Going Forward…

So now that I am back into the world of blogging, what is the plan? The fact of the matter is that I don’t really have one. I know I want to keep it bookish, I mean obviously that isn’t even in question really – although someone did once say to me ‘why do a book blog and a book vlog’ and I think having been away from blogging for a while the answer is ‘I miss a bit of depth’. No, I don’t mean that I think all BookTube is shallow, quite the opposite I actually think it is brimming with some of the loveliest, most thoughtful and intelligent people I know. What I mean is that here I can really get into the depth of single books and my thoughts on them, something I find easier on paper than I do in speech. Partly because I really like a good tangent when I talk, also because to me there is a real craft in writing a review. I find them much easier than writing about a day trip out for example, which interestingly I find easier in a vlog. Anyway, this isn’t about blogging vs vlogging as I think they can complement each other or work for different audiences, same with The Readers podcast, not everyone likes every medium or even wants me on every medium. Throw in Twitter and Instagram and that is rather a lot of Savidgeness I have to admit.

So there will definitely be lots of reviews. That said I don’t think I will review everything that I read anymore, which I used to do. Why? Well, in the house I have a set of shelves on the landing which is all the books I have read but not yet reviewed for the blog since 2016 and to be frank a good third of them I don’t feel the need to tell you about because I either feel a bit ‘meh’ about them or I have nothing to say. This does mean I have a whole host of books I can talk about from those two years (and I will be doing so with some favourites if I haven’t sporadically whilst on my mini unofficial hiatus) though I won’t think about them too much as it might give me stage fright. Going forward though, I want to talk about both the bad and the fab (IMHO) books and why I loved them or not. Hopefully those books I love you might want to give a try, you might also want to give some of the ones I don’t because if I do reviews as I want to (and have always tried to) you might see something in them that piques your interest. I do not want to be someone whom if I loathe a book you should all damn it too, just as I don’t think you HAVE to get your mitts on every book I love however if you want to how lovely. I hope that makes sense.

So that’s books. Onto ‘bookish’ stuff. I think I will still do some prize stuff. I love reading the Women’s Prize longlist every year and have already roped my mother in to read them with me in 2019 which will be fun. I will of course be looking at the Costa Book Awards, I have seen this year’s judges getting parcels on social media and it has made me really nostalgic and miss it. The Wellcome is always on my radar and recently the Walter Scott Prize has really got my attention so I might go back to both their shortlists and have a mooch (might, I am not saying it is a definite). Plus Man Booker season is almost upon us, though my thoughts on Man Booker have become complex in the last year – maybe that is another post in itself.

I would also really like to do some ‘thoughts on reading’ kind of posts. They can selfishly be quite therapeutic. Speaking of selfishly, I would also love to do some posts on reading retreats, bookish places and bookish holidays – mainly because it would make me do more of them. I really enjoyed the Literary Trail with Northern Rail and would be excited to do that. On top of all that now I am working at a library, and such a stunner (see below, sorry not sorry that there may be lots of picture of it on this blog from now on) I would like to write about that in some way, if there is anything you would like to know let me know. We have some great projects coming up, so maybe behind the scenes around those and the library in general could work?

Picton

Then there is non-bookish stuff and here is where I am torn. On the one hand I loved how I felt there was a connection between readers of this blog and myself (and I suppose my life in many ways). I loved how you took my gran to your hearts so much when she made an appearance. However there have been struggles when times have been hard, like when she died or when my marriage broke up and I got divorced, that whilst it was lovely to have this community there it sometimes also felt like it was hard to escape or just put it all to bed. Yet at the same time in hindsight I wish I had written more about grief or a marriage break up as it might have helped people should they have come across it. So for example I could share the doing up of the house, though I am not sure if I want to, or will even be allowed to, share how there may be little Savidge’s coming into my life. Yet to write about the process could be helpful for other people. Hmmmm. Tricky. This all probably sounds very grand and I don’t want it to. I am just typing out loud 😉 I would be interested in your thoughts.

I do know I would like to write about some of the cultural things I get up to. Visits to castles and stately homes, concerts maybe, days out to beautiful parts of the North West etc. The things I am interested in that you might be too – so no politics, I promise, in fact no big world troubles as sometimes we all need escape from that. I might also bring back some series and maybe get some contributions going now and again.

What do you all think? What would you like to see in terms of books, bookish bits and bobs and non-bookish Savidge stuff? I would be really, really interested to know. So spill…

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So Where Have I Been & What Have I Been Upto?

