Tag Archives: Helen Macdonald

Savidge Reads’ Books of 2015 Part One…

So we have hit the penultimate day of 2015, where does the time go? Back by popular demand (well David kindly asked me) is the first of my two lists of the books that I loved most in 2015. Today’s selection for your delectation are the books that I have loved the most this year that were actually published originally before 2015 (yes, even the ones that came out in paperback in 2015 but were in hardback before then) which means some classics have given way to more modern books but this really reflects my tastes in general. More on that another time though. Without further waffle or ado, here are the first twelve books I really, really, really loved in 2015; you can click on the titles to go to my full reviews, with one exception…

11.

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2015 has been a year that has seen me devour and enjoy more graphic novels and memoirs than ever before and I have loved it. Undoubtedly that love was started this year with The Encyclopaedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg which combines history, myths and fairytales (with a slightly wonky twist) to create a wonderful visual world of Vikings, giants, gods, eskimo’s and more and celebrates the marvels of great stories and wonderful storytelling. A delight from start to finish.

10 (=).

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If you’d told me back at the start of 2015 that one of my books of the year would involve giant mutant preying grasshoppers /praying mantises then I would have laughed in your face. This would have been a) cruel and b) completely wrong. Grasshopper Jungle is a thrilling, gripping and entertaining rollercoaster of a read that looks at love, sexuality, friendship and how to survive if mutant killer insects who only want to breed and eat take over the world. What more could you ask for?

10 (=).

From the off, and indeed throughout, the world in Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours is, to be frank, pretty f***ed up. (I honestly tried quite hard to not use ‘the f bomb’ but it is the only word that seems apt.) Girls are now bred, yes bred, for three reasons. They can become a companion to the men in society who can afford it and have babies, which will only be boys as these girls have been bred to be breeders of the male line; they can become a concubine, and have sex (with no babies) with all the men in society who can afford it; or they can become chastity’s and shave their heads, wear black gowns and raise more manufactured young girls to keep the cycle ticking along. See, I told you, f***ed up, and that is only the beginning. I have a feeling Louise O’Neill is one of those authors whose careers we are just going to watch grow and grow and grow. Atwood, watch out, ha!

9.

Before I read it, I had some really odd preconceived ideas about H. G. Well’s The Invisible Man. First up I thought that it was a tome of some several hundred pages, wrong, it is a novella. Secondly I thought that it was set in the 1970’s (impossible as it was written in 1897) and involved some old man in a mackintosh who smoked, wrong, that is just something I naively surmised from an old 70’s edition of the book my mother had on her shelves. Thirdly I didn’t think I would enjoy it in any way shape or form, so wrong. What I got was an incredibly dark and sinister novel that suddenly becomes both incredibly moving and incredibly disturbing as you read on. Naturally with that in mind, I absolutely loved this book.

8.

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Imagine if Thomas Hardy and Cormac McCarthy had a bastard lovechild… He would be Benjamin Myers in my humble opinion and I think Beastings testifies that notion. I almost don’t feel I need tos say more, but I will. We know it is raining, we know that a young woman has fled the house she was living in with a baby that isn’t hers, we also have the sense that both her and the baby were in danger. We soon learn that she is being followed, although hounded/stalked sounds more sinisterly appropriate, and is heading for a secret island somewhere off the coast. Because on an island in the ocean no-one can sneak up on you. The question is if she can get through the forests and mountains of Cumbria and head to the ocean without being caught and without hardly any supplies. And with that, we are off…

7.

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I only recently devoured Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None yet it shot straight into my top ten without hesitation. Ten strangers are sent to an island under false pretenses, they are soon all accused of murder or implicated in a death, then they start to die one by one following the pattern of an old nursery rhyme. The premise is impossible, yet as Agatha Christie’s fantastic novel unfolds we soon come to learn that anything is possible, no matter how chilling or unbelievable it might first appear. An utterly stupendous thriller, once you have read it you understand why it is the biggest selling murder mystery in the world, ever.

6.

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Sometimes all I want as a reader is a bloody good story. I want a twisting plot, characters that walk of the page and that you love, hate or preferably a bit of both. I want mystery and intrigue. I want to be taken to a world I know nothing about and get lost in it and its entire atmosphere. I can be a right demanding so and so however Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist delivered all this to me in abundance as it took me on a gothic journey with Nella as she walked onto the threshold of Brant house in Amsterdam 1686.

