Tag Archives: Madeline Miller

The Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2019

It is here! The longest of sixteen books which I mentioned last month (when I mentioned blowing off the cobwebs on this blog, cough – more on that below) have been whittled down to six fantastic titles which are…

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Milkman by Anna Burns
Ordinary People by Diana Evans
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Circe by Madeline Miller

I have made a video talking about the shortlist below (I might have had a little prewarning, on the promise of my lips being firmly sealed until now) and my thoughts on the title which I will embed below. However if you want more thoughts of mine on the longlist – and the thoughts of my mother – you can find a video of that here.

Now, as I mentioned in that last post a few weeks ago, I would like to use the Women’s Prize – which has been a favourite prize of mine for as long as this blog has been going – and I have a plan. Over the next few weeks I will be sharing my more detailed thoughts on the shortlisted books AND backdating some posts on the longlisted titles that didn’t make the shortlist. Including one, or maybe two, that I decided not to finish. Eek. More of that in the weeks to come.

So, what do you all make of the shortlist? Which have you read and what did you think? Does this list match the selection of books you would have shortlisted?

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The Women’s Prize Longlist 2019

What better excuse to blow the cobwebs off this blog than with the 2019 longlist announcement, of what is probably my very favourite prizes, the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Those of you who have been visitors of the blog for a long time (and sorry it has been the most defunct on and off book blog in the blogosphere, possibly) will know how much I love the prize and have done for many a year. I have played at guessing the longlist for yeeeeeeeears, you can see me doing this recently in a video on my channel here if you have missed it, I have also read the longlist for a few years now. I will be doing it again with a special guest this year, more on that shortly but first here is the selection of books that have just been announced…

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The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Fenton
My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
The Pisces by Melissa Broder
Milkman by Anna Burns
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Ordinary People by Diana Evans
Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li
Bottle Goods by Sophie Van Llewyn
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden
Circe by Madeline Miller
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
Normal Peopleby Sally Rooney

I had only guessed six of the longlist, which isn’t my best ever BUT that is never a bad thing, one of the things I always love about a longlist is having books I own bumped up the TBR or finding new to me books, in this case the Li, Luiselli and McFadden. I have also read six of the books; Braithwaite, Burns, Emezi, Miller, Moss (which I thought might be too short to be on the list but I am thrilled is) and Rooney – all of which I will be reviewing on the blog soon. Promise.

Now then, I am going to be reading the longlist as I have for the last few years and I did mention a special guest… This year I am going to be reading the shortlist (and hopefully the longlist as she might have got a little head start) with my Mum, who I will be making videos and all sorts with. We are very excited.

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I am also very excited to read the rest of the list. I talk about them in a little more detail on my channel here. What are your thoughts on the list and will you be reading any or all of them? Which have you read already and what did you make of them? Let me know ALL your thoughts!

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The Secret Chord – Geraldine Brooks

When it comes to historical fiction I tend to stick to two particular periods willingly. These are the Victorian era and the Tudors, the latter which I actually read less than I would like because I am picky. Anything before then makes me nervous, bar the Greek and Roman times which I am well versed in (though less well read in) with my mother being a classicist. So, despite having loved Year of Wonders in my pre-blogging days, I was rather worried about reading Geraldine Brooks latest novel The Secret Chord with it being set in 1000BC, a period in history I know next to nothing about…

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Little Brown, hardback, 2014, non-fiction, 302 pages, borrowed from the library

As The Secret Chord opens we are thrown into the world of Natan, prophet and scribe to King David, who has just been given the mission of going off to meet with the people who have journeyed with him or crossed his path in the lead to his rule. David, who we soon come to learn is quite vain, wants his life documented and as Natan only knows of it from a certain point (when David killed his father and was just about to dispatch Natan when he announces his first prophecy) he must go and find out other peoples truths and tales of the king. As he heads to find his rulers family and first wife, interestingly both distant and reticent, he starts to look back on his times with David, a king who seemed to rise from nowhere against all odds and conquer the land.

I have to say initially I wasn’t sure I was going to buy into The Secret Chord as the idea seemed a little forced/contrived (unless I missed something, this plot device also vanishes) and on page nine a line describing a murder as ‘It was as intimate as rape.’ made me quite cross, however I continued and was soon lost in the storytelling of the characters that Natan meets as well as Natan’s own stories, which of course are all Geraldine Brooks wonderful retellings. Natan of course being an intriguing character in himself as he, without control much to his frustration, can see some of the future coming before anyone else which often leads to the intriguing questions of what he should tell, what he should withhold and what he is missing?

For a seer, I was remarkably obtuse. I know this now; I did not know it then. Yoav and I had conspired to find some occupation that, while worthwhile in itself, would serve to distract a restless and unhappy king. Instead, he found a way to distract me, to get me out of his way. A man will silence the voice of his conscience when it suits him to commit sin. But if your “conscience” walks and breathes as a living man in your service, you might have to go to some additional lengths. I did not see this. I did not seen that proud and vital man who feared his manhood waning might take any reckless step to prove himself it wasn’t so. In the service of my gift, I had to forgo much that makes a man in full. I know now that this sacrifice has left me blind to certain things. I can see what others cannot see, but sometimes I miss what is apparent to the dumbest simpleton.

There was much that I admired about Brooks evocation of King David’s life and ruling. Firstly was her clear passion and enthusiasm to tell his tale, which is quite contagious. Through Natan she also creates a fully formed character, flaws and all. David is seen as a ‘great man’, he can often be a kind and impassioned king, he can also be an absolute bastard to both his enemies and those close to him. As Natan watches his relationship with Yonatan, King Shaul’s son and sibling of David’s first wife Mikhal, we see David at his most loving and vulnerable. This section may bring up some questions to historians or certain religious views but I found it fascinating and reminiscent of one of my favourite books, Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles.  Yet by that very same stretch we see how cruel and heartless he can be with his relationship to Mikhal as the novel continues. Brooks doesn’t portray him as some amazing hero, he appears fully formed warts (well not quite) and all and I really liked this. Well apart from the rape and pillaging, this occasionally made me have to put the book down.

Throughout there is a dark, grittiness to Brooks’ writing which brings the atmosphere or the time fully to the fore. These were dark times, though some might say we are still in them now, as people fought for supremacy and power. David thinks nothing of being sent to collect 100 foreskins from the dead bodies of Shaul’s enemies (in fact he goes for double) to win Mikhal’s hand. As I mentioned, parts of the book may not be for some of the fainter of heart readers out there. When Brooks gets out on the battlefield with David and Natan, which happens quite a lot, things get pretty bloody and pretty gory. Here is a taste of one of the battle scenes from early on in the novel, see how you fair with it.

When I reached the ridge, the king was making an end of another fighter. He was up close, eye to eye. His sword had entered just above the man’s groin. He drew it upward, in a long, slow, arching slash. As he pulled the blade back – slick, dripping – long tubes of bowel came tumbling after. I could see the dying mans eyes, wide with horror, his hands griping his guts, trying to push them back into the gaping hole in his belly. The king’s own eyes were blank – all the warmth swallowed by the black stain of widening pupils. David reached out an arm and pushed the man hard in the chest. He fell backward off the narrow ledge and rolled down the slope, his entrails unfurling after him like a glossy ribband.

