Tag Archives: Jane Harris

What Makes Us Tougher or More Forgiving Of The Books We Read?

I am currently reading ‘Fanny and Stella; The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian London’ by Neil McKenna and so far I am really enjoying it. As many of you will know I am fascinated by the Victorian period and will generally purchase or seek out any book that is set in that era either written at the time or the contemporary neo-Victorian novels. One of the things that I have noticed lately, though less with non-fiction like ‘Fanny and Stella’, is that I am much, much tougher on these books, particularly the latter and I have been meaning to chat on here about it for a while. Do you think we are tougher on the books that we assume we will love when we start them?

I noticed recently that with two really good books, ‘When Nights Were Cold’ by Susanna Jones and ‘Tom-All-Alones’ by Lynn Shepherd, which I had picked up in part because they were set in the Victorian era and so the Victoriana magpie in me had simply had to have them both. Yet I think, in hindsight, I was tougher on them than if I had read anything by either author set in another period. So therefore what drew me to the books was what made me all the more critical of them.

I think this is partly because of my personal knowledge of, and fascination with, the time (the amount I studied to be a tour guide at Highgate Cemetery, which involves tests and allsorts or did when I joined) and also because I read so many of them. It is natural that the more we read the tougher we are with what we do and don’t like isn’t it? Here I may as well say that I now compare more Victoriana novels to Jane Harris’ ‘Gillespie and I’ or something by Arthur Conan Doyle or Wilkie Collins. I am not sure it is such a fair comparison with the latter two as they are classics of the time and two of the great writers of the time. Yet that does stick in my mind a tiny bit.

This doesn’t just happen with books on my favourite subjects or set in my favourite eras though, it can happen with hyped books or the latest book by our favourite authors. I find it harder to be so impartial with those books too. I know that I am always harder on books that have received a lot of hype from the press, bloggers, friends etc. I am also much more forgiving if the latest novel by my favourite author is not as great as I was expecting, just because it is my favourite author. Fickle aren’t I? Though aren’t we all to varying degrees? It is something I have been pondering so I thought I would throw it out there to all of you.

Do you find that you are harder on books when you love the subject, genre or author or do you find it is the other extreme? What are those subjects, genres, authors or even types of literature? Do you think the more we read the pickier we naturally get? Do you have books that you set as milestones for other books to be compared to and if so what are those books and why?

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When Nights Were Cold – Susanna Jones

Thank you all very much for your snowy book recommendations on Friday, as the snow had stuck on the Wirral (which apparently rarely happens) over the weekend I decided I would curl up with a book that was suitably icy, though as it turned out not one of the books you recommended – no offence. I had been meaning to read ‘When Nights Were Cold’ by Susanna Jones ever since it was on the Fiction Uncovered List 2012. I am a big fan of Fiction Uncovered, an initiative to give some books that might have gone under the radar in a particular year more attention, and it has lead me to some gems such as Ray Robinson’s ‘Forgetting Zoe’ and of course Catherine Hall’s ‘The Proof of Love’. I have most of the listed books in the TBR and seeing as ‘When Nights Were Cold’, one of 2012’s choices, was a Victorian tale (and you know how I love those) with an icy and Arctic twist the timing seemed perfect for it to be read.

*** Mantle Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 341 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Grace Farringdon seems a woman who is rather out of sync with her time, if only by half a decade or so, from a young age she has an obsession with the polar regions and follows the adventures of Ernest Shackleton and his expeditions into this unknown frontier. Being the late Victorian period, and though the suffragette movement is beginning, this is not seen as ‘the done thing’ for a young woman who should be only occupied by the idea of marrying well. Grace exasperates her father, and mother particularly, all the more when she applies, and secretly seeks funding from a distant aunt, to enrol in a woman’s college where she sets up the Antarctic Exploration Society with fellow students, and an unlikely set of friends, Leonora Locke (daughter of an infamous actress), Winifred Hooper (a meek woman set to become a doctor’s wife) and Cecily Parr (orphaned daughter of two mountaineers). These three women decide to defy conventions further by becoming mountaineers themselves, only what happens to them becomes more chilling than the Welsh and Alpine mountains they start to explore.

“I scratched a few unsatisfactory sentences on my sheet, tucked it into the envelope, placed it on my dressing table. The letters informed our families that we had died knowing all the risks we faced and that we loved them and were sorry for the pain we caused, but that we had done it for the greater good of womankind and it was better to have tried and failed than to have stayed home embroidering tablecloths. Locke addressed her letter to her parents and Geoffrey, and Parr’s was addressed to her aunt and uncle in Wales. She grumbled that this was unnecessary and would put a curse on the adventure. And it’s only the Breithorn, she said, but she wrote the letter nevertheless and placed it on her bedside table.”

There were lots of things that I enjoyed about ‘When Nights Were Cold’, the fact that the whole way through there was a hint of something awful having happened at some point and the mystery behind it, the strained relationships of Grace and her mother and father, the difficulty she had adjusting from being alone and independent to coming home, why her sister had disappeared for fifteen years, the sibling rivalry for a certain Mr Black (a very clever strand in the book that twisted and turned itself), the stories of Shackleton and Scott and their adventures we hear through Grace and, what seemed to me, the main heart of the novel which is the tale of four women who wanted to do something bold to break the mould which Victorian society had women bound in still.

There is though a ‘however’ coming along. As much as I loved all of these strands, and I really did, there was almost too much going on and this caused me issues for two reasons. The first was that the book worked its best when Grace was retelling the tales of the Antarctic explorers and indeed when she was out in the Welsh mountains training for the forthcoming Alps, and then the atmosphere and adventure (and it was gripping, scary and dramatic) when they were there. It was in these situations that Grace came alive and so the book did. When there was less going on, and in these testing times we get a real insight into Grace, when she is at home with all that going on, and the possible madness of her sister, Grace (who I occasionally wondered if had gone slightly insane) sort of retreats from the reader while the story takes hold. I only felt I got to know her a bit and that was when she was in the mountains.

