Tag Archives: Andrew Smith

Savidge Reads’ Books of 2015 Part One…

So we have hit the penultimate day of 2015, where does the time go? Back by popular demand (well David kindly asked me) is the first of my two lists of the books that I loved most in 2015. Today’s selection for your delectation are the books that I have loved the most this year that were actually published originally before 2015 (yes, even the ones that came out in paperback in 2015 but were in hardback before then) which means some classics have given way to more modern books but this really reflects my tastes in general. More on that another time though. Without further waffle or ado, here are the first twelve books I really, really, really loved in 2015; you can click on the titles to go to my full reviews, with one exception…

11.

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2015 has been a year that has seen me devour and enjoy more graphic novels and memoirs than ever before and I have loved it. Undoubtedly that love was started this year with The Encyclopaedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg which combines history, myths and fairytales (with a slightly wonky twist) to create a wonderful visual world of Vikings, giants, gods, eskimo’s and more and celebrates the marvels of great stories and wonderful storytelling. A delight from start to finish.

10 (=).

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If you’d told me back at the start of 2015 that one of my books of the year would involve giant mutant preying grasshoppers /praying mantises then I would have laughed in your face. This would have been a) cruel and b) completely wrong. Grasshopper Jungle is a thrilling, gripping and entertaining rollercoaster of a read that looks at love, sexuality, friendship and how to survive if mutant killer insects who only want to breed and eat take over the world. What more could you ask for?

10 (=).

From the off, and indeed throughout, the world in Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours is, to be frank, pretty f***ed up. (I honestly tried quite hard to not use ‘the f bomb’ but it is the only word that seems apt.) Girls are now bred, yes bred, for three reasons. They can become a companion to the men in society who can afford it and have babies, which will only be boys as these girls have been bred to be breeders of the male line; they can become a concubine, and have sex (with no babies) with all the men in society who can afford it; or they can become chastity’s and shave their heads, wear black gowns and raise more manufactured young girls to keep the cycle ticking along. See, I told you, f***ed up, and that is only the beginning. I have a feeling Louise O’Neill is one of those authors whose careers we are just going to watch grow and grow and grow. Atwood, watch out, ha!

9.

Before I read it, I had some really odd preconceived ideas about H. G. Well’s The Invisible Man. First up I thought that it was a tome of some several hundred pages, wrong, it is a novella. Secondly I thought that it was set in the 1970’s (impossible as it was written in 1897) and involved some old man in a mackintosh who smoked, wrong, that is just something I naively surmised from an old 70’s edition of the book my mother had on her shelves. Thirdly I didn’t think I would enjoy it in any way shape or form, so wrong. What I got was an incredibly dark and sinister novel that suddenly becomes both incredibly moving and incredibly disturbing as you read on. Naturally with that in mind, I absolutely loved this book.

8.

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Imagine if Thomas Hardy and Cormac McCarthy had a bastard lovechild… He would be Benjamin Myers in my humble opinion and I think Beastings testifies that notion. I almost don’t feel I need tos say more, but I will. We know it is raining, we know that a young woman has fled the house she was living in with a baby that isn’t hers, we also have the sense that both her and the baby were in danger. We soon learn that she is being followed, although hounded/stalked sounds more sinisterly appropriate, and is heading for a secret island somewhere off the coast. Because on an island in the ocean no-one can sneak up on you. The question is if she can get through the forests and mountains of Cumbria and head to the ocean without being caught and without hardly any supplies. And with that, we are off…

7.

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I only recently devoured Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None yet it shot straight into my top ten without hesitation. Ten strangers are sent to an island under false pretenses, they are soon all accused of murder or implicated in a death, then they start to die one by one following the pattern of an old nursery rhyme. The premise is impossible, yet as Agatha Christie’s fantastic novel unfolds we soon come to learn that anything is possible, no matter how chilling or unbelievable it might first appear. An utterly stupendous thriller, once you have read it you understand why it is the biggest selling murder mystery in the world, ever.

6.

