A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next few weeks, and indeed last week, I will be sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one winner per week. This week it is Lavie Tidhar’s pulp meets alternate history tale A Man Lies Dreaming, which manages to be both a fast paced thriller and a confronting and thought provoking discussion on the prejudice suffered by Jews in the anti-Semitic movement that may still have happened whoever won the Second World War.

Hodder Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 288 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

As A Man Lies Dreaming opens we are greeted by the diary entries of a private detective named Wolf in London, November 1939 as he describes his latest mission to find a missing woman given to him by, as he says in the very first line, a woman with the face of an intelligent Jewess. Yes, from the off we are given a lead character who is a bit of a bigot, to put it mildly. We are then thrown all the more as we realise that not only is Wolf a rather alternative version of any detective we would want to meet (let alone hire, but his client is desperate) but the London we find ourselves in is a completely alternate one. For a start Oswald Mosley is standing for election and overseas the Nazi’s are not the ruling power, Germany is now a communist country, though still a threat in a very different way.

As we follow Wolf as he takes on the case we are taken deeper and deeper into and under these mean and grimy streets into a world of prostitution and a world where all those who dreamt of dictatorship of Germany, and the world, have now fled and are ruling mini domains in the streets of Soho where not only are people going missing, someone is starting to murder prostitutes and carving swastikas into their bodies; a case which will soon get closer and closer to the one Wolf is looking into.

In Berwick Street the whores were busy at their trade. The watcher in the dark had seen the detective exit his office and speak to the young German whore and to the coloured one, and seen him leave, but he remained behind. He had time. All the time in the world. He eyed the whores.

Yet this is not the only strand of A Man Lies Dreaming for after every few chapters of Wolf’s journey we are sent to somewhere quite different and somewhere horrendously real, Auschwitz. Here in one of the biggest concentration camps during the Second World War, where we know thousands of atrocities were committed, we join Shomer. Shomer was a writer of pulp and noir crimes before he found himself encamped in his horrific surrounds with hundreds of other people. When the world for him there gets too much, which as we read on we get the full comprehension of, he retreats to his slumber and a tale of a villainous dictator who has become a detective on the streets of London. This is both his coping mechanism and way of surviving from day to day no idea if today or tomorrow could be his last.

There is only now, no past, no future, there is only Auschwitz, an island floating on the Polish ground. The dead rise in black ash into the sky, day and night the ovens burn, day and night the trains come laden. And Shomer’s mind retreats into itself, the way it had when he was still a man. For he had been a writer of shund, of pulp, for Haynt and other publishers. He had made his living with his hands, at his desk, writing lies for money.

I found this construction of the novel interesting and also incredibly effective. Firstly there is this sense that Shomer is in the real world dreaming of another world where he can wreak revenge on those who have put him here. Wolf gets sexually abused in an S&M club, tortured not long later and (much worse for his ego) publically humiliated at several social events both over the failure his political and writing careers, the latter seeming to wound him most as many feel he was a one hit wonder. Yet at the same time there is a sense that the alternate Communist lead west could be the ‘reality’ and that horrifyingly Auschwitz is still happening somewhere else just not run by the regime we know. This creates a whole onslaught of concerning if fascinating thoughts in our heads.

The other way in which this is so effective is that, without this sounding weird or offensive, he makes The Holocaust more bite size and digestible while all this other noir adventure and goes on around it. This may sound like it is diluting those holocaust sections or making light of them, it is quite the opposite. Yes there is an irony throughout the novel, yet irony can be quite powerful, as can some of the humour in the utterly horrific – though to clarify this doesn’t happen in the holocaust sections but in the London ones the dark and disturbing can have some darkly funny moments especially as Wolf gets put through the ringer which Tidhar does with quite some zeal. I also think humour can often be used in a very effective way in order to highlight the darkest moments and provide contrast (and some light relief when things get very grim) and heighten the effect which I think A Man Lies Dreaming is a prime example of.

In creating an alternate version of the past, and indeed using many well known names and faces of the day not only do we feel slightly clever for recognising them (when we do, the Mitford’s, Ian Fleming etc) we also see how things could have been horrific in different ways. This again doesn’t detract from how awful things were in the Second World War, rather it highlights the fact that prejudice can poison all forms of society all over the world regardless, and sometimes because of or in spite of, of political agenda’s or historical acts. This is one of the novels lasting thoughts, or at least it was for me.

Not looking he bumped into something soft and full that smelled of expensive perfume. A squeal of delight followed and a familiar female voice said, ‘Wolfy!’
He raised his head and found himself staring directly into the adoring eyes of Unity Mitford.
‘Valkyrie?’ he said. He had always used her middle name.
‘Don’t you recognise me?’ she said, laughing.
Wolf winced. He found he could not draw away from her, his eyes kept searching that sweet, smooth face, the full red lips, the mischievous eyes. She had not changed. Her delicate perfume tickled his nostrils. ‘You haven’t aged a day,’ he said.