That said that does link to the second slight issue I had. There is a mystery, in fact two actually, bubbling in the background of the book the whole way through. Interestingly you don’t see it until about a quarter of the way through the book and its one that really makes the final chapters of the book whizz by with you gripped. Again, like Grace’s character, this mystery seems to get swallowed up by the domestic side of the tale and a possible love story, which again could have been given more space to really grab the reader. I felt like I was being pulled along by lots of great factors and yet they were fighting for space with each other. What I really enjoyed about the book was also what was occasionally causing me to pause with the book.

What I am saying, probably rather badly and in much too lengthy a way, is that actually I think ‘When Nights Were Cold’ was a very good book, but had it been about 200 pages longer it could have been an absolutely amazing epic. Susanna Jones’ prose, characters and atmosphere of the sinister and dangerous Alps are all marvellous I just need it all to have longer to unfold especially with Grace and all her secrets. I think had Susanna Jones had longer to do all this, and more pages and time for the reader to be involved in everything that was going on, I could easily have loved this book as much as ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris. That said I enjoyed it a lot, I was just left wanting more – which is a good thing overall, I think.

Who else has read ‘When Nights Were Cold’ and what did you make of it, it is one of those books I wish I could discuss over coffee at a book group, especially with its ending. Have any of you read any of Susanna Jones other novels, for this is her fourth, and what did you make of them? Have you read any of the other 2012 Fiction Uncovered titles, or indeed the 2011?

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Other People’s Bookshelves #5– Shelley Harris

This week on Other People’s Bookshelves we get to have a nosey through an authors book shelves as we are joined by the lovely Shelley Harris. Shelley was born in South Africa and emigrated to Britain at the age of six. She has been a local journalist, a secondary school teacher, an assistant in a wine shop and a bouncer at teenage discos (no, really). She likes slapstick humour and salted caramels. Her first novel, Jubilee (Weidenfeld and Nicolson – which I have on my shelves) was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and picked as a 2012 Richard and Judy Summer Read. So let us have a nosey through her shelves…

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?

I tend to keep all the books I read – except the atrocious ones. Those go straight to Oxfam. My favourites never leave unless by mistake, when I lend them to someone who doesn’t give them back (see also: Behind The Scenes At The Museum, A Christmas Carol).

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?

OK, this is a bit complex, but here goes:

Most of my books are upstairs, in the room I write in; three walls are covered in shelves, and most are mine (I allow my husband a measly three shelves – he’s very good about it). One of the walls is for non-fiction, and within that there’s history (chronological), auto/biography (alphabetical by subject) and general non-fiction (autobiographical by author). My fiction used to be alphabetical by author too, but this summer I decided to arrange it by colour, and it’s bee-ootiful. I should admit here that it’s sometimes just the teensiest bit hard to lay my hand on exactly the book I want, but – did I mention it’s bee-ootiful? I’ve also got very un-arranged shelves connected with whatever I’m writing at the moment or want to write next. My To-Be-read pile is downstairs. It’s four shelves big.

I do cull my books from time to time, and it’s a curiously double-edged thing for me. I feel that liberation you always get when you shuck off some of your possessions, but also the anxiety that you might be throwing out something you’ll want next week. That actually happened once; a novel stayed on my shelves for two years unread, so I got rid of it. The next week, someone told me it was brilliant.

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

I’ve racked my brains, but I can’t remember. What I do know is that at the age of ten I read two books alternately for months on end – maybe I bought them, I don’t know. They were Antonia Barber’s The Amazing Mr. Blunden, and E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children. At some unsentimental moment in my life (stupid early adulthood) I threw them out, but now have replacement copies on my shelves.

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?

Oooh, now I’m really interested in your Hidden Shelf. I don’t have one; I’m not at all ashamed of anything I take pleasure in, and that includes books which are…what would people scoff at? Stuff that’s considered lowbrow? Erotica? It’s all good.

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?

That’s a tough one, but I think I might try to save the books my students gave me as gifts when I finished teaching them (they were so relieved, the poor mites). I’m massively proud of having taught, and to have been called ‘a WICKED English teacher’ is one of the best things anyone’s ever said about me.

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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 remember being transported (as many girls my age were) by Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, and read the book soon after the single was released. I was maybe eleven at the time. But my parents were responsible for lots of the books I read – grown-up and not-so. Dad used to quote a lot of Shakespeare and poetry at me, using a voice he thought sounded like Laurence Olivier (it sounded like a Dalek). And my Mom read and loved The Women’s Room and passed it over when I was about seventeen – it was a really important book for me.

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?

If I love it I tend to want to keep it – some of my Oxfam purchases are novels I’ve borrowed and loved but want for myself. I read Jane Harris’s Gillespie and I on Kindle (very rare for me) and now have the hardback on my shelves.

Beige books

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

A copy of A Christmas Carol which I bought from Oxfam because it’s weirdly disappeared from my shelves. I suspect our resident twelve-year-old reader.

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

Yes – I want to magic the next Sarah Waters onto my shelves right now.

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

I don’t mind what they think, but my best guess is that they’ll notice I mainly read contemporary novels, that I love books passionately (I have lots of them), and that they may suspect I’m borderline OCD.

Red books

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A big thank you to Shelley for letting me grill her and allowing us to nosey through her shelves. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to) in Other People’s Book Shelves 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 Shelley’s responses and/or any of the books she mentioned?

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The Third Miss Symons – F.M. Mayor

And so here is the first review of the year and aptly it is for the first book read in 2013, even if I have got a small backlog of books to tell you about from last year. I have mentioned before that I am very superstitious about the first book of the year as it seems to me it will reflect, or predict, the reading experience that I will have in the year ahead. Odd I know, yet true. Aptly I have whim (my main reading resolution of 2013) to thank for my first read being F.M. Mayor’s ‘The Third Miss Symons’ as I had started a few books and not been quite taken with any of them. However on a trip to Shrewsbury last week I spotted this in the Oxfam bookshop, bought it and then spent a few hours in a cafe not long after, while waiting for The Beard to finish a meeting, reading it from cover to cover – before you think I am some super reader it is only 144 pages of rather large print.