And he’s back, though hopefully it will eventually look and feel like I didn’t really go away. However if you have followed this blog for some time you will know Savidge Reads has been on a sort of unofficial hiatus/wind down since mid 2016 but we aren’t going to focus on too much of that. Instead let’s focus on the fact that you have got a whole half a month of Savidge Reads overnight. I like to think of this as my blog version of when Beyonce drops an album overnight out of nowhere. Even more shocking is that I have scheduled the rest of the months blog posts too so I am always a little bit ahead. Who is this new Simon?

Well funny I should mention a new Simon because I do feel like rather a different and new Simon since I last blogged in earnest back in the early days of 2016. So I thought it would be a good idea to catch up properly on what has been going on in the last few years, despite my sporadic reappearances,ha. I am hoping that you will then update me on all of your goings on in the last few months/years in the comments below. So here goes.

New House…

So one of the biggest changes that happened and was sort of one of the reasons that I went quiet, was that I got a new house. After several lovely years in a one bedroom flat it was time to upgrade, mainly to make more space for books, and find somewhere that could be a home that we could keep growing into. You might think I am joking about buying a home to house all the books but it is sort of true. I now have a sitting room brimming with the books I have read and kept as well as my own library which is looking lovely and I will share more of soon. Here is a little teaser at the halfway point.

I found buying a house ridiculously stressful. As soon as we had found this one I just wanted to get it, get in and get cracking. It did not run smoothly and after almost six months of stress we were finally in. Then the joys of decorating and restoring it to its former glory began and it’s been all go since. We are currently in the midst of having the kitchen done which is probably the most chaotic work yet. Just the dining room to finish and one of the spare rooms to do after that and then we will probably want to start all over again.

New Husband…

One of the bits of news that I did keep you updated on was the lovely news that Chris and I got married back in March. It was meant to be in September last year however some family things came up and so we moved it. Little did we know that there would be more drama with the second date with one of my lovely colleagues at Culture dying, my stepdad having a heart attack and needing a quadruple heart bypass – he is doing amazingly, the snow meaning a third of our guests couldn’t make it and the roof falling in on the concert room we were getting married in the day before the whole shebang was meant to happen meaning changing the venue. Blimey! We did it though and have decided that if the wedding was slightly hellish the marriage will be heavenly. Venice afterwards was wonderful and it’s been bliss since, we are even planning little Savidge’s. Chris is now a Savidge and part of the brand, ha. He is actually hosting his first book event in August. He’s reading and everything. Seriously.

New Job…

One of the equally exciting bits of news is that I got a new job at the end of last year which I started in the middle of March. I am now leading on partnerships, sponsorships, events and retail for Liverpool Libraries (all 19 of them) and based in the gorgeous Central Library, which is like my idea of heaven.

It felt very weird walking in on my first day having been at the reopening of the library back in 2013 and thinking ‘I wish that I could work in somewhere like that, that would be the dream’ and now five years later I am. It is a proper pinch yourself kind of job, though I was very sad to say goodbye to the work, events and people at Culture Liverpool which was also a dream kind of job.

New Opportunities…

One of the things that I decided at the start of the year I wanted to do a lot more of was say yes to new opportunities and doing things I might not ordinarily do. So when I was at the Costa Book Awards Party (judging the Costa’s last year was amazing but I think stopped me blogging as much as I couldn’t really talk about what I was reading and was just reading, reading, reading) with my mother and a lovely man called Grant came up and asked me if he could possibly take me on at his agency, I thought ‘why not’ and last month I signed with Intertalent and have been enjoying some exciting meetings with all sorts of media bods about all sorts of radio, TV and journalism projects. We will see what happens. At the moment I am just enjoying meeting lots of people and having some lovely lunches, I am assuming nothing. You can find my profile here.

New Projects…

Finally I have also taken up some new projects. Since taking a step back from The Green Carnation Prize, though we are talking about its future, I felt that I would like to do something else for the LGBTQ+ community. Something that was still cultural but maybe a bit different too. I am delighted to say that I have now joined the board of trustees for the amazing festival Homotopia, which is going to be amazing when it comes back this November. Seriously the line up and variety is astounding. So there is that too. I also have a potential idea I am brewing over at the moment but am also trying really hard to understand my limits, something I have not always been brilliant at.

New Savidge Reads…

And so that brings me back to the new Savidge Reads, well it isn’t new, it is just a new chapter (see what I did there) and sort of new start to the blog. I have got the channel to where I want it and after having time to take stock of the Savidge situation was really missing it. But more of that and future plans tomorrow.

