Tag Archives: Books of 2008

The Room of Lost Things – Stella Duffy

After having so loved State of Happiness earlier this year I was really looking forward to reading Stella Duffy’s latest novel once more. Every so often you come across a book where you just think ‘what a great idea’ and ‘how the hell did they come up with that?’ This is the case of Stella Duffy’s latest novel ‘The Room of Lost Things’. As you will all probably know I am a fan of Stella’s work and re-reading this recently has made the book even better the second time round. Has that happened to any of you? I think first time I was simply devouring it and couldn’t gat enough of the characters and had to know what happened instantly. This time it was a much gentler devouring and I spotted a lot of things that I had possibly missed the first time round and characters that grew on me even more so this time.

The story focuses on several characters but in particular Robert Sutton who is the keeper of the room of lost things. What is the room of lost things? Why it is a laundry in Loughborough Junction which he is leaving and where many people leave hints of their secrets in their pockets which Robert has collected. A laundry that he inherited from his mother Alice (one of my favourite names, I know not one horrid Alice) though sadly he himself has no Indeed the deal is very much done and he is handing the shop over to Akeel and his wife, meaning that he is packing up and dealing with his past and not only the secrets that other people have left in their laundry, but his own demons. All this whilst also training Akeel to do his job.

The rest of the book looks at the people in the area some of whom go into the laundrette and others who merely pass it day by day. Two of my favourite characters were the two homeless men who can often be found on the unwanted sofa on the street watching the world go by. Actually saying that I don’t think I had any favourites exactly I enjoyed all the characters and their tales and there is a huge scope in this novel be they the nanny who is having an affair with her boss, an old lady who has Alzheimer’s though doesn’t know it (that’s not a bad joke it’s the truth) or the commitment phobic dancer.

With a book filled with so many characters Stella Duffy’s additional skill is managing to give you insight into all their lives, relationships and stories without you feeling confused. There is really though one true star of the story and that is London and not the London that everyone knows and loves, not the tourist traps and the hustle and bustle of the West End. This is a truer London that those, like me, will know and love. Those of you who don’t will be entranced and will be left wanting to find the more hidden parts where tubes dare not tread when you next visit.
This book is in some ways a love letter (the prose is beautiful) to a part of London that Stella herself lives in and indeed loves. Though this is not a crime novel I feel Duffy has used her skills from her crime series to weave the plot whilst dropping hints and herrings along the way until you come to the end of the book. I want to say more about the ending but I shan’t as I could give things away, it’s a very well written and thought provoking ending is probably the best way to describe it.

I was moved, I fell in love with London even more (especially as it was based on my side of the river) and I had read it before I realised it again, it just enveloped me. A wonderful book I whole heartedly recommend. All in all this is a really accomplished and human novel that tells of some of the residents of Loughborough Junction and celebrates the often forgotten ‘south of the river’ part of London. I really loved this book and not just for the real characters but for the idea of the room of lost things. This is more proof that Stella is a wonderful writer, and one I hope will be doing an interview for Savidge Reads in the forthcoming weeks. I need to get begging. So in the hope she does and you have any questions for her or questions you have always wanted an author to answer then let me know!

*Note* if you are looking for my Booking Through Thursday it is here… I had done a similar topic last month!

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Filed under Books of 2008, Review, Stella Duffy, Virago Books

When Will There Be Good News? – Kate Atkinson

I know its Booking Through Thursday day today but as I wrote about it before here (and I don’t mean that in a off way) I thought I would pop a link to it and mention it before discussing the latest Richard and Judy choice that is the superb and frankly brilliant When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson.

Firstly if you haven’t read ‘Case Histories’ and ‘One Good Turn’ then frankly shame on you. Kate Atkinson has created something wonderful in fusing crime and mystery with literature without it being pigeonholed into either. She also has a fantastic plotting ability which deals with some very complex coincidences in fact coincidence has been the theme throughout these three Jackson Brodie novels however I think with ‘When Will There Be Good News’ she has surpassed the previous two, though they are both must reads. This book safely furthered Atkinson as one of my all time favourite authors. Now for me to describe it to without giving anything away from this book and the ones that came before it. I have to say that this is the darkest of the series and yet has an incredible humour to it too.

Jackson Brodie is a former detective and private investigator he carries a lot of baggage but is an absolutely brilliant and complex character though actually he isn’t in this book as much as in the later so if you become a fan you’ll want to read the others. Plug, plug, plug. Brodie is investigating something personal as we meet him, that ends in him getting lost in the Yorkshire moors and then on a train the wrong way which ends in a crash. Detective Louise Monroe has history with Brodie and is currently looking into a case of a man. In Scotland Louise Monroe is dealing with a missing homicidal manic, her new marriage and a convict fresh out of jail. Reggie is a sixteen year old nanny who has reported her employer Dr Hunter missing when no one else cares? How do their paths cross, how do they intertwine with the 30 year old case of Joanna Mason.

The start of the book centres on Joanna Mason and the horrific (and for the reader incredibly chilling I actually got frightened along with those involved) murder of her family on a walk in the countryside, she was the only survivor. It was shocking upsetting and also you wondered how it could affect the characters of the rest of the book. How does this link with all the characters above? You will have to read the book to find out… Speaking of characters though I must mention Reggie who I think is an amazing character, its very rare you find such a gem in a novel (though I mentioned Marianne Engel from The Gargoyle last week) and Reggie is a character I could read at least a dozen books about and I really hope that she is brought back at some point.

