Category Archives: Penguin Books

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

One of the (few) books that I correctly predicted would be longlisted for the Man Booker this year was Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel Eileen, having read it earlier in the year. It was a book that I had not yet managed to get around to reviewing. The reason? Well, Eileen is a book that is rather like its main protagonist and narrator; complex and puzzling. It is hard to pin down, a book that you really need to let settle, have a think about and then find other people to talk about it with before your final feelings on it come through, which after quite a few months (well seven, I read it in January, oops) they now have.

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Penguin Press, hardback, 2015, fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent by a lovely friend from the USA (also available in here in the UK from Vintage Books)

In what we can only guess is the present day, Eileen Dunlop takes us back to the 1960’s when she was not long past the cusp between girlhood and womanhood. Back then she lived with her neglectful (to put it mildly) father and worked at the local correctional facility for men. She also hints that the time she is reflecting on was also the brief lead up to when she left her hometown, ‘X-ville’ New England, a time when it seems Eileen was frankly pretty much as sick of the town as she was herself.

And back then – this was fifty years ago – I was a prude. Just look at me. I wore heavy wool skirts that fell past my knees, thick stockings. I always buttoned my jackets and blouses as high as they could go. I wasn’t a girl who turned heads. But there was nothing really so wrong or terrible about my appearance. I was young and fine, average, I guess. But at the time I thought I was the worst – ugly, disgusting, unfit for the world. In such a state it seemed ridiculous to call attention to myself. I rarely wore jewelry, never perfume, and I didn’t paint my nails. For a while I did wear a ring with a little ruby in it. It had belonged to my mother.

The catalyst for this change soon becomes clear to the reader. After many days dragging by in the dull and nonexistent life in the prison, where she spends most of the time fantasising about what she would like to do to Randy and vice versa, the arrival of a new face stirs things up for Eileen in almost every sense. This arrival, Rebecca, is at once alluring and also to Eileen (a lot like most of the things in her life) utterly repugnant, yet she can’t help being somewhat mesmerized.

In any case, this woman was beautiful and looked vaguely familiar in the way that all beautiful people look familiar. So within thirty seconds I’d decided she must be an idiot, have a brain like a powder puff, be bereft of any depth or darkness, have no interior life whatever. Like Doris Day, this woman must live in a charmed world of fluffy pillows and golden sunshine. So of course I hated her. I’d never come face-to-face with someone so beautiful before in my life.

It is at this point that the reader starts to realise, from the growing clues in Moshfegh’s writing, that something awful this way comes. It is also the point that we start to realise that either Eileen, Rebecca, or possibly both of them, are not quite the sort of girls that they like everyone to think they are. By this point I was of course hooked, especially as I began to realise that, whether Eileen was villain or victim in what was to come, she was a completely unreliable narrator and probably not intentionally. Eileen it seems is playing a slight cat and mouse game as she whispers in your ear with regards to all things truthful. And who doesn’t love that, especially when you have the dreadful foreboding that something truly awful, or several things, is/are going to happen as you read on?

A grown woman is like a coyote – she can get by on very little. Men are more like house cats. Leave them alone for too long and they’ll die of sadness. Over the years I’ve grown to love men for this weakness. I’ve tried to respect them as people, full of feelings, fluctuating and beautiful from day to day. I have listened, soothed, wiped the tears away. But as a young woman in X-ville, I had no idea that other people – men or women – felt things as deeply as I did. I had no compassion for anyone unless his suffering allowed me to indulge in my own. My development was very stunted in this regard.

What that something is I can’t say because I don’t want it to spoil anything for you. I can say that it made my jaw drop because it came completely out of nowhere. In hindsight there were some intricate signs from Moshfegh but at the time it properly knocked my reading senses for six. Which was great, however… Yes, there is a however coming here. It was after this revelation that the whole premise of Eileen as a novel and as a character, became slightly unhinged for me (you can choose if you would like to take that as a pun or not). Let me explain why.

Moshfegh is, without a doubt, a very, very good writer. She likes to play with words and expectations as much as she likes to play with her readers. Great examples of that are the moment she hints she wanted to work in a prison because she was hoping for sexy danger, or the initial focus point for all Eileen’s fantasising being called Randy. There’s lots of these wonderful moments. Moshfegh’s writing is at its most compelling and chilling when she delicately and intricately weaves the most finely spun (by that I mean thinnest, but it is also when she is literally at her finest) of spiders webs around her readers head. This deftness is some of her most powerful writing. It is also when she is at her darkest be it in setting, character or mood which makes the uneasiness it’s most concentrated. There are some sections like below, where a few subtle lines say so more than meets the eye, particularly in the last line.