What I think Lavie Tidhar does with A Man Lies Dreaming is make an immensely readable book about the unreadable. He mixes hardboiled noir; dystopia and magical realism to create a dark and thought provoking novel, sure to compel the reader whilst making them face the darker sides of humanity. It is a book about war, power, politics, sex and religion whilst being a page turning thriller which gives a new and usual twist on tales of World War II and The Holocaust which manages to entertain and then slap you round the face with reality. I think it is one of the most visceral novels I have read in some time and one which weeks and months later I am still thinking about with a thrill and a shudder, it is quite brilliant. I urge you to read it.

You can hear Lavie and I talking about A Man Lies Dreaming on the Fiction Uncovered FM catch up shows here. I would love to hear from other people who have read A Man Lies Dreaming and what you thought of it. I would also love to know if you have read any of his other novels such as Osama or The Violent Century, or indeed any of his other works – lots to discover from an author who I think we should all be reading much more of.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Hodder & Stoughton, Lavie Tidhar, Review

A Literal Literary & Cultural ‘High’ Light…

I am a big fan of books live, by which I mean events where you get to hear, see and even meet the authors. Be they literary festivals, events at bookshops, literary salons, recording of radio shows or even a signing (though I find signings a bit impersonal, it’s can all be a bit ‘thanks, now jog on… next’) put me down for them if I can get to them as they always give an interesting (both positive and negative) insight into a writer and their work which I find endlessly fascinating.

So when I was asked if I would like to attend what could be the highest cultural and literary salon in Europe, maybe even the world, I jumped at the chance and two weeks ago headed to the Shangri- La Hotel in London on the 52nd Floor of The Shard, a building I have always wanted to go into since it was built…

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The event was for author and poet, Tishani Doshi who was coming to talk about her work, her life and what makes her the artist and woman she is as well as the links and influences of both the British Isles and Asia have had on her work as a ‘citizen of the world’.

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I have to admit that I had not read anything by Tishani before, though as you will see this didn’t matter as I didn’t leave empty handed. (I don’t mean I kidnapped her, I mean I bought a book.) However the things that I knew she would be talking about, because the first year of this series of salons is all about the links between Asia and the UK and the fact I had heard wonderful things about The Pleasure Seekers made me feel pretty certain I would enjoy it. Plus canapés and champagne on the top floor of the Shangri-La were a pretty big incentive too…

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Anyway, from the moment Tishani started talking I was spellbound, quite literally – I know that sounds a cliché. She started by telling us a story, which was actually much more of a myth meeting a fairytale, about her life growing up both in Indian, before heading to Mold in Wales, then India again, then London, then America and back to India. She told us tales of her family which we had to guess if were true or not, she told us tales of The West vs. The East. She read from her poetry collections and from some of her fiction work. As soon as the opportunity came for us to be able to ask questions we all just wanted to hear more from her and her prose. She was incredible.

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In fact Tishani and her event was everything that I love about ‘books live’. I was completely engaged, I got to learn more about her as a person and as an artist, more about what captures her imagination and how she writes what she writes and she made me think, leaving my mind buzzing with thoughts and things to go and find out more about. I also wanted to go and buy everything she had ever written. Unfortunately for me, but fortunate for my bank balance, they only took cash at the book stall so I only managed to leave with The Pleasure Seekers (which I had signed, that isn’t me in the picture above). I have a feeling I will love and want to then read everything else.

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Oh the picture above? That is of my bathroom as I got a chance to stay in the Shangri-La afterwards which I will be telling you more about on Thursday, where you may also see a special guest. In the meantime though I would love to know of your thoughts on book events, which ones you have been to and loved, as well as some more unusual ones you have been to – especially if they are quite unusual like this one certainly was at 52 stories above the city. Speaking of which, if you would like to keep up to date with the future cultural events going on in the Shangri-La at The Shard then head here www.slculturalsalon.com I am hoping to go for an event in February that was secretly whispered in my ear, it is a corker though so sign up for updates or bookmark that sight if you happen to be in London, I highly recommend it! I would also love to hear from you if you have read any of Tishani’s works too!

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Filed under Book Events, Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

Little Black Lies – Sharon Bolton

Sharon Bolton, formerly S.J. Bolton, has slowly but surely become one of my favourite crime authors over the last few years due to her Lacey Flint series, which has become one of my favourites. Her latest novel Little Black Lies is a standalone set on the remote Falkland Isles where it seems like from the very beginning we know just who is going to kill someone and just who is going to get killed, yet as with all of Sharon’s novels that would be far to simple, and from the off we know this is going to be a tale with many, many twists.

