Tag Archives: Ian McEwan

Other People’s Bookshelves #34; Shannon Nemer

Hello and welcome to the latest in Other People’s Bookshelves, a regular series of posts where you get to have a nosey at other book lovers bookshelves. This week we are off to Virginia to meet the lovely Shannon of River City Reading. Now I should warn you that this post may contain pictures of a shelving system so pristine it puts us all to shame, and may make some of us slightly jealous. First though let’s learn a bit more about Shannon…

I’m Shannon from River City Reading, which is based on the nickname for Richmond, Virginia, the place my books and I call home. Though I’ve had my nose in a book for as long as I can remember, I’ve only been serious about keeping and collecting the books I read for a few years, now that I have a house of my own with more space. Or so I thought. Somehow, these bookshelves never seem to be big enough.

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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?

For a long time, I was borrowing more books than I was buying, so keeping all the books I owned was a possibility. Once I started blogging, the number of books that came into the house (both from publishers and my own purchases based on the great recommendations I was getting) made it almost impossible to keep everything. I would say I keep maybe 75% of what I read and the rest go to friends or my neighbourhood Little Free Library.

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

I have two shelves in my living room and a larger library in my office upstairs. I am a serial organizer, alphabetizer and occasional culler. One of the downstairs shelves is favourites, signed books and “serious TBR” (I can’t believe I even need to have this category). The other living room shelf is non-fiction, including a book for every special exhibit the art museum my husband works for has had in his time there. Upstairs is all fiction, except for a small row of essays, biographies and autobiographies that spilled over when the non-fiction shelf filled up. I also have a basket for ARCs for the next few months, which I label with the publication date in an effort to stop them from landing in random piles around the house. It’s only somewhat effective.

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

Though I’m not sure it was the first purchase, I have a distinct memory of buying the first Babysitter’s Club book at a Scholastic Book Fair in elementary school with my (parent’s) own money. That was the start of an incredible friendship that I hung on to until I was “too cool” for them in middle school. I still regret letting those books go.

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?

Did you notice the movie tie-in edition of Atonement? In any other case, I would banish a movie tie-in from my bookshelves, but I adore that movie and I have no shame. I blame it on Keira Knightley’s green dress.

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 husband found a gorgeous, old leather bound copy of Thoreau’s Walden at one of the used bookstores here in Virginia not too long ago and, though it’s not worth much, I just love the way it looks. I’m also partial to my copy of The Blood of Heaven by Kent Wascom, which was the first time an author left a really lovely little message about my blog in the inscription.

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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?

I just had to read The Exorcist after seeing my Dad carry it around for a few weeks, even though I was way too young. I don’t know if it was better or worse that I hadn’t seen the movie yet, but I was traumatized regardless.

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 have a terrible habit of this, but not just with books I’ve borrowed! I also tend to do it with books I’ve read and loved in e-book or ARC format.

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

The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Keirnan, which I’m looking forward to reading before Booktopia Asheville! (Simon interrupts to shout ‘Guess who might just be there?!!!!!!’)

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

There are tons of books I wish were on my shelves, but they are the ones I love to hunt for at used stores and library sales. I have to keep up hope that I’ll stumble upon them eventually.

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

They would probably think I own too many new books and wonder where the classics are, which is a valid criticism. Other than that, I think I have a pretty diverse reading taste that ranges from non-fiction and graphic novels to literary and historical fiction.

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A huge thanks to Shannon for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, who else feels slightly envious for the neatness, why is it everyone else’s bookshelves can make us feel jealous of our own lovely ones? Anyway… Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Shannon’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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Books To Take On My Travels #1

I have a little routine with my reading habits whenever I go away be it a work trip or a holiday. I really like to try and learn about the places I am going through books be they nonfiction, travel guides or fiction itself (new, old, any genre). Well as I am off again in the next few weeks for a long weekend I thought I should ask in advance for some of your recommendations on what books I should be hunting out. It would help if I told you where I was going really wouldn’t it?

Yes I am off to Amsterdam for work, a travel feature, in a few weeks and so I could really do with some recommendations of books that I should take with me. I am already doing some of my ‘lead up reading’ as I grabbed as many guidebooks from the library as I could find the other day, however what I really want is some books that I can read once I am there.

Amsterdam Guides

I have already had a think and, of course, Amsterdam’s most famous book is ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and one of the things that is firmly written down in mine (and The Beard’s, as managed to get him a place on the trip) itinerary is to make sure we visit the Anne Frank house. I only read that infamous book last year so it might be a little early for a re-read, and also I read Etty Hillesums diaries and letters this year, so with going and the pre-reading I think I need something different to be reading whilst I am there. The only other book I could think of was Ian McEwan’s ‘Amsterdam’ but that was only for the title and indeed I have read that one already too.

So, what books written about Amsterdam, set there or indeed by someone from Amsterdam should I be tracking down before I go away to pack in my luggage?

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The Savidge Reads Hall of Fame… Ian McEwan

So today seemed the ideal time to start a new series of posts on the blog in the form of, the rather grandly titled, Savidge Reads Hall of Fame. Over the next few weeks, months and years as I continue on my reading life I will be doing special posts on my favourite authors. I have also created a special page on the blog especially which will contain all the titles by the author and links to the books I have read and reviewed of theirs along the way. This will encourage me to read all the books by my favourite authors and may lead you to some new authors if you like most of the ones that I like, if that makes sense. There are some rules though, but you can find more of those on the Hall of Fame page.

