Tag Archives: David Mitchell

Other People’s Bookshelves #84 – Tom Connolly

Hello and welcome back to the series Other People’s Bookshelves. Every so often on Savidge Reads we welcome a guest who takes over the blog and feeds into the book lust we all crave by sharing their shelves. This week we are off to London, where spookily I will actually be for a festival, and are being put up by author Tom Connolly who has kindly invited us to have a gander at his bookshelves with a nice cup of tea or two. Before we do let’s let Tom introduce himself a bit more…

I was raised in rural Kent before moving to London and working in the film industry, starting as a tea boy (runner) on sets and then in the camera department. I made short films that led to directing. Alongside writing, the visual arts – painting and photography in particular – have long been my great loves as well as the sea and windsurfing especially. I wrote my first novel, The Spider Truces, between 2003 and 2009 and it was published in 2010. My second, Men Like Air is published September 22nd 2016.

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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?

Definitely not much of a system. I keep all the novels I read unless I really didn’t get anything from it, which is rare. I squeeze them in to any available slot on the shelf. I am not a hoarder of anything other than books. Glancing across my shelves reminds me of when I read each book, what they meant to me, how much I loved them. I can’t always remember what happened in them but I can remember characters and the emotional impact. I have never kept a diary but my bookshelves play something like that role for me.

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?

My art, photography, design, architecture and gardening books are in a different room to fiction. I do cull non-fiction books and research material but not the rest, not really. Within each section there is no organisation other than separating novels, poetry and plays, no alphabetical ordering, and many wasted hours looking for books. I’m not proud of myself.

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

I don’t know. But the first one I can remember buying is the silver cover edition of The Catcher In The Rye from Sevenoaks Bookshop in 1981. That was the edition our teacher, Mr Pullen, gave us to read and it was that and Hemingway’s Indian Camp the previous year that first got me reading other than at gunpoint. I wanted the same edition, the same silver cover. It was the first time I recall wanting to own and keep a book. I still have it, yes.

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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?

My copy of “The Concise Guide to Life for Men with no Charisma” aside there’s nothing there that I would feel the need to hide. Some of the reference/research books can get a little peculiar (Araki springs to mind) and be placed on the higher shelves.

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?

The Specialist by Charles Sale. My late great Dad gave it to me when I had my first short film commissioned and broadcast by the BBC in 1993, a couple of years before he died. He wrote a message to me inside. After that, my copies of William Maxwell’s So Long See You Tomorrow are the ones I love the most. From a fire, I would save my surf boards – sorry.

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 aware more of my eldest brother’s books as he is eight years older than me and was, unlike me, bookish. Hardy and Houseman were what I was aware of him loving and I remember feeling “grown up” when I read The Mayor of Casterbridge and I loved all the Hardy I read as a teenager. I have some Hardy and Houseman on my shelves, yes. The same brother took me to see the Polanski movie of Tess and that depressed the shit out of me enough to revert to sport for the next twenty years until my mid-thirties.

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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?

Absolutely. If I have loved a book I want my own copy of it.

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

I bought three together. David Mitchell’s number9dream, brilliant, but you don’t need me to tell you that; David Baddiel’s The Death of Eli Gold, which I am really looking forward to next; and Bunker Spreckels, Surfing’s Divine Prince of Decadence, which I consumed in one enjoyable sitting.

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

1971 – Never A Dull Moment by David Hepworth and Marshall Law: A Law Unto Himself by Sally Smith. Also, the novel or memoir that Timothy Keith Craig hasn’t yet written. He’s one of my closest friends, a brother to me these past 6 years, a fine writer and one of the funniest, brightest of people.

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

I have no idea. I’d like them to think I was a stand up guy but I imagine they’d only think I’ve got too many books about Andrew Wyeth.

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A huge thanks to Tom for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves.. If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance, I am catching up with all the latest volunteers. In the meantime… what do you think of Tom’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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Other People’s Bookshelves #62 – Scott Pack

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week we are down in London town to spend some time with a man who I love much more than is right, and much more than he probably knows – you’ll see why. Yes this week we are spending time with the lovely Scott Pack. Now before we go and rummage through his shelves, let us grab a nice cuppa and learn more about him…

I am a publisher (just setting up a new independent imprint called Aardvark Bureau after six years at HarperCollins) and writer (a couple of toilet books under the pen name Steve Stack and bits and bobs of journalism). I sometimes host literary events of my own making and at festivals. I have a blog called Me and My Big Mouth. Outside of the book stuff I bake cakes and biscuits.

living room shelves

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?

I am happy to read pretty much anything but I only keep books I love, am likely to re-read or that I think a member of the family will enjoy at some point.

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?

