Tag Archives: Jenn Ashworth

Telling Hometown Tales Again… An Update

So, way back when in the depths of the past, I told you all about how I was joining the lovely team at Weidenfeld & Nicolson, part of Orion and the monster (in a large way, not scary or evil) publishing house Hachette. Basically, it is an initiative to find more diverse voices in the landscape of writing from all over the UK. We not only can I tell you what the first four books will be and who the eight authors are (as each book has a published author writing about their home town and then an unpublished author from the same town or region if you flip the book over) for the first in the series AND excitingly I can tell you who the next four published authors are and where we are looking for new voices. One of them could be you…

The first four books out in June are from Glasgow, Yorkshire, the Midlands and Highlands and Hebrides and they are…

  • Hometown Tales: Glasgow will include a “moving” account of growing up in the shadow of Woodilee Hospital by short story writer and author of The Gracekeepers (Harvill Secker) Kirsty Logan, and “a deeply personal portrait of the city” by new voice Paul McQuade.
  • Hometown Tales: Yorkshire will feature Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of The Last Act of Love and A Manual for Heartache(Picador), writing about her childhood home in Snaith, and new voice Victoria Hennison on village life in Holme-on-Spalding-Moor.
  • Hometown Tales: Midlandswill pair a story about a Jamaican girl adopted by a couple living in Fleckney, Leicestershire, by Kerry Young, author of the Costa First Novel-shortlisted Pao (Bloomsbury), with new voice Carolyn Sanderson’s tale of young love in Milton Keynes.
  • And, last in the four-strong tranche, Hometown Tales: Highlands and Hebrideswill include an account of growing up on the Isle of Mull by Colin MacIntyre, author of The Letters of Ivor Punch (W&N) which won the Edinburgh International Book Festival First Book Award in 2015. MacIntyre’s piece will appear alongside a “bold and inspiring” coming-of-age story set in Inverness by new voice Ellen MacAskill.

As you will know if you have been round this neck of the blogosphere for a while I am a huge fan of both Kirsty Logan and Cathy Rentzenbrink as writers and as people. for a while what they have written (because I have read these between Costa submissions and everything else) is ruddy marvellous. As are Colin and Kerry’s, who have both been on my book periphery for a while so I am keen to go and read their novels even more now, and I can’t wait to see what Paul, Victoria, Carolyn and Ellen come up with in the future. Ooh, it is exciting.

Now then, what about the next set of books and the areas we are looking for authors from or to write about their links to? Well we have these fabulous four.

  • Hometown Tales: Birmingham will feature both a new writer and BAFTA award-winning comedian, writer and author Stewart Lee, who will write about the post-punk scene in Birmingham and how music has shaped his memories of the city.
  • Hometown Tales: Wales will be contributed to by Tyler Keevil, a writer originally from Canada, now living in Wales, who will explore the idea of migration. Keevil won the Journey Prize and the Wales Book of the Year People’s Prize, and is is one of the judges for the Wales Book of the Year 2017, while his new novel, No Good Brother, is due topublish with The Borough Press in February.
  • Hometown Tales: Lancashire will see a new voice juxtaposed by novelist Jenn Ashworth’s story set over a pub crawl one night in Preston. Ashworth, who has previously written about what it’s like growing up in a Northern working-class Mormon community and how it influenced her novel The Friday Gospels (Sceptre) for The Bookseller,last year published Fell (Sceptre)and lectures in Creative Writing at Lancaster University.
  • Hometown Tales: South East will welcome a new writer in the company of award-winning BBC broadcaster and founder of Boom Shakalaka Productions Gemma Cairney, writing about her home town of Margate.

I had a sneaky suspicion Jenn Ashworth might be up for it (because I asked her to her face) and I am so thrilled as she is just a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful writer – and also now a pal, but that doesn’t mean I have rose tinted glasses just to clarify. I also nearly passed out from joy when I heard Gemma Cairney had said yes, seriously, almost passed out. I am looking forward to what they, Stewart and Tyler come up with and just as importantly, if not more so, what some new writers come up with and submit.

So there we have it, if you are someone with a hometown tale to tell, or know someone with a hometown tale to tell then please make sure you head here and get in touch. Oh and if you are thinking ‘but my hometown isn’t on here’ we want this series to grow and grow and so please submit for your area too. Basically, get writing because we want to get reading.

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Guessing The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017

A week to this very day will see the announcement of the longlist for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Those of you who have followed this blog for the last (almost ten, how did that happen) years will know that the Women’s Prize for Fiction is one of my top five literary prizes ever. For many a year now I have played the all at once delightful and downright difficult game of trying to guess the longlist, so I thought I would do it again this year. Why fix it if it ain’t broke?

There is a slight change this year. Normally I do a list of 20 books, for that is the usual longlist length. This year it is all change however as there is rumoured to be a shortlist of just twelve books this year. For me to choose a list of only 12 books is frankly impossible, well ok not impossible but it would be very difficult as one thing about the guessing the list for this prize shows me every year is how many amazing books there are by women published every year. So I have decided if the prize can change its list length so can I, so you will be getting a list of 12 books I have read and would love to see on the list and 12 books I would love to read and see on the list.

First up the books I have read, which has shamefully reminded me of how little of what I read last year I have reviewed but I will in good time, that I would love to see on the list…

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail)
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (Allen and Unwin)
Shelter by Jung Yun (Picador)
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Vintage)
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Penguin)
This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press)
The Good People by Hannah Kent (Picador)
Fell by Jenn Ashworth (Sceptre)
My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal (Penguin)
The Muse by Jessie Burton (Picador)
To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey (Tinder Press)
The Museum of You by Carys Bray (Windmill)

I was going to add Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing which I read for the Man Booker Prize last year but I didn’t love it as much as everyone else BUT if it was on the list I would read it again so thought I should give it a nod. Right, now to the books I haven’t read yet but want to, which was again so, so, so tough to whittle down just to twelve.

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Here Comes The Sun by Nicole Dennis Benn (Oneworld)
The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (Granta)
Autumn by Ali Smith (Penguin)
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich (Vintage)
Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (Sceptre)
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Faber and Faber)
English Animals by Laura Kaye (Little Brown)
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (Oneworld)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (Orion)
Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (4th Estate)
The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy (Scribe)
The Unseen World by Liz Moore (Windmill)

There were so many more I wanted to add onto this list. Brit Bennett, Emma Geen, Min Jin Lee, Claire Fuller, Katherine Arden, Stella Duffy and Sara Baume  were all wriggling away in the back of my mind as were heavyweights Ann Patchett, Emma Donoghue and Annie Proulx. See it just goes to show how many amazing books there could be in the list next week. And you know what? I wouldn’t mind if I was completely wrong and was introduced to a whole selection of books I hadn’t even thought of, that is all part of the joy of a prize like this one, so much scope, so many possibilities, so many good reads ahead.

So over to you, what do you think might just make the list next week?

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Fell – Jenn Ashworth

I have been a fan of Jenn Ashworth’s for quite sometime. Ever since our lovely mutual friend Emma Jane Unsworth popped a copy of A Kind of Intimacy into my hands and said ‘read this’ I have become a huge fan of her words both in her second novel Cold Light and also the stories in the wonderful ghostly collections Curious Tales. So when a proof of her fourth novel, I have skipped the third for now, Fell arrived I was so excited I could pop. I was also nervous, would this live up to how much I had enjoyed the previous two? Fortunately for everyone involved, and for those of you yet to read it, I think that Fell might be the best book I have read by Jenn and also one of the best books that I have read this year.