**** Virago Modern Classics, paperback, 1913 (1980 edition), fiction, 144 pages, from my personal TBR

Henrietta, or Etta, Symons is the ‘Third Miss Symons’ of the title and this book is really the tale of her life. As the third daughter, and fifth child, of seven she becomes the ‘middle child’, true at a yojng age she does have her time as everyone’s favourite, yet from then onwards she becomes a rather plain and unremarkable woman and we see how this unintentionally effects the rest of her life and her circumstances.

 It is also F.M. Mayors way of talking about a large amount of women who found themselves in a very similar situation at the end of the Victorian era leading into the suffragette movement. A group of women who seemed to somehow be out of kilter with the world though for no fault of their own, even if it might have made them bitter towards the ends of their lives. We still know some people like this I am sure, as youngsters I am sure we were all aware of a ‘local witch’ or ‘crazy cat lady’ somewhere down the road or in the area that we lived. Did we ever try and understand them? No, yet here in ‘The Third Miss Symons’ Flora MacDonald Mayor tries to do just that and explain it all in the life of Henrietta.

“It was clear she was to be lonely at school and lonely at home. Where was she to find relief? There was a supply of innocuous story-books for the perusal of Mrs. Marston’s pupils on Saturday half-holidays, innocuous, that is to say, but the fact that they gave a completely erroneous view of life, and from them Henrietta discovered that heroines after their sixteenth birthday are likely to be pestered with adorers. The heroines, it is true, were exquisitely beautiful, which Henrietta knew she was not, but form a study of ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Villette’ in the holidays, Charlotte Bronte was forbidden at school owing to her excess of passion, Henrietta realized that the plain may e adored too, so she had a modest hope that when the magic season of young ladyhood arrived, a Prince Charming would come and fall in love with her. This hope filled more and more of her thoughts, and all her last term, when other girls were crying at the thought of leaving, she was counting her days to her departure.”

It is not the easiest of reads in part because Henrietta is going to be a victim of circumstance, you pretty much know this from the start, and also because she is never really that likeable mainly as the product of her situation. Often there is a tone to the novel which is rather melancholy, which made me wonder if was the reason for the fact it verges on a novella in terms of length. I should add here that I didn’t find the book depressing in itself, more the society of the time and how it treated women who did end up as spinsters and how this even reflected the way a family might choose to interact with one in their own midst. I make single women sound like lepers here but in some ways that is how families seemed to feel about them, unless of course they could be good for money or should the lady of the house day and a replacement be needed or someone to use for their own gains or motives as they got older, otherwise they were really seen rather as a burden.

“Her aunt’s life was the sweetest and happiest for old age, but could she at twenty settle down to devising treats for other people’s children, or sewing garments for the poor? It made her feel sick and dismal to think of it. Besides, there circumstances were not similar. Her aunt, fortified by the spirit of self-sacrifice, had resigned what she loved, but she had the reward of being the most necessary member of her circle. Henrietta had no scope for self-sacrifice, for she had never had anything to give up.”

I found ‘The Third Miss Symons’ an utterly fascinating and rather different read. Partly this was because of the insight into that period of British history and how women were treated, or ill treated, in that time and partly because of the character of Henrietta which Mayor has created. I am hard pushed to think of another female character I have encountered quite like her. I was thinking of Harriet in ‘Gillespie and I’, Mrs Danvers in ‘Rebecca’ or Miss Havisham in ‘Great Expectations’ yet Harriet is not as unreliable, bitter, warped or feisty as any of them she is ordinary, yet that is what makes her tale all the more extraordinary. It’s an unusual perspective and an unusual read yet brilliantly so. I was also impressed with how Mayor wrote a whole life, and its ups and downs, in such a short book. If my reading year is to be filled with quirky, unusual and such vividly character filled and prose lead as this book then I am in for a very good reading year.

This shows the joys of whim reading, and turning to more golden oldies, instantly doesn’t it? I hope that the rest of my reading year carries on like this. Anyway, who else has read this book and what did you think? I know Susan Hill loves it as she wrote the introduction in my Virago edition, she is also a huge fan of F.M. Mayors ‘The Rectors Daughter’ which is somewhere in my TBR, have any of you read that one at all and if so what did you think of it?

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Filed under F.M. Mayor, Review, Virago Books, Virago Modern Classics

Simon’s Bookish Bits #32

Today is the first day I actually seem to have stopped still for weeks and weeks and so I thought I would do a little ‘bookish bits’ post as I have been rubbish at commenting back to you all or even visiting other book blogs (though I have spotted Polly and Jessica are back, yippee) between going and seeing Gran in Derbyshire, reading for the Green Carnation longlist, helping change a magazine from print to online and then manically reading, re-reading and prepping for the Manchester Literature Festival events I had earlier this week. That said I did manage to fit in a dash to A&E in the small hours of Saturday morning as I thought I was having a heart attack, turned out to thankfully be a rather large panic attack resulting in an almost phantom angina attack, lovely.

I have to say the staff at the hospital were great, so good I don’t mind the fact I am covered in bruises from the blood tests, turns out though that I have to have some rest and calm down, too many projects (which I think keep me going) have ground me down. Bed rest was ordered and so I am spending the next few days chilling out. Lots of writing and reading to do ahead then, shame! Now speaking of reading and readers, tenuous link I know, but The Readers Podcast was actually one year old yesterday, the birthday blog should be going up shortly/be up now – the biggest episode of absolute rambling yet.

That deserves some cake really or maybe several Jaffa cakes, doesn’t it?

Since everything stopped the one thing I have noticed is that my TBR has gotten completely out of control, like really badly. There are piles of books in places you didn’t think books could accumulate. The Beard believes I have let them breed (he actually said like bacteria but we will over look that) and so the next big task, apart from catching up on your comments on here and other blogs is a full on TBR sort out. I am actually quite excited about this. Then I can have a good old rummage and decide what random whim reads I want to treat myself too for a week of no work based reading. Exciting.