My daydreams of fingers and tongues and secret rendezvous in the back hallways of Moorehead kept my heart beating, or else I think I would have dropped dead of boredom. Thus, I lived in perpetual fantasy. And like all intelligent young women, I hid my shameful perversions under a façade of prudishness. Of course I did. It’s easy to tell the dirtiest minds – look for the cleanest fingernails.

However after the revelations of what happens we seem to go from carefully crafted psychological thriller to balls out freewheeling plot wise and I think this lost me to a degree. Not enough to ruin the book for me or stop me reading or throw it across the room, just enough to make me pause and have the dark gothic spell of Moshfegh’s prose broken for me slightly. And boy was it a wickedly enchanting spell up until that point. I kept thinking of HIghsmith’s Deep Water as I read on.

Bar that slight blip, I think Eileen is a pretty brilliant debut novel. I love dark, gritty, slightly uncomfortable reads and this certainly ticks all of those boxes. It is also an utterly fascinating character portrait looking at how the way we are brought up and treated affects us, as well as what we expect from women and how society views they should behave. I have been watching BBC Three’s brilliant Fleabag recently, which might seem like a random aside, where we also have a lead character who is dark, frank, tragic, slightly sinister and not quite right, yet we can’t quite get enough of her. I will be very excited to see what Moshfegh follows this up with.

Note. A reader of the blog has asked I add a trigger warning. There are some themes of abuse and violence some may find deeply disturbing. Apologies I didn’t think of that.

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Filed under Man Booker, Ottessa Moshfegh, Penguin Books, Review, Vintage Books

My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

As well as introducing me to some debut and/or brand new to me authors reading all of this years Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist has brought me a couple of authors that I have been meaning to read for a while. The first of those is Elizabeth Strout whose Pulitzer prize winning Olive Ketteridge I have been meaning to read for ages and ages since the much missed Granny Savidge Reads read it and raved about it years ago. Her latest, My Name is Lucy Barton, was also one of the most ‘guessed’ and rated books before the official longlist came out and so I was intrigued.

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Penguin Books, 2016, hardback, fiction, 206 pages, kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

After a slow recovery from what should have been a relatively simple operation and recuperation Lucy Barton wakes one night to find her mother, who she has not seen for years, sat at the end of her bed. This is something that Lucy finds wonderful, baffling, terrifying, thrilling and worrying, how do these two women relate to each other after so many years apart and after so much has gone unsaid?

“Hi, Lucy,” she said. Her voice sounded shy but urgent. She leaned forward and squeezed my foot through the sheet. “Hi, Wizzle,” she said. I had not seen my mother for years, and I kept staring at her; I could not figure out why she looked so different.
“Mom, how did you get here?” I asked.
“Oh, I got on an airplane.” She wiggled her fingers, and I knew that there was too much emotion, for us. So I waved back, and lay flat. “I think you’ll be alright,” she added, in the same shy-soundingbut urgent voice. “I haven’t had any dreams.”

After an initial read of the book, which at a compact 200 pages can be done in one sitting, it would be easy to simply say this was a concentrated and heightened fable of the relationship between a mother and daughter. In many ways it is. It is also much more than that as Lucy’s mother’s random appearance brings back many memories and stories of her youth, many of which are unsettling rather than happy. It could also be seen as a novel of a women’s journey to becoming a writer, what inspired her and what compelled her from a young age (mainly escapism through books). Now I have to say that I am not a fan of novels about novelists, so many clichés, however as with Graham Swift’s recent Mothering Sunday, this won me round as it isn’t the focus of the book, rather another layer.

My teacher saw that I loved reading, and she gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my homework was done, in the warm school. But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone! (But it was my secret. Even when I met my husband I didn’t tell him right away. I couldn’t take myself seriously. Except that I did. I took myself – secretly, secretly – very seriously! I knew I was a writer. I didn’t know how hard it would be. But no one knows that; and that does not matter.)

What the real focus of the book is actually tries to evade our eyeline directly unless we catch it unsuspectingly and that is the story of Lucy’s childhood which she doesn’t seem to want to tell us about. This also happens with Lucy’s failing marriage, yet unlike that which she can hide her memories from childhood start coming to the fore without her expecting them or being able to lock them away again as quickly as she would like. We soon discover that Lucy grew up living in impoverished and difficult circumstances, people thought she and her family were trash and they became outcasts, something she wanted to escape.