Now then, what have you all been up to and how have you all been. ALL the details please, would be lovely to have a natter and a catch up in the comments below. Hopefully some of you will still be out there.

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From The Wreck – Jane Rawson

Sometimes you hear about a book that might be somewhat off your usual and possibly well worn and beaten fictional path, yet it calls to you. This was the case with Jane Rawson’s From The Wreck a book I knew very little about other than it was very quirky and all the people in Australia (which I still believe is my spiritual home and the reason I haven’t been is because I might love it so much I wouldn’t come back) were loving it, no one in bloody Britain was publishing it though. By this point I was so desperate to read it, I sent out a small Twitter plea and who came to the rescue but Jane herself winging a copy over oceans (aptly) to get here. No sooner had I got it in my hand than I started getting nervous about it, what if I didn’t like it… the author had sent it me. But I reminded myself of my initial instincts and so I started it and fell in love with it, even though it started on a boat and longstanding readers of this blog will know I do not like books about boats, but I was hooked – line and sinker, sorry.

Transit Lounge Press, paperback, 2017, fiction, 390 pages, kindly sent by the author

It is 1859 and not long after seeing a mysterious woman talking to the horses aboard the SS Admella, George Hills finds himself next to her on the floating wreckage of the boat out in the open water. What the pair endure together George believes links them forever, however once they are rescued this woman, Brigid, vanishes. Many people believe she was taken to a different place to recover, some believe she might not even have been there, George is certain that this woman was real. And he is right, she was, what George doesn’t realise was that she was also a telepathic shape shifting alien cephalopod who once on land turned into a cat to escape and carry on trying to find another of ‘her’ kind. Some of you might now be thinking ‘WTF that sounds bonkers/ridiculous’, some of you might be thinking ‘Simon have you gone crazy’, you might be right on both counts, what I am certain of is that give this stunningly written book a chance and you will absolutely love it.

One eye open, then the other.
Am I still me? I touch here, taste this, smell that. I remember. I am still me. One thing holding fast in this shifting, blurring mass.
But the rest of it? None of the shapes are right. Is that a life form? Is that? There is neither the sight nor feel of wrapped tight energy, of breathing hot, of burning fuel, of soul-filled bursting selfness that is like anyone I have ever seen. I don’t even know who to eat.

After the shipwreck George is haunted, in part by what he had to do to survive but also by the seeming phantom of the women he knows he was with. Yet he must try to carry on as normal, he must start a family and make a future for himself. What he doesn’t realise is that unable to trace another of ‘her’ kind, the alien cat has been drawn to George again and soon transforms into the birthmark of his newly born son Henry.

This is where I think the book gets even better as it divides into further strands. You have the strand of George who has become haunted by the wreck and slightly unhinged with an obsession to find this woman. You have an alien cephalopod who is trying to find the rest of her kind who becomes more and more lonely and potentially more and more needy and dangerous. You also have the story of a young boy Henry who grows up a little bit different, slightly creepy and who desperately tries to understand human kind, his place in it and what it means to be human if only to quiet the strange voice he has in his head. All this delivered in the form of a ripping romp of speculative historical sci-fi yarn. I will say it again. It. Is. So. Bloody. Good.

‘Men are prone to overreact. They meet a woman, she’s beautiful, she talks to them and they think, oh, she likes me, we’ll get married. And she doesn’t return the favour, doesn’t like him as much as he likes her, so then she’s evil, isn’t she. She’s some kind of hell-spawned bitch to spurn him in this way. And he has dreams where he’s tupping her and she laughs at him and then that’s it, she’s haunting him, she really is a witch. Is that what happened with your… friend, did you say it was?’

What is also brilliant about From The Wreck is that is an insight into the social constructs and mores of Australia at that time, with a worrying amount of them still being rife now, especially in the respect to women which Rawson really delves into. Women are wives, mothers, daughters, ladies, lovers, whores or witches and there doesn’t seem to be anything in between, or at least in the eyes of most of the men. Rawson therefore brings all the women around George and Henry to the fore, interestingly with the exception of George’s wife – I couldn’t work out if Rawson was trying to say something there. (Doubly interesting that this shipwreck was real and Jane is one of George’s descendants, a twist to the whole thing I also love.) Our cephalopod is seemingly female, though gender isn’t really a construct for ‘her’ which is also fascinating, and often the questions asked internally of Henry do have a feminist leaning. One of my favourite characters is that of Beatrice, a woman many believe a witch, who has a wonderful back story to tell which I found very moving.

