Tag Archives: Damian Barr

Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist 2016

It has been book list central recently with many prizes announcing their long and short lists in the last few weeks. I have mentioned the Bailey’s Prize as I am half of the Bearded Bailey’s Book Club and would now like to tell you about another prize which I am involved with and will be telling you more about over the next few months… the Wellcome Book Prize.

What exactly is the Wellcome Book Prize? Funny you should ask that, it is “an annual award, open to new works of fiction or nonfiction. To be eligible for entry, a book should have a central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. This can cover many genres of writing – including crime, romance, popular science, sci fi and history. At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human. The subjects these books grapple with might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity. In keeping with its vision and goals, the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics.”

Now when the PR team behind the prize, the lovely folk at FMcM, asked me to work on this years prize from behind the scenes last year I initially responded ‘but I know nothing about medicine, I barely passed science at GCSE’ I was promised there would be books that would make even the science phobic, like myself, be won over by medicinal books and from the looks of the shortlist announced today they are right. Here it is…

For homepage

The shortlist…

  • The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
  • Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss
  • It’s All in Your Head by Suzanne O’Sullivan
  • Playthings by Alex Pheby
  • The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink
  • Neurotribes by Steve Silberman

What are they about? Well instead of giving you the full blurbs, or me badly surmising, here is what was in the press release “The two memoirs on the list, ‘The Outrun’ and ‘The Last Act of Love’, are both stories of devastation and recovery, one following addiction and the other a debilitating accident. ‘Neurotribes’ and ‘It’s All in Your Head’, the other two non-fiction contenders, are studies of autism and psychosomatic illness respectively, reflecting society’s interest in the human mind. The remaining two books on the list are works of fiction. ‘Playthings’ is an immersive imagination of a schizophrenic mind, while ‘Signs for Lost Children’ recounts the pioneering work of an early female medic.”

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The lovely judges; Tessa Hadley, Sathnam Sanghera, Joan Bakewell (Chair), Damian Barr, Frances Balkwill

I have only reviewed Cathy Rentzenbrink’s wonderful, wonderful The Last Act of Love on the blog so far but get ready for thoughts on the other five amongst Bailey’s long listed reviews over the next few weeks and maybe a bit more here and there as I will be working with the lovely Wellcome folk over the next month and a bit till the (£30,000 not to be sniffed at) winner is announced including hosting a bloggers brunch at Wellcome HQ with some special guests on April the 2nd. Very exciting.

So what are your thoughts on the list and indeed the idea of prize itself? Have you read any of the shortlisted books and if so what did you make of them?

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Other People’s Bookshelves #28 – Simon Wilder

Hello and welcome, after a small hiatus while I was in London too hung-over to blog thanks to Kerry Hudson’s bad influence, to the latest in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves. This week we are in London town (though I will be sticking to non alcoholic beverages as we peruse these shelves) and are all round book designer Simon Wilder’s for the day. I am very jealous of Simon’s shelves indeed and I think you may all get a slight book porn overdose, but before you do, here’s Simon with more about himself and his book and blogging addictions…

I’m 55, a graphic designer – I design books. Picture books; cookbooks, reference books, coffee table books. I have recently designed some fiction covers for Helena Halme for the Kindle, and now she’s started putting them into paperback. You can see some of them here. I also take pictures. Too many. I blog them. I’m an over blogger. http://999faces.tumblr.com http://waiterpix.tumblr.com http://maybeitsabighorse.tumblr.com http://wereallgoingona.tumblr.com I expect to finish my 999 faces project towards the end of next summer and am hoping to have an exhibition of it. I could spend a long time talking about it, but it’s not what we’re here for today. And I’ve lived in London all my life.

Bookshelves

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

A book only has to be hardback for me to keep it. A few years ago I gave 30 years worth of paperbacks to the charity shop. Hundreds of them. I was giddy about it. They weighed me down. I also loved having so much extra space. Since then I give a laundry bag of newer paperbacks to the charity shop whenever it becomes full. I really dislike the smell of old books. I hate the brownness of the paper. Hardbacks are made from different stock, and I prefer them as objects. It’s really about decoration. I’m aware that this is all slightly soulless of me, but, really, the content of books is what’s most important, and I’ve read that.