Transworld Books, hardback, 2015, fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I believe just about anyone can kill in the right circumstances, given enough motivation. The question is, am I there yet? I think I must be. Because lately, it seems, I’ve been thinking of little else.

And with these words Caitlin, the first of our narrators opens up the start of Little Black Lies. What has lead to her thoughts on murder, we very soon discover, is the death of her children who were left in the back of her friend’s car which in a moment of carelessness tragically falls off a cliff and into the ocean around the small Falkland island they have lived on all their lives. Indeed they were best friends until that tragic event almost three years ago. Yet while Caitrin is plotting the murder of her former friend a young boy goes missing, something which has happened before over the years, and soon everyone on the island is hunting for a child and their abductor or possible killer.

I have to say that I think Little Black Lies might just be the most complexly crafted, yet brilliant executed (if you will excuse the pun) of her novels that I have read. Not only do we have the duo plots of Caitrin’s murderous planning and the missing boy which make for very tense and page turning fodder, Bolton throws some extra twists and turns as we go. Firstly there is the fact that the novel is written over three parts and set within just six days (pacey). Initially we are in Catrin’s head as she plots the unthinkable, we then go into the head of her ex lover Callum who fought in the Falklands War and has some form of post traumatic stress resulting in blackouts, finally we have Rachel who clearly has depression and who spends most of her time riding and talking to her horses… who talk back.

This of course is genius because we have what everyone? Yes, three unreliable narrators, pretty much a feast if you love an unreliable narrator as much as I do. You also have three very different versions of the same series of events, yet when stitched all together (as each one reveals that little something extra, or a little additional facet) reveal something close to the truth. We think, though with Bolton we can never be sure and she does something so clever on the last page it utterly chilled me. I will say no more on that.

What is also brilliant is that whilst we have these three characters at the forefront, we have a host of characters who could quite easily be the potential killer/abductor, if one of these three isn’t. This isn’t quite a locked room mystery obviously yet on a remote island there are only so many people it could be, it is either one of the villagers or a tourist from the cruise ship. Even as the islanders start to remember the cases of other missing children they would far blame an outsider than one of their own who they have lived with for years, especially as some of those fought for their island in the conflict.

Pouring coffee from the jug on the table is the head teacher of the school, a man called Simon Savidge who became something of a hero in what, only half jokingly, is called the Falkland Island’s Resistance. In the early stages of the Argentinean occupation, while the islanders were waiting for the British Task Force to arrive, Simon made contact with the groups via a forbidden radio, keeping them informed about Argentine movements on the ground.

Oh did I mention there is a war veteran/hero called Simon Savidge, just like me (the name not the war hero)? Well there is, look how simply and cleverly I dropped that huge literal name drop in. As it is, the fictional Simon Savidge of the Falklands is the father of the senior detective Josh, who we soon learn is a bit crap at his job. These additional characters come fully form and offer an interesting and fully realised bunch of suspects; The Savidge’s, Caitrin’s ex husband Ben, Mel the transgender cook…  I could go on.

Bolton also uses these characters to add another angle/layer to the book, the background of the Falklands. Through both characters like Simon and particularly with Callum, along with other stories which weave in and out over the six days as we meet the islanders, we are given snapshots of the conflict and some of the politics behind it as well as a sense of what the Falklands is like today. If this is all beginning to sound very, very dark (and in parts it is exceptionally so, if you love whales one bit will be very difficult to read, I struggled) and rather chilling and creepy (which it also is especially on some of the wrecked boats, yes a book set on boats) there are also some lighter and occasionally incredibly funny moments. Rachel’s conversations with her talking horse being some of them, no really…

‘Come on you grumpy old bugger. We’ve got work to do.’ I flick the bolt on his door. He kicks it open himself and walks out into the yard, his coat gleaming in the sunshine. Officially, Bee would be described as a black horse, but that barely does him justice. I’ve counted over a dozen shades in his coat, from deepest black to rich red brown.
‘Any of those brats around?’ He looks disdainfully for the kids he despises. ‘I’m peckish.’
‘Grandma’s on the premises.’ I drop my voice at this point. There are windows open in the house and you never know where she might be lurking. ‘Plenty of meat on that ass.’
‘Where the fuck are we going now?’ I’m leading him to the trailer and he’s not that keen. ‘We’ve been out once.’
‘Estancia. You like it there.’
‘Fuck I do. Blue clay sticks on hooves for weeks.’

I have always said that an author could never write a book that was set on a boat or had talking horses in it that I would like, damn you Sharon Bolton as that challenge has been met and I thought Little Black Lies was a corker of a thriller – and not just because it broke my book bugbears, which I promise I didn’t thrown down to Sharon as a gauntlet, ha. It is really one of those thrillers that have everything. It has brilliantly unreliable, complex and occasionally rather unlikeable characters at its dark heart; many layers of plots and history; and so many twists and turns, which keep going right until the very last page. Seriously, your jaw might just drop, mine did – easily my thriller of the year so far.