One scene in particular I found almost too difficult to read and did question it’s taste, once you have read the book you will know which I mean, which leads me to a few quibbles about the book before I mention it’s greatest strength. I have to admit on the odd occasion I did get a little lost. Brooks doesn’t like to show off all the research she has clearly done in writing this book which I admired. However there are moments where her knowledge means she assumes she knows something, and I knew nothing which meant I got lost and on occasion a character, generally a man, would suddenly give reference the history of why people were at war in an aside that felt slightly like a reference book, these were rare moments and minor issues because I ended up reading this book in almost a single sitting and that was because of the women’s voices and tales in the novel – which in a slightly circular way leads back to the scene I almost found too hard to read.

One of the things I like the most about historical fiction is that it can give voice, if done well, to those people who were less documented and in the case of the time of 1000BC it is generally the women. Not so in The Secret Chord where Brooks brings them fully to life and ready to tell us all. In particular the voices of Nizever; David’s forgotten mother, Mikhal; David’s first wife who goes through the ringer, the wonderful Avigail; David’s third wife and the brains behind his early rise, Maacah; his fourth wife and mother of his only daughter Tamar, and Batsheva; his eighth and final wife, who all have quite the tales to tell, giving her-story to the history which I thought was poignant, upsetting, moving and fascinating. They are what make this novel standout, the forgotten voices unleashed.

“It is important that you know, I want you to set it down: ‘Mikhal was in love with David.’ Nobody ever writes that about a woman. It’s always the man whose love is thought worthy of recording. Have you noticed that? In all the chronicles, they state it so. Well, you write down that it was I. I was the one who loved.”
Her observation was quite true. Indeed, in most of our important histories, it’s rare enough for wives to be named, never mind the state of their affections noted. So I set it down as she had requested. I paused, and looked up at her.

All in all I thought The Secret Chord was a compelling and escapist read. It introduced me to a time I know absolutely nothing about and held me there for the five and-a-bit hours it took me to greedily devour it, only stopping for the occasional cup of tea or breather from the Second Iron Age shenanigans. If you are a fan of historical fiction then I would imagine this might be just your fare and if you aren’t it is great place to dip a tentative toe and see how you get on.

So there are my thoughts on The Secret Chord, I would love to hear yours if you have read it. It has certainly reminded me of how much history there is still out there to learn about. It has also made me reflect on how much I loved Brooks’ Year of Wonders (which I took to my heart so much as it tells the tale of Eyam, the only place outside London to get the Black Plague and sacrificed itself, which happens to be mere miles from my hometown) and how I should check out more of her novels, any you would recommend in particular that I should read next?

*I read this as part of the Baileys Bearded Book Club as Eric of LonesomeReader and I try and read all the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year, more details here.

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Is It Time For Me To Head Back To The Ancient Classics?

It is funny how long you will deny something to yourself and indeed the reasons for doing so. From an early age I was brought up not just on fairy tales but on the stories of, and adventures around, the Greek gods and goddesses. You see my mother is something (understatement of the year) of a classicist and so as often as I would ask to be regaled with the story of Rapunzel again and again, I would also ask to be read and reread the tale of Persephone. I was also obsessed with Jim Henson’s The Storyteller spin off about the Greek Myths, I also just had a flashback to a phase I had of loving the animated Shakespeare series, especially Zoe Wannamakers Lady Macbeth. I digress. This all changed when I went to school, where Mum taught, and got 99% in my classics exam. Rather than this being a good thing, some bullying little sods at school made my life hell and said I was either a complete geek or my mum had told me all the answers. My response of course was to shut down and shut out classics. Wow, this is like therapy.

Almost 23 years later when I found myself picking potential holidays Cyprus (have I mentioned I have been on holiday at all) kept coming up and once I explored it, it wasn’t just the all inclusive four star hotel bargain that kept pulling me back, if I am being honest it was also the fact there were ancient tombs, moments, rocks, myths and legends about the island too – like being the birthplace of Aphrodite – that kept drawing me back. And when I got there it was the archaeological park that was one of the first places I wanted to visit, and oddly when I did I felt strangely at home.

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This might of course be because of all the times I went to these places with my mother as a kid (driving through the Greek mountains recently I was reminded of those trips where I played all Cathy Dennis’ albums on repeat) even the seven hour trip around Pompeii, which may have also hardened my heart to classics a little bit possibly. What I wasn’t expecting was for mosaics to bring such a sense of nostalgia back to me…

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But they did…

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And then I was really cross with myself when I couldn’t remember the stories surrounding some of the mosaics that we saw, even when I recognised the names. The more we saw the stronger the sense of nostalgic and slight pining for these tales of ancient times became.

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As did the sense of the ancient world suddenly being so vivid and overwhelming the more of the old ancient sites that we visited. Really there is nothing like standing in or in front of an old Odeon to bring back the spirits and beliefs of the people who would have been sat in there watching some performances.

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So the more we wandered round, and the more that we saw throughout the week, the more I started to get the old classicist itch, which I honestly thought was more dormant than Mount Vesuvius. So now I feel I need to scratch it, or if we want to go right down Pun Alley, the more I want to start an archaeological dig on my soul and start to excavate this side of me again.

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I have dabbled with the classics in the past few years. I read Poetics by Aristotle (who my mum once named a cat after) and thought it was a brilliant piece of writing about, well, writing. I loved Mary Beard’s collection of essays It’s A Don’s Life, and loved her TV show Rome but I love Mary Beard regardless, who doesn’t? I also really enjoyed Natalie Haynes’ The Amber Fury which weaves Greek tragedies through it, and enjoyed the nods to Greek tragedy in Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. And then there is Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles which I love, love, love, love, love. If you haven’t read it you must.

The question is what next? I have just gone and ordered Natalie’s The Ancient Guide To Modern Life as I think that will be up my street and am debating both Robert Graves Greek Myths (as I want to be reminded of them all, if it isn’t dry and dusty) and Ali Smith’s The Story of Antigone. In fact speaking of Ali Smith, I should get my hands on more of the Canongate Myths series really shouldn’t I? Oh and Vintage did kindly send me a copy of Euripides The Bacchae so that could be next. Blimey so much choice. What do you think? Any ancient classic texts you would recommend to me, or indeed any other retellings?

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The Bailey’s Prize; Best of the Best from the Second Decade

Tonight in the Piccadilly Theatre in London, something very exciting is going to be happening… The folk behind the Bailey’s Prize will be announcing their Best of the Best from the second decade of the wonder that is the women’s prize for fiction. The question is of course which of these wonderful ten novels (if like me you thought they had chosen ten books from all time and were worried about some of the older ones not getting a shout fear not) will win the prize tonight?

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I will be there, so will be live tweeting over @SavidgeReads throughout and then filling you all in on the evening tomorrow, however in the interim the lovely team at the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction asked me if I would share with you which book I thought deserving of the title. This initially seemed like the most delightful thing to be asked, then when the selection above arrived I realised it was actually a potential nightmare. I have read nine of the books (sorry Barbara Kingsolver, I will get to you) and I can genuinely say that six of them have been absolute corkers (Homes, McBride, Tremain, Adichie, Miller, Smith) and out of those two of them have become some of my favourite books of all time. Step forward Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles (which I was sure I wouldn’t like after having a classicist mother who dragged me round Pompeii for 8 hours put me off all things Greek and Roman for quite some time, it’s okay Mum I forgive you) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (which I read for a book group knowing nothing about and completely blew me away) which are both corkers!

