Tag Archives: Ali Shaw

Books I’m Looking Forward to in the Next Six Months

I know we are past the middle of the first month of 2016 but, as is my want, I thought it might be a nice idea to let you know about some of the books that I am really looking forward to reading over the next six months published in the UK. I know, I know, it is the list you have all been waiting for. Ha! For a few years now, every six months, Gavin and I share 13 of the books that we are most excited about on The Readers podcast, based on which publishers catalogues we can get our mitts on – so sometimes we miss some, so I thought this year I would make it a new biannual post. Getting to that final thirteen is almost impossible (actually one year it was a struggle) and this year it has been particularly tough as it looks set to be a year of corkers. In fact my longlist of books I’m keen to get my hand on is 60 books (and would have been 62 if I hadn’t already read The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon and Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh) long. Yes that is right, 60 books. I have highlighted a few each month that I will definitely be reading or getting my mitts on. So, grab a cuppa tea and settle down with a notepad or bookstore website open next to you…

January

Mr Splitfoot – Samantha Hunt (Corsair)

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Nat and Rose are young orphans, living in a crowded foster home run by an eccentric religious fanatic. When a traveling con-man comes knocking, they see their chance to escape and join him on the road, proclaiming they can channel the dead – for a price, of course. Decades later, in a different time and place, Cora is too clever for her office job, too scared of her abysmal lover to cope with her unplanned pregnancy, and she too is looking for a way out. So when her mute Aunt Ruth pays her an unexpected visit, apparently on a mysterious mission, she decides to join her. Together the two women set out on foot, on a strange and unforgettable odyssey across the state of New York. Where is Ruth taking them? Where has she been? And who – or what – has she hidden in the woods at the end of the road? Ingenious, infectious, subversive and strange, Mr Splitfoot will take you on a journey you will not regret – and will never forget.

Human Acts – Han Kang (Portobello)

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Gwangju, South Korea, 1980. In the wake of a viciously suppressed student uprising, a boy searches for his friend’s corpse, a consciousness searches for its abandoned body, and a brutalised country searches for a voice. In a sequence of interconnected chapters the victims and the bereaved encounter censorship, denial, forgiveness and the echoing agony of the original trauma. Human Acts is a universal book, utterly modern and profoundly timeless. Already a controversial bestseller and award-winning book in Korea, it confirms Han Kang as a writer of immense importance.

The Widow – Fiona Barton (Transworld)
Paulina & Fran – Rachel B. Glaser (Granta)
The World Without Us – Mirelle Juchau (Bloomsbury)
The Outrun – Amy Liptrot (Canongate)
Sea Lovers – Valerie Martin (Serpents Tail)
Dinosaurs on Other Planets – Danielle McLaughlin (John Murray)
The Actual One – Isy Suttie (Orion)

February

The Sympathiser – Viet Thanh Nguyen (Corsair)

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A profound, startling, and beautifully crafted debut novel, “The Sympathizer” is the story of a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties. It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. “The Sympathizer” is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, “The Sympathizer” explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta (Granta)

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One day in 1968, at the height of the Biafran civil war, Ijeoma’s father is killed and her world is transformed forever. Separated from her grief-stricken mother, she meets another young lost girl, Amina, and the two become inseparable. Theirs is a relationship that will shake the foundations of Ijeoma’s faith, test her resolve and flood her heart. In this masterful novel of faith, love and redemption, Okparanta takes us from Ijeoma’s childhood in war-torn Biafra, through the perils and pleasures of her blossoming sexuality, her wrong turns, and into the everyday sorrows and joys of marriage and motherhood. As we journey with Ijeoma we are drawn to the question: what is the value of love and what is the cost? A triumphant love story written with beauty and delicacy, Under the Udala Trees is a hymn to those who’ve lost and a prayer for a more compassionate world. It is a work of extraordinary beauty that will enrich your heart.

