Tag Archives: Books of 2009

Books of 2009

As the end of the year draws in I find that I become quite reflective. I have actually had a bit of an issue with reading this week and wonder if that is an end of year thing, more on that at some other point. 2009 has been a big year for this blog; it’s also been a big year for my reading. It seems a delightful coincidence that today as I wrap up my best reads of 2009 it is also my 500th post which I think deserves some fireworks…

My original idea of doing my ‘best of’ like I did last year with The Savidge Dozen just wasn’t working. I have read too many brilliant books and so I thought I would instead do two separate top ten’s. The first being my favourite books published or re-issued in 2009 itself which was hard and actually I got down to a final twelve but I had to cut the delightful books Notwithstanding and ‘The Earth Hums in B Flat’ and be tough to make the ten which are (click on each title for full review)…

10. Legend of a Suicide by David Vann – One of the most emotionally raw novels I have ever read. Fictional accounts of a father’s suicide, the events leading up to it and the effects of this tragedy on his son and others around him, based in parts on the authors own fathers suicide. Moving and masterfully written.  

9. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood – The first of two Atwood novels that truly made my year. This dark (and often darkly funny) tale of the future of humanity starts off sounding like something out of a sci-fi novel yet disturbingly slowly reads as a not too distant possibility.  

8. After The Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld – Without question the debut novel of the year for me. A book many are labelling as being a ‘War book’, I wouldn’t 100% agree with that as its so much more. The author calls it a ‘romantic thriller about men who don’t speak’ I would call it ‘a book about the dark truths behind the faces of those we love’ a compelling and moving read.

7. Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill – Some loved it some hated it, I revelled in it. Susan Hill’s thoughts on some of her books and the people she met who wrote them. And she popped by and made a comment or two.

6. The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan – A fictional account of those famous Bronte Sisters which sadly didn’t get the Man Booker notice it should have. This brings the Bronte’s to life and you will think of them slightly differently. Made me want to read every Bronte book I could… as yet I haven’t started but a possible resolution for 2010, that or read all of Morgan’s prior works.

5. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – The deserved winner from the Man Booker Shortlist and the one I guessed (though I was hoping a certain other book would win, see below). I thought that there had been Tudor fiction overload, I was wrong just as I was wrong that reading a book about Thomas Cromwell that was huge would bore me to death, I was enthralled and enwrapped.

4. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie – The only way I can think of to describe this book which skips such a huge expanse of time is ‘a war torn epic’. I thought this was marvellous and was thrilled I got to hear her speak about it and even ask her a question; I was a bit in awe.

3. Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran – Definitely the non fiction book of 2009, well published in 2009. Getting a glimpse into the private world of such a marvellous author and how her criminal mastermind brain worked and plotted was utterly fascinating.

2. Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys – Technically not actually released originally in 2009, but thankfully brought back from the past thanks to the wonderful Bloomsbury Group. The tale of Henrietta and the villagers she lives with during the war had me laughing out loud all over the place.

1. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin – A book I fell wholly in love with from start to finish. It might not have the biggest plot or be brimming with a huge cast of characters but its simplicity is what makes it so stunning. An interesting look at the life of a woman who is sent to be saved from the poverty in Ireland by being shipped to America, only not everyone wants to be saved. Utterly stunning and quietly intense.

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Then I had the ridiculous task of finding the ten ‘best of the rest’ which in a year where I read such delights as The Secret Scripture (which lost a point or two for the ending I won’t lie) and the joy Miss Garnett’s Angel and had a Sensation Season was going to be tough. OK, so it’s not quite ten but it’s as close as I could get. The final ten (cough, eleven) are…

10. Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith – I wasn’t convinced that a thriller based on a child murderer in the time of Stalinist Russia would work for me. I was utterly wrong as I think for me it’s been the thriller of the year. Also thrilling was getting to go to Tom’s house for coffee and questions.

9. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – Proof that sometimes books can be hard work but all that hard work is definitely worth it. Opening with the suicide of the narrator’s sister, this becomes an epic novel of the lives of the Chase sisters and the effects of the Second World War. Also comes with an intriguing novel inside the novel and a sci-fi-ish novel inside that one, are you keeping up?

8. State of Happiness by Stella Duffy – I am a big admirer of Stella and her work and this to me is her best fiction yet (oh but wait for the next one in 2010) despite loving her latest book The Room of Lost Things in 2008. This is a tale about love and ultimately death and it broke my heart and made me cry quite a lot. If you are up for an emotional journey and wonderful writing you simply cannot miss this book.

7. Lady into Fox by David Garnett – Wonderful surreal and touching fable of a husband and how he deals with his wife randomly turning into a fox one day. This is may only be 96 pages long but each page is perfection.

6. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – Most of the planet with have read this novel so I will simply say a modern classic masterpiece about a dystopian future where we are all under the watchful all seeing eye of Big Brother and should ever be fearful of Room 101.  

5. The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett – My first year of reading Persephone books and this one just took me on a journey that I wasn’t expecting. A sensational tale of rich American heiresses, one whom meekly marries an Englishman for a title and vanishes, the other a forthright woman who wishes to seek her sister out and solve the mystery of what has befallen her.

4. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes – A total surprise hit of 2009 for me. I never thought that a ‘sci-fi’ book about a mentally handicapped man and a genius mouse would grab me let alone move me to tears and yet this frankly marvellous book did exactly that.

3. Small Island by Andrea Levy – Really this is a modern masterpiece. A tale of two completely different women brought together through war and adversity. Also a tale of forbidden love, war, racism and hope, a remarkable book I was glad Granny Savidge Reads recommended so strongly and so often.

2. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – This book is what I may now consider the greatest nonfiction book I have ever read (so far – though unlikely to be beaten). A true tale of the ruthless killing of a family in America, and a thought provoking quite often disturbing study of their murderers. In parts bleak and horrific, it’s also emotional (I cried at this one too) and yet a darkly fascinating insight into the minds of killers.  

