Category Archives: Orange Prize

And The Winner of the Orange Prize 2012 is…

I meant to write something about the Orange Prize before the winning announcement, however the day seems to have somehow escaped me and so now the winner has been announced and it is… Madeline Miller with ‘The Song of Achilles’!

I am feeling rather ecstatic about this. Well beyond ecstatic, thrilled more like, as it is undoubtedly one of my favourites of the entire reading year (along with ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris which sadly didn’t get short listed, but am keeping this post positive). You can see my thoughts on ‘The Song of Achilles’ here and if that wasn’t enough you can see Madeline Miller getting a Savidge Reads Grills here.

So that’s all lovely isn’t it? Commiserations to all the other authors, especially Esi Edugyan which I have recently read and loved after finishing it second try, but a huge congrats to Madeline Miller. Have I said I am thrilled? What are your thoughts?

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The Orange Prize Short List 2012… Thoughts

So the six novels that make up the Orange Prize Short List have been announced. I don’t know if you could hear the cries of woe that came from ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris not being on the list, followed by the bellowing ‘what were they thinking?’ either way here is the actual list as it stands…

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding
Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

What do I think of the list? Well if I am being truly honest I am mainly sulking about the lack of one title which I just don’t understand not appearing. This isn’t just bias though as I have tried, and failed, with ‘The Forgotten Waltz’ and ‘State of Wonder’ and so have to assume that it is simply a case that the judges and I have very different tastes. That’s all part of fun of awards though isn’t it?

On more positive note, as I don’t want to come across as a spoil sport as I do love this prize, Madeline Miller’s marvellous debut novel ‘Song of Achilles’ is in the mix and I am going to hope that now wins. I will also be reading a couple of the others. Esi Edugyan is a title on The Readers Summer Book Club so I will be reading that in the next few weeks before Gavin and I interview her, ‘Foreign Bodies’ is on the incoming shelves at the moment and I have rather fancied reading ‘Painter of Silence’ since I saw Kim’s review on Reading Matters.

At the moment I just have everything crossed for Madeline Miller being triumphant on May the 30th! What do you make of the final six short listed titles?

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The Orange Prize Shortlist 2012?

I do like the Orange Prize, I really do. Last year I admit I did take that love a little bit too far by reading the whole long list. I haven’t done the same this year though, even though I was tempted a little for a small moment, you see last year was great but I did get a bit ‘oranged out’ at one point.  The shortlist is announced tomorrow morning and as I do it every  year, whether I have read the lot or not I am hazarding a guess at the final six which I would like to see make the cut…

Long term readers of the blog will know that I think ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris is one of the best reads I have had the joy of spending time with (more than once) so there is no surprise that I have that on my six without question. Ali Smith’s ‘There But For The…’ is a wonderful example of an author writing a great story which not only has deceptively much to say it also plays with words in a wonderful way. Whilst I haven’t reviewed it yet, I do think that Madeline Miller’s ‘The Song of Achilles’  is, please excuse the language, bloody brilliant, more on that very soon.

  

Out of the ones that I haven’t read I have picked three that I would really rather love to read (and have actually dipped into so I am not just going by blurbs and being totally 100% lazy ok). The first of those is ‘The Blue Book’ by A.L. Kennedy. This book looks like it is going to be a real treat as it plays games with you from the start, not only is the book not actually blue, the page numbers don’t always follow the natural numerical pattern and the book almost tells you itself in the first few paragraphs that it may beguile you and take you unawares. I have a feeling both Anne Enright’s ‘The Forgotten Waltz’ and Anne Patchett’s ‘State of Wonder’ will possibly make it onto the list, but I don’t fancy either of these so I wouldn’t mind seeing Esi Edugyan’s ‘Half Blood Blues’ (which is one of The Readers Summer Book Club titles) and Amy Waldman’s ‘The Submission’ on the list as I simply really want to read them.

  

I am sure I will be completely wrong, but expect some serious sulking if Jane Harris and Madeline Miller don’t make it ha, ha, ha. This year I think I might just read the short list whatever they are… we will see. What do you think will make it from the long list? Which of them have you read and loved?

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The Orange Prize Longlist 2012… My Thoughts

Note: There will be a lot of very good reportage on this today in all the broadsheets; I decided to do a layman’s reaction post. You can also see my guessing post here.

So here they are the twenty books that make up this year’s Orange Prize longlist. I was actually up until midnight and so I saw the list appear on The Guardian website. I then decided that if I wrote anything at that time it probably wouldn’t make sense and so I have waited. Anyway, less about my thoughts, for now, here is the list of twenty books that have made the cut…

  • Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg (Quercus) – Swedish; 1st Novel
  • On the Floor by Aifric Campbell (Serpent’s Tail) – Irish; 3rd Novel
  • The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen (The Clerkenwell Press) – American; 4th Novel
  • The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue (Picador) – Irish; 7th Novel
  • Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Serpent’s Tail) – Canadian; 2nd Novel*
  • The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape) – Irish; 5th Novel
  • The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki (Headline Review) – British; 5th Novel
  • Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon (Quercus) – American; 4th Novel
  • Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding (Bloomsbury) – British; 3rd Novel
  • The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) – British; 2nd Novel
  • The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy (Jonathan Cape) – British; 6th Novel*
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Harvill Secker) – American; 1st Novel*
  • The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury) – American; 1st Novel
  • Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick (Atlantic Books) – American; 7th Novel
  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury) – American; 6th Novel*
  • The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard (Alma Books) – British; 2nd Novel
  • Tides of War by Stella Tillyard (Chatto & Windus) – British; 1st Novel
  • The Submission by Amy Waldman (William Heinemann) – American; 1st Novel*

The first two initial thoughts, and I am being very honest here, were how many of them have I read (those are in italics with a link if I finished and reviewed them) followed by how many of them did I guess correctly (those six have a * next to them). My next thought was to jump for joy for both Jane Harris and Ali Smith. At the moment they are my favourites to win, possibly in a tie, ha.