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

I have one bookcase for cookbooks, another for ‘reading books’. Both are arranged by colour of spine. The reading books are fiction to the left, and much smaller section of non fiction to the right. They’re also arranged by height. I know this is all a bit silly. I much prefer fiction, rarely read anything else in book form (Although Damian Barr’s Maggie and Me was one of my favourite books of 2013). Arranging them all by colour is no problem for reading books – I so rarely reread that I never have to look for them. It’s more of a problem looking for a cookbook. But then you get taken places that you hadn’t thought of, which I love. I sometimes think it would be brilliant to have all the recipes listed alphabetically, by ingredient and by country on my iPad. But one of the things I love most about books is that they make you discursive. I may think I want beef stew, but maybe I really want bouillabaisse, I just hadn’t thought of it. And if I do decide on beef stew, will it be Provencal or Irish? So many choices. Everything is about choice. And talking of Kindles (and their like), I tried one for six months. I don’t feel sentimentally attached to traditional book technology. I gave it a proper go. But for all Kindle’s virtues, turning a real page is still exciting to me, seeing how far I’ve read, how much is left of a book, is part of the pleasure of reading. I don’t think I’m too old to change, but I prefer an actual book. My 79 year old mother, far more conservative in all areas of life than me, very happily changed to reading on a kindle. Although, after two years of it, she went back to printed matter, for pretty much the same reasons as me.

Blue-shelf

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

Almost certainly something by Enid Blyton, or EE Nesbit. Maybe Peter Pan or a Mary Poppins. Oh, Swallows and Amazons? Doctor Doolitle? I can’t remember which, although I remember the experience and how brilliant it felt to be able to choose like that. I loved all the Edwardian children’s classics when I was growing up. I was one of those few boys who loved reading. I belonged to the Puffin club! I, most unusually for a boy, loved reading when I was a teenager, and I still love it. The only one I still have is Peter Pan. It’s a hardback.

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

I try not to do anything that I feel embarrassed by. I have enjoyed some TERRIBLE books, although I’ll defend Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls to the end. No, I read whatever I’m drawn to. I don’t read much chick lit or science fiction. Ok, none of either. I think Zadie Smith is horribly overrated and I’m maybe embarrassed that I bought THREE of her novels, never got further than page 50, before I admitted this. I may find it too easy to discard a book if I’m not enjoying it after, say, fifty pages, but often fewer. If I’m going to get more pleasure flinging a bad book across the room than I’ll get from continuing to read it, I’ll fling.

Grey-cook-2

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

That Peter Pan, maybe. Or my copy of Catcher in the Rye that I read and reread when I was 17. It’s the only paperback I’ve held on to. I might want to keep my signed copy of The Boys: my father was a survivor of the holocaust. He was in concentration camps before being brought here in 1945. The brilliant Martin Gilbert wrote this book about him and the few other teens they could find alive that came here at the same time. It was incredibly important to my father that his story was told to the world. I have an album of photos of generations of my family who lived before I was born, many of whom I never met. That’s the book I’d miss. Otherwise I don’t think I’d care if they all burned.

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

I was desperate to read The Dice Man, Portnoy’s Complaint and The Exorcist when I was 13, but they were forbidden to me. My mother was so frightened by The Exorcist that she burned it. Brilliant. She read all of Harold Robbins, and I wasn’t allowed to look at them, either. I think it was the sex that drew her and what made her want to keep them from me. So, all a bit Fifty Shades, although I suspect better written. I have since read Portnoy’s Complaint, and almost everything else Philip Roth has written. He’s one of the greatest 20th century authors. The Dice Man was a sensation when it was first published and still sells, but I remember finding it dull when I eventually read it. I don’t think I finished it. The Exorcist so scared me in the cinema that not only did I never read it, I didn’t make it to the end of the film.

Purple-cook-shelf

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

I buy every book I want to read. Of course, I don’t want to read every book that makes it to my home. I don’t know what happens between the shop and my bedside table. I find it difficult to read anything because someone tells me to. I prefer, somewhat neurotically, to be the first reader of a book. I don’t want to find bits of other peoples’ dunked biscuits on the pages. I really love books of photography, but don’t buy them these days – I treat them like magazines – flick through then not open them again. It’s an expensive hobby.

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

Oh, The Goldfinch. I finished it two weeks ago and it is the book of the year. Sensationally good. I’m already sad that, because she writes so slowly, we only have a few more Donna Tartt novels to look forward to, at best. And she’s spoiled me for other writers. I’ve started – and abandoned – SIX books since finishing the Goldfinch. Nothing compares to it. Everything else tastes like ashes.

Grey-shelf-2

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

Only the unwritten Donna Tartt novels

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

I’d like them to think I’m a suave sex god.