Who else has read Little Black Lies and what did you make of it? Have you read the Lacey Flint series and what about Sharon’s previous standalone novels which I am now itching to get to? As always I would love your thoughts.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Review, Sharon Bolton, Transworld Publishing

Other People’s Bookshelves #65 – Sarah Perry

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week we are off to Essex to join author Sarah Perry who has just got back from her allotment especially to show us around her shelves. First let’s grab a cuppa and a custard cream and find out more about Sarah…

My first novel, After Me Comes the Flood, came out last year with Serpent’s Tail, and has just been released in paperback. My second novel, The Essex Serpent, is coming out in July 2016 (again with Serpent’s Tail, in an act of spectacular nominative determinism!).  I was once a civil servant – largely working in communications, such as writing speeches for government ministers – and then worked for the Council of the Inns of Court while I did a PhD in Creative Writing and the Gothic. I now write full-time, though not just fiction.

At the moment I’m finishing edits on The Essex Serpent. It’s about friendship, desire, sin, love, death and sea-serpents. I talk quite often about my upbringing, and am always afraid it’s going to grow tiresome, but find I’m still asked about it. I was born to a very strict religious family – often, I joke I was brought up in 1895 – and while other girls my age were surrounded by pop culture I was up to my ears in the King James Bible, classic literature, Victorian hymns and Reformation theology. The Gothic quality of my writing and my preoccupation with madness, sin and transgression is therefore not entirely surprising, I suppose.

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

I’m frighteningly acquisitive when it comes to books, and absolutely hopeless at getting rid of them. About three months ago I attempted a cull, and there have been two large bags of books destined for the local charity shops in the middle of my bedroom floor ever since. I seem to gather books as I walk through the week like a magnet attracting iron filings and with about that degree of discrimination. Proofs arrive in the post, I order them online on a whim, am sent them as gifts, throw them into my trolley in the supermarket, grab paperbacks in charity shops, steal – sorry: borrow! – them from friends. They all wind up in one of the many drifts and piles in the house, and I fear many are destined to remain unread for years, if at all. But I can never quite shake the feeling that the day may come when that 80s edition of The Gulag Archipelago, or that little hardback Rumer Godden novel, is going to be exactly what I need…

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

Some years ago a friend of mine tried to help me order my books (by genre, and alphabetically by author). It took absolutely hours and lasted for less than a week. I can’t begin to fathom how anyone who has a large number of books maintains any sort of order without a fleet of staff. Everything is all bundled in together – I’m looking at a bookcase right now and on a single shelf I can see a biography of William Gladstone, a guide to Jungian dream-symbols, TH White’s The Once and Future King, two Ishiguro novels next to each other (miraculously!), several crime thrillers, and a Puritan book on the doctrine of repentance. If you’re wondering how I ever find anything: I often can’t, and rage about the house accusing the cat of stealing books. My husband has a better memory than me, and can often lay hands on what I need. I do try and keep to some form of TBR system, and went as far as installing two bookcases on either side of the bed, but then I get distracted by something else, and it all goes out of the window.

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The only truly organised shelves are those where I’m temporary custodian of a friend’s books: he moved abroad, and left them with me, where I’ve taken to calling them ‘The Memorial Library’. I must say I consider arranging books by colour to be the sure sign of a deranged mind (apologies to any deranged readers).

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

I honestly can’t remember, and wish very much that I could! I do have lots of books from my childhood, though. I have on my desk here a very battered little Bible story book which I must have had since before school, and I’m very attached to a hardback Paddington bear collection which was a gift from one of my older sisters.

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

With very, very few exceptions I really don’t have much truck with the idea of guilty pleasures when it comes to reading. Of course, even the most ardent anti-book snob must draw the line somewhere, and I would sooner go to the stake than have my shelves sullied with Fifty Shades of Grey or Ayn Rand. But I have everything out in the open – so far as the disordered tumult will allow! – and if anyone baulks at the sight of Stephen King, Terry Pratchett and Lee Child jostling cheerfully with WG Sebald, Maggie Nelson and Tennyson then I shall sit them down and have a long, gentle but firmly persuasive chat. I never read romantic fiction, but that is merely a matter of preference, in the same way that I would rather eat cauliflower than mushrooms: it’s not a value judgment. I must confess that if my parents visit I might double check that Catullus or Chuck Palahniuk aren’t knocking about where my Dad might take them off the shelves in an idle moment (there was an awkward moment last year with a Thom Gunn poem).