When I was a child, our family went to the Congregational church. We were outcasts there as much as anywhere; even the Sunday school teacher ignored us. Once I came late to the class, the chairs were all taken. The teacher said, “Just sit on the floor, Lucy.”

Yet as we read on there is another layer amongst that. Deep down are memories of really dark times not inflicted on the family but by them, we only get some glimpses of them but they are there all the same. Strout, through Lucy’s seeming denial, leaves it for us the reader to work out what they are and if this is why Lucy Barton has become so estranged. It also asks the questions as to whether blood is thicker than water and how we cope with having to love someone as they are our parent, with all their failings and even with some serious hatred towards them for some things they have done. How do we then cope with that when they are gone?

There is also something slightly fairytale (both the happy and the horrid elements) and surreal amongst the cracks of this novel too. I love fairytales and you may think I can spot them in every book I read, not always honest but I could in this one. First for me was sudden arrival of Lucy’s mother, for a while I spent quite a lot of the beginning thinking she was a ghost or possibly a post surgery drug induced hallucination, especially when she starts to talk about having not had any bad dreams so all will be well. Then there is the slight Cinderella element of rags to riches. Mostly though it was the monsters lurking in a woman’s memories that made me feel like that, we mainly glimpse them, we know they are real and yet they seem other because of the way Lucy is dealing with them, or not. Naturally this compelled me further.

My Name is Lucy Barton is a deceptive book, both in its size and in the story it tells. I devoured it in a single sitting and it affected me, however since I have read it the affect has grown and grown and bothered me more and more. It is the kind of book that you need to read, digest, walk away from, digest some more and then at some point go back to. It’s affect has grown on me as much as it has grown in my estimation the more and more distance I have had from it. It’s a book that lingers much longer than you anticipate. Looks like I need to head to some more of Elizabeth Strout’s books now doesn’t it?

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Elizabeth Strout, Penguin Books, Review

The House at the Edge of the World – Julia Rochester

I have mentioned before how some books you instantly fall in love with and know are for you as you get that elusive feeling of the book tingle. Something I haven’t written about, and probably should, is when you start a book slightly unsure and then it coaxes you and surprises you as you completely fall in love with it and end up hugging it (yes, hugging it) afterwards. The latter was very much the case with Julia Rochester’s debut novel The House at the Edge of the World, which I will be very much surprised if it doesn’t become one of my books of the year even though it is barely April.

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Penguin Books, 2015, hardback, fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

When I was eighteen, my father fell off a cliff. It was a stupid way to die. There was a good moon. There was no wind. There was no excuse. He was pissing into the chine at Brock Tor on his way home from the pub and fell headlong drunk into the spring tide with his flies open.

As The House at the Edge of the World opens we are drawn into the world twins Morwenna and Corwin one night they will never forget, well they were all asleep but you know what I mean, when their father is last seen, by a drunk friend, falling off a cliff into the depths below. A night when everything changes, or a night where everything gets a little more surreal afterwards for Morwenna and Corwin don’t live in a typical 2.4 children family. Their grandfather, Matthew, spends hours and hours hidden away in a room painting a map of a land that symbolises where they live, their family and the stories of both. Their mother seems to have suddenly been freed by the death of her husband, yet resentful left in a house she feels she was never really wanted in.

This all unfolds within the first few chapters, however initially I wasn’t sure I was going to get through the first few pages as the writing was throwing me slightly, as was the narrator. There is something quite surreal as this novel starts in the fact that everything feels a little bit surreal and a little bit, well, drunk. Having had this feeling with Sarah Perry’s debut After Me Comes The Flood and being thoroughly rewarded for my perseverance I, well, persevered. Then there came Morwenna as a narrator, spiky, sarchastic and pretty much disliked by everyone she meets, don’t get me wrong I love a dislikeable character but she along with the style of the book were throwing me around a bit and testing me… But I like to be tested and sure enough she won me over, which I imagined if she was real and knew would really piss her off, ha.

That morning the heat had sparked a rush on Slush Puppies at the Sea View Cafe and we ran out of electric blue, which upset people. ‘It’s all the same shit,’ I told my customers. ‘They’re not flavours, they’re just different combinations of chemicals. The virulent green tastes almost exactly the same and is just as bad for you.’
My boss took me aside and said, ‘Morwenna, you are a bad tempered, foul-mouthed little smart arse and the only reason I’m not firing you is that it is the end of the season anyway.’
‘I’m terribly sorry,’ I said to my customers, chastened. ‘But we’re out of raspberry.’

