Tag Archives: Michael Kindness

Other People’s Bookshelves #60 – Michael Kindness

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week, for a special 60th post in the series, we are off to Rhode Island to join one of my top five American’s of all time, the lovely, lovely Michael Kindness. Michael is one half of probably my favourite podcast Books on the Nightstand with the equally wonderful Ann Kingman. Last year Michael was lucky enough to be my roomie (ha) in the Savidge Kindness suite at Booktopia in Vermont and he was as ace (the snarky banter was high and hilarious) in person as he is on the airwaves…

One of my closest friends nicknamed me “Book Boy” early on in our friendship. She sensed immediately that books were part of my DNA. I’ve been reader since I could read, and my first job was at my local book store. For some reason I got a degree in Graphic Design, and then went back to working in bookstores. For the past 15 years I’ve been a sales rep for Random House, now Penguin Random House. (Incidentally, I’ve always loved penguins too.) In my spare time, I’m the co-host, with Ann Kingman, of the Books on the Nightstand podcast and the Booktopia weekend events. I live in a tiny town in Rhode Island with my wife and two sons.

 These bookcases in my office mostly contain books I've already read

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 used to keep everything I read, but over the past few years I’d been thinking about reducing the number of books on my shelves — and things in my life. After reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up this past December, I embarked on a massive cull of my library. I don’t know exactly how many books I had before, but I’d say I got rid of 70-80% of my collection. Now, I’m only keeping the best of the best: books I truly might want to re-read someday (though I never re-read books anymore). I’m also keeping books I haven’t read that I still want to get to. When I did my cull, I was very honest about whether I still wanted to read each unread book someday. Most were donated, but I kept some.

I’d never really had a one-in, one-out system, but I’ve recently implemented a rule that the books in the bookcase next to my bed, the ones that theoretically are the ones I hope to read soon, must actually fit in or on that bookcase. I can’t stack books on the floor around the case anymore. So lately, when I go to put books on the shelves there, I have to decide what to let go of.

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?

See above for the answer to the culling question. As I mentioned, the bookcase next to my bed holds the books I hope to get to soon. You can see from the picture that my definition of the word “soon” is highly optimistic. I guess a better description might be that those are the books from which I like choose my next book. The books on these shelves aren’t super-organized, though graphic novel series are in volume number order, and I tend to think of the books on the top shelf (not the top of the bookcase itself) as the ones I’m most eager to read.


The bookcases next to my bed are where I tend to pick my next book

Then, downstairs in my office are several cases that mostly hold books I’ve read and are keeping, along with some unread books that might make it up to the bedroom bookcase someday. The books on these shelves are organized by fiction and few non-fiction categories, within which the books are alphabetical by author. The graphic novels on these shelves are not in any order other than like superhero titles grouped together and in volume number order.

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

Oh, how I wish I knew the answer to this question. I can remember the first cassette tape I ever bought (Tears for Fears – Songs from the Big Chair), but sadly I have no memory of my first book purchase. It was probably a book from one of those Scholastic Book Club flyers that came home from school. (Did you have those in school when you were a kid?)

I know this isn’t quite the question you asked, but I do remember being obsessed with a book about the Loch Ness Monster. I must have taken it out of my elementary school library 20 times. I don’t even know the title! My sister now works at that school, and I keep meaning to ask her to check to see if there’s still a black cloth-covered book about Nessie in the library, and if my name is still scrawled on the check-out card!

I love Green Lantern and have the book collection to show for it!

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?

Nope, I’m not embarrassed by anything I read now. In the past, I might have said all of the Star Trek or Doctor Who books I used to read, but now I’m proud to be a nerd.

This case of graphic novels in my office is a continuation of the black bookcases around the cornerActually, I have a copy of George W. Bush’s Decision Points on my shelf. I wouldn’t want browsers of my shelves to think that I’m a fan of President #43. It’s there because it was a title I represented as a sales rep, and it’s signed to me (as are the books by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama)

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?

I wish had a book with sentimental value like your Conan Doyle collection, but I don’t. The closest thing to that isn’t even really a book. It’s a fabric covered box with letterpress labels and it’s filled with postcard reproductions of book jacket designs by Chip Kidd and Barbara deWilde. I bought it when I was in college studying graphic design, and it was ridiculously expensive ($250 in the early 1990s). But it’s beautiful, and I treasure it.