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But before I choose which of these would be my best of, and it changes minute by minute, I want to just take some time out to say how brilliant the prize is full stop and mention how much I wish they would let a male judge on the panel called Simon just once and all the brilliant fiction that it highlights be they longlisted, shortlisted or the final winners. Because it is brilliant! Without the prize I wouldn’t have read any of the above novels when I did, nor would I have known about Andrea Levy’s winning Small Island, or shortlisted titles like Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues, Kathleen Winter’s Annabel or Emma Henderson’s Grace Williams Says It Loud. I could go on, and I haven’t even started on the longlisted titles that I have read and loved each year, or the fun I have every spring trying to guess the twenty books that might make it on that list. It has really informed my reading, more than I realised until I looked at all the titles – which then set me off wanting to read all the short and long listed titles I haven’t got to yet. Blimey!

So which would be my overall winner for the book of the last decade? Well after much torment, wailing, hair pulling and other vexation I have to say for me it has to be Half of a Yellow Sun. It is a book that stole my heart, broke it a few times and has left me thinking about it (and all the characters) ever since. It is also a book that I have bought for all the important people in my life who haven’t read it yet – and they have all been blown away by it too.

Right I need to get ready for tonight’s event, which there are still some tickets for, so over to you? Who would be your best of the best from the second decade be and what about the first? Which short and longlisted books have you read and loved.

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Ten LGBT Books That You Might Not Have Read But Should…

I don’t normally think about doing posts especially around Pride, not because I am not proud – I’m out and happy about it, I never know if proud is the right word – but because I always think that co-founding a prize like The Green Carnation Prize (which celebrates LGBT writing) means that I promote LGBT stories and LGBT authors. However with the reissue of three Vintage Classics, which you can win here, then the amazing news in America yesterday it felt the time was write for me to share my top LGBT novels, until I realised I had done it before. Oops. I then thought about doing a list of ten contemporary books you might not have read but should until I saw that Eric of Lonesome Reader had already done one this morning. Drats! However once he gave his blessing for me to do the same I popped a list together and neither of us have a book or author in common. Interesting. Here are mine, if I have reviewed them I have linked them in the title so you can find out more…

With A Zero At Its Heart – Charles Lambert

A collection of snippet like stories which create the whole of a human life. Experimentally it wonderfully evokes the story of a (rather bookish) young man as he grows up, discovers he is gay, finds himself, travels, becomes a writer and then deals with the death of his parents and the nostalgia and questions that brings about the meaning of life and how we live it. You can read a full review here.

Grasshopper Jungle – Andrew Smith

Now if I told you that a book about an impending apocolypse caused by giant horny mutant grasshoppers could be one of the most touching stories I have read this year about friendship and love and the blurred (and often confusing) lines between the two, you would probably think that I was mad. This is how I felt last year when everyone, and I mean everyone, who had read Grasshopper Jungle in America raved about it to me and said I simply had to read it. I did and they were right. It had also lead me into more YA fiction which by the looks of it is where some of the most exciting and intellegent LGBT themed writing is coming from. You have to read this book. I have to post my review sooner than soon.

He Wants – Alison Moore

Alison Moore’s writing is so deft in so many ways it is hard to try and do it justice, or without spoiling any of the many delights, twists/surprises and ‘did I just actually read that then?’ moments which the novel has in store as we discover the ins and outs of widowed Lewis’ life. It is a story of the everyman and a story that, if you are anything like me, will leave you feeling completely uplifted and utterly devastated, all at once. It is a perfect example of the sort of book I want to be reading. I loved it and you can see my full review of it here, was one of my books of 2014.

Physical – Andrew McMillan

Slight cheat here because this collection of poetry is not actually out for another two weeks (my blog, my rules) however you might want to order or put a copy on hold now. McMillan has the power to titillate and disturb in each of the poems that he writes whilst also, in particular the middle section, constructing poems the like of which I have never seen or read before. It is playful and also perturbing, saucy and sensual aswell as being masculine and moving. I haven’t read or experienced anything quite so like it, or so frank about all the forms of male love.

The Borrower – Rebecca Makkai

The Borrower is a road trip tale started when which ten year old Ian and his local librarian Lucy accidentally kidnap each other. This book is not only a love story to the powers of books and a good story, it looks at friendship and also the scary reality of some of the extremist views in certain parts of America (where I bet they are seething today) and the movement of ‘straightening therapy’. Bonkers and brilliant, it is one of those books that you hug to yourself afterwards and also cleverly packs one hell of a punch over a subject that is current and we need to talk about more – find out more here.

A Life Apart – Neel Mukherjee

In part the story of Ritwik a man who survives a horrendous childhood living on the breadline in Kalighat, India until his mother’s death when Ritwik moves to Oxford to find himself. Yet also a story of his elderly Oxford landlady Anne Cameron. As Ritwik experiments with his new found freedom and who he really is as a person he must also face is past and find a friend in Anne like he never expected, the story of their relationship is beautifully told. It is also a very vivid and, occasionally quite graphically, honest look at the life of some gay men in the early 1990’s – which as someone reminded me rudely today on the radio is over 20 years ago. I feel like I need to read this book again.

Hawthorn & Child – Keith Ridgway

I could have chosen this or The Long Falling also by Ridgway as they are both exceptional. Is Hawthorn & Child a novel or is it a series of short stories, who cares when it is this good. One of the many stories that make up the book will stay with me forever, ‘How To Have Fun With A Fat Man’ manages to several clever things in just fewer than twenty pages. Firstly it’s three separate narratives; one is Hawthorn at a riot, the second Hawthorn cruising for sex in a gay sauna and the third a visit to Hawthorn’s father. The way Ridgway writes the riot and the sauna sequences in such a way that sometimes you can’t tell which is which and plays a very interesting game with so called acts of masculinity. Brilliance. A sexy, quirky, stunningly written book which should have won the Booker.

Mr Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo

Yes I too now have Shabba Ranks in my head. Back to the book though, the tale of Mr Barrington Jedediah Walker, Esq is one you are unlikely to forget, just like its protagonist. As his elderly years start to approach more and more Barrington decides it is time to leave his wife and follow his true heart which lies with his best friend Morris, much to the horror of his family and many people he knows. Evaristo writes a wonderful, funny and moving novel which gives a much missed voice in the literary scene and in the LGBT scene a change to be heard, understood and by the end celebrated. You have to read this book.

Sacred Country – Rose Tremain

Possibly the oldest out of this selection of books but one which I think addresses something that we need to be discussing more and seems to be missing in literature in general, unless it is just me… the transexual story. Tremain introduces us to Mary Ward, who has felt different from everyone all her childhood, as she realises that she should actually be a boy. We then follow her journey from the turbulence of her youth in Northern England to London where believes she will be able to live just as she was meant to, yet can she?

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

So with my last choice, I have slightly cheated again as this isn’t out in the UK for another month and a half (though if you’re in the US it has been out a while) yet this is probably a book I am going to urge everyone, no matter their sexuality/class/colour, that they have to read as not only is it one of the best books I have read on love and sexuality and friendship, but one of the best books I have ever read on what it means to be human. Seriously that good. I cannot praise it enough, it’s tough to read but so it should be. Will easily be one of my books of the year and very likely to be one of the best LGBT books I ever read. Yep, that good.

Now if you are wondering about my favourite LGBT books that I hinted at back at the start, well below is a video I made discussing them when I was flirting with the idea of being a booktuber. Have a gander as there are ten more tip top recommended books, even if I do say so myself.