1. East Lynne by Ellen Wood/Armadale by Wilkie Collins – Technically I am cheating but I really couldn’t decide between these two. The epic scope, characters and thrilling plots of each of these was utterly remarkable. In a year where I rediscovered my loved of all things sensational I found these two new favourite books. Both of these are genuine gems of sensation novels and couldn’t have more mystery, twists, dramas or thrills if they tried.

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I have to say I don’t think that minimal short snappy reviews are my fortes so do visit the full reviews, they are much better. Should you be really tough and ask me which out of this final twenty one would be my favourite of the year I would have to go with… Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. I know some people will be surprised after my sensation fiction love in and some of you won’t agree and that’s fine, though don’t push your negative comments below this post (ha, ha, ha), for me it was just wonderful and a true surprise delight in this years Man Booker Longlist read-a-thon. There will be much more Toibin to come in 2010 I promise you. Now I must dash as I have a party to prepare for (attending not hosting) and some resolutions to make… What have been your best books of 2009?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Levy, Books of 2009, Colm Toibin, Daniel Keyes, David Garnett, David Vann, Ellen Wood, Evie Wyld, Frances Hodgson Burnett, George Orwell, Hilary Mantel, John Curran, Jude Morgan, Kamila Shamsie, Margaret Atwood, Stella Duffy, Susan Hill, Tom Rob Smith, Truman Capote, Wilkie Collins

A Life Like Other People’s – Alan Bennett

It seems timely when a certain book arrives and you are in just the mood to read it, which has happened with Alan Bennett’s most recent memoir ‘A Life Like Other People’s’. It has been a bit of a Bennett fest on the television of late here in the UK as Elaine at Random Jottings has been discussing to mark his 75th Birthday. He also has become some what of a national treasure which he says doesn’t sit with him very well. I read and loved The Uncommon Reader a while back and have enjoyed many of his Talking Head monologues, not just recently, but for a while in fact I had them on audio cassette when I was younger.

A Life Like Other People’s, which I keep wanting to call A Life Amongst Others though I have no idea why, is about his formative years though mainly it looks at the relationships of his parents. I don’t have any of Bennett’s previous diaries and memoires to compare this too, though I will be making sure that changes, though what I have always loved about Bennett is his ‘real writing’. He looks at people, and himself, and the actions of real people their emotions there thoughts the whole gambit. There are no tricks and though there is often drama its never written to be dramatic or to gain readers its simply life.

The simplistic and honest writing style is incredibly endearing. Scenes can be quite harrowing and emotional and yet there will be some slight comedy around the corner, its not intentional or planned it’s just the way it is. Two scenes that really hit me were between him and his mother, which almost made me cry, and his mother searching for her sister in a dementia ward. I loved the story of his parents wedding and why there were no pictures as his parents didn’t want any ‘splother’. You will have to read the book to find out just what that means and how they got around it.

Bennett was clarely very close to his mother, though of course he loved his father they didn’t have that same relationship. He seemed to get to know him best when he was driving him to see his mother when she was in hospital on several occasions for depression. In fact these trips, where his father got most annoyed about making sure everything was on time, showed a wonderful dedication between husband and wife, father and mother, that I found deeply affecting. I loved the relationship between them and think that love like that seems to be becoming much rarer in today’s society. I wonder if Bennett would agree. If only I could sit and discuss it all further with him over a pot of Yorkshire tea. We can all dream can’t we?

It’s not a long book and so I can’t really write too much about it without giving lots of things away. I think overall that poignant, in all its ways, is what best describes this work. If you like books about real people and real lives then I don’t think you can het much better. I can only wonder what his diaries and ‘Writing Home’ have in store for me to read in the future. I think 2010 may have to involve a bit of a Bennett binge as I also want to read the whole of Talking Heads again now too. What about you, what Bennett have you read and loved? Or is he someone you have yet to read? If it’s a case of the latter I can think of nothing better than whiling away an afternoon in the company of Alan Bennett. This book comes very, very highly recommended.

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Filed under Alan Bennett, Books of 2009, Faber & Faber, Profile Books, Review

The Gates – John Connolly

Though I have never read any of John Connolly’s crime and mystery fiction but I am a huge fan of ‘The Book of Lost Things’ which a friend recommended to me for being a wonderfully warped adult fairytale and it was. This was during pre-blogging days which is a shame as I could rave about that until the cows come home; maybe it’s another book to add to my never ending list of re-reads? So when I saw that ‘The Gates’ was another slightly fantasy and supernatural based book I simply had to read it. I probably would have if I hadn’t read any Connolly as the cover is a delight to behold.

Imagine you are just out walking your dog at the end of your street and there is some huge bang coming from number 666. You go to investigate and find that some of your neighbours have been a little bit bored one afternoon and decided to open up another dimension and the gates of hell? What on earth do you do? This is the situation that school boy Samuel Johnson finds himself in three days before Halloween when he goes out ‘showing initiative’ to do some early trick or treating with his sausage dog Boswell.

As no one believes him it seems that only Samuel can save the world from the evil Mrs Abernathy, or what has possessed the body of the originally not too nice Mrs Abernathy, and her mission to bring ‘The Great Malevolence’ and all his followers to turn earth to ash and dust. Fortunately the portal also brings up the demon called Nurd, who has been banished from several parts of hell for not joining in with evil doings, who becomes an unlikely comrade for Samuel and a very funny one.  

The book is a gripping adventurous romp from start to finish with heaps and heaps of funny moments, I laughed out loud twice and giggled at several points. I thought Mrs Abernathy was a brilliant villain and all the demons where brilliantly described you could just envisage them. I was slightly concerned when I started reading as there were footnotes in the book. I have to say footnotes annoy me normally but these ones make you laugh. In parts the book can be quite scientific and so through these humorous footnotes certain parts of physics and chemistry seem to become really easy to understand and I do not have a chemist/physicist mind as my science teaching step-father would happily vouch for, he taught me these at school. 