This has to be Kate Atkinson’s masterpiece to date (I never managed to finish Behind The Scenes at the Museum and must try to one day) and with each in the series she gets better and better, you begin to wonder how she can top this with the next one – she is actually giving the characters a rest for a while.

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Filed under Kate Atkinson, Review, Richard and Judy, Transworld Publishing

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – Kate Summerscale

So I am on time for the second of the Richard & Judy Books of 2009, and it is the superb The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale. Nothing to do with the fact that I had in fact read this book last year and it was in fact in my Savidge Dozen, ok it’s sort of cheating but not really. I mean be fair, with the amount of books arriving at the moment I need to keep ahead. So here is the review from when I read it back in November…

The subtitle of the book refers to the fact that this is not your normal gothic Victorian murder mystery; it’s a real murder mystery. In fact ‘The Murder at Road Hill House’ somewhat gripped the nation back in 1860 and saw the dawn of the detective in the form of Jack Whicher. This murder mystery in a country house where one of the occupants definitely did it sparked imaginations of the greats and inspired novels by Dickens, Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins over the years. The case took place during the night in Summer 1860, the next morning the body of a young boy was found having died in tragic circumstances, the police couldn’t work out who had done it and so Scotland Yard were called. The case became huge news and in the small town of Road there was uproar and unwanted attention with the whole world guessing ‘whodunit’.

Now I am not a massive fan of non fiction, I love diaries and letters but with most non fiction I tend to wander and read it alongside my fiction, the fiction taking priority. Not when this book was around it wasn’t. Summerscale makes all the facts and theories turn into a wonderful and spellbinding read that could put to shame some crime fiction around at the moment. The research she has done is incredible down to the trains caught on what dates, the timetables from the time to match the possible escape of the killer. Clothes worn, movements of every member of the household and makes it come to life effortlessly. You really could have been a member of the public at the time following the case, making your own assumptions and falling for the red herrings along the way.

The book does also deal with the time significantly after the murder and looks at the future of all those involved including the murderer themselves. What is also fascinating with this book is that Summerscale shows how the best writers of that era and just after used various parts of this story and its characters to create some of the masterpieces still being read today such as the ‘Moonstone’ so it’s a fascinating look at the history of crime fiction and the ‘sensationalist’ novels that became so popular following, and of course left me with a list as long as my arm of books to read in the future.

This book is nothing short of pure brilliance, and will appeal to so many people for so many reasons. If you love books then you can learn about the history and add another twenty to your TBR. If you love crime then read the murder that helped establish the genre. If you love a good yarn this ones brilliant and its true. If you like non-fiction then the research and facts you’ll read and learn without even knowing is unbelievable. Yes you might have guessed that this book is one of my very favourites of the whole year, simply a must read.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Kate Summerscale, Review, Richard and Judy

The Savidge Dozen

Blimey so a reading year is over… a year of some good reading, some difficult reading, some readers block plus some dire reading and some frankly amazing reading. In fact there was so much amazing reading I changed my mind and didn’t do what I did last year and have a top ten, instead am doing as the delightful Dove Grey Reader had done and am doing my version of the Man Booker Dozen. So thirteen then… unlucky for some but not for these authors who should feel very lucky (I am being facetious) it was a really hard choice actually, really, really hard. I did stick to last years rule though of only one book per author. So here goes, in reverse order…

13. The Spare Room – Helen Garner
There was uproar in the blogosphere when this didn’t even make it onto the Man Booker Prize long list and after reading it I could see why. A thought provoking, sparse and raw novel about dealing with cancer this book was also filled with heart and emotion. Helen invites her friend Nicola to stay after she is diagnosed with terminal cancer, what follows is nights of cleaning beds, friendships pushed to breaking point and possibly one of the most honest fictional voices I heard this year.

12. The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer
I think if Nancy Mitford was still around (what is it with the Mitford’s being everywhere this year, more on them later) she would probably have been a massive fan of this novel. All at once this novel is sharply witty, comical, touching, observant and sad. Juliet Ashton became possibly my favourite character of the year as a writer struggling to find the next book in her and befriending the said society (it’s too long to write the title each time) and corresponding through letters with the many wonderful characters on a post occupied Guernsey. Superb!

11. The Reader – Bernhard Schlink
This book was simply unputdownable, and yes that is a word I have made up but should exist. When 15 year old Michael meets older woman Hannah when he falls ill he doesn’t know this is a relationship that will be in their lives forever. After becoming lovers one day Hannah vanishes only to reappear in Michael’s later life and to make him think about his life and the country he lives in totally differently. A new interesting, horrifying and thought provoking look at the Holocaust. Will make you think, a lot.

10. The Room of Lost Things – Stella Duffy
I honestly genuinely believe this is one of the most over looked gem books of the year, and not because I know the author and think she is fabulous. I would hope you’d know by now that I am not that sort of person. This book celebrates London and has some of the most fabulous characters in it. Be it from the story of Robert Sutton who is selling his laundrette (where everyone leaves their secrets in their pockets) after a lifetime of hard work to the homeless men who sleep under an archway on a old battered sofa the characters in this book are full of life and I secretly hoped for this to be the start of a series. A love letter in novel form by the author to South London!

