Category Archives: Tinder Press

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done was eagerly thrust into my hands pretty much fresh off the printer with the words ‘this book is wonderfully dark, gritty and gothic, very you, you’ll love it’. Which instantly made me nervous of it. I am one of those people who gets reader stage fright. You hear a book is going to be ‘very you’ and you feel the pressure is already too much or start to contemplate what that person recommending you the book thinks of you before you have even opened the cover. In this case I was oddly flattered, strangely even more so when it turned out that Schmidt’s debut was a fictionalised account of the true crime case of Lizzie Borden, who many believed a murderess. I like my fiction dark, gritty and gothic, so believe me when I say that if that too is your bookish bag then this is just the sticky icky twisty treat for you too.

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Tinder Press, paperback, 2017, fiction, 356 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

He was still bleeding. I yelled, ‘Someone’s killed father.’ I breathed in kerosene air, licked the thickness from my teeth. The clock on the mantle ticked ticked. I looked at father, the way hands clutched to thighs, the way the little gold ring on his pinky finger sat like a sun. I gave him that ring for his birthday when I no longer wanted it. ‘Daddy,’ I had said. ‘I’m giving this ring to you because I love you.’ He has smiled and kissed my forehead.
A long time ago now.

From the very beginning of See What I Have Done we are thrown straight into the macabre action and cloying, dirty atmosphere of the Borden household as Lizzie finds her father dead on the sofa with his head caved. It starts as it means to go on for this is a house that from the very start feels sick. It is grubby, meat being recooked over and over leaving a stench that pretty much sticks to the walls – and all this before it turns out there is not one dead body in the house but two as Lizzie’s step-mother is soon discovered to have met the same end. But who would take an axe to the heads of these two people, especially with such savagery? That of course is what we the reader, seemingly along with everyone in the Borden household and the surrounding streets of Fall River wonders, though of course deep down they all know it must be one of them.

And this, from the very off, is one of the things that makes See What I Have Done so utterly delicious to read, if a rather gory morsel. Everyone is under suspicion; from the police, from each other and from us as readers. Schmidt kindly, with a cunning and beguiling smile as her prose grips us and pulls us in ever more, invites us to play detective alongside the, erm, detectives. Yet she doesn’t make it easy, where would the fun in that be. Instead she takes us into the minds of four people who as it happens could be the main suspects and through them introduces us to some right shady characters on the side lines who could also be worth further investigation.

Bridget looked me over, her caterpillar eyebrows cracked like thunder, and the second officer took notes, took notes. My feet traced circles across the carpet, I opened my eyes wide, felt the house move left then right as the heat ground into walls. Everyone pulled at their necks to unloose their tightly wound clothing. I sat still holding my hands together.

First of all there is Lizzie, who I actually want to come back to as I think she is probably the finest creation (though there is a plethora) of the whole novel alongside the atmosphere. Lizzie however is the one who discovers the body, she is the one who has been home all day, though the house is like a  disorientating maze so anyone could have got in, and she is also, as we get to see her through others eyes and some hints of her own, the one who seems to have the biggest axe to grind – I am sorry I couldn’t help it.

We then turn to Bridget who is the maid of the house, she cooks and cleans (well both of those are debatable when you take into account the slop in a pan on the cooker and the absolute state of the house) does she know secrets that she shouldn’t, does she have a grudge or a secret of her own to keep? We also have Emma, Lizzie’s sister who mysteriously goes out that day but no one really knows where to, there are vague places alluded to and most people seem to believe her but could she have a grudge against her father and his wife, or worse her own sister. Then there is Benjamin a man who has suddenly appeared in the town, looks like a whole heap of trouble and who has met Lizzie’s (incredibly sleazy and delightfully creepy, remember what I said about shady side characters) Uncle John and may have made a pact with him and the devil.

Exciting isn’t it, all these possibilities. I have to say I really enjoyed, if that is the right word, getting into these four people’s heads, watching them watching each other and taking in all their interior viewpoints whilst having a bit of a root around in their potential motives and trying to work out just who on earth did it. I do have my theories but I will say no more for I don’t want to give anything away and take any of the fun of finding out yourself, or at least trying to.

Of course, being based on true events, even if still brimming with grey areas and shrouded in what ifs and maybes which has kept so many people fascinated, you know what actually happened or can look it up. What Schmidt does with Lizzie’s character, which also makes you forget it is real, will have your absolutely hooked even when you sometimes want to look away or pop the book down for a five-minute breather.

