Category Archives: Profile Books

The Lady in the Van – Alan Bennett

I have been somewhat berating myself of late over the fact that I seem to be reading more shiny new books than I do the backlists of authors that I am either big fans of or think I could be big fans of. (I have mentioned my thoughts on an author binge of late who I have been meaning to read much more of.) I was therefore delighted when my lovely friend Barbs chose Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, both as it was short and I have been prize judging (she’s very considerate) and because Bennett is a writer I love who I haven’t read enough of. Shockingly though I have read it twice I don’t have a review of The Uncommon Reader on the blog which is a HUGE favourite here as it is with most readers. Anyway, I was excited to read this and chat about it with three ladies in a restaurant…

Profile Books, paperback, 1989 (1999 edition), non fiction, 96 pages, bought by myself for myself

‘I ran into a snake this afternoon,’ Miss Shepherd said. ‘It was coming up Parkway. It was a long, grey snake – a boa constrictor possibly. It looked poisonous. It was keeping close to the wall and seemed to know its way. I’ve a feeling it may have been heading for the van.’ I was relieved that on this occasion she didn’t demand that I ring the police, as she regularly did if anything out of the ordinary occurred. Perhaps this was too out of the ordinary (though it turned out the pet shop in Parkway had been broken into the previous night so she may have seen a snake). She brought her mug over and I made her a drink, which she took back to the van. ‘I thought I’d better tell you,’ she said, ‘just to be on the safe side. I’ve had some close shaves with snakes.’

And so The Lady in the Van starts as it means to go on and throws us straight into the (very much true) story of Alan Bennett and his neighbour Miss Shepherd. Well, when I say neighbour, I actually mean the woman who lived in a van on his road until some people complained to the council and Bennett kindly offered her the space on his drive/front garden in front of the garage. What Mr Bennett didn’t realise was that the invite to stay there for a couple of weeks turned into the small time of a mere fifteen years. Through short sharp diary entries he lets the reader into a relationship and friendship of sorts which he never expected.

It is almost too obvious to say that what I loved most about The Lady in the Van was Alan Bennett’s writing, yet it is true – I just love his writing. The way he captures people’s characteristics is wonderful and Miss Shepherd’s full (or full on) personality comes loud and clear, what a character she was. Some people might have made me more of a figure of fun, some might have made her a tragic case, Bennett brings all of her sides and intricacies to life; at times she is witty, difficult, frustrating, upsetting, a villain and a victim. Bennett is also very good at writing honestly (or as honestly as one can) about himself. He isn’t some hero in shining armour who befriended an old lady and made her life wonderful, he is a man who did something very kind and sometimes wondered why on earth he had bothered yet at the same time he made as much a difference to her life as she did to his. It is deftly done.

October 1984. Some new staircarpet fitted today. Spotting the old carpet being thrown out, Miss S. says it would be just the thing to put on the roof of the van to deaden the sound of rain. This exchange comes just as I am leaving for work, but I say that I do not want the van festooned with bits of old carpet – it looks bad enough as it is. When I come back in the evening I find half the carpet remnants slung over the roof. I ask Miss S. who has put them there, as she can’t have done it herself. ‘A friend,’ she says mysteriously. ‘A well wisher.’ Enraged, I pull down a token piece but the majority stays put.

As much as it made me laugh at times, especially when Miss S decides to become a member of parliament or hints at moving in or pretends the utter mess she lives in is merely blown from all over the road, I was also very much moved by The Lady in the Van. As whilst it is a tale of a crazy lady who ended up in Bennett’s garden, it is also the story of a woman with no family or friends to speak of who has been spending the most of her last decades alone and seen as ‘a character’ which may be the case on the outside but what about on the inside and why she ended up surrounded by cake crumbs, papers and a spotless cutlery set in a van and clothes in a robin reliant. You chuckle, then you think a little deeper.

Through Alan’s observations and thoughts we ponder old age and how no matter how old we get there is still the same person and personality within that body that looks somewhat different than it once did. It also looks at care for the elderly and the benefits (and pitalls) that independence can bring. It also highlights the fact that we tend to forget that elderly people have lived a full life, possibly full of all sorts of secrets and lessons we could learn, yet all we see is the result of those years and sadly sometimes judge them. In fact I would say judging people is probably one of the biggest themes of the book along with kindness, after all how many of us would have done what Bennett did if we found ourselves in that position?

So for me Alan Bennett triumphed once again with The Lady in the Van. As with his fictional writings such as Smut, The Uncommon Reader and his Talking Heads series (which I used to have on tape and listened to religiously before bed in my teens) and with memoir like A Life Like Other People’s he hits us just at the spot where humour and poignancy meet. He is a lover of character and characters and celebrates them with their flaws and all. I must read more of his work and I must see this when the movie comes out in November…

What about all of you? Have you read, or seen the play of, The Lady in the Van? Which of Alan Bennett’s other works have you seen or read and should I head to Untold Stories, Writing Home or Telling Tales next?

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Filed under Alan Bennett, Book Group, Books of 2015, Non Fiction, Profile Books, Review

Gone to the Forest – Katie Kitamura

One of the nice things about being asked to review books elsewhere is that invariably the books that I get sent, or can choose from, are not books I would have initially picked myself. This happened when We Love This Book asked me if I would like to read Katie Kitamura’s latest novel ‘Gone to the Forest’. I hadn’t read any of her previous work and new very little about her, so it seemed an ideal way of trying a completely new to me author which I jumped at the chance of trying.

*** The Clerkenwell Press, hardback, 2013, fiction, 194 pages, kindly sent by We Love This Book

In an unnamed country we meet Tom and his father, the latter who set up a farm on 100,000 acres of bush land and river trying forty years ago to make a living on cattle and the Dorado fish. As the novel opens Tom over hears an announcement on the radio declaring a civil war on this colonial land and while he worries he really thinks nothing of it. His thoughts are otherwise occupied as other domestic and natural disasters threaten as a woman intended for him, yet stolen by his father, becomes a demure threat to the life he knows and then a volcano erupts threatening to end the farming life they have created.