Anyway back to the story. Things settle somewhat after their fathers death and soon enough Morwenna and Corwin are spending more time away from the family home, yet always it calls to them and draws them back. Seventeen years after their fathers death Corwin starts to question that fateful night and as the twins start digging into their families past they discover a family, a map and a crumbling house brimming with secrets all infused with the urban legends and myths of the land in which they were born. Well I was pretty much hooked from then on and became more and more so the more I read and the more quirky and mysterious it all became.

One of the many things that I think Julia Rochester does fantastically well with this book is set it very much in the now and yet somehow make it feel timeless and also slightly other worldly. Morwenna ends up living in London after leaving home, yet because bar a few work colleagues and a boyfriend she reluctantly meets she seems out of time with the city and a bit of a ghost living in it. When she goes back home most people dislike her and her friendship group have dispersed and so again she becomes some kind of loner, almost a harbinger of something. This makes her both a fascinating and interestingly frank and vulnerable narrator who also has an agenda and scores to settle which brings in the question of her reliability. All of which I love in a novel and the way Rochester did this felt really unique.

The other aspect that gives The House at the Edge of the World this wonderful sense of otherness is the interwoven tales of otherness. As we read on we are told of tales of mermaid sittings, demons roaming the valleys, things that live in the woods, the devil himself and also those people who seem a bit other and out of kilter with the world. Those people who are part of society yet seem so very different, those people who fascinate some or bring fear to others. Like an old lady who might look like a witch, or a Crab Man…

The Crab Man looked like Matthew’s idea of Long John Silver, but without the peg-leg or the parrot. Instead, his props were the crabs that rattled about in the metal bucket at the kitchen door. Laughing saltily, he would take a couple out of the bucket, one in each hand, and, with a leathery leer, wave them in Matthew’s face. Snippety-snap went the terrifying crab claws within an inch of Matthew’s nose. They smelt of fish-water and engine oil.

What adds to all this is the sense of mystery and the fact that at its heart this is also a family drama. Actually I want to turn that around and say… THIS is how you write a family drama. I like a family drama as much as the next reader yet sometimes they can be a bit staid. With otherworldly maps, demons and hints of the supernatural, unsolved family mysteries and legends all whirled into the mix of relations who love and loathe each other, Julia Rochester has created something quite, quite brilliant and I think rather unique. I cannot say better than that this book in some way cast a spell over me which I had no idea was coming. In fact you could say The House at the Edge of the World was the perfect unexpected tale of the unexpected. I hugged it after I closed the final page, superb.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Books of 2016, Julia Rochester, Penguin Books, Review

The Fox and the Star – Coralie Bickford-Smith

Back in October I told you how I had been enduring one of the worst reading slumps in my entire reading history and how through reading a children’s book I got past it. However, like a proper silly sausage, I completely forgot to tell you which book it was. I was reminded of this when it won the Waterstones Book of the Year last week, for the book which saved me from my reading slump was none other than Coralie Bickford-Smith’s The Fox and the Star, which is probably the most beautiful book that you could encounter all year, inside and out. In fact it was the cover that made me take it from the shelves, aptly in Waterstones, and then buy it then and there.

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Particular Books, 2015, hardback, picture book, 64 pages, bought by myself for myself

The story of The Fox and the Star initially seems like a rather simple one; it tells of a fox who has always grown up alone with just his friend Star for company, however one day Fox wakes to find Star gone and so must venture into the forest alone to try and find out what has happened. A tale as old as time it would seem, one which also remains timeless too, yet one which actually is a tale of love, friendship, loss and independence. All good things for kids to learn and for adults to be reminded of. The story is made all the more wonderful by Coralie’s stunning illustrations…

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And that is without me even sharing some of the best ones with you, you will have to go and get a copy for yourself, or use a small child as an excuse. Though I hasten to add mine is proudly on my shelves as it is a stunning object and one which (punches the air) the author has not allowed to be produced as an ebook, as it is all about the imagery and story close up in your hands physically.

