Tag Archives: Emma Donoghue

Guessing The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017

A week to this very day will see the announcement of the longlist for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Those of you who have followed this blog for the last (almost ten, how did that happen) years will know that the Women’s Prize for Fiction is one of my top five literary prizes ever. For many a year now I have played the all at once delightful and downright difficult game of trying to guess the longlist, so I thought I would do it again this year. Why fix it if it ain’t broke?

There is a slight change this year. Normally I do a list of 20 books, for that is the usual longlist length. This year it is all change however as there is rumoured to be a shortlist of just twelve books this year. For me to choose a list of only 12 books is frankly impossible, well ok not impossible but it would be very difficult as one thing about the guessing the list for this prize shows me every year is how many amazing books there are by women published every year. So I have decided if the prize can change its list length so can I, so you will be getting a list of 12 books I have read and would love to see on the list and 12 books I would love to read and see on the list.

First up the books I have read, which has shamefully reminded me of how little of what I read last year I have reviewed but I will in good time, that I would love to see on the list…

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail)
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (Allen and Unwin)
Shelter by Jung Yun (Picador)
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Vintage)
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Penguin)
This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press)
The Good People by Hannah Kent (Picador)
Fell by Jenn Ashworth (Sceptre)
My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal (Penguin)
The Muse by Jessie Burton (Picador)
To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey (Tinder Press)
The Museum of You by Carys Bray (Windmill)

I was going to add Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing which I read for the Man Booker Prize last year but I didn’t love it as much as everyone else BUT if it was on the list I would read it again so thought I should give it a nod. Right, now to the books I haven’t read yet but want to, which was again so, so, so tough to whittle down just to twelve.

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Here Comes The Sun by Nicole Dennis Benn (Oneworld)
The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (Granta)
Autumn by Ali Smith (Penguin)
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich (Vintage)
Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (Sceptre)
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Faber and Faber)
English Animals by Laura Kaye (Little Brown)
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (Oneworld)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (Orion)
Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (4th Estate)
The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy (Scribe)
The Unseen World by Liz Moore (Windmill)

There were so many more I wanted to add onto this list. Brit Bennett, Emma Geen, Min Jin Lee, Claire Fuller, Katherine Arden, Stella Duffy and Sara Baume  were all wriggling away in the back of my mind as were heavyweights Ann Patchett, Emma Donoghue and Annie Proulx. See it just goes to show how many amazing books there could be in the list next week. And you know what? I wouldn’t mind if I was completely wrong and was introduced to a whole selection of books I hadn’t even thought of, that is all part of the joy of a prize like this one, so much scope, so many possibilities, so many good reads ahead.

So over to you, what do you think might just make the list next week?

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I’ve Been…

…A little bit busy this week and haven’t had a proper chance to catch up with you all about some lovely things that have been going on. So I thought I would do a mini catch up and tease you all with a few things that I will be telling you all about soon, as is my want. First up though this has been my birthday week (though actually the celebrations carry on next week and weekend too, I am totally milking it) and I had brilliant birthday, thank you for your birthday wishes, it involved lots of pottering, sorting and the lots of cake as made by The Beard…

Birthday shot

In case you are wondering it is a lemon meringue cheesecake, which is my favourite cake as it is all sorts of amazing. The Beard being a trained chef meant it was even more amazing. Anyway that was all lovely and we had lovely friends round for the evening including my lovely mate Emma who I made a pact to get a tattoo, with a literary twist. As the date, which we booked back in early February, drew nearer I was getting more and more nervous. However, I did it…

Tattoo Teaser

Yes that is a teasing shot as I will share it all with you next week! Teaser, in fact I am a triple teaser as today has been a bonkersly brilliant day in Manchester where I got to sit and have a coffee and a long chat with Emma Donoghue about Frog Music, which is very good, for next weeks episode of You Wrote The Book, she was brilliant and so lovely. I then met my aunty Alice, who you have all been recommending books for and she says thanks, for afternoon tea. Then I went and had a (two hour) wander around the refurbished Central Library…

Library Teaser

It is stunning and needs a special post so I will do that next week as I have a few reviews and posts to schedule before packing to go off to Harrogate tomorrow with three of my bestest mates to spend time mooching, eating cream cakes, drinking tea and being tourists. Cannot wait.