The Butchers Hook – Janet Ellis (Two Roads)
The Narrow Bed – Sophie Hannah (Hodder)
Scary Old Sex – Arlene Heyman (Bloomsbury)
The Children’s House – Charles Lambert (Aardvark Bureau)
13 Minutes – Sarah Pinborough (Orion)
The Catch – Fiona Sampson (Chatto & Windus)
Gold Flame Citrus – Claire Vaye Watkins (Quercus)
Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist – Sunil Yapa (Little Brown)

March

Where Love Begins – Judith Hermann (Serpents Tail)

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Stella is married, she has a child and a fulfilling job. She lives with her young family in a house in the suburbs. Her life is happy and unremarkable, but she is a little lonely-her husband travels a lot for work and so she is often alone in the house with only her daughter for company. One day a stranger appears at her door, a man Stella’s never seen before. He says he just wants to talk to her, nothing more. She refuses. The next day he comes again. And then the day after that. He will not leave her in peace. When Stella works out that he lives up the road, and tries to confront him, it makes no difference. This is the beginning of a nightmare that slowly and remorselessly escalates. Where Love Begins is a delicately wrought, deeply sinister novel about how easily the comfortable lives we construct for ourselves can be shattered.

Hot Milk – Deborah Levy (Penguin Books)

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Today I dropped my laptop on the concrete floor. It was tucked under my arm and slid out of its black rubber sheath, landing screen-side down. The digital page shattered. Apparently there’s a man in the next flyblown town who mends computers. He could send off for a new screen, which would take a month to arrive. Will I still be here in a month? My mother is sleeping under a mosquito net in the next room. Soon she will wake up and shout, ‘Sofia, get me a glass of water’, and I will get her water and it will be the wrong sort of water. And then after a while I will leave her and return to gaze at the shattered starfield of my screen. Two women arrive in a Spanish village – a dreamlike place caught between the desert and the ocean – seeking medical advice and salvation. One of the strangers suffers from a mysterious illness: spontaneous paralysis confines her to a wheelchair, her legs unusable. The other, her daughter Sofia, has spent years playing the reluctant detective in this mystery, struggling to understand her mother’s illness. Surrounded by the oppressive desert heat and the mesmerising figures who move through it, Sofia waits while her mother undergoes the strange programme of treatments invented by Dr Gomez. Searching for a cure to a defiant and quite possibly imagined disease, ever more entangled in the seductive, mercurial games of those around her, Sofia finally comes to confront and reconcile the disparate fragments of her identity. Hot Milk is a labyrinth of violent desires, primal impulses, and surreally persuasive internal logic.

Patience – Daniel Clowes (Vintage)
Rain – Melissa Harrison (Faber & Faber)
A Girl in Exhile – Ismail Kadare (Vintage)
The Paper Menagerie & Other Stories – Ken Liu (Head of Zeus)
An Unrestored Woman & Other Stories – Shobha Rao (Virago)
Vertigo – Joanna Walsh (And Other Stories)

April

The Sunlight Pilgrims – Jenni Fagan (Random House)

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Set in a Scottish caravan park during a freak winter – it is snowing in Jerusalem, the Thames is overflowing, and an iceberg separated from the Fjords in Norway is expected to arrive off the coast of Scotland – The Sunlight Pilgrims tells the story of a small Scottish community living through what people have begun to think is the end of times. Bodies are found frozen in the street with their eyes open, euthanasia has become an acceptable response to economic collapse, schooling and health care are run primarily on a voluntary basis. But daily life carries on: Dylan, a refugee from panic-stricken London who is grieving for his mother and his grandmother, arrives in the caravan park in the middle of the night – to begin his life anew.

What Belongs To You – Garth Greenwell (Picador)

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On an unseasonably warm autumn day, an American teacher enters a public bathroom beneath Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. There he meets Mitko, a charismatic young hustler, and pays him for sex. And so begins a relationship that could transform his life, or possibly destroy it. What Belongs To You is a stunning debut novel of desire and its consequences. With lyric intensity and startling eroticism, Garth Greenwell has created a indelible story about the ways in which our pasts and cultures, our scars and shames can shape who we are and determine how we love.

The Trees – Ali Shaw (Bloomsbury)

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There came an elastic aftershock of creaks and groans and then, softly softly, a chinking shower of rubbled cement. Leaves calmed and trunks stood serene. Where, not a minute before, there had been a suburb, there was now only woodland standing amid ruins…There is no warning. No chance to prepare. They arrive in the night: thundering up through the ground, transforming streets and towns into shadowy forest. Buildings are destroyed. Broken bodies, still wrapped in tattered bed linen, hang among the twitching leaves. Adrien Thomas has never been much of a hero. But when he realises that no help is coming, he ventures out into this unrecognisable world. Michelle, his wife, is across the sea in Ireland and he has no way of knowing whether the trees have come for her too. Then Adrien meets green-fingered Hannah and her teenage son Seb. Together, they set out to find Hannah’s forester brother, to reunite Adrien with his wife – and to discover just how deep the forest goes. Their journey will take them to a place of terrible beauty and violence, to the dark heart of nature and the darkness inside themselves.