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Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

There are so many of these! May I have a wheelbarrow full? I have a complete Sherlock Holmes which my father gave me: it is a long out-of-print edition, and identical to his own copy, which I grew up reading, and which he is evidently not ready to part with. I have a beautiful vintage edition of Finnegans Wake which a friend gave me when I left London, and since really he deserves it far more than I do I secretly think of it as being in joint custody, like the child of an amiable divorce. When I sold my first novel a friend gave me a copy of A Literary Life by Posy Simmonds, which has got truer and more comforting as the years have passed. There are about half-a-dozen King James Bibles knocking about, most of them associated with events in life: my wedding, or a gift when I was tiny bridesmaid at my oldest sister’s wedding. Once when I had been away for a fortnight my husband met me at the airport with some marmalade sandwiches, two Calvin and Hobbes books and a copy of the Communist Party Manifesto, so I would like those. And I suppose I would like to take the first proof copy of my first novel, with all my anguished handwritten corrections.

What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

I never really remember there being much of a division between children’s books and grown up books, and I more or less read what I wanted, when I wanted to. Which isn’t to say that I was reading terribly inappropriately (however one defines that) – there wouldn’t have been anything like that in the house, and I wouldn’t have sought it out: since there was so much to read, I was quite content. And so I remember reading Jane Eyre at eight, because it was in an illustrated hardback edition that I mistook for a children’s book, and my father gave me a copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles when I was ten (greatly to my teacher’s horror). My elder sisters would occasionally conceal slightly fruity novels beneath their beds, which I unfailingly found and would read in a single sitting. The most memorable of these was probably Flowers in the Attic, which I still adore – and which is somewhere on my shelves.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

Greatly to my shame, I never borrow books (unless from friends, in which case ‘borrow’ is often pronounced ‘steal’), and only ever darken the doors of reference libraries, in order to do research. I am simply not to be trusted with library books: they’ll be lost, dropped in the bath, battered, and never returned. It’s a moral failing I’ve long given up trying to remedy.

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What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

In the last week, I’ve bought Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (her memoir Bluets had a profound effect on me last year), Miranda July’s The First Bad Man (which I cannot imagine I will enjoy, having a very low tolerance for quirky books by privileged young New Yorkers, but I though I’d try and conquer my prejudices), Stephen King’s Mr Mercedes, JG Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, John Wyndham’s The Trouble With Lichen, and an Anaïs Nin book I immediately lost and can’t remember. I have also been sent a debut novel by Tasha Kavanagh called Things We Have in Common, which I’m looking forward to. Sorry, that’s several books, isn’t it?

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

Heaps and heaps! I am very close to mugging someone for an advance copy of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life: its August release date seems a terribly long way away, and literally everyone on Twitter has a copy except me. I also would like a facsimile edition (or a real one, if possible) of the Tyndale New Testament, because who wouldn’t? There are also a number of collected letters that I would like. For many years I had a curious ethical disinclination to read the ‘remains’ of writers: I felt that we should read only their work, not diary entries and correspondence they would never have intended for a general readership. But it turns out my principles are paper thin, and I’d particularly like the letters of Virginia Woolf, which I could cross-reference against her diaries.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I imagine their first thought would be that I am spectacularly untidy, and furthermore could do with doing some dusting. I wonder if they might then think that these are the books of several people, not only one – if they did, I’d be delighted. I honestly believe we all have a duty to read as widely and deeply as possible. The worst possible reader is the one who wishes only to affirm and bolster their existing world view, and the worst possible response to a book is this: “I just didn’t identify with any of the characters.” As to what I’d like them to think of my reading tastes: I couldn’t give a single solitary toss, I never have, and I never will.

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A huge thanks to Sarah for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, you can stalk her on Twitter here, you can also see her not once but twice at Gladfest this September, where you may just also see me! If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Sarah’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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Filed under Other People's Bookshelves, Sarah Perry

A Summer of Short Stories

I have fallen in love with short stories again this year. Not that I am sure I ever fell out of love with them. I think if anything I tended to read collections by authors I knew, and saw them rather like bonus scenes to the full novels, which I know is daft but it is true. It was rare that I would read a completely new to me authors collection, though when I did and they were like Lucy Wood’s Diving Belles (which if you haven’t read after the amount of times I have recommended it, you are bonkers and there may be no hope for you, ha) I was lost in them completely.

This year they have really come into their own though for me. During Fiction Uncovered I was introduced to several collections of which the standouts were longlisted The Way Out by Vicki Jarrett and one of the winners The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies, both of which I will be telling you about and raving about in due course.

Collections can be an interesting experience as some will blow you away and some will leave you cold, I hasten to add none leave you cold in the two I mention above, which can create an interesting reading experience of peaks and troughs. When a short story is amazing though it can blow your mind and as I said when I was talking about how intense reading taught me about my own read habits and that Sometimes a single short story in a collection can have as much power as a 500+ page novel, which is true.