Whereas John Connolly’s previous fantasy (I use that term loosely) novel ‘The Book of Lost Things’ was an adult book that teenagers could enjoy ‘The Gates’ is very much a book aimed at teenagers that will love it and adults who will love it even more so. It seems some kind of serendipity or blogendipity if you will (or maybe just timely) that after writing about my favourite children’s books yesterday I should be posting about a book that very much appealed to the inner child in me.

If you like a very well written escapist thrill then you will love this book as I did. I am quite pleased to know that I still have more of Connolly’s supernatural and scary tales to go as there is a seven story collection called Nocturnes which I am now absolutely desperate to read (is that a big enough hint?) I am intrigued about his crime mysteries and may look at those in the future too. Would you recommend his crime what is it like? Have you read any of Connolly’s work? If you haven’t do give this a whirl.

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Filed under Books of 2009, Hodder & Stoughton, John Connolly, Review

Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks – John Curran

A theme seems to be occurring when it comes to my reading habits. I always say that I am not the biggest fan of non fiction and then I read one each year and it completely takes my breath away (well almost) with its brilliance and soon becomes on of my favourites if not my favourite book of the year. This happened last year with ‘The Mitford’s: Letters Between Six Sisters’ by Charlotte Mosley, I utterly adored it couldn’t put it down and yet at the same time didn’t want it to end. This has happened again this year with ‘Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks’ by John Curran.

I heard about Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks on one of the many book podcasts that I download each week. These notebooks were a recent discovery when Christie’s family allowed Greenway, Christie’s holiday home, to be taken over by the National Trust. They had never been on display, they were a mix up of several plots, daily to do’s, shopping lists, character ideas, lists of books (made me love Agatha even more) she wanted and other thoughts with no chronological order. That is where John Curran, an Agatha expert and friend of Christie’s grandson, came in and this book is the results of four years work trying to decipher some of Christie’s handwriting “often like short hand” and working out what notes related to what books and when.

The discoveries are really very interesting. It seems that Curran’s (and probably most readers of her work) image of Agatha sat endlessly typing murder after murder, book after book with the killer planned at the start isn’t quite so. In fact as you get to read her notes, which John has painstakingly transcribed, you find she would often chop and change the killer as she went. The idea for a book might ruminate for years and start from a simple observation as ‘a stamp’ the notes then look at how such an everyday item could cause someone to commit murder. Who knew that a certain famous Poirot scene was originally meant for Miss Marple? Which books didn’t have the endings you and I might have read? Which short stories then with new characters and a subtle plot twist or motive change became a play or a novel? You can find all these things out and much, much more.

The book isn’t just John’s transcriptions, there are some wonderful pictures (as you can see above)  of the notes she had written with crossings out (which actually meant she had used the notes not that they were rubbish. This book isn’t just about her notebooks, though naturally they are predominantly the subject of the book. He also interweaves her personal life from making hair appointments to having her grandchildren to say and being part of ‘The Detection Club’ a group of the finest detective fiction writers with a secret initiation ceremony. Her disappearance isn’t much mentioned but this is more about the process behind the books and what went on in Agatha’s head.

I have to say I don’t think you have to be a huge Agatha fan in order to read this, though if you are this book is pure gold. If you are interested in how the minds of authors work and in particular one of the great British authors (who has sold over two billion copies of her books worldwide) ever then this is also fascinating. There are a couple of glitches in the book. One, which you can overcome, is that it does give a lot of the books endings away. My thoughts on that are just leave those books a while before you read or re-read them as she has so many ‘you could read one a month for seven years’. The other small glitch for me is Curran’s slight case of repetition; I think in the first hundred pages I had read the same quote three times which seemed to be hammering a point home a little too much. This is minor though as I found Curran a really interesting and enjoyable guide through these notebooks, he was never too clever or condescending just very enthusiastic which we all know is highly contagious.

Ooh, I must mention, well show you, the delightful end papers which are a selection of the notebooks and look gorgeous (my Gran could remember lots of them) I think…

This is a wonderful book that I adored, and I freely admit that I am quite a hard person to please with non fiction yet this won me over almost instantly. This is undoubtedly one of my favourite books of the year It has also made my previous desire to read all Agatha Christie that I can a much bigger desire. I am quite tempted to read The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding next week! Oh, which brings me to the point that this book has finally won me over to Poirot and not just because of the notes, but also the two previously unpublished short stories he features in. A must read in my humble opinion.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Books of 2009, Harper Collins, John Curran, Review

Small Island – Andrea Levy

No more Granny Savidge Reads for a while, you will just have to make do with me from now on. Well until the spring when I am off, with the Converted One of course, up north for a weekend of blogging respite for me but blog building for a certain someone. Today’s post is all about one of Gran’s favourite books which is Small Island by Andrea Levy which I had decided to read while she was staying here and also before the second half of the BBC adaptation is on. Now my Gran and I agree on a lot of books but heartily disagree on many too. Which category would this book fall into?

Small Island starts as two of its main characters come face to face. On a street in London in 1948 Queenie Bligh opens the door to be faced with Hortense Gilbert fresh from Jamaica, a woman she has never seen before but one who turns out to be the wife of one of her lodgers Gilbert. One of several lodgers that Queenie’s neighbours do not approve of as they are black, the fact that Gilbert fought for the British in the War it’s recovering from doesn’t matter one jot. With her husband away Queenie needs the cash and besides she isn’t prejudice, she takes people as she finds them and she finds them alright. Though at first you wouldn’t think these two women have anything in common you soon learn they do and not just in personality or the facts they didn’t marry for love… there is something in their very different pasts that links them too.

I am making it sound like the book is just about these two women and that isn’t the case at all, they just take over every scene they are in even when they aren’t narrating it. The book is actually narrated by Queenie, Hortense and their two husbands Gilbert (who is just lovely) and Bernard. Each has a very interesting tale to tell not only on their lives and backgrounds, which are revealed in a slightly disjointed order. They also give four voices to war, culture, love and racism which aren’t small topics by any means.

