Category Archives: Vintage Books

The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain

I am probably quite the stuck record when it comes to this, but hey ho my blog my rules and foibles, but when an author I love has a new book out I get excited and I get nervous. The latter tends to win in the reading part of my brain and so I put off reading the book because I am scared it might not be as amazing as I want it to be. Pessimism, another foible of mine. In the case of Rose Tremain’s latest novel The Gustav Sonata I couldn’t have been more wrong as I think this might be my favourite novel of hers yet.

Vintage Books, hardback, 2016, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

At the age of five, Gustav Perle was certain of only one thing: he loved his mother.
Her name was Emilie, but everybody addressed her as Frau Perle. (In Switzerland , at that time, after the war, people were formal. You might pass a lifetime without knowing the first name of your nearest neighbour.) Gustav called Emilie Perle ‘Mutti’. She would be ‘Mutti’ all his life, even when the name began to sound babyish to him: his Mutti, his alone, a thin woman with a reedy voice and straggly hair and a hesitant way of moving from room to room in the small apartment, as if afraid of discovering, between one space and the next, objects – or even people – she had not prepared herself to encounter.

As The Gustav Sonata opens we are instantly thrown into the slightly claustrophobic and cloying world of Gustav Perle. Living alone with his mother, after the death of his father which no one ever talks about, he lives a sheltered life where his mother struggles to make ends meet. Whilst his father his absent his presence is anything but, yet it must not be discussed or questioned. Without realising it Gustav is living quite an unhappy life until he befriends a boy new to the neighbourhood, Anton. As Anton and his mysterious background come into Gustav’s life so do the questions that he has never asked or even contemplated.

One or two of the apartment residents arrived in the courtyard and stopped to smile at the two boys dancing around the old cherry tree. Later, when Anton had gone home, Emilie said, ‘I suppose there may not be any cherry trees in Bern. It’s unlikely, but one can’t say for sure. Perhaps he had never seen one before?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Gustav.
‘I think he’s a nice boy,’ said Emilie, ‘but of course he is a Jew.’
‘What’s a Jew?’ asked Gustav,
‘Ah,’ said Emilie. ‘The Jews are the people your father died trying to save.’

Anton therefore in many ways brings as much lightness as he does darkness into Gustav’s life, something Tremain keeps bringing up and we see repeating throughout. On the one hand he has the kind of friendship he has always dreamed of, certainly the opposite to one with one of his neighbours sons. He also, through Anton’s parents and situation gets introduced to a world unlike any he has known, here the conflicts come in. He lives on the breadline while Anton lives a life of spoils, Anton is set to be a prodigal pianist whilst Gustav has never been given any drive or belief, Anton’s family are loving and caring to him while Emilie is somewhat cold and unstable. These contrasts naturally cause Gustav some internal turmoil.

Here is one of the main strengths of Tremain’s writing and the novel. Facades, which is really what lies at the heart of The Gustav Sonata, the facades we create for ourselves and for others. Gustav sees Anton’s life as perfect, yet Tremain shows us as readers that this is not always the case. This is always something that I love in fiction, where we get to know more than the characters and what lies around them, yet Tremain makes it anything but predictable, again something I have always loved in her writing since I started reading her work a few years ago. I am fanboying aren’t I? I don’t even care, it’s all true.

‘Won’t your parents think this is odd? They might not want us to play here.’
‘We won’t tell them,’ said Anton.
‘Where will they think we are?’
‘Just “exploring”. On holidays, when she doesn’t want me around, my mother’s always saying “Why don’t you go exploring, Anton?” We’ll tell them we’re building a camp in the forest. And anyway, they’ll be fucking.’
‘What’s fucking?’
‘It’s what they like to do on holiday. They go to bed and take their clothes off and kiss and scream things out, It’s called fucking.’

Moments like this in the novel are ones where Rose Tremain does so much with so little. Reading this part of the book as adults we see that actually Anton’s parents are not living the perfect life that he or Gustav believe, they are actually there to try to save their marriage. We also see, without spoilers, that Tremain cleverly creates several analogies as the boys’ adventure in the atmosphere of the Alps foreign climbs. When you have read the book you will know what I mean. From a character level, we also get to see how much Gustav looks up to Anton and how truly shielded from the world he is and how soon the two embrace freedom to the full. It is here that something happens which has effects that ripple throughout the book and of which I will say no more or you will not be weeping at the end of the book like I was, with a mix of sadness and utter joy.