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Sceptre Books, hardback, 2016, fiction, 304 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Her key in the lock wakes us. It wakes the starlings too: they rise chattering out of the trees in the front garden and hurl themselves into the sky. They don’t fly far; before the door is open they have landed, disgruntled, on the roof ridge. We flutter at each other like leaves, finding the words for things, laughing, stiff as bark, too wooden to grab and hold on tight.
Our?
Our names.
Yes. We are. We are. Dazed as newborns! The proprietors of this place. A respectable house. Netty. Jack. That’s what they called us.

As the door of The Sycamores opens for the first time in years, so does Fell with the awakening of two ghosts, Netty and Jack, who used to own the property before (as they soon discover/remember) the house was left to fall to wrack and ruin. It is the return of their daughter Annette that has woken them, a begrudging return after what has seemed like decades and where plants, birds, cracks, damp and various creepy crawlies have taken over. As the ghosts of her parents watch over Annette they soon realise that their daughter is once again troubled (yes once again, well noted I will come back to it soon) and they feel, once again, that they have to protect her in some way. What then starts to unravel is not only the story of why Annette has come home after so long but also how decades before, in 1963, their lives were changed forever when Timothy Richardson became a part of their lives in the most unexpected way.

A Scottish accent. Something soft and well bred about it. A gentle voice, with a smirk to it, as Netty might say.The boy has put his tee-shirtback on, but rolled up the sleeves tight under his armpits. He’s only wearing his swimming trunks and the tee-shirt and there’s something faintly obscene about it, much more than the bare chests of his friends. It’s as if (the refreshing sensation fades along with the boys smile, the heat closing in on him again and giving him trouble marshalling his thoughts properly) he’s wearing the shirt to underline the fact that he isn’t wearing any trousers.

As the story unravels, and do not worry I am not going to give masses away, we soon learn that back in 1963 Netty had discovered she was incredibly ill. Around that time the meet Tim at a swimming pool (well lido near Morecombe Bay, which is a wonderful area to set this book) where not only does he mesmerise Jack visually in some strange way, he also does something strange to his vision which seems unbelievable, he fixes his sight. For it seems Tim has a gift for healing and with Netty being so sick and Jack desperate for help, he soon joins the other boys at their boarding house with the hope of making Netty better. Yet is Tim all that he claims to be? And if he is, is he a fallen angel or a charming devil. Jenn Ashworth beguiles the readers as much as Tim beguiles all he knows and starts to take us on a dark and magical tale from there on wards.

There is honestly so much about Fell that I loved I am going to have to try really hard to be succinct and not waffle on about its brilliance. So where to start? Well there is that fact that it is just beautifully and wonderfully written. Firstly there is the narrative, not a lot of authors could get away with writing a novel through the voice of a collective duo of ghosts a tricky device but impressive if pulled off. Netty and Jack can both go through their memories at the time, both separately and together. They are all seeing and all knowing, yet they also look back with a sense of distance and hindsight looking at the things they did and the consequences of those actions on each other and particularly with Annette as a young girl, the can also travel with Annette in the present and potentially influence the now. It is a clever trick which many an author would fail to build compellingly or believably, Ashworth does both with skill.

Then there is the story, which I have alluded to and is brilliant, where Jenn also manages to make the novel/tale riff off the myth of Baucis and Philemon. Though I won’t say any more on that in case of spoilers, so don’t go and Google it until you have read Fell I just wanted to point out another wonderful factor. However as we all know without great characters and setting a story falls apart, again nothing to worry about here. so don’t go and look it up and Ashworth’s creations Netty, Jack, Annette and Tim (even the enigma is a fully formed if tricksy) are all wonderfully drawn as are the periphery folk around them in the past and in the present; Candy, Maddy, Eve, Tom. The area of Morecombe Bay and Grange-over-Sands is also perfect for this tale. For those of you who have not been this area, once a popular place to recover from illness or have a holiday, is now a slight ghost town, nature is raw and a little dangerous, the sea isn’t really sea and it has a sense of the ‘other’ about it; all of which feeds into the whole feel and gothic sensibility of the book.

Then there are the themes, so many it is again hard not to gush endlessly about how brilliant it all is. You have the question of Timothy’s abilities, are they real or are they not, is it a gift or a curse, can we cure everyone (which is of course still a huge question today) and should we, how far will we go for the ones we love, what will we avoid telling the ones we love because we think it will hurt them, when are hope or denial good and/or bad emotions.

In her coming weeks Netty will look back and try to pinpoint the moment when she first started to believe in Timothy Richardson, a butcher’s apprentice from the city of Edinburgh.

Sickness is clearly one of the main themes of the book and it is one that chimed with me the most. Not just because I’ve recently been diagnosed with a lifelong condition, thankfully not terminal and manageable with surgery and painkillers; though I can’t pretend hasn’t caused me some ‘bloody hell life can be unfair’ thoughts, which Ashworth captures wonderfully. But also because I helped care for my Gran when she was terminally ill and as much as it is a gift to be able to look after someone who is unwell, also becomes something of a curse not just because you must watch them decline but also because they can be blooming difficult, and you can totally understand why, and it can be one of the most emotionally gruelling times in all your lives. Again, Jenn captures this all too realistically, yet writes about the intricacies and rawness of all these emotions beautifully and with a sense of compassion and deftness of touch around all that darkness.

Jack glances over the paper. She’s shooting daggers with her eyes. I’m sick and you’re not, and you can go and do what you like and I have to have help to get up out of chairs and I don’t gripe about it. But this small thing. I want. I want it. I want. Sickness has made her selfish. Maybe she’s a bit grateful too. He can put his foot down, which means she can sulk and keep believing that she would have been able to drag herself across the sands if only he’d let her. She can barely get up the stairs these days.

The final theme I will mention is probably the one that has literally haunted, pun intended, me since I have read the book… The themes of haunting. Obviously from the start you have two ghosts narrating it, this is not your average ghost story though, well it is but it is also much more than that. Yes this is a novel about a haunted house, yet it isn’t the kind of ‘crash and jump, things flying around the house’ kind of haunting this is much deeper than that. The house is literally haunted by the memories and events as much as the dead and the living are haunted by them. The idea of haunted ghosts has really stuck with me as has the question that those ghosts bring to Fell; will we always be haunted by what we did or didn’t do in our pasts? It sounds on the surface like a simple question, yet the more you think about it the deeper you have to go inside yourself and your emotions to ponder it. This of course is also the perfect analogy of what Fell as a novel is all about, a darkly magical tale which has many hidden depths. It is quite, quite something and has reminded me that some of the best books we read are those we have to savour slowly and ask ourselves some of the bigger questions. I cannot recommend you read it enough. Don’t rush it, just slowly get lost in it, I promise you it is worth it.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Jenn Ashworth, Review, Sceptre Publishing

Cold Light – Jenn Ashworth

One of my reading highlights last year was undoubtedly Jenn Ashworth’s debut novel A Kind of Intimacy, a wonderful dark book which featured one of my favourite things – the unreliable narrator. This was made all the better because she was a complete and utter loon, which gives nothing away as watching her go slightly psycho and discovering why she has gone over the edge is one of the fascinating facets of the book. Anyway I have reviewed that one, but it will make you understand why I turned to Cold Light at the start of the year to keep my rather marvellous reading momentum going and it didn’t disappoint.

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Sceptre Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 352 pages, bought by myself for myself

As Cold Light opens we meet Laura as she sits in front of the telly watching a memorial being erected in her home city, only this memorial is to a young girl and her boyfriend who tragically died a decade ago. The girl was Chloe, Laura’s best friend at school, a role she often competed for with Emma, when they were fourteen. However as space is made for the plaque, live on TV, a body is unearthed and Laura instantly recognises the coat it is found in. Laura then starts to unravel a winter in her teens which she has both hidden from, becoming famous after her friends tragic death, and revisit a time when three fourteen year old girls lived a life of lies, jealousy and secrets.