9. When Will There Be Good News? – Kate Atkinson
My love for the writing of Kate Atkinson went stratospheric this year with the third so far in the Jackson Brodie ‘literary crime fiction’ series. Having also read its predecessor ‘One Good Turn’ this year I didn’t think her coincidence based complex plots could get any cleverer, I was wrong. This book is much darker than the previous two and grittier yet still in parts incredibly funny. It also of course had one of the characters of the year in it through Reggie the sixteen year old girl who saves Brodie life and yet brings an old flame and a mystery that needs solving into his life on top. It’s so difficult to explain this book, so simply put… buy it!

8. Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones
Ok so this book has been out a while but sometimes I get behind, I mean The Reader is eleven years old, so be kind. I ironically had no expectations of this book at all which sees the children of a small village on a tropical island receive a new teacher and a new book to study ‘Great Expectations’. The new teacher Pop Eye or Mr Watts takes on the class when no one else will due to war in the South Pacific. This reminded me slightly of Half Of A Yellow Sun for the graphicness of war which when you start reading the book you wouldn’t imagine you are going to have in the story ahead of you. Definitely my most shocking read of the year, amazingly written and celebratory of fiction and all it can inspire.

7. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
When Novel Insights and I decided to do this as one of our Rogue Book Group choices I wasn’t sure it would be my cup of tea. I was completely won over by Waugh’s stunning writing and possibly my favourite villain of the year in the form of Lady Marchmain. Charles Ryder reflects on returning to Brideshead during the war on his own history with the building and the Marchmain’s who owned it and their privileged life style in the post Second World War glory days. However Charles experience has a nasty sting in the tale that though he has tried to forget he simply cannot. A genuine classic.

6. The Boy in the Striped Pyjama’s –John Boyne
If there is anyone left who hasn’t seen the movie (which was almost as good as the book, a rarity) or who hasn’t read this book themselves I do not want to give a single bit of plot of this book away as if I had known what was coming I don’t think it would have worked in the same way. I will say that it tells of a young boy Bruno who is forced to move from his childhood home with his mother and sister to join their father for his work. The land they move to is in the middle of nowhere though eventually Bruno befriends another young boy through a fence. Through their innocent friendship Bruno is brought into a much darker world one that will change his life and his family’s lives forever.

5. Mudbound – Hillary Jordan
I admit that the title I found both intriguing and incredibly off putting, however a random purchase in Sainsbury’s (I know, I know) led to me reading possibly one of the most surprising and remarkable books of the year. Set in the Mississippi Delta in 1946 you are first lead to believe this is a novel about a resentful wife being made to live in the cotton farm of her nightmares she swiftly calls Mudbound. What Jordan manages to bring in to this incredible novel is stories of family breakdowns, affairs, war and racism. Not always comfortable reading, especially one sickening scene, this book absolutely blew me away. I cannot wait for Jordan’s second novel whenever it comes.

4. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – Kate Summerscale
Now shock horror, Mr Savidge who never really liked to read non-fiction has two in his top ten. The first of which is Kate Summerscale’s simply wonderful, if crime can be wonderful, retelling of the events of ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ or ‘The Murder at Road Hill House’. Back in 1860 in the small town of Road in Wiltshire a horrific murder took place one which the local police simply couldn’t figure out so at a time when detectives were a new thing Scotland Yard sent Mr Whicher to investigate. The murder both provoked national hysteria and also inspired many authors such as Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle. Being a fan of crime fiction and of books this was a perfect read and made all the facts down to train timetables easy to digest until you find yourself detecting alongside.

3. To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
I most people will know this book and I know it had been a book that I had wanted to read for a long time and so after sneakily buying myself and Novel Insights a 50p charity shop copy each it became a Rogue Book Group choice. Scout tells the tale of her town in the 1930’s Deep South of America. Her father Atticus (a wonderful character) is defending Tom Robinson of rape, Tom is black and in a time and town where racism is rife he finds himself and subsequently his family struggling with the town and struggling for justice. I loved it, even though until about 50 pages in it hadn’t gripped me suddenly I was hooked.

2. On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan
In a year that has seen a lot of McEwan pass in front of my eyes, and has seen him become one f my favourite authors, it was this book in particular that wowed me of all of his I read. Set in the early sixties it is Edward and Florence’s wedding night. For uptight and inexperienced couple, through not speaking and misunderstood actions, this is the night that will change their lives forever and have devastating results. A superb look at how society has changed and how people have become more informed on life since, but also a sad and startling look at innocence, communication and what was expected of differing genders in those times, plus what was morally or socially correct. A small book with a lot of punch and bite. Oh, and its the second year that Mr McEwan has been in my top three books of the year!

1. The Mitford’s: Letters Between Six Sisters – Charlotte Mosley
What had initially led me to read this book was the idea of letters that spanned a huge amount of history. Having, until this book, only known of Deborah Cavendish (though not as a Mitford because of her name, but because I know Chatsworth well), Nancy Mitford (as an author) and Unity Mitford (as the supposed mother of Hitler’s child) to a small degree; I fell in love with all the sisters (possibly bar Diana, she didn’t have being crazy as an excuse to liking Hitler like Unity) and thought the amount of British history contained in one book was phenomenal. I also loved their play on language, thoughts on society, books and people. I defy anyone to read this and not be 100% in love with it and ready to start again once you have put it down. This book has unquestionably inspired me to read a lot more non fiction in 2009. Best book of 2008 by a clear mile, no offense to any others.