The Cauliflower – Nicola Barker (Random House)
Foreign Soil – Maxine Beneba (Corsair)
The Last of Us – Rob Ewing (Borough Press)
Fragments – Elena Ferrante (Eurpoa Editions)
A Different Class – Joanne Harris (Transworld)
Ladivine – Marie NDiaye (Quercus)
The Bricks That Built Houses – Kate Tempest (Bloomsbury)
Six Four – Hideo Yokoyama (Quercus)

May

The Doll Master & Other Tales of Terror – Joyce Carol Oates (Head of Zeus)

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Six terrifying tales to chill the blood from the unique imagination of Joyce Carol Oates. A young boy plays with dolls instead of action figures. But as he grows older, his passion takes on a darker edge…A white man shoots dead a black boy creating a media frenzy. But could it be that it was self-defense as he claims? A nervous woman tries to escape her husband. He says he loves her, but she’s convinced he wants to kill her…These quietly lethal stories reveal the horrors that dwell within us all.

The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus)

It is the tutor who tells the young Gustav that he must try to be more like a coconut – that he needs a hard shell to protect the softness inside. This is what his native Switzerland has perfected – a shell to protect its neutrality, to keep its people safe. But his beloved friend, Anton, doesn’t want to be safe – a gifted pianist, he longs to make his mark in the world outside. On holiday one summer in Davos, the boys stumble across a remote building. Long ago, it was a TB sanitorium; now it is wrecked and derelict. Here, they play a game of life and death, deciding which of their imaginary patients must burn. It becomes their secret. The Gustav Sonata begins in the 1930s, under the shadow of the Second World War, and follows the boys into maturity, and middle age, where their friendship is tested as never before.

The Bones of Grace – Tahmima Anam (Canongate)
The Beautiful Dead – Belind Bauer (Transworld)
The Witches of New York – Amy McKay (Orion)
This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press)
The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso (Chatto & Windus)
Now and Again – Charlotte Rogan (Virago)
The Wicked Boy – Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury)

June

Fen – Daisy Johnson (Vintage)

Daisy Johnson’s Fen is a liminal land. Real people live their lives here. They wrestle with familiar instincts, with sex and desire, with everyday routine. But the wild is always close at hand, ready to erupt. This is a place where animals and people commingle and fuse, where curious metamorphoses take place, where myth and dark magic still linger. So here a teenager may starve herself into the shape of an eel. A house might fall in love with a girl. A woman might give birth to a – well what? English folklore and a contemporary eye, sexual honesty and combustible invention – in Fen, these elements have come together to create a singular, startling piece of modern fiction.

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry (Profile Books)

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Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890’s, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way. They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners’ agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.

Foxlowe – Eleanor Wassberg (Harper Collins)

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A chilling, compulsive debut about group mentality, superstition and betrayal – and a utopian commune gone badly wrong We were the Family, and Foxlowe was our home. There was me – my name is Green – and my little sister, Blue. There was October, who we called Toby, and Ellensia, Dylan, Liberty, Pet and Egg. There was Richard, of course, who was one of the Founders. And there was Freya. We were the Family, but we weren’t just an ordinary family. We were a new, better kind of family. We didn’t need to go to school, because we had a new, better kind of education. We shared everything. We were close to the ancient way of living and the ancient landscape. We knew the moors, and the standing stones. We celebrated the solstice in the correct way, with honey and fruit and garlands of fresh flowers. We knew the Bad and we knew how to keep it away. And we had Foxlowe, our home. Where we were free. There really was no reason for anyone to want to leave.

Daisy in Chains – Sharon Bolton (Transworld)
Everyone Is Watching – Megan Bradbury (Picador)
Addlands – Tom Bullough (Granta)
The Girls – Emma Cline (Chatto & Windus)
Black Water – Louise Doughty (Faber & Faber)
Early Riser – Jasper Fforde (Hodder)
The Little Communist That Never Smiled – Lola Lafon (Serpents Tail)
The Bed Moved – Rebecca Schiff (John Murrary)
Smoke – Dan Vyleta (Orion)
Our Young Man – Edmund White (Bloomsbury)

Phew! So that is the list, it has changed slightly since we recorded The Readers as Gav and I had a couple of snap choices and also I found out some other books were coming out earlier than thought or I simply only discovered them in the last few months. There will be many more I discover or hear about too I am sure. I have just thought of several I have missed (Kit De Waal, Nicholas Searle and a whole shelf of prrof I can’t get to due to scaffolding) so there will be many more. Anyway, quite a few for you to go and find out more about and a good list for me to have when I am stuck in a bookshop without a clue of what to by next – as if that ever happens. Right, I better get reading then. Which of these do you fancy? Which books are you looking forward to in the next six months?