What have you all been up to? What have you been reading? What’s new?

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Un-Reviews #1

I have always felt that if I haven’t finished a book to its full conclusion for whatever reason then I can’t review it, or write my ‘book thoughts’ on them as I prefer to call it. This therefore means that anyone who reads the blog is only getting reviews of the books I do finish which are therefore going to be more positive. Thanks to something my Readers co-host Gavin told me, and I have now stolen, I have decided to do ‘un-reviews’. These will be honest, whilst constructive, posts featuring a few titles  I have tried and tested and some brief ‘book thoughts’ on why they didn’t work and why.

So without further ado here are the first titles that I have tried this year and just haven’t worked for whatever reason…

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

I will admit that I don’t think the hype around this book helped, in fact it had very much put me off, yet some of you said I should give it a whirl and see, so I did. I knew the book was going to be about baseball, though ‘not all about just baseball’, because that was what put me off in the first place. Some of you said it didn’t matter but sadly it did to me. I was floundering quickly and then when I realised this seemed like it was going to be a ‘coming of age’ and ‘college life’ story I was officially lost. The writing wasn’t bad, in fact it almost won me over, but not quite and after 60 or so pages I just thought ‘no, should have stuck to my instincts’. It’s selling like hotcakes apparently so I don’t think it matters that this book did very little for me.

The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper by James Carnac

This is an interesting one. I have a strange small obsession with Jack the Ripper, in part because I find the Victorian era so utterly fascinating but in the main because no one really knows who did it. Well a written confession was discovered a year or so ago in a dead man’s possessions when they were being sorted. I imagine a few crackpots might have done such a thing but historians are puzzled by this one as the author seemed to have specific and in depth knowledge of the facts and small things people simply wouldn’t know, not even some of the police at the time. With a premise like that I knew this book was for me… but the font (see below) drove me bonkers! I understand the original document was composed on a type writer but that didn’t mean it had to be presented that way in the book. Maybe the publishers wanted the authentic feel, sadly it hurt my eyes and took all the joy from trying to read it and so I had to give up. (If anyone mentions how on a certain device beginning with a K you can change the font you might get blocked from commenting ha, ha.)

The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

A book I have tried twice. First up in January when I fancied something Victorian and I loved the idea of a tale centred on a true ‘scandalous divorce’ so I thought this would be an instant winner with me. I didn’t like the main character Helen who has an affair, so I stopped and thought ‘try that again later’. I did when I was having my latest book clear out and again struggled with Helen, and then struggled with the other characters in the book Fido, Helen’s lover, and Helen’s husband. They were all rather dislikeable but not in a good way. Helen in particular riled me, she was devious and manipulative but not in a grippingly good way. I would imagine this would be a brilliant ‘neo-Victorian’ novel if you have yet to read Jane Harris or Sarah Waters (in fact I felt this was Emma Donoghue wanting to be Sarah Waters), if you have read them this does seem a tad pedestrian. I liked ‘Room’ a lot so I think maybe I had too high expectations, Donoghue + Victoriana = definite hit,  which might not have helped. It felt a little rushed, like Donoghue had to have a new book out as soon as possible after ‘Room’ and I had a sense it was going to be overly long, so I stopped. Maybe I should try ‘Slammerkin’, which is oddly what I thought this was a reissue of, oops.

Alice by Judith Hermann

I picked this book up from the library based on the cover which I think is stunning. I had no prior knowledge of the author or the subject of the book, as fate had it was announced as one of the longlisted titles for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. My excitement mounted a bit. The prose is beautiful, simple, spare and very haunting so much so I was really torn about giving up on this book, but I was, if I am very honest, getting really bored. ‘Alice’ reads like a selection of short stories in a woman named Alice’s life with which you build a picture of her as a person, and indeed her own life. The times we meet Alice though are always at a pivotal point of loss, be it a friend, ex-lover, relative etc and this gives an overriding feeling of melancholy to the novel, which was apt whilst quite draining to read, but also means in each story you know where this is going, someone is going to die, Alice is going to be there and react… and? And it was the ‘and?’ that was the problem. I didn’t feel this was going anywhere and while I loved the idea of the book I could spot how the author was doing all the background mechanics and yet Alice wasn’t coming fully formed but all those dying around her were. After three of the stories read almost exactly the same I called it quits. I was torn though as the writing was beautiful.