Speaking of work based reading. I thought, as they have just happened and yet the festival is still in full flow, I would give you a quick round up of the two events I hosted at Manchester Literature Festival this week. The first was on Monday night when I had the pleasure of being in conversation with Patrick Gale and Catherine Hall about their latest books in front of a packed out audience in Waterstones…

I had met Catherine before and so got my ‘fanboy’ moment out of the way with her but I have to admit I was really nervous about meeting Patrick. Fortunately a) so was Catherine and b) Patrick was utterly lovely. We all had a lovely few drinks before the event looking over Piccadilly Gardens in his hotel cafe in the afternoon before wandering to the event chatting about utterly random nonsense (I admit I grilled him about Richard and Judy) before sitting and having more fun, if more structured, at the event. I felt a bit like the cat that had got the cream and was one a little bit of a bookish high, can you tell?

Isn’t that t-shirt fancy? Then yesterday, dragging The Beard along in tow, I had was in conversation about all things Victoriana with the lovely Jane Harris, who I have gotten to know and adore, and Essie Fox who I have interviewed before and had a hoot with too. It was actually Essie’s first visit to Manchester and the venue could not have been more apt as we had the banqueting hall at Manchester Town Hall (which they use in a lot of the Victorian period dramas as it looks just like Westminster on the outside and hasn’t been tampered with inside, perfect). It was a really enjoyable event that could have gone on for hours longer and had me weeping with laughter and dumbstruck with fascination all at once.

So that has all been lovely, and a big thanks to all of you who came and said hello afterwards, really nice to meet several of you at both events. Maybe if we start The Readers Retreats I will see even more of you, but that is for another time.

Finally, before I go and try and sort out lots of books, I just want to say a huge thanks for all your well wishes; however I have received them, for Gran. Whilst everything with her has been going on I am trying to carry on as normal as it’s a good focus and the supporting emails/comments etc you have sent for her, myself and the family has been lovely. She has gone home today and so we will all be looking after her for the time that is left, I will be off there again for her 71st birthday and will keep passing on your kind words. I will also be buying her the BIGGEST birthday cake ever. But seriously thank you.

Right, best go and root through all these books before anyone trips over them and seriously hurts themselves, or indeed before a certain teething kitten chews any more of them. Hope all is well with all of you?

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Vicariously Through The Victorians…

As I mentioned a few weeks ago I really do love the autumn, especially for reading. I have been going through my TBR pile on and off over the last week and with certain worrying matters going on off the blog I have been looking for thrilling yet comforting books which will keep me reading. I tend to get readers block when lots of things are going on, I am sure this happens to all of us, and so these reads should combat this. However my version of thrilling yet comforting might not be the same as yours, as mine tend to involve the foggy, mysterious and dark streets of Victorian London, as the hoard I pulled down shows.

Now because I was being all arty-farty by having them on my ever-so suitable Victorian reading chair in the lounge you might not be able to make them all out. Well, it is quite a mixture. First up we have the fiction from the time in the form of ‘The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which I think sums up Victorian London at that time wonderfully, along with ‘The Odd Women’ by George Gissing which I have to admit I really bought (ages ago) because of the title, it just sounds quite me. I am also planning, through my new venture ‘Classically Challenged’, on finally reading two of the authors that many say are the literary greats, Anthony Trollope and the Charles Dickens.

I have thrown in some non-fiction into the mix too. I really struggle with non-fiction, it has to have a narrative and drive or I just get bored. In the case of ‘Beautiful Forever’ by Helen Rappaport (which I think my mother bought me two maybe three Christmas’ ago, oops) there should be no worry at all as it is the tale of Madame Rachel of Bond Street who ‘peddled products which claimed almost magical powers’ ripped people off and blackmailed them. I cannot wait for this, why have I left it so long. The same goes for Mary S. Hartman’s ‘Victorian Murderesses’ which I found in a book swap cafe last year. I don’t tend to mention that I like true crime writing, well I do, and this one looks great. Finally, non-fiction wise, I have ‘Wilkie Collins’ by Peter Ackroyd (I should have read this in the spring) which I am hoping if isn’t a narrative based non-fiction book will hook me in because I am such a big fan of Wilkie, full stop.

Finally I have thrown in three neo-Victorian novels, interestingly all by female authors about fictional women who stood up to Victorian ethics by all accounts, ‘The Journal of Dora Damage’ by Belinda Starling, ‘Little Bones’ by Janette Jenkins and ‘Beautiful Lies’ by Clare Clark. So there is some really exciting reading to look forward to. Yet before I start all these I am going to be meeting some very special ladies who I will be asking for more recommendations from as I will be discussing Victorian books, why they are so tempting to read and to write with them on Tuesday at Manchester Literature Festival

 

Yes, Jane Harris of one-of-my-all-time-favourite-ever-novels ‘Gillespie and I’ fame, who has also rather luckily become a lovely friend and the lovely Essie Fox, who did a special Victorian episode of The Readers and has written ‘The Somnambulist’ and has ‘Elijah’s Mermaid’ coming out soon (which I have read in advance and cannot wait to tell you all about at the start of November. I will be asking them for recommendations from the period, about the period and set in the period – and reporting back of course.

Now… do you have any recommendations of books about/set in the times of/written by Victorians and if so what? Oh and if you have any questions for Jane and Essie let me know and I will ask them especially.

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Days of Grace – Catherine Hall

There are some authors whose writing I think can touch the very heart of an individual readers ‘reading soul’. I know that might sound a bit bonkers but sometimes you can pick up a book and feel that it has been written for you, regardless of the subject matter. Of course this is lunacy because the author doesn’t know you and many people may too feel the same way about said book, regardless in your head that book was written for you… The end. It’s so rare even your favourite authors don’t always do it, but some do. This has happened to me with authors such as Jane Harris and Edward Hogan (in particular both their second novels ‘Gillespie and I’ and ‘The Hunger Trace’ I swear were written for me and me alone and I won’t hear otherwise). Now Catherine Hall joins this select few authors who I would give both my arms to be able to write like, I am aware of the irony in this, after her debut novel ‘Days of Grace’ has bowled me over just as much as ‘The Proof of Love’ did yet for very different reasons.

