Tag Archives: Bethan Roberts

Mother Island – Bethan Roberts

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next few weeks (and indeed last four weeks) I will be (and have been) sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one per week. This week it is Bethan Robert’s Mother Island which I think manages to combine both a thriller and a family drama to create a wonderful suburban noir novel.

Vintage Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 320 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

What is it like to have someone steal your child from you and what it is like to steal a child from someone, are the two questions at the heart of Bethan Roberts fourth novel Mother Island. When Nula decides she needs to go back to work, in part because she is going stir crazy stuck indoors with her son Samuel, and get a nanny she is faced with the question of who can she trust with her child. Fate it seems has the perfect solution when her cousin Maggie, who has recently dropped out of Oxford, offers to take the role. What could be safer than being with family right? Well wrong, fate it seems can be a cruel thing. Within months of becoming Samuel’s nanny Maggie’s bond with the child becomes something deeper that becomes all consuming, and so she abducts him. I should stipulate here that you know this is going to happen from the very first line, what you don’t know is that Bethan Roberts has more secrets coming than first meet the eye.

Blood and sweat. So much of child-rearing is blood and sweat, she thinks, and she can clearly imagine the way Samuel’s back will be sodden with sweat from Maggie’s car seat, wherever they are, because Maggie has not taken his sheepskin with her. It is this, more than anything, that makes Nula worry about her son’s safety. Because Maggie isn’t the kind of person who would be thoughtless enough just to forget to call. Nula knows her cousin can be a little – strange is too strong a word. Odd. Eccentric, perhaps. Isolated, maybe. Yet with Samuel she has been such a careful, caring person.

It could be very easy for a novelist to simply tell the story of Maggie’s kidnapping of Samuel and then follow her journey into hiding with him and have you wondering if Nula will ever get her son back. Bethan Roberts does this AND she adds in a second plot into the novel as we head back to Maggie and Nula’s youth and the summers that they spent on the welsh island of Anglesey. These were summers of secrets, of sexual awakenings, of jealousies, of friendship and completion. One summer in particular changing the dynamic between them, they think they have both forgotten but clearly all these years later, they haven’t.

If those two secret laden plots weren’t enough, there is more. I love a book with layers and Mother Island is a book that has lots and lots of hidden depths going on below its surface. The most obvious theme in the novel is that of motherhood. Nula thought that she would be the perfect mother and is discovering that it isn’t as natural as they make out in books and on the telly. Maggie always thought she would have children and so far, until she steals one, she hasn’t. But what makes a good mother? This novel also looks at the great Mummy ‘good’, Nanny ‘bad’ theory which has been raging on for sometimes. It also looks at the differing relationships children have with their nannies over their parents which can be a tricky one (I know I was a ‘manny’ for a year for my aunty) which can prove a complicated beast with jealousies and differing ideas of childcare forming.

There are many women, after all, who have killed their own children. Up to half the women in Broadmoor have killed their own children. She had read that somewhere once, and now cannot stop thinking about it. Who were they, these women? Why didn’t anyone talk about them? Did they wake up one June morning, the street almost silent apart from the rumble of an approaching rubbish truck, and find their children gone? Was there a moment of uncertainty? Did they, like her, not quite know if they had brought this about themselves?

What I thought Roberts did incredibly, and what really sets this apart from many literary thrillers (for that is what I would definitely call Mother Island) is the depth into which she goes into these two women’s characters and the psychology behind the facades they are both showing to the world. Nula outwardly seems like a woman having the perfect life; loving husband, great job, gorgeous child. However we learn she is a women who is clearly going through some kind of post natal depression and is wracked with jealousies and riddled with insecurities. Likewise to the outside world Maggie whilst seeming slightly aloof and somewhat a loner would be described as a lovely young woman who has got a little lost from life, people just don’t realise how lost. We get intricate insights, and understanding into both of their world views inwards and outwards. This is all the more compelling when we see one of them go from being a good person to one who does something bad.

The other theme of the book, for me, was families and how we do and don’t connect with them. In their childhood Nula and Maggie both make deep connections with the other’s closest relations (I mentioned the jealousy earlier) and they judge the others families in varying degrees. Most interestingly for me with Mother Island was the relationship of cousins which is not looked at enough in fiction in my experience and yet is a fascinating relationship. Cousins tend to be like special extra siblings when you are young yet also have that distance which can lead to those familial friendships fading as you grow older and further apart. You are related by blood but if you aren’t put together on family holidays, weddings or funerals would you really bond normally?

In some books where there are alternating stories between past and present one will hold your interest more, not so here. In the present we have the thrills of what will happen, in the past we want to know just what on earth happened. Here I have to mention what I loved particularly in the past storyline was both the dubious character of Uncle Ralph and the vivid way in which Anglesey is described. I will say no more.

Anglesey was all this. The trembling trees. The stars of garlic flowers in spring. The glimpse of the Menai Strait through the leaves as she walked down the lane at Llanidan. The tide right up to the boathouse, the water blue and full. Mudflats appearing and disappearing. The sounds of sheep and birds and boats and the scream of the white peacock in the old chapel-house garden.

All in all, with its superb prose, twisted secret ridden plots, its sense of place, atmosphere and brilliant characterisation (especially psychologically) Bethan Roberts’ Mother Island is a brilliant mix of literary thriller meets family drama. We have abducted babies, familial jealousies and childhood secrets combining in a prime example of suburban noir. I read it in two sittings the first time and got even more out of it the second time, it is one of those kind of books. I would highly recommend you give it a read.

Have you read Mother Island and if so what did you make of it? It has reminded me how much I love Bethan Roberts’ writing, I adored My Policeman so much, and I am very much looking forward to reading The Pools and The Good Plain Cook which I have copies of and will be reading very soon – have you read any of those yet?

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Filed under Bethan Roberts, Books of 2015, Fiction Uncovered, Review, Vintage Books

On the Radio, Whoa, Oh, Oh, On the Radio…

Just over a week ago, which seems such a long time ago now weirdly, I had the pleasure of doing something I have always dreamed of… Live Radio. (If any of you are thinking ‘well he’s got the face for radio’ you are very mean and naughty, ha!) Last Sunday afternoon Fiction Uncovered took over Resonance FM and took to the airwaves and I got to be one of hosts and also interviewed on a few sessions. Weirdly I found being interviewed much tougher than doing the interviews. Anyway I thought you guys might want to listen in to some of the interviews, discussions and debates that took place…

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First up myself and my fellow judge, who has become a really good mate, Matt Bates were interviewed about judging the prize by Matt Thorne. We talked about the process of reading, judging, whittling down to the longlist and the final eight giving you a bit of insight into those titles too. We also talked about the state of British fiction and bookshops which Matt, being the buyer for WHSmith Travel stores in stations and airports, had some fascinating insight into. You can hear it here.

Next Matt Bates stayed on air to interview Susan Barker about her wonderful Fiction Uncovered winning novel The Incarnations, which I will be reviewing very soon. Listen here.

I was then in the host seat, and got to say the immortal words you dream of ‘and that was a song by…’, to interview David Whitehouse about his Fiction Uncovered winning novel The Mobile Library which is the best fairytale for adults I have read in quite some time AND a must read if you love books, which of course you all do.

Nikki Bedi chaired a really interesting and topical debate with Danuta Kean, Nikesh Shulka and Naomi Frisby (who blogs at Writes of Woman) about diversity in publishing and proved a fascinating discussion which I only heard snippets of so need to listen into myself for the full chat.

I then came back on air to chat to Lavie Tidhar about his brilliant, harrowing and thought provoking Fiction Uncovered novel A Man Lies Dreaming where we discussed how humour can be used both to combat and highlight the horrors of history, or in this case and alternative history.

Where do great writers live and the importance of landscape was the next discussion as Matt Thorne hosted a chat with Catherine Hall, Alex Wheatle and Luke Brown. I love books about the English countryside as you know and was busy with a sandwich and bag of crisps while they were recording so will be catching up with this one very soon.

I was back being grilled again by Matt Thorne, along with Naomi Frisby about the state of reviewing, blogging and social media and how books and writers are, or sometimes aren’t, excelling in the digital world. I almost got myself in trouble twice in this part of the show, but I think Naomi and I did a good job in talking about the blogosphere and the digital world.

The penultimate discussion was with Sophie Rochester and Rosa Anderson who co-founded Fiction Uncovered about five years of the prize. Again I missed this one as I was having a coffee so will be catching up with this one very soon.

Finally Matt Thorne was joined by Bethan Roberts to discuss her Fiction Uncovered winning novel Mother Island which I think is a brilliant suburban thriller and family drama which I will share my thoughts on soon. Listen to them discussing it here.

So there you have it, a good few hours of bookish chatter, discussion and debate for your listening tackle. I am not sure when they will go on iTunes and be podcasts but you can play these sneakily with your headphones on at your desks in work. Oh go on, we all do it… Oh. Just me then. Whoops.

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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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And The Fiction Uncovered Winners 2015 Are…

I am thrilled to announce that after many weeks of wonderful reading and re-reading, some brilliant debate and lots of laughter with three other judges who are all stars (India Knight, Matthew Bates and Cathy Galvin) and now some of my new favourite bookish chums, we have chosen the eight winners of Fiction Uncovered 2015. They are…

  • The Incarnations – Susan Barker (Transworld)
  • The Redemption of Galen Pike – Carys Davies (Salt)
  • The Offering – Grace McCleen (Sceptre)
  • Significance – Jo Mazelis (Seren Books)
  • Mother Island – Bethan Roberts (Chatto & Windus)
  • A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth (Canongate Books)
  • Mobile Library – David Whitehouse (Picador)

To whittle them down from fifteen marvellous books was no easy feat at all, it took quite a few hours of pleading, threats, swearing and it all kicking off – okay I am joking, it did take several hours of debate and was much, much harder than I anticipated. The eight books are corkers from a very strong longlist. To find out more about the books and the authors do head over to the Fiction Uncovered website here as I am off for a celebratory sherry or three. I will be reviewing the winners and the longlist in due course though…

You might think that was it now, no more Fiction Uncovered 2015 for me, but you’d be wrong. There’s events being planned for the books and authors over the summer which will be announced in due course. More imminently, in fact this Sunday, there will be Fiction Uncovered FM taking over your speakers on Resonance FM from 12pm – 5pm, guess who they have gone and asked to co-host? So if you want a wonderful five hours of book chat co-hosted by a slightly rogue Savidge DJ then tune into that. In the meantime what do you make of our list of the final eight; which have you read, what did you think and which are you going to read? Obviously the correct answer is all of them!

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The Fiction Uncovered Longlist 2015

I am thrilled, because this is the first time they have done it and I have keeping it secret for a few weeks, to be able to share with you the Fiction Uncovered Longlist 2015. After what has been a good few months of ‘extreme reading’ here are fifteen books that we judges (Matt Bates, Cathy Galvin and myself chaired by India Knight) are all very keen that you go and read, right now…

  • The Incarnations – Susan Barker (Transworld)
  • The Stray American – Wendy Brandmark (Holland Park Press)
  • The Redemption of Galen Pike – Carys Davies (Salt)
  • Dear Thief – Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape)
  • Wittgenstein Jr – Lars Iyer (Melville House UK)
  • The Way Out – Vicki Jarrett (Freight)
  • The Offering – Grace McCleen (Sceptre)
  • The Spice Box Letters – Eve Makis (Parthian Books)
  • Significance – Jo Mazelis (Seren Books)
  • Beastings – Benjamin Myers (Bluemoose Books)
  • The Four Marys – Jean Rafferty (Saraband)
  • Mother Island – Bethan Roberts (Chatto & Windus)
  • A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth (Canongate Books)
  • Mobile Library – David Whitehouse (Picador)

Indis has said “It is absolutely thrilling to have found such brilliant books, across such a wide variety of genres, and from authors that live and write all over the country. These are fantastic writers who deserve to be household names.” I agree it is a very diverse and interesting list, though I am probably biased somewhat but I think the list is a really eclectic one (well, I can tell you that for definite having read them all) and it is going to be rather difficult to whittle them down to a final eight for June the 18th. I have to say so far the judging process has been a real joy with lots and lots of laughing and delightful booky chatter, maybe the final meeting is where the gloves will come off? Ha!

For more information on all the books do visit Fiction Uncovered’s website here. I am off to go and do some more re-reading, in the meantime I would love your thoughts both on the books on the list (have you read any, are there any you are going to hunt out) and also the list itself. I’m very excited to hear what people think of it!

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The Book Tingle (#BookTingle)

When I was sat with my lovely fellow judges at the first proper Fiction Uncovered meeting, the subject of what we were all looking for in winning books came up. As it went around the table with the judges and the Fiction Uncovered team things like the prose and writing style, something different that stands out, great stories etc all come up. When everyone looked at me for my response the words that came out of my mouth were ‘I want the book tingle’ and they all looked at me like they might have someone unhinged (or living up to the Simple Simon namesake) sat with them. And so I explained…

For me a book tingle is a rare and elusive phenomenon. You would initially think that for a book to give me all the tingles it would simply need to be an amazingly written book that ticks all my literary likes. Well yes, but you see there is more to it and I bet you have all had them too. You can have books that start amazingly and then, for various reasons, go off on a tangent, these ones don’t. From start to finish they have you.

The first time I had this sensation was with Catherine Hall’s The Proof of Love*.  I should hear add that since then Catherine and I have become firm friends, down to the book actually, yet when I picked it up I hadn’t heard of her before and had no knowledge of the book. Oh, expect that on the cover it said ‘Sarah Waters meets Daphne Du Maurier’ which piqued my interest and also made me wary all at once. In fact, cheeky little scamp that I am I actually thought ‘compared to Du Maurier eh? Go on then, impress me…’ and it did taking me completely by delightful surprise. You see from two or three paragraphs in I just knew this was a book for me. It is often the sense of surprise when this happens that adds to the experience.

These books are rare gems; you don’t get them often. There is an almost unexplainable feeling from the start which lasts until the final full stop. Not for a single moment does the book let you down, or indeed out of its grasp, you are effectively spell bound by it. It feels like all the rest of the world goes completely out of your mind and all that is left is you, the book and the author’s words. It is the prose, the characters, the atmosphere, everything! You almost feel, without it sounding arrogant, that this book was written just for you.

This has happened again very recently, if I may be so bold, with Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, review coming soon. Four pages in and I knew we were off. I was in an effortless zone of book reading bliss. This book has nothing in common with The Proof of Love, well actually maybe something in hindsight but I wouldn’t have known from the start. They are set in different times, completely different places, yet somehow I just knew. And it is the same with some other books which gave me that same sensation (have I said tingle too often now making it sound even weirder than it did at the start?) like Gillespie and I, The Hunger Trace, Small Island, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, My Policeman etc ** from the very beginning I just knew. They all just got me, or did I just get them, either way it was a perfect match.

So what I am saying really, and what I think I am not looking for in just Fiction Uncovered judging but also in my reading life in general, is that the reason I keep reading is to hunt for that next kick and those extra special books. The books that you more than simply just love, the ones that give you that magic feeling, don’t let you go and afterwards become both part a landmark in your reading history and a part of your psyche.

To hear me talking about it slightly more eloquently, yet with more giggles, listen to the latest episode of The Readers. I would love to know (in the comments below) which books you’ve read that have given you the book tingle, or whatever you would like to call it, from the very start and held you throughout, plus how it feels when you just know a book is going to be just your sort of book. Which books do you feel were really written just for you? Do also share them on Twitter with #BookTingle, let’s get it trending!

*You may have noticed I have not mentioned Rebecca. This is in part because it is the book that got me reading again, so is a whole separate stratosphere and also in part because I wouldn’t have known what a book tingle was if it had hit me square between the eyes.
**These with Catherine Hall are the books, prior to my last tingle with Ms Burton, that I thought of when I was thinking of books where the feeling hit me within a few pages or a chapter. I just knew.

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Guessing the Bailey’s Prize Longlist 2015

I haven’t done this for a year or two I don’t think, yet as it is International Women’s Day it seemed fitting for me to celebrate it by celebrating female authors and what could do that better than by playing guess the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction longlist which will be revealed on Tuesday next week. Initially I didn’t think I would be able to hazard a guess at this, yet when I started thinking about the books that I have read and loved plus went and looked through my shelves of all the books I have meant to read in the last year I suddenly had far too many. You see that is my criteria for guessing, which books have I read and loved that are eligable and which ones would I love to see listed because I am desperate to read them and think they may well be corkers, as may you!

So here are the books that I have read and would LOVE to see on the list on Tuesday, I have linked if I have reviewed them…

The Bees by Laline Paull, He Wants by Alison Moore, After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry, Thirst by Kerry Hudson, Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth, The Repercussions by Catherine Hall (which I edited one edition of so haven’t reviewed yet but will with that caveat) and finally The Miniturist by Jessie Burton, which I just read and absolutely adored, more soon.

Then for the books that I really want to read…

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill (which I actually have finished since scheduled this post), Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre, How to be Both by Ali Smith, Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud, An Untamed State by Roxanne Gay, Rise by Karen Campbell, Her by Harriet Lane, Weathering by Lucy Wood, I Am China by Xiaolu Guo, Mother Island by Bethan Roberts and Young God by Katherine Faw Morris.

(I could also have mentioned The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie and We Were Liars by E. Lockhart which I have read all of. And I also mulled over Academy Street by Mary Costello, The Ship by Antonia Honeywell, The Exit by Helen Fitzgerald, The First Bad Man by Miranda July, Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, A Blue Spool of Thread by Anne Tyler and The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer.)

Blimey hasn’t it been an amazing year, again, for women’s fiction. What are your thoughts on the Bailey’s Prize longlist, let me know if you have had a guess and if not which ones would you like to see on the list? Have you read any of the above and if so what did you think? Who would you love to win?

P.S Sorry the pictures aren’t all the same size, it is setting off my OCD slightly too!

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Your Country in Ten(ish) Books…

I don’t want to call this a challenge, or even worse a meme (do you remember when we all did those back in the day?), yet I am thinking that this could be a fun exercise if you lovely lot would like to join in. What the funk am I talking about, well you would be right to ask as once more I assume you dear reader/s get updates from me telepathically. Enough waffle Savidge, just get on with it. So as some of you will know I host/co-host a couple of book based banter podcasts; You Wrote The Book, Hear… Read This and The Readers. My normal co-host for the latter, Gav, is having some time off and so I have been joined by the lovely Thomas and seeing as Thomas is in Washington we have been looking at America and the UK, or even America vs. the UK. A fortnight ago we discussed American classics and I came up with the idea of both Thomas and myself creating two separate lists of the ten books that sum up our countries for us and ones we would give to someone if they moved to their country to ‘read up on it’. So I thought you lot might like to join in…

17451-01Initially I have to admit that I thought this would be stupidly easy. The British Isles are relatively piddly in comparison to the mammoth size of other countries. I didn’t envy Thomas and his 50 states to cover in ten books. As I thought about it more and more though I suddenly realised it was actually much more of a mission than I had supposed. For a start we had agreed to only have authors from our own counties books. So instantly one of my choices ‘The Year of Wonders’ by Geraldine Brooks was discounted, as it is set in Eyam (the only place outside London to get the Black Plague and self sacrifice itself to save others) which is just down the road from my home town in Derbyshire but she is from America. First hurdle.

Second Hurdle. I wanted the book to reflect a current vision of the British Isles, as I went through my shelves I was surprised (especially as I think I don’t like them, clearly I am a liar to myself)  how many of the British Isles books I owned were about WWI or WWII. This then meant a book like Sarah Water’s ‘The Night Watch’, which depicts war torn London, was therefore banished. However eventually I got there, though I have since realised I missed Edward Hogan’s bloody brilliant The Human Trace’ out of it, and found my eleven books – yes I cheated a tiny bit with an additional novel, but I made this game up. I wonder if Mr Monopoly ever tried that at Christmas gatherings, anyway here it is with the book title, author, place and mini summary for you…

The Room of Lost Things by Stella Duffy (London) – Set in Loughborough Junction in South London, this is the tale Robert, owner of a dry cleaners, as he says goodbye to his business and the area he knows. It also looks at the customers who come, from all walks of life, to his shop and the little things they leave behind that they forget yet which tell many a tale.

The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn (Birmingham) – Frank is a local news presenter and personality. Recently he has become rather obsessed both with the people and the places of his city that others seem to forget. What about all the people with no one to care for them, who die alone and what of the bits of our cities architectural and cultural heritage are we all too quick to gloss over or tear down  and cover with something prettier?

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (Norfolk) – Not officially set in Norfolk, that is just my guess, this is the tale of Arthur Kipp as he settles the eerie estate of Eel Marsh House and Alice Drablow. A book which wonderfully conjures the atmosphere of some of Britain’s coastal villages, and the literary heritage of a cracking good ghost story.

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson (Edinburgh) – Possibly not the most evocative tale of Scotland but this is something I clearly need to address. This is set during Edinburgh’s famous festival and really brings the hustle and bustle of that place to life as well as being a great crime novel with a very good sense of black humour, you will laugh.

The Long Falling by Keith Ridgway (Northern Ireland) – Grace Quinn is a woman deeply unhappy living in the rural wilds of the North Irish countryside. However after a turn of events (which will make your jaw drop) she heads to Dublin and the home of her son. Ridgway looks at the differences between city life and rural life in Northern Ireland and also the differences between the generations.

The Proof of Love by Catherine Hall (The Lake District) – One of the most ‘earthy’ books I have ever read, yet if you asked me to explain the term ‘earthy’ I would find it very hard to explain. Set in the infamous heat wave of the 1970’s Spencer Little is a stranger who settles in a village in the middle of nowhere, but why? A tale of suspicious townsfolk and one which also lifts the lid on the secrets behind closed doors, especially as the heat makes people do unusual things.

The Claude Glass by Tom Bullough (Wales) – Set in the Welsh Countryside this tells the story of two very different neighbouring farms and the sons of which who make friends. One, Robin, from a hippy family the other, Andrew, from a family so impoverished he is almost feral – why does he choose to sleep with the farm dogs rather than his family?

Agatha Raisin & The Quiche of Death – M.C. Beaton (The Cotswolds) – A bit of light relief amongst these books with the no nonsense former PR Director now come amateur sleuth as she moves from London to the idyllic Cotswolds only sometimes people don’t welcome an outsider… Murder and mayhem ensue in the most wry and cosy of mysteries with a thoroughly modern Anti-Marple.

Rough Music by Patrick Gale (Cornwall) – A book that celebrates Cornwall and also a sense of everyone’s nostalgia from younger years. We follow Julian back to a fateful summer holiday in Cornwell which leads to many family secrets being revealed and how we see things differently as adults.

My Policeman by Bethan Roberts (Brighton) – Going back in time a little and looking at the place no deemed the gay capital of England, and a celebrated seaside resort, when it had a much more underground and shady sense of place. We follow Marion and Tom who are both in love with the same man and how society at the time informs their decisions and their lives.

Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson (Great Britain all over) – My slight cheat as I think this book, which travels all over England and Scotland, really looks at English society from the 80’s which is very similar to today and the real sense of what it is to grow up working class in our country rather than the often emphasised ‘Hampstead’ view.

So there you have it, that is my list of books that encapsulate the British Isles for me. I know that Thomas is working on his list of ten books which as soon as it goes live I will link to, its is now live here. I can say I have read two of them (one a major hit, one a bit of a dud with me) and am really excited about trying all of them. In the meantime you can hear us talking about them on this fortnight’s episode of The Readers.

What do you think of the list? I know it might not be the most conventional but to me it seems the truest for me personally. Which of them have you read? Who fancies giving this a go themselves? I would so, so, so love if some of you did be you in the UK, America, Australia, Japan, Canada, India, France… anywhere, and spread the word. Basically have whirl, over a few days (it took me four) and link back to it here so I can come and have a nosey, go on, you know you want to…

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Savidge Reads’ Top Ten LGBT Books…

As I mentioned yesterday I am in a little bit of a reading funk. So I was routing through my bookshelves, and preparing for the event I have coming next Tuesday, I thought that I would make a little video of my personal top ten LGBT themed books. This is by no means what I think are the best LGBT themed books, it is a list of the ones that have a special place in my heart from my young teens all the way to now. So have a gander if you fancy it…

I know there are some celebrated books and authors missing yet these are the ten books that I mentioned.

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
Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

I am aware I have missed some of my favourite authors like Stella Duffy, Sarah Waters, Geoff Ryman, etc, lots and lots of Green Carnation books, nonfiction and classics, the latter mainly as I am playing catch up with Larry Kramer and Radclyffe Hall etc.

That is of course where you come in… What are the books you love with LGBT themes? Which books have I missed and might I have read and need to re-read (I feel I need to pick up ‘Rough Music’ by Patrick Gale again at some point) or try for the first time? Which of you the books I mention have you read? Who is coming to Leeds on Tuesday for my scary solo event? Who is currently reading ‘Tales of the City’, which I will be picking up to re-read today, to discuss on Friday on the blog? Lots of questions for you there.

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Savidge Reads Library Loot #3

So here is the third in my new series, yet first of the year, of vlog posts where I get to embarrass myself once more talk to you all about the latest books that I have borrowed from the library, and waffle a lot about why. There is a lot of waffle at the start so beware though Oscar does show his face briefly. Anyway here is the latest library loot from me, I will pop a list of the books mentioned below…

The books mentioned amidst all that rambling were…

The Chalk Circle Man – Fred Vargas
Seeking Whom He May Devour – Fred Vargas
The History of a Pleasure Seeker – Richard Mason
Tom-All-Alone’s – Lynn Shepherd
The Good Plain Cook – Bethan Roberts
The Pools – Bethan Roberts
Wonder – R.J. Palacio
Zoo Time – Howard Jacobson
A Death in the Family – Karl Ove Knausgaard

As is the usual routine I would love to know your thoughts on any of the books, have you read them, did you like them, and are you thinking of reading them etc and any thoughts on the intermingled waffle. Many thanks in advance.

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Savidge Reads Books of 2012 – Part Two…

As I mentioned on Saturday I was going to try and be really brave and break the habit of this blogs and just do a single top ten books of the year. I tried and tried and tried, and I failed. I simply couldn’t only have ten, in fact I actually had a top thirty roughly, but then I have read 167 books (Green Carnation submissions always bump this figure up, what will next year be like without them) this year so maybe that will make it slightly more understandable. So what I have done once again is have two top tens, one of the books published for the first time in the UK in 2012 and another with all the other books published before that – today I am listing my favourite books published for the first time in the UK in 2012. For the full review click on the link, I have chosen a highlighting paragraph to tempt you for this post.

10. The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

I think ‘The Lifeboat’ is one of the most brilliant fictional takes on ‘mental warfare’ and how people change under certain circumstances that I have come across in a very long time, especially from a modern writer. Dare I say there was something rather Daphne Du Maurier-like about the darkness that develops? What I won’t say is anything about the other characters (apart from the fact I was scared of Mrs Grant) because I don’t want to give anything away, but Rogan creates a fascinating psychological game with them all, and with Grace herself Rogan pulls the trump card.

9. The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

I was enjoying ‘The Snow Child’ so much from the start that I did something I hardly ever do. Rather than read it in chunks when I could, I simply devoted almost a whole day to it. I could have saved it and made it last, but sometimes you have to think ‘stuff that’ and just get lost in it all. So I did and read the book in pretty much one go just gorging on it. Now that is the sign of a truly magical book, I was completely spellbound… apart from having to pop the heater on and making the occasional hot drink as the snow really does feel like it’s coming off the page. This is a highly, highly recommended read.

8. The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon

The book is a story of a girl who leaves an unhappy home, yet we figure that out as we read on because really Mary is quite happy with her life on the whole thank you very much. The fact the story is reminiscent of a Victorian classic also works in the books favour because it feels comfortable and yet different, does that make sense? I have to admit that i did hazard a guess at ending that seems to have shocked other people I know who have read it, which I will not spoil or even hint at, not that it stopped me loving the book because I was being taken along by Mary who I could have read for another few hundred pages or more.

7. Some Kind of Fairy Tale – Graham Joyce

If you are thinking of dipping your reading toes/eyes into fantasy from literary fiction or vice versa, or more importantly if you just want a really good story, then you need to read ‘Some Kind of Fairy Tale’. I am really pleased that I ended up choosing this for one of The Readers Book Groups on a whim because I can promise you that I am going to read everything that he has written so far after reading this. I really like his prose and in a way he is doing with literary fiction and fantasy what I think Kate Atkinson and Susan Hill have done with their crime novels, merging them so they become one genre, a genre I call ‘bloody good books’.

6. The End of Your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe

There are some books out there that you need at a certain time in your life. They can be therapeutic and upsetting but show you just how important a book can be as an object that emotionally resonates with you. These books may be recommended when you are going through something or they may be found through researching yourself. That said they are not self help books, just books which chime in with you at that moment. Will Schwalbe’s ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ is one such book, a book that seemed to mirror my life in many ways it was both a comfort and occasionally uncomfortable, overall though just amazing.

5. Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

I don’t think I have read a book that has taken me to such dark places, it’s not a graphically disturbing novel though get ready to have your mind played with and warped, and have so many twists and turns. I also don’t think I have read a book that so cleverly asks the question ‘how well do you really know your partner’ and answers it in such a shocking, brutal yet also worryingly plausible way. ‘Gone Girl’ is easily one of the best novels I have read this year, I cannot recommend it enough… well, unless you are about to get married, have just got married or have just had a bit of a row with your other half as it might give you second thoughts, or sudden ideas, good and bad.

4. The Age of Miracles – Karen Thompson Walker

I thought that ‘The Age of Miracles’ was a truly marvellous novel, definitely one of the highlights of the year so far for me. Naturally because I loved it so much I am finding it very difficult to do the book justice as I feel I missed so much out. I was so lost in the book that I felt the people’s dread and I felt like I was with Julia along the way; I got very upset several times, and as the book went on worried all the more. I was hooked. It seems almost patronising to say ‘I was also really shocked this was a debut novel’ yet if I am honest I was. Karen Thompson Walkers prose is wonderful in the fact it captures the changing atmosphere of the people and the planet, and I should mention here the brilliant way she creates a divided society with people who keep ‘clock time’ and people who decide to live with the earth’s new unnaturally timed days, and also ever so slowly and skilfully builds up the tensions in relationships, fear and terror as the earth slows down and the book leads to its conclusion.

3. Hawthorn & Child – Keith Ridgway

I think the best way to sum up the wonderfully quirky, exciting and surreal yet real ‘Hawthorn & Child’ comes from one of the many characters who could be a psychopath or sociopath or just mad who says “Knowing things completes them. Kills them. They fade away, decided over and forgotten. Not knowing sustains us.” This is a book where not everything is resolved, stories create stories, some fade and some linger, the only constant is the brilliant writing, compellingly created cast, sense of mystery and dark humour which will sustain you from the start until the end and may just have you turning to the first page again as soon as you have finished the last.

2. Diving Belles – Lucy Wood

‘Diving Belles’ is a collection of stories that it would be easy to describe as fairytales for adults, that very statement may of course put people off, and while it is a book that finds the myths and legends of the Cornish coast seeping into every page of it there is so much more to it than that. Of course writing about a whole collection is always difficult (made doubly so when you loved every single one in the book) as you could end up giving too much away on each story or end up writing something as long as the collection itself.

1.  My Policeman – Bethan Roberts

I adored ‘My Policeman’, despite the fact it made me cry on a few occasions. I found it incredibly difficult to break away from it for any period of time yet I also found that as the book went on I was trying not to read it too fast, in part from the sense of impending doom and also because I didn’t really want it to end. I felt I was there, a bystander watching it all, feeling for Marion then Patrick and vice versa. It is one of the most beautifully written and emotionally engaging novels I have read this year. It is also a book that highlights a bit of our history that we often brush under the carpet, mainly because we think we are more tolerant now, and yet is one that should definitely be acknowledged and learnt from.

There are of course a few other books I must mention, for example both winners of the Green Carnation Prize, ‘Moffie’ by Andre Carl van der Merwe and ‘A Perfectly Good Man’ by Patrick Gale, and also Kerry Hudson’s ‘Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma’ which was one of the debut highlights of the year for me, I will be reviewing/reporting back on all the long list next year, as they were all rather brilliant. Also ‘The Lighthouse’ by Alison Moore and ‘Swimming Home’ by Deborah Levy which would have been joint tenth with ‘The Lifeboat’ and my final two had I done a Simon’s Booker Dozen type of post. Overall it has been a great year of reading and I am looking forward to the next.

What about you? What have been your highlights of the year published in 2012? Which of these have you read and what did you think?

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My Policeman – Bethan Roberts

I will be talking about the ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda’ books of 2012, the books you wanted to read and never get round to when you mean to, before the year is through. One book that I definitely didn’t want to have on that list was Bethan Roberts’ third novel ‘My Policeman’ which I have had on and off the pile of books by the bedside since its release in hardback back in February. It was one of those books you occasionally get which you are fairly sure you are going to love and so keep it for a rainy day, you know the ones I mean I am sure. Well it has been raining a lot on the Wirral recently and so I finally decided to pick it up and just in time too, as it will definitely be making its way onto my Books of the Year posts next week.

Vintage Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 341 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

‘My Policeman’ is the tale of a love triangle set in 1950’s Brighton. Marion, an initially rather young and naive girl, falls head over heels in love with her best friend Sylvia’s brother, Tom, and is determined (in a hopelessly romantic fashion rather than a grim gritted teeth way initially) that one day he will be hers. His teaching her to swim seems the ideal way, which she reminds him he promised her when he returns, to be a policeman, after having been away catering for the army.

As the two become better acquainted after his time away from Brighton, he introduces her to his friend Patrick, who we as the reader know is more than just Tom’s friend and watch as Marion makes the connections that in that time were illegal and seen as perverted. Will she be prepared to share the man with whom she has become obsessively in love with?

The way I have summarised the novel really doesn’t do it justice at all, in fact it makes it sound a bit prescriptive and it is anything but. Bethan Roberts does several things that really make this book stand out, the first is the perspective of the book. This isn’t told by these characters in the prime of their youth when everything was happening, quite the opposite. As Marion narrates her sections of the book, there are five parts of the book in all, she tells it from ‘surburbia-on-sea’ in hindsight as the trio are in their late fifties, sixties and seventies. From the opening of the book we learn that Patrick has recently had two strokes and has, against all odds, ended up living with Marion and Tom at her request. Especially when she says ‘I no longer want to kill you’, which makes you realise this book has a very dark heart at its centre, and as she finds caring for him rather difficult.

“You were particularly trying this morning, refusing to look at the television, even though I’d switched it from This Morning, which we both hate, to a rerun of As Time Goes By on BBC2. Don’t you like Dame Judi Dench? I thought everyone liked Dame Judi. I thought her combination of classical actressiness and cuddly accessibility (that ‘i’ in her name says so much, doesn’t it?) made her irresistible. And then there was the incident with the liquidised cornflakes, the tipping-over of the bowl, which made Tom exhale a hefty tut. I knew you weren’t quite up to sitting at the table for breakfast, even with your special cutlery and all the cushions I’d provided to stabilise you, as Nurse Pamela suggested. I must say I find it difficult to concentrate on what Pamela says, so intrigued am I by the long spikes protruding from her eyelids.”

The book is not just narrated from her point of view. Another master stroke from Roberts is that she also narrates some of the parts from Patrick’s point of view. These are written in the present tense at various points in the past and really highlight just how difficult it was to be homosexual back in the 1950’s. The secrecy which needed to be conducted and the devastation that could be caused simply from someone implying you were ‘comme ca’, as it was then put, are both threateningly real all the time and when they happen described tragically and I have to say Roberts makes these incidents incredibly emotive to read.

“Where to begin? I had a sudden desire to stand up and stride about like a barrister, telling him a truth or two about this life, as he put it. Meaning my life. Meaning the lives of others. Meaning the morally dissolute. The sexually criminal. Meaning those who society has condemned to isolation, fear and self loathing.”

As the two narrations are drawn together not only does Roberts let you know what happened to the trio between their initial meeting and the present, bit by bit making the tension mount as she does so, but your sympathies switch almost constantly with both Marion and Patrick. Are they simply naive, is one of them the bad person, is neither at fault for their actions or are both to blame? I found it very interesting that never do we hear from Tom, who is the catalyst really, yet it didn’t matter that we didn’t either oddly, through Marion and Patrick we picture him and his actions, the good and the bad (Roberts brilliantly gives all her characters strengths and weaknesses making them all the fuller), in full.

I adored ‘My Policeman’, despite the fact it made me cry on a few occasions. I found it incredibly difficult to break away from it for any period of time yet I also found that as the book went on I was trying not to read it too fast, in part from the sense of impending doom and also because I didn’t really want it to end. I felt I was there, a bystander watching it all, feeling for Marion then Patrick and vice versa. It is one of the most beautifully written and emotionally engaging novels I have read this year. It is also a book that highlights a bit of our history that we often brush under the carpet, mainly because we think we are more tolerant now, and yet is one that should definitely be acknowledged and learnt from. It is very hard to believe that Bethan Roberts wasn’t a closeted gay man, or married to one, in the fifties so vividly is it portrayed and so affected are you by the prose. You must read this book.

Has anyone else read this and what did you think? For some reason I thought this was Bethan’s debut novel, it is in fact her third, have any of you read ‘The Pools’ or ‘The Good Plain Cook’? I am most keen to try them.

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The Orange Prize Longlist 2012?

The Orange Prize seems to have snuck up on me this year. I had it in my head that the announcement was on the 16th of March until I realised that actually that was 2011’s dates. It took ages to then get confirmation (by searching round the internet for hours) that it was to be the 8th and suddenly now Orange has a lovely new sparkly website, and indeed it will be announced in mere hours. Well I love guessing any prize list, and the Orange is no exception. I have a lot of love for this prize as generally I do prefer female writers (sweeping statement alert) to male ones overall, so I am always excited to see the final list of twenty. In the meantime here are my twenty guesses and why I made those calls…

First up my favourite four books by women last year have to be my first choices. Those were without question ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris, ‘The Proof Of Love’ by Catherine Hall, ‘There But For The…’ by Ali Smith and ‘The Borrower’ by Rebecca Makkai. I would absolutely love to see this four make the cut, you can click on their titles to see my reviews and gushings over each one – seriously these are four blooming brilliant books!

Next up were books, if any, that have made the cut this year and how could I not include ‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey which I loved and ‘Girl Reading’ by Katie Ward which I haven’t reviewed on here yet (though I have on the telly, ha). Next up were the books that I started last year, didn’t finish though no idea why as I was enjoying them, and so wouldn’t mind reading/starting again should the mood take me. In come ‘Go To Sleep’ by Helen Walsh and ‘Half Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan.

Then I chose four eligible books which I have in the TBR and have yet to crack open. ‘The Blue Book’ by A.L. Kennedy, ‘Solace’ by Belinda McKeon, ‘The Submission’ by Amy Waldman and ‘All is Song’ by Samantha Harvey are all books that have been on my radar, and pulled out and put back in the TBR over the last few months and I must have a read of them soon.

You may notice there haven’t been many of the ‘big names’ yet and whilst I am sure Ann Patchett and some other expected contenders will show up on the list I am not that fussed about them personally. I almost popped Anne Tyler on the list but hers comes out after the eligible dates. However there are for books receiving a lot of hype/buzz that I wouldn’t be surprised to see on the list and they are; ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgensten, ‘The Buddha in the Attic’ by Julie Otsuka, ‘The Land of Decoration’ by Grace McCleen and ‘The Lifeboat’ by Charlotte Rogan.

The final four are all a little bit random and have come from popping into Waterstones and having a mooch around all the tables covered in books. They are simply books I thought sounded really interesting and loved the first chapter of (that’s not how I judge on The Green Carnation Prize by the way) they may not appear but I’d use it as an excuse to read them all the quicker if they did. These are; ‘My Policeman’ by Bethan Roberts, ‘Then’ by Julie Myerson, ‘The White Shadow’ by Andrea Eames and ‘The Cowards Table’ by Vanessa Gebbie.

Realistically I know this will be nowhere near the actual list. I just love the guessing, but I am realistic enough to admit despite my love of books I have only a small idea of all the eligible books and no idea what has been submitted and what hasn’t. I also actually want to be a million miles off, one of the reasons I love prize longlists is that they invariably throw up some titles that have passed you by and you want to go off and find out more about. I am hoping for lots of those.

I am not the only one who likes a guess; Jackie of Farmlanebooks, Nomadreader, Open Letters and Her Royal Orangeness have had a crack too, plus Jessica (who has become one of my new favourite bloggers, she makes me howl) has done her top five. I will report back with the list of books and my thoughts when it’s been announced. Until then, what books would you like to see (not necessarily the same as the books you think will) end up on the Orange Prize Longlist when it gets announced?

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