Tag Archives: Jane Harris

Sugar Money – Jane Harris

One of the books that I have been most looking forward to, for quite some time, is Jane Harris’ Sugar Money. I was a huge fan of Harris’ debut The Observations pre-blog, in fact I believe it was one of the books that got me back into reading after Rebecca and Miss Marple, I remember my Gran buying it for me in Scarthin books. Anyway, I digress, long suffering standing readers of this blog will know that back in 2011 I then fell head over heels with Harris’s second novel Gillespie & I; a book which I genuinely felt like had been written for me and me alone. I know that sounds like I have an ego the size of a small continent but we all have those books don’t we, ones which seem like the author rooted through the ‘favourite things’ sections of the bookish corner in our brains? To cut a lot of waffle from me short, after two such reading hits with me how would I get on with her third novel…

Faber & Faber, hardback, 2017, fiction, 390 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Some masters are swift to get to the point when they give instructions; you might say they go directly through the main door, cross the threshold, no hesitation. Father Cleophas was not one of these. He would walk around the property first, try the windows, then wander off into the garden to gaze at the roof before eventually he retrace his step to the front of the dwelling and give a tentative knock and – whiles he went on this bumbling circumbendibus – you oblige to go with him, wondering what abominable toil or trouble might be in store for you whenever he finally came around and stated his requirement. With this rigmarole and in other ways, Cleophas like to cultivate the impression of being an absent-minded, kindly fellow and he would beguile you with that bilge awhile until you became better acquainted and began to cognise just how sly he could be, for true. My brother and I had encountered all manner of individual among the friars; a spectrum of humanity, from gentle coves who scarce could bear to swat a mosquito to the most heartless bully. Whiles Cleophas might not be the worst kind of tyrant, for true, he was surely as slippery as a worm in a hogshead of eel.

I was so tempted to simply leave the paragraph above with the words ‘how could you not read a book after you have read that’ and left that as my review, as really what more do you need to know? Yet a wonderful book like Sugar Money It is a paragraph brimming with everything I love, fantastic vivid prose, you both know the character of the narrator and Father Cleophas in mere sentences and it also brims with the past, the present and a potentially concerning future. It is funny and yet there are horrors hidden in the spaces between the charming tone. It is actually a paragraph that surmises everything that is so brilliant in Harris’ writing, atmosphere and characterisation as well as what you can expect from the rest of the book. But hang about, I have started waxing lyrical already and not even told you what Sugar Money is about so let’s rewind.

The year is 1765 and Lucien and his older brother Emile have been instructed to perform a mission for Father Cleophas who wants them to smuggle 42 slaves from the island of Grenada, where the brothers themselves once lived, back to him in Martinique where he feels they belong as he believes that these slaves have been stolen from the French by the British, or at least that is what he says. Anyway, this is not a mission that either of the brothers can say no to for they are slaves themselves and so a boat is sorted and soon they set sale. Lucien, our narrator, sees this both as a huge adventure and also as a way of seeing some of the people he just about remembers from Martinique. Emile however can only see the hard realities of what lies ahead and what seems and impossible task. Through his interactions with Lucien we get the sense there is much the younger brother doesn’t know and the first prickles of dread appear in our minds, we as readers catching Lucien’s sense of excitement whilst picking up Emile’s forewarnings that this will be anything but a tale of daring do.

I don’t want to give too much more of the story away because an adventure, which I do think this novel is albeit a rather harrowing one which had me in physical tears at the end, when you know what is coming isn’t going to have the effect that Harris clearly intends this book too. I will say that when we get to Grenada the brooding atmosphere that has been lingering at the edges builds and builds as you read on. There are some utterly gut wrenching scenes of how the slaves were treated, which Harris doesn’t flinch away from and show us how horrendously these people were treated and then she also cleverly reminds us that Emile and Lucien are slaves themselves and not two free young men on a rescue mission, they just undergo slightly less horrific lives as slaves themselves, which is a complete mind f**k in itself again. Yet this also calls out to the here and now, how often have we heard people say ‘well, we have made steps forward so that is ok, there is still hope?’ You are reading a ripping yarn but follow the threads and the undercurrents and there is much for us to ponder within the prose.