If you need a list of the titles they were; Pilcrow – Adam Mars Jones, The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller, Running With Scissors – Augusten Burroughs, The Proof of Love – Catherine Hall, A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood, My Policeman – Bethan Roberts, In Cold Blood – Truman Capote, Skin Lane – Neil Bartlett, A Boy’s Own Story – Edmund White and Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin.

If that wasn’t enough, and as if there can ever be enough book recommendations, then do check out Eric’s blog post today (where I have gained ten new to me recommendations) and also the Green Carnation Prize website for all the previous long and shortlists. Oh and don’t forget you can win those Vintage Pride Classics here. Happy Pride and well done America! Love wins.

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Other People’s Bookshelves #42; Victoria Hoyle

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 are back in the UK and heading to the delights of York, which you will be hearing more about next week, as we join blogger extraordinaire Victoria Hoyle to have a nosey through her books. So grab yourself a good strong cuppa Yorkshire Tea (the best kind) and have a nosey through her bookshelves and find out more about her.

I’m Victoria and I’ve been blogging about books at Eve’s Alexandria for just over 8 years.   I live in York with my partner in a little house completely overwhelmed by books.  Books doubled up on shelves, books on the floor, books in boxes, books stacked in piles on tables… I have always been an avid reader.  When I was a child my mum took me to the library every Monday evening and I borrowed armfuls of fiction.  Apart from my family the adult I looked up to most was Pam the librarian, who introduced me to some of my favourite authors as I got older.  When I went off to university I still rang her up for a chat about the latest paperbacks.   At university I was bitten by the book buying bug and met the friends I founded Eve’s Alexandria with.  These days I work for York Libraries and Archives.

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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 don’t keep all the books I read – it would be chaos if I did. We would literally drown under the sea of them. When I’ve finished something I give it a week or two for my impressions to settle and if I really loved it and think I’ll want to read it again (or stroke it lovingly sometimes) then I keep it. If it doesn’t pass the test I donate it to the library (if it’s not a review copy) or to charity. Every year or so I do a full sweep of the shelves and give away some books that I initially decided to keep but which don’t seem worth the shelf space in hindsight. I’d rather someone else was reading and enjoying them. I’d say about 1 in 5 books stays permanently, maybe less. The only exception I make is for favourite authors where I want to keep all their books even if one or two didn’t work for me.

Occasionally I make the wrong decision and give away a book I want to go back to – this sometimes happens with series, where I want to check something or re-read it before the next book comes out – but the rate at which the books are coming in means a lot have to be going out. What this means in reality is that the unread books vastly outnumber the read in our house. When people come to visit us and browse the bookshelves I’m always ashamed to admit that, no, I haven’t read that one, or that one, or that one…

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?

Yes and no. The books in the main ‘library’ (aka the dining room) are split into fiction and non-fiction but otherwise are completely random and higgledy-piggledy. Basically I put things where there is a space, which means that books I’ve read and books I haven’t are side by side, and things by the same writer are in seven different places. It’s not a very efficient system; I’m always hunting for something or wondering where a particular book has disappeared to. Most days I think to myself ‘You should really sort this mess out’ and decide to alphabetise them but somehow is never happens. I think because I know it would be hard to maintain with all the books coming and going. And there is something to be said for having to look through your whole collection just to find one thing. I’m always rediscovering books I forgot I had.

Different story in the living room. I suppose because the books in there are more ‘on show’. We have two shelves in there: one for classics and the other for favourite authors. Both are alphabetised, and I try to maintain order (although I’m rapidly running out of space). I like to see the black, red and cream spines of the Penguin and Oxford classics in neat rows, and love to have all our books by Ali Smith or Sarah Waters together – it pleases the completist in me. The top shelf of our ‘favourites’ bookcase is entirely books by or about Virginia Woolf. Both Esther and I studied her at university, and one of the reasons we first started seeing each other was a shared love of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Twelve years later we are still together and Woolf has pride of place.

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

My parents didn’t buy many books when I was younger – why would you when you can get as many as you like for free at the library? So apart from the occasional present at Christmas and birthdays all my books were borrowed. When I was about thirteen Pam (the librarian) introduced me to the Outlander series of time-travel romance-adventure books by Diana Gabaldon. I was really into multi-volume epic fantasy at the time and the Outlander books were like heaven. I was in *love* with the two main characters Jamie and Claire and literally read the first three books to pieces. When the fourth book – Drums of Autumn – came out in hardback I joined the incredibly long library request list and waited and waited and waited. It seemed to take forever to be my turn.

Then, during a day trip with my parents (to York, of all places), I spotted it in the window of Waterstones. I had some birthday money left over and my mum suggested that I could buy Drums of Autumn with it. It was a revelation – I didn’t have to wait any more, I could buy it! I was almost hyperventilating carrying it to the counter to pay, and think I gabbled something embarrassing to the shop assistant about it (who was probably wandering what a teenager was doing buying the fourth book in a series mostly read by middle aged women). I can still remember the extraordinary sense of happiness and wellbeing I felt sitting in the car on the drive home with it next to me on the seat. I hardly dared open it. I’ve bought hundreds of books since then, probably searching for that same feeling of contentment, but never quite attained it.

And yes, Drums of Autumn is still on my shelves, along with all the other Outlander books. The series is still going and the eighth book Written in My Own Heart’s Blood is due out in the US this June. Oh, and they are currently making it into a TV series. I am very, very excited and also terrified that it won’t live up to my expectations.

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 don’t have a hidden shelf but I’ve sometimes been guilty of ‘hiding’ books at the back of others, epic fantasy instalments behind the latest contemporary fiction for example. I still love reading fantasy, which is definitely an acquired taste and some of the covers can be difficult to explain in polite company. Dragons, half naked ladies, you get the picture. They are much better than they used to be – Game of Thrones has ushered in a new era of pretty classy covers – but still can be a bit weird. They also come in a lot of non-standard shapes and sizes, from dumpy little paperbacks to enormous trade and fat hardcovers, so they can dominate a shelf and draw the eye. That said if you look at the library shelves at the moment you will see all sorts jumbled together – fantasy and historical fiction and Booker and Nobel prize winners jostling for space. I quite like it that way.

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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?

This is a really hard question because I’m sentimental about quite a lot of books. But I think I’m going to have to tell another anecdote about Pam and beloved library finds. Around the same time that Pam was feeding me Diana Gabaldon she also introduced me to Guy Gavriel Kay, a Canadian writer who specialises in alternate historical fantasy. He has written lots of incredible books and I urge everyone to try him, even if you’re not a fantasy fan. I started with his Fionavar Tapestry trilogy: The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road. I *loved* those books and when I was at university I tracked down hardback editions of the second and third books online and bought them. I couldn’t seem to find an affordable copy of the first one in good condition though so my collection was incomplete. Later, via the power of the internet and a friend, I got to know Guy a little through email as well as the illustrator who drew the Fionavar covers, Martin Springett. When Martin came to London 6 or 7 years ago I went down to meet up with him and he gave me a copy of that wonderful first book, which he signed. The powerful memory of reading it for the first time, along with Martin’s kindness, make it one of my most prized possessions.

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 segued pretty early from the children’s section of the library to the adult one, via Terry Pratchett and the fantasy shelves. I just read whatever I wanted; I’m pretty sure Pam let me take books out on my children’s ticket that I shouldn’t have.  I don’t remember there ever being a book that I wanted to read that I didn’t feel allowed to or was discouraged from. That said, there were definitely books I read that I probably shouldn’t have or that I was too young for. I think if my mum had known how much sex there was in the Outlander books for example she wouldn’t have let me read them so young, and the same goes for quite a lot of the fantasy series I gobbled up. And there were definitely books that I tried to read and failed at because I was too young, like Far From the Madding Crowd and To the Lighthouse. I’ve re-read them as an adult and loved them though, and they are still on my shelves now.