More often than not as the book progresses you almost forget that there could be a civil war on the horizon, but that, it seemed to me, is Kitamura’s plan as suddenly the book takes a much darker and horrifying turn of events as we read on. What I really admired with ‘Gone to the Forest’ is that she uses the natural disasters and events that happen initially both as a separate story, which leads to people acting in an animalistic and rather disturbing way, and a precursor to also almost foreshadow what is to come and add a sense of foreboding to the novel early on.

“They are reading the wrong signs. The right signs have nothing to do with history or culture. Two days before the eruption the snakes fled down the mountain. They slid, then dropped into the river and drowned. Within hours they were washing up on the dirt banks of the river. Stiff and twisted like small branches of wood, their bodies rigid in death.”

Kitamura seems to have two very differing styles of writing which she interestingly combines both in the light and dark shades of the atmosphere, the beauty of the landscape and also the foreboding nature I mentioned. She also does this with characters. For example with Tom, who should be out hero of the piece and yet seems to be rather ineffectual to be honest, he is a character built by everyone else, not just in terms how they seem him but how they treat him and interact with him. He seems to be the target of his father’s bullying and anger of his mother’s death and also the butt of jokes to the staff and even to his intended wife. Subsequently whilst I wanted to feel for him, I also wanted him to grow a pair to be honest.

“Tom is like a blind man. He does not see what is about to hit him in the face and knock him down. It has been shown to him but he has been looking the other way. Jose is not inclined to explain, perhaps believing the task to be insurmountable.”

Kitamura also has a raw and earthy writing style that is filled with energy and almost bristles with an inexplicable heat and anger on occasion. This was when I found the book its most powerful and, after Tom’s father being such a bully, it is when Tom’s intended, or ‘the girl’, arrives into the story that everything takes a much darker and angrier turn, both in the characters actions (one scene is truly shocking) and also in the writing itself.

“She is like a bitch in heat. The same smell comes off the animals during mating season. They run across the land, eyes rolling in the back of their heads, sick and made foul with desire. They have to lock the dogs away when they are like this. There is nothing else for it. They should do the same to the girl only it is too late and the fever has already set in. Into all of them, into the walls of the house.”

For me it was in the latter cases when Kitamura’s prose was at its most wonderfully evocative and I think I would have liked the whole book to have had that spark. Weirdly it was anything around Tom and his thoughts, or lack of them, that made ‘Gone to the Forest’ a little distant; sometimes I couldn’t emotionally connect with him and yet it really was his story overall, I was more interested in everyone else. By the end of the book though I was hooked and harrowed in equal measure.

I certainly won’t forget ‘Gone to the Forest’ and I think really that is what Kitamura wants and maybe why you need the mundane nature of Tom to make what comes have such a stark contrast.   There are some books which very slowly take you by the hand and as they lead you along they grip you tighter and tighter before suddenly letting you go and leaving their mark on you for days to come. This was very much what happened with me and this book. ‘Gone to the Forest’ is a book which starts of very quietly yet taking you by surprise with a cracking great wallop at the end.

I am pondering if this might just be on the Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist next week, it has a certain passion in its prose that really makes it stand out. We will have to see. In the meantime has anyone else read it? Has anyone read Katie’s debut ‘The Longshot’? It is about boxing and whilst that is not by any means a subject I have any interest in I am inclined to seek it out.

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Filed under Katie Kitamura, Profile Books, Review, The Clerkenwell Press

Dolly – Susan Hill

It is always nice when you discover a book is coming out by one of your favourite authors that you had no idea about. In this particular instance it was even more exciting when the author herself, for it was Susan Hill, tells you so in a tweet. I had just tweeted about how excited I was about her latest Simon Serrailler novel ‘A Question of Identity’ coming out when she replied ‘you just wait for my new ghost story ‘Dolly’’ well I was of course both intrigued and thrilled. Firstly a new ghost story is always good and just from the sounds of the title alone, and the images it conveyed, I was really, really, really excited to read ‘Dolly’.

Profile Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Having been a big fan of both Susan Hill and her ghost stories, ‘The Woman in Black’ being one of my favourite ghost stories and books of all time, there was a slight worry with ‘Dolly’ that I might hype it up too much in my head. I needn’t have worried as I think ‘Dolly’ might be one of the uneasiest and creepiest stories I have read all year, and indeed in some time since I re-read the aforementioned ‘The Women in Black’ itself.

‘Dolly’ is set in the British Fens, a marshland South Western region perfect for a ghost story, as two cousins, previously unknown to each other, come and stay with their Aunt Kestrel for a period during their childhood. It is Edward, not his cousin Leonora, who tells us the tale of the uneasy and creepy things which happened in his aunts rambling old manor, Iyot House, over this time and how they lingered well into the future. These of course concern themselves with a doll or indeed two actually, though how I will not say as with all good ghost stories you should have absolutely no idea where the story is going and where the unease lies hidden in the pages awaiting you.

I can tell you though that ‘Dolly’ is a crackingly good ghost story. It is not one of utter jumps and horrors, it is far subtler than that and actually reminded of the great Edwardian and Victorian tales of mystery and unease (can I use the word unease any more?) where is isn’t just ghosts that can be scary, objects indeed can be supernatural too as can the ordinary if it has just a hint of the extraordinary  or unusual. Here we have what is really quite a traditional tale of a spooky old house with a rather creepy young girl, doll and a housemaid (Mrs Mullen is a little bit Danvers-esque, which of course I loved) but as Susan Hill herself has said “some of the traditional ingredients rarely fail – the old, isolated house, the churchyard – but best be sparing. One small hint, a shadow, one rustling sound and you can have the reader in your power.” And indeed in the case of ‘Dolly’ she does just that.