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Other People’s Bookshelves #22 – Simon Sylvester

Hello and welcome to the latest in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves where we get to have a good old nosey through other peoples book collections. Grab some Kendal mint cake, or even better some Grasmere gingerbread (nothing on earth like it), as we are off to the Lake District to join a man who has seen me at my worst, on both a long haul flight (I hate flying) and in an air balloon (I hate heights) when we both went to Philadelphia on a travel writing trip many moons ago. Today we join Simon Sylvester (another SS, they are the best) and I will hand over to him to tell us more about himself before we go routing through his shelves…

I live in Burneside, just outside Kendal on the southern edge of the Lake District. I moved here about three years ago with my partner, the painter Monica Metsers. Last year we bought a house, which took us six months to strip down and make habitable. We always wanted to have big bookshelves, and my father-in-law made us these to fit the living room. I work part-time teaching film production at the local college, and I make short films for local bands and businesses. Whatever spare time is left goes to my writing. I started writing in 2006, and my short stories have been published occasionally over the years. My debut novel is coming out with Quercus Books in 2014, which is almost as terrifying as it is exciting. Regarding my reading, it’s worth mentioning that I spent a miserable year at boarding school when I was younger. I remember virtually nothing of that time except the library, devouring Hardy Boys books. Reading has always been an escape for me.

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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?

Once upon a time, I kept them all, but those days are long gone. A book stays if I’m certain to read it again because it’s useful, it’s beautiful or it has personal value. Even with these huge shelves, space is at a premium, and those standards get higher as my collection grows. And despite strict monitoring of what stays and what goes, the books quietly multiply and migrate into other parts of the shelves. I think the board games will have to move elsewhere, soon.

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?

The big shelves have fiction alphabetised by surname, which is dull, perhaps, but then I know where to find things when I want them. I used to work in a record store, and filing is hardwired in me – I get antsy when they’re out of order. Anything borrowed from friends sits flat. On the other side of the room, poetry and graphic novels have shelves of their own. I don’t own enough of either to warrant alphabetising them. I’m actually a little intimidated by comics. I love the ones I read, but it’s so vast and varied a genre that I don’t really know where to begin. Every year or so, my friend Ali Shaw suggests something else, and I’ll give it a go, and invariably enjoy it, but still not know where to take my reading next.

Literary journals and fiction anthologies live on a shelf with my published short stories, good and bad. Above them, nonfiction is a bit of a free-for-all. I’m a sucker for obscure non-fiction book, so the shelves here have sumo wrestling and saints, bikes and kites, whales and weather. Mon’s non-fiction is totally different to mine, so we have shelves of stunning art books as well as rock’n’roll autobiographies and tomes on yoga. I’m pretty sure she’s trying to organise the art books by ascending size, but I get in the way by absently taking them off the shelves to read them. Upstairs, the shelves by my desk are a bit more spartan, but that’s where I gather anything relevant to my current project. My next novel is about a woman losing her way in a huge swamp, so at the moment there’s everything from historical accounts of draining the fens to Finnish folktales. I also keep my finished notebooks and diaries here. The final set of shelves belong to my daughter Dora. She’s two and a half years old, and there’s no point arranging her books, because her first job every morning is to hurl them to the floor and pretend she’s reading them. It’s been a joy beyond measure to rediscover some children’s classics.shelves misc 1

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

My memory is abominable, so this is a little fuzzy; but I’ve always been hooked on second-hand stores. I grew up in Inverness, where there’s an extraordinary bookshop called James Leakey’s. It’s an old church with shelves jammed with books, books in double layers on the floor, and banana boxes of loose books stacked three deep behind the counter. I spent a lot of time in there. Although my first purchase was probably something and somewhere else, I clearly remember buying a very tatty copy of Dune by Frank Herbert from that amazing place. I must have read it half-a-dozen times. I don’t own it any more, unfortunately, though I still love it – one of many books that have escaped over the years. I bought a lot of Iain Banks, too, after I discovered The Wasp Factory. I loaned three Banks books to a passing acquaintance, back in 2001, and never saw them again.

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?