Beatrice Gallwey had come to South Australia from the colony of New South Wales. Her husband had died, the way husbands so often do. A bite from a flea or a mosquito, they said, and some infection of the blood. It hadn’t taken terrifically long. They didn’t like each other much, Bea and her husband, and she didn’t miss him but still, she’d rather they’d got around to leaving one another than that he was cold in the ground. She wouldn’t have held it against him had he found somewhere else to go.

So what more can I say? This book had it all for me; originality, wonderful writing, a brilliant twisting plot, fantastic characters and some themes within it that you can really get your teeth into, should you want to – though obviously there is nothing wrong with reading a book to simply escape. I feel that this book has it all and can almost 100% promise you that if you give it a try you will love it. What I can also promise you is that just when you think the book is going to go a certain way, it just won’t (which you will love it all the more for) instead it will probably head somewhere a bit stranger and almost definitely somewhere a bit darker.

He suddenly remembered: the mark was back. No surprises there. You can’t erase wickedness that easily. It had to go. The mark had to go or the boy hard to go. ‘You saw what he had in that cupboard? Bodies, corpses. Festering jars of muck. And those things he draws. He’s not normal. He’s not a normal boy. We need to fix him, William. The women can’t do it. Eliza can’t do it, she doesn’t even see it. She thinks he’s sweet. She doesn’t know anything about what the world is like. But you and I do. I’ve seen terrible things. You’ve read terrible things. Tell me what to do.

Without a shadow of a doubt From The Wreck is my book of 2018 so far. Now if you are despairing that you might not be able to get your hands on this book any time soon there is some exciting news, since I waxed lyrical about it on my channel and on social media, Picador will be publishing this in the UK next April, I’ll be reminding you to get it then and sincerely hope it will be winning many awards this side of the pond in 2019.

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Filed under Books of 2018, Jane Rawson, Review, Transit Lounge Press

Moonstone – Sjon

One of the things that I have always wanted to do with this blog, and I suppose my reading by default, is find some lesser known gems that I would love to get to more readers. Nothing against the big books that get a lot of buzz, as they can be irresistible, there is just something wonderful about finding a book that hasn’t had much buzz (or as much as I think it should) and getting it into the hands of eager readers. Moonstone by Sjon is one such book. This was a book that I discovered towards the end of last year and has become one of my favourite reads of the last several years. I loved it when I read it; the more time away from it I have had the more wonderful I think it is. Yes, one of those.

Sceptre, paperback, 2017, fiction, 156 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Moonstone is set in the Reykjavik in 1918. Iceland is a country that is on the cusp of huge changes. Some it is aware of like the decreasing amount of coal resources , along with the eruption of the Katla volcano. Some are happening along in the background, such as the Great War. Some it is yet to know will happen, like the craze for film and cinema or something much, much darker that will change the country and its people forever, the Spanish Flu. Yet aware or not, the people of Reykjavik carry on as normal and we follow one of those people, a young man named Mani.

Mani is unaware of all these things going on in the background because as Moonstone begins it is more the day to day dramas that are at the forefront of his mind. For Mani is a young gay man who is paid for sex, which on the whole he enjoys, both the act and the money. However this is a time in which homosexuality is not something that the people of Iceland believe in and so one of his biggest thrills, and of course income, is also one of his biggest dangers.

After the boy had crawled in through the window of his hotel room and they had begun to take off their clothes, the man unfastened the artificial leg made of hardwood that was attached with a leather harness to his right thigh.
The boy had never seen such a device before and examined the leg from every angle until the man took it away from him and hung it from the foot of the bed. He drew Mani Steinn under the covers to join him:
– Moonstone.

What I found so gripping about Moonstone is firstly the story of Mani, but also the story of Iceland itself and then how the two intertwine and almost shadow the other. In many ways Iceland, and really more specifically Reykjavik, is the second biggest character in the whole book, and we follow them both as Mani has his most personally tumultuous time yet and Iceland has its most historically tumultuous time yet.

 Although, as a rule, little in the papers captures his interests – anything that happens in Iceland seems too small, while overseas events only affect him if they are grand enough to be made into films – the news in the last few days about the “Spanish Flu” has held a lurid fascination for the boy:
He has a butterfly in his stomach, similar to those he experiences when he picks up a gentleman, only this time it is larger, its wingspan greater, its colour as black as the velvet ribbons on a hearse.