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 buy about 2/3 of my books and borrow the other 1/3, and usually I will buy a copy of a book that I’ve had from the library and loved. I use the same criteria as I would use to keep a book I suppose: will I re-read it, and do I need to have it in my line of sight. In the last couple of years I’ve borrowed and then bought Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and The Accidental by Ali Smith.

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

I’ve bought quite a lot of books this month – it’s a bit embarrassing how many, so I won’t say – but the absolutely most recent is J.L. Carr’s A Month in Country which I bought after reading Lynne’s recent post about it at Dovegreyreader. She made me want to read it immediately. This is how quite a lot of my books get bought – blogging has made me very impulsive.

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

I am in a constant state of wanting books. Every day it seems like I have a new fascination to feed. At the moment I would like to grow my collection of Doris Lessing. In fact, a book that I would love that hasn’t even been announced or written yet is a biography of her; I live in hope that my favourite literary biographer Hermione Lee is working on it already. She has done such masterly lives of Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton and Penelope Fitzgerald. Surely someone has asked her to do one of Doris?

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

This is such an interesting question and I’m really not sure. It depends so much on where they are looking. They would probably think I have an eclectic taste in books, which I do. I hope it would make them think I was a curious person with wide interests rather than someone who just flitted from one thing to another. They would probably think I was a feminist or interested in women’s fiction, because books by women probably outnumber books by men 2 to 1 or more.   They would probably think I was disorganised because of the chaotic ordering system! They would probably think I was a bit of an escapist because of all the historical and fantasy fiction. I’d like to think they were interpret my willingness to suspend my disbelief as openness.

Sometimes I wonder if most ‘ordinary’ people wouldn’t think I was a bit weird for having so many. The last time we moved house we had to pack our books using library book crates, 40 of them in total. They were just too heavy for cardboard boxes. The removal men were honestly confused about why we had so many – did we own a second hand bookshop? Had we inherited them? Had we not heard of a Kindle? They were very solicitous in suggesting ways we could unburden ourselves of them, by giving them to charity or taking them to a car boot sale. They just couldn’t believe we really *wanted* them. We are about to move again and the crates are coming back again. It will be interesting to see what the next removal team think!

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A huge thanks to Victoria for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. If you would like to find out more about her and the books she loves make sure you head to her blog Eve’s Alexandria. 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 Victoria’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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The Amber Fury – Natalie Haynes

I have always liked Natalie Haynes, when I have seen her on the telly being very funny or talking on the BBC’s Review Show (which should be on more regularly and back on the mainstream Beeb) I have always found her thoughts really insightful. Ok, maybe we fell out a bit over The Luminaries when she was judging the Man Booker last year, but I couldn’t have agreed more with what an amazing book The Song of Achilles was when it won the Orange Prize and she was a judge. I then got slightly jealous about how many book prizes she was judging but we moved on, it was fine. Note – she knew none of this until we met for an interview on You Wrote the Book just to clarify, this isn’t a review of a friend’s book; though she would be a great friend to have a cocktail or two and meal with and discussing putting the cultural world to rights. Anyway, I have really digressed, Natalie has her debut novel out and it might not be what you are expecting…

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Corvus Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 307 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Alex Morris is trying to escape her life. The only way she feels she can do this, without turning to suicide which isn’t in her nature, she feels is to get as far away from her old life in London and escape to Edinburgh where hardly anyone knows her and there won’t be the constant reminders of the loss of her fiancé under dreadful, and initially mysterious, circumstances. Through her friend Robert Alex has landed a job teaching at The Unit, an initiative set up for ‘difficult kids’ expelled by any other school. Here she will teach Classics, yet what Alex doesn’t realise is that as she teaches these Greek tragedies a tragedy may be playing out right in front of her eyes.

It is very, very difficult to say too much more about the plot without giving anything away. With this being a psychological thriller (who else would, as I did, have assumed initially that this was going to be a comedy?) there are lots of plots and twists that get revealed along the way I wouldn’t want to give away. Yet what I found so brilliant about The Amber Fury is that Haynes manages to give very little away both in the past and in the present narratives until she really wants two, doubly clever when the book is also in two narratives.

The first thing they will ask me is how I met her. They already know how we met, of course. But that won’t be why they’re asking. It never is.

From the very first line of the novel Haynes has you in her web, yet you are also rather confused (without ever being so baffled you throw the book across the room in despair) as you realise that something awful has happened very recently in Alex’s past, after the awful way in which she lost her fiancé before fleeing to Edinburgh in the hope of escape, fat chance there Ms Morris. Slowly Alex tells us both her tales, meaning sometimes you are trying to work out which awful thing she is discussing, whilst also we have a diary of one of her pupils. I won’t say which one it is obviously, safe to say though that they become rather obsessed with Alex and the new knowledge she is bringing into their lives. On top of this Haynes also throws several twists, turns and a few red herrings which are frustratingly brilliant and never make you quite cross enough to throw the book across the room either.

Brilliant stuff, and all that would be quite enough to make a great thriller yet Haynes has also weaved in themes which give the book weight and added depths, some as dark as the mysteries at the heart of the book. She brings up the subject of obsession and what it could take to make someone become obsessed, or not take actually thinking about it, and where obsession can lead. It also looks at education, and how ‘difficult kids’ are perceived as well as why the classics are important and not a dead subject as many believe. It is also about grief.

In fact I would say grief and hurt are probably the two themes that underline The Amber Fury. The grief and pain of losing someone you love so much and build your world around in the case of Alex, but also the grief and hurt that can be caused by people telling you that you’re no good, that you are a waste in society and have no future. How do we react to those things as humans be it good or bad? Haynes looks at these two themes unflinchingly and with a raw realism which I found incredibly moving and disturbing to read. These rather raw and moving moments propel The Amber Fury and give it additional layers which create a real impact. As with The Night Guest which I mentioned earlier this week, we have a dark, atmospheric and twisty tale that thrills but also has real depths to it, these are the sort of marvellously written and thrilling novels I want many more of in the months and years to come.

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If you would like to hear more about the book (which I am sure you would) you can hear Natalie in conversation with me on the latest episode of You Wrote the Book here. Have any of you read any thrillers that had multiple layers (I have another review of another one coming soon actually) behind it and made it all the more brilliant for it? Do you think this is why thrillers and crime novels are becoming more and more popular, showing people from all walks of life and their hidden depths whilst also being a compelling book to read? Let me know, and of course let me know your thoughts once you have read the book too!

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Filed under Corvus Books, Natalie Haynes, Review

The Best Love Stories Ever Told…

So before a week of reviews next week (well maybe a week of mainly reviews as I have become terribly behind with them all) I thought I would ask all of you lovely readers out there a bookish Valentine’s Day, for that is what today is, question. No, it isn’t will you marry me, ha. What I would really like to know is which are the best love stories ever told?

You see earlier in the week when myself and Thomas were gearing up to record the latest episode of The Readers we wanted to talk about love stories but realised we hadn’t really read any. I could think of three; Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, Jojo Moyes Me Before You and David Nicholls One Day. All of these I have loved (pun intended) but have to say they don’t all end in the most delightful of ways, yet maybe that is what I think the nature of love is set to end like? Anyway, my old faithful response of Rebecca didn’t seem right and Jane Eyre is debatable as Rochester is a bit of a bastard really on occasion. Oh and of course I haven’t read Pride and Prejudice.