No secrets in our house, Simon! Mon has books on the shelves that I probably wouldn’t read, just as I have books she wouldn’t read, but they’re all up there. The only one I make a habit of hiding (behind a picture of my daughter) is the True Blood collection by Charlaine Harris. We loved the first two seasons of the TV show, but never enjoyed the books, and after the show withered, neither of us summoned the strength to go back to Sookie and Bon Temps. I don’t know why they’re still there, to be honest. It’s something we don’t talk about, like the cupboard under the stairs.

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?

I don’t own anything financially valuable, but there are several books on the shelves that are peculiarly important to me. The Battle At Sangshak by Harry Seaman is an account of a small but pivotal fight in the godawful jungle war in Burma and India. Sangshak was crucial in turning the tide against the Japanese army in World War Two, and it was nothing less than hell on earth. My grandfather fought there. When he died, his annotated copy went to my dad, and I received my dad’s copy. Inside the back sleeve is a photocopy of a note to my grandfather from the man who led the fight. It’s very humbling to reflect on what they went through. I have another letter, somewhere, that his brother, my great uncle, sent him from a military hospital in Egypt. He’d been injured while fighting in the tank campaigns in Northern Africa. His leg had been smashed in six places by a cannon recoil, and he waited all day in the baking heat, under shellfire, before being rescued. “Still,” he wrote to my grandfather, “I prefer my war to your war.”

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My first attempt at a novel was about the war in Burma. I wanted to write about my grandfather’s experiences. I didn’t get anywhere near it, but I don’t think he’d have minded. Funnily enough, the most prized thing on the shelf isn’t a book, but a missing bookmark. Buried in one of those hundreds of books is a photo of me fishing with my grandfather. I must have been eight or ten, and I don’t remember being there. He’s dead now, and that picture means a lot to me, but I have no idea which book it’s hiding in. I often use different bookmarks – especially the ones I find in second-hand books – cheques and postcards and bus tickets – but I’d like that photo back.

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?

The earliest one I remember, again when I was ten or so, was Jock of the Bushveld on my grandparents’ shelves. I read most of it, I think. They gave me Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls for a birthday around then, too. I still own that one. It’s strange, writing this, to realise how often my grandparents are cropping up. I can also remember borrowing some Dean Koontz nasty from the mobile library when I was about thirteen. Days after I’d finished reading it, my dad had a quick flick through – he was so horrified that he hid it until the van came again. I remember thinking it was no worse than the Alistair MacLeans and Desmond Bagleys on my parents’ 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?

Guilty of this one – I’ve absolutely bought my own copies of borrowed books. Neil Gaiman was a massive gap in my reading until only a few years ago, when a friend loaned me Neverwhere and Fragile Things. I devoured those and promptly bought my own copies – as well as all his other fiction. I still can’t believe it took me so long. Again, when I was 26, I spent a year working and backpacking round Australia. Months of swapping books in youth hostels led me to discover David Mitchell. Travelling light, I couldn’t carry them with me, so I swapped them on, and promptly bought second copies when I came home. I’ve even done this with books I already own; my favourite novel, The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, has been on loan to different friends for more than two years. I crumbled and bought a second copy because I couldn’t be without it. It has the best ending of any modern novel.

Pratchett

I’ve just noticed that the only Pratchett I’m missing is Soul Music. When I was fifteen I went on an exchange trip to France. I managed to forget the stack of books I’d put aside for the month abroad, and took only Soul Music in my hand luggage. As a result, I read it continuously over that month. It suffered in rain and sun and rucksacks, becoming ever more curled and dog-eared. It went through some abuse, that book, but it stayed with me. I was still reading it on the plane home. I’d like to get another copy of that.

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

Tales of the Fenlands by Walter Henry Barrett. It’s on longterm loan from my storyteller uncle Rich Sylvester. He was in Cumbria a couple of months ago, when we both read some of our work at the amazing Dreamfired storynights in Brigsteer. I hadn’t seen him for a years, and we talked through some of my next novel. A few weeks later, this book arrived in the post. The mythology of the Fens is incredibly concentrated and well-preserved. We’re hoping to go for a few days walking round Wisbech next year.

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

Hundreds! Like your post on Doris Lessing, I’m acutely conscious that there are dozens of gigantic gaps in my reading. My ongoing issue at the moment is time, time, time. I used to read two or three books a week; I’m so exhausted at the moment that I barely manage ten pages a night before falling asleep. If I can recover some more time to read, then I have Toni Morrison and Alice Munro in my sights. I’ve only recently discovered Haruki Murakami, having read Wild Sheep Chase, 1Q84 and Norwegian Wood in the last year. My friends rave about Kafka On The Shore, and I’ll work my way through the rest of his writing in the next couple of years.

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

I had something of an epiphany two years ago. It was a bright summer day, and sunlight was streaming into the room Mon and I stayed in at the time. I was sitting on the end of the bed, considering my bookshelves and thinking about what I wanted to achieve as a writer. I’d received some great praise for the novel I wrote about Burma, but the agents and publishers who read it generally felt it was too dark for a first novel, and nothing had come of it. I now had the kernel of an idea for another book, and I was considering whether it was worth the heartache, the effort and the time away from my family. Looking at my shelves, I noticed a distinct line between the authors I admired as ferocious artists, and who had inspired the combative style of my first attempt at a novel – William S. Burroughs, David Peace, Hubert Selby Jnr – and the authors I returned to time and time again because I simply loved to read their stories – David Mitchell, Jasper Fforde, Sarah Waters, Terry Pratchett. The first group experiment with language to deliver emotional punches; the second achieve emotion through characters and situations the reader comes to care about. On making that distinction, I realised that I very seldom returned to the first group, and that I kept them on the shelves almost as proof that I’d read them, rather than because I’d enjoyed them. I felt a little ashamed to realise that they’d stopped being books, and they’d become badges. With that understanding, a huge weight fell from my shoulders. I no longer felt that my stories needed to be experimental, obscure or deliberately challenging. They needed to deliver what I wanted in my own favourite books – the joy of escaping somewhere new. That was the moment I understood not only that I needed to write for myself, but also more about who I was.

Knowing I wouldn’t read them again, I boxed up dozens of those dark literary heavyweights, and took them to a charity shop. Then I started work on my second novel. Two years on, I have a wonderful agent and a very exciting publisher, and a clear path of where I want to take my work. I suspect every writer has that epiphany at some point on the journey to finding their own voice. That was a gigantic turning point in my life, and it couldn’t have happened without my books and my bookshelves. This is a long-winded way of saying that now I’ve challenged myself over why I keep certain books on my shelves, I’m no longer troubled by what other people think of my reading taste or me. These are my books, and I’m proud of them. In any of the new houses Mon and I have moved to, I’ve been unable to settle without shelves on the wall and my books on the shelves. They’re a comfort to me. They remind me of where I’ve been and what I’ve done. Books are part of what make our house a home.

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A huge thanks to Simon for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the Other People’s Book Shelves 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 Simon’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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Why Do We Love A Good Fairytale?

As the air has taken a rather autumnal feel here in the Wirral and after reading the quirky ‘Topsy Turvy Tales’, I have turned to reading the Grimm Brothers fairytales (between all the other reading I am doing that I can’t discuss) and I was wondering why as adults we still find fairytales so appealing.

Now if you are thinking that I am happily sat reading the old ladybird classics of an evening you would be wrong. Though I do have my old (very) battered versions from my childhood which I think I actually pilfered was passed on from my mother and aunties and uncle and then saw my siblings reading them (and battering them more) before I managed to get my mitts on them again. Anyway, I have been reading the ‘uncut’- as it were – versions of these tales and yet again, as I was with Perrault’s collection and Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Little Mermaid’, I am shocked at how much darker, twisted and gruesome the tales really are. Disney this is not.

I was actually thinking that children might be more scared of these versions and hence that is why they have been edited, but actually I bet kids would love them, especially when the baddies really come a cropper. I know as an adult I am, but what has led me back to reading them from those initial days a few decades (ugh!) ago?

As a child I loved fairytales for the following reasons…

  1. There was invariably a wood in them and my childhood home was surrounded by them meaning I thought these adventures could have happened in my childhood (particularly my favourite ‘Rapunzel’ as shown below as on our hill we had a very similar type of tower in the woods, seriously look below)
  2. There was generally a sense of menace, something I still love in a book now.
  3. There were elements of the magical and was invariably a witch or talking animal involved, I believed in both of these things vehemently for years, until I was about 24 in probability, ha.
  4. There was a happy ending and love conquered all, naive and slushy but true.
  5. They were a complete escape.

 

I was very lucky as apart from pilfering being loaned the Ladybird Classics, of which my favourite was Rapunzel as I mentioned, I had an amazing Granddad, called Bongy, who made more fairytales for me when I went to Newcastle with my mother while she was at university. Each week, or every few weeks, another tale of ‘The Amazing Adventures of Esmerelda and her Friends’ would arrive in the post, all hand written and hand drawn. Again real life and fiction merged as Esmerelda would visit her friend Simon bringing all her friends including a duck called Rapunzel and nine hens, all of which I had back at my grandparents in Matlock waiting for me in the holidays.

So where is this nostalgia trip leading? Well that is my point. I think one of the reasons we love fairytales is the nostalgia, well at least it is for me, and the fact there is something very safe in a fairytale no matter how menacing they get. I think, even if we know it might not always be true or run smoothly, we believe in love and the idea of a, hopefully, happy ending for all of us one day. It’s the ideal isn’t it? I also think it is the escapism, even if the world is quite similar there is something ethereal and magical about it that makes us know it is not our world but just tangible enough that it could be. Am I making sense?

It isn’t just the ‘adult’ (only not adult-adult you understand) versions of the tales we had as children though. Authors like Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, John Connelly and soon Philip Pullman have re-worked or used the ideas of traditional fairytales in their fictions. Authors like Dan Rhodes, Lucy Wood, Ali Shaw and Eowyn Ivey have also created their own original fairytales for an adult audience which are working wonders and shows we do still love them.

I also wonder if a fairytale is really the true essence of stories. Tales made from folklore, legends and myths handed down by word and discussed before they were ever put to paper, it is what stories and therefore, I think, novels originate and even when you are reading a modern novel with no sign of magic or talking animals your still being told a story and a fairytale of a kind because none of it is real, just a little more cloaked.

What do you think, and what is your favourite fairytale?

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Books of 2012… Should I Be Reading Them Now?

I was talking about a set of delightful books that have recently arrived yesterday and I am going to do the same again today. These books coincide with the fact that I have decided that now The Green Carnation Shortlist has been announced, and I know my final thoughts on the final books, and as Bookmarked Salon is now having a hiatus before it possibly comes back (and if it does it will be rather different) next year, it is time for me to scrap all planned reading and simply indulge myself for the last month and a half of the year. It actually freaks me out quite a lot that 2012 is not far away at all and there were so many books I ‘meant to’ read this year and still haven’t as yet.  In fact it is next year that links all of the books below I want to discuss as they aren’t out until 2012, in the UK anyway, but I want to read them now…

The first of these three treats I don’t think is out in anywhere else, and by that I mean in any other countries outside the UK, as yet and won’t be out here in the UK until early January and that is ‘The Man Who Rained’ by Ali Shaw and is the his highly anticipated (and not just by me) follow up to ‘The Girl With The Glass Feet’ which I absolutely loved and which caused a great discussion on the blog a while back. This one sounds like another wonderful adult fairytale and one I don’t think I can wait to get started on.

The next up is already out in Australia and hasn’t a definite date in the UK as yet, but I am hoping that the world cottons onto the wonders of Marieke Hardy and her collections of essays and memories ‘You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead’ which the publishers Allen and Unwin very, very kindly popped in the post. I have become a fan of Marieke, bordering on a slight ‘non weird’ obsession, since I started catching up with one of my favourite book shows The First Tuesday Book Club and since then with her blog and the like. This should be a great collection and once I will have to try very hard not to read in one sitting, I want to savour them… if I can.

Finally is a book I discussed on a post a while back, a post I was apparently slated for by an author on a certain social media site, bizarre. I was a huge fan of Hillary Jordan’s debut novel ‘Mudbound’ and was exited to hear that she was releasing a new ‘dystopian novel’ as her second novel ‘When She Awoke’. I was then mortified that whilst it came out in America a little while back, it wasn’t coming out her until late spring 2012 at the earliest. Well guess what, the very lovely Michael Kindness of the brilliant podcast Books on the Nightstand sent me a copy all the way from the US of A…

If that wasn’t enough he only went and got it signed for me by Hillary on one of the author tours he went on with her. I am beyond thrilled at what was just a lovely, lovely gesture.

Now I just have to decide if I hold fire on reading them, or simply dive in and treat myself? What do you think? Which books are you the most excited about reading at the moment? Are there any books coming out in 2012 that you already have on your radar?

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The Girl With Glass Feet – Ali Shaw (NTTVBG – Book Two)

Welcome to the second in the first series of Not The TV Book Group. I am Simon Savidge and your rather nervous rabbit in the headlights host today. Joining me on the freshly plumped sofa’s are my lovely fellow co-hosts Kim of Reading Matters, Kirsty of Other Stories and your previous host Lynne of Dovegreyreader for a discussion of all things related to Ali Shaw’s debut novel ‘The Girl With The Glass Feet’.