Anyway without further ado my first author in the Savidge Reads Hall of Fame is Ian McEwan…

The first book I read by them was… The very first novel I read by Ian McEwan was his very first novel ‘The Cement Garden’, though I didn’t realise it at the time, it was random fate.

The reason that I initially read them was… If I am being honest, which I think is best; there was no huge plan for me to pick up an Ian McEwan book. I was just meandering through my mother’s shelves when I was in my mid-teens and I picked ‘The Cement Garden’ simply because it was short. I wasn’t expecting it to be the dark and frankly rather shocking story of incest and murder that it was, yet that was actually what gripped me.

The reason that they have become one of my favourite authors, and I would recommend them, is… He never writes the same novel twice. Even if the subject, like in ‘Solar’, might not be the sort of thing that I am interested in he always makes me interested. His narrators always have quirks and you can never quite work them out, yet you like them even if occasionally you know you shouldn’t. I also like the fact there is inevitably a dark streak at the heart of them.

My favourite of their novels so far has been… I think it has to be ‘Atonement’ as it is a masterpiece. That said I think as a novella ‘On Chesil Beach’ is utterly brilliant. It was the first novella I read that showed me they could be as powerful, if not more so, than any novel. Read it!!!

If there was one of their works I had a novel with it would have to be… I actually have two. I started ‘Saturday’ and didn’t quite get on with it, so gave it up but will return to it – I think it was all the brain surgery stuff. I also found ‘First Love, Last Rights’ a compelling read but utterly disturbing and uncomfortable to read, almost too much so.

The last one of their novels that I read was… His latest novel ‘Sweet Tooth’ which is probably his most autobiographical and a must for McEwan fans.

The next I am planning on reading is… I think I need to read ‘Enduring Love’ next out of all of his books because I have heard it has one of the most brilliant opening sequences ever. This excites me.

What I would love them to do next is… I would actually really like him to write another collection of short stories. Having read him writing some short stories as a character in ‘Sweet Tooth’, and enjoying those stories within the story so much, I think it would be really interesting to have another collection of ‘Ian Macabre’ stories, though maybe he has mellowed.

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So that is my first one done. There may be another in just a few weeks, we will see as I want to do it on whim. So who else do you think might end up in my Hall of Fame? Who would be in yours? What do you think of this new series of posts? Do let me know.

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Sweet Tooth – Ian McEwan

There are some authors we each hold so dear that as soon as they have a new book coming out you are simply palpitating at the very thought. Ian McEwan is one such author for me; I am a big fan of all of the novels of his I have read and indeed many of his short stories, so that over time he has become a favourite, even if I have occasionally been a little non-plussed by a story or book along the way. I was particularly excited about ‘Sweet Tooth’ as from the start there were murmurs that this was McEwan’s first proper ‘thriller’, I say proper because there are often thrilling literary elements in all his novels, so as soon as it arrived all life was on hold until I had read it, yes that is how excited I was.

****, Jonathan Cape, 2012, hardback, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘Sweet Tooth’ is set in London during the early 1970’s which, looking back, was a time of great uncertainty with the IRA and the Cold War and a time of social change illustrated in part by, as McEwan brings up more than once, supermarkets and supermarket trolleys cropping up here there and everywhere. It is in this period that our narrator, Serena Frome (rhymes with ‘plume’), ends up working for MI5 and becoming a spy as part of a project called ‘Sweet Tooth’. Serena is given the task of, with her beauty and love of books, getting author Tom Haley to join in a government funded venture which promotes authors with leftish views, apparently this happened. Yet at the same time is Serena being toyed with and spied on herself as an affair with one of her lecturers, who led her to MI5, starts to be scrutinised when it appears that he wasn’t quite the spy everyone thought he was.

One of the things I liked about ‘Sweet Tooth’ so much from the start was that there is so much going on albeit so subtly you do ponder in the first 80 pages if there is going to be a ‘thrilling’ pace at any point because lots of things meander along. As we get to know Serena’s story, which is told after 40 years of hindsight, the hints of her sexual freeness, family background and obsession with escaping into books slowly builds a portrayal of her, though we are never sure quite of her motives or actions. I should mention her that there is a certain coldness and distance from her, coming no doubt from all that happens in the story we read and being a spy, that I did initially think ‘this is so not Ian McEwan’. Yet whilst much is hinted at as the story develops there are almost too many strands none of which are quite fully fleshed out.

As Serena meets Tom Haley everything really kicks off a gear and yet it all slows down at once. The mention of the IRA and Cold War even politics, which I was finding oddly fascinating, sort of fall away to be replaced with a tale about an author in the 1970’s. The book becomes less and less a thriller and more almost a fictionalised account of the author himself. If I was a thriller fan I have to say about 160 pages in I would have been feeling quite cheated, as a fan of McEwan I read on because I wanted more of the story and to see where Serena, who I found oddly compelling as I didn’t know if I liked her or not, went (and the twists at the end do make the book) and also to learn more about Ian McEwan, oh hang on, I mean Tom Haley.

‘My evenings now were empty. I came home from work, took my groceries from ‘my’ corner of the fridge, cooked my supper, passed the time with the solicitors if they happened to be around, then read in my room in my boxy little armchair until eleven, my bedtime. That October I was absorbed by the short stories of William Trevor. The constrained lives of his characters made me wonder how my own existence might appear in his hands. The young girl alone in her bedsit, washing her hair in the basin, daydreaming about a man from Brighton who didn’t get in touch, about the best friend who had vanisged from her life, about another man she had fallen for whom she must meet tomorrow to hear about his wedding plans. How grey and sad.’

