Tag Archives: Picador Books

Red Dust Road – Jackie Kay

One of the joys of working in a library is that when a whim to read a specific book suddenly overtakes you the chances are it may well be in the building. This was the case with Jackie Kay’s memoir Red Dust Road, which I actually thought I had read but realised I hadn’t? Small aside, does anyone else do this? If so please let me know. Anyway, one of the challenges for the #PrideMonthReads challenge, which George Lester and I started this month, was to find or recommend and own voices book. With adoption being on my mind rather a lot at the moment, the tale of Jackie’s adoption and search for her birth parents had been one I had been contemplating reading. With that and her being an out member of the LGBTQ community Red Dust Road seemed like the perfect read for me RIGHT NOW, fortunately there was one on the shelves. So I started it that very day on my lunch break, I wasn’t expecting a book that would chime with me in the many ways that it did.

Picador Books, paperback, 2017, fiction, 320 pages, borrowed from the library

As Red Dust Road opens, Jackie is about to meet her biological father for the very first time in Nigeria. This is quite a different setting from the hotel foyer in Milton Keynes where she met her mother for the first time some years before, we learn. From this point the book then weaves backwards and forwards through time as she embarks on the potential relationship with her father, who happens to be a born again Christian and sees her as living proof of the sins of his past, deal with the maintaining of the relationship with her birth mother and look back her childhood with her adoptive parents before and after the moment she realised that she was not theirs biologically.

I am seven years old. My mum, my brother and I have just watched a cowboy and Indian film. I’m sad because the Indians have lost again, and I wanted them to win. It suddenly occurs to me that the Indians are the same colour as me and my mum is not the same colour as me. I say to my mum, Mummy why aren’t you the same colour as me? My mum says, Because you’re adopted. I say, What does adopted mean, my brother scoffs; Don’t you know what adoption means. He’s eating a giant-size bowl of cornflakes. He eats cornflakes for nearly every meal. No, I don’t know. I’m nearly in tears. I’ve heard the word before but I don’t really understand it. My mum says, It means I’m not really your mummy. What do you mean, you’re not really my mummy? I say. I am crying for real now because I love my mum so much and I want her to be my real mummy and I’m worried she means she is not real and that something is going to happen to her, that she is going to disappear or dissolve. She says, Your real mother couldn’t keep you so she gave you to me so that I could be your mummy. Yes, that means you’re not really my sister, my brother laughs. Ha ha. Do you get it? Are you making this up? I ask my mummy. Is this one of your stories? She’s so good, my mummy, at telling stories. No, it isn’t, she says. She’s in tears herself too.

One thing I particularly loved about Red Dust Road is the open honesty with which Jackie Kay tells her story. There are no hero’s or villains in this piece, though I have to say I think Jackie’s mother and father John and Helen and their love for their daughter and support in her finding her birth parents is utterly wonderful. Everyone has their quirks and their flaws, because that is what all humans do. Make no mistake this is not a misery memoir, Jackie is perfectly happy, she just wants to know more especially when she is pregnant herself with her son. She isn’t expecting a perfect ending; sometimes it can be about a happy imperfect ending after a journey of discovering more. Even when things take a wobble there is still vibrancy to Jackie’s writing which I also love, with parents like John and Helen though whatever the outcome you feel Jackie knows she has already got a winning combination and security in them, which always gave any scenario this positive undertone which I really loved.

Now I don’t want to make this all about me because it is very much Jackie’s book and her story… However sometimes a book will get you on a personal level and with this being my personal blog, admittedly more with a bookish twist than on my personal life, it would seem remiss of me not to share the two levels with which this book had a deep resonance with me and made me rather emotional on several occasions.

The first of these was the fact that starting the adoption process myself, thanks to Jackie’s honesty (as I mention above) this is the first time I have really read such a frank and intimate set of thoughts about what it is like to be adopted. The role of the adoptive parent seems to be much more documented and whilst I have lots of friends who have been adopted it has never really been something I have brought up with a lot of them, I assumed that it might be prying a little too much into their lives. Interestingly I have pried into many of the lives of my friends who have adopted.  I do wonder if it because the process has happened while I have known them as adults adopting, whereas I didn’t know my friends as children when they were adopted. Anyway, this was the first time I had encountered such a frank depiction. The love Jackie felt for her adoptive parents, who she considers her parents end of, made me cry as did the way they unwaveringly supported her in finding her parents as an adult, highly emotive indeed.