Jenn Ashworth plays some bloody good games with her readers with her second novel. Throughout the book we are constantly wondering what Laura is telling us, how true it is and of course what there is that she is leaving out. In the present we find out that she has completely cut herself off from her parents and yet still occasionally sees Emma, a girl who she competed with in childhood and didn’t really like, but why? She has also made her life the most unnoticeable she could, is this due to a lack of self esteem or is she hiding from her past or something in it?

I never got a job at a cafe, and I never tried Woolworths. I clean the shopping centre. It’s my job to put the out the yellow triangles before I mop: little slipping stick men to warn you of what you’ll get if you walk on wet floors. I use the motorised floor polisher with protectors over my ears while the television screens mounted overhead show the shopping channel, the talk-shows, the consumer revenge panels. I don’t get paid much, but after all the shops in town went 24-hours there’s as much work as I want. It’s not Woolworths or a perfume counter, but I have my own trolley and I know my way around the service corridors even in the dark. I do all right.

One unreliable narrator can often be an abundance of dark secret riches, as Ashworth proved with A Kind of Intimacy, yet she’s done that before and so we also get a cast of characters who might all be hiding secrets. Not only must we question what Laura is hiding must also do the same for those around her. As we slowly go back to the winter when all this happened we get insight into other things going on at the time such as her father and mother seem to be falling apart, there was a flasher out on the streets who has started to want to interact more than just expose and Chloe’s boyfriend Carl starts to show signs of being rather violent and nasty. The plot thickens.

‘I’m not sure I want you going out that far on your own at night,’ she said. ‘It’s dark. And anyway, you’d think – ’ She went to the bottom of the stairs, shouted my father’s name at the top of her voice, and then used the broom she kept there to bang on the ceiling a couple of times.
‘What? You’d think what?’ I said.
‘You’d think on his wages, he’d be able to afford more than fifty pee’s worth.’ She shook her head and pointed through to the front room with a pot-scourer. ‘It isn’t safe for you to be wandering the streets.
‘He’s stopped hasn’t he?’
‘For the time being, perhaps. But no one’s been caught.’

As the book goes on not only does the plot thicken, the plot twists, the plot gets darker. Without giving away any spoilers you start to suspect all the cast of characters of having done all sorts of awful things. Ashworth does this expertly because she isn’t feeding you these thoughts, just leaving you little titbits to take away and make as dark as your own nasty little mind will go. She shows but doesn’t tell and sometimes you might be right, sometimes you will be horrified that you could suspect someone (even a character you have come to really like) of doing something they simply didn’t. You never feel a fool, it just makes you realise what nasty suspicious thoughts you can have. Clever, very clever!

What I also loved about Cold Light is the way it feeds off and plays with(and homage to) some of the great tropes of literature. In some ways it is a crime novel, there is a body discovered at the start and a mystery to unravel, yet it looks at the way the crime now (and something in the past) affects a whole community and the extreme reactions it causes. It also toys with the coming of age tale, or if I was being really pretentious ‘bildungsroman’ which just sounds filthy, as we watch how these three girls navigate life and each other. Teenage girls can be such bitches. Finally it also plays with those bleak, cold, ‘ooh it’s grim up north’ novels and takes it to extremes both in atmosphere but also because it doesn’t feature loads of middle class people moaning about it, it’s the actual working classes who often don’t get a voice. I actually described it as being like Mean Girls meets Broadchurch but ‘oop north’ and more sinister the other day, if that doesn’t sell it to you as being a blooming brilliant, compelling yet complex read you must grab, then nothing will.

So as you can see Jenn Ashworth has done it again for me with Cold Light as we have a dark yet also blackly funny twisted tale. A Kind of Intimacy was a rather confined little wonderfully evil monster of a book; I think Cold Light has a broader scope yet a condensed dark heart at its core. With these two novels and the ghost story that turns itself on its head, in a collection I read over Christmas, Jenn Ashworth is becoming one of my favourite contemporary writers. I cannot wait to see what she does with a family drama in The Friday Gospels. Read her.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Jenn Ashworth, Review, Sceptre Publishing

The Books We Keep Meaning To Read…

Why do we save books for that elusive rainy day? This is something I have been pondering a lot of late and decided that I need to address in my own reading habits. Do not fear this is not going to be a challenge as I have promised myself that I am not going to be doing any of those, which is weirdly a challenge in itself. So maybe I do have one challenge. Anyway, before my head hurts, I mentioned this with Thomas when we recorded The Readers and I said I wasn’t even going to be doing a ‘reading for Gran challenge this year’, I think she would actually be telling me to just read what I want when I want. Though I can also imagine her saying ‘but why do you always need to read contemporary fiction and the latest this and that’. I can imagine it because she said it one day in the hospital a few months before she died. She would be/is right I have soooooo many books that I have been saving for that elusive rainy day, not actually noticing that it rains rather a bloody lot here.

That illusive rainy day...

That elusive rainy day…

Initially I thought of older books, which I will come to shortly, yet there are some newer ones too. I have the joy of interviewing (slight name drop alert) Tess Gerritsen tomorrow and I realised that I had let myself get woefully behind with the Rizzoli and Isles series. Part of this is because I like to have some ahead as I love the series so much I am scared it will stop and the other, you guessed it, that rainy day. Well I have broken with tradition and read the latest one and will have the two I have missed to catch up with. (Another bookish OCD thing I have is that I have to read a series in order, on the whole!) Yet why do I wait? I might get run over by a bus tomorrow – though hopefully not. This applies to lots of series but also to books by new to me contemporary authors I love, like Jenn Ashworth. I am in love with her writing at the moment, waited till a new year to read her second book… but why should I wait till next year to read her third to spread them out? Madness. I should binge till I feel sick surely?

This of course applies to older books, be they classic classics or modern classics. Why have I held of reading all the Margaret Atwood/Kazuo Ishiguro/Anne Tyler books from the last several decades that I have bought over the years and sit on my shelves or in boxes? Why do I pace my Daphne Du Maurier or Muriel Spark’s, is it because they are dead so I won’t find more? Wouldn’t I be furious if I didnt read them all by the time (hopefully in about 60 years) I am on my deathbed thinking of my reading life? Then of course there are the classics, many of which I know I want to read but don’t like a very silly sausage. It’s time to think on Savidge!!

So I have decided I am going to ban the term ‘saving it for a rainy day’ and informally (because I am not seeing this as a challenge like I said) I am going to think about all the books I have always meant to read and bring them back into my reading diet. An unofficial ‘books before I am forty’ list might appear, it might not. I might just see, like my main aim of the year ‘sod it and hurrar!’ What do you think and which books have you been saving for a rainy day and why?

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Savidge Reads’ Books of 2014

For someone who finds making lists an utter joy yet who can never make them concise you may be surprised that there is only one list of my books of the year this year. Normally I will do two; the ten books that I have loved most published this year and the ten from previous years. Well this year I have decided to be a more savage Savidge and only have ten… well twelve. I cheated a little bit again. I was going to do fourteen for the year we are in but could see that might cause potential problems in 2033. So without any more waffle here are my books of 2014. (For full reviews click on the link in the title.)