We live in a four-floor townhouse. On the ground floor is a set of shelves containing books I have read and loved and these are alphabetical by author. Alongside these are a bunch of classics, many read but some as yet unread. I designed the shelves myself and included a long shelf for my battered old Penguin paperbacks (see above) which are arranged by colour because I got bored one day and it killed an hour or so. Any old or particularly gorgeous hardbacks are on the opposite wall. In my bedroom are more shelves and here are kept all the unread books. There are lots of them. These are grouped by genre and then alphabetically.

Next to my bed are a couple of TBR shelves.

tbr pile

The basement kitchen has the cookbooks. My son has temporary residency in the loft (he’ll leave home at some point, I am sure) and shares the space with piles of books I couldn’t fit anywhere else. When we moved here I got rid of 50 boxes of books that I had accumulated over the years and knew I would never re-read or get round to reading. The charity shops were very pleased. I do still cull quite regularly.

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

I am not sure. I am getting on a bit so it is hard to remember back that far. I definitely recall buying the Narnia books from a pokey little bookshop on Canvey Island but I don’t think I actually got round to reading them all (habit of a lifetime started right there). The late 1970s and early 1980s were not particularly affluent periods in my neck of the woods but my parents would always find money if I wanted a book, something for which I shall be forever grateful.

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?

Don’t take this the wrong way but I don’t like the idea of guilty pleasures. You know how one of the posh newspapers will ask literary authors for their guilty pleasures every now and again and the authors will pick Ian Rankin or Georgette Heyer or someone like that? Fuck the fuck right off! What the newspapers are really asking is ‘Are there any genre authors you’ll admit to reading?’

penguins

Reading books is a bloody marvellous thing to do and no one should ever be made to feel guilty for reading anything. Ever. That being said, I know you didn’t mean it in quite that way. I hope every reader has books on their shelves that would surprise people. I love the novels of Miss Read. I have read them all. She is often assumed to be very Olde English and twee but her early work, in particular, makes for great social commentary. She charted village life accurately and with great wit. Her books are proudly displayed on my shelves, though.

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?

My single most prized volume is The Satanic Mill by Otfried Preussler which was my favourite book as a child and probably still is. Much later I was able to re-publish it in the UK under it’s original German title of Krabat. Neil Gaiman rates it as one of his best spooky reads for kids so I clearly had great taste even back then. I do own a couple of books from the collections of famous people. I have a set of The Forsyte Saga that once belonged to Maria Callas and I also have Peter Cushing’s entire Noel Coward collection. And then there is my Fuck Off collection. 70+ books in which the authors have signed ‘To Scott, Fuck Off…’ or some similarly insulting message. John Le Carre, Marian Keyes, John Grisham, David Mitchell, all swearing their tits off.

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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?

My dad collected the Kings & Queens series from the BCA book club back in the 1970s. He would remove the dust jackets and put them on the shelves with their purple spines glaring out at me. From time to time I would take one down and flick through it. Recently I inherited his full set—he hasn’t popped his clogs yet, he was just getting rid of them—and they now sit on my shelves glaring out at my kids.

kings and queens

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 am lent books quote often and I do use my local library. My collecting instinct has dropped off a bit as I have grown older but if I really love a book I do indeed need a print edition somewhere on my shelves.

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

No idea. Not a clue. A sign of having too many books but I don’t care.

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

You know what? I don’t think there is. Until the next time I see something in a bookshop and covet it.

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

They would, of course, think I am charming, witty, handsome, a great cook, intelligent and a careful and considerate lover.

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A huge thanks to Scott for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, and making me laugh and my slightly inappropriate crush even bigger! If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) 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 Scott’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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Rounding Up The Reviews #1; Graves, Shadows, Peacocks and Raindrops

Both in preparation and as a teaser for the change in Savidge Reads next week, I thought I would start a new occasional series of posts (occasional is such a lazy sounding word isn’t it, I have never understood what an occasional table is when it’s not being a table, sorry I digress) where I round up the books that be they good, bad or ugly I can’t quite get an 800+ post out of or, in some cases, don’t deserve such efforts. Yes that is right, finally after almost seven years blogging I am going to start telling you about some of the books that I have read which were average, bad or even downright awful. So I don’t come across a complete old grump there will also be some very good books in the mix, I might just not have oodles to say about them. We all have books like that don’t we? Anyway, I am in danger of falling into my usual waffle territory so let us start with the first four victims books…

Three Graves Full – Jamie Mason

ONE Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 336 pages, bought by my good self

Jason Getty has killed a man and buried him in his garden. This haunts him daily, but even more so when he has the gardeners in landscaping his lawn because he is so paranoid that someone might suspect from its unkempt state that he has buried someone there. What he, and the gardeners, are soon shocked to discover is that there are actually two other bodies buried in the Jason’s garden. If he didn’t kill them who did? And just who on earth are they? The farce begins…

I use the word farce above because in essence this is not a dark crime, it is not a cosy crime, I think it is trying to be a comic crime. From the synopsis I was sold and had no doubt that this would easily be in my top ten books of the year, alas I didn’t really like it. When the police detectives’ dog started to talk to itself a la Lassie and I was surprised and quite interested I knew all was lost – I don’t like talking animals in books, you know this. The book starts off with too much going on, confusion not being a good move early on in a book with too many characters introduced and random back stories. Then as it petered out, before going AWOL again later, I just coasted along with it. Sorry. Great idea just not crafted in a way that worked for me. You can hear me talking about it here.