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Filed under Bernhard Schink, Books of 2008, Charlotte Mosley, Evelyn Waugh, Harper Lee, Helen Garner, Hillary Jordan, Ian McEwan, Kate Atkinson, Kate Summerscale, Lloyd Jones, Mary Ann Shaffer, Stella Duffy

When Will There Be Good News? – Kate Atkinson

This will be my last book of 2008 which is an odd feeling. I fly off to Barcelona later today and am taking Anna Karenina with me and strangely although I hope to read a lot I don’t think I will be able to get through that in just under a week. I have already typed up and saved my blogs for while I am away so hopefully I will be blogging as usual. So to the matter in hand and my last read of 2008 had to be one that I have been savouring and savouring after hearing some fantastic reviews and also having loved both its predecessors. The book in question is Kate Atkinson’s ‘When Will There Be Good News?’ the latest in the Jackson Brodie series which I hope just goes on and on.

If you haven’t read ‘Case Histories’ and ‘One Good Turn’ then frankly shame on you. Kate Atkinson has created something wonderful in fusing crime and mystery with literature without it being pigeonholed into either. She also has a fantastic plotting ability which deals with some very complex coincidences in fact coincidence has been the theme throughout these three Jackson Brodie novels however I think with ‘When Will There Be Good News’ she has surpassed the previous two, though they are both must reads.

Jackson Brodie is a former detective and private investigator who when we last saw him (forewarning of possible spoilers if you haven’t read the first two) had been rejected by his finance whilst sorting out a crime spree in Edinburgh and meet and fallen for the official detective of the case Louise Monroe. Now we pick up quite a few years later when Brodie is investigating something much more personal that ends in him getting lost in the Yorkshire moors and then on a train the wrong way which ends in a crash. In Scotland Louise Monroe is dealing with a missing homicidal manic, her new marriage and a convict fresh out of jail. How do their paths cross again, how do they intertwine with Joanna Mason who witnessed her families’ murder thirty years before and in the present day with Reggie a sixteen year old nanny who has reported her employer Dr Hunter missing when no one else cares?

I can’t really say anymore on this without puting you off with the complexities (which Atkinson makes easy) or without giving things away so I will simply say that this book is simply superb! Brodie is again wonderful and Monroe is great in her very professional yet completely confused character. I absolutely loved the new character of Reggie who is used to ‘everyone dying’ and has a wonderfully young yet cynical and sassy look on life that I just loved, I think she is one of my favourite charcters of the year. I would like to see her come back in the future along with Brodie. I hope they do.

This has to be Kate Atkinson’s masterpiece to date (I never cared for Behind The Scenes at the Museum and must try to finish it one day) and with each in the series she gets better and better, you begin to wonder how she can top this with the next one. This particular novel however I found much darker (yet still very comedic) than the previous two as did fellow Atkinson and Brodie lover Harriett Devine. I, like Harriett, cannot wait for the next in the series and pray there is one (I have heard rumour of one in 2010) as I will be rushing to the shops for it one its day of release it should become an annual event really.

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Filed under Books of 2008, Kate Atkinson, Review, Transworld Publishing

The Reader – Bernhard Schink

Oh and another contender for book of the year happily becomes part of my Christmas reading. I actually wasn’t going to start Bernhard Schink’s ‘The Reader’ until after Christmas as I heard it was quite depressing and instead was going to dip into one of my M.C. Beaton ‘Agatha Raisin’ guilty pleasures but having seen the advert for the movie twice on television today I simply couldn’t hold off. Now just under twenty four hours later it’s all finished, I couldn’t put it down.

After having read some amazing books on the holocaust and WWII in the past twelve months or so like Marcus Zusack’s astounding ‘The Book Thief’ and John Boyne’s superb ‘The Boy in the Stripped Pyjama’s’ I didn’t know if ‘The Reader’ would live up to the brilliant reports that I had heard not from blogs but from some friends, on in particular who I was in my old book group with who told me that ‘you simply have to read it’. This book has actually been around now for ten years and book blogs or blogs in general weren’t around (how did I find what I wanted to read lol) but is resurfacing with the film coming out in January. This book is just as good as the aforementioned and yet totally different.

Michael is ill during his fifteenth year with hepatitis when he first realises he is sick he collapses in the street and with help from a lady in the street he gets home saftely. After making most of his recovery he walks to thirty six year old Hannah Schmitz to thank her for what she did. This becomes a regular visit as he is intoxicated by her and eventually is seduced by her, then starts a love affair involving Michael reading to her before and after their intimate relations, and eventually just reading before one day Hannah suddenly vanishes from his life. However one day Hannah comes back into his life in a totally unexpected way. I will say no more than that as this book has a incredibly thought provoking twist and I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Schink’s novel (beautifully translated by Carol Brown Janeway) looks at the Holocaust and things that happened during it in a way I haven’t seen before fictionally. This book is all about the generations after the war and how it felt to carry the burden of Hitler’s regime and destruction. I had never thought of what it would be like to have that as part of your history, especially in this case so recent. Through one of the characters actions he asks how people you perceive to be good could possibly do unspeakable things in unspeakable conditions. It also looks at love and emotions in a time where a country and its people were damaged and scarred.