I also think they could be the perfect way to get people back into reading more if they think they haven’t the time or that reading isn’t really for them. You can read a story or two on a commute, or when you are on the loo (sorry over sharing) or when you’re waiting in the car park for your partner to finish faffing around Homebase or any other DIY store, or clothes store if your partner is more into that than DIY or just on your lunch break and need a quick fiction fix.

They are a few pages of magic and so I am planning on reading lots more over (what is left of) the summer. Here are some, not all, of the collections I have been buying and others I have dusted off for just such a short story binge…

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  • Don’t Try This At Home by Angela Readman – This is a collection that The Beard bought me after I had heard great things about it from various lovely sorts on Twitter and also declared I wanted the cover art as bedding.
  • The Isle of Youth by Laura Van Den Berg – I saw this collection from Daunt Books (who have a publishing house as well as gorgeous bookshops) out the corner of my eye, because the cover shimmers, in Waterstones in Newcastle where they have wonderful displays of eclectic books, so purchased it.
  • The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim – This collection won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize last year (why all prizes don’t include short story collections I do not know) and my lovely pal Natalie was one of the judges and raved about it, a lot.
  • Young Skins by Colin Barrett – This won last year’s Guardian First Book Prize and whilst it pains me that the author was born in the same year as me, 1982, and is so talented it does mean I can tick off a box on my BOTNS Bingo Summer Reading card. This also links nicely with…
  • Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan – This was longlisted for last year’s Guardian First Book Award and was the public’s addition to the longlist. I read and really liked May-Lan Tan’s chapbook of two short stories Girly earlier this year and then randomly sat next to her at an event and had a lovely long chat about all sorts.
  • The Not-Dead and The Saved by Kate Clanchy – I do not know a single person who has seen Clanchy read her stories that has not been in hysterics and in tears in both happy and sad ways. This was enough of a recommendation for me.
  • An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass – One of the first books to come from the John Murray Originals imprint (the cover is stunning) which I want to read for the title, and title story, alone.
  • Merciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas – I love Tsiolkas’ writing and this is one of the collections I have been most excited about this year, it is out in September.
  • Jellyfish by Janice Galloway – Almost everyone I know loves Janice Galloway so by default I am sure I will and I think short stories can sometimes be a rather wonderful way of trialling an author, or maybe trying them out sounds nicer.
  • Your Father Sends His Love by Stuart Evers – Again all the right people have been raving about this.
  • Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood – Why on earth has this gone unread for so long, I am frankly embarrassed. She is a genius, we all know this, and this is meant to be a brilliant collection of nine tales.

Phew. You may notice that there aren’t any classics on this list, which I have realised is rather remiss of me. That said I am reviewing a modern classic collection next, so you’ll be hearing all about that. I have also been contemplating Hemingway’s short stories in September as I will be at some of his old hangouts and watering holes by Lake Michigan when I go on my road trip around some of northern America, we will see.

Have you read any of the above collections or other collections by some of those authors? What did you make of them? Are you a fan of the short story? As always I would love your short story recommendations be they new, recent or classic (I have a feeling many of you will mention Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck, which I have read and adored but am struggling to write a review of) so let me know which other collections I should look out for and why…

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness, Short Stories

The Incarnations – Susan Barker

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next eight weeks I am going to be sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one winner per week. First up is Susan Barker’s stunning third novel The Incarnations which in just under 500 pages takes you on an epic journey from China in 2008, to five points in its history, going as far back as AD 632 and tells of two souls destined to keep meeting. Intrigued? You should be…

Transworld Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 477 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

Beijing, 2008 and taxi driver Wang has started to receive mysterious and strange letters from someone who claims to have known Wang and been a part of his world not only in this life but also in five other previous lives throughout China’s dynasties. Worryingly this stranger seems to have a detailed view about his life in the present, not only where he lives with his wife and daughter, but also some of the secrets that Wang has been trying to keep hidden. As Wang reads through the letters and the many supposed lives he has already lived, his life in the here and now starts to change and unravel all at once. This may be a horrendous time for Wang yet it is a wonderful time for us readers as we get sent into China’s many pasts, and the stories that are revealed there, and also have the added thrill of following Wang as he tries to discover the (actually very creepy) ‘Watcher’ and just what it is that they want.

I breathed your scent of cigarettes and sweat. I breathed you in, tugging molecules of you through my sinuses and trachea, and deep into my lungs. Your knuckles were white as bone as you gripped the steering wheel. I wanted to reach above the headrest and touch your thinning hair. I wanted to touch your neck.