*****, Portobello Books, paperback, 201o, fiction, 292 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

‘Days of Grace’ is one of those tricky, thrilling and mysterious novels where you are given two strands of the narrator’s life at once. We meet Nora both in the present as she silently come to terms with the fact that she is terminally ill, we also meet her aged twelve as the Second World war is on the cusp of breaking out and she is evacuated to the countryside.

The strands of her life at these points we meet her move forward, in the present as she watches and then comes to the aid of a pregnant neighbour and in the past as she moves into the Rectory of a Kent village and befriends the daughter of the family Grace, a friendship so strong it binds them together as friends for life, and complicates life for Nora, only something happens so tragic that it casts a shadow on Nora’s life forever leading to the lonely life of a secretive spinster in the present.

Of course you will all now be desperate to know what the secret is won’t you? Well, you would have to read the book to find out and whilst that may seem teasing of me I really do hope you rush out and get a copy because it is just so wonderful. And now I shall explain why…

I found Nora fascinating from the off. Having read some other reviews of the book since it seems some people have found her aloof and a little cold, I can understand what they mean but I was all the more intrigued about her because of it, how does a relatively care-free young girl (well, as care-free as one could have been during WWII) become a woman so cut off from the world? As I read on, especially as everything is revealed, I could completely understand it. Yet she is also at odds with herself, she helps a pregnant young girl, only years ago she was a vital part of a vibrant independent bookshop (this is a bookish book, I loved her all the more for loving Rebecca as a young girl), I was rather fascinated by her no matter how distant she could be. There is of course the question of how reliable she may or may not be, obsession can lead to romanticising and changing events, but again I loved this too. I do like an unreliable narrator.

“Be careful what you say. Like everyone else, you will hear things that the enemy mustn’t know. Keep that knowledge to yourself – and don’t give away any clues. Keep smiling.”

What I also really admired and loved about the book is that even though we have one narrator we have two stories. These are told in alternating chapters throughout the book. This device is one that is used often and normally I have to admit one story will overtake my interest as I read on. Not in the case of ‘Days of Grace’. I was desperate to know what was going to happen with Nora and Grace as the war went on both in idyllic Kent and the roughness and danger of London but I also wanted to know, just as much, what was going to happen with Nora in the present, her health and the relationship with Rose and her baby. Both stories had me intrigued and I think that was because Catherine Hall very cleverly has the stories mystery foreboding the past tense narrative and shadowing the present without us knowing what it is until the last minute. I thought this brilliantly paced and plotted out. I had no idea what was coming yet in hindsight I can see where the clues and hints were dropped.

I was completely spellbound by ‘Days of Grace’. It made me cry on more than one occasion, the first being because of the cancer storyline and everything going on with Gran (yet this was also oddly cathartic) at the moment but at the end just because the culmination of the book and the emotions running through it suddenly hit you.

For a book of 292 pages there is a huge amount going on and so, like with a lot of my favourite authors, there is not a spare word unnecessarily nestled in the prose. It is also one of those wonderful novels that manages to be ‘literary’ yet also have that utterly compelling pace and mystery at its heart that you become quite addicted. I didn’t actually want to be parted from it (so I nearly cancelled seeing people), and yet I didn’t want it to end (so I kept my appointments after all). Basically, if you haven’t taken the hint yet, I am urging you to give this book a whirl. It’s marvellous.

Has anyone else read ‘Days of Grace’, if so what did you think? Did any of you run off and read ‘The Proof of Love’ after I raved about it last year? Do any of you have moments, like I mentioned early on, where you start reading a book and think ‘this was written for me’ and if so who is the author and what was the book?

Oh and a small note: you can see me in conversation with Catherine Hall and Patrick Gale next Monday at Manchester Literature Festival, where I will be demanding to know when the next book is coming out and more.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Catherine Hall, Portobello Books, Review

Books By The Bedside #5

This week’s posts have all been scheduled in advance, hence why I have been even worse than normal at replying, as with imminent Green Carnation longlisting this week, deadlines galore and visiting Granny Savidge Reads this weekend (who has had some bad health news but I want to talk to her before sharing it, if I do)  it is all a little bit bonkers. So I thought a post on what will be on my reading horizons after having had it somewhat guided in the last few months might make a nice post. Plus it means you get to tell me what you think of the books and authors on the list and then share what you are reading and want to read which I always love hearing about…

I had imagined that once the Green Carnation submissions were done I might be able to be a little freer in whim terms. Yet interestingly it’s not going to be immediately (in part as I will have to read the longlist again) because next weekend is the start of Manchester Literature Festival and I have two events in the first week which means rather a lot of re-reading but also some new gems.

First up is an event with Catherine Hall and Patrick Gale, so I have re-read ‘The Proof of Love’ and have now lined up her debut novel ‘Days of Grace’ which I have been wanting to read for ages. I am also re-reading Patrick Gales ‘A Perfectly Good Man’ (which I have read already once this summer) and pondering if I should get ‘Notes from an Exhibition’ as apparently this is a companion, not a sequel, to that one.

The second event is all about my favourite period of history, the Victorian period, and I will be joined by Jane Harris and Essie Fox. Jane, well a firm favourite book of all time ‘Gillespie and I’, is currently on my iPod getting a re-listen (well a first listen as I read the book last time) and if I have time I am planning on revisiting ‘The Observations’ next weekend. In fact I will make time. I have just re-read ‘The Somnambulist’ by Essie and am getting very excited about ‘Elijah’s Mermaid’ which looks to be a little bit magical and rather dark and twisty – perfect!!

Away from Manchester Literature Festival though, I am also re-reading the wonderful tales in Lucy Wood’s debut collection of short magical and delightful stories ‘Diving Belles’ as Gavin is returning from his podcast presenting holiday this week to record the second episode of the all new Readers Book Group and this is the book in question. None of all this re-reading is a chore at all, just a joy which is lovely.

