Tag Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

In my last review I talked about the importance of books that make you face, head on, some of the awful things that are going on in the world, the power of fiction being able to send you into the heads of those you wouldn’t choose to be for various reasons. Today I want to talk to you about the supreme power at the opposite end of the spectrum that fiction can have, the ability to take you away to another place, time and world wrapped in escapism and joy that is one of the main reasons that we read. Sarah Perry’s wonderful second novel, The Essex Serpent, is just such a book and one which (as easily one of my favourite books of the year so far) I will be urging you all to go and escape with it as soon as you can.

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Serpents Tail, 2016, hardback, fiction, 419 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Winter comes like a blow to the back of his neck: he feels it penetrate his shirt and go into his bones. The good cheer of drink is gone, and he’s comfortless there in the dark – he looks for his coat, but clouds hide the moon and he is blind. His breath is slow, the air is full of pins; the marsh at his feet all at once is wet, as if something out there has displaced the water. Nothing, it’s nothing, he thinks, patting about for his courage, but there it is again: a curious still moment as if he were looking at a photograph, followed by a frantic uneven motion that cannot merely be the tug of the moon on the tides. He thinks he sees – is certain he sees – the slow movement of something vast, hunched, grimly covered over with rough and lapping scales; then it is gone.
In the darkness he grows afraid. There is something there, he feels it, biding its time – implacable, monstrous, born in water, always with an eye cocked in his direction.

The small close knit town of Aldwinter is in shock, as it seems that the Essex Serpent has returned after over 200 years when it last infamously terrorised the area. One of the townsmen has been found dead, with a petrified look upon his face, and soon enough fear is running rife through the area as cattle and people start to be reported as missing. This is not good news for William Ransom, the local rector, who refuses to believe (or cannot believe) that such a thing exists and refuses to name it as anything other than ‘the Trouble’, yet his congregation are afraid and starting to question his preaching further unsettling the town.

Further afield though nothing could be more exciting, or indeed more needed, for recently widowed Cora Seaborne than a possible adventure. With a fascination for fossils and palaeontology from the moment she hears of the ‘Strange News Out of Essex’ (which is also the name of the first part of the book, each part gets a wonderfully tempting title in a delicious nod to the Victorian sensation novels of the day) she sets off in search of it and any other prehistoric hints in the marshes and estuaries. This being bad news for Dr Luke Garrett, who loves Cora and her rousing spirit and believes that after her grieving there might be a chance for love. But who could second guess such a woman?

‘I daresay you have heard tell of the Essex Serpent, which once was the terror of Henham and Wormingford, and has been seen again?’ Delighted, Cora said that she had not. ‘Ah,’ said Taylor, growing mournful, ‘I wonder if I ought not trouble you, what with ladies being of a fragile disposition.’ He eyed his visitor, and evidently concluded that no woman in such a coat could be frightened by mere monsters.

Cora Seaborne is one of Sarah Perry’s many masterstrokes within The Essex Serpent. It is hard to create a women of heightened independence in the Victorian period, ironic seeing as who the period was named after, who is believable. More often than not you have to go for the cheeky buxom wench like Nancy in Oliver Twist or some monstrous matriarch. However Cora is a widow which both gives her the means to have the independence that she desires yet at what cost? For as we read on behind Cora’s seemingly excitable and joyful exterior there is a vulnerable side and a darker story hidden away. I loved this because it adds layers to her as a character and also to the plot with an additional mystery. Not many authors can pull this off.

Having scoured its river for kingfishers and its castle for ravens, Cora Seaborne walked through Colchester with Martha on her arm, holding an umbrella above them both. There’d been no kingfisher (‘On a Nile cruise, probably – Martha, shall we follow them?’), but the castle keep had been thick with grave-faced rooks stalking about in their ragged trousers. ‘Quite a good ruin,’ said Cora, ‘But I’d have liked to’ve seen a gibbet, or a miscreant with pecked-out eyes.’  

Yet a novel about an independent woman in the Victorian era would almost be too easy for our author, which is one of the things I loved about its predecessor. Perry pushes the boundaries of what we expect, she is all about the deeper layers, rather like the estuaries we visit in the story, and the cheeky winks and nods in this book. Why simply have a mysterious tale of a possible monster and the rector and female amateur scientist who try to hunt it down, with a hint of potential illicit romance and shenanigans thrown in for good measure (though that is a perfect book right there) when you can do more? Why not throw in the question of platonic love vs. sexual attraction and see what can be weaved and unravelled out of that?