This is simply a wonderful novel, moving, shocking, and thought provoking. If there is one book you read in the next few months make it this one. Mind you with some of the fabulous books I have gotten through in the last twelve months of blogging I have said that a fair few times, but in this case I seriously recommend it and cannot recommend it enough. I will definately be putting Bernhard’s other works on my list of to reads in 2009!

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Filed under Bernhard Schink, Books of 2008, Books To Film, Orion Publishing, Review

Never The Bride – Paul Magrs

After my difficult times through Twilight earlier in the month I hadn’t planned on reading any fiction that had any spooky goings on for a while. However I will be doing an interview in February with Paul Magrs and so the people at Headline sent me the ‘Brenda and Effie’ series as it stands so far as the latest ‘Conjugal Rites’ is out in Paperback in March and me being me I cant read things if its not in order so I decided after ‘The Spare Room’ I would give this a go as the reviews seemed to all be calling t a black comedy, just my humour and just needed after the subject of the last stupendous book. This was the perfect read and I have to say as this year comes to a close I am finding it harder to choose my favourite books of the year as right now I am reading so much (on the whole) that I completely love.

Brenda runs a B&B in Whitby, she has chosen the location for its peace and quiet and also as somewhere to finally settle along with her best friend Effie she spends various afternoons having tea or having a nice night out together. They also love a gossip and they also love a good nosey into mysterious happenings which seem to be happening a lot more often in Whitby.

Why does everyone come from ‘The Deadly Boutique’ looking several years younger but also growing oddly smaller? Who are the strange Green Family who come and stay with Brenda and have an odd look about them? Who is the new mysterious Mr Alucard? What is really going on at The Christmas Hotel with its scarily sweet owner? In what could be a collection of short stories you are taken on an adventure each time with Brenda and Effie as they bumble along like two slightly warped Miss Marple’s, a character I adore.

Having read some other reviews which said the book was ‘like living in parallel Whitby where demons and vampires live with the locals’ or ‘totally for Goths’ or ‘surreal sci-fi’ my thoughts are ‘no, no, no’. Do not let these reviews put you off as they might have done me. This book shouldn’t be pigeonholed into genres its simply fantastical story telling where spooky goings on happen in a sleepy sea side tourist trap. I wanted to move their instantly and be having afternoon teas with Brenda and Effie straight away.

Magrs has created two brilliant heroines. Brenda is nosey and investigative but kind and thoughtful which balances out Effie’s slightly cynical and misunderstanding nature. Both of them, though Brenda far more so, also have very dark pasts and as the book develops you slowly find out more and more about the two women and the skeletons in their cupboards.

I absolutely loved this as you can probably tell. I didn’t think it was like Buffy the Vampire Slayer in book for I thought it was a wonderful tale about two nosey women, their friendship and what happens when things start to go bump in the night. If you loved Willis Hall, Robin Jarvis or even The Brothers Grim as a youngster then you will love this book as someone older. Or if like me you love Most Haunted, there is a brilliant similar show in the book with hilarious outcomes or anything of a spooky nature. This book has thrills, spills, spooks and a good sprinkling of laughter thrown in. Perfect!

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Filed under Books of 2008, Brenda & Effie, Headline Review, Paul Magrs, Review

The Spare Room – Helen Garner

Another book that everyone has been going crazy about this year is ‘The Spare Room’ by Helen Garner and finally thanks to the delightful Anna at Canongate I have been able to read a copy. Well to say that I agree with all the praise from the other book bloggers have been giving this would be an understatement, in fact to say that I was blown away by it would be a complete understatement. Like many others I don’t know how this didn’t get onto the Man Booker long or short list.

When Helen says that her old friend Nicola to come and stay in her spare room she has a limited idea of what she is taking on. It is not simply a friend coming to stay for a short holiday; Nicola has terminal cancer and could possibly have come to stay with Helen to die. Helen becomes more than just Nicola’s friend she becomes her nurse, maid and the one who stand up to her no matter how unpopular that might prove.

This novel also tells of how it is to live with someone with cancer. Its delivered in such a real way it almost took my breath away. Having spent 3 months living with someone who was terminally ill with cancer I found it incredibly emotional to read and also incredibly truthful. There are highs as much as there are lows, you don’t spend the whole time in tears, though there are lots, you laugh a lot aswell. There is a scene based on ‘coffee enema’s’ that actually made me laugh out loud. It also shows its not wrong to find these times hard.

The characters of Helen and Nicola are incredibly well written though I wanted to know more about when they had met and how their friendship had progressed which you got some clues at during the novel. Helen lives next door to her daughter and grand daughter however she is a widow and has had previous experience she is an independent strong woman like Nicola. However Nicola is in a state of denial and relying on ‘alternative therapy’ instead of anything else and has no family to rely on. As Helen finds changing the sheets every night harder and harder she also finds Nicola’s denial more taxing and their friendship is tested to the limits. How does it end? Well you will have to read this wonderful book to find out. I will say its and ending I didn’t see coming, I wont give anything else away.

I looked up Helen Garner on Wikipedia as I hadn’t heard of her and yet she has written a lot of books (which I will be ordering soon) prior to this. I also found she actually wrote this after having spent time with her friend with cancer, so you can see she has used her experiences of that time. Its also her writing, every single word counts. Its simple and sparse and crystal clear. I found this both one of the most impressive reads of the year undoubtedly, simply wonderful.

