Tag Archives: Jonathan Franzen

Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine – Diane Williams

I am a sucker for a good cover and let us be honest Diane Williams latest collection of flash fiction, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (which always makes me think of the Mary J Blige song Just Fine), has a rather fantastic cover indeed. So that pulled me to it in Foyles when I saw it, then the line ‘folktales that hammer like a nail gun’ in the blurb made me almost 100% sure that this was going to be the best collection of short stories I had read for a while. Hmmmm. How to put this? Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

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CB Editions, paperback, 2016, short stories, 118 pages, bought by myself for myself

How to start with a review of Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine when one of the main things you loved about it was the cover and you have already mentioned that? I guess I had better just simply go for it. What I was hoping to find in this collection of very (very, very) short stories was forty (yep, forty) little spiky modern fairytale and folklore like gems. As I started to read I discovered I was getting snap shots into people’s lives that felt like that the prose version of an Instagram feed, only the pictures all seemed to be out of focus, blurred or sometimes an accidental snap shot of the floor because so vague were they, I would read one and think ‘what on earth am I meant to make of that?’

The sad issue here is that the themes I felt Diane Williams was trying to write about, when I did grasp what I thought it was she was on about, are ones that I am really interested. She seems to be giving encounters of a wide and diverse group of women (I can’t remember if any are in a male narrative, though sometimes the gender of the narrator isn’t mentioned) from all walks of life at pivotal moments in their lives. The only thing is so vague and often flimsy did these snippets seem that any poignancy that Williams was trying to give, or maybe I was desperately trying to clutch to, was then lost. Take for example the opener of Head of a Naked Girl

One got an erection while driving in his car to get to her. Another got his while buying his snow blower, with her along. He’s the one who taught her how to blow him and that’s the one she reassured ‘You’re the last person I want to antagonize!’

Firstly I don’t even know if that opening paragraph makes sense, or is it just me? Anyway, what I thought I was getting here was the account of a young woman who had found herself in a profession of which she might have not intended. I was intrigued this might be a tale of how a beautiful woman couldn’t help the affect she had on men for better and for worse, from a neutral view point. We then follow some of her sexual exploits before something, unknown, goes wrong and then she ‘blamed herself – for yet another perfect day.’ Huh? What? I have no idea what I am meant to take from that. Well, apart from mild annoyance.

Now you could say that maybe I am just not one for flash fiction, however I would have to disagree somewhat there. Firstly because I have seen Val McDermid create a story from a tweet which was brilliant and also in this collection there was one very, very, very short story which I loved called The Skol which I will include below in all its entirety.

In the ocean, Mrs. Clavey decided to advance on foot at shoulder-high depth. A tiny swallow of the water coincided with her deliberation. It tasted like a cold, salted variety of her favourite payang congou tea. She didn’t intend to drink more, but she did drink – more.

I loved this. It is very vague, which I know is a criticism I have made in all the stories but here it works. I loved the fact my mind could leap of and ask loads of questions about it. Why on earth was Mrs. Clavey walking into the ocean? Was she just in the mood for a swim or did she have a more dark or sorrowful reason for walking in? Speaking of which, at the end of the story is Mrs. Clavey simply drinking the water because she likes the taste or has she gone a bit mad? Or worse still is she trying to drown herself or just drowning accidentally? Or, the fairytale part of my brain pondered is she actually a mermaid? From four lines all those thoughts. That is what I wanted in every tale.

You might also say that maybe Diane Williams writing isn’t for me. Which is fine, fine, fine, fine, fine (sorry, couldn’t help it!) we don’t like every author in the world, we can’t our heads would explode with all the books we could read; it would be bookshop/library carnage, we might never read anything again because of all the options. I think this is probably the main reason; Diane Williams possibly just isn’t for me. It isn’t her fault. It isn’t my fault. It just is what it is. Though I do want to say there are moments here and there where I just loved how she observes the little things that by saying so little say so much. One paragraph in To Revive A Person Is No Slight Thing has really stayed with me as a character describes the cracks in her marriage, well that is what I thought she was doing but who knows?