So those are the books that I have started but not finished this year. Only four in three months isn’t that bad actually is it? I hope you like the new feature, I don’t imagine it will be too regular but these posts will be popping up from time to time in the forthcoming months/years. Let me know your thoughts on the feature plus… Which of these have you read and do you agree or disagree with my brief book thoughts? Have you given up on any books lately, let’s make this a confessional, and if so why?

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The Orange Prize Longlist 2012… My Thoughts

Note: There will be a lot of very good reportage on this today in all the broadsheets; I decided to do a layman’s reaction post. You can also see my guessing post here.

So here they are the twenty books that make up this year’s Orange Prize longlist. I was actually up until midnight and so I saw the list appear on The Guardian website. I then decided that if I wrote anything at that time it probably wouldn’t make sense and so I have waited. Anyway, less about my thoughts, for now, here is the list of twenty books that have made the cut…

  • Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg (Quercus) – Swedish; 1st Novel
  • On the Floor by Aifric Campbell (Serpent’s Tail) – Irish; 3rd Novel
  • The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen (The Clerkenwell Press) – American; 4th Novel
  • The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue (Picador) – Irish; 7th Novel
  • Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Serpent’s Tail) – Canadian; 2nd Novel*
  • The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape) – Irish; 5th Novel
  • The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki (Headline Review) – British; 5th Novel
  • Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon (Quercus) – American; 4th Novel
  • Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding (Bloomsbury) – British; 3rd Novel
  • The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) – British; 2nd Novel
  • The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy (Jonathan Cape) – British; 6th Novel*
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Harvill Secker) – American; 1st Novel*
  • The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury) – American; 1st Novel
  • Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick (Atlantic Books) – American; 7th Novel
  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury) – American; 6th Novel*
  • The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard (Alma Books) – British; 2nd Novel
  • Tides of War by Stella Tillyard (Chatto & Windus) – British; 1st Novel
  • The Submission by Amy Waldman (William Heinemann) – American; 1st Novel*

The first two initial thoughts, and I am being very honest here, were how many of them have I read (those are in italics with a link if I finished and reviewed them) followed by how many of them did I guess correctly (those six have a * next to them). My next thought was to jump for joy for both Jane Harris and Ali Smith. At the moment they are my favourites to win, possibly in a tie, ha.

My next thought, and if anyone says they don’t do this then they are big liars, was to think ‘are the judges mad, what about including…’ We all do this with a prize and it is completely natural, if you are passionate about certain books, like ‘The Snow Child’ or ‘The Proof Of Love’ (the books I am the most bemused didn’t make the longlist at all), then you are going to be slightly disheartened that those five judges didn’t put them in and then leads you to feeling a bit non-plussed that they included books you tried but didn’t finish. But let’s not judge the judges shall we.

In this list both Anne Enright and Ann Patchett I tried and failed with, though I know they both have some real fans, some of whom I know and respect, I just don’t quite get them myself. I did say yesterday that I thought they might appear on the list however. Then we have Esi Edugyan who I tried to read for the Man Booker shenanigans last year and didn’t finish but meant to, so now might. Then there is Emma Donoghue which I tried, because it sounded deliciously Victorian (and will actually be in a post next week of ‘unreviews’ as I couldn’t finish it) and which I didn’t think was eligible as I thought it was a re-issued book and not a new one. Where I invented this idea from I have absolutely no idea, but it seems I did.

I then dust the slight mini-sulk off and look at all those I didn’t guess yesterday (the small inner glow about the ones I did helps) and see what I think. There’s a few names I know like Madeline Miller (who I lent a copy to my mother as she is a classicist knowing I would realistically never see it again but did actually quite want it back), Georgina Harding (whose novel ‘The Spy Game’ I really wanted to read and yet didn’t), Roopa Farooki (who in my head has been on this list every year for about the last ten years even though that’s not possible as it’s her fifth novel, this to me says I should read her, she must be good), Francesca Kay and Erin Morgensten (if you haven’t heard about this book where on earth have you been?).