Throughout the book there are many heart breaking moments, something I do really love in a book which I am aware makes me sounds rather like a weirdo. There is firstly the fine line between Mani’s  There is a poignant element of the cinema craze story line, which we see as Mani becomes almost as addicted to the cinema as he does to sex with men. As more films come to the city the more the religious and traditional members worry that it is a sign of the devil, leading teenagers into sexual temptation, or worse, modern thinking. This belief of evil gains all the more traction when Spanish flu hits and it becomes one of the places that causes the most contagion without anyone knowing. Imagine then how homosexuality might be treated, if cinema can cause such outrage. This is an unwritten realisation that comes to Mani creating a danger in being caught but a potential financial opportunity in the need to keep everything all the more secret. Things take a darker turn but I don’t want to spoil that for any of you.

In the Irish Times review of Moonstone Ruth McKee describes it as “Opening with a graphic scene of oral sex and closing with penetrating philosophical questions, Moonstone is quite a ride.” And she is completely right. This is a mini epic that gives and gives to the reader. Every page thrums, hums and/or brims with feelings, atmospheres, tensions and emotions. Whether it be with the wonders of cinema that fascinates the villagers or the natural awe of a volcanic eruption. Whether it be with a sexual thrust (quite literally) or with the panic and horror as a plague takes over the country.

Reykjavik has undergone a transformation.
An ominous hush lies over the busiest, most bustling part of town. No hoof-beats, no rattling of cart wheels or rumble of automobiles, no roar of motorcycles or ringing of bicycle bells. No rasp of sawing from the carpenters’ workshops, or clanging from the forges, or slamming of the warehouse doors. No gossiping voices of washerwomen on their way to the hot springs, no shouts of dockworkers unloading the ships, or cries of newspaper hawkers on the main street. No smell of fresh bread from the bakeries, or waft of roasting meat from the restaurants.
The doors of the shops neither open nor close – no one goes in, no one comes out – no one hurries home from work or goes to work at all.
No one says good morning. No one says goodnight.

I could wax lyrical about Moonstone for much, much longer, however I feel that a succinct rave suits a succinct masterpiece. Yep, I said it, I think that this is genuinely a mini epic masterpiece. It is a book that brims with emotion, has an incredible momentum and shines a light on both a period of a (possibly grimly) fascinating period in history that I knew nothing about and also many voices that went unheard and even unseen. I wanted to go and read it all over again when I was choosing the quotes to include in this review. I also now want to read everything that Sjon has written so far and go back to Iceland and explore it all over again. Utterly fantastic, if you haven’t read it then please, please, please, please get your hands on it.

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Filed under Books of 2017, Review, Sceptre Publishing, Sjon

A Literary Trail With Northern Rail

When I was approached by the folk at Northern Rail to see if I would like to work with them* on a literary trail I was instantly intrigued. When I discovered it was to head to Hebden Bridge to learn about its literary links as part of the Northern and Manchester Literature Festival trail, also known as the Poetry Train, with a focus on the amazing places you can go by train finding the literary landmarks and hidden gems with some live poetry on the way how could I say no? I don’t think all the wonders of the north and its literary heritage, old and new, are celebrated or shown off enough.

So off to Hebden Bridge (which has the most beautiful old station) I went with poet Helen Mort reading There & Back, a poem specially written to celebrate the line and the stations on it. You can read it here. I enjoyed the poem and Helen’s chat with Naomi Frosby of Writes of Women (who you will see more of later) so much I have since managed to find copies of both her collections Division Street and No Map Could Show Them from the library.  Anyway, we were then taken through the town, which is beautiful, to find out more about its literary history past and present.

Of course the most famous of the people renowned for staying in the area are Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and when we went though the town we found a rather modern homage to Sylvia…

…Another part of the walk too us to a place where it is believed that during one of the couples tumultuous points in their relationship things were smoothed over. I don’t know masses about the relationship between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath is, but it seems that the Stubbing Wharf pub was a place Hughes took Plath to encourage her to stay in the area. Though from what I gather of the poem, Stubbing Wharfe from Birthday Letters, it wasn’t such a glorious day when they had that discussion, either way Plath stayed.

You might think from what I have said that the literary elements of Hebden Bridge, especially with the Bronte’s parsonage just up the road at Howarth, might all be very old school. Yet a lot of modern authors live in the area. You have Benjamin Myers (Beastings, Pig Iron, Turning Blue, The Gallows Pole and many more titles),  his wife Adelle Stripe who has written a fictional account of the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile as well as Amy Liptrot whose memoir The Outrun was a huge success and shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize, a prize I adore. There is also an independent publisher, Bluemoose Books whose street we were taken into. I was going to post a picture but I don’t know if they will want you all popping in for a cuppa, sadly I didn’t have time to myself. After a lot of walking, including passing a pub Sally Wainwright of The Archers, Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax fame and more likes to frequent, we ended up in a book lovers dream, The Pages Cafe.