The other big element was that in some of the pages, passages of Jackie’s story felt like they could be my own. You see whilst I am not an adopted child myself, I didn’t meet my father until I was sixteen years old. And so when Jackie is writing about both imagining what her biological parents might be like and also the strange feeling of having some of your identity missing – which is no fault of the loving parents you have – and needing to discover more were very much like the questions I had in my head. Though my father was from Derbyshire like my mother not from another country, I still had this huge gap if not culturally then just in a sense of myself. I haven’t experienced having those thoughts shared by someone else before. Frankly at some point I might have to hunt Jackie Kay down for a cup of tea, a cake and a good old natter about it in more detail.

‘Maybe your father was an African chief,’ my mother used to say, and, ‘Maybe you are an African princess.’ I liked that. In my imaginary princess picture, I am wearing a traditional African dress, purples and oranges and yellows. ‘Maybe you will own land,’ my mother said. I liked that too. I pictured the plots of my land in the African landscape of my imagination. It was flat land, not like the Highlands of Scotland. The earth was dark and rich. There was a red-dust road. I couldn’t really get much further than that.

So a huge thank you to Jackie for writing such an honest and open account of several parts and elements of her life. Thank you for sharing in the laughter, tears, joy and fears of the journey of discovery that she has gone through. If you a looking for writing on adoption or just a memoir with a difference then I would recommend red Dust Road very much indeed. I was also thinking it would make a very interesting companion read to Kit De Waal’s My Name is Leon, which I also really loved when I read that a year or so ago. A gem from the library shelves, hurray for libraries, they are brilliant aren’t they?

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Filed under Jackie Kay, Picador Books, Review

Books of the Future & Books of the Now

On Monday night I was lucky enough to get to have a wander behind the scenes at one of the UK’s big publishing houses. The kindly souls at Picador and Pan Macmillan has asked if I would attend (I dragged Novel Insights along with me) an evening in their new offices to listen to some of their authors reading. Baring you all in mind, as I always do, I made sure I got a cheeky snapshot of their fabulous book filled reception. I cannot tell you how hard it was not to get on that ladder and fill my man bag, I managed, I know not how.

As I mentioned we were there to have a listen to some authors who were; John Butler, Stuart Evers (who you may know from The Guardian, Twitter etc), Sunjeev Sahota and Naomi Wood. Now if you haven’t heard of these authors that might be because they are new authors, in fact I think all of these were debut novels/collections (I could be wrong), and also their books aren’t actually out until 2011.

I can say they all sounded rather exciting John Butlers being the adventures of a young man in San Francisco in the 1980’s – his reading made us all laugh, Stuart Evers debut collection looks to be a gem if the one tale  ‘What’s in Swindon’ is anything to go by. Sunjeev Sahota’s tale ‘Ours Are The Streets’ sounds like it could be quite a hard hitting yet very funny novel, plus he additionally won me over being from my homeland of Derbyshire. Naomi Woods novel then went and won both Polly and I over being set in Newcastle (where we went to school together) in an England we don’t recognise because it’s based on and England of extreme secularism. Sadly they weren’t all in print or proof stage but I did manage to smuggle two of them away which at the end of an evening of bookish chatter and wine was perfection…

Oh yes you may notice I have included a copy of ‘Caribou Island’ by David Vann (I did so like ‘Legend of a Suicide’) in the picture and that’s because it sparked my first mini theme in today’s post… books of the future, in this case books of 2011 specifically. I am hopeless at knowing what is coming out (I seem to have come off lots of publishers catalogue mail outs sadly) in the future, although 2011 is only actually 3 months away, so I wondered if there were any titles that you have started to get really excited about coming next year? I haven’t really got a buzz for any apart from the ones above.

I thought I would use this as an excuse to mention some books of NOW in the meantime as some lovely parcels have been popping through the letter box in the last fortnight or so and I love your thoughts on these loots so I thought I would share them with you. (Sorry for the picture quality, its dreary in London and my iPhone has no flash, I will try and do another anon.) Anyway I have had;