My next thought, and if anyone says they don’t do this then they are big liars, was to think ‘are the judges mad, what about including…’ We all do this with a prize and it is completely natural, if you are passionate about certain books, like ‘The Snow Child’ or ‘The Proof Of Love’ (the books I am the most bemused didn’t make the longlist at all), then you are going to be slightly disheartened that those five judges didn’t put them in and then leads you to feeling a bit non-plussed that they included books you tried but didn’t finish. But let’s not judge the judges shall we.

In this list both Anne Enright and Ann Patchett I tried and failed with, though I know they both have some real fans, some of whom I know and respect, I just don’t quite get them myself. I did say yesterday that I thought they might appear on the list however. Then we have Esi Edugyan who I tried to read for the Man Booker shenanigans last year and didn’t finish but meant to, so now might. Then there is Emma Donoghue which I tried, because it sounded deliciously Victorian (and will actually be in a post next week of ‘unreviews’ as I couldn’t finish it) and which I didn’t think was eligible as I thought it was a re-issued book and not a new one. Where I invented this idea from I have absolutely no idea, but it seems I did.

I then dust the slight mini-sulk off and look at all those I didn’t guess yesterday (the small inner glow about the ones I did helps) and see what I think. There’s a few names I know like Madeline Miller (who I lent a copy to my mother as she is a classicist knowing I would realistically never see it again but did actually quite want it back), Georgina Harding (whose novel ‘The Spy Game’ I really wanted to read and yet didn’t), Roopa Farooki (who in my head has been on this list every year for about the last ten years even though that’s not possible as it’s her fifth novel, this to me says I should read her, she must be good), Francesca Kay and Erin Morgensten (if you haven’t heard about this book where on earth have you been?).

The excitement builds the most with the books I know nothing about. So I open up one of two possible book shopping based websites and look them up, deciding if they are ones I want to read. These were my instant thoughts; don’t judge me on them too much…

  • Karin Altenberg – described as ‘captures a world that disappears in the act of description, and the love, so inescapable and elusive, of the outsiders who try to tame it’ I’m sorry what does that actually mean? Turns out it means a book with boats and sailing in, oh dear, and life on a new settlement in the Hebrides. Bit religious looking. Not sure is my cup of tea.
  • Aifric Campbell – I was tempted by her spooky sounding ‘The Loss Adjustor’ a while back so thought this might be my cup of tea, but it’s about banking. Very current I admit, but maybe not very me.
  • Jaimy Gordon – a book about horses. If you know me well and haven’t fallen upon this post by googling ‘orange prize longlist 2012’ (though hello and welcome if you have, pull up a chair and make a cuppa) books set on boats or books about horses aren’t really me. Could this change this, I don’t know.
  • Cynthia Ozick – I am very excited about this one, I have looked at it in Waterstones on several occasions, the cover had me at hello, and the premise appeals, a failed marriage, leaving 1950’s New York for Paris. Yes, I would like to read this one.
  • Anna Stothard – sounds a bit ‘estranged mother and daughter, mother dies, daughter finds out about the mother she never really knew when on a road trip routing though her mother’s letters from the past’ could be brilliant, could not be.
  • Stella Tillyard – interestingly though the title ‘Tides of War’ put me off, I quite like the sound of a book set in the Regency period and the Spanish Peninsular War because I know very little about that period. A maybe book.

All in all if the Orange Prize Longlist 2012 had a ‘like’ button I would press it. Bear in mind the fact I think pressing a ‘like’ button is one of the laziest ways of complimenting anyone (I could start a rant on this but I won’t, maybe another day) so I shall comment in a little more detail. There are the books I read and loved which I will now be backing all the way and am chuffed to bits made the list. Then there are A.L. Kennedy, Cynthia Ozick, Leah Hager Cohen and Amy Waldman who I come away wanting to read more than I did before, oh and Esi Edugyan and Erin Morgensten are sort of in that group but I have heard so much, it’s almost too much, about both.

Will I be reading the longlist this year? No, but I will be intrigued to see the shortlist next month and if it includes my two favourites then I might just read the lot as I will know the judging panel (of whom apparently only Joanna Trollope read all 143 submissions) are on a wave length with me and my reading tastes. At the moment though, despite some books I loved being on the list there are a couple I have tried and not finished and so I am left pondering the ones I knew nothing about until today; the premises don’t quite do anything for me, but if I see them in a bookshop I might give them a test chapter or two and see how I feel then.

What about your thoughts?  Oh, and Happy International Women’s Day to all my female readers.

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The Orange Prize Longlist 2012?