Having thought about it I think that ‘Dolly’ might just be my favourite of Susan Hill’s ghost stories so far after ‘The Woman in Black’ and interestingly they do share some of the same ingredients, yes the old house is very important as a device, as are the marshes and a good graveyard, we also have a sensetive male narrator and ‘Dolly’ also has that feel of timelessness about it. You can’t quite place when it is set, there are cars and in the ‘current’ narrative there is indeed facelifts and plastic surgery but it feels like a period where they just came in and so the main story in the past tense has that Victorian edge to it. Yet I should add here that is doesn’t feel like a carbon copy or ghost story by numbers, it’s quite a story of its own and I loved it. It definitely gave me the chills and unease I was hoping for.

If that doesn’t make you want to rush out and read it then try this brilliant trailer out for size (no more video’s for a while)…

Has anyone else read ‘Dolly’ yet and if so what did you think? If you haven’t and you fancy something creepy for the autumn nights then I heartily recommend you pick this up.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Profile Books, Review, Susan Hill

It’s A Don’s Life – Mary Beard

If you had told me at the start of 2012 that I would have embraced the world of classic civilization over the next few months I would have looked at you with a raised eyebrow and the expression ‘I seriously doubt it’ all over my face. My mother teaches Classics and as a child I got all the myths, taken round Pompeii for about nine hours, endless (literally endless) trips round museums with Roman and Greek relics and then ridiculed at secondary school (where my mother also taught) when I got 100% in the Classics exam. I might have studied it further had that not happened and my mother being one of the only teachers who taught it. However this has changed this year, this is in part thanks to two women. One was Madeline Miller and her wonderful debut novel ‘The Song of Achilles’, the other was watching Mary Beard’s ‘Meet the Romans’ which had me hooked and led me to ‘It’s A Don’s Life’ a collection of her blog posts for the TLS.

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Profile Books, 2009, paperback, non fiction, 224 pages, kindly sent by publisher

The things that I most liked about Mary Beard when watching her present ‘Meet the Romans’ was her warmth, humour, enthusiasm and the fact that she talks to the audience, which even though you know is lots and lots of people you feel is just you, in a down to earth tone without implying you are stupid. I was relieved, and rather thrilled to discover that as soon as I started reading ‘It’s A Don’s Life’ her blog posts, which read like brief essays, had exactly the same qualities about them. It doesn’t matter if she is discussing the academic world (she is a ‘Don’ after all), her students at Cambridge, politics, Amy Winehouse or a new historic place that she visits, the way she writes is like she is talking to you over a coffee. She never patronises or come across as ‘clever’ even though she clearly is.

“You have to pay extra to visit the harem and technically speaking you can only go round with a guide (parties leave every half hour). But despite fierce notices about not getting separated from your group, none of the guards seemed too much bothered if you hired an individual ‘audio guide’ and wandered pretty much at will.”

Even though I have been completely won over by the way she brought everyday Roman life to, erm, life in ‘Meet the Romans’ I worried that with this collection I might feel slightly out of my depth. I am no Cambridge student after all, though I wish Mary Beard had taught me, and I was worried that as the book went on the merge of the classical history and the academic life might prove too much. It doesn’t and that is for two reasons, as I mentioned before the book isn’t just about Classics and Cambridge, but when it is its insightful and funny ‘Pissing in the Pyramids’, ‘Keep Lesbos for Lesbians’ and ’10 Things You Thought You knew About The Romans… But Didn’t’ are all prime examples of that, there is also the fact that she will throw in sentences and asides that you empathise with and know about through daily life.

“I do have a soft spot for Woman’s Hour. I like the way it squeezes in wonderfully subversive feminist reports next to those drearily wholesome recipes for tuna pasta bake.”

As read in Verona Arena…

I almost want to call Mary Beard’s style of prose a little ‘naughty’ in some respects, on ‘Meet the Romans’ I loved how she gave us the nitty gritty side of Roman times like communal loo’s and tales of murder, here we have more Roman insight and all the Latin words for naughty bits (which I have been telling everyone about since and then praising the book overall) yet I think ‘wry’ is probably a better term for her demeanour.

 “Most people go onto Amazon to buy books; easy shopping, and it would be an entirely admirable enterprise, if it wasn’t killing all our local bookshops. Authors, though, sneakily visit Amazon to check how their books are selling… …But what every author wants to know is how many sales does it take to get you zooming up the Amazon ranks. I’ve always suspected we are dealing with single figures here. But proof came the other day when the husband decided to buy 4 copies of his own book on icons, which seemed almost as cheap, and a lot easier to obtain from Amazon than from the publishers. The result was that he zoomed more than 250,000 places up the rankings.”

The second reason that the book doesn’t get too much, I seemed to get sidetracked from this earlier sorry, is that by its very nature this is a book that you dip in and out of rather than simply read it in one or two sittings as you might a novel.

In fact one of the phrases that Mary uses in the afterword of this collection is “The book is also a convenient and portable commodity. No one I know reads their laptop on the underground, in bed or on the loo.” This seems most apt as I have been dipping in and out of this collection in all these places, well, swap the underground for an aeroplane and throw in a Roman Arena as shown above. Whether you know a lot about Classics and the Romans (even if its lain dormant or hidden) or nothing at all I would highly recommend spending some time with Mary Beard be it in book form, blog or on the television, it is a joy and you’ll learn things without knowing it. I am really glad I have the next collection ‘All In A Don’s Day’ in the TBR for similar style reading over the next few months.

So who else is a big Mary Beard fan? (Some of you may know I started a twitter account for ‘The Beardettes’ @welovemarybeard should you wish to follow it.) Are you a regular reader of her blog for the TLS? Have you read any of her other books such as ‘Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town’ or ‘The Parthenon’, if so should I give them a whirl? I am very tempted.

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Filed under Mary Beard, Non Fiction, Profile Books, Review

Smut – Alan Bennett

One of the bonuses of having read so much (with all my hospital and recovery time of late) is that I have managed to get lots and lots of reading done and have lots of reviews at the ready. However when you pick up a book that’s freshly arrived and you simply can’t wait to discuss it, it involves a fair bit of regigging but for a book like Alan Bennett’s latest ‘Smut’ it is definitely worth it. I had mentioned at the weekend how excited I was about this novel and the book thoroughly lived up to all my expectations when it dropped through the letterbox yesterday morning and had been read by teatime.