Under Schmidt’s prose, Lizzie is probably one of the most interesting women in fiction you will meet this year and also one of the most grimly fascinating character studies I have come across in a long time. Broken and vulnerable yet cunning and sneaky. Is she a misunderstood victim of her household or a product of it? Is she a potential killer or is she mentally unwell? Whatever the case she is completely enthralling to read, all the more so because her narration is slightly off; sometimes repetitive and childlike, sometimes wise beyond her years and almost gleefully sinister and knowing. You never know where you are with her and you feel she knows this all too well – I could be talking about Lizzie Borden or Sarah Schmidt herself when I say that, ha.

Underneath the sofa were tiny pieces of paper that had come away from police officers’ notebooks, trailing from sofa to kitchen like Hansel’s and Gretel’s hoping to find their way back home. I rubbed my forehead again. There would be many things Emma would have to fix to make everything right. I could see father’s blood on the sofa. I considered things.
Words slipped out of me then. ‘I was here talking to Mrs Borden this morning.’
Emma seized. ‘When was this?’ Her voice scratched at my ear.
‘After she told Bridget to keep cleaning the windows. She said there was a strange smell.’
Emma’s nose twitched. ‘What kind of smell?’
The sweet syrup tripped through my limbs. ‘I don’t know. It was probably her.’ I giggled.

One of the benefits of leaving it sometime between reading a book and writing a review of it is that you can get a distance from it – an excuse which I will be using for why some reviews have taken so long to write. I digress. After all, sometimes books fade a little from that first reading rush, or of course they can grow on you as the themes and thoughts they bring up bloom the larger the more time that you have away from them. Then there are books like See What I Have Done, which as your read them worm their way deeper into your psyche and leave something lingering there long after, these are the books you don’t forget the ones whose characters and places just refuse to budge. I urge you to read Lizzie’s tale and let yourself become entwine in the Borden house before it starts to stick in your head, rather like an axe could.

In rather exciting news, as sometimes books can bring people into your life who become lifelong friends or soul siblings, myself and Sarah will be starting a ‘sinister’ book group later this year where we read an unsettling read a month and you can all join in, titles and dates to be released soon. In the interim, you can get Sarah’s book here if you haven’t already which you really should have.

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Filed under Books of 2010, Books of 2017, Random Savidgeness, Review, Sarah Schmidt, Tinder Press

This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell

For those long enduring (is that the right word, it sounds a little painful which I hope reading this blog isn’t) followers of Savidge Reads, you will know that one of the authors I hold in very high esteem is Maggie O’Farrell. I was actually introduced to Maggie one summer when I was staying with my Gran in my hometown of Matlock and we spent a week reading, pottering around bookshops and having cream tea. I ran out of books I had brought and she popped The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox into my hands and didn’t hear a peep out of me for the rest of the day until dinner. From then on I have loved everyone of the books she has published since and I think her latest, This Must Be The Place, might be my favourite of her novels yet because its bloody brilliant.

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Tinder Press, hardback, 2016, fiction, 496 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

In essence This Must Be The Place is the novel of a marriage. Admittedly if that was how the book had been sold to me I admit, well if it wasn’t written by Maggie O’Farrell, I would have possibly rolled my eyes and muttered ‘oh how original’ under my breathe. For let us be honest books about marriage are hardly original are they? Yet here I do think that Maggie O’Farrell gives us something in the ‘marriage plot’ genre that is quirklily unusual, delightfully original and is also completely and utterly wonderful. But I should really tell you some more about the book shouldn’t I, though admittedly it is hard because there is a little mystery that I don’t want to give away. I shall do my best…

As the novel opens we meet Daniel as he watches a man, who he thinks is a photographer, watching his house. That is until his wife, Claudette, comes around the corner brandishing a gun (with one of their children firmly on her arm) and putting the fear of god into the man who has come into the middle of the Irish countryside where they reside together. However this is not really the start of their story, in fact we soon discover that we are somewhere in the middle of the story of Daniel and Claudette and as we read on we are thrown in all different directions in and around their marriage before and after this moment.

If that makes things sound like they are going to be all over the place, complicatedly time hopping here there and everywhere fret not. What Maggie O’Farrell does is give the reader a wonderful kaleidoscope like set of patchwork pieces of stories that we stitch together as we read before making a wonderful huge patchwork quilt we can luxuriate in. Yes we do go off into many different timeframes, never really in order and we do head off into different countries and different people’s heads, which you would think would distance us from the main story, oddly it makes us closer to it and see it from all these different angles. In fact really it becomes a patchwork of a couples life, the lives around them and the way we sometimes have a butterfly effect on each other, a small act of kindness we think insignificant becomes something huge and life changing to someone else, a moment of foolishness by someone else can lead to a life altering event for someone else, etc. I found this really fascinating as it looks at people’s lives from the inside and the outside, something we forget to do from time to time.