It is hard to say much more about the book, as it stands at a mere 535 words, other than it is an absolutely stunning object. Coralie Bickford-Smith is responsible for many wonderful book covers at Penguin and the detailing and vibrancy of the pictures (be they in colour or mono) is absolutely astounding. It feels, as I mentioned before and as Waterstones said on its winning, as if this is a classic tales for adults and children straight away. I think it was the slight nostalgic feel of children’s books and stories gone by that made it the perfect cure for my reading issues, I was instantly lost in it. A delightful book indeed.

Do watch this video below of Coralie Bickford-Smith talking about the story behind the book. Be warned though, you will want to own every book she has ever made the cover for by the end of it.

Who else has read and immersed themselves in The Fox and the Star? Do you think it was the right winner of Waterstones Book of the Year 2015?

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Filed under Coralie Bickford-Smith, Particular Books, Penguin Books, Review

The Happy Reader

A few weeks ago, watching either Jen or Sanne on their book vlogs, I learnt of a wonderful new quarterly magazine all about books (or Bookish Quarterly as it says on the bottom of the front cover) appropriately called The Happy Reader. I had to get my mitts on it and did forthwith super swiftly. Now two issues in and read, with a third having just arrived I thought I would report back on what has instantly become my new favourite quarterly so that you don’t miss out on it.

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The Happy Reader is a collaboration between Penguin Books and the brilliant magazine Fantastic Man and what they have come up with is a cool and quirky magazine that comes in two halves. The first half is an interview with a well known reader about their reading life, and through the books they have read getting more insight into their life in general. The second half of the magazine is dedicated to a particular Penguin Classic and a host of features based around the book that either enhances your reading of the book or makes you want to go and read the book. Having read one book featured in one issue and not having read the other I can say that the idea behind the second works as planned in both cases.

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In the first issue we were given the treats of both actor Dan Stevens and one of my favourite books of all time, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. The first half of the magazine sees author Naomi Alderman interviewing Dan Stevens about judging the Man Booker, Downtown Abbey, his latest film The Guest etc. Initially I was thinking is this just going to be him plugging his movie but actually what unravels, because they are talking about their mutual love of books, is a really insightful interview about all of the above plus his being in adaptations of famous books, working on audio books and discussions on books I now want to read like Iron John by Robert Bly. I was sold on the books and sold on Dan, plus I loved the insight into the Man Booker judging and what he read during filming of Downtown Abbey and how he concealed books on set. You will have to read the interview to find out all…

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In the second half of the magazine it goes all things The Woman in White. We have a fashion shoot of, erm, women in white clothes and also some really, really fascinating and quirky articles that connect to the book in various ways. Each month editor Seb Emina introduces the book in a way that magically refreshes the memory of anyone who has read it, yet doesn’t give anything away if you haven’t, just the desire to go and buy it. As it was a book that was serialised Henry Jefferys looks at how people of the time became addicted to it, like they might a substance, and Lilie Ferrari discusses how you write a serialised gripping drama as she used to on Eastenders.

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If that wasn’t enough there is also an article on women associated with colours (lady in red, woman in black, etc) by Emily King which is brilliant, the history of some of the iconography of the book and its adaptations, a map for The Woman in White walk around London and a recipe for Count Fosco’s favourite chocolates. Brilliant.

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Issue two focuses the first half on an interview with rock star Kim Gordon, who I have to admit (the shame) I had not heard of until I read this though I recognised the bands she had been in, by the end of which I wanted to read her memoir Girl in a Band. Interestingly she talked a lot about the memoirs she has read, or in some brilliantly honest cases half read and got bored of, as well as what she likes to read on tour and the reading of her informative years. She also talked about her love of The Good Wife which I have recently started and become addicted to and so felt she was a kindred spirit. She also recommends seven corking books (Dan Stevens also does this) at the end of her interview all of which I want to go and read from a wide spectrum of authors and genres. Again you need to read the article to find out what they are…

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The book that The Happy Reader focuses on this time is The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura which I have never heard of before but thanks, again, to Seb Emina really want to read as it seems a book that defies genres. There are some more wonderful articles (bar one which was interesting though about floristry not tea) that look at tea in some unusual ways. Nicholas Lezard looks at ‘Teaism’ which in Japan is a formal ceremony, a chain of specialist tea shops I am so going to in September in Washington D.C and in the UK is the great debate on how tea should be prepared and poured. (I am a milk after not before man!) There are also articles on the designs of original/formal tea rooms, Japanophilia (cultural obsession not something rude), the importance of tea in prisons as well as a guide to some of the finest teas by Jeff Koehler.