Dreams and Shadows – C. Robert Cargill

Gollancz Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 416 pages, bought by my good self

Now you will have to bear with me on this one. Ewan is kidnapped when he is a young boy by some fairies who swap him for one of theirs, who drives its new mother to suicide. He is brought up as one of their own but it isn’t done for the love, there is a purpose – which I am obviously not going to tell you for spoilers sake and some of you will love this. Meanwhile a young boy Colby meets a Djinn in the woods Ewan has been stolen into, who grants him a wish (because he has to, he’s a Djinn) to see all things supernatural, which is actually more of a curse. Lovely so far isn’t it? Well it gets lovelier as Ewan and Colby meet and become friends. But, yes you guessed it there is a but, when Colby discovers Ewan’s fate he uses his new powers unselfishly and not only does this backfire, pretty much opening hell, but Ewan is rescued but ends up in care, rather disturbed and not in a good way to start out his life… And that is pretty much just the start; after all I did say hell is unleashed.

I loved the first half of this book. Cargill interweaves Ewan and Colby’s tales with snippets from Folklore Encyclopaedia’s and has some wonderful urban legends and spooky/grim stories interweaved. The second half of the book, and this will sound bonkers coming from me, almost gets too real and bogged down in the miseries of the real world and soon enough I lost interest. Liked the writing, would have preferred a tale firmly set in the ‘other’ or collection of spooky and horrific tales set in the now, for some reason this didn’t quite master either. You can hear me talking more about it here.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock – Matthew Quick

Headline Publishing, paperback, 2014, fiction, 288 pages, borrowed from the library

Right! The gloves are coming off with this one. There are some authors who everyone loves and who can clearly write brilliantly but I just don’t get. David Mitchell, Jennifer Egan, Martin Amis, etc. Then there are those authors who loads and loads of people love who can either write okay or badly or write in a way that makes me want to scream. Matthew Quick has become one of those. I read The Silver Linings Playbook and unlike everyone else not only did I get bored of my own eyes rolling as I read it I also questioned how Quick writes about people with mental health issues. It felt like the joke was on them and he was off running to the bank on the proceeds.

Well, for me at least, he has done it again with Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock… Only this time it is at the expense of any teenager who has been suicidal or any teenager who has been shot at school. I actually don’t want to give the book any more airtime than that. Note – I talked about it a lot on Hear…Read This if you need more. But sorry Mr Quick, I cannot forgive you for this one.

A Necklace of Raindrops – Joan Aiken & Jan Pienkowski

Jonathan Cape, hardback, 1968 (2009 edition), fiction, 108 pages, , bought by my good self

Aaah!  A book to lighten any mood if ever there was one! This was actually a re-read for me and of a book that I had completely forgotten about until Kate chose it for Hear… Read This. It was a book I used to read way back decades ago when me and Polly, formerly of Novel Insights, were tiny little things and I used to dress up in her princess dresses refusing to be the prince. Back to the book though which is one of Aiken’s collections of short stories that also verges on picture book, thanks to Pienkowski who yes did all the amazing Meg and Mog books from your (or your children’s) childhood, the illustrations inside are as stunning as the cover.

This is a book that can be enjoyed and treasured by adults and children alike with its tales of genies, necklaces that can change the weather, cats that grant wishes and best of all the elves who come out of your books and bring them too life. Occasionally the tales got a little far out, yet that really is all part of the fun as like her readers it seems Joan Aiken had a limitless imagination. Virago are publishing her adult novels again I believe, someone needs to bring this and its follow up back into the mainstream as they are just wonderful and for me proved a real nostalgic trip.

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So that is your lot for now. I realised as I was going along that all these books were Hear… Read This choices. Now initially I was pondering if we just choose some dodgy books, I don’t think that is the case I think we all just experiment with choosing slightly random books which can be duds occasionally but overall when brilliant are really brilliant. I do wonder if it is actually a case of having discussed them so much with Gav, Rob and Kate I then feel like I have explored them enough and so don’t feel I can review them as well. Who knows? Anyway, more over the next few days meanwhile have you read any of these and if so what did you make of them? What are your thoughts on occasional review round up posts like this, and indeed what are your thoughts on occasional tables?