So I would love (did it again) some recommendations of old and new books that are love stories, yet aren’t so saccharine I might vomit in my own mouth. There I have thrown the gauntlet down, do your worst 😉

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Savidge Reads’ Top Ten LGBT Books…

As I mentioned yesterday I am in a little bit of a reading funk. So I was routing through my bookshelves, and preparing for the event I have coming next Tuesday, I thought that I would make a little video of my personal top ten LGBT themed books. This is by no means what I think are the best LGBT themed books, it is a list of the ones that have a special place in my heart from my young teens all the way to now. So have a gander if you fancy it…

I know there are some celebrated books and authors missing yet these are the ten books that I mentioned.

Pilcrow – Adam Mars Jones
The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller
Running With Scissors – Augusten Burroughs
The Proof of Love – Catherine Hall
A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood
My Policeman – Bethan Roberts
In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
Skin Lane – Neil Bartlett
A Boy’s Own Story – Edmund White
Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

I am aware I have missed some of my favourite authors like Stella Duffy, Sarah Waters, Geoff Ryman, etc, lots and lots of Green Carnation books, nonfiction and classics, the latter mainly as I am playing catch up with Larry Kramer and Radclyffe Hall etc.

That is of course where you come in… What are the books you love with LGBT themes? Which books have I missed and might I have read and need to re-read (I feel I need to pick up ‘Rough Music’ by Patrick Gale again at some point) or try for the first time? Which of you the books I mention have you read? Who is coming to Leeds on Tuesday for my scary solo event? Who is currently reading ‘Tales of the City’, which I will be picking up to re-read today, to discuss on Friday on the blog? Lots of questions for you there.

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Savidge Reads Books of 2012 – Part One…

I was going to try and be really brave and break the habit of this blogs and just do a single top ten books of the year. I tried and tried and tried, and I failed. I simply couldn’t only have ten, in fact I actually had a top thirty roughly, but then I have read 167 books (Green Carnation submissions always bump this figure up, what will next year be like without them) this year so maybe that will make it slightly more understandable. So what I have done once again is have two top tens, one of the books published for the first time in the UK in 2012 and another with all the other books published before that – it is the latter we are focusing on today. For the full review click on the link, I have chosen a highlighting paragraph to tempt you for this post.

10. The Claude Glass by Tom Bullough

I really liked the fact Bullough creates this sense of place and people and wants you to work with him on building the bigger picture and using all the things unsaid along with tiny tensions to create the full narrative tale.  I think by now you will have probably guessed that I thought ‘The Claude Glass’ was an unusual and incredibly accomplished piece of writing, silently impressive and one that rewards you in many ways.

9. You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead by Marieke Hardy

‘You’ll Be Sorry When I Am Dead’ is one of those books which manages to make you laugh out loud, feel ever so uncomfortable at its honesty, possibly makes you want to cry and then makes you laugh all over again. When someone writes their memoirs it isn’t necessarily that the full truth doesn’t come out, just that the author tends to look at things in a rose tinted way, highlighting their best bits – not so in the case of Marieke.

8. Days of Grace by Catherine Hall

What I also really admired and loved about the book is that even though we have one narrator we have two stories. These are told in alternating chapters throughout the book. This device is one that is used often and normally I have to admit one story will overtake my interest as I read on. Not in the case of ‘Days of Grace’. I was desperate to know what was going to happen with Nora and Grace as the war went on both in idyllic Kent and the roughness and danger of London but I also wanted to know, just as much, what was going to happen with Nora in the present, her health and the relationship with Rose and her baby. Both stories had me intrigued and I think that was because Catherine Hall very cleverly has the stories mystery foreboding the past tense narrative and shadowing the present without us knowing what it is until the last minute.

7. The World That Was Ours – Hilda Bernstein

‘The World That Was Ours’ shows the power of books, writing, journalism and memoir. When it was published back in 1967 it was a dangerous book to release and there were many people who would have liked to see it destroyed. Thank goodness it found a publisher back then and thank goodness Persephone have chosen it as a book to reprint for us to discover because it is just the sort of book that everyone should read. I will be re-reading this again for definite.

6. Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

You can feel the sense of unease on almost every page, both in a combination of the mystery of Hiero unraveling and war drawing nearer does give the book a slight thriller twist. If you think that is a negative thing it is not I promise you because Edugyan merges the literary elements of the novel with the tension and pace perfectly… and it stays with you long after you read it.

5. The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

There were so many things that I loved about Beryl Bainbridge’s writing that it might be hard to encompass them all, I will endeavour to try though. First of all is how much is in such a small book. At a mere 200 pages, and in fairly big print which could be devoured in a few hours, so much happens that when you have finished you find yourself recapping it all and thinking ‘did that all just happen in this book?’ There are funerals, hilarious seductions in cellars, hilarious seductions in a shared bedroom and a shared bathroom, a mother in law with a grudge to bear and a gun in her handbag, a fight in Windsor Castle, horse riding with the Queen’s funereal regiment, something awful on an outing which leads to a strange trip to a safari park, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

4. Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn

I always admire an author who can write beautifully and simply, an author who can create the most understated of melodramas will win me over. I also always admire an author who can write a passage that chills you before one that makes you laugh out loud and then another which horrifies you all over again. All these things are encompassed in Edward St Aubyn’s first Patrick Melrose novel ‘Never Mind’.

3. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I don’t think I have yet read a piece of fiction which seems to encapsulate the entire breadth in which cancer can affect people and not just those in the eye of the storm it creates. Ness looks at the full spectrum of emotions for all those involved, from Conor, his mother and grandmother to those on the periphery such as Conor’s teachers. He takes these feeling and reactions, condenses them and then makes them readable, effecting, emotional and compelling in just over 200 pages. The monster itself is also an incredible character being utterly evil in many ways and yet having hints of goodness amongst the chaos he creates so that you are never quite sure if he is friend or foe.

2. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I wouldn’t normally say that I was a reader who subscribes to adventure stories or love stories and yet Madeline Miller’s debut novel ‘The Song of Achilles’ is easily my favourite read of the year so far. The reason for this is simple, she’s a bloody good storyteller, a great writer and I think the enthusiasm she has for classics becomes contagious somewhere in the way she writes. Madeline Miller has made me want to run out and read more books with this book, what more can you ask from an author than that?

1.  Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl

I think ‘Kiss Kiss’ will undoubtedly remain one of my favourite short story collections, and one that I will happily dip in and out of again and again in the future. It has that delightfully dark, yet awfully darkly funny, essence to it that I just really enjoy. It has made me want to go out and read all of Dahl’s other adult work (especially with the covers in this new series by Penguin) and also dig out my old childhood favourites which I am sure I will now see in a whole new light. I would definitely recommend that you read this collection if you haven’t, they are mini macabre masterpieces.

So that is my first top ten of 2012 and all the books I really, really loved published before this year that I read this year. Make sense? I do also want to mention ‘Now You See Me’ by S.J. Bolton, ‘Packing For Mars’ by Mary Roach (both of which I read for The Readers Summer Book Club and adored), ‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen and ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens (both have been part of Classically Challenged and the latter of which I will be talking about tomorrow), all highly recommended.

