I actually have to admit that I read this before I had finished Midnight’s Children in between Book One and Book Two – does anyone else do that if they are reading quite a lengthy meaty book with books or volumes in it? I had won a copy of Mari Strachan’s ‘The Earth Hum’s in B Flat’ from a giveaway from the lovely Lizzy Siddals blog. I had been wanting to read this book for quite a while after hearing some wonderful reviews from other bloggers and some of the media. There were three other factors that made me really want to read it however and those were a) the cover b) the title and c) the fact that the author Catherine O’Flynn who wrote the superb What Was Lost had quoted wonderful things about it all over it. Therefore before even starting Mari Strachan’s debut it had a lot to live up to… but would it?
This book is essentially a tale of growing up though I wouldn’t put that dreadful label of ‘coming of age tale’ on it though I suppose in many ways it is. When you are young everything is black and white though not so much for the narrator of The Earth Hums in B Flat, and the wonderful creation that is, Gwenni Morgan. In the land of 1950’s Wales where a TV is rare Gwenni has two main interests which are reading (especially detective classics) and the people around her but never does she border on precocious, she is simply interested in everything. Gwenni is described by the fellow villagers of her small town as “quaint” though her mother thinks this means “everyone thinks you’re odd”. This is down to a slightly overactive imagination where Toby jugs are always watching you, fox scarfs are appealing to her to give them a true burial and the fact that she can fly at night. All these slightly surreal and bizarre images and sights Gwenni throw in just add to her character, voice and are a very comical aside when the book can get very dark and serious.
As Gwenni becomes more interested in the people around her she discovers that the adult world is full of mysteries and secrets. When one of the villagers goes missing Gwenni decides that like the hero’s in her detective books she will find out just what is going on in her village and get to the bottom of all the mysteries she only hears the whispers of (mainly through the gossiping villagers who don’t think young ears are listening). However soon enough she finds that not all secrets and mysteries have happy ending and some of them should stay uncovered.
With all this going on Mari Strachan also manages to fit in the story of Gwenni growing up and how things change in those pre-teenage years. Friendship is one subject that is written about with wit and in some parts sadness as Gwenni’s older (and wiser – in terms of repeating her mother’s – the queen of gossip in the village – words) friend Alwenna starts to take notice of boys, who Gwenni despises and changes no longer wishing to be Gwenni’s sidekick in all her adventures. The other subject is family but I don’t want to give too much away with that storyline.
I really, really enjoyed this book. It’s a book that warms the heart, with a world that you can’t wait to dip into, you can picture life in the village and how hard things were for some of the lesser well off families (such as Gwenni’s). You see how idle gossip can tear people apart and also how people’s imaginations can runaway with them. This is the perfect book to curl up and spend a single Sunday devouring though I would try and prolong the experience in all honesty. Highly recommended.
Sadly I missed a live blog chat, which was partly the point of winning the competition to read the book, with Mari Strachan on Lizzy’s blog. What would I have asked her? I only had two immediate questions which would have been “where did you get such a wonderful title” and “was it in any part autobiographical”. However some other people did ask those questions and you can see the whole thing here. I have to say in my lead up to reading the Orange shortlist it must be a great selection if this one was left of it (and the long list too)!
So this was the third of the Richard & Judy choices and after the first two brilliant reads plus knowing that some of them to come are fantastic I was slightly worried that this one could be a complete dud. From the blurb of the novel I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy this. “A young man is fighting for his life. Into his room walks a bewitching woman who believes she can save him. Their journey will have you believing in the impossible.” It sounded like it might be a bit of a clichéd romance novel. The book looks stunning by the way, you can see the cover in the picture what you cant see is the black edges of the pages which Canongate also did with ‘The End of Mr Y’ which I sadly didn’t get on with.
This book isn’t a cliché in the slightest. At the start of the novel we meet our ‘unnamed’ hero, and what an unlikely hero he is a drug taking, vain porn star. I didn’t want to like him but you simply cannot help yourself with all he goes through. The book starts instantly with action as we find him driving drunk and drugged when he suddenly sees a set of arrows flying through the sky. Unsure whether he is hallucinating from the drugs or seeing the real thing he swerves to avoid it crashing the car which soon sets alight.
In hospital he has no one (as you will learn through his back story) so when Marianne Engel turns up at his bedside telling him she knows him he doesn’t know what’s going on, he wonders if it’s the effects of morphine. When she returns and announces that she has known him since the year 1300 simply adds to his thoughts that she is in fact crazy. Plus the issue that she is also in the psychiatric ward occasionally as a patient doesn’t help. However being alone with no other visitors and so he decides to humour her and listen to the story of her life over 700 years and the story of how they might have met, if he decides to believe her that is.