Reading purely for me and less for events and the like is all quite seasonal and autumnal. Philip Pullman’s ‘Grimm Tales’ was a naughty purchase because I simply could not not, is that a double negative now? I think I might demand ask The Beard to read me one or two of these every night maybe? Susan Hill’s ‘The Shadows in the Streets’ I have had on my bedside table since last time and will definitely get round to (she is on The Readers in November, thrilled) as I will soon be three behind. Finally, yes your eyes are telling you the truth, I have the debut novel by Judy Finnigan (yes of THE Richard and Judy) called ‘Eloise’ which looks like it might be rather Du Maurier-esque. This could be a good thing or a bad thing, but I am excited to see which.

Phew, that’s my new few weeks/months of reading sorted. Have you read any of these and if so what were your thoughts on them? What are you reading and looking forward to reading next?

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Manchester Literature Festival 2012

I really do love a literary festival. I can’t say I have been to hundreds, in fact it’s more like five or six, but when I saw loads of people I know going off to Edinburgh over the last few weeks I have been, frankly, green with envy. There is something so special about the vibe of these events, the coming together of reader and author and the general love of books that makes me go giddy at the thought. Last year I had the pleasure of going to Manchester Literature Festival, which is the nearest to me (Liverpool doesn’t have one, why?), and seeing many of the events and meeting the authors and event hosts afterwards for The Readers Podcast. This year, in October, I am planning to do the same again, and a little more as you will see, and what an incredible line up there is this year.

I already have sorted tickets for the opening event next week, a trailblazer, which is with none other than Zadie Smith who I am really keep to see talk, especially after having dipped into ‘NW’ already, which I am planning on reading properly this weekend between Green Carnation submissions. This is an event to kick start it all officially and I will be reporting back on for you all.

After the festival starts ‘a proper’ in October I have a mammoth wish list of events to see with authors including; Michael Chabon, Carol Ann Duffy, Penelope Lively, Salley Vickers, Clare Balding, Pat Barker, Jackie Kay, Mark Haddon, Jeanette Winterson, AM Holmes, Jonathan Harvey and ‘Unbound Live’. Phew! You can see these events and many more on the festivals calendar page. I think I am going to miss some sadly as I will be in Iceland, maybe someone reading this might report back for me?

To top it all off though there are two other events on the calendar that I am particularly excited about and that is because… I am hosting them! The first will be on Monday the 8th of October at 18.30 when I will be hosting an event with Patrick Gale and Catherine Hall, who happens to be a fellow Green Carnation judge and also wrote ‘The Proof of Love’ which won the prize last year and was a book I adored. I am going to be re-reading a few Patrick Gale novels over the next couple of weeks including his latest ‘A Perfect Man’ and ‘Rough Music’ which I read, shock and horror, over a decade ago.

The second event I am just as excited about and is at lunchtime on the following day. In the oh so apt Manchester Town Hall, which was used in Sherlock Holmes as the House of Parliament, I will be hosting a Victoriana event with the lovely Jane Harris and Essie Fox, both of whose work I have thoroughly enjoyed as I am sure you are aware. I have had the pleasure of interviewing Jane and Essie before so I know this is going to be a hoot.

Well that is me all excited then isn’t it? I do hope, as I am giving some advance warning, I will see some of you at these events I am hosting or at any of the others I am desperate to see (you’d better say hello). In the meantime though I wondered what your thoughts on literary festivals were. Which have you been to? What was good and bad about them? What makes the perfect bookish event? What makes the perfect host? Oh and would any of you also consider smaller more intimate ‘Reading Retreat’ weekends? Cannot think why I am asking the latter…

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The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon

Every so often you meet a character in fiction that you will remember for the rest of your life. These don’t always have to be the narrators of a book nor do they have to be likeable, I am thinking of Mrs Danvers now in ‘Rebecca’, yet when they are it makes a book very, very difficult to put down. In ‘The Colour of Milk’ by Nell Leyshon, an author I hadn’t come across until this book which is her fourth, with Mary and the story she tells I found one of those exact books and (cliché alert) I simply could not put the book down.

*****, Fig Tree/Penguin Books, 2012, hardback, fiction, 172 pages, kindly sent by publisher

It is 1831 when we meet Mary, or as she writes ‘in this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty one i am reached the age of fifteen’, a young girl and one of four daughters living on a farm where you work, sleep and eat before doing it all over again the next day. The family isn’t a particularly happy one, particularly as it is led by an angry and unpredictable father who will even beat his own father if he dare cross him. Mary herself is rather unruly and some what the black sheep (farm pun not intended) of the family, this could be all from the fact she was born with a crippled leg at birth, and soon is forced to move away, yet oddly doesn’t want to leave, to the vicarage to care for the vicars invalid wife.

‘he ain’t lazy, i said. he ain’t got no choice but to sit there. ain’t like his legs’d take him anywhere.
might as well be dead for all the use he is, she said.
wish i were dead, grandfather said, having to listen to you going on like that.’  

Before you all think I have lost the plot (and the use of spell check on my lovely new laptop) the way the novel is written is one of the things that make it so special, alongside Mary’s narration which as a device it also underlines, because it isn’t your usual fare. You see the tale of an unhappy farm girl who moves to the big house, where good or bad things might happen to her, is not really an original one. However with Mary’s character and the fact the novel is written as she talks, and sometimes almost phonetically ‘straw berry’, really adds to the voice of the novel and makes it stand out. It also somehow gives it that feel of being a classic novel even though it is a contemporary novel, the last time I read a book like this was Jane Harris’ ‘The Observations’ narrated by the ever swearing and gutsy Bessy Buckley, and I loved Mary just as much.

‘my leg is my leg and i ain’t never known another leg. it’s the way i always been and the way i always walked, mother says it was like that when i come out into the world. i was some scrap if a thing with hair like milk and i was covered in some hair like i was an animal and my nails was long. and she says i took one look around me and i opened my mouth and i yelled and some say i ain’t never shut it since.’

Really Mary is the reason that you end up loving the book so much, well it was for me. She is a heroine of teh first degree; gutsy, funny and tells it like it is, occasionally she almost breaks your heart too. The book is a story of a girl who leaves an unhappy home, yet we figure that out as we read on because really Mary is quite happy with her life on the whole thank you very much. The fact the story is reminiscent of a Victorian classic also works in the books favour because it feels comfortable and yet different, does that make sense? I have to admit that i did hazard a guess at ending that seems to have shocked other people I know who have read it, which I will not spoil or even hint at, not that it stopped me loving the book because I was being taken along by Mary who I could have read for another few hundred pages or more.