The thing that really sold me on the book was the fact that it is all about books, in fact to be honest it is much more about books and writing than it is spies. As I mentioned Serena is a book lover and as we learn of her love of books, as book lovers, we like her a lot more. As she reads up on Haley, his journalism and retells, which seemed slight odd at first, his short stories (which read a lot like McEwan’s early short stories funnily enough, these were wonderful) we almost get a literary critique from as Serena analyses them looking for Haley in them. It is quite an unusual technique, and indeed novel, in a lot of ways and will either really work for you, once you get past the ‘this isn’t really a thriller’ element, or will fall completely flat.

I think, in hindsight and after giving it some thought, ‘Sweet Tooth’ is very much a book from McEwan for his already established audience, which his publishers have labelled his ‘thriller’ rather than saying ‘McEwan does a book about spies and books’ because it might sell better (though it’s McEwan so it will sell regardless, let’s be honest) and reach a new audience. This could prove an error as anyone seeking a thriller won’t get what they are expecting, and that could lead to some serious disappointment. I personally was expecting something along the lines, only different because it was McEwan, of William Boyd’s ‘Restless’ which I really liked. Subsequently I spent a little time being disheartened that the thrills and spills weren’t really there, as I imagined with McEwan they would have been so good, but was won over, and ended up liking the book a lot, because I felt it was the first time I really got into the head of Ian McEwan which I was happy with and also it is a very bookish book. Objectively though, my fandom aside, I am not sure a ‘thriller’ fan would feel quite the same way though.

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First Love, Last Rites – Ian McEwan

I am not generally a prudish person. I might not like the odd swear word in a book if it jars or seems out of character, but I don’t believe reading should always be comfortable and in fact some literature needs to be confronting to address certain issues. Odd then that, a favourite author of mine too, Ian McEwan’s debut collection of short stories ‘First Love, Last Rites’ has left me feeling rather conflicted, I read it all with a feeling that I really shouldn’t continue on and yet I did.

Vintage Books, paperback, 1975, fiction, short stories, 176 pages, from my personal TBR

‘First Love, Last Rites’ is a murky collection of tales. The subject matter in these short stories will disturb and quite possibly offend the most hardened or open minded of us. Here we have a mixture of titillating tales of naked posing, masturbation and dressing up, but we also have a much darker selection based on incest, rape, child abduction, possible murder and abuse. With the lighter few of these stories like ‘Cocker at the Theatre’ (think Mrs Henderson Present’s but a bit filthier and made me guffaw) I read in a rather teenage giggly way. However the darker stories really divided me.

I have read many book in which horrific things are depicted, be they from incest to the horrors of war, and have found the occasional graphic nature of them to be appropriate and justified rather than offensive, uncomfortable yes but not without reason. With ‘First Love, Last Rites’ I couldn’t really work out if these darker tales needed to be told (odd I know seeing as I think McEwan’s ‘The Cement Garden’ is a fantastic if horrific novella) and if so how graphically. For example ‘Butterflies’ would be a celver but disturbing tale of a man abducting a child, agreed not a story for everyone, and yet when the actual horrific act happens McEwan does a lot of showing and telling, rather than possibly leave it to the readers imagination – which can actually be worse.

It was this factor that made me feel rather like a voyeur and made me ponder on why I was reading these stories. What was the point in them when they had no real depth and seemed to be a young author’s first works based on how to be shocking; this was the difference between these shorts and ‘The Cement Garden’ which is a fully rounded deeply disturbing tale. It was this very feeling which I tried to express on twitter when I said that I had been compelled to read them when I didn’t think I should and how I then ended up feeling rather ‘grubby’ afterwards.

As a fan of McEwan’s work (and I have read a lot of it) I weirdly wasn’t as disappointed with this collection as I could have been despite my thoughts above. It sort of seemed to make sense. I interestingly don’t think I would have been compelled to read anymore of McEwan’s work; in fact I was rather surprised it won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976, if I had happened upon this first apart from possibly as a teenager when the titillation factor would have won over, hey I wasn’t so selective in my reading then. However having become a fan of McEwan from his more modern and better known novels I can see this whole series of tales as almost warm ups as to what was to come. This didn’t endear me to ‘First Love, Last Rites’ any the more, it just explained it in some way to me.

‘First Love, Last Rites’ is a challenging and dark read, one which should you choose to try out will have you looking at the fine lines between being a reader and a voyeur and also between what makes a challenging read and one which seems set simply to shock, albeit very well written like all of McEwan’s works.

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Filed under Ian McEwan, Review, Short Stories, Vintage Books

The Book Cull: A Report

I mentioned the other day that it was time for a big book cull. I was pleased to hear in the comments that my ridiculous amount of books (I said 500 or so, it was actually 673 to be precise – see spreadsheets can be your friends) made some of you feel much better about your own  TBR’s and I was also pleased that people commented and said they had many more books than me. A fair few of you also wanted me to report back on how I got on, well here it is. Maybe, should you ever need a book cull, this might provide some tips.

People who don’t love books, or even people who do love them but somehow don’t binge or hoard them, will have no idea how hard it is to cull your TBR. In fairness I had actually forgotten or I might have had second thoughts about doing this weekend, not only did it take hours and hours and hours, it was also quite stressful. You see I always think that every book is a future adventure or journey (though not in the saccharine ‘journey’ sense) that is lying in wait for me amongst all those pages bound in gorgeous covers. However even I had to admit that the amount of books I owned was going a bit far, especially when they are in front of you.