Profile Books, hardback, 2011, fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

There are ‘two unseemly stories’ which make up ‘Smut’. Both look at the rather more racey and sexual side of different peoples lives. The first story is of ‘The Greening of Mrs Donaldson’ a tale, which would sit comfortably in Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’ collection (which I have very recently read and as yet reviewed anywhere), of a widow who after her husbands death needs to increase her income and so takes on a rather unusual job which brings along a possible suitor plus, and in some ways rather more importantly some lodgers who are forever running late with their rent. These two strands lead Mrs Donaldson into an unlikely situation which, without giving too much away, opens up her eyes to a side of life she thought she knew about and yet really it seems, rather unseemingly, didn’t.

“Mrs Donaldson’s first instinct was to look away so that rather than frankly considering this naked young man kissing his equally naked girlfriend with his hand buried between her legs she found herself looking at the floor and wondering if it was time she had the carpet cleaned.
 ‘Bring back memories?’ said Laura, Andy’s face now where his hand had been.
 ‘Ye-es,’ said Mrs Donaldson, though the truth was it was a memory of a vase in the British Museum.”

The second of the tales ‘The Shielding of Mrs Forbes’ is rather different and in some ways a less lovely and insular world that Bennett often wonderfully writes. In fact it’s a tale of a whole family, who are welcoming a new member through marriage, and all the secrets that they hide. Mrs Forbes is a wonderful matriarch adoring her son Graham and rather disliking his new bride to be whilst Mr Forbes, a rather silent man, looks on. As the wedding approaches the reader begins to see that for not of these characters things are ever as they might initially seem. It’s a rather wonderful farcical family tale, to give too much of it away would be a disservice to anyone who goes onto read it – and you should, which has all the witty observations of people and their lives we have come to know and love in Bennett’s writing.

“For though she could never admit it, Graham’s mother blamed herself for calling him Graham in the first place. In the years since he was born her sights had risen and Graham was not nearly the classy name she’d once thought. She wished now that she could get rid of it as she had got rid of the dark oak dining suite that belonged to the same period.”

‘Smut’ is a pure delight to read. Alan Bennett takes his readers both into a familiar narrative in the first instance and a rather new, and slightly more explicit, one in the second. It’s a collection which proves eye opening and outrageous all in one and shows a new side to Bennett which I hadn’t encountered before, keep in mind I haven’t read all of his works though, and really enjoyed. It’s a tale which, as Bennett himself said in an interview recently, shows ‘there’s nowt queer as folk’. 10/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

This was a delight to read, and done so in a single setting. It has of course made me want to re-read and re-watch all the ‘Talking Heads’ once more plus revisit ‘The Uncommon Reader’. I think I might try something new though and head to his diaries next instead, are they any good? Which Bennett novels have you read, any recommendations?

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Filed under Alan Bennett, Books of 2011, Faber & Faber, Profile Books, Review

The Small Hand – Susan Hill

The problem with a self imposed book buying ban is that you forget that some of your favourite authors might have books coming out. Imagine how my initial excitement about ‘The Small Hand’ being Susan Hill’s latest ghost story and coming out this autumn (the perfect time for ghost stories) and then the frustration of knowing I would be unable to get my mitts on it. Imagine then my puzzlement when I received an email from the Book Depository thanking me for having ordered it! Was this some ghostly small hand of fraud at work? No, it was The Converted One who had put my email address as a contact when secretly ordering this treat.

Adam Snow, an antiquarian book dealer, narrates the tales of his dealings in ‘The Small Hand’ after one night journeying back from a client he decides to take the back quieter routes ‘through the Downs’  on his commute back to London only to discover himself completely lost. Eventually he happens upon a drive way and a sign saying  ‘garden closed’ and knowing there must be some kind of large house he decides this would be the best place to find directions. The house he discovers however is in a mild state of dereliction yet it seems he is not alone for as he turns back to the car a small hand takes hold of his only no one is with him.

After his first bemusement to what takes place and dismissal as his imagination due to the atmosphere things start to take a turn for the more sinister when Adam starts to become gripped by fear for no apparent reason. Initially thinking this must be some kind of series of panic attacks he becomes more concerned when on a trip abroad he starts to see things and a presence seems to be dragging him closer and closer to danger when ever it can find opportunity. I shall leave it there because if I give any more away I would say too much and part of the joy of this book, and the chilling factors too, is the fact that things happen when you aren’t expecting them too and there is an interesting back story and good few twists that all add to the experience it wouldn’t do to ruin.

You might have guessed that I did really enjoy this book. I curled up with it on a Saturday evening when it had gone dark and I had the house all to myself. I can report that it had the desired effect too as the random house noises I don’t normally notice started to make me jump.  I think it’s in part the fact the story is in first person and so you read on as if it is happening to you. In the main I think it’s all down to Susan Hill’s writing and the atmosphere she subtly builds as the story goes on. Its not a book that scares you like a sudden ’BOO’ would, its one that initially chills and then builds and builds on that. I also loved that in making Adam Snow an antiquarian book dealer books feature heavily and for a book lover that’s an additional bonus.

A book that will: make the perfect companion for a dark autumnal night, especially if you are all alone. 9/10

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners;

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill – This to me is still my favourite of Susan Hill’s ghostly tales and one of my all time favourite ghostly tales and books in general.
The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins – I can’t quite believe I missed this out when I was talking of great ghost stories the other day. This is a brilliant dark Victorian ghost story with some wonderful characters and a brilliant villainess.
   

In fact if Susan Hill ever reads this could I please request that the next ghost story or the one after that is a Victorian tale with a truly wicked villainess set in foggy London? Ha, ha, can you imagine it?  It would be amazing! So which of Susan Hill’s ghostly tales have you read? Has anyone read ‘The Mist in the Mirror’ it’s the only one I haven’t gotten around to yet, though will now have to savour it. Which other ghostly tales do you love? Anthology recommendations would be wonderful to find out about – hint, hint!