Cookbook-shelves

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A huge thanks to Simon for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves! Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Simon’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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Books of 2013; Part II

Blimey, it is the last day of 2013 and before we know it 2014 will be upon us. I hope you have something lovely planned for your New Years Eve? I will be back home in the Peak District with my Mum, aunties and all their children which will be lovely, we are combining Christmas and New Years all in one so much merriment will ensue I am sure. Anyway time for more of my books of 2013. I am continuing the tradition of the last few years, and my inability to whittle books down as favourites, and so this is the second of my books of the year post. Today I celebrate my top ten books that were published for the first time in the UK this year, yesterday I gave you all a list of ten corking books published prior to this year – do have a gander. So without further ado here are my favourite books published this year…

10. The Crane Wife – Patrick Ness

I absolutely adored ‘The Crane Wife’. It made me cry at the start, possibly at the end and a few time, with laughter, through the middle. It has been a good few weeks since I read the book now and I still find myself pondering what has happened to the characters since, always the sign of a good read, and the writing just blew me away.  Patrick Ness says in this book that “A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew.” I hope this story grows to be a huge success as it certainly deserves to be read and loved.

9. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil – Stephen Collins

There is one word that sums up the whole reading experience of The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil and that is ‘sublime’. I loved everything about it; the imagery, the atmosphere, the message at its heart, everything. It’s a very moving book and one you cannot help but react to, I even shed a tear or two at the end. There is no doubt that to my mind The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil probably has the best title of any book this year, it also looks set to be one of the most memorable books of the year for its contents too. A quite literally, or maybe that should be quite graphically, stunning book and one of my reads of the year.

8. Maggie & Me – Damian Barr

I really loved ‘Maggie and Me’. I related to it – something that only happens to your very core or bones once or twice in a blue reading moon – and empathised with it. It was the sort of book my younger self was crying out for someone to put in my hands. I can only hope some lovely relatives, librarians, teachers or other influential bods make sure this is passed on to both the younger generation, especially those who call rubbish things ‘gay’, and to everyone they know really. Books like this help make being different both more acceptable and understandable, we need them.

7. Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

There is no question that Hannah Kent has crafted an incredibly beautiful novel with ‘Burial Rites’. It is a book which has a sense of isolation and brooding menace throughout and a book where the prose is as sparse (you feel not a word has been wasted) as the Icelandic landscape it is evoking. It is one of my books of the year without question and one lots of people can expect in their season stockings in a few months time. I strongly suggest you read it.

6. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena – Anthony Marra

‘A Constellation of Vital Phenomena’ is one of those books that Gran would say ‘manages to educate you on something you have little knowledge of’ and ‘makes you walk in a strangers steps, even if the stranger is fictional’. It is a book that isn’t a comfortable read by any stretch of the imagination yet, and I know I am sometimes stuck on repeat when I mention this, I don’t think that fiction should always be neat and comfortable. Sometimes we need brave bold books and authors like this to highlight what is going on or has gone on which we know little about.  Anthony Marra took on a challenge that even an author on their tenth book might not take on and he excels at it. I urge all of you to give this book a try.

5. Alex – Pierre Lemaitre

What Lemaitre actually does with ‘Alex’, which is far more interesting and potent is make you question, as the twists come, what you think is and isn’t morally right and soon this gripping thriller starts to ask so really serious questions of its reader and their ethics. A very clever move indeed, provide a book that makes you think hard about what you might do or what you find to be the ‘right’ thing for someone to do whilst also creating a read which is a complete page turner that has the readers jaw dropping as they go. That is what has made it my thriller of the year so far, it’s genius, and I personally cannot wait for the next one in the Camille series.

4. All The Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

The way Evie weaves all of this together is just masterful. She doesn’t simply go for the route of alternating chapters from Jake’s present and her past, which would be too simple and has been done before. In the present Evie makes the story move forward with Jake from the latest sheep mauling, in the past though we go backwards making the reader have to work at making everything make sense. I had several ‘oh bloody hell that is why she is where she is’ moments with the past storyline before thinking ‘what there is more, that might not be the reason…’ Jakes mistrust of things it seems it catching. This style is a gamble and admittedly initially requires a leap of faith and chapter or two of acclimatizing to the structure, yet it is a gamble which pays of dividends by the end and if you see the end coming, and aren’t left completely jaw droppingly winded by it, then you are a blooming genius. I was honestly blown away.

2= Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Atkinson is a master of prose in my eyes. I love the way she gives the readers discreet asides and occasional knowing winks. I love her sense of humour, especially when it is at its most wicked and occasionally inappropriate. I think the way her characters come to life is marvellous and the atmosphere in the book, particularly during the strands during World War II and during the London Blitz (though I didn’t think the Hitler parts of the book were needed, even if I loved the brief mention of Unity Mitford) along with the tale of her possible marriage were outstandingly written. There is also the element of family saga, the history of Britain from 1910 onwards and also how the lives of women have changed – all interesting themes which Atkinson deals with throughout.