Other things I’d try to save in case of a fire, are some of my signed books: Any Human Heart by William Boyd, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, a galley of Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, and DC: The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke.

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?

My parents devoured books by Sidney Sheldon and I remember being fascinated by the shiny covers that usually had only words on them — not spaceships and aliens like most of the books I was reading at the time. I think the first one of his that I read was If Tomorrow Comes, which came out when I was 14. I don’t currently have any Sidney Sheldon on my shelves, but it might be fun to go back and re-read one of them, purely for nostalgia. (Didn’t I say earlier that I don’t re-read though…?)

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

Yes, if I borrow a book from a friend or the library, and it ends up becoming such a favorite that I want to keep it, I will buy myself a copy.

Fables and Y The Last Man are two great series for people who think they might not like graphic novels

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

Just yesterday I bought a copy of Judge This! by Chip Kidd, which is part of the TED Books series, and is sort of a continuation of his TED Talk on design. In it he talks about the importance of first impressions and how it’s okay to judge things visually. You can probably tell that, though I’m not a practicing graphic designer, it’s a subject I’m still very much interested in.

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

How much space do I have to list titles? Of course, a huge portion of my massive TBR list is made up of books I don’t own. Most of them, I’m content to get from the library. The only one that really stands out as something that I’d love to have on my shelves is Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale: Yellow, Blue, and Gray. It’s an oversized hardcover compilation of origin stories Loeb and Sale did for Daredevil, Spider-Man, and Hulk. I’m a big fan of their writing and art, but I haven’t been able to justify the $75 price tag just yet.

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

Maybe it’s the inveterate book recommender in me, but I really hope people looking at my book shelves would find some books that interest them, that I could then tell them about. I’m sure you can tell a lot about me and my tastes from the books on my shelves, but I don’t really care about that too much. I just want to find you some new books to read!

Fiction Nonfiction - the box of book jacket postcards that I paid far too much for in the 1990s

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A huge thanks to Michael for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, here’s hoping I can get Ann Kingman to do it in the future too! If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Michael’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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Byrd – Kim Church

One of the things that I said I really wanted to do with Savidge Reads was to try and uncover some books that I hadn’t heard about and therefore maybe you hadn’t and introduce you all, like some kind of book and reader dating site. I think that Byrd by Kim Church is one such book. It is a book I had the pleasure of reading sharing a room with the person who recommended it to me first, the lovely Michael Kindness, and on a bookish retreat in North Carolina which the author was also on too. Yes, Booktopia Asheville, part of my American trip which I still haven’t told you all about – I will honest. Anyway, it is a book that is not released here in the UK but I would urge any agents, editors and publishers to hunt down and publish pronto as it is a gem of a novel.

Dzanc Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 239 pages, kindly thrust into my hands by Michael Kindness

Addie Lockwood thought, as a young girl, she would become a famous writer and marry Roland Rhodes (the boy at school who mainly ignores her) who himself would become the next Bob Dylan. Life didn’t turn out that way. Yes, she and Roland had a relationship of sorts both as teenagers and again in a mad whirl of nostalgic romance in their thirties. Yet these romances didn’t end up as a love story in a fairy tale, instead they ended up with Addie pregnant in her early thirties with a baby she is just not ready for, not now, maybe not ever and so she gives her child, who she calls Byrd as it is a name no one else will ever give him, up for adoption.

Byrd opens with a letter that cleverly sums up all this in a letter, which we later learn social services have advised she writes to her son. What follows on from this are the four main parts of Addie’s life, and indeed Byrd’s, as she would define them; Unborn, Born, Missing, Grown. We follow Addie as she first meets Roland and that flush of teenage awe and obsession over flow her, and then as life moves on reality sets in more and more, the question we are always trying to find the answer to is will Addie, Roland and Byrd ever be united.

Church does many wonderful and admirable things with this novel. Firstly there is the way that it is all structured. As I mentioned the book is made up of four parts, within which there are short chapters which themselves are made of short bursts of paragraphs. This gives the novel a real pace and you whizz through thinking ‘oh go on, just another chapter’ as you race to find out what comes next. Additionally what might have made this confusing, but doesn’t which is a sign of how good Church’s writing is, is that as we go on we see Addie’s life through the eyes of others not just hers. Sometimes we will flip into the head of her brother, mother, father, lover, friend etc and so her character becomes more and more vivid.