So what about your what are your post-2012 books of 2012? Which of these have you read and what did you think? Any other books you would recommend you think I might like having loved the above? Do pop back for Part Two on Monday!

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The Lighthouse – Alison Moore

I really should listen to people more and stop making assumptions so quickly, I really should. One book that has certainly highlighted this recently has been reading Alison Moore’s debut novel ‘The Lighthouse’, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year. I had assumed that with a lighthouse on the cover it would be about the sea and boats, which it isn’t but I don’t read blurbs so I just assumed it would be. Then I heard it was a ‘walking book’ and as a child who went on too many walking holidays (sorry Gran, I do think of them more fondly now) that put me off too. However Trevor of The Mookse and the Gripes raved about it to me when we recorded a Man Booker special of The Readers and now, having finished it, I am kicking myself for having not read it sooner.

Salt Publishing, paperback, 2012, fiction, 184 pages, borrowed from the library

Futh, which I admit I initially found such an unusual name it bothered me to start with and slightly distracted me, is a man who has decided to take himself off on his first holiday alone walking in the German countryside. As we meet him on the ferry we learn that he has recently become separated and in some nostalgic way has done what he and his father did when his mother left and head to Germany for a break of sorts. It is this almost circular and mirroring of the past and the present that we see more and more of as ‘The Lighthouse’ goes on. As Futh walks in the days that follow certain things mainly scents, as he is a chemist who creates artificial scents which I couldn’t help think was inspired by the fact the only thing of his mothers he had was a perfume bottle shaped like a lighthouse, remind him of the past and memories start to come back that he can’t quite figure out, yet as the reader we can which I thought Moore had planned rather intricately.

Now I am aware that I have fallen into the trap of making this book sound like it is a ‘walking book’ and actually it is so much more and that is where the second strand of the novel comes from in alternating chapters. Ester is a rather unhappy landlady of a B&B in Germany called Hellhaus (which is German for ‘lighthouse’) where Futh comes to stay. Her husband, Bernard, no longer seems interested in her and so finds herself sleeping with single men who stay at the hotel, and who will have her, in a way of getting her husband’s attention. This works but not in the way she hopes, his reaction is of a darker jealousy which cleverly creates a sense of unease and dread in the reader for all concerned.

“In the past, she always used beds she had already changed, but since receiving complaints about the sheets, she makes sure to use rooms not yet cleaned. Or she uses rooms whose occupants are out for the day, brushing off and straightening up the bedding afterwards, and sometimes, while she is there, browsing the contents of drawers and suitcases, picking up perfumes and lipsticks, testing them on herself. If guests ever notice their possessions, these small items, going missing, they rarely say anything.”

Both the characters of Ester and Futh are polar opposites yet they have similarities and are so fascinating they make you read on. She appears from the outside a little cold, sexually dominant and manipulative; you learn how she went for Bernard when she was originally dating his brother etc. Yet really ester is a woman who fell in love with a man who became bored of her and she became bored of her life, she wanted romance and indeed still collects and reads Mills and Boons, the promise they offer consoled with drinking gin during the day. Futh on the other hand is one of those people who seem to amble through life a little bit confused and is often overlooked, misunderstood or finds himself misunderstanding the world around him. I did love the fact that wherever he stays he has to work out an exit of safety, hence why he doesn’t like planes. He is someone who goes under the radar possibly because he is actually a bit boring. It is this ambling nature and of not understanding or being understood which makes the ending of the book all the more horrifying, but I won’t say more on that subject.

“He has got into the habit of always determining an escape route from a room in which he is staying, imagining emergency scenarios in which his exit is blocked by a fire or a psychopath. This began, he thinks, when he was in his twenties and living in an attic flat. His Aunt Frieda, worrying about stair fires and burglars, gave him a rope ladder. It seems important he should always know a way out.”

Another thing I really admired and found rather enthralling was the circular feel to ‘The Lighthouse’, something which the title seems to allude to right there and indeed the quoted paragraph above does too. Themes of how history repeats itself, with Futh’s mother (also called Angela) leaving his father for being boring, and then his wife does the very same thing. The very walk itself he goes in is circular, the bottle in his pocket is a lighthouse, Esters hotel has the name, the place Futh saw his father hit his mother and ended their relationship was on a walk to a lighthouse etc. Occasionally these fall into symmetries and seem a tad too much, the fact Ester dated one brother then another and Futh’s wife might have had an affair with his estranged step brother, or the fact Futh creates scents and carries an empty bottle of his mothers and Ester collecting perfume bottles seemed one too far but because the book is so, so good I ended up overlooking it, even if it did seem to be one connection that was thrown in for the plot a little.

I think ‘The Lighthouse’ is one of the most accomplished debut novels that I have read in quite some time, and indeed is one of my favourite novels of the year so far. It is a book that says so much and is brimming with themes and ideas in fewer than two hundred pages. It has shades of dark and light, there is some real humour at Futh’s expense making the darker undertones all the darker, the unease build throughout and the ending all the more upsetting. I had to keep re-reading the last few chapters. I would highly recommend you give this book a whirl and am thrilled that the Man Booker judges chose this over some more famous names or I might have missed out.

Who else has read ‘The Lighthouse’ and what did you think? Have you ever been put off a book by its cover and/or what you have assumed about it or thought the subject matter wouldn’t be your thing (I am also thinking of Madeline Miller’s ‘The Song of Achilles’ here) only to love it and wish you had read it sooner? Oh and you can read Trevor of Mookse and the Gripes thoughts here and also Kim of Reading Matters here as it was Trevor who said I should read it and Kim’s review that made me get this from the library!

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Filed under Alison Moore, Books of 2012, Man Booker, Review, Salt Publishing

It’s A Don’s Life – Mary Beard

If you had told me at the start of 2012 that I would have embraced the world of classic civilization over the next few months I would have looked at you with a raised eyebrow and the expression ‘I seriously doubt it’ all over my face. My mother teaches Classics and as a child I got all the myths, taken round Pompeii for about nine hours, endless (literally endless) trips round museums with Roman and Greek relics and then ridiculed at secondary school (where my mother also taught) when I got 100% in the Classics exam. I might have studied it further had that not happened and my mother being one of the only teachers who taught it. However this has changed this year, this is in part thanks to two women. One was Madeline Miller and her wonderful debut novel ‘The Song of Achilles’, the other was watching Mary Beard’s ‘Meet the Romans’ which had me hooked and led me to ‘It’s A Don’s Life’ a collection of her blog posts for the TLS.

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Profile Books, 2009, paperback, non fiction, 224 pages, kindly sent by publisher

The things that I most liked about Mary Beard when watching her present ‘Meet the Romans’ was her warmth, humour, enthusiasm and the fact that she talks to the audience, which even though you know is lots and lots of people you feel is just you, in a down to earth tone without implying you are stupid. I was relieved, and rather thrilled to discover that as soon as I started reading ‘It’s A Don’s Life’ her blog posts, which read like brief essays, had exactly the same qualities about them. It doesn’t matter if she is discussing the academic world (she is a ‘Don’ after all), her students at Cambridge, politics, Amy Winehouse or a new historic place that she visits, the way she writes is like she is talking to you over a coffee. She never patronises or come across as ‘clever’ even though she clearly is.

“You have to pay extra to visit the harem and technically speaking you can only go round with a guide (parties leave every half hour). But despite fierce notices about not getting separated from your group, none of the guards seemed too much bothered if you hired an individual ‘audio guide’ and wandered pretty much at will.”