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So as you can see lots and lots and lots to love about The Happy Reader which does as it says on the tin and will have you happily reading away. I am very excited to read Issue 3 which features comedian Aziz Ansari and the travel writing classic Granite Island by Dorothy Carrington which has not long arrived. I haven’t managed to read that book yet (or even get it) but I might try and get M.P. Sheil’s The Purple Cloud in time for Issue 4 this autumn.

If you would like to get your mitts on The Happy Reader or subscribe then head here (it is a bargain for what you get). Have any of you already subscribed and if so what do you think? Have you read any of the books mentioned in the issues so far? What are your thoughts on literary magazines and the like anyway?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Penguin Books, Random Savidgeness

I’m The King of the Castle – Susan Hill

Writing about certain books can sometimes be a trepidatious thing. Susan Hill’s I’m the King of the Castle is one such example for various reasons. There is the fact that this has become a modern classic to the extent that is had been on the English syllabus for years, which also adds the threat that some youths might head here and think I know what the heck I am talking about and use me as part of their exam answers (if only the internet had been in existence when I was at school, I am so old) or coursework. Then there is the fact that Susan Hill is one of my favourite contemporary writers and so I put pressure on myself. Really I have to ignore all that, think ‘sod it and hurrah’ and, because this is a blog diarising my reading thoughts and adventures and not some lit-crit site, just write about the book – which I loved.

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Penguin Books, 1970 (2014 edition), paperback, fiction, 224 pages, bought by my good self

When Joseph Hooper inherits the decaying familial home, a Victorian mansion called Warings, he feels he is finally the ruler of his domain. This all changes when his father advertises for someone to come and take care of the house and keep an eye on Edmund (despite the cold relationship they have he can clearly see Edmund is turning into an odious little oik) at the same time. The arrival of Mrs Helena Kingshaw is a double triple blessing as not only is she ideal she is also very becoming and has a son, Charles, who can become a new playmate for his own boy. Yet Edmund has taken a similar stance to Warings, with his father away so often he believes he is in charge of the house, likes it that way and isn’t keen on change.

‘Oh – what is it, what have you found?’ She was anxious that he should like it here, should very soon feel at home.
Kingshaw thought, I didn’t want to come, I didn’t want to come, it is one more strange house in which we do not properly belong. But he had dropped the lump of plasticine. ‘Nothing, it’s nothing. It’s only a pebble.’
Walking behind his mother, into the dark hall, he managed to open out the scrap of paper.
‘I DIDN’T WANT YOU TO COME HERE’ was written.
‘Now let me show you to your rooms,’ said Mr Joseph Hooper.
Kingshaw stuffed the message fearfully into his trouser pocket.

Edmund plots and creates as many cunning and diabolical horrors as he can (one involving a stuffed crow was my personal favourite) to try and get rid of Charles, not understanding that Charles would like nothing more to run away from this place and soon starts to plan just that. After a first humiliating attempt to flee, Charles soon ventures into (the perfectly named) Hang Wood with Edmund in hot pursuit. Once lost in Hang Wood the roles of power reverse as they become lost and cracks in Edmund’s domineering persona start to break. But can Charles resist revenge and can a bully like Edmund ever really change?

Many people say that I’m the King of the Castle is a case study in the cruelty that children can inflict on each other. (And kids can be bloody horrid to one another, I was bullied mercilessly by some horrors –who weirdly couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to befriend them on Facebook a few decades later anyway, this isn’t a therapy session for me it’s a review.) In some ways, particularly with Edmund Hopper who I thoroughly enjoyed despising,  that is the case but I think there is a lot more going on with this novel than just that.

In Edmund and Charles I felt Susan Hill creates the typical bully and the typical, and unfortunate, victim. The question it made me ponder were if children are naturally born into those roles in life or if the environment they are brought up in, be it place or how they are treated. Yes that old chestnut, the nature vs. nurture debate. Is Edmund a rotten so and so because he is allowed to be and because his father had a bad relationship with his father? Has Charles been molly coddled by his mother as he has been moved from pillar to post? Is it class? Or were these two boys just born with brains that developed their psyches into such? I can’t answer any of those questions (sorry to all you students hoping to copy and paste, ha, I admire your tenacity though) but it didn’t make me think about them.