I loved the character of Marianne Engel, I think that she is one of the most unusual and wonderful heroine I have read in a long time. I did sit in wonderment at where Davidson had created such an amazing woman from and where did he get the idea of a job as a gargoyle sculptor from? I think I will be hard pushed to find such an original character again this year and we are only in February. The history with the two of them if fascinating and takes you on a real adventure and adds an extra something to the novel. It added something different and some of the stories you heard Marianne tell our burn victim, dark fairy tales and fables.
Davidson’s writing is vivid, direct and punchy. It is literary without being flowery or over done, he doesn’t need to describe everything and at the same time he still does. That will make sense more when you read it, which of course you will do. There were only two things that put me off a little bit with this book and this is me being objective and not just raving about the book. Occasionally the unnamed narrator talks directly to the reader and will say things like ‘I am only telling you this because…’ and it slightly bothered me as it was inconsistent as it only happened every so often and also a lot of the book was narrated by Marianne. There was also the reference to the snake in his spine which I understood as a metaphor but didn’t feel needed to be in there.
The mixture of romance and horror with history weaved in reminded me in some ways of Chuck Palahniuk, I have only read Haunted by him but have always wanted to give him another go. This book isn’t for the faint hearted and that is a slight warning. The description of being burnt is incredibly vivid and could possibly put of some readers, I advise you to read on even if it isn’t comfortable and can be quite graphic and not just in terms of the burns. As the story goes on we learn a lot about the characters. I couldn’t quite imagine Richard and Judy reading this over their cocoa in bed of an evening. I think this is a sign that they are taking more risks with some books and the more their book group goes on the better I think they get and will get in the future. I really enjoyed this book and possibly wouldn’t have read it without it being part of my Richard and Judy challenge.
I have to admit that despite my mother being a Classics teacher, though possibly because of that, I have no recollection of many of the great myths. The one that I did love the most was Persephone I don’t know why though looking back. Anyway I digress, with that in mind I went into reading Ali Smiths Girl Meets Boy not thinking of it as a re-working of Ovid’s Metamorphoses or The Myth of Iphis but simply as a new novel. I have to say I don’t think you have to know Ovid to enjoy this anymore or less you will think its wonderful either way. You do get to hear the story of Iphis in the book though about half way through and you can see it reflected in the novel as a whole.
Canongate Books, paperback, 2008, fiction, 176 pages, kindly sent by the publisher
Girl Meets Boy tells the story of sisters Imogen and Anthea Gunn, both are at pivotal points in their lives but for completely different reasons. They have grown up loving but not quite understanding each other in Inverness and working for the mass global firm Pure. However things start to change when Anthea leaves/is sacked and on her way out meets rebellious Robin a girl who is writing anti-capitalist slogans on the Pure Head Office walls.
The chapters of the novel switch between sisters, we here how Anthea falls for Robin and then the shock of Imogen to Anthea’s sexuality (which is hilarious) and onto Imogen’s discovery about corporations and the ways in which they work. Ali Smith manages to feed us lots of information about sexuality, globalisation and women’s rights and yet make it light hearted and upbeat which is quite a feat. The most important theme in the novel is love, something its incredibly optimistic about which is a joy to read.
Like good myths of old there is a lot of surrealism in the novel, not masses, but a bit. After reading the opening line ‘let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says’ I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy the book, with a sneaking suspicion it might go over my head. I was proved wrong and frankly after having read some of Ali Smiths novels before (I must revisit The Accidental this year) should have know I was in safe hands. The prose is beautiful and you can’t help think that the old myth creators of the past would read this novel and think it was wonderful, I certainly did.
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.
I love a freebie and the latest Dan Rhodes novel ‘Gold’ was one I picked up for free in a coffee shop, which must do some promotions with publishers, in Angel after a book group meeting a while back. Randomly they were shutting so we got the books and left, the waiters didn’t mind apparently they were disappearing like ‘God Dust’ we got the joke but didn’t really laugh. This had been recently put into my TBR boxes only to be dug out again after it was chosen as the next Book Rabbit (www.bookrabbit.com) book group, I have never done one of these online but have decided to give it a go as I quite fancied this book… today, right now. I am so glad I read it.
‘Gold’ starts when Miyuki Woodward arrives in the same seaside village in Wales that she comes to every year. She has made a pact with her girlfriend that they sped a month a part each year and her two weeks is always spent by the sea in Wales, she likes the routine. During the day she walks and reads, reading a book a day over two weeks so she has read the equivalent of over one book a month every year. In the evening she can be found mainly at The Anchor (but occasionally at The Boat Inn which has a hilarious tale of a landlord, brilliance) sitting reading and watching a whole host of characters. The most prominent of these are Septic Barry, Mr Puw, short Mr Hughes and tall Mr Hughes; the latter provided me with several hysterical outbursts as tales of his past and present unfolded during the book. One scene involving him in the pub steals the entire show from everyone and instantly you know it won’t ever be a film sadly as its brilliant.