In case I am making this sound like too dark and harrowing tale, Harris interweaves the story of Sugar Money with humour which invariably comes from its cast of utterly fantastic characters. There are many things that I have loved in both Jane’s previous novels The Observations and Gillespie and I; unforgettable characters is one of them (atmosphere and sense of place another which are also in abundance in this novel) be they characters who appear for a page or two or the main narrators themselves. In the latter case Lucien is a welcome addition to Harris’ wonderful leads, the bawdy Bessie Buckley and the beguiling Harriet Baxter. He is cheeky, he breaks the rules and heads off on his own when he shouldn’t and his internal dialogue and perceptions have us hooked, and often horrified, by his side.

Unlike Bessie and Harriet, who were lone narrators if that makes sense, here we have the brotherly bond and banter of Emile, who frankly I fell head over heels in love with. He might seem an older bossy brother to Lucien but through the moments Lucien describes, without picking up on himself, we find a man who cares deeply for his brother, his former lover (a wonderful and moving additional strand in the book I won’t spoil) and yet one who knows the darkness of the world and just wants to do what is right or failing that what is best. If you do not fall for him then there is no hope for you and we simply can’t be friends.

‘But who is this with you, Emile?’
Chevallier forced a laugh.
‘You must recognise him?’
The old woman cast her eye over me, her mouth downturn. Then she took a step back.
‘Ha! Just like his mother – big ugly lips and skinny face.’
Well, that was nonsense for my mother was known for her beauty and I would have said as much except Emile shot me a warning glance.
Anqelique sat down and took up her pipe. The firelight threw flickering shadows across her face. Sharp creases ran from the corners of her nose to the ends of her lips. The skin below her eyes look puffy. She was old and lame. Nevertheless, she was still tough as old turtle, for true.

Yet what makes Sugar Money all the more powerful is also the cast of characters around these two. Be they the duplicitous Father Cleophas, the delightful Celeste, the villainous Dr Bryant or the matriarchal Angelique, to name just a few, these characters come to us brimming with life, with their own spectrum of perspectives stories to tell. It is with this collection of characters that we see how people can keep on going in times of adversity or simply times of utter horror and also how people keep hope in their hearts which adds to the emotional impact of a book such as this.

As you can see I could probably carry on singing the praises of Sugar Money for quite some time so, I shall simply round off by saying that if you want a tale of adventure and daring do, filled with wonderful characters, that makes you think and explores a period of history you may not know of (oh and I should say this book is based on a true story) that will leave you heartbroken yet with a sense of hope then this is a book you should be rushing out to get right now or what the tumpty-tum are you playing at?

You can get Sugar Money here if you would like, you can also see Jane and myself in conversation about this wonderful novel and both her others at Chester Literature Festival on November 19th tickets here. End of shameless self promotion in italics. 

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Filed under Books of 2017, Faber & Faber, Jane Harris, Review

Other People’s Bookshelves # 81 – Susan Davis

With Savidge Reads being back up in action it seems only right that the Other People’s Bookshelves series returns almost instantly. If you haven’t seen them before these are a series where a guest takes over the blog and feeds into the book lust we all feel by sharing their shelves. This week we are off to Shropshire, just down the road from my mum, to join author Susan Davis and have a nosey through her shelves. Before we do Susan has kindly put on a lovely afternoon tea for us all and is going to introduce herself before we rampage through her bookshelves…

I write in a converted coal shed in Shropshire which sometimes feels like an anchorite’s cell. If I stand on a chair I can just glimpse a slice of Wenlock Edge through the tiny window. Back in the nineties and noughties I published Y/A fiction along with short stories under my real name, Susan Davis. I now write psychological thrillers under the pseudonym Sarah Vincent, most recent of which is ‘The Testament of Vida Tremayne.’ When I’m not writing my own stuff, I work as an editor and mentor for ‘The Writers’ Workshop.’ I don’t have any cats, just a terrier who likes to chase them.

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

They need to be special to earn a permanent spot these days. ‘Special’ would mean: Virago classics by old favourites like Elizabeth Taylor, or Barbara Comyns. Also contemporary fiction that gets better with every re-read like Sarah Water’s ‘The Little Stranger’ or ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris. All books written by friends and acquaintances. You can’t very well give them away, unless you’ve fallen out! Books with gorgeous covers – can’t resist the Scarlett Thomas books, although for me ‘The End of Mr.Y’ was the one that really lived up to its cover. Non-fiction and reference books which feed into my fiction, art books with lots of lovely pictures – a refreshing break from words. Otherwise books that have that read-and-let-go quality, are likely to be shipped off to charity shops when I’ve finished or passed around friends.