The Orange Prize seems to have snuck up on me this year. I had it in my head that the announcement was on the 16th of March until I realised that actually that was 2011’s dates. It took ages to then get confirmation (by searching round the internet for hours) that it was to be the 8th and suddenly now Orange has a lovely new sparkly website, and indeed it will be announced in mere hours. Well I love guessing any prize list, and the Orange is no exception. I have a lot of love for this prize as generally I do prefer female writers (sweeping statement alert) to male ones overall, so I am always excited to see the final list of twenty. In the meantime here are my twenty guesses and why I made those calls…

First up my favourite four books by women last year have to be my first choices. Those were without question ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris, ‘The Proof Of Love’ by Catherine Hall, ‘There But For The…’ by Ali Smith and ‘The Borrower’ by Rebecca Makkai. I would absolutely love to see this four make the cut, you can click on their titles to see my reviews and gushings over each one – seriously these are four blooming brilliant books!

Next up were books, if any, that have made the cut this year and how could I not include ‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey which I loved and ‘Girl Reading’ by Katie Ward which I haven’t reviewed on here yet (though I have on the telly, ha). Next up were the books that I started last year, didn’t finish though no idea why as I was enjoying them, and so wouldn’t mind reading/starting again should the mood take me. In come ‘Go To Sleep’ by Helen Walsh and ‘Half Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan.

Then I chose four eligible books which I have in the TBR and have yet to crack open. ‘The Blue Book’ by A.L. Kennedy, ‘Solace’ by Belinda McKeon, ‘The Submission’ by Amy Waldman and ‘All is Song’ by Samantha Harvey are all books that have been on my radar, and pulled out and put back in the TBR over the last few months and I must have a read of them soon.

You may notice there haven’t been many of the ‘big names’ yet and whilst I am sure Ann Patchett and some other expected contenders will show up on the list I am not that fussed about them personally. I almost popped Anne Tyler on the list but hers comes out after the eligible dates. However there are for books receiving a lot of hype/buzz that I wouldn’t be surprised to see on the list and they are; ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgensten, ‘The Buddha in the Attic’ by Julie Otsuka, ‘The Land of Decoration’ by Grace McCleen and ‘The Lifeboat’ by Charlotte Rogan.

The final four are all a little bit random and have come from popping into Waterstones and having a mooch around all the tables covered in books. They are simply books I thought sounded really interesting and loved the first chapter of (that’s not how I judge on The Green Carnation Prize by the way) they may not appear but I’d use it as an excuse to read them all the quicker if they did. These are; ‘My Policeman’ by Bethan Roberts, ‘Then’ by Julie Myerson, ‘The White Shadow’ by Andrea Eames and ‘The Cowards Table’ by Vanessa Gebbie.

Realistically I know this will be nowhere near the actual list. I just love the guessing, but I am realistic enough to admit despite my love of books I have only a small idea of all the eligible books and no idea what has been submitted and what hasn’t. I also actually want to be a million miles off, one of the reasons I love prize longlists is that they invariably throw up some titles that have passed you by and you want to go off and find out more about. I am hoping for lots of those.

I am not the only one who likes a guess; Jackie of Farmlanebooks, Nomadreader, Open Letters and Her Royal Orangeness have had a crack too, plus Jessica (who has become one of my new favourite bloggers, she makes me howl) has done her top five. I will report back with the list of books and my thoughts when it’s been announced. Until then, what books would you like to see (not necessarily the same as the books you think will) end up on the Orange Prize Longlist when it gets announced?

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The Tiger’s Wife – Téa Obreht

You could be forgiven for thinking that as it won the Orange Prize on Wednesday I have banged out a review of ‘The Tigers Wife’ by Téa Obreht quick sharp. You would also be half right. I’ve speeded up finally publishing my thoughts about it, which have been rewritten, edited and rewritten and then edited again and again on and off since I finished it. You see myself and this book felt like we had unfinished business and thoughts, not necessarily bad ones, just puzzling ones. But in the name of it winning said prize I thought I should write about it sooner rather than later.

I probably would have wanted to read Téa Obreht’s debut novel at some point regardless of its inclusion on the Orange Prize long and short lists and then winning it because, regardless of the hype of her being claimed a young writer to watch, I like books that are rather magical and ‘fairytale for grown ups’ was one of the things I kept hearing in regard to ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ when it was mentioned. It is also a novel about the country formerly known as Yugoslavia and its break up, a subject which fascinates me. I actually holidayed there as a child and was fascinated by the news as this country was torn apart. So its interesting that while aspects of it were brilliance, overall I was left a tiny bit let down. Let me explain…

For me one of the greatest charms of ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ was the story of the relationship between grandfather and grandchild.  Our narrator, Natalia a doctor, tells us the tale of her grandfather’s life from the memories she has of him and the tales that he told her of his former life after she learns from her grandmother that he has died in mysterious circumstances and after he disappeared telling everyone he was going to see Natalia. It’s the mystery, the fact some of his possessions are missing and the need to understand him that sets Natalia on a mental, rather than physical, journey to work out just who her grandfather was.

“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life – of my grandfather’s days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University. One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.”

The thing I loved about the novel also became the thing that I didn’t love so much about it. As the story goes on we are introduced to the myths and fables of her grandfather’s life. Whilst I love these sort of ‘fairytales for adults’, sometimes I was just confused by them. I would read them, like the tale of the deathless man, really enjoy them and yet be left wondering as to their relevance as a whole. In being rather surreal I felt that Téa Obreht lost me in places no matter how enjoyable, funny and magical the mini story which creates the overall story (anyone else getting a bit confused?) was I couldn’t get it to work overall.

