up there for me as a work of genius. (Simon is slightly embarrased to say he has not read Great Expectations, Dickens escapes him – oops!)

What is next for Jane Harris?

I’m reaching the end of writing some short stories, a bit of a break from writing novels, and about to turn my thoughts to a new book. Don’t want to say too much now as I believe you can talk a book away.


A big thank you goes out to Jane Harris for taking part in this. I was very excited and interestingly so was she, there is mutual appreciation in the air. You can visit Jane’s website here to find out more. Oh and if you fancy winning a copy of ‘Gillespie and I’ then simply scroll a little further down… after having left a nice comment here of course.


Filed under Jane Harris, Savidge Reads Grills...

Gillespie and I – Jane Harris

‘Gillespie and I’, the long awaited second novel by Jane Harris, is both a readers dream and a book thought/reviewers nightmare. You see somehow I am going to have to (no really, you have to) make you read this and yet somehow tell you very little about it. Yes, this is one of those novels that once read you want to talk to anyone and everyone about it. Yet it’s the very mystery, unease, tension and slowly twisting nature and psychology of the novel that means if you gave away any spoilers everything Jane Harris has set out and greatly achieved would be ruined. But here goes anyway…


From her Bloomsbury home in 1933 aging Harriet Baxter tells us the tale of her beloved friend the artist Ned Gillespie and just how they became friends, after an initial earlier meeting, in May 1888 after saving his mother Elspeth’s life as she chokes on her own dentures at Glasgow’s famous International Exhibition, which Harriet has come to visit after the death of her aunt. Within a few pages of the novel we know that there is tragedy ahead, in fact we know what it is (though I am not telling you here, you need to buy the book) yet we have no idea why it happens or what causes it. You instantly know there is a lot more to this tale than meets the eye, intriguing.

As we read on Harriet slowly but surely gives away hints as to what might be unfolding, there are tensions between members of the family and spouses, secrets between siblings and there is the disturbing nature of Ned’s eldest daughter Sybil. Yet at the same time through Harriet’s narrative and seemingly minor moments, turns of phrase and hazy recollections, Jane Harris starts to make us aware Harriet might not be giving us the whole truth or a slight twist on the events, but why?

“Who, if not me, was dealt that hand? Indeed, one might say, who else is left to tell the tale?”

That is really all I can say on the plot, however if you are a fan of Victorian sensation fiction and those eerie tales from that era then you are going to absolutely love this. Even if you are unfamiliar with that particular genre of book there is so much else to love about ‘Gillespie and I’. One of the things is just how darkly funny the book is. In fact it’s Harriet’s reactions to events both in the 1880’s, one scene involving Ned’s brother Kenneth springs to mind, and in the 1930’s, with a visit to the doctor, which actually had me laughing deeply and rather loudly. Harriet also has a wry, and occasionally literally ‘wicked’, sense of humour and observation. This of course perfectly offsets some of the tension and unease which slowly mounts through the novel.

“’Pteriodomania!’ exclaimed Peden. ‘That dreaded disease.’ He angled his body away from me, in order to address me, sideways, over his shoulder. ‘It seems that when you ladies are weary of novels and gossip and crochet, you find much entertainment in ferns. No doubt you preside over a fern collection, Miss Baxter?’
‘Sadly, no!’ I replied. ‘What with all my novels and gossip and crochet, there’s no time left over for ferns.’
The astute reader will, of course, realise that I was employing irony; but Mr Peden gave a self-satisfied nod – as though I had proven his point.”

I think Harriet Baxter might be one of the most complex narrators I have come across. I think she may also prove to be one of my favourite characters of all time, though what that says about me I am not sure. She is at once hilariously observant and then cruelly witty, she is a complete hypocrite who hates ‘working staff’ because they snoop at the doorways a trait we learn she does often, she is warm and yet slightly cold, she is lonely and needy yet utterly self-obsessed, she is beguiling yet cunning. You’ll come to like her, then wonder if you should, doubt your doubts and then start questioning them again. I think this is masterly writing and I haven’t even started to discuss how vivid and wonderful Jane Harris’ recreations and reimagining’s of Glasgow in the 1880’s and London in the 1930’s are, nor how characters like the devilish seeming Sybil and domineering Elspeth, who laughs whenever she walks into a room for no reason, take hold of the page.