Even though I have been completely won over by the way she brought everyday Roman life to, erm, life in ‘Meet the Romans’ I worried that with this collection I might feel slightly out of my depth. I am no Cambridge student after all, though I wish Mary Beard had taught me, and I was worried that as the book went on the merge of the classical history and the academic life might prove too much. It doesn’t and that is for two reasons, as I mentioned before the book isn’t just about Classics and Cambridge, but when it is its insightful and funny ‘Pissing in the Pyramids’, ‘Keep Lesbos for Lesbians’ and ’10 Things You Thought You knew About The Romans… But Didn’t’ are all prime examples of that, there is also the fact that she will throw in sentences and asides that you empathise with and know about through daily life.

“I do have a soft spot for Woman’s Hour. I like the way it squeezes in wonderfully subversive feminist reports next to those drearily wholesome recipes for tuna pasta bake.”

As read in Verona Arena…

I almost want to call Mary Beard’s style of prose a little ‘naughty’ in some respects, on ‘Meet the Romans’ I loved how she gave us the nitty gritty side of Roman times like communal loo’s and tales of murder, here we have more Roman insight and all the Latin words for naughty bits (which I have been telling everyone about since and then praising the book overall) yet I think ‘wry’ is probably a better term for her demeanour.

 “Most people go onto Amazon to buy books; easy shopping, and it would be an entirely admirable enterprise, if it wasn’t killing all our local bookshops. Authors, though, sneakily visit Amazon to check how their books are selling… …But what every author wants to know is how many sales does it take to get you zooming up the Amazon ranks. I’ve always suspected we are dealing with single figures here. But proof came the other day when the husband decided to buy 4 copies of his own book on icons, which seemed almost as cheap, and a lot easier to obtain from Amazon than from the publishers. The result was that he zoomed more than 250,000 places up the rankings.”

The second reason that the book doesn’t get too much, I seemed to get sidetracked from this earlier sorry, is that by its very nature this is a book that you dip in and out of rather than simply read it in one or two sittings as you might a novel.

In fact one of the phrases that Mary uses in the afterword of this collection is “The book is also a convenient and portable commodity. No one I know reads their laptop on the underground, in bed or on the loo.” This seems most apt as I have been dipping in and out of this collection in all these places, well, swap the underground for an aeroplane and throw in a Roman Arena as shown above. Whether you know a lot about Classics and the Romans (even if its lain dormant or hidden) or nothing at all I would highly recommend spending some time with Mary Beard be it in book form, blog or on the television, it is a joy and you’ll learn things without knowing it. I am really glad I have the next collection ‘All In A Don’s Day’ in the TBR for similar style reading over the next few months.

So who else is a big Mary Beard fan? (Some of you may know I started a twitter account for ‘The Beardettes’ @welovemarybeard should you wish to follow it.) Are you a regular reader of her blog for the TLS? Have you read any of her other books such as ‘Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town’ or ‘The Parthenon’, if so should I give them a whirl? I am very tempted.

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Filed under Mary Beard, Non Fiction, Profile Books, Review

My Books of 2012, So Far…

I mentioned the other day that we were halfway through the year and how I was taking stock of what I had read so far and what I wanted to read over the next few months. Well in terms of what I have read I thought I would give you a list of my top ten books of the year so far, we all like a list of books don’t we, each comes with a brief quote from my review – you can click on the title and author for the full reviews.

Diving Belles – Lucy Wood

“I don’t think I have been this excited or captivated by a debut author, or indeed a well known one, in quite some time… It’s the sort of book that really makes reading come alive and re-ignites or invigorates the joy of reading to anyone no matter how little or how much you read. I should really stop enthusing now shouldn’t I? It might seem a little obvious to say that this is easily my book of the year and will be a collection I return to again and again but it’s true.”

The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller

“I wouldn’t normally say that I was a reader who subscribes to adventure stories or love stories and yet Madeline Miller’s debut novel ‘The Song of Achilles’ is easily my favourite read of the year so far. The reason for this is simple, she’s a bloody good storyteller, a great writer and I think the enthusiasm she has for classics becomes contagious somewhere in the way she writes.”

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

“I was enjoying ‘The Snow Child’ so much from the start that I did something I hardly ever do. Rather than read it in chunks when I could, I simply devoted almost a whole day to it. I could have saved it and made it last, but sometimes you have to think ‘stuff that’ and just get lost in it all. So I did and read the book in pretty much one go just gorging on it. Now that is the sign of a truly magical book, I was completely spellbound… apart from having to pop the heater on and making the occasional hot drink as the snow really does feel like it’s coming off the page.”

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

“I don’t think I have yet read a piece of fiction which seems to encapsulate the entire breadth in which cancer can affect people and not just those in the eye of the storm it creates. Ness looks at the full spectrum of emotions for all those involved, from Conor, his mother and grandmother to those on the periphery such as Conor’s teachers. He takes these feeling and reactions, condenses them and then makes them readable, effecting, emotional and compelling in just over 200 pages.”

You’ll Be Sorry When I Am Dead – Marieke Hardy

“‘You’ll Be Sorry When I Am Dead’ is one of those books which manages to make you laugh out loud, feel ever so uncomfortable at its honesty, possibly makes you want to cry and then makes you laugh all over again. When someone writes their memoirs it isn’t necessarily that the full truth doesn’t come out, just that the author tends to look at things in a rose tinted way, highlighting their best bits – not so in the case of Marieke.”

Now You See Me – S.J. Bolton

“It is hard to say too much about ‘Now You See Me’ without spoilers or sounding too sycophantic. It is really a book of layers, you have the layers of the atmosphere of London (though the book does travel to Cardiff), the multiple facets and layers of the characters from the killer to Lacey and all the cops in between and also it is a book which has more than just a layer of murder, you get to know the victims and those affected by the horrific events that unfold you also get to look at some of the social issues affecting our times.”

Down the Rabbit Hole – Juan Pablo Villalobos

“Child narrators are something which either work superbly in a novel and make it or can completely ruin it with a more saccharinely sweet, naive and possibly precociously irritating tone. It is a very fine line and one that an author has to get just right. When done well they can be used as a way of innocently describing much more adult themes in a book or for leaving gaps in which we as adults can put the blanks, this is the way that Juan Pablo Villalobos uses his narrator Tochtli. Tochtli is a wonderful narrator as he describes the strange circumstances, somewhere in Mexico, he finds himself in as the son of a drug lord – of course Tochtli doesn’t know this but through what he doesn’t say we put the pieces of the puzzle together.”

The Lifeboat – Charlotte Rogan

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

Never Mind – Edward St Aubyn

“I always admire an author who can write beautifully and simply, an author who can create the most understated of melodramas will win me over. I also always admire an author who can write a passage that chills you before one that makes you laugh out loud and then another which horrifies you all over again. All these things are encompassed in Edward St Aubyn’s first Patrick Melrose novel ‘Never Mind’.”

Half Blood Blues – Esi Edugyan

“Edugyan delivers a novel that is brimming with atmosphere, is hauntingly written and will really move you (this book, clichéd as it sounds, really kicked me in the emotional guts) and it stays with you long after you read it. I am late to this book; don’t let yourself be though as it is a truly marvellous read and one I am glad I returned to at just the right time.”

So there we have it. Have you read any of these and what did you think? Will these books still be in my top books of the year at, well, the end of 2012? I guess we will have to see. I know some of you have already given me your favourite books of the year so far but do please keep those recommendations coming!

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Filed under Books of 2012