Anyway, the older, longer sluggish Marithe had looked up at the stars and asked her mother, who was sitting in the chair opposite, whether it would come back, this sense of being inside your life, not outside of it.
Claudette had put down her book and thought for a moment. And then she had said something that made Marithe cry. She’d said: Probably not, my darling girl, because what you’re describing comes of growing up but you get something else instead. You get wisdom, you get experience. Which could be seen as compensation, could it not?
Marithe felt those tears prickling at her eyelids now. To never feel that again, the idea of yourself as one unified being, not two or three splintered selves who observed and commented on each other. To never be that person again.

You may also think so many different narrators and perspectives might also make the novel and it’s characters a little gimmicky or two dimensional, in some authors hands that would be the case but not in this instance. O’Farrell creates a large cast of characters who come fully formed with some wonderful insights into Daniel and Claudette as well as their own stories which add to the reading experience. Somehow in a book that is just under 500 pages (O’Farrell’s longest) she covers adoption, cultural clashes, celebrity, infidelity, art and culture, nuclear families, love, death, grief, loss, illness, gun crime, separation, marriage, fate, co-dependency vs. independence and more, the list goes on and on. It is remarkable and shows the vibrancy and diversity of everything we human beings go through. It celebrates people and their lives, each time you meet a new character you become fully absorbed in them. One of the standouts for me was one of Daniel’s children Niall whose story of having eczema will stay with me for a long, long time. I genuinely felt what he felt.

Niall feels his eyes fill, feels the burn take hold. His hands spring upright of their own accord and begin to tear at his neck in a sawing motion, back and forth, across the skin of his throat. The feel of it is an exquisite, forebidden, torturing release. Yes, he tells himself, you are scratching, you are, even though you shouldn’t, but how good it is, how amazing, but how dreadful it will be when he stops, if he stops, if he can ever end it.

If it wasn’t for the fact that we come back to Daniel and Claudette for a chapter or two between the other alternating voices you might feel this was really a collection of interweaving short stories based around anecdotes passed between a cast of people who appear and reappear, but then isn’t that what our lives are really built on anyway? It shows though that Maggie O’Farrell is really experimenting and pushing the boundaries on her writing and as I hinted at in the introduction I do think this might be her most accomplished novels. Though accomplished makes it sound like I am going to give her a ‘well done’ sticker for good behaviour rather than the truth which is that she exceeded all my expectations and showed me what wonders the novel can do.

I loved how she played with form. In one chapter we go through an auction catalogue of some of Claudette’s possessions (I know I have avoided talking about Claudette and Daniel specifically but seriously, I don’t want to spoil their secrets and the events that become the heart of the novel, it is a huge part of its brilliance) from her twenties. One is told through an interview with an ex spouse. Another, one of my favourites, is told by someone who loves footnotes; their real story being revealed through the footnotes they interweave in their own narrative. She also plays with giving the reader more insight than the characters have, she might kill off a character in a mere line that we the reader get and yet no one else will pick up on until it happens many years later for them. She may send the story off before the main characters are even born, it is never gimmicky and always deftly done. There is no showing off, just some really stunning writing such as the below which is just a mere part of the book and shows you what she can do in a paragraph.

She doesn’t know it at the time but she will think about this moment again and again, the two of the standing on the steps of the subway station, a boy between them, a pool of blood at their feet, trains arriving and departing above their heads. She will play it over and over in her head, almost every day, for the rest of her life. When she lies in the bedroom of her apartment with only hours to live, her daughters bickering in the kitchen, her husband in the front room, weeping or raging, her son asleep in the chair next to her, she will think of it again and know it is perhaps for the last time. After this, she thinks, it will only live in the head of one person, and when he dies, it will be gone.

I could go on much, much more though I won’t because really I just want you to go and pick up This Must Be The Place because I think it is fantastic and quite a special book indeed. I have loved Maggie O’Farrell’s writing for such a long time and this just affirmed her as one of my favourite living authors, I am so, so excited about what she might do next. The only downside for me is that my Gran never got to read this, so I can’t chat about it with her which made me feel much more emotional than I was expecting. I have got a copy for my Mum though, which will be her first novel by Maggie O’Farrell so I am spreading the love, as I hope I will do to any of you who have yet to read her work. If you have, and indeed if you have read This Must Be The Place, I would love to have a good old natter with you about it.