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Filed under Books of 2010, Profile Books, Review, Susan Hill

Summer Reads Suggestions… From Publishers

Yesterday you saw the summer selections from The Not The TV Book Group, so how about some more? As I mentioned on Saturday when I started my week long ‘Summer Reads Season’ I decided that this week I would get a selection of bookish people’s favourite summer read suggestions and have a nosey at what people are looking forward to reading in the future weeks. I have asked bloggers and authors and the stars of today’s post… the publishers, who I am not sure get mentioned quite enough on the blogosphere. Here are what some of the lovely publishers I emailed came up with…

Andrea See, Canongate Books

A perfect summer read could be either so trashy you don’t need to pay real attention to it while you’re enjoying your summer, or so absorbing and compelling that you don’t care what anyone else is doing, or where you are. Last summer I read ‘The Road’ while I was in the Bahamas and I couldn’t care less about the weather, it was such an amazing book.

Um, I have a mountain of books I’d love to read. I’ve just borrowed Close Range (Annie Proulx) from the library, but I’m also keen to get into Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (Richard Yates), One Day (David Nicholls), The Ascent of Money (Niall Ferguson), Pereira Maintains (Antonio Tabucchi)… sorry, I don’t just have one! These (hopefully) fall into the latter category.

Judith Greenberg, Little Brown/Virago

It has to be something truly engrossing not just mildly diverting .This is also the time for something to savour, a sprawling saga or a Dickensian tome as there is that sense of time unfolding slowly ahead. It seems fitting to share that with some literary companions with whom you can really bond. I look for something with the sweep and heart of a beach read but the challenge and substance to satisfy and inform. Last summer I became a little obsessed with The Kilburn Social Club by Robert Hudson, a zingy debut about the fate of a London football club and the dynasty that owns it.  It is a state of the nation novel with a sense of humour. As much about the fun and the fear of coming of age and finding love as it is about the future of the FA. It has, dare I say it put the beautiful into the game for this footie sceptic!

Sophie Mitchell, Orion Books

I love to travel but I hate the “getting there” part so for me, a perfect summer read has to be something that can help me survive a flight (the boredom, the misery of being sardine tinned into a tiny seat with no personal space, the icky tummy…) I need a book with an engrossing plot and characters I really care about and can become invested in. I remember reading Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights on a flight to somewhere, and my surroundings completely disappeared. At one point, my husband had to lean across the aisle and ask me to please stop acting like such a freak because people were starting to watch me. Apparently I had been alternately gasping, giggling and crying, all out loud, without even realising it.

I’m off for a trip round Ireland in a couple of weeks and I’m really looking forward to reading the recent Lost Man Booker winner, Troubles by JG Farrell, while I’m there, though I will probably take something a little less challenging as well just in case.

Meike Ziervogel, Peirene Press

Because I am a publisher of short novels and novellas and therefore spend a lot of my time  reading short books, I do love to indulge in long books during my holidays. Moreover, they are usually books I feel I ought to have read a long time ago but for some reason have so far missed out on. Last year I read the whole of Dante’s Divine Comedy (in German translation) – absolutely fantastic, especially “Paradiso”, extremely poetic and beautiful. I can whole heartedly recommend it for a summer read (make sure you get one with good commentary, as some of the passages would otherwise make no sense) – challenging, yes, but definitely rewarding. 

Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” – over the years I have read excerpts here and there but never the entire 6 volumes from the first to the large page. Although I’d love to read all six this summer – I know that is illusionary. But I will definitely read “Swann’s Way” and “Within a Budding Grove“.

Joe Pickering, Penguin Books

I don’t really have an ideal ‘summer read’-type book. I’d just hope that if I had time to read whatever I wanted that I picked something good. That time usually happens on planes as I don’t tend to take beach holidays, so I guess I wouldn’t want something too heavy, literally or linguistically. I read The Sportswriter by Richard Ford on the plane to New York recently and that seemed to fit well.

Along those lines I’m hoping this summer to tick off a couple of books I’ve been meaning to read for a while: Netherland and Remainder, because I think they might be my kind of thing and because I want to know what all the fuss is about.

Rebecca Gray, Serpents Tail/Profile Books

Summer reading for me is all about being absorbed in a book, but I don’t want anything too challenging or upsetting. My guilty pleasure (except I’m pretty unrepentant and happy to stand up for it, so not that guilty) is Jilly Cooper, a genius of the summer read. Rivals is one of my all-time favourites. I’ll put Thackeray’s Vanity Fair on a shelf with it, because it’s definitely got a sense of pace and gossip in common – I want a book I can’t bear to tear myself away from. My favourite kind of holiday is one where I’m allowed to read all day, including at meals (my boyfriend fiercely disapproves of this, but sometimes I can persuade him).

I’ll be re-reading Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich, which we publish in August – it’s perfect summer reading because it’s laugh-out-loud funny and everything works out ok in the end. An inventive, fun book for a sunny afternoon – I first read it on a Friday night and was so excited I didn’t go to the drinks I was supposed to, choosing to stay in on my own, not eat dinner and ignore all distractions, including things like turning on the lights and taking off my shoes, because I was enjoying the book so much.

Well its given me a few books to add to the never ending TBR I have to say! So which of those have you read or have added to the TBR?

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Filed under Penguin Books, Profile Books, Serpent's Tail

A Life Like Other People’s – Alan Bennett

It seems timely when a certain book arrives and you are in just the mood to read it, which has happened with Alan Bennett’s most recent memoir ‘A Life Like Other People’s’. It has been a bit of a Bennett fest on the television of late here in the UK as Elaine at Random Jottings has been discussing to mark his 75th Birthday. He also has become some what of a national treasure which he says doesn’t sit with him very well. I read and loved The Uncommon Reader a while back and have enjoyed many of his Talking Head monologues, not just recently, but for a while in fact I had them on audio cassette when I was younger.