2 = Magda – Meike Ziervogel

Two of the biggest powers that books can have are to make us think outside our usual periphery or be a spring board to discovering more about subjects we think we know. Some books can do both, they are a rarity though. Magda, the debut novel from Meike Ziervogel, is one such book which gave me both a different outlook on something I thought I had made my mind up about and left me desperate to find out more when challenged. It is the sort of book where I simply want to write ‘you have to read this book’ and leave it at that so you all do, yet it is also one that is designed to be talked about and the questions it raises be discussed.

1. The Language of Dying – Sarah Pinborough

I thought The Language of Dying was a wonderful book for its rawness and emotion. It is a book that I really experienced and one which I am so glad I have read for the cathartic and emotional effects it had on me (I was openly weeping often) and proved that sometimes books are exactly what you need and can show you truths you think no one else quite understands apart from you. I can’t recommend it enough, without question my book of the year.

I have to say I struggled with this list rather a lot. If any of you have listened to the latest episode of The Readers you will have heard me shamelessly cheating as Gavin and I discuss twelve books we are each looking forward to in 2014. So I will here cheat slightly and say that Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English, Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave, Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, and particularly both Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka and Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, could all easily have made the cut. Maybe I should have created a top twenty?

So which of these have you read and loved? What have been your books of 2013? What are you doing for New Years Eve?

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LGBT Literature Latest…

I mentioned earlier in the week that the Green Carnation Shortlist for 2013 had been announced. It is interesting because the most common thing that happens, after all the lovely people have got excited and had a look at the list, is that people then want to know why we actually need an award for LGBT Literature. Well…the Guardian asked me to write something about it and so I thought I would share it with you all so you can have a look (and maybe leave a comment) right here.

It has meant that I have reached one of my (many) aims in life and one that I think Granny Savidge Reads would have been super proud of, my face is on the website as a contributor and everything! Sorry I have to share the thrill with you all…

GuardianLGBT

There that’s better. Now then in other LGBT news, yesterday was the Stonewall Awards and hooray and hoorah, Damian Barr has won an award for Maggie and Me, which I think is a bloody marvellous book and so I did a small cheer and a little boogie in the lounge before raising a glass of Pepsi Max to him. Well done Damian. If you haven’t popped that book on your TBR by now then you are a bit kerazy frankly.

I would be interested in your thoughts on why we need niche prizes and indeed an LGBT one, do you think we do (and that more prizes means more awareness of books in general) need them, or not? All thoughts welcomed. Though if anyone leaves anything vile, like some homophobe on the Guardian site, it will be removed – see there are people out there who still don’t feel comfortable discussing LGBT issues, even books.

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The Green Carnation Prize Shortlist 2013…

As the press release (which I wrote) states, the shortlist for the Green Carnation Prize has now been announced and “With subjects from the abolition of death in Civil War 1836 to dysfunctional families in modern America; from marital breakdowns to crime and conspiracy over continents; from transvestites in London to tolerance in modern times, it seems that this year’s Green Carnation Prize shortlist has shown once again just what diverse list of titles the prize can produce.” Which I think I can agree with even though, as yet I haven’t read all the short list (I am still working on the longlist, and the blinking ‘Luminaries’ when I can) but I will be reading them all. The six titles are…

Doesn’t my lounge look lovely in this shot?

  • Gob’s Grief – Chris Adrian (Granta Books)
  • Black Bread White Beer – Niven Govinden (The Friday Project)
  • May We Be Forgiven – A. M. Homes (Granta)
  • The Kills – Richard House (Picador)
  • Fanny & Stella – Neil McKenna (Faber and Faber)
  • Far From The Tree – Andrew Solomon (Chatto & Windus)

Congratulations to all of them, I did rather large cheers for Neil McKenna (review coming soon) and Niven Govinden (review here) and am really interested in reading the three that I still haven’t read. Yes, I know I am missing one but will be talking about it in due course as it’s a book that is so good it actually started to annoy me. You see this year it has been really interesting for me as I haven’t judged the books or read all the submitted novels  so I can be rather impartial, which is quite exciting. I get to watch the judges judging and clap or tear out my hair with their decisions; mind you I have done that in past years when I was part of the panel.

You see I trust the judges and their discussions and have been chatting with them about the list since they informed me of it last week (aren’t I good at keeping secrets) and so when I did an initial ‘oh no’ for both ‘Maggie and Me’ by Damian Barr (which I loved and beyond) and ‘Almost English’ by Charlotte Mendelson (which recently charmed the reading glasses off me), instead of getting cross (which nearly happened) I just had to think ‘wow this must be a bloody brilliant shortlist’ which of course makes me very excited about the reading I have ahead of me. Though I will also admit the size (and font size too) of ‘Far From The Tree’ scares me somewhat. I am looking forward to the surprise of finding out the winner in two weeks.