Interspersed throughout all this are the letters from Addie to Byrd. In the wrong hands these could have been over dramatised and clichéd pieces of prose that made you want to roll your eyes, stick your fingers down your throat or throw the book across the room (and so could a book with a character called Byrd) yet Church writes these with a brutal and honest clarity which Addie has of her situation that again they add to her character, and not always in good ways, and give a true insight into the way she feels at particular points. It’s cleverly and subtly done, poignant without ever verging on saccharine.

Dear Byrd,
I would like to tell you your father and I loved each other. Maybe we did; maybe love is the right word, though it’s not one we ever used. What I can tell you is, he trusted me. He let me see the purest part of him, the music part.
Trust is a sweet thing, and fragile. I was not always as careful with your father’s as I should have been.

Addie is one of the main reasons you will keep reading this novel, Church creates a brilliantly complex character. She is endlessly flawed. She sleeps with her tutor, she can be horrible to her siblings, she sleeps with Roland without protection and when he has a girlfriend, hides her pregnancy from everyone including Roland, tries to have an abortion and then gives her child up for adoption. In the wrong hands you would read her as heartless bitch or she would be the villain of the whole piece. Instead because we see her as she tries to love her family, with a distance because her father is a bit of an alcoholic and so family life is turbulent when she is young, how she tries to keep her life on the straight and narrow despite temptation and rebellion, how she is with her other lovers in the future etc. Oh and she loves books, winner right there. All in all she is human, she is like us, we have all made mistakes, done some bad things but we try and be better, we try and be the people we know we should be or can be.

Addie believes in books. They are more interesting than real life and easier to understand. Sometimes you can guess the ending. Things usually work out, and if they don’t, you can always tell yourself it was only a book.

I also really admired the way that Church looks at adoption with Byrd. All too often we are given fiction about adoption that looks at the hard and difficult times of a child given up for adoption, rather than how actually their life might be better than if they hadn’t been. Or they will be tales of young mothers who have to give their child away or have them taken away. I have never read a book before where a woman in her early thirties gets pregnant and knows the time isn’t right, and may never be right, so makes what she thinks is the only and right choice. How her choice affects her and those around her is what follows, all told without judgement either way.

If I am making this sound all doom and gloom and a bit melancholy, fret not. Church combats this in a few ways. Firstly there are the short sharp bursts in which the novel is written which means when things get very emotional, and they do, it is a quick pin prick or two. That makes it sound throw away, it is actually very effective because the emotion is intense. Yet she also throws in some wonderful set pieces, some of which come when Addie works in a bookshop and then gets her own and with some of the customers she meets and the second hand books she is given, did I mention this book is very, erm, booky? There are also some wonderful scenes between Addie and her brother Sam in her youth, plus all the awkward moments of adolescence, and then with William later on, which I loved.

William believes that no act, if it’s purposeful, is too small. He protests junk mail by filling postage-paid return envelopes from one company with advertisements from another. Addie follows his example and sends Time magazine the fake check for $58,000 dollars that came from the credit card company.

Too often you read about coming of age tales which focus on your teens as if after that everything is tickety-boo, it  blooming isn’t! When we are young we think that life is all we could want it to be. We think we could meet the prince or princess of our dreams, we think we could one day be superhero’s or if not then surely a life as a vet, pop star, wizard or famous writer awaits us. Life however has other intentions and the dreams we have get turned and twisted a little, chipped slightly now and again by situations we didn’t expect and circumstances we often didn’t ask for. Byrd is a story which conjures that wonderfully, encapsulating the difficult times and yet with a wonderful sense of humour, even when times are tough, and with a sense of hope. There need to be more tales about coming to terms with your ages as you go through your life, Byrd is an example of that. I cannot recommend it enough.

Like I said at the start, publishers here there and everywhere should be fighting to get their mitts on this and publishing it all over the shop.If you have read Byrd then do let me know what you thought of it. If you haven’t then you should be trying to get your hands on a copy. If you have read any gems like this that aren’t published everywhere yet and you think they should be I would love to hear about those too!