My only worry with this book is the new paperback cover. The hardback cover as you can see above is perfect, sparse and simple. Now even though this is a book that predominantly deals with two women it is by no means ‘chick lit’ or a ‘women’s read only’ I think anyone who reads this would absolutely love it. So why have they given it a new cover that simply doesn’t make sense for a spare room and I cant see a single man reading on the tube etc. Sorry that’s my only gripe.

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Filed under Books of 2008, Canongate Publishing, Helen Garner, Review

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

When Novel Insights and myself set up our ‘Rogue Book Group’ we decided that we would only do books that we owned or ones that we had always wanted to read. I have always wanted to read ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ and being sneaky I bought us both second hand copies. ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is a book I knew nothing about other than the fact that it has sold absolutely masses and the author Harper Lee never wrote anything else. Well I think it has made it into my top ten books of all time and that isn’t something that comes easily.

The story of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is based around a family living in the American South. The narrator is Scout a young girl who recounts everything she sees and hears in the town during a turbulent time as Scouts father Atticus is battling the system of a black man Tom Robinson accused of rape. This in set in the present day or when the book was set but back when black people didn’t have any rights and so deals with the subjects of racism and discrimination and is one of the most accomplished books on the subject I have read.

It’s a slow starter and for the first fifty pages I couldn’t decide whether I was going to like it or completely loathe it. I also didn’t know whether the book being narrated by someone that young on such a topic would work, it actually made the book more comical, endearing, tragic, and black and white all at once. By black and white I mean in the sense that children see things in a much simpler way as Harper Lee shows in the reaction that Dill shows to the trail and this spells everything out for you as a reader and makes you really think about the whole situation and the society at the time. She also discusses women’s role and degrees of repression at the time.

The plot itself is superb as the actual trail doesn’t really start until the second part you have the plot of what caused the trial and subsequently what happens after. Behind all of this there is also the mystery of Scout’s neighbour ‘Boo Radley’ who never appears outside of the house apart from at night and who has many ‘neighbourhood gossip/rumours’. One of the themes of the books is also undoubtedly childhood and growing up seen through Scout’s eyes and also through the observations of her brother Jem (and their adventures) as he heads towards manhood and their relationship changes. Family is a big theme in the novel especially the relationship between the children and their father which is beautifully written. Atticus Finch is the father I never had but wish I did.

I have completely fallen in love with this book, all its characters no matter how evil or small and as Novel Insights and myself discussed yesterday (I again finished the book the morning of Rogue Book Group) it’s a complete literary gem. I laughed, though didn’t cry but was moved, believed completely in the characters and felt that I came away from the novel having had a true reading experience and more. It had that certain something. If you haven’t read it, which is unlikely, then you must read it soon. If you have read it why not pick it up again. I will be within the next 12 months I don’t doubt.

I wonder why Harper Lee never wrote anything else?

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Filed under Book Group, Books of 2008, Harper Lee, Random House Publishing, Review

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer

With a superb title like that how could you possibly not want to read this book? The reviews through the blogosphere had been fantastic however with a huge TBR pile I wasn’t sure whether I should take a risk on it or not. Well after receiving a copy in the post recently it went almost straight to the top of my TBR and having just put it down I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The novel is set in 1946 and the author Juliet Ashton receives a letter from Dawsey Adams a Guernsey farmer. He has found her previous address in an old copy of Charles Lamb and has written to her to find out if she knows any more on the author and if she can recommend anymore reads for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. Juliet is naturally, as you would be, intrigued by the society and the people of Guernsey who have joined it and how it was formed. This sees the beginning of letters between the members of the society and Juliet. It also sees letters between her and her publisher, possible wooer and best friend as she embarks on a journey of discover of Guernsey after the occupation of the war. What exactly is the society; well you should read it to find out!

Juliet is a fantastic lead character. Having spent the war writing ‘Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War’ under the pseudonym she now wants to start writing something new and more importantly as herself. She is a real sparky and unconventional character for her time. She has previously dumped a former fiancé because when she came upstairs he had packed all her books away into the basement and filled her shelves with his trophies. She isn’t afraid of wicked journalists throwing a kettle at ones head ‘though it was empty and didn’t do any damage’.

The characters of the society almost, almost steal the show with their own tales, some funny and some incredibly moving especially the story of Elizabeth who was sent to prison leaving her daughter behind who the rest of the society look after. Of course you are taken a long and educated in it all through Juliet’s journey, I learnt so much about Guernsey and the occupation I had no idea about. I frankly wanted to pack my bags and head of there myself to take in the atmosphere and history further; you can see why Mary Ann Shaffer fell in love with the area on a visit and wanted to write about it.

Sadly Mary Ann Shaffer died before she could see her books get published although she knew it was going to be published. It’s a real shame as her voice was wonderful, managing to mix tales of deadly wit (I was reminded of Nancy Mitford when reading some of the book) with some harrowing tales and takes you along the emotions of everyone involved. Sometimes I had to remind myself it was fiction.