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Sometimes all I want as a reader is a bloody good story. I want a twisting plot, characters that walk of the page and that you love, hate or preferably a bit of both. I want mystery and intrigue. I want to be taken to a world I know nothing about and get lost in it and its entire atmosphere. I can be a right demanding so and so however Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist delivered all this to me in abundance as it took me on a gothic journey with Nella as she walked onto the threshold of Brant house in Amsterdam 1686.

5.

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2015 has also been a year where memoirs have been a hit, in several cases centring around grief and this is one of those. H is for Hawk is an incredibly special kind of read, which all the above culminates towards, simply put it is a generously open, honest and brutal yet beautiful book. Helen Macdonald takes us completely into her life and her world at a time when she was at her most broken and vulnerable and shares that with us in all its technicolour splendour of emotions. You will laugh, you will cry and you will have felt incredibly privileged to have spent time in the company of Helen, Mabel the Goshawk and the writer T.H. White.

4.

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Until this year I had never read a word of Patricia Highsmith’s, well don’t I feel a fool after reading this. Deep Water is one of the most entertaining, snarky, camply dark, vicious and twisted psychological thrillers I have read. It is also one of the most unusual as the reader watches a sociopath come to the fore from their normally meek mild mannered self… and we egg him on and like him, even understanding him oddly, the whole time. It is a fascinating insight into the mind of a killer, if this is a prime example of what Highsmith fondly described as “my psychopath heroes”, I can’t wait to meet the rest.

3.

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It seems that 2015 was the year of insects in fiction for me, this time with bees and heaven forefend ones that talk. From this alone I should have had some kind of anaphylactic shock to this book (see what I did there) however I was completely won over by the story of Flora as she works her way through and up the hive in Laline Paull’s wondrous debut The Bees. I have been talking about this book ever since and also been boring as many people as possible with the fascinating facts I learnt about these winged beings as I read. A book which for me had it all; brilliant writing, fantastic pace, fantastic facts and a real heart looking at class, religion and women’s rights.

2.

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Now then, this is the book I have yet to review and yet is a book which took over my life as I was enravelled in the whole life of another man, Logan Mountstuart. A man which I am still struggling to believe isn’t real as his diaries from 1923 – 1998, which make up William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, take us through school romps, to wild affairs, marriages, more affairs, wars and gossip with famous people through the decades and give us not only a vivid encounter with the recent history of Britain and its endeavours (which take us all over the world) but celebrate the lives of us strange folk and the power of the pen and the written word. Ruddy marvellous and a complete and utter nightmare to review hence why I haven’t managed as yet. You can hear me talking about it here though.

1.

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I talked about book tingles earlier in the year, that wonderful feeling you get when you read a book and the words just wash over you and you know everything in this book in front of you is going to encapsulate everything you love about reading. Carys Davies’ The Redemption of Galen Pike had that for me within paragraphs of it’s very first story. In this collection we are taken to places all over the world, to all walks of life and never given the story we expect in the beginning but something so much more; be it funny, dark or magical. It was a book that arrived completely new to me, no hype or anything and completely bowled me over. I adore this book with all my heart, it brought joy to my beardy face for the whole time I read it.

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So there we are the first half of my books for the year. I do feel like I should give some honourable mentions to Susan Barker’s The Incarnations, Susan Hill’s I’m The King of the Castle and Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart, but that will be deemed as cheating. Let me know your thoughts on those in my first list you have read and do pop and see my next list tomorrow. What have been some of your books of 2015?

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Grasshopper Jungle – Andrew Smith

When I was at Booktopia last year one of the books almost everyone kept raving about was Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith. They were all saying that it was their books of the year. As the synopsis they gave me was that it was about ‘the importance of love while giant horny mutant grasshoppers take over the world’ I thought they were all mad. Well guess what? I must also be mad because one of my books of the year is Grasshopper Jungle, and it is about the importance (and confusion) of love whilst giant horny mutant grasshoppers take over the world. Yes, first it was bees and now it is grasshoppers, insects in fiction are clearly my thing.