“I would be insane to stay here,” he says to me in an exasperated voice. “Any minute now your Hungarian is going to go outside and call the others, and then there will be business with garlic and stakes and things. And even though I cannot die, I have to tell you that I do not enjoy having a tent peg put in my ribs. I’ve had it before, and I do not want it again.”

The same applied to the title character/fable of ‘The Tiger’s Wife’, it was all wonderfully written and inventive but… but… but… something wasn’t quite working for me. It seemed in some ways to be a book made up of many things, yes I know most books are but these things didn’t quite connect. It seemed to want to be a book of myth and of storytelling, a book of war and a book of love – both of the family and a love story in some ways. I thought the way Obreht discussed how the country was fracturing and yet no one initially sensed danger until loved ones went missing was superb. It was only a part of the book though. In some ways there were two books in one. In fact the best way to summarise this novel would be to say that I think the sum of its parts are fantastic, and would have made a great short story collection yet as a body of work it didn’t quite gel in the way I was hoping or maybe even expecting, that could be me more than the book or the author.

That said I did like this novel a lot. I particularly enjoyed the mini-stories, and would happily read a collection of fables should Téa Obreht write one, in fact I am hoping she does. As for the hype around Téa Obreht being one of the finest young authors around, I would agree to an extent. I found the writing in ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ was impressive, funny, dark, honest, and quite compelling in many respects. I just didn’t quite connect with it personally (where emotion is occasionally lacking imagination is certainly in abundance) yet I certainly enjoyed getting lost, and occasionally confused by it. I will definitely read her next novel or collection. 7.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

Do I think that ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ should have won the Orange prize? I wouldn’t want to take anything away from Téa Obreht who must be the happiest 25 year old (seriously, though it is a little sickening how young she is, ha) at the moment, plus I wasn’t asked to judge the prize. It’s great to see a young, clearly talented, author celebrated like this too. What do you think? Has anyone else read ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ and what did you make of it? If you haven’t, will you be in the near future, or does the whole hype put you off?

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And The Winner of The Orange Prize 2011 is…

…Well we will know in just a few hours. I think this is the year that I have done the most Orange Reading ever. Sadly it has seemed I suffered a citrus book based burn out and the initial excitement of reading the whole longlist at one point became borderline frustration with having set myself such a task. The thing was though it brought forward some absolute gems, along with a few books I loathed (see this post for more longlist details), and its two of those gems, which I would have missed, that I would be equally overjoyed to see win the prize…

Yes, if Annabel’ by Kathleen Winter or ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’ by Emma Henderson win (interestingly both debut novels) then I would be very pleased indeed. I have a strange feeling about the latter which niggled and niggled at me when I didn’t include it in my original guessing post, so hence why I put £1 on it at the bookies. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the other four won, and no not just because they are on the short list, because they are all good in varying ways. Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’ is the favourite, I wouldn’t be shocked if ‘Great House’ by Nicole Krauss went and did it though, or Aminatta Forna’s ‘Memory of Love’, or ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ by Téa Obreht. Oh is mentioning them all not allowed? I am aware that I still haven’t put all of my longlist and shortlist reviews up. I just got orange’d out (I’m all about Green Carnations at the moment prize-wise) but they will come, I will get round to it. They are all worthy winners… I do have those two favourites though.

Good luck to the six finalists, I will update this post when the announcement has been and gone. Does anyone know what time that might be? Who do you think will win and/or who do you want to win?

Update… The winner was ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ and you can see my thoughts, which are still all over the shop and in need of reigning in, on here soon.

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Grace Williams Says It Loud – Emma Henderson

Hindsight is a wonderful thing sometimes, and in the case of me and books it’s proving to be somewhat of a wonder above all wonders and a new way to write about the books I read. You see after I first read ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’, the debut novel by Emma Henderson which is now shortlisted for The Orange Prize this year, I thought that it was a very good book. The more time I have had away from it, letting it weave its magic after the turning of the final page, the more and more brilliant I have thought it is.

I think the most simplistic way of trying to describe ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’ would be to call it both a melancholic tale and hopeful one of love and life in the face of obstacles. That might sound a bit pretentious but if I were to embody the book in one sentence that is how I would do so. Grace Williams is born disabled, or as she refers to herself ‘a spastic’, both physically and mentally in 1947. This was a time when the world, including those who love her, weren’t of the understanding and acceptance that we are today. After several years of seeing doctors and hoping for the best, when Grace’s mother becomes pregnant with her fourth child a decision is made (though it could be that both things just happened to coincide) that Grace should go and live in ‘The Briars’ mental institute. It is here that she meets the boy who is set to become the love of her life, Daniel, one day at playtime.

“I bit Daniel’s leg at playtime when he knelt and tried to steal the car I’d taken from the toy box. I was lying on my side, on the floor – a fish in the bottom of a bucket – curling and unfurling my limbs. I didn’t see Daniel coming. His bare skin felt, smelt and tasted rough and homely, like old bread. Daniel bit back, on my bad arm, but it didn’t hurt. It was more suck than bite. More kiss. More please.”