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Watch Out USA, I’m Coming Your Way…

After much organisation, faffing, missing out on the right flights, then being unable to book the next-right ones and then sitting in a dejected mess because my bank thought I was a fraudster – I can now confirm that I am officially booked, signed, sealed and everything for a trip to the USA in August. And what a trip it is going to be…

First up I am heading, via Munich and Chicago oddly, to Asheville in North Carolina where (and I am start struck already) I will be spending a long weekend at one of the Booktopia’s which Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness, of the marvellous Books on the Nightstand Podcast, organise every year around America. The itinerary looks marvellous and I have been reliably informed I may just be mentoring an event with Anthony Marra (of whose A Constellation of Vital Phenomena I was all over) which gain is just too exciting, in fact so exciting it is almost untrue. Ann, Michael and myself may even make time to record a special edition of The Readers!

Speaking of The Readers, once the Booktopia weekend is over the blues I am sure to feel will fly away (quite literally) as I then head to stay with my lovely co-host and unofficial travel agent Thomas in Washington for a few days. This I am imaging will involve some touristy sightseeing, book hunting and lying down by the pool rather a lot, all with lashings of bookish banter. Again, I am excited and beyond about this.


Then, because I won’t have done quite enough travelling, I am off to New York for a while where I am going to be doing more (slightly secretive) bookish stuff and wandering around being a tourist before I fly home at the beginning of September… Phew!

I have just realised I haven’t booked in a theme park on this trip and American theme parks are the best! DratsI Anyway… So if you are in any of these places; Asheville, Washington or NYC then do let me know. I am planning on packing Gone With The Wind (it is almost North Carolina, no?) for the long flights and the seven hours in Chicago airport on the way but as always if you have some recommendations for books set in Asheville, Washington or NYC I would be thrilled to get some ideas, or indeed for any of the ‘Great American Novels’ I have yet to read…

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Radio Silence/Radio Savidge

That blinking thing called work is a pesky so and so isn’t it? Every time I think I am going to get back into the swing of things something like an International Music Festival comes along and reading, let along blogging, goes out of the window. On a serious note – I am actually really, really loving my new job. Second to books in my life is definitely music (family and friends are somewhere along the pecking order) so to work on a new exciting project like this is bloody amazing really. If that wasn’t enough the people are also bloody lovely (it is all bloody lovely really) and they are being really supportive with everything that is going on with Gran, no change there at the moment.

The blog has been suffering a little though I will admit, though I think (blowing my own trumpet maybe, as you may all disagree) that my reviews have become more ‘me’ I think. Still a work in progress as always but I feel much happier putting them out, even if they are taking (and becoming) a bit longer. Let me know if you think otherwise!

Anyway, I realised that whilst my blogging has gone a bit more sporadic there are three other ways you can catch up with me being bookish and those are the podcasts I am on, and this got me thinking about Radio Savidge. You see there are the three podcasts I do (The Readers, The Readers Book Club) and also the podcasts that I am always listening to and so I thought I should share some of them with you so that, should you fancy, you can hear me waffling on about books or listen to a few of the podcasts I have in my ears at the moment.

TheReadersTRSummerSeasoBannerYWTB

So as some of you will know I host two book groups, one which also has a monthly spin off. The first is ‘The Readers’, which has now gone fortnightly, which I co-host with the bloody lovely Gavin of Gav Reads. We subtitled it ‘Book Based Banter’ because generally we waffle on, and off on tangents, about books for roughly 30/40mins per episode. We also have a monthly book club which we have now made seasonal. For the summer selection we have gone for ‘The Case of the Missing Servant’ by Tarquin Hall, which you can hear here and see my review of here, and for July we have ‘Snake Ropes’ by Jess Richards (which we are recording next Wednesday) and ‘The Last Banquet’ by Jonathan Grimwood in August. Each show features Gav and I discussing the book, being joined by the author and sometimes a special guest PLUS asking your questions. So, if you have any for Jess or John let me know.

The final podcast I am involved with is the one I host alone. You Wrote The Book! is a fortnightly ‘in conversation’ show where I (lightly) grill an author. Some people love author interviews, some people loath them, I love them as I find authors brains rather fascinating and I have been very, very lucky as already I have had Evie Wyld, John Boyne, Xiaolu Guo, Alan Bradley, Taiye Selasi, Joanne Harris, Patrick Ness, Damian Barr and Maggie O’Farrell on the show! Eek, squeal. If you fancy having a listen to them you can do here.