Then, if you’re in the mood which Perry clearly was, why not look at other things going on in society then that are still conundrums now. Questions about feminism, class, science vs. religion? Sarah Perry hasn’t just made Cora’s love interests be a rector and a doctor for your reading pleasure, although it adds to it hugely so of course she has, there is more going on here. In doing so certain questions and dynamics make the book brim all the further. Why is it that Luke Garrett is so desperate to mend physical broken hearts after all? Why will William not be ruled by his head or his heart? These all lead off to a wonderful dark subplots that I won’t spoil but I bloody loved.

I also mentioned those lovely winks and nods didn’t I? Well these are further proof of what a superb mind can use to create such a superb book. In the 1890’s sensation novels were all the rage and Sarah Perry takes these wonderful books and pays homage to them and also plays with them. She takes many of the standard glorious Gothic tropes and waves at them joyously. Possible monsters in eerie boggy marshes (which are written so atmospherically) and bodies petrified to death take you to the world of Sherlock Holmes. The Woman in White, and indeed the Woman in Black, are winked at with a Woman in Blue – which in the authors notes are also a nod to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets which made me want to squeeze Sarah to bits with unbridled love and may get me arrested or a restraining order. Servants clearly smitten with their mistresses give a hint of Rebecca. Okay, I know that some of those are the wrong era but two are gothic and some of my favourites. Rather like her writing prose in contemporary English rather than of the period these all add to the atmosphere and yet keep it fresh and different.

She also flip reverses (if any of you now have that Blazin’ Squad hit single in your head I now love you) many of these tropes on their head. When is the rector ever a sex object or the rich widow doing anything but being a bitch or scheming to marry and kill off another husband, for example? Sarah Perry also uses some wonderful knowing hindsight between the reader and herself with them. A prime example is Cora’s son who everyone thinks is just a bit sinister and odd, who we all see as clearly being autistic and misunderstood – well I thought so. Sarah is enjoying writing this book as much as you are reading it and there is a communication going on between author and reader that is rare and wonderful when it happens. Suffice to say all these additional layers, elements and nods are what takes The Essex Serpent from being a brilliant book to being a stand out fantastic book. Goodness me I loved it. Can you tell?

I don’t normally advice that you judge a book by its cover; I will make an exception in the case of The Essex Serpent, for its insides are as wonderful as its outsides. It is a beautifully and intrinsically crafted and tempts, beguiles and hooks its readers into a vivid and ever so sensational and gothic world. I think it is a wonder. It is a ripping great yarn and also so much more. Delicious. As I said at the beginning Sarah Perry has written a novel which has been one of the highlights of my reading year and after the wonders of this and After Me Comes the Flood I simply cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Review, Sarah Perry, Serpent's Tail

Other People’s Bookshelves #74 – Joanna Walsh

Hello and welcome, after a small sabbatical, to the latest in Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week we are in the company of author Joanna Walsh and her wonderful shelves. Joanna has put quite the spread on for us with something for everyone, so let’s all grab a glass and a nibble of something and have a nose through her bookshelves and learn more about her.

Joanna Walsh is the author of Hotel, Vertigo (UK publication 2016), Grow a Pair and Fractals. She writes for The Guardian, The New Statesman, and The National. She is Fiction Editor at 3:AM Magazine, and runs the capping @read_women, which the New York Times described as a “rallying cry for equal treatment for women writers.”

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

I have a holding system. As I review, I am sent quite a few books which go into the ‘to be read immediately’ pile, the ‘to be read later pile’, the ‘to be given away pile’ and any number of intermediate piles. I try not to put things on the shelves that I haven’t read, because it means I might forget to read them.

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?

I just made myself a new set of shelves so I can have more of my books together. I made them out of scaffolding planks and bricks and I’m not really a pro at this so the whole thing is rather unstable although the planks are bracketed to the wall at a central point. I hope they don’t fall down and kill me someday. I alphabetise – although it’s not very aesthetically pleasing. I found I had to, because I do a lot of work that involves referring to other works. I discovered that I have an affinity for authors at the beginning of the alphabet, especially authors beginning with B*, which is lucky because I often sit right under that section. Art books have their own set of shelves downstairs for reasons of size (‘B’s/’C’s  there too! Bourgeois, Carrington, Calle, Blake again…), and then journals/anthologies etc, which are not by one writer, & also things I’ve contributed to/written just because I couldn’t fit all these things on my main set of shelves.

*Beckett, Benjamin, Claire-Louise Bennet, Brooke-Rose, Breton, Blake, Baudriallard, Barthleme, Barthes, Buzzati, Bacon, Baudelaire, Bernhard, Bowles (Jane), Nicholson Baker, Flann O’Brien (should he be under O? Probably, but he obeys no laws of reason).

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

I used libraries as a child. I think I bought the Penguin complete Sherlock Holmes when I was about 10. It went mouldy when there was a leak in my wall a few years ago so I had to throw it out along with some other books.

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?

The only pile I’m embarrassed about is the pile of books written by acquaintances that I might never get around to reading. (To anyone reading this who’s given me their book: no, OF COURSE I don’t mean YOURS.)

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

I’m not really attached to books as objects. Books should be reproducible, that’s the point of them isn’t it? It’s the writing that counts. On the other hand I do love well-designed books (I’ve designed several book covers). There’s no reason the design of electronic books shouldn’t be excellent too. All the same,  I don’t like to read e-books, but that’s because because it’s very difficult to weigh how far you are through them, and more or less impossible to take spontaneous notes: and you can’t bend them, or leave them splayed spine-up or fold them to mark a page, or read them in the bath. I do often read pdfs/epubs on my laptop when reviewing.

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

I was pretty excited when I read Lord of the Rings when I was 9. I thought it was a grown-up book because it had no pictures. I got about 1/3 of the way through before I realised it had a page with some kind of runic diagram or something, and I felt cheated. I did finish it, though. I was very concerned that I should be able to finish such a long book.

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My dad was an English and drama teacher, so I read a lot of Beckett as a teenager, especially the plays. I was also really interested by The Pilgrim’s Progress because his edition had an intriguing cover. I did read that. I always anticipated that books long-deferred because they were ‘for grown-ups’ must hold some kind of secret that was so big and important that I couldn’t possibly even conceive of it. But I think there’s too much emphasis on childhood reading, that it’s sometimes sentimentalised, perhaps because for some people who don’t, or hardly ever, read books as adults, this is when they read most. I’m constantly coming across books that are THE BOOK for a while, and have at every period of my life.

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?

I usually put it on a wish list and don’t buy it unless I need to reference it. Having it on a list must make me feel I if I do possess it in some way. Sometimes I lend out a book, then I don’t want to ask for it back for one reason, or another. I’m more likely to buy it then.

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

After they’ve been through the holding pattern thing, maybe Lucia Berlin’s collected short stories, which I may not reread very soon, and Lispector’s, which I definitely will. Apart from when I’m reviewing, I’m pathologically incapable of finishing a book of short stories. I have no idea why.

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I just bought Bolaño’s 2666, and of course that’s gone on the tbr pile, not a shelf, but it’s size is a bit daunting so I’m not sure how quickly it will get to the shelves…

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

There are books I wish were available – like Leonora Carrington’s short stories, and Down Below, her memoir of incarceration in a Spanish mental asylum. I read this book in a university library. I am sad that such a common-or-garden-looking paperback is available only there, or via a second-hand book dealer for quite unreasonable sums.

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

Pseudy (post)modernist.

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A huge thanks to Joanna for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Joanna’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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Other People’s Bookshelves #65 – Sarah Perry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Other People’s Bookshelves #27 – Matt Cresswell

Hello and welcome to the latest in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves, which must mean it is the weekend and I have survived my first proper full week of work, and have been in blog-hiding after my honest and possibly offending post, and am probably/hopefully curled up with a good book somewhere or watching Kylie on The Voice. This week we are back in the Manchester area (because the north is the best, ha) as we join jack of all trades, as he would call himself, Matt Cresswell, who is a writer, editor and illustrator and soon hopefully bookshop owner. I will let him explain better…

The projects seem to be piling up. I’ve published short fiction in various places, including Icarus Magazine, Hearing Voices magazine and in Shenanigans: Gay Men Mess With Genre from Obverse Books, and, like half the people I know, am halfway through writing a novel – a steampunk/Victorian detective novel with Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle and Queen Victoria as the detective’s gang of assistants. I blog at www.mattcresswell.com, and I also edit Glitterwolf Magazine, a UK-based literary magazine showcasing fiction, poetry, art and photography by LGBT contributors. And I am the creator, writer and co-illustrator of End of the Rainbow, an online webseries (www.endoftherainbow.co.uk) set on Canal Street in Manchester, which has a print omnibus forthcoming in 2014 from Lethe Press. When I’m not balancing all those plates, I put the bread on the table with freelance copy-editing, graphic design and audiobook narration. I am also an avid reader.

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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?

Before I moved to university I never threw a book out. But then when I moved out it was like Sophie’s Choice. From then on I’ve had to be picky about what can take up space on my shelves. I currently live with a flatmate who has almost as many books as me, and we had to negotiate our bookshelves, like negotiating a delicate truce. There’s bookcases in every room, including two in the hallway. I always judge people by their shelves though, so what’s left on display is just the favourites. And when I say ‘just’, that’s still quite a few of ‘justs’… My system for maintaining that is yearly trips back home with boxes of books for the attic because I still can’t bring myself to not in some way possess them.

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?

I routinely re-organise them, create a complex system, which then immediately goes to pot. Currently there are three shelves of favourites (the top two of the black shelves, and all the shelves by my desk – which also have my slim section for my own publication credits), a shelf of LGBT fiction, about six or seven shelves of to be read, short story collections, non-fiction and what has come be known in the household as the ‘pretentious hardbacks shelf’ which were all the books I bought because Waterstones said I should, and I’ve never read.

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

My god… I’m not quite sure. When I was growing up, my dad was an antiquarian book dealer, and our home didn’t have a television, so I was bought lots and lots of books. We spent half our lives in second-hand bookshops, and because he used to get dealer’s discount on whatever leatherbound tome he’d ferretted out, they just used to throw in all the paperbacks that I’d found for free—so I never had to buy my own books. The first I can remember buying for myself was Outcast of Redwall by Brian Jacques, when I was about seven, bought at a school book fair. I read the whole series, passing the books to my mother who read them after me. I was very sad to hear of his recent death—without exaggeration, it was like bit of childhood fading! It’s not on my shelves anymore, but it’s with the rest of the series on my mother’s shelves, where it’s been read by a few of the generation after me.

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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?

When my parents visited once, I stripped the house of anything even slightly sordid, but missed the tattered paperback of Lolita that my Presbyterian minister dad leafed through then put back hurriedly. I’m not really embarrassed of any of it, although my partner John tells me that I am subconsciously embarrassed of his books – fantasy epics in the vein of Raymond E. Feist, Robert Jordan, Trudi Canavan, etc. – because I relegate them to the bottom shelves or the bookcases in the bedroom.

Mind you, I do get a bit defensive over the presence of both of Belle du Jour’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl books on my favourites shelf. But that just makes me stubborn and determined to put them on display, because I tell myself off for being a book snob.

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

There’s a 15th century Bible that you can see on the desk shelves. Me, my brothers and my sister all took one book from by dad’s library after he died to remember him by. I have no attachment to the actual words on the page inside it, but the book itself would be the first thing I’d save in a fire. Aside from that one, there are very few things I’d actively be heartbroken about. I have some signed copies that I’d be quite sad about – Neil Gaiman, Paul Magrs, Iain Banks, and, um, John Barrowman – but as long as I can remember the events themselves, the books aren’t as important. 

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?

My mother had The Lord of the Rings on her shelves – which was very odd, because the rest of her reading was in the line of biographies of missionaries, and books like Harry Potter were frowned upon for their ‘black magic’. I read The Lord of the Rings when I was nine, but had to break the spine of the paperback into the three books because I couldn’t hold it otherwise. My teachers at school didn’t believe I was actually capable of reading it, and quizzed me to check I wasn’t making it up. It’s still on my shelves, the same, split-into-three copy, with covers that I made out of cut-and-stick photocopies. I didn’t think of it as an adult book though – I thought of it as another children’s fantasy that just went on a lot longer. My brother lent me the novelisation of The Fugitive the same year—he meant to censor the first chapters, but I was impatient, read it anyway and scared myself silly.

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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?

Yes! I’m a completionist. I don’t tend to borrow books though – I’m usually the lender. But I’ll buy something for the kindle and if I like it, I’ll feel the urge to have a physical copy to put on the shelf. The reverse of this was The Time Traveller’s Wife, which I bought seven times, after each loaned copy was lent on to someone else in the excitement, and lost.

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

Hal Duncan’s forthcoming short story collection, Scruffians! which I was lucky enough to get an ARC of. I’m recording the audiobook version of it too, which when I was asked, made me giddy with hero-worship. He’s a wonderful, wonderful writer.

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

I’ve recently dipped into the starts of series and am now wishing I had the whole series on my shelves – George Mann’s Newbury and Hobbes, Discworld, Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May, Lev Grossman’s Magician series, Mark Hodder’s Burton and Swinburne and all of China Mievelle’s oeuvre. I’ve made a start with all of them, and am now panicking at the volume of ongoing series I’ve opened a door to. So many books, so little time…

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

My dad popping Lolita back on the shelf, or perusing all the gay fiction titles would probably think ‘Filth!’ but hopefully that’s not what everyone else would think. I was very conscious after English Literature at university of trying to get away from the ‘book-snobbery’ that kind of education brings on, so I hope that my shelves look like a hodge-podge of someone who loves books for the enjoyment, and isn’t trying to check off a list of ‘worthy reads’, as it were.

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A huge thanks to Matt 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 Matt’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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The Longest Night: Five Curious Tales

I have often said that to write a really good ghost story in a modern setting is almost impossible. However a recent collection of five wintery ghostly tales The Longest Night by a collective compiled of authors Jenn Ashworth, Tom Fletcher, Richard Hirst, Alison Moore and Emma Jane Unsworth seems to have proven me wrong. Whilst I read each of these tales, which are designed to emulate M.R James’ tradition on Christmas Eve (so very apt today) of meeting with friends to exchange tales of the supernatural, I found that I often was either chilled, shocked or felt the hairs on my neck slowly begin to rise as I read on.

Curious Tales, 2013, paperback, fiction, ghost stories, 88 pages, kindly sent by Emma Jane Unsworth

The Longest Night isn’t a collection of stories designed to revolutionise or modernise the ghostly tale, as what each author does rather marvellously is give the tale a truly Victorian feeling yet very much in a modern setting. If you are wondering what on earth I mean by that, I mean that the stories feel very traditional with modern twist. We have old haunted houses, slightly scary children who might be possessed or at least can speak to the dead, ghostly ladies returning from the grave and of course the wonderful scares a telephone can provide. Why is it that the simple telephone can be so bloody unnerving? All these tales also have the feeling of you being told the tale firsthand, as Stephen Volk (who created the cult show Ghostwatch) says in the introduction of ‘No listen. This happened to me…’, a celebration of the oral tradition of the ghostly tale. In fact, frankly, I wanted to be sat by a roaring fire with a mulled wine being told these tales by the authors themselves – which if you pop to the site you will see they are doing, well in bookshops anyway. I feel slightly cheated I have missed out.

Now you may have noticed that I am being rather vague, or actually haven’t really mentioned, about what lies in wait within each of the tales. This is because as they are all rather short, again the traditional and best ghostly tales are short sharp shocks, and so I wouldn’t want to spoil them. I think I can get away with saying that Alison Moore (who wrote the brilliant The Lighthouse) and Tom Fletcher’s stories are probably the most traditional in terms of setting and sensibility, both set within empty houses; one the former estate of a famous author, the other a new house in the middle of nowhere where a house husband starts to feel something not quite right is going on and seems to be linking itself to his young daughter. I loved these as they felt like the sorts of tales that Arthur Conan Doyle and M.R. James would indeed write now.

I also greatly admired the three tales by Ashworth, Hirst and Unsworth as whilst each one of them had the traditional feel, they also had something of the urban legend about them mixed in and probably most importantly they had the evocation of modern human base fears mixed in with the supernatural. In each tale there is an underlying completely natural fear be it grief, loneliness or madness. With those feelings we all know so well plus the sense of unease and fearful trepidation they all had a horribly, yet brilliantly, heady mix of the fearful running right into every part of their structure and it was really deftly done.

All in all a marvellous, very well written and indeed incredibly unsettling collection of modern winter ghostly tales which I think would have gladly given the contemporary ghost writers of the past a real case of the shivers. I am hoping this becomes a yearly fixture as I could do with a decidedly chilling evening in the pre-Christmas madness once a year, or more often frankly.

For more information about the last few available copies and indeed where the authors will be reading in the New Year head to the Curious Tales website here.

Which are your favourite ghostly tales for the perfect darkened evening with the roaring fire (I don’t have a roaring fire here, which along with the lack of a bath has confirmed in my mind I need to have moved by next winter just for reading purposes alone) be they new or old? Do you think the Victorians did it best? Have you any other modern ghostly tales that will continue to prove my thoughts on the modern ghost story wrong?

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What Makes a Great Ghost Story?

I do love a good ghost story, though I have to admit I don’t read enough of them. What better time of the year, well here in the UK, is there to read them? No, not just because of the obvious fact it is Halloween today (Happy Halloween). It is autumn, my favourite season of the year as the nights are drawing in and there is a certain chill in the air. Delightful.

Of course today is Halloween and whether you celebrate it or not you simply cannot miss the ghosts, witches, monsters and gargoyles in your local shops (and no I don’t mean the other punters). Naturally for a bookish sort this will lead to thinking about supernatural reads. Or even to Ghost Huntersthe not so bookish as I mentioned the other day that it seemed the supernatural spirit (see what I did there) took over The Beard and two new spooky tales came home from the super(natural)market. I am on fire with puns today, like a witch on a stake. I am currently devouring ‘The Ghost Hunters’ by Neil Spring, all about the infamous Borley Rectory, and its very good. I am most impressed at how in such a long book he keeps the spooky suspense going as I normally like a shorter sharper shock for a ghostly tale. Which of course leads us to today’s (first, there will be another later when it goes darker) post as I was wondering what makes a truly great ghost story?

You see for me ghost stories are a tricky bunch. I am much more of a ‘chills and suspense’ kind of reader than I am a ‘blood and guts and gore’ kind of reader. As I mentioned above I tend to like a sharper ghostly tale, short stories in the main or novella’s maximum, as I find that prolonged tension doesn’t really work as well. For me. I also find ghostly tales set in modern times just don’t work. You can all too easily whip out your mobile phone or some gizmo and the fear vanishes, a good Victorian ghostly tale tends to tick all my boxes. (I actually threw a gauntlet down once that modern settings for a ghost story don’t work and guess what James Dawson was inspired to prove me wrong, this was confirmed from his own mouth!)

So to investigate what I think makes the perfect ghostly tale, whilst also using Neil Spring as a good example of a longer tale, I picked four titles from my newly restructured shelves that I thought I would dip into over this Halloween and autumn too…

Ghostly Tales

Alfred Hitchcock loved a good spooky/horror story and this collection is of some of his favourite ‘Stories Not For The Nervous’. This appeals to me immensely as I love being made to feel nervous in fiction (not in real life, in real life nerves destroy me) and I think these twenty tales and three novelettes which are included will work wonders. Next up is a selection of ‘Ghost Stories’ chosen by Susan Hill (who to me is Queen of the Ghostly Tale) which features my favourite Mr Wilkie Collins and more surprisingly, to me at least, Elizabeth Bowen and Edith Wharton. ‘The Conan Doyle Stories’ are one of my most prized possessions in the world. My Great Uncle Derrick would memorise these and tell them to me when I was very young on walking holidays, ten miles a day roughly, and Gran always said she would desperately try to keep up with us so she didn’t miss the endings. I haven’t read these for ages and should. Finally a renowned author of all things horror (and quite weird), yet new to me, H. P. Lovecraft. I have no idea if I will love these or not but it will be fun finding out.

So before I head off and start reading these dark delights, and hopefully scaring myself silly, I wondered what it was that makes the perfect ghostly tale for you all and what ghost stories you would most recommend?

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Other People’s Bookshelves #15 – Janet O’Kane

So after ANOTHER small hiatus Other People’s Bookshelves is back… Hoorah! Thank you to everyone who has responded to my plea for more of you to share your book porn with us, keep them coming as I would love this series to run and run. If you haven’t heard back from me, have sent them before but not been featured or you have held back thinking there’s a queue (it’s a small one) then do please email savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves and they will be featured. I have been a bit slack. Anyway, for the fifteenth in the series we get to have a lovely nosey through Janet O’Kane’s shelves, first though (I know you are desperate to see the books, the books, the books) let us find out a little bit more about Janet…

As Janet grew up in rural Dorset her parents instilled in her an immense love of books. They tried not to spoil her (she was an only child) but she was provided with all the books she ever wanted, either from the library or bought from a local second‑hand shop. For a long time she answered the question, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ with, ‘A librarian’. Despite this, her first job was in Harrods, the London store, where she sold Wedgwood china to rich tourists and underwear to the then 007, Roger Moore. She also worked for Boots for many years, although that company’s lending libraries were long gone. Now living in the Scottish Borders with her husband John, two dogs, two cats and numerous chickens, Janet still reads as much as she can and has a deep mistrust of anyone else who doesn’t. She mostly reads crime fiction, despite the best efforts of an Open University degree course and the Berwick Book Group to entice her away from that genre.

Janet has always written for pleasure, and remembers winning a Brooke Bond writing competition at the age of ten with a short story inspired by Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. She started writing in earnest when she moved to Scotland and early on was delighted to have a poem published in Forum magazine. Unfortunately, she couldn’t cash the £10 cheque because she had been too embarrassed to submit under her own name.  The idea for the opening of Janet’s first novel, No Stranger to Death, which will be published on November 5th, came to her at a Guy Fawkes party held in the village where they used to live. When she suggested to John that a huge bonfire would be a good way to dispose of a dead body, he said, ‘Go on then, write it’. And over the next few years, in between jobs and studying for a degree, she did. She now writes fulltime. Janet blogs about writing and her life in the Scottish countryside at www.janetokane.blogspot.co.uk and is also an avid fan of Twitter, where she is @JanetOkane

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

I wish I had the space to keep every book I read, but instead I have to be ruthless. I try to find space for signed copies and novels I’ve really enjoyed. I also won’t part with some of the books I studied for my recent Open University degree, and a few teenage favourites, like The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. The rest I pass on to friends or our local charity shop. There is one exception: I’ve kept a copy of the worst crime novel I’ve ever read, and no, I’m not going to say what that is.

Janet Okane bookshelves 001

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?

I group the books I’ve read by subject or genre. While many – okay, most – of my shelves hold crime fiction, there are also reference, travel, gardening, art and film books. Guides to writing are on a separate shelf unit. Unread books – of which I have over 100, excluding what’s on my Kindle – are grouped together on two TBR shelves. I’ve promised myself I won’t buy any more until I’ve considerably reduced that number, and regularly but cheerfully fail to keep that promise.

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

From an early age I spent all my pocket-money on books but I confess I don’t own a single Enid Blyton or Angel Brazil now. I do though, still have that copy of Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers I bought at the age of 17 to read on the journey up to London for a job interview. My Mum travelled with me and I remember sitting awkwardly to stop her from seeing what I was laughing at.

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?

I don’t think anyone should feel guilty about what they read, as long as they do read! My tastes are there for all to see.

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?

To me, a book is just a book and easily replaced, so I don’t have an emotional attachment to any in particular. I’d concentrate on getting my husband, cats and dogs to safety and making sure the fire didn’t spread to the henhouses.

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?

My Dad only read non-fiction, usually about World War Two or football, while my Mum was a huge fan of crime fiction by the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham. Guess whose books I moved on to when I outgrew my own! I have a few Christies on my shelves but tend not to reread books except for a specific reason, like a competition. Revisiting The Murder of Roger Ackroyd proved worthwhile as I won a weekend pass to the 2010 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Festival in Harrogate for summing it up in 50 words.

Janet Okane bookshelves 006

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?

I’m lucky to be able to buy most of the books I want to read, although I struggle to justify buying hardbacks or expensive books about art. I enter competitions and drop hints at Christmas for those.

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

I recently went to an event in Newcastle by crime-writer Margaret Murphy and forensic scientist Professor Dave Barclay who write together under the pseudonym A.D. Garrett. It was a great evening and I’ve enjoyed Margaret’s writing in the past, so I bought their first book, Everyone Lies. I started reading it on the train going home and was hooked. I finished it a few days later and it’s now rubbing shoulders with my permanent collection of Reginald Hill novels.

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

I’ve got my eye on Barry Forshaw’s British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia, which has a cover price of £90, although I’m sure it is well worth that much. Moving away from crime fiction, I’d really like to own Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer and Build by Peter Goodfellow, The Chicken: A Natural History by several authors including my poultry ‘guru’ Andy Cawthray, and Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing.

Janet Okane bookshelves 002

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

I like to think they’ll see further than all that crime fiction and realise I’m a person with a wide range of interests who just happens to enjoy reading and writing about people being murdered.

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A huge thanks to Janet 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) 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 Janet’s responses and/or any of the books that she mentioned?

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