Last time we came to you from the depths of rural Devonshire. Today you will all be joining us not in my current home of Tooting in South London, as I am saving that for ‘Skin Lane’, but from somewhere a little more appropriate to the book, in fact somewhere I used to live many moons ago. This is all thanks to the joys of this being virtual and as I am hosting today it’s also subject to my whims.

That’s right it’s my Grandparents old house. This wonderful old building on a forest covered former quarry in the depths of Derbyshire (Matlock Bath in case you are interested) was the home of my childhood and where I first learnt to read and became a rather large fan of the fairytale. So much of a fan I called my pet duck Rapunzel, no really it’s true. This seemed the perfect place for you all to pop by and chat about what I think is one of the best modern fairytales I have read. I am hoping you agree. Before we get on with the book do help yourself a nice cup of tea and to one of the many, many cream cakes I have brought from the famous local Bird’s Bakery (seriously nowhere is like it for cakes). Now then onto some book discussion…

I am slightly stuck on where to start with ‘The Girl With The Glass Feet’ and this makes me even happier that I have twenty four hours and more to go on discussing it with you all as it was so full of discussable delights, for me anyway. I guess to start at the beginning would help wouldn’t it? Like all good fairytales you need a great setting and for this such tale we are given St Hauda’s Land an archipelago of islands somewhere snowbound and filled with forests and mystery and yet somewhere very much of ‘the now’ even if a little different from the rest of the world and the mainland.

“Maybe you noticed something different. When you returned to St Hauda’s Land. A taste on the air. A mannerism the birds have. A peculiar snowfall, making almost mathematical patterns. A white animal that’s not an albino.”

Someone who has indeed returned is Ida MacLaird, for when she first came to St Hauda’s Land something unusual happened after a run in with Henry Fuwa and a strange creature, the after effects being that she is slowly but surely turning into glass. Feeling that Henry is the only person who can help her she returns but Henry doesn’t want to be found, instead meets an unlikely hero in the form of Midas Crook a man she can’t help but like and a man who she feels can help. As it happens Midas is a man so emotionally complex and deeply withdrawn, a man who prefers to look at the world via a camera lens than his own eyes could take quite some time to unfold (well it wouldnt be such a good read and indeed such a fairytale if things went too smoothly) and possibly rescue her, time however is something that Ida does not have.

I was mesmerised from the opening of the book, which actually throws you in a lot quicker than I thought it would. We are literally bundled into the world of Midas there and then on the very day that he meets Ida, it’s that instant. I was expecting something slower, a tale that lead up to a fateful event rather than this delightfully different start with a slow unfolding of background stories, explanations, added twists and coincidences following on. I liked and didn’t predict that everything from the tale to the characters all seem to interlink somewhere along the way weaving a web you drawn into and held by.

I know we said we would discuss endings on the NTTVBG, and we all can, but just I don’t want to pop the books ending on the main post as I genuinely feel it would ruin it for anyone who hasn’t read the whole thing, pop back to the comments when you have would be my tip for the day. Is this a cop out? Maybe, but seriously I had no idea what the ending would be and if I had I think I would have felt something was stolen from me, does anyone else think that – ooh that’s something to discuss in the comments as the day goes on. So instead of endings I will turn to the rather quirky characters.

As hero and heroine, an unlikely pair at that and occasionally utterly maddening, naturally we spend most of the time with Ida and Midas and so for me at least they needed to be likeable. Oh I did like them, flaws and all (I bet Snow White and Prince Charming had issues Disney just deleted them) and actually I think the flaws only made them and the story stronger for me. I also loved the crazy reclusiveness of Fuwa another unlikely important figure in the whole proceedings. They all spoke to me, I wanted to spend time with them, get to know them and most importantly read on.

The writing, oh the writing… see there is so much to talk about. The writing for me was modern and yet poetic it had that magical like quality and yet never seemed far fetched or unconvincing even when tiny moth-winged cows were flying about the landscape. This to me is the sign of a great book and a marvellous writer, it could have been easy for this book to have become a parody of a fairytale and instead I was captivated and utterly spellbound for the whole journey.

I normally whack out a few questions at the end of a post, I know Lynne isn’t a fan of this, today I think I will get the ball rolling with one quick question. What did you think then? There, I will leave it in your capable hands; I will be back around 10am to conflab further as there is still so much I want to discuss!

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