Sorry about that slightly shameless plug, I will now redeem myself by sharing three of my favourite bookish podcasts that I listen to every episode without fail and think you should be checking out too. First up is ‘Books on the Nightstand’ which I think I have raved about endlessly already on several occasions. Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness have become firm friends of mine, though we have never met, simply through hearing them and tweeting bookish stuff with them. They both work for random, know their books, love their books and are brimming with recommendations – recently they discussed ‘A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon’ by
Anthony Marra which had completely gone under my radar and was absolutely amazing, A–MAZ–ING! Next up are another duo, who also happen to be boyfriend and girlfriend (does playground giggle behind hand) too, in the form of Rob and Kate who make up ‘Adventures With Words’, this is another weekly podcast and I often sit with a cuppa and listen, occasionally responding to them before realising I am not in the same room as them, oops. Finally, another duo, only this time related as Trevor of Mookse and Gripes blog now does a podcast with his brother discussing NYRB classics, with the occasional extra show thrown in for good measure.

I could of course mention the vodcast of the ABC Book Club, formerly The First Tuesday Book Club with my heroine Marieke Hardy, and also the Radio 2 Arts Show with Claudia Winkleman, who I am currently slightly obsessed by and who I would like to steal many an interview technique off as well as spend many hours with discussing books. They are two further goldmines of audio joy, well one is visual too. Oh, I mentioned them anyway.

So which podcasts do you listen to regularly that I should be adding to my own Savidge Radio Station? Do we listen to any of the same ones?

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Going Off The Beaten (Bookish) Path…

I am going to be heading off on a bit of a bookish adventure over the next few weeks and months I have decided. Having done less reading and more thinking recently, I decided that Savidge Reads needs to change its trajectory. When I started this blog five, very nearly six, years ago I started it as a diary of the books I was reading so I didn’t bore so many of my friends about books they really didn’t give a toss about – little did I know what a wonderful world of bookish friends it would earn me online and in the flesh all these years later! Anyway enough of all about you, back to me. *Cough* When I started these bookish thoughts and notes I had no real bookish direction. I would randomly read books that, if I am really honest, I knew very little about unless I knew the author already, liked the cover or the bookshop recommended it.

I had no idea of all the book prizes (ironic now I have co-founded one) and really didn’t know what the latest bookish buzz was, what a heathen! I just wanted to read good books, ones that simply appealed to me at that moment. I didn’t have a TBR that needed several rooms of shelves to house it, I simply went by instinct. I wasn’t aware of the big books on the periphery or any hype, nor was I part of the literary world really. Whilst I guess I am now through work, this blog and podcasts and it is all lovely and I love it, I do think it is time for me to have a blogger’s kind of GAP year and do some travelling off the beaten bookish path.

Pathways 1

This I have just realised all sounds rather final. It honestly isn’t, I can confirm that Savidge Reads is not going to disappear for a year. It might just mean I start talking about much more random books than I have been. This of course might mean lots of you decide you don’t want to read on, I hope not but if that is the case fair enough. Yet I personally am becoming a bigger fan of blogs that tell me about books I might not have heard of in the review pages, on prize shortlists or published by the latest ‘literary darling’ – and there are bloody loads of books out there that fit that category.

I think it was the Fiction Uncovered list that inspired this. Eight books, one of which I had read and the others heard about a little, that sound really intriguing and I am thrilled to have been recommended after all that is how I first read one of my favourite books, which I probably don’t need to tell you all about (but sod it my blog my rules) so I will, ‘The Proof of Love’ by Catherine Hall. Does it sound grand to say I would like to do my bit for those books too? I have already been scanning my shelves for copies of books publishers have sent that fit into that description. I am also planning on reading most of the Fiction Uncovered books which may seem ironic I suppose after all I say above, but I am a contrary Mary what can I say? Ha!

Speaking of irony… I have looked at what is currently residing on my bedside table and those books don’t, initially, reflect my new found state of mine. Let me explain them though if you will! I have just finished ‘A Constellation of Vital Phenomena’ by Anthony  Marra, which the lovely Michael Kindness raved about on Books on the Nightstand has been raving about so I decided I wanted to read it before the hype goes bananas, which I think it will as it is amazing. I have since started the new Evie Wyld novel ‘All The Birds, Singing’ but that is because her debut blew me away and I would have read it regardless of the buzz of her Granta listing and the reviews its getting (and the fact I asked her nicely to come on You Wrote The Book and she said yes). There is also an advance proof of a newish favourite author Niccolo Ammaniti which I am desperate to read and tell you about before everyone else does, ha! Then, below Niccolo, is ‘World War Z’, now seriously how often do I read books about Zombies, erm hardly at all if ever. It is a ‘new to me but known by pretty much everyone else’ book and a challenge, plus couldn’t be more removed from the previous titles. I am waffling now aren’t I?