I have to say in the initial two parts I was feeling rather heartbroken, we are given an enormous clue that Emma Henderson is going to break our hearts in the end from the very first page as it is, but there is a rather melancholic tone as we learn Graces past – how her parents, siblings and even Grace herself come to terms with the situation that they are in. For example when the decision is made to send Grace to Briars, as I mentioned above, you are never quite sure if the doctors had suggested this before her mother was pregnant or if it was due to that, which adds a question mark in your mind going forward and makes you wonder about everyone’s motives. There is one scene involving Grace and her mother which comes from nowhere and had my jaw hitting the floor. Its this sinking in of the situation and its problems and possibilities that I found rather fascinating and the way Grace takes it all in so normally, even though some of it is hurtful and heartbreaking, like its just the way life is – making the reader feel empowered by her in a way whilst also feeling utterly horrified.

“Bedtime, playtime, poo-time. You-time, me-time, teatime. Bread before cake. You before me. Bread and butter sprinkled with pink, sugary hundreds and thousands. Boiled egg and Marmite fingers. Soldiers, said John. Chicken and egg. There were millions of eggs in Mother’s ovaries, he said. Why was Grace the rotten one?”

From here the story goes on, into the third and longest part of the book, and things become both much worse and much better. We have tales of the attitudes from the nurses to these children, not good ones; there are deaths, disappearances, cruelty and sexual abuse. Just when you are feeling utterly heartbroken thankfully Henderson adds hope in the form of Daniel, though his tale is triumphant initially we learn there is dark there too, and a rare few nurses and teachers at Briars. They are few and far between but they seem to give the book some rays of light and stop it from becoming a novel that just leaves you feeling miserable and nothing more, something I can find rather lazy and had Henderson only highlighted the awful I might not have responded in the emotive way I did oddly enough. There is dark and light in life and there is in this book, it doesn’t mean those two polar opposites have to be equal.

“’It’s ridiculous.’ Mr Maitland, in the lobby outside the classroom, with Miss Blackburn, was almost shouting. ‘Spastics – sitting exams. Your correspondence simply doesn’t convince.’
 ‘They may have spastic bodies, Mr Maitland,’ Miss Blackburn replied, ‘but some of them have the most plastic, malleable, marvellous minds I’ve ever come across – in more than twenty years of teaching.’”

I don’t want people thinking that this is a miserable book because its not. In fact Grace’s narrative saves the book from ever being too dark and too gloomy. Oh, I should mention here that one of the aspects of Grace’s varying disabilities means she can only ever communicate two words at once. I loved how Daniel reads between it all with her body language and facial gestures when others can’t. It seems her speech, or lack thereof outwardly, has weirdly been an issue for some readers. It’s almost like because she can’t speak Grace (see I am talking about her like she really exists, a sign of a great book) therefore can’t narrate? Of course she can and it’s the insular aspect of that which worked so well for me, along with her simple acceptance – not to say she doesn’t ever fight against it because she does – that worked incredibly for me and made it so vivid, visceral and emotive a read whilst also making it a strangely hopeful one.

I think ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’ is an incredible and rather marvellous novel regardless of it being a debut novel. The passion of the authors experience with disabilities, through her sister Claire, adds a passion to the novel but this is not just a novel told from experience. It’s a novel that lives and breathes; it makes you utterly heartbroken and then laugh out loud. It’s a book that challenges people’s ideas, even if you have the most open of minds this novel will get you thinking outside the box. I can’t really recommend it anymore than that. I initially gave this book a 9/10 but it’s a book I have thought and thought and thought about more and more so I change my mind, this is definitely a 10/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

With the Orange Prize looming in just a few days I have to say its ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’ and ‘Annabel’ by Kathleen Winter that I am routing for I would be happy if either of these novels won it. I know I haven’t reported back on some of the long-listed reads, and two I won’t be as with this new hindsight outlook I just don’t haven’t anything exciting or interesting to say about them but the others will come in good time. I simply am not writing about everything in the order I read it anymore and its working because I can be 100% sure I want you to read books like ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’ long after the initial flash of ‘just-read-joy’ has waned and the brilliance continues to shine through. I’ll shush now; I have gone on long enough.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Emma Henderson, Orange Prize, Review, Sceptre Publishing

Jamrach’s Menagerie – Carol Birch

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

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

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

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

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

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

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher.

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

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

A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan

Every so often I read a book and wonder if I simply ‘don’t get it’ that I know everyone else seems to be loving, and that was the feeling that I had about a quarter of the way through ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ by Jennifer Egan and again somewhere not long after the middle and a little bit after I had finished it. Everyone has been calling it ‘original’ and ‘vibrant’ and I was thinking ‘really?’ Yet I did get through and finish reading this ‘very modern’ book, and rather a huge struggle of a book, in a ‘very modern’ way with the help of apps and audio’s. Yet before I get onto all that malarkey I really ought to try and set out the book and its premise and modernisms first really shouldn’t I?

Before I even opened the first page of ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ I had the impression that this was a book I would either be utterly won over by or would become the arch nemesis of. Interestingly having had some space and time to think about it I have managed to fall into both camps, and no that doesn’t mean I am sitting on the fence either. I should mention that myself and Jennifer Egan had fallen out with each other a few years ago, not in the flesh I hasten to add, in 2008 when I tried and failed to love her ‘modern ghost story in a castle’ novel ‘The Keep’, a book I never reviewed as back then I was more inclined to do so about books I loved not the ones that I didn’t. So imagine my surprise, and it was genuine, when I read the first chapter of the book and loved it.

As ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ opens we meet Sasha who is debating stealing a woman’s purse whilst also being on a date with a man called Alex in a rather nice hotel in New York City. It turns out that Sasha is a kleptomaniac, this in itself as we hear her discuss it with her psychoanalyst (or such like), and this filled me with hope… a character that I was really interested in. Imagine therefore my slight annoyance where after chapter two, in which she appears as the music mogul and gold eating addict Bennie Salazar’s PA, she vanishes for a few chapters. You see ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ is one of those novels that is a collection of short stories where characters interlink through time and places (and I don’t mean that in a mouthed/said behind the back or your hand/under your breath way) with one similar vein, in this case music, at the heart of their correlation to each other.

The thing was I was hoping after chapter three that another music mogul, this time a bit of a seedier one, Lou and the narrator Rhea wouldn’t turn up again. Where oh where was Sasha? I couldn’t bear the way that Rhea told her story, it grated on me, ok, I admit it, I wanted to give her a polite push and tell her to shush for a while. It was how she reported people’s speech back to the reader via ‘so he goes, and I go, and she goes and I go’… and I went ‘arrrrrghhhh’ and almost hurled the book at the wall a page or two into the chapter.

Normally this is the point at which I would have given up the ghost, however, I had also been sent the ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ app for my iPhone which not only comes with the book in digital form and lots of little additional gadgets, it also comes with the audio book and so I carried on listening through the bits that it sort of pained me to read and then reading again properly when it became interesting and digestible again. Which I have to admit it did, for example there is the story of Dolly/LA Dolly and her rise and fall and another favourite section towards the end, when the novel suddenly goes all dystopian and futuristic in 2020, when you need to read it as it is a 75 page, yes 75 of them, PowerPoint presentation.


It was things like the PowerPoint moment, or the 75 of them not that it bothered me you understand and in fact sort of worked as a character is telling a story to their autistic sibling (yet at the same time kind of spoiled what could have been a much more poignant), plus the way the book hoped over time and people (which can work wonders in books like ‘Great House’) and the futuristic parts of the book which made me think how ‘very modern’ Jennifer Egan’s ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ was trying to be and also made me wonder if this an author who is genuinely following her creative path or doing something much more calculated and planned? I am hoping it’s the first of the two options and that maybe I am just missing out on the Goon Party and simply don’t get it.

Whilst I can see this books merits and the fact it bucks the trend for being quite innovative I would be lying if I said I was desperate to read a book like this again. I do think great books should be readable (which doesn’t mean easy), and whilst I loved the fact I could listen to this book when it all got a bit much, I shouldn’t have needed to turn to that if the prose had worked for me from the start as it did just sadly not throughout. It’s hard to give this book a rating, in parts I could say it’s a 7/10 with characters like Sasha and when the innovative style works, more often than not it was a 3/10 and I found myself frustrated and like the author was playing a game which I always lost (not that its always about the winning… it’s the taking part) so all in all a 5/10.

The book and the app were both kindly sent by the publisher.

I do feel despite the pitfalls of the novel that ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ has given me and interesting experience of flitting between book, app, audio, extras and back again. I am not sure if I will repeat the experience, and I certainly couldn’t read a whole book on my phone, but at least I can say I have tried it. I wrote this post a few weeks ago and my opinions sadly havent changed so I have to admit I wasn’t shocked (like half the world seemed to be) or that sorry that this wasnt on the Orange Prize shorlist though I know nearly everyone else who has read it has loved it. What am I missing? What about all of you? Who has read ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ and what did you think? Have any of you tried any ‘book apps’ and if so how was the experience?

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Filed under Constable & Robinson Publishing, Corsair Books, Jennifer Egan, Orange Prize, Review

The Orange Prize Shortlist 2011

So it has been announced and the six short listed titles by the Orange Prize 2011 judges are as follows…

My thoughts? Well I really like the list. Though its not the six I would have chosen, I had three of them in ‘My Orange Shortlist 2011’having read all the books on the long list this year from cover to cover. You will see I predicted ‘Room’ and ‘Great House’ might just make the final six. I am over the moon that ‘Annabel’ is in the mix because I loved that book so, so, so much. I am also really thrilled to see ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’ by Emma Henderson on the list too, my thoughts on that one very soon, as it was a book that really took hold of me and has grown on me and stayed with me since. They are the two I would most like to see win at the moment, though I have loved all four of the others (for me ‘Swamplandia!’ just had the edge on a modern fairytale over ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ – reviews of both of these coming soon, though I think a little Orange rest is called for now) in their own ways.

Enough of my thoughts on The Orange Prize 2011 so far, what do you all think about it? What do you make of the short list?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Orange Prize

My Orange Shortlist 2011…

Today will see the announcement of The Orange Prize Short List 2011 and I think it’s the most excited I have been about a prizes short list, other than The Green Carnation Prize of course, in quite some time. I was going to call this post ‘guessing the Orange short list 2011’ but I simply can’t second guess what the panel of judges will have chosen as the final six books, even if I have read the entire Orange long list for 2011 (and I did manage it, thanks to my latest stint in the hospital). I can only go on what I would put forward for my six personal choices after having read the lot. So before I make my guesses here are the 20 books long listed once more, all with my score out of ten and links to the ones have posted already, others are from posts pending which will be up over the next week or so (I’m spacing them out in case you are oranged out, as I almost was at one point)…