Hortense who comes to England after buying her marriage to a man she doesn’t love only to find it isn’t the dream she dreamt of and that despite her high opinion of herself society sees her as the lowest of the low is a particularly interesting story. Gilbert, who always tries to better his life and his difficult wife’s dreams, yet gets stuck at every step because of the colour of his skin. Queenie’s story comes later in the book but it packs a punch or two, especially when the repressed Bernhard comes back.

I could gush and gush on and on all the praise I have for this book for hours. It just worked on so many levels for me. It had great storylines and plots; in fact this book had so much to say and was so delightfully written I think I could have read another few hundred pages of the voices and their backgrounds and thoughts on the situations they were in. My only wish is that I hadn’t seen the first half of the BBC adaptation (which you can see on iPlayer) before I started reading the book as it gave away some of the forthcoming plots and twists, but only some, and it is a wonderful adaptation.

So like my Gran I absolutely loved this book; in fact I utterly adored it. Could you tell? I thought it was just so wonderfully written, the characters vivid (I think Hortense and Queenie are two of my favourite characters of the year). How Levy came up with the back stories and how they all interweaved together I will never know, they were completely believable despite happening on opposite sides of the world and you couldn’t guess how it would all work out. So good indeed was this wonderful novel that I ended up missing my stops on the tube several times reading this book which is a very good sign. One of my books of the year, in fact a book that will be whizzing straight into my top ten books of all time. Utterly marvellous, if you havent read it (which I think most of you will have – what did you think?) then you simply must!

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Filed under Andrea Levy, Books of 2009, Books To Film, Headline Review, Review

The Year of the Flood – Margaret Atwood

I have been meaning to read Margaret Atwood’s latest novel The Year of The Flood for ages. I don’t know exactly why it took me so long to get around to opening the first few pages. I think part of it was the question as to whether or not you have to read Oryx and Crake first which I haven’t done. Some people say you do and some people say you don’t. Margaret Atwood herself has said you don’t need to, so I went with her opinion as apparently this is a ‘sister’ novel.

The Year of the Flood is set in the future, though quite when I wasn’t sure I personally felt it wasn’t too much in the distance and yet not in the next decade. The book is told through the experiences and life’s of two members of what people deem the cult ‘God’s Gardeners’ who await ‘the waterless flood’ which will kill out most of mankind. Here their leader Adam One teaches the followers of this mix of science and religion in a slightly free spirited way. After all this is the man who says ‘it is better to hope than to mope’ also showing some of Atwood’s wry humour. Two female members who come into this cult are Ren as a young girl when her mother runs off with her and one of the other members of God’s Gardeners, the other is Toby who is literally though never quite spiritually saved by Adam One.

The book alternates between the voices of Ren in second person and Toby in first person both in the times before ‘The Flood’ and in the times after interspersed with the preaching’s and hymns of Adam One and the God’s Gardeners (which I did find a little irritating – tiny bit – but could see their purpose). Ren has become a dancer and worker in a high class sex club and Toby has been living out of a derelict AnooYoo Spa living off the edible treatments. The question of what the flood is and if human kind, green rabbits and liobambs (dangerous creatures half lion half sheep) can survive is one that you will have to read the book to find out.

Now I don’t want to give anything away but I do need to give a little to explain further why I thought this book was so brilliant. Atwood uses the way the women enter the world of God’s Gardeners in a really interesting way in aspects to their views on it. Ren is brought there as a child and so really knows no better than the confines she is in until she leaves them (I won’t say why or when or how) and has to be a child in the ‘real world’ a world where SecretBurgers are made from just that… secrets ingredients, and if you are a cat fan beware of this chain and where the CorpSeCorps rule everything. Toby herself is rescued from that world and though joins the God’s Gardeners and becomes an Eve herself she is never quite sure if she believes all that she is meant to.

I found these different outlooks on the cult group fascinating and also their reactions to the fearful world outside the God’s Gardeners habitats. It’s also these differing pasts before The Flood that make how both women survive the initial time after when we join them so interesting and so utterly opposite. Mingle in Atwood’s dark tales of urban life, her wry humour, a death scene which made me cry and her thought provoking plot and you can’t really go wrong. Can you tell that I really, really loved this book yet? It’s a speculative spectacle.

So do you need to have read Oryx and Crake first? I hadn’t before I read this, though I will be reading it very soon I can assure you, and I didn’t feel that I was confused by the book as its wonderfully drawn for you with Atwood’s prose and is so rivetingly readable. Maybe I will read Oryx and Crake and think ‘oh no… I know how this ends’ but time will tell. Have you read either of these books?

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2009, Margaret Atwood, Review

Books of 2009… A Teaser

I have to say I don’t normally do something like this during a blogging year. Instead I normally do a Savidge Reads Dozen (thirteen though like the Man Booker) Top Reads at the end of the year here is last years. However as its thanksgiving for some today- Happy Thanksgiving to you - Booking Through Thursday was asking about books and authors we are thankful for. Recently I also saw Jackie of Farmlanebooks do her best books of 2009 so far so I thought for a change I would merge the two in a way. My end of year one won’t be books that have necessarily come out in 2009 just ones I have loved in 2009. I thought for now I would give you my top five (in no particular order) as a bit of a teaser, it was tough I can tell you… there is still five weeks to go till 2009 ends so it could all change.

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie – The story follows possibly my favourite character of the year so far (and there have been a few contenders) Hiroko Tanaka on August the 9th 1945 in Nagasaki just before they dropped the bomb and ‘the world turns white’. Though Hiroko survives her German lover Konrad is killed. Two years later as India declares its independence she turns up on his half-sisters door step in Delhi with nowhere to stay and becomes attracted to their servant Sajjad and all this is in the first 60 pages. The book then follows Hiroko’s story and the story of people around her (that’s all I am saying trying not to plot spoil) through more pivotal times in history such as the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and America post 9/11… Read more here.