  • The Agatha Raisin Companion – which is perfect for me and came along with…
  • Agatha Raisin and the Busy Body by M.C. Beaton – this will be being read at Christmas as its got a Christmas setting, only I won’t be in the snow I will be in Copacabana, but where better to be resting with Agatha on the hunt for a murderer?
  • A Diary of The Lady by Rachel Johnson – When this arrived I was initially not sure what Penguin were trying to say by sending this (he says with two Agatha Raisin books above). However I was discussing this with Kimbofo when we went out on Thursday night and she said she thought it sounded like it could be really good. I then tried twenty pages and though the word ‘smug’ seems to be in my mind at the mo I am strangely addicted. It’s a great bathroom book, you know you can pick it up and pop it down at intervals. Erm, anyway, moving swiftly on…
  • Nourishment by Gerard Woodward – I actually won this in the Picador event raffle which left me feeling a bit smug as it was the one book (apart from the new Brett Easton Ellis) that I really, really wanted to walk away with. It’s set in the war and tells a very different tale of a husband and wife as the husband wants dirty letters, sounds brilliantly unique. I will be reading this soon.
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot – Many of you have said this is the best non fiction you have read in some time, it’s the tale of Henrietta Lacks and how unwittingly her cancerous cells were used by scientists and have made massive advancements in science and yet no credit has gone to her or any of the money made from this to her family. Funnily enough Picador/Pan Macmillan publish it so a massive small hint was dropped. I think I am going to be hooked by this and possibly outraged too.
  • Wait for Me by Deborah Devonshire – the autobiography of the youngest Mitford Sister, I need say no more. I will be reading that next after book group Nevil Shute choice.
  • Coco Chanel by Justine Picardie – I had a lovely email from the publishers of this after Justine had apparently told them she read this blog and would like me to read it if I wanted to.
  • Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi – I know nothing about this book, do any of you?
  • Air & Was by Geoff Ryman – Very excited about both of these, in particular Was which is another book I want to start instantly… but I can’t and nor can I read all the books I want to at once, its most vexing.
  • The Country Diaries edited by Alan Taylor – I have seen this around the blogosphere and been very intrigued by it (I use the word intrigued so much but it’s genuinely how I feel), this could be another bathroom book. You all know what I mean by a bathroom/toilet book don’t you? I’m not being rude or trying to offend in case anyone thinks I am being crass.

So what are you reading at the moment? What books have you got your eyes on? What books have you been bought/borrowed/found/treated yourself to recently? Are you already anticipating a book that’s coming out in 2011? What are you up to this weekend?

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Breath – Tim Winton

When I heard that Tim Winton’s ‘Breath’ had won the Miles Franklin award my first instinct was ‘what award is that?’ It transpires that it is a prize awarded to the best Australian book or play “portraying Australian life in any of its phases” (is it just me or should we not have one of these in the UK) looking through the list of previous winners I had to say I had only heard of Peter Carey and Thomas Keneally both of whom I have on the TBR pile also. My second reaction was “I think I need to read this book and soon” so I did.

From just after the opening sequence, a shocker I can tell you, at the start if the novel you can see why ‘Breath’ won the Miles Franklin Award. The book opens with our narrator, a paramedic, arriving at the scene of what appears to be an adolescent’s suicide and yet Brucie Pike is aware that it is in fact an act of auto- asphyxiation. From this shocking scene Brucie, now in his fifties, starts looking back of the summers of his ‘coming of age’ when he discovered surfing and sex.

One summer Brucie, or Pikelet as he if often called, becomes accidental friends with Loonie (a name that truly suits the crazed character) a friendship that his parents don’t really approve of as in a small town like Sawyer people talk and discussions involving Loonie and his father never seem to be too positive. The boys don’t care and through a love of dare devil diving, the deeper longer and more dangerous the better, build their friendship and find a new mutual love… surfing. The bigger the waves, the more risks of death and the more sharks the better as far as Loonie is concerned and here we see the friendship rocked slightly both by the arrival of Sando (an older surfing idol) and the fact that Loonie starts to want to take risks everywhere such as playing ‘William Tell’ with a dartboard or seeing how close he can get to his toes with an axe.

The somwhat invited infiltration to the duo by Sando is what starts to really test their friendship as both boys fight for his attention. Eventually the boys start taking trips with him and borrowing boards from his house under the watchful and untrusting eye of his wife Eva. Eva herself is a very complex character living through a trust fun of her fathers after her professional skiing days ended up giving her a crushed kneepad and some small mental disturbances that become more apparent as the story develops.

As Brucie’s fear builds up of the waves and the crazy path his life is taking Sando starts to neglect him in favour of Loonie who he takes on surfing expeditions around the world leaving Brucie and his wife Eva out in the cold with only each other for comfort which then become the darkest and most graphic part of the book leading to a chilling ending. I shall say no more than that for fear of giving anything away, but I was shocked and actually found some of it very hard to read, though if you can manage it do because its powerful stuff.

This book has been labelled a ‘coming of age tale’ (a label I don’t like and in fact puts me off a book) and though it is indeed about two boys becoming men it is also very much about the accidental meetings of four people all with one thing in common which is they have no fear and as the author says “no moral compass about the consequences of living”. You as the reader are simply taken along for the thrill and fall of it all.