Faber & Faber, hardback, 2009, non fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

A Life Like Other People’s, which I keep wanting to call A Life Amongst Others though I have no idea why, is about his formative years though mainly it looks at the relationships of his parents. I don’t have any of Bennett’s previous diaries and memoires to compare this too, though I will be making sure that changes, though what I have always loved about Bennett is his ‘real writing’. He looks at people, and himself, and the actions of real people their emotions there thoughts the whole gambit. There are no tricks and though there is often drama its never written to be dramatic or to gain readers its simply life.

The simplistic and honest writing style is incredibly endearing. Scenes can be quite harrowing and emotional and yet there will be some slight comedy around the corner, its not intentional or planned it’s just the way it is. Two scenes that really hit me were between him and his mother, which almost made me cry, and his mother searching for her sister in a dementia ward. I loved the story of his parents wedding and why there were no pictures as his parents didn’t want any ‘splother’. You will have to read the book to find out just what that means and how they got around it.

Bennett was clarely very close to his mother, though of course he loved his father they didn’t have that same relationship. He seemed to get to know him best when he was driving him to see his mother when she was in hospital on several occasions for depression. In fact these trips, where his father got most annoyed about making sure everything was on time, showed a wonderful dedication between husband and wife, father and mother, that I found deeply affecting. I loved the relationship between them and think that love like that seems to be becoming much rarer in today’s society. I wonder if Bennett would agree. If only I could sit and discuss it all further with him over a pot of Yorkshire tea. We can all dream can’t we?

It’s not a long book and so I can’t really write too much about it without giving lots of things away. I think overall that poignant, in all its ways, is what best describes this work. If you like books about real people and real lives then I don’t think you can het much better. I can only wonder what his diaries and ‘Writing Home’ have in store for me to read in the future. I think 2010 may have to involve a bit of a Bennett binge as I also want to read the whole of Talking Heads again now too. What about you, what Bennett have you read and loved? Or is he someone you have yet to read? If it’s a case of the latter I can think of nothing better than whiling away an afternoon in the company of Alan Bennett. This book comes very, very highly recommended.

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Filed under Alan Bennett, Books of 2009, Faber & Faber, Profile Books, Review

Perfumes The A-Z Guide – Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez

When ‘Perfumes The A-Z Guide’ by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez dropped through my letter box I wasn’t sure I needed this guide, wasn’t it for girls? It didn’t help that there was a quote from Jan Moir on the book as I think the Daily Mail writer should be put down. I thought I would have a dip in before writing it off. You should never judge on first impressions should you? In fact that’s something Jan Moir might want to consider. Anyway moving swiftly on…

I was dubious about posting about this book as I haven’t read it from cover to cover and I have an issue with giving my ‘book thoughts’ when I haven’t read every page of a book. That rule I think can be broken by one set of books, maybe two actually I wasn’t thinking of gorgeous (and often never touched) coffee table books. I am talking about guide books. Those precious guide books that you can pick up now and again and know you will get some joy from. I don’t have many; I am more of a fiction boy. Would this be one I would add to my collection?

The answer is a resounding yes. From what I have read so far I know this book is one that I will be treasuring for quite sometime, hopefully for life. I am not the biggest perfume addict in the world and so really I am coming to this book from layman’s terms. I would say that I’ve no idea about perfumes whatsoever, I like what I like and don’t like what I don’t like it’s that simple. Imagine my thrill when the aftershave/cologne I wear gets a full 5 stars and the comment “buy it even if you never put it on” mind you its quite pricey so would be a waste just sitting there.

The writing of the book from Luca and Tania is brilliant, it’s honest, blunt in parts, comic in others but most importantly it’s accessible. There is an introduction to perfume criticism, a look at what male and female scents work, a history of perfume and also a whole twenty pages of readers questions answered. Whether you know nothing about perfume or heaps about it you can’t help but be charmed by the reviews. One which had me in hysterics was a review of Paris Hilton’s ‘Can Can’ was simply “can it, by all means”. The experts are never patronising and though some reviews are a little OTT you just think it’s fabulous and carry on wanting to read more and more.

‘The temperate white floral is a pretty, thoroughly laundered and starch lily-of-the-valley type, presentable in polite company, whereas its tropical counterpart is a disturbing, intense night-blooming creature full of smells of meat, milk, rubber and camphor, which bring out the big hairy moths. Passion is one of the strangest night flowers you can find: the banana jam smell of ylang-ylang. An icy camphor-and-wintergreen accord that could grow icicles in your sinuses, and a thick lactonic note that seems to coat the whole thing in butter.’

The book has become not just a hit with me but a household hit as The Converted One is indeed someone who knows their scents (which became very funny when there favourite got two stars and was “nothing to celebrate”, some sulking has been going on at Savidge Towers since then) and there has even been a tug of war over the book such a hit with both of us that it is. We lent it to a guest this weekend and they could barely get there nose out of it, its just superb and I know so many people who could do with this in their Christmas stockings, I am sure you must too. In fact I imagine some of you wouldn’t mind finding this 600+ page delight in your own stocking this Christmas would you?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Luca Turin, Profile Books, Review, Tania Sanchez

Simon’s Bookish Bits #1

So it’s already Saturday once more and I thought I would do another Simon’s Bookish Bits (thanks for all your votes and comments last week) featuring all things bookish that has caught my eye this week. I have to admit I haven’t really been whizzing around the blogs too much over the last week and I blame Gran for that completely, ha, that will get me in trouble.

I have created a new blog though! After having a chat with Kimbofo, who I founded a book group with, we decided that a separate site for The Riverside Readers would be good (my page is looking a bit barer now) and you can pop here and check it out, do feel free to leave feedback over there. I think its nice giving it its own space as it’s out there for everyone in its own right rather than a page on Savidge Reads.

What I have seen on the blogs that have caught my eye are delights such as the link which Thomas at My Porch put up so you can create your own blue plaque and waste a good few hours, lovely! I also thoroughly enjoyed Simon Stuck-in-a-Book’s post on children’s books which I will be doing my own special post about on Tuesday. That doesn’t seem much to report but I do have some serious blog reading catching up today.