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?

Mostly by category. There are three main bookshelves in the house and a few smaller ones. The study bookshelves go something like this: top shelf for poetry and writer biogs which I’m addicted to. When I’ve got a dose of tortured artiste syndrome, I dip into Sylvia Plath’s journals for reassurance. A few Viragos up there also.  Second shelf: esoteric tomes and all the fiction I’ve published over the years, including anthologised stories. Also the teen trilogy ‘The Henry Game’ – their bright sweetie coloured covers do jump out a bit. Third shelf down: Art books, more weirdo esoteric stuff, reference, and so on.

Upstairs bookcase is all fiction, novels written by friends, some children’s books and short story collections. Living-Room book shelves are a mess. Which is odd when you consider that they are the only shelves on public display. This is because I share them with my husband – so the top shelf harness-making, birdie and crafty books are all his. Honest. No categories on my second shelf down. They just loll about together in a drunken fashion. I’m keeping a space for my daughter’s overflow of books as she’s moving house shortly.

I had a major book cull around four years ago in a mad de-cluttering moment. We were moving to a tiny cottage by the sea, or so we thought, so I had to be ruthless. Whole shelves were cleared, and I invited friends to come and take their pick from the boxes. They gaily carried off some gems, which I now regret chucking out. Sadly, our house sale fell through, leaving me with huge gaps to fill. I now cull regularly in case we decide to move again. Trouble is, every time I take books to the charity shop, I come back with another bag full.

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

It’s a toss-up between ‘Teach Yourself Astrology’ which I think I bought with money for my 11th birthday, or it could have been ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in hardback when I was 12, having just been introduced to ‘The Hobbit’ at school. I think my son must’ve nabbed that one when he left home because it’s not on the shelves now. Here I should perhaps explain that I grew up in the fifties, in a working class household where buying books was considered a dreadful extravagance. Why buy them when you’d only read once and could go to the library and read for free? My parents were avid readers, bless them, so the Saturday trip to the library was the highlight of my week.

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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?

No, nothing to hide!  If I had I’d be more likely to have them on Kindle. I’d probably have squirmed a bit about the esoteric books at one time, books about ley lines and fairies and so on. Would people think me strange? Nowadays, I know they do, so I don’t care!

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 has to be a dusty black hardback, a first edition of Ursula Bloom’s ‘Wanting to Write’, published in 1958. It was published well before the Creative Writing Industry took off, and is full of gems like: I have always found that the ordinary pen which requires dipping in the inkpot is far more helpful than the fountain pen or ballpoint which today is so much to the fore. When I stumbled upon it in a junk shop in the early seventies, I was a young mum bashing out novels on a Remington typewriter in my kitchen, and feeling almost ashamed of my compulsion to write. Bloom made me feel less alone. I do have a special shelf for these early ‘writing’ books which I collect, (which I haven’t included in the pics.) Which books would I save in a fire? I wouldn’t. I’d be more likely to try and save old photo albums. Books can always be replaced.

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 is it on your shelves now?

I discovered copies of ‘Fanny Hill’ and ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ in my dad’s dressing table drawer once, but they seemed dull at the time. When I searched again as an adolescent they had magically disappeared. I suppose the first ‘grown-up’ book must have been ‘Little Women’ which was one of the few books my mum actually owned and was much prized on her shelf. Is that grown-up enough? Followed closely by the usual suspects, classics like ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’ which I loved.

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?

Yes, occasionally. I’m more likely to do that with non-fiction books, often about rural life or travel, like Robert Mcfarlane’s wonderful ‘The Old Ways’ which I originally borrowed, then treated myself to. The same thing happened with ‘The Morville Hours’ by Katherine Swift, a beautiful book which is of local interest so good to dip into.

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

Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Albion’ ‘the origins of the English Imagination.’ Brand new and a bargain find in an Oxfam shop. Looks stunning on the shelf but I haven’t got around to reading yet.

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

Hundreds. I’m looking for a copy of George Borrow’s ‘Wild Wales’ which I first read on my Kindle. However I’d rather have the real thing to take on trips to Wales with me. Oh, and there’s a beautiful new edition of Elizabeth’s Taylor’s Complete Short Stories. I plan to treat myself to that one soon.

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

What would I like them to think? Hah, what an interesting person, she clearly possesses exquisite taste. Seriously, they’d probably be left scratching their heads. Who knows?

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And a huge thanks to Susan for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, apologies again for the delay but it was so worth the wait. If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance, I am catching up with all the latest volunteers. In the meantime… what do you think of Susan’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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The Book Tingle (#BookTingle)

When I was sat with my lovely fellow judges at the first proper Fiction Uncovered meeting, the subject of what we were all looking for in winning books came up. As it went around the table with the judges and the Fiction Uncovered team things like the prose and writing style, something different that stands out, great stories etc all come up. When everyone looked at me for my response the words that came out of my mouth were ‘I want the book tingle’ and they all looked at me like they might have someone unhinged (or living up to the Simple Simon namesake) sat with them. And so I explained…

For me a book tingle is a rare and elusive phenomenon. You would initially think that for a book to give me all the tingles it would simply need to be an amazingly written book that ticks all my literary likes. Well yes, but you see there is more to it and I bet you have all had them too. You can have books that start amazingly and then, for various reasons, go off on a tangent, these ones don’t. From start to finish they have you.

The first time I had this sensation was with Catherine Hall’s The Proof of Love*.  I should hear add that since then Catherine and I have become firm friends, down to the book actually, yet when I picked it up I hadn’t heard of her before and had no knowledge of the book. Oh, expect that on the cover it said ‘Sarah Waters meets Daphne Du Maurier’ which piqued my interest and also made me wary all at once. In fact, cheeky little scamp that I am I actually thought ‘compared to Du Maurier eh? Go on then, impress me…’ and it did taking me completely by delightful surprise. You see from two or three paragraphs in I just knew this was a book for me. It is often the sense of surprise when this happens that adds to the experience.

These books are rare gems; you don’t get them often. There is an almost unexplainable feeling from the start which lasts until the final full stop. Not for a single moment does the book let you down, or indeed out of its grasp, you are effectively spell bound by it. It feels like all the rest of the world goes completely out of your mind and all that is left is you, the book and the author’s words. It is the prose, the characters, the atmosphere, everything! You almost feel, without it sounding arrogant, that this book was written just for you.

This has happened again very recently, if I may be so bold, with Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, review coming soon. Four pages in and I knew we were off. I was in an effortless zone of book reading bliss. This book has nothing in common with The Proof of Love, well actually maybe something in hindsight but I wouldn’t have known from the start. They are set in different times, completely different places, yet somehow I just knew. And it is the same with some other books which gave me that same sensation (have I said tingle too often now making it sound even weirder than it did at the start?) like Gillespie and I, The Hunger Trace, Small Island, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, My Policeman etc ** from the very beginning I just knew. They all just got me, or did I just get them, either way it was a perfect match.

So what I am saying really, and what I think I am not looking for in just Fiction Uncovered judging but also in my reading life in general, is that the reason I keep reading is to hunt for that next kick and those extra special books. The books that you more than simply just love, the ones that give you that magic feeling, don’t let you go and afterwards become both part a landmark in your reading history and a part of your psyche.

To hear me talking about it slightly more eloquently, yet with more giggles, listen to the latest episode of The Readers. I would love to know (in the comments below) which books you’ve read that have given you the book tingle, or whatever you would like to call it, from the very start and held you throughout, plus how it feels when you just know a book is going to be just your sort of book. Which books do you feel were really written just for you? Do also share them on Twitter with #BookTingle, let’s get it trending!

*You may have noticed I have not mentioned Rebecca. This is in part because it is the book that got me reading again, so is a whole separate stratosphere and also in part because I wouldn’t have known what a book tingle was if it had hit me square between the eyes.
**These with Catherine Hall are the books, prior to my last tingle with Ms Burton, that I thought of when I was thinking of books where the feeling hit me within a few pages or a chapter. I just knew.

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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.

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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.

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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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Filed under Other People's Bookshelves, Shelley Harris

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