The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett – The Shuttle is one of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s adult fiction books. I should admit here I haven’t read any of her children’s titles either. I had picked it up purely as it was a Persephone novel and I have wanted to read as many as I can get my hands on frankly. Reading the synopsis in the book cover I wasn’t sure this was going to fare very well with me as it seemed to be about the ships that took American’s to England and vice versa in the late 1800’s. I don’t really do books with ships and so with trepidation I opened the book and then simply couldn’t put it down… Read more here.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin - ‘Brooklyn’ is a tale of Eilie, a young girl in Ireland after the Second World War where the economy is a disaster and jobs are scarce. Overjoyed simply to find a Sunday and occasional evening job when you can expect little more Eilie is suddenly offered a job and life in Brooklyn where work is easier to find and so is money and more importantly prospects. Eilie soon realises that this isn’t a sudden offer and in fact her mother, sister and brothers (in England) have been well meaningly plotting this for quite some time and really she has no choice.  After following her nightmare journey across the ocean we watch as Eilie settles into a new life with new people and new cultures in an unknown environment. We also watch as she grows from girl to woman and falls in love. It is eventually though a trip home that leads to the climax and a huge decision for Eilie… Read more here.

Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys – Henrietta’s War actually started out as columns in Sketch. Dennys was an artist who has many successful collections though once married and a mother in the late 1920’s her life became a domestic one in the English countryside and so needed something to take her frustrations out on. Out came Henrietta’s wartime letters to her ‘childhood friend’ Robert who is ‘out on the front’ and eventually became published as a collection and a novel in the form of this wonderful book. I think that any book that has the line “Dear Robert, I have a great urge to knit something for you” with in the first chapter (or letter in this case) is going to be a hit with me… Read more here.

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith – Child 44 is set in the 1950’s Soviet Union. A child is found dead with what appears to be soil in his mouth and his family are sure that this is murder despite the boy’s body being found on the train tracks. Leo Demidov of the MGB is sent to cool things over and persuade the family that this is nothing more than a tragic accident, a job he does begrudgingly as he feels it is taking his time away from his more important work. However when Leo himself goes through some very changing circumstances and another body of a child with soil in its mouth is found he begins to realise that there may be a serial killer out there… Read more here.

Now I mentioned that we have five weeks left (how is it going so quickly) and so it could all very easily change. In fact I know there are two books I have read but haven’t written about yet that would probably wing it in the top five at the moment. You could also make it change, I would love you to tell me what the top five books are that you have read this year and if I own them I will try and read some of them and if I don’t own them I will look out for them when I have a small binge next week once we are in December! So its over to you…

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Books of 2009

Little Boy Lost – Marghanita Laski

If there is a Persephone Classic that I think I have heard the most about it of course would be Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (which I still haven’t read though I will) because of the film. However if I think in blogging terms then the title I think I have heard the most about would have to be Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski. Over the last year or so I have seen wonderful reviews about it and how the last line, so don’t read that line first, will reduce you to a tearful wreck. Intrigued I had to give this book a go, would it be a case of so much hype it didn’t live up to what people said?

Little Boy Lost is the tale of Hilary Wainwright’s search for his son who has been lost in France. How could a child be lost in the wilderness like that, well it is France in the time of the War when the boy goes missing, so actually even easier than you would think and with his mother killed by the Gestapo a young boy might want to be lost or indeed purposefully lost. Hilary has indeed only seen his son once and that was when his baby boy was a day old, since then he has assumed that the boy is being looked after in France until he can go and collect him. On a Christmas night he finds out that this isn’t the case and so must, once the war is over, go and find his son where he may be.

This isn’t just the tale of a man looking for his lost child though. Through the novel Laski looks at what war can do to families, the politics and extremists behind war and the devastation it leaves behind once the battle is done. Not only in the cities like Paris but also, as the journey takes Hilary, in the countryside and surrounding area’s. It is also the tale of a man so used to pain and loss that he is cold to the world and in some ways this tale of a man finding himself and questioning if he can ever love again. It also looks, sometimes in quite a sickening and disturbing way at just what happened to children in the war and the plight of those that survived.

Now my thoughts so far make the book sound bleak and depressing and in some ways it is quite a solemn tale. I can’t of course say if this book has a happy ending or not, that is for you to get the book and find out. It is a very emotive book that will have you feeling quite bleak and yet you never stop reading, well I didn’t, as you so want to know just what happened to Hilary’s boy. Did it make me cry, not quite, though it put me through the emotional ringer and no mistake. It also made me angry, unless you have read the book I can’t really say why (helpful that) but there is a point where Hilary has to make a decision and I was almost screaming at the pages for him to do what I thought was right and a book hasn’t made me feel like that in some time. That’s a good thing in case you were wondering.

I thought Laski’s writing was wonderful, emotive, atmospheric you name it she could probably write it and I definitely want to read much more of her work. It’s a book that needs to be read by people as it hammers into your mind the effects of war, whilst also being an emotional tale anyway, and was doing so way before the wondrous books like The Book Thief or The Boy in the Stripped Pyjama’s did, unlike the latter though it didn’t make me cry at the end nor the last lines hit my as hard, I think that was partly because I had read in advance it should. I thought it was an amazing book though and most definitely a classic novel that should never be forgotten or lost.

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Filed under Books of 2009, Marghanita Laski, Persephone Books, Review

Lady Into Fox – David Garnett

I pulled this book down from a random shelf in a great library binge. Partly because of the intriguing ‘Lady Into Fox’ title and then I saw the cover and fell in love with it. I have always been a bit fascinated by foxes am not sure why. Then I read the quote on the back “The bride was in her twenty-third year. She was small, with remarkably small hands and feet. It is perhaps worth noting there was nothing at all foxy or vixenish in her appearance” I knew this was a book I had to read. I have also heard various rave reviews of Hesperus Press and have been meaning to try out a book or two of theirs.

The lady mentioned in the title of David Garnett’s novella ‘Lady Into Fox’ is Silvia Tebricks or as she was before she was married, Silvia Fox. Though the surname it seems is a coincidence as becoming a fox doesn’t seem to actually run in the family looking back through its history as the author, and also narrator, tells us. No indeed, it appears that Silvia Tebrick’s becoming a fox one day is just one of life’s great puzzles.