After this the lovely Naomi and I decided that we would go on an adventure to go looking for some literary graves, yes you read that right, we went off to find some graves up at Heptonstall churchyard. It has one of the steepest hill paths I have ever been up and am amazed that we made it with only one small break midway, but make it we did. The churchyard is incredible as it was bombed and so is a spooky shell of a church with a graveyard that ripples from the aftershock, it is a beautiful if slightly eerie spot.

So who were the graves that we were looking for? Well the first one was a lesser known grave, that of King David Hartley. You wouldn’t be blamed for wondering who on earth that is. Remember I mentioned Benjamin Myers The Gallows Pole earlier? Well it centres around David Hartley and the Cragg Vale Coiners who he lead and who clipped coins to make more, a very criminal offence at the time. I cannot wait to read the book and also bought the map which you can buy in The Bookcase in the town and go off on a walk around too. I should here mention that I also bought Ben’s new nonfiction book Under The Rock and hopefully I will be doing a blog and vlog as we are planning a day doing a nature walk around the area of both these books and even a spot of swimming in the great outdoors which I am very excited, and slightly, nervous about this summer.

And the other grave? Well I couldn’t go all that way and not visit the grave of Sylvia Plath. I have to admit I have actually been to see her grave before years ago with Paul Magrs, it didn’t help me trying to find it a second time. At one point I did feel rather like Naomi and I had turned into trepid explorers, literary Indiana Joneses. Ha. But we did find it.

Look how pleased we were with ourselves afterwards. We felt we both deserved a pint and so off we went for a beer and a shandy (mine, ha) at The White Lion which I would highly recommend.

All to soon, after a right good natter, it was time to head home after a really lovely day and so we wandered back down the hill, which was like a dream and headed for the station and back to Manchester and off on our ways home. But what a brilliant day and one I would recommend you all try and do if you get the chance. You can find the map here. Big thanks to Northern Rail for asking me to do it. I will be heading back again for sure, it would make the perfect place for a little mini break and reading retreat.

*This content was paid for, I will always let you know when content is. I get quite a lot of companies approach me to see if I would like to work with them; it is rare that I say yes. This is in part because the brand or opportunity might not be one that I think fits what you or I would be interested or they are so controlling that it involves no creativity for me. Working with Northern Rail was a delight and they let me do what suited Savidge Reads and hopefully all of you. Do give the literary trail a whirl as it was a lovely day out. You can find out more on the Northern Rail website here.

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Red Dust Road – Jackie Kay

One of the joys of working in a library is that when a whim to read a specific book suddenly overtakes you the chances are it may well be in the building. This was the case with Jackie Kay’s memoir Red Dust Road, which I actually thought I had read but realised I hadn’t? Small aside, does anyone else do this? If so please let me know. Anyway, one of the challenges for the #PrideMonthReads challenge, which George Lester and I started this month, was to find or recommend and own voices book. With adoption being on my mind rather a lot at the moment, the tale of Jackie’s adoption and search for her birth parents had been one I had been contemplating reading. With that and her being an out member of the LGBTQ community Red Dust Road seemed like the perfect read for me RIGHT NOW, fortunately there was one on the shelves. So I started it that very day on my lunch break, I wasn’t expecting a book that would chime with me in the many ways that it did.

Picador Books, paperback, 2017, fiction, 320 pages, borrowed from the library

As Red Dust Road opens, Jackie is about to meet her biological father for the very first time in Nigeria. This is quite a different setting from the hotel foyer in Milton Keynes where she met her mother for the first time some years before, we learn. From this point the book then weaves backwards and forwards through time as she embarks on the potential relationship with her father, who happens to be a born again Christian and sees her as living proof of the sins of his past, deal with the maintaining of the relationship with her birth mother and look back her childhood with her adoptive parents before and after the moment she realised that she was not theirs biologically.

I am seven years old. My mum, my brother and I have just watched a cowboy and Indian film. I’m sad because the Indians have lost again, and I wanted them to win. It suddenly occurs to me that the Indians are the same colour as me and my mum is not the same colour as me. I say to my mum, Mummy why aren’t you the same colour as me? My mum says, Because you’re adopted. I say, What does adopted mean, my brother scoffs; Don’t you know what adoption means. He’s eating a giant-size bowl of cornflakes. He eats cornflakes for nearly every meal. No, I don’t know. I’m nearly in tears. I’ve heard the word before but I don’t really understand it. My mum says, It means I’m not really your mummy. What do you mean, you’re not really my mummy? I say. I am crying for real now because I love my mum so much and I want her to be my real mummy and I’m worried she means she is not real and that something is going to happen to her, that she is going to disappear or dissolve. She says, Your real mother couldn’t keep you so she gave you to me so that I could be your mummy. Yes, that means you’re not really my sister, my brother laughs. Ha ha. Do you get it? Are you making this up? I ask my mummy. Is this one of your stories? She’s so good, my mummy, at telling stories. No, it isn’t, she says. She’s in tears herself too.