So like I said rather than guessing what the judges might or might not have in their short list, no one can do that as five individuals will all love very different books (a few of my favourite submissions for The Green Carnation Prize last year didn’t make the longlist as I was out voted, that’s the way it goes sometimes), I looked at my marks out of ten. Did I still rate those books as highly as I did at the time, how did they compare, had some favourites faded and some books stayed with me when I thought they wouldn’t? I then thought about which of the 20 books I would want to have to read again two or more times and which ones I really loved first time but I am not sure I could read again (something I will be discussing on the blog soon). I also ignored hype, and would hope the judges are too. These are the six that I would have chosen if I was a judge, in order of preference…

  

  

It was a really, really tough decision to make because this years twenty books, ok apart from two of them for me personally, were all really strong and reading them has been brilliant on the whole. You might be shocked as two of my favourite books from the list haven’t made my final six. ‘Room’ because though I loved it last year I feel like I have seen and heard too much about it since. ‘Great House’, which is a book that really surprised me with how much I loved it when I least expected it to, could I read it again though? Probably not, though I would be happy if both of these were on the shortlist too and have a feeling they both with be on the real one.I almost popped ‘Repeat It Today With Tears’ on there too as that has really grown on me, and I liked it a lot to start with, but I couldn’t choose seven titles so had to be tough!

The six I have chosen have stayed with me, I’ve connected with them all in some way and most of all really, really enjoyed them. Will I get it right? I am sure that I won’t, I was rubbish at guessing the long list and am sure it will be the same in this instance. It’s the taking part that’s the fun bit though isn’t it? Which books do you think will make the final six? Which ones have you read, or which ones are you really tempted to read? Will you be reading the short listed titles?

P.S This will be my last post on all things Orange for a while, apart from the actual long list of course which I will post later, I am aware Savidge Reads has been quite orangey in the last week or so, so my missing long list reviews will be sporadic over the next few weeks/months leading up to the winner being announced.

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Orange Prize

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives – Lola Shoneyin

A while back I wrote about my thoughts on debut novels and the fact that I don’t tend to run out and buy them. Well imagine my surprise that during my Orange Longlist reading it’s the debuts on the whole that have really shone out for me, no wonder there were so many (nine out of twenty) on the list. ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ by Lola Shoneyin is one of these debuts. I hadn’t heard of it before the longlist was announced but if I had been browsing in a bookshop and seen the cover and read the title (which is one of my favourites of the year so far) and blurb I think it’s a book I’d have walked away with, and if you see it in your local book shop you should get it sharpish too.

In the roughly modern day we meet Nigerian businessman Baba Segi during a chronic stomach ache. He believes the cause of his problem is down to the fact that his most recent wife Bolanle does not appear to be able to carry a child. When I say recent I do not mean that Baba Segi is a rich divorcee, for the household of Baba Segi is a polygamous one and Bolanle is in fact his fourth wife, one which the other three were not happy to see enter the house. More wives equals less time with their husband, and with every new wife comes the threat that their lives could change forever as each previous wife has a secret and there is also one big secret running through the whole family. What the hostile three don’t realise is that Bolanle has secrets too.

What of course these secrets are I shall keep to myself, because as I read a long I had no idea what was coming and that made the book really enjoyable as a first time read. I have to say that I could happily read it all over again knowing everything as I now do because of the wonderful, and the wicked, characters that appear in the book. Despite the fact you might not like them all, Baba Segi is a bit of a pig really, I think some might find that a mild accusation, and the first wife Iya Segi and third wife Iya Femi aren’t two of the nicest ladies though as you read on you learn why they are the way they are and how they ended up as one of Baba Segi’s wives. Dare I say the more you read to them and discover their desperation the more you understand them?

I think one of the most clever aspects of ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ is that the novel is told in over six or seven narratives and the third person, the latter which fills in the gaps on and off. This could have been a risk because any book where you have more than three or four voices, which doesn’t happen that often, can become confusing. This is not the case in Lola Shoneyin’s debut novel. Every voice is totally different and within a line or two you can tell just which wife is talking as their narratives are so individual and distinctive and it is the women’s voices, as Baba Segi only gets a chapter or two in first person and his driver one, that could have all sounded rather samey.

The other great aspect of the novel is the way that Shoneyin captures Nigeria. Through the wives and how they go about their lives in the present and let the reader into their pasts we glimpse all aspects, and walks of life, in Nigeria over the past few decades. It doesn’t always make for comfortable reading (these wives are hiding things after all) but its very thought provoking and yet written in, and I don’t use this term very often as I think it’s a bit of a cliché but in this case is true, a very compassionate tone.