Here’s a small part of a conversation between himself and Miyuki early one morning on a beach.
Tall Mr Hughes didn’t seem to react to this. ‘Sometimes I lie on the grass and fall asleep, and hope by the time I wake up I’ll have been torn to pieces by vultures.’
Miyuki swallowed hard as this image appeared before her. This wasn’t the type of talk she expected from tall Mr Hughes.
‘You don’t get many of them round here,’ she said.
The dialect is always quite witty and punchy but there are some wonderfully tender moments amongst the humour. Also the characters are so real. Every single one you know you could easily meet in a seaside town in its quite winter periods, with their in jokes, obsessions about alligators and routines. Nothing much happens in the book, but it doesn’t need to and one thing it definitely isn’t is dull. This was the most fun I have had reading for two hours in a long time, with tears of laughter streaming several times. I recommend this book to EVERYONE as a MUST READ; the title is perfect as this book for any reader is pure gold.
Rebecca Miller came up with a brilliant premise for a story with ‘The Private Lives of Pippa Lee’, that idea was a story of a married woman in her early fifties with a dark past moving into a retirement village with her 80 year old husband. What could be a better idea? I had visions of a woman causing a stir amongst all the others and creating havoc whilst we learnt the secrets of her past. This isn’t what you get despite the blurb, reviews and hype (as its part of Richard and Judy and everyone is talking about her famous husband and father). What you do get is a very interesting story of a woman at a strange point in her life that is reflecting on her past.
The book starts just after she has moved with her husband Herb as he wants the quieter life and wants to maximise the money he can leave Pippa when he dies. In offering her some stability he also makes her feel old before her time and causes her to have a sort of breakdown through the form of sleep walking, cooking and driving. We then find out all about the life she lived before.
I felt a little let down with her back story, at points it became unbelievable and the fact that her husband knew of her past as he met her during her rebellious phase (there’s major complications in their meeting) so to me her past was only secret to her children. That was a running theme within the story though mother-daughter relationships, Pippa has an awkward relationship with her mother, and while she has a great relationship with her son, she has an awful one with her daughter.
I enjoyed her more when coming back to her current life and she started to rebel in her pottery class. There was also some possible interest in her book group which she went to once where she met various characters who were then never mentioned again. I think the book could have done with being a bit longer so you really got a feel of her personality now and the relationship with her husband, neighbours and if she actually had any friends.
All in all it’s a good book, a slight opportunity missed, but enjoyable and you can read it in one sitting. I would call this ‘The Secret Past of Pippa Lee’ as to be honest she hasn’t had that many dark previous private lives, just a bit of a rebellious phase.
For the last week and a half I have been lost in Victorian London and it’s been fabulous. I have one man to thank for this and that’s Michel Faber. ‘The Crimson Petal & The White’ comes highly hyped and recommended as a modern classic and for once I think this is a title that deserves the praise.
The tale is based around Sugar, a prostitute and the brothels and back alleys she frequents at the beginning to the upper classes she climbs too. Firstly I must say she is a fantastic heroine, she isn’t the prettiest prostitute in the land but she is certainly the most favoured. She’s intelligent, witty and certainly has her wits about her. It tells of her meeting William Rackham, a Perfumery Owner, and all that befalls them and a host of wonderful characters during Sugar’s rise.
I have to say I am not the best with long books, I love reading them but find them daunting however this book draws you in from the first lines. ‘Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them.’ It’s compared on several sites to a Dickensian masterpiece, having not read on of Dickens novels (the shame) yet I cannot compare the two authors. I can say that Michel Faber writes with a fantastic descriptive prose and makes his background characters (such as Mrs Castaway) as fascinating and interesting as the main.
I think what I loved about this was for a historical novel it was real. In fact in some parts quite graphic, I found it quite odd to think my Gran had read these words and that my mother is currently reading them, I’m not sure if some of the language will be discussed in upcoming phone calls. It’s not a book for prudes, or maybe actually it should be. From reading past historical novels not from the original era this had a real heart in comparison. Faber doesn’t try to be really clever by intertwining royalty or well known names (other than Pear’s) or using the powerful tool of hindsight to make him seem a clever writer. He simply uses the Victorian world he has clearly researched in depth to create a fantastic landscape in which his characters inhabit.
Are there any negatives? Not really, I did find some of the occasional business/perfumery descriptions a tad too much and wanted to skim them, I didn’t. Also the end… I didn’t want the book to finish. I have now fortunately remembered that I did a swap for ‘Apple’ Faber’s collection of tales from the characters after ‘The Crimson Petal & The Rose’ part of me wants to dive straight in, however I shall restrain myself and leave Sugar where she is, plus ‘Mister Pip’ has been sat tempting me on the top of my to read pile for a while now.