5.

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2015 has also been a year where memoirs have been a hit, in several cases centring around grief and this is one of those. H is for Hawk is an incredibly special kind of read, which all the above culminates towards, simply put it is a generously open, honest and brutal yet beautiful book. Helen Macdonald takes us completely into her life and her world at a time when she was at her most broken and vulnerable and shares that with us in all its technicolour splendour of emotions. You will laugh, you will cry and you will have felt incredibly privileged to have spent time in the company of Helen, Mabel the Goshawk and the writer T.H. White.

4.

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Until this year I had never read a word of Patricia Highsmith’s, well don’t I feel a fool after reading this. Deep Water is one of the most entertaining, snarky, camply dark, vicious and twisted psychological thrillers I have read. It is also one of the most unusual as the reader watches a sociopath come to the fore from their normally meek mild mannered self… and we egg him on and like him, even understanding him oddly, the whole time. It is a fascinating insight into the mind of a killer, if this is a prime example of what Highsmith fondly described as “my psychopath heroes”, I can’t wait to meet the rest.

3.

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It seems that 2015 was the year of insects in fiction for me, this time with bees and heaven forefend ones that talk. From this alone I should have had some kind of anaphylactic shock to this book (see what I did there) however I was completely won over by the story of Flora as she works her way through and up the hive in Laline Paull’s wondrous debut The Bees. I have been talking about this book ever since and also been boring as many people as possible with the fascinating facts I learnt about these winged beings as I read. A book which for me had it all; brilliant writing, fantastic pace, fantastic facts and a real heart looking at class, religion and women’s rights.

2.

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Now then, this is the book I have yet to review and yet is a book which took over my life as I was enravelled in the whole life of another man, Logan Mountstuart. A man which I am still struggling to believe isn’t real as his diaries from 1923 – 1998, which make up William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, take us through school romps, to wild affairs, marriages, more affairs, wars and gossip with famous people through the decades and give us not only a vivid encounter with the recent history of Britain and its endeavours (which take us all over the world) but celebrate the lives of us strange folk and the power of the pen and the written word. Ruddy marvellous and a complete and utter nightmare to review hence why I haven’t managed as yet. You can hear me talking about it here though.

1.

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I talked about book tingles earlier in the year, that wonderful feeling you get when you read a book and the words just wash over you and you know everything in this book in front of you is going to encapsulate everything you love about reading. Carys Davies’ The Redemption of Galen Pike had that for me within paragraphs of it’s very first story. In this collection we are taken to places all over the world, to all walks of life and never given the story we expect in the beginning but something so much more; be it funny, dark or magical. It was a book that arrived completely new to me, no hype or anything and completely bowled me over. I adore this book with all my heart, it brought joy to my beardy face for the whole time I read it.

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So there we are the first half of my books for the year. I do feel like I should give some honourable mentions to Susan Barker’s The Incarnations, Susan Hill’s I’m The King of the Castle and Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart, but that will be deemed as cheating. Let me know your thoughts on those in my first list you have read and do pop and see my next list tomorrow. What have been some of your books of 2015?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Books of 2015, Random Savidgeness

H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

As the end of 2015 beckons I start to think of all those ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’ reads I was so sure, or insistent, that I would get to this year and haven’t and think ‘ooh I must read that at the beginning of next year’. I am not sure how realistic this will be as one of the books which I wanted to read the most in 2014 I only got around to in the second half of this year. That book is H is for Hawk which was one of the books of last year and became something of a sensation. I have to admit that I was slightly worried it wouldn’t live up to the praise from here there and everywhere, however it completely exceeded everything that I could imagine it would achieve.

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Vintage Books, 2014, hardback, memoir, 302 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

When Helen Macdonald learns that her father has died, her world naturally implodes. Grief can affect us in so many ways that it is never the same for any of us, yet in what seems a initially rather extreme reaction to her bereavement Helen sets out to get a hawk, Mabel, to train to distract herself from the world of people and emotional pain that surround her. Yet we learn this is not such a rash decision for Helen has grown up with a huge love of birds (particularly birds of prey) and as we read on we also discover how other people have used the keeping, taming and training of birds as ways to deal with the outside world, one being the author T.H White.