It is interesting though as after the initial ‘who is and who isn’t on the list’ discussion dies down the same question rears its head. ‘Why do we need a prize like this?’ It is one I will be answering in the Guardian tomorrow but until then I would be interested in hearing both what you think of the Green Carnation Prize shortlist this year and do you think we need a prize that celebrates LGBT writing?

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The Green Carnation Prize 2013 Longlist

Some of you will have already probably heard the news that the Green Carnation Prize 2013 longlist, which celebrates LGBT writing, was announced earlier today. For the first year in the prizes four years I’ve actually not done been on the judging panel or indeed been involved in the judging process/discussions (I have been doing all the admin behind the scenes) so it has all been rather weird and also extremely exciting as I have been desperate to know what the longlist would be. Well, here it is…

  • Gob’s Grief – Chris Adrian (Granta Books)
  • Five Star Billionaire – Tash Aw (4th Estate)
  • Maggie & Me – Damian Barr (Bloomsbury)
  • Environmental Studies – Maureen Duffy (Enitharmon)
  • Fallen Land – Patrick Flanery (Atlantic Books)
  • Black Bread White Beer – Niven Govinden (The Friday Project)
  • The Sea Inside – Philip Hoare (4th Estate)
  • May We Be Forgiven – A. M. Homes (Granta)
  • The Kills – Richard House (Picador)
  • Fanny & Stella – Neil McKenna (Faber and Faber)
  • Almost English – Charlotte Mendelson (Mantle Books)
  • Far From The Tree – Andrew Solomon (Chatto & Windus)

What an eclectic mix! I have only read two and a half of these so far (loved the Barr, need to review the brilliant Govinden – though I have interviewed him – and am now reading the Homes, by coincidence. for book club this week) and so I have decided that I will try, when the mood takes, to read them before the shortlist is announced on November the 5th. You can find out about the longlisted titles in more detail here.

What do you think of the list? Which of these have you read and what did you make of them?

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Savidge Reads of the Summer Part One…

At the weekend I was a little vocal on Twitter about how disappointed I was in The Guardian’s Holiday Reading Guide for the summer. Here I do want to preface that a) I know that I am probably not the person that this guide is aimed at… but b) I normally like these guides because they introduce me to some books I would never have heard of. To my mind this was not the case with the produced list of books which frankly look like they have gone through all the prize long lists, the best seller lists and then popped them into a very long guide. There seemed to be no diversity, nothing particularly new to liven the bookish blood on a break away over the summer. Post rant several people said I should have a go and so I thought ‘sod it, I will’. However to be a bit different I decided that I’d compile two lists. The first, a list of books I have read and would recommend. The second, books I haven’t read but I have on my list of summertime reading material (if the sun ever bloody turns up) as I thought that might make it less predictable and will appear tomorrow. Here are today’s titles…

Fiction… Which might not be to everyone’s taste as each one of them has quite a punch not normally associated with ‘a good beach read’ but I like a bit of depth on a holiday read like I do anytime of the year.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena – Anthony Marra (Hogarth Press, £14.99, out now)

In a snow-covered village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as her father is abducted in the middle of the night by Russian soldiers. Their life-long friend and neighbour, Akhmed, has also been watching, and when he finds Havaa he knows of only one person who might be able to help. For tough-minded doctor Sonja Rabina, it’s just another day of trying to keep her bombed-out, abandoned hospital going. When Akhmed arrives with Havaa, asking Sonja for shelter, she has no idea who the pair are and even less desire to take on yet more responsibilities and risk. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis, revealing the intricate pattern of connections that binds these three unlikely companions together and unexpectedly decides their fate.
Possibly one of the most amazing books I have read in a long, long time. So much so the review has taken me over two weeks to write, it will be on the blog over the weekend. In the interim, this is one of the most affecting books on war I have ever read. It won’t be everyone’s ideal summer read as it is incredibly confronting but it is a book that will quite possibly change your life let alone your summer.

Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma – Kerry Hogan (Vintage Books, £7.99, out 4th of July in Paperback)

When Janie Ryan is born, she is destined to be the latest in a long line of Aberdeen fishwives. Ahead of her lies a life filled with feckless men, filthy council flats and bread & marge sandwiches. But Janie isn’t like the rest of them. She wants a different life. And Janie, born and bred for combat, is ready to fight for it.
It is a very assured, bluntly honest and highly crafted debut novel filled with laughter and heart ache, it is full of reality, it can be grim but it also celebrates life and all walks of it and might have you reassessing some of the subconscious assumptions you find you make about some of the people you pass in the street, and about books with quirky long titles.