From this vantage point they strangely manage to look both deceptively few and yet also like a big gang of books set to intimidate the sorter/culler. It felt like they knew what was coming and were either threatening me or pleading with me in order to stay. (I might have spent too much time with books in the last 48 hours or so, I could be slightly deranged.) I knew I was going to have to be tough, possibly tougher than I have ever been with a cull, and believe me I have done a few. I decided it was time to change tactics, this was going to involve several mini culls. The first step was the easiest, divide the books into ‘must reads’, ‘might reads’ and ‘probably bought on whim or sent unsolicited and I am just hoarding them just in case’. As you can imagine I ended up with a fairly big pile of ‘must reads’ a fairly big pile of ‘probably bought on whim or sent unsolicited and I am just hoarding them just in case’ books and a stupidly huge amount of ‘might reads’. Being tough simply wasn’t enough, I needed to be brutal, so I created some criteria for culling books further based on the books I had in the ‘maybe read’ piles…

  • Can I remember why I got this book, or how? No, cull.
  • Do I have more than one copy? Yes, cull. (Thank goodness for spreadsheets, I discovered I had seven, yes seven, different books in duplicate editions, see hoarding has its pitfalls.)
  • Is this book part of a series for which I don’t have the prior novels? Yes, cull.
  • If from a publisher (this was the case with about a third of the books, most were whim purchases from varying sources) have I kept this book because it was sent unsolicited but I like the publisher and don’t want to upset them? Yes, cull.
  • Is this a fairly modern title I do rather quite like the sound of but I have seen in the library recently where I could get it out if I do miss it? Yes, cull.
  • Is this a classic everyone says you should read, so you own, but actually you don’t really think you will read it any time soon and could always borrow it from the library as above? Yes, cull.

This was helpful and by this point I would say I could have got away with it.

However after a nights sleep, and waking up to the above sight, I decided I needed to be even harder. It was time to cull even more and so I asked myself the following as I went through them all again..

  • Is this the first in a series I haven’t started yet which I might or might not like but will feel compelled to read the rest of? Yes, cull.
  • Has the author heard I have got their book and not sent just one nice email but harranged me with ‘when are you reading my book?’ This has indeed happened. Yes, cull. (I don’t mind a nice friendly nudge now and again, I understand they want their books read by anyone and everyone, but sometimes it gets a bit much.)
  • Is this one of several books where I have bought the entire back catalogue of an author simply based on enjoying one of their novels? If so do I have more than three or four of this author’s works? Yes, cull- but only the ones that sound the least ‘my sort of read’.
  • Is this a book by one of my favourite authors that I have hoarded and yet actually don’t imagine reading in the next few years as have plenty of others of theirs? Yes, cull.

This pretty much did the trick and by now my room had gone from looking like the stock room of a book shop, to the delivery room of a charity shop…

Which was interesting as within another twenty minutes, and with the help of a trusty relative and their car, I was ready to deliver this loot to the nearby charity bookshop…

The looks on the women’s faces when we first arrived laden with the first of the bags was joyful, the second time we walked in they looked a little perplexed. When I came back in for the third time one of ladies, who did in fairness give me a huge hug afterwards, said ‘how many bags do you have in total?’ I though t she might faint when I said ‘Erm, 24-ish’. It was noted by my accompanying relative that I didn’t mention how many books these bags contained altogether.

Now as I look at the pile of books you can see in the picture here —– > (and they are only the books in the clear boxes,  the fancy boxes are empty) I am feeling rather pleased with myself. Not only did I get my TBR pile (which I will give it its own page later as for some reason word tables and wordpress don’t mix) down to a much more manageable 275 books exactly. It is also a TBR of books I ‘really want to read’ rather than a vast pile of books I want to read with lots that I feel I should, it hinders choosing the next book to read really. Well for me it does. Anyway, most importantly I stopped selfishly hoarding these excess books (about 350 once family had taken the first pickings) that will not only make money for a charity but will also, through the charity shop being one just for books and hopefully therefore book lovers, find new homes with people who love reading. It feels good in lots of ways.

Now, as I have just finished a book, which one shall I pull from my new refined TBR! In fact that is an additional joy, its reminded me which authors older books I haven’t let myself indulge in for a while. Ian McEwan, Anne Tyler, Colm Toibin, Angela Carter and more Daphne Du Maurier and Margaret Atwood for a start. I love this pre-decision feeling, it’s s exciting not knowing what lies in store next. Right, I am off to have a mooch.

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Savidge Reads Gets Criminally Star Struck

As I mentioned on my book giveaway post this week it has been a funny old one. Some of it has been a bit rubbish for various reasons but there was one HUGE highlight. I found out quite randomly that Tess Gerritsen and SJ Watson were doing an event at Bolton Library. This is something I simply couldn’t miss, no work, no health issues, nothing would stop me from going. They were in Bolton, which I thought was miles away but is actually 20mins, to discuss their books at the library, little did I know I was going to be able to meet them after and have a natter (thanks to the lovely Alison at Transworld who I also had a lovely chat or two with). I was sooo nervous.

However it was lovely…

… Even if I did get rather star struck! It is something which very rarely happens in my day job, where I do ‘showbiz interviews’ and yet when I got the chance to meet Tess I went a bit shy and suddenly didn’t know what to say. I think it’s because Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles series (which I have just noticed is one of the only series I have started since blogging) have become such favourites. I have emailed her and interviewed her via email for her Savidge Reads Grills and yet still I went really shy and quiet. She was utterly delightful, really warm and friendly, happy to sign a book for me (and one for Polly, it’s in the post, of Novel Insights who first bought me a Tess novel) and we had a lovely chat.