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Man Booker 2014 Musings

Unless you were like me, in which case you were far too busy moving furniture, walls and the like, then you all probably saw the longlist for the Man Booker Prize 2014. With its rule changes last year, becoming open to any book written in English anywhere in the world published for the first time between October 2013 and September 2014, the long list was one which many felt would now be an American full house. It doesn’t seem to be the case, yet weirdly it doesn’t seem to be a longlist that is doing very much for me.

Here it is in full in case you too were otherwise engaged and have been since…

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris (Viking)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)
The Blazing World – Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
J –  Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell (Sceptre)
The Lives of Others – Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
Us – David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Dog – Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate)
Orfeo – Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
How to be Both –  Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
History of the Rain – Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

Man Booker Five

I have only actually got five of them, I would have had six but I found the Niall Williams gratingly pretentious when I tried to read it a while back, and have read not a one so I can’t judge them on what’s inside yet very little really excites me here. Actually that is not 100% true or fair. I am excited by the Karen Joy Fowler because that is a book I have been wanting to read ever since I saw it on the sadly (and criminally) now defunct Review Show. I have also heard amazing things about the Flanagan in all the right places, from Marieke Hardy to  Kim of Reading Matters. I have also read Mukherjee, Nicholls and Smith before and really, really liked their work. I am also intrigued by the Kingsmith, which would be a marvellous winner as it is a debut and Unbound, who publish it, are a crowd sourced publishers, exciting. Yet I am still not really that excited and really with a prize like the Man Booker I should be.

The Williams-effect might be part of it, I may be judging the books on that. I may also be feeling indifferent to it because a) I am knackered post festival b) Ferris and Mitchell are two authors many people love yet I just simply do not get. It could be that it just all feels terribly white middle classed male (with the exceptions of the women and Mukherjee) and not the exciting, vibrant, diverse list I always hope it is going to be. I also think it is really strange that at present so many (5) of the books aren’t even out, Jacobson not coming out until the 25th of September, it doesn’t seem a list that can yet excite the public does it? And does it mean if the dates don’t change then the publishers are breaking this rule – Each publisher of a title appearing on the longlist will be required to have no fewer than 1,000 copies of that title available in stock within 10 days of the announcement of the longlist. Will they be withdrawn/disqualified? Today it seems about the only exciting thing that might happen from this list.

It makes me wonder if the Man Booker is really the prize for me anymore. Maybe I should just stick to the Women’s Prize (which I find very difficult to call the Bailey’s, and I love that tipple) and Fiction Uncovered as it seems that is where the well written AND diverse voices most seem to be found with very similar prize remits. Maybe I should read a few and reserve judgement? What do you all think?

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Other People’s Bookshelves #22 – Simon Sylvester

Hello and welcome to the latest in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves where we get to have a good old nosey through other peoples book collections. Grab some Kendal mint cake, or even better some Grasmere gingerbread (nothing on earth like it), as we are off to the Lake District to join a man who has seen me at my worst, on both a long haul flight (I hate flying) and in an air balloon (I hate heights) when we both went to Philadelphia on a travel writing trip many moons ago. Today we join Simon Sylvester (another SS, they are the best) and I will hand over to him to tell us more about himself before we go routing through his shelves…

I live in Burneside, just outside Kendal on the southern edge of the Lake District. I moved here about three years ago with my partner, the painter Monica Metsers. Last year we bought a house, which took us six months to strip down and make habitable. We always wanted to have big bookshelves, and my father-in-law made us these to fit the living room. I work part-time teaching film production at the local college, and I make short films for local bands and businesses. Whatever spare time is left goes to my writing. I started writing in 2006, and my short stories have been published occasionally over the years. My debut novel is coming out with Quercus Books in 2014, which is almost as terrifying as it is exciting. Regarding my reading, it’s worth mentioning that I spent a miserable year at boarding school when I was younger. I remember virtually nothing of that time except the library, devouring Hardy Boys books. Reading has always been an escape for me.

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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?

Once upon a time, I kept them all, but those days are long gone. A book stays if I’m certain to read it again because it’s useful, it’s beautiful or it has personal value. Even with these huge shelves, space is at a premium, and those standards get higher as my collection grows. And despite strict monitoring of what stays and what goes, the books quietly multiply and migrate into other parts of the shelves. I think the board games will have to move elsewhere, soon.

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?

The big shelves have fiction alphabetised by surname, which is dull, perhaps, but then I know where to find things when I want them. I used to work in a record store, and filing is hardwired in me – I get antsy when they’re out of order. Anything borrowed from friends sits flat. On the other side of the room, poetry and graphic novels have shelves of their own. I don’t own enough of either to warrant alphabetising them. I’m actually a little intimidated by comics. I love the ones I read, but it’s so vast and varied a genre that I don’t really know where to begin. Every year or so, my friend Ali Shaw suggests something else, and I’ll give it a go, and invariably enjoy it, but still not know where to take my reading next.

Literary journals and fiction anthologies live on a shelf with my published short stories, good and bad. Above them, nonfiction is a bit of a free-for-all. I’m a sucker for obscure non-fiction book, so the shelves here have sumo wrestling and saints, bikes and kites, whales and weather. Mon’s non-fiction is totally different to mine, so we have shelves of stunning art books as well as rock’n’roll autobiographies and tomes on yoga. I’m pretty sure she’s trying to organise the art books by ascending size, but I get in the way by absently taking them off the shelves to read them. Upstairs, the shelves by my desk are a bit more spartan, but that’s where I gather anything relevant to my current project. My next novel is about a woman losing her way in a huge swamp, so at the moment there’s everything from historical accounts of draining the fens to Finnish folktales. I also keep my finished notebooks and diaries here. The final set of shelves belong to my daughter Dora. She’s two and a half years old, and there’s no point arranging her books, because her first job every morning is to hurl them to the floor and pretend she’s reading them. It’s been a joy beyond measure to rediscover some children’s classics.shelves misc 1

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

My memory is abominable, so this is a little fuzzy; but I’ve always been hooked on second-hand stores. I grew up in Inverness, where there’s an extraordinary bookshop called James Leakey’s. It’s an old church with shelves jammed with books, books in double layers on the floor, and banana boxes of loose books stacked three deep behind the counter. I spent a lot of time in there. Although my first purchase was probably something and somewhere else, I clearly remember buying a very tatty copy of Dune by Frank Herbert from that amazing place. I must have read it half-a-dozen times. I don’t own it any more, unfortunately, though I still love it – one of many books that have escaped over the years. I bought a lot of Iain Banks, too, after I discovered The Wasp Factory. I loaned three Banks books to a passing acquaintance, back in 2001, and never saw them again.

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?

No secrets in our house, Simon! Mon has books on the shelves that I probably wouldn’t read, just as I have books she wouldn’t read, but they’re all up there. The only one I make a habit of hiding (behind a picture of my daughter) is the True Blood collection by Charlaine Harris. We loved the first two seasons of the TV show, but never enjoyed the books, and after the show withered, neither of us summoned the strength to go back to Sookie and Bon Temps. I don’t know why they’re still there, to be honest. It’s something we don’t talk about, like the cupboard under the stairs.

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?

I don’t own anything financially valuable, but there are several books on the shelves that are peculiarly important to me. The Battle At Sangshak by Harry Seaman is an account of a small but pivotal fight in the godawful jungle war in Burma and India. Sangshak was crucial in turning the tide against the Japanese army in World War Two, and it was nothing less than hell on earth. My grandfather fought there. When he died, his annotated copy went to my dad, and I received my dad’s copy. Inside the back sleeve is a photocopy of a note to my grandfather from the man who led the fight. It’s very humbling to reflect on what they went through. I have another letter, somewhere, that his brother, my great uncle, sent him from a military hospital in Egypt. He’d been injured while fighting in the tank campaigns in Northern Africa. His leg had been smashed in six places by a cannon recoil, and he waited all day in the baking heat, under shellfire, before being rescued. “Still,” he wrote to my grandfather, “I prefer my war to your war.”

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My first attempt at a novel was about the war in Burma. I wanted to write about my grandfather’s experiences. I didn’t get anywhere near it, but I don’t think he’d have minded. Funnily enough, the most prized thing on the shelf isn’t a book, but a missing bookmark. Buried in one of those hundreds of books is a photo of me fishing with my grandfather. I must have been eight or ten, and I don’t remember being there. He’s dead now, and that picture means a lot to me, but I have no idea which book it’s hiding in. I often use different bookmarks – especially the ones I find in second-hand books – cheques and postcards and bus tickets – but I’d like that photo back.

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?

The earliest one I remember, again when I was ten or so, was Jock of the Bushveld on my grandparents’ shelves. I read most of it, I think. They gave me Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls for a birthday around then, too. I still own that one. It’s strange, writing this, to realise how often my grandparents are cropping up. I can also remember borrowing some Dean Koontz nasty from the mobile library when I was about thirteen. Days after I’d finished reading it, my dad had a quick flick through – he was so horrified that he hid it until the van came again. I remember thinking it was no worse than the Alistair MacLeans and Desmond Bagleys on my parents’ shelves.

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?

Guilty of this one – I’ve absolutely bought my own copies of borrowed books. Neil Gaiman was a massive gap in my reading until only a few years ago, when a friend loaned me Neverwhere and Fragile Things. I devoured those and promptly bought my own copies – as well as all his other fiction. I still can’t believe it took me so long. Again, when I was 26, I spent a year working and backpacking round Australia. Months of swapping books in youth hostels led me to discover David Mitchell. Travelling light, I couldn’t carry them with me, so I swapped them on, and promptly bought second copies when I came home. I’ve even done this with books I already own; my favourite novel, The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, has been on loan to different friends for more than two years. I crumbled and bought a second copy because I couldn’t be without it. It has the best ending of any modern novel.

Pratchett

I’ve just noticed that the only Pratchett I’m missing is Soul Music. When I was fifteen I went on an exchange trip to France. I managed to forget the stack of books I’d put aside for the month abroad, and took only Soul Music in my hand luggage. As a result, I read it continuously over that month. It suffered in rain and sun and rucksacks, becoming ever more curled and dog-eared. It went through some abuse, that book, but it stayed with me. I was still reading it on the plane home. I’d like to get another copy of that.

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

Tales of the Fenlands by Walter Henry Barrett. It’s on longterm loan from my storyteller uncle Rich Sylvester. He was in Cumbria a couple of months ago, when we both read some of our work at the amazing Dreamfired storynights in Brigsteer. I hadn’t seen him for a years, and we talked through some of my next novel. A few weeks later, this book arrived in the post. The mythology of the Fens is incredibly concentrated and well-preserved. We’re hoping to go for a few days walking round Wisbech next year.

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

Hundreds! Like your post on Doris Lessing, I’m acutely conscious that there are dozens of gigantic gaps in my reading. My ongoing issue at the moment is time, time, time. I used to read two or three books a week; I’m so exhausted at the moment that I barely manage ten pages a night before falling asleep. If I can recover some more time to read, then I have Toni Morrison and Alice Munro in my sights. I’ve only recently discovered Haruki Murakami, having read Wild Sheep Chase, 1Q84 and Norwegian Wood in the last year. My friends rave about Kafka On The Shore, and I’ll work my way through the rest of his writing in the next couple of years.

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

I had something of an epiphany two years ago. It was a bright summer day, and sunlight was streaming into the room Mon and I stayed in at the time. I was sitting on the end of the bed, considering my bookshelves and thinking about what I wanted to achieve as a writer. I’d received some great praise for the novel I wrote about Burma, but the agents and publishers who read it generally felt it was too dark for a first novel, and nothing had come of it. I now had the kernel of an idea for another book, and I was considering whether it was worth the heartache, the effort and the time away from my family. Looking at my shelves, I noticed a distinct line between the authors I admired as ferocious artists, and who had inspired the combative style of my first attempt at a novel – William S. Burroughs, David Peace, Hubert Selby Jnr – and the authors I returned to time and time again because I simply loved to read their stories – David Mitchell, Jasper Fforde, Sarah Waters, Terry Pratchett. The first group experiment with language to deliver emotional punches; the second achieve emotion through characters and situations the reader comes to care about. On making that distinction, I realised that I very seldom returned to the first group, and that I kept them on the shelves almost as proof that I’d read them, rather than because I’d enjoyed them. I felt a little ashamed to realise that they’d stopped being books, and they’d become badges. With that understanding, a huge weight fell from my shoulders. I no longer felt that my stories needed to be experimental, obscure or deliberately challenging. They needed to deliver what I wanted in my own favourite books – the joy of escaping somewhere new. That was the moment I understood not only that I needed to write for myself, but also more about who I was.

Knowing I wouldn’t read them again, I boxed up dozens of those dark literary heavyweights, and took them to a charity shop. Then I started work on my second novel. Two years on, I have a wonderful agent and a very exciting publisher, and a clear path of where I want to take my work. I suspect every writer has that epiphany at some point on the journey to finding their own voice. That was a gigantic turning point in my life, and it couldn’t have happened without my books and my bookshelves. This is a long-winded way of saying that now I’ve challenged myself over why I keep certain books on my shelves, I’m no longer troubled by what other people think of my reading taste or me. These are my books, and I’m proud of them. In any of the new houses Mon and I have moved to, I’ve been unable to settle without shelves on the wall and my books on the shelves. They’re a comfort to me. They remind me of where I’ve been and what I’ve done. Books are part of what make our house a home.

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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 Other People’s Book Shelves 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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Great House – Nicole Krauss

When I saw that ‘Great House’ by Nicole Krauss (which in my head rhymes, should it?) had made the Orange long list I went off and did some research on it and though ‘eurgh’. The reasons for this were thrice fold, first was the fact every review seemed to say it was a book about a desk (which didn’t fill me intrigue or hope), second was a mention that it jumped from strand to strand like one of my nemesis reads ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell and thirdly its scope seemed to wide. How could a book manage to cover the gaps of New York, London, Jerusalem, Paris, Nuremberg, Chile whilst also fitting in the subjects of holocaust, Alzheimer’s, incest and much more? It was going to be a brick of a book that I was going to really, really struggle with wasn’t it? Well I was wrong on both counts, as I discovered when it arrived in the post and I read it only pausing to catch my breath with a cup of tea now and then.

I was expecting that when ‘Great House’ arrived through my letter box it would make itself known with a loud thud that would leave a dent in the hall. Instead a much slimmer volume of 289 pages arrived leaving me slightly non-plussed, yet Nicole Krauss’s latest novel is a book where its size is extremely deceptive and has so much in its 289 pages that I already know I am going to be struggling really hard to convey just how much happens and just how clever this novel is in any form of ‘book thoughts’ I now type.

I have to address the thoughts I had read, prior to picking up the book itself, that this book evolves around a 19 drawer desk. The idea that any item of furniture could hold four very different stories across decades and continents both intrigued me and completely put me off in one go. Yet actually this is possible, every heirloom has a tale and so therefore does every antique. I personally couldn’t go as far as to say that ‘Great House’ is a book about a desk or that the desk is the lead character, in fact the desk gets a mere sentence in the first half of one of the books inner tales ‘True Kindness’.

What I would say is that Nicole Krauss has used a desk to draw, if you will excuse the pun, four compelling tales together – which in their own ways do weave in and out of each other anyway, well, sort of! Krauss only hints at how in each of the parts initial halves but in such a way it teased me to read on and see if I could grab the lose threads and for a fuller picture. This is a clever and compelling tool; a literary book where you find yourself turning the pages in need of finding out more.

So what are these stories? Well the first tells of a novelist Nadia, living in New York, and how she (back before her career really took off) came to be the owner, through a friend of a friend, of all the Chilean poet Daniel Varsky’s furniture including his desk, the desk that she then goes on to write her many novels on thereafter. She also spends a single night with Daniel, a night that stays with her long after as he sends postcards until suddenly they stop and she discovers he has been taken, arrested and tortured by Pinochet back in Chile. From there Daniel goes on to haunt her and when she receives a call asking for his furniture back Nadia begins to unravel and we are left on a cliff hanger as Nadia contemplates a huge change in her life which we will come back to later, this is the narrative jumping I feared would leave me cold, it hooked me in.

Next we find ourselves in Israel as a father talks internally to his son, a son who has returned from England where he is a judge for his mother’s funeral after leaving the family behind several years before. It’s a bitter and occasionally rather uncomfortable narrative looking at how parents don’t always love the children that they have, in fact sometimes it can be quite the opposite. From here we then move to England where the final two narrators, and in some ways pieces of Krauss’s carefully crafted puzzle, are based.

We have Arnold who is looking back on the life of his wife, another author, Lotte. A woman who always wanted her freedom to be hers and her past, she hails from 1930’s Germany, to remain a secret if at all possible – in fact she rarely mentions it in her work, interviews or personal conversations, even with her husband. Slowly secrets of hers are unlocked in stops and starts as her husband learns much more about her when her Alzheimer’s starts to reveal all as they grow old together. Finally there is Izzy who tells her tale of the relationship she has with brother Yoav Weisz, one which seemed doomed from the start with his domineering father George (and antique collector) and the unusually close relationship with his rather jealous sister Leah. You couldn’t get four more different stories and yet Krauss magically and, to put it frankly, effortlessly does make them connect.

How exactly? Well if I told you that you wouldn’t read the book now would you, and I am going to urge that you do so but it might have something to do with the desk! It also has a lot to do with doubt, what we pass on to others and how we move forward in life!

It’s interesting that I love the idea of books that tell completely different stories that have an underlying arch between them all, why do I therefore dread them at the same time, well because often they don’t work. ‘Great House’ works, in fact it works wonderfully. The characters Krauss creates all instantly lend themselves as storytellers who you want to listen to the narrations and memories of, several of them are writers so that could help but then again Aaron, who is one of the strongest narratives for his bitterness, doesn’t like writing. In fact he is very insular which only made his narrative all the more interesting for me. The writing is compelling and also lyrical with sparkles of humour in unlikely places. I was expecting a much more subdued book and while it’s not laugh out loud funny, it is quite sombre really, or an easy read it’s very readable too.

I am sure you can easily tell, from the amount I have already written, that I could go on and on about ‘Great House’. I will stop and simply say read it. It’s a clever and insightful novel, a tale with four tales to tell, and one that will stick with you once you have turned the final page. Not only is it incredible for all its subject matters and the characters but for the fact you might have just read a near perfect novel. 9.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publishers.

So one of the books I was, if I am totally honest, rather fearful of has become one of my favourite reads of the year. It would be easy for me to know say ‘this should win the Orange’ but actually I am only 4/20 down, I can only hope the long list throws many more books like this in my direction. Books that get you fired up and excited about reading. I haven’t read either of her other novels and am now thinking I should… should I? Is she as an exciting author as this book promises? Has anyone else read ‘Great House’? I know it has received a mixed bag of reviews so would be interested in hearing more thoughts from you all, has anyone been as nervous/wary of it as I was?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Nicole Krauss, Orange Prize, Penguin Books, Review, Viking Books

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – David Mitchell

When ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ by David Mitchell was chosen for book group I had two reactions. The initial was an inward groan as I had read ‘Cloud Atlas’ and sort of hated it (it was pre-blogging but I found it confusing, cold and rather patronising – I know lots and lots of people have loved it) which annoyed me because the cover was so lovely. The second reaction I had was ‘ooh this could be a challenge’ and I found myself both strangely pleased at that. So which was it? Well, oddly it was both.

Upon finishing ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ I had four reactions. I thought both ‘wow the author can write’ along with ‘blimey it’s rather formulaic, a little pretentious and boy is David Mitchell letting you know how much research he has done ‘. I also came away thinking ‘that was a challenging and thought provoking read’ along with a sense of ‘thank goodness that’s over’. Completely polar feelings in one book I find rather fascinating, but what was it about it that made me feel like that? Well the story, or stories, was the first factor.

The book is set in several parts. If you were to only read the first chapter of this novel, and indeed the first part of the book, before buying it you would either feel disgusted or completely gripped as the scene of a traumatic and complicated birth is graphically played out over the first few pages. However from that point the novel suddenly changes to the tale of Jacob de Zoet who has freshly docked on the floating village of Dejima, just off the harbour of Nagasaki, in 1799. Here as a clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company, trading basically, he meets a young midwife, Orito Aibagawa, who he rather falls in love with.

Along with all this Mitchell creates a huge cast of characters (over 100) and the way of life at the time but I couldn’t say, despite how descriptive he is – and he really is, that the characters, other than Orito, were vivid and nor could I say that I felt the atmosphere of the place. It felt a little cold and one dimensional, so much was going on that I couldn’t quite focus and here Mitchell let me as a reader down as instead of allowing me to build some of the picture myself he explains so much in such detail I felt like his intellect and imagination was being forced down my throat and he didn’t trust me to use my own. That might seem harsh, but all is not lost quite yet.

If I am 100% honest had it not been a choice for my book group I would have given up on Jacob and his tale there and then. However I like to try and read a book group from cover to cover and thank goodness I did as part two was just incredible. It is Orito’s tale, after Jacob believes she has vanished, which sees her in a nunnery that is not all it appears to be at first and in many ways is some kind of religious cult which needs children to be born, how those children are produced and what for I will leave for anyone who chooses to give this book a whirl but I was left stunned by it and followed Orito the way you would follow a thriller, pages were speedily being turned. I also liked the feel that this was almost a homage from Mitchell to writing of the 16th and 17th century, it felt rather ‘Dracula’ meets ‘Castle of Otranto’ in some ways.

Sadly after part two we head back to the world of Jacob again of which I shall say no more other than the hard work you put in during part one of the book sort of pays off… sort off. I personally wish that David Mitchell had written ‘The Thousand Autumns of Orito Aibagawa’. Whilst all that Jacob de Zoet encounters is rather interesting in terms of history, it does start to feel like a text book, there are even pictures every now and again, and my imagination seemed to be penned in. Yet when I was with Orito the book came into its own, I was gripped and found her story fascinating.

‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet’ has quite a lot going for it, and I am fairly sure that anyone who has read Mitchells previous books will have read it by now regardless and most likely loved it. For me it was a book of two halves. I am certainly glad I read it, I feel I challenged myself in terms of returning to an author I vowed I never would – but I am not convinced I will go through his back catalogue just yet, though at the same time I will be very interested to hear what he writes next. 6/10

Rather like ‘Brighton Rock’ though its not a book I instantly loved its definitely one that’s got me thinking about what I read and the way I read it – and of course what I look for in a book. I don’t always want comfy, I need a book like this to give me a jolt sometimes. I am sure lots of people have read and adored this book and I would love to hear from you if you did and of course if you didn’t. It received a mixed bag at book group with one member loving it and really getting passionate about it (and who I am sure would love any more Mitchell recommendations you might have), a few of us having quite liked it and several other members who couldn’t get through the first part. So a mixed bag, but sometimes those books make the best book group books don’t they?

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Filed under Book Group, David Mitchell, Review, Sceptre Publishing