Ghana Must Go – Taiye Selasi (Viking Books, £14.99, out now)

A stunning novel, spanning generations and continents, Ghana Must Go by rising star Taiye Selasi is a tale of family drama and forgiveness, for fans of Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This is the story of a family – of the simple, devastating ways in which families tear themselves apart, and of the incredible lengths to which a family will go to put itself back together. It is the story of one family, the Sais, whose good life crumbles in an evening; a Ghanaian father, Kweku Sai, who becomes a highly respected surgeon in the US only to be disillusioned by a grotesque injustice; his Nigerian wife, Fola, the beautiful homemaker abandoned in his wake; their eldest son, Olu, determined to reconstruct the life his father should have had; their twins, seductive Taiwo and acclaimed artist Kehinde, both brilliant but scarred and flailing; their youngest, Sadie, jealously in love with her celebrity best friend. All of them sent reeling on their disparate paths into the world. Until, one day, tragedy spins the Sais in a new direction.
It is a book filled with hidden depths and one that left me feeling a real mixture of emotions; heartache, shock, horror and also hope. At a mere 318 pages I think that is an incredible accomplishment and am very much in agreement with anyone else who thinks Taiye Selasi is one author to most definitely watch out for.

All The Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld (Jonathan Cape, £16.99, Out now)

Jake Whyte is the sole resident of an old farmhouse on an unnamed British island, a place of ceaseless rains and battering winds. It’s just her, her untamed companion, Dog, and a flock of sheep. Which is how she wanted it to be. But something is coming for the sheep – every few nights it picks one off, leaves it in rags. It could be anything. There are foxes in the woods, a strange boy and a strange man, rumours of an obscure, formidable beast. And there is Jake’s unknown past, perhaps breaking into the present, a story hidden thousands of miles away and years ago, in a landscape of different colour and sound, a story held in the scars that stripe her back.
I love books where the brooding sense of atmosphere and menace are palpable to the reader at all times, even in the lightest of moments. ‘All The Birds, Singing’ is such a book… It is a book that I simply cannot recommend to you enough. You will be intrigued, horrified, laugh (when you possibly shouldn’t) and thrilled by an author whose prose is exceptional. I know everyone is talking about this book at the mo but sod it, its f**king brilliant.

Black Bread White Beer – Niven Govinden (The Friday Project, £7.99, out now)

Amal is driving his wife Claud from London to her parents’ country house. In the wake of Claud’s miscarriage, it is a journey that will push their relationship – once almost perfect – towards possible collapse. In this, his latest novel, Govinden casts a critical eye on a society in which, in spite of never-ending advances in social media communications, the young still find it difficult to communicate. A devastatingly passionate and real portrait of a marriage, ‘Black Bread White Beer’ keenly captures the abandon, selfishness, hazards and pleasures that come with giving your life to another.
This is technically cheating as I have not quite finished this as I type, however I will have by the time this goes up and a review will follow shortly. Safe to say I love this book, its one where you feel the author is speaking just to you and you want to hug the book (and maybe the author) as you read it and whenever you stop, or in my case are made to stop to clean, work or some other annoying thing.

Crime… Where I shocked myself as I only had two recommendations and yet love crime but have learnt how little I have read of it this year. Shameful. To make up for it one will give you nightmares, the other will probably make you laugh quite a lot.

Human Remains – Elizabeth Haynes (Myriad Editions, £7.99, out now)

How well do you know your neighbours? Would you notice if they lived or died? Police analyst Annabel wouldn’t describe herself as lonely. Her work keeps her busy and the needs of her ageing mother and her cat are more than enough to fill her time when she’s on her own. But Annabel is shocked when she discovers her neighbour’s decomposing body in the house next door, and appalled to think that no one, including herself, noticed her absence. Back at work she sets out to investigate, despite her police officer colleagues’ lack of interest, and finds data showing that such cases are frighteningly common in her own home town. A chilling thriller and a hymn to all the lonely people, whose individual voices haunt the pages, Elizabeth Haynes’ new novel is a deeply disturbing and powerful thriller that preys on our darkest fears, showing how vulnerable we are when we live alone, and how easily ordinary lives can fall apart when no one is watching.
With its mixture of an unusual crime, if it is indeed a crime, a compelling and disturbing psychopath/sociopath at its heart, Annabel’s domestic drama and Haynes dark sense of humour, I would say, even at this early stage, that ‘Human Remains’ will easily be one of my thrillers of the year. It is one of those thrillers that is more than just a page turner (though s clichéd as I am aware it is to say this, I literally could not put it down) and works on several layers with many hidden depths and much to say, especially about forgotten people. You think you know what is coming at the start and you have absolutely no idea then, just when you think you have it all figured out, Haynes does it over and over again with more twists and turns as you go on.

Speaking From Among The Bones – Alan Bradley (Orion Books, £12.99, out now)

It is almost Easter in Bishop’s Lacey, and the villagers are holding their collective breath as the tomb of St Tancred in the church that bears his name is about to be opened after five hundred years. And as luck would have it, it’s inveterate eleven-year-old sleuth Flavia de Luce who is first at the scene. But the body she finds lying there is clearly not that of a desiccated saint. For a start there’s the pool of fresh blood, and then there’s the gasmask, from under which an unmistakeable shock of golden hair identifies the corpse as that of Mr Collicutt, St Tancred’s celebrated organist. Despite her tender years, Flavia is no stranger to murder – but even she is baffled by the peculiar circumstances of Collicutt’s death. Especially when soon after, an effigy of St Tancred appears to be weeping blood onto the church floor. Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, Flavia soon finds herself exploring a secret maze of underground passages beneath the church – and is drawn into the equally dark and fetid world of one of Bishop’s Lacey’s most peculiar families.
I utterly adored ‘Speaking From Among The Bones’ and I think it might be one of my favourite Flavia De Luce mysteries yet. I have to say though, Alan Bradley how could you do it to us? The cliff hanger that you are left with is just too much! (Whatever you do, do not read the last line in the book until, erm, the last line.) How are we meant to wait until next year for a new book? How?

Classics… Where I choose two titles that might not be the best known classics, I think would make a delightful read over the summer months.

Mariana – Monica Dickens (Persephone Books, £9, out now)

Mariana is the story of a young English girl’s growth towards maturity and happiness in the 1930s. We are shown Mary at school in Kensington and on holiday at her beloved Charbury; her attempt at drama school; her year in Paris learning dressmaking and getting engaged to the wrong man; her time as a secretary and companion. Like Dusty Answer, Rebecca, I Capture the Castle or The Pursuit of Love, this is one of those novels about a young girl growing up and encountering life and love which all have the common characteristic of being funny, readable and yet perceptive. But Mariana is more than this. As the Observer’s Harriet Lane wrote in her Preface, critics may have tended ‘to dismiss its subject matter: crushes, horses, raffish uncles, frocks, inconsequential jobs, love affairs…but it is Mariana’s artlessness, its enthusiasm, its attention to tiny, telling domestic detail that makes it so appealing to modern readers. As a snap-album – as a portrait of a certain sort of girl at a certain time in a certain place – it now seems, sixty years after first publication, entirely exotic.
It has elements of the real social history of the time, only fictionalised and is a proper story of our heroine growing into adulthood and all the highs and lows that this brings. It also has a cast of characters that I am desperate to revisit again and again. As I mentioned earlier on, it is an epic of the everyman really. It isn’t often I read a book and think ‘ooh I must re-read you one day’ yet I have the feeling I will be rejoining Mary many more times in the future.

Peyton Place – Grace Metalious (Virago Books, £9.99, out now)

Switch off those TVs, kill your mobiles and settle down with the most controversial book ever written. Once denounced as ‘wicked’, ‘sordid’, ‘cheap’ ‘moral filth’, Peyton Place was the top read of its time and sold millions of copies worldwide. Way before Twin Peaks, Survivor or Big Brother, the curtains were twitching in the mythical New England town of Peyton Place, and this soapy story exposed the dirty secrets of 1950s small-town America: incest, abortion, adultery, repression and lust. Take a peek …
I got the page-turning escapism that I was looking for but I also got so much more, the humour, the sadness, the shocks. I found a book that was so well written and so believable (yet incredibly and quite delightfully melodramatic) it made me care about a community and feel a part of it. I also found some characters that I will never forget and a book I will have to go back to time and time again.

Non-Fiction… Where in trying to find titles I was saddened to discover my yearly attempt to read more non-fiction is just not happening!

The End of Your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe (Two Roads Books, £7.99, out now)

Mary Anne Schwalbe is waiting for her chemotherapy treatments when Will casually asks her what she’s reading. The conversation they have grows into tradition: soon they are reading the same books so they can have something to talk about in the hospital waiting room. Their choices range from classic (Howards End) to popular (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), from fantastic (The Hobbit) to spiritual (Jon Kabat-Zinn), with many in between. We hear their passion for reading and their love for each other in their intimate and searching discussions. A profoundly moving testament to the power of love between a child and parent, and the power of reading in our lives.
‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ is touching without ever being saccharine, confronting and honest without ever being emotionally manipulative. It also celebrates life and highlights that we are part of each other’s ‘life-book-club’s’ through the discussions we have at book groups, on blogs, to our friends and family, or randomly on public transport about books and the power that they have. It has also left me with a list of books to go off and read as long as my arm.

Maggie & Me – Damian Barr (Bloomsbury, £11.99, out now)

It’s 12 October 1984. An IRA bomb blows apart the Grand Hotel in Brighton. Miraculously, Margaret Thatcher survives. In small-town Scotland, eight-year-old Damian Barr watches in horror as his mum rips her wedding ring off and packs their bags. He knows he, too, must survive. Damian, his sister and his Catholic mum move in with her sinister new boyfriend while his Protestant dad shacks up with the glamorous Mary the Canary. Divided by sectarian suspicion, the community is held together by the sprawling Ravenscraig Steelworks. But darkness threatens as Maggie takes hold: she snatches school milk, smashes the unions and makes greed good. Following Maggie’s advice, Damian works hard and plans his escape. He discovers that stories can save your life and – in spite of violence, strikes, AIDS and Clause 28 – manages to fall in love dancing to Madonna in Glasgow’s only gay club. Maggie & Me is a touching and darkly witty memoir about surviving Thatcher’s Britain; a story of growing up gay in a straight world and coming out the other side in spite of, and maybe because of, the iron lady.
I related to it – something that only happens to your very core or bones once or twice in a blue reading moon – and empathised with it. It was the sort of book my younger self was crying out for someone to put in my hands. I can only hope some lovely relatives, librarians, teachers or other influential bods make sure this is passed on to both the younger generation, especially those who call rubbish things ‘gay’, and to everyone they know really. Books like this help make being different both more acceptable and understandable, we need them.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Magical/Other… A section which I tried so hard to make simply a sci-fi section but showed that I clearly barely read any and that to even try and sound au fait with the sci-fi genre would have diehard fans chastising me, but I honestly did try!

The Machine – James Smythe (Blue Door Books, £12.99, out now)

Haunting memories defined him. The machine took them away. She vowed to rebuild him. From the author of The Testimony comes a Frankenstein for the twenty-first century. Beth lives alone on a desolate housing estate near the sea. She came here to rebuild her life following her husband’s return from the war. His memories haunted him but a machine promised salvation. It could record memories, preserving a life that existed before the nightmares. Now the machines are gone. The government declared them too controversial, the side-effects too harmful. But within Beth’s flat is an ever-whirring black box. She knows that memories can be put back, that she can rebuild her husband piece by piece. A Frankenstein tale for the 21st century, The Machine is a story of the indelibility of memory, the human cost of science and the horrors of love.
I found ‘The Machine’ was a book as chilling, and thrilling, as it was emotional and thought provoking. It is also one of those books that delightfully defies any labels of genre, delightful both for the reader and as one in the eye for those who want a book to be pigeonholed if at all possible. It is the sort of book – from the sort of author – that ought to be winning lots of prizes and being read by lots of people.

The Crane Wife – Patrick Ness (Canongate,  £14.99, out now)

One night, George Duncan – decent man, a good man – is woken by a noise in his garden. Impossibly, a great white crane has tumbled to earth, shot through its wing by an arrow. Unexpectedly moved, George helps the bird, and from the moment he watches it fly off, his life is transformed. The next day, a kind but enigmatic woman walks into George’s shop. Suddenly a new world opens up for George, and one night she starts to tell him the most extraordinary story. Wise, romantic, magical and funny, “The Crane Wife” is a hymn to the creative imagination and a celebration of the disruptive and redemptive power of love.
It made me cry at the start, possibly at the end and a few time, with laughter, through the middle. It has been a good few weeks since I read the book now and I still find myself pondering what has happened to the characters since, always the sign of a good read, and the writing just blew me away. Patrick Ness says in this book that “A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew.” I hope this story grows to be a huge success.

Diving Belles – Lucy Wood (Bloomsbury, £7.99, out now)

Along Cornwall’s ancient coast, from time to time, the flotsam and jetsam of the past can become caught in the cross-currents of the present and a certain kind of magic floats to the surface…Straying husbands lured into the sea can be fetched back, for a fee. Houses creak, fill with water and keep a fretful watch on their inhabitants. And, on a windy beach, a small boy and his grandmother keep despair at bay with an old white door. In these stories, hopes, regrets and memories are entangled with catfish, wreckers’ lamps and baying hounds as Cornish folklore slips into everyday life.
There are those rare books that come into your life and once finished you feel a little bereft because they were so good. Lucy Wood’s debut collection of short stories ‘Diving Belles’ is one such book, in fact I loved it so much I had to ration it out to the point I was only reading one or two stories a week. I simply didn’t want to it end.

So there you are, if you managed to stay with me for the long haul then well done. Tomorrow I will be sharing with you the books that I haven’t read yet which I really fancy getting to over the summer months (if summer decides to show itself) and think some of you might like too! In the meantime don’t forget to share you thoughts on the books you have loved the most so far in the first half of the year. Also let me know what you think about the selection above, which ones have you read or been meaning to read? Also, if any of you fancy doing summer reading guides, or already have, do let me know as I would love to have a gander.

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