However it didn’t stop there as the same thing happened when I met SJ Watson. I went all nervous in part as I was a fan of his debut ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ and both he and Sarah Winman were my two first choices for the ‘debut night’ of Bookmarked Literary Salon (so imagine my joy when they both said yes) but I hadn’t taken into account I would have to meet them. I know, I know. Anyway Steve was lovely and really excited about the event and now I am quite buzzing about it all. Though now of course I am very nervous about meeting Sarah Winman… and I haven’t even begun to think about Val McDermid and Sophie Hannah coming in September. Let’s move on before the palpitations start.

It did make me wonder why meeting an author you are a big fan of can make you so nervous? We have all had a moment like this (in fact me and Novel Insights had it together last year when we met Ian McEwan and both talked gobbledygook at him, lucky man) haven’t we? Is it because there is a worry that they won’t be nice and you will never want to read a book of theirs again? Or is it simply the awe of meeting someone who has created a world, or several, that you lived and loved? What do you think? Which authors have you met and gone a bit unnecessary over?

P.S I am slightly obsessed about that first picture of Tess, Steve and me, I feel like I could be a crime writer – though I’m obviously not, but one can dream.

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Car Boot Books

There is a great British tradition in the UK simply known as the ‘car boot’. Many a time in my childhood I would head off, in the earliest hours of the morning, with my Grandad ‘Bongy’ to go and sell some wears or better still go and find the early bargains. However once you live in the cities Car Boot Sales become less common, so back in the countryside how could I miss out on possible book bargains especially with scenery like this…

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So off I went on a hunt with Granny Savidge Reads, my great-uncle Gordon and great-aunty Janice in the hunt of bargains. I have to say this one wasn’t the greatest example, in fact it was rather sparse…

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But after some tables filled with serious tat and some sellers with almost too good to be true (and rather dodgy) items such as the latest DVDs and iPhone equipment, I found what looked to be a place of possible promise…

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Initially I was rather dismayed, should I have wanted travel guides from 1996 or a guide on how to mend the BMW I don’t own I would have been in heaven. Yet after a rummage (I do love that word) I found two little gems which I had to have…

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Well, at 20p each how could I not?

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The Upright Piano Player – David Abbott

Well, it seems like if you hanker after some great debut fiction then the list of ‘The Culture Show’s 12 Debut Novelists’ is pretty much the ideal place to go because so far, apart from one which maybe I should try again, every one of them I have tried has been a book I have really enjoyed, or been enthralled with. That includes the latest one I decided to try which was David Abbott’s ‘The Upright Piano Player’, as it shot up the TBR pile after hearing it raved about by Ann Kingman on ‘Books on the Nightstand’ a few weeks ago.

‘The Upright Piano Player’ has possibly one of the most gripping, horrifying and gut wrenching opening chapters I think I have come across in a long time. One that isn’t reflective of the book general style, though that doesn’t mean you will lose interest swiftly from then on, it’s a book that hooks you into someone’s life only rather near the end of the tale instead of the beginning. When we first meet Henry Cage in May 2004, we are taken with him to a funeral, of whose I will not say though you know by the end of the first chapter and it’s rather upsetting, especially as we are lead to the event of the death of said person in a flashback.

“He had chased after them screaming himself, God knows what – not words he thought, just a scream, a never-ending scream. He ran until his knee gave way. They found him crawling along the side of the road.”

Interesting then, and it had me wondering which is always good, why we are then taken back to November 1999. What Abbott does is to get us to know the background to the event that happens. Not in a ‘this is why it happened’ way, though there is some of that in part, rather in a way that we get to know just how fragile Henry’s world is, and indeed the world of those around him, in the five years from that point. There is forced retirement, estranged children and bitter whilst rather balmy ex-wives. Initially you think that Henry Cage has it all, the company, the flashy car, the nice property. As we read on we realise this is a lonely man on the edge of unravelling one that is sparked further by an act of random violence on New Year’s Eve, one which comes to haunt him again and again and leads to an unravelling.

What’s fascinating is how we watch Henry unravel whilst everyone else think things are fine. We see his reaction when he is kicked out of the very company he founded, he takes it gracefully outwardly and then we see him weeping in the toilets when no one else is around. He tells the police he is fine, and then can’t sleep for fear. In fact it’s the one of the master strokes in Abbott’s story, we are often given insights into the person Henry is via other people. We might join them for a chapter at a certain point in their life when Henry may only meet them for the briefest of moments, for example when he takes a chance on Maude Singer when no one else wants to employ her, though saying that she does appear again. I liked this strange style of personal and impersonal moments. I also thought Abbott summed up the ‘London’ attitude of forgetting people the moment they leave a company or the city.

“He’s bored probably – and unhappy, too, I would guess. Have you seen him since he left?”
“Afraid not – miserable people make me miserable too, so I avoid them.”

Things move forward due to his ex-wife, who summons him to her home in Florida. She has a her reasons, and those of course you would have to read the book to discover. It adds a certain twist to the book, another interesting strand and Abbott does do this at regular intervals, lost of things are happening in the background all the time. Are they pointers to what’s to come or merely just how life is? I did find the break up scene between Henry and Nessa rather emotional and added to the turmoil of all that’s to come, has gone, and is going on.

“She left the room on tiptoe, as if in the presence of the sick. She closed the door quietly behind her and he heard the clatter of her accelerated feet on the staircase. She could not wait to be gone. The real nastiness would start later.”