One thing I particularly loved about Red Dust Road is the open honesty with which Jackie Kay tells her story. There are no hero’s or villains in this piece, though I have to say I think Jackie’s mother and father John and Helen and their love for their daughter and support in her finding her birth parents is utterly wonderful. Everyone has their quirks and their flaws, because that is what all humans do. Make no mistake this is not a misery memoir, Jackie is perfectly happy, she just wants to know more especially when she is pregnant herself with her son. She isn’t expecting a perfect ending; sometimes it can be about a happy imperfect ending after a journey of discovering more. Even when things take a wobble there is still vibrancy to Jackie’s writing which I also love, with parents like John and Helen though whatever the outcome you feel Jackie knows she has already got a winning combination and security in them, which always gave any scenario this positive undertone which I really loved.

Now I don’t want to make this all about me because it is very much Jackie’s book and her story… However sometimes a book will get you on a personal level and with this being my personal blog, admittedly more with a bookish twist than on my personal life, it would seem remiss of me not to share the two levels with which this book had a deep resonance with me and made me rather emotional on several occasions.

The first of these was the fact that starting the adoption process myself, thanks to Jackie’s honesty (as I mention above) this is the first time I have really read such a frank and intimate set of thoughts about what it is like to be adopted. The role of the adoptive parent seems to be much more documented and whilst I have lots of friends who have been adopted it has never really been something I have brought up with a lot of them, I assumed that it might be prying a little too much into their lives. Interestingly I have pried into many of the lives of my friends who have adopted.  I do wonder if it because the process has happened while I have known them as adults adopting, whereas I didn’t know my friends as children when they were adopted. Anyway, this was the first time I had encountered such a frank depiction. The love Jackie felt for her adoptive parents, who she considers her parents end of, made me cry as did the way they unwaveringly supported her in finding her parents as an adult, highly emotive indeed.

The other big element was that in some of the pages, passages of Jackie’s story felt like they could be my own. You see whilst I am not an adopted child myself, I didn’t meet my father until I was sixteen years old. And so when Jackie is writing about both imagining what her biological parents might be like and also the strange feeling of having some of your identity missing – which is no fault of the loving parents you have – and needing to discover more were very much like the questions I had in my head. Though my father was from Derbyshire like my mother not from another country, I still had this huge gap if not culturally then just in a sense of myself. I haven’t experienced having those thoughts shared by someone else before. Frankly at some point I might have to hunt Jackie Kay down for a cup of tea, a cake and a good old natter about it in more detail.

‘Maybe your father was an African chief,’ my mother used to say, and, ‘Maybe you are an African princess.’ I liked that. In my imaginary princess picture, I am wearing a traditional African dress, purples and oranges and yellows. ‘Maybe you will own land,’ my mother said. I liked that too. I pictured the plots of my land in the African landscape of my imagination. It was flat land, not like the Highlands of Scotland. The earth was dark and rich. There was a red-dust road. I couldn’t really get much further than that.

So a huge thank you to Jackie for writing such an honest and open account of several parts and elements of her life. Thank you for sharing in the laughter, tears, joy and fears of the journey of discovery that she has gone through. If you a looking for writing on adoption or just a memoir with a difference then I would recommend red Dust Road very much indeed. I was also thinking it would make a very interesting companion read to Kit De Waal’s My Name is Leon, which I also really loved when I read that a year or so ago. A gem from the library shelves, hurray for libraries, they are brilliant aren’t they?

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Genuine Fraud – E. Lockhart

There are some books that are almost too twisty to review. One such book, which also came with the instruction that you should lie about it anyway, was E. Lockhart’s previous novel We Were Liars. A book so hard to try and write about to make everyone want to go and read without giving anything away, or lying so much you might not sell it to people, it seems I decided to not review it. I raved about it to people in person or on The Readers podcast instead. Having been such a fan of that book when I heard Genuine Fraud was just as twisty and also gave a nod to Patricia Highsmith (who I adore) I was of course sold. Now, how to tell you about it without spoiling it? Blimey, this will prove tricky.