  1. Mateship with Birds – Carrie Tiffany

Picador Books, 2013, paperback, 224 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

One of the first books I read this year and one of the ones which has stayed with me. On the outskirts of a town somewhere in Australia in the early 1950’s we join two neighbours. Harry owns a dairy farm and spends his days between milking his herd and watching the local wildlife, mainly a family of kookaburra’s, and looking over his past seemingly happy with and yet questioning his lot in life. Betty rents the house next door with her two children Michael and Little Hazel, often wondering what has become of her life and often wondering about Harry. We follow these two characters, Betty’s children, and their weird neighbour Mues over what I thought was a season – though it could be much longer or indeed shorter as Mateship with Birds has a sense of nothing and everything happening all at once, all in the grubby wilds of the countryside.

This book has everything I love in it; the wilds of the countryside (which you might see in a few of my choices), outsiders and a rather wonderfully grubby dirty edge. I will be going book shopping on Friday and will be hunting down a copy of Carrie’s Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living.

  1. The Dig – Cynan Jones

Granta Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 156 pages, kindly sent by the lovely folk at Fiction Uncovered HQ

In The Dig we follow the lives of two men who live in the same remote countryside and who have met briefly once and who couldn’t be more different. Daniel is a farmer who is struggling both with keeping his farm profitable and running and also with a personal tragedy. I will not give away what because when you find out early on it is like a physical punch. I cried that is all I will say. The other character, who we only know as ‘the big man’ is a much darker kind of fellow; one who trains his dog to kill rats, catches badgers for baiting and has been to prison for something we are unsure of. The question is of course how and why might these two men meet up again?

I never imagined I would have a book about badger bating as one of my books of the year, it even has an evil horse in it, yet for the same reasons I loved everything about Mateship With Birds I loved The Dig (which was also one of Fiction Uncovered’s titles this year, Naomi Wood’s Mrs. Hemmingway would be book number 13 on this list, just saying – and cheating again). It is a book that wonderfully links the rawness of nature to the rawness of emotions and the savage nature of animals to those of men.

  1. The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane

Sceptre Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 276 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Ruth is a widow who has been living by herself on the coast round from Sydney and for a little while and been coping quite well thank you very much. However on and off in the night she has felt pretty sure that there is a tiger who is roaming around her house. She doesn’t know where this tiger comes from or goes to after it visits her and yet while she doesn’t think it wants to harm or eat her, its presence is unnerving to say the least. Especially when she wakes up and wonders if it was ever really there at all, is she losing her marbles?

Another book that I loved very much at the start of the year (and possibly the most beautiful book of the year if you have the UK hardback) and was desperate to talk to anyone and everyone about as it is so twisty and unreliable in many ways – which of course is why I love it. I even made Thomas, my cohost on The Readers, read it and we had a mini book group which you can hear here, though be warned spoilers abound.

  1. A Kind of Intimacy – Jenn Ashworth

Arcadia Books, paperback, 2009, fiction, 283 pages, borrowed from Emma Jane Unsworth (who might never get it back!)

If the first two books had a link of the rawness of nature, these two have the link of the unreliable, dark and twisty. Annie Fairhurst has left her old lonely miserable married life with her husband Will behind her. She wants to start again and so has found herself a new home in the suburbs of a Northern town for herself, and her cat Mr Tips, to start a fresh. She wants to make new friends, have wonderful parties and maybe meet a man like her old love Boris, who rather liked the larger lady like Annie and twice gave her a glimpse of how life could be. She is full of hope for the future, especially when she meets her next door neighbour Neil who she is sure came to her aid once when she was a damsel in distress. Yet this unleashes two things in Annie, firstly the fact that her past is a mystery that keeps rearing its ugly head no matter how hard you try and cover it up, secondly Annie isn’t as stable as she might initially appear nor as truthful or lovely. The plot thickens…

This was loaned to me by the lovely Emma Jane Unsworth (whose Animals would have been joint number 14 with Kerry Hudson’s Thirst, cheating again) as she thought I would like it. Having read it I hope that is meant as a compliment of my tastes in fiction rather than to my style of friendship. Hmmm. Anyway it was a huge hit with me, Emma will never get this book back again and Jenn’s second novel, she is now writing the fourth, Cold Light will be one of my first reads of 2015.

  1. Under The Skin – Michel Faber

Canongate, paperback, 2000 (2011 edition), fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

This is one book I have loved but not actually reviewed yet, the reason for this is that there is a bog old twist that I don’t want to reveal. Here’s the blurb… Isserley spends most of her time driving. But why is she so interested in picking up hitchhikers? And why are they always male, well-built and alone? An utterly unpredictable and macabre mystery, Michel Faber’s debut novel is an outstanding piece of fiction that will stay with you long after you have turned the last page.

I knew the twist but I have to say that didn’t stop me from enjoying this book from start to finish. It is a book that looks at what it is to be a woman in society and what the true meaning of society and humanity are. I will say no more. I did see the film too… I will say no more on that either, ha! I do need to work out how to deal with books with big twists and spoilers in 2015 though as I have a few reviews pending of such books. Any ideas how to deal with this are much welcomed.

  1. Cover – Peter Mendelsund

powerHouse Books, 2014, hardback, nonfiction, 256 pages, brought by Santa for Christmas

The most recently read which is why it might end up being much higher up over time. Either way, Peter Mendelsund was initially a classical pianist, or a recovering one as his bio says, who after the birth of his first child realised he needed a more stable job with a regular income. But what? Well, as it happened he liked design and then his mother knew someone who knew someone at Knopf Books and after a chat, a viewing of his portfolio (which Knopf being pretty bowled over by what Mendelsund calls “shockingly wince-inducing” self taught designs) and some interviews he then became a junior designer. Now he is Associate Art Director there and his book covers are world famous, though you might admittedly not know they were by him. He is one of those wonderful people who make us want to pick up ALL the books, from Lolita to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo literally. Well, if you live in America, though some have come here too. Cover is his story of how he came to cover books and what doing so means.

A book about books that every book lover should read or own, the end.

  1. Bitter Greens – Kate Forsyth

Allison & Busby, 2013, paperback, fiction, 544 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

My favourite fairytale, and indeed possibly story, of all time is Rapunzel. With Bitter Greens Kate Forsyth weaves a tale of three women to retell it and indeed to write a thrilling love story to it. First is Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who has been exiled from the court of the Sun King Louis XIV after a fall from grace too far (which in those times was saying something) and is banished to live in an Abbey with nuns. Second is Selena Leonelli, once one of the most beautiful women in Italy and even the muse of the Venetian artist Titian. Depicted forever in his paintings she has one fear, time, and how it will take her beauty something she will do anything to keep. Thirdly we have Margherita, a young girl trapped in a tower forever unless she finds a way to escape.

I was in book heaven reading this. I don’t tend to go for historical novels very much, and know very little about the court of Louis XIV but I revelled in it and want to know much more about it. All in all a wonderful, saucy, gripping, brilliantly written, literary romp – pitch perfect storytelling. You can hear me talking to Kate about this and more here.

  1. He Wants – Alison Moore

Salt Publishing, paperback, 2014, fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Lewis is a man who seems to be stuck in a rut. He is at the end of middle age yet not quite on the cusp of old age. He goes and looks after his father, Lawrence, at the old people’s home and yet his daughter, Ruth, comes round every morning to look after him and deliver soup that he actually doesn’t want. He has recently retired as his role as an RE (religious education) teacher yet having been widowed sometime a go he has no one to share his retirement with, just time and his own thoughts. He spends most of his days at home apart from when he goes to visit his second favourite pub, and that is probably how he will go on spending it. What Lewis isn’t expecting is a blast from the past, in the form of an old friend Sydney, to turn up one day and Lewis’ comfortable, if boring from the outside, life is shaken up.

There are some books that leave you feeling both completely uplifted and utterly devastated, all at once. I know it sounds implausible, such a dichotomy of emotions, yet these books are often the ones that leave us feeling the most enriched by the experience. Alison Moore’s He Wants is such a book. I loved this, I loved The Lighthouse; I need to read everything Alison ever writes and will do so. You can hear me talking to Alison about this and more here.

  1. Trespass – Rose Tremain

Vintage Books, hardback, 2010, fiction, 272 pages, inherited from Granny Savidge

This was undoubtedly the year of Rose Tremain and I, even though she didn’t know it – well actually I got to meet her and then she did. Ha! (The American Lover would have been on this list but I thought a title per author was fair, and I promise that is my final cheat!) As it opens we follow a young, rather spoilt, girl Melodie who is struggling to fit in at her knew school and so on a trip out runs away into the countryside where she discovers something horrendous amongst the tranquillity. What she has discovered we have no idea because we are swiftly taken away from this moment into the lives of two pairs of siblings, soon beginning to realise that in some way one or both of these siblings have something to do with whatever it is that poor Melodie discovers, but what and how?

She was one of Granny Savidge’s favourite living authors and Gran always told me I should read her, interestingly saying this would be my way in, she was completely correct. It is such a shame I can’t talk to her about these as we would have had some corking conversations but Gran has certainly left me with a legacy of recommendations. You can hear me talk to Rose Tremain about her books and writing here.

  1. Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey

Penguin Viking Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

This should have won so many awards. From the start of the novel we meet Maud who, when she is not repeatedly going to the corner shop and buying more (and more) tinned peaches, is always finding notes in her pockets that remind her that her friend Elizabeth is missing. She may sometimes forget the name of the women who come and make her tea or clean her house but with these notes everywhere possible she cannot forget this and she must find out where she went, why her house is empty and why Elizabeth’s son never seems to care. At the start of the novel Maud also discovers a compact mirror, where we are not initially sure, which suddenly brings back the disappearance and mystery of what happened to her sister Sukey 70 years ago.

I just love this book so, so, so much. Emma’s writing is incredible, the way she handles the theme of dementia is beautiful yet honest and so occasionally very funny. Cliché alert but it is really amazing this is her first book, no pressure on the next then? You can hear me talk to Emma about this and much more here. Oh and side note, she would be cross if I didn’t mention it, this is also one of my mother’s favourite books of the year – we discussed it a lot at Christmas. Read it.

  1. A Month in the Country – J. L. Carr

Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1980 (2000 edition), fiction, 112 pages, inherited from Gran

Gran left me with a legacy of authors to read and also a legacy of books of which this was one. In A Month in the Country Tom Birkin reflects several decades later on the summer of 1920 when he ended up in the village of Oxgodby for a single month. Here on a mission left by recently deceased spinster Miss Hebron he is being paid, begrudgingly by the Reverend Keach who is only allowing it as Hebron left the church money if he did, to uncover a possible medieval wall painting inside the church. Birkin reflects upon that summer, the place he was in mentally in his life at the time and thinks about the place he was in physically and those who peopled it.

It is really hard to say much about A Month in the Country, as it is essentially a very silent and still yet powerful book, other than it is pretty much book perfection. If I hadn’t had such a (similarily yet more epic) visceral reaction to the next book it would have been my book of the year. You can’t hear me discuss this with Mr Carr as he is dead BUT you can hear me discussing it with Gav, Kate and Rob (some of us might weep) here.

  1. The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

Chatto & Windus, hardback, 2014, fiction, 464 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I never thought a Booker Winner would be my book of the year, especially after the last few years but Richard Flanagan just blew me away with this book. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is essentially the tale of one man’s life with all that befalls him. Alwyn ‘Dorrigo’ Evans is one of the survivors of the Death Railway in Burma where he was a prisoner of war. He was the surgeon, having the strange job of helping people escape death only to then have them healed and sent off to work that was likely to lead to death be it from sickness, exhaustion or torture. He is a man who has had a love affair with this uncle’s wife. It is really these two particular strands of Dorrigo’s life that this novel follows going back and forth developing a life lived, with it joy, despair, loss and love.

Easily the book I have loved the hardest (and therefore was the hardest to write about) this year and will more than likely be one of my all time favourite and most memorable reads. And guess what, yes, you can hear me chatting to Richard about it here (I was such a lucky sausage with interviews this year) and more. Richard’s back catalogue will be being bought by myself over the next few years and devoured.

So that is my list! If you have read any of these let me know what you thought of them. If you haven’t why on earth are you still reading and not running to a bookshop/library, no I don’t care what time it is or if it is a Bank Holiday, and getting them now? If you have made a list of books of the year do let me know, I will have a look at them in 2015. If you haven’t then please share some of your favourites in the comments below, or I will sulk which is no way to end one year and start the next is it?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Random Savidgeness

Poor Souls’ Light; Seven Curious Tales

Almost a year ago I told you about a collection of short stories entitled The Longest Night; Five Curious Tales. These were just the right sort of ghostly tales you need around Christmas and saw some authors I love such as Jenn Ashworth, Alison Moore and Emma Jane Unsworth who collectively self published it and went on spooky nights here there and everywhere telling these tales and discussing ghost stories. Well guess what? It has only come back for a second year. Last year it was five tales in homage, of sorts, to M.R. James; this year it is seven tales in homage (again of sorts) to Robert Aickman. Now as you know I have some issue with Aickman’s tales, so when I realised that I did a small wince before getting going…

Curious Tales, 2014, paperback, fiction, ghost stories, 140 pages, kindly sent by Emma Jane Unsworth

Having read Aickman I can see how the stories by Jenn Ashworth, Alison Moore, Johnny Mains, Tom Fletcher, Richard Hirst, Emma Jane Unsworth and M. John Harrison are all inspired by his works as they all have elements of the supernatural and the ‘weird’ about them. If, like me (as you may have seen recently), you find Aickman and the ‘weird’ a little too, erm, weird then fret not.

Even when the element of the strange rather than supernatural or ghostly is there, even in the most Aickman like tale Blossom by Mains which really plays homage to The Hospice the story of Aickmans I most loved, it never goes to the point where the plot is spoiled by the weirdness or the reader feels somewhat played unfairly by the author. I admit there was a scene in Blossom which had me thinking ‘WTF?’ yet Mains handles it really well and the plot gets even darker after with a real sting in the tales tail.

The rest of the tales veer more to the traditional edges of the ghost story. For example with both Alison Moore’s The Spite House and M. John Harrison’s Animals deal with haunted houses though in very different ways. One is very much about a house haunted by its past and something it lived through, the other is very much about how a house feels about someone who returns to it and the imprints of how those who lived in it felt about the returned person. I enjoyed both of these especially the element of the house as a character within the narrative, or almost with its own narrative itself.

The cottage could be quiet, especially in the early evening, when the lane, with its fringe of trees against the setting sun, filled up with shadows. She heard what she thought were movements, half drowned by the sound of the radio she kept in the kitchen, even in the day. ‘It must be the central heating,’ she thought, but soon it became clear that these sounds were actually voices. Whatever room Susan was in, she heard them somewhere else.

Emma Jane Unsworth’s Smoke takes on the tale of someone becoming haunted by something, indeed something that follows them afterwards wherever they go. I am not being funny but the idea of seeing something ghostly and then it following you to the ends of the earth/your bed, or in this case around Europe, is something I find truly creepy and Unsworth nicely plays with that primal fear. Tom Fletcher also plays with the primal fear of being followed yet in The Exotic Dancer it is the case of a stranger following you with their eyes and their intent. Fletcher’s tale too is incredibly creepy and the setting of an old canal tow path and the industrial edge of a town/city is spot on. It has reminded me how much I want to read his novels.

In a collection where there isn’t a dud note you shouldn’t really have a favourite, yet I had two. As you might have guessed I really enjoyed them all, Richard Hirst’s and Jenn Ashworth’s tales just edged it; I think Ashworth’s in particular should be put forward for every short story award going. Now both of them have a couple of twists so I don’t want to spoil them so I will tread carefully. Hirst’s And The Children Followed is set around evacuees in one of the World Wars, it is vague about which not that it matters, as a recently bereaved (and going off the rails) young woman grieves for a sibling. I will say no more than that on the plot but as the tale goes on and the dread and horror mount I was instantly reminded of Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery, you will gasp at the end. Ashworth’s story I actually want to say almost nothing about, other than it will turn a ghostly tale on its head for you and have you asking all sorts of questions. That is all, oh and it’s bloody marvellous with the games it plays and how she cleverly lets it unfold and toys with the reader in the best o f ways, marvellous.

I embrace her but she only shivers and pulls away to turn all the radiators on the house onto their highest setting. I wait for her in our bedroom, worrying about my cough and my breath, which is starting to smell like mushrooms, even to myself. She will not come up, but begins again to scrub the kitchen floor.

All in all a great collection again from the Curious Tales crew/collective, one that I would heartily recommend you get your mitts on and get reading over these dark winter nights. I have often said that I think modern ghost stories are very difficult to get right, this collection proves me completely wrong and I am thrilled.

If you are looking to get a copy you best hurry as there is a limited run of just 500 of them in print. I am not sure what the plan is on eBooks. For more info and to buy it head to the website here where you can also find out about some live events ahead this month and next – erm, massive hint guys bring it to Liverpool at some point or else, I know just the place! Now I am in the mood for more ghostly tales, so which ghost stories and collections would you recommend I go and hunt down?

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Filed under Alison Moore, Curious Tales, Emma Jane Unsworth, Ghost Stories, Johnny Mains, M. John Harrison, Review, Richard Hirst, Short Stories, Tom Fletcher

A Kind of Intimacy – Jenn Ashworth

We all have bad days don’t we, like I might have yesterday, or times in our life when we just want to escape from the world we know and have created for ourselves. In Jenn Ashworth’s debut novel A Kind of Intimacy we follow a woman who gives herself a new start and we then watch as the past slowly starts to haunt her, creeping ever more to the forefront of her life again.

9781906413392

Arcadia Books, paperback, 2009, fiction, 283 pages, borrowed from Emma Jane Unsworth (who may never get it back)

Annie Fairhurst has left her old lonely miserable married life with her husband Will behind her. She wants to start again and so has found herself a new home in the suburbs of a Northern town for herself, and her cat Mr Tips, to start a fresh. She wants to make new friends, have wonderful parties and maybe meet a man like her old love Boris, who rather liked the larger lady like Annie and twice gave her a glimpse of how life could be. She is full of hope for the future, especially when she meets her next door neighbour Neil who she is sure came to her aid once when she was a damsel in distress. Yet this unleashes two things in Annie, firstly the fact that her past is a mystery that keeps rearing its ugly head no matter how hard you try and cover it up, secondly Annie isn’t as stable as she might initially appear nor as truthful or lovely. The plot thickens…

What had I told her that for? Honestly, you can sit me down with a cup of tea and a packet of biscuits and ten minutes you’ve got my whole life story. I clamped my lips together to stop any more noise coming out until I had decided how I was going to approach things. There was no point making a fresh start if you were going to bring all the old junk along with you and I certainly didn’t want new friends to become unnecessarily embroiled in my history.

There is so much to love about A Kind of Intimacy it is going to be hard to do the book justice and also rather difficult not to gush about its brilliance. First credit to Jenn Ashworth has to be the pacing of this book. It is one of those books that really, and I don’t think this gives too much away, slowly racks up the tension. It is also one of those marvellous books where the author will give you a very normal seeming paragraph or two until you spot a word or two in one of the sentences that makes you do a double take and then start to ponder all the layers and dark corners that are going on around the edges. It takes a deft hand to do this, there must be hints and not too much show and tell and yet at the same time you really need to keep the reader interested in the ‘façade’ story, if you will, as the book goes on. It is very blooming clever that, a really hard trick to pull off and Ashworth does it deftly.

‘Annie reacts with appropriate anger when her human rights are infringed,’ I recited, which was as assertiveness affirmation I’d picked up from one of the new books. You were supposed to write them on slips of paper and stick them to all the mirrors in the house, but there were too many, the scraps of paper kept falling off and drifting to the carpet like oblong snowflakes, and so I just spent some time learning them instead. I said it ten times as I washed my bloody and dirtied hands with the lily of the valley liquid soap then I went to my bedroom for a lie down. I stayed up there for a couple of hours, only coming down to get a tub of ice cream and a tin of condensed milk because I hadn’t eaten anything since the sausages and I was hungry again.

Secondly, what makes the book all the more brilliant is the fact it is so centred in reality. The cast of characters around Annie are the people you have around you in any neighbourhood. You have the rather hapless yet helpful Neil and his much younger and rather ‘I am so mature for my age’ but actually not at all girlfriend, Lucy. The slightly randy and often rather drunk neighbour across the way, Raymond, and the lovely and very helpful and thoughtful couple round the corner of the cul-de-sac Barry and Sangita, the latter who sees Annie as a bit of a project to get on the local Neighbourhood Watch. Set in a nondescript town with its hairdressers and discount clothes stores, it all seems oh-so normal.

Thirdly, to create a character like Annie who tells us her side of all her stories (some true, some not so) and yet also cleverly give the reader hints that there is much more, and indeed much darker, things going on in the background making Annie sound delightful yet be utterly unreliable, is some sort of genius. It is something I have rarely seen done quite so well. Somehow Ashworth makes us like Annie despite the fact that we soon learn she is utterly bonkers, I mean loop the loop crazy, does some horrendous things (which are also hilarious whilst nightmarish) yet loves her cat dearly, deep down wants to be the perfect neighbour and friend and who has, if I can be blunt, had a pretty crap past. There are themes of being unwanted, missing out on your full potential, a sense of desperation to be liked and welcomed, and most importantly to be loved. We empathise even though we know we shouldn’t and sometimes might not want to.

Which leads to the fourth point of brilliance, the way in which A Kind of Intimacy switches from hilarious to disturbing, from fantastically filthy to utterly tragic. Ashworth knows how to write with all these emotions and feelings going on without one ever taking over or anything becoming too extreme, even when the book comes to its climax. She also knows how to set one against the other to make the reader more engaged be it the fact that the funny bits make you laugh all the louder because then something disturbing comes along, or because the sense of tragedy in the background hits you all the harder because of the humour, the balance only tilting till Ashworth has you in explosive giggles or feeling devastated or shocked.

As you might just have guessed I rather loved A Kind of Intimacy and thought it was rather brilliant. I love books which are quirky, tell a bloody good story, are well written and make you think. This book makes you do all of those and once you have closed the final page I bet you will find yourself often thinking of Annie. I cannot wait to read all of Jenn Ashworth’s other works.

Note: you can have a nosey through Jenn Ashworth’s bookshelves here.

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Filed under Arcadia Books, Books of 2014, Jenn Ashworth, Review, Sceptre Publishing

Other People’s Bookshelves #39; Jenn Ashworth

Hello and welcome to the latest in Other People’s Bookshelves, a regular series of posts where you get to have a nosey at other book lovers bookshelves. This week we head into the home of author Jenn Ashworth, another fine example of why we should #ReadBritish2014 as you will see in reviews over the next few weeks. So let us sit down with Jenn in her office, have a nice strong cup of northern tea (always the best) and possibly a bourbon biscuit or custard cream and  then have a nosey through her shelves, first though a little more about her…

Jenn Ashworth was born in 1982 in Preston, where she still lives. She studied at Newnham College, Cambridge and the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. Before becoming a writer, she worked as a librarian in a prison. Her first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, was published in 2009 and won a Betty Trask Award. On the publication of her second, Cold Light (Sceptre, 2011) she was featured on the BBC’s The Culture Show as one of the UK’s twelve best new writers. Her third novel The Friday Gospels (2013) is published by Sceptre. Ashworth has also published short fiction and won an award for her blog, Every Day I Lie a Little. Her work has been compared to both Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith; all her novels to date have been set in the North West of England. She lives in Lancashire and teaches Creative Writing at Lancaster University.

books in the office 2

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 mainly keep hold of my books – I still own anthologies of seventeenth century poetry that I last looked at in my first year of Uni. I’m very minimalist and restrained about all other kinds of stuff. Books are my indulgence. There’s always money for them, and I’m a member of a couple of libraries and have a kindle too. I have been promising myself I will go through and have a cull for ages. But I can’t predict where my interests will take me to in the future. Maybe that collected works of Aphra Benn is going to be just what I need to get the next novel into gear. Who knows? My shelves aren’t quite full, but they will be soon – even though I do buy plenty of e-books these days.

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?

Nothing so organised as any of those things. There’s a vague system. I keep cooking books, reference books, books about nature and wildlife, astronomy, the weather, local history, maps, guides to pubs and walks and days out in Lancashire, loads of pop science books, books about card games and stuff like that – all at home in my red bookcase in my living room. We’ve got piles of board games and DVDs and National Geographics from the 1970s in there too. And paints for the kids, and their old shoes. It’s a sort of ‘everything in here’ bookcase. We could probably get rid of most of these books and rely on the internet, but I like looking up facts in books.

books in the office

At home, I have a pile of current reads next to my bed and a couple of stacks of recently-read-and-need-to-be-taken-back-to-the-office on a shelf over my desk. It’s one of those floating shelves that look quite nice but can’t really hold that many books. When it starts to wobble I take the books to work and dump them in my office. Where they stay. You can see there’s no order at all – maybe a rough chronological one in that the books I’ve read most recently are always closest to hand. I almost always remember what I have and find it when I need it, but I must clean it out sometime.

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

It was The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton and I bought it from Sweetens with book tokens my aunt in Glasgow posted to me. She used to send John Menzies vouchers but that year it was book tokens. I didn’t grow up in a particularly bookish house, though I always had a library ticket and my Uncle worked at Askews and would sometimes bring spoiled and damaged books back for me to keep. I don’t own any of the books I did have as a child – we moved when I was thirteen and left everything behind – but I have tracked down and rebought a few of the special ones I want to have with me since then. What Katy Did. Stig of the Dump. The Brothers Lionheart.  The Baby and Fly Pie. The Whitby Witches books. There’s one I’ve never been able to find – I can’t remember the title or the author – but it was about a boy who refused to go to school, built a raft and sailed away on it on the Mersey. It was narrated, I think, by his younger brother. Ring a bell with anyone?

books in the office close up 3

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?

I’m not guilty about any of my pleasures. Fighting fantasy game books. I’ve just rebought the reissued versions of the Fabled Lands adventure book series, in the hopes I can convince my daughter to give them a go. Ian Fleming – the boxed set of all the Bond novels. I don’t hide anything.  But now I really want to know what is on your hidden shelf and where in the house it is. Spill the beans! (Simon isn’t telling, he might after a few sherries.)

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?

The Brothers Lionheart. And all the books I’ve borrowed and forgotten to give back.

books over my desk

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 used to read anything I could get my hands on. My mum had Danielle Steele books in the house and I remember reading them and being thrilled by the dirty bits. I had a library ticket and would borrow all kinds of weird stuff – there was a huge book called The Empty Fortress which was about children with autism written by an American consultant – I used to borrow that when I was eleven and renew it as many times as they’d let me. I don’t have it anymore but I would like to have it – if only to try and work out what it was that enchanted my younger self so much. I read Agatha Christie – all of them, lots of D. H. Lawrence – textbooks books about deaf culture and British Sign Language, books about wild flowers and foraging and self-sufficiency. I was probably quite an odd child. I suppose because I didn’t have much to do with school and didn’t have a bookish family there was no-one to tell me what kinds of books were the right ones, and which ones weren’t.  Indiscriminate and guiltless reading is something I’ve tried to carry into my adulthood.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

I do borrow copies of people’s books and am terrible about giving them back. Horrific. I would give it back if pressed. And yes, probably buy my own copy if it was something that had altered me. Most books do, in some ways. I’m feeling guilty now.

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

I bought the Fabled Lands books – all six of them – and The Secret Lives of Trees by Colin Tudge which I am currently reading. I also bought A New Kind of Bleak by Owen Hatherly which I’m reading alongside the trees book. A strange and completely satisfactory combination, like fruitcake and cheese.

recent arrivals at the office

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

The one I mentioned earlier about the boy who didn’t go to school. I am haunted by it. Perhaps I imagined it. I had it in hardback and it had a dark brown cover. The implication was that this boy had committed suicide in the Mersey on this raft rather than go to school. I was utterly undone by it. I hope I find it one day. Maybe I did imagine it. I might buy the Empty Fortress if I can find it.

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

I suppose they’d think I was a bit of a book hoarder, was tough on my paperbacks (they are always tattered and written in, with post-its hanging out and bent spines, watermarked from reading in the bath, curry stained, dotted with tea and tears (!) They’d probably notice I had particular obsessions and favourite authors but that I was a magpie generalist.

books by the side of the bed

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A huge thanks to Jenn for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. If you would like to find out more about Jenn visit her website here. I am still beaming at the fact Jenn loves the Whitby Witches which I loved too. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Jenn’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions? And can you help her discover what that book with a boy on the Mersey was all about?

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Filed under Jenn Ashworth, Other People's Bookshelves

The Longest Night: Five Curious Tales

I have often said that to write a really good ghost story in a modern setting is almost impossible. However a recent collection of five wintery ghostly tales The Longest Night by a collective compiled of authors Jenn Ashworth, Tom Fletcher, Richard Hirst, Alison Moore and Emma Jane Unsworth seems to have proven me wrong. Whilst I read each of these tales, which are designed to emulate M.R James’ tradition on Christmas Eve (so very apt today) of meeting with friends to exchange tales of the supernatural, I found that I often was either chilled, shocked or felt the hairs on my neck slowly begin to rise as I read on.

Curious Tales, 2013, paperback, fiction, ghost stories, 88 pages, kindly sent by Emma Jane Unsworth

The Longest Night isn’t a collection of stories designed to revolutionise or modernise the ghostly tale, as what each author does rather marvellously is give the tale a truly Victorian feeling yet very much in a modern setting. If you are wondering what on earth I mean by that, I mean that the stories feel very traditional with modern twist. We have old haunted houses, slightly scary children who might be possessed or at least can speak to the dead, ghostly ladies returning from the grave and of course the wonderful scares a telephone can provide. Why is it that the simple telephone can be so bloody unnerving? All these tales also have the feeling of you being told the tale firsthand, as Stephen Volk (who created the cult show Ghostwatch) says in the introduction of ‘No listen. This happened to me…’, a celebration of the oral tradition of the ghostly tale. In fact, frankly, I wanted to be sat by a roaring fire with a mulled wine being told these tales by the authors themselves – which if you pop to the site you will see they are doing, well in bookshops anyway. I feel slightly cheated I have missed out.

Now you may have noticed that I am being rather vague, or actually haven’t really mentioned, about what lies in wait within each of the tales. This is because as they are all rather short, again the traditional and best ghostly tales are short sharp shocks, and so I wouldn’t want to spoil them. I think I can get away with saying that Alison Moore (who wrote the brilliant The Lighthouse) and Tom Fletcher’s stories are probably the most traditional in terms of setting and sensibility, both set within empty houses; one the former estate of a famous author, the other a new house in the middle of nowhere where a house husband starts to feel something not quite right is going on and seems to be linking itself to his young daughter. I loved these as they felt like the sorts of tales that Arthur Conan Doyle and M.R. James would indeed write now.

I also greatly admired the three tales by Ashworth, Hirst and Unsworth as whilst each one of them had the traditional feel, they also had something of the urban legend about them mixed in and probably most importantly they had the evocation of modern human base fears mixed in with the supernatural. In each tale there is an underlying completely natural fear be it grief, loneliness or madness. With those feelings we all know so well plus the sense of unease and fearful trepidation they all had a horribly, yet brilliantly, heady mix of the fearful running right into every part of their structure and it was really deftly done.

All in all a marvellous, very well written and indeed incredibly unsettling collection of modern winter ghostly tales which I think would have gladly given the contemporary ghost writers of the past a real case of the shivers. I am hoping this becomes a yearly fixture as I could do with a decidedly chilling evening in the pre-Christmas madness once a year, or more often frankly.

For more information about the last few available copies and indeed where the authors will be reading in the New Year head to the Curious Tales website here.

Which are your favourite ghostly tales for the perfect darkened evening with the roaring fire (I don’t have a roaring fire here, which along with the lack of a bath has confirmed in my mind I need to have moved by next winter just for reading purposes alone) be they new or old? Do you think the Victorians did it best? Have you any other modern ghostly tales that will continue to prove my thoughts on the modern ghost story wrong?

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Filed under Alison Moore, Curious Tales, Emma Jane Unsworth, Jenn Ashworth, Review, Richard Hirst, Tom Fletcher

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 Longlist?

So tomorrow is the announcement of the first, yet technically eighteenth, Women’s Prize for Literature. As has become the routine in the last few years, I do love to have a go at guessing what books might be on it. This isn’t based on what people ‘in the trade’ might be thinking or any of that gubbins, though I love all the speculation, it is simply based on books I have loved, am desperate to read or simply think might be on the list, though I am sure I will be proven delightfully wrong once again this year and a million miles off in my guesses.

The first four of my guesses are some of my favourite books of 2012, well, those that fall into the submission guidelines, they are…

The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon
Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole Me Ma – Kerry Hudson
The Lighthouse – Alison Moore
The Age of Miracles – Karen Thompson Walker

Next up some books that I have read, or in the case of the Atkinson am reading, and am yet to review but have thoroughly enjoyed…

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
Instructions for a Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell
Past the Shallows – Favel Parrett
May We Be Forgiven – A. M. Holmes

Next up another four more books that are on the bedside table at the moment…

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie – Ayana Mathis
A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki
Tell The Wolves I Am Home – Carol Rifka Brunt
Origins of Love – Kishwar Desai

Three more books that I am keen to read very soon and also one which I have been mulling over reading or not because of the Jesus factor, if it gets long listed will definitely read it…

The Palace of Curiosities – Rosie Garland
Tigers in Red Weather – Liza Klaussmann
Above All Things – Tanis Rideout
The Liar’s Gospel – Naomi Alderman

Finally a mix of four books that would cause some talking points if they were listed (well one would for me particularly)…

Bring Up The Bodies – Hilary Mantel
The Casual Vacancy – J. K. Rowling
Bitter Greens – Kate Forsyth
Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

I am pretty much sure that Hilary Mantel is going to be on the list and, unlike the general consensus I have heard of late, I have no grumbles about that at all. It has been really annoying me that people are now laying into her, everyone was really celebratory of her Booker double, after winning the Costa Prize too. Surely great books of the year should be able to win as many book prizes as they are eligible for, no? I can’t be doing with all the gripers, yes I know too much talk can put you off a book but don’t be mean about it. Rant over.

As for the other three, well I don’t think many people are predicting that J.K. Rowling will be on the list yet I would be quite chuffed if she was – it would get people talking, the book deals with current themes and it might get me to finally read it which I have been saying I will for ages. If ‘Bitter Greens’ gets on the longlist I will be talking about it to everyone because it is the retelling of Rapunzel and we all know that is my favourite fairytale and I named my duck after her when I was four. I have just had this in the post and have been sooooooooo excited, I am saving it for some long journeys I have coming up. Finally, the Flynn, why not? It has been a huge seller, everyone has been talking about it and the twists and turns and characters, even if you love to loathe them, are great. Though of course it is a crime novel and so may be written off for that, it could be a dark horse though.

I know I have missed out some of the big hitters like Barbara Kingsolver, Tracy Chevalier, Aminatta Forna, Nicola Barker and Rose Tremain (who I now desperately want to read the works of as though Gran and my mother love her I haven’t but The Beard’s mother yesterday was raving about her and we seem to be on an authorish wavelength) but I wanted to have a different and varied list overall. I wouldn’t be upset if any of them were on it. I also debated ‘The Friday Gospels’ by Jenn Ashworth, yet didn’t think there would be two books with ‘gospel’ in the title, why I don’t know and ‘Red Joan’ by Jennie Rooney. I mulled over some other debuts like  ‘The Innocents’ by Francesca Segal and I couldn’t work out if Katherine Boo was eligible, though I really want to read it but then decided I just couldn’t second guess it could I?

Yet that is part of the fun isn’t it, the fact that no one could guess the longlist because there are so many eligible books that have come out in the last twelve months and we have no idea how many books have been put forward. Plus how dull would it be if we could guess? One of the things that is great about the longlist is finding a whole new selection of books and authors you have never heard of before and want to go and find out more about. I am getting even more excited about the prize now.

I will report back when the list is announced at some point tomorrow, I am hoping really early. In the meantime which books do you think might just make the longlist, which ones would you be particularly thrilled to see?

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Filed under Random Savidgeness, Women's Prize for Fiction

Do I Want To Read… Some Debut Novelists

I have been meaning to write about this particular thing since World Book Night a few weeks ago. There was a brilliant show on BBC2 on the night in question which looked at promising debut British authors and coming up with a shortlist of twelve that stood out. You may remember me writing about my thoughts on debut novels, and you helpfully gave yours, a while back and this seemed to fit in just so. A panel of judges including novelist Helen Oyeyemi (who I have been meaning to read for ages) and headed by John Mullan, who wrote about it in The Guardian, came up with a final list of twelve 12 and its these novels that I wanted to ask you about…

Now having said I wanted to ask you about all of them, I actually only want to ask about the ones in bold. The ones that aren’t I have already read. I know this list will have people saying ‘that one shouldnt be on there, this one should’ however it’s actually the fact that I have really loved three of the four I have actually read that made me want to ask you if I should give the other ones ago? I have linked back to two of them; sadly I didn’t love ‘Union Atlantic’ when I read it last year (sorry!!) so never reviewed it, the simply amazingly brilliant ‘Mr Chartwell’ is the book up for discussion tomorrow.

I am reading a corker of a debut novel by Naomi Wood at the moment which you can see a picture of  somewhere up there ——> so I am keen to read plenty more of them. I have a few of the list above already (in italics) one of which I struggled with but will head back to. I really like the fact the debut novelists are all of very diverse ages. I just wanted your thoughts on the ones I have not read whether I own them or not, should I indulge in them all?  That’s all… for now.

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Filed under Book Thoughts