I didn’t think initially I would warm to Henry. I was worried he was going to be the stereotypical late fifties uncaring bastard what-sit and initially I was slightly proved right. He is a little arrogant, but he is also incredibly fragile and a bit of a home body, which is something he and I had in common, along with his love of books (in fact books become a theme). He’s human, he has his foibles yet at the same time he is a man prepared to admit when he’s wrong and fight passionately for what he believes in when he needs too. I enjoyed spending time with him, even if occasionally (after I had finished laughing at something awful he had done) I wanted to tell him to get a grip. He is also rather lonely and rather vulnerable, if also rather difficult. I liked him.

“His suitcase held few clothes, but was heavy with books. His great fear was of being stranded with nothing to read – so along with recent novels, he took bankers – books he knew he would enjoy reading again should the new titles disappoint. Light Years by James Salter always travelled with him and he invariably packed William Maxwell’s The Chateau. Thus insured, even Christmas could be endured.”

So were there any faults to the book? I would say there were two small ones, and yet they are going to sound bonkers because they are also strengths. Abbott creates characters which are fully formed people. So fully formed that sometimes he adds strands to them you want to learn more about, an example – if slightly selfish one – is of his son and daughter-in-laws book shop which I could have read lots and lots more about, he then closes the door on them either for good or for a while. It feels like some of the strands he starts off don’t quite get finished. He also tells the story in a very random order. One minute we are in 2004, then back to 1999 but not following a straight chronological trajectory as we get varying flashbacks along the way. It’s well done, it’s an interesting style, yet I would imagine it could confuse or put people off. For me it worked, I just put the effort in and read a paragraph or two once or twice to place them.

Overall, I really, really liked ‘The Upright Piano Player’. I am quite cross with David Abbott for not writing something sooner, he waited until he retired, but then I wonder if this book is just so good because its been fermenting in his brain for so long? I am hoping that we get another one soon as this is my sort of book, and I wasn’t really expecting it which makes it all the better. 9.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

Has anyone else read this novel, if so what did you think? There have been, not by me, some comparisons to Ian McEwan with David Abbott’s debut. I can in part see where those are coming from, mainly in terms of the violent or bizarre moments that change someones life and outlook. If you love McEwan then you will probably love this. Yet if you loathe McEwan don’t avoid reading this book, David Abbott is also an author in his own right and a different one, yet one who definitely deserves to shift as many copies as McEwan’s latest did.

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Filed under Books of 2011, David Abbott, Maclehose Publishing, Quercus Publishing, Review

The Cement Garden – Ian McEwan

I am not in general much of a re-reader. I think it’s because with so many new books out there each week I always feel like I might be missing out on something. Every now and again though one of my previous favourite reads will take my fancy or seem to be calling to me and Ian McEwan’s debut novel ‘The Cement Garden’ which was recommended when I asked on twitter for a shirt dark read that might take a hold of me during a mini reading funk (yes I have had one of those already in 2011, fortunately it seems to have passed) and though I had read it I thought it might be just the ticket and indeed it was.

‘The Cement Garden’ is only 144 pages but it’s a book that certainly packs a punch. After the death of their mother Julie (17), Jack (15),  Sue (13) and Tom (6) decide, with their father already dead, that rather than be separated and go into care they will cover up their mother’s death by encasing her in cement in the basement. If you are thinking that this is a grim start (and I haven’t given much away as that’s very near the beginning) thinks get darker as the book progresses. Soon Jack begins to take the role of head of the house to a new level and the siblings begin to become aware of their own sexuality, which leads them to look at each other in a whole new light, including Julie’s dating of Derek which threatens the whole dynamic and leads to a rather dramatic dénouement.

To say much more would be to ruin what can occasionally be a jaw dropping and shocking read. Having read it before I thought the effect might not be so great on me, I was wrong. I found the atmosphere and the things that were left unsaid even more ominous than the first time round and actually more uncomfortable than the events that happen as the book progresses. At the same time it’s a fascinating look into the psyche of teenagers and young adults as they grow and indeed how they cope with death and their own mortality, though of course most teenagers don’t bury their mother, start to experiment in cross dressing or with their own siblings.

Some people will no doubt find this book distasteful. I’m not really someone who thinks you should always be sitting comfortably with a book and after all this is fiction. It’s incredibly written, the writing being taught to create the same atmosphere, and is well told and constructed. It’s dark as well as occasionally, and you might find this odd, being sometimes rather melodramatically comic. Even though you might not like the characters or what they do you won’t be able to stop yourself from routing for them as the novel goes on. Or maybe that’s just me? It’s a book thats horrifically gripping and will stay with you for weeks afterwards. 9.5/10

I would recommend you give this a whirl, be you a fan of McEwan or not, even if you think it might make for a rather uncomfortable read. I personally would like to see McEwan go back to his darker roots with his next novel as when he does bleak he des it with brilliance.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Ian McEwan, Vintage Books

In Between The Sheets – Ian McEwan

For some people the two words ‘Ian McEwan’ will have them running for the hills from any blog post. I personally am quite a big fan, in fact as yet there haven’t been any of his books that I haven’t liked (enjoyed isn’t always a word you can use with McEwan) though I might have struggled with a few here and there. I had, until now, never tried his short stories – short stories seem to be the perfect reads between Green Carnation submissions at the moment. ‘In Between The Sheets’ is a collection that I borrowed from my Mum when I stayed recently and thought it was about time I gave a whirl. This can prove a risk, as short stories are hard to write, I have noticed in the past (not naming any names) some of my favourite authors can’t do it, could McEwan?