The event itself happens in the opening pages of the novella and what happens when ones wife suddenly becomes a ginger four legged creature. For really though the awful thing has actually happened to Silvia it is Richard who we really follow in the novella as his wife not only changes physically but also characteristically. At first Silvia continues to happily sit at the table and play bridge dressed in one of her jackets. She is also happy to follow him round the house and point out, though she can’t speak for she is a fox now, where he is going wrong and loves nothing more than snoozing on the bed or an armchair not going out. Nature soon takes over and how does one deal with a wife who has become a fox and becomes as cunning as one too with the natural desire to escape?

David Garnett takes us through Richard’s life as he come to terms with not the loss of his wife but the change in his wife, how villagers talk, how he copes as she becomes wilder and wilder and its fascinating. I read through the book in one sitting, I couldn’t put it down and was laughing along and then in parts wanting to cry as Richard copes with what life has oddly thrown at him. It’s in parts very funny and yet in parts quite heartbreaking and tells the tale of what lengths people will go to for the ones they love.

I had never heard of this book let alone the author until I saw it in the library. Thanks to a great introduction I found out David Garnett was one of The Bloomsbury Group and also Virginia Woolf’s nephew in law. I then found, oddly through a review on a certain bookish website that Simon of Stuck in a Book has read this and put it in his top 50 books you may not have heard about and should (a list which every single book on which I may have to track down)… and rightly so.

I am definitely going to try more books from Hesperus Press especially if they are all as good as this one, what ones should I try next, am sure some of you will have read one or two… or ten??!! I am also definitely going to try more David Garnett and am itching to read Aspects of Love which Lloyd Webber based his musical on. If an author can make what could be an absurd tale such a touching and thoughtful modern adult fairytale I need to read much more of their work.

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Filed under Books of 2009, David Garnett, Hesperus Press, Review

UFO in Her Eyes – Xiaolu Guo

I have been a big fan of Xiaolu Guo ever since I first read ‘A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers’ back in the early days of book blogging. I fell in love with the heroine and her thoughts on the UK from a Chinese girl who has never travelled. This was then repeated when I read ’20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth’, actually Guo’s first book rewritten, and I fell in love with the heroine as she takes us through Beijing and the world of the movie and film industry. This latest book had passed me buy until I saw it in the library.

UFO in Her Eyes is another look at life in the countryside of China and though set in the not to distant future of 2012 it seems to look at Guo thoughts on the way China is changing and what happens to the small villages where over 700 million peasants live and work. This isn’t a dull or lecturing book, but mainly it’s told with a rye knowing smile. It’s not a light book though and has a statement and looks at the situation and is in part saddening and thought provoking too.

Kwok Yun is a peasant living on the edges of Silver Hill Village when one day she witnesses a flying disc in the sky “a UFThing” she then finds a foreignerin the rice fields and shadows of the craft with blue eyes and yellow hair in a field who she looks after. Once these things are discovered by the villagers and then Chinese intelligence from Beijing armed with questions who interrogate the town. Kwok slowly becomes an instant celebrity and the town becomes famous. Soon what was once a small peasant village becomes a tourist attraction gaining chains of shops, a leisure centre (on top of a peasants fields without asking) and a huge statue in honour of the UFO and all of the villagers lives are changed though not for the better as you might think. 

Once again Guo has created a wonderful female lead in Kwok, even if everyone really thinks she is a man. Though we don’t see too much of Kwok all in all as we meet a host of villagers who share the limelight. Guo has written some brilliant bad tempered and comical villagers such as the noodle man who only cooks you what he wants you to eat, the Butcher who starts to relive his days as a Parasite Eradication Hero and the leader of the town Chief Chang who wants to ‘demolish the weak demolish the rotten’.

Like with her books before it’s the bluntness and honesty that comes through Guo’s writing that I love, she doesn’t hold back is witty and says things like she sees them. I also love how with Guo’s work she uses different mediums for fiction. In ‘A Concise Chinese English Dictionary’ it was diary entries and letters. In ’20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth’ pictures are interspersed along with occasional pieces of script dialogue. In this case, as I briefly mentioned before, we have files, emails, interviews, meeting notes from village gatherings and plans of the future city. Yet still without giving you just straightforward prose every crazy villager comes to life as do some of their motives and how dictators are born.

 I thought this book was marvellous and Guo is certainly becoming one of my favourite authors. I am now very excited about ‘Lovers in the Age of Indifference’ which is out in January and am expecting to be another gem. I haven noticed I haven’t read any Chinese or Japanese literature for a while and am wondering where and who to head to next. Where indeed?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Chatto & Windus, Random House Publishing, Review, Xiaolu Guo

The Shuttle – Frances Hodgson Burnett

One thing I love about the library is that you can take out books that you would like to read but might not really buy. The one thing that can be a problem is you take out so many that you forget to read them. This happened with me last week when an email arrived with the word ‘overdue’ in the title. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem I would renew the books and pay the fine, no probs. Someone though, quite selfishly ha, had already reserved one of my books on loan ‘The Shuttle’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett so I had less than 24 hours to read it. Fortunately I am having a month off and so I could, doubly fortunate as the next night was book group and I hadn’t read a page of 1984 yet.

The Shuttle is one of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s adult fiction books. I should admit here I haven’t read any of her children’s titles either. I had picked it up purely as it was a Persephone novel and I have wanted to read as many as I can get my hands on frankly. Reading the synopsis in the book cover I wasn’t sure this was going to fare very well with me as it seemed to be about the ships that took American’s to England and vice versa in the late 1800’s. I don’t really do books with ships and so with trepidation I opened the book… and then simply couldn’t put it down.

Though there are some chapters involving ships and the description of ships not once was a bored as this book has so much more to offer it is actually a wonderful social history study and romantic mystery. Nigel Anstruthers travels to America in search of a rich American wife. He has a title and a stately home but absolutely no money, in fact he is in debts up to his eyeballs and beyond and a wife is a means to an end to that. He meets the meek and suggestible Rosalie Vanderpoel and tricks her into believing he is marrying her for love. Once across the ocean she learns that he didn’t marry her for that at all and in fact wants her money and to shut her off from the world.

On the other side of the ocean her family are mortified, but Anstruthers hasn’t counted on Rosalie’s younger and much more forthright and spirited sister Bettina wanting to find out the mystery of her sisters sudden disappearance. The novel then takes you on an epic journey as Bettina grows up and uses all the skills and knowledge she can in order to counter an attack against Anstruthers and whatever may have happened to her sister. The journey is filled with drama, adventure and a brilliant romantic storyline. I loved the evilness of both Nigel and his mother, Nigel in particular is a true villain if there ever was one. Bettina does steal the show with her gutsy determination and quick wit.

This novel really does have everything and you cannot help yourself from turning all the 600 pages in almost one sitting, I was almost unable to put the book down. Plus anyone who can name a character Ughtred is naturally going to be someone I treasure. This is unquestionably one of my very favourite books of the year, it has everything and a slight sensational feel so how could it not be, and may be one of my favourite reads of all time. If you want a book that has with mystery, adventure (in the form of a collision at sea which starts a possible romance), comedy, darkness, romance and some wonderful, wonderful characters then this is most definitely for you.

It was the fact that I loved it so, so much that it ended up making me cross because I had to give it back. Though when I am taken to the Persephone Bookshop for a treat in the next week or so it will be one of the books I instantly have to have, I do feel there will be a few of these though.

Have you read The Shuttle? Did you utterly, utterly adore it as I did? What else of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s books must I read? Have you borrowed a book from the library and not wanted to give it back, if so what was it?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Persephone Books, Review

The Dead Secret – Wilkie Collins

So now it is time for me to divulge all of my thoughts on the latest Sensation Sunday read. I was tempted to call this post ‘a sensationally sick Sunday’ as I have been hit by some bug that’s made me feel unbelievably tired, throaty and nauseous hence why the post is a bit late… have been doing a lot of Sunday snoozing! Something must be going around, though I do find it most unfair that it has chosen a time when I am relaxing with a few weeks off to make me feel so rubbish. Hopefully is just a twenty four hour thing and will be back in my stride tomorrow. I have noticed though that since I had swine flu my immune system has been really poor. Anyway, enough about me lets move onto more about my latest foray into another fictional world of Wilkie Collins.

The Dead Secret is one of the Wilkie Collins novels that I have been looking forward to the most and not just because of the wonderful title. I have been really looking forward to it because people in the know, from many Wilkie Collins sites, say that this book is an incredibly important book in his career as it was the first book published for the purpose of serialisation and was in many ways the book that influenced his style in the future on the following novel he wrote which happens to be the legendary ‘Woman in White’ which is also one of my very favourite books. Also one of the main characters, a tragic servant figure, in this book then appears in ‘The Moonstone’. This is why I have started to do my research on books as I read them as its fascinating but what of the actual plot and book itself.

It is a scene on a death bed that aptly opens this novel as Mrs Treverton dictates her own (you guessed it) deadly secret onto her maid whom she also implicates in whatever the secret may be. I would tell you all but then what would be the point of the book as though in typical Wilkie style you are given some big clues, and plenty of red herrings, nothing is fully revealed until much later on or why would anyone read it? The maid against her mistresses’ wishes does not pass on the secret to Mr Treverton instead hiding it in the disused part of the Treverton’s home, the dark, wonderfully rambling and mysterious Porthgenna Tower in the knowledge no one will find it.

Fifteen years later though Porthgenna Tower has been sold on Mrs Treverton’s daughter Rosamond becomes the new mistress. On her way back to become mistress of her childhood home fate intervenes, through Rosamond’s giving birth, and a last minute nurse imparts the message ‘when you go to Porthgenna, keep out of the Myrtle Room’. Naturally and given to the fact that Rosamond is a wonderfully flighty yet headstrong character she resolves that that is the very thing she will do, but what is The Dead Secret she will uncover?

How Wilkie Collins does all this in just over 350 pages (one of his shortest novels) is quite amazing. This book is filled with mystery from the start and shows the true meaning of ‘page turning’ and cliff-hanger chapter endings which Collins became so famous for. I was utterly gripped from the gothic death bed opening scene until the final word of the last chapter. What this book also has in abundance, which so far in the sensation season I hadn’t noticed so strongly, is quirky and wonderful characters which even if are only used for a chapter are drawn in such depth you would read about every single one. Be they the leads character such as Rosamond or the hilarious and slightly irritating hypochondriac and whittler Mr Phippen, the sneaky deviousness of Mr Shrowl, the indignant Mrs Norbury or the ever happy Miss Sturch. This book has everything and I think shows exactly why Wilkie Collins not only became one of the great and most popular writers of his time and over 100 years on has become one of my most favoured writers. A must read if ever there was one.  

The next Sensation Season read is Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, which I am already looking forward to, and will be next Sunday. I am now off to find some comfort reading though what my exact ‘comfort reading’ is I am never quite sure. What’s the latest sensation book you have read, will you be adding this to the TBR? I do hope so.

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Filed under Books of 2009, Oxford University Press, Review, Sensation Novels, Wilkie Collins

Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell

There are many reasons why joining a book group can be so much fun and I am actually planning on posting more on that next week. For now though I will just mention the fact that one of the things that I started a new book group for was that it would make me read books I normally wouldn’t, books I have always wanted to try or books that I am a little bit intimidated by and challenge me. George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four was one such book (intimidating but always wanted to read) and it was the choice for last months book group and brought out some major procrastination in me as it seemed immense, it probably didn’t help I did Animal Farm at school and hated it.

1984 (I am not going to write Nineteen Eighty-Four every time as will be a long post and my fingers may bleed/be worn to stumps) was originally written in 1948 and is Orwell’s idea of what the future could be in a world 40 years on. What is amazing with this book is just how much of what Orwell thought might happen actually has, in fact it is quite worrying in some ways.

The story of 1984 is told through the eyes of Winston Smith a member of the Party working for the Ministry of Truth in London the capital of Air Strip One (once Britain now really an additional part of America and the superpower Oceania). The story starts with Winston’s act of crime as he starts to write a diary something deeply criminal and forbidden in the totalitarian world in which he lives where the eyes of Big Brother are everywhere. Once taking part in this act of rebellion and ‘thought crime’ Winston knows he is ‘dead’ it is simply a matter of time as to when the Thought Police will get him because once you rebel they know, Big Brother knows everything nothing escapes his eyes.

Once Winston commits the crime he tries to throw himself into the path of The Brotherhood the rebellious underground criminals who want to see Big Brother’s demise. Along with Julia a girl at work who he commits another heinous crime with, the act of sex for enjoyment and falls in love with, they give themselves up to fighting Big Brother but how long can they go unnoticed and can anyone truly beat Big Brother and The Party? I could tell you but most of you have probably read this, and those of you who haven’t shouldn’t have the ending spoilt.

I loved this book, I thought it was marvellous. This was something I was very grateful for as I left it until the day of book group to start it (thank heavens I am not working at the moment) and once the first page was opened I genuinely couldn’t put it down. Oh, apart from the book within the book which I found decidedly dull but still went through anyway and it was a minor blip of twenty pages. This book falls into so many genres as it could be labelled a thriller, it’s a classic and of course falls into the science fiction category which I sometimes have problems with. Not in this case though.

This book was so beautifully and sparsely written despite being a dark book with quite a depressing and cloying subject matter it didn’t weigh me down or depress me. It did make me think and things like Orwell’s predictions of terrorism, Newspeak and even the Lottery shocked me by how accurate they are in the now. I could actually rattle on about all the subjects Orwell picked upon for hours and hours but that wouldn’t be very interesting for you. Suffice to say I thought this book was amazing and I am now going to have to rearrange my readers table so that this classic can be on it.

It has made me wonder if I should re-read the books I was given and detested during my schooling years such as ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘A Room With A View’ the latter in particular sends a shudder of dislike down my spine, I didn’t like my sixth form college very much is all I will say. Now along with ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ this Orwell novel has become school taught classic, though I missed both and now as an adult reader I have loved, I wonder if I would have at school?  Thinking about it probably not as if I had been made to read and re-read 1984 at school I would have probably ended up hating it. Reading it for book group was another matter and was possibly my favourite discussion so far… more on that next week though.

What are your thoughts on 1984? What other Orwell is great to read? Which books did you study at school so much you just ended up not liking them? Which ‘school taught’ classics have you missed and want to read or have read as an adult? Should I try Animal Farm again?

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Filed under Books of 2009, George Orwell, Penguin Classics, Review

Goodbye To Berlin – Christopher Isherwood

This new method of just mooching through my shelves is already a vast improvement on the bookish burn out I was in danger of a while ago, and I am only on day four! Actually over lunch yesterday myself and Kimbofo were discussing the merits and possibilities of doing ‘a Susan Hill’ and bar being bought books by friends and sent review books not buying a single book in 2010. Neither of us has said we are definitely doing it but we mused it for some time. Anyway I didn’t have a book to read after the weekend so when I got an invite on Sunday night to see Cabaret yesterday I went and found my copy of the book that started it all off ‘Goodbye To Berlin’ by Christopher Isherwood.

Goodbye to Berlin is less a novel, though it classifies itself as one, and more a collection of four stories and two diary entries. All these tales are based around the underground and lower end of society in 1930’s Germany as the Nazi’s slowly come to power and there is a great time of change in Berlin. Though written from the perspective of Christopher Isherwood a young writer at the time these, the author clarifies in the introduction, are all works of fiction – I wasn’t sure if I believed that as the characters we meet are so vivid.

One of the stories in the book, which do all interlink, and possibly my favourites is Sally Bowles and was the story that inspired the film I Am Camera that then became the iconic Cabaret. Sally is a wonderful character living on the wrong side of town and hanging out with the wrong kind of people invariably getting herself into trouble. She moves into the same apartment as Christopher that we see in the first Berlin Diary where we also meet the wonderful landlady Fraulein Schroeder who is a wonderful motherly, yet incredibly nosey landlady who takes in the tenants other people wouldn’t rent to.

We also see how men who liked men coped with such a forbidden love in On Ruegen Island, and tales of poverty in The Nowaks and The Landauers before a wonderful final Berlin Diary as Isherwood, both the character and the narrator bid farewell to the city and the love affair they have had with it and the people who walk its back streets. Through all of these tales we meet the minorities and the rejects of Berlin who give an unusual insight into Berlin during its history that I hadn’t read the likes of before.

Actually I tell a slight lie as some of the characters that you meet in the wonderful The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite by Beatrice Colin are part of the Berlin Cabaret set though maybe not so vivid and that in part is why I find it hard to believe that the characters we meet, emotions we feel and the streets we walk are purely fictional they come so fully formed and so full of life even in the most difficult of circumstances.

I really loved this book, I sadly really didn’t love the version of Cabaret that I went to see this week though but I shall say no more. I thought all the characters I met in this book were wonderful and think Sally Bowles may be one of my favourite characters of the year. I also loved seeing that period in history and the lead up to WWII and the Nazi Regimes rise to power through such a different perspective utterly enthralling. It’s also wonderfully written evoking the emotions of the people and the sounds and smells of the streets.

I already have the other of Isherwood’s Berlin books Mr. Norris Changes Trains and may have to read that very soon. I may break one of my reading rules as normally I like to hold off from another read by a wonderful author I have just discovered, does anyone else do this? However with my new ‘read whatever’ whim takes me on or follow whatever journey the books I read lead me on and I feel Isherwood’s Berlin has much more to tell. Has anyone else read these or any other of Isherwood’s non-Berlin based books?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Christopher Isherwood, Review, Vintage Classics