Basically I am going to be doing the reading equivalent of interrailing or back packing, ‘bookpacking’ if you will. Along the way there might be the odd reading equivalent of treating myself to a regular hotel along the way, in this case The Persephone Project, Readers Book Group of prize winning novel that just takes my fancy (like ‘The Detour’ by Gerbrand Bakker currently is) if you will. I already have a book waiting in the wings to talk about tomorrow; I just hope you will join me on this random adventure, direction and destination unknown.

P.S Sorry this post is so late I started writing it hours ago but we have had Oscar bring in a baby Blue Tit (now called Bertie) who I have decided to rescue and the drama of it all took over.

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The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller

When I was first sent Madeline Miller’s debut novel ‘The Song of Achilles’ as a very early unsolicited advance proof copy last summer I swiftly passed it onto my mother. You see she is a classicist and indeed teaches classics, as well as English literature, so I knew she would love it. I also assumed being about the Greek gods, myths and legends it would therefore not be mine. I am sure my mother’s passion for the subject is contagious for her students but as her own child it occasionally got a bit much. I think it was the 12 endless hours in Pompeii during my bolshie early teens, when I was so bored I had the biggest sulk ever (even a rather rude painting my mother dragged us to find didn’t have the desired effect of cheering me up) that could have put me off. Or maybe it was getting 100% in my Classics exam at the school my mother taught at and having the mickey taken out of me that was the final straw? Either way I completely shut the subject out of my life. Hence why I thought ‘The Song of Achilles’ would be highly unlikely to win me over. Yet I heard Michael Kindness rave about it on Books on the Nightstand, it then got longlisted for the Orange Prize 2012, and so I read it. I didn’t expect it to be a book that would reinvigorate my love for classics again or have me sobbing like a baby…

9781408821985

Bloomsbury Publishing, hardback, 2011, fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher (but borrowed from the library as gave my Mum the one was sent, oops)

No doubt you will know the name Achilles whether you have read ‘The Iliad’ by Homer or not (and I haven’t) and indeed will probably have heard the tale of the Trojan War. That said, whether you have or not doesn’t actually matter because with ‘The Song of Achilles’ Madeline Miller retells you the tale but in doing so gives it a new perspective from one of the most unsung heroes of the tale itself, Patroclus.

Born a rather frail specimen, in fact somewhat an embarrassment to his father Menoetius (one of the Argonauts no less), he is involved in a terrible incident that sees him banished to Phthia, the land of King Peleus, he soon becomes a very unlikely friend to Peleus’ son Achilles, who he couldn’t be less like. It is from here, and through Patroclus, that Miller brings us the tale of the Trojan War and all its adventure, it’s also here that she gives us a love story too. It is both the adventure and this love story that makes us read on.

Though it is never officially stated in The Iliad, it is believed, and inferred, by many that Patroclus was not just simply Achilles’ closest confident and right hand man but that they also became lovers. It is this dynamic of their youthful friendship that gives the book its sense of adventure and the love story what gives the novel its emotional punch. I don’t normally love a love story, but I really loved this one. I can’t quite put my finger on how, which is probably why it works so well, Miller creates such a believable and touching relationship between these two men starting from pre-pubescent friendship that becomes post teenage love because she does it so deftly but you’ll be rooting for them, even though we soon learn the gods have stated a prophecy which isn’t going to reach a happy conclusion for anyone concerned. Have a tissue ready, seriously.

‘After that, I was craftier with my observation, kept my head down and my eyes ready to leap away. But he was craftier still.  At least once a dinner he would turn and catch me before I could feign indifference. Those seconds, half-seconds, that the line of our gaze connected , were the only moment in my day when I felt anything at all. The sudden swoop in my stomach, the coursing anger. I was like a fish eyeing the hook.’

Now here I must mention the Gods and the mythic creatures that do appear in the book. Some people choose not to mention them in modern twists on classics but I was relieved to see Miller was keeping them in (I mean why wouldn’t you as they make up so much of these old legends). That said, I knew that if she didn’t make them ring true, or make me conjure them in such a way as I believed in the unbelievable (a small ask) then she would have lost me. I needn’t have feared, as soon as Achilles mother Thetis appeared on the page I was sold hook, line and sinker.