This book will have you guessing the whole way through and just when you think you have figured out how you have been manipulated you realise you are completely wrong. In fact how Jane Harris makes all this happen is beyond me. Like its predecessor, the wonderful ‘The Observations’ (which I am going to have to re-read soon, its one of my favourite books which made me rather nervous about this one), ‘Gillespie and I’ is a book that is all about evoking an atmosphere, wonderful writing, an unforgettable narrator, and those clever twists you never see coming. Yet it is no carbon copy by any stretch of the imagination and stands in its own rite. I loved this book, it’s very easy to find a fault with a book, particularly one at over 500 pages in length, yet there are none I can think of. I would go as far as to say I think ‘Gillespie and I’ could be an almost perfect book and is certainly destined to become one of my favourites. 10/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

This is without doubt my favourite book of 2011 so far. It was one of my most highly anticipated after loving ‘The Observations’ so much and therefore one I was also the most nervous about but its exceeded my expectations. You simply have to read it, and when you have (or if you have already), do come and tell me what you thought. It’s a book I am dying to discuss; it’s also one that after turning the last page I started all over again. What was the last book that you did that with?


Filed under Books of 2011, Faber & Faber, Jane Harris, Review

The Savidge Top Ten Best Books of 2007

This is a really hard decision after such a brilliant year of reading, though am gutted didn’t managed 100 books, maybe this year, we shall see. I have to say part of me wanted to do a top twenty or a top 13 like the ‘Man Booker Dozen’ because I simply had so many that I would heartily recommend to you all. But enough of me waffling on, here is my list of what I thought was superb reading in 2007.

10. The Book of Lost Things – John Connolly
This was possibly one of the most surprising books of the year for me which I read after a recommendation from on of the book group members. She had read it and thought that it would be right up my street and she was indeed right. This is a tale of David a twelve year old boy who has just lost his mother. Having moved to a new house he buries himself in the world of books to beat out the grief in his head. However these stories start to seep into the real world and bad things start to happen and The Crooked Man comes to claim David. This book was dark enthralling and added a new exciting twist to fairytales that brought out your childhood fears.

9. Case Histories – Kate Atkinson
I fell in love with Kate’s writing, not with ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ as I didn’t really take to that and never finished it, with ‘Human Croquet’ which had a brilliant dark otherness about it. Having re-found my love for crime fiction in the last twelve months I was overjoyed to discover she has written a combination of crime and literary fiction and ‘Case Histories’ was simply superb. Following Jackson Brodie, a brilliant complex main character, ex soldier and police man as he is hired as a private detective Atkinson takes a look at how small the world is and how coincidences can change everything and interlink. Brilliant plotting, superb characters.

8. Winter in Madrid – C.J.Sansom
Having also read his Historical Literary Crime (now there is a new genre) novel ‘Dissolution’ this year I have really rather enjoyed my two experiences of Sansom. However this novel set in 1940 after the Spanish Civil War in the ruins of Madrid was just stunning. Harry Brett is sent by the government to spy and find out as much as he can about old school chum Sandy Forsyth who has become somewhat of a shady character in Madrid. Harry becomes involved in a dangerous game of plots, skeletons in closets and emotional warfare. I thought this was absolutely brilliant and let out a huge ‘gasp’ at the ending I didn’t see coming. I also bought a few copies for people for Christmas.

7. Restless – William Boyd
This book was another complete surprise for me and a fresh take on the war from a female point especially from the point of a spy. In 1939 Eva Delectorskaya, twenty eight, is a Russian living in Paris when she is recruited by the British Secret Service and put under the tutoring of Lucas Romer a man of mystery. The book starts as in the present day Eva’s past comes back to haunt her as a grandmother happily settled. I found this book both thrilling and unique, you don’t think of grandma spies really do you. I found it fast paced and yet it really got into the characters and their motives. I bought this for a lot of people over the year.

6. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox – Maggie O’Farrell This was a recommendation from my Gran who herself is a great reader and it takes a lot to impress her after 60 odd years of reading and three book clubs, she devoured this in two sittings. I devoured it in one. When Iris Lockheart gets a phone call telling her she has a long lost Aunt she has never heard of and who is due for release from an asylum and could she come and get her, her independent lifestyle gets embroiled in secrets from the families past. I found this unsuspecting thriller completely sucked me in and wasn’t expecting the tale of Esme’s journey to the Asylum to be so gripping whilst also so emotional. This was unputdownable if that’s a word.

5. The Observations – Jane Harris
This was one of those books that you should judge by the cover. I was in a little independent book shop in Cromford when I saw this as one of their recommended titles and it looked so gothic, dark, mysterious and full of secrets, I thought ‘why not?’ This is brilliant novel and without a doubt Bessy Buckley is my favourite character of the year, and her narration is wonderful (I didn’t find her Scottish and Victorian slang annoying at all) I though it was a unique voice. The story tells of Bessy taking a job for Arabella in her grand house on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Bessy is more than happy at first as she is escaping her past in Glasgow, however, when asked to keep a journal of her most intimate thoughts along side her employer’s odd behaviour she starts to worry. Worries that build up further when she finds her employer had a slight obsession for her predecessor Nora who died mysteriously. This book is just brilliant, gripping, mysterious it has all the makings of a future classic and with a heroine like Bessy it deserves to be.

4. Half Of A Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
It was difficult to only put this at number four because it was so brilliant but the competition was really, really tough this year with so many good books. This is possibly one of the most heart wrenching novels I have ever read set in the lead up, and start, of Nigeria’s Biafra War. The book has three unique outlooks from that of a servant boy Ugwu, his employer’s wife Olanna, and Richard a journalist who is Olanna’s twin sister’s lover from England. I found this book incredibly moving and upsetting the vividness of the war engrained so much on the page that you felt you were there for the shock and awe of it all. Not an easy read by any standard but a book I think should be in everyone’s collection.

3. Atonement – Ian McEwan
I have officially started to become a huge fan of McEwan and plan to read a lot more of his books this year. Of course with the big movie out I would be surprised if there is anyone now who hasn’t read the book or who doesn’t know the story. A story based all around confusion, childhood interpretations and mistakes, after Briony sees her sister Cecilia jump in a fountain whilst their childhood friend watches. From then on more mistakes are made and people’s lives are changed forever. I wasn’t expecting the war to loom in the book but it was dealt with well and added an extra something to the book. This is one of McEwan’s longest and possibly one of his best.

2. The Book Thief – Marcus Zusack
I remember when I was recommended this by the same lady who recommended ‘Restless’ I thought “not another book about the War”. I have to say the originality with which Zusack writes this novel made it without question one of the best books of the year. The narrator of the novel is Death during his particularly busy phase in 1939 Germany and a book thief that he encounters, nine year old Liesle who lives with her adoptive family in bomb torn Himmel Street. I didn’t think a book written by Death sounded like it would be much fun, and there isn’t fun in war, however this book is full of real hope for humans written in beautiful prose where every word has been thought through. It was easy to see why this was the biggest selling debut adult novel in 2007.

1. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’… I didn’t expect to find my new favourite read of all time (so far) this year, especially after ‘The Woman in White’ is such a tough act to follow, but with Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ from the first few pages it was a complete love affair. I love all things gothic and this book had it all. Following the unnamed second Mrs De Winter after she marries Maxim this books takes us through mystery, a beguiling ex-wife an evil housekeeper (Mrs Danvers was my favourite character in the whole book), a rambling estate and a possible murder. This book is a great gothic mystery but is also a great insight into people and how they work. If I hadn’t made the decision to put only one book per author in my top ten then I would have had to have ‘Jamaica Inn’ on the list which is almost as good. I am only worried now that having read what’s meant to be the best Du Maurier first I might be let down from now on, somehow though I doubt it.

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Books of 2007, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Daphne Du Maurier, Ian McEwan, Jane Harris, John Connolly, Kate Atkinson, Maggie O'Farrell, Marcus Zusack, William Boyd