Now I have to admit if I had been sold this book as being about goshawk training, grief and T.H. White, an author who I have never read, I would probably have not have read it. In fact this might have been what stopped me from reading a proof when one arrived eons ago, well how stupid was I? So, if on the off chance you are one of the few people who haven’t yet read it you might feel the same, think again because this is a book that will affect you on so many levels you will be left slightly bamboozled as to why you don’t only read books about goshawk training, grief and T.H. White. Yes, I love it that much; it hooked me in, gripped me and then broke me along the way – something I have realised I really rather like in books.

I look. There it is. I feel it. The insistent pull to the heart that the hawk brings, that very old longing of mine to possess the hawk’s eye. To live the safe and solitary life; to look down on the world from a height and keep it there. To be the watcher; invulnerable, detached, complete. My eyes fill with water. Here I am, I think. And I do not think I am safe.

I found H is for Hawk fascinating and gripping in all of its three strands. Firstly I love birds and indeed whilst I didn’t have a bird of prey as a child the neighbours did (they owned Riber Castle Zoo and when they left they took the bald eagle with them) and I did have a pet duck called Rapunzel, not quite the Red Kite I would have dreamed of but she was amazing and probably actually a bit better as she was cuddly and flew to your feet, not your arm, when you called her. So to read about the world of falconry and taming birds of prey I found fascinating. I also love the way in which Helen writes about it, there is no textbook babble here just pure enthusiasm and passion for the art and the birds.

Without sounding like a weirdo (or more of one) I find books about other people’s grief incredibly cathartic. Not because I think ‘oh phew someone is having it worse than me’ (for the record that would be weird) but because having gone through grief it is a relief/help to hear that other people have gone through all the feelings you have, albeit in a different way, plus many you haven’t but more of all that you weren’t completely batshit crazy when you went through them. I didn’t go out and get a goshawk, though I pondered a pug, I did completely cut off the people I loved from my life and wake up and cry every day. Reading a raw, brave and unflattering account of grief like Helen’s, and indeed Cathy’s earlier this year, makes you feel less alone. This is important. This will also call out to anyone whether they have been bereaved or not because we all know heartbreak, we all know love, we all know loss.

Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.

I have to admit I didn’t think that the elements of T.H. White’s story would grip me though. And they bloody well did, without me having ever read any of his books which I now want to go and read. The story of a man who feels a complete outsider because of his sexuality and all that it stands for and alludes to is quite a heartbreaking one (have a hanky at the ready with this book). As we read on the story as White gets his bird becomes as gripping as the trials and tribulations with Helen and Mabel, yet with different outcomes, though I don’t want to give anything away.

Again here I felt like the book chimed with me again having myself gone through all that questioning, fear and misunderstanding of myself as I came to terms with my sexuality. Here Helen’s writing shows utter empathy, complete understanding and an ability to conjure and channel these feelings. This book just resonated more and more with me which is always quite a magical thing when it happens with a book. I should say that all this will grip any reader regardless of whether they have owned birds, been bereaved or have come to terms with sexuality.

Many people have said that Mabel is the star of H is for Hawk and while she is indeed an incredibly captivating character, she would not be so in the hands of any old author. It is Helen’s writing that makes her so and her writing is just wonderful. Mabel (and I apologise for this) flies off the page, as does every element of this book. I felt I was almost a ghost in the room watching the two of them as Helen describes her time taming and befriending, because it is a respectful friendship, Mabel as well as feeling the joy of watching Helen using Mabel as her view of the world, as she becomes a goshawk herself mentally, and then how Mabel’s view of humans and Helen herself helps her to comes to terms with things, even if she might not credit herself for it. Writing from the heart is not easy to come by, captivating and beautiful writing from the heart even less so, the latter is how Helen Macdonald writes and I thank her for sharing it, and her story, with us.

The feathers down her front are the colour of sunned newsprint, of tea-stained paper, and each is marked darkly towards its tip with a leaf-bladed spearhead, so from her throat to her feet she is patterned with a shower of falling raindrops. Her wings are the colour of stained oak, their covert feathers edged in the palest teak, barred flight-feathers folded quietly beneath. And there’s a strange grey tint to her that is felt, rather than seen, a kind of silvery light like a rainy sky reflected from the surface of a river. She looks new. Looks as if the world cannot touch her. As if everything that exists and is observed rolls off like drops of water from her oiled and close-packed feathers. And the more I sit with her, the more I marvel at how reptilian she is. The lucency of her pale, round eyes. The waxy yellow skin about her Bakerlite-black beak. The way she snakes her small head from side to side to focus on distant objects. Half the time she seems as alien as a snake, a thing hammered of metal and scales and glass.

I could enthuse even more, I will instead round off my thoughts. H is for Hawk is an incredibly special kind of read, which all the above culminates towards, simply put it is a generously open, honest and brutal yet beautiful book. Helen Macdonald takes us completely into her life and her world at a time when she was at her most broken and vulnerable and shares that with us in all its technicolour splendour of emotions. When I finished reading it I couldn’t help feeling that Helen’s father, Mabel (if birds could read) and T.H. White would have been both deeply honoured and immensely proud to live on forever in such a wonderful book. Yes, I too think that H is for Hawk is outstandingly good; one of everyone’s books in 2014 and certainly one of mine in 2015.

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She can draw ducks, there is no end to this woman’s talents!

If you would like to hear more about H is for Hawk from the authors mouth, you can listen to an episode of You Wrote The Book where Helen and I talk about the book, birds and much more in a cafe (so excuse some of the background noise) here. If you haven’t read the book already then I cannot recommend it enough, go and buy it and spend the Christmas holidays with it I beg you. If you have read H is for Hawk I would love your thoughts on it, as with any book we’ve both read.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Helen Macdonald, Review, Vintage Books

The Nature Of, Erm, Nature Writing

I think I have mentioned in the past my love for books set in the countryside, particularly ones set in the British countryside. This isn’t patriotism or xenophobia because chuck me into the Brazilian jungle, drop me on the islands of Sweden or the African plains and I am more than happy with the right book and the right writer – there is just something about the countryside I grew up in, or like it, that speaks to me. These books I mentioned are in the most part (seriously about 98% of the time) fiction. So why when I love the countryside and am obsessed with wildlife programmes on the telly do I not ever read any non-fiction nature books?

This is what I have been pondering on the many times I have headed into a branch of Waterstones in the last few months with birthday vouchers burning a hole in my pocket. As suddenly there seem to be books about nature here there and everywhere. Now I would say this is due to the success of H is for Hawk recently only I know someone will (quite correctly I am sure) say ‘no you philistine there have been lots of books about nature around forever, that one has just hit the public psyche;’ or something like that.

Yet why has the nature book suddenly become so popular and to the fore? If I had to hazard (a word which always makes me think aptly of buzzards, just putting that out there) a guess I wonder if it is because we are all beginning to get a bit over tired of screens and commuting and rushing and are looking out to nature as a calming influence. What do you think?

Anyway, fate has seemed to step in, as is often her want, as I then had an email from FMcM who do the PR for the Thwaites Wainright Prize, which I had to admit I hadn’t heard of before. As soon as I discovered it was for UK nature and travel writing I was sold especially as they were emailing about the shortlist which had just been announced, the winner is announced tomorrow…

  • Running Free: A Runner’s Journey Back to Nature, Richard Askwith (Yellow Jersey)
  • The Moor, William Atkins (Faber & Faber)
  • Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet, Mark Cocker (Vintage)
  • Meadowland, John Lewis-Stempel (Transworld)
  • H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald (Vintage)
  • Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place, Philip Marsden (Granta)

After going and googling away I saw this as a really exciting list of, bar the aforementioned H is for Hawk, new to me books and could be a really interesting way into this kind of writing. Yes even the running one. I also thought this would be a good chance to give some of these kind of books a whirl and as luck should have it a set is winging its way to me in the post, perfect post Fiction Uncovered reading as something very different and new to try.

And so could you. Yes, the lovely folk at FMcM have said one lucky visitor of this blog (again, like yesterday’s book giveaway, in the UK only due to postage) can win a set of all the shortlisted titles! What do you have to do? Well you know I love a book recommendation as much as recommending books so… I would like to know which fictional AND non fictional books about the countryside and nature have been a complete hit with you? Let me know by midnight tomorrow night (April 22nd) and I will announce the winner on Thursday, good luck! Oh and if you have any theories on why nature writing has become so popular again I would love to know that too.

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Give Away, Thwaites Wainright Prize