There are certain books that you instantly take to aren’t there. Books which coax you into the heart of their tale and just have you hooked. ‘The Colour of Milk’ by Nell Leyshon is one such book, for me it is one of those books that is pretty much perfect, in fact so much so I would dare any of you to read it and not do it in one reading gulp. Seriously, I dare you to prove me wrong. And if you don’t believe me then check out reviews from bloggers I trust, and who agree, here and here, one of my books of the year without a doubt. Now who has read any of Nell Leyshon’s other novels?

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Filed under Books of 2012, Fig Tree, Nell Leyshon, Penguin Books, Review

The Lifeboat – Charlotte Rogan

If you are a long time follower of this blog, or listen to The Readers Podcast, then you will know that there is one thing in books I really don’t like, and that is boats. I don’t like them off the page, it’s all that expanse and silence – it irks me plus all the space below you fills me with a nervous dread, and in my head a book on a boat can’t really do very much. You sail along, possibly something awful happens and you sail on again till you sink, reach a shore or get saved. Boats to my mind equal boredom, and I don’t want that in a book. Yet occasionally a book comes along that completely flips your thoughts on your own book bias and you are enthralled. Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel ‘The Lifeboat’ is such a book and joins Carol Birch’s ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ as a book I utterly loved set on a boat, though they are quite different stories.

Virago Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

In 1914 the Empress Alexandra, one of the world’s most desirable transatlantic liners suffers some kind of explosion and sinks. Somehow some of the passengers make it onto ‘Lifeboat 14’ and against all odds some of these people survive. Yet no sooner are they saved than they are put on trial for the culpability of the deaths of those passengers who didn’t make it. One such woman is recently married and now recently widowed Grace Winter, and through her trial, and her diary of the 21 days lost at sea, we are discover what really happened on that boat (so I haven’t given away any spoilers there), or at least we think we might.

The very things that I think make books set on boats a bore actually become some of the things that I liked so much about ‘The Lifeboat’. Grace and her fellow passengers, with so much expanse on the horizon and so much endless depth below them, are fearful, vulnerable, hungry and bored – this leads to an incredibly enclosed setting and as the hunger, fear and boredom rise so do the mental strains and characters change, or in some cases true characters show through. You start with unity, but then someone must divide and rule.

‘We were in similar circumstances, after all, and an unspoken etiquette was arising where we would not look the beast of physical necessity in the eye. We would ignore it, we would dare it to claw apart our sense of decorum, we would preserve civility even in the face of a disaster that had almost killed us and that might kill us yet.’

I think ‘The Lifeboat’ is one of the most brilliant fictional takes on ‘mental warfare’ and how people change under certain circumstances that I have come across in a very long time, especially from a modern writer. Dare I say there was something rather Daphne Du Maurier-like about the darkness that develops? What I won’t say is anything about the other characters (apart from the fact I was scared of Mrs Grant) because I don’t want to give anything away, but Rogan creates a fascinating psychological game with them all, and with Grace herself Rogan pulls the trump card.

One of the things that I most enjoyed about ‘The Lifeboat’ was Grace’s voice; she is at once incredibly innocent and yet will suddenly come out with statements that make you wonder if there is a much more cunning streak lying in the depths of her persona. Rogan uses this device masterfully, as we read on and see how Grace reacts to everything you start to wonder how responsible for all that follows she may or may not be. There is also the fact that as Rogan weaves some of Grace’s life before embarking on the Empress Alexandra but nothing really before her marriage, there is an ambiguity there. I like a good unreliable narrator and Grace is certainly up there with Harriet Baxter in ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris in terms of a character you like because she’s slightly barbed and yet you are never sure you really trust. A glimpse of something dark appears and yet is immediately erased and you question yourself as well as your protagonist. Just how did Grace survive, luck or something else?

‘I am trying to be honest. In memory, I can feel a tug at my heartstrings as I think of Mary Ann. She was frail and beautiful. Her engagement diamond slipped uselessly around on her thin finger. The indigo veins on her wrist looked like delicate calligraphy on the white parchment of her skin. In other circumstances we might have been real friends, but there in the boat, I had no sympathy for her. She was weak, unlikely to survive or to be of use in prolonging the lives of others.’

I was completely won over by ‘The Lifeboat’, enthralled in fact, so much so that would you believe it… I wanted more! At a deceptive 288 pages Rogan manages to pack in so much in terms of plot, back story, twists, turns and red herrings it is amazing that the book isn’t another few hundred pages long. Yet I think to be left wanting more of a book is always a good sign no matter what the length of it. If you are looking for a literary novel, because the prose is superb, that will have you utterly gripped and guessing along the way then I do urge you to give ‘The Lifeboat’ a whirl, I thought it was fantastic.

So I think you can tell that’s a rather hearty recommendation from me. Watch out for more Charlotte Rogan on the blog tomorrow. Until then… who else has read ‘The Lifeboat’ and what did you think? Any other recommendations for books set on boats I might be missing?

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Filed under Books of 2012, Charlotte Rogan, Review, Virago Books

And The Winner of the Orange Prize 2012 is…

I meant to write something about the Orange Prize before the winning announcement, however the day seems to have somehow escaped me and so now the winner has been announced and it is… Madeline Miller with ‘The Song of Achilles’!

I am feeling rather ecstatic about this. Well beyond ecstatic, thrilled more like, as it is undoubtedly one of my favourites of the entire reading year (along with ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris which sadly didn’t get short listed, but am keeping this post positive). You can see my thoughts on ‘The Song of Achilles’ here and if that wasn’t enough you can see Madeline Miller getting a Savidge Reads Grills here.

So that’s all lovely isn’t it? Commiserations to all the other authors, especially Esi Edugyan which I have recently read and loved after finishing it second try, but a huge congrats to Madeline Miller. Have I said I am thrilled? What are your thoughts?