I have once more managed to go to a book shop and spend absolutely no money at all. This week it was quite worrying and also shameful as it was at Persephone Books on Lambs Conduit Street. I think I was overwhelmed by all the titles and just being there. I wish I had known of this shop when I worked on Gray’s Inn Road even though it would have meant I would never have had any money. I did manage to get a couple of pics though I didn’t introduce myself as they seemed to be in the middle of a huge mail out or something exciting. Gran loved it; she is now an official Persephone convert.

  

Podcast of the week has to be The Dog Who Came in from the Cold which is the serialised sequel to Corduroy Mansions by Alexander McCall Smith. I save them for a binge of six in one long listen over the weekend. There’s only ten episodes to go so if you want to download the series you don’t have long left, you can pop here and it’s easy as pie.

Finally, though I have still not bought a book since November (which I will have to break for the next book group choice) somehow several have arrived in the post from lovely publishers. Parcels from Profile, Canongate, Hodder and Headline brought some joys.

  • A Life Like Other Peoples – Alan Bennett
  • Perfumes: The A-Z – Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez
  • The Bird Room – Chris Killen
  • Shades of Grey – Jasper Fforde
  • The Gates – John Connolly
  • Hell’s Belles – Paul Magrs

However Random House seemed to go crazy, in a good way, with all there imprints (Vintage etc) sending me joys in the post. Some of these parcels did date from the 11th of November though, so it seems all is not well in my sorting office, not impressed at least they are arriving now though. Sorry I digressed…

  • Sunday Daffodil & Other Happy Endings – P. Robert Smith (what a fab title)
  • Once on a Moonless Night – Dai Sijie
  • The Mayor’s Tongue – Nathaniel Rich
  • Voluntary Madness – Norah Vincent
  • The Last Dickens – Matthew Pearl
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe
  • Get Me Out of Here – Henry Sutton
  • February – Lisa Moore
  • The Convent – Panos Karnezis

Have you read any of these books or authors? What has been going on for you that’s bookish this week?

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Filed under Alan Bennett, Canongate Publishing, Headline Review, Hodder & Stoughton, Jasper Fforde, John Connolly, Paul Magrs, Persephone Books, Profile Books, Random House Publishing, Simon's Bookish Bits, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

Howards End is on the Landing – Susan Hill

I don’t think that I have seen a book so written about on so many blogs in the space of a week or two as I have with Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill. This should be, if everyone who goes and reads book blogs then goes out and buys it, a huge hit and rightly so. As soon as I saw it and read about the premise I knew it would be a book that I simply HAD to read. Mind you as a fan of the works of Susan Hill  I would have bought it regardless (knowing she would divulge her Top 40 books and give me more “reading musts” pushed me over the edge – don’t tell my bank manager) of what was inside it, the fact it’s a book about books would only go and make me want it even more. Then there is the wonderful title, and then there is the cover! Ok Simon get on with it…

When one day Susan Hill was searching for a book she knew she owned and wanted to read she realised that she couldn’t find it and instead found lots of books that she owned but hadn’t read. From this spawned the book Howards End is on the landing. After that small event Susan Hill decided that for one year she would give up buying any new books and simply read the books that she already owned in her house and what a collection that turns out to be. She also gave up blogging and limited her time on the internet in order to be further away from distraction. The only clause to was the arrival of books for reviewing and ones for research purposes.

However the journey wasn’t just finding books she hadn’t read and wondering why, it also took her through all the books she had read and some of the memories those books brought back and so we also get in a way Susan Hill’s literary memoirs. Whilst she is talking about some of the great reads and authors through her life we are occasionally given snippets of how her life has changed as her career has progressed and some of the famous authors that she has met and interacted with, if not face to face through letters etc, so far. It’s an insightful and very interesting look into all things literary be they behind closed literary doors or just on the shelves in her Small Dark Den.

What the book also did for me was make me think a lot. I didn’t whizz through the book like I thought I would, it actually made my head buzz with so many rich book thoughts I had to put it down on several occasions and digest everything that I had just read. How could Susan have not read 1984, how could she not love Jane Austen (though I myself have had trouble – isn’t it the law of reading to love Jane?), how can you dip in and out of multiple books? How could I have not read Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Jane Howard or Elizabeth Bowen? It frustrated me I didn’t have Susan sat opposite me so I could ask her lots of questions and debate all the answers over some tea and cakes for a few hours. Oh to dream!

So where is the negative? There isn’t really any… two sections that didn’t agree with me so much were the parts on Sebald and poetry, which I read of course, though not being a fan of either subject they didn’t set me alight like the rest of the book did. I loved hearing about Iris Murdoch though didn’t agree with the comment that Murdoch has currently been forgotten, I have read a few of her books in the last few years and I know of others of my generation (am not being ageist) that have. However disagreeing is different from disliking.

In fact there were a few things that I disagreed with Susan on such as girls reading more than boys, not this boy they don’t and not likely another Simon I can think of…  maybe is it a Simon thing, ha? That statement doesn’t mean we read more than any girl out there but we both read fairly prolifically. I also cannot bare the idea of writing in a book, getting one signed for myself or my Gran maybe, but writing in one is like spine cracking and page corner turning (dog earring?), and makes me wince at the sacrilege. This isn’t negative though the fact that I didn’t agree with Susan (we are now on first name terms in my head because of this book just so you know) actually what it showed was that I was thinking and not falling under the illusion some people may have, that this is some sort of guide on how to read or what to read. It’s not. It’s a book by a prolific and, in my opinion, wonderful author… that doesn’t mean because I love all her books I will love all her views.  

Indeed a comment the delightful Claire of Paperback Reader left yesterday highlights this exact thing. She said when thinking that this would be one of my top books of the year, which it is, “then you are probably not going to like my blog post” but why not? I like Claire’s blog, and having met her in person at book group I like her too, but we aren’t always going to agree on certain books after all that would be be a bit dull wouldn’t it? 