A fire had been lighted, drinks had been set out. Raw fish had been dipped into egg and bread crumbs and then sautéed. A small can of shoe polish was still out on the kitchen counter. We both like to keep out shoes clean.

Sadly though, despite a few short bursts of prose and a couple of stories that appealed to me, I was not a big fan of Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine which I am quite cross about as I wanted to be. I think I need something that has some anchor in a sea of vagueness and this only really had that a couple of times for me. You can happily ignore me though Lydia Davis, Jonathan Franzen and many more authors think she is the absolute flash fiction queen. What reading this collection has taught me, delightfully, is that I enjoy flash fiction on the commute to and from work though. So if you have any recommendations of flash fiction collections I should try then do please let me know. Have you read Diane Williams? What have you made of her work?

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Filed under CB Editions, Diane Williams, Flash Fiction, Review, Short Stories

Other People’s Bookshelves #45; Lee Goody

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshleves, a series of posts set to feed into the filthy book lust/porn and either give you a fix of other people’s shelves to stave you off going on a buying/borrowing spree, or making you want to run and grab as many more books as you can. This wee we are heading off to Sydney to join another avid reader, Lee Goody, who has kindly offered to tell us more about her books, herself and let us have a nosey round her shelves! Before we do let’s find out more about her…

My name is Lee Goody and I am a book horder, originally from North Yorkshire via Nottingham and have been living in Sydney with my husband Phil for almost 6 years. I work as a Training Consultant and enjoy getting out on my Stand Up Paddle board at the weekends as well as eating my way round the restaurants of Sydney. I am on a constant mission to squeeze more books into limited space in our apartment, much to the dismay of my husband! This hording is only second to our growing wine collection… I like to think of it as a marvellous competition between the two obsessions! (Mmm Books and Wine, does life get any better?!)

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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?

I have to be selective with purchases these days as I am seriously running out of space. If I have bought a book new and think I am likely to read it again (however far in the future) I will keep it. If I have bought it new and it’s not one of these pesky Australian larger-size paperbacks which bother me with their over-sized-ness. If I have bought a second-hand version of a book, if it is not in great condition but I love the book, I will hold on to it until I come across a reasonably priced new copy of this book. (This can often be a challenge in Australia).

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

I tend to keep books by the same author together, as well as books that came as part of a set. I have a dedicated shelf for cooking and another for travel which I think looks nice and makes it look like I have visited lots of places.. The only books that are on display in the apartment are by the door of my apartment. I also house my TBR shelf in the bedroom. All other books are on shelves that are behind cupboard doors, so there lays organised chaos!

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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 was a huge Roald Dahl fan as a child and remember school having book catalogues that you ordered from which was massively exciting. I have a small collection of puffin books purchased this way, amongst which are mainly Roald Dahl, Spike Milligan’s silly verse for kids and Alf Proysen’s Little Old Mrs Pepperpot. I seem to have misplaced Ramona Quimby aged 8 which is rather disappointing!

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 have a copy of The Joy of Sex and some Anais Nin novels which I used to hide away when my Mother in Law came round. Now that most of my books are trapped in a cupboard and in laws live 12,000 miles away it’s not too much of a problem anymore! I would feel happy justifying any book on my shelves as it would only stay there if I had enjoyed reading it.

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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?

Not to titillate Simon too much but I do have a rather nice hardback copy of Rebecca on my shelves which I would be gutted to lose. The other book I would have to save would be a hardback copy of The wizard of Oz which my Nana used to sit me on her knee and read to me as a child. I would also make a grab for the complete set of James Herriott books that came from a clear out of my Pop’s house after he passed away.

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 devoured the aforementioned James Herriott books lent to me around the age of 15 which really gave me the “bug” for reading… which has never stopped. I had a spate of reading the usual Stephen King novels and a dalliance with Jilly Cooper before feeling like I had to play catch-up on all the books you are “supposed” to read.

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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 very rarely borrow books; I have quite a lot on my shelves that are still in the TBR category. The last time this happened though was getting “The Time Travellers Wife” out of the library but then being so blown away by it that I had to buy myself a copy.

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

I added 2 books to my shelves last week: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler as inspired by the May episode of the (First Tuesday) Book club on ABC and The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing as I found a cheap copy on a book shop’s bargain table for $6.

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

Erm, if there is a book that I want to buy then I tend to just get it. I think I should really have a hardback copy of The Secret History by Donna Tartt to match the hardback editions of the other 2 of her books I own. I would like a complete set of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series.. I will eventually complete my collection of every Ian McEwen work too when I have extra space. I have 119 books on my Amazon wish list at the moment!

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

A bit literary fiction-heavy. I like to try the books that have won awards to see what all the fuss is about. I’m loyal to a few favourite authors: Ian McEwan, Sebastian Faulks, Sarah Waters, Donna Tartt, Jonathan Franzen.

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A huge thanks to Lee for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. 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 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 Lee’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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Savidge Reads Grills… Jane Harris

The wonder of the internet means that you can do an interview anywhere in the world. So today we are whizzing up through the countryside with Jane Harris, author of ‘The Observations’ and ‘Gillespie and I’ which has become my latest favourite book, with Glasgow as the destination. Whilst sipping on cups of tea, from a flask of course not that train dishwater, and maybe munching on a cupcake or two. Discussing ‘Victorian sensation novels’, second book syndrome, reading, writing and books. So grab yourself a cup of tea too and join us for a natter…

Can you explain the story of ‘Gillespie & I’ in a single sentence?

Thinking of a single sentence to describe this book is quite difficult. I’m tempted to take the Hollywood route and say that it’s “Jaws” meets “The Turn of the Screw” – but with a heart. (Simon can confirm that without their being any sharks or boats he actually knows what Jane means here.)

How did the story come about? Was there anything in particular that inspired you with this novel?

When I was thinking about what to write after ‘The Observations’ I went back to the box in the attic where I’d kept a number of unfinished ideas for short stories (which is where I discovered the beginnings of ‘The Observations’). On one scrap of paper, I found something I’d scribbled years ago: “Artist, 19th century, Glasgow.” This appealed to me – although I’d wanted, after my first novel, to write something contemporary and short. But this historical idea was the one that grabbed me so. . . I went with it. Initially, I had thought of writing something quite feminist, perhaps featuring one of the Glasgow Girls (a group of Scottish female artists of the time) and her struggles to be taken seriously as an artist, but once I began doing my research the story changed direction. It was particularly when I read about a particular court case that the beginnings of a psychological thriller plot began to form in my mind.

It’s a book that you don’t want to give too much away with, so that makes reviewing it and questioning you rather difficult. I think it’s safe to say that the narrator Harriet Baxter is quite a complex lead figure, how did you create her?

You’re right, she is complex and also flawed (as are most, if not all, of my characters). I like flawed characters. I had a lot of fun with Bessy, the narrator of ‘The Observations’, but I knew that in my second novel I wanted a new challenge and so I picked a character who was quite different from Bessy. Instead of an almost illiterate (though clever) Irish girl who is quite garrulous and uncontrolled in some ways, and who doesn’t know the first thing about punctuation, I came up with Harriet who, as narrator, is a highly-educated, very controlled Englishwoman, who is completely anal and who over-punctuates and uses long sentences. I had in mind one or two old ladies of my acquaintance, apparently charming, girlish-voiced old dears, whose polite manners and polish conceal a viper-like wit.

As ‘Gillespie & I’ goes on there are lots and lots of twists and turns, which of course we don’t want to spoil. Yet when reading it there are the subtlest of hints which cause the reader to become engrossed and also rather uneasy, was that a difficult situation to create? How do you know when you are sewing the right, or indeed wrong red herring, seeds of doubt in a readers mind as you write the book?

I was learning all about that sort of technique as I wrote this book and I’m still not quite sure what the answer is. I think partly it’s down to instinct. Of course, I plan everything beforehand, the major twists and turns, but I tended to seed the red herrings and clues as I went along, and kept checking that I wasn’t overdoing it by reading everything aloud. It’s only when the manuscript is finished that you can really tell whether you’ve over or under-done it. I also had a lot of help in this respect from my editor and a handful of trusted readers. As it turned out, in the initial draft, I had been too subtle, so it was a question of going back and making a few things a bit clearer.

I think it’s fair to say that both ‘Gillespie & I’ and your debut novel ‘The Observations’ are quite gothic and have the Victorian ‘sensational’ feel about them, were books by the likes of Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon books that you have always loved or is this just the sort of books you naturally write?

I’m an indiscriminate reader in that I will read almost anything that is set in front of me. As a child, I would read cereal packets if there was nothing else to hand. So I devoured all kinds of books: contemporary, pre-20th century, all the novels my parents left lying around, and everything I could carry home from the library. To be honest, I think it’s an accident that I’m writing this kind of novel. When I started writing, I was coming up with contemporary short stories about my boyfriends and family. It was only in desperation (after almost giving up writing) that I decided to try and write a novel set in the 19th Century, based on an unfinished, lengthy short story which seemed to hold some promise. Luckily for me, that book caught the attention of a publisher. However, having said that, as a child I loved 19th Century novels like Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, The Water Babies etc, and as an adult I still love Henry James, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Wilkie Collins. However, I do wonder if I’ll return to writing about the contemporary. One strand of ‘Gillespie and I’ is set in the early 1930s, which pleases me, because at least I have a toehold in the 20th century.

After the success of ‘The Observations’ did you ever worry about that ‘second book syndrome’ or feel any additional pressure about ‘Gillespie & I’? Was this why there was such a gap between the two?

The only thing that worried me about ‘second book syndrome’ was the fact that, even before I had begun book two, I knew for certain I’d be asked this question by journalists and bloggers and it would be an effort not to betray my irritation. Ha ha! (but true).

Here’s the long answer. I don’t think I felt any additional pressure for the second book. I think writing books is hard enough anyway. The first one was hard. The second one was hard. They’ll all be hard, in different ways. My first novel took me 12 or 13 years -four years in total of writing with about nine years of just lying in a box (that’s the novel, not me), so I’ve done the second book in less than half the time. The gap between the two was four years (The Observations was published in 2006 in the UK, and I submitted ‘Gillespie and I’ at the end of 2010). Both these novels are 500 pages long: that’s twice as long as the average novel, so it follows that it should take twice as long to write them. Four years divided by two is two years. The received wisdom is that a writer should be turning out a book every two years. If you look simply at page count, I’ve done that. Besides, I could have produced a book within two years, but it would have been a much worse book. In my opinion, the book is everything; some arbitrary deadline is nothing. Better to have a book that I’m proud of – a book that gets reviews like the one you gave ‘Gillespie and I’ yesterday (for which MANY thanks) – than a book which is undercooked or less ambitious.

Both of your novels seem perfect for adaptation, have there been any discussions of this, can we look forward to them on the screen?

‘The Observations’ was optioned for television but nothing has come of that so far and I believe the option may now have expired so it’s available again. I’d love to see an adaptation of ‘Gillespie and I’. I was particularly impressed by the recent TV adaptation of ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’. I had been dreading the series as it’s a favourite book of mine and I was worried they’d make a hash of it but I think they did a fine job. So, we’ll see what happens.

When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been writing for?

I always enjoyed writing compositions at school, but nobody in my family was a writer, I didn’t know any writers and it just didn’t seem like a career option. In my secondary school the careers guidance woman told me that hairdressing was a safe bet. I had to take my exam results to the assistant head and ask him if they were good enough to go to university, because nobody was pointing me in that direction. It turned out my results were good enough, and so I went to university and took English and Drama as my main subjects. I loved reading literature, but got rather sidetracked into theatre and drama (the English Department at Glasgow was so dry and old-fashioned in those days that it put me off reading for years). So it wasn’t until years later, when I was 29, that I began writing in earnest, and that only happened because I was stranded in a country where I didn’t speak the language, knew virtually nobody, and had no TV and hardly any books and no money, nothing to distract me, apart from a pen and some pieces of paper.

Which current contemporary authors do you really rate?

Anne Tyler. William Boyd. Jonathan Franzen. Sarah Waters. Michel Faber. Barbara Vine.

What is your favourite ‘guilty pleasure’ read?

Well, I do love leafing through my collection of back-copies of “Hustler”. Not really. Seriously though, I don’t think I have a guilty pleasure read. I love reading Victorian ‘true crime’ stories, such as the Madeleine Smith trial – perhaps that counts?

Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?

I begin work early, as soon as I wake up, which can be anything (under normal circumstances) from 6am onwards. I work all day, that is, I sit at my computer all day, although sometimes I’ll delete more words than I write. For the last novel, I tended to begin the day by editing what I’d done the previous day. I always read the work aloud as I write. Every few paragraphs, I’ll pause and read it back. Sometimes, I go outside and look at the garden for a breath of fresh air, but I hardly ever leave the house. I like things to be neat, so tend to tidy up the room if it’s looking too disorganised. I read a book during lunch or, if my husband is working at home, we eat together, chortling, while watching an episode of Seinfeld. Laughter is important. A chuckle at lunchtime and a chuckle to end the day (night-time chuckle is currently the fabulous “The Trip” with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon). I rarely work beyond 6pm, though I will sit at the computer fiddling about on Facebook and Twitter in between bouts of writing and at the end of the day. When writing a novel, I require satisfaction-guaranteed TV in the evening, in order to cleanse my brain, so am a fan of all the most wonderful shows like The Apprentice, Masterchef, Great British Menu and America’s Next Top Model. Having spent all day in the 19th Century, trying to juggle plot and characterisation and voice and sentences, I require something to take me into a different world entirely. Plus, I can’t really go out much while writing as I find it too distracting, with the result that I’m a bit of a happy hermit.

How relevant do you think book blogging is to the publishing industry? Do you ever pop and see what people have thought of your book or is it something you avoid at all costs?

Book blogging seems to me to be increasingly important. I think that readers and book-lovers have found a real community online in sites such as yours, a place to share opinion and hear about what people whose opinions they respect are reading. I am as much of a book fan as anybody, so I do surf sites to track various books (but after I’ve read them – I hate knowing too much about a book or film before I experience it for myself). As for my own books, I can’t help but read reviews. I know that it’s possible not to (which is the route my husband takes, as a film-maker) so I do believe those people who say they don’t read reviews, but I, for one, can’t help it.

Which book, apart from your own, would you demand Savidge Reads and readers run out and buy right this instant, a book you would call your favourite?

Gosh, that’s a hard question as I’m not sure I have a single favourite book. I’m assuming that all Savidge Readers will have read Great Expectations, so I might have to plump for The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler, which is still up there for me as a work of genius. (Simon is slightly embarrased to say he has not read Great Expectations, Dickens escapes him – oops!)

What is next for Jane Harris?

I’m reaching the end of writing some short stories, a bit of a break from writing novels, and about to turn my thoughts to a new book. Don’t want to say too much now as I believe you can talk a book away.

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A big thank you goes out to Jane Harris for taking part in this. I was very excited and interestingly so was she, there is mutual appreciation in the air. You can visit Jane’s website here to find out more. Oh and if you fancy winning a copy of ‘Gillespie and I’ then simply scroll a little further down… after having left a nice comment here of course.

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