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Lovely London Loot…

The week before last I finally bit the bullet and went back to London for the day. Having left almost a year and a half ago, and not under the most favourable of circumstances, I will admit I was feeling very nervous about it. However, the day was mainly about books and if anything is going to make a daunting trip somewhere better then it is going to be books isn’t it? I had been kindly invited by Lynsey at Transworld to come to a dinner with S.J Bolton in the evening and as a trip down to London is rare for me now I decided to make a day of it.

I could bore you with the dreadful journey down, I had reserved seats (thanks again Lynsey) and yet the train was so overcrowded, from the start, they cancelled all reserved seats and so it was a fight for any seat going. Oh the grump I was in! Fortunately the man who decided to tell me his life story (and I had my best ‘I am reading’ expression/concentrated glare on too) got off after two stops by which point reading went out the window as I was too busy eavesdropping (see Dovegreyreader’s post on the joys of being nosey here) on the fascinating conversation between mother and daughter who were dishing all the family secrets. I actually had to hold myself back from say ‘oh she sounds awful’ when the mother had finished a five minute rant about her son’s new girlfriend and asked her daughter what she thought.  I do love a family drama, which was apt as my first meeting of the day was brunch with my aunty who was in London too. I then had the joys of meeting my friend Dom for lunch (who I hadn’t seen since I left, which was far too long) and then headed to meet some publishers, the first of whom reside in my favourite place in London, Bedford Square…

The reason I love this square so much is that it feels like Victorian London, be it the posh bit, is still weirdly living and breathing there. The area doesn’t seem to have changed and still has a certain atmosphere. If I could ever afford to live anywhere I could then I think it would be Bedford Square. Anyway the reason I was there was to meet Alice at Bloomsbury! I couldn’t actually believe that I have been emailing Alice for about five years and I had never met her before, and I even lived in London for a few years of the correspondence, shocking. We had a lovely brew and discussed lots and lots of bookish bits and bobs, both projects coming from me and titles coming from Bloomsbury. I also laughed when I discovered Alice knows me so well, she has speedily discovered ‘hmmm, I am quite busy at the moment’ means ‘I have absolutely no desire to read that but am too polite to say, thanks anyway’ – we both giggled about this as I was unaware, till she pointed it out, that I did it. It was too soon time to leave but I did manage to take some books, just a few…

Next up I headed only a few streets further afield to meet Frances and Corinna from Atlantic Books. Again, these are two of the publicists that I have had the longest relationships with (I am not showing favouritism here, it’s just true) and yet had never met even though emails and parcels often fly through the ether/through the joys of Royal Mail (any publishers reading this please stop using DPD couriers, you will notice I never receive these parcels because they are useless) and so it was lovely to sit and get to know two people, who I already feel I already know, all the better over coffee. We discussed some very exciting autumn titles and I came away with yet more gifts…

I don’t want to appear to have favouritism towards a certain book; however, Frances and Corinna had been discussing new books when Frances ran off to get an older book. She had suddenly thought of it and ‘just know you will love it, seriously’. Well as soon as I saw the cover of ‘Woman’s World’ it was love, however when I opened it I was spell bound. Graham Rawle’s debut novel is made from cuttings from magazines and papers used to make a story, it sounds bonkers so here is a picture…

Doesn’t that just look amazing? Even the page numbers are from magazines. It really blows me away. Apparently Rawle’s new book is experimental too, based on random cards he has found on the streets over the years, I am very excited about these and ‘Woman’s World’ is getting read very, very soon. So with my new loot I dashed off to meet the lovely Jane Harris, this is the joy of books – you sometimes fall in love with an author’s voice in books then meet them and they are just as lovely. We had a nice glass (or two) of wine, cackling away in the corner of a private members lounge.

I had to dash quickly after that to get to The Cage in Villiers Street to meet S.J Bolton for cheese and (more) wine. This was when I realised I had left my wallet somewhere during the day, would you believe it… I rang around and someone had handed it in (whoever you are thank you), isn’t that amazing? I didn’t even begrudge a round trip, lots of walking as my travel card was in my wallet, to get it, though I was embarrassed to then turn up to meet S.J. Bolton about an hour and a half/two hours late. She was lovely though, and it was nice to meet her before we record The Readers Summer Book Club which her novel ‘Now You See Me’ is one of the titles Gavin and I have chosen. I left with another goodie back of her books, a mug (which is in the dishwasher) and some other treats. Lovely stuff.

So a big thanks to everyone I saw, and apologies to some of the people I couldn’t see (next time I promise) but especially BIG thanks to Lynsey who treated me to such a lovely day out overall. It was nice to visit London, if briefly, and I am looking forward to returning in the not too distant future for something very exciting. I was shattered on the train back however I made a new friend, again thanks to books, but more on that later…

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The Orange Prize Short List 2012… Thoughts

So the six novels that make up the Orange Prize Short List have been announced. I don’t know if you could hear the cries of woe that came from ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris not being on the list, followed by the bellowing ‘what were they thinking?’ either way here is the actual list as it stands…

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding
Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

What do I think of the list? Well if I am being truly honest I am mainly sulking about the lack of one title which I just don’t understand not appearing. This isn’t just bias though as I have tried, and failed, with ‘The Forgotten Waltz’ and ‘State of Wonder’ and so have to assume that it is simply a case that the judges and I have very different tastes. That’s all part of fun of awards though isn’t it?

On more positive note, as I don’t want to come across as a spoil sport as I do love this prize, Madeline Miller’s marvellous debut novel ‘Song of Achilles’ is in the mix and I am going to hope that now wins. I will also be reading a couple of the others. Esi Edugyan is a title on The Readers Summer Book Club so I will be reading that in the next few weeks before Gavin and I interview her, ‘Foreign Bodies’ is on the incoming shelves at the moment and I have rather fancied reading ‘Painter of Silence’ since I saw Kim’s review on Reading Matters.

At the moment I just have everything crossed for Madeline Miller being triumphant on May the 30th! What do you make of the final six short listed titles?

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