‘The waves were warm, and thick with sand. I shifted, watched the small white crabs run through the surf. I was listening, thinking I might hear the splash of her feet as she approached. A breeze blew down the beach and, grateful, I closed my eyes. When I opened them again she was standing before me.
She was taller than I was, taller than any women I had ever seen. Her black hair was loose down her back and her skin shone luminous and impossibly pale, as if it drank light from the moon.  She was so close I could smell her, sea water laced with dark brown honey. I did not breathe. I did not dare.
‘You are Patroclus.’ I flinched at the sound of her voice, hoarse and rasping. I had expected chimes, not the grinding of rocks in the surf.’

It simply gets better and better from here on in. What was truly wonderful, and this is just a personal thing I guess, was how it made me want to go back to all the Greek and Roman myths and legends that my mother used to tell me and re-read them. It sort of brought out a passion for these tales that I had long forgotten. I actually cheered when Chiron the Centaur appeared on the stage, seriously I was so excited, ‘a centaur!’, and found myself smiling as I remembered the names and the tales of other characters mentioned in the novel.

‘At night we lay on the soft grass in front of the cave, and Chiron showed us the constellations, telling their stories – Andromeda, cowering before the sea monster’s jaws, and  Perseus poised to rescue her; the immortal horse Pegasus, aloft on his wings, born from the severed head of Medusa. He told us too of Heracles, his labours, and the madness that took him. In its grip he had not recognised his wife and children, and had killed them for enemies.’

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. It’s now made me want to read ‘The Iliad’ (watch out for a read-a-long with Michael Kindness and I in due course) which I would never have thought of reading before. I also want to dust off my copy of ‘The Greek Myths’, dig out Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Penelopiad’ and get my hands on David Malouf’s ‘The Ransom’ too. 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?

Have you read this and if so what did you make of it? What novels based on Greek Legends, or reworking them, have you read and would recommend? Oh and, Madeline Miller will be on the blog tomorrow, as will the chance to win some copies of this marvellous book. In the meantime thoughts and recommendations most welcome.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2012, Madeline Miller, Review

Books on the Nightstand & The Readers (and Some Questions About Book Podcasts)

Those of you who have followed my blog for a while will know that I have a favourite podcast called Books on the Nightstand. When Gavin and I started making ‘The Readers’ we knew that we wanted to have the chatty nature that the wonderful Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness have, like you have popped round to some friends houses for a cup of tea and lots of book based banter,  without becoming a copy of their show. Slowly but surely I have become ‘twitter acquaintances’ with Ann and Michael, emails can often fly across the ocean, and they are as lovely off the podcast as they sound on it, as you may have seen Michael even got Hillary Jordan to sign her new novel ‘When She Woke’ for me and sent it to me from America (as its not out in the UK till next year) just because he knew I was a big fan. This is all leading somewhere honest…

After we recorded the first few episodes of ‘The Readers’ we were both really nervous when we knew Ann and Michael were going to listen to it. Would they like it? Would they think we were trying to copy them? Well the answers were yes and no. They really like it and whilst we have *hopefully* got a lovely banter we have got two very different shows yet this week the two meet, sort of, as Ann and Michael have kindly each done their Top Five Books in a lovely chatty style and I have come away with some more books to add to/take from Mount TBR, which you should too. You can listen to it here. Do, its great.

They also left a lovely message at the end which made me and Gavin grin a lot, oh if you want a laugh listen to the first few seconds of the podcast to get my ‘personality’ – poor Gav what he has to work with. Anyway, we are hoping this won’t be the last Books on the Nightstand and The Readers collaboration; we are plotting away in the background so hopefully something will flourish. We are joining forces with another blogger in the form of Kim of Reading Matters who is joining us as our first guest host for next weeks show, should be fun.

Don’t forget we want your involvement, if you want to send us an mp3 recording of your Top 5 Books (email  bookbasedbanter@gmail.com and we will pop them up) then please do or even if you fancy being a co-host in the future sometime we would love to know… or any other feedback can be left in comments here or comments on The Readers website. Oh and I would love to hear what your favourite bookish podcasts are, I am working on a directory of sorts, so which ones do you listen to regularly?

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Filed under Book Podcasts, Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness