Tag Archives: Ian McEwan

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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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

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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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness, SJ Watson, Tess Gerritsen

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