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Electric Monkey, paperback, 2014, young adult fiction, 400 pages, bought by me for me

Austin Szerba is trying to work the world out. He is trying to work school out, he is trying to work his family out, he is trying to work his friendships out and if he loves his best girl or boy friend the most, plus he is trying to work out what the point of everything is and how it all interconnects both in Ealing, Iowa, and outside it in the great beyond. You know, all the stuff you spend hours and hours pondering over when you’re a teenager and start to freak out about. Only soon, after an incident he is involved with, Austin and his best mate Robby unleash something which gives them something to worry even more about; they unleash a hidden capsule of the strain plague 412E, which can turn people into giant horny mutant grasshoppers who just want to eat, mate and take over the world. This is far more threatening and concerning than his worries about his own sexuality and who he loves surely?

At that moment, Grant Wallace fell down in his bathroom while taking a piss. Grant hit his head on the rim of his toilet. It was not a Nightingale. Grant Wallace’s head broke open. It didn’t matter. Grant was hatching. The bug that came out of Grant was young and powerful. He was hungry and also very horny. He needed to eat, he needed to find Eileen Pope. He could smell and hear Eileen Pope,  even though she was four miles away from the Wallace home.

I have to admit that from the start of the novel I was sceptical to say the least. How on earth was a book about mutant grasshoppers a) going to interest me b) make me give a monkeys c) leave any lasting impressions on me? Well, blow me down because it did all three. From the start of the book I was pretty intrigued by both Austin as a character and also as a storyteller. Before all the big (six foot tall, green armoured) drama starts, we get into the mind of a boy whose mind is all over the shop. He is a mass of hormones and questions. He thinks about sex all the time, both with his girlfriend Shann and openly gay best mate Robby – a friendship which also gets him constantly bullied He also manages, well sometimes between sex and more sex, to think about so much else including history (personal and world), the power of language, books, philosophy, science and human nature vs. animal (or insect) instinct. I instantly felt for him and was engaged by him.

So I was already intrigued before the green monsters of menace arrived onto the scene, then I became hooked. I know, me who doesn’t really read science fiction or fantasy – utterly gripped. Smith writes with a thrillingly gritty and gross style that appeals to the part of me that is still in my teens and likes to spend stupid amounts of money on Jelly Belly’s just because he can. I loved the gross descriptions of how the grasshoppers are born and how they then go on and rampage, killing and mating left, right and centre. You feel like you are in an utterly bizarre yet totally brilliant movie frankly, and you don’t want it to end.

Pastor Roland Duff continued, ‘Masturbation can also turn boys into homosexuals.’
When he said homosexuals, he waved his hands emphatically like he was shaping a big blob of dough into a homosexual so I could see what he was talking about.
That frightened me, and made me feel ashamed and confused.
Then he called my mother into the office and talked to her about masturbation too.
Up until that day, I was certain my mother didn’t know there was such a thing as masturbation.

Before you all start thinking that this novel is just a huge crazy romp, which for the most part it is an unashamedly so, there are some really interesting and much deeper things going on beneath the surface of the best monster movie we have yet (though apparently soon) to have watched. One of the things that Smith looks at, through the eyes of Austin, is how we need to find our place within the world and also connect with it. No matter who we are we have spent, and occasionally still spend, hours and hours mulling about this.

There is the sexuality theme, which is done brilliantly – I can’t imagine people reading it and thinking ‘eww that’s gay’, even though it sort of is – and is actually more about love defying labels or not being labelled at all (rightly so). It also looks at how hard is it to talk about, ask about and (with society and schooling being the way it can be) even think about. There is also the theme of longing for a connection with what has gone before us so we feel part of society and the bigger picture and also so that we can conquer the future, whatever awaits us. Though hopefully for most of us it won’t include having to try and save the world from a giant insect riddled from of Armageddon.

What I also really liked about it was that at no point did I feel patronised and nor did I feel that the young adult market, for which it is primarily aimed, would feel this way either. Smith writes Austin’s voice with authenticity and in a quick, speedy, frank manner which engages, entertains and makes the reader think as they read on. It is also one of those brilliant books which is bound to send it’s reader, again as it has done me, to want to go off and read lots and lots more books, starting with the ones it features. I have already bought Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and will be reading that in due course.

As I said earlier Grasshopper Jungle is going to be one of my books of the year without a shadow of a doubt. It has it all; thrills, thoughts, death, destruction, emotion and some very, very funny moments with some very moving ones. I also think it could make a huge amount of teenagers feel a lot better about some of the questions that are going through their heads; that it is ok to be gay, straight or whatever. It does all of that without ever preaching or persecuting whilst also being a whole load of fun. It’s a book that will educate and entertain adults and young adults alike.

Who else has read Grasshopper Jungle and what did you make of it? Have you read any of Andrew Smith’s other novels? I have The Alex Crow on the shelves and will be reading that after I get to The Chocolate Wars. As always, I would love any other recommendations of some corking, entertaining and enlightening YA novels (I will be recommending Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours to you all soon) that you have read and really rate.

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Filed under Andrew Smith, Books of 2015, Electric Monkey Publishing, Review

Ten LGBT Books That You Might Not Have Read But Should…

I don’t normally think about doing posts especially around Pride, not because I am not proud – I’m out and happy about it, I never know if proud is the right word – but because I always think that co-founding a prize like The Green Carnation Prize (which celebrates LGBT writing) means that I promote LGBT stories and LGBT authors. However with the reissue of three Vintage Classics, which you can win here, then the amazing news in America yesterday it felt the time was write for me to share my top LGBT novels, until I realised I had done it before. Oops. I then thought about doing a list of ten contemporary books you might not have read but should until I saw that Eric of Lonesome Reader had already done one this morning. Drats! However once he gave his blessing for me to do the same I popped a list together and neither of us have a book or author in common. Interesting. Here are mine, if I have reviewed them I have linked them in the title so you can find out more…

With A Zero At Its Heart – Charles Lambert

A collection of snippet like stories which create the whole of a human life. Experimentally it wonderfully evokes the story of a (rather bookish) young man as he grows up, discovers he is gay, finds himself, travels, becomes a writer and then deals with the death of his parents and the nostalgia and questions that brings about the meaning of life and how we live it. You can read a full review here.

Grasshopper Jungle – Andrew Smith

Now if I told you that a book about an impending apocolypse caused by giant horny mutant grasshoppers could be one of the most touching stories I have read this year about friendship and love and the blurred (and often confusing) lines between the two, you would probably think that I was mad. This is how I felt last year when everyone, and I mean everyone, who had read Grasshopper Jungle in America raved about it to me and said I simply had to read it. I did and they were right. It had also lead me into more YA fiction which by the looks of it is where some of the most exciting and intellegent LGBT themed writing is coming from. You have to read this book. I have to post my review sooner than soon.

He Wants – Alison Moore

Alison Moore’s writing is so deft in so many ways it is hard to try and do it justice, or without spoiling any of the many delights, twists/surprises and ‘did I just actually read that then?’ moments which the novel has in store as we discover the ins and outs of widowed Lewis’ life. It is a story of the everyman and a story that, if you are anything like me, will leave you feeling completely uplifted and utterly devastated, all at once. It is a perfect example of the sort of book I want to be reading. I loved it and you can see my full review of it here, was one of my books of 2014.

Physical – Andrew McMillan

Slight cheat here because this collection of poetry is not actually out for another two weeks (my blog, my rules) however you might want to order or put a copy on hold now. McMillan has the power to titillate and disturb in each of the poems that he writes whilst also, in particular the middle section, constructing poems the like of which I have never seen or read before. It is playful and also perturbing, saucy and sensual aswell as being masculine and moving. I haven’t read or experienced anything quite so like it, or so frank about all the forms of male love.

The Borrower – Rebecca Makkai

The Borrower is a road trip tale started when which ten year old Ian and his local librarian Lucy accidentally kidnap each other. This book is not only a love story to the powers of books and a good story, it looks at friendship and also the scary reality of some of the extremist views in certain parts of America (where I bet they are seething today) and the movement of ‘straightening therapy’. Bonkers and brilliant, it is one of those books that you hug to yourself afterwards and also cleverly packs one hell of a punch over a subject that is current and we need to talk about more – find out more here.

A Life Apart – Neel Mukherjee

In part the story of Ritwik a man who survives a horrendous childhood living on the breadline in Kalighat, India until his mother’s death when Ritwik moves to Oxford to find himself. Yet also a story of his elderly Oxford landlady Anne Cameron. As Ritwik experiments with his new found freedom and who he really is as a person he must also face is past and find a friend in Anne like he never expected, the story of their relationship is beautifully told. It is also a very vivid and, occasionally quite graphically, honest look at the life of some gay men in the early 1990’s – which as someone reminded me rudely today on the radio is over 20 years ago. I feel like I need to read this book again.

Hawthorn & Child – Keith Ridgway

I could have chosen this or The Long Falling also by Ridgway as they are both exceptional. Is Hawthorn & Child a novel or is it a series of short stories, who cares when it is this good. One of the many stories that make up the book will stay with me forever, ‘How To Have Fun With A Fat Man’ manages to several clever things in just fewer than twenty pages. Firstly it’s three separate narratives; one is Hawthorn at a riot, the second Hawthorn cruising for sex in a gay sauna and the third a visit to Hawthorn’s father. The way Ridgway writes the riot and the sauna sequences in such a way that sometimes you can’t tell which is which and plays a very interesting game with so called acts of masculinity. Brilliance. A sexy, quirky, stunningly written book which should have won the Booker.

Mr Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo

Yes I too now have Shabba Ranks in my head. Back to the book though, the tale of Mr Barrington Jedediah Walker, Esq is one you are unlikely to forget, just like its protagonist. As his elderly years start to approach more and more Barrington decides it is time to leave his wife and follow his true heart which lies with his best friend Morris, much to the horror of his family and many people he knows. Evaristo writes a wonderful, funny and moving novel which gives a much missed voice in the literary scene and in the LGBT scene a change to be heard, understood and by the end celebrated. You have to read this book.

Sacred Country – Rose Tremain

Possibly the oldest out of this selection of books but one which I think addresses something that we need to be discussing more and seems to be missing in literature in general, unless it is just me… the transexual story. Tremain introduces us to Mary Ward, who has felt different from everyone all her childhood, as she realises that she should actually be a boy. We then follow her journey from the turbulence of her youth in Northern England to London where believes she will be able to live just as she was meant to, yet can she?

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

So with my last choice, I have slightly cheated again as this isn’t out in the UK for another month and a half (though if you’re in the US it has been out a while) yet this is probably a book I am going to urge everyone, no matter their sexuality/class/colour, that they have to read as not only is it one of the best books I have read on love and sexuality and friendship, but one of the best books I have ever read on what it means to be human. Seriously that good. I cannot praise it enough, it’s tough to read but so it should be. Will easily be one of my books of the year and very likely to be one of the best LGBT books I ever read. Yep, that good.

Now if you are wondering about my favourite LGBT books that I hinted at back at the start, well below is a video I made discussing them when I was flirting with the idea of being a booktuber. Have a gander as there are ten more tip top recommended books, even if I do say so myself.

If you need a list of the titles they were; Pilcrow – Adam Mars Jones, The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller, Running With Scissors – Augusten Burroughs, The Proof of Love – Catherine Hall, A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood, My Policeman – Bethan Roberts, In Cold Blood – Truman Capote, Skin Lane – Neil Bartlett, A Boy’s Own Story – Edmund White and Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin.

If that wasn’t enough, and as if there can ever be enough book recommendations, then do check out Eric’s blog post today (where I have gained ten new to me recommendations) and also the Green Carnation Prize website for all the previous long and shortlists. Oh and don’t forget you can win those Vintage Pride Classics here. Happy Pride and well done America! Love wins.

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The Assumptions We Make About Books & Authors…

Last week when the lovely Thomas and I were thinking about subjects to talk about on the latest episode of The Readers Podcast he came up with the idea that we should discuss ‘bookish assumptions’. I was horrified, how dare Thomas suggest that I made assumptions about books. I mean I don’t have any, well, apart from the fact I don’t like books set on boats, set around sports (a new one), set on another planet or with a horse in them or on the cover… Oh! The thing is the more I thought about it the more I realised I do it.

Judging for Fiction Uncovered is underway, and I am reading like a little book machine. When the first batch of book arrived I was filled with excitement, so much so that I put it off for a few hours. Upon opening them I took the books out one by one and instantly started making assumptions about them. I can’t talk about what the books are, as I have sworn to secrecy, but I can say I was basing my thoughts on the following; the cover, what I had heard about the author from other readers if I recognised their name, the blurb/premise. Shameful. This was judging before I should even be judging and so I set the books on a shelf in alphabetical order by title and that is how I have been reading them, and it has been somewhat of a revelation as now I am just reading them one by one and focusing on whether the writing style and prose, story, characters, etc are working for me. Oh and if any of them are giving me a book tingle – more on that tomorrow.

The reality of the situation is that if we are having a good old mooch around a book shop these are the very things that we will judge a book on if we are honest. Though that said this is in the instances when we know very little about the book and so that is all we can judge it on. What about authors themselves, Thomas asked me before we recorded…

‘Oh I don’t judge authors, I will give anyone a whirl, I think.’
‘Really?’
‘Erm yeah, unless they have written a book about a talking horse who is stuck on a boat filled with men who can only endure the long days boxing as they are stuck in an ocean on another planet with no help.’
‘Right, so what about authors that you have seen behaving badly on social media or who have extreme views?’
‘Erm, well I won’t read those obviously, who wants to read a book written by a knobhead?’
‘Okay… and what about E.M. Forster?’
‘Oh…’

First let me tackle the authors I think are knobheads might perhaps not come across very well on social media or who have some extreme views. I like to believe that goodness and kindness will out. So if I see an author on social media or maybe read/hear an interview with an author where they are coming across like a pompous/arrogant or worse homophobic/racist/bigoted then no I really don’t want to read their book thank you very much. One, I don’t want to give them any money/sales and two; I wouldn’t want to spend my time with them in the flesh so why would I want to spend my time in their heads where the book has come from. A prime example is Ender’s Game I don’t care how good it is, I don’t want to read a book by someone with his views. I don’t mind reading books about homophobia but I don’t want to read a book written by someone whose mind is laced with it.

Secondly, and lastly in case I am going on which as I love a waffle is likely, the authors who I have read before and made assumptions about. Rise Mr E.M. Forster, who I actually (having thought about it) have to admit that I may have tarnished unfairly because I loathed A Room With A View and swore I would never read anything by him again. Why was this unfair? Well, I think really it might more have been the way it was taught by a dreadful English A Level teacher at Devizes 6th Form College in 1997/1998 who made it as painful and unbearable to dissect and repeat, repeat, repeat both book and film. However, more recently, having read The Martian (or trying to) I can confirm I will never ever attempt/bother reading Andy Weir again. Ever. (I’m sure with the huge adaptation rights he has sold he won’t be crying into his pillow.)

But are assumptions actually a bad thing? I am going to say in the most part no, occasionally yes. In the latter case I have been proved by James Dawson, E. Lockhart, R.J. Palacio and Andrew Smith that YA novels, which I had made some rather negative assumptions about, are bloody brilliant when done really well and now plan to read Patrick Ness, Lisa Williamson and many more. The reason I think no is that actually as much as we are looking for more books to fill our lives and shelves with, we also need to filter down the amount of choice there is out there. This can be through materialistic things like a bad cover, personal choices about if an author being an utter wally can put us off or if we just don’t trust horses or more importantly if we just don’t like certain authors styles of prose and their books just don’t work for us. It is all about tastes really isn’t it?

Tomorrow we will be talking about book tingles, the best things in the world. In the meantime I would love to hear some of things that make you have assumptions about books (subject matters, talking animals, genres etc) and also about the assumptions you have made about books both ones you have been right and wrong about… Help me feel a little less crazy/judgemental.

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