I am actually finding it really interesting and refreshing that some slightly darker and more controversial (with being so just for the sake of it) books like this are winning more awards. Recently ‘The Slap’ (which I am desperate to get my hands on) by Christos Tsiolkas won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. I hope the Man Booker judges choose some slightly ‘out there’ books this year, especially as I am planning on reading as many as I can!

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Scottsboro – Ellen Feldman

…And so here comes (finally I hear you all cry – I did actually finish this book quite some time a go) the first of my reviews, get ready for a mad rush of them over the weekend, of the short listed books that are up for the Orange Prize revealed next Wednesday. I couldn’t decide quite which one to start with (I will admit it wasn’t going to be Home as I had read Gilead too recently) so shamelessly I went for the one with the cover that most appealed and after a toss up between Burnt Shadows and Scottsboro I chose the latter.

Scottsboro is a novel based on the true story of a trail in the town of the same name in Alabama in 1931. A trial which “the principles that, in the United States, criminal defendants are entitled to effective assistance of counsel and that people may not be de facto excluded from juries because of their race.” Two white girls had accused nine young black men of raping them on a freight train back in times when if you were black sometimes you didn’t even need a trial you could just be hung by the locals and it was overlooked by the law and judicial system. However these cases made it to the courts even though “the juries were entirely white, their attorneys had little experience in criminal law, and the judge gave them no time at all to prepare their cases”. I am quite ashamed to admit that I had never heard of what is such an incredibly important case in history.

The fictional story is told through two voices. The first of which is Ruby Bates, one of the girls who accused the boys of rape and then proceeded to change her mind several times. Her story tells of the desperate poverty and life that she led as a penniless prostitute and how the infamy of the case changed her fortunes and her life and yet she knew what she was doing was wrong. Through her eyes we get the tale of a good girl gone bad due to circumstance and how when things get much to big for her she tries to do right but can she change a media whirlwind completely beyond her control. The second voice is that of one of the media, journalist Alice Whittier. However unlike the other journalists who are interested in sensationalizing the whole case, Alice is looking at it from the perspective of ‘what if these young men are innocent’ this doesn’t by any means make her a ‘heroine of the piece’ though. In fact though Alice is a wonderful factual voice for the whole plot and all the key facts and twists in the case, I never felt like I really got to know her which would be my one main criticism of the book overall.

Some people have said the book reads as non fiction, which I would partially agree with, bar the incredibly well created, depicted and carried off character of Ruby Bates who I didn’t like but wanted to follow and read more of. I thought that the other girl Victoria, who also accused the boys of rape, was also incredibly well crafted and incredibly dislikable. I can see how a book couldn’t be carried by just these two though as you do need the facts and the twists. It’s an amazing case (I have included a picture of the boys below as I found it made it even more real) which undoubtedly people should know much, much more about and I think in a market where a book like Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ has done so well a great book like this with find a huge amount of people who will really enjoy the book like I did.

So first Orange Short Lister in and this is my favourite so far! I have read one and a half more since I put Scottsboro down I just needed to give myself a break from the emotional rollercoaster of frustration, anger and sadness that you get with a novel like this (you can’t ask much more from a book than that can you) before I could actually write about it. Would it stay my favourite… you will have to wait and see!

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Filed under Books of 2009, Ellen Feldman, Orange Prize, Picador Books, Review

American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis

I originally tried to read Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho about three or four years ago and wasn’t put off by the murder but by the monotone never ending first fifty pages of meals in ‘the’ restaurants of New York, labels, meetings, same looking crowds, meals, labels. You get the gist. This time round though I managed it (partly because it was a book group read) all, only I also discovered this does in fact go on for more like 150 pages but do bare with it, because I do indeed think everyone should read this book once, for its unlikely you could a second time, in their lifetime. It is an unusual and uncomfortable masterpiece.

Our protagonist Patrick Bateman seems on the outside normal, materialist but normal. Working on Wall Street in the middle of the 1980’s he is obsessed with labels, the best restaurants and business cards. In fact he is so obsessed by business cards that he almost breaks down and cries when someone has a better, edgier and more minimalistic card than his. Through small glimmers like these we realise that we might not be dealing with any ordinary man, we are in fact dealing with a murderous psychopath who is happiest when he is slashing throats.

Patrick takes us through his materialistic life and shows us the selfishness, wastefulness and greed of the people in his life that he is friends with, works with and dates. His self obsessed girlfriend Evelyn is a superb character who I loved to loath throughout the book. It’s in these characters that we see what the time of the yuppie and their shallowness, these people are so shallow in fact that they don’t notice when people they know go missing or when the murder rate in New York City is spiralling, they certainly don’t notice the murderer amongst them.