This is undoubtedly one of my favourite books of the year. I was worried a book of letters would become complicated especially with the amount of characters that this book contains but every voice is unique and I whizzed through the letters, I couldn’t wait to hear the latest from all the characters. Why has letter writing gone out of fashion it’s such a shame I think it needs to come back, maybe I should start a letter writing group for book lovers?

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2008, Mary Ann Shaffer, Review

20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth – Xiaolu Guo

I absolutely loved ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’ by Xiaolu Guo and so when ‘20 Fragments of Ravenous Youth’ arrived it went straight up to the top of my TBR. I was hoping that I would find the writing both touching and comical and that the protagonist would be again someone I enjoyed following the journey of and Guo delivered one hundred per cent.

‘So I was the 6787th person in Beijing wanting to act in the film and TV industry. There were 6786 young and beautiful, or ugly and old people before me trying to get a role. I felt the competition, but compared with 1.6 billion people in China, 6786 was only the population of my village. I felt an urge to conquer this new village.’ So Fenfang introduces us to her life in Beijing as a young woman searching for work, love and herself at the same time.

We follow her as she moves from place to place, man to man and random job to random job. I loved the descriptions of the parts she played such as ‘woman waiting on a bridge’ or ‘woman who says nothing in a café’. This is where I think Guo is just superb in writing her characters, in very few words she can conjure up a people by what they say, for example ‘oh heavenly bastard in the sky’ being on of the most common thing to come from the mouth of Fenfang. It conjures up a character very quickly that tries hard but is very much aware of how hard life can be.

Indeed Beijing life is what this book is mostly about though featuring the TV world that Guo has so much experience in. Reading the afterword I found out this was actually the first book Guo wrote, she has now gone back and rewritten it as it was ten years ago and she didn’t agree with everything the original heroine was saying. For a debut novel, even if reworked some what, it is a great set of twenty snap shots of a young life in Beijing dealing with the hardships as well as the great sides. I loved the fact Fenfang particularly loved living in the area full of pirate DVD’s and books regardless of all the cockroaches, the pro’s outweighing the cons. One scene involving Fenfang swallowing a cockroach and her doctor being completely unsympathetic and saying she wouldn’t die made me feel slightly ill and laugh in abundance at once.

All the other characters are very secondary in the novel, no one else features heavily and you don’t find out masses about the people she interacts with just short concise paragraphs that tell you all you need to know. For example, one of her boyfriends who shares a room with his whole family… and a dog that uses their bed as a toilet. Can you imagine sharing a room with your partner’s whole family? The book is as it says simply 20 fragments of Fenfang’s life in Beijing and its cultures. I found it fascinating, funny and in places unsettling. I think Guo is undoubtedly one of the best new writers around and everyone should give this ago, just don’t expect ‘a concise history’ part two, I think that’s why people have said its not as good, I think it’s a sign Guo isn’t a one trick pony.

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Filed under Books of 2008, Review, Vintage Books, Xiaolu Guo

Dear Fatty – Dawn French

I absolutely adore Dawn French she is one of the nation’s greatest comediennes and actors and also one of the nations treasures (a lot like Julie Walters whose autobiography I nearly picked up instead of this one but am holding off for now) and after an amazing 20 years in the limelight she has written her autobiography. This however is not quite an autobiography as she points out it is in fact a book of her memoirs written to people in her life throughout her life and I simply loved the whole collection.

A huge part of the book is written to her father who committed suicide not long before she got a place at The School of Speech and Trauma as she calls it ‘Dear Dad, so you’re still dead’. These letters though sad are a delight and whilst very funny in places also show a very raw side of Dawn French that you don’t tend to see behind the humorous woman she shows in her interviews. Her letters to her father deal with times in her life when he was there and times in her life when she wished that he could have been there. I learnt so much about her childhood through these letters I had no idea that as a daughter of someone in the RAF she spent a lot of her time travelling the country and other parts of the world never really settling down, something she is now incredibly keen to do. An episode involving the queen mother is actually one of the funniest parts of the book.

She covers her teenage years and those turbulent teenage times through letters to her daughter and younger relatives. She is completely happy to divulge the negative parts of it and all the kissing and hormones in letters to both some of her ex boyfriends and some of her icons at the time. I loved a letter of all the people she’s kissed and the comments she has on the experiences. Speaking of icons interspersed amongst the letters to family and friends she writes some incredibly funny ones to Madonna who famously has refused to appear on every series of French and Saunders ever.

Whilst there are lots of belly laughs in this book there are some incredibly raw and open parts. There is a letter to Lenny Henry, her husband, telling of the ups and the downs that marriages can have and looking at those in an incredibly open way. I think bar one of the letters to her father the most touching letter she writes is one to her daughter Billie regarding her adoption and how much her birth mother loved her to have to give her away, its both fascinating and emotional and beautifully written.

If you are looking for lots of gossip on celebrities and her times with Jennifer Saunders (or Fatty as she is addressed in letters that are just very long jokes and very funny) and the Vicar of Dibley etc then this has those in the background they are not the main part of the book. What it focuses on is what has made Dawn French who she is today and most importantly by writing to them, who the people are who have made her who she is today.

I have read a lot of autobiographies in my time and they can be sensationalist and show you a very rosy side of the author. This is an upfront no holes barred autobiography that looks at people from all walks of life and how one girl became one of the nations most famous funny faces and it was the insights into her family members, pets and events in her youth that I found so entertaining and make this one of the best, if not the best autobiographies I have read. You have no excuse not to read this book. I could have read this much quicker than I did however I wanted to savour every page. A must buy and one of my books of the year.