I loved ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ from the very first chapter. It is a book which manages to say a heck of a lot in fewer than 250 pages, it is brimming with characters, will make you angry, laugh (especially when the women discuss Baba Segi’s anatomy), gasp and possibly cry in equal measure, and is simply a book that you really need to read if you haven’t already. I will definitely read whatever Lola Shoneyin writes next, I hope there are many books to come from her. 9.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

This is the last review of any Orange longlisted novels before the big announcement of the short list tomorrow. At the time this post was scheduled (with my health and hospital visits scheduling is proving most useful) I had half a book left from the longlist to finish so will be guessing tomorrow though I can tell you in advance of that I have everything crossed for Lola Shoneyin and the four wives of Baba Segi’s as its just a wonderful read. Which books are you hoping make the short list? I find it really exciting and promising so many of the debut novels on the list have been excellent, what excellent debut have you read recently? Who else has read ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ and what did you make of it?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Lola Shoneyin, Orange Prize, Review, Serpent's Tail

Annabel – Kathleen Winter

Sometimes the only way you can describe the effect that a book has on you is to say you were bowled over and that is exactly how I felt when I had turned the last page of ‘Annabel’ the debut novel by Kathleen Winter. I was hoping that it might be something quite special when I first saw it on this years Orange Prize Longlist. I then went off and looked at some reviews and it seemed that on the whole people had loved it. Initially I planned to save it until later on in my Orange reading but after changing my approach to the list I picked this one up next and to sum it up in a word I found it incredible, so much so I have lots and lots to say about it.

I have to admit from reading the prologue of ‘Annabel’ I wasn’t sure that this would be the book for me. It’s a short and rather final encounter between a young girl called Annabel and her blind father as they take a canoe ride to see white caribou in the Canadian wilderness. This proves to be their final outing together and is told in a rather dreamy and magical realist way. Interestingly it’s not reflective of the rest of the book, and yet in its way it has a pivotal place in the rest of the book.

As the book itself opens proper we join Jacinta Blake in the final painful moments of giving birth surrounded by the many of the women of the small town of Croydon Harbour in the Canadian region of Labrador in 1968. Once the child, named Wayne, is born it is local women Thomasina Baikie that notices something different about the child. Wayne has been born with both sexes genitalia, he is there for a hermaphrodite, or ‘intersex’ as I believe the term is now preferred.

“Thomasina hooked a plug of slime out of the baby’s mouth with her pinky, slicked her big hand over face, belly, buttocks like butter over one of her hot loaves, and slipped the baby back to its mother. It was as the baby latched on to Jacinta’s breast that Thomasina caught sight of something slight, flower-like; one testicle had not descended, but there was something else. She waited the eternal instant that women wait when a horror jumps out at them. It is an instant that men do not use for waiting, an instant that opens a door to life and death.”

From the moment Thomasina tells Jacinta, who up until that point has been her best friend something which then is occasionally tested, a secret is born but one that the baby’s father Treadway isn’t as oblivious to as the women might think. Treadway is a silent man who disappears into the woodland and wilderness for half the year to earn his families keep, a man who talks to nature and through nature learns more than people would give him credit for – this brings occasional moments of magical realism throughout the book as it goes forward. He knows his child is of two worlds, a woman’s and a man’s, he also believes that a decision must me made  one way or the other. However life is never that black and white nor is it that easy.

From here we follow how this all changes the lives of the three main people at Wayne’s birth. Treadway and how he forces his fatherly role on Wayne, and Wayne taking part always wanting his fathers approval which he feels he never quite gets, thinking its for the best (there is one sequence of events involving a childrens den which almost made me cry in frustration). Thomasina as she struggles to go along with Wayne’s parents decision and then how she deals with grief after her family die tragically. Jacinta as she copes with the fact that once the decision is made she gains a son but also looses a daughter, something that is wonderfully brought to life when she goes to one of her friends Eliza’s houses (we also see here what a wonderful job Kathleen Winter does of fleshing out some of the smaller characters in a paragraph) for a sociable lunch.

“No matter how outrageous Eliza’s reasoning, Jacinta had tried to understand it. Even now Jacinta did not argue about the Valium, though she felt Eliza’s new outlook was chemically induced illusion. This is my problem, Jacinta thought. I am dishonest. I never tell the truth about anything important. And as a result, there is an ocean inside me of unexpressed truth. My face is a mask, and I have murdered my own daughter.”

You might all be wondering about Wayne Blake, do we not follow him too? Yes of course we do from his first few years and into his childhood. During this time though we see how he, unaware of the female half of him, is rather different from all the other children of both sexes but through the eyes of his parents and Thomasina. Its not until he gets older and how naturally his other self, who he addresses as Annabel as Thomasina does after the death of her daughter (see the beginning does bear a huge relevance), starts to show herself in the smallest of ways. It is as he learns the truth, in a rather shocking sequence of events, that we see things through his eyes and his narrative, through the third person, in the second half of the book.

“Where did she go? She was in his body but she escaped him. Maybe she gets out through my eyes, he thought, when I open them. Or my ears. He lay in bed and waited. Annabel was close enough to touch; she was himself, yet unattainable.”

I don’t think I have read a book that uses the third person in such a way that you see every person’s viewpoint so vividly. Every character, no matter how small a part they play, springs to life walking straight off the page and I honestly felt I was living in Croydon Harbour (atmosphere and descriptions are pitch perfect), whilst also being shocked that such a palce still exists in modern times, and went along with Wayne’s journey every step of the way. It is incredible to think that ‘Annabel’ is Kathleen Winter’s debut novel; I was utterly blown away by it and will be urging everyone I know to rush out and read this book. It is just superb and possibly my favourite read of the year so far. 10/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

I don’t think I can say anymore than that really. I just loved it. I am wondering if, as well as hoping it makes the Orange shortlist, it will be eligible for this years Booker Prize? Regardless of that, I am hoping that lots of other people will read it, if they haven’t already, as I am busting to discuss it to death. Has anyone else given this a whirl?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Jonathan Cape Publishers, Kathleen Winter, Orange Prize, Random House Publishing, Review