Oh and if you would like to see Maggie talking about the book without spoilers, I got her to answer ten tenuous questions about it here.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Maggie O'Farrell, Review, Tinder Press

A Year of Marvellous Ways – Sarah Winman

When I read a debut author whose writing I love there is always a mixture of feelings when their second book arrives. As a rule I am both ridiculously excited as their new work could be even better than its predecessor and also really nervous because it might not be. Tricky. It was with this mixed bag of emotions that I met A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman, whose debut novel When God Was a Rabbit I absolutely loved when I read and also had the pleasure of raving to everyone about at my first (short lived, weeps) literary salon in Manchester ‘Bookmarked’ and beyond. I finally read it on holiday, aptly in a desolate cove.

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Tinder Press, paperback, 2015, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Marvellous Ways is waiting for something, she doesn’t know what on earth it might be, she just knows she has to wait. Well, she was told to wait by one of the three loves of her life, albeit from beyond the grave in a dream. (This might all sound bonkers, it is, stay with me.) What she is waiting for turns out to be Francis Drake who, on a mission after the Second World War to pass a letter from a soldier to his father, ends up washed up on the shore of the cove where Marvellous spends much of her time. Drake it seems has given up on life and had it not been to keep a promise to a dying man might have ended it all, Marvellous realises her mission is to bring back to him a passion for life and a life yet to live whilst being close to the end of her own.

My initial summation actually makes the novel sound both a little too simple and also much more linear than it is to read. Whilst it has a beginning, middle and end (as all books do) it also has a fluidity and magical element to it that means it all flows and interlinks, if that makes sense? The first thirty pages tell of how Marvellous lives, waiting, by the sea in Cornwall in her late eighties and creates a wonderful image of an eccentric character who likes to swim naked every day, regardless of the weather, and potter around the hamlet nearby sharing her stories. We then switch to Drake at a pivotal moment in World War II and then follow him back to London where he tries to find Missy, the woman he believes is the love of his life.

She watched the tide of life below. People doing their very best, trying so hard to make it better. And she took to wondering, like so many often did, what it had all been for. The triumph of two years ago hadn’t gained access to wallets or purses or homes. People were poor and the city was crumbling.

What he finds is both a woman and a city changed forever and an incident that soon sees Drake fleeing London and into the cove and life of Marvellous. It is from this point that the novel, I think, really grabs the reader as we enter the world of Marvellous Ways again and get lost in both the stories that she tells Drake (how her mother was a mermaid, how she had had three great loves of her life; a lighthouse keeper and two brothers, how starfish came to be) and some of the lives of those who live nearby and become part of Drakes new life. I was soon swept up in what becomes a fascinating and beguiling narrative of one woman’s history and also the history of some of the lives that she has touched; be they a minor character or a major one, be they good or bad.

Rumour has two very distinct sounds. When it flies free the sound is similar to a ship’s hull scraping against a harbour wall. But when rumour is caught, the sound is of expiration: like a fearful sigh in the vacant dark whorls of long-abandoned shells. And marvellous pointed to the whelks.
She knew these sounds well because she’d had a rumour-catcher outside her caravan and it had caught many over the years, most having been carried on the breath of Mrs Hard. She’d launched rumours like royalty launched ships.

Without a doubt, for me, it is Sarah Winman’s creation of Marvellous Ways that gives life to the whole of the novel. What is unusual for me though is that I would have liked the book to be longer. This is unusual as regular visitors here will know that I can veer away from both lengthy novels and novels about the world wars. I would have, shock horror, liked to have had more of both Drake and Missy’s life during the war. Drake for the impact of the war and the propulsion to do what he does, which I think Winman would have written incredibly. Mainly for Missy though because the glimpse of the life that she led during the war (which I knew nothing about and won’t tell you because I really do want you to read this book) made me have a small jaw drop and I wanted to get more of an insight into how that slowly affected her rather than how much it had at the point we meet her. This all sounds very vague because I don’t want to ruin anything. It also sounds like a backhanded compliment which I don’t mean it to because I enjoyed the experience of A Year of Marvellous Ways as it was.

The reason for this is simply Sarah Winman’s writing. Throughout the novel you will be greeted on every page with sentences as simple and sharp as Hatred doesn’t need much watering or care. Just a nudge. She can also be quite whimsical and florid but never at the cost of being twee or unbelievable, just slightly magical. Speaking of which there are some truly gorgeous mini stories, legends and fables that interweave the stories of Drake and Marvellous which add to it immensely. One I particularly loved, and almost included as a quote in this review but didn’t because I want you to go and read it yourself, is that of how starfish came to be. It is just utterly gorgeous.