What is quite hard to describe unless you have read the book yourself (and then it is still quite tricky) is how many wonderful layers Barker creates in The Incarnations. We have Beijing in 2008 as it gears up to the Olympics, where Wang and his family live a hand to mouth existence despite his father and (deliciously wicked) step mother living in the lap of luxury not far away, another layer being the mystery as to why Wang has shunned their life and indeed has a tempestuous relationship with them. We also have the layers of Wang’s past from his childhood, teens, twenties and early thirties and some of the stories he has kept hidden from those he loves as well as he can. The way this all unfolds creates a fascinating view of modern China and various parts of its society, from the noodle bars on the streets to the luxury penthouses above.

If that wasn’t a fictional feast enough we have the addition five layers of time periods over 1,000 years of China’s history, where in each we get a very different story and so try and work out how the two souls the Watcher claims to be themselves and Wang will find each other. We have peasants and sorceresses in the Tang Dynasty, AD 632; two escapees in the desert during the Jin Dynasty, 1213; a group of the Emperor’s tortured and mutilated concubines in the Ming Dynasty, 1542; sailors and pirates in the Qing Dynasty, 1836; and a group of reactionary school girls in the People’s Republic of China, 1966. I told you it was a feast, and if you think this all sounds terribly confusing  I promise you it’s not, its crafted brilliantly, you’ll gulp it all down and be enamoured with every new cast of characters you meet whatever their intentions and tales.

One hundred serving eunuchs scurry from the peripheries of the Hall of Literary Brilliance, remove the silver-domed plate lids and carry them away. What a feast! The Emperor licks his lips and points at a dish of noodles. The Eunuch Food-taster cries, ‘Appraising the viands!’ and pincers some dangling threads of noodles with his chopsticks. The Eunuch Food-taster nibbles, nods that the noodles are unpoisoned, and the Emperor proceeds to eat. Concubine What’s Her Name hovers out of eye shot, at the shoulder of His Majesty’s fox-fur-trimmed robes. Concubine Meek and Timid. Oh how ashamed of her I am. But to behave in any other manner is to provoke his wrath. To dine with the Emperor Jiajing is not to eat oneself but to stand beside him, encouraging him and praising him for every mouthful he masticates. A sip of elk-horn and deer-penis brewed tea necessitates a cry of, ‘Oh how this revives the blood, enhances potency, O Emperor of Ten Thousand Years!’

What is incredible is that in each of the periods of China’s history we visit we are completely engulfed, so vivid is Barker’s description. It takes a considerable amount of work for any author to build a modern world or a single historical one, let alone a modern one and five more in the past that are each fully formed and capture you in their detail. Through her prose Barker treats you to the smells, tastes, voices and senses of that time; from the food that they eat, the clothes they wear and the sex they have (this is a very sensual book in many ways) to the politics of the time or in many cases the dictatorships. I was completely bowled over by this and revelled in the descriptions that we are treated to, be it the darker sides of life in each time or the more titillating.

‘Impoliteness!’ she scolds. ‘One mustn’t spit the Jade Liquor as though it scalds the tongue. One must swallow and smile.’ After twenty years of whoredom, Madam Plum Blossom’s knowledge is as boundless as the sea. ‘Men have all sorts of peccadilloes,’ she tells me. ‘Some men like to Penetrate the Red during a woman’s moon cycle, or piddle on a woman out of the Jade Watering Spout. Some men like to poke a woman in the back passage, which is called Pushing the Boat Upstream.’

That paragraph not only shows that what I said about there being sex in the book is true, it also highlights how playful, funny and entertaining The Incarnations often is. Sex is not in the book simply for the sake of it however. It is often used to highlight characters behaviour, as a powerful tool or weapon when needed or most importantly to discuss sexuality. The fluidity of sexuality is one of the novels main themes, as is the metaphor of sexuality being or equalling freedom for many. Sexuality also links in with one of the other main themes of the novel which is love in all its forms. From familial to passionate, from friendship to that fine line of hatred and of course the question of soul mates.

Early in The Incarnations we are told that ‘History taps you on the shoulder, breathes its foggy thousand-year-old breath down your neck… But you pretend not to hear.’  I find the idea of how history and past lives, be they linked to ours or not (to our knowledge at least) can form us even in ways we aren’t aware of in the slightest. I think you would be hard pushed to find a book that looks at this idea in depth in a more wonderfully written or inventive way; especially one with such a sense of gusto, adventure and storytelling.

I was mesmerised by The Incarnations and loved it from start to finish. Barkers’ writing has a sense of darkness, comedy, history and adventure whilst also being a thought provoking, intelligent and sophisticated novel too. It is also one of those brilliant instances where it completely transfixes you in a fictional world and then provides you with an urge to go and read more. I now want to go off and not only read Susan Barker’s earlier two novels, I also want to dig out some Murakami (did I mention there were grooms turned into chickens and ghosts in this book?) and go and find lots of books on China’s history. If you have been pondering what to read next, look no further than this book.