A theme I picked up strongly on, and I actually think is the more powerful message from this book (aside from don’t be a bullying menace) is the fact that children are too often not listened to enough. There is the old adage that children should be seen and not heard, this takes that further to a level of neglect or naivety as two parents ignore their children’s thoughts and feelings too busy caught up in their own. Yet how often does this happen in real life? Hill amplifies the expression children hear of ‘not now’ as Mr Hooper and Mrs Kingshaw are blinded by love/lust, or potentially money and status, I could never quite work Mrs Kingshaw out. How is a child left feeling when they aren’t heard?

This is one of Susan Hill’s masterstrokes with I’m the King of the Castle she has an incredible insight and empathy with younger people. Unlike the parents of the piece she doesn’t patronise, simplify or underestimate the lengths that both of these boys, who are polar opposites in character, will go to. She also looks at those moments of pure darkness and those of pure kindness without shying away from them and the effect of all this is quite something.

The boy looked towards the bed. His skin was already dead, he thought, it is old and dry. But he saw that the bones of the eye-sockets, and the nose and jaw, showed through it, and gleamed. Everything about him, from the stubble of hair down to the folded line of sheet, was bleached and grey-ish white.
‘All he looks like,’ Edmund Hooper said, ‘is one of his dead old moths.’

Finally, and most importantly for me, what made me love this novel is that it is overall simply a brilliant dark gothic yarn. It has a grumbling old house complete with collections of old moths, it has a brooding wood, it has an evil cunning child, psychological warfare, vengeful crows, a wicked sense of humour and an ending that will leave you feeling emotionally bruised and with questions that cause a sense of unease to linger on your psyche. It is not a book that wants to be nicely wrapped up and dependent on its reader will leave you feeling hopeful or a small sense of dread at what might come after. I was in the latter category, which probably says quite a lot about me.

Having read it I can completely understand why I’m the King of the Castle has become a modern classic and why it is being taught all around the UK, though I am thinking most parents should be given this around their first child’s ninth birthday too, just as a small warning. Ha! Not only is it a fantastic gothic story, it is one of the best insights into being and understanding a child’s mind that I have read. Yup, even better than Lord of the Flies, possibly because it is on a smaller and I think more intense scale. If you haven’t read it yet then I strongly recommend that you do.

I should add I chose this book for an episode of Hear Read This, if you would like to listen to Rob, Kate, Gavin and my additional thoughts head here. Who else has read I’m the King of the Castle and what did you make of it? Have any of you had to study that and how was it compared to reading it because you just wanted to?

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Filed under Books of 2015, Hear... Read This, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review, Susan Hill

How to be both – Ali Smith

When the lovely folk at the Bailey’s Prize asked me if there was a book I would like to champion from the shortlist that I hadn’t read yet (or you know it would be The Bees) I instantly, and quite cheekily, asked them if I could read Ali Smith because I am a big fan of her work. I have actually been a big fan of her work since before this blog was born when I read The Accidental and loved it just as much as I was occasionally baffled by it. Since then I have loved Girl Meets Boy, The First Person & Other Stories, There but for the and Artful. Now with How to be both I think Ali Smith has encased everything I love about her writing in one book, though I am also aware that it won’t be a book for every reader out there…

Penguin Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the lovely lot at the Bailey’s Prize

How to be both is a clever novel in that is is made up of two narratives/novellas/stories which form a whole novel, yet can be read and have indeed been printed in either order creating a slightly different book. Before we get too involved in how that works, let me tell you more about the two stories. First up, well in my editon, is the tale of George whose mother has recently died and whose life and death along with the things she was interested in have become a kind of obsession with George whilst coping with the grief and loss of her mother, one being the art of an Italian 15th century fresco painter, Francesco del Cossa. The other story is the tale of the artist del Cossa who of little is known and indeed until a specific fresco and letter were discovered wasn’t a known artist at all. It may seem like the link between the stories is obvious however the more you read the more the narratives are connected, occasionally mirrored and interweaved.

But which came first? her mother says. The chicken or the egg? The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?
The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done.
But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?
George sighs heavily. Her mother points across the way, to the castle wall. A bus goes past. Its whole back is an advert for something in which there’s a Madonna and child picture as if from the past, except the mother is showing the baby Jesus how to look something up on an iPad.

Now I left in the last paragraph of that quote because if you are worried that this novel might be too clever or maybe a little to conceptual it is honestly not. Yes Smith is an amazingly gifted and clever writer, yes she is also an author who is brimming with ideas and her novels can have an unusual concept to them, in no way is she a writer who alienates, comes across as pompous or likes the sound of her own voice or opinions. Her writing is as enjoyable as it is experimental and she has as much sense of humour as she has ideas, admittedly the first part of the Italian section made me do a ‘what?!?’ but I trusted her and read on more of that shortly. What I love about her writing the most is the way that she will play with words, flip them and their meanings about and show you just how blooming amazing this language we all have is.