All these traits of her prose excel when combined to create characters and evoke places and atmospheres. She creates, erm, marvellous fully formed, and often flawed) characters. Marvellous is the standout of the lot unsurprisingly, her narrative just resonates and charms even when she is telling you some of the most unbelievable or cuckoo sounding stories, but that is what is so vivid and wonderful about her. It is hard to describe. It is not just characters that Winman is a wonder at, she excels in settings too. War torn London comes fully to life with all its shattered homes, hearts and hopes. Her writing of Cornwall, with its sense of the possibility of the impossible, comes off the page just as it does when you go and visit it now, all these years later there is still something quite ‘other’ about that part of the world.

I could ramble on and on about A Year of Marvellous Ways for much longer but I will save you from that. Suffice to say I really enjoyed it and loved getting enthralled and (sometimes a little literally) lost in the story of Drake, the story of Marvellous and the story of Drake and Marvellous. It somehow manages to be a story of nothing and a story of everything, most importantly though it is a (sorry in advance) marvellous story of stories and a particularly (sorry again) marvellous storyteller. I ended the book with quite the bottom lip wobble because I didn’t really want Winman’s fairytale to end.

Have you read A Year of Marvellous Ways, or indeed When God Was a Rabbit, and if so what did you think? Have you any second novels of debut authors you’ve loved left nervously on the shelf and if so which ones? I now need to get a wriggle on with both S J Watson (who was also at the first Bookmarked with Sarah) and Lucy Wood’s second books very soon, as they have been waiting on my shelves far too long.

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Filed under Review, Richard and Judy, Sarah Winman, Tinder Press

A Place Called Winter – Patrick Gale

There are some novels that I read where all I want to do for a review is simply write the words… Read this book. Nothing more, nothing less. However I am aware you need more than those three words to get you to part with your pennies or head to the local library, the question is how to encapsulate a book like Patrick Gale’s latest novel A Place Called Winter in a mere review? Well, here goes.

9781472205292

Tinder Press, hardback, 2015, fiction, 340 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

When we first meet Harry Cane he is locked in an institute, what he has done we do not initially know, and is undergoing a rather horrendous kind of treatment. Yet soon he is taken away to Bethel, a community for those who have been shut out or locked away from society. He is encouraged to tell the story of how he got there, the story of how a well to do and well off man started his life in England and then ended up in the middle of the Canadian wilderness building a new life that has seemingly, to an outsider, driven him mad.

Gale structures A Place Called Winter in delightful way, as we get insights into various pivotal moments in one man’s life alternating between their present and their past making the links between the two. We watch how he grows up in England looking after his brother Jack, how he marries and then falls for the charms of Mr Browning; who soon becomes his downfall leaving Harry no choice but to head to the wilds of Canada without his family to start again. In case you are thinking I have just spoiled the whole story, there is so much more to come, including the journey he makes there and the people he meets along the way, not always with the outcomes you may guess at. The last I will say on the plot is that it is a real journey of adventure, danger and self discovery and you will want to read it in a few sittings, often weeping for all sorts of reasons.

A Place Called Winter is a blooming marvellous story. Gale is brilliant at placing you into the heads and hearts of his characters, mainly because his prose calls for us to empathise with them, even if we might not want to. We have all been in love, we have all done things we regret, we have all fallen for a rogue (or two or three), we have all felt bullied and the outsider at some point, we have all had an indiscretion and left the country to become a farmer in a foreign land… Oh, maybe not that. Yet even when our protagonist goes through things we haven’t Gale’s depiction and storytelling make us feel we are alongside Harry. We live Harry’s life with him; the highs and the lows, the characters and situations good or bad.

It also has a wonderful sense of adventure, sometimes exciting sometimes perilous. The surroundings and settings of the book become characters as much as the people. For example the hustle and bustle of London, the leisurely nature of Herne Bay, the power of the seas, the wildness of Moose Jaw and the desolate and endless monotony (cleverly without ever being boring) and harsh extremities of Winter itself. I have mentioned only recently how much I love reading about nature and the countryside/wilderness in books and this has that aplenty.

He opened it, welcoming the cold night air, and stared out at a landscape transformed. There were stars, a seamless, spangled fishnet of them from horizon to horizon, coldly lighting the land and lending the farm buildings, outlined sharply against them, an eerie loveliness.

I love a book that looks brims with layers and explores several themes, or can set your brain off thinking about things  from a different angle or that you may not have before. I found the way Gale looks at and discusses homosexuality fascinating and heartbreaking. It is the way that due to society everything must go unspoken. There was no such thing as ‘being gay’ you were seen as a sexual deviant of the lowest order, end of. Even those rare people who tried to be accepting struggle, as Harry is asked “Is it… Is it emotional or simply a physical need the two of you are answering?”  to which he replies “I suppose, in a different world, where everyone felt differently, it would be both. When a thing is forbidden and must live in darkness and silence, it’s hard to know how it might be, if allowed to thrive.”  We the reader live in a world where it has become more acceptable (though we still have a way to go) and gay rights are fought for, we look back on this in hindsight and see how horrific it is.

Gale even looks at the psychology that this world must have created, the need for secrecy and how it might even bring out internalised homophobia in those who were living such a life. “Christ, Harry! Listen to yourself. You’re not attractive when you plead. I preferred you married and unobtainable. In fact that is how I prefer all my men. Men can’t live together like a married couple. It’s grotesque and whatever would be the point, even if they could? It’s not as though they’re going to start a family.” (See what I said about Gale putting you in the heads of those you do and don’t want to empathise with.) Gale also looks at the ironies of a place where men would dance with men due to the lack of women, and shack up with other men in winter for practical reasons be they financial or simply survival, yet who would exile gay men as they would women of rape or the indigenous Indian community.

In case that makes this sound like one of those worthy books which tries to preach at the reader it isn’t at all. Yes, one of the main themes is homosexuality yet by its very nature what the whole of A Place Called Winter is about is humanity and also love; regardless of gender be it familial, platonic or passionate. It was this which led me to describing it as ‘Austen meets Brokeback Mountain’ as it wonderfully combines a marvellous contemporary novel with the sense and sensibilities (see what I did there?) of the classic trope. It is pacy, thrilling, horrifying and puts you through the wringer emotionally, whilst having those wonderful storytelling and prose qualities of the past where you have the tale of a life and the intricate situations, places and people who surround and intertwine with it.

I will wrap up by simply saying that A Place Called Winter is a fantastic novel and I think the best that Patrick Gale has written so far. It has all the qualities that create a real treat of a corking read for me. It introduces you to wonderful characters, takes you away from the world you know, makes you think, laugh and cry and all whilst telling you a bloody good story. I was completely lost in Harry’s world and his life and recommend that you go on the journey with him as soon as you can. Easily one of my books of the year; so go on, read this book!

If that still hasn’t sold it then nothing will, well, maybe I should add that for a few days (because I binged on this book) I became an uncommunicative zombie whose head was stuck in this book at all hours, even refusing to watch House of Cards! Oh and even higher praise, this book has lots of horses in it and spends some time on a long boat journey and I didn’t even care, which regular readers here will know is a huge achievement. Anyway enough of my thoughts, who else has read A Place Called Winter and what did you think?

Ooh, and quick note,  if you are ‘oop north’ and near Liverpool on Monday the 27th or Manchester on Tuesday the 28th of April (next week) then do please come and see me in conversation with Patrick about A Place Called Winter in Waterstones. Details here and here. Hope to see some of you there.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Patrick Gale, Review, Tinder Press

Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband – Natalie Young

If there is one thing I like in a book it is that, in this case almost literally, it brings something new to the table. Be it a different spin on something, a subject to my attention that I haven’t thought about before or may even have written off, whatever the case a book with a quirk gets a big tick. As does a book with many layers, I love picking up a novel thinking it will be about one thing when really it is so much more Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband (which we will just call Season To Taste from now on) by Natalie Young is a book that does both of those things. It is a book about murder and cannibalism, the latter which I naturally would avoid, which is also a book about so much more. It might get a little squeamish in places, though it is most certainly worth it.

Tinder Press, 2014, hardback, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

One day, seemingly out of the blue, in the garden of her country cottage Lizzie Prain hits her husband of thirty years over the head with a spade and kills him. Rather than ring the police, or simply bury his body in the garden or nearby woods Lizzie takes it upon herself to get rid of the body in another way, by eating it. By her calculations she can freeze it and eat it over the matter of a few weeks, maybe a month, and then go to Scotland and find a new life for herself. We follow her from recently murdering her husband until she is ready to consume the very last mouthful.

She opened up the freezer. His right hand, wrapped in a bin liner and labelled in marker pen on a sticky label, was at the top, in one of the removable wire baskets attached to the rim. It was resting on the bag that contained the left hand. The other parts were underneath the baskets, piled up and labelled in black bags, and mixed in with the frozen vegetables.

In a novel such as Season to Taste it would be very easy for the author to sensationalise it all, going to town on the horror of it all. One of the many things that I liked so much about Natalie Young’s second novel is that she never over dramatises the act of murder and cannibalism instead Young takes the more silent and subdued approach wrapping a shocking act firmly in reality. We follow Lizzie as she goes into some strange denial-meets-out of body functionality, one minute working out how on earth she can cook her husband before then working out where she can get a decent set or ten of rubber gloves – would the supermarket or the garden centre be more ideal? There is also a dark humour in moments like that too, dare I say one may chuckle as they ponder which they would go for?

Really though I don’t think cannibalism is the heart of what the story is about. Really it is about is Lizzie, and interestingly I still don’t think of Lizzie as a cannibal despite what she does (I do think of her as a real person though clearly) and at no point do you find what she has done is evil or despicable, in fact you just feel very sad for her. She encapsulates what it is like for anyone to be unhappy without really being aware they are until a sudden moment in their life, in a way it is about depression and how we know something isn’t right but we can’t work out what – as someone who has had depression on and off in the past I found how Natalie wrote this stunningly insightful. Lizzie was a woman whose husband was controlling. He wasn’t a man who punished her, though he may have been having an affair, he didn’t scream or shout and wasn’t violent, he was manipulative in other more silent ways and Lizzie became trapped, a victim of a safe marriage she so seemed to crave.

There was the time she’d found him trying to hang himself from a tree by standing on paint cans he’d put on the wall at the bottom of the garden. Possibly he’d been doing it for attention. He’d looked back at the house to see her standing in the kitchen window. Then, after a while, he’d given up. He’d let his neck out of the noose and come back in, smiling, to put the kettle on.

It also marvellously and rather emotionally, creates the feeling that I am sure many of us have had when we become aware that we are stuck in a rut. You have those feelings of despair and boredom yet simultaneously feel that you are safe and that being almost unsettlingly settled might actually be the best you can achieve in life. The when you break away from the rut and do something different or drastic the feelings of elation come, tinged with fear and a sense that maybe boring and stuck was the better option. I have not had these feelings as well evoked in a novel as I have in Season to Taste.

Really, and do bear with me when I say this, Season to Taste also a novel about grief and how it feels to lose someone, be it as they have left you, you have left them, simply vanished or have died – even if you killed them. You can be the one to end a relationship, just as you can if you have been deserted, and still feel the grief of its loss, the denial that it has happened and the mixture of fear and joy of what is coming ahead. This is depicted at its rawest as Lizzie tries to function in a new life of freedom following an old life of regulation.

Since Monday, then, Lizzie had worn the peg and sniffed menthol and eucalyptus. She had taken to standing in the shed where whiffs of her living husband were still in the air. There were three or four moments of pure denial this week when all senses agreed Jacob was still alive. She smelt him that afternoon in the shed, and then felt him as a breath at her neck at the kitchen table on Monday and Tuesday night. She even thought she’d seen him briefly in the garden, first thing on Wednesday morning, crouching over his hole.

How does Lizzie cope? Well you will have to read Season to Taste to find out but I can say that her coping mechanism is brought to us through a series of bullet points in the novel of some of the voices in Lizzie’s head after Jacob’s death. There is the angry vindicated voice ‘The world is full of parasites.’ There is the factual voice ‘It is going to take you less than a month. Think a fortnight. Think three weeks max.’ There is the practical and purposeful voice ‘All sorts of interesting recipes can be found on the internet.’ or ‘A bit of crispy celery might be nice.’ There is also that unbearably grief stricken voice ‘Put the dog’s bed in your bedroom if it helps you feel less alone.’ It is through these insights that we see all the complexities of Lizzie, even if no one else including herself can.

I hugely admire what Natalie Young has done with Season to Taste. It would have been easy with a subject like this to have gone for a really sensational and gory-for-sales novel. Yet instead she has creates a much more subtle and intricate tale of an average woman who has ended up in an average life and wishes she wasn’t and then acts on it in a moment of a breakdown. Don’t get me wrong, some of the book is not for the faint hearted and I wouldn’t advice reading it whilst eating (I may never see scrambled eggs in the same way again) but the rawness, yet sensitivity, of the subjects of grief, loss and despair are almost unbearably brilliant. It is also in many places deliciously darkly humorous, I giggled grimly all too often. So as you can probably tell I thoroughly recommend you spend time with Lizzie Prain, I won’t forget her in a hurry.

For more insights into Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband you can hear myself and Natalie in conversation on the latest episode of You Wrote the Book here.

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Filed under Books of 2014, Natalie Young, Review, Tinder Press

Instructions for a Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell

I do like a family drama. Well, at least I like them in a fictional sense rather than my own personal ones if they ever happen. That said it isn’t the most of original storylines for a book is it? Yet when an author brings a new angle on it, or writes a family so convincingly that you feel a part of their drama then there is nothing more compelling in literary fiction. In ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ that is exactly what Maggie O’Farrell creates.

***** Tinder Press, hardback, 2013, fiction, 352 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It is the summer or 1976 when, after announcing that he is going to the local newsagents for a paper, Robert Riordan simply disappears leaving his wife Greta both horrified and mystified as to where her husband has gone. She soon calls upon all of her children to come home and help, however it seems none of the Riordan offspring really considers themselves a part of ‘the family’ for varying reasons.

Michael Francis is too busy caught up in the state of his marriage, his wife having just discovered the Open University and feminism and possibly herself, which we learn was really only a marriage after he got his girlfriend, now wife, pregnant after some rather angry sex aimed at his now father-in-law – it involves a hilarious conversation about whether being from Irish parents he might happen to be in the IRA. Monica is now married for the same time and coming to terms with the fact she doesn’t really like being a stepmom, and wonders if she might have liked her own children after all, she also happens to be terrified of the countryside, which now she lives in it is a quandary.  Aoife is the black sheep of the family and after a tempestuous relationship with her mother and estrangement with her sister has vanished to New York to get away. Now of course they must all come back to comfort their mother, try and find their father and also confront each other.

Whilst a family drama is nothing new in terms of a premise for a novel, Maggie O’Farrell masters it and creates something new and different with the characters in the Riordan family, the situations they find themselves in and of course the mystery of Roberts disappearance and the enigma. Though the novel is very much set in the present day, well the ridiculous heat of the infamous never ending summer of 1976, ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ is a novel that really looks at a/the families past too. I thought this was mainly done through Aoife and Gretta who, for me personally, take the novel to another level (or two or three) above any great literary family drama.

Firstly Gretta for her semi-tragic role within the family, and also for the big laughs in the book – sometimes at her expense, and as a woman who can completely rewrite her own history and often does. You know from the start, as she bakes bread in the sweltering heat, that here is a woman with hidden depths and a life behind her. Aoife is a real enigma and, for me, had the most gripping and compelling (even more so than Roberts disappearance, which occasionally you forget about) story with the relationship breakdown with her sister and also with her dyslexia or curse as she sees it, which at the time was not diagnosed and people merely thought someone was inept, put upon her by ‘a sorcerer who was in a bad mood’ when he passed her pram. I found her fascinating and her story incredibly moving. I also don’t think I have understood dyslexia so well before.

“There was a sudden, crushing weight on her chest and it was difficult to draw breath into her lungs; please, her mind was saying, she wasn’t sure to whom, please, please. Let me get through this, just this once, I’ll do anything, anything at all. ‘Contract’, she could recognise, right at the top of the page; that was good; Evelyn had said it was a contract. Or did it say ‘contact’? Was there an ‘r’ there? Aoife pressed her left eye hard with the heel of her palm and scanned the now undulating string of letters that made up the words. Was there an ‘r’ and if so, where ought it to be? Before the ‘t’ or after the ‘t’ or next to the ‘c’ and, if so, which ‘c’? Panic cramming her throat, she told herself to leave ‘contract’ or ‘contact’ or whatever the hell it was and look down the page and when she did, she knew she was doomed.”  

The conversations between the characters are another master stroke of O’Farrell’s as it comes of the page as real as the characters who speak it. I mentioned before the awkward conversation between Michael Francis and his father in law over dinner, a family he is amazed by because of ‘how nice they all were to each other’, about if he is in the IRA or linked to it, which was prevalent at the time. The conversations between couples who don’t really know if they know each other anymore or maybe got the other one wrong at the start, sibling bickering and the way an atmosphere can change slowly over time as family members start to remember what it was that annoyed them about each other etc are all completely believable.

As you may have guessed I really, really, really liked ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ and found myself gripped to it like it was a thriller because of the gripping and believable characters and the fact that there are a few mysteries and secrets, which all families have, to keep you going. I would heartily recommend any one give this delightful, and also occasionally rather dark and distressing, domestic drama a whirl, you will be pulled into the Riordan family far better than any ordinary soap opera and its stunningly written.

You can hear me in conversation with Maggie O’Farrell on my new podcast ‘You Wrote The Book!’, I now need to get a wriggle on and read her first three novels as so far I have only read her latest three and each book cements the fact she is becoming one of my favourites more and more each time. Are you a fan of O’Farrell? Which of her books have you read and what did you think?  Have any of you read ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ yet and if so what did you think?

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Filed under Books of 2013, Maggie O'Farrell, Review, Tinder Press