The excitement builds the most with the books I know nothing about. So I open up one of two possible book shopping based websites and look them up, deciding if they are ones I want to read. These were my instant thoughts; don’t judge me on them too much…

  • Karin Altenberg – described as ‘captures a world that disappears in the act of description, and the love, so inescapable and elusive, of the outsiders who try to tame it’ I’m sorry what does that actually mean? Turns out it means a book with boats and sailing in, oh dear, and life on a new settlement in the Hebrides. Bit religious looking. Not sure is my cup of tea.
  • Aifric Campbell – I was tempted by her spooky sounding ‘The Loss Adjustor’ a while back so thought this might be my cup of tea, but it’s about banking. Very current I admit, but maybe not very me.
  • Jaimy Gordon – a book about horses. If you know me well and haven’t fallen upon this post by googling ‘orange prize longlist 2012’ (though hello and welcome if you have, pull up a chair and make a cuppa) books set on boats or books about horses aren’t really me. Could this change this, I don’t know.
  • Cynthia Ozick – I am very excited about this one, I have looked at it in Waterstones on several occasions, the cover had me at hello, and the premise appeals, a failed marriage, leaving 1950’s New York for Paris. Yes, I would like to read this one.
  • Anna Stothard – sounds a bit ‘estranged mother and daughter, mother dies, daughter finds out about the mother she never really knew when on a road trip routing though her mother’s letters from the past’ could be brilliant, could not be.
  • Stella Tillyard – interestingly though the title ‘Tides of War’ put me off, I quite like the sound of a book set in the Regency period and the Spanish Peninsular War because I know very little about that period. A maybe book.

All in all if the Orange Prize Longlist 2012 had a ‘like’ button I would press it. Bear in mind the fact I think pressing a ‘like’ button is one of the laziest ways of complimenting anyone (I could start a rant on this but I won’t, maybe another day) so I shall comment in a little more detail. There are the books I read and loved which I will now be backing all the way and am chuffed to bits made the list. Then there are A.L. Kennedy, Cynthia Ozick, Leah Hager Cohen and Amy Waldman who I come away wanting to read more than I did before, oh and Esi Edugyan and Erin Morgensten are sort of in that group but I have heard so much, it’s almost too much, about both.

Will I be reading the longlist this year? No, but I will be intrigued to see the shortlist next month and if it includes my two favourites then I might just read the lot as I will know the judging panel (of whom apparently only Joanna Trollope read all 143 submissions) are on a wave length with me and my reading tastes. At the moment though, despite some books I loved being on the list there are a couple I have tried and not finished and so I am left pondering the ones I knew nothing about until today; the premises don’t quite do anything for me, but if I see them in a bookshop I might give them a test chapter or two and see how I feel then.

What about your thoughts?  Oh, and Happy International Women’s Day to all my female readers.

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Victorian Based Books…

One of my favourite things to read, which Essie Fox’s ‘The Somnambulist’ reminded me of especially after talking with her about it, is a good Victorian novel and yet weirdly I have seemed to have strayed from them in the last few years. I don’t just mean the originals like the wonderful Wilkie Collins who I have binged on in the past (though I have been considering some of his novels I haven’t yet read and as you will see I have been debating trying Charles Dickens again what with his birthday having come and gone) but also the contemporary novels by authors like Sarah Waters and many more. I did have a brief binge on one after reading Essie’s, which I will be discussing tomorrow, but I think once I have finished of the wonderful letters between Nancy Mitford and a bookshop I think it is time to gorge myself on all things Victoriana. I love the dark atmosphere and sense of mystery that the period brings and it seems perfect at the moment as Britain seems to be having a big freeze. I already have three books lined up for the weekend…

‘The Sealed Letter’ is the only Victorian fiction, though contemporary, I have at the top of the TBR so far. I had to get this from the library as I forgot I had lent it to someone and suddenly fancied it. It will be my second and a half read of any Emma Donoghue, I got half way through her short story collection ‘The Woman Who Gave Birth To Rabbits’ when someone selfishly (joking) ordered it for themselves and so back to the library it went. ‘Room’ is obviously her most famous novel but with ‘Slammerkin’ and others it seems Emma likes this period so I am hoping it is good.

The other two books are non-fiction. ‘The Maul and the Pear Tree; The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811’ by P.D James and T.A. Critchley was been inspired read by the fascinating experience that listening to the audio book of Judith Flanders ‘The Invention of Murder’ is proving to be. In the first several chapters I have listened to the case of the Ratcliffe Highway murders and not only how they were the case of the first real serial killer, but also how they changed the way the police worked. I couldn’t get enough and so pulled out this book dedicated just to that and seeing the wonderful P.D James playing a cold case detective for real, fabulous.

‘The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper’ either the official memoirs of Jack or simply the mad ramblings of James Carnac arrived by surprise the other week. I am one of those many people fascinated by this case because of course no one ever found out who Jack the Ripper was – in the case of James Carnac’s writing it could be that he really was him or that he was a bit mad and wrote a very grisly and almost too knowing novel about Jack. I am going to play detective and try to decide the truth, I have ordered a few Jack the Ripper books to read alongside this one. Does that make me a bit morbid having a grim fascination with it all?

Oh and if you are wondering what I will be reading all these on, check out this reading chair (which the books were photographed on) below, doesn’t it look like a wonderfully modern contemporary version of a Victorian chaise longue? It’s very comfy I have many wonderful hours ahead.

I am now mulling over which classic Victorian novel to dip into at some point too. I have some of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s lesser known works, some more Wilkie Collins (and I believe his biography by Peter Ackroyd is on the way) or do I take the plunge into Dickens? After all Susan Hill makes a compelling case on Dovergreyreader today, do visit. What would you recommend? Are you a fan of books set or written in the Victorian era and which are your favourites? You may inspire me.

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September’s Incomings…

I have to admit I actually had to hunt around the whole house to check that my eyes weren’t deceiving me when it came to putting this month’s incoming books post together. I couldn’t quite believe the two very humble piles of new books that had arrived this month. This doubly hit me when I heard it was ‘Big Book Thursday’ yesterday. No, I had never heard the expression before, which caused guffawing laughter and comments of ‘call yourself a bookish person’ from my family, cheers thanks a lot. Apparently yesterday was the day when all the books for Christmas came out? Sounds like bobbins to me, though it was on Radio 4 apparently.

Anyway back to books that have arrived here, and first lets cover the books from the lovely publishers, note there were five more than this but I am saving them for another two arrivals which are all getting a special post of their own…

  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender – This year I am loving Windmills books, ‘Forgetting Zoe’ by Ray Robinson was ace, if very dark, then there was the wonder of ‘The Borrower’ by Rebecca Makkai. Before Richard and Judy chose this I had been eyeing up this novel, about a girl who can taste the emotions of those who cook the food she eats, since I heard it raved about on Books on the Nightstand. I think this sounds really original so have high hopes.
  • Pure by Julianna Baggot – Yes that book is actually plain bright white. This is a very, very, very advance (unsolicited) copy of an ‘apocolyptic’ book that’s out in February. It sounds intriguing but I can’t imagine I will read it before at least January as I will forget everything about it, but who knows.
  •  Vaclav and Lena by Haley Tanner – The publicist at Windmill was enthusing about this so much when I asked for Aimee Bender’s book I simply couldn’t say no.
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs – This looks wonderfully creepy and comes with Victorian pictures interspersed throughout of ‘freak show’ characters from the olden days, sounds my perfect cup of tea and came all the way from America thanks to Quirk publishing. I think this will be read very, very soon.
  • The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue – I was thinking ‘wow, she wrote this quickly’ when this arrived, apparently this came out a few years ago and is being reissued. It sounds like a wonderful Victorian tale, so possibly a perfect read for the colder darker nights.
  • Collected Ghost Stories by M.R. James – I have a really battered cheap copy of this so I am welcoming its replacement and the nudge for me to finally read these spooky tales.
  • The Sound of Gravity by Joe Simpson – I have to admit I haven’t even seen ‘Touching the Void’ but my family have a copy of the book and the film thankfully as I am interviewing Joe at a solo gig in Waterstones in two weeks so will be having a Joe Simpson binge in advance, I have a feeling I am going to be feeling very chilly and snowbound throughout this binge, so maybe wait till the Indian Summer Manchester is having is over.

Now for the books I have been lent/given or naughtily bought, again I should add I am missing two of these which are going in a post about something else and I will also be buying ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ today by Patrick Hamilton for a book group my friend Joe has started, we are going to be called ‘The Bookaholics with Beards’ and if you don’t have a beard you can’t come in, yes this group was started after one too many drinks but it’s a great book choice from what I have heard from others (and is £3 in Fopp!, what more could you need?). I digress…

  • The Long Exile by Melanie McGrath – After having Melanie/M.J. at Bookmarked I was so enthralled with her tales of the arctic I was desperate to read ‘The Long Exile’ and thanks to her publicist Chloe I am, I have promised to send it back after. Thanks for the loan Chloe.
  • The Game/Locked Rooms by Laurie R. King – I haven’t read the first of these Sherlock spin off’s but so many people have said I would love them that when I saw these pristine for 50p each I snapped them up.
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgensten – Lynne of Dovegreyreader said I needed to pop this up my TBR imminently, well I hadn’t been sent it (I think almost everyone has though, weird) but thankfully Paul Magrs has let me have his. So that’s one to read, though the hype worries me. I am trying to avoid it so the read will be based just on that, the reading.

So that’s it. What do you think? Have you read any of these? Should I get to any sooner than others? What have you had in the last month?

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Reading With Authors #2: Pigeon English – Stephen Kelman; With Naomi Wood

Today we are off via the magic of the internet (and a little bit of imagination) to an author’s house in London, not a million miles from the very streets where today’s book for discussion ‘Pigeon English’ by Stephen Kelman is set. We’ve rung the doorbell, had a nosey around and join the lovely Naomi Wood (and take over her house) for the second in the series of ‘Reading With Authors’.

  

So Naomi, even though I am actually in your house for today’s virtual meeting do make yourself comfortable… tea or coffee? Any biscuits you would like? I brought a box but fear Belinda and I might have eaten all the digestives last week

I am sitting very comfortably, thank you, in my expansive countryside cottage looking over rolling hills. Not really. We are sitting in my ex-council flat in London with the dehumidifier on (making lots of noise; problem with damp.) Please can I have a large double mocha skinny frappe latte? No? Okay. Cup of tea and a fig roll please. That would be ‘hutious’.

‘Advise yourself’ Naomi. I can’t quite remember why it was that we chose this book can you? I know it was one that I had been meaning to read for a while, what was it that had made it a book on your hit list? (And we can be quite smug in saying we chose to discuss this before the Man Booker Longlist was announced…)

I think it’s been a very talked-about book and I already knew a lot about it before I did the Brighton Book Festival with Stephen. I was very intrigued as I’d seen him on the Waterstones’ Eleven list (I always think that sounds like a police roll call) and lots of people were talking about that. Also, what with the riots, it seems timely to be talking about a book that looks at youth violence, poverty, gang culture…

The first thing to ask really is if you enjoyed it?

I did enjoy it: the voice of Harrison was flawless, I thought. You never really broke with that voice, and I was surprised at how funny it was. I thought Harrison was a loveable, good character, full of optimism. His relationship with Poppy, his girlfriend, was just lovely. That said, I was surprised that I wasn’t much emotionally moved. Bad things happen in the novel and, perhaps because of the alacrity with which you read it, and how quickly they’re narrated, I can’t say that I shed a tear or felt much conflicting emotion.  But then maybe I’m an uncaring bastard. Did you?

I sort of did and sort of didn’t all in one. That isn’t to say I thought it was a bad book by any means, it’s just one I couldn’t always get a handle on. It seemed Stephen Kelman had almost too much he wanted to include. The youth led crime of London’s city streets; the past of Harrison’s life in Ghana, the struggle for money and opportunities, there was a lot there and yet…

People always say that’s the problem with first novels, right? That there are always about three books crammed in rather than one clear story. But I actually disagree with you on this one. I actually wanted more rather than less. Specifically, I wanted the detective story much more in the foreground. I loved the idea of a ‘council estate whodunit’. I thought it was going to be much more like A Curious Incident…, in the sense that the main story is propelled by the desire to find the killer, but somehow that always seemed rather secondary to the comic colourful scenes on the periphery: painting Adidas stripes on his trainers, Mr Frampon singing too loudly at church, his fear of Miquita ‘sucking him off’ (Harrison thinks this is a term for ‘deep kissing’). I did enjoy all of this – it gave such colour and immediacy to Harrison’s life as a new immigrant in England – but I wanted more of the detective story, and fewer tangents. Hold on, have I just agreed with you?

I think you might have. I think the book needed to be longer or ‘deeper’ really, so maybe I am agreeing with you? The book opens with a really shocking scene; it’s no spoiler to say a young boy has been knifed to death seemingly for his ‘Chicken Joe’s’ meal deal. I was thinking to myself that this was going to be a hard book to read, and yet it’s very readable, sometimes almost too easy to read and digest. You may of course think I am bonkers saying that…

Yes, I think I agree with that. You get into such an enjoyable gallop with the voice that you forget to see that the countryside is burning, so to speak. And I think that’s a great achievement on the part of Kelman to make us so comfortable with the main narrator’s voice. Your thoughts, please, Mr Savidge, while you pour me another cup of tea?

Oh sorry, I was so into the chat I forgot about tea. Did you just mutter ‘rubbish host’ under your breath… Moving on. I actually wondered if the narrators voice, which I did really enjoy in a lot of respects, being one of a young boy made all the horrific things simpler and yet strangely diluted it all. Did you find this? Did you think the repetition of ‘asweh’, ‘donkey time’, ‘advise yourself’ etc added to the narrative voice or did it detract from it?

The voice, for me, was definitely the best thing about the novel. The whole novel hinges, completely, on the believability of Harrison’s voice. It also hangs on his hawkish (or pigeony?) eye: he sees things with such humour, that, yes, I suppose, sometimes you forget how depressing the council estate is, how rotten it is that his dad and baby sister are still stuck in Ghana and that the family are torn apart. Did the voice dilute the shocking nature of the events? No, I don’t think so. The fact that the boy’s murder was cribbed into everyday life just underlined how common incidents like this are in some communities. That’s sad. Some of the little verbal tics got irritating at times but nothing you can’t ignore (as with the pigeon… more on that later.) I actually liked ‘Advise yourself’. Perhaps I’ll start using it.

Ha, ha, ha. I can see you going around doing that Naomi. I did think the voice diluted it though, it was almost trying to over simplify it all. Maybe I just struggle with children’s narrators? I liked Harrison a lot, as I did the child in Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’, yet I do sometimes wonder if it’s used as a tool to emotionally manipulate people. Harrison’s voice rang true and I enjoyed spending time with him. I just felt it distanced me, rather than made me closer, to the events he was embroiled in. What do you think?

But I can’t see how the narrative could have been told in any other way than how it was presented. That’s the thing: this is a crazy child’s world where all the kids are acting like adults, and where serious adult things happen to children. With the adults strangely absent (or impotent, like the police) it’s the children left to sort it all out. It had to be told from the perspective of someone within the dead boy’s circle. But I know what you mean about child narrators. I find the irony we’re meant to experience, of knowing much more about the child than the child knows, a little frustrating sometimes. It’s always nice after reading books like this to read one from the point of view of a very old person who has an expansive and mutable voice rather than a child narrator who is necessarily curtailed by the limit of their young understanding.

Let’s turn to the ‘whodunit’ aspect of the book. By the way, I think if you liked this one for the detective angle then you would love ‘What Was Lost’ by Catherine O’Flynn. Back to ‘Pigeon English’ though… I did love the idea of Harrison and his friend Dean becoming detectives, that to me was a brilliant aspect of the book, we got inside a few addition characters worlds. That said it never quite fully formed itself as a device or sub-plot for me and I was never very sure I got to know any of the other characters, which I wondered if was the purpose behind it in some way, rather than just playing with the genre.

Yes, I really wanted more of the detective story! More attempts to get their school friends’ DNA, more lists like ‘Signs that people are definitely guilty’ (includes ‘farting too much’ and ‘religious hysteria’)… I felt like it was pretty obvious, really from the beginning, who had killed the boy…

Really? I didn’t. I missed it completely and got sidetracked by the red herring with a member of Harrison’s family…

…and I would have liked more derring-do, intrigue and a ‘whodunit feel to the story. I’d have liked to have found out more about the female characters, such as the sister and the mum, as their voices were quite sidelined in favour of the boys and the gangs. That said, I don’t think there was much space for that.

There is a lot of discussion that this isn’t a literary novel and I must add that I do think this book is in many ways. It combines page turning with the literary in fact. I don’t understand all the hoo-ha being made about it being on the Man Booker Longlist do you?

Pass me a fig roll before I politely disagree with you. I’m not crazily concerned with it being on the Booker list, but I do think the Booker is the only place for really, really literary work, and I don’t think this is, and I can’t even say why. It’s not the subject matter, or the way it’s related, or the child’s point of view… it’s not the fact there aren’t long ‘literary’ words in it: I know none of this is tantamount to making something ‘literary’. Perhaps it’s just because I didn’t come away with the feeling that I’d been changed, in a small but important way, by reading the book. I’ve just finished Edward St Aubyn’s Some Hope trilogy, and after reading that I had to go away and have a good think. I didn’t feel like that in this case, which I’m not particularly concerned with, because I enjoyed reading it and I read it really quickly, and I laughed quite a lot.

I think you might have hit the nail on the head and succinctly described my issue with the book. I enjoyed it a lot, but it didn’t have the impact I was expecting, it didn’t change my views on the world. Without reviewing the book, which I will do separately at some point, I think we can say that with everything that has been going on in the UK with riots and the disillusionment/anarchy with young gangs that this is a most timely book. I thought in that sense actually this book would be great for a young adult readership as well as an adult readership. 

Yes, me too. I recommended Pigeon English to a school-teacher friend and he absolutely got it in a way that I think is because of his proximity to children of that age. I think it could definitely work as a YA novel too: teens could easily read this, probably understand all the slang quicker than us, and really get on with Harrison’s voice. I think a lot of teens would love it. That’s another thing I liked about it: it was so, so current, and it’s not often you get to read a book set very much now, in voices that are familiar to us.

Now, I have to bring it up… that ruddy talking pigeon. What was all that about? I think this is what maybe spoiled the book a little for me. I didn’t see the need. Am I just a miserable old cross patch?

Eh. Can I have another fig roll? I might talk with my mouthful to make this sound less shouty: I COULDN’T SEE WHY YOU NEEDED A TALKING PIGEON! I didn’t think it added anything, and, more than that, I thought it was pretty irritating: you switch from running around the streets looking for criminals to this high-minded, day-dreamy, bookish voice where the choice of language completely changes. However. It’s only a paragraph here and there, and is very easily ignored. It didn’t spoil it for me. Perhaps you are a miserable old cross patch…

I am tempted to launch some fig roll missiles at you for that comment Naomi, be warned. Ha! So would you recommend this book to a friend or to a book group? I actually think this would make a great book for discussion, I think it’s quite possibly a bookish equivalent of marmite…

Very marmitey. If they’re someone who loves funny books with a strong voice, and a page-turner too, then yes. And I would recommend this, definitely, to any teenager living in any British city. But if they’re more sort of bookish and, yes, probably more conservative in their tastes, then maybe not. I’m really glad I read it because my taste is shamefully narrow (all the authors I like are all white guys above the age of 50 with an eye on sort of existential melancholia, and I realise the limits of reading only about one type of experience about one type of person) and this book took me totally out of that zone. Would you?

I would, and I think in particular I would recommend that this is a book that adults who love to read should read with any teenage children they have. I will be recommending it to my mother in particular who works in a school where children come from these sorts of backgrounds and I think it would be a great novel for them to talk about. I do think that the publishers have missed a trick with that one. I also think, despite my own slight issues with it, people need to stop crouching about this book so much, for Harrison’s narration alone. I will also be very interested to see what Kelman comes up with next. Right, we best open the discussion up to everyone else hadn’t we…?

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Filed under Naomi Wood, Reading With Authors 2011, Stephen Kelman