There is also much more to love about her writing. Layers mainly, in fact layered is a very good word for Smith as she does this with themes in her novels, gender, beginnings, art, culture, stories, spirit & essence, death, grief and more are in this novel. Smith is clearly a people watcher. She has the ears for dialogue and the eyes for character. Any conversation you read in a Smith novel be they set now or be it set several centuries ago is exactly how people speak. I know this sounds really obvious because all authors write dialogue, yet even when that dialogue is good it isn’t as brimming and astute and layered with meaning as when Ali Smith does it, in particular (and this almost beats one of the best dinner party conversations in fiction ever in There but for the) there are conversations between teenage George and her mother that we know we have all had when we were being pedantic clever clogs and one scene with George and her father having to discuss a pornographic  video with its undertone of two people who have become alien to one another since grief hit, is utterly brilliant.

The same brilliance with dialogue applies to Smith’s characters. George is a wonderful, wonderful character who I loved seeing the world from the angle of. Like in There but for the (sorry to mention it again, it remains my favourite Smith book and I loved this) in How to be both Smith uses a younger character to show us the reader how utterly bizarre we are as adult human beings. She does this with the way her mother uses language, yes her own mother, and she does this when she is thinking about death, about art, about pornography, all without it ever sounding precocious. I was utterly charmed by George and it may have been leaving George behind, and initially the very unusual way the start of the second section (in my version of the book) that made me a little hesitant and a little cranky initially when we went to 15th Century Italy.

Don’t get me wrong, once I had warmed up to and got used to the way del Cossa tells a tale I was into the swing of it. There were three particular highlights in this section firstly the wonderful and rompy tale of del Cossa’s rise to painting for the aristocracy, which takes us via a wonderful and vivid whore house, secondly her tale of friendship  and finally, yet most incredibly of all, the way Smith writes about painting. You’d think creative types writing about other creative types would be easy, quite the opposite and some novels about artists or musicians can go horribly wrong (oh hello Richard Powers’ Orfeo) or come across as pretentious drivel. Not for Smith. I was worried I might get bored when she wrote about del Cossa painting or feel like it was a lecture, I was captivated.

It is a feeling thing, to be a painter of things: cause every thing, even a imagined or gone thing or creature or person has essence: paint a rose or a coin or a duck or a brick and you’ll feel it as sure as if a coin had a mouth and it told you what it was like to be a coin, as if a rose told you first-hand what petals are, their softness and wetness held in a pellicle of colour thinner and more feeling than an eyelid, as if a duck told you about the combined wet and underdry of its feathers, a brick about the rough kiss of its skin.

I also think the Italian section is very integral to another thing Ali Smith likes to toy with and that is our assumptions. If there is one thing I have learnt in the case of an Ali Smith novel it is to have no preconceived ideas about it, other than it will be very good, and also to assume nothing. For those of you who have yet to read it I will say no more for fear of spoilers, for those of you who have read it you will know what I mean and we can talk about those and much more in the comments below – after all I promised this would be like a book group, this does mean there may be some spoilers in the comments, be warned. I did wonder how it would work if I had read the two parts the other way around and tried playing the ‘if I had read it that way’ game, I am wondering if too much would have been given away too soon. More to discuss below I feel?

I really liked How to be both. I think it takes all the best parts of her previous novel, mixes them up  and produces something wonderful. Occasionally this does mean that How to be both will have a familiar feel to its predecessors in some way (I so wanted to call this post Artful: The Remix) yet it is also a completely original novel and concept too. As I said before, Smith is as enjoyable as she is experimental and long may she keep writing books like this and gaining a much deserved wider and wider readership. I think she could be one of the most interesting contemporary writers of our time whilst also being one of our most accessible, if you are prepared to put the work in and leave your reading inhibitions by the door. Marvellous!

So normally it is over to you and I ask if you have read the book and what you thought of it, plus ask you what else I should read of Ali Smith’s and indeed from the Bailey’s shortlist. I still want all that but I want a little bit more (and I feel I am worth it, ha) as I said this would be like a book group discussion so to get us all going I do want you to tell me what you thought, I have also asked a few questions in the first comment below… let’s get discussing!

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Filed under Ali Smith, Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Penguin Books, Review