If people have a different opinion that’s great, have you noticed book groups flounder when everyone feels the same way about a book? As long as people can back up with the whys behind them not liking a book rather than just ‘I hated it’ then I am happy to debate, thats what comes with blogging. The debate makes it more interesting and I had this, only one way, between myself and this book. In fact I used Susan’s opinions whether I agreed with them or not to think about mine, so a thought provoking read too.

This is this just the sort of debate that we have on blogs in fact you will see from the picture below that I made many, many notes (there are two more pages I didn’t get a snap of). In fact maybe this is why the blogosphere is so full of chatter about this book, in a way its like a collection of exceptionally well written blog posts (I am not sure if Susan would approve of that or not – though am glad her blog is back) that are already inspiring some posts and hopefully some debates for the future on this blog.

Notes on HEiotL

Now that I have read it I haven’t put it on my shelves instead its sat on my bedside table as I think this is a book that I may ‘dip in and out of’ it (something until this book would have seemed wrong but am giving it a go – am also taking more of Susan’s advice as you will see in tomorrow’s post) in the future weeks and months. I think it’s a book that as my reading life goes on and changes, so will my thought to it and relation ship with it. This book certainly won’t be going on my shelves and being lost and forgotten. I only have one question left… just what book was Susan Hill originally looking for?

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Filed under Books About Books, Books of 2009, Profile Books, Review, Susan Hill

The Man in the Picture – Susan Hill

Now before I join in the blogging masses and start raving about Howard’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill later this week (I don’t think I have witnessed a book be so praised and sort after in my time as a blogger or book blog follower its really quite something) I decided I would re-read another of Susan Hill’s books which, like The Woman in Black, falls on the cusp of modern sensation in my opinion, or its just a good excuse to read a book you can easily devour in one sitting in these dark autumnal evenings.

Susan Hill is definitely one of my favourite writers, though I still have a lot of her work to go. She wrote one of my favourite ‘sensational ghost stories’, and in fact one of my favourite novels, The Woman in Black which is a book that I recommend to anyone and everyone. This is another great ghostly tale that I would be amazed if people literally didn’t sit down and just read in one go I simply devoured the whole thing. I did wait until it was dark and the curtains were drawn just to get the perfect atmosphere. You can’t read a ghost story in daylight or on the tube, it doesn’t work unless it’s a very good one and I think this one could just about have that effect.

I am going to give you the succinct plot as I don’t want to give anything away! The tale is told on a winters night before the fire (a perfect time and place to read this book if you can) Theo a Cambridge don, is telling his former student Oliver the strange history of the picture that he has on his wall. What may appear to be a beautiful Venetian scene of partying and masks in the street has much deeper secrets and scares in its frame. Poor Oliver is unaware that having been told the tale it will change everything for him and soon the painting will be taking its effect on his own life. This painting is no ordinary painting for it has the power not only to imitate life but also to take it, forever. And the reason it does this? Well without giving anything away its revenge, simple bitter revenge. Revenge for what or whom you will have to read to find out.

Susan Hill is a superb writer who can turn her hand to anything; her crime novels are wonderful, it is however her ghost stories that I love the most. The way she sets the scene so simplistically and builds the tension so easily before you know it your spine is tingling and the hairs on your back and neck are rising. They have that gothic or Victorian feel to them that harks back to the classic era of ghost telling. Sadly I didn’t have a fire as I would have given anything for the sound and warmth of wood crackling while I was turning the pages and getting the chills, it is perfect for the time of year though.

So while all the furor of Howards End is on the Landing is going on, and believe me I am ready to get completely caught up in it myself, remember and look out for other Susan Hill works as they are all little gems and indeed Simon of Stuck-in-a-Book mentioned on Monday some of her none ghostly, none crime books are also very, very good indeed. The Beacon may actually be on my hit list in the forthcoming weeks. So how would you like to own a copy of this book?

Well you can simply leave a comment about other great ghostly books I should try this autumn and that you want to be included in the drawer and its that simple, I will let this one run until I have read HEiotL as Simon T has so wonderfully renamed it (I am guessing tomorrow as its the offical day of release and I will be unable not to just sit and read it, ok to give you moretime let’s say Friday by 8pm)! Oh and don’t forget this competition closes today at 7pm! Good luck and cant wait for the ghostly recommendations!

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Filed under Give Away, Profile Books, Review, Susan Hill

The Man in the Picture – Susan Hill

Susan Hill wrote one of my favourite ‘ghost stories’ and in fact one of my favourite novels The Woman in Black a book that I recommend to anyone and everyone. So after quite a while since her last ghost story Mist in the Mirror now here is The Man in the Picture and I read it in one go, I simply devoured the whole thing. I did wait until it was dark and the curtains were drawn just to get the perfect atmosphere. You can’t read a ghost story in daylight or on the tube, it doesn’t work.

The tale is told on a winters night before the fire (a perfect time and place to read this book if you can) Theo a Cambridge don, is telling his former student Oliver the strange history of the picture that he has on his wall. What may appear to be a beautiful Venetian scene of partying and masks in the street has much deeper secrets and scares in its frame. Poor Oliver is unaware that having been told the tale it will change everything for him and soon the painting will be taking its effect on his own life. This painting is no ordinary painting for it has the power not only to imitate life but also to take it, forever. And the reason it does this? Well without giving anything away its revenge, simple bitter revenge. Revenge for what or whom you will have to read to find out.

Susan Hill is a superb writer who can turn her hand to anything; her crime novels are wonderful, it is however her ghost stories that I love the most. The way she sets the scene so simplistically and builds the tension so easily before you know it your spine is tingling and the hairs on your back and neck are rising. They have that gothic or Victorian feel to them that harks back to the classic era of ghost telling. Sadly I didn’t have a fire as I would have given anything for the sound and warmth of wood crackling while I was turning the pages and getting the chills.

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Filed under Books of 2008, Profile Books, Review, Susan Hill