Bret Easton Ellis must have a way with words because though the first 150 pages are repetitive and monotonous I couldn’t stop reading. Also anyone who can get away with chapters on the chart movements and history of the likes of Genesis and Whitney Houston and somehow make you read them is doing a good job. The murders are of course horrific, in some cases so graphic I had to pause and take a breath before I could continue. What’s clever is in making the rest of the world so chrome, bland and slightly grey when the murders happen not only do they seem shocking ten fold, there is a huge clash of images in your head doubly hitting the point home.

To say that I enjoyed this novel seems wrong. However in a strange way I found it very compelling and in some parts darkly funny. I think this is a must read and strongly believe this will be a classic in future generations. I won’t pick this book up again (though you never know) but I am so glad that I finally pushed through the difficult start and finished this on the second try.

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When We Were Bad – Charlotte Mendelson

People ask how sometimes you can hear of a book and I heard about this one in two ways. Charlotte Mendelson was up for the Orange Prize for this novel and also because she was going to be giving a reading at Polari, the monthly event I go to. So instead of doing what I normally do, which is buy the book on the night, get the author to sign it and read it afterwards. This time I thought I would do my homework first.

‘When We Were Bad’ is primarily a tale of a near perfect family as it falls apart all around a wedding. I loved this book from the start ‘the Rubin family, everyone agrees, seems doomed to happiness’. I think it was the characters which actually if you look at them separately are a bunch of individuals with very few redeeming features, or so I thought at first, that make the novel such a joy to read. To start with I wanted to dislike them all in the end only two of them I couldn’t bare.

The head of the family is Claudia Rubin who not only is wife, mother and writer, she is also the first female Rabbi and has a sort of fame that though doesn’t get her invited to all the best parties and events puts a certain amount of pressure on r and makes her the woman everyone wants to be with. Her pride and joy is her family and as it falls apart so does she. I have to say I found her domineering character a little hard to take to at first but when you realise its because her family means so much to her you warm to her somewhat. Her husband Norman is a frustrated writer who lives in her shadow, however he is close to a major breakthrough that could make her the second most famous person in the family. There relationship is an odd one.

The children consist of Leo the golden boy who within chapter one has become an outcast of the family and the black sheep. Frances who appears happily married to an exceptionally boring husband soon follows suit to become the next black sheep of the family. The younger two Simeon and Em I couldn’t warm to at all throughout the book he was a lazy layabout bum and she just cried and whined a lot. That was there role throughout the novel and slightly enraged me. I actually sulked with the book and Mendelson for sometime over these two questioning if such bad characters can turn a novel sour, they don’t in this case.

I love a good family drama; my family have theirs continuously so it’s nice to read others. Mendelson seems to have an eye for a great set of storylines and an ear to listen and then create people who are ordinary yet flawed and colourful like normal human beings, this book never went into melodrama which I was grateful for. Though the ending actually made me cry, I liked the fact its all left to the reader decide what could happen to each character, some authors are scared of doing that or just feel their ending is the way it should be, end of. My first Mendelson read won’t be my last.

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The Road – Cormac McCarthy

This book is a prime example of why I love Book Group. I would never have read a Cormac McCarthy, ok it would be unlikely rather than never, unless Matt hadn’t put this on his list of five (of which he had some other brilliant sounding books which I have been on RISI for) though I have seen ‘No Country For Old Men’ and loved it I wasn’t sure that I would read anything by the actual author of the book.

Picador Books, paperback, 2007, fiction, 320 pages, bought by myself for myself

The Road is a tale of an apocalyptic world, you are left to your own devices as to what might have caused it, a burnt America where you follow a father and son as they travel endlessly in one direction looking for the sea. On their journey they must beware of anyone as some remaining humans have become carnivores (some of the most shocking scenes in the book) searching for humans they can stockpile for flesh. The tale of the father and son on this long journey is tense and heartbreaking, they have little hope of finding food, allies or civilisation and the boy asking ‘Am I going to die today?’ was incredibly moving.

McCarthy uses his language like the landscape it’s a sparse novel to match the sparseness of the scenes in which it is set the prose stripped down like the lands upon which they walk. I can totally understand why this book has been such a huge success, it manages to effortlessly capture your fears of what could happen to the world, it’s a book set in a time of no hope, a book set in a world of fear and yet you read on. Though they are walking through endless grey and dust he tells the story in such a way that you are hooked and cannot help but read on.

I actually read this in one sitting and I have never said this of any book before but I think it’s the best way to read it. It has no chapters anyway and before you know it you’re engrossed and four or five hours have passed. This is a must read novel. I can say nothing else.

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Filed under Book Group, Books of 2008, Cormac McCarthy, Picador Books, Review