You can pretty much guess what this collection centres on from its title ‘In Between The Sheets’ but rather than just a collection of stories based around sex and sexuality McEwan uses these themes to build a set of stories which are much more than that. ‘Reflections of a Kept Ape’ is both a nod towards Darwin’s views on evolution and also in a way looks at the ideas behind the Oedipus complex whist setting gorilla’s in a house in the present day as neighbours of humans. The title story ‘In Between the Sheets’ uses a young girl’s sexual awakening to highlight the marriage breakdown of her parents. ‘Two Fragments: March 199-‘ starts with a slightly sexual theme, which it returns to later on, but is actually in fact about a dystopian future which McEwan was predicting could happen in the 1990’s, this collection being published in 1978 and was a vision of London that I found quite harrowing yet most readable and quite fascinating.

Naturally in any collection there are some books which you instantly warm to and others you don’t, in fact I think a collection in which you love every single story is a rare thing. Both ‘To and Fro’ and ‘Psychopolis’ I didn’t really get and I think would need a re-read but I think that’s more an issue with me as a reader and my understanding and what I took from them rather than them not being such good tales.

I was bowled over by two particular tales in this collection, bar the two mentioned in the paragraph above they all worked from me just two stood out particularly. ‘Dead As They Come’ is a brilliant and comically dark tale of a man’s obsession with a woman, only as you read on you realise the woman is not what you would first assume (I can almost guarantee its not what your guessing either) and leads to a melodramatic climax which has me gripped and starting the tale all over again.

The opening story ‘Pornography’ (which I would have placed as the last tale because of its impact) is the tale of womanising O’Byrne and how he gets his comeuppance. In fact it’s a rather feminist tale which I would direct any reader to read if they think McEwan is a male testosterone driven writer, which he can be on occasion I admit. That particular story is one that had a rather wince inducing (if you are a man) twist in its tail that I really wasn’t expecting.

In fact I think I would direct both people who already love McEwan and haven’t read this collection along with people who think they don’t like McEwan to ‘In Between The Sheets’. This was his fifth fiction outing and I do like the darkness in his earlier work, and have taken ‘The Cement Garden’ off the shelves for a re-read, and this is brimming with it. It also shows glimmers of where he took his writing afterwards.

A book that will: appeal to those who like McEwan regardless and possibly show him in a very different light to those who aren’t sure about him. An entertaining and thought provoking collection which makes a very interesting read. 8/10

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners:

The Breaking Point by Daphne Du Maurier – I am not comparing the authors, this is just one of my all time favourite short story collections of which some of its tales have stayed with me vividly ever since.
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – This has the dark sensuality of this collection only instead is a modern twist on certain fairytales. Interestingly this was published a year after ‘In Between The Sheets’ so maybe there are other collections from the late seventies I should be looking up?

Can you recommend any other late seventies short story collections I might want to have a crack at as I liked this and ‘The Bloody Chamber’ so much? Has anyone read McEwan’s other collection ‘First Love, Last Rites’? What are your thoughts on McEwan in general?

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Filed under Ian McEwan, Review, Short Stories, Vintage Books

The Long and Short Listing of It…

Over the next few weeks, and realistically probably months, things might be a little bit different at Savidge Reads. So I thought that instead of doing one of my ‘Bookish Bits’ I would instead have a natter with you about some possible forthcoming changes to service with the blog and also to ask you for some recommendations of a certain kind of reading material, because you are all always very good with helping me out.

 As you may or may not know I have helped co-found (and am now a judge of) a new book award ‘The Green Carnation Prize’ and yesterday the deadline for submissions closed. I can’t tell you exactly how many we have had as until they all arrive in the next few days I won’t be 100% sure, I can say it’s more than 20 and less than 125. We have been really surprised, and I think if we admit it out loud even a little shocked, at the response that we have had to this, people are really getting behind it, in fact we have already had already had lots of books arrive before the submissions deadline closed…

Sorry about the green shroud (which is actually one of my favourite t-shirts – no expense spared here at Savidge Reads as you can tell) but myself and the other judges have all agreed that until the winner is announced we won’t comment on any of the books that come in for the prize, even after the long list, short list and winner are announced. Whilst this is great for scheduling posts while I am in Brazil for a few months it could mean things change a bit on Savidge Reads as firstly I will be lost in a mass of books which I can’t blog about and also I am going to be dedicating much more time to reading and less to blogging. There may be some radio silence now and again too.

I do want to read some books in between submissions though and as judges we were all talking about what we might fit in. I think Lesley was going to read some crime along the way, Paul might be reading some Dr Who and his treasured Crossroads books – both of them will also be working on new books, Nick is going to be reading kids and YA fiction. I am plumping for short books, novellas, guilty pleasures and short story collections. In fact I sorted out a possible pile of them for the bedside…

  • The Only Problem by Muriel Spark (the Queen of shorter books which pack twists and punches, my Mum lent me this out of print gem)
  • The Bone Garden by Tess Gerritsen (looks big but I will be so gripped in one of my favourite guilt free guilty pleasure it can get done and dusted in mere hours)
  • Agatha Raisin & The Love From Hell by M.C. Beaton (what can I say an Agatha Raisin mystery is always two hours of pure murder, mayhem and laughter)
  • The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie (apparently this is like a collection of short Miss Marple tales, perfect)
  • In Between The Sheets by Ian McEwan (another short book my mother lent me, I know nothing about this McEwan at all)
  • The Comforters by Muriel Spark (another Spark that’s due back at the library quite soon)
  • A Bit of Singing & Dancing by Susan Hill (I love Susan Hill’s work but have never tried her short stories)
  • Between Us Girls by Joe Orton (another library book I picked up purely because it was by Orton, looks delightfully caustic and is also massive print so that will be a quick treat)
  • Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd (always meant to read it, now I shall try)
  • Heartburn by Norah Ephron (I was at a meeting and someone else was reading this and raving about it, plus I remember seeing some buzz about it last year or the year before on the blogosphere)
  • In Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote (he’s a genius and I would like the spirit of Capote with me while I try and whittle down the submissions, he would be my dream 6th judge – well it would be a tie with him and Oscar Wilde)
  • Dancing Girls by Margaret Atwood (tried and loved her shorts in Good Bones, want to read more and couldn’t locate my copy of ‘Bluebeards Egg’)
  • Hector and the Search for Happiness by Francois Lelord (have renewed this far too many times from the library need to get it read)
  • The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (this arrived in the post the other day and seemed to be great timing, never read her – or heard of her before this showed up)
  • 13.55 Eastern Standard Time by Nick Alexander (my friend Dom raved and raved about this and lent me a copy so must see if its as good as Dom said – could be awkward if not)
  • Dark Matter by Michelle Paver (I love a good ghost story now and again and this sounds like its going to be great from the early buzz its already getting – its not even out till October!)

I have just realised I didn’t include the third Peirene Press title and some Anne Tyler, drat. The latter in particular I really need to read more of as I have loved everything I have read of hers so far and have been telling myself to read for ages.

So what do you think of that possible selection of non Green Carnation reading? Are there any titles on there you would like me to get to first? Are there any you have read and what did you think? Can you think of any other short fiction or collections that I am missing out on and must try and squeeze in my reading over the next few months? What are your reading plans at the moment?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, The Green Carnation Prize

The Man Booker Prize 2010

I know it’s rather in advance but on the Tuesday when the Man Booker Longlist is announced I will be posting the first of two ‘mother of all posts’ for the week. I actually really ummed and ahhed about doing a post on the Man Booker Longlist, short list or even anything at all this year but I do love a guessing game and in creating my own guesses and hopes for the Man Booker Longlist  I couldn’t really not discuss the prize a little.

I don’t think, as it stands right now, I will be reading the Longlist this year – mind you if I have read a few and have the rest on the TBR who knows. It was the TBR and the shelves of ‘books I have read’ in the lounge that inspired my final ‘Savidge Reads Booker Dozen’ because every book that I have popped on the list is one I have read or one I own and am rather keen to read. Hence why you won’t see one of the books many people say will be on there – ‘The Pregnant Widow’ by Martin Amis. So without further ado here they are, with a nice picture of the doodles and scribbles that took place in guessing (also proof I thought of some if they sneakily turn up, ha)…

  • Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson (Sceptre)
  • The Clay Dreaming by Ed Hillyer (Myriad Editions)
  • The Long Song by Andrea Levy (Headline)
  • And This is True by Emily Mackie (Sceptre)
  • Solar by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape)
  • Even The Dogs by Jon McGregor (Bloomsbury)
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell (Sceptre)
  • A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee (Constable)
  • Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker)
  • The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell (Headline)
  •  The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O’Hagan (Faber)
  • The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (Atlantic)
  • As The Earth Turns Silver by Alison Wong (Picador)

I mulled over ‘The Blasphemer’ by Nigel Farndale but as I didn’t really love it I couldn’t pop it on, I have a feeling that might show its face, maybe! So maybe in that case of all my choices being picked I could end up reading the whole lot if I’ve guessed all thirteen right – which I very much doubt! At the moment though its not in my plans because it took so much time last year and became a bit more of a chore despite some of the marvellous books on the list that I adored, ‘Brooklyn’ and the winner ‘Wolf Hall’, and wouldn’t have read without that extra push. I just got narked with the schedule and I tried earlier this year with The Orange Prize and it all went a bit wrong.

So what would your thirteen be? Or which certain books would you like to see in the Longlist? What do you make of my choice; I am sure they are well out. What are your thoughts on the Man Booker Prize in general?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Man Booker

Books from Mothers and Others

Yesterday I told you about the mini Margaret Atwood gem ‘The Labrador Fiasco’ that I had grabbed off the shelves at my mother’s over the long weekend. I actually hadn’t stopped there and had picked up another four short(ish) books that I honestly felt I could ‘squeeze in’ over the weekend too. How I do not know as there were ten under tens to keep my eyes on, lots of family to catch up with and walking, pubbing etc, etc. In my head though I thought it was possible. Once I finally admitted defeat and was all down trodden my mother decided I could borrow them (this is as rare as me loaning a book) and so I thought I would share them with you all.

The Pigeon – Patrick Suskind
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea – Yukio Mishima
The Only Problem – Muriel Spark
In Between The Sheets – Ian McEwan

Then when I came back there were some delightful parcels awaiting me which had some gems inside them so I thought that I would share them all with you in case So without further ado here they are (sorry about the pic quality my third blackberry in a year – am a bit narked – is playing up)…

Hodd – Adam Thorpe
The Odd Women – George Gissing
The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa
The Arsenic Century – James C. Whorton
The Pleasure Seekers – Tishani Doshi
What the Day Owes the Night – Yasmina Khadra
The Postmistress – Sarah Blake
Anatomy of Murder – Imogen Robertson

So that’s those, have you read any, been meaning to or read anything else by any of these authors? Do let me know!

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