Hot Key Books, paperback, 2018, fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Jule Williams is 18 and an orphan, these facts and only these facts are genuine truths about Jule as she is a genuine fraud. To the people around her, to herself and also to us dear sweet readers who she takes on a kind of kick ass, psychopathic, warped journey which I loved every minute of. As the book opens she has been hunted down by the FBI for a potential murder, but who has she murdered and why? Oh and why does the book start at Chapter 18? Well because, just to throw you off that little bit more, Genuine Fraud goes backwards in time too, so you have to try and solve the riddle of Jule and the riddle of her involvement in a death in an even more twisted way.

This could prove a twist too much (and there has been a fair amount of discussions around twists too far in the thriller world lately) yet E. Lockhart has a firm grip on the tale even if we don’t. We soon discover, no spoilers I promise, that Jule has been running and trying to survive for years. Both to try and better her life, if somewhat underhandedly, and away from a dark past. Well, dependent on which past you believe, see tricky but all part of the fun.

What we then follows, again no spoilers, is that whilst running she bumps into Imogen who she knew vaguely. Imogen is rich, spoilt and mainly left to her own devices, everything that Jule would like to be. Yet if Jule would like to be you it could be dangerous, for you and those around you. And that is where I will leave it in terms of the plot because to say any more would spoil all the twists ahead, some which seriously took me completely by surprise.

Jule was anxious to say the right thing, but she didn’t know if sympathy or distraction was required. “I read a book about that in college,” she said.
“About what?”
“The presentation of self in everyday life. This guy Goffman had the idea that in different situations, you perform yourself differently. Your character isn’t static. It’s an adaptation.”
“I have stopped performing myself, you mean?”
“Or you’re doing it another way now. There are different versions of the self.”

Whilst Genuine Fraud is in the main a fast moving, slick, Hollywood/Netflix ready thriller, it is also a psychological study (taking that nod to The Talented Mr Ripley) of a young woman trying to work out who she is, where she comes from and what she wants in life. Admittedly she is a little bit of a psychopath or sociopath, or maybe both, yet there is something so determined, survivalist and kick ass about her that you can’t help but become fascinated by her and slightly root for her even though she is rather unlikeable. Not something easy to pull off but E.Lockhart is very good at female spikey anti-heros and dislikeable characters you like despite yourself.

As I mentioned though, amongst all the high jinks and dastardly shenanigans, there is that element of looking at who you are as a person and trying to find your place in the world and also your identity when you feel so lost. How do you decide what your story is? What happens if you want to change that story? What happens if you tell one story to yourself but it isn’t the story that is taken from you by others? And what if you simply don’t, won’t or can’t conform to society’s story in general? There are some really deep layers in the dark depths of this book, be it that you take them and their empowerment subliminally or not.

You are the center of the story. You and no one else. You’ve got an interesting origin tale, that unusual education. Now you’re ruthless, you’re brilliant, you’re practically fearless. There’s a body count behind you, because you do whatever’s required to stay alive – but it’s a day’s work, that’s all.
You look superb in the light of the Mexican bar windows. After a fight, your cheeks are flushed. And oh, your clothes are so very flattering.
Yes, it’s true that you are criminally violent. Brutal, even. But that’s your job and you’re uniquely qualified, so it’s sexy.
Jule watched a shit-ton of movies. She knew that women were rarely the centres of such stories. Instead, they were the eye candy, arm candy, victims or love interests. Mostly, they existed to help get the great white hetero hero on his fucking epic journey. When there was a heroine, she weighed very little, wore very little, and had their teeth fixed.
Jule didn’t look like those women. She would never look like those women. But she was everything those heroes were, and in some ways, she was more.
She knew that too.

I really enjoyed Genuine Fraud. I really like a good anti-hero and Juliette West Williams is just that. In some ways I am not quite the target market for this book, but if I came away feeling empowered by her – despite some of her antics – and wanted to embrace my difference more, then how fantastic that a host of younger readers will go away and do the same. All whilst reading a bloody gripping yarn. I am also hoping that this will send more readers to the waiting arms of the queen of fictional psychopaths, Patricia Highsmith, what joys await them there too. Back to Genuine Fraud though, definitely a recommended reading rollercoaster ride.

If you would like to hear/see E. Lockhart chatting to me about Genuine Fraud, We Were Liars, sociopaths, Patricia Highsmith and more, then you can see me talking to her on my YouTube channel here, she gives great chat.

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Filed under E. Lockhart, Hot Key Books, Review