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Filed under Books of 2008, Dawn French, Random House Publishing, Review

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – Kate Summerscale

You know when you keep seeing a book and you pick it up four or five times in the space of a few weeks and you think you want it, people have said you should read it and you just think you have too many books? If this is the case just buy the blinking book, as this is how I have been feeling about Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ or ‘The Murder at Road Hill House’ as it suggests, and frankly I think this is one of the best books that I have read all year. So I must say a thank you to Bloomsbury for sending me this.

The subtitle of the book refers to the fact that this is not your normal gothic Victorian murder mystery; it’s a real murder mystery. In fact ‘The Murder at Road Hill House’ somewhat gripped the nation back in 1860 and saw the dawn of the detective in the form of Jack Whicher. This murder mystery in a country house where one of the occupants definitely did it sparked imaginations of the greats and inspired novels by Dickens, Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins over the years. It all started on an unremarkable evening during the night in Summer 1860, the Kent family went to bed a s normal however the next morning the body of a young boy was found having died in tragic circumstances, the police couldn’t work out who had done it and so Scotland Yard were called. The case became huge news and in the small town of Road there was uproar and unwanted attention with the whole world guessing ‘whodunit’.

Now I am not a massive fan of non fiction, I love diaries and letters but with most non fiction I tend to wander and read it alongside my fiction, the fiction taking priority. Not when this book was around it wasn’t. Summerscale makes all the facts and theories turn into a wonderful and spellbinding read that could put to shame some crime fiction around at the moment. The research she has done is incredible down to the trains caught on what dates, the timetables from the time to match the possible escape of the killer. Clothes worn, movements of every member of the household and makes it come to life effortlessly. You really could have been a member of the public at the time following the case, making your own assumptions and falling for the red herrings along the way.

The book does also deal with the time significantly after the murder and looks at the future of all those involved including the murderer themselves. What is also fascinating with this book is that Summerscale shows how the best writers of that era and just after used various parts of this story and its characters to create some of the masterpieces still being read today such as the ‘Moonstone’ so it’s a fascinating look at the history of crime fiction and the ‘sensationalist’ novels that became so popular following, and of course left me with a list as long as my arm of books to read in the future.

This book is nothing short of pure brilliance, and will appeal to so many people for so many reasons. If you love books then you can learn about the history and add another twenty to your TBR. If you love crime then read the murder that helped establish the genre. If you love a good yarn this ones brilliant and its true. If you like non-fiction then the research and facts you’ll read and learn without even knowing is unbelievable. Yes you might have guessed that this book is one of my very favourites of the whole year, simply a must read.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2008, Kate Summerscale, Review

Mudbound – Hillary Jordan

Sometimes (even though you have a TBR pile as tall as yourself) you can hear about a book, or see one reviewed or notice a copy in a shop and you think ‘oh I shouldn’t’ – you quite frankly should. I know this after picking up ‘Mudbound’ by Hillary Jordan when I was in Sainsbury’s. Yes I know, I know, people are saying that supermarkets are ruining the book industry (don’t get me started on e-readers) but sometimes when you see something that your unsure about a bargain of £3.99 seems too good to be true. Oddly the strange title both made me want to read the book more and put me off at the same time if that is possible? Any way the book…

I have absolutely loved this book. Seriously I don’t think this review will ever be able to do enough justice to the book or how much I enjoyed it… well as much as you can enjoy something quite harrowing. The novel is set in the Mississippi Delta in the late 1940’s. It opens with a two sons burying their father, you are given a clue that the person who died didn’t necessarily die of natural causes. Watching the burial is Laura and the story starts with her in the past before the burial in the events leading up to it from when she meets her husband Henry and moves with him (reluctantly) to the cotton fields somewhere she finds daunting and unsettling.

Elsewhere the war has been raging on, once it ends Jamie (Henry’s brother) returns a changed man he has seen things that have shocked and scarred him and he wants to work the farm in order to escape the hustle and bustle of life. Another returned soldier is Ronsel Jackson whose family work the farm for Henry as one of the many black sharecroppers if he thought the war was hard he has no idea what is coming and the secrets he carries could come back to change his life forever.

The book is written from the perspective of all the lead characters. A personal favourite of mine was Ronsel’s wonderful mother Florence a strong and determined woman who you routed for and admired throughout the whole novel. Henry’s father Pappy is possibly one of the vilest characters I have read in a very long time just utterly despicable. Every single character was believable and even if you don’t agree with their behaviour or their beliefs you will become completely engrossed in each characters stories and motives. Each characters voice was completely whole and true and meant you saw all sides of the story even if one particular scene made me almost sick to the stomach and I didn’t see coming a mile off.

Not only did I find it astounding that someone could write such a fantastic first novel, I couldn’t believe that in just over 300 pages someone could take you on such a grand scale journey, a journey that covers affairs, religion, racism and war. Hillary Jordan uses a prose that simply draws you in and takes you along and has mastered an art some authors take years to grasp. She is definitely one to watch and I am 100% shocked that this book hasn’t been up for every award going. I can whole heartedly say this must be one of my top five books of the year.

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Filed under Books of 2008, Hillary Jordan, Review, Windmill Books