Tag Archives: Gerbrand Bakker

Books of 2013; Part I

With two days of 2013 to go, I thought it was time to share my books of the year. In the tradition I have set over the last few years, and my inability to whittle books down as favourites, there will be two posts of my books of the year. Today it is the books that were published before 2013 and tomorrow the ones that were published for the first time in the UK this year. Interestingly today’s list has proved so much easier than tomorrows as it seems I didn’t really read many books published before 2013 – and when I did only a few of them blew me away, those ones were…

10. Chocolat – Joanne Harris

I have to say that even though I had seen the film, though it has been a while, ‘Chocolat’ as a book was a whole lot darker and less twee than I thought it would be before picking it up. One of the many things that I admired so much about it was that under the tale of outsiders coming to a place, and quietly causing mayhem, there was the huge theme of people’s individuality and that being different should be celebrated and not ostracised, yet ‘Chocolat’ is also cleverly not a book that smacks you over the head with a moralistic tone.

9. The Detour – Gerbrand Bakker

‘The Detour’ won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year and having read it you can easily see why. Bakker creates a story that is subtle and slow burning yet all at once brimming with a sense of mystery and menace. It is also a book that will linger on with the reader long after you have read it and, if you are like me, long after it devastates you with both its prose and most importantly its story. A much recommended book.

8. The Ministry of Fear – Graham Greene

Greene shows what a master he is not only of atmosphere (war torn and spy strewn London) but of writing a book which takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions as much as it does thrills. Some of the book I found profoundly moving, both the descriptions of the destruction the war inflicted and also in an element I can’t explain here for fear of spoilers. Greene also made me laugh out loud on several occasions which, with all the tension and twists, proved much needed and added a great contrast of light amongst the dark.

7. Riotous Assembly – Tom Sharpe

The more I have thought about Riotous Assembly, the more impressed I have been left by it. The humour gets you through some of the tough bits, some of the bits that people would normally find hard to read and digest palatable by their humour yet equally devastating, if not more so, when the reader realizes the truth in it. So yet there maybe the boobies (and more) and bullets (and more) in it that I was expecting, but the way in which they are used is both titillating and thought provoking.

6. The Long Falling – Keith Ridgway

If I had a little bit of a literary crush on Ridgway’s writing after reading ‘Hawthorn and Child’ last year, I now have something of a full on crush on it from reading ‘The Long Falling’. It shocked me from the first chapter which slowly meanders before a sudden twist, which happens a lot in this book actually, yet unlike some books that first amazing chapter is bettered as the book goes on and for all these reasons I strongly urge you to give it a read. I loved it, if love is the right word? I was also thrilled that this was as brilliant as the previous Ridgway I read yet a completely different book in a completely different style.

5. Good Evening Mrs Craven; The Wartime Stories – Mollie Panter Downes

I think Mollie Panter-Downes writing is astounding. I really remember liking it last time but this time I loved it. There are the wonderful, often rather quirky, characters some of whom, like Mrs Ramsey, Mrs Peters and Mrs Twistle, keep returning in and out of the stories which helps build the consistency of the world Panter-Downes describes as they run from 1939 to 1944, the tone changing slightly as the book goes on. She can bring a character to life in just a mere sentence or two and the brevity of her tales and how much they make your mind create is quite astounding.

4. The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing

Lessing’s writing is unflinchingly brilliant. As I mentioned about the sense of menace and oppression is wonderfully evoked as the landscape and weather match the atmosphere of impending doom the book has and also Mary’s mental state. Mary is also an incredible creation, one of the most complex characters I have read. She is never completely likeable nor dislikeable, yet you find yourself fascinated by a woman who in turns goes from victim to venomous, from independent to weak, from sane to crazy, from racist to not and back again. It is confronting and equally compelling and highlights the society at the time and the conundrum and conflict a country and its society found itself in and in some ways, shockingly, still does.

3.Mariana – Monica Dickens

If someone had told me this is what the book was going to be about before I started I might have been inclined to think that this book really wouldn’t be for me. Yet I loved every single page of it and was completely lost in Mary’s life. Part of that was to do with the character of Mary that Monica creates, she isn’t the picture perfect heroine at all, she can be moody, ungainly and awkward, a little self centred on occasion but she is always likeable, her faults making her more endearing even when she can be rather infuriating. Part of it was also all the characters around her, I want to list them all but there are so many it would be madness, some of them delightful, some spiteful but all of them drawn vividly and Monica Dickens has a wonderful way of introducing a new character with the simplest of paragraphs which instantly sums them up. All of these characters are part of the many things that make you go on reading ‘Mariana’, every page or two someone new lies in store.

2. HHhH – Laurent Binet

I don’t think I have learnt so much about World War II from a book I have read in all my 31, nearly 32, years. Considering that I studied it for about five years in my history lessons at school this is quite something. I had no idea about some of the smaller but utterly fascinating facts behind this time period; that the Hitler wanted authors such as Aldous Huxley, Rebecca West, HG Wells and Virginia Woolf; that the Nazi’s built their own brothel (Kitty’s Salon) to film other Nazi’s to see if they were true to the regime or not. Nor did I know of some of the utterly horrific things, like what an ineffectual plonker Chamberlain was, the plans for Nazi attack cells in all the cities all over the UK and the horrendous atrocities such as Grandmothers Gully in Kiev.

1. The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

… there is very little doubt in my mind that ‘The House of Mirth’ is an absolute masterpiece and could easily be one of my favourite books. I loved Wharton’s prose, her humour and the fact she did completely the opposite of what I was expecting with Lily’s story which alas I can’t discuss in detail for I would completely spoil it for you if you have yet to read it – if that is the case you must go and get it now. Lily Bart walked fully off the page for me and I found myself thinking about her a lot when I wasn’t reading the book. Reading it is an experience, and I don’t say that often. One thing is for sure, I will not be forgetting the tale of Lily Bart for quite some time and I believe I will be returning to it again and again in the years to come.

So that is the first of my selection of books of 2013. I have only taken a small quote from my thoughts on each book, to find out more click on the link to each book. Which of these have you read and what did you think? I have realised I need to get into more of the books from the past and less of the shiny new ones, but that is for discussion more in the New Year. Any other books by these authors that you would recommend I read in 2014?

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The Detour – Gerbrand Bakker

I promised you a detour today after our wanderings around Amsterdam yesterday (metaphorically) as we continue to ‘go Dutch’ this week. ‘The Detour’ by Gerbrand Bakker, who aptly lives in Amsterdam, is a novel that I have been meaning to read ever since I saw William review it (much better than I am about to the swine) and the premise immediately caught my attention, it has only taken me a year and a half to get around to it. What appealed to me at the time was that it was a tale of an outsider who moves into the rural unknown and there is something I really like about books set on farms in the middle of nowhere, or places on the periphery of a village or in a rural setting as well as loving books about outsiders. Combine the two and you are going to get a book that I will most definitely want to read, at some point, if only there were a guide to books of such ilk.

Vintage Books, 2013, paperback, 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

We all know what it is like to need to escape from our lives, even if we might never actually do it at some point I am sure we have all thought about it to varying extremes. Emilie has thought about it and then acted on it as she has left her life, husband, family and job, behind in Amsterdam and rented a remote farm in rural Wales, somewhere in Snowdonia to be precise. Emilie, as we read on, seems to be hiding. She has no interest in the nearest villagers (wisely in some cases) and when a young boy injures himself and looks for a bit of shelter she couldn’t be more resistant to it if she tried. The question we as the reader want to know is why Emilie has done this. Slowly (and very subtly) but surely Bakker tells us.

It is incredibly difficult to say too much more without spoiling what is a beautifully crafted and delivered slow burning and subtle novel with a sense of mystery at its heart. It is one of those books that very quietly takes you by the hand and slowly but surely grips you as you go on.

What I found very interesting was the way that Bakker gives Emilie and her situation a sense of dual mystery – I don’t mean mystery in a murder mystery way, she is just an enigma. The first layer is, of course, why on earth Emilie has left Amsterdam for this hidden away life, the second mystery though is Emilie herself because as the novel progresses she, and of course Bakker, hold all the details of her life as close to her chest as possible. Emilie is a mystery within the mystery if you know what I mean.

“For a few nights now the rushing stream no longer calmed her: noises – creaking boards, the shuffling of what she hoped were small animals, and an almost unbearably plaintive cry from the woods – kept her awake, and awake she started thinking. She got wound up again, defiant and angry.”

As I was reading on, with this woman who is almost a recluse and a past that eluded me, I was reminded of Evie Wyld’s latest (and stunning) novel ‘All The Birds, Singing’. Yet whilst both are equally stunning in their atmosphere and dark sense of menace they take their novels in very different directions, even though I have just realised that they both have the plot twist of a stranger moving in. Whist Wyld alternates with the present and then the past (going backwards), Bakker alternates between the present for Emilie and also with her husband back in Amsterdam as her disappearance, which he wasn’t so surprised about, starts to nag at him and he decides to look for her and in doing so uncovers more of Emilie’s life including one strand that I never saw coming and was a huge impact in the novel.

There I will stop with the plot, and indeed the comparisons to Wyld (which I couldn’t not have popped in this post as I have read them within a relatively short space of one another) apart from the fact that it too could be one of my books of the year, because I wouldn’t want to spoil anything for anyone. Suffice to say that the book surprised me, especially with its subtle nature which I admired it all the more for. In terms of a book set in the middle of nowhere, and a winter in Snowdonia is painted vividly for the reader, about outsiders and the grind of rural life I couldn’t have asked for more.

Snowdonia in winter

‘The Detour’ won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year and having read it you can easily see why. Bakker creates a story that is subtle and slow burning yet all at once brimming with a sense of mystery and menace. It is also a book that will linger on with the reader long after you have read it and, if you are like me, long after it devastates you with both its prose and most importantly its story. A much recommended book.

Have any of you read ‘The Twin’ by Bakker? As I am desperate to read it now but am slightly worried that this being a later book it might be more accomplished? Is that a bad/lazy assumption to make? I tell you what though, it is books like this that remind me I need to be a bit more like (the legend that is) Stu of WinstonsDad Blog and read much, much more translated fiction.

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Going Off The Beaten (Bookish) Path…

I am going to be heading off on a bit of a bookish adventure over the next few weeks and months I have decided. Having done less reading and more thinking recently, I decided that Savidge Reads needs to change its trajectory. When I started this blog five, very nearly six, years ago I started it as a diary of the books I was reading so I didn’t bore so many of my friends about books they really didn’t give a toss about – little did I know what a wonderful world of bookish friends it would earn me online and in the flesh all these years later! Anyway enough of all about you, back to me. *Cough* When I started these bookish thoughts and notes I had no real bookish direction. I would randomly read books that, if I am really honest, I knew very little about unless I knew the author already, liked the cover or the bookshop recommended it.

I had no idea of all the book prizes (ironic now I have co-founded one) and really didn’t know what the latest bookish buzz was, what a heathen! I just wanted to read good books, ones that simply appealed to me at that moment. I didn’t have a TBR that needed several rooms of shelves to house it, I simply went by instinct. I wasn’t aware of the big books on the periphery or any hype, nor was I part of the literary world really. Whilst I guess I am now through work, this blog and podcasts and it is all lovely and I love it, I do think it is time for me to have a blogger’s kind of GAP year and do some travelling off the beaten bookish path.

Pathways 1

This I have just realised all sounds rather final. It honestly isn’t, I can confirm that Savidge Reads is not going to disappear for a year. It might just mean I start talking about much more random books than I have been. This of course might mean lots of you decide you don’t want to read on, I hope not but if that is the case fair enough. Yet I personally am becoming a bigger fan of blogs that tell me about books I might not have heard of in the review pages, on prize shortlists or published by the latest ‘literary darling’ – and there are bloody loads of books out there that fit that category.

I think it was the Fiction Uncovered list that inspired this. Eight books, one of which I had read and the others heard about a little, that sound really intriguing and I am thrilled to have been recommended after all that is how I first read one of my favourite books, which I probably don’t need to tell you all about (but sod it my blog my rules) so I will, ‘The Proof of Love’ by Catherine Hall. Does it sound grand to say I would like to do my bit for those books too? I have already been scanning my shelves for copies of books publishers have sent that fit into that description. I am also planning on reading most of the Fiction Uncovered books which may seem ironic I suppose after all I say above, but I am a contrary Mary what can I say? Ha!

Speaking of irony… I have looked at what is currently residing on my bedside table and those books don’t, initially, reflect my new found state of mine. Let me explain them though if you will! I have just finished ‘A Constellation of Vital Phenomena’ by Anthony  Marra, which the lovely Michael Kindness raved about on Books on the Nightstand has been raving about so I decided I wanted to read it before the hype goes bananas, which I think it will as it is amazing. I have since started the new Evie Wyld novel ‘All The Birds, Singing’ but that is because her debut blew me away and I would have read it regardless of the buzz of her Granta listing and the reviews its getting (and the fact I asked her nicely to come on You Wrote The Book and she said yes). There is also an advance proof of a newish favourite author Niccolo Ammaniti which I am desperate to read and tell you about before everyone else does, ha! Then, below Niccolo, is ‘World War Z’, now seriously how often do I read books about Zombies, erm hardly at all if ever. It is a ‘new to me but known by pretty much everyone else’ book and a challenge, plus couldn’t be more removed from the previous titles. I am waffling now aren’t I?

Basically I am going to be doing the reading equivalent of interrailing or back packing, ‘bookpacking’ if you will. Along the way there might be the odd reading equivalent of treating myself to a regular hotel along the way, in this case The Persephone Project, Readers Book Group of prize winning novel that just takes my fancy (like ‘The Detour’ by Gerbrand Bakker currently is) if you will. I already have a book waiting in the wings to talk about tomorrow; I just hope you will join me on this random adventure, direction and destination unknown.

P.S Sorry this post is so late I started writing it hours ago but we have had Oscar bring in a baby Blue Tit (now called Bertie) who I have decided to rescue and the drama of it all took over.

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Novel Insights on Savidge Reads #2: Reading Apathy Strikes

A few months ago I was a little bit gutted when the lovely Polly of Novel Insights decided that she wanted to give up blogging, especially seeing as I nagged and nagged and nagged for her to start one in the first place – can you tell I am not quite over it yet? Anyway I felt the blogosphere would miss Polly’s ‘novel insights’ into the books she has been reading and so I have bribed her (the things I know after twenty seven years being friends) to come and do a monthly post on Savidge Reads of the books she has been reading and rather enjoying. Well Polly has been a bit rubbish and not bothered for a few months (excuses about weddings, new jobs, looking for a house, training for some charity thing, etc, etc) but now, bloody finally, she has come crawling back to share some of her bookish thoughts over the last *cough* three months.

img_5742-fixedWell as I start typing this post I am wondering whether Mr Savidge has decided to disown me or whatever the blogging equivalent is! So if you are reading this then I have hopefully been forgiven for being tardy in the extreme with my second guest post on Savidge Reads. (She thinks she has been forgiven, dear readers, she forgets I am in charge of her hen weekend!)

Being completely honest, I am not sure that ‘Novel Insights’ is an appropriate pseudonym for me at the moment. I am definitely experiencing a kind of reading apathy. The symptoms for a book lover like myself are worrying, but the cause is clear. At the moment I am planning a wedding, in the process of finding a home to buy and six months into a rewarding but demanding job. Oh, and silly me signed up to do a 12 mile gruelling obstacle course called Tough Mudder, which took place this weekend just passed (involving lots of running, mud ice etc), so I have been training for that too.

All of these things are both exciting and major life events and I’m not sure how I am going to return to a normal speed of activity once this year is over. I am extremely grateful for my good fortune but none of this leaves much time for reading. I did go to a very enjoyable Penguin Bloggers event with Simon a few weeks ago and the wonderful Foyles and I enjoyed listening to the author’s readings, but have to admit that my mind was still in several different places and it wasn’t an immersive experience for me. I did take away copies of those that sounded promising though so perhaps over the next few weeks/months I will flick through those and see if there is anything I fancy.

Having said all of this, I have read a small handful of really excellent books. Anyone who is in Riverside Readers with me will recognise that three out of five of them are book group choices! I have mixed feelings about this as I’m sure most book group members do at some point, because when you are not reading as much as you would like, it can feel as if you are only reading books selected by others. On the other hand, without it perhaps I would have read much less and two of my favourites of this year are book group choices…

‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey swept me away to Alaska, with a mix of magic, human struggle and the feeling of a raw frontier experience that reminded me of the Laura Ingalls Wilder novels that I used to read as a kid. My Uncle and Auntie sent me The Little House in the Big Woods and then each subsequent book (some may remember The Little House on the Prairie TV show that was based on the most famous in the series). It is a beautifully conceived novel, with a moving plot line and charming characters and I would recommend it to anyone to read.

‘Under the Skin’ by Michael Faber (who also wrote The Crimson Petal and the White), is probably the most original and surprising novel that I have ever read. I dare not say anything more about it for fear of ruining the reading experience for others, except to say that it is a fascinating piece of literature. It is also apparently being made into a film with Scarlett Johanssen, which I am a little dubious about.

I chose the infamous ‘The Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel to read, when I went out to meet my photographer fiancé who was travelling in India and Philippines. I spent a wonderful week with him on a little Philippine island called Boracay and dipped into this book now and then. I bought The Life of Pi partly because I was looking for reading inspiration and saw it was 20p (Simon tuts VERY loudly in the background) and also because I always thought that I should get around to reading it. I became quite involved in the story and genuinely wanted to find out what would happen to the hero but I found his narrative voice to be quite superior sounding which irritated me at times. Overall, it was an excellent read and was left pondering at the end, which I liked.

  

I raced through Val McDermid’s ‘Wire in the Blood’. I am proud owner of a signed copy, which I procured at an event that Savidge Reads hosted in Manchester Waterstones. I thought the plot line was totally ace and the villain, a monster almost on a par with Hannibal Lecter.

The last book that I finished was ‘The Twin’, by Gerbrand Bakker, also chosen by Armen for our book group. I won’t talk about it as we haven’t discussed it yet, and somehow I don’t think that’s the done thing! It was the kind of book that puts one in a sombre, contemplative sort of mood. I can’t wait to discuss it.

 

So, I suppose it hasn’t exactly been a complete reading drought, but when I went to my shelves the last time to choose my next book, I didn’t feel exactly enthusiastic. Perhaps this is because I still have a stack of books from when I was blogging or perhaps it’s because I keep thinking I should read my piled-high work emails on my commute instead of taking a more vicarious pleasure in reading a novel.

One thing that I will say is that it has been therapeutic writing all of this down, and perhaps one of you kind people might suggest a book that might deliver the reading rush that I am looking for?

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