Yet The Gustav Sonata is not just about Gustav. There is a second story with the pages of this book which reveals itself within the second part, of three, in the novel. This is the story of Gustav’s father Erich and how he meets Emilie and what happens in the lead up to his absence in the house. That said though, this being Rose Tremain it isn’t that simple and the full reveal doesn’t come until a point you least expect it. Moving on, for fear of spoilers as this is a twisty wonderful book, there is once again layers to this second story which take us in directions we least expect and see characters again doing this we may personally fathom but boy are they interesting to read. It also highlights again how the history of our families and what has gone before us can shape both our personalities and upbringing even when we don’t ourselves see it as children. Something I personally find really fascinating.

Tremain remains like Switzerland throughout, neutral. Don’t mistake that for a lack of passion for her characters or the situations which they find themselves in, good or bad. It is this neutrality – which I think is always in her work and is one of the things that I like so much about it – that leaves the reader to place their emotions and their own moral compass, you have to ask ‘well what would I do?’ and ‘how would I feel in those circumstances in that time in that society?’ All of this only makes the novel all the more powerful and the readers emotional investment all the greater. And like I said this book had me an emotional mess by the end, as all the best books do.

If you hadn’t guessed, I loved The Gustav Sonata. I read it at the very end of last year and it was just what I needed, a novel that reminded me why I read and the power of a great book. I also think it is my favourite of all the Rose Tremain novels and short stories I have read since I have started reading her work, which my Gran told me to do when she was terminally ill as she was sure Tremain is an author I ‘would get’ or vice versa. I find it very odd that she won’t read this book, anyway before I get all emotional about that and the book… Suffice to say I think that if you haven’t read it yet then I strongly urge you to. It is one of the best novels I have read in some time.

If you haven’t got yourself a copy then you can here. I have no idea how the Bailey’s judges are going to choose a winner between this and The Essex Serpent which were both two of my books of last year. That said I am now reading the whole longlist and having read a few of the first chapters of some of them it is looking like a really strong longlist. Have any of you read The Gustav Sonata and if so what did you think? What about Rose Tremain’s other novels and collections?

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Books of 2016, Review, Rose Tremain, Vintage Books

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gorsky – Vesna Goldsworthy

Vesna Goldsworthy’s Gorsky first arrived at Savidge Reads HQ last year unsolicited and I have to admit that having heard (on which podcast I cannot remember) that it was a reimagining of The Great Gatsby I promptly gave it to the book swap shelf at work. It is not that I have anything against reimagining’s, retellings or prequels and sequels, it is more that I found the original to be The Quite Alright Didn’t Set My World on Fire Gatsby. However with it being on the Bailey’s longlist, and as part of the Bearded Baileys Book Club, I had to read it and so I braced myself…

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Vintage, 2015, paperback, fiction, 278 pages, kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize

As the rich of Russian move into London one particular oligarch, Gorsky, is getting the most talk and the most press because he is a man of not mere millions but billions – well, if the press are to be believed. So it comes to quite a surprise to Nikolai Kimović, or Nick as he likes to be called, finds this very man standing in the bookshop in which he works, in one of the backstreets between Knightsbridge and Chelsea.

We were independent alright. And bookish, too. In spite of the mess, which gave the appearance of frantic activity, I managed to read a couple of titles a day, even on what passed for a busy one. I certainly did not expect to have to deal with ‘big business’, and everything about this man – from the way he stepped out of the vehicle, giving brief instructions to the sharp-suited driver who held the car’s door open for him, to the manner in which he lingered uncertainly among the shelves as I completed a minute transaction and chatted with one of our morning regulars, and the tone in which he finally uttered that if I might – spelled out big business.

Gorsky wants Nick to help him create the perfect library in his new home, which surprisingly happens to be the great house on which Nick’s low rent gate house belongs. So he has a new landlord and a new client all in one. Things take another turn when Nick discovers that Natalia, the woman of his dreams who comes in occasionally for books, seems to have some history with Gorsky and here Nick may once again be of some service.

If you have read The Great Gatsby, and I don’t think there are many people who haven’t, then you will know roughly what the plot that unfolds from here is. I say roughly because Goldsworthy does through in some twists and turns here and there as this is no straightforward retelling as I mentioned before. What you would be expecting is the wondrous world of London’s super rich echelons which Goldsworthy draws from the start and right up to the end. Indeed it was this that kept me reading on, along with all the book talk that Nick throws in along the way.

What then took me even further into the novel was something I wasn’t expecting at all, as Goldsworthy uses the reimagining of Gatsby to tell a much wider story, one which will have your thoughts fully provoked…

‘You can’t defeat them unless they wish to be defeated. They are like beasts. They will die in their millions without needing the consolations of an afterlife. You’ll never find such men and women anywhere else. Forget about the Muslims. They blow themselves up in the hope of seventy-two cherries to pop. The Russians are scarier. They fight hoping for nothing. Do you know that Natalia is from Stalingrad? Volgograd as it was called at the time she was born. Daddy was a Stalingrad rat, fifteen in 1945. It takes a special kind of zest to survive all that and then procreate so unstoppably. He had five children in a country in which most people stop at two. And not even religious. Unless you count Communism…’

As Gorsky unfolds Goldsworthy uses this famous plot of the young and rich, and the older rich and corrupt, to look at several things. The first is the situation with London now, which is becoming a city that is out pricing itself, and how the very rich are buying up masses of buildings just to visit, or worse still (considering the cry for affordable housing, which Nick himself lives in, is so high) simply leaving empty. It then looks, sometimes rather crudely through the eyes of Summerscale as quoted above (Natalia’s rich British husband, who could well be a take on Nigel Farage head of the awful political party UKIP), at the situation with the UK – and in some instances the world – with Russia, which I find as fascinating as I do petrifying. This then also leads to how the UK sees itself and is perceived by the rest of Europe. This is of course particularly topical at the moment with the European referendum coming up (I want to stay in, just saying) in the next few weeks. Nick is the perfect set of eyes for this as being a Serbian migrant he sees it all both from outside the world of the rich and as someone who is the focus of much debate at the moment with migration being a very hot topic.

I thought it was all of this that made Gorsky really stand out to me. Interestingly this is some ways does come at a slight cost. Goldsworthy is wonderful at constructing scenes, buildings and atmospheres, yet there is a slight struggle going on with the characters. As the main characters all have a certain plot to follow in many ways, it slightly constricts them. Most of the time, with many of the characters Goldsworthy works wonders, occasionally (particularly with Natalia) they feel slightly less like characters and more like chess pieces being forced to move in a certain pattern or direction. This is a minor qualm though when the discussions the book creates are so strong and the scenes in which they are set so luscious and so detailed.

All in all I really enjoyed Gorsky and read it in a couple of sittings. It entertained me and gave me much food for thought in a very subtle and subconscious way, which I really liked. I will have to go off and discover what else Vesna Goldsworthy has written.

Update: Gorsky is one of a selection of the longlisted Baileys Women’s Prize books that I am giving away worldwide here.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Review, Vesna Goldsworthy, Vintage Books

The Green Road – Anne Enright

Knowing I was going to be reading all of them once the Bailey’s longlist was announced, one of the books I was rather nervous about was Anne Enright’s The Green Road. This was because I read her Man Booker winning The Gathering way back in my pre-blogging days and wasn’t really a fan, I then started The Forgotten Waltz but just didn’t get into it. Anne Enright and I had despite best intentions) a little bit of history, I hadn’t managed to ‘get her’ yet, so would The Green Road be the book to do it?

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Vintage, paperback, 2016, fiction, 314 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The Green Road is a difficult book to describe as in essence you could describe it simply as the tale of one family, when actually it is a much more complex and intriguing one than that. In the first part of the book, through the eyes of the four Madigan siblings and then their mother Rosaleen (who always looms in her children’s tales) we are given insight into parts of four separate people’s lives and the jigsaw puzzle of one families story, no matter how fractured it gets. In the second half of the novel we watch the family return to their childhood home, Ardeevin, for one last Christmas as Rosaleen has suddenly decided to sell it. Yes, you know there is going to be some family dramatics there.

Hanna’s mother had taken to the bed. She had been there for two weeks, nearly. She had not dressed herself or done her hair since the Sunday before Easter, when Dan told them all that he was going to be a priest.

I really, really enjoyed the first half of the book. Having found The Gathering a somewhat difficult, slightly miserable and cold read I have to admit I was expecting the same again. However within pages I was wrapped in the warmth of Enright’s prose and loudly cackling as we see life through Hanna’s eyes as her mother reacts rather badly to some news in 1980, perfectly setting up the family dynamic. We then follow Dan’s escape from his family which takes him to New York in 1991 and the gay scene. We then return to Ireland, County Limerick in 1997 where Constance is having a mammogram before heading to Segou, Mali to find Emmet working surrounded by poverty and sickness. Finally returning to Ireland once more to find Rosaleen writing Christmas cards and thinking about all her children and how her family have become so seemingly fractured and apart, deciding to sell the house.

Before we move on to the second half, where you might feel a ‘but’ is coming, I want to pay particular attention to one of these stories which blew my mind. I thought all of the first part (which is aptly called Leaving) was wonderfully written and crafted, one part in particular was some of the best writing I have read all year. The segment set in New York 1991 was so powerful I actually finished it sobbing. Whilst this is claimed to be Dan’s story it is actually the story of all those men who tragically lost their lives to HIV and the Aids virus, the men who Dan finds himself amongst while in turmoil about his own sexuality.

This resonated with me for two reasons. Firstly, because of the way Enright draws Dan, flaws and all. Dan is one of ‘the beautiful ones’ who people fall for and sometimes, because he can and other times because he is struggling with dealing with all his confused feelings, is an absolute bastard and a bit of a coward. Where you should be enraged by him, you feel pity for him and I think Enright looks at the shame sexuality has had (and indeed still has in some counties and mindsets) unflinchingly. She also looks at how horrendous that time was for the men who caught the virus were as well as those loved ones around them. I don’t know if it was Enright’s intention or not, however, in giving the narrative as a collective ‘we…’ they the ghosts/souls of those who had died watching telling me of the aftermaths of their dying and their deaths. It utterly floored me, I was a mess. I thank Enright for this because these stories need to be told and these people’s voices to be heard, without compromise or making them more palatable for the masses. It should be slightly uncomfortable by its nature.

Of all the signs, the purple bruise of Kaposi’s was the one we hated most because there was no doubting it and, after the first mother snatches her child from the seat beside you on the subway, it gets hard to leave the house. Sex is also hard to find. Even a hug, when you are speckled by death, is a complicated thing. And the people who would sleep with you now – what kind of people are they?
We did not want to be loved when we got sick, because that would be unbearable, and love was all we looked for, in our last days.

The second half of the novel, Coming Home, was also wonderfully written. Enright gets certain moments spot on within family dynamics; the old resentments you have from when you were ten and can’t let go of, the negotiation of interactions and unwritten hierarchy when you’ve all been apart for so long, the moments you fight for everyone’s love and rebuke it too. All of this was perfectly drawn as I turned the pages. So there is a ‘but’ coming, as I hinted, in fact there are two.

My only two small criticisms of The Green Road were thus. I thought that the ending of the book, which I won’t spoil, fell into a bit of an old family matriarchal cliché and at once somehow became over dramatic and anti-climactic all at once. I think the book could have ended at page 280 and I would have been perfectly happy to be left guessing. The other small niggle I had was Emmet. Despite his quite interesting story in Mali was interesting, I felt that the novel wouldn’t have been much different without him, in fact I would have liked more of Hanna, Constance and (in particular) Dan’s stories instead. These are minor quibbles and probably just me sulking after being so bereft leaving New York and wanting Enright to give me more of that story, no matter how painful. That is the power of that section, I will let go and move on because really this is a beautiful book.

If you crossed the long meadow, you came to a boreen which brought you up over a small rise to the view of the Aran Islands out in Galway Bay, and the Cliffs of Moher, which were also famous, far away from the south. This road turned into the green road that went across the Burren, high above the beach at Fanore, and this was the most beautiful road in the world, bar none, her granny said – famed in song and story – and rocks gathering briefly into walls before lapsing back into field, the little stony pastures whose flowers were sweet and rare.

The Green Road has left me pondering if I have missed a trick with Enright all this time, or maybe I just read her at the wrong time as can happen. Enright is unquestionably a fantastic writer who, for me with this novel, conjured up the world of a family with all its highs and lows that felt like they might be having this reunion down the end of your road. Well, if it was Christmas and you lived in County Clare but you know what I mean. I didn’t notice it in her previous novels, so I guess I will have to go back again, that Enright does two of my favourite things in fiction. She makes the ordinary, and everything we take for granted, seem extra ordinary. She also gives voices to those who have not been able to share their tales. I know, I know, I cannot let that New York section go, but the writing is stunning. I mean could you forget, especially when Enright so aptly writes His head was a museum. And when he died the museum would be empty. The museum would fall down. Thought not. Let books like this one, though fictional, be some kind of museum or memorial for those who could not, or cannot, speak up.

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Filed under Anne Enright, Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Review, Vintage Books

In A Dark, Dark Wood – Ruth Ware

Having written the blog for over seven years what is wonderful (and I am always telling you all so) is the lovely people that I have met throughout that time be they fellow bloggers, folk from social media, the authors of the teams within the publishers themselves. Back in the early stages of my blog one member of a publishers publicity team was always super nice and that was Ruth Ware. So it all seems quite meta and bizarre that all these years later I should be reviewing her first crime novel In A Dark, Dark Wood. Good thing then that it is a right old page turning thriller or this could have been really, really awkward.

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Vintage Books, 2015, hardback, fiction, 352 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It hurts. Everything hurts. The light in my eyes, the pain in my head. There’s a stench of blood in my nostrils, my hands are sticky with it.
‘Leonora?’
The voice comes dim through a fog of pain. I try to shake my head, my lips won’t form the word.
‘Leonora, you’re safe, you’re at the hospital. We’re taking you to have a scan.’
It’s a woman, speaking clearly and loudly. Her voice hurts.
‘Is there anyone we should be calling?’
I try again to shake my head.
‘Don’t move your head,’ she says. ‘You’ve had a head injury.’
‘Nora,’ I whisper.
‘You want us to call Nora? Who’s Nora?’
‘Me… my name.’
‘All right, Nora. Just try to relax. This won’t hurt.’
But it does. Everything hurts.
What has happened?
What have I done?

I don’t normally include the entire first chapter of a novel in my reviews/book thoughts, and it is not something I am planning on making a habit of. However in the case of In A Dark, Dark Wood it is very short and also shows exactly where Ruth Ware throws her reader from the off. We are in a hospital, with a woman called Leonora, or Nora, who has clearly gone through something horrendous and traumatic, the question is what? Well, here Ruth Ware is very clever indeed because actually exactly what is not revealed until the very end, instead what follows are glimpses into three strands of Nora’s life which lead up to and then reveal just what on earth happened on  a weekend in the woods.

We all have certain friendships which start off intensely and then for some reason (be it from either party) the friendship falls foul/turns sour and is over as quickly as it started. The intensity stays and lingers becoming guilt, bitterness, annoyance or loss. Whatever the lingering feeling the one thing we are sure about is that we don’t want to talk about it or think about those times or the person we might have been then. If by chance that person suddenly comes back into your life so do all those feelings, plus that tiny glimmer of hope, come back to the fore. This is the position that Nora finds herself in when she gets invited for a weekend away on Clare’s hen night. She hasn’t seen Clare in years since she left her old hometown after the two had fallen out, so why does she suddenly want her at this event, and does she really when the invite is in fact from Clare’s new best friend Flo. Yet cajoled by Nina, who also knows Clare yet doesn’t know why the two fell out as Nora won’t discuss it, they decide to go together. Soon enough things start to take a darker toll as Nora, Nina, Flo and Clare, joined by Melanie and Tom, end up in a house in the middle of a wood with no life around them, bar woodland animals and fauna, for miles and soon things start to go awry.

‘You know –’ I was thinking aloud ‘-what really creeps me out isn’t the footprints – or not as such. It’s the fact that if it hadn’t have been for the snow, we’d never have known.’
We looked out, contemplating the unbroken white carpet across the path to the forest. My own steps from the run that morning had been filled in, and now you would never have known a human foot had passed. For a long moment we all stood in silence, thinking about that fact, thinking about all the times we could have been observed, completely unaware.

There were many reasons why I thought that In A Dark, Dark Wood was a bloody (pun intended) good read and why I enjoyed getting carried away with it all. I have to admit before I started it I couldn’t decide if a hen weekend (a weekend where a bride and all her closest friends go crazy for one final big night or two of shenanigans, if you don’t know the term) would be an utterly brilliant idea for a scenario or not, of course it is, it makes all the drunken hysteria and tensions completely magnified. The setting of a house in the middle of nowhere also means no phone signal for help and who doesn’t get slightly scared in the middle of a big wood at night regardless of who you are with once the lights go out and even more so if one of them might be a psychopath?

On a more ‘literary’ level I thought that the plotting and the delivery of In A Dark, Dark Wood were brilliant. As I mentioned earlier the actual ‘incident’ that leaves Nora in hospital isn’t revealed until as close to the end as is possible and leaves you wondering just what Nora is forgetting or what she might be concealing as well as who the culprit of anything might be, well it did me and I guessed completely wrongly every time. Is Nora a reliable narrator? You’ll have to read to find out. I also thought the way Ware uses three time lines as slow reveals were added to the tension marvellously; what happened during the school years, what happened in the woods and everything that happens while Nora is in hospital. I also really enjoyed the characters who all had something to hide and were a bit spiky, in one case utterly mad (though the latter story actually made me a bit weepy at one point, which has never happened in a crime novel) or just a bit awful.

On a pure ‘escapist entertainment’ level In A Dark, Dark Wood also again excels. I felt like Ruth had soaked in all the things she loves in classic crime novels; locked house mysteries, footprints in the snow, as well as tropes from great gothic novels. There is also a wonderful nostalgic (for me anyway) sense of those brilliant movies of my teens like Scream, Urban Legend and I Know What You Did Last Summer with a sprinkling of Mean Girls the later years. What I am saying in essence and this is a huge compliment from me and so I hope is seen as such, is that this is a like a really, really good Point Horror novel for the grown up generation with a sprinkling of the spirit of Christie. It is also occasionally genuinely creepy. So what is not to like?

If you are looking for a crime novel that will give you chills, spills and thrills (I never understand what the spills part of that actually means) then I would highly, highly recommend you spend a few nights with In A Dark, Dark Wood. I also dare you to try and be able to work out just whodunit and what on earth they did before Ruth Ware unleashes the denouement. No reason Reese Witherspoon, Richard and Judy and myself all love it, and what a group of recommender’s that is! I am looking forward to Ruth’s next criminally good (sorry, couldn’t help it) novel which will be out this summer.

If you would like to hear more about the book, you can find Ruth and myself in conversation on You Wrote The Book here.

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Filed under Review, Ruth Ware, Vintage Books

H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

As the end of 2015 beckons I start to think of all those ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’ reads I was so sure, or insistent, that I would get to this year and haven’t and think ‘ooh I must read that at the beginning of next year’. I am not sure how realistic this will be as one of the books which I wanted to read the most in 2014 I only got around to in the second half of this year. That book is H is for Hawk which was one of the books of last year and became something of a sensation. I have to admit that I was slightly worried it wouldn’t live up to the praise from here there and everywhere, however it completely exceeded everything that I could imagine it would achieve.

9780099575450

Vintage Books, 2014, hardback, memoir, 302 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

When Helen Macdonald learns that her father has died, her world naturally implodes. Grief can affect us in so many ways that it is never the same for any of us, yet in what seems a initially rather extreme reaction to her bereavement Helen sets out to get a hawk, Mabel, to train to distract herself from the world of people and emotional pain that surround her. Yet we learn this is not such a rash decision for Helen has grown up with a huge love of birds (particularly birds of prey) and as we read on we also discover how other people have used the keeping, taming and training of birds as ways to deal with the outside world, one being the author T.H White.

Now I have to admit if I had been sold this book as being about goshawk training, grief and T.H. White, an author who I have never read, I would probably have not have read it. In fact this might have been what stopped me from reading a proof when one arrived eons ago, well how stupid was I? So, if on the off chance you are one of the few people who haven’t yet read it you might feel the same, think again because this is a book that will affect you on so many levels you will be left slightly bamboozled as to why you don’t only read books about goshawk training, grief and T.H. White. Yes, I love it that much; it hooked me in, gripped me and then broke me along the way – something I have realised I really rather like in books.

I look. There it is. I feel it. The insistent pull to the heart that the hawk brings, that very old longing of mine to possess the hawk’s eye. To live the safe and solitary life; to look down on the world from a height and keep it there. To be the watcher; invulnerable, detached, complete. My eyes fill with water. Here I am, I think. And I do not think I am safe.

I found H is for Hawk fascinating and gripping in all of its three strands. Firstly I love birds and indeed whilst I didn’t have a bird of prey as a child the neighbours did (they owned Riber Castle Zoo and when they left they took the bald eagle with them) and I did have a pet duck called Rapunzel, not quite the Red Kite I would have dreamed of but she was amazing and probably actually a bit better as she was cuddly and flew to your feet, not your arm, when you called her. So to read about the world of falconry and taming birds of prey I found fascinating. I also love the way in which Helen writes about it, there is no textbook babble here just pure enthusiasm and passion for the art and the birds.

Without sounding like a weirdo (or more of one) I find books about other people’s grief incredibly cathartic. Not because I think ‘oh phew someone is having it worse than me’ (for the record that would be weird) but because having gone through grief it is a relief/help to hear that other people have gone through all the feelings you have, albeit in a different way, plus many you haven’t but more of all that you weren’t completely batshit crazy when you went through them. I didn’t go out and get a goshawk, though I pondered a pug, I did completely cut off the people I loved from my life and wake up and cry every day. Reading a raw, brave and unflattering account of grief like Helen’s, and indeed Cathy’s earlier this year, makes you feel less alone. This is important. This will also call out to anyone whether they have been bereaved or not because we all know heartbreak, we all know love, we all know loss.

Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.

I have to admit I didn’t think that the elements of T.H. White’s story would grip me though. And they bloody well did, without me having ever read any of his books which I now want to go and read. The story of a man who feels a complete outsider because of his sexuality and all that it stands for and alludes to is quite a heartbreaking one (have a hanky at the ready with this book). As we read on the story as White gets his bird becomes as gripping as the trials and tribulations with Helen and Mabel, yet with different outcomes, though I don’t want to give anything away.

Again here I felt like the book chimed with me again having myself gone through all that questioning, fear and misunderstanding of myself as I came to terms with my sexuality. Here Helen’s writing shows utter empathy, complete understanding and an ability to conjure and channel these feelings. This book just resonated more and more with me which is always quite a magical thing when it happens with a book. I should say that all this will grip any reader regardless of whether they have owned birds, been bereaved or have come to terms with sexuality.

Many people have said that Mabel is the star of H is for Hawk and while she is indeed an incredibly captivating character, she would not be so in the hands of any old author. It is Helen’s writing that makes her so and her writing is just wonderful. Mabel (and I apologise for this) flies off the page, as does every element of this book. I felt I was almost a ghost in the room watching the two of them as Helen describes her time taming and befriending, because it is a respectful friendship, Mabel as well as feeling the joy of watching Helen using Mabel as her view of the world, as she becomes a goshawk herself mentally, and then how Mabel’s view of humans and Helen herself helps her to comes to terms with things, even if she might not credit herself for it. Writing from the heart is not easy to come by, captivating and beautiful writing from the heart even less so, the latter is how Helen Macdonald writes and I thank her for sharing it, and her story, with us.

The feathers down her front are the colour of sunned newsprint, of tea-stained paper, and each is marked darkly towards its tip with a leaf-bladed spearhead, so from her throat to her feet she is patterned with a shower of falling raindrops. Her wings are the colour of stained oak, their covert feathers edged in the palest teak, barred flight-feathers folded quietly beneath. And there’s a strange grey tint to her that is felt, rather than seen, a kind of silvery light like a rainy sky reflected from the surface of a river. She looks new. Looks as if the world cannot touch her. As if everything that exists and is observed rolls off like drops of water from her oiled and close-packed feathers. And the more I sit with her, the more I marvel at how reptilian she is. The lucency of her pale, round eyes. The waxy yellow skin about her Bakerlite-black beak. The way she snakes her small head from side to side to focus on distant objects. Half the time she seems as alien as a snake, a thing hammered of metal and scales and glass.

I could enthuse even more, I will instead round off my thoughts. H is for Hawk is an incredibly special kind of read, which all the above culminates towards, simply put it is a generously open, honest and brutal yet beautiful book. Helen Macdonald takes us completely into her life and her world at a time when she was at her most broken and vulnerable and shares that with us in all its technicolour splendour of emotions. When I finished reading it I couldn’t help feeling that Helen’s father, Mabel (if birds could read) and T.H. White would have been both deeply honoured and immensely proud to live on forever in such a wonderful book. Yes, I too think that H is for Hawk is outstandingly good; one of everyone’s books in 2014 and certainly one of mine in 2015.

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She can draw ducks, there is no end to this woman’s talents!

If you would like to hear more about H is for Hawk from the authors mouth, you can listen to an episode of You Wrote The Book where Helen and I talk about the book, birds and much more in a cafe (so excuse some of the background noise) here. If you haven’t read the book already then I cannot recommend it enough, go and buy it and spend the Christmas holidays with it I beg you. If you have read H is for Hawk I would love your thoughts on it, as with any book we’ve both read.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Helen Macdonald, Review, Vintage Books

Dear Thief – Samantha Harvey

There are some books that seem so hard to describe I occasionally slam my laptop shut and simply think ‘oh why bother?’ Within this select group of books there will be ones however that you keep heading back to, in some kind of self torturous act, because they are books that you think need to read by more people and so need to be talked about. Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief is one such book as I am rather worried it won’t reach all the readers it should. True, I can’t go and force you to buy it or borrow it from the library; however I can strongly urge you to do so. Why then, when I think you should all read it, has it been so hard to write about, because in a way Dear Thief is one of those quiet and clever books that is about everything and nothing all at once.

9780099597667

Vintage Books, 2015, paperback*, fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

On the whole I do not think of you anymore. So it was strange when you came into my mind like that, standing over my bed with your spine stacked tall like a wonder of the world and with thighs like someone who hasn’t eaten for a year, hovering as if you wanted something.

Over the space of Boxing Day 2001 to June 2002 our unnamed narrator writes a letter to her estranged best friend of many years, Nina. We soon learn that Nina, who could be alive or dead, and our narrator had one of those friendships we all encounter from time to time where the love is so powerful for each other that sometimes it can verge on too intense and slightly dangerous. As we soon learn the friendship with Nina, or Butterfly as our narrators’ son once gave her the nickname, did indeed go too far and the reader guesses why pretty early on.

Some of you might now be pondering that if there is no mystery left to uncover why on earth would you read on? Or indeed you might be asking if the book has some kind of twist, as I have noticed all the covers give it a slightly Gone Girl look, and in truth there isn’t one. “So why would I want to read this?” I hear you cry. Well, the writing, remember that crazy thing called prose? For this is one of those books that is all about the writing; the nuances of the prose, the complexities of the characters and the sheer power and atmosphere that words can create. It is a bit of a cliché to say that a book can be haunting, yet that is what this book has done to me since I finished reading it especially the more distance I have had from it. Every so often I remember a moment or a sentence and get a little shudder. I mean with sentences like ‘What remains when old age comes, when decay begins, when the body falls?’ how can you not get chills down your spine.

It is hard for any author whatever their calibre to keep a novel sustained when it is created in the form of a letter. However I think Harvey does this expertly. Yes, there were a couple of times when I felt like the book needed a little edit (I know, hark at me) or an odd occasion were the book meandered yet I put the latter down to it being the thought processes of our unnamed narrator as she looks back over a rather difficult and dark time in her life, now in another equally bleak one. If you are now thinking that Dear Thief sounds awfully depressing, it isn’t, honest. Harvey seems to know just when things are getting too bleak and either injects a salacious or highly eroticised moment (there is something obsessive and sexual about the narrative I still can’t put my finger on, as it were) or a moment of dark humour – or what I found funny at least.

Sometimes I imagine, out of sheer playfulness, that I am writing this as a kind of defence for having murdered and buried you under the patio. It turns out I am not at my desk in central London but in a cell awaiting trial without bail, because whoever bought the cottage in Morda decided to dog foundations for an extension to the kitchen, which was admittedly always too small, and the digger turned up bones and teeth and a silver cobra, which they believe would have been worn on a woman’s upper arm, some small hooped earrings and some scraps of undecomposed leather and a zip from a pair of winter boots.
People in the village mutter: How could she have done it? Which leads me to think: How did I do it? Suffocation is the kindest way, especially if you were in one of your stupors; strangulation unlikely since you would not have let me; knifing or bludgeoning impossible because you are, after all, a friend, one held dearly and much loved, and I am not a monster.

It was with our unnamed narrator that I felt the wonder of Harvey’s writing, whose debut The Wilderness I was a huge fan of when it came out, really culminates. I ruddy love an unreliable narrator and here we have one in full flow. As Dear Thief carries on the author of the letter often back tracks, questions what she has just written, makes things up, and fills in the blanks of her memory etc, all to create her own truth. This is where the nuances and the subtlety of Harvey’s work really comes to the fore and where a reader who likes trying to work out truth and lies, and where the lines of love and hate blur, can have a field day. I might have liked a bit more rage on occasion yet, and I feel I need a cup of tea (maybe some cake) with Samantha Harvey to discuss this in more detail, I felt the often clinical and cold way in which the letter is written comes in part from the ‘therapy’ of writing this all down, from self preservation during the methodical picking of old scars and also from her recent grief that seems to start the whole exercise off? That’s what I thought, but as I said you can never quite work this woman out no matter how much time you spend in her head; which with my taste in books, proved fascinating.

More than this, I am aware I haven’t been completely truthful and I wonder why? How can it be that we begin something wholeheartedly and slip, so quickly, into guarded omissions and liberties with the truth? Under the circumstances the goodness of human nature is very quick to buckle, don’t you think? But then, of course you agree, and you hardly need me to point it out.

So as I said at the beginning, Dear Thief is quite a tricky book to write about and also quite a difficult one to instantly process. That is the very point of it though. It is a book that needs to linger in your mind, as you linger in the narrators, and cogitate it all over time. It is often easy to forget there are books out there that don’t need huge bangs, pops and wallops to show you the power of great writing and a good yarn. Thank goodness then for Samantha Harvey and a book like Dear Thief, I look forward to her next.

Who else has read Dear Thief and what did you make of it? Have you read The Wilderness, if not you must instantly or maybe read my review and see what you think first. I have realised I haven’t read Samantha’s second novel All is Song, possibly because my mother pilfered it as she is a huge fan I must rectify that have any of you read it?

*I did have the hardback as this was one of the books we shortlisted, and discussed fiercely, for Fiction Uncovered this year – however my mother nabbed it, so the arrival of the paperback was the perfect timely reminder to review it.

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Filed under Review, Samantha Harvey, Vintage Books