Has anyone else read The Incarnations or indeed any of Susan’s earlier novels? I would love to hear your thoughts on them if so. I would also love any recommendations on (entertaining and insightful) books on China’s history too please thank you very much.

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Filed under Black Swan Books, Books of 2015, Fiction Uncovered, Review, Susan Barker, Transworld Publishing

Why I Won’t Be Reading Go Set A Watchman…

To clarify before we go any further, I never have an agenda to stop anyone reading any books. As a book blogger this would be bonkers. If I don’t like a book or don’t want to read a book and any of you lovely lot out there do, that’s great, that is what books are all about and I know you are all intelligent enough to make your own decisions and ignore me if you think I am off on one. I also think that anything that encourages people to read in their droves (yes, even Fifty Shades of Grey) is a good thing because reading is a good thing, full stop. I have even posted this later so hopefully those of you rushing to buy Go Set A Watchman will probably have collected it and be reading it at home ignoring this blog and indeed this post, curled up in your chosen book nook with a cup or glass of something lovely and maybe a biscuit or cake. Anyway…

I have to say the US edition is swoon worthy… I must resist in September.

I have had a strange old relationship with Go Set A Watchman, which is an unusual thing to say about a book I have not even lay my eyes or hands on, since the news was first announced that a first draft of what was to become To Kill A Mockingbird but now goes by the name of Go Set A Watchman (ooh it gets complicated) had been discovered once more. Not that anyone seemed to know it had existed, which seemed odd. Then there was all the hoo-ha about if she wanted it released and why her lawyer was all involved (note the lawyer who has now hinted that there might be another Harper Lee novel somewhere, raises eyebrows) and the publishers releasing some odd statement about her being ‘happy as hell’ when her sister Alice had stated her concerns over Harper a few years before. Being the cynic I am this led to the words ‘all sounds a bit fishy’ and ‘cash cow’ flying through my head.

Now I should state here that I adore To Kill A Mockingbird, which I actually only read for the first time seven years ago. I fell in love with the whole story and with Scout, Jem and of course, Atticus. Yet this love for the book is probably what is making me have such a reaction to a book which isn’t a sequel or a prequel but seems to be some alternate history/world of Maycomb County. How meta.

My mind did a complete 180 on all of this last Friday morning when I had the pleasure of Reese Witherspoon reading me the first chapter over my Shreddies, she’s forever reading me first chapters over breakfast that one. I was utterly charmed by it, I thought the writing and description sounded beautiful and, even if she did dispatch a main character just a few paragraphs in, I suddenly had high hopes. Fickle, yes I can be. I felt that my brain would be able to separate the two works and I could distinguish between the two characters, and most importantly despite it being a first draft that was never meant to be published (once again how we know all this when no one apparently knew it existed is beyond me, but we do) it seemed wonderfully written. Then I saw the first review.

Well actually it was the first headline, which then led me to the review which I won’t link to as I am trying to keep any spoilers out of this so I don’t infect you with the headlines the broadsheets thought it was ok to or indeed my cynicism. It has made me laugh that people are shocked by the backlash of the reviews – guys, it’s a first draft, how many authors would want a first draft of their work going out to the world unedited (especially when it had been asked to be changed for what could be all sorts of reasons which those of you who read it may discover) to the masses. Oh hang on, isn’t that what a lot of self published twaddle is? Haha. Seems interesting how publishers (or lawyers) want to be ‘gatekeepers’ until this happens. Sorry, back to the case in hand…

Whilst I tried to remind myself of this being a different version of the story, let alone the characters I suddenly couldn’t anymore. No matter how hard I tried. Whilst Go Set A Watchman might be a fascinating literary study as how drafts and editing change and work, it soon became clear to me that I don’t want a book as precious to me as To Kill A Mockingbird to be changed for me in anyway. Just as I wouldn’t want to read a sequel if Harper Lee wrote one tomorrow (if she had written it afterwards its different the essence of Maycomb would be there rather than the essence of cash) and I honestly wouldn’t. It is not even the fact that I can’t read about the subject matter, or put myself in the heads of those whose views I am completely opposed to – I do that often and love fiction for the fact it can create discussion about the dark (and much needed to be addressed) side of our world. It is more than that.

For the same reason I haven’t wanted to re-read To Kill A Mockingbird, I want the world of Scout, Jem and Atticus to stay forever in my head just the way it is now, and just the way Harper Lee finally delivered it to the world – which is pretty much perfection . I am sure we can all agree on that one.

What are your thoughts? If you would like to hear me talking about this with Thomas of Hogglestock do check out the latest episode of The Readers here, you can also hear the wonderful Ann and Michael discussing it on this week’s Books on the Nightstand for a different angle too.

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness