Tag Archives: Kate Summerscale

Books I’m Looking Forward to in the Next Six Months

I know we are past the middle of the first month of 2016 but, as is my want, I thought it might be a nice idea to let you know about some of the books that I am really looking forward to reading over the next six months published in the UK. I know, I know, it is the list you have all been waiting for. Ha! For a few years now, every six months, Gavin and I share 13 of the books that we are most excited about on The Readers podcast, based on which publishers catalogues we can get our mitts on – so sometimes we miss some, so I thought this year I would make it a new biannual post. Getting to that final thirteen is almost impossible (actually one year it was a struggle) and this year it has been particularly tough as it looks set to be a year of corkers. In fact my longlist of books I’m keen to get my hand on is 60 books (and would have been 62 if I hadn’t already read The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon and Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh) long. Yes that is right, 60 books. I have highlighted a few each month that I will definitely be reading or getting my mitts on. So, grab a cuppa tea and settle down with a notepad or bookstore website open next to you…

January

Mr Splitfoot – Samantha Hunt (Corsair)

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Nat and Rose are young orphans, living in a crowded foster home run by an eccentric religious fanatic. When a traveling con-man comes knocking, they see their chance to escape and join him on the road, proclaiming they can channel the dead – for a price, of course. Decades later, in a different time and place, Cora is too clever for her office job, too scared of her abysmal lover to cope with her unplanned pregnancy, and she too is looking for a way out. So when her mute Aunt Ruth pays her an unexpected visit, apparently on a mysterious mission, she decides to join her. Together the two women set out on foot, on a strange and unforgettable odyssey across the state of New York. Where is Ruth taking them? Where has she been? And who – or what – has she hidden in the woods at the end of the road? Ingenious, infectious, subversive and strange, Mr Splitfoot will take you on a journey you will not regret – and will never forget.

Human Acts – Han Kang (Portobello)

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Gwangju, South Korea, 1980. In the wake of a viciously suppressed student uprising, a boy searches for his friend’s corpse, a consciousness searches for its abandoned body, and a brutalised country searches for a voice. In a sequence of interconnected chapters the victims and the bereaved encounter censorship, denial, forgiveness and the echoing agony of the original trauma. Human Acts is a universal book, utterly modern and profoundly timeless. Already a controversial bestseller and award-winning book in Korea, it confirms Han Kang as a writer of immense importance.

The Widow – Fiona Barton (Transworld)
Paulina & Fran – Rachel B. Glaser (Granta)
The World Without Us – Mirelle Juchau (Bloomsbury)
The Outrun – Amy Liptrot (Canongate)
Sea Lovers – Valerie Martin (Serpents Tail)
Dinosaurs on Other Planets – Danielle McLaughlin (John Murray)
The Actual One – Isy Suttie (Orion)

February

The Sympathiser – Viet Thanh Nguyen (Corsair)

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A profound, startling, and beautifully crafted debut novel, “The Sympathizer” is the story of a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties. It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. “The Sympathizer” is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, “The Sympathizer” explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta (Granta)

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One day in 1968, at the height of the Biafran civil war, Ijeoma’s father is killed and her world is transformed forever. Separated from her grief-stricken mother, she meets another young lost girl, Amina, and the two become inseparable. Theirs is a relationship that will shake the foundations of Ijeoma’s faith, test her resolve and flood her heart. In this masterful novel of faith, love and redemption, Okparanta takes us from Ijeoma’s childhood in war-torn Biafra, through the perils and pleasures of her blossoming sexuality, her wrong turns, and into the everyday sorrows and joys of marriage and motherhood. As we journey with Ijeoma we are drawn to the question: what is the value of love and what is the cost? A triumphant love story written with beauty and delicacy, Under the Udala Trees is a hymn to those who’ve lost and a prayer for a more compassionate world. It is a work of extraordinary beauty that will enrich your heart.

The Butchers Hook – Janet Ellis (Two Roads)
The Narrow Bed – Sophie Hannah (Hodder)
Scary Old Sex – Arlene Heyman (Bloomsbury)
The Children’s House – Charles Lambert (Aardvark Bureau)
13 Minutes – Sarah Pinborough (Orion)
The Catch – Fiona Sampson (Chatto & Windus)
Gold Flame Citrus – Claire Vaye Watkins (Quercus)
Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist – Sunil Yapa (Little Brown)

March

Where Love Begins – Judith Hermann (Serpents Tail)

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Stella is married, she has a child and a fulfilling job. She lives with her young family in a house in the suburbs. Her life is happy and unremarkable, but she is a little lonely-her husband travels a lot for work and so she is often alone in the house with only her daughter for company. One day a stranger appears at her door, a man Stella’s never seen before. He says he just wants to talk to her, nothing more. She refuses. The next day he comes again. And then the day after that. He will not leave her in peace. When Stella works out that he lives up the road, and tries to confront him, it makes no difference. This is the beginning of a nightmare that slowly and remorselessly escalates. Where Love Begins is a delicately wrought, deeply sinister novel about how easily the comfortable lives we construct for ourselves can be shattered.

Hot Milk – Deborah Levy (Penguin Books)

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Today I dropped my laptop on the concrete floor. It was tucked under my arm and slid out of its black rubber sheath, landing screen-side down. The digital page shattered. Apparently there’s a man in the next flyblown town who mends computers. He could send off for a new screen, which would take a month to arrive. Will I still be here in a month? My mother is sleeping under a mosquito net in the next room. Soon she will wake up and shout, ‘Sofia, get me a glass of water’, and I will get her water and it will be the wrong sort of water. And then after a while I will leave her and return to gaze at the shattered starfield of my screen. Two women arrive in a Spanish village – a dreamlike place caught between the desert and the ocean – seeking medical advice and salvation. One of the strangers suffers from a mysterious illness: spontaneous paralysis confines her to a wheelchair, her legs unusable. The other, her daughter Sofia, has spent years playing the reluctant detective in this mystery, struggling to understand her mother’s illness. Surrounded by the oppressive desert heat and the mesmerising figures who move through it, Sofia waits while her mother undergoes the strange programme of treatments invented by Dr Gomez. Searching for a cure to a defiant and quite possibly imagined disease, ever more entangled in the seductive, mercurial games of those around her, Sofia finally comes to confront and reconcile the disparate fragments of her identity. Hot Milk is a labyrinth of violent desires, primal impulses, and surreally persuasive internal logic.

Patience – Daniel Clowes (Vintage)
Rain – Melissa Harrison (Faber & Faber)
A Girl in Exhile – Ismail Kadare (Vintage)
The Paper Menagerie & Other Stories – Ken Liu (Head of Zeus)
An Unrestored Woman & Other Stories – Shobha Rao (Virago)
Vertigo – Joanna Walsh (And Other Stories)

April

The Sunlight Pilgrims – Jenni Fagan (Random House)

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Set in a Scottish caravan park during a freak winter – it is snowing in Jerusalem, the Thames is overflowing, and an iceberg separated from the Fjords in Norway is expected to arrive off the coast of Scotland – The Sunlight Pilgrims tells the story of a small Scottish community living through what people have begun to think is the end of times. Bodies are found frozen in the street with their eyes open, euthanasia has become an acceptable response to economic collapse, schooling and health care are run primarily on a voluntary basis. But daily life carries on: Dylan, a refugee from panic-stricken London who is grieving for his mother and his grandmother, arrives in the caravan park in the middle of the night – to begin his life anew.

What Belongs To You – Garth Greenwell (Picador)

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On an unseasonably warm autumn day, an American teacher enters a public bathroom beneath Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. There he meets Mitko, a charismatic young hustler, and pays him for sex. And so begins a relationship that could transform his life, or possibly destroy it. What Belongs To You is a stunning debut novel of desire and its consequences. With lyric intensity and startling eroticism, Garth Greenwell has created a indelible story about the ways in which our pasts and cultures, our scars and shames can shape who we are and determine how we love.

The Trees – Ali Shaw (Bloomsbury)

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There came an elastic aftershock of creaks and groans and then, softly softly, a chinking shower of rubbled cement. Leaves calmed and trunks stood serene. Where, not a minute before, there had been a suburb, there was now only woodland standing amid ruins…There is no warning. No chance to prepare. They arrive in the night: thundering up through the ground, transforming streets and towns into shadowy forest. Buildings are destroyed. Broken bodies, still wrapped in tattered bed linen, hang among the twitching leaves. Adrien Thomas has never been much of a hero. But when he realises that no help is coming, he ventures out into this unrecognisable world. Michelle, his wife, is across the sea in Ireland and he has no way of knowing whether the trees have come for her too. Then Adrien meets green-fingered Hannah and her teenage son Seb. Together, they set out to find Hannah’s forester brother, to reunite Adrien with his wife – and to discover just how deep the forest goes. Their journey will take them to a place of terrible beauty and violence, to the dark heart of nature and the darkness inside themselves.

The Cauliflower – Nicola Barker (Random House)
Foreign Soil – Maxine Beneba (Corsair)
The Last of Us – Rob Ewing (Borough Press)
Fragments – Elena Ferrante (Eurpoa Editions)
A Different Class – Joanne Harris (Transworld)
Ladivine – Marie NDiaye (Quercus)
The Bricks That Built Houses – Kate Tempest (Bloomsbury)
Six Four – Hideo Yokoyama (Quercus)

May

The Doll Master & Other Tales of Terror – Joyce Carol Oates (Head of Zeus)

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Six terrifying tales to chill the blood from the unique imagination of Joyce Carol Oates. A young boy plays with dolls instead of action figures. But as he grows older, his passion takes on a darker edge…A white man shoots dead a black boy creating a media frenzy. But could it be that it was self-defense as he claims? A nervous woman tries to escape her husband. He says he loves her, but she’s convinced he wants to kill her…These quietly lethal stories reveal the horrors that dwell within us all.

The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus)

It is the tutor who tells the young Gustav that he must try to be more like a coconut – that he needs a hard shell to protect the softness inside. This is what his native Switzerland has perfected – a shell to protect its neutrality, to keep its people safe. But his beloved friend, Anton, doesn’t want to be safe – a gifted pianist, he longs to make his mark in the world outside. On holiday one summer in Davos, the boys stumble across a remote building. Long ago, it was a TB sanitorium; now it is wrecked and derelict. Here, they play a game of life and death, deciding which of their imaginary patients must burn. It becomes their secret. The Gustav Sonata begins in the 1930s, under the shadow of the Second World War, and follows the boys into maturity, and middle age, where their friendship is tested as never before.

The Bones of Grace – Tahmima Anam (Canongate)
The Beautiful Dead – Belind Bauer (Transworld)
The Witches of New York – Amy McKay (Orion)
This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press)
The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso (Chatto & Windus)
Now and Again – Charlotte Rogan (Virago)
The Wicked Boy – Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury)

June

Fen – Daisy Johnson (Vintage)

Daisy Johnson’s Fen is a liminal land. Real people live their lives here. They wrestle with familiar instincts, with sex and desire, with everyday routine. But the wild is always close at hand, ready to erupt. This is a place where animals and people commingle and fuse, where curious metamorphoses take place, where myth and dark magic still linger. So here a teenager may starve herself into the shape of an eel. A house might fall in love with a girl. A woman might give birth to a – well what? English folklore and a contemporary eye, sexual honesty and combustible invention – in Fen, these elements have come together to create a singular, startling piece of modern fiction.

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry (Profile Books)

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Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890’s, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way. They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners’ agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.

Foxlowe – Eleanor Wassberg (Harper Collins)

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A chilling, compulsive debut about group mentality, superstition and betrayal – and a utopian commune gone badly wrong We were the Family, and Foxlowe was our home. There was me – my name is Green – and my little sister, Blue. There was October, who we called Toby, and Ellensia, Dylan, Liberty, Pet and Egg. There was Richard, of course, who was one of the Founders. And there was Freya. We were the Family, but we weren’t just an ordinary family. We were a new, better kind of family. We didn’t need to go to school, because we had a new, better kind of education. We shared everything. We were close to the ancient way of living and the ancient landscape. We knew the moors, and the standing stones. We celebrated the solstice in the correct way, with honey and fruit and garlands of fresh flowers. We knew the Bad and we knew how to keep it away. And we had Foxlowe, our home. Where we were free. There really was no reason for anyone to want to leave.

Daisy in Chains – Sharon Bolton (Transworld)
Everyone Is Watching – Megan Bradbury (Picador)
Addlands – Tom Bullough (Granta)
The Girls – Emma Cline (Chatto & Windus)
Black Water – Louise Doughty (Faber & Faber)
Early Riser – Jasper Fforde (Hodder)
The Little Communist That Never Smiled – Lola Lafon (Serpents Tail)
The Bed Moved – Rebecca Schiff (John Murrary)
Smoke – Dan Vyleta (Orion)
Our Young Man – Edmund White (Bloomsbury)

Phew! So that is the list, it has changed slightly since we recorded The Readers as Gav and I had a couple of snap choices and also I found out some other books were coming out earlier than thought or I simply only discovered them in the last few months. There will be many more I discover or hear about too I am sure. I have just thought of several I have missed (Kit De Waal, Nicholas Searle and a whole shelf of prrof I can’t get to due to scaffolding) so there will be many more. Anyway, quite a few for you to go and find out more about and a good list for me to have when I am stuck in a bookshop without a clue of what to by next – as if that ever happens. Right, I better get reading then. Which of these do you fancy? Which books are you looking forward to in the next six months?

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A Very British Murder

There simply are not enough shows on the telly about books, fact! So when one does come along invariably I will watch it just because it is about books, occasionally though one comes along that is so up your street and so brilliant you want to tell everyone about it. This is exactly how I feel about ‘A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley’ the second episode of which is on tonight on BBC Four at 9pm and which I insist you watch. But here is a teaser, without spoilers, of why (if you missed it) the first episode was so brilliant…

Lucy Worsley, who hosts the show, is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces where she puts on exhibitions like ‘Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber’ which is currently on at Hampton Court Palace. She is also a writer of several historical non-fiction books the latest of which just so happens to be ‘A Very British Murder’ and is now on my bedside table to be read between bouts of ‘The Luminaries’ (which I am still making very slow progress on bit by bit) though for the purposes of this post I moved it by the telly as you can see below…

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You can tell you are in good hands with Lucy, and that she loves a good book, as before the opening credits of the first show have rolled she states “Grisly crimes would appal us if we encountered them in real life, but something happens when they are turned into stories and safely places between the covers of a book.” It is of course the history of the British crime novel which this series celebrates, from Dickens to Christie and onwards, and to start it all Lucy looks at the first real cases of murder (The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, The Murder in the Red Barn and The Bermondsey Horror) which really got the public talking about murder and gave them an appetite for the salacious and sensational, which authors of course switched onto and as ‘the Detective’ was born, so of course was ‘the Detective novel’.

Well I was spellbound for an hour. I have since been recounting several people will facts like ‘did you know that in 1810 only 15 people were convicted of murder?’ or ‘did you know of The Bermondsey Horror and that Maria Manning was Charles Dickens inspiration for Hortense in ‘Bleak House’?’ It has made me desperate to go off and find some old ‘Broadsides’, newspapers/pamphlets solely aimed at chronicling the most horrid of murders for the public, also Thomas DeQuincy’s essay ‘On Murder’ from 1810 and dig out some modern books, which didn’t get mentioned on the show, like ‘The Maul and the Pear Tree’ by P.D James and Thomas A. Critchley (a non-fiction about the Ratcliffe Highway Murders) and Nicola Upson’s new novel ‘The Death of Lucy Kyte’ (a fiction with shadows of The Murder in the Red Barn). Plus with autumn in the air here in the UK I have been pondering dusting off some Wilkie Collins etc and bringing back a sensation season myself! I love it when TV makes you want to switch it off and read a book instead, don’t you?

Suffice to say Lucy is marvellous, and brilliantly camp or ghoulish when required which makes it all the more enjoyable, as she hosts often sat beside a fire making you feel like she is almost telling you a bedtime story brimming with murder in itself, which I suppose it is really. Anyway if me going on and on about its brilliance wasn’t enough I will just mention the facts that Simon Callow is on it tonight as we discover what the Dickens, erm, Dickens thought and was inspired further by and Kate Summerscale will be on discussing the case which inspired ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’. What more could you ask for on a Monday night?

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Bookshops I Love; Reid of Liverpool

So while I was in Liverpool earlier in the week how could I not try and hunt down a good independent bookshop? I mean you have to when you go away to a new city/suburb/street don’t you, it’s only right and proper, in fact it would be rude not to.

With only a limited amount of time I couldn’t visit all the three that I wanted to, I did manage to find my first destination of choice and that was a second hand book shop on a wonderfully Dickensian, actually make that Victorian as I don’t really know my Dickens as we know, street… Reid of Liverpool.

It just tempts you from the outside doesn’t it, and its promise is fulfilled when you walk through the doors and are greeted by endless books.

What is quite quirky, though what could drive a quick browser to distraction, is that really there is no order to the books at all. Fiction and nonfiction are mixed together so if you are after a specific book you could get frustrated but I love walking along the shelves and seeing what gems I might locate and in what order. So I was in heaven.

Of course I couldn’t leave empty handed, again it would have been rude not to, and I did find not one gem but two, which are now back at Savidge Reads HQ waiting to be read at some point.

‘The Girl from the Fiction Department’ was a book I had never heard of before but grabbed me from the title which called out to me from its spine on the shelf. I thought it was fiction but discovered it is actually ‘a portrait of Sonia Orwell’ George Orwell’s second wife. I know nothing of her at all, I have discovered from the blurb that ‘portrayed by many of her husband’s biographers as a manipulative gold-digger who would stop at nothing to keep control of his legacy. But the truth about Sonia Orwell – the model for Julia in nineteen eighty-four – was altogether different. Beautiful, intelligent and fiercely idealistic, she lived at the heart of London’s literary and artistic scene before her marriage to Orwell changed her life forever. Burdened with the almost impossible task of protecting Orwell’s estate, Sonia’s loyalty to her late husband brought her nothing but poverty and despair.’ Now doesn’t that sound like a brilliant book? I don’t think it’s in print anymore. I also love how the cover is designed to look like its battered when actually pristine.

The ‘Selected Works of Djuna Barnes’ is a book I have been seeking out for ages; well actually that is not 100% accurate. I have been searching for ‘Nightwood’ since I read about it in Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’. Now my searching has paid off and I have an omnibus of three of her works, let’s hope I like her.

Anyway I thought that Reid of Liverpool was quite a find. If you are ever in the city do pop in. You can find more details about it here.

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Savidge Reads Books of 2011 – Part I

I always struggle with this every year, which books will go into my top books of 2011 and why? I am following the form of the last few years and giving you my top ten books actually published in 2011 and, in this first post, the top ten books I have read this year which were published prior to 2011. I was going to try and rewrite the reviews in a succinct paragraph but in the end have decided to take a quote from the review and if you want to read more pop on the books title and you will find yourself at the full book post. So without further ado here are the first ten…

My Cousin Rachel – Daphne du Maurier

“…the psychological intensity du Maurier weaves through the pages along with the constant sense that she could pull the rug from under you at any given moment is incredible. Before Rachel even appears herself, around 80 pages in, she is quite the presence and the reader has quite possibly made up their mind about her through Philip’s utter jealously and then suspicion of this woman. Daphne then brings in a character quite unlike the one we would imagine. It is this game of Rachel being a misunderstood sweet if tragic innocent or magnificently manipulative calculating monster that makes you turn the page, are you right about her or utterly wrong?”

Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood

“I myself was bullied at school, I think most kids are at some point, so maybe that’s why this rang so true with me, but I simply couldn’t shake the feeling of it and it really, really got to me. To me, though rather uncomfortable, that is the sign of a wonderful book and a wonderful writer. Through Elaine’s often distant and removed narrative I was projecting my own experiences and emotions and it, along with Atwood’s creation of course, drove ‘Cat’s Eye’ and hit home. I can feel the emotions again just writing about the book, it’s the strangest and most emotive reading experience I have had in a long time, possibly ever.”

Moon Tiger – Penelope Lively

“The other thing, apart from the clever way it is told and the great story I cant say too much about, that I loved about ‘Moon Tiger’ was Claudia herself, even though in all honesty she is not the nicest woman in the world. I found her relationship between Claudia and her daughter a difficult and occasionally heartbreaking one. (‘She will magic Claudia away like the smoke.’) She gripes about her life, she has incredibly loose morals (there is a rather shocking twist in the novel that I didn’t expect and made me queasy), isn’t really that nice about anyone and yet I loved listening to her talk about her life. I think it was her honesty. I wanted to hear and know more, even when she was at her wickedest.”

Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford

“What I love about all of Nancy’s writing (and I have also been reading the letters between her and Evelyn Waugh alongside) is her sense of humour. Some may find the setting rather twee or even irritating as she describes the naivety of the children, which soon becomes hilarious cheek and gossip, and the pompous nature of the adults in the society that Fanny and Polly frequent, I myself haven’t laughed so much at a book in quite some time.”

Up At The Villa – W. Somerset Maugham

“…a perfect book when you want something slightly familiar and yet something that completely throws you. There is a comfort in Maugham’s writing that is rather like finding a wonderful black and white film on the telly on a rainy afternoon. That probably sounds ridiculous, or a big cliché, but it sums up my experience of this book the best way I can. You can’t help but lose yourself in it and find you are left wanting to turn to the next one as soon as you can.”

Hallucinating Foucault – Patricia Duncker

“From the opening pages Duncker pulls you into a tale that at first seems like it could be one sort of book and then becomes several books rolled into one whilst remaining incredibly readable. She also shows how many tools a writer has, the book is written in first ‘unnamed’ narrative for the main but also features dream sequences, letters from Michel to Foucault and newspaper clippings and reports. It’s like she is celebrating language and its uses.”

Blaming – Elizabeth Taylor

“Her writing is beautiful yet sparse, no words are used that needn’t be. Initially though there doesn’t appear to be a huge plot there is so much going on. We observe people and what they do and how they react to circumstances learning how there is much more to every action, and indeed every page, than meets the eye. along the lines of Jennifer Johnston and Anita Brookner, whose books I have enjoyed as much, Taylor is an author who watches the world and then writes about it with a subtly and emotion that seems to capture the human condition.”

The Queen of Whale Cay – Kate Summerscale

“It is not only the life of Joe that is so fascinating, the fraught relationships with her parents, the sham marriage for inheritance, her role driving ambulances in the war (her I wondered if she was the inspiration for Sarah Waters ‘The Night Watch’), the endless affairs including with some very famous women, the obsession with a small doll called Lord Tod Wadley (who even had his named engraved on the front door so people would actually call for him), the buying of an island ‘Whale Cay’ and it ruling… I could go on and on.”

84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

“As Hanff and Doel’s friendship blossoms she starts to send packages of food to him and the other workers in the store during the war, getting friends to visit with nylons etc, thus she creates further friendships all by the power of the pen. Initially (and I wondered if Frank himself might have felt this) Hanff’s lust for life, over familiarity and demanding directness almost pushed me to annoyance until her humour and her passion for books becomes more and more apparent along with her thoughtfulness during the war years as mentioned. I was soon wishing I had become Hanff’s correspondent myself.

The News Where You Are – Catherine O’Flynn

“It would be easiest to describe ‘The News Where You Are’ as a tale of a local tv news reader, who is obsessed with the past and lonely people being forgotten, trying to discover the mystery behind his predecessor, and now friend’s, hit and run whilst also trying to deal with his parental relationships I would make it sound like modern day mystery meets family drama. It is, yet that summation simply doesn’t do this superb novel justice. This is a novel brimming with as many ideas and characters as it brims with joy, sadness and comedy. It’s a book that encompasses human life and all those things, emotionally and all around it physically, and celebrates them.”

So that is the first half of my list. Have you read any of these and what did you think? The next lot of lovely literature I have loved this year will be up in the not too distant future…

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The Queen of Whale Cay – Kate Summerscale

I would like to pretend that after having read ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher’ I had popped Kate Summerscale’s first non-fiction novel ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’ onto my to be read list. That wouldn’t be true. In fact for some reason I didn’t even go and look it up, and yet when I saw Sue Perkins raving about it on the BBC’s ‘My Life In Books’ (which I am hoping they bring back) I thought ‘ooh that sounds like the perfect book for me’ and indeed it was a real treat, and one that showed sometimes life really is stranger than fiction.

HarperPerrenial, paperback, 1997, non-fiction, 248 pages, from the library

I admit that before I opened ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’ I had never heard of Marian Barbara Carstairs, who was known as Joe Carstairs, who was proclaimed ‘the fastest woman on water’ as a world champion and record breaking speedboat racer in the 1920’s and 1930’s. I have to say, as some of you might be thinking, the idea of a book about boat racing could be quite dull but if anything could be said about Joe Carstairs the last thing they could think of would probably be dull. In fact as Kate Summerscale found out, when a relative of Joe’s wrote to her to write an extended obituary in the Telegraph (where Summerscale worked), Joe Carstairs was a rather extraordinary woman.  

Joe was not your stereotypical young girl who stood to inherit a great fortune being the granddaughter of Nellie Bostwick, one of the original trustees of Standard Oil, and a multimillionaire of the time. She didn’t want to run out and meet a husband for a start, instead having lots and lots of lesbian affairs, including one with Oscar Wilde’s niece Dolly (who I thought sounded fascinating and want to find a biography of, anyone know of any?) It appears Joe was never quite herself in childhood, brought up by her mother who never spoke of her father and who married men and had affairs like it was going out of fashion, and after falling off a camel at London Zoo at the age of five Marian B. Carstairs felt that she was reborn as the person she should be ‘Tuffy’. But ‘Tuffy’ grew up and soon became ‘Joe’, a woman who liked boat and car racing and preferred the company and clothes of men.

“Captain Francis disapproved of his wild stepdaughter. ‘He thought he’d cure me,’ recalled Joe, ‘but he didn’t.’ This wildness, the sickness which was not cured, was even then a euphemism for her masculine behaviour. When Francis caught the little girl, aged eight, stealing his cigars, he punished her by ordering her to sit down in his study and smoke one. If you’re sick, he said, go out, throw up and come back. Joe, who had been pilfering his cigars for some time, sat down and calmly smoked her way to the end.”

It is not only the life of Joe that is so fascinating, the fraught relationships with her parents, the sham marriage for inheritance, her role driving ambulances in the war (her I wondered if she was the inspiration for Sarah Waters ‘The Night Watch’), the endless affairs including with some very famous women, the obsession with a small doll called Lord Tod Wadley (who even had his named engraved on the front door so people would actually call for him), the buying of an island ‘Whale Cay’ and it ruling… I could go on and on.

It’s also fascinating because of the time period it covers, the developments in those years (both in technology and science, the latter makes a very interesting story as her mother was part of a movement to use ‘testicular pulp’ as a healing substance – which went wrong), and the eccentricity of Joe’s family and the people close to her. In fact I won’t list every single wonderful story or event; you should simply read ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’ and find out more.

I have to add her that whilst I think any biography could probably have been made interesting by such an eccentric and fascinating person as Joe Carstairs, I think Kate Summerscale makes her come truly alive. Summerscale must have also had quite a job on her hands in trying to separate the fact and the fiction from Carstairs life, as the tapes recorded of her telling her tales sometimes proved to be just that. Summerscale includes these ‘exaggerations’ and if anything it made Joe Carstairs more real to me, I liked her even more. So I am thankful to Kate Summerscale for telling her story in ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’, which I should add won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1998, and for Sue Perkins for enthusing about it. I hope I am now passing on that enthusiasm to all of you.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Harper Collins, Kate Summerscale, Review

Persephone Weekend, My Life in Books & World Book Night

I thought I would do a little bookish round up post (I say little but I never quite manage to keep posts that brief, I will try) today of some of the latest bookish things that have been preoccupying my mind when health and hospitals haven’t. I could ramble on but I shall not and instead just get on with the three bookish things that I wanted to point you in the direction of instead…

First up is ‘Persephone Reading Weekend’ which starts today and runs until the 27th. In what is becoming an annual book bloggers delight in celebration of those lovely grey covered wonders the lovely Claire of Paperback Reader and Verity of Cardigan Girl Verity blogs are running a weekend of reviews and competitions all in celebration of Persephone Classics. If you haven’t read one yet then this could be the ideal time to get into some or won some so do have a gander. I have dug out a Persephone (I have noticed I only really have ones with the colourful covers, I wonder why that is) which I have almost finished and am hoping to put my thoughts up on that and join in all the fun on Sunday.

Here in the UK the wonderful (and I do genuinely love them at the moment with all this and ‘South Riding’) BBC are starting what is going to be a special year of TV shows about books. You may remember that I mentioned ‘Faulks on Fiction’ the other week, its proving interesting with a wonderful list of books I now need to read yet at the same time its also rather pretentious which is a shame as I like Faulks. I digressed. The new show this week has been ‘My Life in Books’ which sees Anne Robinson interviewing a whole host of well known faces (I don’t want to say celebrities) talking about their five favourite books which have meant a lot to them at different times in their lives. I am LOVING IT. So far my favourite guests have been P.D James (for her love of Sherlock), Clare Balding (for choosing some sentimental rogue novels along side Greek myths) and most of all Sue Perkins who just made me want to read every single one of her recommendations and in particular ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’ by Kate Summerscale (of ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ fame) if you can watch it on iPlayer then do, if not I believe its on YouTube too.

Finally it’s just over a week until ‘World Book Night’. I have been selected to give 50 copies of my choice away, I will reveal which one it is over the next week or so, and I am a little stuck on how to do it. I had hoped to get a local bookstore involved but they don’t seem too keen, I wont be in hospital (well I hope not) though if I was that would be sooooo much easier, so I am a little stuck on what to do. Any ideas? What’s going on with you at the moment be it bookish or otherwise?

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Sensational September… And A Sensational Season?

So though we are actually nine days into September now I am finally launching ‘Sensational September’ (apologies for the lateness being abroad and the Man Booker read-a-thon pushed things back a bit) a theme for the blog that I came up with a while ago. Now if you are thinking “what on earth is Simon on about” then hereis the definition of a Sensation Novel. Some of these books, such as Wilkie Collins ‘The Woman in White’ and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ as well as books that they have inspired such as Jane Harris’ ‘The Observations’ and Susan Hill’s ‘The Woman In Black’ are some of my favourite books and the late Victorian era is one of my favourite in history so how could I not love them all, and well why not try? I have been wanting to read more classics and I think these are great classics that sometimes get overlooked.

Penguin had already kindly sent me a selection of the Wilkie Collins they print and a lovely new copy of Lady Audley’s Secret, when I came back from holiday I discovered this had been delivered (well dumped by Royal Mail way before I left into the shop next door – who thankfully are very honest)…

A Promising Parcel

Inside I could see a hint of something sensational peering out at me through the paper…

A Sensational Find Inside

And then it was like all my Christmases had come at once. Thanks to the lovely people at Oxford University Press who saw my previous post and had themselves wanted to get involved in some way.

More Sensation Novels Than a Man Can Handle

And so had sent me some Wilkie Collins (Basil, The Dead Secret, Man & Wife, Poor Miss Finch, Hide & Seek) and more Mary Elizabeth Braddon (The Doctors Wife, Aurora Floyd) and what is considered the mother of all sensation novels ‘East Lynne’ by Ellen Wood.

Now that brings my total of Sensation Novels upto a total of 14 (I bought No Name myself a few weeks ago as I just couldn’t not) and thats not including some of the other fiction from the era (‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde) up until the present day (Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale) that were inspired by these novels. I hadn’t counted on just how huge the sensation novels are, most weighing in at 500-600 pages+ which will make great reading, but reading all that in a month… might be a slight push.

So I am now working on a Sensational Schedule so that should you want to join in, and I so, so, so hope you do, then you can. I am thinking of doing the big reads over weekends on Sensational Sundays very like when I tried to do the Sabidge Reads Big Weekenders, and then a smaller one midweek on Wednesday, though you can’t make a good alliteration based title out of that, ha! Mind you thats only a few weekends, maybe I should make Autumn a Sensational Season? I will pop the schedule on the blog today… I may make a new page actually! Can you tell all the excitement has thrown me?

So will you be joining in? Are you a fan of Sensation Fiction? Have you not read any but are intrigued? Which modern day books do you think have a sensational feel about them or have possibly been inspired by them? Which sensation novels should I simply not miss? All your thoughts as ever very, very welcomed! Am now off to delve back into Wilkie Collins ‘The Haunted Hotel’ which is my first read of the theme and already I am loving, and to mull over just which Sensation books to read when?

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